An American Millenium: Vachel Lindsay and the Poetics of Stargazing

Uploaded 29 May 1998 | Updated 31 July 1998

© This article is a condensed version of the first chapter from Goldstein, Laurence (1994)The American Poet at the Movies: A Critical History, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan. You are invited to visit the Press’s website:.

Vachel Lindsay was reaching the height of his powers when he began to consider the movies as something more than mere recreation. In 1912, at age thirty-two, he tramped the western states trading poems for bread and absorbing with his meals the spiritual hunger of fieldhands, small-town shopkeepers, factory workers;all the simple folk Whitman had claimed as his constituency. While in Los Angeles Lindsay wrote the poem that established his reputation, “General William Booth Enters into Heaven.” This tribute to the founder of the Salvation Army was published in the fourth number of Harriet Monroe’s magazine Poetry in January of 1913 and became the title work of Lindsay’s first important volume later that year. After the fall of 1914, when The Congo and Other Poems appeared from Macmillan, and Adventures While Preaching the Gospel of Beauty from Mitchell Kennerley, Lindsay was a star of the first magnitude. Shortly before his suicide in 1931 he would look back nostalgically at “that famous 1912 New Poetry Fire kindled by the good and great Harriet Monroe” [1] : at Edgar Lee Masters, who would be his first biographer, at Edna St. Vincent Millay’s premier volume Renascence, at Ezra Pound’s and Amy Lowell’s sponsorship of Imagism, at Robert Frost’s first appearance in England and Carl Sandburg’s muscular poems about Chicago. But better known than any of these was Lindsay himself, who would be featured by the ever-vigilant Sinclair Lewis in his novel Free Air (1919) as the epitome of American poetic genius and invited throughout the jazz age to declaim his poems in manic performances across the country.

Of all this contemporaries in the poetry world, Lindsay was singular in one respect: “I am the one poet who has a right to claim for his muses Blanche Sweet, Mary Pickford , and Mae Marsh.” [2]  Lindsay was infatuated with the movies, like the rest of America, and without a thought for the indecorousness of doing so he incorporated them into his work and into his public image. He wrote poems about the actresses named above, and about John Bunny, and about the “restless Kinetoscope vigils” he kept with acquaintances on the road. [3]  In 1915 he published the first book of film theory in the English language, The Art of the Moving Picture, which was reprinted in 1916 before a second edition appeared in 1922. D. W. Griffith appreciated Lindsay’s praise and invited the poet to be his guest at a screening of Intolerance. In letters of that period Lindsay discerns his influence on that work of “Epic Poetry,” as he called it, though film critics, beginning with Eisenstein, pointed to more obvious sources like Victorian melodrama, the novels of Dickens, and, if poetry must be mentioned, Shakespeare. As college courses gradually adopted Lindsay’s pioneering commentary, he continued to discourse on the subject, briefly as the first film reviewer for the New Republic. He authored a second book of film criticism, never published, in which he applied his theories to films like The Thief of BagdadScaramouchePeter PanThe Covered WagonMonsieur Beaucaire, and Merton of the Movies. Lindsay claimed with justice that he was the one poet of the silent period who could speak with authority about the two mediums. When in 1925 the University of California asked him to teach a course in Los Angeles, he proposed “Movies and Poems.” [4] Who else of his contemporaries could have taught such a course?

If we ask why it is that Nicholas Vachel Lindsay, the physician’s son from Springfield, Illinois, should be the most noteworthy poet in the first two decades of this century to treat the cinema in verse, we confront a knot of explanatory data not easily untangled. First, there is the problem of conflicting opinion about film as art in Lindsay’s generation. Film was routinely condemned by artists and intellectuals for its inane story lines and its vulgar appeal to the lower classes. A typical case against film that attracted Lindsay’s attention and influenced his arguments in The Art of the Moving Picture was an essay by Walter Prichard Eaton, a newspaperman and afterward a professor of theater at Yale. Titled “Class-Consciousness at the Movies,” the essay argued that films were limited in quality because of the low educational level and unrefined taste of the proletarian audiences. Eaton compared the crude sensationalism of films with current theatrical works, which could and did assume a more literate and sophisticated public. He pronounced the film play “infinitely inferior” and “spiritually stultifying.” [5]  In the same spirit Ezra Pound noticed the new medium long enough to castigate mass vulgarity in Hugh Selwyn Mauberley (1920) as a “prose kinema” that militated against the sculpted beauty of great literature. “The age demanded an image / Of its accelerated grimace,” sneered the inventor of vorticism. Sympathetic to photography, Pound drew the line at moving pictures, except as he could use their undeniable narrative possibilities as a stick to beat narrative poets with. In the heyday of “flickers,” the movie seemed to the heirs of Matthew Arnold, the self-appointed custodians of a rich humanistic tradition, closer to anarchy than culture.

Even to mention Pound and Arnold, however, is to half explain why Lindsay gravitated to a defense of the new medium. By upbringing and temperament Lindsay disdained the eastern seaboard and elite Old World standards of taste. His populist sensibility led him to embrace not only the astonishing innovations of modern technology;the flying machine, the automobile, the skyscraper;but vulgate forms like the billboard and the comic strip as eruptions of the common language into a moribund world of refined discourse. He was attracted on the visceral level to movies, and on an intellectual level to the claims of filmmakers that film constituted a revolutionary art. Griffith proclaimed in 1915 that because of film “the human race will think more rapidly, more intelligently, than it ever did. It will see everything&emdash;positively everything.” [6] With the knowledge provided by the universality of gesture and story, audiences of silent film would gather to themselves a power they could wield against the cultural and socioeconomic hegemony of Old World hierarchies. A scenario-writing guidebook of the later teens and 1920s put it this way:

Film has all of the fascinating charm of youth. It belongs to the new order. It thrills with the latest creative impulses. It is democracy. It speaks the universal language and belongs to all classes, all races and all nations. Someone has said that the last century discovered electricity, and that this century would discover life. [7]

An article from a 1913 issue of Moving Picture World expresses the same sentiment:

The motion picture has emancipated the gallery. I might say the gallery is having its revenge on the boxes and loges, but there is no question of revenge. The facts merely show that no single factor in our modern civilization has done more to emphasize the brotherhood of man than the motion picture. No single factor has done more to create that sympathetic understanding between individuals and nations which is really an asset of the whole race and which does more for the preservation of peace among the nations that The Hague Tribunal or the Peace Society. [8]

In such manifestos, which could be quoted indefinitely, we find what has been called “the solar myth” of the Enlightenment, culminating in the early phase of the French Revolution. Just as the Enlightenment seemed to its early advocates a glorious conquest of the darkness of tyranny and superstition, so “Edison’s goodliest toy,” as Lindsay called it (2:740), promised a new dawn in which nations and peoples would link hearts and minds in millennial solidarity.

Lindsay’s poem on Mae Marsh, then, is prophetic in the strict sense, a poem written by one who offers revelation to a class of people in need of enlightenment. The choice of Mae Marsh;and of Blanche Sweet and Mary Pickford;represents the first of what would become a tradition of actresses cast by poets for this redemptive role. Lindsay is entirely conscious of the cultic significance he is investing in the maidenly Mae Marsh. Much of his poetry before and after 1917 is devoted to the revered figure of a semidivine woman who exercises supreme power over a worshipful community. His favorite subject is the Virgin Mary, both as Christian literature imagines her and as she was more recently represented in the writings of Henry Adams. Though Lindsay resented the snob medievalism (as he saw it) of Adams’s fondness for Old World cathedrals, he would have understood the lament in Adams’s autobiography about the sense of emptiness he experienced in the Hall of the Dynamos at the 1900 Paris Exposition. Before technological progress harnesses human will to worship of the dynamo, Adams noted, the goddess had captivated whole societies by her imperial presence. The Virgin embodied the ultimate force imaginable, the force of sexuality and reproduction, and as mother of Christ the force fundamental to the creation and dissolution of all things. But according to Adams, “in America neither Venus nor Virgin ever had value as force ….The woman had once been supreme; in France she still seemed potent, not merely as a sentiment but as a force. Why was she unknown in America?” [9]  Lindsay answers this question by locating the enthralling power of the “madonna” in her New World incarnation. Moreover, as a product of technological progress the cinema reconciles Virgin and dynamo, the “dew flower” and “hot lamp.” The motion picture industry, by extension, becomes a secular church devoted to the perpetual re-creation and adoration of the love goddess&emdash;a responsibility gladly embraced by the studios once they realized that their own power would be enhanced by a star system and star vehicles.

Indeed, the naming of Mae Marsh in the poem’s title is an act of prime significance. Only a few years before the poem’s composition movie actresses, unlike stage personalities, either worked without credit or with titles like the Biograph Girl (Florence Lawrence) and the Vitagraph Girl (Florence Turner) that subordinated their identities to the institution that employed them. After 1909, for a variety of reasons, film actors began to be named by the studios and glorified in publicity articles that stimulated moviegoers to compulsive star-gazing. The subtitle of Lindsay’s poem is important because it identifies Mae Marsh as a recognizable personality in many films, an intertextual agent with a special relationship to the loyal fan. “The more films the spectator saw,” Richard deCordova remarks, “and the more she or he focused on the actors, the richer the associations would be. The fame of the picture personality was something the audience could feel it was actively participating in.” [10] The connection of actress to authorship, then, goes beyond being “kin to the myriad artist clan,” as Lindsay asserts in his poem. Lindsay calls attention to his own unique vision by a glowing close-up in imitation of Griffith’s practice, and he does so to make the same bid for recognition and reward in the marketplace. Lindsay gladly granted Griffith importance as an auteur, but in his verse he asserted his claim that the relation of the spectator to the actress is the primary and essential experience of cinema, obligating the poet to mix his welcome of the new medium with a fan’s devotion to the self-defining figures so recently nominated by Hollywood for adoration.

The naming of Mary Pickford in Lindsay’s other poem cinches the connection with the Virgin even tighter. In his prose book of 1915 Lindsay had argued the “the people are hungry for this fine and spiritual thing that Botticelli painted in the faces of his muses and heavenly creatures. Because the mob catch the very glimpse of it in Mary’s face, they follow her night after night in the films.” [11]  This Mary is more than America’s sweetheart; she is a fantasy intermediary between moviegoers and the higher creative powers located in the Golden State. When Mary Pickford married Douglas Fairbanks, Lindsay’s favorite actor, Lindsay declared Pickfair, their joint estate, the heavenly Olympus of the American nation, worthier of fealty than cities like New York and Boston hallowed by literary traditions.

If Lindsay was inspired by the virgin-heroines of Griffith and early filmmakers, it must be said also that he had disciplined himself to receive the glory of such a vision when it occurred. What he called his “Hothouse Period” of adolescence was devoted to the romantic proposition that, as one early poem puts it, women are stars of the heart. “I am on my knees to woman, because she is mysterious,” says another poem, and continues: “O woman, to you I build myriad altars …. Let me never forget that woman is holy” (1:3). Lindsay did not need Freud to explain this obsession: “All of you smile the mother smile” (1:6-7). A celibate poet who filled his work with imagery of fairyland, magic, sorcery, and the miracles of children’s literature, Lindsay embodied his hunger for beauty in the Eternal Feminine as manifested both in women of his own time;film actresses, Anna Pavlova, Isadora Duncan, Sara Teasdale (whom he wooed and lost);and in women of history like Joan of Arc, Cleopatra, and Queen Elizabeth as Gloriana. Often his poems become erotic fantasies in which he costars, in propria persona or in transparent disguise, with one of these glamorous creatures. “A Doll’s ‘Arabian Nights‘” (1919), for example, is subtitled “A Rhymed Scenario for Mae Marsh, when she acts in the new many-colored films.” In this poem Lindsay escapes his spectatorial status and mingles with the actress of his dreams. “I walked into the screen,” he writes will before Buster Keaton does so in Sherlock Jr. (1924). “Like Alice through the looking glass, / I found a curious scene”;and by the time this interactive story is finished he has become a sultan and won the lady (1:369-72).

In Lindsay’s poem the “madonna” becomes an idol of the community spirit, though she calls her followers to a destiny beyond the confines of conventional society. A modern sphinx, this remote, untouchable image offers itself as a reminder of man’s immemorial desire. She is both more fundamental than civilization and a symboliste dream of the pleasure that civilization might bestow in some transfigured, utopian form. Lindsay’s opposition of the “gloating mobs” to the proud female image reflects Griffith’s use of Mae Marsh as the virginal symbol of the frail virtues that barbarism seeks to violate. In Man’s Genesis she is the prehistoric cave girl Lilywhite beloved by Weakhands, a protointellectual who saves her from the bestial clutches of a caveman named Bruteforce. In Birth of a Nation she is the innocent Little Sister who leaps to her death rather than be ravished by a black renegade. In Intolerance she is Dear One, the patient and virtuous wife and mother enduring her husband’s unjust imprisonment. She is too good for the mob, which is why it desires her. Lindsay discovered on the road that Americans hungered for an undefiled beauty, the kind that only presences like Mae Marsh could satisfy. He wrote in his film book: “If it is the conviction of serious minds that the mass of men shall never again see pictures out of Heaven except through such mediums as the kinetoscope lens, let all the higher forces of our land courageously lay hold upon this thing that saves us from perpetual spiritual blindness.” [12] If executives of the movie companies read Lindsay’s prose, and his poems, they must have rejoiced to hear these words. They did what he told them; they built more theaters and produced more films to carry compelling faces like Mae Marsh’s across the country.

If Lindsay is a minor poet it is in part because he did not analyze the psychological and sociological effects of such enthusiastic utterances. When the heat is turned up on the “romance-fire” of cinema sexuality, who gets burned? The question does not occur to Lindsay because he is focused so entirely upon the innocent doll figures of Mary Pickford and Mae Marsh. Griffith’s treatment of Mae Marsh was certainly less innocent that Lindsay understood. Molly Haskell calls his use of girl actresses “nympholeptic,” part of the tradition of leering perversity encouraged by the camera eye’s intrusive peeking into private spaces of adolescent female sexuality. Marjorie Rosen likewise comments on Griffith’s “nymphophilia,” as expressed, for example, in his insistence that Mae Marsh appear with limbs exposed in The Sands of Dee, and that another actress forego panties to enhance her sex appeal. [13]

One anecdote on this topic is irresistible. Anita Loos, a scenario writer for Griffith in the late teens and a good friend of Mae Marsh, tells of the actress’s anxiety about fan letters she received from Lindsay. She felt that out of common politeness she needed to respond his ardent tributes. “‘But,’ said Mae, ‘I wouldn’t know what to say to such an intellectual gink.'” In Cyrano de Bergerac fashion, Loos wrote return letters to Lindsay over Mae Marsh’s signature, until finally the lovesick poet arranged a meeting with the actress (and Loos as chaperone) in Loos’s New York apartment, formerly a brothel and still floridly decorated. When Lindsay appeared, Loos reports, “He resembled neither Byron nor Shelley. From head to toe he failed to conform …. The most accurate image I can conjure of poor darling Vachel is that of a red-headed ventriloquist dummy called Mortimer Snerd.” Though Lindsay overwhelmed them in a rush of eloquence, he could not persuade Mae Marsh to retire with him to Springfield. This Chaplinesque incident might have served a more sophisticated writer, like the Eliot of “Portrait of a Lady,” as the source of a self-mocking modernist piece. But Lindsay could not step back from the comic scene and listen with an unromantic ear to his flourishes of rhetoric. [14]

Indeed a significant constraint on Lindsay’s encomiastic poem is the conventionality of its style. His philosophy of beauty inherited from Poe and Pre-Raphaelite models inclined him toward the melodious quatrains, the refrain, the monotonous iambics and the mild rhymes of “Mae Marsh,” rather than the dynamic kinesis of his more famous lyrics. When Lindsay celebrated masculine personalities in the public sphere, he wrote with a wild freedom. In “Bryan, Bryan, Bryan, Bryan,” for example, the American idiom refreshes his enthusiastic praise; he places the fiery orator among “The plop-eyed bungaroo and giant giassicus / … The rakaboor, the hellangone, / The whangdoodle, batfowl and pig.” Animal nature of every kind seems to rise up in the poem with the energy of a new language in order to aid Bryan’s attempts to smash the eastern establishment. The buoyant spirits and revolutionary fervor of Bryan’s 1896 appearance in Springfield are enacted in the oral flourishes of the varied lines. This is the syncopated verse that roused audiences who spent their evenings watching Chaplin shorts and the Keystone Kops. But Lindsay’s pietistic devotion to film actresses mandated a more conventional structure; likewise, his memorial poem on the slapstick comic John Bunny has the heightened diction appropriate for the elegiac mode. Only in private correspondence could Lindsay see Mae Marsh and Mary Pickford plain, as ordinary and not very interesting people with pretty faces rather than as icons of the infinite.

Lindsay’s high style reflected his belief that the ages had chosen him (no Whitman) to be the American bard who would reveal what he called “the secret of democratic beauty.” [15]  The adjective is crucial, for it separates his quest from that of contemporaries like Pound and Eliot, who considered democracy and beauty incompatible. Lindsay searched through history for models of the new order he wised to imagine into being by poems like the one on Mae Marsh. He claimed that the old beauty had been democratic too. Cro-Magnon cave painting;a discovery of Lindsay’s generation;had conveyed to the tribe charismatic models of beauty and power. The men who “carved the sphinx austere” had presented to a wondering public the most compelling visual images of the preclassical age. Democratic art, in Lindsay’s view, must be nonliterate, the art of pictures, or, in verbal expression, the “Higher Vaudeville” (as he termed it) of oral recitation. As Pound discovered in the Chinese written character a model of precise description, so Lindsay turned to Egyptian hieroglyphics for a universal alphabet based on pictures which could restore to man the powers of precise expression of which abstraction had deprived him. Egyptian art preserves the secret of beauty in visual form available to all. And one could say that the massive effort required to erect the pyramids and sphinx represented a universal participation in the mysteries, as Henry Adams claimed for the erection of the great European cathedrals.

Lindsay began his career as an artist, and never ceased to insist that his poems were pictures, or hieroglyphs, comparable to the stained glass of Chartres or the pictorial language of the pyramids. Like Blake, he designed books in which graphics and text were combined for occult visual effects. In an introduction to his Collected Poems he wrote mystically of the hieroglyph as “the minute single cell of our thought,” a new visual alphabet for a symbolic language inspired by the movies. “The reason I am so mad over hieroglyphics,” he remarked in a letter, “is simply that I am movie saturated …. Such move training is a surprising initiation into the whole Egyptian psychology of hieroglyphics.” [16]  Because this connection did not take in the history of modern poetry, and has been treated as little more than debased Imagism, we may miss its principal function as a means of justifying the movie scenarios Lindsay versified in his later years. By the late 1920s, however, there is evidence that Lindsay was trying to free himself from his obsession with visual media. This is a period when he wrote no poems about movie figures. “We are sweeping into new times,” he remarked in his unpublished movie book, “in which the eye is invading the province of the ear, and in which pictures are crowding all literature to the wall, and if some of the dressed-up steerage passengers had their way, they would crowd all history to the wall” (22). Similar sentiments in his letters from the early teens indicate that Lindsay felt intermittently that films were a threat as well as a blessing, and that poets must not be so drawn into the maelstrom of their appeal that they lose the ability to sustain an independent voice, a vision creative of, but not entirely created by, popular culture.

(Who, parenthetically, are the “steerage passengers” that threaten to extinguish history from modern consciousness? In such a phrase we glimpse the xenophobia that is the dark side of Lindsay’s mid-western patriotism. The context suggest that Lindsay is thinking of immigrants like Adolph Zukor, Carl Laemmle, and Samuel Goldwyn, that is, movie producers who were the agents of revolutionary change Lindsay elsewhere celebrated. A late essay complains about the “smutty” films of the 1920s and lays the blame for their sinfulness on the producers: “The movie men, poisoned by easy money, have lock jaw of the mind. I, for one, will be delighted if they are tied up one and all, and fed through a tube called Censorship. It will do them good. No, there are no exceptions.” ) [17]

Lindsay, like many other writers of the teens and 1920s, held contradictory opinions about the dynamism of a mass society serviced by popular media. On the one hand, he was appalled by the Brownian motion of citizens caught up in a frenzy of getting, spending, and recreating. He saw this hectic activity reflected in the “speeded-up, unreasoning hieroglyphics” of silent film, with its montage of often loosely organized images. As an expression of a materialistic civilization, the movies threatened to degenerate into a “lavish department-store basement gone wrong” and the spectator’s mind into “a Ringling circus, a gigantic spectacle but not set in order, not harmonized by a stage manager” (24-25). Whitman had exerted his poetic powers to contain and order the prolific spectacle of commodified behaviors and objects by means of his catalogs and the inspired sequencing of his discrete impressions. But Lindsay saw himself and contemporary poets in danger of being overwhelmed by the anarchic conditions of modernity signified by the moving pictures of the Roaring Twenties.

Where Whitman called the United States the greatest poem, offering himself as equal to the task of apprehending and articulating its structure, Lindsay states as “my general proposition that the United States is a great movie …. All American history past, present and to come, is a gigantic movie with a Pilgrim’s Progress or hurdle race plot” (130, 205). This significance of such statements can hardly be overestimated. If history is imagined as a purely visual structure, then the bardic ambition of Whitman and Lindsay must yield to the “fine director’s hand” capable of rendering that history in its appropriate form. However concerned he is about history and poetry being pushed to the wall by the triumph of movies, Lindsay defers to artists like Griffith who aspired to become the sole interpreters of American experience, and by doing so make verbal literature superfluous. Here are sample comments by Griffith from an interview of 1915.

[Audiences have the good old American faculty of wanting to be “shown” things. We don’t “talk” about things happening, or describe how a thing looks; we actually show it; vividly, completely, convincingly. It is the ever-present, realistic, actual now that “gets” the great American public, and nothing ever devised by the mind of man can show it like moving pictures.
The time will come, and in less than ten years … where the children in the public schools will be taught practically everything by moving pictures. Certainly they will never be obliged to read history again. [18]

There is nothing surprising in Griffith’s ambition to marginalize historiography and literature in favor of his own technics. But Lindsay’s acceptance of a diminished role for poetry in the volatile, often disordered movie scenario of American history testifies to his decreasing confidence in the legitimacy of his enterprise, indeed of his professional life.

In Lindsay’s oscillating feelings about the art of the cinema we see the paradigm for many poets to come. Sensing in himself the evacuation of that old-time religion, and of the Romantic worldview as well, Lindsay played the role of some new John the Baptist heralding the coming of a liberating spiritual force that would weld together the American Zion into a joyful and entirely modern civilization. As a spectator Lindsay could participate in the new mysteries, and he documented his affinity for the art of surfaces all the way into the sound era, hailing Broadway Melody as a satisfying entertainment in one of his last commentaries on film.. As a poet, however, he felt himself increasingly estranged from the culture as it followed hi lead in situating movies at the center of national life. The more keenly he felt himself an outsider, the more he sought out movies to assuage his lonely separation from the common fold who no longer cared for his poetry. On his last unsuccessful reading tours on the East Coast he went to the movies compulsively, in every town and village, rejoicing in the thought that somewhere in the West a new imagination of history was being created. “Hollywood is the real American capitol, not Washington D.C.”(13), he wrote. Hollywood was the promised land he never revisited before he took his life in Springfield, the city of Lincoln.

The Whitmanian dream of American literature is that space might replace time, that the linkages between place and place;railroads, canals, telegraph lines, bridges;might usurp the time cycles of events as principal facts of everyday consciousness. In claiming that Mae Marsh and her descendants would penetrate every local community and bring them joy and wisdom, Lindsay made their presences one with the “orchard god” Johnny Appleseed, whom he apotheosized in poem and tract as a democratic Christ. The growth of Southern California as a moviemaking center served Lindsay’s mythology, for it perpetuated the westering impulse of pioneers who decentered the nineteenth-century sites of American power in favor of the frontier. Lindsay affirmed that “Edison is the new Gutenberg. He has invented the new printing. The state that realizes this may lead the soul of America, day after tomorrow.” [19]  Los Angeles would achieve in artistic terms what according to Lindsay the Panama Canal had accomplished in 1915; his commemorative poem is titled “The Wedding of the Rose and the Lotus.” The last westward drive, in Lindsay’s own time, had found the most convenient passage to India, and Los Angeles deserved to succeed the European and eastern American cities as the fulcrum of a new world empire.

In effect, then, Lindsay announced “An American Millennium,” to use a phrase from his poem on Alexander Campbell, founder of the Disciples of Christ in the nineteenth century (1:406). Lindsay’s family belonged to this church and raised Nicholas Vachel to be on the lookout for signs and wonders that would fulfill the hopes invested in the New World by the centuries. Lindsay was not the only poet to recognize in cinema the agency of a continuing Enlightenment. One of John Berryman’s earliest published poems, “Homage to Film” (1940), begins:

The sun of another medium
Comes up the East, mechanical
As an art, slow, but it will come
Faster and at last find
Its noon an Argus brain that shall
Center all complexities in mind.

Berryman praises the Dionysian qualities of film, its ability to release “ecstasy in the bone / Of all men always, in city, / Hills or in a wilderness of stone.” [20]  Film refreshes the exhausted spirit in the waste land by organizing, or centering, the capacity for love and joy. Berryman, too, backed away from the implications of such an apocalyptic claim, one that would obligate him to greater homage than he was prepared, then or ever, to offer the new medium. His next great “Homage” was to another originary figure, whom he featured in a book-length poem sixteen years later. Anne Bradstreet, the first American poet, becomes his inspirational object of devotion. Lindsay found no muse of poetry to sustain his later career, though he tried in the 1920s to find a successor to Mae Marsh and Mary Pickford, too womanly by then to serve as his Beatrice and (Virgin) Mary. “There is emerging a motion picture Muse,” he wrote hopefully in the late 1920s, “a somewhat abstract lady, no doubt, but she is in many ways a sister of Mary Pickford” (222). He was attracted to Bebe Daniels but decided she didn’t qualify, and finally he left the position vacant. He would not have felt comfortable predicating a new age on the likes of Clara Bow, Gloria Swanson, or Joan Crawford.

“Mae Marsh” follows the analogy of Egypt to its melancholy conclusion, a significant difference from the optimistic final chapters of The Art of the Moving Picture. And yet “The deep new ages” that come with Mae Marsh, though she herself be buried by them, will owe their luster to her contribution. Because of the corrosive chemistry of nitrate stock, Mae Marsh seemed in 1917 unlikely to survive “ten thousand years” except as a name, a Romantic image on stills or pottery, an object of regard in poems like this one. Ironically, she has been preserved and lovingly retouched and restored by film historians, and by a growing audience enamored of silent film, while most of Lindsay’s mythmaking has been buried by the custodians of the modern tradition in literature. His poems and prose urging the gospel of beauty as a response to the spiritual crisis of his era have mingled with the dust of other new-century modes of edifying literature. But this modest poem survives as a memorial of the country’s first heady engagement with “today’s divine surprise.”


[1] Letters of Vachel Lindsay, ed. March Chenetier (New York: Burt Franklin & Co., 1979), 455.
[2] Vachel Lindsay, Art of the Moving Picture, 2d ed (1922; rpt. New York: Liveright, 1970), 4.
[3] The Poetry of Vachel Lindsay, complete & with Lindsay’s drawings, 3 vols., ed. Dennis Camp (Peoria: Spoon River Poetry Press, 1984), 2:740. All citations of Lindsay’s poems are to this edition and are given in the text.
[4] Letters, 336.
[5] See the discussion in Letters, 121-22. An editorial in the Nation pronounced in 1913 that movies warranted “little thought and not critical attention.” See Michael Pressler, “Poet and Professor on the Movies,”Gettysburg Review 4 , no. 1 (Winter 1991): 164. Later in the silent era George Jean Nathan repeated the charge: “The movies are presently handicapped by the circumstance that they must all be fashioned with a single type of audience in mind, and that type the lowest.” The World of George Jean Nathan , ed. Charles Angoff (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1952), 460.
[6] Cited in Harry M. Geduld, ed. Focus on D. W. Griffith (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1971), 34.
[7] Frederic Palmer, Palmer Plan Handbook: An Elementary Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Photoplay Scenario Writing According to Present Day Standards as Recognized and Employed by Successful Photo-Dramatists, 2d ed. (Hollywood: Palmer Photoplay Corporation, 1922), 1:9.
[8] Cited in Stanley Kauffmann with Bruce Henstell, eds., American Film Criticism: From the Beginnings to Citizen Kane (New York: Liveright, 1972), 68.
[9] Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams(Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1961), 383-84.
[10] Richard deCordova,Picture Personalities: The Emergence of the Star System in America (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990), 51.
[11] Lindsay, Art of the Moving Picture, 56.
[12] Lindsay, Art of the Moving Picture, 299.
[13] Marjorie Rosen,Popcorn Venus (New York: Avon, 1974), 45. For an analysis of Mae Marsh’s coquettish and flirtatious behavior (before marriage) in The Mother and the Law, in which madonna worship is coupled ambiguously with “unmistakably incestuous overtones,” see Miriam Hansen, Babel & Babylon: Spectatorship in American Silent Film(Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 151.
[14] Anita Loos, “A Poet in Love,” in Fate Keeps on Happening: Adventures of Lorelei Lee and Other Writings, ed. Ray Pierre Corsini (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1984), 162-65.
[15] Vachel Lindsay,Adventures: Rhymes and Designs (New York: Eakins Press, 1968), 52.
[16] Cited in Glenn Joseph Wolfe, Vachel Lindsay: The Poet as Film Theorist (New York: Arno Press, 1973), 135. He wrote in his unpublished manuscript, “To the movie fan, Egypt still exists. The Egyptian Theatre at Hollywood is a sort of beginning shrine, a sort of temple to them” (90-91). The unpublished manuscript, “The Greatest Movie Now Running,” is in the Clifton Waller Barrett Collection, Alderman Library, University of Virginia, 22. Page numbers in parentheses in the remainder of this chapter refer to this manuscript.
[17] “A Special Delivery Letter to My Particular Friends,” box no. 16 of Lindsay archives, University of Virginia.
[18] Geduld, Focus on D. W. Griffith, 34.
[19] Lindsay, Art of the Moving Picture, 251-52.
[20] John Berryman, “Homage to Film” The Southern Review 5, no. 4 (Spring 1940): 773.

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Laurence Goldstein

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Laurence Goldstein

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