Most people — even most teachers of literature — have never heard of the artist and poet Henry Martyn Hoyt (May 8, 1887- August 25, 1920). And yet one of his poems remains a favorite of mine, not only for its vivid imagery, but also for depicting so clearly the hopeless attitude of mind that — if one does not have a corrective change of perspective — can lead to disaster.
It deals with disillusionment about life — the realization that the world of childhood and youth — a world lived much in the imagination and shining expectations — is not the real world around us. It comes to different people at different times, whether early or later in life. It can be precipitated by any number of things.
We have seen this realization — shattering for some people — in previous discussions. We saw it in Dylan Thomas’ lines:
Nothing I cared, in the lamb white days, that time would take me
Up to the swallow thronged loft by the shadow of my hand,
In the moon that is always rising,
Nor that riding to sleep
I should hear him fly with the high fields
And wake to the farm forever fled from the childless land.
Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,
Time held me green and dying
Though I sang in my chains like the sea.
We saw it also in the plea of Matthew Arnold:
Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
Life suddenly becomes very difficult and traumatic for those going through this realization; whenever it occurs, it is essentially a transition crisis from immature thinking to adult thought. For some people, the body matures but the mind reminds in a childish state, blocking out the realities of life. Such people are the Peter Pans of the world, who never want to grow up. This clinging to mental immaturity — this reluctance to deal with the hard facts of life — is one reason why people attach themselves so firmly to dogmatic religious beliefs, and then when the evidence against those beliefs becomes too overwhelming, the individual’s world seems to collapse.
It is expressed when reality breaks into fantasy in the lines of T. S. Eliot:
We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.
And some people, unfortunately, do wake only to drown. The difficult time of transition is just too much for them. If they were to wait, to learn from the hard knocks of life, they might survive and be better for the experience. But for some, giving up the “Land of Dreams” is so traumatic a crisis that they end their lives prematurely, without ever having really achieved all that maturation means. They cannot survive the loss of their pleasant illusions about life — the world of childhood and youth — at least that is how they feel while in the grip of the trauma of that dark period.
Henry Martyn Hoyt left us one of the most poetic expressions of this critical and dangerous time of transition. It is titled
THE LAND OF DREAMS
Ah, give us back our dear dead Land of Dreams!
The far, faint, misty hills, the tangled maze
Of brake and thicket; down green woodland ways
The hush of summer, and on amber streams
Bright leaves afloat, amid the foam that creams
Round crannied boulder, where the shallows blaze.
Then life ran joyous through glad, golden days
And silver nights beneath the moon’s pale beams.
Now all is lost. There glooms a dark morass
Where throbbed the thrush across the dappled lawn.
Oh, never more shall fairy pageants pass,
Nor dance of light-limbed satyr, nymph and faun,
Adrift among the whispering meadow-grass,
On wind-swept uplands, yearning toward the dawn.
One can discern in this poem an individual whose bright, youthful view of the world has been shattered, replaced by a day-to-day reality far from what had been hoped. There is so little published material available on Hoyt’s life that one cannot easily trace the course of this disillusionment, but we know that it ended in his taking his own life at age 33.
This is the beginning of an article that appeared in The Sun and the New York Herald, 26 August, 1920:
H.M. Hoyt, Artist, Ends Life With Gas
No Cause Assigned for His Act.
Henry Martyn Hoyt, a portrait painter, committed suicide last night in his studio at 37 West Tenth street, by inhaling gas. William Rose Bennet, who roomed with Mr. Hoyt, returned home at 11:15 o’clock and found the artist’s body in the bathroom with a gas tube in his mouth and attached to that gas jet. Mr. Hoyt was only partly dressed.
Mr. Bennet notified the police and Patrolman Schroeder of the Mercer street station summoned a physician from St. Vincent’s Hospital, but Mr. Hoyt was dead when the physician arrived at the studio. Mr. Bennet told the police he knew of no reason why his friend should have committed suicide.
The “William Rose Bennet” mentioned in the article was actually William Rose Benét, the older brother of the writer and Pulitzer Prize winner (1929) Stephen Vincent Benét. William eventually married (her third marriage) the poet and literary editor of Vanity Fair, the beautiful Elinor Wylie, born Elinor Hoyt — a sister of the poet and artist Henry Martyn Hoyt. She was Benét’s second wife of four. William Rose Benét was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1942.
“The Land of Dreams” was published in Dry Points: Studies in Black and White, by Henry Martyn Hoyt and William Rose Benét, in 1921. Oddly enough, I first encountered the poem in my teens, finding it in the old volume The Home Book of Modern Verse (1925) in my school library. For many years — due to an apparent typographical error in that edition — I knew the fourth line from the end as:
Oh, never more shall fiery pageants pass…
But when I read the original printing of Dry Points, I found it as
Oh, never more shall fairy pageants pass…
I must admit that I still rather prefer the line as it is with the typographical error “fiery,” because it presents such a strong, vivid and effective image.
Henry’s friend William Rose Benét wrote of him in Dry Points:
All it meant to him — this life! It meant so much. It tortured him so deeply and yet he wrung from it so much and such exquisite pleasure. And the times when he was most happy were of such utter simplicity — friends, his family, summer evenings, talk to the accompaniment of some handiwork, snatches of song, Italian restaurant suppers, lamplight, the reading of poetry, firelight, mildly hilarious pilgrimages through moonlit streets, — friends, friends, friends ….
Hoyt came from an old, very prominent, and wealthy family. He had connections to then well-known people. He was well-educated, talented and intelligent, and yet all of that was not enough in his time of crisis.
If you would like to read Dry Points, you will find it online here:
And for those who want to know a little more of the life of Henry Martyn Hoyt, the Obituary Record of Graduates of Yale College tells us this:
Henry Martyn Hoyt was prepared at the Haverford Grammar School and the Friends’ School, Washington D. C., entering Yale when he was only sixteen…
He spent the summer after graduation abroad, and then attended the Harvard Architectural School for a year. The next summer he did some painting and took a trip through the West, and the following year was a student at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts under William M. Chase. After another visit to Europe he entered the Museum of Fine Arts School in Boston, studied under Edmund C. Tarbell, and completed the course there. He had since continued his painting independently and had developed a gift for etching. He wrote a number of articles in connection with his work, some poems, and a one-act play… Dry Points, a volume of verse, by Mr. Hoyt, with a sketch of his life by William Rose Benét, ’07 S., was published in the fall of 1921.
In the summer of 1915 Mr. Hoyt attended the first Plattsburg Training Camp. He enlisted on May 3, 1917, and during the next two months attended the Ground School at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He went overseas in August, 1917, and was sent to the flying field at Etampes, later being transferred to Avord. In Septemper and October, 1917, he was flying at Foggia, Italy, but was then taken ill with Saloniki fever and sent to a hospital in Paris. In February, 1918, he was transferred to the Photographic Section of the Air Service, and the following May was commissioned a First Lieutenant in the Air Service and assigned to the Photographic Section Headquarters at Tours. He returned to the United States in April, 1919, and received his discharge at Washington on the twenty-fifth of that month.
He took his own life in his studio in New York on August 15, 1920.
A collection of Hoyt’s papers, sketchbooks, and correspondence are preserved in the Beinecke Library at Yale University.