Minstrel of moisture! silent when high noon
Shows her tanned face among the thirsting clover
And parching meadows, thy tenebrious tune
Wakes with the dew or when the rain is over.
Thou troubadour of wetness and damp lover
Of all cool things! admitted comrade boon
Of twilight’s hush, and little intimate
Of eve’s first fluttering star and delicate
Round rim of rainy moon!
Art trumpeter of Dwarfland? does thy horn
Inform the gnomes and goblins of the hour
When they may gambol under haw and thorn,
Straddling each winking web and twinkling flower?
Or bell-ringer of Elfland? whose tall tower
The liriodendron is? from whence is borne
The elfin music of thy bell’s deep bass
To summon fairies to their starlit maze,
To summon them or warn.
What a happy bit of realism is that of the toadstool “bulging, moony
white, through loosening loam”! The second of the stanzas may be too
Keats-like in atmosphere to have been achieved with unconsciousness of
the fact, be that as it may, it is a bit of sheer beauty, as the last
is of dainty fancy.
But nature, either realistically or romantically, is not all that Mr.
Cawein writes of, though it must be said that his verse upon other
themes is so largely tinctured with his nature passion that one rarely
comes upon a poem whose illustrations are not drawn more or less from
this source, making it difficult to find lyrics wholly upon other
themes. Because of his opulent metrical variety, Mr. Cawein is less
lyrical than as if he sang in simpler measures. His lyrics, indeed,
are in the main his least distinguished work, having frequently, if
highly musical, too slight a motive; or if more consequent in motive,
not being sufficiently musical; or the melody may be unimpeachable and
the theme too romantic to have convincing value, as “Mignon,” “Helen,”
“The Quest,” “Floridian,” etc. Indeed, Mr. Cawein sounds the
troubadour note all too frequently in his lyrical love poems, which
are not without a lightsome grace of phrase and fancy, as becomes this
style of verse; but it is likely to be a superficial note, heard but
to be forgotten. He can, however, strike a deeper chord, as in the
poem called “The End of All,” or in that from an earlier volume,
bringing a poignant undertone in its strong, calm utterance, beginning
Go your own ways. Who shall persuade me now
To seek with high face for a star of hope?
Though sands be black and bitter black the sea,
Night lie before me and behind me night,
And God within far Heaven refuse to light
The consolation of the dawn for me,—
Between the shadowy bourns of Heaven and Hell,
It is enough love leaves my soul to dwell
In such notes as these controlled by the Vox Humana stop, Mr. Cawein
best reveals himself; another, coming from the heart rather than the
fancy, is “Nightshade,” from the volume called _Intimations of the
Beautiful_, a record of life’s bringing to judgment the late-proffered
love, unyielded when desired.
“A Wild Iris” is in the later and finer manner, but although love is
the spirit of the song, it is embodied chiefly in terms of nature, and
would not reveal a different phase of his work from that already
shown. This, too, is the case with the two lighter lyrics, “Love In A
Day” and “In The Lane,” each with a most taking measure; the second a
rural song lilting into this note:
When the hornet hangs in the hollyhock,
And the brown bee drones i’ the rose,
And the west is a red-streaked four-o’-clock,
And summer is near its close—
It’s—Oh, for the gate and the locust lane
And dusk and dew and home again!
Mr. Cawein has frequent poems in celebration of the farm, not only its
picturesque cheer, but its dignity and finer idealism. “A Song For
Labor” is one of the best; also “Old Homes,” an idyllic picture of the
Southern plantation, with its gentle haze of reminiscence:
Old homes among the hills! I love their gardens,
Their old rock-fences, that our day inherits;
Their doors, ’round which the great trees stand like wardens;
Their paths, down which the shadows march like spirits;
Broad doors and paths that reach bird-haunted gardens.
I see them gray among their ancient acres,
Severe of front, their gables lichen-sprinkled,—
Like gentle-hearted, solitary Quakers,
Grave and religious, with kind faces wrinkled,—
Serene among their memory-hallowed acres.
Their gardens, banked with roses and with lilies—
Those sweet aristocrats of all the flowers—
Where Springtime mints her gold in daffodillies,
And Autumn coins her marigolds in showers,
And all the hours are toilless as the lilies.
* * * * *
Old homes! old hearts! Upon my soul forever
Their peace and gladness lie like tears and laughter;
Like love they touch me, through the years that sever,
With simple faith; like friendship, draw me after
The dreamy patience that is theirs forever.
Mr. Cawein blends the mood and the picture in the simple tenderness of
these lines, with their unstriving felicity. Kentucky’s more strenuous
side also finds a chronicler in his verse: the tragedies of its
mountains are told in one of the earlier volumes in such poems as “The
Moonshiner,” “The Raid,” and “Dead Man’s Run;” and in _Weeds by the
Wall_, in that graphic poem “Feud,” sketching with the pencil of a
realist the road to the spot
… where all the land
Seems burdened with some curse,
and where, sunk in obliterative growth of briers, burrs, and ragweed,
… huddled house
Where men have murdered men,
and where a terrified silence still broods, for
The place seems thinking of that time of fear
And dares not breathe a sound.
Mr. Howells, in an appreciation of Mr. Cawein’s work, after the
appearance of _Weeds by the Wall_, spoke of this poem declaring that
“What makes one think he will go far and long, and outlive both praise
and blame, is the blending of a sense of the Kentucky civilization in
such a poem as ‘Feud.’ Civilization may not be quite the word for the
condition of things suggested here, but there can be no doubt of the
dramatic and the graphic power that suggests it, and that imparts a
personal sense of the tragic squalor, the sultry drouth, the forlorn
wickedness of it all.” His poem “Ku Klux,” in a volume published some
time ago, is no less dramatic in touch and theme. Mr. Cawein knows how
to set his picture; the ominous portent of the night in which the dark
deed is done would be understood from these three lines alone:
The clouds blow heavy towards the moon.
The edge of the storm will reach it soon.
The kildee cries and the lonesome loon.
It may be said of Mr. Cawein’s work in general that it shows him to be
alert to impression, and gives abundant evidence that life presents
itself to him abrim with suggestion. Occasionally, as mentioned above,
he wanders too far into the romantic, or yields to the rhyming impulse
in a fallow time of thought; but when he throws this facile poetizing
by, and betakes himself to nature and life in the capacity of observer
and analyst, he produces work notable for its strength, fidelity, and
beauty. Metrically, in his earlier work he was influenced by various
poets he had read too well. “Intimations of the Beautiful,” occupying
a part of the volume bearing that name, would be one of his best
efforts, in thought and imaginative charm, were it not written in a
form developed from “In Memoriam,” so that one is haunted by the
metrical echo. The poem is devoted to interpretations of life and the
spirit, through nature; and has not a division without some revelation
from that book of the earth which Mr. Cawein has made his gospel. Its
observations, while couched in imagery that now and again tends to the
over-fanciful, are in the main consistent and artistic.
In his recent books, however, he adventures upon his way, seeing
wholly by the light of his own eyes, and portraying by the skill of
his own hand, so that his work has taken on personality and
individuality with each succeeding volume.
Its breath from the bourns of meadow and woodland brings with it a
stimulating fragrance, and one closes a book by Mr. Cawein, feeling
that he has been in some charmed spot under Southern skies where
Of honey and heat and weed and wheat
The day had made perfume.