MR. FREDERIC LAWRENCE KNOWLES is one of the younger poets about whose
work there is no veneer. This is not to imply that it lacks finish,
but rather that the foundation is genuine; it reflects its native
grain, and not an overlaid polish. One feels back of the work the
probity and directness that underlie all soundly conditioned
literature; for while Mr. Knowles has the poet’s passion for the
beauties of the art he essays, the primary value is always in that to
be conveyed rather than in the medium of transmission.
This sincerity is at once Mr. Knowles’ distinction and his danger. He
is so manifestly in earnest that one feels at times in his work a
certain lack of the imaginative leaven which should lighten the most
serious thought; to put it in a word, there is often an over-strenuous
note in his poetry; but were it put to a choice between this mood and
the honeyed artificialities to which one is often treated, there would
be no hesitancy in choosing the former, for
The poet is not fed on sweets;
Daily his own heart he eats,—
not morbidly, but finding within his own spirit daily manna, and
living by this aliment and not by the mere nectar of things.
Everything in life bestows this manna and daily renews it; and the
poet is he who assimilates and transmutes it to personal needs until
his thought is fed from his own heart as in Emerson’s couplet.
This is Mr. Knowles’ ideal of growth, evidenced by the eager interest
and open sympathy with which he seeks from life its elements of truth,
and from experience its developing properties. It is, of course, an
ideal beyond his present attainment, probably beyond his ultimate
attainment, gauged by absolute standards, for the “elements of truth”
are hardly to be separated from life by one magnet. They are variously
polarized, and though one may possess the divining wand that shall
disclose the nature and place of certain of them, there is no wand
polarized for all; but it is the poet’s part to pass that magnet of
truth which is his by nature over the field of life, that it may
attract therefrom its range of affinities, and this Mr. Knowles is
Before taking up his later work, however, we may glance at his matin
songs, _On Life’s Stairway_, which have many indicative notes worthy
of consideration. This volume, that called forth from John Burroughs,
Richard Henry Stoddard, Joaquin Miller, and others, such hearty
commendation, has an individuality that makes itself felt. First,
perhaps, one notes its spontaneity and the evident love of song that
is its primal impulse. The fancy is fresh and sprightly, not having
yet thought’s heavier freight; the optimism is robust, the loyalty to
one’s own time impassioned and absolute, and the democracy and
Americanism distinguishing it are of the commendable, if somewhat
grandiloquent, type belonging to youthful patriotism. Another feature
of Mr. Knowles’ work, manifest in both volumes, is that its
inspiration is from life rather than nature, which is refreshing in
view of the fact that the reverse obtains with most of the younger
poets. When, however, he comes to this theme, it is with a lightness
of touch and a pleasant charm of mood that give to the few poems of
this subject an airy delicacy and an unpremeditated note, as in these
[Illustration: Frederic Lawrence Knowles]
Nature, in thy largess, grant
I may be thy confidant!
* * * * *
Show me how dry branches throw
Such blue shadows on the snow;
Tell me how the wind can fare
On his unseen feet of air;
Show me how the spider’s loom
Weaves the fabric from her womb;
Lead me to those brooks of morn
Where a woman’s laugh is born;
Let me taste the sap that flows
Through the blushes of a rose,—
Yea, and drain the blood which runs
From the heart of dying suns;
Teach me how the butterfly
Guessed at immortality;
Let me follow up the track
Of Love’s deathless zodiac
Where Joy climbs among the spheres
Circled by her moon of tears.
In his poems upon love, Mr. Knowles touches some of his truest and
surest notes; those in the second volume have a broader and more
sympathetic appeal, and yet have not lost the confessional note which
alone gives value to the subject. They are not invariably of a more
inspired touch than are several in the first collection, such as “Lost
Knowledge,” “A Song for Simplicity,” and “Love’s Prayer;” now and
again they combine some newly minted phrase flashing with unsullied
lustre, with such as have passed from hand to hand in the dulling
commerce of language; but it is perhaps too much to demand that all
fancies shall be newly stamped with the die of imagination. One of Mr.
Knowles’ strongest poems from the group in question is entitled
“Love’s World;” but for greater brevity I shall quote instead these
charming lines which introduce the collection called _Love Triumphant_:
Helen’s lips are drifting dust,
Ilion is consumed with rust;
All the galleons of Greece
Drink the ocean’s dreamless peace;
Lost was Solomon’s purple show
Restless centuries ago;
Stately empires wax and wane—
Babylon, Barbary and Spain—
Only one thing, undefaced,
Lasts, though all the worlds lie waste
And the heavens are overturned.
—Dear, how long ago we learned!
There’s a sight that blinds the sun,
Sound that lives when sounds are done,
Music that rebukes the birds,
Language lovelier than words,
Hue and scent that shame the rose,
Wine no earthly vineyard knows,
Silence stiller than the shore
Swept by Charon’s stealthy oar,
Ocean more divinely free
Than Pacific’s boundless sea,—
Ye who love have learned it true.
—Dear, how long ago we knew!
Of this group, however, it is in the sonnet, “If Love Were Jester at
the Court of Death,” that Mr. Knowles’ most genuine inspiration has
The conception of the sonnet is unique, and its opening line of
epigrammatic force and suggestiveness:
If Love were jester at the court of Death,
And Death the king of all, still would I pray,
“For me the motley and the bauble, yea,
Though all be vanity, as the Preacher saith,
The mirth of love be mine for one brief breath!”
Then would I kneel the monarch to obey,
And kiss that pale hand, should it spare or slay;
Since I have tasted love, what mattereth!
But if, dear God! this heart be dry as sand,
And cold as Charon’s palm holding Hell’s toll,
How worse! how worse! Scorch it with sorrow’s brand!
Haply, though dead to joy, ’t would feel _that_ coal;
Better a cross and nails through either hand,
Than Pilate’s palace and a frozen soul!
Here are originality, strength, and white heat of feeling, though the
sestett is less artistic than the octave, which holds the creative
beauty of the sonnet.
Of the lyrical poems in the second volume there are many clear of
tone, having not only a pure, enunciative quality musically, but also
color and picturesqueness, as that beginning:
With all his purple spoils upon him
Creeps back the plunderer Sea,
with its succession of pictures such as these:
O bandit, with the white-plumed horsemen,
Raiding a thousand shores,
Thy coffers crammed with spars and anchors
And wave-defeated oars!
Admirable phrasing is that of “wave-defeated oars”! But before taking
up the more strenuous side of his work, there is another lyric rich in
melody and emotion,—a lyric in which one feels the under-current of
passion. It is named, “A Song of Desire”:
Thou dreamer with the million moods,
Of restless heart like me,
Lay thy white hands against my breast
And cool its pain, O Sea!
O wanderer of the unseen paths,
Restless of heart as I,
Blow hither from thy caves of blue,
Wind of the healing sky!
O treader of the fiery way,
With passionate heart like mine,
Hold to my lips thy healthful cup
Brimmed with its blood-red wine!
O countless watchers of the night,
Of sleepless heart like me,
Pour your white beauty in my soul,
Till I grow calm as ye!
O sea, O sun, O wind and stars,
(O hungry heart that longs!)
Feed my starved lips with life, with love,
And touch my tongue with songs!
Mr. Knowles is a modern of the moderns, and his Whitmanesque
conviction that “we tally all antecedents;” that “we are the scald,
the oracle, the monk, and the knight;” that “we easily include them
and more,”—finds expression in each of his volumes, in poems ranging
from boyish fustian, at which he would now smile, to the noble lines
of “Veritas” and other poems in the later work. There are certain
subjects that hold within them percussion powder ready to explode at
the touch of a thought,—subjects which, to one’s own peculiar
temperament, seem to be provocative of a fulminant outburst whenever
one collides with them, and this is such an one to Mr. Knowles.
However, it is well to be shaken up occasionally by such detonating
lines as these:
We have sonnets enough, and songs enough,
And ballads enough, God knows!
But what we need is that cosmic stuff
Whence primitive feeling glows,
Grown, organized to the needs of rhyme
Through the old instinctive laws,
With a meaning broad as the boughs of time
And deep as the roots of cause.
It is passion and power that we need to-day,
We have grace and taste full store;
We need a man who will say his say
With a strength unguessed before:—
* * * * *
Whose lines shall glow like molten steel
From being forged in his soul,
Till the very anvil shall burn to feel
The breath of the quenchless coal!
Your dainty wordsters may cry “Uncouth!”
As they shrink from his bellows’ glow;
But the fire he fans is immortal youth,
And how should the bloodless know!
One will hardly deny that this is sound doctrine, as are the stanzas
necessarily omitted, which trace the qualifications of the bard of
to-day. Assuredly one touches the question of questions when he seeks
the cause for the apparent waning of poetic inspiration in our own
time. There is certainly no wane in the diffusion of the poetic
impulse; but the poet who is answering the great questions of the age,
speaking the indicative words of the future,—to quote Mr. Knowles,
A voice whose sagas shall live with God
When the lyres of earth are rust,—
is hardly being heard at the present hour. There are voices and voices
which proclaim truths, but the voice that enunciates Truth in its
larger utterance—as it is spoken, for example, in the words of
Browning—seems not to find expression in our day. From this the
impression has come to prevail that Art is choking virility of
utterance, and that a wholly new order of song must grow from newer
needs,—song that shall express our national masculinity, our robust
democracy, our enlarged patriotism, and our sometimes bumptious
Americanism; that labor must have its definite poet, and the “hymn to
the workman’s God” contain some different note from that hitherto
chanted. To put it in Mr. Knowles’ stirring words from another poem:
In the ink of our sweat we will find it yet,
The song that is fit for men!
And the woodsman he shall sing it,
And his axe shall mark the time;
And the bearded lips of the boatman
While his oarblades fall in rhyme;
And the man with his fist on the throttle,
And the man with his foot on the brake,
And the man who will scoff at danger
And die for a comrade’s sake;
And the Hand that wrought the Vision
With prairie and peak and stream
Shall guide the hand of the workman
And help him to trace his dream!—
Till the rugged lines grow perfect,
And round to a faultless whole;
For the West will have found her singer
When her singer has found his soul.
These are fine, swinging strophes, proclaiming the modern ideal from
Whitman to Kipling that “the song that is fit for men” must have in it
some robust timbre, some resonant fibre, unheard before; that a
sturdier race of bards must arise, “sprung from the toilers at the
bench and plough,”—that, in fine, the new America must have a more
orotund voice to sing her needs.
This has a convincing plausibility on the face of it; but do the facts
bear it out,—are virility and democracy and modernity the essential
elements of the “song that is fit for men”? If so, then Whitman, who
is the apogee of the elemental and democratic, or Kipling, whose tunes
blare in one’s ears like the horns of a band, and whose themes are
aggressively of the day and hour, would be the ideal types of the
new-day poet, and we should find the sturdy laborer and the common
folk in general coming to these sources for refreshment, inspiration,
and aid in tracing their dreams; but, on the contrary, Whitman, by a
frequent paradox of letters, is a poet for the most cultivated and
deeply reflective minds. Only such can understand and embrace his
universality, and, on the poetic side, enjoy his splendid diction and
the wave-like sweep of his rhythms. His formlessness, which was
reactive that he might come the nearer to the common heart, is one of
the chief barriers that prevent this contact. The unlettered nature,
more than all others, demands the ordered symmetry of rhythm as a
focus and aid to thought; it demands elemental beauties as well as
truths, and hence not only is Whitman ruled out by his own measure,
but Kipling also, for again it needs the broadly cultivated mind to
take at his true and at his relative value a poet like Kipling. The
common mind might be familiar with some poem of occasion, the English
laborer might be found singing “Tommy Atkins;” but Kipling’s finer
shadings would escape in the beat of his galloping tunes and in the
touch-and-go of his subjects.
If, then, Kipling, who outmoderns the moderns in singing what is
presumably a song fit for men, and if Whitman, who is as robustly,
democratically American as a poet can well be, and trumpeting ever
that note,—if these poets do not reach the typical man, if they are
not the ones to whom the stalwart laborer comes, or the busy man of
affairs, there must be a need anterior to that of which they sing;
song must spell something else besides virility, democracy,
achievement. It evidently is not the men who _do_, not the men who
_act_, that write “the song of fact” for the laborer and the great
class of our strong, sincere, common folk. They do not want the song
of fact more than do we; they have no other dream to trace than have
we. They want the primal things,—love, hope, beauty, the transforming
ideal; they want the carbon of their daily experience turned to the
crystal; and for this they go to a poet like Burns, who spoke the
universal tongue, who took the common ideals and touched them simply,
tenderly, not strenuously, to a new form at the will of his fancy. You
shall find the boatman or the woodsman knowing his Burns, often his
Shakespeare, for he is quick to grasp the human element, or his Scott,
for he loves romance, when the strident cry of a Kipling, or of a
modern idealist singing of democracy, or of the newer needs of the
laborer himself, will be wholly lost on him; and hence this note
that one is meeting so often in the recent poets seems to me to be a
false and superfluous one.
The “song that is fit for men” is _any_ song that has the essence of
truth and beauty in it, and no other _is_ fit for men, no matter where
sung. We have not evolved a new _genus homo_ by our conquest of arms;
our democracy is not changing human nature; we need virility in song,
as Mr. Knowles has said in the earlier poem quoted; we need that
“cosmic stuff whence primitive feeling glows,” but we need beauty and
spirituality to shape it. Poetry must minister first of all to the
inner life. Tennyson and Browning were not concerned with matters of
empire, or the passing issues of the day; they were occupied with the
essential things,—things of humanity and of the soul, that shall
outlast empire, democracy, or time. Heaven forefend that our bards
shall spring from a race
Unkempt, athletic, rude,
Rough as the prairies, tameless as the sea,
rather let them spring from the very ripest, richest-natured class of
men and women, not servile to custom, but having the breadth of
vision, the poise, the fine and harmonious development that flowers
from the highest cultivation, whether in the schools or in life. It
did not emasculate the work of Browning or Milton or Goethe, nor of
our own Lowell, or many another, that he had the most profound
enrichment that education and traditional culture could give him.
Originality is not crushed by cultivation, nor will native impulse go
far without it. The need is of a poet who shall divine the underlying
harmonies of life, who shall stimulate and develop the higher nature,
and disclose the alchemizing truth that shall transmute the gross ore
of experience into the fine metal of character and spiritual
beauty,—such a poet as Mr. Knowles himself may become when his
idealism shall have taken on that inner sight of the mystic which now
he shows so definitely in certain phases of his work.
He is readier in general to see life’s benign face than its malign
one, even though shapen by pain and guilt; and this brings us to the
group of poems from his new volume, _Love Triumphant_, turning upon
Sin and Remorse, and presenting an element of human passion at once
the most provocative of degradation and the most susceptible of
Whitman approached this theme from the cosmic standpoint as he would
approach any of the universalities of life, not specifically from the
spiritual side, in its destiny-shaping effects. It is from this side
that Mr. Knowles essays its consideration, presenting chiefly the
reactive, retributive phase of guilt,—the sudden spiritual isolation
of the soul that has sinned, as if the golden doors that opened on the
world had transformed to iron bars imprisoning the soul within its
cell of memory. This sense of detachment, of having unwittingly
plucked oneself from the flowering beauty of life, of being
irrevocably cut off from sap and stem, which is the first and most
palpable phase of guilt, predominates in several of the poems. To
consider it first, then, the stanzas called “Lost” may be cited as
Night scattered gold-dust in the eyes of Earth,
My heart was blinded by the excess of stars
As, filled with youth and joy, I kept the Way.
The solitary and unweaponed Sun
Slew all the hosts of darkness with a smile,
And it was Dawn. And still I kept the Way.
The winds, those hounds that only God can leash,
Bayed on my track, and made the morning wild
With loud confusion, but I kept the Way.
The hours climbed high. Peace, where the zenith broods,
Fell, a blue feather from the wings of Heav’n.
Lo! it was Noon. And still I kept the Way.
At length one met me as my footsteps flagged,—
Within her eyes oblivion, on her lips
Delirious dreams—and I forgot the Way.
And still we wander—who knows whitherward,
Our sandals torn, in either face despair,
Passion burnt out—God! I have lost the Way!
Here is strong and vivid imagery, especially in the third stanza,
The winds, those hounds that only God can leash,
which is a bold and fine stroke not merely in its metaphorical
phrasing, but as a symbol of human passions. The entire poem is a
vivid piece of symbolism; it is, however, but one phase of the
subject, and in “One Woman” and “Sin’s Foliage” one comes again face
to face with the same phase, with that terrible memory-haunted
eidolon, the visage of one’s own defaced soul. It is in the poem
“Betrayed” that a truer perspective begins to be manifest, of which
Yet were his hands and conscience clean;
Some monstrous Folly rose unseen
To teach him crimes he could not mean—
introduces a truth that strikes deeper than the mere spell of
impulse,—a truth that suggests the mystery of election in crime:
whether one is wholly responsible for the choice which in a moment
becomes the pivotal event of his destiny, or whether what Maeterlinck
has called the “conniving voices that we cherish at the depths of us”
summoned the event, and impelled him inevitably toward its hazard;
and, further, whether these voices are not often the commissioned
voices, calling one thus to arouse from the somnolence of his soul. On
the morrow of the hour in which he has
… fallen from Heav’n to Hell
In one mad moment’s fateful spell,
and finds himself in the isolation of his own spirit,—consciousness
will awaken, life will be perceived, sympathy will be born, and Pain,
with the daily transfiguring face, will companion him, until in the
years he again meet Love and the other fair shapes of his destiny.
Since no one remains in the hell to which he has fallen, but by his
own choosing, Life rebukes the Art that leaves this sense of finality;
for the hour of tragedy is rather the beginning than the end, and
often so manifestly the birth of the soul into spiritual consciousness
that it may well seem that apparent sin is the mere agency of the
higher forces of the nature, the shock that displaces ignorance and
smug self-complacency and both humanizes and deifies the soul.
In other poems of the group, however, the developing power of sin, and
the remedial forces which it evokes for the renewal of the nature, are
dwelt upon, so that the poems are redeemed at the last from the
impression of hopeless finality which obtained in the earlier ones.
Few of the younger poets have a more vital and personal conviction of
spiritual things than Mr. Knowles, and its evolution is interesting to
note. There is abundant evidence in his earlier verse that he was bred
after the strictest letter of the law; but while his faith was “fixed
to form,” it was seeking “centre everywhere,” and the later volume
widens to an encompassing view worthy the vision of a poet,—the view
that finds nothing impervious to the irradiation of spirit. It is
variously sung, but most nobly, perhaps, in the following poem:
In buds upon some Aaron’s rod
The childlike ancient saw his God;
Less credulous, more believing, we
Read in the grass—Divinity.
From Horeb’s bush the Presence spoke
To earlier faiths and simpler folk;
But now each bush that sweeps our fence
Flames with the awful Immanence!
To old Zacchæus in his tree
What mattered leaves and botany?
His sycamore was but a seat
Whence he could watch that hallowed street.
But now to us each elm and pine
Is vibrant with the Voice divine,
Not only from but in the bough
Our larger creed beholds Him now.
To the true faith, bark, sap and stem
Are wonderful as Bethlehem;
No hill nor brook nor field nor herd
But mangers the incarnate Word!
* * * * *
Again we touch the healing hem
In Nazareth or Jerusalem;
We trace again those faultless years;
The cross commands our wondering tears.
Yet if to us the Spirit writes
On Morning’s manuscript and Night’s,
In gospels of the growing grain,
Epistles of the pond and plain,
In stars, in atoms, as they roll
Each tireless round its occult pole,
In wing and worm and fin and fleece,
In the wise soil’s surpassing peace,—
Thrice ingrate he whose only look
Is backward focused on the Book,
Neglectful what the Presence saith,
Though He be near as blood and breath!
The only atheist is one
Who hears no voice in wind or sun,
Believer in some primal curse,
Deaf in God’s loving universe!
Mr. Knowles has not embraced the diffusive faith that has no faith to
stay it, but is endeavoring to read the newer meaning into the older
truths, which is the present-day office of singer and seer. In the
matter of personal valor, of optimistic, intrepid mood, Mr. Knowles’
work is altogether commendable. He awaits with buoyant cheer what lies
beyond the turn o’ the road. His poem “Fear,” from the first
collection, was widely quoted at the time because of its heartening
tone, and in his new volume, “A Challenge,” “A Twofold Prayer,” and
many another sounds the same invincible note. “Laus Mortis” is a hymn
to death holding within it the truer acceptation of that natural and
therefore kindly change:
Nay, why should I fear Death,
Who gives us life, and in exchange takes breath?
He is like cordial Spring
That lifts above the soil each buried thing;
Like autumn, kind and brief—
The frost that chills the branches frees the leaf;
Like winter’s stormy hours
That spread their fleece of snow to save the flowers.
The lordliest of all things,
Life lends us only feet, Death gives us wings.
Fearing no covert thrust,
Let me walk onward, armed in valiant trust;
Dreading no unseen knife,
Across Death’s threshold step from life to life!
O all ye frightened folk,
Whether ye wear a crown or bear a yoke,
Laid in one equal bed,
When once your coverlet of grass is spread,
What daybreak need you fear?—
The Love will rule you there that guides you here!
Where Life, the sower, stands,
Scattering the ages from his swinging hands,
Thou waitest, Reaper lone,
Until the multitudinous grain hath grown.
Scythe-bearer, when Thy blade
Harvests my flesh, let me be unafraid.
God’s husbandman thou art,
In His unwithering sheaves, O bind my heart!
Mr. Knowles’ work is virile, earnest, individual, free from
affectation or imitation; modern in spirit, recognizing the
significance of to-day, and its part in the finer realization of
to-morrow; sympathetic in feeling, and spiritual in vision. Its
limitations are such as may be trusted to time, being chiefly incident
to the earnestness noted above, which now and again borders on
didacticism. Excess of conviction is, however, a safer equipment for
art than a philosophy already parting with its enthusiasms by the
tempering of life, being more likely to undergo the shaping of
experience without losing the vital part.