Intellectual California: A Few of Her Story-Writers, Poets, Painters, Scientists, Historians

By Edwin Markham

[Markham was an American poet, critic, and protégé of Ambrose Bierce. His best-known poem, "The Man with the Hoe," is typical of his work, exhibiting strong rhythms, a declamatory style, and an element of socialist political philosophy. In the following excerpt, Markham praises the lyric beauty of Sterling's work.]

George Sterling has four books of poems to prove him a poet of fine imaginative powers. His poems carry a certain relish of eternity in their themes and their implications. They sing of stars and seas and the soul' s high dreams. Even the flower, in its frail duration of an hour, he looks at from God's side, trying to find its larger meaning in the plan of infinity. The orchid brings him intimations of eternity, of mystery, of some marvelous beauty-loving power at the soul of things.

The sea speaks for him a various language, hinting unfathomable desire for vision or announcement, sounding the antiphone of the might-have-been and the nevermore-to-be:

    The echo of man's travail on the wind,
    A sigh of great departures, and the breath
    Of pinions incontestable by death.
The night also brings to this poet secrets and sorceries:

    Where seas of dream break on a phantom shore
    To mysteries of music evermore.

Although Mr. Sterling's verse has not the local color that Wordsworth and Burns afford the tourist, still his landscapes have the large freedom of his own Pacific. His poem, "An Altar of the West," is full of the magic and the majesty of the cypressed cliffs that hold back his western seas:

Past Carmel lies a headland that the deep—
A Titan at his toil—
Has graven with the measured surge and sweep
Of waves that broke ten thousand years ago.

Thus he opens an ode of lofty music and meanings. His nature poems are not finished with the jeweled work of Madison Cawein. Yet in "A Wine of Wizardry," which took our hearts with its strange beauty, Mr. Sterling shows his feeling for color and luster of phrase and line, as he does also in his dim-gleaming "Gardens of the Sea."

Mr. Sterling's "Wine of Wizardry" raised in the literary world the question, "Is it a great poem?" The chief difficulty in answering this question lies in the fact that "A Wine of Wizardry" can scarcely be called a poem. It does not seem to me to have the organic unity essential to every work of art. Mr. Sterling gives us the words, the images and the free lines; but they are not fused into a living whole.

In every literary creation there must be a central figure with something that corresponds to a woven plot followed by a consistent crisis. There must be dramatic movement. The central figure in a poem is often only a unifying Idea; yet this must be there to serve as the pivot for the wheel of the action.

In brief, every work of art must be organic. It must come forth like a living thing; so unified that no part can be torn away without destroying the beauty and symmetry of the whole. If any part can be taken away without offense, then that part is surplus and renders the work inartistic.

Now, in "A Wine of Wizardry" the parts have no vital union. You can omit a passage, and yet the rest will not be affected: you will feel no sense of deficiency. The passages can even be shifted about without disturbing our sense of harmony.

It may be that Mr. Sterling intended to give us only a series of weird pictures. If so, he has made a remarkable success. As you read his wizard pages, you feel as though you were voyaging up some tropic stream darkened with excess of foliage and bloom, where through the rifts in the leafy roofs you get glimpses of a blazing sky, or catch at times the iris flash of giant flowers or brilliant birds, the gleam of jeweled lizards or the coil of coruscating serpents. Considered as a series of gorgeous dissolving views, "A Wine of Wizardry" is unequaled by anything else in our literature: it stands alone, a marvel of color and verbal beauty.

In his sonnets, George Sterling holds a high place—perhaps the highest in our American achievement in this field. Long-fellow's exquisite sonnets have less imaginative sweep. Mr. Sterling works out his sonnets under the strict laws of the art. They are not merely fourteen chance lines: they have an organic unity. The octet contains the swell of the billow, and the sextet contains its harmonious subsidence. More than this, the rhymes are arranged according to the hard terms of the Petrarchian model. Mr. Sterling's most striking sonnet sequence is his daring trio on "Oblivion." (pp. 356-59)

Edwin Markham, "Intellectual California: A Few of Her Story-Writers, Poets, Painters, Scientists, Historians," in his California the Wonderful, Hearst's International Library Co., 1914, pp. 328-77. Reprinted in Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, Vol. 20.