Poetry of Lilian Middleton, The

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Szerző: Howard Phillips Lovecraft • Év: 1922

Assuming that conditions in amateur journalism duplicate in miniature those of n-the general literary world, there is significance in the consistent conservatism of its foremost figures. Art, after all, is founded on the unchanging qualities and fundamental experiences of mankind; and despite the occasional adoption of novel phases is always most genuine when it adheres most closely to the normal tradition. Nowhere is this truer than in the poetic field, where we find normality and rational aesthetic proportion in almost every truly dominant artist. Of amateurdom’s three preeminently notable poets of the last decade, Samuel Loveman, Winifred Virginia Jackson, and „Lilian Middleton”, not one is lacking in that sense of symmetry, relativity, fulness, and structural harmony which constitutes true conservatism. Impressionism, if ever occurring in these bards, is present only so far as it is an accurate reflection of Nature. Of „imagism”, the abnormal expression of partial and non-rational perception, there is hardly a trace.

Samuel Loveman has for nearly twenty years symbolised the high-water mark of amateur art. Winifred V. Jackson, entering amateurdom in 1915, has recently received the acclamation of the larger literary sphere as one of America’s new poets of genius. This article will attempt to survey the merits of „Lilian Middleton”, former United Laureate, whose increasing array of excellent verse has assured her a place of eminence beside the two just mentioned.

S. Lilian Middleton-McMullen, whose works are now distinguished by publication in poetry magazines all over the country, is a discovery of Winifred V. Jackson’s, and an added plume in the cap of that noted poetess. She is a native of Ireland, of a loyal British Unionist family, and inherits a trace of French blood through a great-grandmother. In her heredity there is a definitely artistic element, as shewn by the fact that both her mother and sister are poets of no mean skill.

Mrs. McMullen was educated in English private schools, and originally specialised in music; being a violoncellist and pianiste of great ability, and to some degree a composer. At an early age she was given to the writing of verse, but these older specimens are notable only for grace and correctness. Arnateurdom has seen two of them—”Late Autumn” in The Tryout, and „The Cellist” in The United Co-operative. They are, quite obviously, juvenilia; though of unusual merit for such work.

Not until after Mrs. McMullen’s removal to the United States and acquaintance with Mrs. Jackson was her later and richer poetic vein uncovered. In 1918, at Miss Jackson’s suggestion, she wrote as a credential to the United the poem „My Mistress—Music”, which excited such favourable notice in manuscript that it was at once featured in The United Amateur. Critical comment was unanimously approving, for it was clear that amateurdom had at last acquired another real singer—one with that distinct individuality and facility which make true art. The rest we know, for the partial pseudonym of „Lilian Middleton” has since become associated with one of the most poignant and beautiful elements of our literature.

The poetry of Mrs. McMullen, like all authentic art, possesses qualities of individuality which can be isolated and defined only by close analysis. Lesser writers may have mannerisms—affectations of form put on or put off at will—but only real artist can have style; that subtle and unmistakable uniqueness of expression which never comes save as the result of an absolute originality of perception, appraisal, and comparison. Style Mrs. McMullen has in abundance, and style of so piquant and truly lyrical a nature that a foreigner might derive pleasure from the cadence of her verses without understanding their purport. Much of this lyrism is certainly due to her intelligent musical education, but that factor is not enough to account for the curiosa felicitas whereby all harsh effects are instinctively rejected, and all lines modulated with a Tennysonian liquidity quite uncommon in amateurdom. To achieve such results one must have an innate lyrical genius; a sensitiveness to beauty of spoken sound as connected with beauty of imagery which a purely musical training can hardly supply in full.

Mrs. McMullen’s inspiration is gratifyingly free from the taint of modernism, whether in the sense of imagistic affiliations, unpoetic realism, or sloppy emotional waste. Her lyrics, perhaps influenced by some Celtic heritage, are things of infinite daintiness and witchery; often homely and familiar in theme, but invariably raised above the commonplace by the piquant originality of treatment and masterly refinement of rhythm. Original genius, it may incidentally be remarked, is found quite as often in method as in subject-matter; so that in judging a simple genre poem one must not cavil till he has investigated the kind of fancy animating the various images. Only if this fancy be commonplace, will condemnation be justified. Mrs. McMullen gives to a simple scene or sentiment that indefinable charm and faery glamour which belong to genius, as the moonlight gives charm and glamour to a landscape which by day is prosaic and undistinguished.

With literary sources as varied as Chaucer, Browning, Tennyson, and Austin Dobson—to name a few—Mrs. McMullen has evolved an original style whose keynotes are exquisite lightness and buoyancy, quaint delicacy, and gentle pathos. She has, perhaps unconsciously as yet, a daintily coloured vision of life in its true proportions; for even in writing from the conventional point of view she glimpses the world’s absence or substance—the need to retreat into the more tenuous upper regions of the fancy to escape pain and sordidness, and the underlying sadness which pursues one even to that ethereal haven. This apparent preoccupation with externals should not be judged as shallowness, but rather as a mark of aesthetic soundness in conformity with the truth emphasised by Schopenhauer, that the world is beautiful as an object but ugly as a source of experience.

The variety of Mrs. McMullen’s work is considerable; ranging from Dresden-China bits of vers de societe and Gallic ballades, triolets and villanelles about Watteau shepherdesses, to serious pieces of greater length, imagination, and wistfulness. Her song-poetry, which includes some delectable child verse, has already found favour with composers and publishers; while her occasional departures into the realm of the sombre are, though not equal to her lighter productions, by no means infelicitous. Mrs. McMullen’s Muse is still in a state of active growth, so that it will not do to impose too rigid a classification upon her art at this juncture.

It is illuminating to glance at some typical McMullen poems with an eye for their peculiar beauties. In sheer exuberance of sprightly melody and whimsicality, the Parisian trifle „Dans la Rue” is rich. A stanza or two illustrates how much piquancy can be extracted from the sheerest material:

 

How I love you, Petite,

   With your gay little air,

As you pass down the street!

 

I shall hasten!—toute suite

   You will hear me declare

How I love you, Petite,

As you pass down the street!

 

France is in Mrs. McMullen’s blood, and appears deliciously in occasional French phrases and subjects. Note such vivacious stanzas as the following, taken from the poem „Petit á Petit, L’Oiseau Fait Son Nid”:

 

“Tis many months since first I saw you smile,

   (The dullest day your sunny smile would hallow!)

Tout transporte, I stood and watch’d you, while

   Vite comme le vent, you pass’d me at St. Malo;

One flashing glance from sloe-black eyes, Petite,

And tout á coup, my heart was at your feet!

 

But it is in other poems—poems with the element of pathos more emphasised—that one finds Mrs. McMullen’s fancy at its best. In such verse there is all the distinctiveness which results from viewing the eternal human tragedy through the diminishing-glass of romantic selection, and transfiguring it with the gentle glow of music, restraint, and a singularly original quaintness. „The Token” is a good sample—telling of how a dweller in „a little house of stone” received a loved one’s messages from the evening star that shone in the west across the fields, and how sadness came when a mansion was built and shut out the light of the star. „In My Wee Room” is perhaps even better, giving a picture of a transition from joy to sadness with a few deft touches describing articles of furniture and decoration. „Desiree Logier” is a masterpiece—extremely simple in plot, relating only an idyllic courtship in war-torn France which ended in the weeping of Desiree by the poppied grave of the young Fusilier Dennis O’Toole, it derives from its skilfully breathed atmosphere and inherent music a charm and brooding sadness which scores of more hectic and apparently intense emotional outbursts fail to exhibit. Later fragments of McMullen verse shew the same qualities in even more mature form—the following stanzas are from different poems:

 

But oh! my shadows are so sweet

   That I must sing which grasses sway—

What matters now, that soon my feet

   Shall not pass here on any day?

 

Out to the west with a full sail

   Eagerly fare the ships,

And into the crest of the white foam

   Lightly the sea-gull dips.

But I would plunge to the grey deeps

   In search of a dead man’s lips.

 

But they say that on the mountain where I’ve lain among the heather,

   With the plover’s note a-mourning thro’ the haze of blue,

That the cold and dead are lying in the soft-cheek’d Irish weather,

   And oh! my heart is breaking for the mountain that I knew.

 

The same musical and atmospheric qualities can be found in documents of other moods, among which the gentle domestic affections, sometimes associated with picturesque Irish scenes, hold a large place. „When I Am a Lady, Old and Gray” has won Laureateship—and deserved it. A few lines will suggest its magic:

 

I shall smile at things the young folks do,

   And shall counsel give, so kind and wise!

All dress’d in a gown of soft old blue,

   Old blue to match my faded eyes!

 

„The Fairy-Maiden” has an elfin, elusive quality:

 

Ah! yes; you may woo me—and win me—enfold me

   But when the dew glistens, and starlight is falling,

   And all the night-voices are whisp’ring—are calling,

Then you never can keep me—you never can hold me!

 

Childhood has a charm for Mrs. McMullen, as shewn in the quaintly grave long narrative poem „Understanding”, the haunting lyric „In the Far Field”, and others as yet unpublished. For this subject her lightness of touch fits her preeminently. Of plain amatory verse the bard does not produce a great quantity, but what she does write is of inimitable grace and musical tenderness, as we may see by pieces like „Eventide”, whose final stanza reads as follows:

 

Now up a pathway steep

   Moon mounts the skies—

Dear, let me long and deep

   Drink of your eyes.

Ah! what the bliss to know

Your sweet head pillow’d, so!

 

The poetry of spiritual revolt—the eternal cry of man at the limitations of Nature—is another phase of the McMullen genius. „In Rein” is familiar to all amateurs. Less so, perhaps, is „The Prisoner”, which begins:

 

My soul would be for ever free

   Of this dull body where it hides!

My body wanders stumblingly

   While light as air my spirit rides!

 

With these varied samples, it will perhaps be needless to speak in detail of Mrs. McMullen’s especial gift for vivid metrical effects. Her mastery of quaint and captivating metres is notable, irregular anapaests being perhaps her favourite form. We see this skill illustrated in many unusual compositions, among them „My Mistress—Music”, which is its author’s first poem of maturity:

 

I have a Mistress fair to see,

   But oh! she’s fickle as she is fair.

What would you do if you were me?

   Let my passion seem

   But a cherish’d dream

That fades away into thinnest air?

 

The following is very recent—from a lyric entitled „On the Heart of the Spring”:

 

   O! Birdie a-swing

   On the heart of the spring,

   As you lightsomely hover

   And skim o’er the clover.

What a torrent of rapturous, lyrical madness

In a frenzy of turbulent spring-blossom gladness

   You fling!

 

The individuality of Mrs. McMullen’s subtler metrical qualities is infinite—one might point out a delightfully quaint habit of accenting adjectives instead of the nouns they modify, as, for example,

 

And a white bird mounts on a strong wing.

 

That the growth of this unique genius will be eminently interesting to watch, none may dispute. Mrs. McMullen is already a lyrist of the first order—second to none in amateurdom so far as music of phrase, magic of metre, and buoyancy of fancy are con-cerned—and from the advances she has already made we may predict much. Young in years, replete with studious energy, and having a background of exceptional cultivation, her expanding special reading and increasing experience promise notable results. Philosophy may temper the serenity of her work with a more poignant note of despair, while sophistication may emphasise the hollowness of sentiments now treated as at least presumable actualities. But always there will be an airy and exquisite soaring above the commonplace—a lyrical freshness of mood and repudiation of prosaic, unsubtilised realism.

Mrs. McMullen is fortunate in having an appeal which is popular as well as classical. The professional success of her work, while not affecting her pure artistry of method, will serve as an added assurance of excellence and encouragement to progress. She is, it seems quite certain, among the very few amateurs who are destined for an early and cordial recognition by the general literary world.

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