Non-Fictional Prose

by Charles G.D. Roberts

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


American Vers de Societé*


"These are songs for gladsome youth,
Half in jest and half in truth."

-Frank Dempster Sherman

"The jester is not always gay
Beneath the Cap and Bells."

-Samuel Minturn Peck

In the field of American vers de societé and vers d’occasion, the acknowledged chief, of course, is Dr. Holmes. Individual lyrics of this class of a quality not elsewhere surpassed, have been written also by Mr. Lowell, Mr. Stedman and Mr. Aldrich, poets whose best powers have been directed upon more serious verse. But of late has arisen in America a new school of disciples of the lighter muse, taking their tradition and method from Locker and from Austin Dobson. Of the work of this modern school the cream is to be found in this series which Mr. Stokes is issuing. Not all of it is here. If this paper aimed at a general survey, it would take cognizance of the verse of Mr. Oscar Fay Adams, and Mr. Clinton Scollard, and others who have treated us to some most gracious fooling in the pauses of their weightier ambitions. But the volumes which I have chosen for notice here fall naturally into a group by themselves, as they are agreed in seeking their chief laurels in the gay arena of society verse. The same series includes a fourth volume, by Mr. Cheney, which I reserve for separate notice, as being for the most part too serious in intention and too much occupied with pure poetry to be designated at all as vers de societé.

There is no exact equivalent in English for what is meant by the term vers de societé. "Society verse" does not translate it adequately. The work of Mr. Baker in Point Lace and Diamonds is better fitted by the latter term than by the former. It lacks the subtility of innuendo, the witchery of suggestion, and, to some extent, the extreme delicacy in matters of technique which are implied in the term vers de societé. But "society verse" it undoubtedly is, in subject, in treatment, in attitude. Mr. Baker writes so that society shall have no room for misunderstanding; he sees the importance of being obvious, of being direct. He is witty, sharp, penetrating, and at times too much in earnest for the requirements of the vers de societé. He is scathing, now and again, in his satire,—and vers de societé should be good humoured; he says of himself "Too bitter all this for an idle rhyme." He is realistic, moreover, and vers de societé idealizes, while it archly upbraids, the follies of society. There is not much archness in Mr. Baker’s work. But there is sincerity, and this excellence, with a command of easy rhythms, verbal brilliancy, and at times a strain of unstudied song or a touch of unexaggerated pathos, will serve as an adequate justification for the popularity which Mr. Baker has attained. Mr. Baker’s pathos is expressed in such a lyric as "Jack and Me"; his power of poetry in "A Nocturne", or the charming lilt of "Springtime is coming again, my dear". His sting may be detected in such a biting piece of realism as the "Mariage a la mode", or the "Easter Morning". A representative specimen of his satire may be found in "The Mothers of the Sirens", from which I quote:-

The debutantes are in force tonight,
     Sweet as their roses, pure as truth;
Dreams of beauty in clouds of tulle,
     Blushing, fair in their guileless youth;
Flashing bright glances carelessly—
     Carelessly, think you! wait and see
How their sweetest smile is kept for him
     Whom mother considers a good

On a cold, grey rock, in Grecian seas,
     The sirens sit, and
their glamour try—
Warm white bosoms press harps of gold,
     The white Ulysses’ ship sails by.
Fair are the forms the sailors see,
     Sweet are the songs the sailors hear,
And—cool and wary, shrewd and old,
     The sirens’ mothers are watching near,

Whispering counsel—"Fling back your hair,
     It hides your shoulder." "Don’t sing so fast!"
don’t look at that fair young man,
     Try that old fellow there by the mast,
arms are jewelled."—Let it go!
     Too bitter all this for an idle rhyme;
But sirens are kin of the gods, be sure,
     And change but little with lapse of time.

In Cap and Bells we are on a higher plane, as far as regards pure poetry. I should expect Mr. Peck’s audience to be smaller than Mr. Baker’s, but more discriminating. The most winning characteristics of vers de societé proper are exemplified in such lyrics as "An Afterthought," "Bessie Brown, M.D." or the following airy verses inspired by "Dollie":-

She sports a witching gown
With a ruffle up and down
          On the skirt.
She is gentle, she is shy;
But there’s mischief in her eye,
          She’s a flirt!

She displays a tiny glove,
And a dainty little love
          Of a shoe;
And she wears her hat a-tilt
Over bangs that never wilt
         In the dew.

‘Tis rumored chocolate creams
Are the fabric of her dreams—
          But enough!
I know beyond a doubt
That she carries them about
          In her muff.

With her dimples and her curls
She exasperates the girls
          Past belief;
They hint that she’s a cat,
And delightful things like that
          In their grief.

It is shocking, I declare!
But what does Dollie care
          When the beaux
Come blocking to her feet
Like the bees around a sweet
          Little rose?

The verses entitled, "A Kiss in the Rain", possess a tenderness and sweetness in their gaiety which I should seek far to match, and even the pun with which they conclude is pitched in just the right key of playful brightness. There is a quaint Queen Anne charm in "Cupid at Court." In "A Serenade" and "Goodnight, Sweetheart"; in the limpid and haunting song which begins, "If I could Weave into My Verse"; and in the marvellously rich and musical poem, "Somewhere", Mr. Peck proves himself endowed, like Austin Dobson, with that faculty which has rendered so enduring the spell of Herrick - the faculty of convincing us, without set effort, that behind the laughing skill of the singer of society verse are working the heart and ardor of the poet. In the much harried French forms Mr. Peck has scored a triumph of which to be proud.He has written, I think, the best triolets which English literature has to show; and these be they: -

                    HE (aside).
If I should steal a little kiss,
     Oh, would she weep, I wonder?
I tremble at the thought of bliss—
If I should steal a little kiss!
Such pouting lips would never miss
     The dainty bit of plunder;
If I should steal a little kiss,
     Oh, would she weep, I wonder?

                   SHE (aside).
He longs to steal a kiss of mine —
     He may if he’ll return it:
If I can read the tender sign,
He longs to steal a kiss of mine;
"In love and war" - you know the line,
     Why cannot he discern it?
He longs to steal a kiss of mine —
     He may if he’ll return it.

                    BOTH (five minutes later).
A little kiss when no one sees—
     Where is the impropriety?
How sweet amid the birds and bees
A little kiss when no one sees;
Nor is it wrong, the world agrees,
     If taken with sobriety.
A little kiss when no one sees,
     Where is the impropriety?

A fault with Mr. Peck is his occasional unevenness. In certain of his lyrics, the art and technique are flawless, but in others there may be detected, though rarely, a trite phrase, or even an erroneous pronunciation. Just here and there, one might wish severer revision. There need be no fear on his part of revising away such irrepressible spontaneity and spring as his genius displays.

In Mr. Sherman’s verse there is a less resonant and virile quality than in that of Mr. Peck. The strain is lighter and lighter, and more limited in theme. At the same time, it is more exquisitely and unerringly modulated. It seems to me that Mr. Peck is the more affluent, the more warmly human, and perhaps the more imaginative of the two. At the same time, in his narrower sphere of effort, Mr. Sherman is the more perfect artist; and the cadences which he has at his command, though less full, are of a more enchanting subtility and grace. The slender pipe, indeed, if listened to attentively, betrays an almost unrivalled sweetness in its few notes, and a vast discretion in observing to keep within its compass. Limpid and simple measures, clear and natural fancy, purity of color, and the poet’s ear never at fault - these are fascinating attributes. Then there is the added delight of catching here and there an elusive echo of Herrick, or the Elizabethan lyrists. It is a very wise and deft artist who knows how to gather about his verse, without detriment to his own peculiar beauties, the magic of a half-hinted association, with other charms under whose thraldom we already are. In the "Madrigal", beginning, "Sweetheart, the year is young," there is here and there a vague aroma of Locker, which only adds to the pricelessness of what seems to me one of the most lovely songs of our day. The concluding stanza runs this way: -

          Sweetheart, the year is gone;-
               Lean closer to my heart!
          Time only weighs upon
               The loves that dwell apart.
And love, like a bird with his whole soul stirred,
          Sweetheart shall carol his glee;
And to you I’ll cling while the echoes ring,
          "Sweetheart"— for me!

In the verses entitled "Bacchus", Mr. Sherman courts comparison with Emerson’s lines on the Humble-bee and fairly matches that much-quoted poem. The meagre space remaining at my disposal I shall occupy with two or three extracts form Mr. Sherman’s lightest rhymes, which will serve to show much better than could any disquisition of mine, just what vers de societé should be. This, from "A Reminiscence," has the requisite tone and touch: -

There was a time, fond girl, when you
     Were partial to caresses;
Before your graceful figure grew
     Too tall for ankle dresses;
When "Keys and Pillows,"and the rest
     Of sentimental pastimes,
Were thought to be the very best
     Amusement out of class-times.

You wore your nut-brown hair in curls
     That reached below your bodice,
Quite in the style of other girls —
     But you I thought a goddess!
I wrote you letters, long and short,
     How many there’s no telling!
Imagination was my forte: -
     I can’t say that of spelling!

And this, from "In Parenthesis": -

She heard the rhythmical romanza,
     And made a comment there and here;
I read on to the final stanza,
     Where timid love had made me fear
A long parenthesis; the metre
     Went lamely on without a foot,
Because the sentiment was sweeter
     Than love emboldened me to put.

Alas, I tried to fill the bracket;
     The truant thought refused to come!
The point— to think the rhyme should lack it!
     My wakeful conscience struck me dumb.
She took the little leaf a minute—
     Ah, what a happy time was this!
The bracket soon had something in it —
     I kissed here in parenthesis!

Let me conclude with an extract from the "Rhyme for Priscilla", which charming bit of society verse, of the most American flavor, is at the same time a revelation of the singer’s creed and leavings: -

Gay Priscilla - just the person
     For the Locker whom she loves;
What a captivating verse on
     Her neat-fitting gowns or gloves
He could write in catching measure,
     Setting all the heart astir!
And to Aldrich what a pleasure
     It would be to sing of her -
He whose perfect lips have won her
     Lips to quote them day by day.
She repeats the rhymes of Bunner
     In a fascinating way,
And you’ll often find her lost in -
     She has reveries at times -
Some delightful on of Austin
     Dobson’s rhymes.

O Priscilla, sweet Priscilla,
     Writing of you makes me think,
As I burn my brown Manila
     And immortalize my ink,
How well satisfied these poets
     Ought to be with what they do,
When, especially, they know it’s
     Read by such a girl as you:
I who sing of you would marry
     Just the kind of girl you are -
One who doesn’t care to carry
     Her poetic taste too far -
One whose fancy is a bright one,
     Who is fond of poems fine,
And appreciates a light one,
     Such as mine.


"American Vers de Societé," Progress 1:1 (Saint John, N.B.), 5 May 1888, 6 [back]