MISS LIZETTE WOODWORTH REESE is an Elizabethan, not by affectation,
but by temperament. Sidney and Lovelace and Herrick and Marlowe are
her contemporaries, though she moves among them as a gray-robed figure
among gay cavaliers and knights, so restrained is her mood, so
delicate in its withholding.
Her first collection is aptly named, _A Handful of Lavender_, for the
fragrance of the elder time pervades it impalpably, as the scent of
lavender makes sweet the linen of some treasured chest. How Miss Reese
has been able, in the hurly-burly of American life, to find some
indesecrate corner, some daffodiled garden-close, holding always the
quiet and the glint of sunshine out of which these songs have come, is
an enigma worth a poet’s solving. She is a Southern woman, which may
furnish some clew to the repose of her work. There is time down there
to ripen, to let life have its own way of enrichment with one. She has
been content to publish three books of verse—although the first is now
incorporated with the second—in the interval in which our Northern
poets would have produced a half-dozen; nor does she much concern
herself, when once the captive melodies are freed, as to their flight.
She knows there are magnetic breezes in the common air, charméd winds
that blow unerringly, and in whose upper currents song’s wings are
guided, as the carrier-doves’, to their appointed goal.
There is a delicate harmony between Miss Reese’s poems and their
number, a nicety of adjustment between quality and quantity, that
bespeaks the artist. She has the critic’s gift of appraising her own
work before it leaves her hand, and thus forestalls much of the
criticism that might otherwise attend it. The faculty of self-analysis
would be a safety-valve to the high-pressure speed at which most
literature of to-day is produced—but, alas, the few that employ it!
“Open the throttle and let it drive!” is the popular injunction to the
genius within, and wherever it drives, one is expected to follow. How
refreshing it is, then, to come upon work with calm upon it!—work that
came out of time, culture, and artist-love, and trusts its
appreciation to the same standards.
[Illustration: Lizette Woodworth Reese]
Miss Reese’s verse shows constant affinity with Herrick, though it is
rarely so blithe. It has the singing mood, but not the buoyant one,
being tempered by something delicate and remote. The unheard melodies
within it are the sweetest; it pipes to the spirit “ditties of no
tone.” Even its least rare fancies convey more than they say, and it
must be confessed that much so-called poetry says more than it
conveys. Whitman’s mystical words: “All music is what awakes from you
when you are reminded by the instruments,” applies equally well to
poetry, to poetry of suggestion, such as Miss Reese’s. Yesterday’s
parted grace has been transmuted to poetry within us all, but it is a
voiceless possession, speaking to us in the soul. Miss Reese’s poems,
by a line or two, perhaps, put one in swift possession of that
vanishing beauty within himself. It floods back, perchance in tears,
but it is ours again. Take almost a random citation, for this quality
is rarely absent from her poems, whether they summon Joy or Pain,—her
lines “To A White Lilac”:
I know you, ghost of some lone, delicate hour,
Long-gone but unforgot;
Wherein I had for guerdon and for dower
That one thing I have not.
Unplucked I leave your mystical white feather,
O phantom up the lane;
For back may come that spent and lovely weather,
And I be glad again!
To analyze this, would be to pluck the mystical white feather that a
poet left untouched, that it might recall the grace of “some lone,
delicate hour, long-gone but unforgot;” but the soul of such an hour
has subtilized for each of us in that spiritual memory-flower, and it
needs no more than the opening line of this poem to invest the
disillusioned day with a mood the same—yet not the same. Miss Reese
has put it in two lines in her “Song of the Lavender Woman”:
Oh, my heart, why should you break at any thoughts like these?
So sooth are they of the old time that they should bring you ease.
In another brief poem, the spirit of grief, that transmutes itself at
last to music, to odor, to sunsets and dawns, becomes vital again in
the scent of the box, the garden shrub. The lines show Miss Reese’s
susceptibility to impression from the most intangible sources:
Dark, thinned, beside the wall of stone,
The box dripped in the air;
Its odor through my house was blown
Into the chamber there.
Remote and yet distinct the scent,
The sole thing of the kind,
As though one spoke a word half meant
That left a sting behind.
I knew not Grief would go from me
And naught of it be plain,
Except how keen the box can be
After a fall of rain.
Miss Reese’s art is its apparent lack of art, of conscious effort. Her
diction is as simple in the mere store of words which she chooses to
employ, as might be that of some poet to whom such a store was his
sole equipment; but what is that fine distinction between _simplesse_
and _simplicité_? One recognizes in her vocabulary the subtlest art of
choice and elimination, art that is temperament, however, that selects
by intuitive fitness and not by formulas or deliberate trying of
effects. The words she employs are thrice distilled and clarified,
until they become the essence of lucidity, and this essence in turn is
crystallized into form in her poems. Perhaps they have, for some, too
little warmth and color; they are not the rich-dyed words of passion,
they are rather the white, delicate words of memory, but no others
would serve as well.
In reading certain poems of Miss Reese’s, such as “Trust,” or her
lines “Writ In A Book Of Elizabethan Verse,” the clarity of the
language recalls a passage in a letter of Jean Ingelow’s in which she
exclaims: “Oh that I might wash my words in light!” The impression
which many of these lyrics convey is that Miss Reese _has_ washed her
words in light, so clear, so pure is their beauty. Take, for
illustration, the much-quoted lines “Love Came Back At Fall O’ Dew,”
and note the art and feeling achieved almost wholly in monosyllabic
Love came back at fall o’ dew,
Playing his old part;
But I had a word or two,
That would break his heart.
“He who comes at candlelight,
That should come before,
Must betake him to the night
From a barréd door.”
This the word that made us part
In the fall o’ dew;
This the word that brake his heart—
Yet it brake mine, too!
A lyric imbued with charm, and into which a heart history is
compressed, and yet employing but five or six words of more than one
syllable! Is this not clarifying to a purpose? The lines called
“Trust,” illustrate with equal minuteness the gift of putting into the
simplest words some truth that seems to speak itself without calling
attention to language or form, and, though having less of charm, they
illustrate the point in question, that of absolute simplicity without
insipidity. This is not, however, to be taken as advice to all poets
to cultivate the monosyllabic style. Because Miss Reese can achieve
such an effect through it, when she chooses, as “Love Came Back At
Fall O’ Dew,” does not argue that another poet would not corrupt it to
nursery babble, nor would it be desirable to strive for it in any
case. Song is impulse, not effort, and back of it is temperament. Miss
Reese is a poet-_singer_; she is at her best in the pure lyric, the
lyric that could be sung, and therefore her most artistic poems are
such as are the least ornate, but have rare distinction in the purity,
fitness, and individuality of her words.
Very few modern lyrics possess the singing quality. The term “lyric
verse,” as used to-day, is a misnomer. It is as intricate in form and
phrase as if not consecrated to the lyre by poets in the dawn of art.
The divorce between poetry and song grows more absolute year by year;
composers search almost vainly through modern volumes of verse for
lyrics that combine the melody and feeling, the spontaneity and grace,
indispensable to song. It is not that the modern poet is unable to
produce such, but that he does not choose. It has gone out of fashion,
to state the case quite frankly, to write with a singing cadence;
something rare and strange must issue from the poet’s lips, something
inobvious. Art lurks in surprises, and the poet of to-day must be a
diviner of mysteries, a searcher of secrets, in nature and humanity
and truth, and a revealer of them in his art, though he reveal
ofttimes but to conceal.
Poetry grows more and more an intellectual pleasure for the cultured
classes, less and less a possession of the people. Elizabethan song
was upon the lips of the milkmaids and market-women, the common ear
was trained to grace and melody; but how many of the country folk of
to-day know the involved numbers of our poets, or, knowing, could
grasp them? Who is writing the lays of the people? One can only answer
that few are writing them because the spirit of poetic art has
suffered a sea-change into something rich and strange, and the poet of
to-day would be fearful of his laurels should he write so artless a
song as “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,” or “Come live with me and
be my love,” and yet these are beads that Time tells over on the
rosary of Art.
The question is too broad to discuss here. We should all agree,
doubtless, as to the increasing separation between poetry and song,
the increasing tendency of verse to appeal to the cultured classes;
but as to the desirability of returning to the simpler form, adapting
theme and melody to the common ear—how many modern poets would agree
upon that? There is a middle ground, however; the reaction against the
highly ornate is already felt, and a finer art may be trusted to bring
its own adjustments until poetry will again become of universal
And how does this pertain to Miss Reese? It pertains in that her ideal
is the very return to clear, sympathetic song of which we have spoken.
She would recapture the blitheness of Herrick, the valor of Lovelace,
would lighten song’s wings of their heaviness and shift Care and
Wisdom to more prosaic burden-bearers. While the reminiscent mood is
prevalent in her work, it is not melancholy, but has rather the
iridescent glint of smiles and tears. Joy never quite departs,
although “with finger at his lip, bidding adieu.” Miss Reese’s strife
is toward a valiant cheer, whose passing she deplores in the poem
Spirit of the gust and dew,
Herrick had the last of you!
Empty are the morning hills.
Herrick, he whose hearty airs
Still are heard in our dull squares;
Herrick of the daffodils!
* * * * *
Now the pulpit and the mart
Make an unquiet thing of Art,
For we trade or else we preach;
Even the crocus,’stead of song,
Serves for text the April long;
Thus we set it out of reach.
There is heartier food than ambrosia in this stanza. It is true that
when we use the crocus for a text we set it out of reach, or, in
common phrase, when poetry becomes didactic, Art flees. A dew-fresh
song would teach the crocus’ lesson, or many another lesson, without a
hint of teaching it, merely by beauty; by the creed of Keats. Pope’s
didactic, sententious lines are gone; but Keats, who never pointed a
moral in his life, sings on eternally. Miss Reese too is votary to
beauty for its own sake; she gives one the flower, and he may extract
the nectar for himself. The nectar is always there for one’s
distilling into the truth which is the essence of things. She does not
herself extract and distil it, for hers is the art of suggestion.
Having this creed of song, Miss Reese’s themes are not widely
inclusive. They are, however, the universal themes,—love, beauty,
reverence, remembrance, joy that has been tempered to cheer, having
met pain by the way; for, as we have said, no encounter with pain—and
her poems give abundant evidence of such encounter—has been able to
subdue the valor of her spirit, or to quench the joy at the springs of
her feeling, albeit the buoyant, brimful joy has given place to
There is a certain quality in Miss Reese’s poems, a quaintness, an
elder grace, that is wholly unique. It is the union of theme,
phraseology, and atmosphere. The two former have been considered, but
the spirit, after all, is in the last, in that which analysis cannot
reach. One selects a poem from _A Quiet Road_ illustrative of this art
of correlating Then and Now, making quick the dead in memory and hope,
and sets about to analyze it,—when, lo, as if one had prisoned a white
butterfly, it escapes, leaving only the dust of its wing in one’s
hand! Miss Reese’s poems are not to be analyzed, they are to be felt;
that, too, is the creed of her song. Is it difficult to feel these
delicate lines called “The Road of Remembrance”?—
The old wind stirs the hawthorn tree;
The tree is blossoming;
Northward the road runs to the sea,
And past the House of Spring.
The folk go down it unafraid;
The still roofs rise before;
When you were lad and I was maid,
Wide open stood that door.
Now, other children crowd the stair,
And hunt from room to room;
Outside, under the hawthorn fair,
We pluck the thorny bloom.
Out in the quiet road we stand,
Shut in from wharf and mart,
The old wind blowing up the land,
The old thoughts at our heart.
Miss Reese’s growth, as shown in her two volumes, is so marked that
while _A Handful of Lavender_ has the foreshadowing of her later work,
and also some notably fine poems,—such as “That Day You Came,” “The
Last Cricket,” “A Spinning Song,” and “The Old Path,”—it has not the
same perfectly individual note that pervades _A Quiet Road_. The
personal mark, the artist-proof mark, upon nearly everything in the
later collection, is frequently absent from the first. That part of _A
Handful of Lavender_ first issued as _A Branch of May_ is naturally
the least finished of Miss Reese’s work. It is unsure and yet
indicative of that—
Oncoming hour of light and dew,
Of heartier sun, more certain blue,
which shines in her later work.
“The Death Potion,” from the first collection, is a case in point: it
is strong in idea, and here and there in execution, but its metre is
faulty, and it departs so often from the initial measure that one who
has set himself in tune with that is thrown from the key, and in
adapting himself to the changed rhythm loses the pleasure of the poem.
It must be said, however, that such lack of metrical sensitiveness is
very rare even in the earlier poems. In general, they are of
unimpeachable rhythm; indeed, the singing note is so much Miss Reese’s
natural expression that it creeps into this sonnet, “The Old Path,”
and turns it in effect to a lyric:
O Love! O Love! this way has hints of you
In every bough that stirs, in every bee,
Yellow and glad, droning the thick grass through,
In blooms red on the bush, white on the tree;
And when the wind, just now, came soft and fleet,
Scattering the blackberry blossoms, and from some
Fast darkening space that thrush sang sudden sweet,
You were so near, so near, yet did not come!
Say, is it thus with you, O friend, this day?
Have you, for me that love you, thought or word?
Do I, with bud or bough, pass by your way;
With any breath of brier or note of bird?
If this I knew, though you be quick or dead,
All my sad life would I go comforted.
_A Handful of Lavender_ shows the tendency of most young poets to
affect the sonnet, a tendency laudable enough if one be a natural
sonneteer. Miss Reese has many finely conceived and well-executed
sonnets, but few that are unforgettably fine, as are many of her
lyrics. That she recognizes wherein her surest power lies is obvious
from the fact that, whereas _A Handful of Lavender_ contains some
thirty-two sonnets, _A Quiet Road_ contains but twelve. Those of
nature predominated in the former, nature for its own sake; but in the
latter there is far less accent upon nature and more upon life.
They show in technique, also, Miss Reese’s firmer, surer touch and
greater clarity. There are certain sonnets in _A Handful of Lavender_,
such as “A Song of Separation,” and “Renunciation,” warmer in feeling
than the later ones and equal to them in manner; but in general the
mechanism is much more apparent—one _does_ occasionally see the wires,
which is never the case in the later work.
“The Look of the Hedge,” or these lines called “Recompense,” will
illustrate the ease and lucidity of her sonnets in _A Quiet Road_:
Sometimes, yea, often, I forget, forget;
Pass your closed door with not a thought of you,
Of the old days, but only of these new;
I sow; I reap; my house in order set.
Then of a sudden doth this thing befall,
By a wood’s edge, or in the market-place,
That I remember naught but your dead face,
And other folk forgotten, you are all.
When this is so, oh, sooth the time and sweet!
And I, thereafter, am like unto one
Who from the lilac bloom and the young year
Comes to a chamber shuttered from the street,
Yet heeds nor emptiness nor lack of sun,
For that the recompensing Spring is near!
There are excellently wrought sonnets in the first volume, indeed, the
majority of them are not without fine lines or true feeling, but the
gain in command of the form has been marked. When all is said,
however, one comes back to _A Quiet Road_ for the songs it holds, and
for these he treasures it. Miss Reese has epitomized, in her lines
“Writ In A Book Of Elizabethan Verse,” her own characteristics under
those of the earlier singers, sounded the delicate notes of her own
reed, when she says:
Mine is the crocus and the call
Of gust to gust in shrubberies tall;
The white tumult, the rainy hush;
And mine the unforgetting thrush
That pours its heart-break from the wall.
For I am tears, for I am Spring,
The old and immemorial thing;
To me come ghosts by twos and threes,
Under the swaying cherry-trees,
From east and west remembering.
O elder Hour, when I am not,
Gone out like smoke from road and plot,
More perfect Hour of light and dew,
Shall lovers turn away from you,
And long for me, the Unforgot!
Surely they will, for clear, pure song keeps its vibrancy, and the
note to which is set the quaintness of such words as these in Miss
Reese’s poem “A Pastoral,” will not easily be forgotten:
Oho, my love, oho, my love, and ho, the bough that shows,
Against the grayness of mid-Lent, the color of the rose!
The lights o’ Spring are in the sky and down among the grass;
Bend low, bend low, ye Kentish reeds, and let two lovers pass!
The plum-tree is a straitened thing; the cherry is but vain;
The thorn but black and empty at the turning of the lane;
Yet mile by mile out in the wind the peach-trees blow and blow,
And which is stem and which is bloom, not any maid can know.
The ghostly ships sail up to town and past the orchard wall;
There is a leaping in the reeds; they waver and they fall;
For lo, the gusts of God are out; the April time is brief;
The country is a pale red rose, and dropping leaf by leaf.
I do but keep me close beside and hold my lover’s hand;
Along the narrow track we pass across the level land;
The petals whirl about us and the sedge is to our knees;
The ghostly ships sail up, sail up, beyond the stripping trees.
When we are old, when we are cold, and barréd is the door,
The memory of this will come and turn us young once more;
The lights o’ Spring will dim the grass and tremble from the sky;
And all the Kentish reeds bend low to let us two go by!
Miss Reese’s work in _A Quiet Road_ is so uniformly quotable that one
distrusts his judgment in the matter of choice, and having cited one
poem as representative comes suddenly upon another that might have
served him better; such an one, perhaps, is that to Robert Louis
Stevenson, in its penetrative feeling, showing Miss Reese to be a
diviner of spirits. One need hardly be told that she is of the “mystic
fellowcraft” of Stevenson, and although the very name of the valorous
one has become a sort of fetich among his lovers everywhere, one would
go far to find him set forth more bravely than in this characterization,
of which a part must suffice to show the quality:
In his old gusty garden of the North,
He heard lark-time the uplifting Voices call;
Smitten through with Voices was the evenfall—
At last they drove him forth.
Now there were two rang silverly and long;
And of Romance, that spirit of the sun,
And of Romance, spirit of youth, was one;
And one was that of Song.
Gold-belted sailors, bristling buccaneers,
The flashing soldier, and the high, slim dame,
These were the Shapes that all around him came,—
That we let go with tears.
His was the unstinted English of the Scot,
Clear, nimble, with the scriptural tang of Knox
Thrust through it like the far, strict scent of box,
To keep it unforgot.
No frugal Realist, but quick to laugh,
To see appealing things in all he knew,
He plucked the sun-sweet corn his fathers grew,
And would have naught of chaff.
David and Keats and all good singing men,
Take to your hearts this Covenanter’s son,
Gone in mid-years, leaving our years undone—
Where you do sing again!
There! I have repented me and quoted it all, to preserve the unity.
To be rare and quaint without being fantastic, to have
swift-conceiving fancy that turns into poetry the near-by thing that
many overlook—this is Miss Reese’s gift. You shall not go to her for
ethics, philosophy, nor for instruction of any kind, for that is
contrary to her creed; but you shall go to her for truth, truth that
has become personal through experience; go to her for beauty, uplift,
and refreshment, and above all for the recovery of the departed mood.