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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Madison Cawein (1865–1914)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Joyce Kilmer (1886–1918)
 
AMERICA has had two great poets of nature—two men called to the task of reflecting in a mirror of words the beauty of meadow and forest. One of these was William Cullen Bryant. The other was Madison Julius Cawein.  1
  As Bryant drew his inspiration from the wooded hills and fertile valleys of his native New England, so Madison Cawein drew his from the meadows of the South, especially those of Kentucky. The term “nature poet” has been used in derision of some writers who lavish sentimental adulation upon every bird and flower, who pretend an admiration for things of which they have no real understanding. But Madison Cawein knew what he was writing about; he had an amazing, we might say a perilous, intimacy with nature. And he had no vague love for all nature—he knew too much for that. True, he knew nature in her delicate and in her splendid aspect—he saw the barberry redden in the lanes, he feasted his eyes on “the orange and amber of the marigold, the terra-cottas of the zinnia flowers,” he learned lovely secrets from whippoorwill, swallow, and cricket, and he could see drowsy Summer rocking the world to sleep in her kindly arms. But also he knew (with a knowledge which only Algernon Blackwood among contemporary writers has equaled) that nature has her cruel and terrible aspects. He knew that the daily life of bird and beast—yes, and the daily life of flower and tree—is as much a tragedy as a comedy. So (in the sonnet-sequence he wrote by the Massachusetts shore in 1911) he saw a certain grove as “a sad room, devoted to the dead”; he felt the relentlessness of the ocean mists invading the shore; he saw an autumn branch staining a pool like a blur of blood; he made us share his genuine terror of deserted mill-streams where “the cardinal-flower, in the sun’s broad beam, with sudden scarlet takes you by surprise,” and of dark and menacing swamps, ominous with trembling moss, purple-veined pitcher-plants and wild grass trailing over the bank like the hair of a drowned girl. His studies of nature were accurate enough to satisfy any botanist—Miss Jessie B. Rittenhouse has said that one might explore the Kentucky woods and fields with a volume of Cawein’s poems as a handbook and identify many a lowly and exquisite flower first recognized in song. But his poems were not mere catalogues of natural beauties, any more than they were sentimental idealizations of them. They were, to repeat a phrase, reflections of nature, reflections painted rather than photographed, but interpreted rather than romanticized.  2
  Madison Cawein had not long to wait for the recognition which he enjoyed throughout his life. Born on March 23d, 1865, in Louisville, Kentucky, and educated in the high school of his native city, he published his first book, ‘Blooms of the Berry,’ in 1887. ‘The Triumph of Music’ followed in 1888, and soon after its publication Mr. William Dean Howells wrote of the young Southern poet words that brought him to the attention of a large audience, words that applied as truly to his posthumous book, ‘The Cup of Comus,’ as to the rhymes of his boyhood. In the North American Review, Mr. Howells wrote:
          “He has the gift, in a measure that I do not think surpassed in any poet, of touching some smallest or commonest thing in nature and making it live from the manifold associations in which we have our being, and glow thereafter with an inextinguishable beauty.”
  3
  From 1887 to the time of his death, scarcely a year passed that did not see the publication of a new book of poems by Madison Cawein. Of course, this caused him to be accused of writing too much, of giving the world poems written hastily and carelessly. There was some justice in this accusation; undoubtedly he would have written better poems if he had written fewer. Mr. H. Houston Peckham, of Purdue University, in an article which appeared in the South Atlantic Quarterly soon after Cawein’s death, told a story which is significant. The poet was about to destroy one of his lyrics. A friend rescued it and sent it to a magazine. When it appeared in print, it was shown to Cawein, who failed to recognize it as his own work. He had utterly forgotten it in the course of a few months.  4
  Now, for a poet to forget the children of his own fancy is a sign that he is writing too much. And yet Madison Cawein was not so prolific as a list of his more than a score of volumes would indicate. For many of his books contained poems that had already appeared between covers—this is true of the Macmillan volume called ‘Poems’ and of many others. He seemed to desire to produce a book annually—but fortunately for his art he did not believe it necessary that every volume should contain only new poems.  5
  In one of the most famous of his essays, Ruskin wrote:
          “It is, I hope, now made clear to the reader in all respects that the pathetic fallacy is powerful only so far as it is pathetic, feeble so far as it is fallacious, and, therefore, that the dominion of Truth is entire, over this as over every other natural and just state of the human mind.”
Madison Cawein was a loyal subject of Truth, the accuracy of his descriptions of nature has seldom been called into question. As to the pathetic fallacy and his relation to it—that might be the subject of an interesting study. At any rate it may be said that he seldom indulged in that common and thoroughly normal fallacy by which the poet sees nature weep because of his own sorrow or smile because of his own joy. Instead, he was filled with the gloom native to the swamp which he beheld, or with mirth that he caught from the lyric ecstasy of the dawn.
  6
  He was a sympathetic student of humanity, as every true poet must be, and he resented the statement that mankind had no place in his poetic vision. But he was at his best when he wrote not of reasonable humanity but of the world of animal and vegetable things that have no reason but have, to the poet, qualities stranger and more interesting than reason. He wrote well of a ploughman, but better of the field in which the ploughman worked. He wrote well of a house full of men and women and children, but better of an empty house, with its myrtle run wild, its paths hidden by flowering grass, and swallows flying through its broken windows. He subordinated himself to wild nature, letting her speak to the world through him, instead of merely going to her for metaphors appropriate to his own emotional experiences. And this, while it resulted in beautiful poetry, was a dangerous thing to do. “Nature, poor stepdame, cannot slake my drouth,” said another poet, “never did any milk of hers once bless my thirsting mouth.” Madison Cawein got, it seems, little gratitude from Nature, although to do her honor he had curiously distorted the true vision of man’s place in the universe. When his frail body was put in the frozen earth a few years ago, it seemed to many of his friends and critics that he had died at the beginning of a new phase of his genius, that his latest poems, vague and tentative as some of them were, showed that he was looking at the world with a new sense of proportion, and that hereafter his whole scheme of things would be differently arranged—man being the center of the visible universe, and not, as in Blackwood’s novels, a wondering visitor to a world of plants and beasts.  7
  But death intervened, and what he might have written can only be guessed from such poems as ‘The Song of Songs’ and ‘Laus Deo’ and ‘The Iron Age’ in ‘The Cup of Comus.’ What he accomplished was worth doing, and he did it well. He put the meadows and forests of the South into poems as hauntingly beautiful as themselves.  8
  The poems which follow are taken from the volume of ‘Poems’ copyrighted by the Macmillan Co. They are reprinted by permission of the Macmillan Co. and of Mrs. Madison Cawein.  9
 
 
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