EUGENE O'NEILL, POEMS: 1912-1944: A REVIEW
It is pleasant to hold in the hand this orange-colored, well-made little volume containing most of the available poems which O'Neill is known to have written.1 It includes the thirty published in the Sanborn and Clark Bibliography of 1931 and forty-two others collected from manuscripts and typescripts in the Yale collection of O'Neill's papers and in the Berg Collection of the New York Public Library, as well as three from the Clifton Waller Barrett collection at the University of Virginia.
It is no doubt not the final edition of O'Neill's poems which may in time be printed. Donald Gallup mentions in the introduction that love poems addressed to Maibelle Scott and to others exist. He also wrote the present reviewer, "If there's ever a second edition, we'll see that your discovery is included"--referring to "The 'American Sovereign" discussed in "A Lost Poem by Eugene O'Neill" (Eugene O'Neill Newsletter, May, 1979). Also it appears that at least one poem, "Friedman's Soup," dated during the Gaylord farm period by William H. Davenport in his description of the Yale holdings ("The Published and Unpublished Poems of Eugene O'Neill," Yale University Library Gazette, October, 1963) is not included.
No matter how many poems of O'Neill's may surface in the future, however, it is doubtful that they will enhance his reputation as a poet, any more than does the present volume. The O'Neill revealed here is more intimate, more lyrical, and less satirical than in the thirty poems previously published, all of which had appeared in print between 1912 and 1917--twenty-six in the New London Telegraph, and one each in the New York Call, the Masses, the New York Herald Tribune, and the Pleiades Club Year Book. Except for his poems to Elizabeth Ashe, however, his unpublished work differs little from that already in print. There are, for example, take-offs on well-known poems of the kind appearing in the "Laconics" column of the Telegraph. "Lament of a Subwayite" is written "With Apologies"--as several were in that column--in this case to "J. Milton." Beginning "When I consider the many hours spent/As suff'ring on the Subway trains I ride," it predictably ends, "Methinks I hear the song the harsh wheels sang:/'They also pay who only stand and hang.'" Although more personal, less political or social, than several in Sanborn and Clark, it is obviously of the same type.
Even in some of his poems to Beatrice Ashe, he parodies well-known verse. One dated 1915 is written in imitation of Leigh Hunt's "Rondeau," which begins "Jennie kissed me." In its light-hearted way it conveys a particular note of satire on the sentimentality of the original--that is, satire on this kind of poetry itself. As an example of his light touch, it is worth reproducing in its entirety.
In another poem to Beatrice Ashe, he complains of jealousy of her many lovers. He had written a "Villanelle" for Maibelle Scott, which appeared in a "Laconics" column in 1912, and which, more typical of this 19-line form, extolled her charms; in 1915, however, to Beatrice he writes "Villanelle to his Ladye in Which Ye Poore Scribe Complaineth Sorely Because the Cursed Memory of the Thousand Others Doth Poison His Dreams of His Beatrice" and signs the poem "Knight One Thousand and One." The pun in the signature may be corny and a review of the lady's charms neglected in the stanzas, but the repetition of line one, "I dream of all your lovers who have wooed," in line 6, 17 and 18, and of line three, "I am but one among a multitude," in lines 9, 15, and 19, exactly as is proper for the villanelle, induces a kind of sympathy for the lover. Some lines--"I gnash my teeth in truly tragic style"--are less felicitous. In the Yale carbon typescript among the papers acquired from Agnes Boulton, the last three words of the title, "of His Beatrice," are heavily cancelled in pencil, indicating apparently that although the girl was out of mind, the poem was worth preserving in more than one carbon, for a similar one exists in the Berg Collection.
A number of lyrical effusions, inspired by O'Neill's love for Beatrice Ashe, show a certain feeling for sound and rhythm. Although the poet might seem to be nearer seventeen than twenty-seven, O'Neill's age in 1915, they are not entirely without merit as poetry and are of considerable interest biographically. Among the least pretentious is "A Dream of Last Week," a poem of eight stanzas, each extolling some beauty of the beloved, from whom he has had to part but whose image he vividly remembers.
The last stanza, with the same beginning as the preceding seven, sums up his loneliness.
In a more rollicking poem, "'The Woman Who Understands,'" he again pays tribute to the same lover.
O'Neill may have been reading Whitman when he wrote another poem in the summer of 1914 for Beatrice Ashe, "'Upon Our Beach":
There are some 150 lines of this kind: "Your limbs are beautiful, your breasts are beautiful--/ my lips yearn for them--your hips, your feet, your hands are/all beautiful./ I ache to possess you./ Today, I love life." The last line is repeated at the end of a number of stanzas including the last one. Beatrice Ashe, who must have been of a more practical than poetic temperament, has identified (on the carbon typescript in the Berg collection) the "millionaire's house" on a far hill as the Harkness estate, and the beach where they lay as the property of Edward Crowninshield Hammond. Interesting as this information may be to the biographer, how one wishes that she had been more of a Freudian and elucidated other aspects of the poem!
In the little three-stanza "A Song of Moods," the poet fairly dances at the thought of his beloved in the sunlight: "My glad heart sings to the winds of Thee--/ Ah, wantonly! So wantonly!/ Of thee." But "When the grey waves sulk on the sullen sea/. . . . My sad heart sobs in its need of Thee--/ Ah, longingly! So longingly!/ For Thee."
As a poet of love O'Neill thus exhibits considerable variety of free and controlled forms, many times, it must be admitted, in close imitation of some known poet or style. One wonders if he perhaps had more sense of humor than he is sometimes given credit for, or if perhaps, living in the age of modernism, he expressed more of the self-irony in his imitations and direct parodies than appears on a casual reading. In "'Just a Little Love, A Little Kiss'" (the title derived from a song of almost the same name which Beatrice sang), O'Neill looks at a sordid city street scene and remembers the beach of the summer before.
Seeing a cold, "wan-faced woman" trundle out a battered organ and begin to grind "sad old tunes" (presumably not "A Little Love"), the poet recalls "A ledge of rocks that juts into the sea," and "My Own, My Heart's Desire." When the music stops, however, "The spell has fled. I am alone, alone!/ And oh, My Love, I want you, need you so!"
Besides several other poems to Beatrice, there are two for nurses at the Gaylord Farm Sanitorium, dated 1913 or 1914. A "ballade" for nurse Katherine Murray urges her to "Come to the land where love is king"--
--the last line being the refrain of each of four stanzas. And a "ballade" thanking Mary A. Clark for her services, "Hope's Hebe to the fever-toss'd," wishes her, in the refrain, "Top of the morning and long life!"
In 1940 at Tao House Carlotta typed a number of O'Neill's poems, which (no matter what low opinion he claimed to hold of his poetry at the time that Barrett Clark arranged to reprint those in the Bibliography) would seem to mean that he wanted not only them but others to be preserved, O'Neill then annotated some of them as to time and place of composition. In the years 1915 to 1917 he wrote several in the Hell Hole, the bleak message of which is much better conveyed in the play, Iceman. In one a man on a park bench is addressed: "It is night,/ Wan One,/ And autumn./ And the day/ Is also dead." In another the tom-toms reverberate in "the Congo of the soul" "Until one's atheism/ Shrieks in the Dark/ And cowers on a heap of dung/ To pray!" In a satire, "'Tis of Thee," the poet visualizes buildings that ".... scrape the sky/ With a relentless itch against color/ Frozen grey phalluses/ In a world that chatters belief/ In monkey glands." And one called "Good Night" seems prophetic of the theme of Iceman: "Chatter, chatter, chatter/ Runs the little talk/ Of the little people/ As they lie/ To each other."
Most of the poems are preserved in Carlotta's typed copies, but one in the poet's hand, called "Revolution" and dated "Hell Hole 1916", is curious in that, although it was from Freiligrath's poem "Revolution" that O'Neill took the thematic lines repeated several times in Iceman ("The days grow hot, O Babylon!/ 'Tis cool beneath thy willow trees!"), this poem is about a tiger. It begins "Tiger, tiger!/ How beautiful you look!" and ends "But are you a tiger/ Or merely an overgrown/ Alley cat?" No connection with revolution is discoverable.
manuscripts in the Virginia library were written in 1925 in Bermuda.
and the other ends just as despairingly,
Most of the new poems would seem attributable to O'Neill in the light of those published earlier. They are lyrical or satirically parodic or naturalistically pessimistic, all in varying verse forms. Their imagery is not original, but some of the rhythms are catchy, and some of the diction rings with sound which seems to verify Eugene and Jamie's enthusiasm for oral recital of poems as diverse as "The Rubaiyat," "The Hound of Heaven," and "The Ballad of Reading Gaol." One, however, which strikes me as not typical is a prose-like poem of some fifty or sixty sentences printed from a typescript acquired from Agnes Boulton, with the date "September 1919" added in pencil in an unidentified hand. It begins, "The golden oranges in the patio dream of the Hesperides./ The earth is a sun-struck bee, its wings sodden with golden/ pollen, sifted dust of sunbeams." Another section begins, "O sea, which is myself! How I love to reveal my nakedness/ to the sun on solitary beaches! How I love to play unconscious/ly, dancing like another heat-wave to its own rhythm, freed from/ the fretting, lukewarm glance of human eyes!" The poem seems more like an imitation of some of the imagists than like O'Neill's other poetry. Granted that he identified with the sea in more than one play, did he ever visualize belly dancing naked on the shore? Could it be that Agnes slipped one of her own into the papers she sold to Yale?
Two short poems are inscriptions to Carlotta: "Quiet Song in Time of Chaos," written for her birthday, December, 1940, and "Song in Chaos," written for the same occasion two years later. The first begins, "Here/ Is home./ Is peace./ Is quiet." The second ends, "Love is here,/ In my heart,/ For you,/ My dear." Both indicate that Carlotta provided a haven, an ordered little world, which saved the playwright from the chaos outside and perhaps from that within him.
A series of "Fragments," some in O'Neill's hand, some in typescript, written in 1942 and revised in 1944, express the despair which infected the physically weakened playwright during the war years.
These fragments reinforce the evidence from Carlotta and others that O'Neill's pessimism during the years in which he worked on his projected cycle of plays was overwhelming. They add nothing, however, to his stature as a poet, and indeed, except for the love poetry he wrote to Beatrice Ashe, the recently published poems are not superior to the doggerel which he wrote for the "Laconics" column. Those earlier poems have a lot of life, sometimes humor, and, as parodies should, they throw some light on the original. How about "To a Bull Moose(With apologies to Bobby Burns)"?
The present collection of Poems is also printed in a paperback edition--Poems 1912-1942: A Preliminary Edition (Yale University Library, 1979)--which will do just as well for those who are not collectors. Although it includes two years less in its title, the poems are exactly the same, O'Neill's revisions in 1944 apparently being the reason for the inclusion of that date in the hardback. Pagination in the two is different, but the excellent index is the same, enabling the scholar to locate expeditiously those poems formerly printed and those in the various library collections in manuscript or typescript.
Mainly in chronological order, the poems are annotated as to location, the kind of copy from which the poem is printed or the history of its printing. It would be pleasanter if a sonnet, "Noon," had not been split in the Ticknor and Fields edition so that one must turn the page to find the last four lines. And why page 93 ends with "non-" when there is enough space at the bottom to include the next line, which one must turn the page to find, is hard to explain. In the main, though, the poems are well arranged, and occasional notes, such as "Compare John Masefield's 'Sea Fever'" following "The Call," are helpful, if infrequent.
It is fortunate that, before Donald Gallup retired, he performed the service for O'Neill scholars of editing the poems in so satisfactory an edition. The availability of any of O'Neill's unpublished writing is welcome, not least that in a genre which he attempted a number of times through the years.
1 Eugene O'Neill. Poems: 1912-1944, ed. with introduction by Donald Gallup. New Haven & New York: Ticknor and Fields, 1980. vii + 119 pp. $9.95.
© Copyright 1999-2007 eOneill.com