THE average undergraduate poem seems to me to possess any of the characteristics of so-called true poetry. The undergraduate poet rhapsodizes over a ditch bordered by hummocks of meadow-grass and clumps of scrubby, unsightly bushes; he goes into ecstasies over a frog-pond in a cow pasture; he personifies familiar objects; invests them with a glamour of brilliant colors, and imagines various noble fancies about them, or draws high lessons from their imagined actions or feelings, - what more does the true poet? In short, in criticising poetry it is hard to say just where sentiment leaves off, and sentimentalism begins. Many pieces that, appearing under famous names, are extravagantly praised, would be characterized as trash if they appeared anonymously in the corner of a country newspaper.
One does not have to hunt long amongst undergraduate poetry to find passages that are far more original than beautiful; one writer, for instance, calls swallows "volatile air-swimmers," - a painfully original metaphor. Another describes a mountain as
"A soaring shaft
Of crystallized eternity."
Does eternity usually crystallize in pyramidal forms? The first stanza of another poem ends with the lines, -
"Hard as coral is the heart,
Oh how many feel thy dart,
And in the last stanza we have, -
"Thou canst never find a mate,
Though lingering at the gate,
Why "hard as coral"? Why has this poet forsaken that classic drudge, adamant? and why the abrupt transformation of a resisting person to one throwing darts? In the last line of all there is an abrupt descent from the sublime to the ridiculous, but then "gate" is an excellent rhyme for "mate." A little poem entitled "Crepusculum" attempts to describe the twilight season. In the second stanza the poet speaks of
"The far-off busy hum
According to most poets, "eventide" is "betokened" by a stillness. The third stanza informs us that "The robins all are still." My own experience has been that at the time of twilight the robins are the only creatures that are not still. A short piece entitled "In May Days" has a somewhat peculiar construction. The writer begins by enumerating some of the features of spring, and in the first three stanzas rolls up a ponderous compound subject, containing, among other things, a relative clause attached to a relative clause, but as yet brings in no predicate; in the fourth stanza he takes a fresh start and sums up the long subject, - still no predicate; here he evidently gives up the idea of getting in that predicate at all, for, putting a semicolon at the end of the fourth stanza, he takes another new start in the fifth, and the rest of the poem is rather pretty and quite well expressed. A piece addressed "To Fancy," published about a year ago, presents some curiosities in the way of figures. The third stanza is as follows: -
"Upon the glassy floor
Of ocean we will sit,
And list the mellowed roar
Of storms that o'er us flit."
Why "glassy" floor? A surface of hard sand is not well described by "glassy." To be sure, sand is a necessary ingredient of glass, could the poet have been thinking of any thing so practical. The stanza before the last is as follows: -
"With thee will I abide,
Till, of my mortal part,
All shall have sweetly died
Save mind and soul and heart."
How does it feel to "sweetly die"? and isn't it a little unusual to call "mind and soul and heart" portions of one's "mortal part"?
There is one more of this kind that I must quote, and a most curious piece it is. As it is short I will quote it in full: -
"It was a summer eve
Beside a summer sea,
And a meeting and a parting
Were destined there to be.
"It was a winter night
Beneath the starry sky,
And words of love and longing
Borne on the winds went by.
"I buried there my heart,
Where the waves for ever die,
Where the trodden leaves are silent,
O years forgotten lie."
This piece is characterized by a disconnectedness which steadily increases and becomes bewildering when we reach the last line, in which it is impossible to discover any trace of connection to what goes before.
These are the worst specimens of student poetry, and I wonder why the editors of the college papers ever let them get into their columns. If such as these appear in print, what stuff must the editorial waste-baskets contain! Undergraduate poets seem to have a poor command of language, and this gives rise to repetitions, and gives an air of awkwardness and carelessness to many of their compositions; we often find words put in merely for rhymes or to fill out the stanza, and a general lack of careful revision is painfully evident. I have noticed that the last stanza, - often the last line of the last stanza, - contains the worst faults in the piece, as though the "divine afflatus" had all escaped before the poet reached his period.
Let us see if we cannot find some more encouraging example. "Popping the Question" is a little descriptive piece, very prettily written. I saw it first in a book of selections, and did not suspect that it was written by a student. In a more serious vein is a piece called "Forebodings;" it is full of fine feeling, and called forth an answer from one of the professors. "The Old Professor" is a pathetic poem, and is well worth reading. "The Bells of Venice" is a fine piece. I will quote the last stanza: -
"'Tis a wondrous, golden music streams from Venice's brazen bells,
Like the honeyed speech of Nestor, as the olden poet tells; 'Tis the mem'ry of its freedom in the halcyon days of yore Wafted from the fallen Venice, Hadria's mighty queen no more."
"My Cigarette" is a light piece, and very pretty. I will quote the opening lines and the last stanza: -
"My cigarette! The amulet
That charms afar unrest and sorrow;
The magic wand, that fair beyond
To-day can conjure up to-morrow.
Ah, cigarette! The gay coquette
Has long forgot the flames she lighted;
And you and I, unthinking by
Alike are thrown, alike are slighted.
The darkness gathers fast without,
A raindrop on my window plashes;
My cigarette and heart are out,
And naught is left me but their ashes."
In order to do justice to the author of the ode "To Fancy," I will take my last quotation from a very pretty poem of his entitled "Indian Summer:" -
"When the first light snow of winter falls
In mazy circles through the frosty air,
Like silky down torn from a wild swan's breast,
We see the fleecy crystals with a sigh
Of strange, sweet sorrow, knowing that no more
For weary months, and maybe nevermore
For us, shall light of Indian Summer cast
Upon the mellow earth its magic spell."
These last quotations show, I think, a pleasing contrast to the first. The poems from which they are taken have a sufficient excuse for existence, and to my untrained taste are better than many pieces that appear in our best magazines.
Undergraduate poetry may be divided into the sentimental and the witty. The sentimental is often well expressed, but is generally trashy; the witty is more likely to be good of its kind. It usually contains too many college allusions to interest any but students, yet it adds to the jollity of student life, and taking the form of satire often lodges a keen shaft where it will do the most good.
I SAT awhile at eventide to-day,
In the still darkness of the hemlock wood,
And listened to the oft unnoticed hum
That filled the air. Before me sloped the bank
Down to a ferny flat. On either side
The solemn hemlocks rose, whose misty gloom
Has often stirred in me a certain dread,
As of a thing not human. Thus I sat;
Then, wondering where my little dog could be,
By whom such stillness scarce had been allowed,
I rose and whistled through the darkening wood,
Until I heard a rustling in the brush,
And he came toward me, running at full speed,
Making a little thunder with his feet
Upon the soft-strewn ground as he approached.
Thus came he, and I took my homeward way.