In 1925, Nathalia Crane published her second volume of poetry, Lava Lane, and Other Poems, just one year after her first one, The Janitor’s boy, and Other Poems. In it she airs her sophistication, mastering poetical language, as well as scientific and technical vocabulary from several disciplines, such as botany, geology and even embryology (using the word “blastoderm” about a boy she seems to despise); she also refers to various religions and to characters from Greek mythology. Furthermore, she shows her understanding of human relations, including in some of their intimate aspects.
As would happen with Minou Drouet thirty years later, some people claimed that a girl of her age was incapable of understanding and writing such things, so she was a fake, while others tried to see some paranormal phenomenon at work behind her poetry. I quote the article “Nathalia Crane” in Goodreads:
After the publication of her second volume of poetry poet Edwin Markham implied that the publications were probably a hoax, stating “It seems impossible to me that a girl so immature could have written these poems. They are beyond the powers of a girl of twelve. The sophisticated viewpoint of sex … knowledge of history and archeology found in these pages place them beyond the reach of any juvenile mind.”
Critic Louis Untermeyer was an early promoter of Crane’s work and stated “some of the critics explained the work by insisting that the child was some sort of medium, an instrument unaware of what was played upon it; others, considering the book a hoax, scorned the fact that any child could have written verses so smooth in execution and so remarkable in spiritual overtones” and that “The appeal of such lines is not that they have been written by a child but by a poet.”
But these narrow-minded people could not simply understand that this intelligent and keen girl collected words and read the encyclopedia. According to the article “Nathalia Crane Child Poet 1925:”
Amazing words for one so young are in her poems: ‘ciccatrice, dinosaur, parasang, sistrum’ and figures of speech which are seldom comprehended, let alone used, by any other child of her age.
‘I read them, heard them, found them somewhere,’ Nathalia said, and spoke of ‘Ivanhoe,’ ‘The Jungle Books,’ ‘Arabian Nights’ and ‘Pilgrim’s Progress.’ She has even read the encyclopedia at times, she gravely admitted, ‘just for fun.’ Often she put into a poem some word only vaguely remembered from her reading, her father said, and then goes to the dictionary to confirm or change it.
The book is divided into several parts, each one with a subtitle corresponding to its general theme. The first part, Chartless, contains the most sophisticated poems, in particular its first one, “Lava Lane,” which gave its title to the collection. Then Sport criticizes the attitudes of adults towards children; the two poems that I will present below come from it. Third comes Fame. Then Saints and Reformers mocks religion; in a next post, I will give one poem from it. Finally we have Honorable Mention and Plumes.
The two poems given here deal with Roger Jones, her red-haired love in The Janitor’s boy, and Other Poems, but don’t name him. First a short one:
THE SHOE-SHINE SPREE
Once on a time I was wedded
Unto a husband of nine,
Then came his mother and took him
Off for an old sandal shine.
Beautiful dolls—I have plenty—
Clasping them unto my heart;
They look so much like their father
I could forgive him in part.
Yet when I think of that mother
Taking my husband from me,
I feel like raiding the corner—
Ending that shoe-shining spree.
In the poem “Oh, Roger Jones” of her previous collection, she had written “You were the father of my dolls, / My husband—I suppose. / Oh, Roger! You were only nine,” so it appears clearly that here she is referring to him.
In “The Telltale,” the other character is mentioned as “the janitor’s boy” then “his hair was a beautiful red,” and we recognise his passion for boats and navigation, as in her poems “John Paul Jones” and “The Rovers” from her first collection.
The janitor’s boy bought a catalogue boat,
‘Twas ballasted down to the Plim.
He offered to me half the cabin quite free
If I would go cruising with him.
His eyes, they were flecked like the mackerel skies,
His hair was a beautiful red.
No gay brigantine could so sweetly careen
As that catalogue boat, so he said.
Its anchor was ebony, even the flukes,
The ship’s bell was made of cut glass;
From top gallant clew to where main royal grew
The hamper was all done in brass.
The port and the starboard lights, both of them bronze,
The galley stove modeled in gold,
The wheel and the heel of the bowsprit and keel
Were rosewood, and so was the hold.
Our tackle was ivory right from the tusk,
The topping lifts heavy with silk,
And all of the cleats, with the reef points and sheets,
Were whiter than Paradise milk.
Each runway was ribboned with cutlasses grim,
The gats of the broadsides were veiled,
No port captain knew of the fathoms we drew
Because we were sunk ‘ere we sailed.
The log showed a clearing date one Monday morn,
The powder in Number Two hold,
We were rigged as the jack but alas, and alack,
That telltale ship’s bell up and told.
A renegade gong full of cut-glass deceit,
Not daring to take to the sea,
Went blabbing till blue on an innocent crew—
The janitor’s laddie and me.
The householders scuttled our catalogue boat—
Oh, God will forgive them some day.
A billow they buttonholed, frothy and cold.
And sank it ten feet in the bay.
We watched from a coastline and dimmed as we gazed,
We knelt when it started to drown.
The bowsprit did cant with a heavenly slant,
The ensign was all upside down.
But sometimes the sorrow begetteth the joy;
A clamor arose from a swell,
The causer of woe was just going below—
That timorous telltale the bell.
Nathalia Clara Ruth Crane, Lava Lane, and Other Poems. Thomas Seltzer, New York (1925).
“Nathalia Crane Child Poet 1925,” The Literary Digest, October 10, 1925.
“Nathalia Crane,” Goodreads.