Volume XVI • Spring 1961 • Number 3
The Adelaide Crapsey Collection
--JOHN ROTHWELL SLATER
For many years autograph manuscripts and other materials relating to the life and poems of Adelaide Crapsey (1878-1914) have been divided between the Rochester Public Library and the Rush Rhees Library. Recently by consent of Mr. Paul B. Crapsey, Miss Esther Lowenthal, Mr. Arthur H. Crapsey, Jr., and Mr. Harold S. Hacker, director of the Rochester Public Library, they have been combined in the Department of Special Collections of Rush Rhees Library.
From time to time graduate students and other research workers have had access to both these collections. Several graduate theses have been written about Adelaide's contribution to American literature by scholars who have worked here. Biographers, critics, and anthologists have examined unpublished poems. Enlarged and revised editions of her work, based upon such study, have superseded the slender first edition of 1915 with its introduction by Claude Bragdon.
Now that the collection is more accessible it seems appropriate that public attention should once more be drawn to this remarkable young woman, who grew up here, died and is buried here, though much of her life was spent elsewhere.
In September, 1959, a Japanese scholar, Professor Hideo Kawanami of the University of Osaka, arrived in Rochester. He came solely to find out more about Adelaide. In a Tokyo second-hand bookstore he had discovered a copy of her poems, was struck by a resemblance of her five-line stanza, called the cinquain, to a Japanese pattern called the tanka, and wished to trace the link between.
Dr. Kawanami spent several months at the River Campus, made the acquaintance of the Crapsey family, and collected material which he hopes to make into a book about Adelaide, with translations of some of her poems into Japanese. Among other missing links in the evidence was a book formerly belonging to Adelaide's library, containing translations by Yone Noguchi from the Japanese. The book itself had disappeared, but a copy in Adelaide's handwriting of two of the poems from it is among the papers. She had read many Japanese tankaand hokku, but did not copy them exactly. Her cinquain with twenty-two syllables in five lines in the order 2-4-6-8-2 has the extreme compression and geometrical symmetry of the oriental stanzas, but in spirit and form it is her own.
The Adelaide Crapsey Collection includes Adelaide's notebooks, work sheets, some of her letters, preliminary drafts of her work on metrics, letters addressed to her, scrapbooks containing reviews of her posthumously published first edition, letters of condolence and personal tributes from friends, and the several printed editions issued from 1915 to 1938. Any one examining these papers with any care cannot fail to see several aspects of this life which reveal courage, ambition, persistence, independence, and that pathos which accompanies a bold design left incomplete.
Her early verse was buoyant, joyous, even gay. As a student at Kemper Hall and at Vassar College, she impressed fellow students as quiet, swift of foot and thought, with a quixotic vein of humor; an independent nonconformist who might go a long way. She did.
As a graduate student at Smith College, where she came under the influence of Esther Lowenthal and the critical methods of Edith Rickert, there was increasing concentration on poetic form as a subject for inductive research. Under Miss Lowenthal's guidance she began to examine minutely the vocabulary of poetry from Milton and Pope to Tennyson and Swinburne. Selecting typical long poems, not scattered passages, she counted and computed the percentage of monosyllables, dissyllables, and polysyllables. These percentages, based on thousands of lines, were calculated to the second decimal place. The tables of that tedious research on pages 76-80 of "A Study in English Metrics" represent the factual basis of her theory about English metres before the age of free verse.
Along with this study of vocabulary, she marked major stresses or accents in each line for a study of rising and falling rhythms, based on exact figures rather than guesswork. She was studying technique, not aesthetic preferences or philosophical meanings. For that purpose Pope was as good as Keats, Tennyson better than Swinburne. Her own personal preferences had been acquired long before; this was an impartial objective approach.
Other qualities of verse, such as secondary accent, vowel pitch, liquid consonants, could also be counted by reading aloud and statistically recorded. All this apparently mechanical drudgery wore on her failing strength and finally had to be abandoned.
Such monotonous counting will never have to be done over again. This little lady in gray did her homework well.
Her own mature poems, including not only cinquains but many other measures, seem to have been deliberate attempts to combine difficult patterns with free and spontaneous expressions of feeling. She was not hampered but rather stimulated by the limitations of the particular medium chosen. Considering her variety of forms, her achievement can be compared with Emily Dickinson's only because Emily stuck pretty closely to the common metre, short metre, and long metre of the hymnbooks. Emily's range was so much wider, her life so much longer, her energy so superior, that the two are not in the same class.
Yet it is interesting, in examining these work sheets and experimental versions of Adelaide's verses, to see how hard she tried, how fastidiously she rejected the obvious and despised the trite. Some contemporary poets whose careless, formless ramblings disfigure the pages of certain magazines might well study the last years of a tired little woman, who would not give up the quest for perfection. She listened to wind and water, and followed an invisible guide.
Perhaps the most valuable piece in the collection is a handsomely leather-bound volume with large pages on which are skillfully mounted Adelaide's own fair copies of her verses. This is her "immortal residue."
Especially interesting is her exquisite minuscule script. With a fine pen she made letters no larger than six-point type, yet clear and graceful. There are hundreds of pages of this delicate writing. Microscopic economy of space where space was plenty, little whimsical tricks of style, like a double-curved 1 or a flourishing y -- it is like a fairy writing for an unseen friend. Some future reader of those secret traces may better understand the living and the dead.
Though her own family did not know she was writing poetry, one must not feel sorry for Adelaide. She had understanding friends, such as Jean Webster and Esther Lowenthal, such fellow pilgrims as Claude Bragdon and Nathaniel Schmidt. They knew her then better than we can know her now. We have her words; they met herself.
In "The Source" she explains why the water of life can be bitter, yet sweeter than thirst:
Drawn laughter from
A well of secret tears
And thence so elvish it rings, -- mocking
Many years ago, when Rochester seemed to have forgotten her, I used to linger by that little stone marked "Adelaide" in the Crapsey lot near the southeast corner of Mount Hope, where she was buried on an autumn afternoon forty-seven years ago. After I came home I wrote this requiem:
Here she rests
Who never rested,
Waits for time
That never came.
Here she speaks
For all the silent;
Hers the ashes,
Theirs the flame.
Here is beauty
Here the young
Never grows old.
On a sunny spring morning last April for the dedication of an aluminum plaque at the former Crapsey residence on Averill Avenue, this was my serener tribute to invisible presence:
HERE ONCE LIVED A POET
WHOSE EXQUISITE VERSES
DISCOVERED AFTER DEATH
REVEALED A SECRET LIFE
OF PASSIONATE DEVOTION
Beyond and above all such unanswerable questions is one more. It is hers, in a quatrain entitled "Safe":
Tell me when shall great Orion
Catch the flying Pleiades?