A LOST POEM BY EUGENE O'NEILL
Although O'Neill spoke disparagingly of his efforts as a poet, he allowed Barrett Clark to reprint, in Eugene O'Neill: The Man and His Plays (New York, 1929), a humorous poem and to sum up others, which later appeared in Ralph Sanborn and Barrett H. Clark's A Bibliography of the Works of Eugene O'Neill (New York, 1931). Most of the poems had been published in the "Laconics" column of the New London Telegraph between August 26 and December 9, 1912, and were, as Clark had pointed out, characteristically in imitation of some well-known poet. Two had appeared in radical periodicals--the New York Call and The Masses.
Other poems in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale are not available to scholars, except in a summary form through William H. Davenport's "The Published and Unpublished Poems of Eugene O'Neill" (The Yale University Library Gazette, 38, no. 2 [October, 1963]). Spanning the period from 1910 to 1917, the poems, according to Davenport, reveal "a young man whose political interests led him toward socialism... who could run the gamut from profound, alcoholic melancholy to the lightest forms of humor"--the last illustrated in "They also serve who only stand and hang," from "Lament of a Subwayite."
Since as late as the forties O'Neill thought highly enough of his poems to have Carlotta retype them, it may be of some interest to repro-duce the following parody of three stanzas of the Rubaiyat, anonymously printed in Emma Goldman's anarchist monthly--Mother Earth (VI, no. 3)--in May, 1911, and to provide evidence for assigning it to the O'Neill "canon."
Evidence that O'Neill submitted a poem to Mother Earth is supplied by his biographers, Arthur and Barbara Gelb (O'Neill, New York, 1960, p. 245), who quote Jessica Rippin as testifying that when he lived with the Rippin family in 1913, "He would write long radical poems and read them to us. One of them was published in Emma Goldman's magazine." Louis Sheaffer (O'Neill: Son and Playwright, New York, 1968, p. 105) writes that as a schoolboy O'Neill often visited Benjamin Tucker's anarchist bookshop in New York and there "made the acquaintance of Emma Goldman through her new magazine Mother Earth." In Ah, Wilderness! set in 1906, young Richard is accused of talking like Emma Goldman in his defamatory sentiments about the Fourth of July and the "land of the free" where "the wage slave [is] ground under the heel of the capitalist class." The poems acknowledged by O'Neill which appeared in radical publications had, like the election theme of "The 'American Sovereign,'" political content in accord with the times: "Fratricide" (New York Call, May 17, 1914) protested America's sending troops of "the poor who must obey" against the revolution in Mexico to help "the plutocrats extend their sway." In "Submarine" (The Masses, February, 1917) the "soul" of the poet will hide under the water to sink the "galleons of commerce/Wallowing with obese assurance."
Internal evidence that "The 'American Sovereign'" is the work of O'Neill is first of all in the subtitle. "With apologies to..." or even "W.A. to..." is a frequent heading with him. For example, "The Shut-Eye Candidate" (New London Telegraph, October 3, 1912), also a political satire, is subheaded "(W.A. to Rudyard Kipling)" and condemns the candidates who shut their eyes to the source of their contributions.
"The Long Tale," written "(With apologies to R.K.)" (November 5, 1912), begins, "There's a speech within the hall, echoes back from wall to wall," and continues satirizing the voters who "sit so patient" listening to the "old spell binders" talk of "robber trusts" and "tariff high and low"--a close parallel to the situation of the "Old party rallies" where the youthful "American Sovereign" "heard great argument." In "The Waterways Convention," written "With apologies to Hiawatha" (August 26, 1912), Big Bill Taftus, "faint hope of the Grand Old Party," comes to the New London convention not because of waterways, but "With an eye for snaring voters." In the years 1911-12 O'Neill was obviously exposed to campaign oratory, which he happily parodies through poetry he had admired at a younger age. His radical proclivities at the time no doubt also made him aware of such a muckraker as Lincoln Steffens, who declared at a town meeting in Greenwich, Connecticut, in December, 1910: "American sovereignty has passed from our political establishment to the national organization of money, credit, and centralized business" (Walter Lippmann, A Preface to Politics, 1913)--thus perhaps the quotation marks in the title of the parody.
In meter, rhyme, and language, the anonymous poem closely parodies first stanza 29, then 27 and 28 of the Rubaiyat. Having come "Into this Universe, and Why not knowing," the poet did "eagerly frequent/Doctor and Saint, and heard great argument," but he comes out "by the same door where in I went." Fitzgerald's metaphysical malaise the parodist translates into political satire, using language--"Robber Tariff," "the Trusts," "ill-paid labor," "party rallies," "Working Class," and "dough" --common to O'Neill at the time.
I believe, therefore, that "The 'American Sovereign'" is the poem by O'Neill which according to Jessica Rippin appeared in Mother Earth. (Examination of all the anonymous poems which appeared in the ten years of the magazine's existence also leads me to conclude that it is the only one by him.) It precedes the date of what is presumed to be his first publication--the poem, "Free," in The Pleides Club Year Book printed privately in April, 1912 (Sanborn and Clark). It adds one more example of his early work, illustrating his political bent at age 23, as well as further evidence of his close reading of the Rubaiyat and of his acquaintance with Emma Goldman's radical Mother Earth.
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