Verse > Anthologies > Harriet Monroe, ed. > Poetry: A Magazine of Verse, 1912–22
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Harriet Monroe, ed. (1860–1936).  Poetry: A Magazine of Verse.  1912–22.
 
George Joslin on “La Menken”
By Edgar Lee Masters
 
From “Domesday Book”

HERE, Coroner Merival, look at this picture!
Whom does it look like? Eyes too crystalline,
A head like Byron’s, tender mouth, and neck
Slender and white, a pathos as of smiles
And tears kept back by courage. Yes, you know;        5
It looks like Eleanor Murray.
                          Well, you see
I read each day about the inquest—good.
Dig out the truth, begin a system here
Of making family records, let us see
If we can do for people, when we know        10
How best to do it, what is done for stock;
So build up Illinois, the nation too.
I read about you daily. And last night
When Eleanor Murray’s picture in the Times
Looked at me, I began to think, “Good Lord,        15
Where have I seen that face before?” I thought
Through more than fifty years departed, sent
My mind through Europe and America—
In all my travels, meetings, episodes.
I could not think. At last I opened up        20
A box of pamphlets, photographs, mementos,
Picked up since 1860; and behold—
I find this pamphlet of “La Belle Menken.”
Here is your Eleanor Murray born again;
As here might be your blackbird of this year,        25
With spots of red upon his wings the same
As last year’s blackbird; or a pansy springing
Out of the April of this year, repeating
The color, form of one you saw last year.
Repeating and the same, but not the same.        30
No two alike, you know—I’ll come to that.
 
Well, then, La Menken! As a boy in Paris
I saw La Menken—I’ll return to this.
But just as Eleanor Murray has her life
Shadowed and symbolized by our Starved Rock—        35
And everyone has something in his life
Which takes him, makes him, is the image too
Of fate prefigured—La Menken has Mazeppa,
Her notable first actress part, for emblem
Of spirit, character; and omen too        40
Of years to come, the thrill of life, the end.
 
Who is La Menken? Symbol of America,
One phase of spirit! She was venturesome,
Resourceful, daring, hopeful, confident;
And, as she wrote herself, a vagabond,        45
A dweller in tents, a reveler, and a flame
Aspiring but disruptive, coming up
With leaves that shamed her stalk, could not be shed.
But stuck out heavy-veined and muddy-hued
In time of blossom. There are souls, you know,        50
Who have shed shapeless immaturities—
Betrayals of the seed before the blossom
Comes to proclaim a beauty, a perfection;
Or risen with their stalk until such leaves
Were hidden in the grass or soil. Not she,        55
Nor even your Eleanor Murray, as I read her.
But being America and American, these
Bring good and bad together, blossom and leaves,
With prodigal recklessness, in vital health
And unselective taste, and vision mixed        60
Of beauty and of truth.
                      Who was La Menken?
She’s born in Louisiana in ’thirty-five,
Left fatherless at seven—mother takes her
And puts her in the ballet at New Orleans.
She dances then from Texas clear to Cuba;        65
Then gives up dancing, studies tragedy,
And plays Bianca! Fourteen years of age,
Weds Menken, who’s a Jew—divorced from him;
Then falls in love with Heenan, pugilist—
They quarrel and separate. It’s in this pamphlet        70
Just as I tell you—you can take it, Coroner.
Now something happens—nothing in her birth,
Or place of birth, to prophesy her life
Like Starved Rock to this Eleanor!—but instead,
When she is grown, a hand darts from the curtain        75
That hangs between to-day, to-morrow, sticks
A symbol on her breast and whispers to her,
“You’re this, my woman!” Well, the thing was this:
She played Mazeppa—“Take your dummy off
And lash me to the horse!” They were afraid,        80
But she prevailed, was nearly killed the first night,
And after that succeeded, was the rage;
And for her years remaining found herself
Lashed to the wild horse of ungoverned will,
Which ran and wandered till she knew herself        85
With stronger will than vision, passion stronger
Than spirit to judge—the richness of the world,
Love, beauty, living greater than her power.
And all the time she had the appetite
To eat, devour it all. Grown sick at last,        90
She diagnosed her case, wrote to a friend:
“The soul and body do not fit each other—
A human spirit in a horse’s flesh.”
This is your Eleanor Murray in a way.
 
But to return to pansies, run your hand        95
Over a bed of pansies: here’s a pansy
With petals stunted, here’s another one
All perfect but one petal, here’s another
Too streaked or mottled—all are pansies though!—
And here is one full-petaled, strikes the eye        100
With perfect color-markings. Eleanor Murray
Has something of the color and the form
Of this La Menken, but is less a pansy;
And Sappho, Rachel, Bernhardt, are the flowers
La Menken strove to be, and could not be—        105
Ended with being only of their kind.
And now there’s pity for this Eleanor Murray,
And people wept when poor La Menken died!
Both lived and had their way—I hate this pity!
It makes you overlook there are two hours:        110
The hour of joy; the hour of finding out
Your joy was all mistake, or led to pain.
We who inspect these lives behold the pain,
And see the error; do not keep in mind
The hour of rapture, and the pride indeed        115
With which your Eleanor Murrays and La Menkens
Have lived that hour—elation, pride, and scorn
For any other way. “This is the life,”
I hear them say.
              Well, now I go along.
La Menken fills her purse with gold—she sends        120
Her pugilist away, tries once again,
And weds a humorist, an Orpheus Kerr;
And plays before the miners out in Frisco
And Sacramento, gathers in the eagles.
She goes to Europe then—with husband? No!—        125
James Barkley is her fellow on the voyage.
She lands in London, takes a gorgeous suite
In London’s grandest hostelry, entertains
Charles Dickens, Prince Baerto and Charles Reade,
The Duke of Wellington and Swinburne, Sand        130
And Jenny Lind; and has a liveried coachman,
And for a crest a horse’s head surmounting
Four aces, if you please; and plays Mazeppa,
And piles the money up.
                      The next is Paris.
And there I saw her, 1866,        135
When Louis Napoleon, the King of Greece,
The Prince Imperial were in a box.
She wandered to Vienna, there was ill,
Came back to Paris, died. A stranger’s grave
In Père Lachaise was given; afterwards        140
Exhumed; was buried in Montparnasse, and got
A little stone with these words carved upon it:
“Thou Knowest”—meaning God knew, while herself
Knew nothing of herself.
                      But when in Paris
They sold her picture, taken with her arms        145
Around Dumas—gay photographs made up,
In postures ludicrous, obscene as well,
Of her and great Dumas (I have them home,
Can show you sometime—well, she loved Dumas,
Inscribed a book of poems to Charles Dickens        150
By his permission, mark you!) Don’t you see
Your Eleanor Murray here?—this Eleanor Murray
A miniature imperfect of La Menken?
She loved sensation, all her senses thrilled her—
A delicate soul too weighted by the flesh;        155
A coquette, quick of wit, intuitive,
Kind, generous, unaffected, mystical,
Teased by the divine in life, and melancholy,
Of deep emotion sometimes. One has said
She had a nature spiritual, religious,        160
Which warred upon the flesh and fell in battle—
Just as your Eleanor Murray joined the church
And did not keep the faith, if truth be told.
Look now, here is a letter in this pamphlet
La Menken writes a poet—for she hunts        165
For seers and for poets, lofty souls.
And who does that?—a woman wholly bad?
Why no, a woman to be given life—
Life for her spirit in another realm
By God who will take notice, I believe.        170
Now listen if you will: “I know your soul;
It has met mine somewhere in starry space,
And you must often meet me—vagabond
Of fancy without aim, a dweller in tents,
Disreputable before the just. Just think!—        175
I am a linguist, write some poems too,
Can paint a little, model clay as well;
And yet for all these gropings of my soul
I am a vagabond, of little use.
My body and my soul are in a scramble        180
And do not fit each other—let them carve
Those words upon my stone; but also these—
‘Thou Knowest,’ for God knows me, knows I love
Whatever is good and beautiful in life,
And that my soul has sought them without rest.        185
Farewell, my friend—my spirit is with you.
Vienna is too horrible, but know Paris—
Then die content.”
                  Now, Coroner Merival,
You’re not the only man who wants to see,
Will work to make, America a republic        190
Of splendors, freedoms, happiness, success;
Though I am seventy-six, cannot do much,
But talk, as I am talking now—bring forth
Proofs, revelations from the years I’ve lived.
I care not how you view the lives of people—        195
As pansy-beds or what not—lift your faith
So high above the pansy-bed it sees
The streaked and stunted pansies filling in
The pattern that the perfect pansies outline.
Therefore be smiling, even indifferent,        200
To this poor pansy dying at the last
Because it could not be the flower it wished.
My heart to Eleanor Murray and La Menken
Goes out in sorrow, even while I know
They shook their leaves in April, laughed and thrilled,        205
And either did not know, or did not care,
The growing time was precious, and if wasted
Could never be regained. Look at La Menken—
At seven years put in the ballet corps;
And look at Eleanor Murray getting smut        210
Out of experience that made her wise.
 
What shall we do about it?—let it go,
And say there is no help? or say a republic,
Set up a hundred years ago, which raised to power
Of rulership as president a list        215
Of men more able than the emperors,
Kings, rulers of the world! and statesmen too
The equal of the greatest; money makers,
And domineers of finance and economics,
Phenomenal in time! Say, I repeat,        220
A country like this one must let its children
Waste as they wasted in the darker years
Of Europe? Shall we let these trivial minds,
Who see salvation in the soul’s restraint,
Pre-empt the field of moulding human life?        225
Or shall we take a hand, and put our minds
Upon the task, as recently we built
An army for the war, equipped and fed it,
An army better than all other armies,
More powerful, more apt of hand and brain—        230
Of thin tall youths, who did not stop but said,
Like poor La Menken, “Strap me to the horse—
I’ll do it if I die!”—so giving to peace
The skill and genius which we use in war,
Though it cost twenty billions? And why not!—        235
Why every dollar, every drop of blood,
For war like this to guard democracy,
And not so much, or more, to build the land,
Improve our blood, make individual
America and her race? First to destroy        240
Poverty and disease, give youth its chance
And therapeutic guidance! Soldier boys
Have huts for recreation, chaplains too.
And is it less worth while to furnish hands
Intimate, hearts intimate, for the use        245
Of your La Menkens, Eleanor Murrays—youths
Who feel such vigor in their restless wings
They tumble out of crowded nests and fly,
To fall in thickets, dash themselves against
Walls, trees?
              I have a vision, Coroner,
        250
Of a new Republic, brighter than the sun,
A new race, loftier faith—this land of ours
Made over for its people, boys and girls
Conserved like forests, water-power or mines;
Watched, tested, put to best use; keen economies        255
Practiced on spirits; waste of human life,
Hope, aspiration, talent, virtues, powers
Avoided by a science, science of life,
Of spirit, what you will. Enough of war,
And billions for the flag—all well enough!        260
Some billions now to make democracy
Democracy in truth with us, and life
Not helter-skelter, hitting as it may,
And missing much as this La Menken did!
I’m not convinced we must have stunted pansies,        265
That have no use but just to piece the pattern.
Let’s try, and if we try and fail, why then
Our human duty ends—the God in us
Will have it just this way, no other way;
And then we may accept so poor a world,        270
A republic so unfinished!
 
 
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