Edwardian and Georgian Canadian Poets



Selected Essays and Reviews

by Bliss Carman

Edited by Terry Whalen


Richard Hovey and His Poetry*


To the End of the Trail," a companion volume to "Along the Trail," is a small book by a great poet. When Richard Hovey died nearly ten years ago, Maurice Maeterlinck wrote: "He is one of the three great poets of our time." And it is also true that no volume of short poems equals in importance his greatest work, the poem of the dramas "Launcelot and Guinevere," of which Mrs. Hovey has lately published the uncompleted parts, together with his plan of the whole work. Although Hovey's work takes the widest range, its entirety is almost exemplified in his last volume, which contains all the remaining lyrics thought worthy of preservation. "At the End of the Trail" begins with the classic beauty of "The Laurel," gives a "Vision of Parnassus," his poem to "Miriam," his early love, and includes a fragment of a Columbus play which makes one feel as few things do the thrill and fear and faith of that mighty passage of the unknown. There is a lonely trifle, "The Song of the Wind," written when he was but sixteen, which shows, by its reminiscence of Swinburne, how early this poet read that breeder of the musical ear. In later life, he once took a book from a shelf and said; "This book and Swinburne made me a poet." Swinburne is life to an admirer, and death to an imitator; but into this latter class Hovey never allowed himself to wander. There are some late sonnets that, in intensity, are as strong as his "Marna" poems, than which there are no love sonnets in English more worshipful and entire. The Marna poems always make me think of that great line in the marriage service of the Church of England, "With my body I thee worship."

The greatest poem in Hovey's last book is "Seaward." It is an exultant hymn to Death, which the poet called an elegy on the death of Parsons, the recluse and translator of Dante. It is an early poem, long out of print, but it has a note of joy that stirs something very deep in one's heart and is as good as anything Hovey ever wrote-as good, possibly, as anything any one ever wrote about Death. With the grandeur of the sea for symbol and the height of the soul for faith, it breathes courage in the face of the inevitable. Richard Hovey wrote of death without the morbidness of the irreligious or the cant of the familiar orthodox phrase. Note the sublimity of the following passage:

"There is no faithlessness in grief, God wot;
However high the hope or clear the gaze,
There must be tears at every burial-place
Though through the tears the very sky be shot.
For death is like the passing of a star
That melts into the splendor of the dawn.
Were we beyond this air that blurs our sight
In the clear ether where the angels are,
We should behold it still; but now, withdrawn,
In sunrise lose it, looking on the light."

For a poet's attitude of sheer courage in facing death as an element of universal experience, with fear turned to joy-not the patient peace of faith, but the strong joy of acceptance-read the following:

"I see things as they are, nor longer yield
    To truce and parley with the doubts of sense.
My certainty of vision goes a-field,
    Wide-ranging, fearless, into the immense;
And finds no terror there, no ghost nor ghoul,
    Not to be dazzled back to impotence,
Confronted with the indomitable soul.

"Stretch wide, O marshes, in your golden joy!
    Stretch ample, marshes, in serene delight!
Proclaiming faith past tempest to destroy,
    With silent confidence of conscious might!
Glad of the blue sky, knowing nor wind nor rain
    Can do your large indifference despite,
Nor lightning mar your tolerant disdain!

"The fanfare of the trumpets of the sea
    Assaults the air with jubilant foray;
The intolerable exigence of glee
    Shouts to the sun and weeps in radiant spray
The laughter of the breakers on the shore
    Shakes like the mirth of Titans heard at play,
With thunders of tumultuous uproar.

"Dauntless, triumphant, reckless of alarms,
    O queen that laughest time and fear to scorn!
Death like a bridegroom tosses in thy arms.
    The rapture of your fellowship is borne
Like music on the wind. I hear the blare,
    The calling of the undesisting horn,
And tremors as of trumpets on the air.

"Oh, secret, taciturn, disdainful Death!
    Knowing all this, why hast thou held thy peace?
Master of Silence, thou wilt waste no breath
    On weaklings, nor to stiffen nerveless knees
Deny strong men the conquest of one qualm;-
    And they, thy dauntless comrades, are at ease
And need no speech and greet thee calm for calm.

"Cast them adrift in wastes of ageless Night,
    Or bid them follow into hell, they dare;
So are they worthy of their thrones of light,
    O that great, tranquil rapture they shall share!
That life compact of adamantine fire!
    My soul goes out across the eastern air
To that far country with wild desire!".

The draught from the above passage is tonic. The reader rises feeling almost an exultant gladness that the event will surely come to him also.

Turning a moment from his creative work, let us consider Richard Hovey for a moment as a translator, for in this capacity he did great and good service. He gave us those two first thick volumes of Maeterlinck's plays, and now, in this last book of his poems, we have a good part of the Serre Chaude series, a famous gem from Verlaine and, among the poems of Mallarmé, "The Windows." Of all the poems of that worshipped Frenchman who had the "eyes of a Madonna and the ears of a faun," they oftenest speak in Paris of "The Windows," and quote,

"And when the evening bleeds i' the tiles
    In the horizon, gorged with light, his eye

Sees golden galleys, beautiful as swans,
    Sleep on a river of purple and perfumes,
Cradling the tawny lightning of their lines
    In a large idleness laden with old dooms."

Maeterlinck, speaking of the translations from Mallarmé, said: "This work of Hovey's is a tour de force in literature." Maeterlinck's own verse, if not so difficult to follow in the original as the intricacies of Mallarmé are in their dainty and chaste touch, much more difficult to get into English. That Hovey succeeded is admirably shown in the little stanzas which follow:

"And if some day he come back,
    What should he be told?-
-Tell him he was waited for
    Till my heart was cold..

"And if he ask me yet again,
    Not recognizing me?-
-Speak him fair and sisterly;
    His heart breaks, maybe..

"And if he ask me where you are,
    What shall I reply?-
-Give him my golden ring;
    Make no reply..

"And if he ask me why the hall
    Is left desolate?
-Show him the unlit lamp
    And the open gate..

"And if he should ask me, then,
    How you fell asleep?-
-Tell him that I smiled, for fear
    Lest he should weep.".

Richard Hovey seemed always to have a sympathetic and dramatic understanding of his characters. He knew women, as his plays attest. The first act of "The Birth of Galahad" gives a picture of the mystical and emotional experiences of motherhood at which women have wondered. In addition to this knowledge, Hovey understood the heart of the outdoors. He caught the pagan joy of the spring and transmitted it into words as few other poets have done:

"I said in my heart that I am sick of four walls and ceiling.
I have need of the sky, I have business with the grass."

Again, in "The Faun:"

"I will go out to grass with that old king,
For I am weary of clothes and cooks."

Hovey was versatile; he could write Vagabondia Songs such as "Jongleurs" and "Barney McGee." He could write satire like Byron, and his continuation of this poet's "Don Juan" is one of the most perfect imitations in English. Byron drew "Don Juan" to a close in Canto XVI. Hovey begins with Canto XVII and proceeds. Here are a few stanzas which I have picked at random:

"On some kind of a deck Don Juan stood;
    In these new-fangled steamers I'm not sure
That any of the good old words hold good-
    Only the lurch and seasickness endure.
But Juan had sailed many seas, and could
    Have passed through tempests with no qualms to cure,
    Nor any loss of peace of mind or diet.
However, at this time the sea was quiet."

"Just then a fellow-passenger strolled up
    With 'That's Fire Island. Well, the trip was short.
Tomorrow we shall be at Del's to sup.
    I wonder whether Dewey is in port.
And Lipton-do you think he'll lift the cup?
    Thank Fortune, we'll have news soon of some sort.
I've such a next-day's thirst for information,
I'd even be content to read the Nation.'"

He takes Don Juan down to a modern hell and gives a most amusing account of the place, partly describing the punishments as follows:

"The only punishments that still remain
    Are those that fit the crime, Mikado-fashion;
Each still pursues his vision, and in vain,
    (Even after death persists the ruling passion;)
Midas must still heap useless gain on gain,
    And hapless love makes Romeo's cheek grow ashen;
Napoleon still leads armies to his ruin,
    And I continue still to write Don Juan."

Hovey also could sing of the joy of the cup without debauchery, as is witnessed in his famous stein song:

"Give a rouse, then, in the May time
    For a life that knows no fear!
Turn night time into day time
    With the sunlight of good cheer."

He has sung his college, Dartmouth, as no alma mater has ever been sung before-education, comradeship, fun and philosophy. He could chant litanies. Some passages from his play, "The Masque Taliesin," contain the very passion of religion. It was Richard Hovey's own litany that was read at his funeral by Canon Knowles-a thing never before done in the Episcopal church.

But Hovey was not only a poet. He was also a man. He was a builder as well as a dreamer. And he was an American who proved by his presense that America produces poets. America is still producing poets. I know several men of whom they will be writing fifty years from now and wondering that we knew them not. Hovey was cosmopolitan. He was as much at home in the little circle of French poets who gathered Tuesday nights at the home of Mallarmé, as when he was wearing his laurels in London with Wilfred Blunt in Mayfair, or spending a week-end with George Meredith. On his return to London once, some one asked him of what he and Meredith had talked. He replied: "Oh!.We talked of America.the new woman.and cooking."

In his early days, when his genius and talent were beginning to find each other, he did not, like a great many of his fellow-singers, go long without appreciation. Mrs. Lanier, the wife of the beloved poet of the Delaware, once gave Hovey a laurel wreath. It was the first real appreciation of his genius, but this act was followed by many similar ones on the part of the few who knew poetry and had confidence in their judgement. Such acts very often are the reasons why poets are not more often silenced. Art is partly speech from one to another; if no one listens, speech is half-motiveless. Art is not for art's sake: art is for the sake of another, and for the sake of the artist. In "Taliesan" Hovey says:

"And the word teaches our own thought that was spoke teaching another,
And the deed fashions the doer."

Hovey was fortunate in being written of by many able pens. He could not have said, as did the bitter Browning in his old age: "If those who said these things of me so long ago had written them, I should not have had to wait these many years for readers."

Although two of Hovey's best plays, and a valuable but unfinished, work on the technique of the English poets, are yet unpublished, it is possible, with his ten little volumes before me, to say whether this work done before the age of 36, was the service of a great man. Many attempts have of late been made to define Hovey's place in American literature. There is a voice for the new mood of each age and generation, and, with the passing of the older poets, there begin to loom into view three men who speak for us, who voice the Now. Hovey is one of them. His "Taliesan," especially, says something we think nowadays. Page ranks it with the second part of "Faust," or "Wilhelm Meister," or the "Sordello" of Browning. A lecturer in Chicago University, speaking of the modern poetic drama, refers to the late Italian, French and English plays, and ranks the work of the American Hovey before them. William Stanley Braithwaite says Hovey is the first American poet to set himself consciously to the task of embodying a profound philosophy of life in poetic utterance. Philip Gerry says: "Hovey was so large, so national, so cosmopolitan, so much the poet for all the ages, that the appreciation and the just weighing of his genius waits for time." And again, that "it is not now considered the peculiar infatuation of friends to speak of Hovey as the greatest poetic consciousness that the country has produced." And these critics have embodied in adequate expression my own estimate of the poet of the Arthurian Dramas.

"Richard Hovey And His Poetry," Los Angeles Times Magazine, June 20, 1909 [back]