LOUISE IMOGEN GUINEY

SOME critic has said of Miss Guiney’s work, that to come suddenly upon
it among other volumes of modern poetry is like coming upon a Greek
temple in an American woodland; and the comparison is an apt one,
though the temple should scarcely be Greek, for while the feeling and
structure of the work are classic in atmosphere, they are not warm
enough, sensuous enough, to be Greek. It would, indeed, be hard to say
with what race classicism Miss Guiney’s work is tinctured. Rather say
that she is a classic by temperament and has drawn to herself, as by
chemical affinity, such things as are rare and choice in the world of
books and life, and has fused them in the alembic of her own nature,
until the resultant blend is something new and strange, having a racy
tang and a flavor all its own, and yet with a hint of all the elements
that went to its compounding.

Most minds take on learning by a miscellaneous accretion that results
in information without individuality, but Miss Guiney hives in many
fields and lands the quaint, the picturesque, the beautiful, to which
her temperament calls her unerringly, and can no more be tempted to
range outside her limit of attraction than a bee to waste his precious
hours dipping into bloom that holds no nectar for him. To be sure,
Miss Guiney’s range of attraction is wide, but it enlarges its own
confines, and does not reach out to alien territory. It follows as a
corollary to this fact that unless one be in the range of attraction
with Miss Guiney, the subjects which claim her thought may be more or
less alien to him, and the restrained, wholly individual manner of her
work may be equally alien to his nature. He may require more warmth,
more abandon, more of the element of to-day and to-morrow in the theme
and mood; for Miss Guiney has little to do with the times and
conditions in which she finds herself; contemporary life is only
incidentally in her verse, and one would have difficulty from it in
declaring her day and generation. Her poetry demands that synchronism
of temperament by which one responds to her mood independent of the
time or place to which it transports him.

[Illustration: Louise Imogen Guiney]

Take, for illustration, “A Friend’s Song for Simoisius,” with its
charm of music, its beauty of expression, and its crystal clarity. Few
would be unconscious of the poetic side of it; but to how many would
the subject appeal? What’s Simoisius to them or they to Simoisius that
they should weep for him? Let, however, this feeling for the
atmosphere of myth and legend be added, and what charm do the lines
take on:

The breath of dew, and twilight’s grace,
Be on the lonely battle-place;
And to so young, so kind a face,
The long, protecting grasses cling!
(Alas, alas,
The one inexorable thing!)

In rocky hollows cool and deep,
The bees our boyhood hunted sleep;
The early moon from Ida’s steep
Comes to the empty wrestling-ring,
(Alas, alas,
The one inexorable thing!)

Upon the widowed wind recede
No echoes of the shepherd’s reed,
And children without laughter lead
The war-horse to the watering.
(Alas, alas,
The one inexorable thing!)

Thou stranger, Ajax Telamon!
What to the loveliest hast thou done,
That ne’er with him a maid may run
Across the marigolds in spring?
(Alas, alas,
The one inexorable thing!)

* * * * *

The world to me has nothing dear
Beyond the namesake river here:
O Simois is wild and clear!
And to his brink my heart I bring;
(Alas, alas,
The one inexorable thing!)

The rhyme scheme in this poem has a distinct fascination to the ear;
there is music in the lucid words and in the rhythmic lines, climaxing
in each stanza, and, moreover, every stanza is a picture, with a
concrete relation to the whole. The poem illustrates several of Miss
Guiney’s characteristics: first, the compactness of her verse. It is
never pirouetting merely to show its grace; in other words, she does
not let the unity of the idea escape in a profusion of imagery. She
uses figure and symbol with an individual freshness of conception, but
always that which is structural with the thought, so that one can
rarely detach a stanza or even fugitive lines of her poems without a
loss of value. She develops the theme without over-developing it,
which is the restraint of the artist. The above poem illustrates,
also, the white light which she throws upon her words when clarity and
simplicity are demanded by the form; whereas, in sonnets, in her
dramatic poem, “A Martyr’s Idyl,” and in other forms of verse, her
work is sometimes lacking in that clear, swiftly communicative quality
which poetry should possess; but in her lyric inspirations, where the
form and melody condition the diction, one may note the perfect
clarity and flexibility which she attains, without loss of the rare
and picturesque word-feeling that belongs so inseparably to her.

The stanzas to “Athassal Abbey,” the “Footnote To A Famous Lyric,” the
delicate “Lilac Song,” and many others blend the finer qualities of
word and metre. With the exception of the last poem, however, they
have not the emotional warmth that imbues several other of her lyrics,
as the two “Irish Peasant Songs,” which are inspirations of sheer
beauty, especially the first, in its subtlety of race-temperament and
personal mood, left unanalyzed,—for a further hint would destroy
it,—but holding spring and tears and youth in its wistful word and
measure:

I knead and I spin, but my life is low the while,
Oh, I long to be alone, and walk abroad a mile,
Yet if I walk alone, and think of naught at all,
Why, from me that’s young, should the wild tears fall?

The shower-stricken earth, the earth-colored streams,
They breathe on me awake, and moan to me in dreams,
And yonder ivy fondling the broke castle-wall,
It pulls upon my heart till the wild tears fall.

The cabin door looks down a furze-lighted hill,
And far as Leighlin Cross the fields are green and still;
But once I hear the blackbird in Leighlin’s hedges call,
The foolishness is on me, and the wild tears fall!

It is not surprising that William Black should have quoted this poem
in one of his volumes, for it is certainly one of the most exquisite
and temperamental of folk-songs. The second is wholly different in
note, brimming over with the exuberance of the Celtic imagination, and
fresh as the breath of spring which inspires it:

’Tis the time o’ the year, if the quicken-bough be staunch,
The green, like a breaker, rolls steady up the branch,
And surges in the spaces, and floods the trunk, and heaves
In little angry spray that is the under-white of leaves;
And from the thorn in companies the foamy petals fall,
And waves of jolly ivy wink along a windy wall.

* * * * *

’Tis the time o’ the year in early light and glad,
The lark has a music to drive a lover mad;
The downs are dripping nightly, the breathéd damps arise,
Deliciously the freshets cool the grayling’s golden eyes,
And lying in a row against the chilly North, the sheep
Inclose a place without a wind for tender lambs to sleep.

The out-of-door atmosphere which Miss Guiney has managed to infuse
into these lines is fairly palpable. What sense of moisture in the
dew-heavy air is in the second stanza, and what elation and buoyancy
of returning life vitalizes the first! While on this phase of her work
there is another poem as magnetically charged, and full of ozone, but
its objective side incidental to a subjective query which nature and
science force to the lips:

The spur is red upon the briar,
The sea-kelp whips the wave ashore;
The wind shakes out the colored fire
From lamps a-row on the sycamore;
The tanager with flitting note
Shows to wild heaven his wedding-coat;
The mink is busy; herds again
Go hillward in the honeyed rain;
The midges meet. I cry to Thee
Whose heart
Remembers each of these: Thou art
My God who hast forgotten me.

Bright from the mast, a scarf unwound,
The lined gulls in the offing ride;
Along an edge of marshy ground,
The shad-bush enters like a bride.
Yon little clouds are washed of care
That climb the blue New England air,
And almost merrily withal
The tree-frog plays at evenfall
His oboe in a mossy tree.
So, too,
Am I not Thine? Arise, undo
This fear Thou hast forgotten me.

From the nature side these lines are pictures, taken each by each they
are free-hand strokes with pigment. Note the picturesque quality, for
illustration, in the words,

Bright from the mast, a scarf unwound,
The lined gulls in the offing ride,

and their imaginative vision with no hint of the fantastic; for one
need only have it glimpsed before him to know that he has seen the
same effect a score of times. Miss Guiney comes to the world without,
as if no eyes but hers had looked upon it; she brings no other image
upon the lens of her vision, and hence the imprint is as newly
mirrored, and as fresh with each changing view as a moving reflection
upon the surface of the water.

The subjective touch in the above poem:

I cry to Thee,
Whose heart
Remembers each of these: Thou art
My God who hast forgotten me!—

articulates the cry which life wrings at sometime from each of us,
noting the infinite solicitude that writes self-executing laws in the
hearts of the creatures, while man goes blundering after intimations
and dreams. One comes at times face to face with the necessity to
justify the ways of God to man, when he notes throughout nature the
unerring certainty of instinct, and the stumbling fallibility of
reason. He questions why the bee excels him in wisdom and force and
persistence, in shaping conditions for its maintenance, and in
intuitions of destiny; or why the infinite exactness that established
the goings of the ant in the devious ways of her endeavor should have
left man to follow so fatuous a gleam as human intuition in finding
his own foot-path among the tortuous ways of life. And these queries
Miss Guiney’s poem raises, though not with arraignment, rather with
the logical demand:

As to a weed, to me but give
Thy sap! lest aye inoperative
Here in the Pit my strength shall be:
And still,
Help me endure the Pit until
Thou wilt not have forgotten me.

There is sinew and brawn in Miss Guiney’s work; she is not dallying in
the scented gardens of poesy, but entering the tourney in valorous
emprise. Not a man of them who can meet fate in a braver joust than
she, and he must needs look well to his armor if he come off as
unscathed. She never stops to bewail the prick of the spear, though it
draw blood, but enters the field again for the

“Hope not compassed, and yet not void.”

There is tonic in her work for the craven heart, a note to shame one
back to the ranks. Each is a “Recruit” and should take to himself this
marching order:

So much to me is imminent:
To leave Revolt that is my tent,
And Failure, chosen for my bride,

And into life’s highway be gone
Ere yet Creation marches on,
Obedient, jocund, glorified:

And, last of things afoot, to know
How to be free is still to go
With glad concession, grave accord,

Nor longer, bond and imbecile,
Stand out against the Gradual Will,
The guessed ‘Fall in’! of God the Lord.

And the plea of Saint George, awaiting the hour to essay his quest,

O give my youth, my faith, my sword,
Choice of the heart’s desire:
A short life in the saddle, Lord!
Not long life by the fire,—

sets one’s sluggish blood in responsive motion,—as do the succeeding
lines:

I fear no breathing bowman,
But only, east and west,
The awful other foeman
Impowered in my breast.
The outer fray in the sun shall be,
The inner beneath the moon;
And may Our Lady lend to me
Sight of the dragon soon.

At the outset of her work Miss Guiney sang an electrifying song of
which men begrudged her the glory, being theft of Jove’s thunder. It
was hight valiantly “The Wild Ride,” and has the spirit of all the
knights and troopers in Christendom packed within its tense and
vibrant lines:

_I hear in my heart, I hear in its ominous pulses,
All day, on the road, the hoofs of invisible horses;
All night from their stalls, the importunate tramping and neighing._

Let cowards and laggards fall back! but alert to the saddle,
Straight, grim, and abreast, go the weather-worn galloping legion,
With a stirrup-cup each to the lily of women that loves him.

The trail is through dolor and dread, over crags and morasses;
There are shapes by the way, there are things that appal or entice us:
What odds? we are knights, and our souls are but bent on the riding.

_I hear in my heart, I hear in its ominous pulses,
All day, on the road, the hoofs of invisible horses;
All night from their stalls, the importunate tramping and neighing._

We spur to a land of no name, outracing the storm-wind;
We leap to the infinite dark, like the sparks from the anvil,
Thou leadest, O God! all’s well with Thy troopers that follow!

“The Kings” and “The Perfect Hour” are other trumpet notes of Miss
Guiney’s, illustrating the individuality of her point of view and the
personality of her expression.

A poet’s words may be wind-blown feathers, or they may be flint-tipped
arrows singing to a mark. The defect with much of present-day poetry
is that it is not aimed, it is content to be a pretty flight of
feathers, blown by the breath of fancy, and reaching no vital spot.

To test Miss Guiney’s marksmanship with words, one may separate her at
once from the class who are flying airy illusions nowhither, for she
concentrates, instead of diffusing, and has, at the outset, a definite
point in view. She works upon the arrow principle, but now and again
glances from the mark. In such a poem as “The Recruit,” in “The Wild
Ride,” or the “Saint George” quoted from, in her stirring poem
“Sanctuary,” beginning,

High above Hate I dwell,
O storms! farewell,

and in many others, she cleaves straight to her aim with no
deflection. The same may be said of many of her lighter poems, the
charming “Lilac Song,” or this delicately wrought love-song, speeding
to the heart:

When on the marge of evening the last blue light is broken,
And winds of dreamy odor are loosened from afar;
Or when my lattice opens, before the lark has spoken,
On dim laburnum-blossoms, and morning’s dying star,

I think of thee (O mine the more if other eyes be sleeping!)
Whose great and noonday splendor the many share and see,
While, sacred and forever, some perfect law is keeping
The late and early twilight alone and sweet for me.

In poems of this kind and in deeper ones from the spiritual side of
her nature, as well as in those of valor and daring, she uses such
words as are tipped with a penetrative point; but in some of her
sonnets, such as “The Chantry,” in a narrative poem, such as “The
Vigil in Tyrone,” though not without picturesque quality, in “The
Squall,” despite its frequently fine imagery, and often in the
dramatic poem, “A Martyr’s Idyl,” the words are too much weighted to
carry to the mark; they suggest undue care in selection which
interposes between the motive of the poem and the sympathy of the
reader. One pauses to consider the words; and the initial impulse,
like a spent shell, falls at his feet. Miss Guiney’s diction is, in
the main, peculiarly crisp and apposite; but she does not always hold
to the directness of appeal that distinguishes her truest work, but
withdraws herself into subtleties, often beautiful, but too remote. “A
Martyr’s Idyl” is a dramatically conceived incident, well wrought as
to scene and character, and having many passages of great beauty; but
the effort to keep the expression to the manner of the time results in
a lack of flexibility in the style that is now and then cumbrous. On
the whole, it is not in a dramatic poem of this sort that Miss Guiney
best reveals herself, but in such inspirations as she has taken—

Neither from sires nor sons,
Nor the delivered ones,
Holy, invoked with awe.

Her best work answers, by practical demonstration, her own query:

“Where shall I find my light?”

“Turn from another’s track,
Whether for gain or lack,
Love but thy natal right.
Cease to follow withal,
Though on thine upled feet
Flakes of the phosphor fall.
Oracles overheard
Are never again for thee,
Nor at a magian’s knee
Under the hemlock tree,
Burns the illumining word.”

The term “original” is one to be used charily and with forethought,
but it is one that belongs without danger of challenge to Miss
Guiney’s work. There is a distinct quality, both of treatment and
conception, that is hers alone, a rare, unfamiliar note, without
reminiscent echoes. While it has a certain classic quaintness, it has
also vitality and concrete forcefulness.

Her metrical command is varied, and she employs many forms with
assurance of touch. She has a group of Alexandrian songs in _A
Roadside Harp_, most of them with beauty of measure and atmosphere.
Here, in three lines, is a rhythmic achievement:

Me, deep-tresséd meadows, take to your loyal keeping,
Hard by the swish of sickles ever in Aulon sleeping,
Philophron, old and tired, and glad to be done with reaping!

How the “swish of sickles” conveys their very sound! This ability to
put into certain words both the music and the picture distinguishes
Miss Guiney. In her sonnet upon the “Pre-Reformation Churches about
Oxford,” even the names that would seem to suggest an inartistic
enumeration are made to convey the sense of sabbatical sweetness and
calm and to visualize the scene.

_The Sonnets Written at Oxford_ mark, as a whole, her finest work in
this form, although the twelve London sonnets are full of strong lines
and images, and several of them, such as “Doves” and “In The Docks,”
take swift hold upon one’s sympathy. The former flashes a picture at
the close, by way of rebuke to the over-solicitous mood, which is not
only charming from the artistic side, but opens the eyes in sudden
content and gladness.

Ah, if man’s boast, and man’s advance be vain,
And yonder bells of Bow, loud-echoing home,
And the lone Tree foreknow it, and the Dome,
The monstrous island of the middle main;
If each inheritor must sink again
Under his sires, as falleth where it clomb
Back on the gone wave the disheartened foam—
I crossed Cheapside, and this was in my brain.

What folly lies in forecasts and in fears!
Like a wide laughter sweet and opportune,
Wet from the fount, three hundred doves of Paul’s
Shook their warm wings, drizzling the golden noon,
And in their rain-cloud vanished up the walls.
“God keeps,” I said, “our little flock of years.”

This note of spiritual assurance appears throughout Miss Guiney’s
work, speaking in her sonnet, “The Acknowledgment,” and again and
again in other poems. She has the mystic’s passion for the One Good,
the One Beauty—

O hidden, O perfect, O desired, the first and the final fair!—

and gives it impassioned expression in the lines, “Deo Optimo Maximo,”

All else for use, one only for desire;
Thanksgiving for the good, but thirst for Thee:
Up from the best, whereof no man need tire,
Impel Thou me.

Delight is menace, if Thou brood not by,
Power a quicksand, Fame a gathering jeer.
Oft as the morn, (though none of earth deny
These three are dear,)

Wash me of them, that I may be renewed,
Nor wall in clay mine agonies and joys;
O close my hand upon Beatitude!
Not on her toys.

And here at the last is the tenderest Nativity song for which
dedicated words were ever found; so quaint, so gentle, so reverent, so
blended of sweet and sad. The second stanza is an artist’s grouping
from life:

The Ox he openeth wide the doore
And from the snowe he calls her inne,
And he hath seen her Smile therefore,
Our Lady without sinne.
Now soone from sleepe
A starre shall leap,
And soon arrive both King and Hinde;
_Amen_, _Amen_:
But O, the place co’d I but find!

The Ox hath husht his voyce and bent
Trewe eyes of Pitty ore the Mow,
And on his lovelie Neck, forspent,
The Blessed lays her Browe.
Around her feet
Full Warme and Sweete
His Bowerie Breath doth meeklie dwell;
_Amen_, _Amen_:
But sore am I with Vaine Travél!

The Ox is Host in Juda’s stall,
And Host of more than onelie one,
For close she gathereth withal
Our Lorde, her littel Sonne:
Glad Hinde and King
Their Gyfte may bring,
But wo’d to-night my Teares were there;
_Amen_, _Amen_:
Between her Bosom and His hayre!

To sum up Miss Guiney’s work, as well as one may, in a sentence,—it
has no flaccid thought. There is fibre in all she writes; fibre and
nerve. Were the fervor and passion which she throws into her songs of
valor to be diffused throughout her verse, making its appeal more
intimate and personal, she would speak more widely, but scarcely to
more appreciative readers than now delight in her individuality.