The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

Richard Hovey
(1864-1900)

New York fostered if not produced one other important poet, Richard Hovey, who was born in 1864, when Gilder was a young man. Follower of Whitman and the Elizabethans, and poet in his own right, Hovey won the enthusiasm of both the conventional school—especially Stedman—and the eager modernists who began to attract attention near the close of the century. The odd mixture of loyalties in his verse is paralleled by the curious variety in his life. Born in Illinois, he lived in Washington, D. C., graduated from Dartmouth College, New Hampshire, studied at the General Theological Seminary, New York, became lay assistant at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, accepted literature as his profession, and ended his brief career as professor of English literature in Barnard College and lecturer in Columbia University. Several years, also, he lived abroad—familiarizing himself, for one thing, with Verlaine, Mallarmé, and the later symbolists, and becoming one of the first American disciples and translators of Maeterlinck.

Hovey’s early death deprived us of a poet who had not yet reached the height of his powers. Finer work than he actually produced lay ahead unrealized, but it was probably not the unfinished dramatic work which he had come to regard as his magnum opus,—Launcelot and Guenevere: A Poem in Dramas, which he began to publish in 1891. This was not to be merely a rehandling of ancient poetic material by an idle singer of an empty day but a profound treatment of a modern problem in terms of the past—the conflict of the individual and society, and the establishment of a right relation between them. Hovey planned nine plays, though he completed only four. He expected to arrange them in three trilogies: in the first, Launcelot and Guenevere were to disregard society; in the second they were to disregard themselves; and in the third their problem was to be resolved. It was a tremendous theme, worthy of a poet of an ampler intellectual endowment than Hovey’s. How high a flight he attempted may be seen in Taliesin: A Masque (1900), the last play that he completed, a poet’s poem which to some readers has been Hovey at his most exalted, while others have roundly condemned its exuberant fancy, imagination, and metaphysics. It is, at all events, a remarkable feat in rhythm-building, astonishing in the easy mastery with which the poet passes from one movement to another and in the variety of musical effects. The other plays are clearer and more substantial; in The Marriage of Guenevere (1895), for example, the Queen is revealed with a definiteness unequalled in the Arthurian tradition, though it is by no means certain that the modern touch is in this respect an unmixed advantage. All the plays are deftly and fluently written, but they fail in sustained power. The note of the improvvisatore is never away.

This note is not so fatal in the lyric. Hovey’s lyrics time will doubtless adjudge his best work. He has little weight, little insight of the profounder sort, but he has, on the other hand, unusual fervor and élan, and much insight of the merely subtle sort. Sensitive, tingling with life, he responds to the world with a gaiety not so much thoughtless as thought-banishing, a gaiety alien to the dominant moods of modern life and hence always open to the suspicion of affectation. His quality is very evident in the three series of Songs from Vagabondia (1893, 1896, 1900) written collaboratively with Bliss Carman. They express impetuously, a little artificially at times, the vagabondage of the soul that runs like a gypsy thread through the romantic literature of the century. The Wander-Lovers, which sets its pace in the first line, “Down the world with Marna!” is in its way a nearly perfect thing. In a distinct part of Hovey’s work, his poems of masculine comradeship and college fraternity, this Bohemian mood is expressed in a really notable way. Spring, for instance, read at a fraternity convention in 1896, contains, in a charming natural setting, the lines beginning “Give a rouse, then, in the May-time” which, set to music by Frederic Field Bullard, are familiar to college youth from coast to coast. This kind of thing Hovey could do better than any other of our poets.

His poems on serious themes lack the delightful assurance of The Wander-Lovers and Spring. The Call of the Bugles, one of his several Spanish War poems, is only intermittently buoyant and martial, is too long, and is scarcely American in its sentiment “Great is war—great and fair!” In a rarer mood of Hovey’s is Unmanifest Destiny, in which, as in Seaward, his elegy on the death of Thomas William Parsons, his tone is impressively reverent and his music richly solemn.

Source: The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21). VOLUME XVII. Later National Literature, Part II., X. Later Poets; at Bartleby.com

Introduction to Dartmouth Lyrics by Richard Hovey, edited by Edwin Osgood Grover (Boston: Small, Maynard & company, c1924):

The purpose of the present volume is to gather together, primarily for Dartmouth men, those of his poems that relate to the College and to college life. The volume includes the best* of the poems he contributed to the college publications during his undergraduate life, the poems contributed after graduation, the poems read at various Dartmouth banquets, the songs written for the first edition of "Dartmouth Songs" together with a number of older lyrics that were given musical settings for this volume.

IN the larger literary sense Richard Hovey belongs to America to whose permanent literature he made a substantial and worth-while contribution. When you recall that he died at thirty-five, just as he was coming into the fullness of his poetic powers, with an assured income and leisure for writing, it is impossible to overestimate what he might have accomplished if he had been given another thirty-five years for productive work. What he did accomplish, however, reconciles us, for his work runs to a dozen volumes and bears the mark of high literary art and passionate love of living. In another and real sense Richard Hovey belonged to Dartmouth College.

He came to Hanover a seventeen-year-old boy from the Washington, D. C., high school. He left, a man of twenty-one with his mind enriched, his literary ambitions stimulated and a new sense of the joy and meaning of life. From the first he took himself and his literary work seriously and dedicated himself to his task with a devotion that must have yielded a full harvest if the Reaper had not appeared so soon.

While at College Richard Hovey lived a busy and profitable life. He was an editor of The Dartmouth during his freshman, sophomore, and junior years and managing editor of The Aegis his junior year. He wrote the sophomore class history under the title, "Hanover by Gas Light, or Ways That Are Dark." He won the prize for dramatic speaking in both his junior and senior years and upon graduation won the Phi Beta Kappa key. He also took final honors cum laude in English language and literature.

He was equally active in the social life of the College as well as in the Psi Upsilon Fraternity of which he was a member. Out of these four years of creative living Richard Hovey developed a love and loyalty for Dartmouth that never left him.

He came from the artificial life of Washington into the simplicity of college life as it then existed at Dartmouth. He found the comradeship of strong men, the inspiration of great teachers, notably Prof. C. F. Richardson. He gloried in the outdoor life of the College and no man ever left Hanover with a keener sense of the brooding message of the "still North," the "hill winds," the "granite of New Hampshire" and the winter days when "the great white cold walks abroad." The writer will never forget the impression of majesty and sincerity which pervaded the poem entitled, "Comrades," which Hovey read in the old gymnasium on the occasion of the sixtieth anniversary of the Psi Upsilon Convention, May 18, 1893. Here was a new gospel of comradeship and loyalty that quickened every heart. No Dartmouth man can read these opening lines without exultation:

Again among the hills! The shaggy hills!
The clear arousing air comes like a call
Of bugle notes across the pines, and thrills
My heart as if a hero had just spoken.
Again among the hills!
The jubilant, unbroken,
Long dreaming of the hills!
Far off, Ascutney smiles as one at peace;
And over all
The golden sunlight pours and fills
The hollow of the earth, like a god's joy.
Again among the hills!
The tranquil hills
That took me as a boy
And filled my spirit with the silences!

From a literary point of view "Men of Dartmouth" is unquestionably the finest college song in existence and has done much to interpret Dartmouth to the world. His "Dartmouth Ode" read at the one hundred twenty-fifth anniversary of the College, his poems read at the various banquets of the Dartmouth Alumni Associations have also interpreted the spirit of the College in beautiful and vigorous rhythms.

Richard Hovey built up a little literature about Dartmouth such as no other college in America possesses. It is a heritage more precious than we now know. But some day when the things of the spirit are more real we shall see that Richard Hovey's call to manhood, to comradeship, to loyalty, to fellowship with all that makes Dartmouth the intellectual mother of us all, is part of the priceless spiritual endowment of the College.

The work by which Richard Hovey wished to be remembered was his retelling of the Arthurian legends, five volumes of the nine projected being completed at the time of his death. He will be remembered by many, however, for his three volumes of "Songs from Vagabondia" written in collaboration with Bliss Carman. Hovey regarded these lightly as the effervescence of his intimate friendship with Carman, Roberts, Meteyard, Kavanagh, and Parsons. It may well be that these lyrics of friendship will hold a larger audience than his more serious work, for the whole world loves a lover.