Essays and Reviews
by Terry Whalen
in the Provinces*
Poetry in the Provinces one means something very different
from the Provincial in poetry. The provincial note springs
from a state of mind incident to no particular district;
the true artistic impulse, vitalizing and universal,
pervades the furthest corner of the world, tonic as
sunshine. So that from the narrowest base, your true
artist will rear you a "monument more lasting than
bronze," while your sectarian mind may wander the
earth over, carrying his own strict boundaries with
him. The provincial character is not so much one who
has never realized the immensity of the universe, as
one who seems never to have realized the largeness of
himself. He preserves all his days a petty attitude
of spirit; he wonders at the wrong things, is amused
at the wrong things, trifles where he should be serious,
and indulges divine anger at phantoms. The provincialism
is in his own eye; for no matter where we stand, the
earth is the same size-a fixed circle with the ego
for centre and the horizon for circumference, a flat
green plate covered with a blue bowl. And these conditions
are the same in London, in Japan, in the Andes, in Hoboken.
It is the man only that makes the difference.
it is man that makes art. One does not call Burns provincial
certainly, yet his inspiration was found within the
parish bounds. And I should think we might easily grant
Emily Dickinson a place among the first half-dozen Americans
poets, although she seldom ventured beyond her own shady
garden. Thoreau, too, and Emerson and Hawthorne and
many another had just that largeness of character which
makes any nook roomy enough; and they found in their
own modest circumstance a wide significant environment.
From the heel of their own dooryard they could judge
the stature of the world; while one without discernment
may go a-gypsying for fifty years and never perceive
sense or symbol in the shows before him.
Mr. Thomas Hardy puts forward a volume of Wessex
Poems, therefore, the question is not how much Wessex
is there in the volume, but how much poetry. When a
writer of his genius, the author of more than a dozen
admirable novels, sets hand to verse, the venture in
itself becomes of interest. Here we have half a hundred
poems, only four of which have been previously published,
while many were written as much as a generation ago.
One might pick out a sonnet, dated 1866, as an example
of the poems of one sort in the book:
you shall see me lined by tool of Time.
My lauded beauties carried off
My eyes no longer stars as in their prime,
My name forgot of Maiden Fair
When in your being heart concedes to mind,
And judgement, though you scarce
its process know,
Recalls the excellencies I once enshrined,
And you are irked that they
have withered so:
Remembering that with me lies not the blame,
That Sportsman Time but rears
his brood to kill,
Knowing me in my soul the very same-
One who would die to spare you
touch of ill!-
Will you not grant to old affection's claim
The hand of friendship down
Life's sunless hill?
is perhaps nothing very remarkable in these lines, but
they serve to give the keynotes of Mr. Hardy's poetical
accomplishment. One sees in them the prevailing mental
over emotional interest; and one sees the mournful tinge
of thought. It is so with the whole volume; it is the
work of a thinker who has brooded deeply rather than
the ecstasy of a spirit which has lived rapturously-for
good or ill. Indeed, several of the larger poems, like
The Dance at the Phonix and My Cicely, are
novels in miniature, or short stories written shorter
yet. The Dance at the Phonix is perhaps the best
of the ballads, in spite of its sad, disagreeable theme.
It gives us one of those unsolvable problems in human
destiny by which Mr. Hardy is so constantly worried;
but the movement of the lines has an ease and a freshness
not found on every page of his verses.
piteous story is there with all that metre can do for
it, not as pleasant reading as Mr. John Davidson's Ballad
of a Nun, but with much of the piercing reality
of life-if one cares for that. In other poems Mr. Hardy
shows a modern melancholy like Omar's, without any of
that amiable sensuousness which has endeared the old
Persians to us and made him a contemporary of Tennyson.
Mr. Hardy's voice comes to us from a shire all his own,
there is an even more authentic accent from another
country in A Shropshire Lad, by Mr. A.E. Housman.
I suppose there is really no excuse, in these prompt
times for mentioning a book which is already a year
old. But, for my own part, I should have little hesitation
in speaking of many of Mr. Housman's lyrics as if they
were already English classics. Neither vogue nor time
have given them that position, it is true. And it is
just because they have been overlooked that it is not
unreasonable to mention them again. The last poem in
the volume will serve as well as any other to show this
poet's particular genius-a genius at once classical
hoed and trenched and weeded,
And took the flowers to fair:
I brought them home unheeded;
The hue was not to wear.
So up and down I saw them
For lads like me to find,
When I shall lie below them,
A dead man out of mind.
Some seed the birds devour,
And some the season mars,
And here and there will flower
The solitary stars;
And the fields will yearly bear them,
As light-leaved spring comes
And luckless lads will wear them
When I am dead and gone.
you see, you see at once, is the fine and light achievement
of a born poet, the sort of thing a thousand may strive
to do and never succeed, while one comes at last who
accomplishes it so easily that all marvel at the skill.
And yet skill is not the final worth; there is more
than skill; there is the old and unfading inimitable
beauty of poetry at its fairest. Again, turn to a lyric
of such convincing cadence as this, with its serene
far, from eve and morning
And yon twelve-winded sky,
The stuff of life to knit me
Blew hither. Here am I.
Now-for a breath I tarry
Nor yet disperse apart-
Take my hand quick and tell me
What have you in your heart?
Speak now, and I will answer;
How shall I help you, say;
Ere to the wind's twelve quarters
I take my endless way.
have picked these two poems almost at random from a
score of others quite as perfect, and I wonder the book
is not better known. It seems to me to have just the
temper, just the balance between sense and spirit, between
zest and sadness, that gives poetry it's enduring hold
on us. If we are to look for poetry in the provinces
we shall be fortunate to find it as delicate and distinguished
and refreshing as Mr. Housman's. It is a book for all
lovers of poetry to remember, and for young writers
of poetry to mark.
in the Provinces," Commercial Advertiser,
Feb. 4, 1899 [back]