Vachel Lindsay 1879–1931
(Full name Nicholas Vachel Lindsay) American poet and essayist.
Lindsay was a popular American poet of the early twentieth century who celebrated small-town Midwestern populism in strongly rhythmic poetry designed to be chanted aloud. He is widely known for his often-anthologized poems "General William Booth Enters into Heaven" and "The Congo," which are notable for their vividness, vigor, and popularity with lecture audiences. While these poems secured recognition for Lindsay during his lifetime and typify the characteristics with which the poet's work is associated, their reception imposed limitations on his career, as audiences and critics concentrated on his exuberant showmanship and neglected his deep concern for beauty and democracy.
Lindsay was born in Springfield, Illinois. In 1897 he attended Hiram College, a small sectarian school in Ohio, and studied medicine. Showing little aptitude for medical studies, he abandoned his medical education and in 1901, enrolled at the Art Institute in Chicago. In 1903 he left Chicago and enrolled at the New York School of Art to study painting. Encouraged to pursue his love of poetry, Lindsay took his verses to the New York streets in 1905, distributing copies of his poems among merchants and passersby for a nominal sum. He then tramped across the country, offering a sheet of his verses in exchange for bed and board. In 1912 he met Harriet Monroe, the founder of the periodical, Poetry. She published his poem, "General William Booth Enters into Heaven," garnering favorable critical attention for Lindsay's verse.
Lindsay spent the rest of his career touring professionally as a dramatic poet, giving lively readings that employed audience participation. Although he grew tired of the exhausting schedule, he needed the income. He married in 1924, at the age of forty-five, and had two children. However, during the 1920s his popularity waned as the country turned toward more cosmopolitan interests. In the last years of his life, Lindsay experienced crushing debts, deteriorating health, and periods of irrational rage and paranoia. In 1931, Lindsay poisoned himself.
Lindsay's first major work, General William Booth Enters into Heaven, and Other Poems, and another collection The Congo, and Other Poems, are characterized by their attempts to reach a less educated and less culturally sophisticated
audience than that addressed by Lindsay's contemporaries. He insisted that poetry is most effective when recited, and many of his selections were accompanied by marginal notations governing the specific volume and tone of voice to be used. It had also occurred to him, in observing the overwhelming popularity of vaudeville, that certain of its elements might be employed to capture an audience's attention. Lindsay devised verse he dubbed "poem games," that required the participation of an audience as well as specific players. The fervent rhythms of Lindsay's poetry are based on those of the Protestant camp meeting. Imbued with faith in the inherent goodness and efficacy of common people united in a democratic cause, his poems encourage the continued efforts of people to better and beautify their lives and environment. His poetic portraits of American heroes embellished history with his own imaginative additions to arouse the ambition of his readers to live up to the nation's heritage; his widely anthologized "Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight," for instance, departs from a staid representation or rigid documentary style to present a great leader who cannot rest peacefully because of worldwide strife and injustice. Many of his works also extol nature and a life lived close to the soil, and nearly all affirm God's immanence.
When Lindsay's poem, "General William Booth Enters into Heaven," appeared in Poetry in 1912, it was well received by readers and critics alike. In fact, his first three collections earned him praise as the "people's poet," but critics also caricatured Lindsay as a vagabond shouting his poetry to the clouds and stars as he strode across the Midwestern plains. He enjoyed moderate success for several years, but by the early 1920s, his popularity began to wane. Disparagement of his work became widespread. Although some critics denigrate his ideals and unsophisticated style, many agree that his best efforts are found in his verses commemorating America's heroes. Although Lindsay's work is no longer widely read, most commentators find his contribution to American poetry valuable because of his colorful depiction of American themes and his attempt to address sectors of society ignored by other artists.