Some Springtime Verse

By Brian Hooker

[In the following excerpt, Hooker praises Sterling's facility as a poet but criticizes the absence in his work of ideas or a philosophy.]

Stevenson once said that a young man had better begin the profession of letters by learning to string words together beautifully; then, if he should later have great things to say, he would have the means of saying them. Mr. Sterling has naturally an ear and a gift of striking phrase; and he has developed these into some power of verse and the foundations of a style. He feels life vividly, though with a certain carelessness of simple and common things which may be a sign of aspiration; for while a man is still Endymion to each new moon, he is not yet ready to appreciate a blade of grass. Mr. Sterling is thus by way of being able to express whatever may be given to him. As yet, his work has embodied no very important ideas, and his style, therefore, as a powerful creature unyoked, shows a tendency to prance wantonly, rising at times into a plangent fanfare of declamation or lapsing into languorous dalliance of delicious words.... "A Wine of Wizardry," which has already been unreasonably praised, sins notably in both respects, and illustrates, moreover, another of his faults, the tendency to loose incoherence of structure in his longer poems. It is probably the worst thing in [A Wine of Wizardry, and Other Poems]. Among the best is the sonnet to Romance:

    Thou passest, and we know thee not, Romance!
    Thy gaze is backward, and thy heart is fed
    With murmurs and with music of the dead.
    Alas, out battle! for the rays that glance
    On thy dethroning sword and haughty lance
    Are of forgotten suns and stars long fled;
    Thou weavest phantom roses for thy head,
    And ghostly queens in thy dominion dance.

    Would we might follow thy returning wings,
    And in thy farthest haven beach our prow—
    Thy dragons conquered and thine oceans crossed—
    And find thee standing on the dust of kings,
    A lion at thy side, and on thy brow
    The light of sunsets wonderful and lost!

Rhetoric, perhaps; but how many living Americans can be so successfully rhetorical? And "Tasso to Leonora" shows a power of lyric monologue still more potential.

Never had lover's dusk such moon as thou!
Never had moon adoring such as mine!
For at thy spirit in her majesty
Mine own is greatly humbled, and forgets
Its haughtiness, forsaking at thy feet
Song's archangelic panoply of light,
And sits a child before thee, and is glad.
Yea, though I deem the silences of love
More beautiful than music, or the hush
Of ocean twilights, yet my soul to thine
Swoons deaf and blind, with living lips that ache
And cry to thee its joy and wonderment.

The man who can write like this may go far, if his nature grows into a message to humanity; or, if he purveys the blossom for the fruit, or has already reached his uttermost, may degenerate into a mere maker of pleasant noises. It is too soon to be sure of a new poet; time will show. (pp. 371-72)

Brian Hooker, "Some Springtime Verse," in The Bookman, New York, Vol. XXIX, No. 4, June, 1909, pp. 365-72. Reprinted in Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, Vol. 20.