Witter Bynner’s “Passing Near”

Witter Bynner was one of the vanguard of poets who in the 1910s and 1920s would bring about something of a poetic rebirth in the United States after several decades of undistinguished works mainly by writers better known for their prose. This is not a modern conclusion. At the time, the dearth of American poetry was lamented in most of the serious literary periodicals. Seemingly in spite of the barren plot, serious poets (or at least writers with serious ambitions to be professional poets) sprumg up in numbers, and seemingly, all at once.

This new flourishing took place slightly behind the modernist experiments going on by poets in London. While some Americans attempted to follow the new techniques pioneered there (notably Hart Crane, for example), American poets of the time never subscribe to the burden of the English modernist, unable to subscribe to the haughty elitism, the reactionary politics and the ethnocentric bigotry of the leading modernists (Hulme, Pound, Eliot and Lewis). Nor did the Americans find the need to form schools (except, perhaps, for Amy Lowell, who personally interacted with Pound and who purchased the leadership of the Imagist movement at the time that Pound was working up other manifestoes). The Americans displayed interest in a variety of approaches and techniques, although none seemed interested in in competing with the English modernists in announcing the death of civilization.

Bynner was not tempted by the modernist song of Tiresias either in subject or tone or technique. He was, however, capable of donning their voice as he and Arthur Davison Ficke proved by hoaxing the literary establishment with their publication Spectra: A Book of Poetic Experiments (New York: Mitchell Kennerley, 1916). Bynner was more interested in exploring the mysteries of an interior world in finely wrought traditional lines.

Born in Brooklyn in 1881, he made his way to Harvard where he was selected to join the Harvard Advocate by editor Wallace Stevens. He diligently dedicated himself to writing verse from the turn of the century and only nine years after he was graduated, returned to Harvard in 1911 to deliver the annual Phil Beta Kappa verse recital, with a poem entitled “An Immigrant,” which was amplified (according Book Review Digest, volume 11, 1916 (p. 72)) when collected in The New World, printed by Mitchell Kennerley in 1915. (You can read the version reprinted by Alfred A. Knopf in 1922 in Google books). Incidentally, as traditional as the poem now sounds, The Nation (September 30, 1915) was uncomfortable with its form and panned it thus: “I am sorry that the cult of novelty should have besprinkled with those queernesses which pass muster in certain quarters for originality. There is a smack of exclusiveness in in the very emphasis on democracy.” Bynner’s work would never thereafter be known for “queerness.” Rather the works’ surface simplicity belies mysteries worked up by rigorous technique.

Bynner went on to lecture at Berkeley, mainly to accommodate soldiers recently demobbed (as Eliot would put it). A trip to China convinced him to study the language and poetry. On his return ill health caused him to recover in Santa Fe, where he would take up residence for the rest of his life. Here he was host to stars (including Rita Hayworth) and literati (Auden, Frost and others). A trip into Mexico with visiting D.H. Lawrence landed him a portrait in The Plumed Serpent.

He continued writing poetry until a stroke in the mid 1960s disabled him. When he died in 1968, his will bestowed the funds that created a foundation to sponsor American poets.

The poem below is an early example of his lyric. First published in 1913 it was collected in Grenstone Poems: A Sequence (New York: Frederick A. Stockes Co., 1917). In the collection it is grouped in a section entitled “News” with the epigraph: “If a word of doom arrives—love, hearing it, / Can make the deathful tidings exquisite.”

Passing Near

from Poetry, February 1913

by Witter Bynner

I had not till today been sure,
But now I know:
Dead men and women come and go
Under the pure
Sequestering snow.

And under the autumnal fern
And carmine bush,
Under the shadow of a thrush,
They move and learn;
And in the rush

Of all the mountain-brooks that wake
With upward fling
To brush and break the loosening cling
Of ice, they shake
The air with Spring!

I had not till today been sure,
But now I know:
Dead youths and maidens come and go
Below the lure
And undertow

Of cities, under every street
Of empty stress,
Or heart of an adulteress:
Each loud retreat
Of lovelessness.

For only by the stir we make
In passing near
Are we confused, and cannot hear
The ways they take
Certain and clear.

Today I happened in a place
Where all around
Was silence; until, underground,
I heard a pace,
A happy sound.

And people whom I there could see
Tenderly smiled,
While under a wood of silent, wild
Antiquity
Wandered a child,

Leading his mother by the hand,
Happy and slow,
Teaching his mother where to go
Under the snow.
Not even now I understand—
I only know.

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