Non-Fictional Prose

by Charles G.D. Roberts

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


 

THE POETRY OF ROBERT NORWOOD*


 

Before Robert Norwood published his first volume of verse, His Lady of the Sonnets (1915), his reputation as a pulpit orator of power and eloquence was already firmly established. The public had accepted him enthusiastically as a preacher. He was labelled. The people thought they knew what to expect of him; and they got it, and loved it. When this little book of sheer poetry, and very personal poetry at that, appeared, they largely ignored it as something irrelevant. It was all very well for a great preacher to write verses now and again, as a pastime, but these verses were not to be taken very seriously. And in this opinion the critics—who, with perhaps half a dozen notable exceptions, are just the public specialized— pretty generally concurred. A few, however, perceived and welcomed the imaginative vigor, the ardent sincerity, and the fine craftsmanship of these sonnets. And others, recognizing now that the power of the preacher came from the spirit of the poet, took the book to their hearts.

And so it continued. The lesser gift obscures the greater one. It is so much the more easily, the more immediately apprehended. The people are swayed and fasciated by the persuasive voice, the compelling gesture, the emotional fervor, of the orator even when they miss in great part the driving force of the message he would convey. But the message of the poet comes to the people through the cold and difficult medium of the printed page. Except by the few who are attuned to it, it is but slowly and half resentfully apprehended. So it happens that Robert Norwood, who since 1915 has given us seven volumes of poetry, of ever-increasing power and significance, is only now beginning to be recognized as first of all a poet. Sometimes, to be sure, the sermon intrudes upon the song—though not necessarily to the song’s detriment. But song is his most serious concern, his ever-present enthusiasm and enduring aspiration. All great poets must teach and preach at times, whether they be mystic or materialist, realist or idealist; whether they affirm or deny; because they are concerned with the essential things of life and must have their say about them. Some of the greatest of them—Milton, Wordsworth, Shelley, Browning, for instance—often forgot to wait for the hour of inspiration in their eagerness to put their thought into words.

Robert Norwood’s second book, The Witch of Endor, A Tragedy, is, strictly speaking, a lyrical narrative cast in the form of a play. The emotional intensity of the chief characters, the pitch to which action and speech alike are keyed are lyrical rather than dramatic. Like Browning’s The Blot on the Scutcheon, like Swinburne’s Chastelard and Queen Mary, its appeal is more to the reader than to an audience. The term closet-drama is often, and most mistakenly, used as a reproach. On the contrary, the closet-drama is a throughly legitimate and admirable form of art. Witness the Prometheus Unbound of Shelley. The modern stage-play I find very hard reading, however admirable in the setting for which it is designed. But The Witch of Endor grips my interest throughout. The narrative gains in conciseness from the limitations of the dramatic form. The inspiration is unflagging. The thought and the action alike are fused in emotion.

Followed, in 1917, The Piper and the Reed, a collection of shorter, disconnected poems, bound together only by their pervading spirit of optimism and their mystical consciousness of the unseen. Because so many of these poems are on biblical themes, and because some of them do preach rather than sing, the critics for the most part jumped to the conclusion that the book was a collection of religious verse and gave it but perfunctory attention. Had they read it, they could hardly have failed to see that here was some of the most authentic and significant poetry of the day, and a strongly original voice uttering it.

In the following year appeared The Modernists, a collection of dramatic monologues, all but one in blank verse of classic tradition. There is a suggestion of Browning in the form but not in the spirit of these short and penetrating studies of such characters as Akhenaton, Pharaoh’s Daughter, Socrates, Vashti, Porphyry, Dante, Joan of Arc, Darwin. There is little of the intellectual curiosity, the tireless probing after motive, with which Browning, at least in his later works, approached and dissected his characters. Rather is there one compelling motive to each study, a stripping it bare of all subsidiary motives. It is the method of lyrical simplicity rather than the method of analytical complexity. From the beginning,

"O Light of all the world! . . .
Man on the scarlet peak of morning stands
With face uplifted to the mounting gleam
That draws him ever onward to one goal;
Thou art the impulse of his eager hands,
The inspiration of his eyes that dream,
The infinite constraining of his soul,"

to the conclusion in Darwin’s

"Death cannot claim what Life so hardly won
  Out of her ancient warfare with the Void,"

through all the divergent characters, there is always the one note sounded insistently, the note of spiritual compulsion to the breaking of bonds and the struggling upward to an as yet imperfectly apprehended goal.

In 1919 appeared The Man of Kerioth, a drama built about the character of Judas Iscariot. This is a convincing presentation of the theory—to my mind a very reasonable one—that the act of Judas in betraying the Master was one not of treachery but of too impatient faith. He knew Jesus was the Messiah. But he was incapable of understanding that the kingdom of the Messiah was not a temporal but a spiritual kingdom. In his impatience he would force Jesus to reveal himself unmistakably to the world. And in the stark horror of the awakening he hanged himself. The whole play is a powerful, moving, and close-knit poem, pictorially imaginative, full of colour and music, interspersed with fragments of haunting song; and it skillfully avoids the temptation to melodrama at the close.

The appearance of Bill Boram, in 1921, makes the culmination and close of this period of rich poetic activity. Bill Boram is a great narrative poem, of a similar type, externally, to Mr. Masefield’s The Everlasting Mercy and Dauber, but differing from them in spirit as profoundly as Byron’s narrative poems, such as The Giaour and The Corsair, differ forms Scott’s The Lady of the Lake. Bill Boram is narrative in form, but in the clear, solid, and convincing differentiation of its many characters, it is even more vividly dramatic than The Witch of Endor and The Man of Kerioth. The characters are intensely alive. You expect to meet them, to recognize them, if you travel the "coves" and fishing hamlets of Nova Scotia’s Atlantic coast. The many long descriptive passages are never mere description, mere "purple patches" sewn on for adornment. They are relevant to the story, interpretive of it, interwoven with the structure of it. They have a sustained beauty such as Mr. Masefield, in my judgement, achieve but rarely in his splendid narratives. Their lyric fervor is rooted in the reality of the familiar Nova-Scotian earth and rock and sea. The only fault I would find with this essentially great poem is one which, if it is a fault, could be remedied with a stroke of a pruning-knife. Bill Boram’s natural—and for the most part appropriate—profanity does at times descend to an orgy of blaspheming of which we might content ourselves with a few samples. But this is perhaps hypercriticism, when applied to a poem of which the key-note is

"And let there be a going up to stars."

The next ten years produced but one thin volume of poetry, the collection entitled Mother and Son, which came out in 1925. Of the two outstanding prose works, The Heresy of Antioch and The Man Who Dared to be God, both issued in this period, I do not speak here, as my concern is only with Robert Norwood’s poetry. This was a time of very exacting labor in his profession, for he was called to the rectorship of Saint Bartholomew’s, New York. It was a time when he suffered the great sorrow of his life, in the loss of his only son. The poems are most of them coloured by the influence of this time. Some, as The Mother of Cain, The Mother of Christ, Avatars, are grave and poignant approaches to the problems of life. But the peculiar glory of this book, the poem which would make it memorable even if it contained nothing else of pre-eminent value, is The Spinner. Light and almost playful in treatment, full of a glad yet wistful tenderness, it is nevertheless as deep as the heart of man and wide as his dreams. If Robert Norwood had written no line else, his name would live by this one profound and haunting lyric.

The present work, Issa, I am inclined to rank with Bill Boram as marking the height of Robert Norwood’s achievement. The two poems are fundamentally different in type. The one is an objective dramatic narrative, the other is a subjective lyric—a lyric prolonged, and for the most part amazingly sustained, to a length of two thousand lines. Issa is a mystical and spiritual autobiography. The vision of the mystic has an infinite perspective. Sometimes, to the uninitiated, it is a very distorting perspective, appearing to make the great things small, the small things great. And Robert Norwood, whether he is eating his porridge, swapping robust yarns with fisher-folk, or swapping a rapt metropolitan congregation with his eloquence, is always and in the fibre of him a mystic.

"For nothing ‘neath my roof
  Lacked soul or self—
  The inkwell in the hoof
  High on a shelf,
  A broken peacock fan tacked to the wall,
  Trunk, hat-box, shot-flask, powder-horn, and all."

                              "A stone, a plant, a tree,
Had soul and was most intimate with me."

"I celebrate the smell
  And taste of bread,
  Sound of the breakfast bell,
  The blessing said
  Over the porridge and the buttered toast
  When, Issa, you were gusted and I the host."

The motif of the poem, to speak in terms of music, is a personal, intimate, and ever-present consciousness of the immanence of deity. It is developed in many variations of colour and of pitch but always in the emotional terms of the pure lyric, and always in a swift and throbbing stanzaic form.

In speaking of Robert Norwood as a great religious poet, certain critics have implied a condescension as if the poet’s engagement with religious themes constituted a kind of "special pleading," the critics’ idea being that the poet must be "free" to every wind that blows; whereas the history of singing should prove, even to the songless, that great poetry has always been "special pleading," and has always been religious.

Toronto,

     September, 1931.

 


"The Poetry of Robert Norwood," Robert Norwood, Issa (New York: Scribner's, 1931), ix-xiv [back]