Sunday, February 14, 2016

Best College Verse, with a dash of Lovecraftians

The beginning of the Depression was not the best time to launch a new series collecting the best verse by college students. Yet Harper & Brothers did that, with Best College Verse 1931, edited by Jessie Rehder, with a preface by Christopher Morley, clocking in at over 320 pages.  There were no subsequent volumes, and I don't know how well (or how poorly) this volume did sales-wise, but contents-wise, it is remarkable in a number of ways.  There are as expected a lot of unrecognizable contributors, but some poems are by writers later to be famous, like Loren Eiseley, or by the children of writers who were already famous, like Christopher Gerould (son of Katharine Fullerton Gerould). I found it interesting to count three poets who were (or were soon to be) associated with H.P. Lovecraft. 

Pre-eminently there is Donald Wandrei, of the University of Minnesota, who contributed "Lyric of Doubt," a poems of four stanzas.  The first and last stanzas reads:

 She walks with stately grace.
  Her grave, gray eyes with beauty hide
    That has no counterpart in lands of time
Of space;
  And in her movements, languid charms abide. . . .
She walks with dust and dreams.
   All else is still the realm around,
      And she alone has beauty, grave and gay,
She seems
   A phantom of a kingdom of no sound.
Richard Ely Morse, of Amherst College and a correspondent of Lovecraft's, contributed two verses,both with macabre touches, but I here give only one of the poems, complete:

Down in the Orchard

"Down in the orchard
the grasses creep,
covering a grave
dug fair and deep.

"Down in the orchard
where nobody goes,
earth is over him
heard and toes.

"And nobody cares,
and nobody weeps,
for that bitter secret
the orchard keeps.

"While I sit safe
in a fire-lit room,
outside the wind
is cold as doom.

"Once to bed early
two filled with hate;
now I alone sit
when the hour is late,

"He cannot hurt me
any more,
he can only stare
at the worms that bore.

"A step upstairs, right over my head!
Who walks so late
When all are abed?

"The stairs go creak,
and the door goes crack;
who is that standing 
at my back?

"I dare not move, 
nor turn to see,
lest he should be staring
there at me. 

"But I am drawn
in a close embrace
by arms as thin
and white as lace;

"Arms that are more
bone than flesh—
my hair is over me
like a mesh;

"Golden and silken,
a shining coat;
closely it tightens
round my throat! . . . "

Down in the orchard
the grasses creep,
covering two graves
dug fair and deep.
Morse published one collection of verse, Winter Garden (1931), but this collection does not include "Down in the Orchard." 

The final poet with a Lovecraft association is Winfield Scott, of Brown University, better knows as Winfield Townley Scott, who though he did not know Lovecraft himself penned a perceptive account of him "His Own Most Fantastic Creation" which appeared in Marginalia (1944), edited by August Derleth and published by Arkham House.  Scott contributed three somewhat cosmic and slightly macabre poems to Best College Verse 1931 Here is one:

The Last Man

Slowly and painfully and all alone
He climbs the hill to watch the setting sun;
Sickly and pale and cold as ancient stone
Its final light on this remaining one. 
He watches it; where clouds were thick with rain
A rainbow glimmers—God's last mockery;
He hears below the dim edge of the plain,
Far off, the gradual stilling of the sea. 

Standing there, bowed before the thin green light,
He looks down were so many million souls
Set banners flying and went beating drums
And tended fires and sped abroad to fight,
All—all for causes over which dust rolls. 
The sun goes out, and the great darkness comes.

Strangely, I had expected to find some contributions herein by the prolific writer and poet August Derleth, then at college, but nothing by Derleth appears in the volume.


  1. I think Aug had already graduated and was out-of-state editing Mystic at the time. No longer a student, perhaps he didn't qualify...

  2. The book was published on May 6th, 1931, and Christopher Morley's Preface is dated February 1931. A comment on the dust-wrapper says that "The Poems included in this anthology were chosen from those submitted by boards in the various colleges." Thus the submissions likely took place in 1930. Derleth received his B.A. in 1930, probably around May/June, so one might think that he qualified. Anyway, I thought it possible.