Genius, and other essays/Guy Wetmore Carryl

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Genius, and other essays by Edmund Clarence Stedman
Guy Wetmore Carryl

IF Guy Carryl had belonged to an earlier generation, it may be conjectured that he would have become known chiefly as a poet. Such more certainly would have been the case if he had grown up in rural life, apart from the opportunities for general literary work that, as it were, came to him from the first. The lyrical bent was strong within him. This might almost be inferred from one little poem which he wrote, while still a lad, on the death of a child. It contains a tender conceit, expressed with the grace and feeling that have warranted its preservation in a collection of his maturer serious verse.

His early writings, grave or gay, were often in metrical form, but none of the self-conscious type that marks the callow dreamer. They were the bright improvisations of a young man who inherited, besides the poet's ear and voice, a sense of the mirthful, and the impulse to fashion whatever could lighten the heart of a child, or "that child's heart within the man's" which even the luckless still retain. The bulk of his diversified and abundant early work was of the most buoyant nature possible. It could scarcely have been otherwise, with his unique facility and irrepressible zest in life.

Life must have seemed very fair to him, as he himself seemed to others, when I first knew him in his student days. He did everything with a happy ease, and was apparently without a care. Handsome, healthy, debonair,—a youth in years and bearing, a man in his accomplishments,—he surely was Fortune's favorite. I remember his many graces, and the sparkling quality of the plays that he wrote, and that proved so apt when enacted by fellow-students or by the associations for which some of them were cast. With all his relish for life, he was steadfastly ambitious, and the reverse of an idler devoted to pleasures everywhere within his reach. Still, in the strength of his youth, he seemed quite equal to either experience or work, and likely to take his fill of both.

This he succeeded in doing, as a poet, an observer, a journalist, a novelist, a man in touch with his comrades and the world. The present collection embraces the poems which he had begun to arrange, substantially as here given, and which may be considered expressive of his most elevated moods. They were the overflow of a talent that was largely occupied with lighter work, or, most of all, in the prose fiction by which he gained, and was increasing, his hold upon public favor. In the thought of all that might have been the outcome of after years, I am moved by the pity of their denial. As it is, the hands of his elders set the lamp on the stone that bears his name,—a service which, had not the order of things been thus reversed, he would not have failed, in their behalf, to render.

A young author traditionally catches some manner of his time that most appeals to him. Such has been the wont of poets who have lived to institute, in their turn, new modes, and to have their own followers. During the brief tenure of Guy Carryl's activity two opposing tendencies of verse have been much in vogue. One of these betrays a lack of feeling and spontaneity through its curious elaboration, and has been frankly termed, by its votaries, the decadent song of a dying century. At the other extreme is the virile, perhaps too careless, balladry of which the English imperialist poet is the forceful exemplar. It may be placed to the credit of the author of this volume that,—despite his attachment for France and her literature, and his residence in Paris during impressible years,—his verse is in nowise decadent; it betrays hardly a trace of the symbolist diction so little in accord with the genius of our English tongue. His ballads—and he is at his best in these—have the ring of a manful and genuinely American songster. They are what such a one might well compose at the outset of a new century, and in a country of the future. Nearly all of this verse is in the major key. Even its brooding sentiment is that of a live man and no weakling.

Byron was a live man, and, to the end, a young man, never more so than when he thought himself otherwise. If it were just to apply a single epithet to the titular poem of this volume, it might be termed Byronic; for it is full of the Haroldian spirit of youth,—never more so than when its writer, at that stage where a man feels older than he ever again will feel until reaching his grand climacteric, breaks forth with "Heart of my heart, I am no longer young!" He revels, besides, like the Georgian pilgrim, in the sense of freedom, as he goes oversea to test the further world. "The Garden of Years" is a love poem; but its emotion is a warm under-color, toning a novice's pictures of travel during his wander-year. Technically, the poem is cast in an original stanzaic form, effectively maintained from beginning to end.

This prelude is not a criticism, but a tribute of affection and remembrance. Readers who care for poetry will at once observe that a certain lyrical eloquence is a general characteristic of "The Garden of Years" and the ensuing shorter pieces, charged with a passion for Nature and a spirit of intense sympathy with their author's fellow-men. Equally manifest is his versatility, shown by the exultant tone of the hymn of rehabilitation, "Gloria Mundi," the tenderness of "At Twilight," and the light touch of "The Débutante,"—a range even more striking when contrasted with the whimsical drollery of his published volumes of humorous verse. He did right in grouping together the five ballads that follow the title-poem; and in so doing emphasized not only their strength, but the patriotism which was one of his most attractive traits. Proud of his country's victories, American to the core, he is nowhere more impulsive than in the fine lyric, "When the Great Gray Ships Come in," which sings of peace rather than of war. It expresses, no less, his passion for the sea and his comprehension of it. Like that older bard of our Eastern Coast, he had the key to ocean's book of mystery; he loved its tides and eddies, the shells and flotsam along its shores, its laughter and mist and surge. The ships upon its bosom, the derelicts that never reached their "Haven-Mother," charmed his imagination. Finally, one may note how, throughout his swift and crowded experience, his sense of reverence was never dulled. The lines entitled "The Winds and the Sea Obey Him" came from no frivolous heart. As he looked out upon the waters, he was moved to write that "amid a vexing multitude of creeds" his faith abided still. "The Spirit of Mid-Ocean"—at once his valediction and a vivid token of his birthright as a poet—closes with unaffected homage to the Source whence inspiration flows to every soul—to each according to his degree and need:

Hush! If this be the servant, what must the Master be?

  1. Preface to The Garden of Years, and Other Poems, New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1904.