VOICES OF THE LIVING POETS

     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 :
 

We are not sure that Mrs. Wilcox is not underestimation this little poem. We feel certain that some of her things that have been reprinted in these pages are not surpassed in contemporary American letters. Real poetry and real life throb in the following poem by Mrs. Wilcox which we are indebted to the Cosmopolitan:
 

DIVORCE

                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.


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