George Sterling's Place In Modern Poetry
By Lionel Stevenson
During his lifetime, and even more during the years immediately following his death, a genius is seldom likely to receive rational discussion in his own community. His reputation is alternately glorified by his enthusiastic personal friends and bespattered by the gossips who magnify trivial eccentricities and unverified rumors. More than the usual crop of such irrelevancies have fastened upon George Sterling, since even professional men of letters, who ought to know better, have allowed personalities to influence their appraisals of him. I have been unable to discover any dispassionate analysis of his poetry, based on the criteria which should be applied to a work of art to determine, if possible, its permanent value.
Apparently Sterling's unusual modesty concerning his own achievements, and his refusal to capitalize himself, stimulated his literary friends to particularly energetic utterances on his behalf. One is astonished, in view of the conservatism of his technique, and his avoidance of controversial themes, to discover that his champions have always been the iconoclasts and agitators, the heartily hated scourgers of public complacency, from Ambrose Bierce to Theodore Dreiser, Upton Sinclair, and Henry Louis Mencken. It is true that Sterling was in his political creed a socialist, but his refusal to mingle his art with propaganda might be expected to annoy his associates rather than win their approval. How could his poetry, with its uncompromising traditionalism, appeal to those radical and independent observers?
Bierce first brought Sterling to the startled attention of the American public in 1907, by declaring in the Cosmopolitan Magazine that A Wine of'Wizardry, recently printed therein, was one of the greatest poems ever produced in the United States, with the implication that Sterling was the finest living poet" of the country. A chorus of disagreement immediately arose, but Bierce's special gifts of argument and invective gave him an apparent victory, particularly as he was able to point out that his adversaries, in spite of their categorical denials of his claims, were chary of nominating any specific poems or poets for comparison . Looking back to the first decade of the twentieth century, we may be able to see why Sterling's poetry aroused controversy. The most popular poets were James Whitcomb Riley, adept in homely humor and pathos, Edwin Markham, social crusader, Henry Van Dyke, addicted to conventional moralizing, and Ella Wheeler Wilcox, laureate of sentimentality. Worthy though all of these were to hold their places in the hearts of their readers, the critics might well hesitate to expose them to Bierce's mordant vivisection by suggesting them as the nation's greatest poets. As a matter of fact, three men who had been born in the very-same year as Sterling, 1869, have since come to hold a high place in American poetry, namely William Vaughn Moody, Edwin Arlington Robinson, and Edgar Lee Masters; but at the time of which I am writing they were almost wholly unrecognized.
It is not with any of his contemporaries, therefore, that Sterling can profitably be compared. There is so little in his poems that may be recognized as essentially American that the only line of approach toward an estimate of his work is by a rapid summary of English poetry during the nineteenth century.
The essential quality of the Romantic Revival, with which the century opened, was the impulse of escape- escape from the commonplace and familiar and rational, into the picturesque and strange and emotional. The flight was in various directions, but whether it was to the historic past, or to remote countries, or to the lonely fastnesses of nature, or to visionary Utopias of social justice, or to the unbounded faery lands of fantasy, it was always away from "here and now."
As the nineteenth century proceeded, however, an entirely new interest was presented to the poets by the hypotheses of science. Here they found material which their utmost flights of imagination could not exceed, and which, nevertheless posed philosophic problems of immediate concern to the reading public. Astronomical space and microscopic infinitude and geological time revealed vistas which were a challenge to the poetic vision, and the conflict of the new theories with orthodox theological teaching made the poets feel that they were fulfilling a high duty by interpreting the spiritual values of the new universe. Tennyson labored for a reconciliation of evolutionary science and religious faith; Matthew Arnold and Thomas Hardy, seeing only cruel and undirected accident as the controller of human affairs, adopted a stoic fatalism; Swinburne and FitzGerald (since his choice of Omar as a sympathetic source and the popularity of his translation are symptoms of a prevalent interest) proclaimed a defiant creed of hedonism.
The inevitable reaction was a frank relinquishment of philosophic problems and their attendant danger of didacticism, and a reversion to fantasy. Appearing first as pre-Raphaelitism, with Rossetti as high priest, it survived through Oscar Wilde to such more recent poets as Yeats and de la Mare.
Meanwhile, another sort of effort was being made to save poetry from philosophic generalizing and yet to keep it in touch with real life. Influenced by the successful methods of fiction, certain daring poets depended on concrete depictions of human beings and their environment, notably Browning with his psychological studies and Whitman with his factual catalogues and his peans of brotherhood. From these pioneers have variously descended the most vital recent poets, Kipling and Masefield, Robinson and Masters, Lindsay and Sandburg.
One other fact about nineteenth-century English poetry must be remembered. Technical skill was developed to an unprecedented degree, until Tennyson's exactitude of pictorial diction and Swinburne's fluency of melodious metre achieved a perfection which no one could hope to surpass unless the English language should lose some of its thorns. Abashed by such perfection, the newer poets have avoided competing with it by postulating new metrical theories which allow ample opportunity for progress.
From all of the poetic types which I have mentioned, except the realism of Browning and Whitman and the metrical experiments of the vers librists, George Sterling derived his art. In no sense was he a plagiarist or imitator; on the contrary, he had the courage of his convictions and the confidence in his powers which obliged him to challenge comparison with his predecessors on their own ground. The ieading characteristic of his poetry is the admirable assimilation of the diverse elements which they had separately employed.
In other words, Sterling wove for himself a lovely and many-colored garment from the most magnificent textiles which he could discover, and by perpetually wearing it he gave an impression of dignity and aloofness which is decidedly his own. His inmost self being never allowed explicit utterance, the reader has the interest of seeking to discern it beneath the convolutions of the robe. Such indirection may prevent Sterling from achieving the transcendent power of the greatest poetry, but it offers the double pleasure of its external richness of beauty and its tantalizing hints of the strange and tragic identity within.
He embodied his poems in the traditional forms-ode, sonnet, blank verse, allegorical drama, and the various stanza patterns perfected by Keats, Shelley, and Tennyson. His imagery was ornate, expressing itself with many adjectives and indulging in the sensuous delight of sumptuous colors, haunting music, luxurious fabrics. It is easy to see in his choice of imagery the traits of the Roman Catholic ritual which became familiar to him at an impressionable period of his boyhood. His diction was admirable alike for its appreciation of the connotative value of words and for its harmonizing of their sound-values. Like Tennyson, he could condense into a single appropriate word a whole thought or image for the well-informed reader to expand. His love of romantic strangeness led him to use many archaic or otherwise unfamiliar words, effective both by their beauty of sound and by their glamorous suggestions of the unknown. He had Milton's partiality for impressive proper names. On the other hand, along with these good traits he had inherited from his antecedents a less defensible habit-trivial enough, it is true, but superficially visible and tending to annoy the reader out of all proportion to its unimportance. This was the special "poetic diction" of "thee" and "thou," of "mid" and " 'neath," of "lo," and " 'tis," and "ne'er." The manifest artificiality of such locutions has been very unfortunate in provoking condemnations which pay no heed to the profounder qualities of the poems. It is probably the foregoing traits which prevent Sterling from being a great sonneteer, in spite of his addiction to the sonnet form. Being so strictly conditioned in dimensions and pattern, the sonnet must give particularly strong indications of emotion and honesty on the part of the poet, to avoid being entirely artificial. It is for this reason that Spenser's sonnet-sequence falls so far below that of Sidney, although the latter would have been incapable of the sustained magnificence of the Faerie Queene; and George Sterling's Sonnets to Craig resemble the Amoretti in failing to stir the reader with lines of memorable power. The best of Sterling's sonnets are those which are pictorial and impersonal.
Although the first impression made by his poetry is concerned with his technical skill and his wealth of imagery, further reading proves that he is not devoid of an underlying philosophy. The most frequent of his ideas, and the one which applies directly to his concern with technique, is his concept of beauty. He was obsessed with an ideal of beauty as something remote and elusive, only to be perceived in dreams and flashes of insight, faintly reflected in music and poetry. The function of the poet, therefore, was to use every possible means of capturing the fleeting spirit. Since music simulates it most successfully, poetry must use the metrical and phonetic devices which approximate musical effects. Poetry must abjure every literal and familiar element, accumulate as many images of strange loveliness as it can discover, and cherish all the past embodiments of visionary beauty, such as the beings of classic mythology. In the attempt to suggest this supernal and inhuman beauty, he uses certain recurrent images, such as gems, moonlight and sea-foam; his repetition of them does not betray poverty of invention, but signifies the fact that out of an unusually extensive treasury he consciously selects these again and again as the clearest symbols of what he wishes to convey.
An excellent statement of the idea is contained in the poem entitled The Spirit of Beauty:
In sleep I saw her, the immutable,
Who came in haunting on the farther dreams
Of all the poets. As a mist she fled
Before mine eyes enchanted; and her face
Was like a lily hidden in holy dusks-
Even such as gaze, in vision far from Time,
From out the skies of dreamland, being moons
In slumber's realm of shadow. And her eyes
Were great with griefs unsearchable, and gleamed,
Sorrow beyond them, like the larger dew
Of Aidenn, having each Love's perfect star
Mirrored therein. And with her came the hush
That follows music dying, or is peace
About all dead things beautiful. Low light,
Softer than shadow midmost of the rose,
A raiment from the footfall to the brow
Held herj and clung about her trembling hair.
And she spake words I knew not, but I knew
That this was she whom every poet's soul
Had found for once in vision, and had felt
Thenceforth her presence alway, that, unseen,
Still broke upon his sleep, and was by day
A hunger and a haunting and a grace,
Unutterable. For that chord the heart
Holds vibrant unto wonder, at her words,
Sang suddenly; and her untroubled voice,
Tho' glad, yet held an echoing of harps
To which dead singers had saddened, hearing there
The sorrow in world-voices and the tides
Of Time in travail. And the radiance
That clasped her limbs was as the memory
And afterglow of all transmuting light
That from old moons of Arcady fell wan
Thro' pearly blossom, or about the isles
Of ocean, long forsaken of their gods,
Gleamed from the foam at twilight. And the hush
That drank her voice so like to falling rills,
Lay sweeter than all harmony: therein
Slept Music and her dreams, and there was set
The silence that enfolds the ineffable.
And I had spoken, but a wonder held
My lips, that I, unworthy, should behold
What others had in guerdon for the pains
Of Poesy, (tho' seen but once, and seen
But for a sorrow); and in words half-mad
Had striven to stay her flight. But swift the mind
Turned with its dawn-light on that vale of dream:
She smiled, then passed forever to her day.
Many other poems present the same concept more briefly, or incidentally in the course of treating different topics.
It is natural, therefore, that he should seek to preserve the devices by which earlier poets had contributed to the recording of beauty's rare apparitions. A very interesting summary of his favorite poets, in phrases which reveal genuine critical acumen, occurs in the poem entitled Music. After describing the magic power of music over human emotions, he proceeds to the relationship of music and poetry:
In that undying garden of the years,
Sweet poesy, she liveth, and her breath,
Like winds a-whisper with a league of rose,
Is fragrant of its flower, she lying pent
Within the web and mystery of words,
Those films of song that of man's victories
Longest endure, outliving tower or dome
Of claspèd marble. Not in vain her spell
Hath fallen upon the poets: Keats outsang
His tender nightingale; and hearken Poe,
So sweeter than his bells! Great Milton made
Within that night (how clearer than our day!)
He shared with Homer, solemn harmonies
From out the names of ancient powers and realms
Caught up and rolled in thunder on his voice.
And Shelley rained her tears from many a line.
So filleth she the high immortal hearts
That sorrow unto song, so whispereth,
Haunting those deeper voices of the Lyre
That have the calling of Life's tragedy.
So calleth she, fast in whose golden toils,
Beauty, tho' captive, hath eternal reign.
It is significant that the only American name included is Poe's. Sterling followed the Poe model in those of his poems which express the morbid side of his imagination, and he pays generous tribute to Poe again in one of his best sonnets.
I have already suggested that Sterling had little in common with the poetry of the human touch which was propagated by Browning. That he was well aware of these imperfect sympathies is proved by an honest avowal in his Ode on the Centenary of the Birth of Robert Browning:
As unto lighter strains a boy might turn
From where great altars burn
And Music's grave archangels tread the night,
So I, in seasons past,
Loved not the bitter might
And merciless control
Of thy bleak trumpets calling to the soul.
Their consummating blast
Held inspirations of affright,
As when a faun
Hears mournful thunders roll
On breathless, wide transparencies of dawn.
Nor would I hear
With thee, superb and clear
The indomitable laughter of the race;
Nor would I face
Clear Truth, with her cold agates of the well,
Nor with thee trace
Her footprints passing upward to the snows,
But sought a phantom rose
And islands where the ghostly siren sings;
Nor would I dwell
Where star-forsaking wings
On mortal thresholds hide their mystery,
Nor watch with thee
The light of Heaven cast on common things.
The poem proceeds with admirable interpretations of Browning's greatness, and apt comparisons of him with other poets; and the broadening of Sterling's horizon, as depicted therein, is exemplified also in other poems of his later period. Becoming aware of how utterly his methods were out of harmony with the prevalent mood of the time, he attempted narrative and genre poems in simpler diction and freer metres; but he was never wholly comfortable in them, and suffered by comparison with the more accustomed mastery of Robinson or Frost or Jeffers.
Unique among his poems is one which combines the sorcery of his other-worldly imagination with a sympathetic recognition of mortal affections. The conjunction of visionary magnificence and tender human feeling would render it in the minds of many readers his most appealing performance. The title is Night in Heaven:
All the harps of Heaven sang in the timeless noon-tide,
Sang in the day that God had made eternity;
And memory was fled at the drying of the tears,
Tears that won the Happiness.
Many in their bliss were the souls that had forgotten-
Souls lost in light that hid them each from each;
And their harping as a sea beat on the Throne unceasingly,
Joyous and terrible.
And vaster from their chords surged the music made marvellous,
Till they sang not as men whom He saved for their lowliness;
Till their quiring was as that of the angels who sinned not,
Familiar of His glory.
And the Lord thought, "Behold! they are yet as wayward children,
Forgetful with joy, and haughty in their music!
Now shall I cause that their hearts renew their need of Me,
And one of another."
All the harps of Heaven sang in a sudden twilight,
And the souls gazed each on each in the ebbing of His radiance;
Low throbbed the chords till their music was of memory
And the homes of their sorrow-time.
They sang of toil that ceased, and of kine that left the hillside,
Of dumb things that fed, and of children tired and dusty,
Of the moon great and low, and the warmth of lowly hearths-
These, and their comforting.
All the harps of Heaven sang in a holy darkness,
And like the stars in dew shone the tears of men remembering,
Weary men and humble, that had the night for slumber-
Night and its tenderness.
Now if they forget, and the human in their harping
Cease like a flower from the face of things eternal,
Comes again the evening, the shadow of His glory.
So the souls remember.
Clearly, he is recalling Browning's favorite doctrine that the limitations and endurances of human existence provide our true happiness, and that ideal perfection would be arid; yet such a view is directly contrary to Sterling's basic assumption that man's highest achievement and poetry's undivided purpose is the perception of the perfect and supernal beauty.
The foregoing citations, with their implicit admission that Sterling sometimes felt a shortcoming in his poetry, and aspired impotently to the vox humana, offer a clue to the inherent conflict which causes the persistent undertone of melancholy and bafflement throughout his poems. His socialistic creed, inspired by his generous and sensitive disposition, urged him to devote his talents to the cause of his fellow-beings; whereas his whole literary training, first under the conventual reclusion of Father Tabb, and later under the compulsive assurance of Ambrose Bierce, incapacitated him for controversy. The cardinal fact of Bierce's poetic criticism was inveterate enmity toward propaganda or didacticism. The theory of "art for art's sake" found in him its fanatical apostle. Sterling, in addition to admiring Bierce and thrilling to Bierce's praise, found the doctrine accordant with his own imaginative and impractical temperament. Then, having delivered himself to it irrevocably, he was obliged to suffer the chafing of his social conscience.
The hint of this divided purpose runs through all his poetry. Sufficient illustration can be found at the beginning and near the end of his career. The dedication of his first volume, The Testimony of the Suns (1903), took the form of a poem addressed to Bierce, stating his sense of solemnity in dedicating himself to the implacable Muse:
Her altars lift incessant fire;
She holds no truce with Death nor Peace;
Till mind degrade and beauty cease,
She calls her chosen to the Lyre.
Remiss the ministry they bear
Who serve her with divided heart;
She stands reluctant to impart
Her strength to purpose, end, or care.
Shall best I guard her hallowed light
By sheltered service on her towers,
Or strife with Mammon and the powers
That hold humanity in night?
I loose the choral trumpet's gleam,
But half its thunder leave untried;
Midway on doubting vans I glide,
Nor hasten to the heights of dream.
A shadow o'er the vision runs:
I hear a grieving from the lands
Where Sorrow heavy-sceptred stands,
And moanings from the mist of suns.
Lo! men in weariness behold
No respite from the toils of Time.
Their children wander in the slime
Round Mammon's domes of plundered gold,
And taste the bitterness of dearth.
Must they beyond my conscience wait,
Or lack my voice as advocate
To cry their wrongs athwart the earth?
Shall Song, delinquent, win from life
The light and rapture that she knows,
And sleep at last where Lethe Sows,
A stranger to the human strife?
Shall Art fare sunward, and disdain
The patient hands that smooth her ways?
Shall she, delighting, scorn to raise
The fallen on their path of pain?
So questioning, can I endure
The peace of mine uplifted place?
Accused and judge, I fear to face
The dumb tribunals of the poor.
The only answer that he gives to these questions is a confused fatalism and a timid condemnation of emotion and learning; the whole poem reveals a "divided heart" such as he had just described as "remiss."
Coming down to Lilith (1919), one finds a similar uncertainty of purpose. The symbolic drama represents the sufferings of the poetic soul in its search for beauty. That Sterling felt a personal application is proved not merely by the internal evidence of emotion almost painfully convincing, but also by the fact that he afterwards used as a pseudonym the name of his hero, Tancred. The witch Lilith represents the inhuman and elusive-and therefore utterly cruel-ideal of beauty. Under her tyranny Tancred violates all the holiest bonds of human duty and love; then suddenly, and with no apparent motivation, he achieves a vision of service to humanity which enables him to defy her and endure the torture inflicted by her minions. Both sections of the allegory are eloquently and impressively handled, but they do not harmonize; Tancred as the unwilling and tormented slave of beauty, and Tancred as the serene prophet of social justice to the base representatives of law and religion, are different beings.
From the two primary elements which I have indicated, the idealization of transcendent beauty and the unsolved conflict between the impulses of romantic escape and humanitarian dedication, Sterling's characteristic outlook on life developed. Anyone with serious pretensions to the title of poet must have formulated some theory of existence, no matter how chary of didacticism he may be; and Sterling could not dwell always in a realm of pure fantasy. Such a poem as A Wine of Wizardry, extending to over two hundred lines of sheer imagery, piling up weird Poe-like scenes, all flushed with the unearthly glare of sunset reflected in wine, was a tour de force which he could not often repeat. Most of his poems betray an excogitated view of existence.
The most frequent theme is the melancholy fact of man's futility. Our perception of beauty being always so brief and imperfect, our puny efforts are ephemeral in contrast with the eternity of beauty's spirit. Each being is inevitably isolated, helplessly striving to communicate with a fellow-soul. Typical of scores of his reflective poems is the sonnet Illusion:
I am alone in this grey shadow land,-
This world of phantoms I can never know -
This throng of seekers wandering to and fro,
Moved by a hidden god's unheard command;
And tho we knew the clasp of eye and hand,
We watchers of the planet's passing show,
Yet soon the "now" shall be the "long ago,"
And soon the prow shall grate on Lethe's strand.
Bring on the lights, the music and the wine,
Ere the long silence give our feast to scorn!
Let us forget all that we dread we are,
And let the mind s unknown horizon shine,
As the heart graces with mirage of morn
The light about its lost and lonely star.
A closely related idea is that of the transience of all ambition and fame, as expressed in the Three Sonnets on Oblivion, of which the first may be quoted:
Her eyes have seen the monoliths of kings
Upcast like foam of the effacing tide:
She hath beheld the desert stars deride
The momuments of Power's imaginings-
About their base the wind Assyrian flings
The dust that throned the satrap in his pride;
Cambyses and the Memphian pomps abide
As in the flame the moth's presumptuous wings.
There gleams no glory that her hand shall spare,
Nor any sun whose rays shall cross her night,
Whose realm enfolds man's empire and its end.
No armor of renown her sword shall dare,
No council of the gods withstand her might:
Stricken at last Time's lonely Titans bend.
The underlying thought of these poems is not particularly modern. Of the two sonnets just quoted, the first recalls the Greek hedonists and the second recalls the Hebrew prophets. The thoughts have been revitalized, however, by recent scientific revelations of aeonic time and interstellar space. Sterling could never lose sight of the new perspective, in which the solar system becomes unutterably insignificant. This terrible fascination showed itself in his first and most ambitious long poem, The Testimony of the Suns. The poem excels the efforts of other writers to depict the astronomical vastitudes of the universe, because they were usually actuated by pre-conceived theories, betraying them into abstraction and exposition, whereas Sterling, with his dread of being didactic, strove only to present the imaginative aspect of the theme. Considering the stupendous scope of the poem, it is a great achievement. Even though the necessity of maintaining an exalted mood of grandeur infects some of the stanzas with rhetoric, the majority of them are magnificently vivid and profound, and the general effect of the poem is to make the reader's imagination actively aware of those splendors which the calculations of astronomy imply but fail to display. Sterling discovered the astonishing beauty and dignity of the names of constellations, and made gorgeous use of "Fomalhaut," "Aldebaran," "Procyon," "Eetelgeuse," "Antares," and "Altair." Throughout his later poems he returned to those enchanted words when he wished to induce the highest moods of exaltation.
With such a theme, however, he could not utterly ignore philosophic implications. Avoiding the dullness of rational argumentation, he nevertheless conveys what seem to him the indubitable inferences. He declares nothing with certitude, but his questions point toward only one sort of answer-the impotence and eternal loneliness of human beings, involved in some vast and incomprehensible law of cyclic recurrence.
In this poem and elsewhere he accepts the principle of evolution, but without assurance that it means progress. His attitude is well expressed in a sonnet entitled Man:
This is that brute which travailed, uncontent
To bask with fellow creatures in the sun -
To filch from earth his sustenance, which done,
He could have ease in some cave's tenement.
Not wholly thus his urgent will was spent,
For peace within its borders had he none,
Foresensing on a journey unbegun
The airs of that inscrutable ascent.
With earth who bore him has he made his feud,
And dreamt of other stars, and sought him wings,
Decreed to an august ingratitude;
And for his tears the Verities vouchsafe
That he stand first among created things-
A seeker of abysses, and their waif!
His view on the subject of the soul's immortality is strictly agnostic. Consistent with all his poems is the one called Mystery;
Men say that sundered by enormous nights
Burn star and nearest star.
That where companioned seem the sister lights
The great abysses are.
So held by Life's unsympathetic dark,
We press to hidden goals.
From gulfs unshared the friending fires we mark,
And we are lonely souls-
Your hearts, O friends! beyond their veiling bars,
Are hidden deep away.
Your faces gleam familiar as the stars,
And as unknown as they.
His creed, therefore, is one of resignation and fatalism. Neither affirming nor denying, he counsels passivity as the sole means of enduring life, with escape into the frankly unreal realm of fantasy as the only anodyne. None of the poems concludes on a note of hope; The Testimony of the Suns, after speaking of man's ambition "to know what Permanence abides beyond the veil the senses draw," ends with an apostrophe to Life:
So shall thy seed on worlds to be,
At altars built to suns afar,
Crave from the silence of the star
Solution of thy mystery;
And crave unanswered, till, denied
By cosmic gloom and stellar glare,
The brains are dust that bore the pray'r,
And dust the yearning lips that cried.
Similarly in Lilith, lest the idealism expressed by Tancred in the last act should imply optimism in the author, the effect is invalidated by closing on a note of human selfishness and cruelty, leaving a hint of cynicism just as Eugene O'Neill does by a similar device at the end of Lazarus Laughed.
We are in a position now to understand why Sterling was not accorded a preeminent place in the poetry of his era. On the one hand, the intellectuals were hatching their revolt from orthodox forms, and contemned his traditional technique and archaic diction; on the other hand, the general reading public had several reasons for shunning him. First of all, he was erudite, requiring in his reader an eclectic literary background and a keen perception of symbolism. His wide vocabulary, his frequent classical and other learned allusions, his condensation of imagery, were barriers for those who would run as they read. Secondly, the imaginative excursions which he provided were either gruesome or despondent. He could rival the most horrific tales of Poe in such poems as A Wine of Wizardry and The Hidden Pool; and when his mood was less nightmarish he still distressed his compatriots by despising their practical and self-satisfied world and seeking mischievously to stir in them improvident longings for the unattainable. To placid and prosperous people, the romantic escape is an insidious menace. Finally, his philosophic outlook was depressing; for those who look for a "message" in poetry, Sterling's bleak questionings and profound disillusionment were repellant. The elaborate beauty with which he invested his despair made it only the more bitter. The average happiness-seeking mortal recoils from such uncompromising unfaith as this:
The stranger in my gates-lo! that am I,
And what my land of birth I do not know,
Nor yet the hidden land to which I go.
One may be lord of many ere he die,
And tell of many sorrows in one sigh,
But know himself he shall not, nor this woe,
Nor to what sea the tears of wisdom flow,
Nor why one star is taken from the sky.
An urging is upon him evermore,
And tho' he bide, his soul is wanderer,
Scanning the shadows with a sense of haste
Where fade the tracks of all who went before-
A dim and solitary traveller
On ways chat end in evening and the waste.
There is not the passion of a temporary mood in such a poem; it has the calmness and discipline of permanent conviction; and all the armor of self-righteousness cannot shield the reader from unwilling response.
Thus alienated from the conventional bourgeoisie of his time by his outlook, and from the radical intelligentsia by his technique. Sterling was appreciated only by the few who could place his poetry against an assimilated background of European culture. To them it was clear that he was alone among American poets of the twentieth century in attaching himself to the great tradition of English literature, not as an imitator but in the true apostolic succession. Those who found pleasure in the sensuous luxury of Keats, the empyrean vision of Shelley and Blake, the fantastic glooms of Poe, the metrical subtleties of Tennyson, could enjoy similar traits in Sterling. And yet he was not an anachronism in his century. Recent scientific and philosophic concepts were the roots of his tree of knowledge; the melancholy and agnostic fatalism which he derived from them was entirely consistent with the views of the only English poets who were maintaining the discussion of such themes, Thomas Hardy, for example, and A. E. Housman, and John Masefield. It is difficult to believe that future historians of American literature will fail to recognize that by taking the full poetic vow and devoting himself to the arduous service of "pure poetry" he saved an era of his nation's literature from entire provincialism. He is a citizen of the world of poetry, and as long as that world survives his claim will be acknowledged.
[Reprint from the University of California Chronicle, October, 1919]