Duncan Campbell Scott

Addresses‚ Essays‚ and Reviews




[Review of George Herbert Clarke, The Hasting Day]

 

Professor Clarke is widely known as a critic and as one who truly appreciates poetry, and now he must take that place with the poets to which his book The Hasting Day entitles him. Those who have derived real pleasure from the introductions and notes to his Selected Poems of Browning and Selected Poems of Shelley know that he is a sound critic with a knowledge and natural taste that lead him to the greatest and best, and one can feel that guiding spirit in this collection of his poems—for it is a winnowed collection and one can imagine that there were rejections, with severe self-criticism, before the content of the book was finally fixed. As a result we have a book which one could not further diminish without loss. It is a most difficult task to find proper sequence for a set of poems of such varied interest. With an inveterate and, no doubt, deplorable habit, in disregard of the author’s sequence, I began it at the end and found the two delightful poems of Child Life with such satisfaction that I recalled Francis Thompson’s words, "Look for me in the Nurseries of Heaven." Poems for children are negligible unless they are babbled by the lips of loved ones or repeated for their ears, but poems about children may be wistful with all memories and may be surcharged with experience and still remain pure and innocent. Two such poems are "God’s Eyes" and "A Small Boy Prays." And if to these perfect little gems of feeling you add the poems about dogs which are also full of feeling you will be in touch with a source of one charm in Professor Clarke’s book. The threnody on his dog’s death goes wide and deep. The bond between a dog and his master can only be apprehended; there is no true understanding, it is all of imagination. With discretion and delicacy the poet tells us so, but he allows the master to carry on the deception with a touch of hope— [page 389]

The love I bear thee,
My little dead comrade,
Forever is trying
To tell me something.

I am learning to listen.

     The touching poems on death, the death of youth with its promise of loveliness unfulfilled, must be remarked upon; they give a repeated note of sadness and one might fancy they were rooted in experience. That leads me to say that the human interest is strong in this book; if we add the poems with a philosophical cast and the epigrams to the purely human poems, no doubt this is the strongest influence. But Beauty is sure of her claim in the nature poems and poems of places. Some of these lyrics of few lines are lovely in their movement. Let me quote "A Shore Sunrise":

In the long low haze of the lost horizon,
     Dim and dun,
The sea and the sun and the sky together
     Are as one—
So still and secret the sky and the sea there,
     And the sun!

Slowly, slowly the dawning waters
     Lift as they list,
Slowly the breath of the sea floats upward,
     And that pale mist,
Swimming and sifting through the sun’s fingers,
     Gleams amethyst.

     Professor Clarke’s sonnets are well wrought; one is tired of this hackneyed form, but I read several of these sonnets with a renewal of interest in the form and an acknowledgment that the possibilities are still there, if a master takes hold of it. "Over Salève," "Lines Written in Surrey," "The Wanderer’s England"—I should like to quote all three, but I must be content with the last, which seems to me to meet the sonnet-requirements perfectly:

Where the gulls chide by the tidal cove lies home,
   Where the meadow meets the cliff, the cliff the sea;
   Cool-greening grass and old tranquility
Breed dream-content. Not so the flooding foam
Of giant breakers climbing still, that come
   And boom upon the beach, eternally,
   Mightily dying, yet again to be—
The selfsame seas Ragnar was wont to roam!
Ah, that is England! They that drink her breast
   Drink a stern sweetness,—pain and secret peace:
In thoughts of her they find their dearest rest,
   Though restless they adventure without cease.
Her ancient rainbow is their anadem,
   And the salt strength that girds her girdeth them.

     Professor Clarke’s poems are to be valued on account of their sincerity and their competent workmanship. These days are restless and experimental; new methods of expression are welcome, they must have their chance and their hour, but there will always be room for those poets who side with Ben Jonson: "It is the disease of the unskillful to think rude things greater than polished." Such poets, who may be thought reactionary by those in the rush for novelty, maintain the life of poetry; they carry on the tradition, and tradition in art is one of its vital factors, able to withstand a great deal of rough treatment. Professor Clarke’s book does not shock us with any audacity of theme or novelty of form, but relies upon the tradition, which he carries on and uses with skill to express what he feels about life and nature. [page 391]

 

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