Non-Fictional Prose

by Charles G.D. Roberts

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




It is in England, rather than in America, that Joaquin Miller receives his full meed of praise. His throbbing, spontaneous, gorgeous-coloured verse is too unconventional to meet the full approval of American readers. It is perhaps not so remarkable as some critics would have us believe, that in literary matters the American public should be more conventional, - I may even say more prudish - than that of Great Britain. The English reader is secure in the antiquity and ripeness of his culture. His position and the accuracy of his task he feels to be beyond question. With confidence, therefore, he is ready to admire the extremest novelty, if it strikes him as justified by its power or its beauty. The American reader, on the other hand, still feels the struggle it has cost his people to escape their former limitation License, undisciplined thought and expression, crudity - these he has had to contend with, in his environment and within himself. If he has conquered them, it has been by means of an exaggerated devotion to the proper, the symmetrical. Hence the inevitable distrust of what lacks the sanction of precedent. To such a general statement as this there will occur, of course, many exceptions; but I believe it is true as the expression of a distinct tendency. The work of Joaquin Miller is wanting in that nice repose, that kid-gloved restraint, which it costs a new country such effort to attain; hence its beauties are regarded with suspicion. Still worse, in its spontaneous vigor, its contempt for mere elegance, it has been taken abroad as characteristically American; and this has been righteously resented. It is not strange that Miller went abroad to find a right appreciation of his genius. In England he is regarded as one of the very greatest of American singers.

The volume before us is made up of two sustained poems, "The Sea of Fire" and "The Rhyme of the Great River," both in the poetís most characteristic style. Miller is essentially a singer, a teller of tales, and has little care for dainty conceits, or for the weaving of intricate artificial forms. His method is that of the minstrels, who knew no need of haste and no dread of reputation. The stream of his narrative winds perpetually, and lingers in eddies and pools. The pools are still, and filled with most gorgeous reflections. It is apart of Millerís poetical philosophy that a poem must be a series of pictures; and his pictoral powers are wonderful. All he writes is suffused with the strong primary colours, and pulsates under an unclouded sun. The poems before us are such as will delight his admirers to the full, and will leave his opponents unconciliated. The same old defects are here - an occasional extravagance, an occasional over-diffuseness, sometimes a confusion in the story. But the old splendors are also here, and they are of the dazzling kind that blinds one to small blemishes. "The Sea of Fire," in its scenery and in its manner, reminds one not a little of "With Walker in Nicaragua," that apotheosis of manly friendship. It is a radiant and passionate love poem, as striking and unconventional throughout as the following sunset picture, which I quote from it

     The drowned sun sank and died. He lay
In seas of blood. He sinking drew
The gates of sunset sudden to,
Where shattered day in fragments lay,
And night came, moving in mad flame:
The night came, lighted as she came,
As lighted by high summer sun
Descending through the burning blue.
It was a gold and amber hue,
And all hues blended into one.
The night spilled splendor as she came,
And filled the yellow world with flame.
     The moon came on, came leaning low
Along the far sea-isles aglow;
She fell along that amber flood,
A silver flame in seas of blood.
It was the strangest moon, ah me!
That ever settled on Godís sea.

As in most of Millerís narratives, the story of "The Sea of Fire" begins with a burst of light, and flames across the view like a meteor, with utter night before and after it. It leaves one unsatisfied, eager with questions. It leaves one moved, aware of a strange new existence of which but a dazzling glimpse has been revealed to him. "The Rhyme of the Great River" is even more disconnected and wayward than Miller has taught us to expect. Millerís method of telling his story, by the presentation of a swift succession of vivid pictures, to which one supplies the context for himself, scarcely permits of the introduction of interludes and meditations. Yet of such this poem is full; and wonderfully lovely they are, which still further distracts the attention from the main story. Perhaps it would be fair to regard the poem as something distinctly broader than a mere story - as a fragment torn bodily out of the life of the Enchantress City, New Orleans. Certainly the very spirit of this city and of its great river, and of all that south of which it is the pulse, burns through these passionate stanzas. A sense of mystery, of the perpetual presence of the Divine in nature, of devout but fearless reverence, pervades these poems in common with nearly all of Millerís finest work. Such poetry it is good for one to read. Let me conclude with a noble and characteristic passage:

The poet shall create or kill,
     Bid heroes live, bid braggarts die.
I look against a lurid sky, -
     My silent south lies proudly still.

The lurid light of burning lands
     Still climbs to Godís house overhead;
Mute women wring white withered hands;
     Their eyes are red, their skins are red.

Poor man! Still boast your bitter wars!
     Still burn and burn, and burning die,
But Godís white finger spins the stars
     In calm dominion of the sky.

And not one ray of light the less
     Comes down to bid the grasses spring;
No drop of dew nor anything
     Shall fail for all your bitterness.

The land that nursed a nationís youth,
     Ye burned it, sacked it, sapped it dry,
Ye gave it falsehoods for its truth,
     And flame was fashioned with a lie.

If man grows large, is God the less?
     The moon shall rise and set the same,
     The great sun spills his splendid flame
And clothes the world in queenliness,

And from that very soil ye trod
     Some large-souled seeing youth shall come
     Some day, and shall not be dumb
Before the awful court of God.


"Notes and News of Authors and Their Works: Joaquin Miller's New Poems," Progress 1:9 (Saint John, N.B.), 30 June 1888, 2 [back]