Selected Poetry by Robert Hillyer

Below are poems written early in Hillyer's career; several (mostly untitled) were written in 1918-19 when Hillyer lived in France. These and many more will appear in Early Poetry of Robert Hillyer (1917-1927) to be published as an ebook by Personville Press in Spring 2023. If you are looking for a more comprehensive compilation, Collected Poems of Robert Hillyer (Alfred Knopf, 1961) is a 235 page book (out of print) which contains poems from all periods of his life. Additional poetry notes appear after the poems.

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The thinkers light their lamps in rows

From street to street, and then

The night creeps up behind, and blows

Them quickly out again.

While Age limps groping toward his home,

Hearing the feet of youth

From dark to dark that sadly roam

The suburbs of the Truth.

(Paris, 1919)

The green canal is mottled with falling leaves,

Yellow leaves, fluttering silently;

A whirling gust ripples the woods, and heaves

The stricken branches with a sigh,

Then all is still again.

Unmoving, the green waterway receives

Ghosts of the dying forest to its breast;

Loneliness … quiet … not a wing has stirred

In the cold glades; no fish has leaped away

From the heavy waters; not a drop of rain

Distils from the pervading mist.

Sluggishly out of the west

A grey canal-boat glides, half-seen, unheard;

The sweating horses on the towpath sway

Backward and forward in a rhythmic strain;

It passes by, a dream within a dream,

Down the dark corridor of leaning boughs,

Down the long waterways of endless fall.

A shiver stirs the woods; a fitful gleam

Of sun gilds the sky's overhanging brows;

Then shadowy silence, and the yellow stream

Of dead leaves dropping to the green canal.

(Moret-sur-Loing, 1918)

They who have gone down the hill are far away;

From the still valleys I can hear them call;

Their distant laughter faintly floats

Through the unmoving air and back to me.

I am alone with the declining day

And the declining forest where the notes

Of all the happy minstrelsy,

Birds and leaf-music and the rest,

Sink separately in the hush of fall.

The sun and clouds conflicting in the west

Swirl into smoky light together and fade

Under the unbroken shadow;

Under the shadowed peace that is the night;

Under the night's great quietude of shade.

The sheep below me in the meadow

Seem drifting on the haze, serene and white,

Pale pastured dreams, unearthly herds that roam

Where the dead reign and phantoms make their home.

They also pass, even as the clear ring

Of the sad Angelus through the vales echoing.

(Montigny, 1918)


Men lied to them and so they went to die.

Some fell, unknowing that they were deceived,

And some escaped, and bitterly bereaved,

Beheld the truth they loved shrink to a lie.

And those there were that never had believed,

But from afar had read the gathering sky,

And darkly wrapt in that dread prophecy,

Died trusting that their truth might be retrieved.

It matters not. For life deals thus with Man;

To die alone deceived or with the mass,

Or disillusioned to complete his span.

Thermopylae or Golgotha, all one,

The young dead legions in the narrow pass;

The stark black cross against the setting sun.

(Pomfret, 1919)

You seek to hurt me, foolish child, and why?

How cunningly you try

The keen edge of your words against me, yea,

The death you would not dare inflict on me,

Yet would you welcome if it tore the day

In which I pleasure from my sight.

You would be happy if that sombre night

Ravished me into darkness where there are

No flowers and no colours and no light,

Nor any joy, nor you, O morning star.

What have I done to hurt you? You have given

What I have given, and both of us have taken

Bravely and beautifully without regret.

When have I sinned against you? or forsaken

Our secret vow? Think you that I forget

One syllable of all your loveliness?

What is this crime that shall not be forgiven?

Spring passes, the pale buds upon the pond

Shrink under water from my lonely oars,

The fern is squandering its final frond,

And gypsy smoke drifts grey from distant shores.

O soon enough the end of love and song,

And soon enough the ultimate farewell;

Blazon our lives with one last miracle,—

We have not long.

(Genoa, 1918)

Where two roads meet amid the wood,

There stands a white sepulchral rood,

Beneath whose shadow, wayfarers

Would pause to offer up their prayers.

There is no house for miles around,

No sound of beast, no human sound,

Only the trees like sombre dreams

From whose bare boughs the water drips;

And the pale memory of death.

The haze hangs heavy without breath,

It hangs so heavy that it seems

To hold a silent finger to its lips.

In after years the spectral cross

Will be quite overgrown with moss,

And wayfarers will go their way

Nor stop to meditate and pray.

The spring will nest in all the trees

Unblighted by the memories

Of autumn and the god of pain.

The leaves will whisper in the sun,

Life will crown death with snowy flowers,

Long hence…but now the autumn lowers,

The sky breaks into gusts of rain,

Turn thee to sleep, the day is nearly done.

(Forest of Fontainebleau, 1918)


Summer is over, the old cow said.

And they'll shut me up in the draughty shed

To milk me by lamplight in the cold.

But I won't give much for I am old.

It's long ago that I came here

Gay and slim as a woodland deer;

It's long ago that I heard the roar

Of Smith's white bull by the sycamore.

And now there are bones where my flesh should be;

My backbone sags like an old roof tree.

And an apple snatched in a moment's frolic

Is just so many days of colic.

I'm neither a Jersey nor Holstein now,

But only a faded sort of cow.

My calves are veal, and I had as lief

That I could lay me down as beef;

Somehow, they always kill by halves;—

Why not take me when they take my calves?

Birch turns yellow and sumac red,

I've seen this all before, she said,

I'm tired of the field and tired of the shed.

There's no more grass, there's no more clover;

Summer is over, summer is over.


Tierra del Fuego

The farthest country is Tierra del Fuego,

That is the bleakest and the loneliest land;

There are the echoing mountains of felspar,

And salt winds walking the empty sand.

This country remembers the birth of the moon

From a rocky rib of the young earth's side;

It heard the white-hot mountains bellow

Against the march of the first flood tide.

I lifted a shell by the glass-green breakers

And heard what no man has heard before,

The whisper of steam in the hot fern forest

And slow feet crunching the ocean floor.

I saw the slanted flash of a seagull

When a sheaf of light poured over the clouds,

I heard the wind in the stiff dune grasses,

But I saw no sail and I heard no shrouds.

To a promontory of Tierra del Fuego

I climbed at noon and stretched my hand

Toward another country, remoter and bleaker.



On a Dead Mermaid Washed Ashore at Plymouth Rock

Pallidly sleeping, the Ocean's mysterious daughter

Lies in the lee of the boulder that shattered her charms.

Down rushes over the level horizon of water

And touches to flickering crimson her face and her arms,

While every scale in that marvelous tail

Quivers with color like sun on a Mediterranean sail.

Could you not keep to the ocean that lulls the equator,

Soulless, immortal, and fatally fair to the gaze?

Or were you called to the North by an ecstasy greater

Than any you know in those ancient and terrible days

When all your delight was to flash on the sight

Of all the wondering sailor and lure him to death in the watery night?

Was there, perhaps on the deck of some far-away vessel

A lad from New England whose fancy you failed to ensnare?

Who, born of this virtuous rock, and accustomed to wrestle

With beauty in all of its forms, became your despair,

And awoke in your breast a mortal unrest

That dragged you away from the south to your death in the cold northwest?

Pallidly sleeping, your body is shorn of its magic,

But Death gives a soul to whatever is lovely and dies.

Now Ocean reclaims you again, lest a marvel so tragic

Remains to be mocked by our earthly and virtuous eyes,

And reason redeems already what seems

Only a fable like our strange and beautiful dreams.



Quick with your paints and palette there! the color

Ebbs from my languid arteries. Oh, be quick!

I feel my hair grow grey, my eyes grow duller,

And all the youthful contour blurred and thick.

I hear your nervous brushes rub and click,

Racing with time to catch my brief reflection.

Keenly I hear the numbered minutes tick,

Outdistancing your patience for perfection.

Can you retrace the masque of life, the section

Of universal chaos that was I?

The scars of flame, the gleams of resurrection

From loves that wither into lusts that die?

O then be quick! before these vanish hence,

Leaving a shell of blank indifference.


Never Fear

Never fear the phantom bird

Meditating on the Fens;

Night will come and quench your eyes,

Blind at last like other men's;

Never fear the tales you heard

In the rhetoric of lies.

Nothing here will challenge you,

Not the heron, tall and white,

Countersign upon the edge

Of the waterfall of night.

This is Avilon's canoe,

Eden murmurs in the sedge.

Here! my mind in pledge of rest.

Drift at random, all is well.

Twilight is a slow lagoon,

Dark will be a citadel.

Travellers who know the west

But report the waning moon.

In the citadel of peace

Hang the trophies of the world,

Yet no barons don their mail,

And no pennant is unfurled.

Daily robe, the Golden Fleece,

Daily cup, the Holy Grail.


Additional Notes about Robert Hillyer's Poetry

All the untitled poems and the poem titled "Thermopylae" came from the 1920 collection, Five Books of Youth, by Robert Hillyer. This book has been digitized and can be downloaded from Project Gutenberg. The Gutenberg version showed some indents in the digital version which were not actually present in the original printed version. For this edition, I have removed these indents to make it look more like the original printed version. About 2/3 of the poems in this volume are dated and identified by place names (in USA, France or other cities in Europe). The remaining third (which have no place or date identifications) consists of sonnets written around the same time. Motifs of war and fighting barely appear in this volume except perhaps indirectly or metaphorically. Despite the place names, these poems don't have any identifying details linking the poem to a particular place. Most simply address details of the natural environment, with a few classical allusions thrown in.

Hillyer published a lot of poetry over his life, starting right after college. By the 1920s, Hillyer was publishing often in national magazines and coming out with new books every two or so years. Even in the 1930s and 1940s, his books continued to come out every three or four years; most were lyric poems using well known poetic forms and pastoral themes even though the later poems contained more social commentary on modern living. Hillyer was at ease writing sonnets and other constricted forms with rhyme and rhythms, yet the poems rarely sounded artificial or stilted. Although occasionally the poems used allusions to art and history and mythology, the poems mostly remained accessible and didn't require elaborate footnotes.

Two poetry books ventured into new territory. Letters to Robert Frost and Others (1937) consists of letter poems written in rhyming couplets addressed to friends and historical figures. In the narrative poem Death of Captain Nemo (1949), Hillyer imagines that two American soldier-poets meet Captain Nemo (the famed character from Jules Verne novels) in 1945 on his 100th birthday and end up reading Nemo's journals describing his life.

Audio Recordings. The Robert Hillyer page on Wikipedia also links to two audio recordings of Hillyer reciting his own poetry: University of Delaware recordings of audio readings (MSS 0696) and a recording of Hillyer reading his own poems at the Library of Congress (PL 25) on The University of Delaware recordings are remarkable for two reasons. First, it includes an 85 minute recitation of the full Death of Captain Nemo poem recited by Hillyer himself. Second, it includes Hillyer reciting a mix of original poems along with many of his favorite poems from previous centuries.

Horace Gregory and Marya Zaturenska wrote that Hillyer's verse shared an affinity with the shorter poems of English poet Robert Bridges (1844-1930) and that [31]

The gift that Hillyer possessed was an extremely sensitive ear for verbal music, a gift that, however "literary" its speech may be, never fails to delight the reader, for among the best of Hillyer's lyrics the clear strains of sixteenth-century music were revived and were sounded with the mastery that conceals its art.

One obituary stated that Hillyer largely ignored twentieth century events and what has been called "the existential agonies of modern man" and instead wrote about eternal verities like nature, love and death. He was often referred to as a "highly civilized man, living in the Twentieth Century, but not especially of it." [32] Upon his death, Stanley Hancock Hillyer (his son) said "the Elizabethan poets were more than his professional specialty – they were his private passion" and he knew most of their works by heart. [33]

Here are notes about the specific poems included in this edition:

"Tierra del Fuego." This originally appeared under the title, "Remote" by Robert Hillyer in Dial Magazine 1925, Volume 79. Later, the same poem appeared later appeared without a title in Seventh Hill by Robert Hillyer (Viking Press, 1928) but with a different title, "Tierra del Fuego" in his 1961 compilation, When originally published, cloud and shroud were singular, but all subsequent versions used the plural clouds/shrouds, so I am using that variant instead.

"Portrait" by Robert Hillyer, Poetry Magazine. Vol. 29 No. 2, Nov, 1926.

"Elegy on a Dead Mermaid Washed Ashore" at Plymouth Rock. by Robert Hillyer. New Republic, 4/5/22, Vol. 30 Issue 383, p162-162. Reprinted in several volumes, starting with the Hills Give Promise, a Volume of Lyrics, Together with Carmus: A Symphonic Poem (B.J. Brimmer Company, 1923).

"Moo." Originally appeared in New Republic, October 31, 1923 p. 248. Republished in several books.

"Never fear" was published under the title "Mentis Trist" in the Jan 30 1924 issue of New Republic (p258). The later Collected Poems (1961) by Robert Hillyer calls it "Never Fear" and so I am using that title for consistency. The original 1924 version spelled it Avalon's but I see that the version in Collected Poems uses the spelling Avilon's instead, so I used the latter spelling. My guess is that both versions mean the same thing, but the latter spelling is an archaic version. More information about the etymology of the word can be found on the Wikipedia article on Avalon.

[31] Gregory, Horace and Zaturenska, Marya History of American Poetry 1900-1940 Harcourt Brace: NY, 1946 p309-310.

[32] "Robert Hillyer, Pulitzer Poet" Youngstown Vindicator December 31, 1961, p 7.

[33] "Robert Hillyer, Poet, 66 Is Dead," New York Times December 25, 1961.