On my table is a book of poems [Songs of the Sierras], and beside it, carefully as a souvenir, is the author's card, a bit of rough brown pasteboard, coarsely printed and bearing these words:
I have read the book most carefully, and I here take occasion to beg the author’s pardon for the injustice with which I have judged him on the strength of the newspaper accounts of him and the current extracts from his works. No man has a right to express an opinion of Joaquin Miller until he has read his works and read them well from end to end. Having done this, no fair-minded man will give further credence to the startling stories that are told of the poet by the papers; for it will be seen at once that the poems are the spontaneous utterance of the heart, and of a heart incapable of all the atrocities with which Miller has been accused. That his life has not been fitted into the conventional social grooves of our civilization is evident enough; and to this very fact we owe it that we have a book brimful of the most original thought, unhampered, unrestrained, and as fresh as the breezes of the plains and mountains.
Never was a book better named than “Songs of the Sierras;” never was a man better fitted by circumstances of life and natural gifts to sing such songs than Joaquin Miller. From a child up, he has been brought face to face with the grandest scenes of our grand West; has lifted his hat to the majesty of snow crowned mountains; has felt the vastness of Nature in primeval forests and been drunk with glory of life in the tropics; has studied the great open book with head bared and soul lifted up; and now comes singing into our minds. And we cruelly judge him by our surroundings and the circumstances of our little circled lives, which of themselves cruelly condemn him by the very standards that make us incapable of understanding either his temptations or inspirations. He comes to us with his book in his hand, a man battling against fearful odds, knowing them well, but also knowing his own strength and bound to conquer our prejudices by the sheer force of his genius. He comes saying: This is my life which I have woven into a song; this is my heart which my muse bids me to lay bare. He comes frankly, with no apologies, with nothing hidden, and asks to be judged as a poet. The world says, “Who is this fresh singer that dares to sing new songs?” [A]nd straight-away sets itself diligently to find, not how the songs have been produced, but how the poet has lived and what he has eaten and drank, and how and whom he has loved. But the poet has gone on singing--pained, undoubtedly, yet well knowing that in the hearts of those who have studied him best admiration and love have grown out of simple justice.
Joaquin Miller comes to us as a poet: and only those have a right to judge him as a man who have known him--have learned something of his hot, impetuous, loving nature, and of the dreadful school in which his soul has found development. His poetry has on the face of it intrinsic merit sufficient to recommend it anywhere. His works fit a niche in the nineteenth century literature which no man else could have filled. They appeal to the whole world, simply because the genius of poetry is universal; but the man Miller must be forever a mystery to those who have never put a foot onto Western prairies or been hustled by the rude civilization of the Far West. One realizes the truth of this statement when brought into personal contact with the poet.
In the crowd of the city the tall, spare, supple, long- haired, deep-eyed man hides himself under his broad Panama hat, turns his eyes to the ground, and seems ill at ease. Put him onto a fiery Mexican horse, gaily caparisoned, give him his rifle and the free prairie air, and you have another being. The imperative urge and motive of his early adventurous life are forgotten in the imperfect narration of its events which the newspapers seize and dress up to suit the prejudices of the age. The common reader, with culpable carelessness as to truth, seizes eagerly upon these, and wonders that a man who has lived so ill can write so well. There is no doubt that the poet feels this injustice, and, in answering for the weaknesses of a dead brother poet, his own answer to an accusing world is found.
“Yea, he did sin: who hath revealed
than man, or less?
Yet sinned no more, but less concealed
Than they who cloak their follies o'er,
And then cast stones in his distress.
He scorned to make the good seem more,
Or make the bitter seem less.
And so his very manliness
The seeds of persecution bore.”
Few men are more sensitive to public criticism than Miller; and yet he finds in his heart a course of writing marked out that is imperative, and from which he cannot deviate save in the choice of form. In his own heart he has set up a court of justice, and judges himself unmercifully abiding by the judgement whatever it may be. He has in the poem “Myrrh” spread out the whole drama of his domestic life. He has written it simply because it was made up of years and events that made his heart tremble almost to rending. To those who read it aright this poem reveals a depth of magnanimous self-sacrifice unparalleled. The utterance is not an apology or a defense; it is the outpouring of a suffering, stricken heart, urged on by fate to do that which filled the whole being with an endless misery. It is a sacred subject. Two people alone have aught to do with it the poet and his wife. From the poem one can see that there is some unrevealed barrier between the two. What it is the world has no right to know. This is true, that in the poem Miller accepts as his own the burden of blame; and Mrs. Miller has gained nothing by her very remarkable letter. That the poem is inexpressibly touching no one will deny. There are three stanzas in it which for pure pathos are unsurpassed in the whole realm of English poetry:
“I go alone, no little hands
To lead me from forbidden ways,
No little voice in other lands
Shall cheer through all the weary days;
Yet these are yours, and that to me
Is much indeed... So let it be...
“A last look from my mountain wall...
I watch the red sun wed the sea
Beside your home. The tides will fall
And rise, but nevermore shall we
Stand hand in hand and watch them flow,
As we once stood. Christ! This is so!
“But when the stately sea comes in,
With measured tread and mouth afoam
My darling's cry above the din,
And as[k] ‘Has father yet come home?’
Then look into the peaceful sky,
And answer, gently, ‘By and by.’”
[The above would have been as apropos re the Indian child he had had to leave in earlier life.]
As a writer, Miller must be classed in the front rank of objective poets. His descriptions of natural objects are wonderful. He leads you with him into a tropical forest, as in “With Walker in Nicaragua,” and you feel at your heart the fervid heat of the sun and behold all the glories of luxuriant vegetation. Take, for instance, the passage in which he describes the snakes
“Long, lithe, and beautiful
As green and graceful bough’d bamboo
and you have the motion of serpents pictured with such wonderful fidelity that you feel a shudder, as if yourself standing under the fascination of the beautiful cursed reptile. For all things, all emotions even, he finds a simile in natural objects. And his similes are so apt that they stick in their place when the poem is forgotten. In this very facility of illustration is Miller’s greatest danger. He reaches up for the highest things, and attempts to picture them in the most familiar objects. The result is a step from the sublime to the commonplace, a step that is always “taken from a precipice.” As a single example of this, in the poem “Ina” can be found these lines [which however, his peers--miners and cattlemen, found most readable]:
“The thin, sullen moon, pale face and crooked
As a half starved vine, a most vicious heifer,
Is sliding down in all haste from Heaven.
To gore in the flank of yon sleeping mountain”
And the same danger is perhaps better exemplified in the opening line of “With Walker in Nicaragua” in which a slang simile is made use of to tell what a perfect man was the poet’s friend. Turning from these instances of the abuse of a great gift, it is a relief to turn to that most wonderful piece of word-painting found in the closing lines of “The Last Taschastas,” a poem that from beginning to end abounds in marvelous pictures.
Of Miller's last poem, the “Isles of the Amazons,” it is perhaps unfair to speak
critically in this stage of its publication. It must be confessed that its few opening stanzas seemed to promise little. Quite out of place and wholly unnecessary was the unkind fling at womankind, in the stanza describing the quaint old crone who refuses to tell you her story
“Until you have anointed her palm, and you
Have touched the delicate spring of a door
That silver has opened perhaps before;
For woman is woman the wide world through.”
[Like Miller and unlike Round, I have met a thousand women like this.]
Two stanzas further on, one comes across a streak of alliteration which is quite
unworthy of such a poet as Miller. He says:
“If I have purchased a beautiful lie,
And liked it well and believed it true,
I have done it before; and so have you
And have been contented, and so have I.”
A verse that seems to have nothing more than a complicated jingle to
recommend it. [Miller said and sang what he saw. He didn't use English teachers’ words about words. Perhaps Mr. Round never visited a prostitute. Miller knew many. And how many people do you know who buy into their friends' and their own lies every day?] But a little further on one can forget these defects in the vivid descriptions of scenery, of the Amazons, and of the brave young knight. After this comes an apostrophe to Silence, which in its way is quite unsurpassed, and beyond which there is no longer a doubt that the completion of this poem will realize all that has been prophesied of it. It would be a pleasant thing to select from this poem a score of verses and lay them before the readers of this hurried article; but newspaper limitations are imperative, and in the three verses embodying the apostrophe above referred to are all that will be allowed me:
“O Heavens, the eloquent song of silence!
As asleep lay the sun on the vines and the sod.
And asleep in the sun lay the green gilded islands,
As rocked to their rest in the cradle of God.
“God’s poet is Silence! His song is unspoken,
And yet as profound and so loud and so far,
That it thrills you and fills you in measure unbroken,
And bright and as light and as far as a star.
“The shallow seas moan. As a child they have muttered
And mourned, and have fretted and wept at their will;
But the poem of God is too grand to be uttered;
The dreadful deep seas, they are loudest when still.”
Of Joaquin Miller and the estimation in which he is held by the public I have observed this; that the people who cry him down are those who have not read his works thoroughly.
More than this, I have observed that they who cry shame at his personal life and laugh at his peculiarities are those who have no sort of acquaintance with the man. He is a brave, simple hearted soul. He is a man capable of great loves and he has loved well. He is a man who has made Nature his mistress; and she has returned his caresses with richest revelations. He is a man whose body is chained to earth, while his vision is above the clouds. He is a man who has seen the folly of social conventionalities, and despised them; and he is abused in consequence. To those who know him well, either in person or through his songs, he is all kindliness, with a voice low and sympathetic, and with comforting words to those who need comfort. He has come to us from the Plains, opened a new field for our thoughts to roam, laid his heart of hearts bare to us; and we have repaid his confidences with distrust.
After this, if there be a tinge of bitterness in some of his sweetest songs we can forgive him, and understand him when he writes:
“It is not wise to be a poet now;
For the world has so fine and modest grown
It will not praise a poet to his face,
But waits till he is dead some hundred years.
Then uprears marbles cold and stupid as itself.”
(From “A Poet and His Poems” by William M.F. Round The Independent 24.1258 (New York) (December 5, 1872): 8