POETRY, like life itself, eludes definition.
Matthew Arnold, despairing of finding a definition in terms, gave us at
least certain touch-stones of poetry. To our mind poetry is not limited
to verse. All the artistry in the world fails to preserve a thought that
does not in itself partake of the nature of immortality. We should be able
to say of a book, as Darrell Figgis remarks of a recent volume in the Nineteenth
Century: the poetry in this book is great because it was great before
ever it was woven into its verse. It is hardly possible, even with this
test and Arnold's touch-stones in view, to determine exactly where verse
as such ends and poetry begins. Yet this question is the crux of a controversy
between Harriet Monroe, the editor of Poetry, and Ella Wheeler Wilcox.
Miss Monroe accuses Mrs. Wilcox of having no soul and condemns heric lyric
work as mere verse. Mrs. Wilcox indignantly replies in the National
Magazine. She admits that she has written popular verse which makes
no claim to be anything else, but she also insists that she has made notable
contributions to the poetry of the country. Laugh and the world laughs
with you, Mrs. Wilcox characterizes as popular verse. She makes no more
exhalted claim for her famous four-line couplet :
By ELLA WHEELER WILCOX
THINKING of one thing all day long, at night
I fall asleep, brain weary and heart sore ;
But only for a little while. At three,
Sometimes at two, o'clock I wake and lie,
Staring out into darkness ; while my thoughts
Begin the weary treadmill-toil again,
From that white marriage morning of our youth
Down to this dreadful hour:
I see your face
Lit with the lovelight of the honeymoon ;
I hear your voice, that lingered on my name
As if it loved each letter ; and I feel
The clinging of your arms about my form,
Your kisses on my cheek--and long to break
The anguish of such memories with tears,
But cannot weep ; the fountain has run dry.
We were so young, so happy, and so full
Of keen sweet joy of life. I had no wish
Outside your pleasure ; and you loved me so
That when I sometimes felt a woman's need
For more serene expression of man's love
(The need to rest in calm affection's bay
And not sail ever on the stormy main),
Yet would I rouse myself to your desire ;
Meet ardent kiss with kisses just as warm ;
So nothing I could give should be denied.
And then our children came. Deep in my soul,
From the first hour of conscious motherhood,
I knew I should conserve myself for this
Most holy office ; knew God meant it so.
Yet even then, I held your wishes first;
And by my double duties lost the bloom
And freshness of my beauty ; and beheld
A look of disapproval in your eyes.
But with the coming of our precious child,
The lover's smile, tinged with the father's pride,
Returned again; and helped to make me strong;
And life was very sweet for both of us.
Another, and another birth, and twice
The little white hearse paused beside our door
And took away some portion of my youth
With my sweet babies. At the first you seemed
To suffer with me, standing very near ;
But when I wept too long you turned away,
And I was hurt, not realising then
My grief was selfish. I could see the change
Which motherhood and sorrow made in me ;
And when I saw the change that came to you,
Saw how your eyes looked past me when you talked,
And when I missed the love tone from your voice,
I did that foolish thing weak women do :
Complained and cried, accused you of neglect,
And made myself obnoxious in your sight.
And often, after you had left my side,
Alone I stood before my mirror, mad
With anger at my pallid cheeks, my dull
Unlighted eyes, my shrunken mother-breasts,
And wept, and wept, and faded more and more.
How could I hope to win back wandering love,
And make new flames in dying embers leap
By such ungracious means?
And then She came,
Firm-bosomed, round of cheek, with such young eyes,
And all the ways of youth. I, who had died
A thousand deaths in waiting the return
Of that old love look to your face once more--
Died yet again and went straight into hell
When I beheld it come at her approach.
My God, my God, how have I borne it all !
Yet since she had the power to wake that look--
The power to sweep the ashes from your heart
Of burned-out love of me, and light new fires,
One thing remained for me--to let you go.
I had no wish to keep the empty frame
From which the priceless picture had been wrenched.
Nor do I blame you ; it was not your fault :
You gave me all that most men can give--love
Of youth, of beauty, and of passion ; and
I gave you full return ; my womanhood
Matched well your manhood. Yet had you grown ill,
Or old, and unattractive from some cause,
(Less close than was my service unto you)
I should have clung the tighter to you, dear ;
And loved you, loved you, loved you more and more.
I grow so weary thinking of these things ;
Day in, day out ; and half the awful nights.
Current Opinion 56 (Mar. 1914): 218.
Courtesy of John M. Freiermuth.
|Back to Poem Index|