The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21). rn VOLUME XVII. Later National Literature, Part II.X. Later Poets
§ 11. Richard Hovey
New York fostered if not produced one other important poet, Richard Hovey, who was born in 1864, when Gilder was a young man. Follower of Whitman and the Elizabethans, and poet in his own right, Hovey won the enthusiasm of both the conventional school—especially Stedman—and the eager modernists who began to attract attention near the close of the century. The odd mixture of loyalties in his verse is paralleled by the curious variety in his life. Born in Illinois, he lived in Washington, D. C., graduated from Dartmouth College, New Hampshire, studied at the General Theological Seminary, New York, became lay assistant at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, accepted literature as his profession, and ended his brief career as professor of English literature in Barnard College and lecturer in Columbia University. Several years, also, he lived abroad—familiarizing himself, for one thing, with Verlaine, Mallarmé, and the later symbolists, and becoming one of the first American disciples and translators of Maeterlinck.
Hovey’s early death deprived us of a poet who had not yet reached the height of his powers. Finer work than he actually produced lay ahead unrealized, but it was probably not the unfinished dramatic work which he had come to regard as his magnum opus,—Launcelot and Guenevere: A Poem in Dramas, which he began to publish in 1891. This was not to be merely a rehandling of ancient poetic material by an idle singer of an empty day but a profound treatment of a modern problem in terms of the past—the conflict of the individual and society, and the establishment of a right relation between them. Hovey planned nine plays, though he completed only four. He expected to arrange them in three trilogies: in the first, Launcelot and Guenevere were to disregard society; in the second they were to disregard themselves; and in the third their problem was to be resolved. It was a tremendous theme, worthy of a poet of an ampler intellectual endowment than Hovey’s. How high a flight he attempted may be seen in Taliesin: A Masque (1900), the last play that he completed, a poet’s poem which to some readers has been Hovey at his most exalted, while others have roundly condemned its exuberant fancy, imagination, and metaphysics. It is, at all events, a remarkable feat in rhythm-building, astonishing in the easy mastery with which the poet passes from one movement to another and in the variety of musical effects. The other plays are clearer and more substantial; in The Marriage of Guenevere (1895), for example, the Queen is revealed with a definiteness unequalled in the Arthurian tradition, though it is by no means certain that the modern touch is in this respect an unmixed advantage. All the plays are deftly and fluently written, but they fail in sustained power. The note of the improvvisatore is never away.
This note is not so fatal in the lyric. Hovey’s lyrics time will doubtless adjudge his best work. He has little weight, little insight of the profounder sort, but he has, on the other hand, unusual fervor and élan, and much insight of the merely subtle sort. Sensitive, tingling with life, he responds to the world with a gaiety not so much thoughtless as thought-banishing, a gaiety alien to the dominant moods of modern life and hence always open to the suspicion of affectation. His quality is very evident in the three series of Songs from Vagabondia (1893, 1896, 1900) written collaboratively with Bliss Carman. They express impetuously, a little artificially at times, the vagabondage of the soul that runs like a gypsy thread through the romantic literature of the century. The Wander-Lovers, which sets its pace in the first line, “Down the world with Marna!” is in its way a nearly perfect thing. In a distinct part of Hovey’s work, his poems of masculine comradeship and college fraternity, this Bohemian mood is expressed in a really notable way. Spring, for instance, read at a fraternity convention in 1896, contains, in a charming natural setting, the lines beginning “Give a rouse, then, in the May-time” which, set to music by Frederic Field Bullard, are familiar to college youth from coast to coast. This kind of thing Hovey could do better than any other of our poets.
His poems on serious themes lack the delightful assurance of The Wander-Lovers and Spring. The Call of the Bugles, one of his several Spanish War poems, is only intermittently buoyant and martial, is too long, and is scarcely American in its sentiment “Great is war—great and fair!” In a rarer mood of Hovey’s is Unmanifest Destiny, in which, as in Seaward, his elegy on the death of Thomas William Parsons, his tone is impressively reverent and his music richly solemn.
Another Columbia University poet of latter-day New York was the accomplished Frank Dempster Sherman (1860–1916), professor of graphics, an ardent philatelist and collector of book-plates, author of Madrigals and Catches (1887), Lyrics for a Lute (1890), Little Folk Lyrics (1892), and Lyrics of Joy (1904). The titles indicate of themselves the poetic genres to which he devoted himself. Whether he dealt with love, or nature, or books, his lines were short and jocund. His range was narrow, and quite out of the modern current; but his love of music and image were so genuine that his poems reached a cordial if small audience.