A BEAUTIFUL and delicate art is that of Miss Josephine Preston
Peabody, but somewhat elusive of analysis, so much is its finer part
dependent upon the intuition which one brings to it; for Miss Peabody
is a poet-mystic, sensitive to impressions from which the grosser part
has slipped away,—impressions which come to her clothed upon with a
more ethereal vesture than the work-a-day garment of thought,—and
while she would fain reveal their hidden import, they often elude her
and grow remote in the telling, as if fearful of betraying too openly
Her first volume, _The Wayfarers_, revealed at the outset a poet’s
imagination, and a technique so finished that it had already the touch
of the artist, but its vision was that of the novice who looks at the
morning from beneath her white veil and wonders at the world of sin
and strife and passion whose pain has never reached her. It was the
work of one who had not yet met her revealing crisis, not yet been
identified to herself, of one reaching out after truth with the
filament of fancy until the ductile thread had often been spun too far
before it found anchorage. The volume was, in short, an exquisite
conjecture as to life, whose baffling, alluring mystery only now and
again flashed upon her an unveiled glance of its eyes. This is not,
however, to say that the conjecture was vain; indeed, the initial
poem, “The Wayfarers,” in which, perhaps, it was most definitely
embodied, is a thoughtful, suggestive song holding many truths worth
pondering, and in phrasing and technique wrought with so much grace
that it might stand beside any work of the later volumes. Indeed, this
statement is apposite to nearly all the work in the first collection,
which in that regard presents an unusual distinction, having from the
first on its technical side a maturity that seemed not to belong to
the tentative work of a young poet; it was, however, over-ornate,
lacking directness and simplicity, and inclining to excess of
elaboration in theme, so that one often became entangled in the weft
of poetic artifice and lost the clew of thought. Take as a random
illustration the following stanzas from the poem entitled “The
Weavers,” under which Miss Peabody symbolizes the elusive hopes and
fancies that come by night, weaving their weft of dreams:
Lo, a gray pallor on the loom
Waxeth apace,—a glamourie
Like dawn outlooking, pale to see
Before the sun hath burst to bloom;
Wan beauty, growing out of gloom,
With promise of fair things to be.
* * * * *
The shuttle singeth. And fair things
Upon the web do come and go;
Dim traceries like clouds ablow
Fade into cobweb glimmerings,
A silver, fretted with small wings,—
The while a voice is singing low.
Of the eight remaining stanzas several are equally lacking in anything
that may be grasped, and while there is a certain art in imaging the
elusive fancies which the weavers bring, there should be some more
definite fancy or ideal to embody, rather than the mere intent to make
beautiful lines. This is, perhaps, an extreme instance of the
over-elaboration of the first volume, though it distinguishes the long
poem which gives its name to the collection, and appears in many of
[Illustration: Josephine Preston Peabody]
Miss Peabody is an inventive metrist, and her sense of rhythm is
highly developed, or rather it is innately correct, being manifest
with equal grace in the first collection; witness the music of these
stanzas from “Spinning in April”:
Moon in heaven’s garden, among the clouds that wander,
Crescent moon so young to see, above the April ways,
Whiten, bloom not yet, not, yet, within the twilight yonder;
All my spinning is not done, for all the loitering days.
Oh, my heart has two wild wings that ever would be flying!
Oh, my heart’s a meadow-lark that ever would be free!
Well it is that I must spin until the light be dying;
Well it is the little wheel must turn all day for me!
All the hill-tops beckon, and beyond the western meadows
Something calls me ever, calls me ever, low and clear:
A little tree as young as I, the coming summer shadows,—
The voice of running waters that I ever thirst to hear.
Oftentime the plea of it has set my wings a-beating;
Oftentime it coaxes, as I sit in weary wise,
Till the wild life hastens out to wild things all entreating,
And leaves me at the spinning-wheel, with dark, unseeing eyes.
The poem has several other stanzas equally charming, but which detract
from the artistic structure of the song by over-spinning the thought.
Among the simple, sincere lyrics which prevail more by their feeling
than mechanism, are “One That Followed,” “Horizon,” “Dew-Fall,”
“Befriended,” “The Song of A Shepherd-Boy at Bethlehem,” and the two
stanzas called, “After Music,” whose intimate beauty renders them
I saw not they were strange, the ways I roam,
Until the music called, and called me thence,
And tears stirred in my heart as tears may come
To lonely children straying far from home,
Who know not how they wandered so, nor whence.
If I might follow far and far away
Unto the country where these songs abide,
I think my soul would wake and find it day,
Would tell me who I am, and why I stray,—
Would tell me who I was before I died.
There is a mystical touch here in note with the opening reference to
the subtlety of Miss Peabody’s sources of inspiration.
In the first volume is also a sonnet from the heart and to the heart,
for who has not known the weariness that comes of long striving to
image, or interpret the beautiful, and yet is loth to commit his
unfulfilled dream to the oblivion of sleep. The sonnet is called, “To
Stay by me, Loveliness; for I must sleep.
Not even desire can lift such wearied eyes;
The day was heavy and the sun will rise
On day as heavy, weariness as deep.
Be near, though you be silent. Let me steep
A sad heart in that peace, as a child tries
To hold his comfort fast, in fingers wise
With imprint of a joy that’s yet to reap.
Leave me that little light; for sleep I must,
—And put off blessing to a doubtful day—
Too dull to listen or to understand.
But only let me close the eyes of trust
On you unchanged. Ah, do not go away,
Nor let a dream come near, to loose my hand.
Altogether, Miss Peabody’s first book of verse revealed strength,
feeling, and imagination, though tentative in its philosophy, as the
initial work of a young poet must necessarily be, and having but a
slight rooting in life.
The second volume, _Fortune and Men’s Eyes_, opens with a cleverly
written one-act play, turning upon an adventure of two maids of honor
at Elizabeth’s court, with Master W. S., a player, whose identity is
not far to seek, and William Herbert, son of the Earl of Pembroke, the
scene being laid at the tavern of the Bear and the Angel, whither
Mistress Anne Hughes and Mary Fyton have resorted on a merry escapade
under cover of seeing the people celebrate the fête of the Bear.
The atmosphere of the time is well reproduced, the dialogue of the
tapsters cleverly done, and the final scene between the Player and
Mary is full of dramatic intensity.
In her second volume, Miss Peabody has also a dramatic monologue
called, “The Wingless Joy,” which, though now and again Browningesque
in tone, has many felicitous images and shows a true insight into
The lyrics in the second volume form a less important part of the
collection, though there are several, such as “The Source,” “The
Survivor,” “Psyche in the Niche,” and “In the Silence,” which rank
with Miss Peabody’s best work, particularly the last, illustrating the
truth that the Spirit manifests at the need, even the dumb and
undivining need, and not alone at the call:
Where did’st Thou tarry, Lord, Lord,
Who heeded not my prayer?
All the long day, all the long night,
I stretched my hands to air.
“There was a bitterer want than thine
Came from the frozen North;
Laid hands upon my garment’s hem
And led me forth.
“It was a lonely Northern man,
Where there was never tree
To shed its comfort on his heart,
There he had need of me.
“He kindled us a little flame
To hope against the storm;
And unto him, and unto me,
The light was warm.”
And yet I called Thee, Lord, Lord—
Who answered not, nor came:
All the long day, and yesterday,
I called Thee by Thy name.
“There was a dumb, unhearing grief
Spake louder than Thy word,
There was a heart called not on me,
But yet I heard.
“The sorrow of a savage man
Shaping him gods, alone,
Who found no love in the shapen clay
To answer to his own.
“His heart knew what his eyes saw not
He bade me stay and eat;
And unto him, and unto me,
The cup was sweet.
“Too long we wait for thee and thine,
In sodden ways and dim,
And where the man’s need cries on me
There have I need of him.
“Along the borders of despair
Where sparrows seek no nest,
Nor ravens food, I sit at meat,—
The Unnamed Guest.”
Before leaving the second volume there is one other poem of which I
cannot refrain from quoting a part, to show the subtlety with which a
phase of the psychology of sentiment has been grasped and analyzed in
these lines called “The Knot”:
Oh, I hated me,
That when I loved you not, yet I could feel
Some charm in me the deeper for your love:
Some singing-robe invisible—and spun
Of your own worship—fold me silverly
In very moonlight, so that I walked fair
When you were by, who had no wish to be
The fairer for your eyes! But at some cost
Of other life the hyacinth grows blue,
And sweetens ever…. So it is with us,
The sadder race. I would have fled from you,
And yet I felt some fibre in myself
Binding me here, to search one moment yet—
The only well that gave me back a star,—
Your eyes reflecting. And I grew aware
How worship that must ever spend and burn
Will have its deity from gold or stone;
Till that fain womanhood that would be fair
And lovable,—the hunger of the plant—
Against my soul’s commandment reached and took
The proffered fruit, more potent day by day.
And the lines which follow close with the wholly feminine query,
Will you not go?—and yet, why will you go?
It is a human bit of dramatic analysis, and reduces inconsistent
femininity to a common denominator.
In her third volume, _Marlowe_, a drama, founded upon the life of the
lovable but erratic poet and playwright, Miss Peabody essayed an
ambitious undertaking, but one which, as literature, carries its full
justification. As drama, one must qualify. In characterization, aside
from Marlowe himself, who comes before one vividly, there is a lack of
sharp definition. Nashe, Lodge, Peele, and Green, Marlowe’s fellow
playwrights and friends, might, from the evidence of the dialogue, be
the same character under different names, so alike are they in speech
and temperament. Next to Marlowe himself, Bame, who through jealousy
becomes his enemy, and brings on the final tragedy, is the most
individually drawn. Of the women characters, the drama presents
practically but one,—Alison, the little country maid who loves Marlowe
secretly, and becomes in a way his good angel,—as “Her Ladyship” of
the Court, object of his adoration, is introduced but twice in the
play, and that veiled, so that only for a moment at the last may one
see the beauty that—under guise of Helen—inspired Marlowe’s lines:
Was this the face that launched a thousand ships
And burned the topless towers of Ilium!
While the two brief comings of “Her Ladyship” impart an artistic touch
of mystery, it is to be doubted if in a play so intangible a heroine
could become a vital factor, and if she were not, the woman element of
the drama must be sustained wholly by Alison, the little “Quietude,”
who, until the one beautiful scene with Marlowe after her marriage,
remains an artless undeveloped child, with too little color, too weak
a human pulse-beat, to compel interest and sympathy. She is delicately
drawn, in her unsophisticated sweetness and purity, and the inner
strength of her nature is finely shown at the last, but up to this
period of revelation one does not feel her; she lacks the touch of
life essential to a character in drama.
In plot the work presents somewhat the same limitation. It is, until
the two final scenes, after Marlowe’s downfall, literature without
action: nothing happens in the earlier part of the play to create an
element of suspense forelooking to the developments at the close.
Marlowe’s triumphs are detailed to one another by his friends, but
they are not _shown_ in some great scene where he might receive the
acclamations of the people and so contrast sharply with his downfall
at the end: story suffices for action. The sentiment of the play
presents also no intricacies: Alison, although loving Marlowe, is not
for a moment a factor of love in his life, since he neither suspects
her attachment nor reciprocates it, and hence the jealousy of her
suitors has no effect either upon him or upon the supposed audience.
“Her Ladyship” is not pitted against Alison, since the latter knows
that Marlowe’s heart is given to his veiled divinity; hence there are
no complexities arising from the love-element. For the purpose of
acting, therefore, the play seems to me to lack movement, suspense,
variety of characterization, and, except in the drawing of Marlowe,
definiteness of type. It has, however, a strong and vivid scene at the
close, leading up to and including Marlowe’s tragic death, and a scene
of rare beauty and of intense dramatic reality, of which I shall speak
later, in the visit of Marlowe to Alison after his downfall.
On the side of literature, the drama contains work of admirable
strength and quality, work that in its beauty of phrase and subtlety
of penetration is not unworthy to be put into the mouth of Marlowe of
the “mighty line.” Miss Peabody never falls into the Shakespearizing
strain which many writing of that epoch assume; her dialogue is vivid,
direct, and full of original imagery, as when Marlowe speaks of Alison
as having for him—
Destined to melt and lose itself in fire
Or ever it can cool my tongue,
and thus describes her:
Why, she was a maid
Of crystalline! If you looked near enough,
You’d see the wonder changing in her eyes
Like parti-colored marvels in a brook,
Bright through the clearness!
Note now in contrast the impassioned words in which he pictures his
Hers is the Beauty that hath moved the world
Since the first woman. Beauty cannot die.
No worm may spoil it. Unto earth it goes,
There to be cherished by the cautious spring,
Close folded in a rose, until the time
Some new imperial spirit comes to earth
Demanding a fair raiment; and the earth
Yields up her robes of vermeil and of snow,
Violet-veinéd—beautiful as wings,
And so the Woman comes!
And this beautiful passage addressed to her after the triumph of
Drink my song.
Grow fair, you sovran flower, with earth and air;
Sip from the last year’s leaves their memories
Of April, May, and June, their summer joy,
Their lure for every nightingale, their longing.
And finally these words spoken to her in splendid scorn, after his
downfall and her rejection:
I took you for a Woman, thing of dust,—
I—I who showed you first what you might be!
But see now, you were hollow all the time,
A piece of magic. Now the air blows in,
And you are gone in ashes.
At once the most beautiful and artistically drawn scene is that
previously referred to, in which Marlowe, his star in eclipse, visits
Alison after her marriage. Here is a dramatic situation, human and
vital, and Miss Peabody has developed it with rare feeling and skill.
The picture of Marlowe in his disgrace and despondency, coming to the
woman who had believed in him, and whose love had shone upon his
unseeing eyes, is drawn with fine delicacy and pathos. In the flash of
revelation that comes to him from her white spirit, he speaks these
Thou hast heard
Of Light that shined in darkness, hast thou not?
And darkness comprehended not the Light?
So. But I tell thee why. It was because
The Dark, a sleeping brute, was blinded first,
Bewildered at a thing it did not know.
* * * * *
Have pity on the Dark, I tell you, Bride.
For after all is said, there is no thing
So hails the Light as that same blackness there,
O’er which it shines the whiter. Do you think
It will not know at last?—it will not know?
Those, too, are noble passages, though too long to quote, in which
Marlowe unburdens his overcharged heart to Alison, and intrusts to her
faith the keeping of that higher self she had divined in him; and when
Marlowe, early in the scene, referring to his misfortunes, says:
You do not know
The sense of waking down among the dead,
Hard by some lazar-house,—
note the hidden meaning in Alison’s reply:
Nay; but I know
The sense of death. And then to rise again
And feel thyself bewildered, like a spirit
Out of the grave-clothes and the fragment strewings.
Passages of subtle significance, wistful, tender, and pathetic,
distinguish this scene.
Miss Peabody has visualized Marlowe clearly wherever he appears, and
created him as the lovable, impulsive, generous-spirited, but
ill-starred genius that he was. It is a life-study, in its conflicts,
its overthrown ideals, its appealing humanity, and should take its
place as one of the permanent interpretations of his character.
Many of her critics have found in Miss Peabody’s latest volume, _The
Singing Leaves_, an inspiration and charm exceeding that of her former
work, and in delicacy, lyrical ease, simplicity, and ideality it must
be accounted one of her truest achievements; but there is about the
volume an impalpability, an airy insubstantiality, which renders it
elusive and unconvincing. The mystical subtlety hitherto noted in Miss
Peabody’s work has, in the latest volume, grown, until many of the
poems have so little objectivity that they float as iris-tinted flecks
of foam upon the deep of thought. They have beauty of spirit, beauty
of word; but their motive is so subtle, their thought so intangible,
that while they charm one in the reading, they have, with a few
exceptions, melted into vapor, gone the way of the foam, when once the
eye has left them. One feels throughout the volume an ingenuous
simplicity, a _naïveté_, that is, in many of her poems, exceedingly
charming, but which, becoming the pervasive note of the collection,
communicates to it a certain artificial artlessness, as if June,
disregarding the largess of the rose, yearned back to April and the
violet; in short, the poems seem to me, with a few exceptions, to lack
moving, vital impulse, and to bring few warmly imbued words from life.
They are as the pale moon-flower, growing in the stillness of dreams,
rather than the rose dyed with the blood of the heart.
But what is, to me, the limitation of the volume,—its over-subtilized
mood and lack of definite, moving purpose,—must, to many of its
readers, be granted to be its distinction; and for their very
impalpability these delicate Leaves, that vibrate with impulse as
ethereal as that which moves the aspen when the wind is still, have
for many the greater charm.
To glance, then, at some of the finer achievements of the volume, one
finds among the lyrics several turning upon love that catch in
artistic words an undefined mood, such as “Forethought” and “Unsaid,”
or in captivating picture-phrase, a blither fancy, such as “The
Enchanted Sheepfold,” or, stronger and finer than these, that vision
of love called “The Cloud,” which enfolds truth and wraps the heart in
its whiteness. One can scarcely fancy a more exquisite bit of imagery
in which to clothe the thought of these lines:
The islands called me far away,
The valleys called me home.
The rivers with a silver voice
Drew on my heart to come.
The paths reached tendrils to my hair
From every vine and tree.
There was no refuge anywhere
Until I came to thee.
There is a northern cloud I know,
Along a mountain crest.
And as she folds her wings of mist,
So I could make my rest.
There is no chain to bind her so
Unto that purple height;
And she will shine and wander, slow,
Slow, with a cloud’s delight.
Would she begone? She melts away,
A heavenly joyous thing.
Yet day will find the mountain white,
White-folded with her wing.
* * * * *
And though love cannot bind me, Love,
—Ah no!—yet I could stay
Maybe, with wings forever spread,
—Forever, and a day.
Here is delicacy enshrining one of the deeper truths of life.
Many of the lyrics have a seventeenth-century lilt, but not of
imitation. There are no echoes in Miss Peabody’s song, its note,
measure, and spirit are entirely her own, and a random stanza would
carry its identification, so individual is her touch. Of the
seventeenth-century mood, however, are “The Song Outside,”
“Forethought,” “The Top of the Morning,” “The Blind One,” and other
Nearly all the lyrics in _The Singing Leaves_ are very brief, showing,
in their compactness and restrained use of imagery, just the opposite
method from that prevailing in Miss Peabody’s first book, _The
Wayfarers_. So marked is the contrast that, but for the personality
imbuing them, they might have been written by another hand. Whereas
the diction also in the earlier work inclined to beauty for its own
sake, the reaction to its present simplicity is the more marked. It is
doubtless for this reason that many of the poems carry with them a
note of conscious ingenuousness, as if their simplest effects had been
deliberately achieved. Not so, however, such poems as “The Inn,” “The
Drudge,” “Sins,” “The Anointed,” “The Walk,” whose words are quick
with native impulse, as the trenchant lines of the third:
A lie, it may be black or white;
I care not for the lie:
My grief is for the tortured breath
Of Truth that cannot die.
And cruelty, what that may be,
What creature understands?
But O, the glazing eyes of Love,
Stabbed through the open hands!
Two poems contained in _The Singing Leaves_ are of a note far more
serious and vital than that of their fellows: the first, “The Ravens;”
the second, and to my thinking, the more important, “The Fool,” which
from the standpoint of strength, feeling, forceful expression,
idealism, and the portrayal of human nature, seems to me the
achievement of the book. It holds a truth bitten in with the acid of
O what a Fool am I!—Again, again,
To give for asking: yet again to trust
The needy love in women and in men,
Until again my faith is turned to dust
By one more thrust.
How you must smile apart who make my hands
Ever to bleed where they were reached to bless;
—Wonder how any wit that understands
Should ever try too near, with gentle stress,
Laugh, stare, deny. Because I shall be true,—
The only triumph slain by no surprise:
True, true, to that forlornest truth in you,
The wan, beleaguered thing behind your eyes,
Starving on lies.
Build by my faith; I am a steadfast tool:
When I am dark, begone into the sun.
I cry, ‘Ah, Lord, how good to be a Fool:—
A lonely game indeed, but now all done;
—And I have won!’
Here speaks a word from life worth a score of “Charms: To Be Said In
The Sun,” or other fanciful unreality; and because of such poems as
this, fibred in human motive, one feels by contrast in many of the
others that Miss Peabody has been playing with her genius, casting
“Charms” and “Spells,” which are mere poetic sorcery.
Miss Peabody has a rare sympathy with child-life, and her group of
poems of this nature could not well be bettered. With the exception of
a line now and then which may be a bit beyond the expression of a
child, they are fidelity itself to the moods that swayed _The Little
Past_. “Journey,” “The Busy Child,” and “The Mystic” are among the
best, though none could be spared, unless, perhaps, “Cakes and Ale.”
Still another with the true child-feeling is that called “Late,”—a
tender little song which, because of its brevity, must suffice to
represent the group:
My father brought somebody up,
To show us all asleep.
They came as softly up the stairs
As you could creep.
They whispered in the doorway there
And looked at us awhile,
I had my eyes shut up, but I
Could feel him smile.
I shut my eyes up close, and lay
As still as I could keep;
Because I knew he wanted us
To be asleep.
Miss Peabody’s work, considered in its entirety, is distinguished by
an art of rare grace and delicacy, by imagination and vision,
susceptibility to the finer impressions, and by an ever-present
ideality; and while it lacks somewhat the element of personal emotion
and passion, it has a sympathy subtle and spiritual, if less intimate
in its revealing.