The Poetry of George Sterling

By Harriet Monroe

[As the founder and editor of Poetry, Monroe was a key figure in the American "poetry renaissance" that took place in the early twentieth century. Poetry was the first periodical devoted primarily to the works of new poets and to poetry criticism, and from 1912 until her death in 1936 Monroe maintained an editorial policy of printing "the best English verse which is being written today, regardless of where, by whom, or under what theory of art it is written." In the following excerpt, Monroe comments on Sterling's unrealized poetic potential.]

The Pacific states are loyal to their own artists to a degree which other sections of this vast nation might well emulate. Because, in spite of the manifest danger of provincialism, art, like charity, should begin at home; indeed, must begin at home if it is not to be a wanderer on the face of the earth, seeking forlornly an alien audience.

So it was a satisfaction to discover, everywhere along "The Coast," a devotion to Mr. George Sterling which was not alone enthusiasm for his poetry, but also pride in him as a personality and a possession. As California loves Keith and certain later painters because they were—and are—faithful interpreters of her beauty, so she rewards this poet for his love of her.

One can forgive her if she seems to overrate him. I own to my surprise on hearing one enthusiast call him "the greatest poet since Dante, " and on finding him the only living poet whose words were inscribed—along with Confucius and Firdausi, with Shakespeare and Goethe, on the triumphal arches of the Panama-Pacific Exposition. I rubbed my eyes—had I been blind and deaf? In 1909 and 1911 I had read A Wine of Wizardry and The House of Orchids without discovering a poet of the first order. Manifestly, I must re-read these books, and add the poet's first volume, The Testimony of the Suns, and his latest, Beyond the Breakers. All of which I have done.

Now, if I can not quite rise to the Californian estimate, at least I find in Mr. Sterling a gift, a poetic impulse, which might have carried him much further than it has as yet. His first long poem, "The Testimony of the Suns," does indeed make one feel the sidereal march, make one shiver before the immensity and shining glory of the universe—this in spite of shameless rhetoric which often threatens to engulf the theme beyond redemption, and in spite of the whole second part, an unhappy afterthought. Already the young poet's brilliant but too facile craftsmanship was tempted by the worst excesses of the Tennysonian tradition: he never thinks— he deems; he does not ask, but crave; he is fain for this and that; he deals in emperies and auguries and antiphons, in causal throes and lethal voids—in many other things of tinsel and fustian, the frippery of a by-gone fashion. He can smother his idea in such pompous phrasing as this:

    Shall yet your feet essay, unharmed,
    The glare of cosmic leaguers met
    Round stellar strongholds gulfward set,
    With night and fire supremely armed?

And yet this is the poet, and this the poem, capable at times of lyric rapture:

    O Deep whose very silence stuns!
    Where Light is powerless to illume,
    Lost in immensities of gloom
    That dwarf to motes the flaring suns....

(pp. 307-08)

If I dwell upon this early poem, it is because the best and worst qualities of the poet are in it. His later work never gives us such a hint of grandeur, or falls into deeper abysses of rhetoric. A Wine of Wizardry leaves me cold. I don't care whether

    So Fancy's carvel seeks an isle afar
    Led by the corpion's rubescent star,

or whether

    She wanders to an iceberg oriflammed
    With rayed auroral guidons of the North.

In fact, I cannot follow the poor lady's meanderings through a maze of words. And although the next book, The House of Orchids, contains a good poem in simpler diction, "The Faun," and two or three fine sonnets, especially "Aldebaran at Dusk," it does not fulfil the promise of the first volume. Nor does the latest book.

Beyond the Breakers begins thus:

The world was full of the sound of a great wind out of the West,
And the tracks of its feet were white on the trampled ocean's breast.
And I said, "With the sea and wind I will mix my body and soul,
Where the breath of the planet drives and the herded billows roll."

(pp. 310-11)

The truth is, this sort of pomposity has died the death. If the imagists have done nothing else, they have punctured the gas bag— English poetry will be henceforth more compact and stern—"as simple as prose," perhaps....

When Mr. Sterling learns to avoid the "luscious tongue" and the "honeyed wine," he may become the poet he was meant to be. (p. 311)

Harriet Monroe, "The Poetry of George Sterling," in Poetry, Vol. VII, No. VI, March, 1916, pp. 307-13. Reprinted in Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, Vol. 20.