BY Barbara Gelb
FROM The New York Times, May 25, 1980
By Eugene O'Neill.
Edited by Donald Gallup.
119 pp. New York:
Ticknor & Fields. $9.95.
Eugene O'Neill knew, to his despair -- and
better than any of his detractors -- that he had only the touch
of a poet. Much of the language of his earlier plays is
awkward -- the stammering of the bewildered, the oppressed and
the lost, among whom he counted himself. Nevertheless,
during all of his creative life, he groped for words that would
"Oh, for a language to write drams in!" he
lamented to his friend, Joseph Wood Krutch, as he worked on
"Mourning Becomes Electra," his Greek-inspired trilogy.
"For a speech that is dramatic and isn't just conversation! . .
. But where to find that language?"
Nowhere did O'Neill express the frustration
of that quest more tellingly than in the last-play-but-one that
he completed (in 1941), the autobiographical "Long Day's Journey
In the play, set in 1912, he thinly disguised
his famous actor-father, James O'Neill, as James Tyrone, and
himself as Edmund Tyrone, and he caused James to say to his son,
"Yes, there's the makings of a poet in you all right."
Edmund-Eugene responds wretchedly:
"The makings of a poet. No, I'm
afraid I'm like the guy who is always panhandling for a smoke.
He hasn't even got the makings. He's got only the habit.
I couldn't touch what I told you know. I just stammered.
That's the best I'll ever do. . . . Well, it will be
faithful realism, at least. Stammering is the native
eloquence of us fog people."
But that was hindsight, written by O'Neill in
his early 50's. The real Eugene, at 23, was industriously
writing villanelles, ballades, sonnets, rondeaux, triolets, and
roundelays, many of them for The New London Telegraph in the
Connecticut town where the O'Neill's had a summer home.
The verses were, like those of most very
young writers, imitative. O'Neill read a lot, and he
inhaled Masefield, Dowson, Byron, Kipling and Wilde, as today's
talented infants breathe cocaine. Some of the verses were
political or parodic, or both; they were brash, self-intoxicated
-- and none too subtle. They railed against the rich as
oppressors of the poor. They pointed to Teddy Roosevelt as
a jingoist. They warned that Standard Oil was overrunning
the country. They declared that whores had hearts of gold.
Herewith a sample stanza on a them that was
to blossom nine years later, in "Anna Christie":
In a sleek dress suit an old man sits and
With vulture mouth and blood-shot, beady eyes
At the young girl beside him. Drunken tears
Fall down her painted face, and choking sighs
Shake her, as into his familiar ears
She sobs her sad, sad, history -- and lies!
Eugene O'Neill had gone to work as a reporter
on The New London Telegraph that summer of 1912, having recently
returned from years of sea-tramping. He had flunked out of
Princeton in his freshman year, and knew no trade. Gossip
had it that James O'Neill had privately arranged with his
friend, Frederick P. Latimer, publisher of The Telegraph, to
reimburse Latimer for Eugene's salary out of his own pocket.
Eugene was precocious even by today's
standards. He had fathered a child his parents would not
acknowledge, had nearly drunk himself to death on rotgut, and
had tried (half-heartedly) to commit suicide with Veronal.
Now, welcomed home by his bedeviled but always hopeful father,
young Eugene was unrepentant. He taunted poor James with
"Some day you'll be known as the father of Eugene O'Neill."
Not for his poetry, he wouldn't.
O'Neill turned to verse during that summer
for two reasons. One was that he found poetry to be a
productive (and inexpensive) way to woo the pretty maidens of
New London. The other reason was that he had to earn his
salary (whoever paid it) on the newspaper, and he simply could
not learn how to cover or write a news story. "I was a bum
reporter," he enjoyed telling friends in later years.
But he did not take his poetry seriously,
either, and he explained to an early biographer, Barrett H.
Clarke, that "the stuff should be judged" by the standards of "a
small town paper." A few years later, to a would-be
anthologist, he elaborated:
"If those small-town jingles of my
well-misspent youth were amusingly bad, I would have no
objection [to their being published], for their republication
might hand someone a laugh, at least. But they're not.
They are merely very dull stuff indeed. . . ."
As for the private love poems -- proffered as
thought they were roses -- the most impassioned were written to
a vivid young woman named Beatrice Ashe, with whom he had a
romance in 1914. Some are embarrassingly eager ("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."); but one was deemed good
enough to be printed (in 1915) in The New York Tribune's
celebrated "the Conning Tower":
Speaking, to the Shade of Dante, of
"Lo, even I am Beatrice!"
That line keeps singing in my bean.
I feel the same ecstatic bliss
As did the fluent Florentine
Who heard the well-known hell-flame his . . .
Her eyes were not so large or grey;
She had no such heart-teasing smile,
Or hair so beautiful; and say,
I hate to state it, but her style
Would never get her by today.
Unlike his writing for the stage, O'Neill's
poems did not improve as he grew older. The verses he
wrote to his third wife, Carlotta, between the years 1926 and
1944 were loving and even anguished, but at times they read like
lyrics in search of Franz Lehar -- as witness this verse from
"Song in Chaos," written for Carlotta's 54th birthday in 1942:
What if the world be mad?
You are near.
What if the mind be sad?
Your are here
In my heart,
In 1960, seven years after O'Neill's death,
Carlotta O'Neill privately published O'Neill's poems to her,
along with his passionate dedications of his plays. Her
avowed reason was that ill-wishers had accused her of betraying
his instructions regarding his work -- if not indeed, falsifying
his very will. the volume, called "Inscriptions," is a
record of O'Neill's absolute devotion to and dependence upon
Carlotta, for better or worse.
Now, both sets of poems -- the youthful
verses from The New London Telegraph and the love lyrics from
"Inscriptions" -- have been collected, along with those from the
private papers of such as Beatrice Ashe, in a volume called
"Poems," edited by Donald Gallup.
Dr. Gallup, for years, has been in charge of
the O'Neill collection at Yale University's Beinecke Rare Book
and Manuscript Library, studying and sorting the voluminous
papers on deposit there. Dr. Gallup, by now, is as
exhaustively acquainted with O'Neill as anyone in the world, and
he has chosen to brave O'Neill's ghost, perhaps feeling it to
be, after all these years of intimacy, a friendly and forgiving
Plainly, Dr. Gallup is publishing "Poems" for
the sake of scholarship, and if he feels no qualms about
exposing O'Neil in this way, he has at least taken the
precaution of propitiating Carlotta O'Neill's possibly even more
formidable ghost, by dedicating the volumes to her memory.
O'Neill can withstand the exposure. His
true poetry is in his plays -- in passages from "The Great God
Brown," in "A Touch of the Poet," "The Iceman Cometh," "Long
Day's Journey Into Night" and "A Moon for the Misbegotten."
Dr. Gallup has included carefully researched
notes giving the origin and dates of the verses he has collected
in "Poems," and scholars will find the collection useful for its
clues to O'Neill's character and cast of mind. And, one
hopes, they will then quickly forget what O'Neill once called
the "general awfulness" of his formal poetry -- and will go on
to his plays, which remain the most innovative, least
compromising and noblest of our native stage literature.
His reputation is still safe.