Mr. Cummings' first book opens with a fanfare--there is a flourish of trumpets and a crash of cymbals in the resounding music of Epithalamion, a certain splendor of sound carried just to that point of blare which should match an exaggerated and half-satiric magnificence of mood. "Go to, ye classic bards," he seems to say, "I will show you what I can do with iambic pentameter, and a rhyme-patterned stanza, with high-sounding processional adjectives, long simile-embroidered sentences, and 0-thou invocations of all the gods!" And lo and behold, this modernist does very well with them--Picasso and the rest, turning from the chaos of cubism to the cold symmetry of Ingres, must not get ahead of him! He will be in the fashion, or a leap or two ahead of it--and the muse shall not outrun him!
Listen to two separate stanzas from this glorified and richly patterned spring-song, this earth- and-sky-inspired Epithalamion:
And still the mad magnificent herald Spring Assembles beauty from forgetfulness With the wild trump of April: witchery Of sound and odor drives the wingless thing, Man, forth into bright air; for now the red Leaps in the maple's cheek, and suddenly By shining hordes, in sweet unserious dress, Ascends the golden crocus from the dead.
. . . . . . . . . . . . ..
0 still miraculous May! 0 shining girl Of time untarnished! 0 small intimate Gently primeval hands, frivolous feet Divine! 0 singular and breathless pearl! 0 indefinable frail ultimate pose! 0 visible beatitude--sweet sweet Intolerable! Silence immaculate Of God's evasive audible great rose!
(Right here is due a parenthetical apology. Mr. Cummings has an eccentric system of typography which, in our opinion, has nothing to do with the poem, but intrudes itself irritatingly, like scratched or blurred spectacles, between it and the reader's mind. In quoting him, therefore, we are trying the experiment of printing him almost like anybody else, with the usual quantity of periods, commas, capital letters, and other generally accepted conventions of the printer's art.)
In a more or less grandiloquent mood the poet swaggers and riots through his book, carrying off Beauty in his arms as tempestuously as ever Petruchio his shrew. The important thing, of course, is that he does capture her--she is recognizable even when the poet, like Petruchio, laughs at her, tumbles her up-to-date raiment, sometimes almost murders her as he sweeps her along.
She drops swift phrases in passing:
... Between Your thoughts more white than wool My thought is sorrowful.
Across the harvest whitely peer, Empty of surprise, Death's faultless eyes.
Softer be they than slippered sleep. Thy fingers make early flowers of All things.
And all the while my heart shall be With the bulge and nuzzle of the sea.
Thy forehead is a flight of flowers.
The green-greeting pale-departing irrevocable sea.
The body of The queen of queens is More transparent Than water--she is softer than birds.
The serious steep darkness.
Death's clever enormous voice [in war].
The Cambridge ladies who live in furnished Souls. . . . They believe in Christ and Longfellow, both dead.
Some poems guffaw into grotesques leering with tragic or comic significance. The Portraits are mostly of this kind, and certain of the Impressions. Here the poet is often too nimble--he tires the reader with intricate intellectual acrobatics which scarcely repay one for puzzling out their motive over the slippery typographical stepping-stones. But even here the fault is one of exuberance--the poet always seems to be having a glorious time with himself and his world even when the reader loses his breath in the effort to share it. He is as agile and outrageous as a faun, and as full of delight over the beauties and monstrosities of this brilliant and grimy old planet. There is a grand gusto in him, and that is rare enough to be welcomed in any age of a world too full of puling pettifoggers and picayunes.
One might quote many poems in proof of this poet's varied joys. We shall have to be satisfied with two. The first is number one of the Chansons Innocentes:
In just-- Spring, when the world is mud- luscious, the little lame balloon-man
whistles far and wee.
And Eddie-and Bill come running from marbles and piracies, and it’s spring,
when the world is puddle-wonderful.
The queer old balloon-man whistles far and wee.
And Betty-and-Isbel come dancing from hop-scotch and jump-rope, and
it’s spring, and the goat-footed balloon-man whistles far and wee.
The second of our quotations is number two of the Orientale series:
I spoke to thee with a smile, and thou didst not answer: thy mouth is as a chord of crimson music.
O thou, is life not a smile?
I spoke to thee with a song, and thou didst not listen: thine eyes are as a vase of divine silence.
O thou, is life not a song?
I spoke to thee with a soul, and thou didst not wonder: thy face is as a dream locked in white fragrance.
O thou, is life not love?
I speak to thee with a sword, and thou art silent: thy breast is as a tomb softer than flowers.
O thou, is love not death?
Altogether a mettlesome high-spirited poet salutes us in this volume. But beware his imitators!