It is difficult to write a foreword to a collection of poems so individual and so temperamental as these. The medium of prose seems a trifle clumsy and one should, if he could, invent a less emphatic medium, a medium that would give opportunity for delicate meaning and inference and avoid dogmatic and precise expression. But the phrase and the sentence are the only medium at hand, and if one can escape the peril of using the heavy vocabulary of current criticism all may be well. I am not certain that there should be criticism; if by that term we mean studied examination of these poems, and attempt to appraise their value, to trace influences and to compare them with contemporary work of other youthful writers. This book, let us hope, will be followed by others when experience will have given breadth and substance to a varied subject matter, and when the power of expression has been increased, but without loss of any of its delicacy or strength. I will, if I am able, avoid criticism in its coarser meaning and use the sense which a long occupation with poetry has given me to touch lightly here and there upon qualities which I think are fine and which hold the promise of future development. Miss Aylen in her arrangement of the poems, which cover several but not many years of work, has placed in the forefront some of those in free verse and by this announces a preference. But there are many poems in the accepted forms almost as good as the leaders and her allegiance is clearly divided between the two camps. By nothing is free verse made so sure and sound as by a thorough practice in the rigid forms of verse, and while I think that the idea in “Moon Spell,” for example, would lose something of its delicate charm if cast in a stanza form, I think its fragility is kept together by experiments that went before. You cannot dispense with art in poetry, and art is a hard mistress; but she is liberal with her rewards. Much of the ugliness of current free verse arises from lack of practice in the older forms and if my advice were to be sought, I should advise poets to invent even more difficult forms within which to exercise their powers of invention. Mastery is to be gained through severe discipline rather than through easy liberty. The original stanza-form of “Tryst,” difficult by successfully handled, has helped to make sure that broken rhythm of “Bird Song.”
Throughout the poems will be found a swift sensitiveness to beauty and a range of intense feeling, from deepest melancholy to unaffected delight. Melancholy is a luxury of youth and is fully enjoyed in these pages. Roses of Shadow is, therefore, and apt titles for the book, roses of shadow have both perfume and colour, although the one may be faint and the other subdued, beauties may even be revealed by shadow. With some of our greatest women poets, Miss Aylen shares the distinction that her poems of sorrow are the finest. One might wish for more hopefulness, for more joy in the life that she evidently finds so absorbing; but a talent cannot be disciplined at its source but must be left to develop at will.
It is apparent that the writer has broad sympathies in letters and arts and brings together much that has stimulated thought and reflection. The measure of these sympathies may be observed in the sonnet to a picture of Botticelli and in the dithyrambic lines to a picture of Lawren Harris. In these sharply contrasted poems the palm goes to the modern, to the native artist. The poet feels herself closer to the rough Canadian scene than to the perfection of the Tuscan master.
I am glad to say there is a total absence of the conventional treatment of Nature. The chromosonnet, the pale wash-drawing of sunset and trees will not be found. Birds and flowers are not called by their names; the blood-root and the white-throat-sparrow are never mentioned; yet Nature is here, treated as modern painters treat her, in the mass, in her severer aspects and with native vigour. The use of that word, vigour, leads me to remark on the diction of the poems which is direct and masculine.
There is variety but under it all runs the tone of melancholy. There are gleams of sunshine in “Return” and “Tryst”; excursions into the realm of fancy in “Extravaganza” and the closing poems “Allegory” is a cycle of feeling that begins as it ends in a lofty quietude. Poetry sometimes impresses by its volume and sometimes [page 393] by its intensity; sometimes by the wealth of its content and breadth of its appeal; sometimes by the strength of its effects within narrow limits: it is to the last in kind of these classes that Miss Aylen’s poems belong. It may be said here is one of the children of this troubled time, whose sensibility to things personal and general is acute, who suffers on both grounds and who communicates her moody interest in the beauty of life. [page 394]