The Versifiers

By Anon

[In the following excerpt, the critic reviews The Testimony of the Suns, and Other Poems.]

In The Testimony of the Suns and Other Poems, by George Sterling, there is no effort toward originality in either subject or phraseology, but there is a nice sense of personal vision and thoughtful contemplation, and also there is a touch of intellectual passion that gives to the author's mental attitude toward common things the delicate dignity and reserve in utterance most grateful to the mind weary of an overflow of sentiment....

In his dedicatory poem Mr. Sterling questions the right of art to exist for its own sake independent of moral and utilitarian ends:

    Shall Art annul and Song disclaim
    The laws that guard their deeper good?
    Or hold so little understood
    The larger issues of their fame?

    Can Song accord the light she brings
    In crypts where beauty never woke!
    Share with Utility his yoke,
    Yet roam her sky on lucent wings?

The question is one that must sooner or later present itself to every serious mind by which art is seriously regarded, and Mr. Sterling is not, of course, asking an answer from any but his own spirit. The doubt so sincerely and gravely expressed in his poem suggests, however, what Henry James wrote long ago in discussing the ethical equipment of Charles Baudelaire. "To deny the relevancy of subject matter and the importance of the moral quality of a work of art strikes us as, in two words, very childish ... to count out the moral element in one's appreciation of an artistic total is exactly as sane as it would be (if the total were a poem) to eliminate all the words in three syllables, or to consider only such portions of it as had been written by candle light. It is simply a part of the essential richness of inspiration, it has nothing to do with the artistic effect. The more a work of art feels it at its source, the richer it is: the less it feels it the poorer it is." This is the clearest possible expression of the standard accepted by all great artists, and the presence of the moral quality at the source of Mr. Sterling's poetry is what gives it the note of character that promises permanence. And he has been able to deliver his message without contortions of style. In his management of his simple metres and in his discriminating use of words fitted to his thought he gives the pleasure that can be gained only from such respectful use of the intellectual instrument.


"The Versifiers," in The New York Times, March 12, 1904, p. 172. Reprinted in Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, Vol. 20.