The Mind of the Poet

The New Art

Have you been to see the Cubists and the Futurists? and could you make anything out of it? What does the work of these progressives really mean? Is their work a conspicuous milestone in the progress of art? Or is it junk?

— Julia Neely Finch, from “Notes about Modern Art,” 1913

By the beginning of WWI — 1914 — art was clearly not what it had been. New forms like post-impressionist painting and imagist poetry broke all the rules of earlier movements. While the changing tide is easy to see in hindsight, it wasn’t as obvious at the time unless one was “in the know.”

It’s also true that some who were well aware of the new art thought that it was at best a fad and a worst a death-knell. We can pretty safely classify Julia Neely Finch as one of those people. In her notes about modern art, she begins with a quote from painter Kenyon Cox:

Excerpt from Notes on Modern Art by Julia Neely Finch, quote from Kenyon Cox
Before jumping at conclusions, we had better wait until we have seen enough — it is as much a mistake to accept a thing without understanding it as to reject it without understanding it.

She herself puts it a bit less kindly in her discussion of the infamous 1913 Armory Show. This “International Exhibition of Modern Art” included works from many of the most avant garde painters of the day, including Cezanne, Duchamp, Gauguin, Matisse, Picasso, and van Gogh. (NPR has an excellent article on the Armory Show, complete with images.) In Julia’s opinion,

A good part of N. Y. grinned at these paint-puzzles but wondered if there perhaps was not something in this new art which was a little beyond the mental grasp of the uninitiated.

She’s not wrong: this new art required a re-envisioning of what art meant. She argues, “They deny not only representation of nature but also any known of traditional form of decoration.” This is true; but for modern artists, that was the point, to go beyond just representing nature and into being more abstract. It was just a lot to take in.

And to traditionalists like Finch and Cox, it was outrageous to call it art at all:

There has been a strong tendency during the last fifty years to abandon all discipline, all respect for traditions, and to insist that art shall be nothing but an expression of the individual.

This movement toward personal expression — already rooted in art and creeping into poetry — was hard to accept for many many lovers of art and literature. It still is. If you’ve ever been at an art museum and scratched your head at an abstract painting, you have a sense of why she’d call this new art “paint-puzzles.”

Other critics, too, were delighted to find ways to ridicule the new art, such as in this 1913 article from the Birmingham (U.K.) News, which Julia clipped and saved. (Click to see a larger version)

Newspaper article, Curing the Insane with Queer Art, from The Birmingham News Sunday Magazine, March 2, 1913

In the end, Julia might never have taken to the modern art, but in some ways the modern art took to tradition. At least in poetry, there was the influential voice of T. S. Eliot reminding us that just because something is new doesn’t mean it’s good. He argued that experimentation in art was fine, but for it to be good art, it must fit in with its bretheren (source):

No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead.

For Eliot, this happens when the new work, in proving its excellence, actually changes that old order:

…what happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it. … The existing order is complete before the new work arrives; for order to persist after the supervention of novelty, the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered…

Most of Julia’s favorite poets, listed in her notes on poetry, have been lost to history, the existing order having been so altered that they no longer seem like good artists anymore. But they were at the time, and so was Julia.

Writing from the Heart

When the two gases … are mixed in the presence of a filament of platinum, they form sulphurous acid. This combination takes place only if the platinum is present; nevertheless…the platinum itself is apparently unaffected; has remained inert, neutral, and unchanged.

The mind of the poet is the shred of platinum. …the more perfect the artist, the more completely separate in him will be the man who suffers and the mind which creates…

— T.S. Eliot, from “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” 1920

One wonders what Finch thought of Eliot’s way of bringing tradition back to the experimentation of modernist poetry. He seems to have agreed with her about the overflow of personal, emotional expression plaguing modern art. For Eliot, the emotions are just a catalyst for something different and better.

Like Eliot, Finch doesn’t seem to be squeamish with personal subjects if treated properly. Her best known poem is “The Unborn,” conveying the emotions of pregnancy and motherhood, a portion of which is quoted here (link to the whole poem):

Ah! none but she who has borne
A child beneath her breast may know
What wondrous thrill and subtle spell
Comes from this wondrous woven band
That binds a mother to her unborn child
Within her womb.

This kind of sentiment also informed poetry that wasn’t about her own experience at all but yet was presumably still tied to very personal emotions. Here, she imagines Jesus in his mother’s arms:

Page 1 of poem, Upon His Mother's Breast, by Julia Neely Finch, circa 1900
Upon his mother’s breast
(By Julia Neely Finch)
Upon his mother’s breast
Child Jesus lay at rest.
His baby lips were smiling
As tho in fond beguiling
Of angel watchers near.
But oh! those mother eyes
Made dim with dread & fear,
Whence tears past all [?]
Kept welling; welling; falling:
Page 2 of poem, Upon His Mother's Breast, by Julia Neely Finch, circa 1900
As bitter waters spilled
From some hid fountain filled.
“Oh, little son that lies
At rest upon my breast,
What is it that I see
O’ershad’wing thee & me?
Oh, mount of calvary!
Oh, dreadful darkened skies
Above the crosses there!
Oh, little son of mine —
Thou gift of Love divine
Unto a people lost —
They mother pays the cost!

One reader had this to say about one of Julia’s poems:

I have just read the poems to mama, and she exclaimed, “Lily, they are gems!” I think so, too. I think “Good Night” is probably the most perfect as to workmanship, though there is a spontaneous freedom about the form of all of them that is very individual, and makes them sound real. And the thought, too, is individual and genuine. I seems to me that all of them would sing if set to music. What a lot of satisfaction you must take in giving words to your feelings.

Maybe just as important as Julia’s writing was her character and will. As she declined in health, she continued to write letters to her children, Lucine and Edwin, even when they were almost illegible or needed to be transcribed by her nurse. (For example, see this letter from Julia to Edwin, 1924.)

Eventually, Lucine took over the care of her mother (source: Singular Women: Writing the Artist, by Kristen Frederickson). Her death was a shock, as we see in this letter from Lucine to Edwin, October 7, 1926:

Portion of letter from Lucine to Edwin, October 7, 1926
7th October
Edwin dearest:-
I was such a comfort to have you here – & I do wish we had had Evelyn & Brother too. It was a wonderful experience & I would like Brother to know how kind and beautiful Death can be. I miss mother too much to even speak about it.

After she was gone, many wrote to Edwin and Lucine to talk about how much they would miss her and why. This includes Gloria (letter to Edwin of September 30, 1926), who lamented the loss of such a wonderful personality…a loss that seemed to have happened long before Julia’s death:

Portion of letter from Gloria to Edwin, September 30, 1926
Your mother was always most interesting to me. I well remember reading long letters from her with as keen an interest as one gives to a fine piece of fiction. She was so brilliant, so clever, so spontaneous, that I feel she, herself, has not really been here, during these past few years of illness.

The conclusion to Julia’s long illness allowed her daughter to spread her wings again. She was by many accounts a talented artist in her own right, both a musician and a writer. These are interests she apparently shared with her mother, who made notes on opera and sometimes wrote about musicians, including the story “A Heart Break in Sorry Tone” and the following poem:

Clipping from commonplace book, poem, Chopin's Music, by Julia Neely Finch

In the long run, Finch’s ideas about art might be no longer fashionable, but it’s important to remember that no everyone jumped on the bandwagon at the outset of the modern period, and those who didn’t continued to be passionately engaged with their art. Julia entertained and moved many readers — and inspired her own daughter’s artistic endeavors — which is the best legacy anyone can leave.