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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.
The Library of the World’s Best Literature. An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Helen Gray Cone (1859–1934)

Narcissus in Camden

  • (1882)
  • [“In the course of his lecture, Mr. —— remarked that the most impressive room he had yet entered in America was the one in Camden town where he met —— ——. It contained plenty of fresh air and sunlight…. On the table was a simple cruse of water.”]

    WHO may this be?

    This young man clad unusually, with loose locks, languorous, glidingly toward me advancing,

    Toward the ceiling of my chamber his orbic and expressive eyeballs uprolling,

    As I have seen the green-necked wild-fowl, the mallard, in the thundering of the storm,

    By the weedy shore of Paumanok my fish-shaped island.

    Sit down, young man!

    I do not know you, but I love you with burning intensity,

    I am he that loves the young men, whosoever and wheresoever they are or may be hereafter, or may have been any time in the past,

    Loves the eye-glassed literat, loves also and probably more the vender of clams, raucous-throated, monotonous-chanting,

    Loves the Elevated Railroad employé of Mannahatta, my city;

    I suppress the rest of the list of the persons I love, solely because I love you,

    Sit down élève, I receive you!

    O clarion, from whose brazen throat

    Strange sounds across the sea are blown,

    Where England, girt as with a moat,

    A strong sea-lion, sits alone!

    A pilgrim from that white-cliffed shore,

    What joy, large flower of Western land!

    To seek thy democratic door,

    With eager hand to clasp thy hand!

    Right you are!

    Take then the electric pressure of these fingers, O my comrade!

    I do not doubt you are the one I was waiting for, as I loafed here enjoying my soul,

    Let us two under all and any circumstances stick together from this out!

    Seeing that isle of which I spake but late

    By ignorant demagogues is held in fee,

    The grand Greek limbs of young Democracy

    Beckoned me thence to this ideal State,

    Where maiden fields of life Hellenic wait

    For one who in clear culture walks apart

    (Avoiding all rude clamors of the mart

    That mar his calm) to sow the seeds of great

    Growths yet to be—the love of sacred Art,

    And Beauty, of this breast queen consecrate,

    Whose throne mean Science seeks to violate;

    The flawless artist’s lunacy serene,

    His purely passionate and perfect hate

    And noble scorn of all things Philistine.

    Hold up there, Camerado!

    Beauty is all very good as far as it goes, and Art, the perpetuator of Beauty, is all very good as far as it goes, but you can tell your folks,

    Your folks in London, or in Dublin, or in Rome, or where the Arno flows, or where Seine flows,

    Your folks in the picture-galleries, admiring the Raphaels, the Tintorettos, the Rubenses, Vandykes, Correggios, Murillos, Angelicos of the world,

    (I know them all, they have effused to me, I have wrung them out, I have abandoned them, I have got beyond them)—

    [aside, with tenderness]
    Ah, Burne-Jones!

    Tell them that I am considerably more than Beauty!

    I, representing the bone and muscle and cartilage and adipose tissue and pluck of the Sierras, of California, of the double Carolinas, of the Granite State, and the Narragansett Bay State, and the Wooden Nutmeg State!

    I, screaming with the scream of the bald-headed bird the eagle in the primitive woods of America my country, in the hundred and sixth year of these States!

    Dear son, I have learned the secret of the Universe,

    I learned it from my original bonne, the white-capped ocean,

    I learned it from the Ninth-Month Equinoctial, from the redwood tree, and the Civil War, and the hermit-thrush, and the telephone, and the Corliss engine,

    The secret of the Universe is not Beauty, dear son, nor is it Art the perpetuator of Beauty,

    The secret of the Universe is to admire one’s self.

    Camerado, you hear me!

    Ah, I too, loitering on an eve of June

    Where one wan narciss leaned above a pool,

    While overhead Queen Dian rose too soon,

    And through the Tyrian clematis the cool

    Night airs came wandering wearily,—I too,

    Beholding that pale flower, beheld life’s key at last, and knew

    That love of one’s fair self were but indeed

    Just worship of pure Beauty; and I gave

    One sweet, sad sigh, then bade my fond eyes feed

    Upon the mirrored treasure of the wave,

    Like that lithe beauteous boy in Tempe’s vale,

    Whom hapless Echo loved—thou knowest the Heliconian tale!

    And while heaven’s harmony in lake and gold

    Changed to a faint nocturne of silvern-gray,

    Like rising sea-mists from my spirit rolled

    The grievous vapors of this Age of Clay,

    Beholding Beauty’s re-arisen shrine,

    And the white glory of this precious loveliness of mine!

    I catch on, my Comrade!—

    You allow that your aim is similar to mine, after all is said and done.

    Well, there is not much similarity of style, and I recommend my style to you.

    Go gaze upon the native rock-piles of Mannahatta, my city,

    Formless, reckless,

    Marked with the emerald miracle of moss, tufted with the unutterable wonder of the exquisite green grass,

    Giving pasture to the spry and fearless-footed quadruped, the goat,

    Also patched by the heaven-ambitious citizens with the yellow hand-bill, the advertisement of patent soaps, the glaring and varicolored circus poster:

    Mine too, for reasons, such arrays;

    Such my unfettered verse, scorning the delicatesse of dilettantes.

    Try it, I’ll stake you my ultimate dollar you’ll like it.

    [gracefully waiving the point]
    Haply in the far, the orient future, in the dawn we herald like the birds,

    Men shall read the legend of our meeting, linger o’er the music of our words:

    Haply coming poets shall compare me then to Milton in his lovely youth,

    Sitting in the cell of Galileo, learning at his elder’s lips the truth.

    Haply they shall liken these dear moments, safely held in History’s amber clear,

    Unto Dante’s converse bland with Virgil, on the margin of that gloomy mere!

    Do not be deceived, dear son;

    Amid the choruses of the morn of progress, roaring, hilarious, those names will be heard no longer.

    Galileo was admirable once, Milton was admirable,

    Dante the I-talian was a cute man in his way,

    But he was not the maker of poems, the Answerer,

    I Paumanokides am the maker of poems, the Answerer!

    And I calculate to chant as long as the earth revolves,

    To an interminable audience of haughty, effusive, copious, gritty, and chipper Americanos!

    What more is left to say or do?

    Our minds have met; our hands must part,

    I go to plant in pastures new

    The love of Beauty and of Art.

    I’ll shortly start.

    One town is rather small for two

    Like me and you!

    So long!