Volume XXXVII · 1984
Adelaide Crapsey: "An Unconscious Imagist"
--SUSAN SUTTON SMITH
Adelaide Crapsey is remembered as the inventor of the cinquain, five unrhymed lines of varying stress, and for the distinctive compression of her best work. Editions of her poems were published in the twenties and thirties and she was praised by anthologist Louis Untermeyer as "an unconscious Imagist" (183) and by critic Yvor Winters as "a minor poet of great distinction" (329), but most anthologies of American poetry published after 1950, even those of women poets, omit her entirely.
Crapsey was born in Brooklyn Heights, September 9, 1878, third child and second daughter of the Reverend Algernon Sidney Crapsey, Episcopal minister, and Adelaide Trowbridge Crapsey. Her father became rector of St. Andrew's Church in Rochester, N.Y., in 1879, and six more Crapsey children were born in Rochester. Crapsey was an excellent student at public schools in Rochester (1884-1893), at Kemper Hall, an Episcopal boarding school in Kenosha, Wisconsin (1893-1897), and at Vassar College (1897-1901). At Vassar she managed several basketball teams, acted in plays (and wrote a farce), was class poet for three years, and in her senior year was editor-in-chief of the college yearbook. She was graduated with honors and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa. A fellow yearbook editor who was her best friend through college and after was Alice Jean Chandler Webster McKinney (1876-1916), who went on to write popular juvenile novels such as Daddy Long Legs and Dear Enemy. While Crapsey was in college, her eleven-year-old sister Ruth died, and Emily, the sister to whom she had been closest, died suddenly of appendicitis in 1901.
Adelaide Crapsey spent one year at home in Rochester, then taught history and literature at Kemper Hall (1902-1904), where she first considered the study of English prosody her serious scholarly pursuit. In 1903 she first felt the fatigue that was a symptom of her tuberculosis. She sailed for Europe in October 1904 and studied at the School of Archaeology in Rome until late 1905, working also as a guide. Two of Crapsey's early and bad poems, the uncharacteristic vers libre "Birth Moment" and "The Mother Exultant" are dated 1905. These cliché-ridden and derivative works were, however, included by the poet in the selection of her work, "Verse," made shortly before her death.
In 1905 she returned to Rochester and accompanied her father daily at his trial for heresy. (Dr. Crapsey, who was charged with denying the virgin birth, resigned from the church before he could be deposed in 1906.) Her older brother, Philip, died in 1907 of malaria contracted during his service in the Spanish-American War. In 1906-1908, Crapsey was an instructor of literature at a Connecticut preparatory school. Although she went with her father to the Hague Peace Conference and on a walking tour of Wales in 1907, the physical difficulties of her chronic disease increased, and in December 1908 she gave up teaching and returned to Europe, living in Rome, London, and Kent, and spending short periods in Fiesole and Paris.
Her great admiration for Landor and some success in emulating his compression are reflected in her elegy "To Walter Savage Landor" written at Fiesole in 1909:
Ah, Walter, where you lived I rue
These days come all too late for me;
What matter if her eyes are blue
Whose rival is Persephone?
Her elegy "John Keats (February 1820-February 1821)," dated "Rome 1909," reflects another life-long admiration and is probably her first successful poem. Its tight, stress-shaped lines evoke the Protestant Cemetery in Rome:
Rest. And you others. . All.
Green place. Here grows
Memorial every spring's
Fresh grass and here
Your marking monument
Was built for you long, long
Ago when Caius Cestius died.
The speaker addresses Keats and starkly conveys grief and empathy along with the bitterness of impending extinction that had prompted Keats to request the epitaph "Here lies one whose name was writ in water":
Yea, now, caught in
The aghast and voiceless pain
Of death, thyself doth watch
Thyself becoming naught.
Crapsey may already have suspected what her own death would be like; she achieves "a moving statement upon the universal dilemma of mortality" (Butscher 59).
During her entire stay in Europe, Crapsey was in poor health, yet was trying to live as cheaply as possible, on a pound a week in London. She ruefully marked her struggle with a Landor-like quatrain, "Expenses," dated "London, 1910":
Little my lacking fortunes show
For this to eat and that to wear;
Yet laughing, Soul, and gaily go!
An obol pays the Stygian fare.
At the British Museum reading room, she continued her studies in English prosody, the "application of phonetics to metrical problems." On 24 May 1910 she wrote happily to her family that she had received an encouraging letter from T. S. Omond, an English prosodist, who wanted her to publish some of her metrical studies in theModern Language Review. Finances prompted her return to America in February 1911 to become an instructor at Smith College, teaching "The Principles of Exposition" and "Poetics: A Critical Study of Verse Forms."
In the summer of 1911 her disease was identified as tuberculosis, but she kept this diagnosis to herself. Only when she collapsed, while visiting Jean Webster at Tyringham, Massachusetts, in July 1913, did her friends and family learn the truth. Only after she had gone to a private sanitarium in Saranac Lake, New York, in September 1913, and been forbidden to work on her "favorite literature" -- the metrical studies -- did she work seriously on her own poetry.
According to a friend and colleague, Crapsey "worked very hard at Smith both at her teaching and at the counting of syllables for the metrics" (Poems 10). Her metrical studies attempted to classify poets by comparing the percentage of one- or two-syllable words they used with the percentage of polysyllabic words they used. She hoped to develop a theory of the relation between natural accent and poetic accent in English verse; her interests in stresses on accents led to her development of the stress-shaped cinquain.
The cinquain, invented and named by Crapsey, is best defined as an unrhymed, five-line form "built on stresses, one for the first line, two for the second, three for the third, four for the fourth, with a drop back to one for the fifth line. In the poet's opinion, this made the most condensed metrical form in English that would hold together as a complete unit" (O'Connor 26-27).
Though she continued to think of her prosodic researches as her only serious work and apparently destroyed many of the poems she had written before 1911, regarding them merely as by-products of "the metrics," she also began making numerous copies of her poems at about this time. Although the chronology is not clear, and her biographer gives 1909 as the date of the first cinquain (Osborn 109), the earliest date on an extant cinquain is 1911, and Crapsey dates all the cinquains 1911-1913 in her 1914 collection "Verse."
Crapsey had been reading English translations of Japanese tanka and haiku as early as 1909, but she made her most extensive notes on Michel Revon's 1910 Anthologie de la Littérature Japonaise. Revon's sensitive translations and extensive notes on cultural background and meaning probably combined with Crapsey's own craftsmanship and her interest in accent to produce the new form.
The cinquain is accented and not syllabic, but it also resembles the haiku in its juxtaposition of images. Short as the haiku is, "it must contain two elements, usually divided by a break marked by what the Japanese call a 'cutting word' (kireji). One of the elements may be a general condition-the end of autumn, the stillness of the temple grounds, the darkening sea-and the other a momentary perception. The nature of the elements varies, but there should be the two electric poles between which the spark [the sudden perception of a truth which leads to enlightenment] will leap for the haiku to be effective" (Keene 40-41). Pound became one of the few Western poets to grasp this idea of "superposition" or "one idea set on top of another," which he explained in his 1914 article on "Vorticism," in the Fortnightly Review (467), but many imitators of both haiku and cinquain have not. Crapsey's finest cinquains, among them "Amaze," "Niagara," "Roma Aeterna," "November Night," and "Snow," involve a superposition of ideas or intersection between the eternal and the momentary, the motionless and the moving.
A cinquain such as "Amaze" exemplifies the restraint of Japanese poetry and something like the Imagists' striving to make poetry of concrete images rather than emotions:
Not these my hands
And yet I think there was
A woman like me once had hands
The contrasting elements seem to be a sudden confrontation between being and not being, yet there is contrast at the same time in the same spare images between the changing, physical hands of now and the unchanging hands of memory. Winters feels that the poem expresses "a sudden and almost hallucinatory realization that she is leaving life" (330). Butscher, while agreeing with Winters that "Amaze" is "the finest of Crapsey's poems in any form," feels that Winters is "injecting biographical knowledge too easily" (80). He emphasizes instead the universality of the cinquain:
Nature is excluded for a change, and a quiet, if dramatic, scene is hinted at, a woman staring at her own hands, an older woman contemplating older hands. They have grown alien to her, to her still-young mind, but she recognizes. . .a great truth about those hands and herself: the lines of descent, perhaps, through mother and grandmother and back through a family tree or even the broader concept of a line of female descent down through the ages of Eve. The past and present have been fused into a single entity and event, brilliantly so, but at a more subtle level the persona is still alienated from her own hands and, by interpretive extension, her physical, aging self. (80)
The same air of mystery, growing out of a characteristic distillation of starkly presented experiences or symbols, also marks the cinquains "Madness" and "The Warning."
In many cinquains, an underlying tension seems to contribute to a "break" or "jump" even sharper than that of the tanka and haiku. Crapsey considers the contrast of change and permanence, the momentary and the eternal, not in detached disinterest, but from a hospital bed that did, at Saranac Lake, look out upon a graveyard. Compressing and repressing the tension of her awareness into the cinquains gives them much of their force.
A more restrained variation on the theme of change and permanence sparks the perception of truth in the cinquain "Snow":
From bleakening hills
Blows down the light, first breath
Of wintry wind. . . look up, and scent
Here, one term in the contrast of time and timelessness is hardly mentioned: the unchanging hills are caught as they appear to change, "bleakening" in the dying light of a shorter day. The preponderance of breathy words of change--"blows," "breath," "wind," and "scent"-- gives to airy nothing an incongruous force, and this uncanny power is heightened by the acute perception that responds to the scent of imminent snow, capturing the sensations of an entire season in a single sharp detail.
Another instance of an acutely perceived natural detail whose tiny truth suggests an immensity occurs in "November Night":
With faint dry sound,
Like steps of passing ghosts,
The leaves, frost-crisp'd, break from the trees
The almost imperceptible sound of many leaves being detached and drifting downward (not the more often noted sound of their landing), reinforced by the onomatopoeia of repeated sibilants, suggests the innumerable changes, the innumerable tiny deaths, that make up the great changelessness and life of the seasonal cycle.
"Niagara Seen on a Night in November" crystalizes several contrasts in its brief space:
Above the bulk
Of crashing water hangs,
Autumnal, evanescent, wan,
Part of the fascination of this poem seems to lie in the discrepancy between the largeness of its subject -- the sound and motion of the moonlit cataract and the stillness of the satellite -- and the extreme compression of the poem surrounded by white space. It is an "eye poem," and the reader appreciates its spareness, suppleness, and brevity at a glance. Related characteristics of the cinquain, the variation in the length of its lines and in the number of their stresses, function to make this compression work: four lines of increasing length present something "Above the bulk / Of crashing water," with the longest line a group of adjectives as yet unattached to any noun, "Autumnal, evanescent, wan." The fifth line, abruptly decreasing in number of stresses and length, presents the second element of the scene, and the picture is all the more striking for the speed and restraint with which it has been created.
The restraint of the cinquains makes them noncommittal: many of the poems must be completed by the reader, and, like the best Japanese poems, they may suggest, should suggest, more than one truth. Brevity, suggestiveness, restraint, and blending of images characterize even cinquains that do not exhibit contrasting elements. Two of Crapsey's most often anthologized poems, "Triad" and "The Warning," build sinister signs into incantatory mysteries. "The Warning" conjures up a crepuscular sign:
Out of the strange
Still dusk . . as strange, as still . .
A white moth flew. Why am I grown
Butscher notes that "every word is monosyllabic, which compels a slow, deliberate reading, stresses an implacable design at work and adds to the sense of a dreaded mystery" (81). Before the speaker asks the final question, the reader senses that the warning is one of impending death: the fragmented similes of the third line seem to need death for their completion. "Dusk, moth, a chill," says Butscher, "her imagined shiver and childlike query, the person's awareness of the pattern, all combine into a felt awareness of self as a frail creature in a hostile environment" (81).
The speaker in "Triad" offers a charmlike concatenation of metaphors:
Three silent things:
The falling snow . . the hour
Before the dawn . . the mouth of one
Concreteness and restraint again combine to suggest much: the speaker's juxtaposition of three different kinds of things, three "silences," makes the reader react to, even protest, the flatness and finality of the statement. At first the list seems static, then the reader notes suggestions of process, deliberate markers of time: "fallingsnow," "the hour before the dawn," and "the mouth of one just dead." Teasing implications of meaning beyond haunt the apparently simple words: Does the snow bring death? Does the predawn hour suggest the traditionally lowest ebb of the human life force? Who speaks of the forever silent mouth? What does the gnomic linking of elements, time, and state of being signify?
Three additional cinquains, "Roma Aeterna," "Blue Hyacinths," and "Moon-shadows," show the poet's use of basic contrasts. "Roma Aeterna" contrasts the evanescent perceptions of the moment-the warmth of sunlight and the sound of birdsong-with the timeless, changeless presence of Rome's site and its mythical founder:
Is warm to-day,
O Romulus, and on
Thine olden Palatine the birds
Unfortunately the poet didn't feel that accent, vowel sounds, and pauses could convey the desired sense of age and stillness and reached for the antique poetic diction of "Thine olden."
The cinquain entitled "Blue Hyacinths" summons up another contrast between the transitory and the permanent:
Curled petals what ghosts
Of blue headlands and seas,
What perfumed immortal breath sighing
Here visual and olfactory images work toward the same end as the tactile and aural images of "Roma Aeterna": the color and scent of the living flowers are linked in imagery to the permanence of seas, headlands, and the idea of all things Greek. The ghosts conjured up include not only slain Hyacinthus but also Byron and Keats.
Another cinquain, "Susanna and the Elders," treats a Biblical story with deft irony:
You thus devise
Evil against her?" "For that
She is beautiful, delicate:
The unknown questioner elicits a brief answer that reveals age-long misogyny and implacable spite; the cinquain-dialogue chills the reader with fifteen words. Though Crapsey here uses Biblical material, she casts a cold eye on the motivations of the characters; none of her cinquains suggest a Christian perspective or any idea of an afterlife. Most cinquains evoke bleak landscapes of resignation; few convey hope.
"Moon-shadows" employs superposition and a single, sharply focused natural detail:
On windless nights
The moon-cast shadows are,
So still will be my heart when I
The visual image of the starkly etched moon-cast shadows becomes the metaphoric equal of the speaker's heart, but the deliberate statement suggests reflection or meditative statement rather than a covert appeal for pity.
Though few cinquains are dated, most were written between 1911 and 1914, and awareness of impending death underlies many. As Roy Fuller writes, "For some reason difficult to pin down, the form is effective, catchy, certainly bringing out the very best of its inventor's talent. It succeeds in a field where successful novelty is rare" (497). Butscher feels that "the invention of the cinquain was one certain way for the poet finally to express her obsession with death in a fashion that suited her preference for technical restraint, extreme compression." In this short form, Crapsey's interest in metrics and stress-shaped forms combines with the juxtaposition of images and a sensitivity to impressions drawn directly from life to add "a significant number of delightful lyrics to the store of American poetry" (91).
Three long poems and twenty-eight cinquains made up "Part I" of Crapsey's selection for her 1914 "Verse" manuscript; she chose thirty-seven "Additional Poems" for "Part II." This second group of poems, most of which were probably written during the last four years of her life, reflects her continuing experimentation with many verse forms and with every aspect of sound and structure. The most successful of these, "Song," was probably written before 1912, for a friend told Crapsey's biographer that she remembered the poet reciting it in the spring of that year "and then the vowel sounds alone to show the sequence of rising and falling tones" (Osborn 90). Like her beloved Keats, she makes music of mortality:
I make my shroud but no one knows,
So shimmering fine it is and fair,
With stitches set in even rows.
I make my shroud but no one knows.
In door-way where the lilac blows,
Humming a little wandering air,
I make my shroud and no one knows,
So shimmering fine it is and fair.
If "Song" began as an experiment with sounds, it succeeds because, like the best cinquains, it combines shapely form with a resistance to sentiment in dealing with its dark theme. Butscher says, "the brief poem manages to encapsulate the artist as a generic figure, heroic and pathetic, both a child and a sort of Everywoman gifted by a talent which must also encompass a constant awareness of death's steady advance" (93). The fine balance of shifting vowels and sibilants and the careful pattern of the rhymes suggest repression and containment, a master of control confronting inescapable death.
Another poem, "Lo, All the Way," recalls Christina Rossetti's "Uphill," comparing life to a journey. Again, as in "Song," the speaker refuses to give way when faced with her fate. She rejects the hope she herself has entertained of respite or reward:
Lo, all the way
Look you, I said, the clouds will break, the sky
Grow clear, the road
Be easier for my travelling, the fields,
So sodden and dead,
Will shimmer with new green and starry bloom,
And there will be,
There will be then, with all serene and fair,
Some little while
For some light laughter in the sun; and lo,
The journey's end,
Grey road, grey fields, wind and a bitter rain.
The sunshine, green grass, and white flowers of imagination give way to the sodden gray of reality: Stoic resignation seems the only possible response as the self faces extinction.
The same determination to reject hope and maintain a Stoic calm appears in "The Lonely Death":
In the cold I will rise, I will bathe
In waters of ice; myself
Will shiver, and shrive myself,
Alone in the dawn, and anoint
Forehead and feet and hands;
I will shutter the windows from light,
I will place in their sockets the four
Tall candles and set them a-flame
In the grey of the dawn; and myself
Will lay myself straight in my bed,
And draw the sheet under my chin.
Here, hope has been ruled out before the poem starts, and the speaker changes from images of a journey to those of a private rite, but the message of determined resignation remains the same. Like the Imagists she preceded, Crapsey rejects any direct appeal to emotion and relies on the presentation of concrete images for her efforts.
The images of "Lo, All the Way" and "The Lonely Death" may be drawn from Crapsey's 1913-1914 winter at Saranac Lake and her sickroom, but in these poems, as in her cinquains, the self masks anguish in art. In one long, autobiographical poem, "To the Dead in the GraveYard Under My Window: -Written in a Moment of Exasperation," her restraint breaks down and she expresses herself directly. In a dramatic monologue, the poem's persona addresses the dead and chides them for their acquiescence: "How can you lie so still?" "Oh, have you no rebellion in your bones?" (Poems 101) The poem is dated "Saranac Lake--November--1913" and its dramatic situation reproduces Crapsey's actual one. The private boarding house in which she lived from September 1913 until August 1914 overlooked a cemetery. The speaker's "moment of exasperation" allows her to ask
Why are you there in your straight row on row
Where I must ever see you from my bed
That in your mere dumb presence iterate
The text so weary in my ears: "Lie still
And rest; be patient and lie still and rest."
The rebellious answer, "I will not be patient! I will not lie still!" comes twice, and the speaker cries out against a meek, unprotesting surrender:
And if the many sayings of the wise
Teach of submission I will not submit
But with a spirit all unreconciled
Flash an unquenched defiance to the stars.
The first forty lines of the poem end with the repeated "I will not be patient. I will not lie still," and the monologue is succeeded by a reply from "the despot of our days and lord of dust," a "grim casual comment on rebellion's end":
"Yes; yes . . . Wilful and petulant but now
As dead and quiet as the others are."
And this each body and ghost of you hath heard
That in your graves do therefore lie so still.
The individual's resistance to death proves futile; passivity and silence must be the end. The informal diction and longer, freer line of the poem make it seem more modern than most of Crapsey's work. "Perhaps after all," says Roy Fuller, "it was simply bad luck she never crossed the frontier of the new country of art that had just begun to be opened up" (497).
In August 1914, financial difficulties prompted the poet to return to her family home in Rochester, and she died there October 8, a month after her thirty-sixth birthday.
Adelaide Crapsey's career as a poet ended before it began; all of her mature work was published posthumously. In looking to Japanese literature for models and in seeking to make poetry of concrete images, she anticipated the Imagists. Her personal and bleak view, modern in its lack of hope, finds expression in carefully crafted forms. Her reputation rests on seven or eight of the best cinquains, "Song," and "To the Dead in the Grave-Yard Under My Window." She calls the poems in "Verse" her "funeral urn," and her best poems have the edge a well-wrought urn always enjoys over a half-acre tomb.
- Butscher, Edward. Adelaide Crapsey (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1979).
- Crapsey, Adelaide. The Complete Poems and Collected Letters of Adelaide Crapsey. (Albany: SUNY Press, 1977).
- Fuller, Roy, "Stressing the Technicalities," TLS, 3970 (5 May 1978): 497.
- Keene, Donald. Japanese Literature: An Introduction for Western Readers. (New York: Grove Press, 1955).
- O'Connor, Mary Edwardine. "Adelaide Crapsey: A Biographical Study." Master's thesis, University of Notre Dame, 1931.
- Osborn, Mary Elizabeth. Adelaide Crapsey. (Boston: Bruce Humphries, 1933).
- Winters, Yvor. Forms of Discovery. (Chicago: Allan Swallow, 1967), 568.
- Adelaide Crapsey Papers. University of Rochester Library. Rochester, New York. This collection includes most of Crapsey's extant poetry manuscripts and letters, along with photographs and memorabilia.
- Jean Webster Papers. Vassar College Library. Poughkeepsie, New York. This collection includes some Crapsey manuscripts and some Jean Webster letters concerning Crapsey.