Home  »  Volume XVII: American LATER NATIONAL LITERATURE: PART II  »  § 17. William Vaughn Moody

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21). rn VOLUME XVII. Later National Literature, Part II.

X. Later Poets

§ 17. William Vaughn Moody

This is not true of the last of the greater Western poets who are no longer living—William Vaughn Moody. His small, discriminating audience regarded him as a poet of the highest promise, whose early death was a public loss. Wholly without the sectional point of view, he was also free from the restrictions in vision characteristic of certain decades in American life. He was neither Middle Western nor late Victorian, but American and modern.

Born, like Riley, in Indiana, in 1869,—at the beginning of an era of industrial development and clearer national consciousness,—the son of a steamboat captain, with English, French, and German strains in his blood, and educated in a New England college, Moody naturally attained a larger outlook on life than most of the poets of the half century. After graduating from Harvard, he stayed in Cambridge for two years, and then, in 1895, returned to the Middle West as instructor in English in the University of Chicago. Although conscientious as a teacher, he chafed at the routine,—measuring time in terms of committee meetings and quantities of “themes,” —and at his environment, finding himself, he soon reported, “fanatically homesick for civilization,” though it is doubtful whether he could have found a congenial post as a teacher anywhere in the “booming” America of his day. Fond of outdoor activity, he found relief in swimming, bicycling, and walking in this country and abroad, from Arizona to Greece. He was a vigorously sensuous, full-blooded, ruddy-faced, youthful poet, intensely curious of experience, ardently devoted to “It,” his term for “the sum total of all that is beautiful and worthy of loyalty in the world”—chief of all, poetry as an expression of life. The decisions of his life prove the sincerity of this devotion. Achieving a sudden success through his drama The Great Divide, he was besieged by publishers who offered him as much as fifty thousand dollars for the play in the form of a novel; but he did not believe in “novelization” and preferred to follow his own artistic bent. So, too, after virtually severing his connection with the University of Chicago in 1902, when offered a professorship at full salary if he would lecture for a single quarter annually, he declined, valuing his independence so highly that he accepted hardship with it, rather than a prosperous subjection.

Before his early death in 1910 he had made his way to a mode of expression quite his own. His imitative and experimental period extended into his manhood years; it took this florid Westerner, for example, a curiously long time to pass from the shadow of Rossetti, and his debt to Browning is visible in some of his best work. Answering a friend’s criticism of Wilding Flower (later named Heart’s Wild Flower), he said: “‘Paltry roof’ is paltry I freely admit; ‘wind-control’ and ‘moonward melodist’ are rococo as hell.” The remark has the downrightness, with a trace of humour, which is common in his letters, and which helped him to become more than a moonward melodist. The same letter contains another sentence that suggests at once the strength and the weakness of his work. “I think you are not tolerant enough for the instinct for conquest in language, the attempt to push out its boundaries, to win for it continually some new swiftness, some rare compression, to distill from it a more opaline drop.” This eagerness of expression gives vitality to all of Moody’s work; but it also gives it a sense of effort, of straining to obtain an intensity that must, after all, come inevitably and easily.

In his dramas in blank verse, this characteristic eagerness dominates not only style but theme. His trilogy of poetic dramas aims to do no less than to reveal the need of God to man and of man to God. The Fire-Bringer (1904) is concerned with the Prometheus legend; The Masque of Judgment (1900) with the eventual meaning to God of his decree of man’s destruction; and The Death of Eve (1901), unhappily never completed, was to show the impossibility of separation. The plan is stupendous; there is perhaps none greater in literature; but certainly it may be questioned whether the problem is soluble at all, and if it is, whether Moody was the poet needed for so lofty an enterprise. It is true that the fragmentary member of the trilogy is finely done, in a manner grandly simple despite the complex and murky emotional states evolved, and that the conception of Eve as the instrument of reconciliation between man and God is carried out with impressive power. Still, it cannot be denied that the other dramas are vague and inchoate, lacking the lucidity and impact of the true classic, and that, therefore, even if Moody might have improved the trilogy later, his actual accomplishment is, at best, splendidly tentative and grandiose.

Possibly the lyrics contained in these dramas are the best part of them; and it is in the lyric, unquestionably, that Moody did his most important work. Dainty lyricism was beyond his sober touch; and the commonplace theme never appealed to him, any more than the commonplace mode of expression. Given a substantial conception, however, he could use his intellectual power and his large emotional reservoirs in such a manner as to repel the plain man and delight the lover, say, of Shelley and Browning. Such poems as Gloucester Moors, with its vivid sense of the earth sailing through space like a gallant ship with a dubious crew (a conception previously used more than once by Sill), and The Menagerie, with its grimly humorous description of the evolutionary ancestors of “A little man in trousers, slightly jagged,” are of a kind unmatched in American poetry. They have the sophisticated, questioning spirit of the new century. Closer to tradition are his patriotic poems, the Ode in Time of Hesitation, written in 1900 when the relation of the United States to the former Spanish colonies was in question, and the lines On a Soldier Fallen in the Philippines, with its desolating sense of a dishonourable cause. These poems appeared when the public was warmly debating the questions they deal with. To that fact, and to their beauty and assured tone, is owing the thrill that welcomed them, as if a new Lowell had come to voice our conscience in memorable verse. But they form a tiny group; and indeed the total bulk of Moody’s lyrics is inconsiderable. What he might have done had he not been cut off at the height of his powers it is vain to wonder.