Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Wyeth the aesthete

Edmund Wilson referred to fellow Princetonian John Allan Wyeth as "the only aesthete in the Class of 1915", a comment for which we have had very little context, knowing nothing of Wyeth's poetic composition prior to This Man's Army.

However, this evening I received a message from Roger Allen, alerting me to a poem, "The Song of the Wind", published by Wyeth in the periodical The Forum in 1914, during Wyeth's penultimate year at Princeton, and it is now easy to see what Wilson meant, as the poem could fairly be described as an example of pure 1890s Aestheticism.

If there is any link between the dreamy ennui of "The Song of the Wind" and the crisp precision of his later war sonnets, it is in Wyeth's interest in metrical innovation, already present in this early poem, and in the relation between a word's sound and its meaning, which he explores here, and will later exploit with great effect in the sonnets.

My thanks to Mr. Allen for his excellent detective work and for his consideration in bringing this poem to my attention. In the pre-Web years when I was first researching Wyeth, I made a thorough search of the Index to Periodical Literature from about 1910 on for anything he might have published, but I completely missed this poem. 

               The Song of the Wind           

           I love to dream in the sun,
            Here where the fields are still
            With the silence of life,
            Here where the fields are still
            With the beauty of life . . .
     And the flowers dream in the sun,
And the river, half asleep, and the dream of the river is mine.
     The dreams of the flowers are mine
            And we are one . . .

            But I tire, soon, and I long
            To trouble the rest of all . . .
            And the river stirs at my call
            And the flowers tremble and sway
            And the leaves have begun their song . . .

            But I have lost my dream.
            And search as I may
            It angers me that in vain
            I search for a thing that is lost . . .
            It angers me that in vain
            The fallen leaves are tossed.
            That I plunge my hands in the grass;
            That I turn and. turn as I pass.
            With ever a sidelong glance
                        Over the field . . .

            There shall I find my dream.
                        Where the willows shield
            The hidden breast of the stream.
                        And the sly reeds dance . . .
                                    But in vain
I search in the mantle of leaves where the sunlight slants,
            And down in the reeds that strain
At my touch, and down in the water that clouds like a shattered glass,
                        And is veiled as I pass . . .

            Here shall I find, where the shade
                                    Of the forest lies
            Deep on the green below.
            Where the spring comes down through the glade
                                    With its murmuring flow . . .
                        And it angers me that in vain
                        I seek in the forest land.
                        That all things shrink from my hand.
                        That the peace of the forest dies . . .

            Or shall I find, where the walls
                        Of the garden stand.
Here where the wild thorn grows and the dead leaf falls.
And the broken step leads down to the hidden path?
                        But the gray weeds cringe at my wrath
            And it angers me that in vain
            I search for a thing that is lost . . .

                        What of this thing that is lost?

                                    I wander here
            In the shadow of night that smothers the dreary moor,
By the lonely marsh where the water strangles the land.
            And down where the dead things stand in the mere . . .
                        But I am not sure
Of the dream I seek, and I wander here in the dark and the rain
                        like one that is blind,
            Forgetting the thing I seek, that I cannot find , . .


  1. More of Wyeth's juvenilia here: http://archive.org/stream/confederateveter16conf#page/618/mode/2up/search/wyeth

    I'll carry on looking...

  2. Can't find anything about the play or more details. However, the Confederate Veteran archives I used aren't complete- there could be a memoir of John Allan Wyeth Sr. there. Wyeth's brother, Marion Sims Wyeth, was a distinguished architect and his nephew, also Marion Sims Wyeth, who died last year, was a distinguished editor for Harper Collins.