Wilbur Underwood: “Deep as the Void Above Us and Sweet as the Dawn-Star”

Photographers Unknown,  Deep As The Void Above Us

All night long through the starlit air and the stillness,
Through the cool wanness of dawn and the burning of noontide,
Onward we strain with a mighty resounding of hoof-beats.

Heaven and earth are ashake with the terrible trampling;
Wild, straying feet of a vast and hastening army;
Wistful eyes that helplessly seek one another.

Hushed is the dark to hear the plaint of our lowing,
Mournful cry of the dumb-tired hearts within us,
Faint to death with thirst and the gnawing of hunger.

Day by day through the dust and heat have we thirsted;
Day by day through stony ways have we hungered;
Naught but a few bitter herbs that grew by the wayside.

What we flee that is far behind in the darkness,
Where the place of abiding for us, we know not;
Only we hark for the voice of the Master Herdsman.

Many a weary day must pass ere we hear it,
Blown on the winds, now close, now far in the distance,
Deep as the void above us and sweet as the dawn-star.

Wilbur Underwood, The Cattle of His Hand, Excerpt

Born in 1874, Wilbur Underwood was an American poet whose work had strong affiliations with the literary Decadent movement of the late-nineteenth century. This movement was characterized by a rejection of the world’s banal progress and its norms of morality and sexual behavior, a love for extravagant language in literature, and an emphasis on art for its own sake. 

Few prominent writers, however, were connected to the Decadent movement in the United States, one exception being the poet George Sylvester Viereck who wrote the 1907 “Nineveh and Other Poems’, as Americans at that time were reluctant to see value in the movement’s art forms. Although Underwood’s poetry had some affinities with the Romantic and Pre-Raphaelite eras, the vast majority of his work was written in a decadent style.

Wilbur Underwood worked in a clerical-administrative position in the United States State Department until 1933. He was a member of the homosexual underground scene of the period and is best known as the mentor and confidant of poet Hart Crane, whom he met in 1920 in Washington D.C.  Hart Crane’s intimate letters to Underwood have been published, often censored, in several anthologies. 

One of the first poems of Underwood to be published was his “The Cattle of His Hand”, which appeared in poet Edmund Clarence Stedman’s 1900 verse collection, “An American Anthology”.  Underwood published five volumes of poetry in his lifetime; the first of which was the 1907 “A Book of Masks” which was followed two years later by his “Damien of Molokai”. His third collection was the 1927 “The Way: Poems”, which was followed in the following year by “To One In Heaven”. Underwood’s final verse collection was “Fountain of Dark Waters”, published in 1933. 

Wilbur Underwood died in 1935 at the age of sixty-one. A collection of his poems, “Selected Poems”, was published posthumously in 1949. Underwood’s papers, amassed and catalogued by his brother Norman, were given to the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress. These include journals, sketchbooks and illustrations, poems, photographs, legal records, and other printed material.

Notes: One of the best sources of information on Wilbur Underwood is Olive Fisher’s 2002 biography “Hart Crane: A Life”, published by Yale University. 

The 1980 Spring Issue of The Souther Review magazine contained the article entitled “Wind-Blown Flames: Letters of Hart Crane to Wilbur Underwood”. Unfortunately, it is not archived online.

Wilbur Underwood’s poem “The Cattle of His Hand”, in its entirety, can be found at bartleby.com located at https://www.bartleby.com/248/1676.html

Insert Images: Two hand-written poems from “A Book of Masks”, published 1907.

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