Music and message, rhythm and truth, Vachel Lindsay’s best poetry offers extraordinary examples of the absolute interdependence of sound and sense. Lindsay finds ways of presenting on the page effects as various as the thump, whistle, and wheeze of a calliope (“The Kallyope Yell”), the staggered, percussive rattle of native dancing (“The Congo”), the smooth, mournful music of prairie birds singing in counterpoint to highway traffic (“The Santa Fe Trail”), and the unexpected brevity of a tall tale’s punch line (“The Daniel Jazz”). Masterful as these effects are in themselves, they also illustrate Lindsay’s affection for the details and the personality of his midwestern world. The gaudy steam calliope that blasted the fairgrounds with its din, the communities of blacks moving north to Illinois with their brand-new tempos of jazz music, the individual note of a bird called the Rachel Jane, the black servant’s power in the household (“The Daniel Jazz”) are all hard facts in his verse, keeping the dreams and generalizations, the hopes and fears of his populist idealism, rooted in the actual.
When, for example, Lindsay plucks General Booth out of his British setting for a tribute in a dream vision, marching deadbeats cruise around the courthouse in downtown Springfield. Here Lindsay harnesses the melting-pot theory of American meliorism to serve an evangelical cause, and where better to link the two powerful processes of social equality and salvation than on the courthouse steps that Abraham Lincoln climbed? The courthouse still dominates countless midwestern town squares, a kind of secular temple: Lindsay recognized its power as a symbol. The paradoxical quality of the courthouse is carried on in the paradox of “Booth the Soldier,” the tension derived from the “salvation” army, almost oxymoronic, however Pauline and familiar, from Protestant hymns. Again secular power and spiritual grace unite in a specific figure.
Lindsay revered the ideals of the courthouse and the Salvation Army, but the poem really celebrates the transformation of the “blear review.” When all are made new, the “blind eyes” that are opened are not specifically identified as Booth’s, because all gaze on “a new, sweet world.” Lindsay’s concern for a mass of people is evident in this poem; the variety of their disabilities, their instruments, their crimes, all fascinate him. Their energy is captured in the way the lines begin—trochees and spondees abound and alliteration provides speed and percussion. The principal accents are often just two, forcing the reading voice to pace on as it makes sense of the line.
“General William Booth Enters into Heaven”
In “General William Booth Enters into Heaven,” Lindsay’s technical genius can be appreciated; his belief in the new life of grace is given authority by the rippling power of the verse. In the first stanza, the alliteration and repeated stress at the start and finish of the first line exemplify Booth’s confidence; the fact that he was blind makes this parade all the more bravely led. The undercurrent of the parenthesis “(Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?)” changes the meter with its anapestic feet, implying the smooth confidence of the saint’s question, but also slowing or interrupting the raucous motion of the parade. The couplet rhymes are remarkably appropriate as an organizing frame for this disorderly procession, but “the blood of the Lamb” never has its rhyme completed. Even in the last line of the poem, when the question is stripped of parentheses and quotation marks, when it comes straight to the reader/hearer, it has no echo, for it is Lindsay’s unanswered, unanswerable question.
In the second stanza (“Every slum had sent . . .”) Lindsay continues to move the reader/hearer through contradictory feelings: delight with the visual splendor of the scene (banners blooming and “transcendent dyes” in “the golden air”) and awe or apprehension at the human forms that are here collected (“Bull-necked convicts,” “Loons with trumpets”). The diction suggests salvation (“bloomed with glory,” “transcendent,” “upward thro’ the golden air”) while the subjects are clearly fallen, and likely to remain so.
The poem almost halts, therefore, caught by this paradox of evangelistic passion in fallen men, in the opening accounts of the third stanza with its three slow beats: “Booth died blind. . . .” Lindsay picks up the rhythm with uncharacteristic iambs, such as “and still by faith he trod,” thus metrically emphasizing the miracle—dying blind but walking on. Lindsay hides the actual moment of transition here, as he does when the “blear review” is “in an instant” made new. In the middle of the stanza, with no italicized directions for music, Lindsay seems to lose the moment of salvation, and emphasizes instead the continuation of the parade of the purified host as it accompanies Booth to heaven.
Lindsay balances the familiar with the mystical perfectly. The parade of deadbeats playing musical instruments as they circle the town square becomes Booth’s contribution to his world of slum victims, a metaphoric representation of his collected good works, and a fantastic vision of the heavenly scene.
It is easy to see that the italicized passages of advice (“Sweet flute music”) are meant to invite the reader/hearer to change attitude, to prepare for a new meter, to modulate tone. Lindsay’s stage directions are meant to aid readers, not to stage shows or revise the verse. Lindsay structured his verse with care, setting lines on the page in groups indented or flush, with headnotes or numerical demarcation, always trying to slow the reader’s headlong rush through a poem.
“The Gospel of Beauty”
Much more sober and conventional but no less successful is the trio of poems united under the title “The Gospel of Beauty.” Lindsay sang the sections of this poem on his walking tours, and it is not hard to imagine the farmers of the plains listening with some pleasure to this celebration of their past and future. Once again, Lindsay’s characteristic concerns emerge from the lines, although there is little of the jazzy movement of the Booth poem in these thoughtful stanzas. “The Proud Farmer” (the title of the first segment) was Lindsay’s mother’s father, whose town, church, fields, and cemetery he knew well. The poet sees the heroic accomplishments of the rural life and the failure of the town to grow and prosper according to his grandfather’s design: “They sleep with him beneath the ragged grass...
(The entire section is 2721 words.)