Introduction for "Sonnets to Craig"

By Upton Sinclair

Many strange experiences have been imagined by poets and woven into sonnet sequences; but few of them stranger than the story contained in the metal box which rests now upon the writer's desk. It holds letters and sonnets written many years ago to the woman who is now his wife, by the man who was then, and remained to the end, his dearest friend.

"Craig," as she is called in these poems, was born in the far South, the eldest child of an honored family. She was gifted with beauty of that rare kind which expresses the soul within. Beethoven is quoted as saying that he would like to break a certain woman's heart, in order that she might be able to sing; and the fates treated Craig according to this cruel formula, by a youthful love-affair and engagement which ended in tragedy. For five or six years thereafter she lived for her family, expecting no happiness of her own.

At the age of twenty-five she came to New York, with the manuscript of a partly completed biography of Winnie Davis, "the Daughter of the Confederacy." Soon after this she met George Sterling. The meeting took place in a drawing-room, and when George saw her, he stared, and then, without being introduced, or even knowing her name, went upon his knees before her, and caught her hand and kissed it. To quote his own words, written a few days later: "One glance, and the mischief was done. I was lost, and bound, and helpless as a babe, in the matter."

Craig had come North for the purpose of investigating the "literary world;" and here was a celebrated poet. What was a poet? And what was the meaning of his strange behavior? She had been trained in that art which in the South is called "coquetry," and to this new admirer

she said, at the outset, "Beware of me, I am a flirt; I pretend to be interested in men, but it's only to see what they are like, to make them pour out their hearts." George, reading in her shining eyes the truth, that she was the tenderest soul he had ever known, replied, "I am not afraid of you. I give you permission. Do what you will." Soon she said, "I cannot love you. There are many reasons, which I cannot even tell you." He answered, "It is enough to know that you exist. You have given me back my art." He went on to explain that strange thing, new to her, the soul of an artist. "I too have a game that I play. I put emotions into beautiful words. Let me pretend that you love me. You pretend it also, if you will.  Do not be afraid of hurting me—the risk is mine."

Again and again he said this; and so the game was played, and every day there came letters, wild and tempestuous—"himmelhoch jauchzend, zum Tode betruebt"—amazing utterances to a daughter of the far South, who had never before in her life been anywhere without a chaperone. But she was determined to understand the modern world; being in rebellion against her old environment, the tragedy which had wrecked her girlhood, and the policy of shutting one's eyes to painful facts.

George went back to California, with the hope that Craig would come there, to visit her great-aunt. A few of the sonnets had been written in the East, but most of them came from California, where he waited and pleaded for months in vain. It happened that through a series of accidents Craig was witnessing from the inside a domestic tragedy which made what is called a "front page story." More aspects of the modern world, incredible to a daughter of the far South! She had met another writer, one who was at war with the "art for art's sake" formulas of George Sterling.  The old duel between art and propaganda, waged now in the soul of a woman. Which kind of work did she prefer? Which kind of life would she live?

George knew about this duel, and many times his letters voiced his fears. "I cannot foresee what illusive dreams may come to you. You may even conceive it your duty to marry Upton! I know now (at least I've a notion of) your capacity for idealistic self-sacrifice, and the thought of what your idealism and sympathy may lead you to is terrifying to me." And again: "I suppose that Upton is by now making frantic appeals to you to marry him. Don't! You two would never get along together; for though you are so willing to sacrifice yourself, he would be so willing to let you, that in the end your soul would revolt, and you would be most unhappy. Both should sacrifice, if such become necessary. But a man should be able to make sacrifice seem a joyous and irresistible thing—a completion and reward." Again he refers to Upton, as "an ethical machine," who would turn Craig into the same evil thing.

The duel between art and propaganda was lost by art. Craig did not come to California to visit the great-aunt, but went to Europe—which is another story. George Sterling became an elder brother and devoted friend during the fifteen years of life that remained to him. He visited us for several weeks in Croton, and a number of times during our ten years in Pasadena. In all those years he never voiced a word of reproach, but watched, silently and despairingly, his "star in alabaster" functioning as "an ethical machine," and wrecking itself in the process. Now he is gone; and Craig looks back over the years, and it seems to her that the poet's life was one of the prices she paid for Socialist agitation. "No one who has not lived that life can imagine the stress and terror of it, perpetual and incessant' —so she exclaims. It drains the blood and nerves, and leaves no time nor mind for personal relationships." And then, of course, come vain regrets. "A little more love and attention from me, and he might have been saved! One 'crusade' the less against social injustice, and the time given to a great poet!"

George is gone, and only the metal box full of letters and sonnets remains. So long as life and art both exist, life may claim precedence; but in the end there is only art, and it has its way. These poems might, of course, be issued anonymously: "Sonnets to a Lady," or something like that. But the name "Craig" is woven through them, an unusual name. To publish them without explanation would merely cause the reader to waste time in futile guessing, and it seems more sensible and straightforward to set forth these facts.

Only two persons know them, and one of the two is helpless. Craig cannot even read the sonnets for her tears. Left to herself she would keep the metal box in its concrete store-room. But among the letters is a statement from George: "They will be for you an enduring record of the fineness and worth of our love. And some day, when doing so can hurt neither yourself nor another, you may give them to the world." Also, she hears the argument of her husband, that great emotions, expressed in beautiful language, are more important than personal feelings. George Sterling's poetry is part of our literary heritage, and not the property of any individual.

George was a fastidious critic of all poetry, including his own; therefore his opinion of the sonnets is worth quoting. From Carmel he wrote: "I've a dozen poems for you, but all half-written. I will send you one each day, as I complete them. I feel like a singing god in robes of light and flame. The silence of six months is broken, and I am free, with swifter voice than ever, with wilder heart and stronger wings than I ever dared hope to possess. Wait, Craig! Wait! I'll sing such songs

to you as never woman wrung in ecstasy from a man's heart in all the years of art. That is not a boast—not even an inducement: it is a prayer that you may save my soul alive and keep me from the ashes from which it sprang the instant I saw your face."

Again from Carmel, George comments: "I don't want you to think that because I can write so many sonnets they're not good ones. I hate to seem in the least boastful ; and I do not think that I am. . . . For it is no credit to me to have set them down: something far greater than I is speaking through me, and at your direct inspiration. In giving, ultimately, this much beauty to the world, you and I are in the truest sense collaborators, each of no avail without the other.  And I thank you."

How did it seem in the cold light of her marriage to another man? There is a fragment of a letter, undated, saying, "I spend most of the evening hours reading. Last night I reread my sonnets to you. But it was knives in the heart to see them again. I should never have gone back to them, feeling as I do! Nor should I write even this."

A few words as to the text of the letters and sonnets. They are written on many different kinds of paper, the envelopes bearing many postmarks—New York City, Sag Harbor, and then, en route to California; Carmel, where the poet had a cottage in the pines; San Francisco, where he stayed at the Bohemian Club; Oakland, where for a few weeks he was in his uncle's employ; and Glen Ellen, at the Jack London ranch. The period of the writing was less than one year. All the sonnets are in George's handwriting; none is typed. All but a few form part of the text of letters. None of these letters is dated, except with the day of the week; the places given here are derived from the postmark on the envelope, from the context, or from a comparison of the stationery. The sonnets have been placed in order of time, so far as this can be determined. In one letter George wrote that he had completed a "cycle"; we have found exactly one hundred, and two poems not sonnets. The letters mention by name two sonnets which have not been found. We have ventured to change the titles in several cases where two sonnets bore the same title.

Bibliography entry for "Sonnets to Crag"