Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
William Vaughn Moody (1869–1910)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Joyce Kilmer (1886–1918)
WILLIAM VAUGHN MOODY was throughout his life regarded as the most promising of the younger American poets. And when he died in 1910 most critics mourned for the unwritten lyrics and poetic dramas of which American literature had thus been robbed; they mentioned the author as a gifted youth, whom fate had removed at the beginning of a splendid career.  1
  To a certain extent this attitude was a tribute to the youthful spirit of William Vaughn Moody, to his vivacity, energy, and cheerfulness. But it was chiefly a new illustration of the fact that nowadays poets flower late in the season. Moody was forty-one years old when he died—and there was a time when the poet of forty was considered well past the meridian of his genius. Most of the great poets established their fame before they were thirty years old—Keats and Shelley died at twenty-five and twenty-nine, respectively. But nowadays the poet of forty-five is still called young and the poet of thirty our kind critics consider a precocious infant.  2
  As a matter of stern fact, it is doubtful that American literature has really lost much by Moody’s death. He wrote ‘Gloucester Moors’ and the ‘Ode in Time of Hesitation’ and ‘The Faith Healer.’ The conscientious student of his work cannot escape the conviction that in these he gave the world all that he really had to give. Of course he would have written more—nature lyrics, poems on political and sociological questions, poetical dramas dealing with philosophical themes, prose plays of modern American life. But toward the end of his brief life his work was not gaining in force. Readers of ‘The Death of Eve’ have little sorrow over the poet’s failure to complete this play—the first two members of the trilogy which it was to conclude are nobly phrased, but they are so cloudy in thought and weak in dramatic construction that they do their author’s fame little service. Prometheus, Pandora, Deucalion, Eve, Cain, Raphael, and Michael, angels and archangels, thrones, dominions, and powers were characters too mighty for the talent of this poet, who could handle adequately enough a problem of contemporary politics or draw quaint lessons from the caged beasts in a menagerie.  3
  Perhaps the coldness which annoys some readers of Moody’s poems, the sense of aloofness from the common experience of mankind, the artificiality which mars such expressions of sympathy for humanity as are intended in ‘Gloucester Moors,’ are things for which it is unjust to blame the poet. His friend, John M. Manly, wrote in the preface to his ‘Poems and Plays’: “He was an epicure of life, a voluptuary of the whole range of physical, mental, and spiritual perfections.” But in Moody’s poetry we find more of the mind than of the heart; we feel that we are in the presence of a charming and cultured personality, but we have no feeling of intimacy with the writer.  4
  “Of thine own tears thy song must tears beget,” wrote Rossetti. “O singer, magic mirror hast thou none save thine own manifest heart.” And a greater poet than Rossetti exclaimed, “Ah, must (Designer Infinite!) Thou char the wood ere thou canst limn with it?” A similar thought was in Horace’s mind when in the Ars Poetica he said, “if you wish me to weep you must first weep yourself.”  5
  Well, few tears are drawn by Moody’s poems, nor did many tears go into their making. His wood was not charred. But he was a conscientious and accomplished artist, doing the best he could with the powers that were his. His work is thoughtful, imaginative, and well-wrought, his ‘Great Divide’ is destined to periodic revivals, and the best of his lyrics are sure of a place in the anthologies.  6
  William Vaughn Moody was born in Spencer, Indiana, on July 8th, 1869. He was the son of a prosperous retired steamboat captain. In 1871 the family moved to New Albany, on the Ohio River. The elder Moody died in 1886. William Vaughn Moody went to Riverside Academy and entered Harvard in 1889, being then twenty years old. In his senior year he went abroad with a wealthy family as tutor to their son. During the trip he made a walking tour of the Black Forest and Switzerland with a party of friends, including Norman Hapgood. He also spent some time in Greece and in Italy.  7
  He returned to Harvard to study for his master’s degree and stayed on as instructor in English. In the autumn of 1895 he went to the University of Chicago as instructor in English, reaching the rank of assistant professor before his departure eight years later. His life at the University of Chicago seems to have been rather leisurely. It was varied by journeys abroad and bicycle tours in Illinois and Wisconsin. Swimming, bicycling, golf, tennis, walking, and mountain-climbing are mentioned by Mr. Manly as Moody’s favorite sports, and it is not to be wondered that he had little time for writing, however unexacting his academic duties may have been.  8
  Although his connection with the University of Chicago did not cease until later, he taught no classes after 1902. He did, however, do a certain amount of work academic in character, editing some editions of the classics and collaborating with his friend Robert M. Lovett in a ‘History of English Literature.’ He first became known to the general public by the successful presentation of his prose play, ‘The Great Divide.’ He died in Colorado Springs on the seventeenth of October, 1910. A few months before his death he married Miss Harriet C. Brainerd.  9
  It is interesting to trace the influences in Moody’s work. He was very thoroughly a man of books, and some critics complain that there is more ink than blood in the veins of the people of whom he writes. Certainly it is possible to find traces of his reading on nearly every page that he wrote. The lovely fourth stanza of ‘Gloucester Moors’ is Coleridge; ‘Faded Pictures’ is Browning at his worst; and ‘The Daguerreotype’ is a deliberate effort to imitate the irregular ode-form of Coventry Patmore. And of course ‘Heart’s Wildflower’ and ‘A Dialogue in Purgatory,’ like the lyrics in ‘The Masque of Judgment,’ are a Chicago version of Rossetti.  10
  In his prose plays we find Moody writing with an energy which he seldom exhibited in his poetry. Not in Jerome K. Jerome’s ‘The Passing of the Third Floor Back,’ not in Charles Rann Kennedy’s ‘The Servant in the House,’ is the idea of the beneficent effect of a powerful and virtuous nature more plausibly presented than in ‘The Faith Healer.’ And Moody obtained his effect more honestly than did Jerome and Kennedy; his faith-healer is merely a faith-healer to the end of the play, there is no suggestion that he is more than human. In many respects ‘The Faith Healer’ is Moody’s most important work. There is more poetry in its prose than in all his poetic dramas put together. When Michaelis makes love to Rhoda and tells the story of his childhood home, when Beeler describes the picture of Pan and the Pilgrim, and when Uncle Abe chants his prophecies and visions, then there is real poetry—poetry not unlike some of the best passages in Synge’s plays. The “strange mounting sing-song” of Uncle Abe’s speech evidently was the inspiration of the best parts of Mr. Ridgley Torrence’s ‘The Rider of Dreams.’  11
  ‘The Great Divide’ has been magnificently acted, but it is inferior in every respect to ‘The Faith Healer.’ Its theme—the contrast between the Puritan spirit which Moody considered typical of the Eastern States, and the generous paganism which he thought characteristically Western,—might be, and probably will be, the basis of an important play. But there never was a New Englander remotely resembling Ruth Jordan, there never was a Westerner remotely resembling Stephen Ghent. Hero and heroine, or villain and villainess, or whatever they are supposed to be, have actuality, it is true—the actuality of figures seen in a nightmare. And the other characters in the play have no actuality whatsoever. And the author’s total lack of humor never injured his work more than in this play. It is painful to see situations essentially humorous made banal and dull by the author’s obtuseness. If only the idea had occurred to Bernard Shaw instead of to William Vaughn Moody!  12
  Perhaps one reason why ‘The Great Divide,’ convincing enough when well acted, is a lamentable thing on the printed page is because it is an attempt to prove a theory. Moody was a Puritan, through and through, and like all modern literary Puritans he was desperately ashamed of his Puritanism. He glorified what he thought to be the pagan ideal, and in ‘The Great Divide’ he wanted to show that the large acceptances of Ghent were nobler than the austere negations of Ruth. But paganism and Puritanism are nothing but terms, almost meaningless from much repetition, and ‘The Great Divide’ is a play of terms, of symbols, of lay figures. And the only things that it proves are Moody’s total inability to understand paganism and his reluctant but inevitable sympathy with Puritanism.  13
  It was his Puritanism that made Moody try to stimulate the conscience of his land by means of ‘An Ode in Time of Hesitation,’ his best sustained long poem, and his most passionate utterance. It was the Puritan who wrote ‘On a Soldier Fallen in the Philippines.’ It was the Puritan who wrote ‘The Brute.’ And I think that it was the Puritan who wrote ‘Gloucester Moors.’ A pagan, such as Moody desired to be, would not have worried about the “souls distraught in the hold,” nor would he have worried over the fact that some of the crew had over-eaten. Also, a pagan would have enjoyed the loveliness of the wild geranium and the barberry without asking:
  “Who has given to me this sweet,
And given my brother dust to eat?
And when will his wage come in?”
  These things are manifestations of that Puritan characteristic known as “the New England conscience”—the cause in recent years of many rather frantic efforts at social and economic and philosophical readjustment. Mr. John M. Manly says that ‘Gloucester Moors’ is “a favorite poem with workers in the slums,”—a significant and startling observation.  15
  Moody’s Puritanism gives strength to many of his poems, but in others it produces strange inconsistencies and evasions. It helped him to write ‘The Brute’—a strong and sincere poem. But it caused him to fail ridiculously in ‘A Dialogue in Purgatory,’ in ‘Good-Friday Night,’ and in ‘Song Flower and Poppy.’ In the second half of the last-named poem we come upon the root of the matter—Moody’s complete failure to understand any religious system, any philosophy of life, more warm and comprehensive than his own Puritanism. He rebelled against this Puritanism, yet he could not escape it. He sought vaguely after paganism, whereas he could no more have been a Bacchic reveller than he could have been a Druid. In spite of his reading of early French and Italian romances, he failed utterly to see the generous glories of the Middle Ages, when all that was noble and beautiful in paganism was made a part of the richest civilization the world has yet known. He thought of intellectual development and spiritual freedom as things beginning about 1517—and naturally this hampered him when he wrote about Michael, Raphael, Azaziel, Eve, Jubal, and Cain.  16
  A longer residence in Italy might have given him a more liberal culture and a spiritual philosophy generous without being pagan, pure without being Puritanical. And therefore the critics who said that a poet of promise died in 1910 may have told the truth. A broader culture and more extensive human sympathies would have enabled this deft artist in words to give to the world a message of the kind it always welcomes—to express beautifully the beauty that is truth.  17

Shakespeare · Bible · Strunk · Anatomy · Nonfiction · Quotations · Reference · Fiction · Poetry
© 1993–2015 · [Top 150] · Subjects · Titles · Authors · World Lit.