African American Poetry (1870-1928): A Digital Anthology

Robert Kerlin, Chapter 2.4. William Stanley Braithwaite

IV. William Stanley Braithwaite_

The critical and the creative faculties rarely dwell together in
harmony. One or the other finally predominates. In the case of Mr.
Braithwaite it seems to be the critical faculty. He has preferred, it
seems, to be America’s chief anthologist, encouraging others up rugged
Parnassus, rather than himself to stand on the heights of song. Since
1913 he has edited a series of annual anthologies of American magazine
verse, which he has provided with critical reviews of the verse output
of the respective year. Of several anthologies of English verse also he
is the editor. Three books of original verse stand to his credit:
_Lyrics of Life and Love_ (1904), _The House of Falling Leaves_ (1908),
and _Sandy Star and Willie Gee_ (1922). These dates seem to prove that
the creative impulse has waned.

Verse artistry, in simple forms, reaches a degree of excellence in Mr.
Braithwaite’s lyrics that has rarely been surpassed in our times.
Graceful and esthetically satisfying expression is given to elusive or
mystical and rare fancies. I will give one of his brief lyrics as an
example of the qualities to which I allude:


    No more from out the sunset,
      No more across the foam,
    No more across the windy hills
      Will Sandy Star come home.

    He went away to search it,
      With a curse upon his tongue,
    And in his hands the staff of life
      Made music as it swung.

    I wonder if he found it,
      And knows the mystery now:
    Our Sandy Star who went away
      With the secret on his brow.

In a number of Mr. Braithwaite’s lyrics, as in this one, there is an
atmosphere of mystery that, with the charming simplicity of manner,
strongly suggests Blake. There is a strangeness in all beauty, it has
been said. There is commonly something of Faƫryland in the finest lyric
poetry. Another lyric illustrating this quality in Mr. Braithwaite is
the following:


    It’s a long way the sea-winds blow
      Over the sea-plains blue,--
    But longer far has my heart to go
      Before its dreams come true.

    It’s work we must, and love we must,
      And do the best we may,
    And take the hope of dreams in trust
      To keep us day by day.

    It’s a long way the sea-winds blow--
      But somewhere lies a shore--
    Thus down the tide of Time shall flow
      My dreams forevermore.

Mr. Braithwaite’s art rises above race. He seems not to be
race-conscious in his writing, whether prose or verse. Yet no man can
say but that race has given his poetry the distinctive quality I have
indicated. In this connection a most interesting poem is his “A New
England Spinster.” The detachment is perfect, the analysis is done in
the spirit of absolute art. I will quote but two of its dozen or so

    She dwells alone, and never heeds
      How strange may sound her own footfall,
    And yet is prompt to others’ needs,
      Or ready at a neighbor’s call.

    But still her world is one apart,
      Serene above desire and change;
    There are no hills beyond her heart,
      Beyond her gate, no winds that range.

Here is the true artist’s imagination that penetrates to the secrets of
life. No poet’s lyrics, with their deceptive simplicity, better reward
study for a full appreciation of their idea. So much of suggestion to
the reader of the poems which follow:


    Blest be Foscati! You’ve heard tell
      How--spirit and flesh of him--blown to flame,
    Leaped the stars for heaven, dropped back to hell,
      And felt no shame.

    I here indite this record of his journey:
      The splendor of his epical will to perform
    Life’s best, with the lance of Truth at Tourney--
      Till caught in the storm.

    Of a woman’s face and hair like scented clover,
      Te Deums, Lauds, and Magnificat, he
    Praised with tongue of saint, heart of lover--
      Missed all, but found Foscati!


    The warm October rain fell upon his dream,
      When once again the autumn sadness stirred,
    And murmured through his blood, like a hidden stream
      In a forest, unheard.

    The drowsy rain battered against his delight
      Of the half forgotten poignancies,
    That settle in the dusk of an autumn night
      On a world one hears and sees.

    One was, he thought, an echo merely,
      A glow enshadowed of truths untraced;
    But the autumn sadness, brought him yearly,
      Was a joy embraced.


    The way folks had of thanking God
      He found annoying, till he thought
    Of flame and coolness in the sod--
      Of balms and blessings that they wrought.

    And so the habit grew, and then--
      Of when and how he did not care--
    He found his God as other men
      The mystic verb in a grammar of prayer.

    He never knelt, nor uttered words--
      His laughter felt no chastening rod;
    “My being,” he said, “is a choir of birds,
      And all my senses are thanking God.”

Mr. Braithwaite is thoroughly conversant, as these selections indicate,
with the subtleties and finest effects of the art poetic, and his
impulses to write spring from the deepest human speculations, the purest
motives of art. Hence in his work he takes his place among the few.

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