GEORGE E. WOODBERRY

“For he who standeth in the whole world’s hope
Is as a magnet; he shall draw all hearts
To be his shield, all arms to strike his blow.”

THESE words by Mr. George E. Woodberry sound the keynote to his art,
for he has set himself to disclose the immanence of beauty, of
strength; to mould the real to the ideal; and whether he fashions a
god, as in “Agathon,” or a patriot, as in “My Country,” he is
concerned only with the development of the spiritual potentialities.

He comes to life, to poetry, enriched by a scholar’s culture, but
limited by his enrichment on the creative side of his art. He is too
well possessed of the immortal melodies to trust the spontaneous notes
of his own voice, and hence his verse on its technical side lacks
variety and freedom of movement. It has all the cultivated, classical
freedom, it flows ever in pure and true numbers; but the masters sing
in its overtones, and one catches himself hearkening to them as to Mr.
Woodberry himself. In other words, those innovations of form which
strongly creative thoughts usually bring with them, are not to be
found in Mr. Woodberry’s work. He has a highly developed sense of
rhythm and tone, and very rarely is any metrical canon violated; but
the strange new music, the wild free note, that showers down as if
from upper air, and sets one’s heart a-tingling, is seldom voiced
through him. The bird is caged; and while its song is true and
beautiful, one comes soon to know its notes and the range of its
melody.

Mr. Woodberry has, however, something to say; and if he says it rather
with grace and cultivation as to form, than with any startling
surprises of artistic effect, his work in its essence, in its spirit,
is none the less creative, and upon this side its strength lies. It is
ethical and intellectual, rather than emotional, poetry. Though rising
often to an impassioned height, it is a passion of the brain, pure and
cold as a flood of moonlight. Even the songs of “Wild Eden,” and
others dealing with love, remain an abstraction; one does not get the
sense of personality, except in one or two of them, such as the lyric,
“O, Inexpressible As Sweet,” and in these few lines called “Divine
Awe”:

To tremble when I touch her hands,
With awe that no man understands;
To feel soft reverence arise
When, lover-sweet, I meet her eyes;
To see her beauty grow and shine
When most I feel this awe divine,—
Whate’er befall me, this is mine;
And where about the room she moves,
My spirit follows her, and loves.

But although one misses the sense of reality in the songs of love, the
ideality is for that reason the more apparent. Love that has
sublimated, taken on the rarer part, that has made a mystic
interchange with nature and with God, is celebrated in the fervid
poem, “He Ate The Laurel And Is Mad,” which marks one of the strongest
achievements in Mr. Woodberry’s work, and especially in a lyric it
contains, vibrating with a fine, compulsive melody. The lines
preceding the lyric relate the coming of Love into the heart of nature:

And instant back his longing runs
Through bud and billow, through drift and blaze,
Through thought, through prayer, the thousand ways
The spirit journeys from despair;
He sees all things that they are fair,
But feels them as the daisied sod,—
This slumbrous beauty, this light, this room,
The chrysalis and broken tomb
He cleaveth on his way to God.

[Illustration: George E. Woodberry]

Then the poem breaks into this pæan, whose music outsings its thought
when pushed to analysis; this is one of Mr. Woodberry’s metrical
exceptions that prove the rule. Here is sheer music making fine but
not extraordinary thought seem great, whereas in the majority of his
work it is the thought to which one listens rather than the melody;
but to the lyric,

I shall go singing over-seas;
“The million years of the planets increase;
All pangs of death, all cries of birth,
Are clasped at one by the heart of the earth.”

I shall go singing by tower and town:
“The thousand cities of men that crown
Empire slow-rising from horde and clan,
Are clasped at one by the heart of man.”

I shall go singing by flower and brier:
“The multitudinous stars of fire,
And man made infinite under the sod,
Are clasped at one by the heart of God.”

I shall go singing by ice and snow:
“Blow soon, dread angel, greatly blow,
Break up, ye gulfs, beneath, above,
Peal, time’s last music,—‘love, love, love!’”

Of his recent volume in which he gathers his most representative work,
“The North Shore Watch,” a threnody published some years ago, remains
one of the truest poems in sincerity and sympathy of expression,—not
only an idyl of remembered comradeship, but of the sea in its many
moods; and here one may note that of Mr. Woodberry’s references to
nature, those of the sea are incomparably the finest, and exhale an
invigorating savor of the brine. They are scattered through “The North
Shore Watch,” but because of the stately sadness of the verse are less
representative of his characteristic note than are these buoyant lines
which open the poem “Seaward”:

I will go down in my youth to the hoar sea’s infinite foam;
I will bathe in the winds of heaven; I will nest where the white
birds home;
Where the sheeted emerald glitters and drifts with bursts of snow,
In the spume of stormy mornings, I will make me ready and go;
Where under the clear west weather the violet surge is rolled,
I will strike with the sun in heaven the day-long league of gold;
Will mix with the waves, and mingle with the bloom of the sunset bar,
And toss with the tangle of moonbeams, and call to the morning star;
And wave and wing shall know me a seachild even as they,
Of the race of the great seafarers, a thousand years if a day.

These lines have the bracing ozone of the east wind; it is good to
fill one’s lungs with their freshening breath. In another sea-song,
“Homeward Bound,” an exultant, grateful hymn, Mr. Woodberry speaks of
steering

“Through the weird, red-billowing sunset”

and of falling asleep in the “rocking dark,” and with the dawn,

Whether the purple furrow heaps the bows with dazzling spray,
Or buried in green-based masses they dip the storm-swept day,
Or the white fog ribbons o’er them, the strong ship holds her way

These are pictures in strong color, freehand records with pigment, of
which Mr. Woodberry’s sea-verse contains many duplicates. He paints
the sea as an impressionist, catching her evanescent moods. Aside from
the pictorial art of the poem from which the lines above are taken, it
thrills with the gladness that abides with one coming

Home from the lonely cities, time’s wreck, and the naked woe,
Home through the clean great waters where freemen’s pennants blow,
Home to the land men dream of, where all the nations go.

Mr. Woodberry is an American, and ever an American, whatever tribute
he may pay at longer dedicated shrines. His ode to “My Country” is an
impassioned utterance, full of ideality, and pride in things as they
are, not lacking, however, in the prophetic vision of what they shall
be. He trusts his country without reservation, recognizes her greater
commission in what has terrified many poets,—the absorption of the
Eastern isles,—and bids her be swift to yield her benefits:

O, whisper to thy clustered isles
If any rosy promise round them smiles;
O, call to every seaward promontory
If one of them, perchance, is made the cape of glory.

In technique the ode has a fine sweep and movement; it thrills with
flights of feeling, as in these lines near the close,—

And never greater love salutes thy brow
Than his, who seeks thee now.
Alien the sea and salt the foam
Where’er it bears him from his home;
And when he leaps to land,
A lover treads the strand.

The ode is somewhat marred by prolixity, and now and again by the
declamatory impulse getting the better of the creative; but granting
this it remains a fine rhapsody, redeeming the time to those who think
the days are evil, and more than ever proving Mr. Woodberry the
idealist, if not, indeed, the prophet. In the Emerson Ode, read at the
centenary in Boston, there is poem-for-occasion utterance until one
reaches the fourth division, where the rhetoric gives way to the
pensive note,

I lay the singing laurels down
Upon the silent grave,

and grows from this into a glimpsing of Emerson’s most characteristic
thought, to which Mr. Woodberry sings his own indebtedness. This
philosophical résumé has value as critical interpretation and as
tribute to whom tribute is due, but it lacks the vital spark as
poetry. Odes of this sort are no gauge of a poet’s merit, and although
Mr. Woodberry does not reveal his weakness in writing of this sort,
neither does he to any marked degree reveal his strength. It is work
of conventional creditability, reaching occasionally some flight of
pure poetry, but pervaded in general by the perfunctory note that
results from coercing the muse; and here one may interpolate the wish
that all poems-for-occasion might be “put upon the list,” for it is
certain, not only that the majority of them “never would be missed,”
but that poetry would rebound from a most inert weight if lightened of
them; nor is this in any sense personal to Mr. Woodberry, whose
“Emerson Ode” is a far stronger piece of work than are most
compositions of a similar nature. In the “Player’s Elegy,” in the ode
written for the dedication of Alumni Hall at Phillips Exeter Academy,
and in the several poems addressed to his fellow-professors at
Columbia, there are also passages of spontaneous force and beauty, and
the high motive of all must not be lost sight of, but, taken as a
whole, this group of poems could scarcely figure in an appraisal of
the individuality of his work.

It is on the spiritually philosophical side of his nature that Mr.
Woodberry makes his strongest appeal. He is not primarily a poet of
love, nor of nature, nor a melodist making music for its own sake; he
is an eager, questing follower of the ideal; proclaimer of the truth
that

The glamour of God hath a thousand shapes
And every one divine.

When he interprets the mystery of love, or turns to the world without,
it is the immanence of the divine that haunts him:

Over the grey leagues of ocean
The infinite yearneth alone;
The forests with wandering emotion
The thing they know not intone.

He is, indeed, the spirit’s votary, and the ultimate purport of his
message is the recognition of one’s own spirit force. His poem, “Nay,
Soul,” rebukes the weakness that looks on every side for that which is
within; the nature that, seeking props, falls by the way; or, craving
understanding, loses the strength that comes of being misunderstood.
It subtly divides the legitimate gifts of sympathy from those which
weakness demands, and reveals the impossibility of coercing life, or
love, or any good to which one’s nature is not so magnetized that it
comes to him unentreated. These are potent lines:—

Nay, Soul, thy shame forbear!
Between the earth and sky
Was never man could buy
The bread of life with prayer,
Not though his brother there
Saw him with hunger die.

His life a man may give,
But, not for deepest ruth,
Beauty, nor love, nor truth
Whereby himself doth live.
Come home, poor fugitive!
Art thou so poor, forsooth?

* * * * *

Thy heart—look thou aright!
Fear not the wild untrod,
Nor birth, nor burial sod!
Look, and in native light,
Bare as to Christ’s own sight,
Living shalt thou see God.

The dramatic poem, “Agathon,” which is builded upon the philosophy of
Plato, is perhaps the most thoughtful and thought-inciting work in the
newly collected volume. It is in no sense of the word dramatic, but
doubtless cast in this form from its wider adaptability to the
contrasts of thought. The poem is too lengthy to follow an analysis of
its philosophy, which is wrought out with subtle elaboration, smacking
too much at times of a logical demonstration, but in the main leavened
with imaginative phrase. Its poetic climax is in the apostrophe which
follows the statement that

The sweetest roamer is a boy’s young heart.

The lines form a blank-verse lyric with a rich cadence and movement:

O youngest Roamer, Hesper shuts the day,
White Hesper folded in the rose of eve;
The still cloud floats, and kissed by twilight sleeps;
The mists drop down, and near the mountain moor;
And mute the bird’s throat swells with slumber now;
And now the wild winds to their eyries cling.

* * * * *

O youngest Roamer, wonderful is joy,
The rose in bloom that out of darkness springs;
The lily folded to the wave of life,
The lotus on the stream’s dark passion borne.

* * * * *

Ah, fortunate he roams who roameth here,
Who finds the happy covert and lies down,
And hears the laughter gurgling in the fount,
And feels the dreamy light imbathe his limbs.
No more he roams, he roams no more, no more.

These lines are reminiscent of Tennyson’s “Princess” in their metrical
note, particularly in the final couplet of the first stanza, with the
“dying fall” of the cadence, bringing to mind:

Now droops the milkwhite peacock like a ghost,
And like a ghost she glimmers on to me.

Mr. Woodberry’s poetic affiliation with Tennyson comes out
unmistakably in various other poems, leaving no doubt as to one of the
masters who sing in his over-tones. Here, for illustration, is a
transfusion with Tennyson’s “Tears, Idle Tears.” One stanza of the
flawless lyric reads:

Ah, sad and strange as in dark summer dawns
The earliest pipe of half-awaken’d birds
To dying ears, when unto dying eyes
The casement slowly grows a glimmering square;
So sad, so strange, the days that are no more.

And Mr. Woodberry says:

O hidden-strange as on dew-heavy lawns
The warm dark scent of summer-fragrant dawns;
O tender as the faint sea-changes are,
When grows the flush and pales the snow-white star;
So strange, so tender, to a maid is love.

The mere fact of employing the Tennyson metre, especially when rhymed,
would not give the sense of over-assimilation of the other’s work were
it not for the marked correspondence in the diction and atmosphere,
the first line of Tennyson’s lyric being expanded into the opening
couplet of Mr. Woodberry’s stanza, and the final lines of each having
so similar a terminology. Shelley is a much more operative force in
Mr. Woodberry’s poetry than Tennyson, but rather in temperamental
kinship than in a technical way. Mr. Woodberry could scarcely fail to
have a keen sympathy with the passionate art of Shelley, who lived in
the ideal, subtilized and sublimated beyond all reach but that of
longing, but who yet set his hand and brain to the strife about him.
In his earlier work Mr. Woodberry occasionally shows the Shelley
influence in technique and theme, but not in his later verse. One can
scarcely understand his leaving in a definitive collection of his work
the poem “Love at the Door,” whose obligations to Taylor’s “Bedouin
Love Song” and Shelley’s “I arise from dreams of thee,” are about
equally distributed. Most poets have their early experiments in the
reshaping of forms and themes, but they should be edited out of
representative collections. The poem is scarcely a creditable
assimilation of the models in question, and does scant justice to Mr.
Woodberry’s later poetry, making the query more inevitable why he
should have left it in the volume, which is in the main so finished
and ripe a work. Occasionally one comes upon poems, or passages, which
a keener self-criticism would have eliminated, as the line from
“Taormina,” declaring that

Front more majestic of sea-mountains nowhere is there uplifted the
whole earth through,—

whose legitimate place is in a rhetorical textbook, as an exercise in
redundance. Mr. Woodberry is occasionally allured by his theme until
the song outruns the motive, but he rarely pads a line like this; even
poetic hyperbole has a limit.

In picturesque imagery his work is finely individualized; witness the
figurative beauty of the following lines:

The ocean, storming on the rocks,
Shepherds not there his wild, wet flocks.
The soaring ether nowhere finds
An eyrie for the wingéd winds;
Nor has yon glittering sky a charm
To hive in heaven the starry swarm;
And so thy wandering thoughts, my heart,
No home shall find; let them depart.

The two sonnets “At Gibraltar” represent, perhaps, as fine an
achievement as distinguishes Mr. Woodberry’s work. It would, indeed,
be difficult to surpass them in American literature of to-day in
strength, passion, or ideality:

I

England, I stand on thy imperial ground,
Not all a stranger; as thy bugles blow,
I feel within my blood old battles flow—
The blood whose ancient founts in thee are found.
Still surging dark against the Christian bound
Wide Islam presses; well its peoples know
Thy heights that watch them wandering below;
I think how Lucknow heard their gathering sound.
I turn, and meet the cruel, turbaned face.
England, ’tis sweet to be so much thy son!
I feel the conqueror in my blood and race;
Last night Trafalgar awed me, and to-day
Gibraltar wakened; hark, thy evening gun
Startles the desert over Africa!

II

Thou art the rock of empire, set mid-seas
Between the East and West, that God has built;
Advance thy Roman borders where thou wilt,
While run thy armies true with His decrees.
Law, justice, liberty—great gifts are these;
Watch that they spread where English blood is spilt,
Lest, mixed and sullied with his country’s guilt,
The soldier’s life-stream flow, and Heaven displease!
Two swords there are: one naked, apt to smite,
Thy blade of war; and, battle-storied, one
Rejoices in the sheath, and hides from light.
American I am; would wars were done!
Now westward, look, my country bids good-night—
Peace to the world from ports without a gun!

Whether in his travels or in the quiet of his own contemplation, the
emphasis of Mr. Woodberry’s thought is upon the noble, the essential,
the beautiful. Although not a strongly creative poet in form, he is a
highly cultivated poet, and hands on the nobler traditions of art; and
if now and then he wraps another’s “singing robe” about him, it is but
an external vesture, leaving the soul of his thought unchanged.

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