William Vaughn Moody: Contribution as American Poet

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      William Vaughn Moody (1869–1910) was another son of the Middle West. Born in southern Indiana, he lost his mother in his fifteenth year and his father, a river-steamboat captain, in his seventeenth. By alternate study and teaching he prepared himself for Harvard, and entering at somewhat more than the average age he completed his college work in three years and followed these with a year in Europe as private tutor. In addition to a receptiveness for learning he had the capacity for a rich and varied culture which is sometimes mistakenly thought to belong only to blue-blooded inheritors of family tradition. From the close of his residence in Cambridge till his death, seventeen years later, Moody’s life included long and extended travels, varied and profound study, eight years’ teaching at the University of Chicago, from which President Harper was reluctant to accept his resignation, and distinguished work as painter, poet, and dramatist. Suddenly stricken with a fatal illness, he died in 1910.

Moody’s love of America did not lead him to embrace the “manifest destiny” illusion. He was quite as conscious of the misdirection of human leadership as he was of the riches with which God had endowed the natural land. “Gloucester Moors” is deeply solicitous for a future which seems to be insured for the grasping capitalist; “The Brute” is both more vigorous and more hopeful in its certitude that the factory system in its worst forms is a short-lived social abortion.
William Vaughn Moody

      Mention has already been made of his work as playwright. His lyric and narrative poems all have the same breadth of view which is inherent in his poetic dramas. He was familiar with a wide range of the world’s art and literature, but in the work which he chose to collect for republication he was imitative of none. His imagination roved freely through all time and space. “Gloucester Moors” were the vantage point from which he conceived the earth as a “vast, outbound ship of souls”; “Old Pourquoi” challenged the scheme of creation from beneath the Norman sky; “The Death of Eve” is derived from the Hebrew past, “The Masque of Judgment” from the Greek, “A Dialogue in Purgatory” from the Italian, “The Fountain” from early American legend, “On a Soldier Fallen in the Philippines” from a current event. Thus he did not maintain his citizenship of the world by any denial of allegiance to America. In the third section of “An Ode in Time of Hesitation” he sketched as splendid a pageant of America as has ever been devised. The Cape Ann children seeking the arbutus, the hill lads of Tennessee harking to the wild geese on their northern flight, are one with the youth of Chicago, the renewing green of the wheat fields, the unrolling of the rivers from the white Sierras, the downward creep of Alaskan glaciers, and the perennial palm-crown of Hawaii. It is in very truth

 the eagle nation
 Milton saw, Mewing its mighty youth.

      Moody’s love of America did not lead him to embrace the “manifest destiny” illusion. He was quite as conscious of the misdirection of human leadership as he was of the riches with which God had endowed the natural land. “Gloucester Moors” is deeply solicitous for a future which seems to be insured for the grasping capitalist; “The Brute” is both more vigorous and more hopeful in its certitude that the factory system in its worst forms is a short-lived social abortion. The demon of the machine is sure to be caught and subdued:

 He must give each man his portion, each his pride and worthy place;
 He must batter down the arrogant and lift the weary face.
 On each vile mouth set purity, on each low forehead grace.

      These poems were of life within America or without it, but in “An Ode in Time of Hesitation” and “On a Soldier Fallen in the Philippines” Moody warned the rulers in Washington that the country, now awake to its duties in the world, would forgive blindness, but baseness it would smite. Finally, in “The Quarry” he cried out in pride at America’s fine part in preventing the partitioning of helpless China by the grasping European empires—the achievement of the poet-diplomat, John Hay.

      Throughout all Moody’s work is a constant undercurrent of evolutionary thought—not the brutal mechanism associated with the term “Darwinism,” but the aspiring impulse within all life which makes it rise not through struggle against outer forces so much as through the innate impulse to develop. In the sardonic “Menagerie” the idea is ironically stated:

 Survival of the fittest, adaptation,
 And all their other evolution terms,
 Seem to omit one small consideration,

 which is no less than the existence of souls:

 Restless, plagued, impatient things,
 All dream and unaccountable desire;

 and these souls are expressions of the universal soul which finds its own salvation in unceasing “groping, testing, passing on,”—the creative struggle described by Raphael in “The Masque of Judgment” as

 The strife of ripening suns and withering moons,
 Marching of ice-floes, and the nameless wars
 Of monster races laboring to be man.

      In his attitude toward and his literary treatment of woman Moody was emphatically modern. He was far beyond the supercilious and hollow amenities with which eighteenth-century poetry was filled, and he was not satisfied with the sincerer expression of deep personal tributes to individual women. In his philosophy woman was the dominant influence in the development of humankind. Eve and Prometheus were one in seeking the knowledge and power to lift man above brute creation and in producing the clash between God and man which was the price of knowledge and the cost of progress. But Prometheus was a poor and defeated character in comparison; for Moody, in Eve and Pandora, presented woman not only as the donor and the fulfillment of love but as the final agent of reconciliation between the human and the divine. In the various poems there are acknowledgments of awe, of reverence, of spiritual love, and of passion; taken together they show the same breadth of view that belongs to the human equation in which Moody regards woman as the greatest factor. It is most significant that the dramatic trilogy was planned to conclude with a song of Eve, and that twice—in “I am the Woman” and part five of “The Death of Eve”—Moody composed studies toward that final song that was never perfected. Both progress through the ages when woman was subtly molded by man’s conception of her, so that her happiness and her very being consisted in conforming herself to him.

 Still, still with prayer and ecstasy she strove
 To be the woman they did well approve,
 That narrowed to their love,
 She might have done with bitterness and blame.

      And in both she appears as the indomitable Promethean spirit who in the end was to fulfill that plan which in the beginning she had endangered. There is no reference to any woman in any of Moody’s poems which is out of harmony with this dominating and progressive idea.

      For several reasons Moody’s poetry is not easy to read and is therefore undestined to wide popularity. He was not interested to compose simple lyrics or narratives. Seldom does he aid the reader by means of even an implied narrative thread. The poems inspired by history are not self-explanatory nor accompanied by footnotes. Moody consistently employed events, whether actual or imagined, as mere avenues of approach to emotional and spiritual experiences, and he expected the reader to contribute to the poems from his own resourceful imagination. It is because the whole meaning is not laid out on the surface of his verses—like Christmas-card sentiments—that Moody has become very largely a poet’s poet. Their instinctive grasp of the figurative deeper meanings, their immediate response to elusive metaphor, and their understanding of his vigorous, exact, but sometimes recondite diction make them his best audience. For they too can most nearly appreciate the distinguished beauties of his work—his wide and intimate knowledge of world literature, the opulence of his style, the firmness of his structure, the scrupulousness of his detail. Through the rising and the risen poets of the present generation Moody’s influence is exerted on thousands who are all unconscious of it.

      An approach to contemporary American poetry in a fraction of a chapter at the end of a general history can be justified on only one ground: it serves the purpose of a guideboard on a transcontinental highway. American literature was not concluded with the deaths of the great New England group nor has it come to an end since then. The student should recognize this in his respect for the fine promise of what is now being written, and he should recognize that the study of our past literature can bear no richer fruit than a sane understanding of the literature of the day. Furthermore he should be intelligent enough to see that literature need not be old to be fit for study—that it is not only absurd but vicious to assume (as used to be said, with a difference, of the Indian) that there is no good poet but a dead poet. These few pages are therefore devoted to a half-dozen writers who represent tendencies. They are arbitrarily selected as the contemporary dramatists in the preceding chapter were. Yet their weight is greatly reënforced by the many others to whom no allusion can be made. A comparison of the three books on recent American poetry suggests the speed of the literary current. Miss Rittenhouse’s “The Younger American Poets” (1904) includes eighteen poets of whom thirteen were born before 1865. Miss Lowell’s “Tendencies in Modern American Poetry” (1917) includes six poets, none of whom were mentioned in the earlier book, and the oldest of whom was born in the closing days of 1869. Of the sixteen poets indicated by name in the chapter headings of Mr. Louis Untermeyer’s “New Era in American Poetry” (1919), only three were born before 1875.

      The reading of contemporary poetry should be done with zest and without calculation, but the study of the same material must be approached with self-conscious deliberateness and with a definite resolve not to be carried away by the cheap and easy generalizations current on the lips of the careless talker. Contemporary poetry is not all of one kind nor is it chiefly characterized by defiant revolt against old forms and old ideas. It is true that in all branches of artistic endeavor new methods and new points of view are being advanced. In music Debussy and Schoenberg, in painting Cézanne and Matisse, in sculpture Rodin and his disciples, in stage setting and costuming Gordon Craig and Leon Bakst, have shocked and surprised quite as many as they have edified, and have given rise to the same sort of querulous protest indulged in by those who talk as if all modern poetry were typified by the most extravagant verses of Alfred Kreymborg, or “Anne Knish.” But in poetry most of the recent work has not been wantonly bizarre, most of the more distinguished verse has not been “free,” and most of the men and women who have written free verse have shown and have practiced a firm mastery of the established forms. The point, then, is to maintain an open mind and to make sure of conclusions before adopting them, and the surest method of doing these two student-like things is to read and study authors by the bookful and not by the pseudo-royal road of anthologies and eclectic magazines. If you want to become acquainted with a man you will sit down at leisure with him in his study, instead of forming snapshot judgments from contact at afternoon teas, and you will form your own opinion in preference to gleaning it from the conversation of others.

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