It is easy to be patriotic in the days of a coun-try’s adversity; for then patriotism means something very personal. Its root is personal, no doubt, although that does not prevent the emotion’s transcending the bounds of a mere-ly selfish personal motive. But the fact that sentiment is emotional and personal, rather than abstract and rhetorical, is what constitutes its living force.

When a country is in adversity then this emotion is continuously active. It is a passion which absorbs all the energies. So much so that it completely enlists the services not only of men of action and practical life, but also of the contemplatives, the poets, the dreamers, for whom this emotion, like others, becomes transmuted into something beyond the personal emotion.

But when a country is in the full tide of prosperity this emotion may remain dormant. The maternal love is often not awakened until the life of its offspring is threatened. The panther, fighting for its cubs; or a people subjected to tyranny, foreign rule or invasion, impoverished or destitute of succor, these are analagous. And curiously enough, it is exactly in such times of oppression and adversity that a country turns to its poets, admits their worth and is consoled or inspired to fresh courage by their songs. It may be, so far as practical demonstration goes, that this is the supreme justification of the poet; and it may be that only in such a crisis does the country realize how much its poets and artists have contributed to the essential growth, mental, physical and spiritual, of the nation. This contribution is woven into the national make-up as surely as the wheat that has gone into the bread and nourished the bodies of the people. It is an integral part of that national entity whose destruction the people resent as surely as the ravages of fire and sword that lay waste their territories.

Happy is that country, therefore, which, in times of prosperity, nourishes and cherishes great poetry and great art; and happy are those poets who do not need to wait for a threatening fate to move them to song whose spirit is at once national and individual, a realization of life in terms of immediate experience.

We, in the United States, have need at present of just such poets.

It is easy for us to appreciate the Irishman’s zealous love for Ireland, the celebration of Bengal by the great East Indian poet, or the passionate spirit of the Romanian folk-songs. Not only have these the direct motive of adversity, the minor note of which has been so much in sympathy with the spirit of the last century’s literary movement, but they are all deep-rooted in that tradition which has had its earliest expression in folk-songs and legends—always an enduring basis for subsequent poets and artists, and an integral part of the blood and bone of the people.

But here in the United States we have naturally that direct break with the past which is an artificial feature of the creed of certain revolutionary European artists and poets. The European traditions of our early settlers have, through the flux of constant new additions, worn away; the imported folk-songs are almost all buried with the snows of yesteryear; the legends remain as literary deposits, in no way native, vital or moving. All that we owe to the native soil itself is Indian or negro, and the latter,—we can not say certainly how much—is of African origin. These, while very interesting, do not belong to us in any racial sense. They are exotic, and any attempt to be national through the use of this material is begging the question. Therefore, whatever contribution this country makes to the great international body of literature or art must be largely individual, and the contribution already made by this country has been individual. The nation has been expressed through the individual. Poe and Whitman in poetry, Whistler and Sargent in art, Hawthorne and Henry James, Mark Twain and Bret Harte, Lincoln, and a few fine architects,—these, although diverse, have given us the soul of the nation through expression of individuality.

Meantime the nation is still very busy finding itself. For the American poets of today to be told that they are too far from Paris is an anachronism. Incidentally it may be remarked that the temperamental distance between Calais and Dover is very much greater than that between Calais and Chicago! “Know thyself” is the first postulate for the poet, as it is for the mystic. The “critical mind of France” has a very great value, but the creative source of much of the modern European movement is American in spirit, or draws its inspiration from that international current of thought of which the fertilizing seeds are not confined to any one nation, and of which the United States has certainly furnished heroic growths.

Edgar Allan Poe, who was never in France, is nevertheless a leading figure in the French symbolist movement; Hawthorne’s fine realism, not concerned with externals alone, is of international significance; Whistler, by his keen analysis and perfect synthesis of the divergent tendencies of his period, is recognized as the progenitor of all that is vitally true and lasting in modern art. And then there is Walt Whitman, whose large cosmic “I” and inclusive technique seem to embrace many separate schools of French, German, and English followers. Especially to be emphasized in this connection is the fact that each of the Americans of acknowledged creative genius is equally gifted with the critical faculty, building from basic first principles and owing nothing to superficial contemporary models.

So individual is the creative structure reared by these men that imitation seems almost to bear upon its face the stigma of plagiarism. Emulation is in the spirit rather than in method, and for this reason the school or group unit is more rare in the United States than on the continent or in England or Ireland. More numerous, indeed, in Europe than in America, the continental followers of Whitman have escaped imitation through the diversity of language. But if, even so, these European disciples complain of the allegiance of American poets to the Whitman model, whose right is greater? Indeed, it is much better for the young American poet today to build upon Whitman, as the Greeks upon Homer, than to imitate the twilight tone of the Celtic Revival and the English poets of the 'nineties (indirectly indebted through the French symbolists to Poe), or the modern French school, which furnishes them an indirect, rather than a direct, method of approaching Whitman.

It may be that the spirit of Whitman is still, in any large sense, to capture. It will be captured and transmuted into expressions varying widely in outward form if the American poets realize their birthright and heritage of -individual genius. There is no doubt that a wider acquaintance with the critical mind of France or England is valuable, but its chief value lies, not in imposing foreign standards and models, against which a healthy reaction is a good sign of vitality, but in awakening American poets to a sense of the creative sources and forces that lie nearer home.

The main thing is self-realization; after that comes self--expression, and through self-expression, the expression of the race or nation.

Nothing could have furnished a greater contrast at the recent dinner given in Chicago than the reading by Mr. Yeats and Mr. Nicholas Vachel Lindsay of their poems. Supreme in his own art, and a spokesman for his fellow craftsmen in England and Ireland, Mr. Yeats carried the audience by the power of his poetry as poetry. We were moved with him for romantic Ireland dead and gone, and O’Leary in his grave, although we did not know Mr. O’Leary any more than Mr. Yeats knew Lincoln. The poems of other writers that Mr. Yeats read were also beautiful. He praised their simplicity of diction, which was wholly admirable. He belittled the Victorian rhetorical morality, which has already, so far as we are concerned, shrunk to the size of a pea, though evidences of its survival are still as prevalent in the English Review and other English periodicals as they are in American magazines—and indeed a large proportion of those in American magazines come from English sources. But, and I do not believe that Mr. Yeats thought of it, all the poems that he read except his own, however simple and explicit in diction, portrayed poetic fixi-ties, or took their root in past tradition: Miss Coleridge’s in the Nativity; Mr. Sturge Moore’s in Greek symbols of emotion. So it was naturally with something of a shock that Mr. Lindsay broke the spell with his newly quarried Congo.

Mr. Lindsay did not go to France for The Congo or for General William Booth Enters Into Heaven. He did not even stay on the eastern side of the Alleghenies.

The traditions of the past are as open to the poet of Springfield as to the poet of Paris. Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, the Upanishads—Walt Whitman on the shores of Long Island accepted and acknowledged his debt.

But the tradition of the present is yet to make.

We cannot forecast Mr. Lindsay’s future. He is already, as Mr. Yeats said, assured for the anthologies. But his example is valuable. He is realizing himself in relation to direct experience, and he is not adapting to his work a twi-light tone which is quite foreign to him, as it is, generally speaking, to the temperament of the nation. He is working out his salvation in his own way. It will be his salvation at any rate, and therefore worth more to him than if he trundled in on the coat-tails of English or French credentials, and much more worth while to the nation.

The task for the American poet is twice as difficult as it is for his continental brother. The artistic tradition upon which he has to build is solely, as I have said, individual. It is a great tradition, nevertheless, and essentially so in spirit, and it is in spirit that it must be emulated.

Originally Published: October 30th, 2005

Poet, editor, and southwestern culture activist Alice Corbin Henderson was born in St. Louis in 1881 and moved to Chicago to live with extended family following her mother’s death when she was three. A few years later, her father remarried, and Henderson would live with him in Kansas. She was...

Appeared in Poetry Magazine This Appears In
Related Content