Those who have followed Mr. Auslander's work from his undergraduate days know that poetry has been to him from the first a sustaining power. Instinctively he has absorbed it and made it a part of himself; instinctively he turns to it for self-expression. His early poems show that "the numbers came". In blank verse his master was Milton; and he was an apter pupil than many; in light metres he could produce such a lovely little quatrain as,--
The shadow-sentinels will know
And let my spirit pass;
The breezes will forget to blow
A warning to the grass.
A master of versification, he took, as his right, a master's freedom. He was lavish of trisyllabic feet in iambic measures, giving anapaestic movement to line after line of a sonnet. His vocabulary was large and luxuriantly responsive, too ready to encourage love of words for the sound's sake. With closer attention to his art he has resolutely checked unthinking profusion: what he gives his reader is the quintessence of the poetry that is in him--his closely packed, severely chosen best; and in this best; and in this best are individuality, imagination, and beauty.
Proves Feeling For Rhythm
Again and again Mr. Auslander proves his feeling for rhythm and his skill in versification. Here are the first two stanzas of "The Ship Sings":--
Wind-torn, wave-worn, still I sing delight of it,
Buffeted of breakers, I am jubilant and free!
Storm-trod, nearer God, flung into the fright of it,
Battered to the teeth by the sea!
Rail-wrenched, sail-drenched, swung along the swell of it,
Lifted to the level of the rime-stung stars!
Deck-chopped, wreck-dropped, down into the hell of it
Under the thunder of the bars!
and in the final poem "Love and the Garlands" he uses, with workmanship nearly perfect, the trochaic pentameter of Browning's "One Word More" in a sestina. Indeed his feeling for rhythm is so keen and so subtile that some of his verses will not read themselves to an ear less delicately trained than his own; and his work is in a way analogous to the music of certain modern composers. Combined with his generous freedom in trisyllabic feet is the liberty that he takes with orthodox forms in substituting pauses for syllables and in docking the first feet of pentameters. To those persons, now painfully numerous who read poetry aloud without indicating the metre, such variations are of no moment; to most-others they are at first sight difficult and demand for adequate reading a little preliminary study.
Influenced by Spirit of Free Verse
As a poet of the twentieth century, Mr. Auslander is naturally influenced by the spirit which embodies itself in free verse, though there is no technically free verse in his book:--
Only the other night, it seems, only the other night
You passed with the passing of familiar light
From the sky and a certain hill: Oh, at your dying
There was a sound of wild geese crying, crying;
There was a sound of leaves that give up trying
To glow; and all wild beauty drifting, shifting
South, interminably south!
But I cannot give up remembering your swiftly quiet hands and the half-frightened hint of peace over your eyes, your mouth.
Mr. W. S. Gilbert's Pirate King denounces the month of February with verses which approximate in length the final verse. Few survivors of the Victorian age will take kindly to this verse and to the couplet of which it is a part, or will regard a line of twenty-one words and thirty syllables (yoked by rhyme to a line of three words and six syllables) as a satisfactory successor of the traditional Alexandrine or septenary. Yet modern poets must make their own experiments, however daring; and Mr. Auslander's experiments in metre are relatively temperate. In days in which whole paragraphs of prose are accepted as single lines of poetry, Mr. Auslander is conspicuously chary of what have been called "long-earned rhythms".
His experiments in diction and in metaphor seek the sharply out effects which are the glory of the Imagists,--and frequently attain them. Lowell writes of the advantage which the early risers of literature have over us moderns in gathering words while the dew is still fresh on them. When a word which once had a single exact meaning has been worked to nervous prostration what can we do but invent either a new word or a new use of an old one? When the best metaphors have become an old story, what can we do but bring together in fresh metaphors ideas that were never brought face to face before and trust them to make friends? Strange bedfellows are the product not of politics only but of poetry. Mr. Auslander's poetry is rich in quick novelties of metaphors some supremely right, some seemingly artificial,--at least until the reader is accustomed to them,--and all true to Mr. Auslander's poetic faith. This faith, sincere and strong, reveals itself anew as often as we read the poems. They are not light reading; they are good reading, worthy of study for their poetic workmanship, certain of remembrance for the imaginative beauty of their spirit.
In these days to call a poet clean is no slight compliment. Mr. Auslander without raising a moment's suspicion of a didactic purpose, never gravitates to the immoral as so many poets do on occasion. He speaks the poetry that is in him, a poetry pure and high:
When the last hearth fire drowses to the drone
Of an embered blow, I shall be standing there
In the warm shadow close behind your chair
Where the grave depth of quiet takes a tone
Of deeper, graver quiet from your own:
And should you feel a tenderness on your hair,
And on your eyes the hovering breath of prayer,
Be not afraid and make no startled moan.
For it is only that I am returned
To look on you and, love you out of pain,
And it is but my hand on you again,
My blessing even through the darkness burned;
And should you feel the nearness of a tear
Over your lips, known that my lips are near.
Paint Me the Glory of a Furrowed Face
Paint me the glory of a furrowed face
Where death's dim fingers have begun to feel
Their way in silence, lingering to trace
The beauty of their passage and reveal
Only the grandeur of a hope fulfilled
And slowly mellowing to the mightier close:
When the brief turmoil of the heart is stilled
And the brave hands are clasped in strong repose.
Eternity bends low to seal those eyes,
Those lips, those tender tired hands that sleep
In the last autumn twilight when the skies
Drop a cool star down to the dreaming deep . . . .
See, death himself has paused, lest even now
The splendor of a thought flame on that brow!
Whether this young poet shall prove himself a master-spirit it is too early to predict; but surely his book is "the precious life-blood.