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A Touch of the Poet

 
BY Barbara Gelb
FROM The New York Times, May 25, 1980

Poems
1912-1944.
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 sing.

"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 Into Night."

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 leers
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 Beatrices

"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,
My dear.

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 specter.

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.

 

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