Each in his own tongue

William Herbert Carruth was a poet, a professor of literature and writing at Stanford where he taught John Steinbeck (more about Steinbeck in a moment), and a member of the old Palo Alto Unitarian Church. One of his signature poems strikes me as quite characteristic of early twentieth century west coast Unitarianism:

Each in His Own Tongue

A fire-mist and a planet,
   A crystal and a cell,
A jelly-fish and a saurian,
   And caves where the cave-men dwell;
Then a sense of law and beauty
   And a face turned from the clod,—
Some call it Evolution,
   And others call it God.

A haze on the far horizon,
   The infinite, tender sky,
The ripe rich tint of the cornfields,
   And the wild geese sailing high;
And all over upland and lowland
   The charm of the golden-rod,—
Some of us call it Autumn
   And others call it God.

Like tides on a crescent sea-beach,
   When the moon is new and thin,
Into our hearts high yearnings
   Come welling and surging in:
Come from the mystic ocean
   Whose rim no foot has trod,—
Some of us call it Longing,
   And others call it God.

A picket frozen on duty,
   A mother starved for her brood,
Socrates drinking the hemlock,
   And Jesus on the rood;
And millions who, humble and nameless,
   The straight, hard pathway plod,—
Some call it Consecration,
   And others call it God.

(As printed in Each in His Own Tongue and Other Poems, William Herbert Carruth, New York: The Knickerbocker Press (G. P. Putnam), 1909, pp. 2-3.)

Now, about John Steinbeck:

In an online oral history interview of Edward W. Strong, a philosopher and chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley in the 1960s, Strong recalled being in Carruth’s class with Steinbeck:

“I enrolled in [Carruth’s] class in poetry writing. It was springtime, and he had his students meet under an oak tree on the expansive lawn stretching out from the front of the campus. He gave us a reason. After all, what better place was there to discuss the poems that we wrote than under an oak tree in the springtime? Perhaps there was another reason, for he was hardly ever prompt. He lived in Palo Alto. Once we were gathered under the oak tree, it made no difference if he were somewhat late because we were not going to leave such a pleasant spot. We could spot him coming from the distance, carrying his little satchel and hurrying to join us to discuss our poetry-writing.

“In that poetry class was John Steinbeck. I already knew him from the English Club. We, in a way, competed against each other in our writing of poetry to see who would receive the better grade from Professor Carruth. When we got our grades, John got an A, and I received a B+. I said to John, ‘Now look, you’ve read my poetry and I’ve read your poetry. Do you think your poetry was any better than mine?’ He said no. Then I said, ‘Well, can you explain, then, why you have received an A from Professor Carruth and I’ve received only a B+?’ He said ‘Because you didn’t dwell in your poetry on the theme that would win an A from Professor Carruth.’ I said, ‘Theme?’ He said, ‘Professor Carruth has been strong on one theme. Some call it evolution, and some call it God. I wrote about God. I got the A.’ “

One thought on “Each in his own tongue”

  1. Hi! I am WIlliam Herbert Carruth’s great-granddaughter (one of many.) My late mother kept some correspondence between Steinbeck and Carruth. Bluntly, Steinbeck didn’t have a lot of use for my great-grandfather. The exchange that you quote above shows that Steinbeck was just doing what he had to do to get the grade. In general, he thought Carruth was too traditional and stodgy. I read this blog entry with great interest. Thanks!

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