Madison Julius Cawein (pronounced CAW-wine), known as “the Keats of Kentucky”, was born in Louisville, Kentucky, on 23rd March 1865. He and his five siblings, four brothers and one sister, were the sons and daughters of Dr William and Christiana Cawein. Their father was a practical herbalist, gathering and investigating the use of medicinal plants for patent medicine, their mother pursued an interest in psychology and spiritualism. The Cawein surname is a Germanisation of a French surname, and the Cawein genealogy indicates a Franco-German descent. Though his father’s work was heavily involved in the natural world, Cawein claimed that he was nine when he first “came into contact with wild nature” following the family’s relocation to Rock Springs, east of Louisville, where his father had taken the job of managing the Rock Springs Hotel from 1874-5. Here, Cawein encountered an old water mill which became an integral locus of his poetry. He often walked with his father, discovering the joys of his natural surroundings and unwittingly building the foundational love for nature upon which he based his poetry.
This fascination with nature was still in its infancy, though, and it was only when he lived in a cottage in New Albany, Indiana, with his parents, that he consciously “formed [his] great love for nature”. In particular, he was captivated by ideas of the supernatural in nature, and the language with which such ideas were imparted. He took an interest in translating from Latin and German, while simultaneously reading, learning and making up stories for his friends and family. Interestingly though, he only turned to poetry until his junior year of high school. In 1879 the Caweins returned to Louisville, where Madison attended high school until his graduation in 1884. According to what little we have by way of records of Cawein’s schooldays, he was well-liked by both his peers and his superiors. Indeed, both peers and superiors alike noted his diligence and studiousness, and his enthusiasm for nature and literature. This academic education was the source for many of his adult working habits, for he spent hours of disciplined writing every day throughout his life. Continuing his education, he was class poet of his graduating year of 1886, when he earnt a Bachelor of Arts degree. In 1887 he took work in a pool room as a cashier, supporting himself financially so that he could write. He was there for six years, during which time his writing was prolific and varied.
The first nineteen of his books were written during this time, while he was sharing a home with his parents. His first book, Blooms of the Berry, was published in 1887 when he was twenty-two. It was well received by the Louisville press, and his continuing success brought with it a burgeoning reputation among the critics of the Eastern United States. With the assistance of fellow American writer William Dean Howells, his reputation reached English shores, where he was equally well-received. He gradually became better acquainted with Howells, and through him Oliver Wendell Holmes and James Russell Lowell. These, along with Romantic poets such as Wordsworth, Keats, Shelley, Coleridge and Byron, American transcendentalists, early metaphysical poets such as Donne, and “breakfast club” poets such as Browning, Burns and Emerson quite clearly influenced Cawein’s poetry. He personally cited his favourite writers as Cervantes, Goethe and Hardy, along with many Victorian English and French writers. Particularly, he preferred De Maupassant, Dickens, Fielding, Flaubert, Gautier, Rousseau, Scott, Stevenson, Thackeray and Zola. Though the favourites far outweigh the least favourites, he did cite Yeats and Ezra Pound as writers with whom he could not agree. In a letter to the editorial Poetry, he wrote “the less of that Ezra Pound stuff you put in your pages the better it will be for the future of Poetry. Walt Whitman gone made, without the grace and sound common sense of Whitman to redeem the platitude and lack of poetic form and inspiration. A boy could write such stuff by the yard without any mental effort whatsoever. May God help us, who love real poetry, if this is the kind of verse we are to be doomed to read in the next decade.”
Despite this critical popularity, some resented the sheer prolificness of his writing, considering the constancy of his publication something of a detractor from the quality of his work. Moreover, the volume of sales never matched the warmth of his reviews, and the majority of his books didn’t sell well. Indeed, in total he published 36 volumes which combined some 2700 poems, of which 1500 are original and the remainder are reprints, or somehow altered versions. His five-volume Collected Poems (1907) speaks to his critics’ concerns, for rather than an organised collection around strongly established themes, or even simple chronology, it is arranged according to its vague and overlapping ideas, and smacks of a poetic vision clouded by its breadth, and unfocused in the manner in which his critics would have preferred. Indeed, Cawein wrote of his sorrow at the public’s apparently shallow preference for simple and boldly written popular writing; a particular work he indicated as an example of this was “Casey at the Bat”, a populist baseball poem written in 1888 by Ernest Thayer, catering to an uneducated mass whose interest in sports Cawein thought unsuitable for such an artistic medium.
In an endeavour to focus his work, Cawein published a handful of slimmer, more refined volumes, often collated from culls of magazine publications and previous books of his. These saw publication almost every year from 1887 to 1915, and he accompanied their release with public promotional readings. These readings were one of his poetic strengths, and they attracted new readers to his writing and endorsed his reputation as an interpreter, linguist and artist. Alongside the new work he was constantly producing, the discipline he had taught himself while a student manifested itself in a streak of perfectionism, which saw him constantly revisiting and revising his earlier work, modestly downplaying the merits of the old while asserting the improvements in the revised. The poets whose work he admired, he praised voraciously and publicly. Moreover, he considered his writing the product of a simple craftsmanship, and refused to be compared alongside, let alone likened to, the work of others. Looking at the titles of his volumes, his early interest in early and classical literature, fostered by his love of language and translation, is clear: Lyrics and Idyls, Accolon of Gaul, Idyllic Monologues, Myth and Romance, An Ode and The Poet, The Fool and the Faeries all bespeak a literacy in myth, legend and classical lore. One of his collections, The Giant and the Star, is a volume entirely devoted to rhymes and poems for children, and it was suggested by one of his critics that it might be one of Cawein’s most remembered works. Several of his other volumes exhibit extended skill in linguistics and literature: The White Snake features translations from German, The Shadow Garden is a collection of four plays, and Nature Notes and Impressions exhibits a skill in observation of the natural world, perhaps found during those walks with his father, and reminiscent of Thoreau’s observational sketches.
The beginning of the twentieth century marked the beginning of Cawein’s health problems, along with a significant financial upheaval. Illness and increasing poverty, owing to a crippling lack of sales, began to take its toll on his generally positive outlook, souring his personality from buoyant to dour, miserable and depressive. In letters to his friends, he openly wished for death, he bemoaned the public’s indifference to poetry, and he described a weariness toward “the terrible burden of existence, the endless struggle for attainment, the pitiless irony of the actual, and all the misery, uselessness and emptiness of effort.” Despite this seemingly irrevocable attitude of doubt and depression, by June 1903 his fortunes had changed enough that he married Gertrude Foster McKelvey, apparently the love of his life. She was a “beautiful, noble” character, who, with her son, brought comfort to Cawein during his years of depression. She was also an occasional writer. He moved out of his home with his parents and with his new bride into a magnificent home in Louisville with a private library featuring some fifteen hundred volumes. With Gertrude, he had one son, Preston Hamilton Cawein, born on March 18th, 1904. After Madison’s death, Preston changed his name to Madison Cawein II, and he went on to receive a masters degree in physics from Cornell University.
Though it would be quite reasonable to assume that an output as prolific as this occupied all of his time, or at least all of his time writing, it did not. Rather, he was able to maintain extensive correspondence with his friends and writerly acquaintances, offering them advice, suggestions and praise. In return, important figures such as William Dean Howells and Harold Monro, along with the combined literati of both America and Europe, continued to praise Cawein. The extent of this admiration is exhibited in a gathering of unpublished letters and correspondences entitled The Story of a Poet, published posthumously, which attests to the effusion of his admirers and acquaintances. As with all artists, though, the general goodwill with which he was received occasionally found its counterpoint, and once such instance can be found in The New York Times, in a review by Shaemas O’Sheel. Though the paper tended to look favourably of Cawein’s work, on the occasion of their review of a 1912 volume, either Poems by Madison Cawein or most probably The Poet, The Fool and the Faeries, his writing was found lacking in Celtic Revivalist tradition. O’Sheel criticised Cawein’s “lush, rank, and entangling” writing, and managed to extend this criticism to the entire “standard of poetry in America”. In response to this review, Cawein wrote of his desire to “leave unsoiled my sane and American soul”, a starkly Whitmanesque statement, and of its importance to his Kentuckian poetry. Indeed, it is often noted posthumously that his writing brought a level of awareness to Southern poetry, and helped disprove beliefs that it was intellectually impoverished, or somehow inferior. Some critics have gone so far as to suggest that it reinvigorated and buttressed the reputation of American poetry as a whole in a time when the critical appreciation of American writing was waning.
Though he had found love, happiness and solace in the arms of his wife and son, by 1912 Cawein’s fortunes took a further turn for the worse as he lost a large portion of his insignificant savings in a stock market crash. He had no recourse but to sell his Louisville home, and some of his library. He wrote to a friend “the trouble about all my books is they sell so few and the royalties are really nothing. A poet ought never to marry. Being a poet, it’s the mistake of my life. Nothing but worry and the grind of keeping a family up and enough money to live respectably on.” Along with this grim, hitherto uncharacteristic self-appraisal, Cawein began to write dark and powerful war poems, full of despair and acceptance of death. This was a downward spiral of such an extent that the very public began to notice and discuss it; his poem “At the End of the Road” was compared to an earlier work, “The Whippoorwill”, and comments were widely made about its nihilism and despair. The desperate financial position in which he found himself saw him eventually admitted in 1914 to the Authors Club of New York’s charitable relief list. While benefiting from the charity he received therein, Cawein attempted to secure an appointment to a government position, or even a job in journalism. Though he had several contacts with public figures, it was to no avail. On December 8th, 1914, Cawein died of apoplexy. He was 49.
Friends, fans and newspapers eulogised him as one of the greatest living American poets, and he was buried in Cave Hill Cemetery in Louisville, alongside his father. In 1918, he was joined by his wife. 1921 saw the publication of The Story of a Poet, and within its pages is a deeply affecting appraisal by Otto Arthur Rothert, who writes
Like Poe and Keats and many other true poets, Cawein did not receive a general recognition while he was still writing. He now awaits the wide and deserved recognition which time alone bestows. That the number of appreciators of Cawein’s works never decreased but slowly increased during his life-time points toward an enduring fame... Cawein’s greatest hope was that his poetry would live.
Though this glowing review speaks of Cawein’s wide admiration, there were other critics whose views exhibited more balance about his work. Some wrote that his “spiritual nostalgia” and “creative imagination” were never quite sufficient to “pierce satisfactorily through the mists of material substance to the essential verities which lay behind them”, which rendered his artistic endeavour and achievement incomplete. Indeed, the trajectory of his writing indicates the dichotomy of a struggle for art and tradition’s triumph over modernity, juxtaposed against his eventual resignation and acceptance of death, and a conscious rejection of fabricated, affected innocence, and escapism.