A Poet Who Finds Himself

By Anon

[In the following excerpt, the critic reviews The House of Orchids, and Other Poems.]

The saying goes that poets are born, not made, but the fact is, there is a superfluity of both kinds. It is a pity that the two so seldom exist in combination. If Mr. George Sterling had died immediately after the publication of "The Testimony of the Suns" and "A Wine of Wizardry" he might have been considered a very perfect example of the "born" poet. They were noteworthy, not so much as poetry—though that was not lacking—as a stage in fermentation. "A Wine of Wizardry," in particular, was a wild welter of adjectives rising from working genius. In [The House of Orchids], however, ... Mr. Sterling has added to his earlier unusual qualities of imagination and of expression the restraint needed to make them truly effective. It contains no verse descriptive of "the bleeding sun's phantasmagoric gules," nor of "the blue-eyed vampire" smiling against a "leprous moon," but one could quote from it an hundred lines of exceptional beauty....

Next to restraint, the most marked gain that Mr. Sterling shows in this volume over those that have preceded it, is in a sense of proportion. Here and there, however, we still feel a slight lack of it. It intrudes a comic line (to our gasoline-steeped sense) in a charming poem, "The Faun":

    At noon great Caesar's chariot past,
    A poison on the air—

It hails that diligent harrower of the literary field, Mr. Ambrose Bierce, as "Thou eagle who hast gazed upon the sun." But that is a small tribute, considering that Mr. Bierce has been hailing Mr. Sterling for some years past as the greatest poet on this side of the Atlantic. And since Mr. Bierce's hail seems likely to be justified, now that Mr. Sterling has found himself, there is a possibility that Mr. Bierce, in his turn, may yet qualify for eaglehood. So, on second thought, it may be wise to suspend judgment even on a point which at first seemed a fair mark for criticism!

"The House of Orchids," which gives its exotic and suggestive name to the book—Mr. Sterling has a genius for titles—is often exquisite, but, like the flower itself, carries no universal appeal. "An Altar of the West," on the other hand, is just as finely wrought and voices to a degree that inarticulate emotion, the ache of beauty, which every man, in his own way, has at one time or another felt.

    Beauty, what dost thou here?
    Why hauntest thou the House where
    Death is lord
    And o'er thy crown appear
    The inexorable shadow and the sword?
    Art not a mad mirage above a grave?
    The foam foredriven of a perished wave?
    A clarion afar?
    A lily on the waters of despond?
    A ray that leaping from our whitest star
    Shows but the night beyond?
    And yet thou seemest more than all the rest
    That eye and ear attest—
    A watch-tower on the mountains whence we see
    On future skies
    The rose of dawn to be;
    The altar of an undiscovered shore;
    A dim assurance and a proud surmise;
    A gleam
    Upon the bubble, Time;
    The vision fleet, sublime,
    Of sorrowed man, the brute that dared to dream.

Source: "A Poet Who Finds Himself," in The New York Times, June 25, 1911, p. 400. Reprinted in Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, Vol. 20.