IN nothing, more than in his attitude toward nature, does the modern
betray himself. Ours is the questioning age, the truth-seeking, the
scientific age; when, for illustration, Maeterlinck laid his
philosophy by to observe with infinite pains the habits of the bee and
to record, without the intrusion of too many deductions, the amazing
facts as nature passed them in review before his eyes,—he became the
naturalist-philosopher, selling days, not for speculations, but for
laws. To the poet also has come the desire which came to the
philosopher to demonstrate the truth within the beauty; to penetrate
to the finer law at the heart of things; in short, there has arisen
what one may term the poet-naturalist, and in the recent work of Mr.
Madison Cawein we have perhaps the most characteristic illustration
among our own poets of the younger school, of this phase of

Before considering it, however, one must trace briefly Mr. Cawein’s
evolutionary steps through the haunted ways of nature in its
imaginative and romantic phases, which enthralled him first, by no
means wholly, but predominantly, and of which he has left many records
in his volume, _Myth and Romance_. Of the more artistic poems, worthy
to be put in comparison with his later work, there are several from
the opening group of the collection, as these picturesque lines
containing the query:

What wood-god, on this water’s mossy curb,
Lost in reflection of earth’s loveliness,
Did I, just now, unconsciously disturb?
I, who haphazard, wandering at a guess,
Came on this spot, wherein, with gold and flame
Of buds and blooms, the season writes its name.—
Ah me! could I have seen him ere alarm
Of my approach aroused him from his calm!
As he, part Hamadryad and, mayhap,
Part Faun, lay here; who left the shadow warm
As wild-wood rose, and filled the air with balm
Of his sweet breath as with ethereal sap.

Or from the same group these charming glimpses of “an unseen presence
that eludes”:—

Perhaps a Dryad, in whose tresses cling
The loamy odors of old solitudes,
Who, from her beechen doorway, calls;

* * * * *

Or, haply ’tis a Naiad now who slips,
Like some white lily, from her fountain’s glass,
While from her dripping hair and breasts and hips,
The moisture rains cool music on the grass.

* * * * *

Or now it is an Oread—whose eyes
Are constellated dusk—who stands confessed,
As naked as a flow’r; her heart’s surprise,
Like morning’s rose, mantling her brow and breast:
She, shrinking from my presence, all distressed
Stands for a startled moment ere she flies,
Her deep hair blowing, up the mountain crest,
Wild as a mist that trails along the dawn.
And is’t her footfalls lure me? or the sound
Of airs that stir the crisp leaf on the ground?
And is’t her body glimmers on yon rise?
Or dog-wood blossoms snowing on the lawn?

[Illustration: Madison Cawein]

Who shall deny both charm and accomplishment to these lines,
particularly to the glimpse of the dryad in her “beechen doorway,” but
on the next page of the same volume occurs this more realistic
apostrophe addressed to the “Rain-Crow,” giving a foretokening hint of
his later manner of observation, and who shall say that it has not a
truer charm and accomplishment?

Can freckled August,—drowsing warm and blonde
Beside a wheat-shock in the white-topped mead,
In her hot hair the oxeyed daisies wound,—
O bird of rain, lend aught but sleepy heed
To thee? when no plumed weed, no feather’d seed
Blows by her; and no ripple breaks the pond,
That gleams like flint between its rim of grasses,
Through which the dragonfly forever passes
Like splintered diamond.

Drouth weights the trees, and from the farmhouse eaves
The locust, pulse-beat of the summer day,
Throbs; and the lane, that shambles under leaves
Limp with the heat—a league of rutty way—
Is lost in dust; and sultry scents of hay
Breathe from the panting meadows heaped with sheaves—
Now, now, O bird, what hint is there of rain,
In thirsty heaven or on burning plain,
That thy keen eye perceives?

But thou art right. Thou prophesiest true.
For hardly hast thou ceased thy forecasting,
When, up the western fierceness of scorched blue,
Great water-carrier winds their buckets bring
Brimming with freshness. How their dippers ring
And flash and rumble! lavishing dark dew
On corn and forestland, that, streaming wet,
Their hilly backs against the downpour set,
Like giants vague in view.

The butterfly, safe under leaf and flower,
Has found a roof, knowing how true thou art;
The bumble-bee, within the last half-hour,
Has ceased to hug the honey to its heart;
While in the barnyard, under shed and cart,
Brood-hens have housed.—But I, who scorned thy power,
Barometer of the birds,—like August there,—
Beneath a beech, dripping from foot to hair,
Like some drenched truant, cower.

This, however, is airy imagination as compared with the naturalist
fidelity of much of Mr. Cawein’s work in _Weeds by the Wall_, _A Voice
on the Wind_, and in _Kentucky Poems_,—to which Mr. Edmund Gosse
contributes a sympathetic introduction,—books chiefly upon nature,
occasionally reverting to the mythological or more imaginative phase
of the subject, but in the main set to reveal the fact, with its aura
of beauty; for it is never the purely elemental side of a
nature-manifestation that presents itself to Mr. Cawein, but always
the fact haloed by its poetic penumbra. Indeed, the limitation of his
earlier work lay in the excess of fancy over reflection and art; but
his growth has been away from the romantic toward the realistic and
individual, and upon this side its best assurance for the future is
given. Mr. Cawein has yet far too facile a pen not to be betrayed by
it into excesses both of production and fancy. He writes too much to
keep to the standard set in his best work of the past two or three
years, and lacks still to a great degree the self-scrutiny which would
reject much that he includes; but granting all this, it must be
apparent to any reader of his work that he is not a singer making
verse for diversion, but one to whom poetry is the very breath of his
spirit, one who lives by this air, and can by no other; and while it
is one thing to be driven through vision-haunted days by beauty’s
urgence and unrest, and another to body forth the vision in the calm;
one thing to have had the mystery whispered by a thousand wordless
voices, and another to communicate it in terms of revealing truth—it
is notable in Mr. Cawein’s verse that he is teaching his hand to obey
him more surely each year, and is producing work that quickens one’s
perception of the world without, and adds to his sum of beauty. It is
serious work, work with purpose, and while its fancy still runs at
times to the fantastic, it shows so marked a growth in technique and
spirit from year to year that one may well let to-morrow take care of
to-morrow with a poet who brings to his art the ideal which inspires
Mr. Cawein.

To return, then, to his distinctive field, Kentucky, and his
characteristic note of nature, one observes that a hand-book of the
flora of his state could doubtless be compiled from his poems, so do
they leave the beaten path in their range of observation; but it would
be a botany plus imagination and sympathy, analysts keener than
microscopes, and in it would be recorded the habits of the bluet, the
jewel-weed, the celandine, the black-cohosh, the bell-flower, the
lobelia, the elecampane, the oxalis, the touch-me-not, the
Indian-pipe, and many another unused to hear its name rehearsed in

One follows the feet of September to the forest

Windowed wide with azure, doored with green,
Through which rich glimmers of her robe were seen—
Now, like some deep marsh-mallow, rosy gold;
Now like the great Joe-Pye-weed, fold on fold
Of heavy mauve; and now, like the intense
Massed iron-weed, a purple opulence;

or wanders under the Hunter’s Moon to watch the frost spirits

… with fine fingers, phantom-cold,
Splitting the wahoo’s pods of rose, and thin
The bittersweet’s balls o’ gold
To show the coal-red berries packed within.

Autumn is apparently, however, little to his liking, and in his
attitude toward it he reveals the Southerner; for it is not only
Kentucky flora and fauna, but Kentucky climate which Mr. Cawein
celebrates, treating Autumn not with the buoyancy that to a Northerner
renders it a season of lusty infection, but almost wholly in its
aspect of sadness. In his volume called _Undertones_ he has a group of
poems upon the withdrawing year, sounding only this note, which is the
prevalent one when touching upon the same theme in his other volumes.
He glimpses

… the Fall
Like some lone woman in a ruined hall
Dreaming of desolation and the shroud;
Or through decaying woodlands goes, down-bowed,
Hugging the tatters of her gipsy shawl;

and speaks elsewhere of

… the days gray-huddled in the haze;
Whose foggy footsteps drip.

Winter is encountered with far scantier cheer, and rarely receives the
grace of salutation, as its face appears dire and malevolent to this
lover of the sun. To follow Mr. Cawein’s work with such a purpose in
view would be to present an interesting study in climatic psychology,
for though no mention were made of the section in which he writes, the
internal evidence is sufficient to localize the poems. Not alone the
gracious side of the Southern summer is presented, but the fearful
time of drouth when

The hot sunflowers by the glaring pike
Lift shields of sultry brass; the teasel tops,
Pink-thorned, advance with bristling spike on spike
Against the furious sunlight. Field and copse
Are sick with summer: now, with breathless stops,
The locusts cymbal; now grasshoppers beat
Their castanets: and rolled in dust, a team,—
Like some mean life wrapped in its sorry dream,—
An empty wagon rattles through the heat.

This is vivid picturing and a fine touch of realism fused with
imagination which compares the team rolled in dust to

“Some mean life wrapped in its sorry dream.”

Immediately following the poem upon “Drouth,” of which there are
several stanzas sketched with minuteness, occurs one entitled “Before
the Rain,” opening with these pictorial lines:

Before the rain, low in the obscure east,
Weak and morose the moon hung, sickly gray;
Around its disc the storm mists, cracked and creased,
Wove an enormous web, wherein it lay
Like some white spider hungry for its prey.
Vindictive looked the scowling firmament,
In which each star, that flashed a dagger ray,
Seemed filled with malice of some dark intent.

The moon caught in its creased web of storm mists is another
well-visioned image. Mr. Cawein carries the record on to a third poem,
picturing the “Broken Drouth;” all are notable for the infusion of
atmosphere,—climatic atmosphere, in this case; and indeed of this
palpable sort there is plenty, infused into words that fairly parch
the page in such poems as “Heat,” or “To the Locust,” which give
abundant evidence that Mr. Cawein knows whereof he speaks and is not
supposing a case. The stanzas to “The Grasshopper” will deepen this
conviction when one looks them up in the volume called _Weeds by the

Mr. Cawein has poems in celebration of many other of the creatures
whom he links in fellowship with man in his keenly observant verse.
“The Twilight Moth,” “The Leaf Cricket,” “The Tree Toad,” “The
Chipmunk,” and even the despised “Screech-Owl,” are observed and
celebrated with impartial sympathy and love. He shelters in the wood
during a summer rain to learn where each tiny fellow of the earth and
air bestows himself, and notes that the “lichen-colored moths” are
pressed “like knots against the trunks of trees;” that the bees are
wedged like “clots of pollen” in hollow blooms, and that the “mantis,
long-clawed, furtive, lean,” and the dragonfly are housed together
beneath the wild-grape’s leaves and gourds. Each creature’s haunt,
’neath rock or root, or frail roof-bloom, is determined as a
naturalist might lie in wait during the summer storm to record for
Science’s sake each detail of this forest tenantry. Imagination has,
however, touched it to beauty, while losing none of the fidelity.

To the “Twilight Moth,” “gnome wrought of moonbeam fluff and
gossamer,” he addresses in another poem these delicate lines:

Dusk is thy dawn; when Eve puts on her state
Of gold and purple in the marbled west,
Thou comest forth like some embodied trait,
Or dim conceit, a lily-bud confessed;
Or, of a rose, the visible wish; that, white,
Goes softly messengering through the night,
Whom each expectant flower makes its guest.

All day the primroses have thought of thee,
Their golden heads close-haremed from the heat;
All day the mystic moonflowers silkenly
Veiled snowy faces,—that no bee might greet
Or butterfly that, weighed with pollen, passed;—
Keeping Sultana charms for thee, at last,
Their lord, who comest to salute each sweet.

Cool-throated flowers that avoid the day’s
Too fervid kisses; every bud that drinks
The tipsy dew and to the starlight plays
Nocturnes of fragrance, thy winged shadow links
In bonds of secret brotherhood and faith;
O bearer of their order’s shibboleth,
Like some pale symbol fluttering o’er these pinks.

The final line of this stanza has a certain thinness, and in that
above, the ending which turns “sweet” to a noun is too evidently a
matter of expediency; but with these exceptions the stanzas are
charming, as are the unquoted ones following them. Before turning to
other phases of Mr. Cawein’s work, here is a glimpse of the “Tree
Toad,” pictured with quaint delicacy and fancy:

Secluded, solitary on some underbough,
Or cradled in a leaf, ’mid glimmering light,
Like Puck thou crouchest: haply watching how
The slow toad stool comes bulging, moony white,
Through loosening loam; or how, against the night,
The glow-worm gathers silver to endow
The darkness with; or how the dew conspires
To hang at dusk with lamps of chilly fires
Each blade that shrivels now.

* * * * *