RICHARD BURTON

ABOUT a decade ago there came from the press a demure little book clad
soberly in Quaker garb, and hight gravely and mysteriously, _Dumb In
June_. The title alone would have piqued one’s curiosity as to the
contents of the volume, but the name of the author, Richard Burton,
was already known from magazine association with most of the songs in
the newly published collection, and also as literary editor of the
“Hartford Courant,” whence his well-considered criticisms were coming
to be quoted.

There was, then, a circle of initiates into whose hands _Dumb In June_
soon made its way, and quite as unerringly, in most cases, to their
hearts, and certain of these will tell you that _Dumb In June_ still
represents him most adequately; that it has a buoyancy and lyric joy
such as less often distinguishes his later work; and this point is
well taken from the consideration of magnetic touch and disillusioned
fancy; but is it quite reasonable to demand that “the earth and every
common sight” shall continue to be “apparelled in celestial light” to
the eyes of the poet when the years have brought the sober coloring to
our own? that Art shall be winged with the glory and the dream when
Life’s wings droop to the dust? Would it be the truest art that should
communicate only this impulse? Mr. Burton has not thought so: he has
set himself to incorporate, in the life that he touches, the glory and
the dream; to lift the weight, if ever so little, from the laden
wings, and he uses his gifts to that end.

This is not an ideal that can embody itself in lightsome, dawn-fresh
songs, as those that came, unsullied of pain, inviolate in hope, from
out his nature-taught years; but it is an ideal for which one should
barter, if need be, the mere lyric joy of that earlier time. To divine
the dumb emotion, the unexpectant desire, of the man of the streets,
and to become his interpreter, is a nobler achievement than to catch
in delicate fancies the airiest thoughts of Pan. The poet who remains
merely the voice of the wood-god, or the voice of the mystic, or the
voice of the scholar dreaming and aloof, may float a song over the
treetops, but it will not be known at the hearth, which is the final
test. Not to anticipate Mr. Burton’s later ideal, however, let us
return to _Dumb In June_ and go with him upon the way of nature,
unshadowed and elate.

It is interesting to note, in studying the formative time of many
poets, that nature is the first mistress of their vows, and a less
capricious one than they shall find again; hence their fealty to her
and their ardor of surrender. Life has not yet come by, and paused to
whisper the one word that shall become the logos of the soul; truth is
still in the cosmos, the absolute, and one despairs of reducing it to
the relative as he might of detaching a pencil of light from the rays
of the sun. Nature alone represents the evolved intelligence, the
harmony, the soul of the cosmos, and its ideal made real in law;
where, then, shall one begin his quest for truth more fittingly than
at the gate of nature, where Beauty is the portress and Beauty is the
guide?

[Illustration: Richard Burton]

Mr. Burton feels the vitality, the personality, of objects in the
outer world. There is no such thing in his conception as inert matter;
it is all pulsing with life and sensibility. To him May is a

Sweet comer
With the mood of a love-plighted lass,

and henceforth we picture her as coming blithely by with flower-filled
hands. This glimpsing of the May is from one of Mr. Burton’s later
songs, “The Quest of Summer,”—a poem full of color and atmosphere.
After deploring the spring’s withholding, it thrills to this note of
exultation:

But it came,
In a garment of sensitive flame
In the west, and a royal blue sky overhead,
With exuberant breath and the bloom of all things
Having wonders and wings,
Being risen elate from the dead.
Yea, it came with a flush
Of pied flowers, and a turbulent rush
Of spring-loosened waters, and an odorous hush
At nightfall,—and then I was glad
With the gladness of one who for militant months has been sad.

The very breath of spring is in this; one inhales it as he would a
quickening aroma; it thrills him with the sensuous delight in the
color, the perfume, the warmth, of the expanding air; and what
delicate feeling for the atmospheric value of words is that which
condenses a May twilight into “an odorous hush at nightfall.” The
words “odorous hush,” in this connection, have drawn together by
magnetic attraction; substitute for them their apparent equivalents,
“perfumed silence,” “fragrant quiet,” and the atmosphere has
evaporated as breath from a glass; but an “odorous hush” conveys the
sense of that suspended hour of a spring twilight when day pauses as
if hearkening, and silence falls palpably around,—that spiritual hour
when the flowers offer up their evening sacrifice at the coming of the
dew.

Apropos of the feeling for words and their niceties of distinction as
infusing what we term atmosphere into description, it may be said in
passing that while Mr. Burton’s sense of these values which is so keen
in his prose does not always stand him in equal stead in his poetry,
it is seldom lacking in his songs of nature.

One may dip into the out-of-door verse at random and come away with a
picture; witness this “Meadow Fancy”:

In the meadows yonder the wingéd wind
Makes billows along the grain;
With their sequence swift they bring to mind
The swash of the open main,

Till I smell the pungent brine, and hear—
Mine eyes grown dim—the cry
Of the sailor lads, and feel vague fear
Of the storm-wrack in the sky.

While the metaphorical idea in these strophes is not new, they record
with freehand strokes one of those suddenly suggestive moods that
nature assumes, one of the swift similitudes she flashes before us as
with conscious delight. Mr. Burton’s nature-outlook is all open-air
vision; no office desk looms darkly behind it, as is sometimes the
case in his other verse. It is the sort of inspiration that descends
upon one when he is afoot with his vision, roaming afield with beauty.
A leaf torn hastily from a notebook serves to catch the fleeting
spell; magnetism tips the pencil; and ink and type, those dread
non-conductors of impulse, cannot retard or neutralize its current.
This is, in a word, the charm that rests upon the little volume, _Dumb
In June_, in its various subjects. It would be idle to assert that it
is as strong work as Mr. Burton has done; but it is vivid and
magnetic, and touched but lightly with the _weltschmerz_ which life is
sure to cast upon maturer work. There is pain, but it is merely
artist-pain, in the ode that gives its name to the collection.

Among the few love poems in Mr. Burton’s first volume, “The Awakening”
is one of the truest in feeling; “Values” one of the blithest and
daintiest; “Still Days and Stormy,” reminiscent of Emily Dickinson in
manner, one of the most delicate, catching in charming phrase one of
the unanalyzed moods of love. The earlier volume has also a
captivating poem in the lighter vein, that sings itself into the
memory by its lilting rhythm and graceful rhyme-scheme, as well as by
its subject. It is the story of Shakespeare’s going a-wooing “Across
the Fields to Anne”:

How often in the summer-tide,
His graver business set aside,
Has stripling Will, the thoughtful-eyed,
As to the pipe of Pan,
Stepped blithesomely with lover’s pride
Across the fields to Anne.

It must have been a merry mile,
This summer stroll by hedge and stile,
With sweet foreknowledge all the while
How sure the pathway ran
To dear delights of kiss and smile,
Across the fields to Anne.

The silly sheep that graze to-day,
I wot, they let him go his way,
Nor once looked up, as who should say:
“It is a seemly man.”
For many lads went wooing aye
Across the fields to Anne.

The oaks, they have a wiser look;
Mayhap they whispered to the brook:
“The world by him shall yet be shook,
It is in nature’s plan;
Though now he fleets like any rook
Across the fields to Anne.”

And I am sure, that on some hour
Coquetting soft ’twixt sun and shower,
He stooped and broke a daisy-flower
With heart of tiny span,
And bore it as a lover’s dower
Across the fields to Anne.

While from her cottage garden-bed
She plucked a jasmine’s goodlihede,
To scent his jerkins brown instead;
Now since that love began,
What luckier swain than he who sped
Across the fields to Anne?

_Dumb In June_ has many foregleams of the wider vision which
distinguishes Mr. Burton’s present work, as shown in his sonnet upon
the Christ-head by Angelo, in “Day Laborers,” and in that noble poem,
“Mortis Dignitas,” imbued with reverence and touched with the
simplicity of the verities. It must be appraised with the best work of
his pen, not only for its theme, but for the direct and unadorned word
and measure so integral with the thought:

Here lies a common man. His horny hands,
Crossed meekly as a maid’s upon his breast,
Show marks of toil, and by his general dress
You judge him to have been an artisan.
Doubtless, could all his life be written out,
The story would not thrill nor start a tear;
He worked, laughed, loved, and suffered in his time,
And now rests peacefully, with upturned face
Whose look belies all struggle in the past.
A homely tale; yet, trust me, I have seen
The greatest of the earth go stately by,
While shouting multitudes beset the way,
With less of awe. The gap between a king
And me, a nameless gazer in the crowd,
Seemed not so wide as that which stretches now
Betwixt us two, this dead one and myself.
Untitled, dumb, and deedless, yet he is
Transfigured by a touch from out the skies
Until he wears, with all-unconscious grace,
The strange and sudden Dignity of Death.

This is a fitting transition to _Lyrics of Brotherhood_, which,
together with his latest volume, presents the phase of Mr. Burton’s
work most representative of his feeling toward life. Any poet worthy
of the name will come at last to a vision that only his eyes can see.
Life will rise before him in a different semblance from that she
presents to another; and if Beauty has lured him on, votary to that he
might not wholly see, Life’s yearning face wears no disguise, and,
once having looked upon it with seeing eyes, it is an image not to be
effaced. There are many who look and never see,—the majority, perhaps.
Their eyes are holden by the shapes that cross the inner sight, by
hope and memory and their own ideal. They shall see only by one of
those “flashes struck from midnight” of a personal tragedy—and often
enough we gain our vision thus.

There is a penetrative insight, that of the social economist, for
example, that may possess no ray of sympathetic divination. It may
probe to the heart of a condition, correlate causes and tendencies and
divine effects, all from a scientific motive as professional as the
practice of law, and as keen and cold. One may even be an avowed
philanthropist and never come in sight of a human soul, as will the
poet who looks upon the individual not as a case to be classified and
tabulated, but as one walking step to step with him, though more
heavily, whom he may reach out and touch now and then with the
quickening hand of sympathy, and whose load he may bear bewhiles on
the journey.

Such a poet is Mr. Burton, whose nature is shapen to one image with
his fellows. To him literature is not an entity to be weighed only in
the scales of beauty by the balances of Flaubert; it is to-day’s and
to-morrow’s speech. In his prose, especially, this directness is
marked; but in his poems one feels rather the inner relation with
their spirit, for the magnetism of touch is less communicative than in
the more flexible medium of prose. What is communicative, however, is
the feeling that Mr. Burton is living at the heart of things where the
fusion is taking place that makes us one. _Lyrics of Brotherhood_ is a
genuine clasp of hand to hand, nor is he dismayed by the grime of the
hand, for the primal unities are primal sanctities to him. Longing,
strife, defeat, achievement, are all interpreted to him of personal
emotion, solvent in personal sympathy.

_Lyrics of Brotherhood_ opens with a poem that redeems from odium one
opprobrious symbol as old as time. It is that catch-penny epithet,
“black sheep,” that we bandy about with such flippancy, tossing it as
loose change in a character appraisal and little recking what
truth-valuation may lie behind it. It is good to feel that the impulse
to redeem this symbol came to Mr. Burton and wrought so well within
him, for “Black Sheep” is one of his truest inspirations in feeling
and expression:

From their folded mates they wander far,
Their ways seem harsh and wild;
They follow the beck of a baleful star,
Their paths are dream-beguiled.

Yet haply they sought but a wider range,
Some loftier mountain-slope,
And little recked of the country strange
Beyond the gates of hope.

And haply a bell with a luring call
Summoned their feet to tread
Midst the cruel rocks, where the deep pitfall
And the lurking snare are spread.

Maybe, in spite of their tameless days
Of outcast liberty,
They’re sick at heart for the homely ways
Where their gathered brothers be.

And oft at night, when the plains fall dark
And the hills loom large and dim,
For the Shepherd’s voice they mutely hark,
And their souls go out to him.

Meanwhile, “Black sheep! Black sheep!” we cry,
Safe in the inner fold;
And maybe they hear, and wonder why,
And marvel, out in the cold.

Throughout Mr. Burton’s work there is a warm feeling for the simple
tendernesses, the unblazoned heroisms of life; the homely joys, the
homely valors, the unknown consecrations, the unconfessed
aspirations,—in a word, for all that songless melody of the common
soul whose note we do not catch in the public clamor. There is a
tendency, however, in his later work that, from an artistic
standpoint, is carried too far,—the tendency to analogize. Everything
in life presents an analogy to him who is alert for it; and the habit
of looking for analogies and symbols and making poems thereon grows
upon one with the fatal facility of punning, upon a punster. A symbol,
or the subtler and more profound analysis that seeks the causal
relation of dissimilar things, which we term analogy, must have the
magic of revelation; it must flash upon the mind some similitude
unthought or unguessed. Emerson is the past-master of this symbolistic
magic; they bring him rubies, and they become to him souls, of

Friends to friends unknown:
Tides that should warm each neighboring life
Are locked in frozen stone.

Here is the eye of the revelator, for who, looking upon rubies, would
have seen in them what Emerson saw, and yet what a truth bides at the
heart of this symbol!

Mr. Burton has several analogies, such as “On the Line,” “North
Light,” and “Black Sheep,” quoted above, that are excellently wrought;
indeed, it is not so much the manner in which the analogy is
elaborated that one would criticise, as the frequently too-obvious
nature of it.

The danger to a poet in dropping too often into analogy is that he
will become a singer of effects, a watcher of manifestations, and
forget to look for the gleam within himself and make it the light of
his seeing. If poetry become too much a matter of observation, of
report, vitality goes from it; for imagination is stultified and
emotion quenched, and poetry at its best is a union of imagination and
emotion. Mr. Burton’s poems in the main escape this indictment, but
their danger lies along this line. His perception of identities is so
acute, his sympathy so catholic, that not only is nothing human alien
to him, but there is nothing in which he cannot find a theme for
poetry. For illustration, there is an imaginative beauty in the symbol
of the homing bird, but its artistic value is lost from over-use. Mr.
Burton has some pleasing lines upon it, reaching in the final couplet
a stronger tone, but from the nature of the case they cannot possess
any fresh suggestion; on the contrary in such lines as “Nostalgia,”
“In The Shadows,” “The First Song,” “If We Had The Time,” though less
poetic in theme, there is a personal note; one feels back of them the
great weariness, the futile yearning of life. Some of the elemental
emotion is in them, the personal appeal that is so much Mr. Burton’s
note when he does not give himself too much to things without. Even
though one use the visible event but as a sign of the spirit, as the
objective husk of the subjective truth, it is a vision which, if
over-indulged, leads at length away from the living, the creative
passion within. One philosophizes, one contemplates, but the angel
descends less often to trouble the waters within one’s own being, and
it is, after all, for this movement that one should chiefly watch.

_Message and Melody_, Mr. Burton’s latest collection, opens with
perhaps his strongest and most representative poem, “The Song of the
Unsuccessful.” It is a poem provocative of thought, and upon which
innumerable queries follow. Its opening lines utter a heresy against
modern thinking; our friends, the Christian Scientists and Mental
Scientists and Spiritual Scientists, would at once cross swords with
Mr. Burton and wage valiant conflict over the initial statement that
God has “barred” from any one the “gifts that are good to hold.”
Indeed, the entire poem would come under their indictment for the same
reason. But something would be won from the conflict; the stuff from
which thought is made is in the poem. In the mean time let us have it
before we consider it further. Here are the types marshalled before
us; we recognize them all as they appear:

We are the toilers from whom God barred
The gifts that are good to hold.
We meant full well, and we tried full hard,
And our failures were manifold.

And we are the clan of those whose kin
Were a millstone dragging them down.
Yea, we had to sweat for our brother’s sin
And lose the victor’s crown.

The seeming-able, who all but scored,
From their teeming tribe we come:
What was there wrong with us, O Lord,
That our lives were dark and dumb?

The men ten-talented, who still
Strangely missed of the goal,
Of them we are: it seems Thy will
To harrow some in soul.

We are the sinners, too, whose lust
Conquered the higher claims;
We sat us prone in the common dust,
And played at the devil’s games.

We are the hard-luck folk, who strove
Zealously, but in vain:
We lost and lost, while our comrades throve,
And still we lost again.

We are the doubles of those whose way
Was festal with fruits and flowers;
Body and brain we were sound as they,
But the prizes were not ours.

A mighty army our full ranks make;
We shake the graves as we go;
The sudden stroke and the slow heartbreak,
They both have brought us low.

And while we are laying life’s sword aside,
Spent and dishonored and sad,
Our epitaph this, when once we have died,
“The weak lie here, and the bad.”

We wonder if this can be really the close,
Life’s fever cooled by death’s trance;
And we cry, though it seem to our dearest of foes,
“God give us another chance!”

The ease of the poem, the crisp Anglo-Saxon which it uses, the
forthright stating of the case for the weaker side, and the humanity
underlying it, are admirable; and, further, from an artistic
standpoint it is a stronger piece of work than it would have been had
its philosophy chimed better with modern thinking. The unsuccessful
are speaking; their view-point and not necessarily the author’s is
presented. To have tacked on a clause additional, with a hint of the
inner laws that govern success, might have saved the philosophy from
impeachment as to falling back upon Providence; but it would have been
a decidedly false note put into the mouth of the unsuccessful. We may
say at once that

The men ten-talented who still
Strangely missed of the goal,

were the Amiels who suffered paralysis of the will to benumb them,
rather than those whom it was the will of the Creator to “harrow in
soul;” but it would scarcely be expected of the Amiels themselves to
analyze their deficiencies thus openly to the multitude. Impotence of
will, however, is not at the root of all failure; who can deny that
there is

The clan of those whose kin
Were a millstone dragging them down;

that there are

The hard-luck folk who strove
Zealously, but in vain;

and

The seeming-able, who all but scored,

who put forth apparently more effort to score than did many of the
victors, but who were waylaid by some invidious circumstance, or who
failed to “grasp the skirts of happy chance” as the flying goddess
passed them?

Mr. Burton’s poem is too broad to discuss in the limits of a brief
sketch; it would furnish a text for the sociologist. All the
complexities of modern conditions lie back of its plaint, which
becomes an arraignment. One feels that if God be not within the
shadow, he should at least have given Responsibility and Will surer
means of keeping watch above their own. The Omaric figure of the Wheel
“busied with despite” rises before one as a symbol of this whirling
strife where only the strongest may cling, and where the swift
revolving thing, having thrown the weakest off, makes of them a
cushion for its turning; or, in Omar’s phrase, “It speeds to grind
upon the open wound.”

This is the apparent fact; but within it as axle to the Wheel is the
law upon which it rotates, the law of individual choice. Each was
given his supreme gift; his word was whispered to him; if he failed to
hear it, or heed it, or express it in the predestined way, the flying
Wheel casts him to the void, but the law is not impeached thereby.
Outside this law, however, as spokes to the Wheel, are the innumerable
radiations of human laws and conditions, so that one may scarcely obey
the primary command of his nature if he would, and often loses sight
of it as the principle upon which his destiny is revolving. Mr.
Burton’s poem goes beyond the cold-blooded outlook upon the
unsuccessful as merely those who are cast from the Wheel, and presents
the truer view that they are by no means always the incompetents or
degenerates:

We are the doubles of those whose way
Was festal with fruits and flowers;
Body and brain we were sound as they,
But the prizes were not ours.

Why? Let the sociologist or the psychologist determine; in the mean
time we have the quickened sympathy that follows upon the poem.

_Message and Melody_ has a group of songs turning upon some music
theme; of these “Second Fiddle” is the most notable. “In A Theatre”
discloses a narrative vein and shows that Mr. Burton has a keen sense
of the dramatic in daily life. He has for some time been working upon
a group of narrative poems with a prologue connecting them, which are
soon to be issued, and which, judging from the fugitive examples in
his other volumes, will disclose an interesting phase of his talent.

To leave the impression of Mr. Burton’s work that is most
characteristic,—the impression of its tenderness, its sympathy, its
emphasis upon the essential things,—one can scarcely do better than
to summarize it in his own well-known lines, “The Human Touch”:

High thoughts and noble in all lands
Help me; my soul is fed by such.
But ah, the touch of lips and hands,—
The human touch!
Warm, vital, close, life’s symbols dear,—
These need I most, and now, and here.