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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Wilfrid Wilson Gibson (1878–1962)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Harry Morgan Ayres (1881–1948)
 
GIBSON occupies a definite place in contemporary poetry. Endeavoring to make clear what that place is, we may imagine the future historian remarking that the early years of the Great War were years, poetically, of keen expectancy. Great things, he will say, were then astir in the world, men were adapting themselves to large co-operations that made for sympathy and understanding, and moved toward ends that were noble and not immediately selfish. To the poet, meanwhile, the public was lending a ready ear and a generous purse, hoping almost pathetically that something might, half believing that something would, in the end, come of it all; for big events called loud for the needful comment of the poet. The poets themselves, our candid critic will admit, were possessed of technical accomplishment, a fierce desire to see things as they are, and a passionate joy in experimentation. How he will censure their faults, what, in short, our hypothetical historian will go on to say really came of this portentous conjunction of poet and public, we had best leave to his good judgment operating on facts of which we are not yet the possessors. But it is not impossible that he will point out that of the poetry then called “new” there were in this new dawn—phantom or not, as shall appear—two principal expressions. On one side the experiments of the apostles of freedom, the yawp determinedly barbaric, the ramblings of Harlequin in a tobacco trance, and the intense stare of Columbine very drunk to-night; all of which “gesticulating with the lips,” our future historian may say, produced a residuum of memorable work; served the time by showing what could be done when one abandoned one’s mind to it; and before it disappeared, along with the strange dances and the monstrous paintings of those days, though it may not have added a new string to the lyre, it at least taught a brave way of wielding the plectrum, which, on occasion and in the right hands, could make the old instrument discourse most eloquent music. A poetic Saturnalia, it had the merit, he may say, of teaching the value of liberty by exhibiting license, playing the drunken Helot to a soberer kind of poetry which in those days—will our historian say it?—gave most definite promise of what was later to be achieved.  1
  This second sort of poetry is also “new,” but it does not cry aloud its novelty; Chaucer would understand it and Dryden would not disown it. It is poetry essentially narrative, its searching and sympathetic eye directed to scenes of humble life, its expression clear, direct, free of traditional ornament, and though rhythmic and frequently rhymed, measurably close to the structure and idiom of normal human speech. Gibson was one of the first to establish himself in this manner. He is not of those who write prefaces. He does not encourage the publication of autobiographic notices. Concerning him it may be authoritatively stated that he was born at Hexham, Northumberland, October 2d, 1878. Beyond this the only documents available at the present moment of writing are seven volumes of verse. Mr. Gibson began to publish in 1902. His first book to win an audience in this country was the series of dramatic sketches called ‘Daily Bread’ (1910). This was followed by ‘Fires’ (3 vols., 1912); ‘Borderlands and Thoroughfares’ (1914); then ‘Battle and Other Poems’ (1915), in which are reprinted two earlier publications, ‘Stonefolds’ and ‘On the Threshold’ (1907). His latest volume is entitled ‘Livelihood’ (1916).  2
  In all of the books named—of his four earliest volumes it is not possible to express a judgment—the poet is marvelously like himself. It is not wrong to call the bulk of this work narrative, although a considerable part of it, especially in the earlier volumes, is cast in dramatic form. Always the story is the thing; plot is the soul of his little tragedies. But the plot does not generally, or more significantly, develop itself in physical action; its operation is inwards, it unfolds in the emotions and the thoughts, spoken or unspoken, of the characters. Yet the effect on the reader is crisp and clear, there is no hinting at awful and remote significances, no incoherencies; it is neither Orphic nor Sibylline; there are no allusions to perplex the wayfaring man. It is a technique in which the wayfaring man, indeed, has been well schooled. The vogue of the short story has accustomed him to this intense concentration on the moment, this hurling against the chosen point all the reserves of memory—the marvelously detailed memory that one encounters in the movie “cut-back”—till the position gives way, and with a rush and a cheer the story is achieved. Mr. Gibson by using the methods of to-day has broken out a road into the realms of gold, where many who have found more frequented paths uninviting will gladly follow him.  3
  In his materials, too, Mr. Gibson is conscientiously modern. The Foreword to ‘Fires’ states a program: musing before the fire on all the fancies that have charmed the poets, he beholds
  “Crouched in the dripping dark,
With steaming shoulders stark,
The man who hews the coal to feed my fire.”
Labor is his theme; toil at sea, childbirth, starvation in the city, fumbling old age, the inexorable and soul-wearying machine, the devouring furnace, the engulfing pit; the shop, the circus, the turnip-field; tramps, shepherds, ploughboys; a doctor, a fiddler, a servant-girl on a holiday. The total effect is a little unrelieved. Undertaking with Crabbe to
                      “paint the cot
As Truth will paint it, and as Bards will not,”
he presents, only with more specific detail than Crabbe, a no less depressing picture. In ‘Stonefolds,’ in the person of the old shepherd sitting helpless by, while lambs and children are born and die, we feel that we have gazed upon a desolation like that of a forgotten city:
  “We two have seen so many young things born,
So many perish: yet death takes us not.”
But the ravings of the stoker in ‘The Furnace’ (in ‘Daily Bread’), crisped in his own furnace, accompanied by the chorus of wife and solicitous friends, has the hard brilliance of an experiment resolutely gone through in a workmanlike manner. If the ghost of Dan Chaucer could appear to him, and Mr. Gibson has entertained at least the artistic possibility of ghosts, the elder poet might offer a hint or two about the dangers of warbling on one string.
  4
  Not that Mr. Gibson is always doleful. The little snatches from a soldier’s meditations, which make up ‘Battle,’ afford sudden bits of incongruity which force the reader to seek relief in laughter: “I wonder if the old cow died or not.” Occasionally the poet seeks to elevate his material by resorting to the supernatural: in ‘The Flute,’ which accomplishes precisely what Wordsworth said he was trying to do, ‘The Vixen,’ only one of many poems which display the author’s delight in color, and ‘The Queen’s Crags,’ one of the most delicately imagined of them all.  5
  Mr. Gibson has deliberately chosen the field in which he works. He is not himself of the soil; he is no Stephen Duck, the poetical thresher, or, to take a modern instance, no Francis Ledwidge. He is the professional poet contemplating sympathetically humble life in country and town. This places him squarely in the pastoral tradition, but pastoral as Theocritus practiced it; not mere mechanic echoes of the Mantuan song. ‘The Piper’ (in ‘Livelihood’) is true to type, even to details. The tradition which the poet adorns shields him in turn from the charge that hinds and pitmen do not habitually talk as he makes them, do not usually think the thoughts he attributes to them. It is the poet’s business to make hind and pitman articulate: thus shepherds would talk if they could. What one misses most in setting his work beside that of Theocritus, with which his is in so many ways comparable, is song. It may be the modern life of labor does not admit song. Does it not then, perhaps, become the business of the poet to teach it to sing? The poet who has heard the curlew calling at Hallypike and seen across the night the lights of ‘Home,’ is not unfitted for this high task.  6
 
 
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