Rhymes and Reactions (Jun 1926)
By George Sterling
I have just been reading, in his book entitled "Forty Immortals," the poems of that flaming soul, Benjamin De Casseres.
I say "poems" deliberately, for if imagination be the very heart and magic of poetry, in few places may it be found in more gorgeous abundance than in these forty essays. De Casseres is at once a high-power microscope, giving access to the pits of psychic mystery, and a gigantic searchlight, sweeping with its fan-ray the outermost walls of the cosmos. In his terrific lines are all that man knows and most of what he has imagined. In these pages, Wisdom passes out into the night of the unknown, and Science is a firefly, sparking fitfully in the tomb we call the universe.
But first of all and above all, he is a poet, and his paragraphs prove, more conclusively than any others that I have read, the dividing line between prose and poetry. The form may deceive the eye, but never" the sensitized brain. Let me adduce for example a passage from his magnificent summingup of that master-mind, Benedict de Spinoza, setting it to lines of free-verse, though indeed but little free-verse has this sinewy suppleness of rythm.
His brain was the caravansary of the Infinite.
It was the Mecca of all pilgrim thoughts
From strange cities.
All streams, springs, brooks came to that ocean
To be absorbed and eternized.
All facts came there to be sublimated.
All emotions and griefs
Sought the transports of euthanasia in that temple!
To him Isis unveiled,
And the breasts of Aphrodite
Rang hollow against his knuckles.
And Medusa crumbled at his gaze
And the Eumenides turned to pallid statues.
That is but a brief quotation. Think of a volume of three hundred and seventy pages literally packed with such sublimities! I am not even quoting him at his best. Here are apocalyptic trumpetnotes, the roll call of the Titans, the thunder of unknown seas on the cliffs of the brain's Ultima Thule. His lines gleam hues that are not in the spectrum, and with a mind as keen and radiant as the spear-head of Achilles, he lays bare with a crystal scalpel the soul-stuff of our Lords of Wonder from Shakespeare to Nietzsche. Here are no "red wine and pleasant bread," but rather heaped gems that have gathered dews of absinthe and venom—jewels cut by sick souls and sick bodies.
De Casseres is supremely our greatest epigrammatist. No such blinding brilliance ever before went from brain to paper. The paragraphs fairly seethe with beauty and truth, terrible though both may be, and in writing his estimate of Marinetti he has really described his own work, saying: "Metaphors and similes lash our brains like hailstones, pounding us, blinding us, beating us to formless pulp of aesthetic ecstasy. One thinks of Hugo, Blake, the Apocalypse and Nietzsche s "Zarathustra." It is like an earthquake in a constellation, a fall of millions of stars from the poles of the heavens toward the earth, a display of fireworks organized in Mars for the pleasure of those who live on Venus; a great nymphaleptic orgy of sumptuous sonorities!"
I often wonder what the mouse-grey school of literature will think of this Play Boy of the Cosmos.
So much for the splendor for his art. For some of his enthusiasms I have less admiration. His prostration before the shrine of Maeterlink is a sheerer one than the Belgian swami merits, nor can I share his fervors as to the vastness of the imagination of that Sears-Roebuck seer, Whitman. De Casseres himself has an imagination of far greater scope.
I think, too, that his invective against Reason is regrettable, in this age that wallows in the slime-pits of mysticism. It is true that he gives so wide an interpretation to the term that it might embrace all but the rankest of materialists; and yet I would see him more chary of praise to the Mad Mullahs to whom the reply is "Perhaps," and to the sages whose sustenance is the echo of their own vain voices. I would see him less tolerant of the henidical nonsense with which weak souls flatter themselves.
It is its beauty, not its wisdom, that will make "Forty Immorta's" immortal. In an age too precocious for play and too cynical for pure beauty, De Casseres has dared to give full rein to his imagination and ventured into the realm of sublimities. Nor is it the adventuring of a neophyte, for he can meet the devotees of ugliness on their own ground, and, his pen lifted as a wand against the mirage of Time, turn as easily as they its apples of Sodom to the dust from which Time has arisen. He is at once child and sage, Ariel and Mephistopheles, and my notion that he takes too seriously the froth and flatulence of mysticism may be itself a delusion. His is a wisdom that never tells all it surmises.