America's "Yellow Nineties" Poet

Joseph Payne Brennan

If I might be allowed to venture some comments, there are some flaws in his article, which mainly stem from the fact that he evidently did not know of Barnitz's essay "At the End of the Century", in which Barnitz reveals that his earnest study of the decadents was, at least partially, a pose, as well as an intellectual choice, reflective of Barnitz's generally sarcastic view of literature in general. Indeed, the fact that Brennan was himself a poet perhaps underlies his singling out of Barnitz's "melancholy" "lyrics" for praise, whereas someone of a different bent might likewise note the intellectual rigor, the inflexible oblivionism and bleak misanthropy of Barnitz's work, which doubtless has its origin in Barnitz's Lutheran/Harvard education, his reading of Kant, his instruction by Belser and Lanman, his firm grounding in the Germanic school of Biblical textual analysis, as well in some nasty, elitist, and cruel personality quirk of his own –a quirk which led him to find literary expression in the nasty medium of the French decadent school. Surely, one can only regard lines such as:

     "Thy bosom is an altar-place,
     Thy kisses holy wine;
Sweet incense offered for my bliss
     Is thy corrupted breath,
And on thy stained lips I kiss
     The holy lips of Death!"

as being calculated to infuriate a father who was head of the Home Missions for the Lutheran Church --just as infuriating, perhaps, as the fact that Barnitz ended his book of poetry with the words "Ite Missa Est" –"It is done"-something his father must have also likewise said at the end of every church service! (Here, too, we possibly find a likely explanation for Barnitz's apparent preference, which Brennan notes, "to be known as 'Park Barnitz'" –"Park" being his MOTHER'S maiden name.)

Brennan writes: "He [Barnitz] may have respected Whitman, but the native literary soil of his age must have seemed stony and infertile. There is little evidence that he put roots into it, or that he drew anything worthwhile out of it." --Whereas we know from Barnitz's essay "Art at the End of the Century", that Barnitz was well-versed in the totality of American literature, and that regarded Whitman as "our Homer and our prophet", "the one man belonging no more to America than to the world, who has announced the future with a great voice".

Brennan writes: "Barnitz, like Poe –whom he probably admired-seems strangely isolated in the America of his time. He must have sensed that his own impulses were alien ones," and concludes: "Nevertheless, Barnitz remains, with his scant handful of successful poems, America's only 'Yellow Nineties' poet." However, Barnitz, far from being "America's only 'Yellow Nineties' poet", was actually a LATE-COMER to decadence, Ralph Adams Cram, Bliss Carman, Thomas Hovey, and Louisa Imogen Guiney (to name a few) having proceeded him in the 1890's –these writers likewise having been associated, to some degree, with Barnitz's publisher, William Doxey, as well.

--- Gavin Callaghan"

It was October, 1901, and the funeral room in Des Moines was crowded with vases of chrysanthemums and autumn leaves, scarlet, copper and faded yellow. In the simple casket lay the mortal remains of a young man attired in an M.A. gown. He had died suddenly of a heart attack a few days before –October 10th-in his twenty-third year. Only a few weeks previous he had published, anonymously, a first book of poems entitled The Book of Jade.

Although a notice appearing after the author's death states that a second autographed edition of the book was about to be issued at the time of the poet's fatal seizure, all available evidence indicates that the six hundred published copies of The Book of Jade were quickly forgotten. They followed the withered chrysanthemums and the brittle autumn leaves into oblivion.

This oblivion was, in some measure, justified. The Book of Jade contains much that is specious, imitative, and immature. It is weakened by melodramatic attitudinizing and by an obsessive necrophilisim. And yet, with all its indisputable faults, it bears proof even today that its ill-starred young author possessed genuine lyric talent. Its complete neglect is not warranted.

David Park Barnitz, author of The Book of Jade, was born in Wheeling, West Virginia, June 24, 1878, the son of the Reverend S. B. Barnitz, Western Secretary of Home Missions. In 1882 the Barnitz family moved to Des Moines, Iowa. Young David attended schools in Des Moines and entered Midland College of the Lutheran Church at Atchison, Kansas, at the age of 15. After graduation, he was sent to Harvard, taking his B.A. in 1898 and his M.A. a year later.

According to professor James of Harvard, young David was a brilliant student. He studied Sanskrit and it is said that he was the youngest individual ever admitted to the American Oriental Society. In his habits he was scholarly, aloof, and withdrawn.

After Harvard he returned to his home on 18th Street in Des Moines where he continued his studies. If contemporary accounts are correct, he maintained few social contacts. His tall, erect figure was seen often at the local libraries, but seldom anywhere else. In spite of his recluse bent however, his parents, sisters, and one brother appear to have been devoted to him. And from all accounts this warm family attachment was mutual.

A photograph which must have been taken not long before the poet's death reveals a serious-appearing young man with large, brilliant, dark eyes, a generous mouth, and a somewhat prominent nose. He wears spectacles and a high starched collar; his long hair is middle-parted, very precisely. He might be a firm accountant or a young mathematics professor. The strident melodrama and dedicated decadence of his verses is nowhere apparent.

The family of young Barnitz was aware that he suffered from what is described as 'enlargement of the heart', but apparently the symptoms of this affliction were not considered alarming. The condition was not believed to be potentially lethal and the poet's death came as a severe shock.

One Saturday early in October young Barnitz complained of intense pains; after a few days' rest, the pains subsided. The following Wednesday however, after lunch with his sisters, Barnitz walked up a flight of stairs, dropped, and was dead in an instant.

The key to The Book of Jade probably lies in its dedication: "To the memory of Charles Baudelaire." Even if one overlooks the dedication, it is obvious at once that Barnitz was strongly influenced by the great French poet. The themes are: Autumn, Death, Ennui, Love, and Love-in-Death. From many of the verses arise the stale mephitic fumes of opium and absinthe. Often these give way to the outright reek of the charnel house. A glance at the verse titles, selected almost at random, is revealing: "Opium", "Sombre Sonnet", "Ennui", "Mais Mois Je Vis La Vie En Rouge", "Autumn Song", "Autumn Burial", "Sepulchre", "Mummy", "The Grotesques", "Dead Dialogue", and so on.

Barnitz's obsessive concern with death, melancholy and corpses is, we suspect, at least partially borrowed, vicarious. But was there some inner compulsion to account for his pose? Did Barnitz actually experience premonitions of an early death? It seems not unlikely. In one of the last poems in his book, Envoi, at the End of the Century, he writes:

Now I am come to the Nadir at last, to the absolute sorrow,
Now all the stars are gone out of my sky;
Night everlasting is mine without hope or desire of the morrow,
All my life's hopes are gone tombwards to die.

If Barnitz's poetic metal swerved irresistibly toward the magnet of Baudelaire, he was also powerfully influenced by the literary climate of the decade in which he passed his most impressionable early years.

When we think of writing in the 'nineties, we immediately recall Henry Harland's "Yellow Book", the (then) scandalous drawings of Aubrey Beardsley, Oscar Wilde, the exquisite despair distilled into the poems of Ernest Dowson. There is ample evidence that Barnitz immersed himself in the rebellious "decadence" of the "fin de siecle" European writers. He could have had little sympathy with the dreary commercialism and vindictive intolerance of the dying Victorian age. In protest against its hypocrisy and avarice, he allied himself with the group which sent the decade down in history as "the Naughty Nineties."

One of Barnitz's most successful lyrics, the "Rondeau", beginning "As shadows pass in the misty night," brings to mind Dowson's famous "They are not long, the weeping and the laughter." And several of his other better poems, notably "Remember" and "Song", are lyrics drawn on the same muted string.

Barnitz, like Poe –whom he probably admired-seems strangely isolated in the America of his time. He must have sensed that his own impulses were alien ones. He may have respected Whitman, but the native literary soil of his age must have seemed stony and infertile. There is little evidence that he put roots into it, or that he drew anything worthwhile out of it.

As we look back nearly sixty years later, he emerges as a lonely and unique figure –America's forgotten poet of the "Yellow Nineties."

Although Barnitz's book did not actually appear until the century was over, he nevertheless belongs to the fabulous decade. It furnished the mold which shaped his work. As Desmond Flower writes in his introduction to the works of Dowson: "It has been stated that 'the 'nineties is not a period but a point of view'… and … those who lived beyond the fringe of the decade but thought alike must belong to it…"

We do not know how Barnitz arranged for the publication of his book. He may have traveled to New York and met the publisher; he may have transacted the entire business by mail. The book runs to 131 pages and contains 59 poems. The title page carries the volume's title over an ornate cut depicting what is presumably a mermaid among fish. At the bottom of the page is the publisher's imprint:

          At the Sign of the Lark
               New York

The author's name does not appear anywhere in the book. On the verso of the title page appears the following copyright notice: "Copyright, Doxey's 1901" and the following statement: "This edition is limited to six hundred copies, of which this is No…"

The cover of the book carries the title and a line drawing, done in red and orange-yellow on a black background, of a long-haired figure, probably male, partially wrapped in a great flowing cloak or shroud and carrying a sword. The book is otherwise not illustrated.

We learn that Barnitz at first intended calling his book The Book of Gold. This later changed to The Divan of Park Barnitz and then finally to The Book of Jade. (Barnitz dropped his first name in correspondence; he apparently preferred to be known as "Park Barnitz.")

Of the 59 poems in the book, about a dozen are worth salvaging. When contrasted with the best, the worst are really bad. One poem, "Danse Macabre", is in such atrociously bad taste that it was finally omitted from the book, probably at the insistence of the publisher. It exists now only in a clipping taken from galley proofs.

But our chief interest is the good poems. And the good ones reveal an undeniable lyric gift; a pure melancholy which reminds us of Dowson, a perverse and near-perfect despair which faintly recalls Les Fleurs du mal.

Many of the "Nineties" writers died in their thirties; Barnitz died at twenty-three. We cannot help wondering what poems he might have left us had he lived another ten or fifteen years. It seems reasonable to suppose that he would have sloughed-off many of the imperfections and faults of immaturity –the posturing, the stridency and sheer poor taste.

Nevertheless, Barnitz remains, with his scant handful of successful poems, America's only "Yellow Nineties" poet. He possessed, indisputably, "the point of view". For that alone he remains important to us.

A tragic, lonely and isolated figure, he well deserves his little niche after a half century of continuous and total neglect.

Selections from The Book of Jade

(In a few instances archaic spelling has been modernized and apostrophized letters have been replaced.)


     She hath lived the life of a rose,
          She was that fair,
          Blown on by the summer air,
     Grown tall in a golden close.

     An ending is set to delight;
          Now thou are as grass,
          As the leaves, as the blossoms that pass,
     Made pale at the touch of the night.


     Among all sorrows that my heart has known,
     Among all sorrows that my spirit keep
     Forever buried 'neath their mountain steep,
     Stands one consolation, one alone.

     I know that earth shall be for death a throne,
     And evermore within their burials deep
     The banded nations of the earth shall sleep,
     Sunken in sepulchers of sculptured stone.

     Then all the world shall be a quietness:
     Dead women beautiful with their delights;
     All they that had such striving and distress,

     And endless weariness in all the lands,
     White faces, eager heart-strings, soiled hands;
     And peace shall hold the valleys and the heights.


     It is not that thy face is fair
          As dying summers are,
     Nor that thy lovely eyelids wear
          The splendour of a star;
     Tis the deep sadness of thine eyes
          Hath my heart captive led,
     And that within thy soul I prize
          The calmness of the dead.

     O holy love, O fair white face,
          O sweet lost soul of thine!
     Thy bosom is an altar-place,
          Thy kisses holy wine;
     Sweet incense offered for my bliss
          Is thy corrupted breath,
     And on thy stained lips I kiss
          The holy lips of Death!

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