there is another reason that almost disqualifies me
from making any firm estimate of the poetry of Mr. Riley.
As I said when I promised to undertake this brief article:
"It is too much of a personal matter with me. I
can't think of him as a poet; I just think of him as
himself. At the same time I think he is about the only
man in America who is writing any poetry."
is practically all there is to say, but perhaps it needed
to be said. People in general do not need to be told
that life is greater than poetry, greater than art.
And people who care for poetry and art and culture do
not need to be reminded of the worth and value of those
things. But it may be we all need to be reminded that
art and life belong together, that our present habit
of thinking of them as separate is all a mistake, and
that we ought to do all we can to bring them together
again as they were in the old times. Art and poetry
have grown artificial, anĉmic and cheap through being
separated from life; and life has grown vulgar and poor,
sordid and dull, through being separated from poetry
may sound mere pedantry at first; but when you come
to think of it, it must seem reasonable. Art and poetry
were not originally exclusive and precious and uncommon
things, to be enjoyed only by the rich. They were enjoyed
by everybody and appreciated by everybody, because in
some form they were produced by everybody. Every workman
ought to be an artist in his own craft, and so he would
if he had freedom. But the cunning of art can never
return to the hand of the artisan, nor the magic of
taste be restored to his mind, until he is liberated
from the bondage of commercial slavery. It is the commercial
spirit that has driven art and life asunder, and will
keep them apart until we perceive the terrible waste
and unhappiness that spring from their divorce. For
people will not always be willing to live without beauty.
They will insist on having it, just as they now insist
on having money. They will see that beauty and art and
culture are not to be despised as things of small value
in a practical world, but are indeed the most valuable
things a practical world can get through its toil. We
shall come to see that these things belong to life inherently,
that every man has a natural right to some share in
them, and that they are not extravagant, fantastical
luxuries to be purchased at will.
too, poetry in some form will be restored to men's respect
and affection; not poetry like the puny rimes of current
periodical literature, which are produced so readily,
and are so justly held in little esteem; but poetry
of a character that shall become an adequate, rational,
and helpful comment on life, sufficient, sincere, spontaneous,
intelligent, and universally admired and revered-poetry
such as a more sane life than ours once evolved, and
must evolve again.
in this day when poetry is thought so little of, when
it has come to be so artificial for the most part, and
so far from any real attachment to living issues, Mr.
Riley's work stands out prëeminently by reason of its
naturalness, exuberance, vitality and sincerity. It
is native to the soil, it is born of a common life,
and keeps close to the common sentiment of American
men and women. It is always sure of a welcome because
it speaks to us in a manner we can understand, and about
things we care for. At the same time it is not commonplace
nor uninspired, but is spirited, fresh, original, and
full of the sap of life.
Kipling is almost the only other poet of the English-speaking
world of whom the like may be said. He is, of course,
different from Mr. Riley in many ways. His themes and
ideals and standards and interests are all different.
But he has that great virtue in an artist, a rational
pertinence to life. He appeals to an immense audience-just
as Mr. Riley does, just as Longfellow and Tennyson did-because
he always treats of things which are in men's minds,
and in a way that is intelligible. In following the
poetic gleam neither Kipling or Riley has allowed himself
to be led away from the solid ground of actual life
into the interminable marshes of ineffectual dream.
Their work has always plenty of idealism, plenty of
imagination, plenty of sensuous beauty, and yet it is
never trivial, insignificant, nor hard to understand.
It is never over our heads, nor aside from human interests,
and yet it has all the vigor and emotional abandon that
we could ask for.
particularly minor poets, often fail for one of two
reasons. If they are sincere they are apt to withdraw
themselves from an indifferent world and indulge their
wayward fancy in a dreamy, unintelligible rapture, fitting
rimes which can never command an audience, because they
have no bearing upon universal experience and sentiment.
If they are insincere they pay so much heed to what
the world wants, that they lose all dignity and influence.
of happier fortune are those who are sane enough not
to quarrel with a topsy-turvy world, and at the same
time are of too noble a spirit to sacrifice their allegiance
to beauty and truth. They live close to the deep, loving,
foolish old heart of humanity, yet never disregard the
intimations that seem divinely wise and lawful to their
own quiet judgement. The secret of their success is
not only that they keep the lantern of inspiration burning
clear, but that they use it for lighting the dusty road
before them- not for flighty excursions into impenetrable
thickets and over quaking bogs. Such poets are among
the sanest and most helpful of mortals, though they
be credulous, child-hearted dreamers all their lives.
will readily be admitted, I think, that Mr. Riley is
one of these happy personalities, a poet who has always
followed the fine authentic promptings of his own genius,
and yet has never got far away from the great trend
of common human interests and emotions. His poetry has
imagination in abundance, gaiety, fancifulness, and
originality, and at the same time is free from the vagaries
of wilfulness and the futile affectations which stultify
the work of so many clever men. With all his whimsical
caprices of fancy he never does violence to common sense;
and with all his shrewd humor and sanity he is never
without the inevitable spark of imagination which makes
poetry what it is. He is one of the most admirable of
poets because of his humanity, and one of the most lovable
of men because of that perennial spring of youthful
poetic fancy which has never been quenched in worldliness