Poetry of John Ravenor Bullen, The

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Szerző: Howard Phillips Lovecraft • Év: 1925

Whether such a thing as a double poetry laureateship existed in amateur journalism prior to 1923 is a matter for the old-timer and statistician to say. To the present generation the circumstance had an air of unprecendentedness, and hearty was the prevailing mixture of wonderment and congratulation when, two years ago, the supreme awards for verse in both United and National Amateur Press Associations were captured by the single Muse of Mr. John Ravenor Bullen of Ontario, Canada.

The quiet beauty of Mr. Bullen’s poetry had for some time been remarked among us, but so rarely is a strain of merit sufficiently well defined to produce an equal effect on two separate judges that the kindred outcome of the twin contests burst upon us as a surprise and revelation of the most delightful sort. Prize-winning, however, is no novelty for Mr. Bullen. In various seriously artistic competitions all over the continent he has come out with distinguished laurels, and long before his advent to amateurdom his work formed a leading feature in the programmes of such substantial organisations as the American Poetry Association, Philadelphia Society of Arts and Letters, and The Quill Club, of which latter he has for several years been the American representative.

What truly constitutes a poet it is very hard to say. Nowadays, when intellect elbows for more than its allotted space in the aesthetic field, we are prone to analyse profoundly, seek for fundamentals, and discourse sagely of the unique insight, point of view, and personally selective imagination of the essential bard. We affect to demand that he see nothing undivested of its traditional associations, and that he present to us only the nuclear, isolated, and austerely unadorned imaginative content of his random reactions to experience and emotion. The result is a jarring jumble of academic schools, each based upon sterile theory rather than artistic reeling, which favour us with carefully roiled chaoticisms of varying cast; from the chromatic sensation-vortices of the imagists to the frozen mental detritus of Mr. T. S. Eliot and his followers. Amidst this welter of scientific psychology the art impulse is expected to survive as best it may. Too often its absence is pardoned out of deference to a theoretical form which current yardsticks coolly measure and pronounce real poetry on strictly philosophical grounds.

John Ravenor Bullen, in the profusion of delightful lyric poetry on which his increasing literary recognition is founded, has repudiated the bondage of contemporary theory and is the greater artist thereby. Acknowledging the debt owed by all present beauty to the generations of inherited impressions whence springs its existing relation to human emotion, he is too wise to discard the music, rhythms, symmetries, aspects of vision, and turns of thought and phrase with which spontaneous aesthetic feeling has coloured its expression down the long ages that Nature has forced it to find an outlet. Sensitive to the equal artistic significance of moods and matter, dreams and diurnalities, the fata morgana and facts, he has not neglected to treasure that rare quality of glamour which, scorned though it is by realists, yet embodies perhaps the better part of all the loveliness we know. A sound instinct has kept him closely within the main line of the great English tradition, thus fitting him for the harmonious reflection of those fancies, conceptions, and perspectives which with us must always be strongest because they are the simple aggregate and heritage of a thousand years of our continuous racial and cultural experience.

Mr. Bullen’s particular secret as a poet lies, apart from his keen visual imagination and the natural sense of sound which gives melody and limpidity to all his lines and sets him unerringly on the trail of the perfectly symphonic word, in the fact that he has pre. served his golden illusions and faculty of wonder and values in life. For him the zest and dewiness of the May morning have never departed, and amidst our prevailing desert of cynical sophistication he is still able to feel that thrill of pleasure, novelty, and ecstasy in the daily round of terrestrial phenomena which animated the freshly vigorous bards of a brighter time. That thrill alone, so difficult of achievement today, is the one ultimate determinant of the true poet. It is the quality of youth—a youth with Endymion-like independence of chronology—which with a magic quite distinct from anything else we know has the unshared power of animating with grace, marvellousness, and the aspect of significance a world and universe visible to the modern prose mind only as a dull, purposeless, and unsatisfying cycle of electronic, atomic, and molecular rearrangements.

Keeping these sources of inspiration in mind, it is interesting to speculate on the precise methods whereby Mr. Bullen secures his felicitous effects. That simplicity is a strong factor is at once obvious; for no one can fail to note how carefully the snares of linguistic complexity, impressionistic chaos, and intellectual involution are avoided. The author is determined that his pictures shall stand out in a clear, full light and that not a particle of their final effect shall be sacrificed through useless diversions of the reader’s vision and attention. Moreover, he so skilfully manages this point that there is no outward appearance of strained simplification, no artificial naiveté, no affectedly primerish gestures, and none of the slashing contempt for finenesses and subtleties which marks many writers’ efforts at directness. The language is the language of civilised society, with no lack of the colour, richness, and variety necessary to full and flexible utterance. However, it is not cast in riddles for riddles’ sake or tortured into meaningless attempts to express the inexpressible. When ecstasy is demanded, it is created not by a lapse into exclamatory incoherence but by choice of precisely the most graphic and forcible words, all used in normal fashion; for to a connoisseur and colourist like Mr. Bullen there are enough vivid vocables at command to obviate all need for extravagant distortions. In most cases the favoured words are the common, beloved ones, to which tradition has bequeathed its mellowest and most enduring overtones; but when the exotic or the unusual is demanded, the poet is not slow to rise to the occasion.

Another source of Mr. Bullen’s wide appeal is the quality of universality, whereby he tends to touch upon those moods and sentiments which are shared by all the race, rather than to harp as most lyrists do upon the subjective emotional phenomena peculiar to themselves. This is, indeed, the authentic attitude of classicism and is powerful in our poet’s work because it is absolutely genuine with him. It here figures as no mere theory or result of conscious straining but as the natural product of an imagination attuned to the universal emotions. With Mr. Bullen it is this general body of sentiment which possesses the prime elements of glamour, witchery, and loveliness, and because his response to its stimulus is absolutely sincere, he is able to reflect it with all the splendours he himself finds twined about it, achieving just as poignant results as does the more personal poet with his highly individualised reactions. Here, indeed, we have an illuminatingly definite proof of the fact that real poetry springs not from any fine-wrought formula or choice of theme but purely and exclusively from the degree of wonder and ecstasy in the poet’s mind, irrespective of subject or type of medium.

Mr. Bullen’s general attitude toward life and the universe is one of optimistic acceptance, achieved through a preoccupation with the beauties of orthodox tradition which prevents more than a fleeting glimpse of the stern scientific background. Only once—in the haunting and alluringly Poe-like song called “The Music of the Spheres”—has this defensive armour threatened to give way and admit the despair or resignation of the philosophic modern. For the most part the poet is genuinely able to retain the point of view of the great Victorians, to whose style he so unmistakably falls heir.

It is not, of course, to be imagined for a moment that Mr. Bullen’s orthodoxy leads him into absurdities and insipidities. Working within a cosmos mapped out by the dreams of generations, he displays a flawless psychological consistency and runs the gamut of the more beautiful moods and emotions without discords or extravagances. To Tennyson he is probably most keenly indebted for his outlook and method, and he is surely a disciple in whom the famous nineteenth-century laureate might justly take pride. Here and there a trace of gentle wistfulness crops out to lend a delicate minor note to the symphony, but in the main there predominates an intense delight in present loveliness and in visions of a rosily imagined futurity which gives the work its characteristic tone. The sometimes wearying didacticism of the nineteenth century is not often found in Mr. Bullen’s verse. When a moral does appear, it is urbanely insinuated rather than hammered in, and usually the author is content to let his images speak for themselves in beauty—the reader to draw whatever lesson—if any—he feels prompted to draw.

If any fault be discernible in Mr. Bullen’s writing, it is a slight tendency to overwork those archaic forms which Pre-Raphaelitism restored to English verse for a season but at which a more classical taste is again beginning to look at least questioningly. It would, of course, be hyper-critical to deny any authentic poet of the Victorian tradition an occasional “ere”, “nay”, “’tis”, “cloth”, “thou”, “hath”, or expletive “do” or “did”; but one may pardonably pause before recommending these forms for constant employment. This applies likewise to the inversions and characteristically crystallised words and phrases which Mr. Bullen sometimes uses—poetic licences like “recollections fond”, “throng, whom restlessly I seek among”, “bubbling swift their course along”, “who sanction lent”, and so on; stock expressions like “merry month of May”, “sun-caressed”, “feathered songsters”, “bitter sacrifice”, “white-plumed”, “Dame Nature”, “merry pipes of Pan”, and the like; and single words like “entrancing”, which excessive and inappropriate popular usage has unfortunately stripped of their pristine freshness and value. All these, however, are merely tendencies to be guarded against; as are the infrequent rusty patches in the metre, and the very rare rhymes which might not win the entire endorsement of Walker’s celebrated dictionary. They do not hamper the flow of song and imagery, nor do they suggest any further admonition to the poet than that he exercise at all times that perfect—though doubtless provokingly fatiguing—fastidiousness which appears in his technical masterpieces.

Mr. Bullen’s work seems divisible into seven major classes, each ably and appropriately handled. There is, to begin with, the purely lyrical response to Nature’s sheer beauty, opulently displayed in such tuneful shouts as “The Copse” or such irradiate musings as “Evening at the Lakeside”, and forming to the present writer’s mind the finest flowering of our author’s genius. One might consume columns in listing the choice titles which fall under this head, so that we may here do no more than recall a few outstanding triumphs like the aforementioned two, the perfumed magic of “My Garden”, the quaint piquancy of “Where Mayflies Dance”, the impressive majesty of “The Storm”, the vivid breathlessness of “The Seagull”, and the early poems—less assured, perhaps, yet full of golden radiance—“A Country Lane” and “In the Woods”. In all these verses the glamour and ecstasy are secured in the simplest possible way, yet are of the utmost poignancy because of the poet’s sharp visual imagination and effective command of words. Consider, for example, two specimen stanzas from “The Copse”:

 

“The wooded copse, Oh, rare delight!

   A cool and green sequester’d spot

      Where sighs the scented summer breeze

   Thro’ beechen grove and cowslip’d plot;

      Thro’ elm and fir and chestnut trees

Where sings the nightingale at night.

 

* * *

 

The village chime rings faint and far,

   Rings o’er the meadow land and vale,

      Floats o’er the headland and the lea,

   Drifts o’er the hill and down the dale

      Till Echo in an ecstasy

Flings out an answer from afar.”

 

A second division of Mr. Bullen’s work is closely allied to the first, and identical with it so far as most of the imagery is concerned. This is the nature-poetry in which a philosophical strain is embodied, but in which the elements of colour and atmosphere always predominate over the superimposed idea. Excellent instances of this class are afforded by “Thy Perfect Peace”, “Far-Distant Bells”, “Hope”, and above all by that magnificently elfin masterpiece “The Music of the Spheres”, which in the opinion of at least one critic forms the absolute high-water mark of its author’s talent. One cannot resist quoting fragments:

 

“Once I wander’d in a sad

   Dreaming mood

In a forest greenly-clad,

   Golden-strew’d.

Thro’ the laced aerial ways

   To the undulating ground

Pour’d the mellow sunset-rays

   Glowing softly all around.

 

Nought I notic’d till a soft

   Wondrous song

Trembled sweetly from aloft,

   Sweet and long.

‘Twas as if a thousand chimes

   From a myriad tiny bells

Melted into magic rhymes

   Floating faintly down the dells.

 

* * *

 

Were there wizards in that wild

   Woodland lair,

Waving wands that song-beguil’d

   All the air?

‘Tis in vain I’ve ever sought,

Whisp’ring Nature reigns supreme.

Oh, the anguish of the thought,

Was . . . oh, was it but a dream?”

 

A third type of Bullen verse is the frankly philosophical, with ideas straightforwardly presented and having only as much of imagery as is necessary to the graphic and graceful illustration of those ideas. This is a sort of poetry which can easily become barren and prosy in the hands of an inexperienced bard; but Mr. Bullen generally manages to ward off the daemon Dulness and to display in even the most homiletic of his lines a mastery of form and development whose architectural quality makes it art. “Meredith was a prose Browning,” wrote Oscar Wilde, “and so was Browning.” Mr. Bullen has obviously read the great nineteenth-century verse-psychologist well, but has been far too astute to follow him into the dreariest mazes of his rugged aridity and prosaic perversity. Of our author’s didactic pieces, one might prominently mention “My Creed”, “God’s Answer”, and best of all, the sonnet entitled “God”, which deserves reproduction in full as a perfect example of its kind:

 

“The Everlasting Universe you scan,

   Stripping it free of God. Your lips declare

The Infinite, Eternal Cosmic plan

   Devoid of purpose. Your bold thoughts lay bare

The secret soul of things, and only find

   Humanity—a fester on Earth’s face,

   Man—but a geometric point in space.

God—a cycle of atoms, deaf and blind.

 

But I with more humility can see

   God in the eyes of laughter and of pain,

In daffodils a-dancing on the lea,

   In white gulls circling where a river flows.

Your God you lose in logic; mine I gain

   Deep in the dreaming glory of a rose.”

 

As a “fourthly” we may cite a large body of amatory verse extending over a long period of rime and containing some marvellously moving touches of human feeling. Less distinctive perhaps than other phases of Mr. Bullen’s Muse, it nevertheless has a rare stamp of intensity and sincerity; and not infrequently an almost Elizabethan tinge of balladry. Notable in this field are “Love’s Anguish”, “The Quest”, and “Pluck One Rose and Give to Me”. A sample stanza of this last is worth quoting for its sprightliness:

 

“Pluck one rose and give to me

   Fair Lynette.

More I dare not ask of thee,

   Gay Lynette.

Wilt thou pluck the red, red rose,

Stay thy lover as he goes,

Bid him linger—ah! who knows,

   Coy Lynette?”

 

A fifth though by no means numerous class includes Mr. Bullen’s war verse, which contains the same lyric fire that animates the love-poetry, and which reaches its apex in brief utterances like “Reported Missing”. Still slenderer so far is the sixth category, vers de societe, which finds exemplification in clever acrostics and breezy sallies like “Dorothy”. Seventh, and in the present system of arrangement the last, comes the bulk of Mr. Bullen’s humorous productions, mostly in the dialect of the Canadian oil fields which he knows so well. Here we find exhibited an astonishing versatility; for if in his serious poetry our author shews the delicacy of a Tennyson, he is in his comic efforts proportionately well endowed with the kindly grotesquerie and robust whimsicality of a Dickens. His humour is genuinely unforced, and often almost rollicking; friendly in essence, and virtually untouched by satire or irony. It was, in short, the characteristic “healthy” humour of the nineteenth century; its chief fault—when faulty at all—being a sort of picturesque ex. travagance to which the greatest of the Victorian jesters were equally prone.

The general recognition of Mr. Bullen’s poetic ability has been gradual but gratifyingly steady. He has been a constant victor in every kind of literary contest, and his double laureateship in amateur journalism is an index of the standing he is likely to achieve. Still young, he has to his credit lines and passages that ought never to be forgotten, and with the years we may expect a mellowing and technical perfection well calculated to seat him among the actual leaders of his craft. A volume of his collected verse, to be entitled “White Fire”, has lately been seriously discussed, and numerous magazines already bear evidences of his genius. In the merit of his work we may see a renewed demonstration of the soundness of conservative fundamentals and of the basic truth that art’s secret lies not in theme or medium but in the artist’s degree of genuinely glamorous or ecstatic vision, whatever be its mood or direction. Clear, unaffected, and rich without eccentricity, Mr. Bullen’s best poetry might profitably be taken as a text by the striver against contemporary faddism. He has shewn us by example that wonder is not confined to the uniquely perverted or true aesthetic feeling to the hectically distorted.

John Ravenor Bullen was born in a delectably embowered ancestral home of Jacobean construction in Bampton, Oxfordshire, England; a seat and garden of beauty which he has potently described in many of his verses and in the languorous prose-poem “Ronevar’s Cottage”. In early manhood he migrated with his family to the oil districts of Western Ontario, where he still holds forth as a cultural pioneer, with increasing interests in the literary life of North America. He is a bachelor and has long suffered the vicissitudes of ill-health; which latter circumstances he has valiantly borne and minimised amidst a plentitude of intellectual and aesthetic labours and a judicious series of travels in the wilder parts of southern Canada. A prose writer as well as a poet, he is the author of many acute criticisms and of at least one unpublished novel, a refreshing romance of old sea ways and pirate treasure entitled “From the Mouth of the Golden Toad”.

Mr. Bullen is by no means unconscious of the sources of his inspiration, and has summed up his aesthetic beliefs in a vigorous poetic creed which may well serve as climax and conclusion for this modest appraisal:

 

“There is poetry to me in all things:

A flash of summer lightning o’er the hilltops;

The muttering cannonade of sullen thunder;

The moon’s pale smile, the sun’s hot golden laughter.

A poem there is in the gale’s weird anger.

Each rose a silent song is in the Junetime.

The scent of new-mown hay, the river’s murmur.

Far-distant bells, an echo’s dying answer;

The flush of dawn, the sunset’s crimson evening;

The woodland orchestra, the blazing comet

That swings along its billion-leagued orbit;

Th’ incomprehensible majestic planets,

The mighty universe’s silent movements

All fill my soul with an ecstatic music;

And feeling this, I cannot but affirm that

   There is poetry to me in all things.”

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