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Preaching The "Gospel Of Beauty" Essay, Research Paper
Vachel Lindsay’s peripatetic lifestyle was driven in part by financial need: from 1914
onwards, public recitation of his poetry was Lindsay’s most consistent means of income,
and a necessary one after the deaths of his parents (in 1918 and 1922) and particularly
after he married and had children (1925-26). That lifestyle was driven just as much,
however, by Lindsay’s artistic vision: the belief that the artist must preach the
"gospel of beauty" to the masses and that this gospel, embraced by the people,
might transform society. Among other sources, Lindsay’s gospel was inspired by mystical
visions that he experienced first in 1904 and which recurred throughout his life, by the
social gospel of the Campbellite Christian sect in which he was raised, and by Lindsay’s
talents as a graphic artist as well as a writer. The gospel, and Lindsay’s style of
preaching it, had various manifestations throughout his career. In his first attempts to
sell, or give away, his pamphlets, Lindsay’s gospel represents itself at its most
idealistic. At other times, as in "The Child-Heart in the Mountains" and
"Celestial Flowers of Glacial Park," the gospel is simultaneously mystical and
grounded in experience, in Lindsay’s trips to the Rocky Mountains and especially the newly
formed Glacier National Park, Montana. In "The Virginians Are Coming Again" the
vision becomes apocalyptic. The following excerpts relating to "the gospel of
beauty" are drawn primarily from Lindsay’s own letters and journals, and biographies
of the poet.
From Lindsay’s letter to E.S. Ames, a coreligionist in the Campbellite
sect, New York, May 18, 1904; Letters of Vachel Lindsay, ed. Marc Ch?netier, 4:
My ancestors were all men of action, statesmen, rulers of men. It is hard for me to
respect my army, for it is an assembly of ornamental shadows and dreams, when I thought to
have commanded men. And my sermons I must preach only to myself, to exhort myself to be
true to my art and writing. . . .
My ideal for my religious life is that of a religious tramp, a wanderer from Church to
Church, following the leading of "The Gleam," seeking new impressions and vivid
insights into the religious life of all men. I have had many of these in the past, yet
left few on record. The most I can hope for my verse is that it will some day become the
record of my best impressions in the Churches. I shall not force it, I can scarcely
promise. I merely hope. When you see signs of it in my writing, I ask your
congratulations, though it may be a while before they are due.
Account of Lindsay’s first visions, in the summer of 1904; Elizabeth
Ruggles, The West-Going Heart: A Life of Vachel Lindsay, 90:
Lindsay stayed on at home after the wedding [of his sister] and during the summer he
began to have some curious experiences. He called them "visions." He never lost
his head over these visions or tried to explain them as other than the projections of a
strongly visual imagination, but it should be understood that–like William Blake–he
actually saw them.
"It is plausible, I think," he wrote afterward, "that for one who had so
long co-ordinated drawings and poems for drawings, his religious experiences should paint
themselves before him in the air. Being taught by that admiarable practical but
unimaginative master William M. Chase never to draw a thing till I saw it on the blank
paper before me, it was only the terrrible power and blaze of the pictures that came that
made them unusual."
The first time, which was at night, he beheld with his bodily eyes, so clearly that he
could have painted them, the prophets of the Old Testament pass in gorgeous garb through
his bedroom. The second time, by day, he saw the prophets march gravely before the tall
elm tree in the front yard.
He believed his visions were not infallible but to be interepreted however he chose;
they were a part of his artistic captial. Yet they had been sent, like all strong
convictions. It was late, late at night in the awed aftermath of the first of them that he
wrote his mystical poem A Prayer in the Jungles of Heaven.
Lindsay’s first attempt to sell, and then give away his poems, in New
York City; Rica Brenner, Poets of Our Time, 116-17:
Possibly Vachel Lindsay at last felt he should earn his own living. At all events, he
now embarked on a quixotic adventure, that of selling copies of his own poems. From door
to door up and down the West Side of New York he went, trying to peddle his verses for a
few cents apiece. He thought of himself as an ancient troubadour making his way through
the world by his songs. With a good deal of humor he describes his adventures in his
"Well, I tried a sleepy big shock headed baker first. I tired to give the poem to
him. He considered the thing for some time as I explained it, but finally handed it back
saying he had no use for it. I thought there was a touch of class pride and the resentment
of my alms and irritated independence in his manner. So the next place I said to the
proprietor, ‘I will sell you this for two cents.’ At once I saw the thing take. My
customer smiled, and said, ‘Newspapers cost only one cent, with lots more reading matter
than this.’ But he took two cents from his till all right. I said, ‘You can see me the
author; that is why I charge the other cent, and I made that myself.’ He said, ‘It looks
like it,’ and laughed, and we parted, I promising to come again sometime or another."
Candy stores, Chinese laundries–"I must land a Chinaman yet"–delicatessens,
drug stores, fish markets, all were entered. For several nights he repeated his
performances. The result was an enriching of his experiences and a strengthening of his
conviction that "the people like poetry as well as the scholars, or better," but
no very great improvement in his finances.
Lindsay’s War Bulletins were written and self-published in 1909
after he returned to Springfield from New York City; "War Bulletin Number One"
appears below, as reprinted in Dennis Camp, ed., The Collected Prose of Vachel Lindsay,
vol. 1, 85:
I have spent a great part of my few years fighting a soul battle for absolute liberty,
for freedom from obligation, ease of conscience; independence from commercialism. I think
I am farther from slavery than most men. But I have not complete freedom of speech. In my
daily round of work I find myself taking counsel to please the stupid, the bigoted, the
conservative, the impatient, the cheap. A good part of the time I can please these people,
having a great deal in common with them.–but–
The things that go into the War Bulletin please me only. To the Devil with you,
average reader. To Gehenna with your stupidity, your bigotry, your conservatism, your
cheapness and your impatience!
In each new Bulletin the war shall go faster and further. War! War! War!
"The Gospel of Beauty" was a one-page tract carried with
Lindsay, and handed out in exchange for room and board, during his tramp from Springfield
to New Mexico in the summer of 1912; as printed in Adventures While Preaching the
Gospel of Beauty:
THE GOSPEL OF BEAUTY
Being the new "creed of a beggar" by that vain and foolish mendicant Nicholas
Vachel Lindsay, printed for his personal friends in his home village–Springfield,
Illinois. It is his intention to carry this gospel across the country beginning June,
1912, returning in due time.
I come to you penniless and afoot, to bring a message. I am starting a
new religious idea. The idea does not say "no" to any creed that you have heard.
. . . After this, let the denomination to which you now belong be called in your heart
"the church of beauty" or "the church of the open sky." . . . The
church of beauty has two sides: the love of beauty and the love of God.
THE NEW LOCALISM
The things most worth while are one’s own hearth and neighborhood. We should make our
own home and neighborhood the most democratic, the most beautiful and the holiest in the
world. The children now growing up should become devout gardeners or architects or park
architects or teachers of dancing in the Greek spirit or musicians or novelists or poets
or story-tellers or craftsmen or wood-carvers or dramatists or actors or singers. They
should find their talent and nurse it industriously. They should believe in every possible
application to art-theory of the thoughts of the Declaration of Independence and Lincoln’s
Gettysburg Address. They should, if led by the spirit, wander over the whole nation in
search of the secret of democratic beauty with their hearts at the same time filled to
overflowing with the righteousness of God. Then they should come back to their own hearth
and neighborhood and gather a little circle of their own sort of workers about them and
strive to make the neighborhood and home more beautiful and democratic and holy with their
special art. . . . They should labor in their little circle expecting neither reward nor
honors. . . . In their darkest hours they should be made strong by the vision of a
completely beautiful neighborhood and the passion for a completely democratic art. Their
reason for living should be that joy in beauty which no wounds can take away, and that joy
in the love of God which no crucifixion can end.
On his 1912 walk Lindsay was most impressed by Kansas; Adventures
While Preaching the Gospel of Beauty focuses on his experiences in that state,
represented in the following two excerpts–the first a philosophic and political
appreciation, the second a sensual and symbolic one:
Kansas, the Ideal American Community! Kansas, nearer than any other to the kind of a
land our fathers took for granted! Kansas, practically free from cities and industrialism,
the real last refuge of the constitution, since it maintains the type of agricultural
civilization the constitution had in mind! Kansas, State of tremendous crops and hardy,
devout, natural men! Kansas of the historic Santa F? Trail and the classic village of
Emporia and the immortal editor of Emporia! Kansas, laid out in roads a mile apart,
criss-crossing to make a great checker-board, roads that go on and on past endless rich
farms and big farm-houses, though there is not a village or railroad for miles! Kansas,
the land of the real country gentlemen, Americans who work the soil and own the soil they
work; State where the shabby tenant-dwelling scarce appears as yet! Kansas of the
Chautauqua and the college-student and the devout school-teacher! The dry State, the
automobile State, the insurgent State! Kansas, that is ruled by the cross-roads church,
and the church type of civilization! The Newest New England! State of more promise of
permanent spiritual glory than Massachusetts in her brilliant youth!
* * * *
JUNE 14, 1912. I have crossed the mystic border. I have left Earth. I have entered
Wonderland. Though I am still east of the geographical centre of the United States, in
every spiritual sense I am in the West. This morning I passed the stone mile-post that
marks the beginning of Kansas.
I went over the border and encountered–what do you think? Wild strawberries! Lo, where
the farmer had cut the weeds between the row and the fence, the gentle fruits revealed
themselves, growing in the shadow between the still-standing weeds. They shine out in a
red line that stretches on and on, and a man has to resolve to stop eating several times.
Just as he thinks he has conquered the desire the line gets dazzlingly red again.
The berries grow at the end of a slender stalk, clustered six in a bunch. One gathers
them in bouquets, as it were, and eats off the fruit like taffy off a stick.
Regarding Lindsay’s affection for Glacier National Park, and his faith
in wild American places as a source of visionary inspiration; Ann Massa, Vachel
Lindsay: Fieldworker for the American Dream, 179:
He had tramped with Stephen Graham in Glacier National Park, Montana, in 1921; he
honeymooned there . . . . From 1923 to 1928 he lived in Spokane, Washington, primarily to
be near the park, which was of particular significance to him because of the ease with
which he and Graham had crossed the border into Canada and the Waterton Lakes Park in
1922. "We crossed a Canadian American line almost obliterated. Every line should be
like that." The experience seemed to him an anticipation of the day when a fraternal
international community could dispense with physical and emotional barriers.
Lindsay relied on national parks–particularly Glacier Park–as a personal panacea. On
July 16, 1931 (he committed suicide on December 5) he was still saying "All I need is
a change and a rest, a new sight of the park." His own experience and pleasure and
refereshment in national parks led him to think of them as an antidote for national ills:
"only the deserts and mountains of America can crack the business hardened skulls of
the East," he brooded in Glacier Park in 1922. The Parks represented the Western
essence of the United States as opposed to a Europeanized, disparate America: "If in
America one does not have the West-going heart, the thousand little nations that are the
coutnries of Europe pull one away from our great National Parks."
Edgar Lee Masters, Vachel Lindsay: A Poet in America, 326-27:
We must refer to "The Virginians Are Coming Again," to be found in the
volume, Every Soul Is a Circus. He inserted a long preface in this volume,
recapitulating his art theories, his theories of the dancing of poetry, and the reciting
of poetry. . . .
"The Virginians Are Coming Again" ranks with the best that Lindsay did, not
so much in virtue of its harmonics, its artistry, as for its purposes, its vision. It was
written, Lindsay noted, as a summary to The Litany of Washington Street; but it
is much more than that. It prays for the downfall of the economic r?gime which came into
power through the Civil War, and which that war of intention both in origin and
prosecution put into power. It longs for Robert E. Lee to gallop again to the sea in a
fury of men [sic; Masters seems, improbably, to conflate Lee and Sherman here]. It means
that all of Lindsay’s heart at last was south of Mason and Dixon’s line, and that his
attachment to Lincoln was sentimental, and a survival of the Santa Claus mythology of
Marc Ch?netier, "Lindsay’s American Mythocracy," 49, 50:
Readers of Lindsay will find that the state of Virginia bears directly upon the Middle
West, for he finds in the one something that can be made greater by the other. On the tabula
rasa of the Midwest, Lindsay wants to build with incense and splendor, come through
time and space from the magnificent days of pre-colonial and colonial America. "The
Midwesterner is in line with our simple democratic traditions and gets his education from
the four seasons and the book of God and the open sky," he writes. The Midwest is
thereby protected against the commercial and political evils that have destroyed tradition
on the East Coast. . . . On the as yet unspoiled land on which he was born, Lindsay wants
to restore the grandeur of the land whence his forefathers came:
"Virginia"–that is, an idea of the old South, of the agrarian South–as opposed
to a merchant, then industrial, North. . . .
In 1928, with Hoover in the offing, and thus Babbit on his way back to the White House,
Lindsay publishes "The Virginians Are Coming Again," a poem the importance of
which, both in terms of themes and in terms of technical worth, has been consistently
underrated. He deplores his not being able to have a number of his Litany essays
[from The Litany of Washington Street] taken into consideration by politicians,
but is sure his poems counts enough for a coincidence of dates to matter: "My new
poem appears in the American Mercury on the day the Democratic Convention opens
in Houston, Texas. That poem is not rhetoric. I mean every line of it."
From letter by Lindsay to Margaret Conklin, his literary agent; Letters
of Vachel Lindsay, ed. Marc Ch?netier, 453:
Charleston, South Carolina
March 20, 1931
* * * *
The ideals of my life, on the Platform or off, are summarized in the "Building of
Springfield" Poem. I am at the top of my strength and powers to further those ideals.
My audiences increase to mobs, tyranical, ignorant mobs. Last night I gave them my best in
reciting, all from the Selected Poems, that is all my principal poems but The Congo and
Booth, the most forceful ideas I have added in comment, and many new and old poems. I sat
down having recited two hours, my best–8:30 to 10:30 P.M. Then the chairman, by
the Politest methods (not horrible bullying as in Asheville) started them mobbing
me for "The Congo" before I left the hall and I recited it politely resolving to
beat them yet. The Courtesy here is perfect and I have had a good time. But I am not going
to die like Edwin Markham, reciting in the provinces One poem written as a boy. I
wrote The Congo in 1913 and was through reciting it FOREVER, by 1920. And here they not
only ignore it as a Christian Missionary message–welcome it only as a stunt–liking only
the first section and enduring the rest), but I am the agonized prisoner of my 34th
year, no matter if I am 51. I want to say do and be the things a real artist of 51
would do. I am simply bursting with new ideas, new plans pour into my brain
every morning for songs, new creative force comes to me and I am the prisoner of a stunt
with all creative force thwarted . . . .
They accept the Congo and Booth about which I am hectored beyond all human endurance,
only as STUNTS and curiousities. I know they would not cross the street to help a nigger
of The Salvation Army as a result of this dress-suit heckling. . . . Please read
the Building of Springfield and swear by Heaven that henceforth you will build my
publicity round it.
Allen Ginsberg, Kaddish 44:
Vachel, the stars are out
dusk has fallen on the Colorado road
a car crawls slowly across the plain
in the dim light the radio blares its jazz
the heartbroken salesman lights another cigarette
In another city 27 years ago
I see your shadow on the wall
you’re sitting in your suspenders on the bed
the shadow hand lifts up a Lysol bottle to your head
your shade falls over on the floor
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