Preface to White Fire by John Ravenor Bullen

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Szerző: Howard Phillips Lovecraft • Év: 1927

What truly constitutes a poet it is very hard to say. Nowadays, when intellect elbows for more than its allotted space in the aesthetic field, we are prone to analyse profoundly, seek for fundamentals, and discourse sagely of the unique insight, individual point of view, and personally selective imagination of the essential bard. We affect to demand that he see nothing undivested of its traditional associations, and that he present to us only the nuclear, isolated, and austerely unadorned imaginative content of his random reactions to experience and emotion. The result is a jarring jumble of academic schools, each based upon sterile theory rather than artistic feeling, which favour us with carefully roiled chaoticisms of varying cast; from the chromatic sensation-vortices of the imagists to the frozen mental detritus of Mr. T. S. Eliot and his followers. Amidst this welter of scientific psychology the art impulse is expected to survive as best it may; and too often its absence is pardoned out of deference to a theoretical form which current yardsticks coolly measure and pronounce real poetry on strictly philosophical grounds.

The late John Ravenor Bullen, in the profusion of delightful lyric poetry on which his increasing literary recognition was founded, wholly repudiated the bondage of contemporary theory and was the more genuine artist thereby. Acknowledging the debt owed by all present beauty to the generations of inherited impressions whence springs its existing relation to human emotion, he was too wise to discard the music, rhythms, symmetries, aspects of vision, and turns of thought and phrase with which spontaneous aesthetic feeling has coloured its expression down the long ages that Nature has forced it to find an outlet. Sensitive to the equal artistic significance of moods and matter, dreams and diurnalities, the fata morgana and facts, he did not neglect to treasure that rare quality of glamour which, scorned though it is by realists, yet embodies perhaps the better part of all the loveliness we know in the illusory comedy of appearances called life. A sound instinct kept him closely within the main line of the great English tradition, thus fitting him for the harmonious reflection of those fancies, conceptions, and perspectives which with us must always be strongest because they are the simple aggregate and heritage of a thousand years of our continuous racial and cultural experience.

Mr. Bullen’s particular secret as a poet lay, apart from his keen visual imagination and the natural sense of sound which gave melody and limpidity to all his lines and set him unerringly on the trail of the perfectly symphonic word, in the fact that he has preserved his golden illusions and faculty of wonder and values in life. For him the zest and dewiness of the May morning have never departed, and amidst our prevailing desert of cynical sophistication he is able to feel that thrill of pleasure, novelty, and ecstasy in the daily round of terrestrial phenomena which animated the freshly vigorous bards of a brighter time. That thrill alone, so difficult of achievement today, is the one ultimate determinant of the true poet. It is the quality of youth—a youth with Endymion-like independence of chronology—which with a magic quite distinct from anything else we know has the unshared power of animating with grace, marvellousness, and the aspect of significance a world and universe visible to the modern prose mind only as a dull, purposeless, and unsatisfying cycle of electronic, atomic, and molecular rearrangements.

Keeping these sources of inspiration in mind, it is interesting to speculate on the precise methods whereby Mr. Bullen secured his felicitous effects. That simplicity was a strong factor is at once obvious; for no one can fail to note how carefully the snares of linguistic complexity, impressionistic chaos, and intellectual involution have been avoided. The author was determined that his pictures stand out in a clear, full light; and that not a particle of their final effect be sacrificed through useless diversions of the reader’s vision and attention. Moreover, so skilfully did he manage this point, that there is no outward appearance of strained simplification; no artificial naiveté, no affectedly primerish gestures, and none of the slashing contempt for finenesses and subtleties which marks many writers’ efforts at directness. The language is the language of civilised society, with no lack of the colour, richness, and variety necessary to full and flexible utterance; but it is not cast in riddles for riddles’ sake, or tortured into meaningless attempts to express the inexpressible—which latter, despite the celebrated Gallic dictum, cannot be considered as wholly banished from life and thought. When ecstasy is demanded, it is created not by a lapse into exclamatory incoherence but by choice of precisely the most graphic and forcible words, all used in normal fashion; for to a connoisseur and colourist like Mr. Bullen, there are enough vivid vocables at command to obviate all need for extravagant distortions. In most cases, the favoured words are the common, beloved ones, to which tradition has bequeathed its mellowest and most enduring overtones; but when the exotic or the unusual was demanded, the poet was not slow to rise to the occasion.

Another source of Mr. Bullen’s wide appeal is the quality of universality; whereby he tended to touch upon those moods and sentiments which are shared by all the race, rather than harp as most lyrists do upon the subjective emotional phenomena peculiar to themselves. This is, indeed, the authentic attitude of classicism; and is powerful in our poet’s work because it was absolutely genuine with him. It here figures as no mere theory or result of conscious straining, but as the natural product of an imagination attuned to the universal emotions. With Mr. Bullen it was this general body of sentiment which possessed the prime elements of glamour, witchery, and loveliness; and because his response to its stimulus was absolutely sincere, he was able to reflect it with all the splendours he himself found twined about it, achieving just as poignant results as does the more personal poet with his highly individualised reactions. Here, indeed, we have an illuminatingly definite proof of the fact that real poetry springs not from any fine-wrought formula or choice of theme, but purely and exclusively from the degree of wonder and ecstasy in the poet’s mind, irrespective of subject or type of medium.

Mr. Bullen’s general attitude toward life and the universe was one of optimistic acceptance, achieved through a preoccupation with the beauties of orthodox tradition which prevented more than a fleeting glimpse of the stern scientific background. Only once—in the haunting and alluringly Poe-like song called “The Music of the Spheres”—did this defensive armour threaten to give way and admit the despair or resignation of the philosophic modern; for the most part the poet was genuinely able to retain the point of view of the great Victorians, to whose style he was so unmistakably an heir. It is not, of course, to be imagined for a moment that Mr. Bullen’s orthodoxy led him into absurdities and insipidities. Working within a cosmos mapped out by the dreams of generations, he displayed a flawless psychological consistency, and ran the gamut of the more beautiful moods and emotions without discords or extravagances. To Tennyson he was probably most keenly indebted for his outlook and method, and he surely formed a disciple in whom the famous nineteenth-century laureate might justly take pride. Here and there a trace of gentle wistfulness crops out to lend a delicate minor note to the symphony, but in the main there predominates an intense delight in present loveliness and in visions of a rosily imagined futurity which gives the work its characteristic tone. The sometimes wearying didacticism of the nineteenth century is not often found in Mr. Bullen’s verse. When a moral does appear, it is urbanely insinuated rather than hammered in; and for the most part the author was content to let his images speak for themselves in beauty, the reader to draw whatever lesson—if any—he might feel prompted to draw.

If any fault be discernible in Mr. Bullen’s writing, it is a slight tendency to overwork those archaic forms which Pre-Raphaelitism restored to English verse for a season, but at which a more classical taste is again beginning to look at least questioningly. It would, of course, be hyper-critical to deny any authentic poet of the Victorian tradition an occasional ere, nay, ‘tis, doth, thou, hath, or expletive do or did; but one may pardonably pause before recommending these forms for constant employment. This applies likewise to the inversions and characteristically crystallised words and phrases which Mr. Bullen sometimes used—poetic licences like recollections fond; throng, whom restlessly I seek among; bubbling swift their course along; who sanction lent, and so on; stock expressions like merry month of May, sun-caressed, feathered songsters, bitter sacrifice, white-plumed, Dame Nature, merry pipes of Pan, and the like; and single words like entrancing, which excessive and inappropriate popular usage has unfortunately stripped of their pristine freshness and value. All these, however, are merely tendencies against which the author usually succeeded in guarding himself; as are the infrequent rusty patches in the metre, and the very rare rhymes which might not win the entire endorsement of Walker’s celebrated dictionary. They do not hamper the flow of song and imagery, nor could they ever have suggested any further admonition to the poet than that he exercise at all times that perfect—though to him perhaps fatiguing—fastidiousness which appears in his technical masterpieces.

Mr. Bullen’s work seems divisible into seven major classes, each ably and appropriately handled. There is, to begin with, the purely lyrical response to Nature’s sheer beauty, opulently displayed in such tuneful shouts as “The Copse” or such irradiate musings as “Evening at the Lakeside”, and forming to the present editor’s mind the finest flowering of our author’s genius. One might consume columns in listing the choice titles which fall under this head, so that we may here do no more than recall a few salient triumphs like the aforementioned two, the perfumed magic of “My Garden”, the quaint piquancy of “Where Mayflies Dance”, the impressive majesty of “The Storm”, the vivid breathlessness of “The Seagull”, and the early poems—less assured, perhaps, yet full of golden radiance—“A Country Lane” and “In the Woods”. In all these verses the glamour and ecstasy are secured in the simplest possible way, yet are of the utmost poignancy be, cause of the poet’s sharp visual imagination and effective command of words.

A second division of Mr. Bullen’s work is closely allied to the first, and identical with it so far as most of the imagery is concerned. This is the nature-poetry in which a philosophical strain is embodied, but in which the elements of colour and atmosphere always predominate over the superimposed idea. Excellent instances of this class are afforded by “Thy Perfect Peace”, “Far-Distant Bells”, “Hope”, and above all by that magnificently elfin masterpiece “The Music of the Spheres”, which in the opinion of at least one critic forms the absolute high-water mark of its author’s talent.

A third type of Bullen verse is the frankly philosophical, with ideas straightforwardly presented, and having only as much of imagery as is necessary to the graphic and graceful illustration of those ideas. This is a sort of poetry which can easily become barren and prosy in the hands of an inexperienced bard; but Mr. Bullen generally managed to ward off the daemon Dulness and to display in even the most homiletic of his lines a mastery of form and development whose architectural quality makes it art in spite of its subject-matter. “Meredith was a prose Browning,” wrote Oscar Wilde, “and so was Browning.” Mr. Bullen had obviously read the great nineteenth-century verse-psychologist well, but was far too astute to follow him into the dreariest mazes of his rugged aridity and prosaic perversity. Of our author’s didactic pieces, one might prominently mention “My Creed”, “God’s Answer”, and best of all, the sonnet entitled “God”.

As a “fourthly” we may cite a large body of amatory verse extending over a long period of time and containing some marvellously moving touches of human feeling. Less distinctive perhaps than other phases of Mr. Bullen’s Muse, it nevertheless has a rare stamp of intensity and sincerity; and not infrequently an almost Elizabethan tinge of balladry. Notable in this field are “Love’s Anguish”, “The Quest”, and “Pluck One Rose and Give to Me”.

A fifth though by not means numerous class includes Mr. Bullen’s war verse, which contains the same lyric fire that animates the love-poetry, and which reaches its apex in brief utterances like “‘Reported Missing’”. Still slenderer, and unrepresented in the present collection, is the sixth category of vers de société, which finds exemplification in a number of clever acrostics and breezy metrical sallies. Seventh and last, also unrepresented here, comes the bulk of Mr. Bullen’s humorous productions, mostly in the dialect of the Canadian oil fields which he knew so well. Here we find exhibited an astonishing versatility; for if in his serious poetry our author shared the delicacy of a Tennyson, he was in his comic efforts proportionately well endowed with the kindly grotesquerie and robust whimsicality of a Dickens. His humour was genuinely unforced, and often almost rollicking; friendly in essence, and virtually untouched by satire or irony. It was, in short, the characteristic “healthy” humour of the nineteenth century; its chief fault—when faulty at all—being a sort of picturesque extravagance to which the greatest of the Victorian jesters were equally prone.

The general recognition of Mr. Bullen’s poetic ability has been gradual but gratifyingly steady. He was a constant victor in every kind of literary contest, winning notable awards in the Philadelphia Society of Arts and Letters, the American Poetry Association, the United and National Amateur Press Associations, and the Quill Club of London, of which latter he was for years the American representative. He has to his credit lines and passages that ought never to be forgotten, and had he lived longer we might have expected a mellowing and technical perfection well calculated to seat him among the actual leaders of his craft. In the merit of his work we may see a renewed demonstration of the soundness of conservative fundamentals, and of the basic truth that art’s secret lies not in theme or medium, but in the artist’s degree of genuinely glamorous or ecstatic vision, whatever be its mood or direction. Clear, unaffected, and rich without eccentricity, Mr. Bullen’s best poetry might profitably be taken as a text by the striver against contemporary faddism. He has shewn us by example that wonder is not confined to the uniquely perverted, or true aesthetic feeling to the hectically distorted.

John Ravenor Bullen, born in 1886 as the eldest son of Mr. and Mrs. N. R. H. Bullen, was reared in a delectably embowered ancestral home of Jacobean construction in Bampton, Oxfordshire, England; a seat and garden of beauty which he has potently described in many of his verses and in the languorous prose-poem “Ronevar’s Cottage”. His first poetry, written in schooldays, shews many signs of the qualities which were later to distinguish it. In early manhood he migrated with his family to Petrolea, in the oil districts of Western Ontario, where he held forth as a cultural pioneer, with increasing interests in the literary activity of North America. He was a lifelong sufferer from ill-health, a circumstance which he valiantly bore and minimised amidst a plenitude of intellectual and aesthetic labours and a judicious series of travels in the wilder parts of Southern Canada. A prose writer as well as a poet, he was the author of many acute criticisms and of at least one unpublished novel, a refreshing romance of old seaways and pirate treasure entitled “From the Mouth of the Golden Toad”. The present volume, with its Shelleyan title,’ was long planned by Mr. Bullen himself; posthumous editing being confined to minor matters of arrangement wholly in consonance with the author’s known intention.

On February 28, 1927, Mr. Bullen succumbed to a long siege of endocarditis following a severe attack of grippe. His courage and spirits were always unbroken, and his mother has found in this sonnet an almost perfect expression of the high heart which would wish no shadows even at the last:

 

“When I am dead chant no sad songs for me,
And let no funeral dirge disturb the air.
Oh, let there be no blackness of despair,
Or aught that makes my faith a mockery.
I, who have loved evenings on land and sea,
That evening when I pass from Here to There,
Would have my going gladsome—free from care—
I, who so fondly love this earth and thee!
So think upon our dear ecstatic hours,
Of books we’ve loved, and thoughts we’ve pondered o’er,
And let each thought a sense of nearness bring;
For, while my earthly form lies mute ‘mid flowers,
My soul, still loving thee, shall, singing, soar
On wings of joy into Eternal Spring.”

 

The poet rests now under a white marble cross, on which is carved that supreme utterance of his well-loved brother-singer Rupert Brooke; expressing what they both felt for the mighty, ancient, and beautiful land of their birth and deepest dreams:

 

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever ENGLAND.

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