College Verse of 1931

The first and only volume of Best College Verse was published by Harpers in 1931 as a projected annual anthology. I purchased an inexpensive but unique copy recently, mainly for Donald Wandrei’s poem, “Lyric of Doubt.” Wandrei was a correspondent of H.P. Lovecraft (who was of course a prolific letter writer). As it happens, several of the contributors had a connection to Lovecraft. Douglas A. Anderson identifies Richard Ely Morse and Winfield Townley Scott. The former was a correspondent and the latter an early critic and admirer.

My copy belonged to a contributor named Alicia K. O’Donnell from the University of Montana. Her bookplate is pasted into the front cover. The contributor’s copies are quite handsome, quarter bound in leather with marbled boards and endpapers, unlike the trade edition.

Miss O’Donnell’s poem is called “Engines”:

There is in the movement of trains
That go silently out from cities
And come silently into cities
Something that is a blend of efficiency,
Manifest in the thoughtless hurry of towns,
And of strength that knows its strength
And is unforced.

And I have read in the eyes of men who sit
Smoking their pipes in cupolas,
Sitting and looking out with still eyes
Over the curving backs of trains,
Something that is not earth’s strength
Nor cities’ eagerness,
A thing blended of both
And greater far.

There is a foreshadowing of Ayn Rand in it, perhaps? Wandrei’s poem by contrast is rather ellegiac and Poe-like. Anderson describes Scott’s contributions as cosmic. The theme of his poem “The Last Man” brings to mind Shelley’s “Ozymandius” with its bitter awe at the vanity and futility of human endeavor. Scott writes:

Slowly and painfully and all alone
He climbs the hill to watch the setting sun;
Sickly and pale and cold as ancient stone
Its final light on this remaining one. 
He watches it; where clouds were thick with rain
A rainbow glimmers—God’s last mockery;
He hears below the dim edge of the plain,
Far off, the gradual stilling of the sea. 

Standing there, bowed before the thin green light,
He looks down were so many million souls
Set banners flying and went beating drums
And tended fires and sped abroad to fight,
All—all for causes over which dust rolls. 
The sun goes out, and the great darkness comes.

I am not sure why subsequent volumes were not published. Anderson suggests that the commencement of the Great Depression must have curtailed the series, but I am not sure why it would have been affected more than any other publishing venture.