Richard Le Gallienne on Opals (1897)

A NEW WOMAN POET. [1]

By RICHARD LE GALLIENNE.

Not unaware of the wickedness of praising the new-born, and far from unaware of the perils of the praiser, I venture humbly to suggest to those interested in such matters that Miss Olive Custance’s little volume of ” Opals ” (Lane) contains the best poetry written by a woman for quite a long time. You see, years are bringing discretion — for no one who knows the woman-poetry of the day can call this extravagant praise. Comparisons here are more than usually dangerous, and I shall venture on them no further than to express the opinion that the poetry written by women at the moment is full of talent but singularly lacking in temperament. It is profusely intellectual, definitely emotional, and infinitely spiritual. The expression of one’s feelings in exact rhetoric is what, of course, many mistake for poetry, and women particularly make the mistake of supposing that there is nothing so easy as to put your heart on paper. The result is good love-letter, but mediocre poetry. To unlock the heart one needs a golden key, and the women are fewer than the men who sufficiently understand the mystery of words—understand that to put a thing into words, as we say, is not to rob it of its original mystery by a superficial clearness of statement, but actually to recreate it in another medium ; and that whatsoever qualities of mystery and indefinable suggestiveness belonged to the thing itself must be repeated in its literary embodiment. Is it of spring we would write, there are words that were once violets, words as sad as the voice of the cuckoo — is it of woman, no woman was ever so beautiful as some words.

The face-value of words is but their least important value. Far more important is what we might call the nervous system of words ; all that associated significance which thrills and vibrates beneath the printed surface. It is not what a line means, but what it suggest; that makes it poetry. However many meanings it may possess, the only meaning that really matters is the meaning of beauty—and what that is who shall say ? It must mean no more, but must mean no less, than the droop of an eyelid, the colour of a flower, or the sound of running water.

I’m afraid Miss Custance doesn’t much trouble her head about literature and “the moral idea”; what is more to the purpose is that she instinctively understands some of the secrets of the use of words. The importance of her own moods, the exquisiteness and strangeness of living, the mystic beauty of the world, and all the glory and pathos it seems to mean in certain hours : music played at twilight, the sound of the rain, friends, and flowers (the friends as flowers, the flowers as friends), the sudden wonderful face of love, fair as a shooting star, her own beauty and the beauty of the morning sky, beautiful pain and all the mysterious sadness of joy — of such is the kingdom of earth for this young poet. And the words she finds for these moments are as rich and subtle, and yet as simple, as the moments themselves. Of one rare quality Miss Custance’s poetry immediately asserts the possession—the power of enrichment. Certain quite simple flowers and colours and textures possess this quality, but words possess it too seldom, for it is a sensuous quality ; and though poetry that is simple and passionate is of not uncommon occurrence, poetry which fulfils the third Miltonic condition is rare. I have an idea that some critics believe this sensuous charm a common Were of the moment. As a matter of fact, however, it is just the quality in which the literature of the moment is singularly poor. Clever-ness is everywhere, but where is enchantment ? Are there half-a-dozen living English writers who possess this charm ? It would be rash to say that there were, and no.doubt it will sound mill more rash to claim it for a little book by a very young poet. Yet, is it so rash after all to claim it for poetry such as this ” Dreamed Tryst “?

 

Beloved one! when the shy Dawn flower-sweet,

In her white sleeping gown of mist and pearl,

Sees the great Sun, and from her cloud-hung bed

Slips softly, flushing like a startled girl,

And stands upright on fair rose-coloured feet

While all the golden light is round her shed …

‘Tis then then yearning severed souls may meet …

Slowly the glory widens in the sky, . .

And in the meadows thick with folded flower

The daisies stir already in their sleep . . .

My soul lay waiting all the long night hours,

But now thy promised presence hovers nigh,

In this still room I seem to hear the sweep

Of thy soul’s wings . . . O! Whither shill we fly?

 

Or this—” A Pause ” :

O do you hear the rain

Beat on the glass in vain?

So my tears beat against fate’s feet

In vain … in vain … in vain …

 

O! do you see the skies

As gray as your grave eyes?

O! do you hear the wind, my dear,

That sighs and sighs and sighs …

 

… Tired as this twilight scene,

My soul droops sad with dreams …

You cannot know where we two go

In dreams… in dreams… in dreams…

 

You only watch the light,

Sinking away from night…

In silver mail all shadowy pale,

The moon shines white, so white…

 

… O! if we two were wise

Your eyes would leave the skies

And look into my eyes !

And I who wistful stand …

One foot in fairy land,

Would catch Love by the hand …

 

Among many reasons one might give for one’s delight in those two poems, the reader must have noticed one–the great beauty and truth of the Nature pictures. For descriptive magic alone Miss Custance’s poems should rank high. And, like all her effects, this magic is won by such apparent simplicity of means. There is no sense of straining the eye upon the object. Just the flash of a phrase, and the miracle has happened. The picture is there, as though Nature had written her name in dewdrops. Who by taking thought could better give the beauty of rain than in these six simple words:

A silver net of sudden rain.

Miss Custance, like Verlaine, is a lover of the rain. Here are other rain pictures :

 

In the gray west a faint gold stain …

Dusk and the darkness, sisters twain,

Kiss through a silver veil of rain,

The gray west full of rain.

 

We catch stray scents from sweet drenched primrose stars —

… And then the shower is over and rose-bars

Bridge the sun’s western garden and gold lake.

Full of rain crystals,  the asparagus

A jewelled tangle seems of strange green hair !

 

In further illustration of Miss Custance’s gift of beautiful and forcible phrase, particularly as applied to nature, I quote the following scattered lines and passages :

 

Stars grow thick round the amber moon.

. . . sun-soft summer air.

Spirit of Twilight, in the golden gloom

Of dreamland dim, I sought for you and found

A woman weeping in a silent room

Full of white flowers that moved and made no sound.

The hedges glimmer vaguely with wild fruits.

The sky folds over like a flower,

Whose petal tips of purple grey

Flush flame-like at the sunset hour.

 

And for a certain “large utterance” seldom heard in the poetry of women I would instance this beautiful river-picture :

 

. . . In shadow of heat branches, let us go

Down to the rive side where rocks our boat

Beneath the whispering willows … I will row

And you shall steer … nay! rather let us float

Tide-taken past the patient marigolds

Whose dew-filled cups to Phoebus’ self remote

Are lifted up at Dawn. See! Day unfolds

Her sunset robes refulgent in the West.

Night’s heavy lids that Light’s strong hand upholds

Droop low and hide the splendour. . . . Let us rest!

 

One pleasant characteristic distinguishes Miss Custance from the typical woman poet—she doesn’t pretend to be a man, but is quite consciously charmed with her own girlhood ; though maybe one should not assume that the “frail girl in whom God’s glories meet ” of “The Poet’s Picture” is necessarily the poet we are enjoying. Indeed her book, so to say, is a girl, a girl-poet, almost cruelly alive, experimentally passionate, tremulously sensitive to every sound straying across the Aeolian harp of life. The little book seems to flush and tremble in one’s hand. It is so exquisitely a girl.

It is girlish in its sadness, a luxurious sadness which is only a form of music, a way of dressing the hair, a wearing of “opals.” “Opals” indeed describes these poems with an imaginative accuracy rare in titles : beautiful, troubled, distinguished, sad, fated, as opals. Girlish, yes — in everything but its art. One notes a very occasional carelessness, an extravagant and not always intelligible use of the French dot-and-dash . . . pause and suggestion. “Shimmerous” is a word you can use too often — perhaps once even is too often. But after all such criticisms are made; the spontaneous original charm, even power, of these “Opals” is undeniable. It has seldom happened that a young poet’s first volume has been at once so full of beauty realised and so rich in promise of beauty to come.

[1] The Westminster Budget (London, Greater London, England) · Fri, Aug 20, 1897 ·  Page 12 (and elsewhere; widely syndicated).

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