Born in Lewison, Maine, Marsden Hartley grew up in a family of poverty. At 14 Hartley dropped out of school and went to work in a shoe factory, joining his family the next year in Cleveland, where they had moved. There he was able to study art, and won a scholarship to study of the Cleveland School (now Institute) of Art. In 1898 he moved to New York City, continuing his art studies at the William Merritt Chase School, but grew frustrated with the Chase methods of painting and teaching. He left the school in 1900 to attend the National Academy of Design. During these early years of 1908 and 1909 Hartley returned often to Maine, painting its landscape and writing poetry.
In 1909 Alfred Stieglitz gave Hartley his first one-man exhibition and took him on at his famed 291 Gallery. Stieglitz also introduced Hartley to the works of European modernisn, including Matisse, Picasso and Cézanne, whose influences began to appear in his still-lives of 1912. Between 1912 and 1916, and continuing in the years 1922 to 1929, Harley lived in both New York and in Europe, traveling, painting and writing.
While in Europe he became fascinated with the works of the Blaue Reiter group, particularly Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc, influences that would remain in Hartley’s paintings for several years. He exhibited with the Blaue Reiter group in the First German Autumn Salon in Berlin.
Hartley was a witty conversationalist and noted for his often straight-forward but elegantly expressed statements. But, as a closeted homosexual—at least in the US—Hartley could also be aloof and, at times, distant. Soon after the outbreak of World War I, Hartley lost his dear friend and reputed lover, Karl von Freyburg, who died in battle. He began a series of paintings paying tribute to Freyburg and other German friends who inhabited Berlin’s vibrant homosexual world.
In 1919, having returned to the United States, he began to publish poetry and essays in many of the important small journals and presses of the day, including Poetry, The Dial, The Little Review, and Others. In the early 1920s he came briefly under the influence of Dadaism. He also became close friends with the artists of Stieglitz’s group—Arthur Dove, John Marin, Georgia O’Keefe and Paul Strand—as well as writers such as Arthur Kreymborg, Djuna Barnes (her wrote of him in a couple of her journalistic pieces on “Greenwich Village” life), William Carlos Williams, e. e. cummings, and others.. It was he who first introduced Williams to Robert McAlmon, resulting ultimately in the Contact publications. McAlmon published Hartley’s own book of poetry, Twenty-five Poems in 1925. In Paris Hartley had also become a close friend of Gertrude Stein’s.
As a result of the war, Hartley increasingly moved in a new direction both in his painting and writing to a more regional approach. Influenced by Whitman and others, he centered his writing in more of the plain speech of common people and in his art depicting the fishermen and workers, often in homoerotic images, of his beloved home state. Whereas his earlier poetry had often been experimental, in his later work he often returned some rhyme and meter and to more narrative forms. Yet, Hartley wrote with no particular programme, and it would be difficult to characterize his poetry as following any one trend. As he wrote in his 1919 essay (reproduced in the Documents section of this book), “Personal handling counts for more than personal expression. We can learn to use hackneyed words like ‘rose’ and ‘lily,’ relieving them of Swinburnian encrustations.”
In 1930 he received a Guggenheim Fellowship, traveling to Mexico and them to Germany. Returning to the United States in 1934, he continued to express the language and images of Maine. He died in Corea, Maine in 1943.
BOOKS OF POETRY
Twenty-Five Poems (Paris: Contact Editions, 1923); Androscoggin (1940); Sea Burial (Portland, Maine: Leon Tebetts Editions, 1941); Selected Poems, ed. by Henry Wells (New York: Viking Press, 1945); Eight Poems and One Essay (Lewiston, Maine: Treat Gallery, Bates College, 1976); The Collected Poems of Marsden Hatley 1904-1943, ed. by Gail R. Scott (Santa Rosa, California: Black Sparrow Press, 1987)
Local Boys and Girls Small Town Stuff
A panther sprang at the feet
Of the young deer in the grey wood.
It was the lady who had sworn
To love him,
That rose, wraithlike
From the flow of his blood.
He swooned with her devotions.
There was never one
More jolly and boyish
than he was, in the great beginning.
Once his slippers were fastened
He settled down
Like a worn jaguar
Weary with staring through bars.
The caresses that were poured
Over his person
Staled on him.
Love had grown rancid.
Have you emptied the garbage
If a clear delight visits you
Of an uncertain afternoon,
When you thought the time
For new delights was over for that day,
Say to yourself, who rule many a lost
Moment in this shadowy domain,
Saving it from its dusty grey perdition,
Say to yourself that is a flash
Of lightning from a so affectionate west,
Where the clear sky, that you know, resides.
The rainbow has crossed the desert once again,
I took the blade of bliss and notched it
In a roseate place.
It shed a crimson stream—
That was our flush of joy.
They will come
In the way they always come,
Swinging gilded fancies round your head.
So it is with surfaces.
They will walk around you
Strip branches of their blooms for you—
Young carpets for young ways.
With me it is different.
Stars, when they strike
Edge to edge,
Make fierce resplendent fire.
I have lived with bright stone,
Burned like carnelian in the sun,
Myself seen braches wither.
Carbon is a diamond—
It cuts the very crystal from the globe.
You are so beautiful
Is the confession of the leaf—at the brave moment of trembling. The white virginal ones run long thin fingers through the mystic’s fiery hair. It gives a slight twinge to the gelid existence of the virgin, about to perish. This virgin is male. Is the spiral eligible, when it comes too late? Take me with you, upward fire of the man—swirl me away from ethical ethers. Swirl me from this arteio-sclerosis of the soul. I am not known here. I am not known there. I am not in reality known outside myself. God does not covet originality. the virgin twirled a bit of pointed lace that festooned his illicit mind, and settled down to more opinionating at the rusty gate. The university whispers—the mind is carried in another bag, and weighs too heavily with mystic themes on hands not made for work. The lunchroom notes the bookworm fattening its lean body with flesh of other minds. The lunchroom notes the pity of faggot gathering brains. The classroom loves its back and worm as arums love the sickly tropic shade. The white hands turn the leaves of other minds and wander whitely in the world of other men’s appraisals. They never redden with their own incisions in the flesh of proud experience.
A gathering of words of other fondled words begotten is called investigation, and this in turn is called cerebral rapture.
Asceticism is a virtue in itself, the boyish virgin says. It saves a lot of trouble.
For two more poems, click below: