Tag Archives: poetry

The Uncrowned King of Bohemia: The fascinating story of a not-so-great poet

Illustration by Adelaide Hanscom Leeson, “The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam,” 1905, with George Sterling as model

There I was, thinking I was all done with bad mother poems, when I discovered the worst one of all, by George Sterling–in the same issue of The Bookman, as it happens, as I found hitherto bad-mother-poem champion Anna Hempstead Branch.

Until a few months before, The Bookman had been running a series called “The Masque of Poets.” I came in in the middle, couldn’t make much sense of it, and filed it away under Incomprehensible 1918 Things. But the “Masque’s” editor, Best American Short Stories founder Edward O’Brien*, had published a book based on it, and there was a review by Bookman poetry critic Jessie Rittenhouse.**

The gimmick in “The Masque of the Poets”: each month, The Bookman ran a few poems by famous writers, published anonymously. This wasn’t much of a gimmick, as Rittenhouse pointed out—it would have been more fun, she said, to have a contest where people guessed the poets’ identities. On the whole, she was lukewarm about “The Masque,” reckoning that the poets hadn’t submitted their best work. There were some pleasant surprises, though. Like George Sterling’s poem “The First Food,” which she called “poignant and intimate.”

Portrait photograph of George Sterling by Arnold Genthe, 1904

I was skeptical. The 49-year-old Miss Rittenhouse was a big deal on the poetry scene—secretary of the Poetry Society of America and former poetry editor of the New York Times Book Review—but, poetry-wise, she was stuck in 1865.

Here’s “The First Food.” Judge for yourself.

Mother, in some sad evening long ago,
From thy young breast my groping lips were taken,
Their hunger stilled, so soon again to waken,
But nevermore that holy food to know.

Ah! nevermore! for all the child might crave!
Ah! nevermore! through years unkind and dreary!
Often of other fare my lips are weary,
Unwearied once of what thy bosom gave.

(Poor wordless mouth that could not speak thy name!
At what unhappy revels has it eaten
The viands that no memory can sweeten, —
The banquet found eternally the same!)

Then fell a shadow first on thee and me,
And tendrils broke that held us two how dearly!
Once infinitely thine, then hourly, yearly,
Less thine, as less the worthy thine to be.

(O mouth that yet should kiss the mouth of Sin!
Were lies so sweet, now bitter to remember?
Slow sinks the flame unfaithful to an ember;
New beauty fades and passion’s wine is thin.)

How poor an end of that solicitude
And all the love I had not from another!
Peace to thine unforgetting heart, O Mother,
Who gavest the dear and unremembered food!

I know—creepy, right?

I was all set to file this away for use as Worst Poem of the Month when I decided to look into Sterling’s life to see whether by any chance he killed his father and married his mother. He didn’t, but his actual story is almost as weird.

Mary Austin, Jack London, George Sterling, and Jimmie Hooper (Arnold Genthe, ca. 1902-07)

Sterling was born in 1869 in Sag Harbor, Long Island, the first of nine children of a doctor who tried to get him to become a priest—which, as we will see, would have been a very bad fit. He followed his uncle to California, worked in real estate for a while, made a name for himself locally with a book of poetry published in 1903, and moved to the sleepy town of Carmel-by-the-Sea in 1905. Sterling quickly put Carmel on the map as a center of literary, artistic, and Bohemian life, earning himself the sobriquet “The Uncrowned King of Bohemia.” An exodus from San Francisco following the 1906 earthquake increased the town’s popularity.

Sterling was no exception to the rule that all the people we’ve ever heard of from back then were friends with each other. He was the protégé of The Devil’s Dictionary author Ambrose Bierce, who followed him to Carmel, and his best friend was Jack London***. Writers Upton Sinclair, Gelett Burgess, Sinclair Lewis, Robinson Jeffers, and Mary Austin and photographer Arnold Genthe were among those who came to Carmel for temporary or permanent stays. (Okay, I’d never heard of the last two.)

Cosmopolitan, September 1907

Cosmopolitan published Sterling’s poem “A Wine of Wizardry” in 1907, and Bierce proclaimed him the heir to Keats, Coleridge, and Rossetti. Many others begged to differ. There was apparently a low bar for controversy in 1907, because this one was huge. Meanwhile, things were getting pretty wild in Carmel. There were, or so rumor had it, nude beach parties, free love (gay and straight), wife-swapping, and opium dens.

Nora May French (Arnold Genthe, ca. 1907)

Then the tragedies began. In November 1907, Nora May French, a glamorous young poet who was staying with Sterling and his wife, committed suicide by drinking cyanide that she had obtained on the pretext that she needed to polish some silver. News accounts varied as to whether French had been sleeping in the same room as Sterling’s wife. (Sterling was away.) This, and tales of French’s nymphomaniac ways, increased Sterlings notoriety. Others in the circle also met sad ends. London died following a morphine overdose in 1906 (accidental, apparently, but there were rumors of suicide), and Bierce disappeared in Mexico in 1914.

Caroline “Carrie” Rand Sterling, George Sterling’s wife, date unknown

Sterling began drinking heavily. His wife filed for divorce in 1913, citing non-support, idleness, and dissipation. In August 1918, she too committed suicide by taking cyanide. Sterling began carrying around a vial of cyanide himself, saying, “A prison becomes a home if you have the key.” He finally took a lethal dose in November 1926, while H.L. Mencken was visiting him in San Francisco. (Yes, the Uncrowned King of Bohemia was friends with the Sage of Baltimore too. A volume of their correspondence was published in 2001.)

But let’s not leave Sterling on this sad note. He and his crowd had a lot of good times. Like when they were pounding abalone to tenderize it. This was the only time that it was permissible to sing the Abalone Song, which was composed mostly by Sterling, with contributions by London, Lewis, Bierce, Burgess, and others. There were many versions. This one is from Carl Sandburg’s 1927 folk song anthology The American Songbag:

From “The American Songbag” by Carl Sandburg, 1927

*Edward O’Brien had recently started a new feature in The Bookman called “War Echoes.” It generated a lot of mail, and the nearest post office in South Yarmouth, Massachusetts, was two miles away, so he asked the postal service to open a new post office closer to his house. And they did!

**The Bookman was incestuous like that. Rittenhouse’s first book of poetry had been reviewed in the previous issue—lukewarmly, which must have stung.

***Sterling was portrayed in two London novels that I never heard of, Martin Eden and Valley of the Moon.

Oh snap! The modernists’ cringe-inducing criticism

The writers who were reviewed in the modernist journals of 1918 are all long dead. But, when I read what T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and their fellow critics had to say about them, I can’t help cringing on their behalf.

Take this review, in the March 1918 edition of The Egoist, of a collection called Georgian Poetry, 1916-1917. The reviewer, who calls himself Apteryx but is really T.S. Eliot, sums up the work of five contributors as follows:

Mr. Graves has a hale and hearty daintiness. Mr. Gibson asks, “we, how shall we…” etc. Messrs. Baring and Asquith, in war poems, both employ the word “oriflamme.” Mr. Drinkwater says, “Hist!”

Robert Graves (First World War Poetry Digital Archive, University of Oxford)

These few sentences give us a good sense of what’s in the poems. Under the circumstances, though, this criticism seems a bit cruel. Robert Graves, who would go on to fame as a poet, novelist, and memoirist, was a 23-year-old soldier in 1918. “David and Goliath,” written in memory of his friend David Thomas, is a reversal of the Bible story, ending:

‘I’m hit! I’m killed!’ young David cries.
Throws blindly forward, chokes…and dies.
And look, spike-helmeted, grey, grim,
Goliath straddles over him.

Maurice Baring, Wilfrid Wilson Gibson, Herbert Asquith (the son of the Prime Minister), and John Drinkwater were older, in their thirties or forties, but they were all in uniform except Gibson, who tried to enlist but was turned down because of ill health.

Alan Seeger

Even dying in the war didn’t spare a writer from The Egoist’s sharp scrutiny. The December 1917 issue included an unsigned review of a book of poems by Alan Seeger, who had joined the French Foreign Legion and died in the Battle of the Somme in 1916. Seeger, best known now for the poem “I Have a Rendezvous with Death,” was a Harvard classmate of T.S. Eliot, who may have written the review.* According to the Egoist,

Seeger’s poems are not unworthy of the attention they have attracted. The book has not much to offer to the small public which wants nothing twice over, but it has a good deal to give to the public which will take what it likes in any amount.

The Egoist was dismissive toward popular novelists. In a discussion in the February 1918 issue of James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, reprinted from an Italian publication and apparently translated by Joyce himself, Diego Angeli says:

To tell the truth, English fiction seemed lately to have gone astray amid the sentimental niceties of Miss Beatrice Harraden, the police-aided plottiness of Sir Conan Doyle, the stupidities of Miss Corelli or, at best, the philosophical and social disquisitions of Mrs. Humphrey Ward.**

Across the Atlantic, The Dial, which wasn’t a modernist journal but had modernist sympathies,*** shared The Egoist’s contempt for popular novelists. You don’t really have to read further in B.I. Kinne’s review of Hugh Walpole’s The Green Mirror than the title: “If This Be Literature Give Me Death.” If you do, you’ll read that

Mr. Walpole’s most irritating fault is his adherence to the court reporter’s method of observing and recording. This is the fault of many of the contemporary novelists. It is their belief, apparently, that the mere writing down of lists of things, whether dishes of food, toilet articles on the heroine’s dressing-table, books and objects d’art on the drawing-room tables, or the furnishings of a room, constitutes vivid literature.

Hugh Walpole, 1915 (The Independent)

The modernist critics reserve their most scathing criticism for literary luminaries. In an article in the January 1918 Egoist on Henry James (whom he admired), Eliot writes that G.K. Chesterton’s “brain swarms with ideas; I see no evidence that it thinks.” Ezra Pound, also writing admiringly about James in the same issue, says of recent writing that

we may throw out the whole [H.G.] Wells-[Arnold] Bennett period, for what interest can we take in instruments which must of nature miss two-thirds of the vibrations in any conceivable situation.

The modernists’ criticism may be harsh, but, unlike H.L. Mencken’s, it doesn’t seem mean-spirited. Eliot and Pound and the other modernist critics took their work with tremendous seriousness. They thought that the ossified literary world of their time had to die, and that it was their job to kill it. They didn’t just rip into bad writing; they explained how it exemplified what was wrong with the literature of the day. And they had a vision of what should come in its place: modernist writing by the likes of Joyce, Wyndham Lewis, and of course themselves.

This wasn’t exactly trench warfare, but it had its risks. Eliot reported in the March 1918 Egoist that the October 1917 issue of the American modernist journal The Little Review had been declared obscene and seized by the post office, the offending item being a story by Wyndham Lewis. The journal’s legal complaint against the post office had failed.****

The March 1918 issue of the Egoist contained the following announcement:

 That is, no printer in England would touch it. But it was scheduled to be serialized in the Little Review as well.

Bigger battles lay ahead.

*He was also folk singer Pete Seeger’s uncle.

**See! I told you!

***It later became a modernist journal, and was the first place “The Waste Land” was published in the United States.

****The story was called “Cantleman’s Spring-Mate.” Naturally, I immediately tracked it down. Summary: a young man about to go to war sees animals rutting all around, joins in the action with a village girl, and feels that he has defeated death. (Except that makes the story sounds life-affirming, which it’s not. It’s modernist!)