William Vaughn Moody Essay - Critical Essays

Moody, William Vaughn


William Vaughn Moody 1869-1910

(Full name William Vaughn Stoy Moody) American poet and dramatist.

Moody was a well-known American poet and dramatist at the beginning of the twentieth century whose reputation declined considerably as literary innovators turned away from the traditional forms in which he wrote. In his poetry Moody relied on such nineteenth-century conventions as strict metrics, classical symbolism, and inflated diction. Though derivative as a poet, Moody is seen as a transitional figure in American drama. In particular, his successful prose drama A Sabine Woman (1906; revised as The Great Divide, 1909) with its contemporary setting and colloquial speech, is seen to advance realistic drama in the United States and to point the way to such figures as Eugene O'Neill in the succeeding decades.

Biographical Information

Moody was born in Spencer, Indiana, and grew up in New Albany, across the Ohio River from Louisville, Kentucky. His father, a native New Yorker, had been a steamboat captain and entrepreneur before taking a position in an iron works owned by his wife's family. In the mid-1880s Moody suffered the deaths of both his parents and an older sister; in the midst of these losses he graduated first in his high school class and began teaching school in rural Indiana to save money to attend college in the East. In 1897 he moved to Poughkeepsie, New York, where he served as a tutor to a wealthy family and attended a preparatory academy. He entered Harvard College in 1889. At Harvard, Moody associated with a group of writers that included Robert Morss Lovett, Hugh McCullough, and Philip Henry Savage, and came under the influence of prevailing intellects among the faculty including George Santayana and William James. He contributed poems to the Harvard Advocate and served on the editorial board of the Harvard Monthly. After completing his degree requirements in 1892, Moody spent a year abroad as a tutor. He was awarded a bachelor's degree in 1893 and completed a master's degree in 1894. After teaching at Harvard for a year, Moody became an English instructor at the University of Chicago in 1895. However, Moody did not find teaching an altogether congenial occupation and preferred to spend time on such pursuits as writing and editing. During the late 1890s he submitted poetry to periodicals including Scribner's and Atlantic Monthly and edited works by John Bunyan, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Sir Walter Scott, John Milton, and Alexander Pope. His first book, the verse drama The Masque of Judgment, was published in 1900 with Poems following in 1901. The success of his A History of English Literature (1902), cowritten with Morss Lovett, allowed Moody a measure of financial security. After 1903 he stopped teaching but remained associated with the University of Chicago until 1908. In 1909 he married Harriet Brainard, whom he had met in 1901. Shortly after his marriage, Moody began to lose his sight and learned that he had a brain tumor. He died in Colorado Springs, Colorado, in October 1910.

Major Works

Moody's career may be divided into two distinct phases, with the early part of his career devoted to poetry and the second part devoted to drama. Published in Poems and reissued as Gloucester Moors, and Other Poems (1909), Moody's verse is written largely in traditional European forms and employs mythical symbolism. Among the best known of his short works are “The Daguerreotype,” an elegy inspired by a portrait of his mother at age 17 in which Moody contrasts her youthful expectations of life with the reality of her adulthood and death. “On a Soldier Dying in the Philippines” comprises a criticism of U.S. foreign policy as does “An Ode in Time of Hesitation,” inspired by the monument on Boston Common to Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, the leader of the first African American regiment to fight in the American Civil War.

Moody was the author of five plays: a poetic trilogy that includes The Fire-Bringer (1904), The Masque of Judgment, and the unfinished Death of Eve, and the prose plays The Great Divide and The Faith Healer (1909). The earliest of his published dramas, The Masque of Judgment, depicts humanity in conflict with God and ends with the human spirit prevailing in the destruction of heaven. The second of Moody's verse dramas, The Fire-Bringer, presents a verse interpretation of the legend of Prometheus and advocates the necessity of human conflict with God. In the planned conclusion of the trilogy, The Death of Eve, the reconciliation of God and man would be achieved through Eve. While none of Moody's verse dramas has been produced on stage, the final two installments in particular retain critical interest and give evidence of Moody's aspirations for reviving the verse drama in contemporary theater.

In April 1906 Moody's prose drama A Sabine Woman premiered in Chicago; after the play was revised and retitled, it debuted to great success on Broadway as The Great Divide six months later. The “divide” of the play's title refers to the cultural dichotomy in America between the Puritanical, subdued, cultured East and the carefree, democratic, unsophisticated West. The plot centers on an eastern woman who on a trip West is saved from sexual assault by a miner who pays off her attackers with a string of gold nuggets. Attracted to her benefactor, she agrees to marry him, but their union is clouded by the knowledge that she was purchased with gold. She earns the money to buy back the string of gold, gives it to her husband, and returns East. The final act of the play takes place in the East where the couple is reunited, and the wife voices her rejection of eastern society in favor of the West. Viewed as a departure from typical melodramas of the era, The Great Divide is valued for its realism, its simple prose, and its modern American setting.

Moody's final work, The Faith Healer (1909), treats the conflict between human physical and spiritual needs. Closed within a week of its New York debut in 1910, The Faith Healer features a miracle-working protagonist who faces opposition from both organized religion and scientific medicine.

Critical Reception

During his lifetime Moody was hailed as a poet and playwright of high literary ideals and achievement. Reviewing Moody's debut works in 1901, Dial commentator William Morton Payne noted that “no other new poet of the past score of years, either in America or in England, has displayed a finer promise upon the occasion of his first appearance, or has been deserving of more respectful consideration.” During the first decade of the twentieth century, Moody gained prominence and influence with his series of poetic and prose dramas. According to a 1906 review of The Great Divide by critic John Corbin: “To say that it is the best product of the American drama thus far would doubtless be extravagant; yet the fact remains that it is inspired by precisely that fulness and wholesomeness of feeling, and is accomplished with precisely that technical firmness, the lack of which has thus far proved the cardinal defects of our most vivacious and amusing playwrights.” However, with such advancements as the realistic dramas of Eugene O'Neill and the rise of experimentalism associated with the Modernist movement, Moody's reputation declined after the mid-1920s. In an overview of Moody's work published in 1931, F. O. Matthiessen defined Moody's lack of appeal to the younger generation of American writers: “No one could have been more earnest in his desire to be a poet …. But he never found quite an authentic voice of his own. He was so striving in his effort to create that it left a pale cast of heavy deliberateness over nearly all of his lines, so self-conscious in his determination to be a poet that it almost incapacitated him for writing poetry. In fact, his kind of eclectic reliance upon the past and absorption in its ways of expression became finally so oppressive that it was the very thing which caused the violent break of our contemporary poetry away from nineteenth-century literary tradition.” Moody's reputation was never revived. To later observers he seemed the culminating figure of a formal tradition in poetry that proved insufficient to treat the emerging themes in twentieth-century literature, including the brutality of modern warfare and the alienation of the individual in modern society.

Principal Works

The Masque of Judgment (drama) 1900

Poems (poetry) 1901; republished as Gloucester Moors, and Other Poems, 1909

A History of English Literature, [with Robert Morss Lovett] (criticism) 1902

The Fire-Bringer (drama) 1904

A First View of English Literature (criticism) 1905

A Sabine Woman (drama) 1906; revised as The Great Divide, 1909

The Faith Healer (drama) 1909; revised edition, 1910

The Poems and Plays of William Vaughn Moody, 2 vols. (poetry and drama) 1912

Some Letters of William Vaughn Moody (letters) 1913

Selected Poems of William Vaughn Moody (poetry) 1931

Letters to Harriet (letters) 1935


William Morton Payne (essay date 1901)

SOURCE: “The Poetry of Mr. Moody,” in The Dial, Vol. XXX, No. 359, June 1, 1901, pp. 365-9.

[In the following favorable review, Payne discusses style, form, theme, and mood in The Masque of Judgmentand Poems.]

Every two or three years, from some quarter of the critical horizon, there issue trumpetings of praise which herald the advent of a new singer of songs. A bright star has swum into the ken of some watcher upon the battlements, and the discovery is proclaimed to the world with much pomp of rhetorical eulogy. The number of new poets who have thus been discovered during the past quarter-century is considerable, but most of them have shared the fate of the...

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Francis Thompson (essay date 1902)

SOURCE: “Promise,” in The Real Robert Louis Stevenson and Other Critical Essays by Francis Thompson, edited by Rev. Terence L. Connolly, University Publishers Incorporated, 1959, pp. 187-9.

[In the following essay, which was originally published in 1902, Thompson praises emotion and imagination in Poems.]

[Poems, by William Vaughn Moody], is an American book; but whether “Vaughn” be an American spelling of our English name, or a specimen of the American printer at his own sweet will, this reviewer saith not. We love not modern American verse, which is for the most part very respectable magazine-stuff, and no more. There are exceptions, of course; and the...

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John Corbin (essay date 1906)

SOURCE: “Moody's ‘The Great Divide’,” in The American Theatre as Seen by Its Critics, 1752-1934, edited by Montrose J. Moses and John Mason Brown, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1934 pp. 176-8.

[In the following essay, which was originally published in The New York Sun in 1906, Corbin offers a favorable assessment of The Great Divide.]

Mr. William Vaughn Moody's new American drama, The Great Divide, which Henry Miller and Margaret Anglin presented last night at the Princess, is so bold and vital in theme, so subtly veracious and unaffectedly strong in the writing, that it is very hard in the few moments left by a tardy if excellent performance...

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Nash O. Barr and Charles H. Caffin (essay date 1911)

SOURCE: “William Vaughn Moody: A Study,” in The Drama: A Quarterly Review of Dramatic Literature, No. 2, May, 1911, pp. 177-211.

[In the following essay, Barr and Caffin examine Moody's dramatic poems.]


William Vaughn Moody's journalistic eulogy has been intoned as a De Profundis from ocean to ocean, and echoes have reached the gulf, and doubtless the polar pack-ice affecting the barometric pressure and the boreal dawn. The product of our much derided Hoosierdom as to birth and early education, he received that academic baptism entitling him to serious poet-hood in New England's most sacred minster...

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Harriet Monroe (essay date 1912)

SOURCE: “Moody's Poems,” in Poetry, Vol. 1, No. 2, November, 1912, pp. 54-7.

[In the following essay, Monroe sketches Moody's development as a poet, finding he had reached maturity at the time of his death.]

The Poems and Plays of William Vaughn Moody will soon be published in two volumes by the Houghton-Mifflin Co. Our present interest is in the volume of poems, which are themselves an absorbing drama. Moody had a slowly maturing mind; the vague vastness of his young dreams yielded slowly to a man's more definite vision of the spiritual magnificence of life. When he died at two-score years, he was just beginning to think his problem through, to reconcile,...

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John M. Manly (essay date 1912)

SOURCE: An introduction in The Poems and Plays of William Vaughn Moody, Volume I, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1912, pp. vii-xlvi.

[In the following essay, Manly offers a biographical and critical overview of Moody's career as a poet and dramatist.]

Not merely because William Vaughn Moody was my colleague and my friend do I wish to speak of him, but because I feel that the poetry he left us is of unique and permanent value to us all, and believe that it was growing in depth, in sweetness, and in strength when the darkness descended so tragically upon him. The beauty of poetry as little needs the aid of argument as does that of a rose, and Moody's poetry is here to...

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Charlton M. Lewis (essay date 1913)

SOURCE: “William Vaughn Moody,” in The Yale Review, Vol. 2, No. 7, 1913, pp. 688-703.

[In the following essay, Lewis identifies Moody with the Symbolist movement.]

One of the great poets of our day died in 1910. He had created no public furor, but his power had been deeply felt by many; and to them his untimely death was a disaster. The recent publication of his collected works has reawakened their enthusiasm, for some of his best poetry is posthumous; and a wider appreciation of his genius is sure to come soon.

One's first impression of Moody is that he was a Symbolist—that his poetry marks the high-water level of the Symbolist movement. But...

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Daniel Gregory Mason (essay date 1913)

SOURCE: An introduction in Some Letters of William Vaughn Moody, edited by Daniel Gregory Mason, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1913, pp. v-xxviii.

[In the following essay, Mason discusses what Moody's letters reveal about his personality and development as an artist.]

“He liberates the imagination with his prose,” wrote one of Moody's friends when the project of collecting some of the letters was being discussed, “as effectively as he does with his poetry. And then besides there is the luminous personality which emerges from every folded sheet, looking out with large veiled eyes.” The comment happily describes the double interest of these letters [in Some...

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Joyce Kilmer (essay date 1916)

SOURCE: “William Vaughn Moody (1869-1910),” in The Circus and Other Essays and Fugitive Pieces, edited by Robert Cortes Holliday, George H. Doran Company, 1921, pp. 302-11.

[In the following essay, which was originally published in 1916, Kilmer discusses technical strengths and weaknesses of Moody's poetry, key events in his life, and major influences on his development.]

William Vaughn Moody was throughout his life regarded as the most promising of the younger American poets. And when he died in 1910 most critics mourned for the unwritten lyrics and poetic dramas of which American literature had thus been robbed; they mentioned the author as a gifted youth, whom...

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Martha Hale Shackford (essay date 1918)

SOURCE: “Moody's ‘The Fire Bringer’ For To-Day,” in The Sewanee Review, Vol. 26, October, 1918, pp. 407-16.

[In the following essay, Shackford considers the spiritual relevance of The Fire Bringer to audiences coping with the trauma of World War I.]

In the midst of the catastrophe of the war we look to our poets for help in interpreting the mystery of human experience. We seek the guidance of their ideals, the inspiration to be won from the vision of those who see a meaning beyond the chaos and suffering and brutality of the present. But when we look about for an American poet able to divine our special needs we look almost in vain. Few of our poets have...

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F. O. Matthiessen (essay date 1931)

SOURCE: A review of Selected Poems of William Vaughn Moody, in The New England Quarterly, Vol. 4, October, 1931, pp. 797-801.

[In the following essay, Matthiessen discusses the scope of Moody's ideas and the manner of their presentation in Selected Poems of William Vaughn Moody.]

William Vaughn Moody has been unusually fortunate in the tributes paid him by his friends. John M. Manly was the editor of his collected works; Daniel Gregory Mason brought out his letters; and now, after twenty years have elapsed since the poet's death, Robert Morss Lovett, a contemporary of Moody's both at Harvard and later on the teaching staff at Chicago, has added his long essay of...

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Robert Morss Lovett (essay date 1931)

SOURCE: An introduction in Selected Poems of William Vaughn Moody, edited by Robert Morss Lovett, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1931, pp. ix-xcii.

[In the following essay, Lovett ranges over such biographical subjects as Moody's family background, education, teaching career, and travel, and offers a critical overview of his poetry.]


William Vaughn Moody was born at Spencer, Indiana, July 8, 1869. His father, Francis Burdette Moody, with two brothers, Norman and Gideon, had moved from Central New York about 1852. Norman, a lawyer, settled in Illinois. Gideon, also trained for the law, went to South Dakota, whence he was sent to the United States...

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David D. Henry (essay date 1934)

SOURCE: “The Poetic Drama,” in William Vaughn Moody: A Study, Bruce Humphries, Inc., Publishers, 1934, pp. 111-40.

[In the following essay, Henry discusses unifying subjects, themes, and techniques in Moody's trilogy of poetic dramas.]

Uriel, you that in the ageless sun
Sit in the awful silences of light,
Singing of vision hid from human sight,—
Prometheus, beautiful rebellious one!
And you, Deucalion,
For whose blind seed was brought the illuming spark,
Are you not gathered, now his day is done,
Beside the brink of that relentless dark—
The dark where your dear singer's ghost is gone?(1)

A purely objective estimate of Moody's trilogy of poetic...

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Mark Van Doren (essay date 1935)

SOURCE: “A Dedicated Man,” in The Private Reader: Selected Articles & Reviews, Kraus Reprint Co., 1968, pp. 225-28.

[In the following essay, which was originally published in 1935, Van Doren discusses the relation of Moody's letters to his poetry, judging the letters superior.]

As editor of these letters [Letters to Harriet] Mr. MacKaye makes them tell a story which they were not written to tell, and which, in so far as they do tell it, is a less interesting story than Mr. MacKaye believes. It is the story of several persons who during the first decade of the present century set out self-consciously to produce an American poetic drama: to arrive at...

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George Arms (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: “The Poet as Theme Reader: William Vaughn Moody, a Student, and Louisa May Alcott,” in Toward a New American Literary History: Essays in Honor of Arlin Turner, edited by Louis J. Budd, Edwin H. Cady, and Carl H. Anderson, Duke University Press, 1980, pp. 140-53.

[In the following essay, Arms examines Moody's comments on student papers he corrected while teaching English at Harvard.]

For English 22 at Radcliffe, William Vaughn Moody wrote this comment on a first fortnightly theme, a reminiscence by a student who had read Little Women and later met its author:

A charming theme, both in spirit and treatment. It has...

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Further Reading


Brown, Maurice F. Estranging Dawn: The Life and Works of William Vaughn Moody. Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1973, 321 p.

Describes Moody as “a talented and intelligent poet and dramatist, caught between the gestures of a dying nineteenth-century tradition and the emerging demands of twentieth-century experience” and assesses Moody's relevance to late twentieth-century readers.


Bush, Douglas. “American Poets.” In his Mythology and the Romantic Tradition in English Poetry, pp. 481-525. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1969.


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