Louis Untermeyer Essay - Critical Essays


The qualities of mind and temperament that made Louis Untermeyer such a superb anthologist kept him from attaining the same level of excellence in his poetry. He was too appreciative of the moods, approaches, and words of others—too prone to imitation and parody. He was rarely able to find his own voice; or rather, his own voice was often the mockingbird’s, wryly reproducing the songs of others. Moreover, the virtues of his impressionistic criticism—directness and clarity—were poetic vices in a period of Empsonian ambiguity.

Untermeyer’s poems fall into five broad categories: parodies; modern re-creations of religious or mythological events; adaptations of another poet’s spirit, tone, or verse form; idealistic exhortations concerning social consciousness; and a few entirely new creations. Thus, Untermeyer’s poems range from the overtly imitative to the mildly innovative. They vary widely in subject and style but are unified by romanticism undercut with irony. This romanticism was a fundamental part of Untermeyer’s personality. It guided him as he exuberantly collected belongings, friends, experiences, passions, and poems.

The instincts of a romantic collector were evident throughout Untermeyer’s life. His earliest memories were of the “colorful mélange” of assorted portraits, porcelains, and petit-point cushions that littered his parent’s home. During reveries before a Dutch landscape or a jeweled bird, Untermeyer’s mind turned to fantasy, while his taste was tutored by delight in the diversity of the family’s collections. His love of fantasy led him to read, as he put it, “a hodge-podge of everything I could lay my mind on”: Alf laya wa-laya (fifteenth century; The Arabian Nights’ Entertainments, 1706-1708), books from Edward Stratemeyers’s Rover Boys series, Alexandre Dumas, père’s Les Trois Mousquetaires (1844; The Three Musketeers, 1846), Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1798), Jean de La Fontaine’s Fables choisies, mises en vers (1668-1694; Fables Written in Verse, 1735), Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s Idylls of the King (1859-1885), Dante’s Inferno (in La divina commedia, c. 1320; The Divine Comedy, 1802), and so on. This eclectic but diverting reading in bed by night naturally reduced Untermeyer to mediocrity in school by day. He found the classroom too limiting and controlled in its approach to life and learning.

Thus, at the age of seventeen, Untermeyer entered the family jewelry business—the first in what was to become the startlingly diverse collection of his occupations. Yet, even the jewelry business was too mundane for Louis. He devoted long afternoons to the unfinished verses he kept concealed in his desk beneath production reports and packets of gemstones. In the evenings, he wrote poems and reviews, for which he found a ready market. His first collection of poems, First Love, was a vanity press edition subsidized by his father, but its sales quickly offset the cost of publication. His next volume, Challenge, was picked up by the Century Company, and Untermeyer’s poetic career was launched.

The dual careers of poet and businessman were insufficient to quench Untermeyer’s romantic thirst for experience. He used his contacts in the literary world to help him to his third career as a magazine editor. He first obtained a position as a contributing editor to The Masses, where he made friends of such prominent left-wing personalities as Max Eastman and John Reed. He then became one of the founding editors of The Seven Arts, a short-lived (1916-1917) literary magazine that published pieces by Sherwood Anderson, D. H. Lawrence, Carl Sandburg, Robert Frost, Eugene O’Neill, Vachel Lindsay, and John Dewey. From 1918 to 1924, he was a contributing editor to the Liberator; from 1934 to 1937, he was poetry editor of the American Mercury; and for many years, he wrote a weekly column for the Saturday Review (known as Saturday Review of Literature until 1952).

In 1919, Untermeyer collected and revised a number of his impressionistic reviews and published them in The New Era in American Poetry. When Alfred Harcourt decided to bring out an anthology of modern American poetry, Untermeyer was the logical editor. Modern American Poetry was followed in the next year by Modern British Poetry. Thus, Untermeyer, who had already been a success as a jeweler, poet, and magazine editor, now assumed the role of anthologist. It was the right task for a man who, by his own confession, had “the mind of a magpie” and who collected stamps, flowers, pictures of actresses in cigarette packs, cats (both living and artificial), careers, and wives. This multiplicity of interests continued to shape Untermeyer’s life. In subsequent years, he became a gentleman farmer, publisher, record producer, and television celebrity. Despite these varied careers, Untermeyer always felt most at home at his desk. There, he wrote, “I am doing what I am supposed to do: fulfilling my function whether I write in the role of biographer, storyteller, editor of anthologies, impressionistic critic, or, occasionally, poet.” The order of those activities says much about Untermeyer’s own priorities and poetic self-image.

Works of parody

For a collector who wished to be a poet, parody was the natural literary mode. Indeed, Untermeyer’s first booklet, The Younger Quire, was a parody of The Younger Choir, an anthology of youthful poets (including Untermeyer) that was introduced and lavishly praised by Edwin Markham. Untermeyer’s parody came to exactly twenty-four pages (one quire) and included a series of “back-of-the-hand tributes” combining “simulated innocence and real malice.” He continued to write burlesques throughout his long career, publishing them in. . . and Other Poets, Including Horace, Collected Parodies, and Selected Poems and Parodies.

Religious themes

Parody is, however, parasitic, and Untermeyer was too thoughtful and creative to remain locked into such a limited style. In another large group of poems, the penchant for parody is reined in as Untermeyer re-creates a religious, mythological, or literary event from a modern perspective. In “Eve Speaks,” for example, Eve asks God to pause before judging her. She argues that Eden was a place for child’s play and angelic calm but not a place for Adam who, being neither child nor angel, was formed to struggle and create. Untermeyer implies that eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge was essential to human fulfillment and that God had been wrong to forbid it. Thus, the poem is a typical statement of Untermeyer’s philosophy of life. He implies that the Judeo-Christian religions have distorted the old myths in an effort to impose order and morality. For Untermeyer, the romantic collector, life is truly lived only through struggle, passion, sexuality, creation, and experience. All these were to be gained only through knowledge, the forbidden fruit.

Untermeyer’s romantic sensuality led him to fill his poems with descriptions of almost Keatsian opulence and vividness. The terrors of Judgment Day, for example, are suggested by phenomena: “trampling winds,” “stark and cowering skies,” “the red flame” of God’s anger licking up worlds, the stars falling “in a golden rain.” Here, the pathetic fallacy, which often mars other descriptions by Untermeyer, becomes an effective indication of God’s fearful power; before his wrath, the elements, too, cringe and flee. By standing unterrified amid such fury, Eve immediately wins the reader’s respect, just as her boldness in questioning God’s judgment had piqued the reader’s interest. As she begins to explain herself, her description of Paradise is traditional except for the contemptuousness of the occasional reference to its “drowsy luxury” and “glittering hours.” Such descriptive phrases prepare the reader to see Eden as Eve saw it, a place where Man and Woman are treated like children, “swaddled with ease” and “lulled with . . . softest dreams.” The circling night-bird “out beyond the wood,” the “broadening stream,” and the distant hills become symbols of freedom, symbols of the unknown. Eve learns that individuality can be obtained only through rebellion, that knowledge must be reached through uncertainty, and that creation grows out of struggle. She eats of the fruit of sensual knowledge, as Untermeyer would have all men and women do.

Untermeyer makes other particularly interesting attempts to modernize religious mythology in “Sic Semper,” “God’s Youth,” and “Burning Bush.” The first of these looks at the myth of the Fall from another perspective. In “Eve Speaks,” Untermeyer had made no mention of Satan; Eve’s revolt grew out of her understanding of Adam’s human needs. In “Sic Semper,” Untermeyer brilliantly and economically overturns the traditional view...

(The entire section is 3742 words.)