This Blessèd Earth
For some reason, the subtitle of this book is not quite accurate; of the fourteen poems selected from John Hall Wheelock’s earlier volumes, two are taken from The Black Panther, which appeared in 1922. This small matter may perhaps be blamed on an impulse—the publisher’s or the poet’s—to favor the nice roundness of the half-century. The astonishing fact is this: at the time of his death in March of 1978, Wheelock was the only living poet of consequence whose career had begun with the century. Between 1900, when he published his first poem, and his death at the age of ninety-one, Wheelock produced fourteen books of poems and a book of criticism; in addition he had edited a collection of “poetical passages” from Thomas Wolfe, the letters of Maxwell Perkins, and eight volumes in the Scribner’s Poets of Today series.
In 1970, he published By Daylight and in Dreams: New and Collected Poems, 1904-1970. Because that more or less definitive collection is still available, the selection of earlier work in this new book is somewhat scanty. Someday, perhaps, a happy medium will be struck, when a sympathetic and responsible editor assembles Wheelock’s one hundred best poems. Such a task would be formidable, because Wheelock published hundreds of poems, many of them mediocre or even bad; and one would have to read them all, for a few good poems failed to find their way into the 1970 collection. But the task would be interesting and worthwhile; it would be useful to convey some sense of how Wheelock’s poetry emerged from wasteful and automatic romanticism to grave and strongly crafted meditation, and it would be good to rescue those hundred poems from their surroundings, so that they might provide an unadulterated indication of Wheelock’s stature as a poet.
This Blessèd Earth, like many of Wheelock’s earlier books, is somewhat uneven. Of the fourteen selected poems, only six are undoubtedly as good as any he could have chosen; the other eight are probably among those hundred best, but they are not among the fourteen best. For the poet himself, the problems of choice must have been many and difficult, because he had to walk a line, somehow, between inclination toward old favorites of a sort he had not lately written, and acceptance of the remarkable fact that most of his best work was done in his seventies and eighties.
“The Fish Hawk,” for example, is among Wheelock’s most successful poems, and it has been around at least since 1922, when it appeared in The Black Panther. But there are verbal gestures in it which Wheelock became less and less prone to make, perhaps as he became more intimately acquainted with the work of younger poets included in the Poets of Today series. The first two stanzas of the poem reveal most of the gestures in question:
On the large highway of the ample air that flowsUnbounded between sea and heaven, while twilight screenedThe sorrowful distances, he moved and had repose;On the huge wind of the immensity he leanedHis steady body, in long lapse of flight—and roseGradual, through broad gyres of ever-climbing rest,Up the clear stair of the untrammelled sky, and stoodThroned on the summit! Slowly, with his widening breast,Widened around him the enormous solitude,From the gray rim of ocean to the glowing west.
One notices the profusion of adjectives and their frequent predictability; the exclamation point comes as no surprise. This is romantic excess of a recognizable kind. However, there is a musical control in these lines which is unusual. Though the metrical norm here can be discovered—it is iambic hexameter—the variations are handled with remarkable deftness, so that the rhythm carries the reader through the somewhat complex grammar, as the lines and sentences achieve their arresting counterpoint. This poem will not be to the taste of those schooled exclusively in current fashions, but the accomplished prosody here cannot be denied.
Like “The Fish-Hawk,” several of these selected poems are rooted in the land around East Hampton, Long Island, where, in his father’s house, Wheelock spent some part of every summer for more than eighty years. The house itself, with its felt presences of the poet’s father and of the literary phantoms Wheelock conjured in his youth, echoes with profound significance every step he takes in it; the gardens and the sea within earshot contribute their seasonal and tidal rhythms.
Wheelock’s father is recalled in “The Gardener,” the title poem of the 1961 collection for which Wheelock received the Bollingen Prize for Poetry. The poem is in terza rima, the stanzas moving forward...
(The entire section is 2059 words.)