Rhymes and Reactions (Dec 1926)
By George Sterling
The Bobbs-Merrill Company sends me Prof. John Erskine's book "Gallahad," apparently with the object of soliciting a favorable opinion of it. I have an opinion, and here it is: That to take these great dreams of the old heroic years and to satirize them is a pitiful way to fame and money, and Llewellyn Powys was quite justified in his protest, in the Saturday Review, against the desecration that Erskine had perpetrated in his "Helen."
True, we should have a sense of humor. True, such old dreams should be vital enough to withstand these ironies. Nevertheless, they are part and parcel of our racial inheritance in literature and should be held beyond profanation. "Helen," "Galahad" and such other clever mockeries as Prof. Erskine plans will of course be forgotten ere long, but meanwhile they spread an inescapable taint in the pure airs of poetic reverie. It is as though a small boy had scribbled a nasty word on the marble pillar of a cathedral: the old sacristan Time, will rub it out, or, in his immediate default, the erasing rain of oblivion. But the deed has been done, and by reason of "Helen and Galahad" few of us will be able to dream of the noble Arthurian legend, or the more beautiful one of Troy's tragedy, without a sneaking intruism of the mephistic suggestions of these books. It is true that "Galahad" lacks much of the flippancy that makes "Helen" almost detestable; but in the case of the former book the glib and incessant verbal fencing between the characters (Prof. Erskine's way of being wise and witty) results in a sense of cheapness almost as irritating.
Yes, the fine old dreams have been cleverly tainted. It now remains for Erskine to widen his field a trifle and show us what he can do to satirize the human concept of Joan of Arc and the grave beauty of the tale of the nativity.
He will have the whole Age of Cheapness to back him up. I can see even Hollywood coin in sight.
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Long Island is the terminal moraine of the great glacier of the last Ice Age, and on some of its eastern beaches one may find beautifully lucid quartz crystal, eternal dews that the sun and wind of Time have not effaced.
Thinking of them, I am reminded of a remarkable poem that has just reached me, "The Hermaphrodite," by the young poet Samuel Tweman. It is from The Recluse Press of Athol, Mass., which has printed three hundred and fifty copies of the small book—in a true civilization thirty-five million would be required.
If you expect to find in it any tale of erotic aberration or stimulus, you would better leave this splendid poem unread. It has none of that: it is "only" poetry, pure poetry of as marvelous a translucence as any crystal polished by the sand and waves of lonely beaches. Here indeed Mr. Tweman has taken all the loveliness and tragedy of the great Past, and distilled from them his necklace of immutable dews. The poem is coherent and mournfully beautiful, and the lament of the hermaphrodite over the peished splendor of old years is, as De Casseres points out in his all-too-brief preface, of "a magic as authentic as Keats and a contained and sustained lyrical frenzy for the 'Supreme Loveliness' that sets it apart from all other fads, fancies and transparent fakery that are yawled and yawped abroad as the 'ultra modern note.'"
One can more than echo all that De Casseres says in praise of the poem. Reading his preface, I feared that it must prove extravagant, but the lyric outburst in the pages that followed gave rest to my apprehensions. Here is an unforgettable and almost perfect poem, as authentically the work of genius as "The Eve of St. Agnes." Whether or not Mr. Tweman can follow it up with others of the same amazing quality I do not know. Even if he fail to, his fame should be assured by this single triumph of sheer art and inspiration. No reader of "The Hermaphrodite" will forget it, for
"Beautiful was this god and tender, Whose football loosed Olympian splendour, Where on the golden hair were set Wind flowers for a coronet."
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A letter from America's Sire of Song, Edwin Markham, contains the interesting news that he is compiling for the Wm. H. Wise Company a huge anthology of poems, from the time of Chaucer to the present. The choice depends, naturally, on such as make a strong appeal to Mr. Markham, and I do not know of a better man to make the selection, if we are to have a volume of poetry,, not of "vital verse." The labor involved in compiling even so limited a collection as "Continent's End" has deprived me of all ambition to be again an anthologist, but leaves me with sympathetic understanding of the vast toil involved in such a project as Mr. Markham is undertaking. Well, there will at least be no resentment among the dead!
Mr. Markham also contemplates the publication, in an addition of 1200, of his strong and noble poem, "The Ballad of the Gallows-Bird," which appeared in the September number of the American Mercury. If the populace of Moronia were not opaque to poetry, an edition of twelve million would be none too large. As it is—well, let's discuss the identity of Tunney's next opponent. Trifling matters may wait, while such worlds swing in the balance.