It was 100 years ago that Midwestern poet Vachel Lindsay achieved prominence with his collection The Congo and Other Poems. Lindsay, born in Springfield, Illinois in 1879, had published a volume in 1913 called General William Booth Enters Into Heaven and Other Poems that garnered attention along with his dramatic public recitations. The Congo and Other Poems, with an introduction by poet and editor Harriet Monroe, sealed his reputation. That reputation would last only into the early 1920s, and by 1931 Lindsay was dead, a suicide who drank a bottle of Lysol after years of depression, poor health, financial problems, and a diminished status in the literary world of his time.
Lindsay grew up in Springfield. He briefly attended Hiram College in Ohio, than left for Chicago to study art. He later wandered the country, traveling by foot, on one journey walking from Florida to Kentucky. On one of the last of these trips he carried with him copies of a pamphlet of poems entitled Rhymes To Be Traded For Bread. Lindsay was deeply idealistic. He hoped to share with others along the way his vision of democracy, art, and the potential for America’s greatness as a civilization. It didn’t always work out so well, but I find something deeply touching in the image of this young man wandering the country and sharing his work and vision with others. He had great hopes for his country and for his native Midwestern region. He “put it out there” as we say today, and didn’t hold back from fear of rejection. He might have struck others as a starry-eyed dreamer, but Vachel Lindsay had guts.
It was during this time too that Lindsay developed a reputation as a lecturer and a reader of his own poetry on the college and lecture circuits. This public presence supported his publishing efforts.
The Congo and Other Poems is divided into five sections. I have the 1992 Dover Thrift edition, which is essentially a reprint of MacMillan’s 1915 reprint of the book only without the Harriet Monroe introduction. There are some slight changes in titling of the sections in my edition, but there is little difference between the edition I have—which is a common one—and the 1915 reprint.
The first section of the book is “Poems Intended to Be Read Aloud, or Chanted.” This section includes Lindsay’s famous and popular recitation piece “The Congo.” The poem certainly has a paternalistic racism, but is also an important example of Lindsay’s performance pieces. There are stage directions of a sort printed in the margins on the right suggesting how portions of the poem should be declaimed. Two of Lindsay’s other popular works in this vein—“The Santa Fe Trail (A Humoresque)” and “The Firemen’s Ball”—are included in the first section.
The second section is “Incense” and includes many poems on Biblical or spiritual themes, such as “The Alchemist’s Petition,” “Two Easter Stanzas,” and “The Soul of the City Receives The Gift of the Holy Spirit.”
The third section has an entirely different feel and is broken into two parts. The first part is “A Miscellany Called ‘The Christmas Tree.’ ” This section contains a mix of poems with subjects ranging from fairies and Cinderella to tributes to silent motion picture stars Blanche Sweet and Mary Pickford. The second part is “Rhymes For Gloriana.” It has only four poems. The first is about the memory of a doll that was taken down from a Christmas tree and provided comfort during a spell of childhood sickness. The remaining three poems are praises of a girl named Gloriana.
The title of the fourth section pretty much says it all: “Twenty Poems In Which The Moon is the Principal Figure of Speech.” This section is also divided into two parts. The first is “Moon Poems For The Children,” and it includes the famous poem “The Moon’s The North Wind’s Cookie (What the Little Girl Said).” The second half is “The Moon Is a Mirror,” and once again various figures comment on the moon, or the moon plays a role in the poem in one fashion or another.
The fifth and final section brings the collection to an end on a serious note. The section is “War. September 1, 1914: Intended to Be Read Aloud.” There are seven poems here, the first of which is one of Lindsay’s most famous: “Abraham Lincoln Walks At Midnight.” In this poem, Lincoln, “the prairie-lawyer, master of us all,” is stirred from his tomb and walks anxiously about the earth as a new cataclysm engulfs the world. The great leader cannot rest, Lindsay tells us, until true democracy is established in Europe and the days of kings are at an end. All the poems concern war and bloodshed. Even the last poem, “Epilogue: Under The Blessing of Your Psyche Wings,” which concerns the persona taking comfort in some kind of spiritual female presence, includes the lines “Under the blessing of your Psyche-wings/I hide tonight like one small broken bird,/So soothed I half-forget the world gone mad:–/And all the winds of war are now unheard.”
For a period of time in America, Lindsay was enormously popular. His appearance in a city could draw front page notice and huge crowds. But his time was short, and as I noted earlier, by the 1920s he was passé, and poetry was moving in directions far removed from his own.
His world of prairie populism, fairy visions, exotic and Biblical landscapes and figures, combined with excursions into American folklore and political issues of the time may certainly seem a strange mix to a modern reader. But he has his own rewards for those willing to explore an earlier world of American poetry during the first heady days of Modernism. The Congo and Other Poems certainly provides an interesting overview of Lindsay’s poetic landscape.
The Congo and Other Poems by Vachel Lindsay, edited by Shane Weller. Dover Thrift Editions, Dover Publications, Inc., New York, 1992.