No complete collection of Vachel Lindsay’s poetry has ever been published, nor does it seem likely that this would be a profitable venture for publisher, reader, or scholar. The vogue for this poet died out even before his death; the excellent collections of selected poetry and anthologies contain all that is likely to survive; and a consensus among scholars has already been established—Lindsay was a vital minor poet whose interesting experiments and some fifty poems will be remembered.
Setting aside his earliest poems, including the famous “Rhymes to be Traded for Bread,” and his late ones, excluding “Johnny Appleseed,” the critical reader will find a corpus of poetry which, if no longer startling, is at least substantial. These first collections sometimes include sketches which do not illuminate and poems without substance; they were a part of the poet’s years when he considered himself a traveling mystic, an artist-writer with a rather vague creed based loosely on Swedenborgian philosophy. His later years before his suicide were clouded over by a despondency which the poems reflect.
In January, 1913, Poetry: A Magazine of Verse published “General William Booth Enters into Heaven,” published in book form later that year along with other poems by the same author. The immediate—and lasting—popularity of this poem is justified, perhaps more so than that of the familiarly anthologized “The Congo.” With cues for instruments and singing, the writer’s very real tribute to the religious leader is a studied cacophony which ends in deep reverence:
And when Booth halted by the curb forprayerHe saw his Master thro’ the flag-filledair.Christ came gently with a robe andcrownFor Booth the soldier, while the throngknelt down.He saw King Jesus. They were face toface,And he knelt a-weeping in that holyplace.Are you washed in the blood of theLamb?
Here is Lindsay’s metier, the rhythmic portrayal of almost legendary persons: Lincoln, Bryan, Chapman, Altgeld, Sullivan, Jackson, and Alexander Campbell, the founder of his religious sect, among others. In these poems he created a new kind of poetic tribute, as unlike the usual versifying obituary as his own life was from those he celebrated.
Less successful, though even more popular on chautauqua and college platforms where he appeared for so many years in so many cities, are the “travel” poems, the sweeping Whitmanesque vistas of the Santa Fe Trail, the Congo, the Great Plains. Here, too, his poetry has its strongly personal and syncopated quality, a stress here and a manipulation there, which stamps it with a form no longer usable because, perhaps, he himself overused it. “The Congo” begins:
Fat black bucks in a wine-barrel room,Barrel-house kings, with feet unstable,Sagged and reeled and pounded on thetable,Pounded on the table,Beat an empty barrel with the handle ofa broom,Hard as they were able,Boom, boom, BOOM,With a silk umbrella and the handle ofa broom,Boomlay, boomlay, boomlay, BOOM.
This is the four-stress line, with a kind of added syncopation which one critic has called “star-spangled jazz.” Poems of this type are most effective when read aloud in keeping with the instructions Lindsay supplied in a marginal gloss.
A third category, and in some ways the most successful because the poems seem so artless, is that of “children’s” poetry—the kind which is enchanting to all, the large child reading and the small one listening. “The Chinese Nightingale,” although sullied by adult overtones, is the best known of this group with its chiming, clanging pigeon-Chinese symbols:
He lit a joss stick long and black.Then the proud gray joss in the cornerstirred; On his wrist appeared a gray...
(The entire section is 932 words.)