MISS ALICE BROWN has published but one volume of verse; but we live in
feelings, not in titles on a cover, and it is possible to prove
oneself a poet in one volume of verse, or in one poem thereof. When
Miss Brown some years ago paid this tribute at the toll-gate of song
by a small volume entitled _The Road to Castaly_, it created no
inconsiderable comment among lovers of poetry, and there were not
wanting those who saw in it as definite gifts as Miss Brown possesses
in fiction; but despite the generous recognition which the collection
won, she has not seen fit to follow it with others, and with the
exception of occasional poems in the magazines, it remains the sole
representation of this phase of her work. Yet within a range of
seventy pages she has gathered a stronger group of poems than might be
winnowed from several collections of some of those who cultivate verse
more assiduously. Nor is this to declare that from cover to cover of
her volume the inspired touch is everywhere manifest; doubtless the
seventy pages would have gained in strength by compression to fifty.
It is, however, to declare that within this compass there is a true
accomplishment, at which we shall look briefly.
First, then, the work has personality and magnetism, bringing one at
once into sympathetic interchange with the writer. The feeling is not
insulated by the art, but is imbued with all the warmth of speech;
there are no “wires” but the live wires of vibrant words, conducting
their current of impulse directly to the reader. One feels that Miss
Brown has written verse not as a pleasant diversion, nor yet with
painful self-scrutiny, but only when her nature demanded this form of
expression, and hence the motive shapes the mechanism, rather than the
[Illustration: Alice Brown]
Miss Brown’s poems are not primarily philosophical, not ethical to the
degree of being moralistic; but they have a subtly pervasive
spirituality, and in certain lyrics, such as “Hora Christi,” a rare
depth of religious emotion. They are records of moods: of the soul, of
passing life, of the psychic side of death, of the mutability of love,
of ecstatic surrender to nature, of loyalty to service,—in short, they
are poems of the intuitions and sympathies, and warm with personality.
Perhaps the most buoyant note in the book is that in celebration of
the joys of escape from town to country; from the thrall of
paving-stones and chimney-pots to the indesecrate seclusion of the
pines, where the springy pile of the woodland carpet gives forth a
pungent odor to the tread; and where, in Miss Brown’s delicate phrase,
the ferns waver, wakened by no wind
Save the green flickering of their blossomy mind.
To read Miss Brown’s “Morning in Camp” is to take a vacation without
stirring from one’s armchair,—a vacation by a mountain lake engirt
with pine forests, with one’s tent pitched below the “spice-budded”
firs and “shimmering birches,” guarded by
… the mountain wall
Where the first potencies of dawning fall,
and within sight of the shore where
… the water laps the land,
Encircling her with charm of silvery sand;
and where one may lie at dawn in his “tent’s white solitude,”
… the rapt ecstatic birth
Renewed without: the mirrored sky and earth,
Married in beauty, consonant in speech,
And uttering bliss responsive each to each.
Miss Brown’s rapt poems in celebration of nature range from the
impassioned dignity of her stanzas picturing a “Sunrise on Mansfield
Mountain” to fancies so delicate that they seem to be caught in
gossamer meshes of song. The poems are somewhat inadaptable to
quotation, as several of the best, such as “Wood-Longing,” “Pan,” and
“Escape,” are written in stanzas whose exuberant impulse carries them
so far that they may not be excised midway without destroying a
climax. Upon a first reading of some of these periods they give one an
impression of being over-sustained; but the imagery is clear, and upon
a second reading one is likely to catch the infection of the lines and
be borne on with them to the reversal of his first judgment.
“Wood-Longing” thrills with the passion of
… the earth
When all the ecstasy of myriad birth
Afflicts her with a rapturous shuddering,
and celebrating escape from the thraldom of books, it demands of the
Spirit, what wilt thou dare,
Just to be one with earth and air?
To read the writing on the river bed,
And trace God’s mystical mosaic overhead?
* * * * *
O incommunicable speech!
For he who reads a book may preach
A hundred sermons from its foolish rote
And rhyme reiterant on one dull note.
But he who spends an hour within the wood
Hath fed on fairy food;
And who hath eaten of the forest fruit
Is ever mute.
Nothing may he reveal.
Nature hath set her seal
Of honor on anointed lips;
And one who daring dips
His cup within her potent brew
Hath drunk of silence too.
What doth the robin say,
And what the martial jay?
Who’ll swear the bluebird’s lilt is all of love,
Or who translate the desolation of the dove?
For even in the common speech
Of feathered fellows, each to each,
Abideth still the primal mystery,
The brooding past, the germ of life to be;
And one poor weed, upspringing to the sun,
Breeds all creation’s wonder, new begun.
“Sunrise on Mansfield Mountain,” written in fine resonant pentameter,
and building up stanza by stanza to the supreme climax of the dawn,
is, as noted above, one of the finest achievements of Miss Brown’s
volume, but one that will least bear the severing of its passages from
their place in the growing whole. It is full of notable phrases, as
that in the apostrophe,—
O changeless guardians! O ye wizard firs!
* * * * *
What breath may move ye, or what breeze invite
To odorous hot lendings of the heart?—
wherein the very pungency of the pine is infused into the words. But
more adaptable to quotation in its compactness is the lyric entitled
“Candlemas,” captivating in form and spontaneity, though no more
felicitous in fancy or rhythm than many other of her nature poems:
O hearken, all ye little weeds
That lie beneath the snow,
(So low, dear hearts, in poverty so low!)
The sun hath risen for royal deeds,
A valiant wind the vanguard leads;
Now quicken ye, lest unborn seeds
Before ye rise and blow.
O furry living things, adream
On winter’s drowsy breast,
(How rest ye there, how softly, safely rest!)
Arise and follow where a gleam
Of wizard gold unbinds the stream,
And all the woodland windings seem
With sweet expectance blest.
My birds, come back! the hollow sky
Is weary for your note.
(Sweet-throat, come back! O liquid, mellow throat!)
Ere May’s soft minions hereward fly,
Shame on ye, laggards, to deny
The brooding breast, the sun-bright eye,
The tawny, shining coat!
Mr. Archer, in his _Poets of the Younger Generation_, quotes this poem
as the gem of Miss Brown’s collection; and it certainly is a charming
lyric, but not more so to my thinking than several of an entirely
different nature, which will also in time’s trial by fire remain the
true coin. It needs a somewhat broader and deeper term, however, than
“charming” to qualify such poems as “Hora Christi,” “On Pilgrimage,”
“Seaward Bound,” “The Return,” “The Message,” “The Slanderer,”
“Lethe,” and “In Extremis,” in which life speaks a word charged with
more vital significance. “On Pilgrimage” (A. D. 1250) reveals an art
that is above praise. With only the simplest words Miss Brown has
infused into this poem the very essence of pain, of numb, bewildered
hopelessness. One feels it as a palpable atmosphere:
My love hath turned her to another mate.
(O grief too strange for tears!)
So must I make the barren earth my home;
So do I still on feeble questing roam,
An outcast from mine own unfriending gate,
Through the wan years.
My love hath rid her of my patient heart.
(Wake not, O frozen breast!)
Yet still there’s one to pour her oil and wine,
And all life’s banquet counteth most divine.
O Thou, Who also hadst in joy no part,
Give me Thy rest!
What strength have I to cleanse Thy stolen tomb,
For Christendom’s release?
Naked, at last, of hope and trust am I,
Too weak to sue for human charity.
A beggar to Thy holy shrine I come.
Grant me but peace!
And now in contrast with these exquisitely pathetic lines, to show
that the tragic side of life is not alone interpreted in Miss Brown’s
verse, and that she sees the temperamental contrasts of passion,
witness the cavalier parting of this “West-Country Lover,” to whom the
light o’ love is too fatuous a gleam to risk one’s way in following.
The dash and spirit of these lines are worthy a seventeenth-century
Then, lady, at last thou art sick of my sighing.
So long as I sue, thou wilt still be denying?
Ah, well! shall I vow then to serve thee forever,
And swear no unkindness our kinship can sever?
Nay, nay, dear my lass! here’s an end of endeavor.
Yet let no sweet ruth for my misery grieve thee.
The man who has loved knows as well how to leave thee.
The gorse is enkindled, there’s bloom on the heather,
And love is my joy, but so too is fair weather;
I still ride abroad, though we ride not together.
My horse is my mate; let the wind be my master.
Though Care may pursue, yet my hound follows faster.
The red deer’s a-tremble in coverts unbroken.
He hears the hoof-thunder; he scents the death-token.
Shall I mope at home, under vows never spoken?
The brown earth’s my book, and I ride forth to read it.
The stream runneth fast, but my will shall outspeed it.
I love thee, dear lass, but I hate the hag Sorrow.
As sun follows rain, and to-night has its morrow,
So I’ll taste of joy, though I steal, beg, or borrow!
This is as admirable a bit of nonchalance as Wither’s,
Shall I, wasting in despair,
Die because a woman’s fair?
Why so pale and wan, fond lover,
Prithee, why so pale?
with its salient advice to the languishing adorer.
Miss Brown’s small volume is by no means lacking in variety, either in
theme or form; it is full of spontaneous music, rarely forcing the
note in any lyric inspiration. In the sonnet she is less at ease: here
one feels the effort, the mechanism; but only four sonnets are
included in the volume, which shows her to be a true critic. There are
certain poems that might, perhaps, with equal advantage have been
eliminated, such as the over-musical numbers to Dian and Endymion; but
in the main, Miss Brown has done her own blue-pencilling, and _The
Road to Castaly_, as stated in the beginning, maintains a fine and
even grade of workmanship.
In such poems as are touched to tenderness and reverence, half with
the sweetness and half with the pain of life, Miss Brown makes her
truest appeal. The fine ideality, the spiritual fealty of her nature,
as shown in her work, always relates itself to one on the human side.
It is not the fealty that shames a weaker nature by its rigid
steadfastness, but that in which one sees his own wavering strife
reflected. Her lines called “The Artisan,” written since the
publication of her volume, are instinct with such feeling as comment
would profane. One can but feel, with a quick pang of sympathy, that
he, too, makes the appeal:
O God, my master God, look down and see
If I am making what Thou wouldst of me.
Fain might I lift my hands up in the air
From the defiant passion of my prayer;
Yet here they grope on this cold altar stone,
Graving the words I think I should make known.
Mine eyes are Thine. Yea, let me not forget,
Lest with unstaunchèd tears I leave them wet,
Dimming their faithful power, till they not see
Some small, plain task that might be done for Thee.
My feet, that ache for paths of flowery bloom,
Halt steadfast in the straitness of this room.
Though they may never be on errands sent,
Here shall they stay, and wait Thy full content.
And my poor heart, that doth so crave for peace,
Shall beat until Thou bid its beating cease.
So, Thou dear master God, look down and see
Whether I do Thy bidding heedfully.
These lines well illustrate the fact that true emotion is not literary
nor self-observant, and does not cast about for some rare image in
which to enshrine itself. Here is the simplest Saxon, and wholly
without ornament, yet who could be unconscious of the heart-beat of
life in the words? In her poem, “In Extremis,” one is moved by the
same intensity of feeling expressed in the litany imploring
deliverance from fear.
Of the more purely devotional poems, “Hora Christi” is perhaps the
most reverent, and instinct with delicate simplicity. It is a song of
the spirit, interpreting a mood whose springs are deep in the pain of
life, but whose hidden wells have turned to sweetness and healing. It
is not philosophically penetrative, but a tender, beautiful song warm
with sincerity of feeling:
Sweet is the time for joyous folk
Of gifts and minstrelsy;
Yet I, O lowly-hearted One,
Crave but Thy company.
On lonesome road, beset with dread,
My questing lies afar.
I have no light, save in the east
The gleaming of Thy star.
In cloistered aisles they keep to-day
Thy feast, O living Lord!
With pomp of banner, pride of song,
And stately sounding word.
Mute stand the kings of power and place,
While priests of holy mind
Dispense Thy blessed heritage
Of peace to all mankind.
I know a spot where budless twigs
Are bare above the snow,
And where sweet winter-loving birds
Flit softly to and fro;
There with the sun for altar-fire,
The earth for kneeling-place,
The gentle air for chorister,
Will I adore Thy face.
Loud, underneath the great blue sky,
My heart shall pæan sing,
The gold and myrrh of meekest love
Mine only offering.
Bliss of Thy birth shall quicken me;
And for Thy pain and dole
Tears are but vain, so I will keep
The silence of the soul.
In glancing over _The Road to Castaly_, one notes many poems that
might perhaps have represented it better than those chosen, such as
“The Return,” “The Unseen Fellowship,” “Mariners,” “Forewarned,” and
“Seaward Bound;” but sufficient have been cited to show the quality of
the volume and the sympathetic touch which Miss Brown possesses. Her
nature poems range from the most exuberant fancy to a Keats-like
richness and ripeness of phrase; and her miscellaneous verse from the
tender, reverential note of the lyric last quoted to the trenchant
scathing lines of “The Slanderer.” It is, in brief, such work as
combines feeling and distinction, and leaves one spiritually farther
on his way than it found him.