LEOverse: Louisville poet, on spring rains and war


Louisville poet, on spring rains and war

To mark Earth Day, LEO is taking over Your Voice to write about Madison Cawein, a Louisville poet in the early 1900s nicknamed the “Keats of Kentucky” for his lyrical poems about nature but also the ugliness of war. Both are relevant today.

Cawein had worked in a poolroom for many years, but then supported himself as a poet and through investments, Madeline Covi wrote in “Madison Cawein: A Landscape Poet,” in the Kentucky Review in 1982. The stock market crash forced him to move from his St. James Court house to an apartment, sell portions of his library and find a job. In 1914, he died from a fall, apparently the result of apoplexy. The outbreak earlier that year of World War I had affected him deeply. To Clinton Scollard he wrote: “I have no heart, like yourself, for this dreadful war and its butchery. I think it forebodes the end of the world.” This poem, from “Weeds by the Wall,” in 1901, eerily portended what was to come:


War and Disaster, Famine and Pestilence,

Vaunt-couriers of the Century that comes,

Behold them shaking their tremendous plumes

Above the world! where all the air grows dense

With rumors of destruction and a sense,

Cadaverous, of corpses and of tombs

Predestined; while, — like monsters in the glooms, —

Bristling with battle, shadowy and immense,

The Nations rise in wild apocalypse. —

Where now the boast Earth makes of civilization?

Its brag of Christianity? — In vain

We seek to see them in the dread eclipse

Of hell and horror, all the devastation

Of Death triumphant on his hills of slain.

Mostly, Cawein is known for his odes to nature. This, from “Weeds”:


It seemed the listening forest held its breath

Before some vague and unapparent form

Of fear, approaching with the wings of death,

On the impending storm.

Above the hills, big, bellying clouds loomed, black

And ominous, yet silent as the blue

That pools calm heights of heaven, deepening back

‘Twixt clouds of snowdrift hue.

Then instantly, as when a multitude

Shout riot and war through some tumultuous town,

Innumerable voices swept the wood

As wild the wind rushed down.

And fierce and few, as when a strong man weeps,

Great rain-drops dashed the dust; and, overhead,

Ponderous and vast down the prodigious deeps,

Went slow the thunder’s tread.

And swift and furious, as when giants fence,

The lightning foils of tempest went insane;

Then far and near sonorous Earth grew dense

With long sweet sweep of rain.