by NONA BLYTH CLOUD
92 years is a good long life. Louis Untermeyer (1885-1977) began life in the Victorian Age, and lived through three-quarters of the 20th century.
Theodore Roosevelt published Hunting Trips of a Ranchman the year Untermeyer was born. He was 15 years old when Queen Victoria died, and President McKinley was assassinated the month before he turned 16.
He lived through two World Wars, the Great Depression, the inventions of electric light, the telephone, radio and television, automobiles, airplanes, the atom bomb, and the heady pioneering days of space travel. Medicine and Science progressed by leaps and bounds. The world also began groaning under the weight of an exploding human population, and the devastating side effects that are the unplanned-for price of all that progress.
In the midst of civilization’s constant change, Louis Untermeyer switched careers to become a one-man army advocating for poetry. There have been over 100 titles published that bear his name, some as the author and many as editor, compiler or translator.
His mother often read aloud to him, encouraging him to read and write at an early age. But he was also introduced to music as a child, and grew up wanting to be a concert pianist and composer.
It was not to be. His schooling was cut short just before high school graduation, and he went to work in his father’s jewelry business in 1903. (In 1965, he finally did get a high school diploma.) At age 22, he married Jean Starr, the first of his four wives.
Even while he worked in the family business, Untermeyer was still writing poetry. In 1911, he self-published a book of poems, First Love, and a book of poetic parodies, showing off both the serious and the punny side of his nature. He was also writing for left-wing and labor movement publications like The Masses.
In 1914, he published his second book, a collection of protest poems called Challenge, which, with his writings for socialist and communist publications, would bring him in the 1950s to the attention of the House Committee on Un-American Activities.
The quiet and courageous night,
The keen vibration of the stars,
Call me, from morbid peace, to fight
The world’s forlorn and desperate wars.
The air throbs like a rolling drum
The brave hills and the singing sea,
Unrest and people’s faces come
Like battle-trumpets, rousing me.
And while Life’s lusty banner flies,
I shall assail, with raging mirth,
The scornful and untroubled skies,
The cold complacency of earth.
LINES TO A POMERANIAN PUPPY VALUED AT $3,500
Often as I strain and stew,
. . Digging in these dirty ditches,
I have dared to think of you—
. . You and all your riches.
Lackeys help you on and off;
. . And the bed is silk you lie in;
You have doctors when you cough,
. . Priests when you are dying
Wrapt in soft and costly furs,
. . All sewed up with careful stitches,
You consort with proper curs
. . And with perfumed bitches . . .
You don’t sweat to struggle free,
. . Work in rags and rotting breeches—
Puppy, have a laugh at me
. . Digging in the ditches!
PORTRAIT OF A MACHINE
What nudity as beautiful as this
Obedient monster purring at its toil;
These naked iron muscles dripping oil
And the sure-fingered rods that never miss.
This long and shining flank of metal is
Magic that greasy labour cannot spoil;
While this vast engine that could rend the soil
Conceals its fury with a gentle hiss.
It does not vent its loathing, it does not turn
Upon its makers with destroying hate.
It bears a deeper malice; lives to earn
Its masters bread and laughs to see this great
Lord of the earth, who rules but cannot learn,
Become the slave of what his slaves create.
In Koheleth, the Hebrew name for the book of Ecclesiastes, it is written: “To add to knowledge is to add to pain.” Koheleth is the gatherer, a prophet and teacher, who is the embodiment of wisdom.
I waited and worked
To win myself leisure,
Till loneliness irked
And I turned to raw pleasure.
I drank and I gamed,
I feasted and wasted,
Till, sick and ashamed,
The food stood untasted.
I searched in the Book
For rooted convictions,
Till the badgered brain shook
With its own contradictions.
Then, done with the speech,
Of the foolishly lettered,
I started to teach
Life cannot be bettered:
That the warrior fails
Whatever his weapon,
And nothing avails
While time and chance happen.
That fools who assure men
With lies are respected,
While the vision of pure men
Is scorned and rejected.
That a wise man goes grieving
Even in Zion,
While any dog living
Outroars a dead lion.
God, though this life is but a wraith,
Although we know not what we use,
Although we grope with little faith,
Give me the heart to fight—and lose.
Ever insurgent let me be,
Make me more daring than devout;
From sleek contentment keep me free,
And fill me with a buoyant doubt.
Open my eyes to visions girt
With beauty, and with wonder lit—
But always let me see the dirt,
And all that spawn and die in it.
Open my ears to music; let
Me thrill with Spring’s first flutes and drums—
But never let me dare forget
The bitter ballads of the slums.
From compromise and things half done,
Keep me with stern and stubborn pride;
And when at last the fight is won,
God, keep me still unsatisfied.
In 1916, Untermeyer was a co-founder of The Seven Arts, a poetry magazine that became noted for its discovery of talented new poets, including Robert Frost, who became his friend and correspondent for over 45 years. The literary world opened up for him, and he made other friends, including Arthur Miller and Ezra Pound.
He was opposed to America’s entry into World War I. This poem was written in 1917.
THE VICTORY OF THE BEET-FIELDS
Green miles of leafy peace are spread
Over these ranks, unseen and serried;
Screening the trenches with their dead
And living men already buried.
The rains beat down, the torrents flow
Into each cold and huddling cave;
And over them the beet-fields grow,
A fortress gentle as a grave.
“Morose, impatient, sick at heart,
With rasping nerves and twitching muscles,
We cannot even sleep; we start
With every twig that snaps or rustles.
Sought always by an unseen foe
Over our heads the bullets fly;
But more than these, we fear the snow,
The silent shrapnel of the sky.
“Yonder our colonel stalks and grieves,
Meeting the storm with thoughts more stormy;
But we, we sit and watch the leaves
Fall down, a torn and crumpled army.
We mourn for every leaf that lies,
As though it were a comrade slain;
Each was a shelter from the eyes
Of every prying aeroplane. . . ”
And in its cloudy uniform,
Stilling the cannon’s earthly thunder,
The huge artillery of the storm
Plows through the land and pulls it under.
The rain beats down, until the slow
And slipping earth resists no more. . .
And over them the beets will grow
Ranker and redder than before.
He began the editing work for which he would be most highly regarded, publishing his first anthology, Modern American Poetry in 1919, which went into a second edition by 1921, and was in a sixth edition by 1942. In 1920, he published Modern British Poetry, and This Singing World in 1923. Years later, he would tell journalist Martin Weil of the Washington Post that he was ‘a bone collector’ with ‘the mind of a magpie.’
“What most of us don’t realize is that everyone loves poetry,” Weil quoted him as saying, pointing out the rhymes on the once-ubiquitous Burma Shave road signs as an example.
He saw he could make a living doing what he loved. In 1923, Untermeyer resigned from the family jewelry business and gave all his attention to literary pursuits. He was still publishing his own poetry in the rest of the 1920s and into the 1930s, but the 1940s and 50s he was increasingly devoted to anthologies, books for children, biographies of literary figures and translations.
This was a difficult period in his personal life. His marriage ended in divorce in 1926, and Richard, his son with Jean, committed suicide at the age of 19 in 1927. He married poet Virginia Moore in 1927; their son, John Moore Untermeyer (1928), was renamed John Fitzallen Moore after a painful 1929 divorce. He and Jean Starr attempted to reunite after his divorce from Moore, but divorced for a second time in 1930s, so he could marry Esther Antin, but that marriage ended in divorce in 1945. His final marriage in 1948 was to Bryna Ivens, an editor of Seventeen magazine.
THE DARK CHAMBER
The brain forgets but the blood will remember.
There, when the play of sense is over,
The last, low spark in the darkest chamber
Will hold all there is of love and lover.
The war of words, the life-long quarrel
Of self against self will resolve into nothing;
Less than the chain of berry-red coral
Crying against the dead black of her clothing.
What has the brain that it hopes to last longer?
The blood will take from forgotten violence,
The groping, the break of her voice in anger.
There will be left only color and silence.
These will remain, these will go searching
Your veins for life when the flame of life smolders;
The night that you two saw the mountains marching
Up against dawn with the stars on their shoulders;
The jetting poplars’ arrested fountains
As you drew her under them, easing her pain;
The notes, not the words, of a half-finished sentence;
The music, the silence. . . . These will remain.
THE FLAMING CIRCLE
Though for fifteen years you have chaffed me across the table,
Slept in my arms and fingered my plunging heart,
I scarcely know you; we have not known each other.
For all the fierce and casual contacts, something keeps us apart.
Are you struggling, perhaps, in a world that I see only dimly,
Except as it sweeps toward the star on which I stand alone?
Are we swung like two planets, compelled in our separate orbits,
Yet held in a flaming circle far greater than our own?
Last night we were single, a radiant core of completion,
Surrounded by flames that embraced us but left no burns,
To-day we are only ourselves; we have plans and pretensions;
We move in dividing streets with our small and different concerns.
Merging and rending, we wait for the miracle. Meanwhile
The fire runs deeper, consuming these selves in its growth.
Can this be the mystical marriage–this clash and communion;
This pain of possession that frees and encircles us both?
I could not pity your pain but I pitied the branches
Losing what little the frost had left them to hold.
I could not warm you with sorrow; I turned to the sparrows,
Clustered like heavy brown blossoms puffed out by the cold.
They could not help me. I looked at my hands; they were helpless;
Strange and detached, less related to me than the birds.
Baffled, I called on the mind: it carried me, floundering,
Lost among meaningless phrases, tossed in a welter of words.
Too great for my blundering comfort, your anguish confused me.
From a great distance, I saw you standing alone.
Frozen and stark, in a black iron circle of silence,
I could not pity your pain; I could scarcely pity my own.
Is it a tribute or betrayal when,
Turning from all the sweet, accustomed ways,
I leave your lips and eyes to seek you in
Some other face?
Why am I searching after what I have?
And going far to find the near at hand?
I do not know. I only know I crave
To find you at the end.
I only know that love has many a hearth,
That hunger has an endless path to roam,
That beauty is the ghost that haunts the earth
And leads me home.
You have not conquered me—it is the surge
Of love itself that beats against my will;
It is the sting of conflict, the old urge
That calls me still.
It is not you I love—it is the form
And shadow of all lovers who have died
That gives you all the freshness of a warm
And unfamiliar bride.
It is your name I breathe, your hands I seek;
It will be you when you are gone.
And yet the dream, the name I never speak,
Is that that lures me on.
It is the golden summons, the bright wave
Of banners calling me anew;
It is all beauty, perilous and grave—
It is not you.
Strange, how this smooth and supple joint can be
Put to so many purposes. It checks
And rears the monsters of machinery
And shapes the idle gallantries of sex.
Those hands that light the fuse and dig the trap,
Fingers that spin the earth or plunge through shame—
And yours, that lie so lightly in your lap,
Are only blood and dust–all are the same.
What mastery directs them through the world
And gives these delicate bones so great a power? . . .
You drop your head. You sleep. Your hands are curled
Loosely, like some half-opened, perfumed flower.
An hour ago they burned in mine and sent
Armies with banners charging through my veins.
Now they are cool and white; they rest content,
Curved in a smile. The mystery remains.
THE NEW ADAM
Her body is that glorious gate
Opening on fresh and surging skies,
The door of flesh that holds a late
And larger Paradise.
Through this I plunge with hungry haste
Down the old garden, stock and root.
Nothing is barred; I touch and taste
Its unforbidden fruit.
The amorous jungle spreads its feasts,
The lion fawns about my knee;
A new strength dawns; and all the beasts
Are risen and contained in me.
Soft thunders gather as the glen
Unfolds the tree from which she shakes
Her heart for me—and once again
The wave of lightning breaks. . . .
Oh shut the gate! Let me be driven
Down the drab byways of the past.
What right have I in such a heaven
To whom earth clings so fast!
Untermeyer traveled, making the first visit to Europe with Jean — they lived for a time in Vienna.
He was one of the original panelists on the television quiz show What’s My Line?, but was blacklisted from television in 1951 after he was named during hearings of the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Bennett Cerf, who knew him, reluctantly took his place. Untermeyer plunged into a deep depression for a year. But in 1952, he put out Early American Poets, then kept working.
He and Bryna bought an old farm in Connecticut: “I live on an abandoned farm in Connecticut … ever since I found my native New York unlivable as well as unlovable…. On these green and sometimes arctic acres I cultivate whatever flowers insist on growing in spite of my neglect; delight in the accumulation of chickadees, juncos, cardinals, and the widest possible variety of songless sparrows; grow old along with three pampered cats and one spoiled cairn terrier; season my love of home with the spice of annual travel, chiefly to such musical centers as Vienna, Salzburg, Milan, and London; and am always happy to be home again.”
PRAYER FOR THIS HOUSE
MAY nothing evil cross this door,
And may ill-fortune never pry
About these windows; may the roar
And rains go by.
Strengthened by faith, the rafters will
Withstand the battering of the storm.
This hearth, though all the world grow chill,
Will keep you warm.
Peace shall walk softly through these rooms,
Touching your lips with holy wine,
Till every casual corner blooms
Into a shrine.
Laughter shall drown the raucous shout
And, though the sheltering walls are thin,
May they be strong to keep hate out
And hold love in.
We passed old farmer Boothby in the field.
Rugged and straight he stood; his body steeled
With stubbornness and age. We met his eyes
That never flinched or turned to compromise,
And “Luck,” he cried, “good luck!”—and waved an arm,
Knotted and sailor-like, such as no farm
In all of Maine could boast of ; and away
He turned again to pitch his new-cut hay . . .
We walked on leisurely until a bend
Showed him once more, now working toward the end
Of one great path; wearing his eighty years
Like banners lifted in a wind of cheers.
Then we turned off abruptly—took the road
Cutting the village, the one with the commanding
View of the river. And we strode
More briskly now to the long pier that showed
Where the frail boats were kept at Indian Landing.
In the canoe we stepped; our paddles dipped
Leisurely downwards, and the slim bark slipped
More on than in the water. Smoothly then
We shot its nose against the rippling current,
Feeling the rising river’s half-deterrent
Pull on the paddle as we turned the blade
To keep from swerving round; while we delayed
To watch the curious wave-eaten locks;
Or pass, with lazy turns, the picnic-rocks ….
Blue eels flew under us, and fishes darted
A thousand ways; the once broad channel shrunk.
And over us the wise and noble-hearted
Twilight leaned down; the sunset mists were parted,—
And we, with thoughts on tiptoe, slunk
Down the green, twisting alleys of the Kennebunk,
Motionless in the meadows
The trees, the rocks, the cows. . .
And quiet dripped from the shadows
Like rain from heavy boughs.
The tree-toads started ringing
Their ceaseless silver bells;
A land-locked breeze came swinging
Its censer of earthy smells.
The river’s tiny cañon
Stretched into dusky lands;
Like a dark and silent companion
Evening held out her hands.
Hushed were the dawn’s bravados;
Loud noon was a silenced cry—
And quiet slipped from the shadows
As stars slip out of the sky. . .
It must have been an hour more, or later,
When, tramping homeward through the piney wood,
We felt the years fly back; the brotherhood
Of forests took us—and we saw the satyr!
There in a pool, up to his neck, he stood
And grinned to see us stare, incredulous—
Too startled to remember fear or flight.
Feeling the menace in the crafty night,
We turned to run—when lo, he called to us!
Using our very names he called. We drew
With creaking courage down the avenue
Of birches till we saw, with clearing sight,
(No longer through a tricky, pale-green light)
Familiar turns and shrubs, the friendly path,—
And Farmer Boothby in his woodland bath!
The woods became his background; every tree
Seemed part of him, and stood erect, and shared
The beauty of that gnarled serenity;
The quiet vigor of age that smiled and squared
Its shoulders against Time . . . And even night
Flowed in and out of him, as though content
With such a native element;
Happy to move about a spirit quite
As old, as placid and as confident . . .
Sideways we turned. Still glistening and unclad
He leaped up on the bank, light as a lad,
His body in the moonlight dripping stars. . .
We went on homeward, through the pasture-bars.
In 1956 the Poetry Society of America awarded Untermeyer a Gold Medal. He also served as the Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 1961 until 1963.
Where, without bloodshed, can there be
A more relentless enmity
Than the long feud fought silently
Between man and the growing grass.
Man’s the aggressor, for he has
Weapons to humble and harass
The impudent spears that charge upon
His sacred privacy of lawn.
He mows them down, and they are gone
Only to lie in wait, although
He builds above and digs below
Where never a root would dare to go.
His are the triumphs till the day
There’s no more grass to cut away
And, weary of labor, weary of play,
Having exhausted every whim,
He stretches out each conquering limb.
And then the small grass covers him.
Louis Untermeyer died in Newtown, Connecticut, on December 18, 1977, at the age of 92, after a long, eventful life.
- The Younger Quire(parodies), Mood Publishing, 1911.
- First Love: A Lyric Sequence, Sherman, French & Co., 1911.
- Challenge, Century, 1914.
- These Times, Holt, 1917.
- Including Horace, Harcourt, 1919.
- The New Adam, Harcourt, 1920.
- Roast Leviathan, Harcourt, 1923, reprinted, Arno, 1975.
- (With son, Richard Untermeyer) Poems, privately printed, 1927.
- Burning Bush, Harcourt, 1928.
- Adirondack Cycle, Random House, 1929.
- Food and Drink, Harcourt, 1932.
- First Words before Spring, Knopf, 1933.
- Selected Poems and Parodies, Harcourt, 1935.
- For You with Love(juvenile), Golden Press, 1961.
- Long Feud: Selected Poems, Harcourt, 1962.
- One and One and One(juvenile), Crowell-Collier, 1962.
- This Is Your Day(juvenile), Golden Press, 1964.
- Labyrinth of Love, Simon & Schuster, 1965.
- Thanks: A Poem(juvenile), Odyssey, 1965.
- Thinking of You(juvenile), Golden Press, 1968.
- A Friend Indeed, Golden Press, 1968.
- You: A Poem, (juvenile), illustrations by Martha Alexander, Golden Press, 1969.
- From Another World(1935)
- American Poetry Since 1900(1923)
- The Forms Of Poetry(1926)
- Play in Poetry(1938)
- Doorways to Poetry(1938)
- The Lowest Form of Wit(1947)
- The Pursuit of Poetry(1969)
- The Poems of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow(1943)
- The Poetry and Prose of Walt Whitman(1949)
- The Letters of Robert Frost to Louis Untermeyer (1963)
- The Love Poems of Elizabeth and Robert Browning (1994)
- The Love Poems of Robert Herrick and John Donne (1948)
- The Fat of the Cat and Other Stories
- The Donkey of God and Other Stories(1932)
- The Kitten Who Barked(1962), illustrator: Lilian Obligado
- The Second Christmas(1964), illustrator: Louis Marak
- Cat O’ Nine Tales(1971), illustrator: Lawrence DiFiori
- The Dog of Pompeii(1915)
- Heinrich Heine: Paradox and Poet(1937)
- Makers of the Modern World(with John Moore) (1955)
- Makers of the Modern World selections, Japanese translation(1971)
Anthologies, as editor or compiler
- Modern American Poetry(1919) (2nd edition, 1921; 6th edition, 1942)
- Modern British Poetry(1920) (5th edition, 1942)
- Modern American and British Poetry(1919)
- This Singing World(1923)
- Yesterday and Today(1926)
- New Songs for New Voices(1928), with Clara and David Mannes, illustrator: Peggy Bacon
- A Treasury of Great Poems(1942, 1955)
- The Golden Treasury of Poetry(1959), illustrator: Joan Walsh Anglund
- Story Poems(1946, 1972)
- Early American Poets(1952)
- An Uninhibited Treasury of Erotic Poetry(1963)
- A Galaxy of Verse(1978)
- Men and Women: the Poetry of Love(1970), illustrator: Robert J. Lee
- Collins Albatross Book of Verse(1933, 1960)
- Stars To Steer By(1941)
- Lots of Limericks(1961), illustrator: R. Taylor
- The Book of Living Verse(1932, 1945)
- Rainbow in the Sky(1935), illustrator: Reginald Birch
- A Treasury of Laughter(1946)
- An Anthology of New England Poets(1948)
- The Best Humor of 1949-1950 (with Ralph E. Shikes, 1950)
- The Best Humor Annual (with Ralph E. Shikes, 1951)
- The Best Humor Annual (with Ralph E. Shikes, 1952)
- The Magic Circle(1952)
- A Treasury of Ribaldry(1956)
- The Britannica Library of Great American Writing(1960)
- Big and Little Creatures(1961), with Bryna Ivens Untermeyer
- Beloved Tales(1962), with Bryna Ivens Untermeyer
- Old Friends and Lasting favorites(1962), with Bryna Ivens Untermeyer
- Fun and Fancy(1962), with Bryna Ivens Untermeyer
- Creatures Wild and Tame(1963), with Bryna Ivens Untermeyer
- Love Sonnets(1964), with Ben Shahn
- Love Lyrics(1964), with Antonio Frasconi
- The Golden Book of Poems for the Very Young(1971)
- A Treasury of Great Humor(1972)
Adapted or translated books
- Poems of Heinrich Heine(1917)
- The Wonderful Adventures of Paul Bunyan(1946), illustrator: Everett Gee Jackson
- More French Fairy Tales(1946), illustrator: Gustave Doré
- Cyrano de Bergerac(1954), illustrator: Pierre Brissaud
- Aesop’s Fables(1965), illustrator: A. and M. Provensen
- Songs of Joy from the Book of Psalms(1967), illustrator: Joan Berg Victor
- Tales from the Ballet(1968), illustrator: A. and M. Provensen
- A Time for Peace(1969), illustrator: Joan Berg Victor
- The World’s Great Stories(1964)
- The Firebringer(1968)
- Lines to a Pomeranian Puppy Valued at $3500(1950), musical adaptation of Untermeyer poem by Irving Ravin
- Photograph of Louis Untermeyer, about age 19 or 20
- Louis Untermeyer, the businessman, circa 1916
- March 1912 issue of The Masses
- Charlie Chaplin as a cog in the machine
- Howling dog
- Indigo Bunting, photo by Julie Gidwitz
- Workers on the beet field, 1876 – by Max Liebermann
- Dry fountain
- Solstice fire
- Nuthatch on snowy branch
- By the Hearth 1881 by Platt Powell Ryder
- Eddie Redmayne’s eye
- Drawing of hands – artist uncredited
- Adam and Eve, with serpent
- Louis Untermeyer, third from left, as a panelist on What’s My Line? in 1951
- Old stone house
- Man Digging Potatoes – by Thomas Frederick Mason Sheard
- Spring grass in old graveyard
Word Cloud photo by Larry Cloud