WHEN a volume of verse by Mr. Arthur Upson, entitled _Octaves In An
Oxford Garden_, was first brought to my notice by a poet friend with
what seemed before reading it a somewhat extravagant comment as to its
art, it evoked a certain scepticism as to whether the poet in question
would be equally enthusiastic, had he read, marked, learned, and
inwardly digested some eighty or more volumes of verse within a given
period, thus rendering a more rarely flavored compound necessary to
excite anew the poetry-sated appetite; but Mr. Upson’s Octaves proved
to be a brew into which had fallen this magic drop, and moments had
gone the way of oblivion until the charm was drained.
The volume consists of some thirty Octaves written in Wadham Garden at
Oxford in the reminiscent month of September; and so do they fix the
mood of the place that one marvels at the restfulness, the brooding
stillness, the flavor of time and association which Mr. Upson has
managed to infuse into his musing, sabbatical lines. One regrets that
the term “atmosphere” has become so cheapened, for in the exigent
moment when no other will serve as well, he has the depressing
consciousness that virtue has gone from the word he must employ.
Despite this fact, it is atmosphere, in its most pervasive sense, that
imbues Mr. Upson’s Octaves, as the first will attest:
The day was like a Sabbath in a swoon.
Under late summer’s blue were fair cloud-things
Poising aslant upon their charméd wings,
Arrested by some backward thought of June.
Softly I trod and with repentant shoon,
Half fearfully in sweet imaginings,
Where lay, as might some golden court of kings,
The old Quadrangle paved with afternoon.
What else than a touch of genius is in those three words, “paved with
afternoon,” as fixing the tempered light, the drowsy calm, of the
The Octaves are written in groups, the poems of each having a slight
dependence upon one another, so that to be quoted they require the
connecting thought. In many cases also the first or the second
quatrain of the Octave is more artistic than its companion lines, as
in the one which follows, where the first four lines hold the creative
As here among the well-remembering boughs,
Where every leaf is tongue to ancient breath,
Speech of the yesteryears forgathereth,
And all the winds are long-fulfilléd vows—
So from of old those ringing names arouse
A whispering in the foliate shades of death,
Where History her golden rosary saith,
Glowing, the light of Memory on her brows.
This Octave illustrates also what may be made as a general statement
regarding its companions in the volume, that while the glamour may not
rest equally upon the poems, they do not lack charm and distinction
even in their less creative touches; and there are few in which there
does not lurk some surprise in the way of picturesque phrasing.
In the ordering of his cadences Mr. Upson shows a musician’s sense of
rhythm; note, for example, how the transposition in the following
lines enhances their melody and conveys in the initial one the sense
of a river flowing:
It was the lip of murmuring Thames along
When new lights sought the wood all strangely fair,
Such quiet lights as saints transfigured wear
In minster windows crept the glades among.
And far as from some hazy hill, yet strong,
Methought an upland shepherd piped it there,
Waking a silvern echo from her lair:
“Sweet Thames, run softly till I end my song!”
Mr. Upson not only obeys by artist instinct the laws of counterpoint,
but employs the word with the music in it, and his effects are
achieved by the innate harmony of his diction and the poetry in the
theme he is shaping. Take as an illustration of this his Octave upon
the “Roman Glassware Preserved in the Ashmolean.” Doubtless those
fragments of crystal, sheathed, by centuries in the earth, in a
translucent film through which shine tints of mother-of-pearl, have
met the eyes of many of us, but it needed a poet to deduce from them
Fair crystal cups are dug from earth’s old crust,
Shattered but lovely, for, at price of all
Their shameful exile from the banquet-hall,
They have been bargaining beauties from the dust.
So, dig my life but deep enough, you must
Find broken friendships round its inner wall—
Which once my careless hand let slip and fall—
Brave with faint memories, rich in rainbow-rust!
One notes in Mr. Upson’s work a restraint that is the apogee of good
taste. He conveys the mood, whether of love or other emotion, and
makes his feeling another’s, but the veil of the temple is never
wholly rent; one may but divine the ministries and sacrifices of its
altar. He is an idealist, not yet come to the place of disillusion;
though wandering at times near to the border of that chilly realm, he
wraps his seamless robe of dreams more closely about him and turns
back. Mr. Upson is not, however, an unthinking singer to whom all is
cheer because he has not the insight to enter into those phases of
life that have not yet touched him; on the contrary, his note is not a
blithe one, it is meditative, inclining to the philosophical, and
tinctured with a certain pensiveness.
Now and again the cosmos thrusts forward a suggestion which becomes
the motive of one of the Octaves, as when the garden breeze loosens
from the chink a
… measure of earth
To match my body’s dust when its rebirth
To sod restores old functions I forsook,—
which, in turn, induces a reflection upon the microcosm:
Strange that a sod for just a thrill or two
Should ever be seduced into the round
Of change in which its present state is found
In this my form! forsake its quiet, true
And fruitfullest retirement, to go through
The heat, the strain, the languor and the wound!
Forget soft rain to hear the stormier sound,—
Exchange for burning tears its peaceful dew!
Again one has the applied illustration both of the pains and requitals
that cling about the sod in its “strange estate of flesh,” in these
lines declaring that
Some dust of Eden eddies round us yet.
Some clay o’ the Garden, clinging in the breast,
Down near the heart yet bides unmanifest.
Last eve in gardens strange to me I let
The path lead far; and lo, my vision met
Old forfeit hopes. I, as on homeward quest,
By recognizing trees was bidden rest,
And pitying leaves looked down and sighed, “Forget!”
Mr. Upson has one of his characteristic touches in the words “old
forfeit hopes,” pictured as starting suddenly before one in the new
path that has beguiled him. In looking over the Octaves, which embrace
a variety of themes, one doubts if his selections have adequately
represented the finely textured lines, pure and individual diction,
and the ripe and mellow flavor of it all.
Mr. Upson’s work has had its meed of recognition abroad: his first
volume, _Westwind Songs_, contained a warmly appreciative introduction
by “Carmen Sylva,” the poet-queen of Roumania, and his drama, _The
City_, just issued in Edinburgh, is introduced by Count Lützow of the
University of Prague, a well-known scholar and authority upon Bohemian
literature. Taking a backward glance at the first volume before
looking at _The City_, one finds few of the ear-marks of a first
collection of poetry, which it must become the subsequent effort of
the writer to live down.
The lines “When We Said Good-Bye” are among the truest in feeling,
though almost too intimate to quote; and this sympathetic lyric,
entitled “Old Gardens,” has a delicate grace:
The white rose tree that spent its musk
For lovers’ sweeter praise,
The stately walks we sought at dusk,
Have missed thee many days.
Again, with once-familiar feet,
I tread the old parterre—
But, ah, its bloom is now less sweet
Than when thy face was there.
I hear the birds of evening call;
I take the wild perfume;
I pluck a rose—to let it fall
And perish in the gloom.
_Westwind Songs_, however, waft other thoughts than those of love.
There is a heavier freight in this “Thought of Stevenson”:
High and alone I stood on Calton Hill
Above the scene that was so dear to him
Whose exile dreams of it made exile dim.
October wooed the folded valleys till
In mist they blurred, even as our eyes upfill
Under a too sweet memory; spires did swim,
And gables rust-red, on the gray sea’s brim—
But on these heights the air was soft and still.
Yet not all still: an alien breeze did turn
Here as from bournes in aromatic seas,
As round old shrines a new-freed soul might yearn
With incense to his earthly memories.
And then this thought: Mist, exile, searching pain,
But the brave soul is free, is home again!
How fine is the imaginative thought of October wooing the valleys till
they blurred with mist, as one’s “eyes upfill under a too sweet
memory,” and still finer the touch of the “alien breeze” turning
Here as from bournes in aromatic seas.
So one might imagine the journeying winds blowing hither from Vaea,
and the intensely human soul of Stevenson yearning to the vital
sympathies of earth.
Mr. Upson has recently published in Edinburgh and America a poem-drama
entitled _The City_, and containing, as previously mentioned, a
scholarly introduction by Count Lützow of the Bohemian University of
Prague, who points out the historical and traditional sources of the
The drama is embraced in one act, and covers a period of but one day,
from dawn to dusk; nevertheless, it is not wanting in incident, since
its operative causes reach their culmination in this period. The
“conditions precedent” of the plot, briefly summarized, show that
Abgar, King of Edessa, has married Cleonis, an Athenian, whose
foster-sister, Stilbe, having been an earlier favorite of the king, is
actuated by jealousy of the pair, and although dwelling as an inmate
of the royal household, plots with her lover, Belarion, against the
government of the king, ill at his palace outside the city and
awaiting the arrival of Jesus to heal him of his disease.
The subjects of Abgar have rebelled not only at his protracted absence
from the city, in dalliance, as they deem it, with the Athenian queen,
but because of measures of reform instituted by him which had done
despite to their ancient idolatries and desecrated certain shrines in
the public improvements of the city.
Not only had the king progressed beyond his day in the material
advancement of his realm, but his eager, swiftly conceiving mind had
imaged a spiritual ideal even more vital; and at the opening of the
drama he awaits the coming of the Nazarene to heal him, that he may
devote himself to the development of his people.
The scene opens at the dawn in the portico of the palace, where the
queen’s women, attired in white pepli, have spent the night singing
soft music to the accompaniment of the lyre to charm the fevered sleep
of the king. They are dismissed by Agamede, cousin of the queen, who
detains Stilbe to learn the cause of her discontent. Sufficient is
revealed to indicate that Belarion, the betrothed of Stilbe, whom the
oracle has declared a man of promise, is plotting against the life of
the king, aided in this design by Stilbe, who has been summoned almost
from the marriage altar to attend the queen.
The second scene takes place four hours later, in the palace garden,
and pictures the return of the messenger and his attendants sent to
conduct Jesus to Edessa. The opening dialogue occurs between Ananias,
the returned messenger, and the old and learned doctor of the court,
who details with elaborate minuteness the ministries of his skill
since the departure of the former to Jerusalem. While this dialogue is
characteristic, well phrased, and indirectly humorous, it is a
dramatic mistake to introduce it at such length, retarding the action,
which should be focused sharply upon the essential motive of the
scene,—the conveying to the queen the message of the Nazarene and the
incidents of his refusal. The literary quality of the dialogue between
the queen and Ananias has much beauty, being memorable for the picture
it conveys of Jesus among his disciples at Bethany, “a hamlet up an
olive-sprinkled hill,” where, guided by Philip, the Galilean, the
messenger found him. The description of the personality and manner of
Christ is a subtle piece of portraiture. To the question of Cleonis,—
Tell me of his appearance. What said he?
He had prepared this scroll and gave it me
With courteous words, yet, as I after thought,
Most singularly free from deference
For one who ranks with artisans. His look
Betrayed no satisfaction with our suit;
Yet did he emanate a grave respect
Which seemed habitual, much as Stoics use,
Yet kinder; and his bearing had more grace
Than any Jew’s I ever saw before.
As for his words, I own I scarce recall them,
And have been wondering ever since that I,
Bred at a Court and tutored to brave deeds,
Should be so sudden silenced. For I stood
Obedient to unknown authorities
Which spake in eye and tone and every move,
In that his first mild answer of refusal.
Ere the departure of the king’s embassy from Jerusalem, the tragic
drama of the crucifixion had been enacted and in part witnessed by
them, which Ananias also describes with graphic force; in it appears
an adaptation of the Veronica story. The lines well convey the picture:
As the way widened past the high-walled house
Of Berenis, the throng thinned, and I saw
Plainer the moving figure of the man
And the huge beam laid on him. Suddenly
From the great gate I saw a form dart forth
Straight towards him, pause, and seem to have some speech
With the condemned, as, by old privilege,
Sometimes the pious ladies do with those
Who tread the shameful road. Her speech was brief.
She turned, and, as I saw ’twas Berenis,
Towards me she came, and her eyes, wet with tears,
Smiled sadly, and she said these final words:
“Such shame a mighty purpose led him to,
Yet he shrinks not, but steadfast to this end
Inevitable hath he come his way.
A woman of my house was healed of him
By kissing once the border of his garment.
Take your King this, and say that as he dragged
His cruel but chosen cross to his own doom
Some comfort in its cooling web he found,
And left a blessing in its pungent folds.”
In the third scene of the drama, occurring in the afternoon, Abgar is
informed of the Healer’s refusal to accede to his request, but in the
presence of the queen and the attendants assembled in the royal
garden, the letter of the Nazarene, promising healing and peace, is
read to him by the returned envoy, and at length the linen, received
from the hand of Berenis, and upon whose folds the healing power of
Christ had been invoked, is given into the keeping of Abgar, through
whose veins, as by the visible touch of the divine hand, the current
of new life throbs and courses. The moment is fraught with intense
reality, which Mr. Upson has kept as much as possible to such effects
as transcend words. Just previous to the vital transformation Abgar
I have not yet resolved the Healer’s words
Into clear meaning; but their crystal soon
In the still cup of contemplation may
Give up its precious drug to heal our cares,—
but the supreme end was not wrought by contemplation, nor could its
processes be resolved by analysis, or other words be found to proclaim
it than the simple but thrilling exclamation:
I feel it now! All through these withered veins
I feel it bound and glow! O life, life, life!
From this period the incidents of the drama develop with all the
tensity of action which previous to this scene it has lacked, giving
to the close a certain sense of crowding when compared with the slow
movement of the previous scenes consisting chiefly of recital, well
told, but with little to enact, making the work to this point rather a
graphically related story than a drama. The incidents which come on
apace in the latter part of the play have, to be sure, been
foreshadowed in the earlier part, but one is scarcely prepared for the
swift succession of events, nor for their bloody character after the
sabbatical mood into which the earlier scenes of the work have thrown
him. If the drama covered a longer period, giving time between scenes
for the development of events, even though such development were but
suggested by a statement of dates, the impression of undue haste in
the climax would be obviated; but in the interval of one day, even
though all events leading to the issue have been working silently for
months or years, their culmination seems to come without due
preparation to the reader’s mind, and one is swept off his feet by
consummations with whose causes he had scarcely reckoned.
Immediately following the healing of Abgar, the queen’s cousin,
Agamede, enters breathless and announces to the king the plot on foot
to overthrow him, which inspires the king with a resolve to set forth
at once to the city. Upon the attempt of the queen to deter him, Abgar
relates a prophetic dream of his city and its destiny through him,
which is one of the finest conceptions, both in spiritual import and
elevation of phrase, contained in the drama. The dream is related as
having appeared to the king in three distinct visions, glimpsing his
city in its past, present, and future. It is too long to follow in
detail, but this glimpse is from the vision of the past, where
Through that wreck of fortress, mart and fane
And fallen mausoleum crowded o’er
With characters forevermore unread,
Only the wind’s soft hands went up and down
Scattering the obliterative sands.
I, led in trance by shapes invisible,
Approached a temple’s splendid architrave
Half sunk in sod betwixt its columns’ bases,
And there by sudden divination read
The deep-cut legend of that awful gate:
APPEASE WITH SACRIFICE THE UNKNOWN POWERS.
The next vision is of the city in its present state, “builded on like
dust,” but teeming with activity and material purpose, through which a
glimmering ideal begins to dawn:
They toiled, or played, or fought, or sued the gods,
Absorbed each in his own peculiar lust,
As if there were no morrow watching them;
Yet each was happier in the morrow-dream
Than ever in all achievéd yesterdays.
Then is revealed to the mind of Abgar the high commission intrusted to
And as I looked, I saw a man who long
In upward meditation on his roof
Sat all alone, communing with his soul,
And he arose, and presently went down,
Down in the long black streets among his kind,
And there with patience taught them steadfastly;
But, for the restless souls he made in them,
They turned and slew him and went on their ways,
And a great fog crept up and covered all.
Here surely is keen spiritual psychology, that “for the restless souls
he made in them” they slew him. All martyrdoms are traced to their
source in this line, which holds also the suggestive truth as to the
final acceptance of that for which the prophet dies. Once having
planted the seed whose stirring makes the “restless soul,” its growth
is committed to the Law, and can no more be prevented than the shining
of the sun or the flowing of the tides. Abgar was granted a third
vision, of the city in its embodied ideal; its ultimate beauty and
achievement were given definite shape before him, and the recital ends
with the triumphal note:
Fear not for me: I go unto the city!
The last scene is enacted an hour later in the garden lighted only by
the moon, and opens with the lyric sung by Agamede to the blossoming
oleander-tree ’neath which her child lies buried. These are lines of a
pathos as delicate and spiritual as the moonlight, the fragrance, the
memory inspiring them:
Grow, grow, thou little tree,
His body at the roots of thee;
Since last year’s loveliness in death
The living beauty nourisheth.
Bloom, bloom, thou little tree,
Thy roots around the heart of me;
Thou canst not blow too white and fair
From all the sweetness hidden there.
Die, die, thou little tree,
And be as all sweet things must be;
Deep where thy petals drift I, too,
Would rest the changing seasons through.
Then follows a dialogue of warmly emotional feeling between the king
and queen, in the interval of waiting for the chariot and attendants
to be brought to the gate. All the physical side of the healing of
Abgar has now been resolved into its spiritual meaning, and he
reinterprets the words of the Nazarene’s message that of his infirmity
he shall know full cure and those most dear to him have peace; but
while Abgar speaks of his changed ideal, looking now to a “city which
hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God,” a clamor is heard
at the gate, and the body-slave rushes to the king with the tidings
that armed troops approach the palace, and begs him to flee in the
waiting chariot. Spurning thought of escape, the king and queen mount
the dais and stand calmly watching in the moonlight the heroic
spectacle of the approaching army. At this moment the queen’s women
rush into the garden, demanding flight; the conflict begins along the
wall; the gate bursts open, and Ananias retreats to the garden,
wounded, and shortly dies. A brief interval of quiet, but full of
portent, succeeds, when Stilbe, who had plotted with the king’s
enemies, rushes through the gate, pursued by the soldiers and bleeding
from wounds of their sabres. She is shot, apparently by the hand of
her former lover, Belarion, and falls dead at the king’s feet. Here
Mr. Upson leaves an unravelled thread of his plot, or at least one for
whose clew I have sought vainly. No cause has been shown for violence
toward her on the part of the soldiers whom she aids, nor on that of
her supposed lover and betrothed, Belarion. Why, then, she should
become his victim, or why he should look upon her dead body and
“Thus Fate helps out!”
is at least a riddle past my solving. If, as the results indicate,
Belarion has been using Stilbe as a tool to aid his ambitions, it
should scarcely have been related in good faith in the beginning of
the drama that their marriage was to be celebrated the week in which
the action of the play falls. If logical reasons exist for this change
of front, Mr. Upson should have indicated them more clearly.
The climax of the play follows immediately upon the death of Stilbe,
when the king, called to account by the insolent Belarion, in
righteous indignation strikes him down. It may be questioned whether
such a deed could follow so quickly upon the rapt spiritual state to
which the king had been lifted; but one inclines to rejoice that the
natural man, impelled by who shall say what higher force, triumphed,
ere the queen, pointing to the dead body of the trusted messenger,
Ananias, and repeating the Nazarene’s words, “Those most dear to you
have peace,”—demanded of the king his blade.
As they stand defenceless but assured, the soldiers, awed by the might
of some inner force in the king, shrink back, and the drama closes
with the victorious words,—
Together, Love, we go unto the city!
Though the play, looked upon from a dramatic standpoint, lacks in the
earlier scenes a certain magnetism of touch and vividness of action,
and in the last scene is somewhat overcharged with them, it has many
finely conceived situations which strike the golden mean, and the
characterization throughout is strongly defined. Its literary quality
must, however, take precedence of its dramatic in the truer appraisal.
In diction it shows none of the strained effort toward the supposed
speech of an earlier time, which usually distinguishes poetic dramas
laid far in the past, but has throughout a fitting dignity and
harmony, combined with ease and flexibility of phrase and frequent
eloquence of dialogue, especially in the passages spoken by Abgar.
It is a play rather of character and high motive than of plot, a piece
of sheer idealism, notable alike for its spiritual and its poetic