The Autogenesis Of A Poet by Christopher Morley

Story type: Essay

The mind trudges patiently behind the senses. Day by day a thousand oddities and charms outline themselves tenderly upon consciousness, but it may be long before understanding comes with brush and colour to fill in the tracery. One learns nothing until he rediscovers it for himself. Every now and then, in reading, I have come across something which has given me the wild surmise of pioneering mingled with the faint magic of familiarity–for instance, some of the famous dicta of Wordsworth and Coleridge and Shelley about poetry. I realized, then, that a teacher had told me these things in my freshman year at college–fifteen years ago. I jotted them down at that time, but they were mere catchwords. It had taken me fifteen years of vigorous living to overhaul those catchwords and fill them with a meaning of my own. The two teachers who first gave me some suspicion of what lies in the kingdom of poetry–who gave “so sweet a prospect into the way as will entice any man to enter into it”–are both dead. May I mention their names?–Francis B. Gummere and Albert Elmer Hancock, both of Haverford College. I cannot thank them as, now, I would like to. For I am (I think) approaching a stage where I can somewhat understand and relish the things of which they spoke. And I wonder afresh at the patience and charity of those who go on lecturing, unabated in zest, to boys of whom one in ten may perhaps, fifteen years later, begin to grasp their message.

In so far as any formal or systematic discipline of thought was concerned, I think I may say my education was a complete failure. For this I had only my own smattering and desultory habit of mind to blame and also a vivid troublesome sense of the beauty of it all. The charm of the prismatic fringe round the edges made juggling with the lens too tempting, and a clear persistent focus was never attained. Considered (oddly enough) by my mates as the pattern of a diligent scholar, I was in reality as idle as the idlest of them, which is saying much; though I confess that my dilettantism was not wholly disreputable. My mind excellently exhibited the Heraclitean doctrine: a constant flux of information passed through it, but nothing remained. Indeed, my senses were so continually crammed with new enchanting impressions, and every field of knowledge seemed so alluring, it was not strange I made little progress in any.

* * * * *

Perhaps it was unfortunate that both in America and in England I found myself in a college atmosphere of extraordinary pictorial charm. The Arcadian loveliness of the Haverford campus and the comfortable simplicity of its routine; and then the hypnotizing beauty and curiosity and subtle flavour of Oxford life (with its long, footloose, rambling vacations)–these were aptly devised for the exercise of the imagination, which is often a gracious phrase for loafing. But these surroundings were too richly entertaining, and I was too green and soft and humorous (in the Shakespearean sense) to permit any rational continuous plan of study. Like the young man to whom Coleridge addressed a poem of rebuke, I was abandoned, a greater part of the time, to “an Indolent and Causeless Melancholy”; or to its partner, an excessive and not always tasteful mirth. I spent hours upon hours, with little profit, in libraries, flitting aimlessly from book to book. With something between terror and hunger I contemplated the opposite sex. In short, I was discreditable and harmless and unlovely as the young Yahoo can be. It fills me with amazement to think that my preceptors must have seen, in that ill-conditioned creature, some shadow of human semblance, or how could they have been so uniformly kind?

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Our education–such of it as is of durable importance–comes haphazard. It is tinged by the enthusiasms of our teachers, gleaned by suggestions from our friends, prompted by glimpses and footnotes and margins. There was a time, I think, when I hung in tender equilibrium among various possibilities. I was enamoured of mathematics and physics: I went far enough in the latter to be appointed undergraduate assistant in the college laboratory. I had learned, by my junior year, exploring the charms of integral calculus, that there is no imaginable mental felicity more serenely pure than suspended happy absorption in a mathematical problem. Of course I attained no higher than the dregs of the subject; on that grovelling level I would still (in Billy Sunday’s violent trope) have had to climb a tree to look a snake in the eye; but I could see that for the mathematician, if for any one, Time stands still withal; he is winnowed of vanity and sin. French, German, and Latin, and a hasty tincture of Xenophon and Homer (a mere lipwash of Helicon) gave me a zeal for philology and the tongues. I was a member in decent standing of the college classical club, and visions of life as a professor of languages seemed to me far from unhappy. A compulsory course in philosophy convinced me that there was still much to learn; and I had a delicious hallucination in which I saw myself compiling a volume of commentaries on the various systems of this queen of sciences. “The Grammar of Agnostics,” I think it was to be called: it would be written in a neat and comely hand on thousands of pages of pure white foolscap: I saw myself adding to it night by night, working ohne Hast, ohne Rast. And there were other careers, too, as statesman, philanthropist, diplomat, that I considered not beneath my horoscope. I spare myself the careful delineation of these projects, though they would be amusing enough.

But beneath these preoccupations another influence was working its inward way. My paramount interest had always been literary, though regarded as a gentle diversion, not degraded to a bread-and-butter concern. Ever since I had fallen under the superlative spell of R.L.S., in whom the cunning enchantment of the written word first became manifest, I had understood that books did not grow painlessly for our amusement, but were the issue of dexterous and intentional skill. I had thus made a stride from Conan Doyle, Cutcliffe Hyne, Anthony Hope, and other great loves of my earliest teens; those authors’ delicious mysteries and picaresques I took for granted, not troubling over their method; but in Stevenson, even to a schoolboy the conscious artifice and nicety of phrase were puzzingly apparent. A taste for literature, however, is a very different thing from a determination to undertake the art in person as a means of livelihood. It takes brisk stimulus and powerful internal fevers to reduce a healthy youth to such a contemplation. All this is a long story, and I telescope it rigorously, thus setting the whole matter, perhaps, in a false proportion. But the central and operative factor is now at hand.

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* * * * *

There was a certain classmate of mine (from Chicago) whose main devotion was to scientific and engineering studies. But since his plan embraced only two years at college before “going to work,” he was (in the fashion traditionally ascribed to Chicago) speeding up the cultural knick-knacks of his education. So, in our freshman year, he was attending a course on “English Poets of the Nineteenth Century,” which was, in the regular schedule of things, reserved for sophomores (supposedly riper for matters of feeling). Now I was living in a remote dormitory on the outskirts of the wide campus (that other Eden, demi-paradise, that happy breed of men, that little world!) some distance from the lecture halls and busy heart of college doings. It was the custom of those quartered in this colonial and sequestered outpost to make the room of some central classmate a base for the day, where books might be left between lectures, and so on. With the Chicagoan, whom we will call “J—-,” I had struck up a mild friendship; mostly charitable on his part, I think, as he was from the beginning one of the most popular and influential men in the class, whereas I was one of the rabble. So it was, at any rate; and often in the evening, returning from library or dining hall on the way to my distant Boeotia, I would drop in at his room, in a lofty corner of old Barclay Hall, to pick up note-books or anything else I might have left there.

What a pleasant place is a college dormitory at night! The rooms with their green-hooded lights and boyish similarity of decoration, the amiable buzz and stir of a game of cards under festoons of tobacco smoke, the wiry tinkle of a mandolin distantly heard, sudden clatter subsiding again into a general humming quiet, the happy sense of solitude in multitude, these are the partial ingredients of that feeling no alumnus ever forgets. In his pensive citadel, my friend J—- would be sitting, with his pipe (one of those new “class pipes” with inlaid silver numerals, which appear among every college generation toward Christmas time of freshman year). In his lap would be the large green volume (“British Poets of the Nineteenth Century,” edited by Professor Curtis Hidden Page) which was the textbook of that sophomore course. He was reading Keats. And his eyes were those of one who has seen a new planet swim into his ken. I don’t know how many evenings we spent there together. Probably only a few. I don’t recall just how we communed, or imparted to one another our juvenile speculations. But I plainly remember how he would sit beside his desk-lamp and chuckle over the Ode to a Nightingale. He was a quizzical and quickly humorous creature, and Keats’s beauties seemed to fill him not with melancholy or anguish, but with a delighted prostration of laughter. The “wormy circumstance” of the Pot of Basil, the Indian Maid nursing her luxurious sorrow, the congealing Beads-man and the palsied beldame Angela–these and a thousand quaintnesses of phrase moved him to a gush of glorious mirth. It was not that he did not appreciate the poet, but the unearthly strangeness of it all, the delicate contradiction of laws and behaviours known to freshmen, tickled his keen wits and emotions until they brimmed into puzzled laughter. “Away! Away!” he would cry–

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For I will fly to thee,
Not charioted by Bacchus and his pards,
But on the viewless wings of Poesy,
Though the dull brain perplexes and retards–

and he would shout with merriment. Beaded bubbles winking at the brim; Throbbing throats’ long, long melodious moan; Curious conscience burrowing like a mole; Emprison her soft hand and let her rave; Men slugs and human serpentry; Bade her steep her hair in weird syrops; Poor weak palsy-stricken churchyard thing; Shut her pure sorrow-drops with glad exclaim–such lines were to him a constant and exhilarating excitement. In the very simplicity and unsophistication of his approach to the poet was a virgin naivete of discernment that an Edinburgh Reviewer would rarely attain. Here, he dimly felt, was the great key

To golden palaces, strange minstrelsy,
… aye, to all the mazy world
Of silvery enchantment.

And in line after line of Endymion, as we pored over them together, he found the clear happiness of a magic that dissolved everything into lightness and freedom. It is agreeable to remember this man, preparing to be a building contractor, who loved Keats because he made him laugh. I wonder if the critics have not too insistently persuaded us to read our poet in a black-edged mood? After all, his nickname was “Junkets.”

* * * * *

So it was that I first, in any transcending sense, fell under the empire of a poet. Here was an endless fountain of immortal drink: here was a history potent to send a young mind from its bodily tenement. The pleasure was too personal to be completely shared; for the most part J—- and I read not together, but each by each, he sitting in his morris chair by the desk, I sprawled upon his couch, reading, very likely, different poems, but communicating, now and then, a sudden discovery. Probably I exaggerate the subtlety of our enjoyment, for it is hard to review the unself-scrutinizing moods of freshmanhood. It would be hard, too, to say which enthusiast had the greater enjoyment: he, because these glimpses through magic casements made him merry; I, because they made me sad. Outside, the snow sparkled in the pure winter night; the long lance windows of the college library shone yellow-panelled through the darkness, and there would be the occasional interruption of light-hearted classmates. How perfectly it all chimed into the mood of St. Agnes’ Eve! The opening door would bring a gust of lively sound from down the corridor, a swelling jingle of music, shouts from some humorous “rough-house” (probably those sophomores on the floor below)–

The boisterous, midnight, festive clarion
The kettle-drum, and far-heard clarionet
Affray his ears, though but in dying tone–
The hall-door shuts again, and all the noise is gone.

It did not take very long for J—- to work through the fifty pages of Keats reprinted in Professor Hidden Page’s anthology; and then he, a lone and laughing faun among that pack of stern sophomores–so flewed, so sanded, out of the Spartan kind, crook-knee’d and dewlapped like Thessalian bulls–sped away into thickets of Landor, Tennyson, the Brownings. There I, an unprivileged and unsuspected hanger-on, lost their trail, returning to my own affairs. For some reason–I don’t know just why–I never “took” that course in Nineteenth Century Poets, in the classroom at any rate. But just as Mr. Chesterton, in his glorious little book, “The Victorian Age in Literature,” asserts that the most important event in English history was the event that never happened at all (you yourself may look up his explanation) so perhaps the college course that meant most to me was the one I never attended. What it meant to those sophomores of the class of 1909 is another gentle speculation. Three years later, when I was a senior, and those sophomores had left college, another youth and myself were idly prowling about a dormitory corridor where some of those same sophomores had previously lodged. An unsuspected cupboard appeared to us, and rummaging in it we found a pile of books left there, forgotten, by a member of that class. It was a Saturday afternoon, and my companion and I had been wondering how we could raise enough cash to go to town for dinner and a little harmless revel. To shove those books into a suitcase and hasten to Philadelphia by trolley was the obvious caper; and Leary’s famous old bookstore ransomed the volumes for enough money to provide an excellent dinner at Lauber’s, where, in those days, the thirty-cent bottle of sour claret was considered the true, the blushful Hippocrene. But among the volumes was a copy of Professor Page’s anthology which had been used by one of J—-‘s companions in that poetry course. This seemed to me too precious to part with, so I retained it; still have it; and have occasionally studied the former owner’s marginal memoranda. At the head of The Eve of St. Agnes he wrote: “Middle Ages. N. Italy. Guelph, Guibilline.” At the beginning of Endymion he recorded: “Keats tries to be spiritualized by love for celestials.” Against Sleep and Poetry: “Desultory. Genius in the larval state.” The Ode on a Grecian Urn, he noted: “Crystallized philosophy of idealism. Embalmed anticipation.” The Ode on Melancholy: “Non-Gothic. Not of intellect or disease. Emotions.”

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Darkling I listen to these faint echoes from a vanished lecture room, and ponder. Did J—- keep his copy of the book, I wonder, and did he annotate it with lively commentary of his own? He left college at the end of our second year, and I have not seen or heard from him these thirteen years. The last I knew–six years ago–he was a contractor in an Ohio city; and (is this not significant?) in a letter written then to another classmate, recalling some waggishness of our own sophomore days, he used the phrase “Like Ruth among the alien corn.”

In so far as one may see turning points in a tangle of yarn, or count dewdrops on a morning cobweb, I may say that a few evenings with my friend J—- were the decisive vibration that moved one more minor poet toward the privilege and penalty of Parnassus. One cannot nicely decipher such fragile causes and effects. It was a year later before the matter became serious enough to enforce abandoning library copies of Keats and buying an edition of my own. And this, too, may have been not unconnected with the gracious influence of the other sex as exhibited in a neighbouring athenaeum; and was accompanied by a gruesome spate of florid lyrics: some (happily) secret, and some exposed with needless hardihood in a college magazine. The world, which has looked leniently upon many poetical minorities, regards such frenzies with tolerant charity and forgetfulness. But the wretch concerned may be pardoned for looking back in a mood of lingering enlargement. As Sir Philip Sidney put it, “Self-love is better than any gilding to make that seem gorgeous wherein ourselves be parties.”

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* * * * *

There is a vast deal of nonsense written and uttered about poetry. In an age when verses are more noisily and fluently circulated than ever before, it might seem absurd to plead in the Muse’s defence. Yet poetry and the things poets love are pitifully weak to-day. In essence, poetry is the love of life–not mere brutish tenacity of sensation, but a passion for all the honesties that make life free and generous and clean. For two thousand years poets have mocked and taunted the cruelties and follies of men, but to what purpose? Wordsworth said: “In spite of difference of soil and climate, of language and manners, of laws and customs, in spite of things silently gone out of mind, and things violently destroyed, the Poet binds together by passion and knowledge the vast empire of human society, as it is spread over the whole earth, and over all time.” Sometimes it seems as though “things violently destroyed,” and the people who destroy them, are too strong for the poets. Where, now, do we see any cohesive binding together of humanity? Are we nearer these things than when Wordsworth and Coleridge walked and talked on the Quantock Hills or on that immortal road “between Porlock and Linton”? Hardy writes “The Dynasts,” Joseph Conrad writes his great preface to “The Nigger of the Narcissus,” but do the destroyers hear them? Have you read again, since the War, Gulliver’s “Voyage to the Houyhnhnms,” or Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick”? These men wrote, whether in verse or prose, in the true spirit of poets; and Swift’s satire, which the text-book writers all tell you is so gross and savage as to suggest the author’s approaching madness, seems tender and suave by comparison with what we know to-day.

Poetry is the log of man’s fugitive castaway soul upon a doomed and derelict planet. The minds of all men plod the same rough roads of sense; and in spite of much knavery, all win at times “an ampler ether, a diviner air.” The great poets, our masters, speak out of that clean freshness of perception. We hear their voices–

I there before thee, in the country that well thou knowest,
Already arrived am inhaling the odorous air.

So it is not vain, perhaps, to try clumsily to tell how this delicious uneasiness first captured the spirit of one who, if not a poet, is at least a lover of poetry. Thus he first looked beyond the sunset; stood, if not on Parnassus, tiptoe upon a little hill. And overhead a great wind was blowing.

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