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George Sylvester Viereck

What follows is apparently an unpublished draft by Frank Harris, one of his "Contemporary Portraits", this of the poet George Sylvester Viereck. It is to be found amongst the papers of Elmer Gertz that are lodged in the Library of Congress. A correspondent sent it to me in 2006(!) and I have only just got round to putting it online.

Viereck was a strange, perverse character who did not help his career by being pro-German in both world wars. Harris admired his poetry but little else about him.

This portrait was probably written in the 1920s though the MS is dated August 1930, which may be when it came into Gertz's possession.

George Sylvester Viereck: Journalist & Poet

Ever since I first met him, Viereck has been a journalist with a paper of his own, and a poet to boot of an original and virile inspiration. He is of German descent; indeed it is said of him that he is closely related to the fomer German Emperor. This fact is the explanation at once of his success as a journalist and his limitations as a poet. It gave him the enthusiastic support of the great German-speaking population of the United States, and at the same time tended to narrow his vision. There la no likeness to the Kaiser in appearance; Viereck is slightly below medium height but strongly built; his face is fresh-colored and well-featured, the nose straight, the blue eyes both large and bright. 

His success as a Journalist is not of primary value to me, but I deplore his limitations as a seer for he is a real singer, and if his vision had been worthy of his voice he might have ranked with Poe. 

Viereck has sent me most of his poems. He reminds me that he is a poet without a license, his license having been withdrawn by the Poetry Society of America in the war. He is also an author without a union card, having been expelled from the Authors League of America with the approval of Theodore Roosevelt and Gertrude Atherton. Yet In my opinion Viereck is the most distinguished poet in America and one of the best prose writers. Who else in America could have written this poem "Slaves" 

No puppet master pulls the strings on high,
    Portioning our parts, the tinsel and the paint;
A twisted nerve, a ganlion [sic] gone awry, 
    Predestinates the sinner and the saint. 

Each, held more firmly than by hempen band, 
    Slave of his entrails, struts across the scene,
The malnutrition of some obscure gland 
    Makes him a Ripper or a Nazarene. 

Vlereck's politics have nothing to do with his poetry, yet I prefer even his politics to Rudyard Kipling's. 

Never on the winning side, 
    Always on the right;
Vanquished, this shall be our pride 
    In the world's despite. 

Let the oily Pharisees 
    Purse their lips and rant,
Calm we face the Destinies:
    Better 'can't' than cant.

Bravely drain, then fling away, 
    Break the cup of sorrow!
Courage! He who lost the day 
    May have won the morrow.

Surely this man counts and deserves to be honoured by any Author's League or Poetry Society worthy of the name. 

His view of his own work is of real Interest: it is seldom that a poet gives us his own justification or appreciation: "My books of verses: 'Nineveh and Other Poems', 'The Candle and the Flame', and 'Songs of Armageddon', were the lyric battering ram of the new movement in American letters. They possess historical importance as such", is Viereck's firm belief. 

"When 'Nineveh' first appeared in 1907, America was astonished by my daring. Fortunately, psycho-analysis was unknown in those days. America did not know how audacious I was. My poems remain to this day the frankest poetic expression of America, not excepting Whitman's 'Children of Adam'. They blazoned the way for the New Poetry..."

Frankly I regard this as a wild over-statement of Viereck's case: Whitman was considerably bolder and was much more heavily punished, to say nothing of the fact that he was the greatest man America has yet produced, still, as I have said, Viereck's Apology is very interesting. He goes on:- 

"Poe demands of the poet the creation of rhythmic beauty. I demand finality of expression, the supreme phrase for any human experience. The trouble with most of the new poets is that they cannot express themselves at all and they have nothing to say, not even the airiest nothings. They do not make 'beauty audible'. They expectorate verse. They stutter cacophonous prose.

"The time has come for a new Renaissance of Beauty. I do not know to what extent I may be able to serve this reawakening. Like most men of my generation, I was shell-shocked by the war. I find it difficult at this time to look at the world with impartial eyes.

"I knew that sooner or later I would be discovered again. I was discovered several times as a poet. My discoverers were Ludwig Lewisohn, William Ellery Leonard, Hugo Muensterberg, James Huneker, Elsa Barker, Edwin Markham, Alexander Harvey, Clayton Hamilton, William Appenwall Bradley, Richard Le Gallienne, Theodore Roosevelt, Gertrude Atherton, Michael Monahan, William Marion Reedy, and more lately, Frank Harris, in the United States; Johannes Sohiaf, Ludwig Fulda, Professor Edward Engel, Professor Alois Brandl, Hanna Heinz Ewers and Michael George Conrad in Germany... 

"I awaited my renewed discovery as a poet with amused interest. I expected it to take place when, at the age of eighty, I was dangling great grandchildren on my knee. I wondered how I would explain to them certain lines in 'The Haunted House', 'Capri', and other memorials of passionate youth.

"My rediscovery occurred sooner than I anticipated. It came before I was thirty-nine, in a message from E. Haldeman-Julius who asked me to add two volumes of my verse to his remarkable library. To him belongs the credit of excavating my fame from the debris of post-war hatreds. If he regrets that he was not the first to envisage me, let him remember that America, too, was discovered before Columbus."

After this self-estimate I may be absolved from praising, but it should be said that both during and since the war, Germany has had no more passionate defender than Sylvester Viereck.

Again and again he has proven what most of the well Informed have known from the beginning: that neither Germany nor the Kaiser was chiefly responsible for the war, and that France and England can divide that honour (dishonour) almost equally with Germany. All the nations, as I have said, were like dogs, eager for the fray. Germany has had to pay the chief bill, not because she was chiefly to blame but because in 1917, when she might have ended the war by helping Wilson's plan of a Conference, she deliberately loosed the X-boats and turned America into an enemy.

I have told the story in what I have written on Count Bernstorff, so I do not need to stress the point here, but I would be the last to deny Viereck's courage or his very real contributions to the cause of historical truth. Still, it is as a poet that I persist in regarding him, and I therefore give another specimen of his work:

Your body's treasures are mine to-day, 
    Though bitter as gall be their savour still;
From head to foot shall my kisses play,
    Till naught is kept from their sovereign will.

The voice of my need supreme must guide
   My passionate love to its destined goal:
My feverish fingers shall seek and glide
    Until at last I hold the soul. 

And the versos; 


Perhaps the passions of mankind 
    Are but the torches mystical
Lit by some spirit hand to find
The dwelling of the Master Mind 
    That knows the secret of it all
In the great darkness and the wind. 

We are the Candle, Love the Flame,
    Each little life-light flickers out,
Love bides, immortally the same: 
When of life's fever we shall tire 
    He will desert us and the fire
Rekindle new in prince or lout ... 

Alas! I dare not talk of Viereck's literary opinions and judgments. As soon as he uses prose I am bewildered. On every page I find statements that revolt me. For instance take the Introduotion to "The Candle and the Flame", his first book of poetry, he writes: "America forces its poets to deny poetry or leave the country! Henry James chose exile, P. Pierpont Morgan diverted his imaginative powers into the channels of high finance". Now this puzzles me, though I admit Plerpont Morgan was just as much a poet as Henry James or just as little. But Viereck goes on. He calls Roosevelt "the most poetical personality of the modern world", and again I gasp. Finally he says: "I no longer worship Beauty, Art for art's sake seems a jest, literature only a sickly mirage of life. My temperament is more dynamic then aesthetic. Activity, as such, allures me. Brooklyn Bridge seems to me a far more marvellous accomplishment than the most precious of sonnets. If I were not Viereck, I would gladly be Edison". Which shows me that ha knows nothing about either art or literature or the Brooklyn Bridge. . 

Really astounding are the misjudgments. I have quoted the finest lines that Alfred Douglas ever wrote — the only lines that he ever wrote of the first class —

Whither my helpless soul shall we be tossed?
To what disaster of malign Despair
Or terror of unfathomable ends?

And Viereck's criticism is "Lines like these may be gathered almost at random by one who strays into the poet's garden". This finishes me off when he compares Mrs. Browning's Sonnets "in quality" with Shakespeare's: he will class Hardy, Shaw and Bergson together, and put the Metropolitan Building higher than anything poets have done. Yet as a poet he has done good work. I give his best: 

Now tell me, Villon, where is he, 
    Young Sporus, lord of Hero's lyre,
Who marked with languid ecstasy
    The seven hills grow rod with fire?
And he whose madness choked the hall 
    With roses and made night of day?
Rome's rulers for an interval, 
    Its boyish Caesars, where are they?

Where is that city by the Nile, 
    Reared by an emperor's bronze distress
When the enamoured crocodile
    Clawed the Bithynian's loveliness?
The argent pool whose listening trees
    Heard Echo's voice die far away?
Narcissus, Hyles, Charmides, 
    O brother, Villon, where are they?

Say where the Young Disciple roved
    When the Messiah's blood was spilt?
None knows: for he whom Jesus loved 
    Was not the rock on which He built.
And tell me where is Gaveston, 
    The second Edward's dear dismay?
And Shakespeare's love, and Jonathan,
    O brother Villon, where are they?

Made - for what end? - by God's great hand, 
    Frail enigmatic shapes, they dwell
In some phantastic borderland, 
    But on the hitherside of hell! 
Children of Lilith each a sprite 
    Yet wrought like us of Adam's clay,
And when they haunt us in the night
    What, brother Villon, shall we say? 


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