Edwardian and Georgian Canadian Poets
1900-1930


 

 

Selected Essays and Reviews

by Bliss Carman

Edited by Terry Whalen


 

Review of Summer Night and Other Poems*


 

A few years ago we began to have our attention drawn to the name Graham R. Tomson, subscribed to numerous striking poems in our magazines from month to month, until at last we began to inquire who this person could be, personally unknown to any of our great centres, whose verses were always poetical, original and fine. Then it transpired that Graham R. Tomson was not a man but a woman, and we have since come to hear of her by vague report as one of the most charming of those free people composing the great republic that we call, somewhat loosely, Literary London.

Graham R. Tomson then is not one of our New World poets, and we shall find in her work many of those excellent qualities only fostered under ancient skies.

The present volume (not as yet issued in an American edition) and "The Bird Bride" (Longmans, Green & Co., London and New York, 1889) make up the whole of Mrs. Tomson's output in verse, and (together with one or two lyrics published recently in periodicals) lend one the material for an estimate of her genius. The sub-title of "The Bird Bride," to which we naturally turn first, and to which we inevitably return at last as containing the most enduring, beautiful and sustaining poetry Mrs. Tomson has done, is a "Volume of Ballads and Sonnets." Under these two heads the work may most easily be judged, for our author is at her best in these extremely different but equally effective forms of verse.

As a sonneteer Mrs. Tomson is direct and musical beyond the common. She never makes the blunder of building a sonnet from too slight or too complex a thought. The motive is always well adjusted to the exigencies of this fourteen-line mould. There is no halting of the lines, no jarring of the rhymes, none of the common sins which, in our over-abundant days, have blackened the face of that royal structure-the structure in which Shakespeare locked his heart, which Milton and Wordsworth ennobled, which Rossetti enriched with a haunting music and many a wealthy phrase, and which it was given to our Longfellow to make perfect with an unapproached and unsurpassable loveliness. The sonnets set at the entrances of the translation of the Divine Comedy (as doors of ivory in a house of gold), the sonnet on Nature and one or two more from the hand of the most beloved of artists are quite unrivalled in the English tongue; and to-day there are few who keep alive the best traditions of this enthralling and dangerous art. Not to go outside of the United States, perhaps Mr. Edgar Fawcett and Mrs. Louise Chandler Moulton may be named as the most conspicuous masters of the sonnet, because of the quantity as well as the quality of their accomplishment in this direction. While Mrs. Tomson's achievement in the same field is too inconsiderable as yet to give her rank with these sonneteers, she has nevertheless inspired several of her sonnets with so sweet and plaintive a strain that they may well find harborage awhile on the hither shores of oblivion. For between the poet's Heaven (a possible Future of unguessed centuries) and the less desirable Present, there is a great sea fixed, which only his immoral children may pass and where his less happy offspring sooner or later falter and perish.

Perhaps the sonnet to be chosen as an example of Mrs. Tomson at her best is:

HEREAFTER

Shall we not weary in the windless days
Hereafter, for the murmur of the sea,
The cool salt air across some grassy lea!
Shall we not go bewildered through a maze
Of stately streets with glittering gems ablaze,
Forlorn amid the pearl and ivory.
Straining our eyes beyond the bourne to see
Phantoms from out life's dear forsaken ways?
Give us again the crazy, clay-built nest,
Summer, and soft unseasonable Spring.
Our flowers to pluck, our broken songs to sing,
Our fairy gold of evening in the West;
Still to the land we love our longings cling,
The sweet, vain world of turmoil and unrest.

If "fairy gold of evening" and "forlorn amid the pearl and ivory" are open to a suspicion of lightness in weight, surely the following sextet is only the purest gold in texture and worth:

Now some are bound to life with golden bands,
And life to these is passing sweet and dear;
They fain would linger in each lovely year
And shun the pilgrimage to unknown lands,
But souls that sorrow know not any fear,
When Death draws nigh with healing in his hands.

When we come to consider Mrs. Tomson's ballads we find that we are touching her most satisfactory work. "The Ballad of the Bird-Bride," indeed, is somewhat too alien, too fabulous, to lay hold of the heart, and "The Fairies' Cobler" is much better. There is a rhythm about it quite distinct and individual, which is Graham Tomson's Hall-Mark. To read the opening stanza once is to be haunted by it forever, so inimitably has the poet succeeded in lending atmosphere and sound to her twilight picture:

I sat at work 'neath the lintel low,
    And the white-walled street was still,
Save for the sound of my neighbor's loom,
Plik-a-plek-plek, through the twilight gloom,
    And a curlew crying shrill.

Another ballad of the impossible, of even greater merit, is "The Wrecker of Priest Cove," published not long since in the Independent:

One yellow rushlight glimmered dim
    Among the shadows deep,
Where the dying man lay gaunt and grim,
    And his watcher droused to sleep.

So it begins, and the wrecker hears the booming sound of a great ship in the offing.

The chamber was full of the sound of surf,
    And the clash of a breaking sea.

And the dying man is filled with dread of who the unknown sailors may be aboard the unseen ship.

Are ye come for me from the foul black sea?
    Win back, ye carrion crew!
Back to the hell where I bade ye dwell,
    For never I'll sail with you.

.      .      .

It was a great ship crossed the bar,
    With all sail set went she;
'Gainst tide and wind with the shore behind
    That ship put out to sea.

But by far the most impressive and robust of Mrs. Tomson's poems is that suggested by Willette's picture, Le Mauvais Larron, a lyric with the swing and force of Browning, and yet entirely in the author's own manner. Not a line is wasted, not a word wanting.

LE MAUVAIS LARRON

The moorland waste lay hushed in the dusk of the second day,
Till a shuddering wind and shrill moaned up through the twilight gray:
Like a wakening wraith it rose from the grave of the buried sun
And it whirled the sand by the tree; (there was never a tree but one-)
But the tall, bare bole stood fast, unswayed with the mad wind's stress,
And a strong man hung thereon in his pain and his nakedness.
His feet were nailed to the wood, and his arms strained over his head;
'Twas the dusk of the second day, and yet was the man not dead.

The old blast lifted his hair, but his limbs were set and stark,
And under their heavy brows his eyes stared into the dark;
He looked out over the waste, and his eyes were as coals of fire,
Lit up with anguish and hate, and the flame of a strong desire.

'Tis I-I am here, Antoine-I have found thee at last," she said;
 She rose to her feet and stood upright on the gaunt mare's back,
 And she pressed her full red lips to his that were strained and black.

.       .      .

"Good-night, for the last time now-good-night beloved, and good-by-"
And his soul fled into the waste between a kiss and a sigh.

The laureate himself might gladly set his name to such a poem, as one who would annex new territories of fame.

In "A Summer Night," judged at the severest tribunal (and bearing in mind how implacable Time is in his judgments), the one new and permanent poem added to the language is the "Ballad of the Willow Pool."

There was never a face, to my mind, like hers,
    Nor ever a voice so sweet;
I would hearken, aye, at set o' the sun,
When the last long furrow was turned and done,
    For her song and her lightsome feet.

These poems show Mrs. Tomson as a lineal heir to the worthiest traditions of English balladry; but there is another side to her genius; she is one of the Children of To-morrow. Her creed is the creed of the wind, plaintive in calm and pitiless in storm. It lacks the valiant indifferentism of Mr. Henley's:

"In the fell clutch of circumstance
    I have not winced nor cried aloud;
Under the bindgeonings of chance
    My head is bloody but unbowed,"

And it has not the imposing serenity of that little known contemporary poet, Mrs. Margaret L. Woods. In "The Smile of All Wisdom" the dead are made to say:

Lo, we have lifted the veil-there was nothing to see!
Lo, we have looked on the scroll-there was nothing to learn!

While in "A Wayside Calvary" the ancient faith is infected with the hopeless, pathetic spirit of these later times:

A WAYSIDE CALVARY

The carven Christ hangs gaunt and grim,
    Beneath his blue Picardian skies,
And piteous, perchance, to him
    Seems every man that lives and dies.
    Here, hid from hate of alien eyes,
Two hundred Prussians sleep, they say,
    Beneath the cross whose shadow lies
Athwart the road to Catelet.

.      .      .

Of garlands laid or blossoms spread
    The Prussians' sun-scorched mound lies bare,
But thin grass creeps above the dead
    And pallid poppies flutter fair,
    And fling their drowsy treasures there
Beneath the symbols, stark and grey,
    That hath the strangers in its care
Beside the road to Catelet.


"Rev. of Summer Night and Other Poems, World, Jan. 10, 1892 [back]