Non-Fictional Prose

by Charles G.D. Roberts

Edited by D.M.R. Bentley and Laurel Boone


 

The Genius of Richard Hovey*


 

The unanimity of sorrow called forth by the sudden death of the poet Richard Hovey shows how widely his power was beginning to make itself felt; but, with very few exceptions, the sorrow has been expressed in a way that shows a general sense of loss rather than a just appreciation of Hovey’s genius. My object in this brief note is to try to indicate the standing which, it seems to me, must be allotted to his work by the most dispassionate and guarded criticism of the future. In making such a judgmen t I am keenly alive to the perils of a friend’s prejudice, and am careful to avoid all coloring from that source; but, granting these allowances to be scrupulously made, it is not unreasonable to claim that a friend, who has known the poet’s aims and watched his progress toward them step by step up to his sudden parting from our visible activities, should be in a position to take the measure of his achievement more immediately than the world which stands far off.

Two things, it seems to me, have tended to delay a right understanding of Hovey’s position in the world of letters. One of these is the fact that his first success in catching the popular ear was gained through his less serious work, a class of work which has since served largely to label and characterize him in the eyes of the reading public. In 1894, in collaboration with Mr. Carman, he brought out a little book of singularly spontaneous, fresh, and joyous verse, called Songs from Vagabondia. It was full of courage and comradeship, and large-hearted mirth, and confident love. Readers were just then rather tired of the plangencies of the minor key. These lyrics, with their bold, resonant cadences and their persistent major chords, found hearty acceptance. The note was a new one, an assertive one; and though there was nothing but internal evidence (not very conclusive to the general reader at any time) to distinguish the work of Hovey from that of his collaborator, the more rollicking and vagabondish verses fixed their flavor upon Hovey’s fame, Mr. Carman having already made himself known by work more serious. In consequence Hovey found himself handicapped with a tenacious vogue as the bard of vagabondia. When men get such virile, singing verses as these:

               "For we’re all frank and twenty
                   When the spring is in the air,
                 And we’ve faith and hope a-plenty
                   And we’ve life and love to spare;
                      And it’s birds of a feather
                      When we all get together,
With a stein on the table and a heart without a care.

               "For we know the world is glorious
                   And the goal a golden thing,
                 And that God is not censorious
                   When His children have their fling;
                      And life slips its tether
                      When the boys get together,
With a stein on the table in the fellowship of spring."

then it is natural indeed that they should call for more like them.

But this is not Hovey. It represents but one side, and by no means the most significant one, of his many-sided genius.

The second consideration to delay Hovey’s full acceptance is the daring of his claim. By implication, and at times by frank avowal, he repudiates the not dishonorable rank of minor poet. He very early decided to be a great poet. He was not content to aim at less than the highest. His resolve was to attack the weightiest subject in the largest manner, and in this resolve he planned a series of nine dramatic poems on the Arthurian legend, wherein he saw still untouched possibilities for presenting the problems of all time. When I have heard him accused of not recognizing his limitations, the obvious retort has seemed to be that they were too far off to be seen easily. He was not one of those who cultivate the ground complacently within the fixed lines of their half-acre. Rather he had the vision to see that his inheritance was a kingdom, and confidently he set himself to subdue it. He worked with diligence the fruitful slopes, and the result we have,

but he was ready enough to go exploring the wastes and barrens now and then, on the chance of unexpected riches.

There is, of course, no reason for complaint if the world hesitates to acknowledge Hovey’s full significance. The greater a poet’s claim, the more severely should it be tested. Conservatism, academic suspicion even, have their worth in such a case. Great poets, great artists, do not drop in upon the world every afternoon; and those who come professing greatness ought to expect a time of coolness and a long probation. The danger of this harsh attitude has been bewailed to excess by sentimentalists, who forget that the true inheritor of power will enforce his prerogative in the end.

Hovey has left to us the following published works—issued, the first in 1889, the last in 1899:

The Laurel,an Ode.
Lancelot and Guenevere.
Seaward,
an Elegy.
Songs from Vagabondia
(with Bliss Carman).
The Marriage of Guenevere.
Mæterlink’s Plays,
2 vols. (translated).
More Songs from Vagabondia
(with Bliss Carman).
The Guest of Merlin.
The Birth of Galahad.
Along the Trail.
Taliesin.

Four of these works, the two dramas, The Marriage of Guenevere and The Birth of Galahad, and two masques, The Guest of Merlin and Taliesin, are all that he had completed of the nine which, as I have said, were planned to present the Arthurian cycle in its fullness. Besides these there remain in the hands of his wife a number of unpublished MSS.—several completed plays, some lyrics, and a number of pregnant fragments.

Many kindly reviewers speak of the dead poet’s wonderful promise—but here is achievement so splendid that, to those who have come face to face with it, all talk of promise sounds idle. This bid for immortality will be found sufficient. In Taliesin his genius reaches a height of expression beyond which he could hardly have hoped to go. Indeed, some months ago, when he was full of hope, and health, and large designs, I expressed this judgment to him. He answered: "Yes, I doubt if I can do anything better than Taliesin; indeed, I may never do anything more as good!"

What a height this is may be judged from the divine rapture of the following passage from the Litany chanted by King Evelac and the choristers in the white choir of the Chapel of the Graal:

King Evelac: As a stir in the air, when the aspens alone are
aware—

Choristers: We have heard thee, Beloved.

King Evelac:As a voice in a dream, as an echo of voice in a
dream—

Choristers: We have heard thee, Beloved.

King Evelac: As the birth of a rose, as the noise of an opening
rose—

Choristers: We have heard thee, Beloved.

King Evelac: As the song of the spheres, as the cry of the lapse of
the years—

Choristers: We have heard thee, Beloved.

King Evelac: As a cloud in the sky, that dissolves ere it catches
the eye—

Choristers: We have seen thee, Beloved.

King Evelac: As a light in a face, that a moment sufficed to
efface—

Choristers: We have seen thee, Beloved.

King Evelac: As the breath of the moon in the lull of a midnight
in June—

Choristers: We have seen thee, Beloved.

King Evelac: As the vision supreme, when the prayer dies away
in the dream—

Choristers: We have seen thee, Beloved.

King Evelac: As the fingers that pass in the stir of the wind in the
grass—

Choristers: We have touched thee, Beloved.

King Evelac: As a bird feels the air in its wings, to caress and
upbear—

Choristers: We have touched thee, Beloved.

King Evelac: As the breadth of a lover is warm on the cheek of his
love—

Choristers: We have touched thee, Beloved.

King Evelac: As the feel of the night and its spaces, about and
above—

Choristers: We have touched thee, Beloved.

King Evelac: By the cry of the heart in the darkness, to know
where thou art—

Choristers: We beseech thee to hear us.

King Evelac: By the grace thou hast shown, by the token and
touch we have known—

Choristers: We beseech thee to hear us.

King Evelac: By the vigil thou keepest about us, awake and
asleep—

Choristers: We beseech thee to hear us.

King Evelac: By thy coming at night, by the voice and the kiss
and the light—

Choristers: We beseech thee to hear us.

King Evelac: Listen to the fearfulness of our love.

Choristers: And forgive us the unloveliness we have wrought.

The qualities which seem to be most conspicuous in Hovey’s work are these: Breadth and fullness of conception, constructive power, robustness of imagination and of passion, lofty idealism, capacity for dramatic presentation of a theme, an astonishing mastery of the technic of verse, and the cadence which haunts and eludes. Some of these characteristics are essential to all poetry worthy of the name. If a singer has them all, he compels criticism to admit him to the high and select companionship of the poets who are called great.

 


"The Genius of Richard Hovey," Criterion 23, April 1900, 9-10 [back]