Strangers to Us All Lawyers and Poetry

Walter Malone

Tommy W. Rodgers, "Walter Malone," in James B. Lloyd (ed.), Lives of Mississippi Authors, 1817-1967 323-25 (Jackson, Mississippi: University Press of Mississippi, 1981):

Walter Malone, jurist and poet, was born at the family home below the Tennessee border in DeSoto County, Mississippi, on 10 February 1866. Paternally orphaned at age seven, Malone's early tenor of life seems to have been conducive to introspection, and romantic fantasy. Reportedly, Malone's interest in writing received an early boost by the acceptance of some offering of his by the Louisville Courier-Journal. At age sixteen Walter published Claribel and Other Poems, a volume which was underwritten by his own scouring of the countryside to secure subscriptions. The youth's initiative brought him to the attention of a trustee of the LeBauve Fund of the University of Mississippi, of which Walter became a beneficiary. At Ole Miss Malone acquired some "laurels in oratory," and published his second book, The Outcast and Other Poems (1886), most of which was "written within sight of the college walls."

On leaving Ole Miss (1887), Malone joined his brother James, a Memphis attorney, in the Old Southwest riverboat town then making a transition into the machine age. In addition to whatever attention he may have devoted to law, Walter Malone worked as a newspaperman, becoming city editor of the Memphis Public Ledger in 1888. Narcissus and Other Poems (1892), Songs of Dusk and Dawn (1894), and Songs of December and June (1896) were subsequently published. Malone's sole book of short stories, The Coming of the King (1897), evidenced the author's inadequacy to produce fiction that would command sufficient readership to help secure for Malone his desired place of remembrance as an author. The stories are of rather tritely conceptualized melodramatic quality, though one of them, wherein a guardian captures the love as well as the appreciation of his younger femme ward is a story of some charm. In 1897 Malone left Memphis for New York in the interest of furthering his literary career. Within three years he had departed the city where "in thy million homes this very nigh/God sees they children shed a flood of tears. . . Though thou art rich, thine orphans cry for bread,/Thy widows in their anguish weep aloud," and returned to the practice of law in Memphis. New York scenes provided the substance of a small string of titles like "A Street in the Slums," "The Swan of the Slums," "Alone in New York," and "Union Square." The little war of the period which Theodore Roosevelt said was not much, but was all we had, drew attention to patriotic themes such as "Cuba Free," "America at Manila," "America and England," and "Forgotten Heroes." Songs of North and South (1900) and Songs of East and West (1906) illustrated Malone as the poet of natural scenes, of places, and of emotions from infancy through old age.

A lifelong bachelor, Malone apparently had plenty of time to engage in flights of projection, imagery, and romantic illusion. Many of Malone's poems are of a romantic love motif, generally reminiscent, and sometimes but not always of an unrequited quality. Weddings, deaths, partings, epithalamic themes, maturation and decline—all provided the substance of Malone's poetry. The melodramatic themes of love and death, typically from the earthly loss—eternity's gain perspective, are reflected in such poems as "A Story of the Plague," "Separated," "Little Sweetheart," "Cloverdale Farm," and "To the Departed." Death ("Mortality," "Eternity"), and love ("Sweet Helen," "Southern Love Song," "The Love of Woman," "A Night in June," "The Old Love") are presented with recognition of the ever present fact that "Each day I'm nearer to the tomb." The spector of aging, which, as in "Past and Present," is not always rewarding in consequence, is a recurrent feature. Malone's poetry conveys no morbidity; rather, death, as a dramatic incident of life, is presented as the consequence of the latter. In "Fortune-Telling" the author contemplates the tomorrows of a child with recognition which separates that which is unknown from that which is certain:

Wherever you go, my brave little boy,
With bluest of eyes and brightest of hair,
With laughter and love and jesting and joy,
So free from the stains of earthy despair,
I know that someday you too shall shed tears,
Shall drink a cup of wormwood and gall;
Shall fade like a leaf in the flight of the years.

The day shall depart and the night shall begin. . .
I know not, my boy, if you shall have fame,
If fortune shall give you a chain or a crown;
No matter my boy, it still is the same;
The flower must fade, the ship must go down,—
Wherever you go, my darling.
                        Wherever you go.

There was little subtlety to Malone's poetry. He was probably at his best presenting straightforward portraits of the world around and about, often with an artist's eye for conception. Native flora and fauna are often conspicuous and detailed, as in his description of "An Autumn Morning":

A rich October morning, calm and still
When saddened skies hang in a dreamy haze.
The red and yellow leaves dance in the light,
Arraying every hill in regal robes.
The flocks of squirrels gather ripening nuts,
The luscious wild grapes in blue clusters cling,
And bright woodpeckers whisk amid the leaves.
The dry broom-sedge grows over wasted
Fringing red gullies and rough banks of clay;
Along the highway and the meadows brown
The golden rods and asters are ablaze. . . .

Malone's poetry was sometime sometimes suspended in time— capturing time past which had become time future and was time present in the poem. His early poem "The Old Mansion" combines a number of elements—time, life, experience, and the passage of each in a conceptual illusion of marvelous beauty of the way she was, the way things were:

See the great rooms, whose mirrored walls are crushed
And the marble mantels now are overthrown.
My footstep falling in the haunted halls,
Seems waking from the dead and dusty years
The far-off echoes of a hunter's horn
Blown by the master of a thousand slaves.
Amid the shadows of the archway old
I see a beauteous, high-born lady stand,
Amid the broken mirrors on the walls
The softest brown eyes ever seen on earth
Shine on me from their dewy, dusky depths
With starry splendors of a tropic night.
My whisper, stealing through the ruined rooms,
Brings back the laughter of the yesteryears. . . .

Historic scenes, travel portraits, and biographical tributes were among the materials for Malone's poetry. The Civil War was not a major motif, though found in very few such poems as "Forrest in Memphis" and "Zuella" (a Gettysburg-based romantic attachment which cut across national loyalties). Neither was religion a prominent feature, although theological imagery is sometimes found and this sometimes incorporated in notions of secular progress. Many girls—comparable to the best scents, scenes, flowers that native beauty and charm could match—are encountered in the forms of "Melba," "Katharine," "Beautiful Jean," "For Mildred," "Mary of Jonesburg," and others. There is adequate justification for describing Malone as "the Southern Whittier" or "An American Thomas Gray" without panegyric license. Such poems as "The Blackbirds," "An October Magnolia," "Mississippi in June," "July Noontied," "A Mississippi Swamp," "Autumn in the South," and "A February Sunset" illustrate Malone's frequent thematic use of nature.

Malone's most widespread success as a poet was in the publication of verse in a menagerie of periodicals like Munsey's, Judge, Harper's Weekly, the New Orleans Times-Democrat, the Arena, the Critic, the Independent, the Outlook, Leslie's Weekly, Leslie's Popular Monthly, and Criterion. Considering his ambition to be regarded as a writer of more supposedly meritorious quality than conveyed by the marketing of "society" or inspirational verse, it is somewhat ironic and reportedly was a matter of chagrin to Malone that it was pieces of this nature that attracted greatest attention. Malone's "Opportunity" brought its author a measure of reknown, ranging from being set to music by W. C. Handy as a tribute to his hometown to the inscription on a fountain in a downtown Memphis park where, amidst old newspapers and pigeon droppings, bums, derelicts and winos one can be assured that "Each morning gives thee wings to flee from hell,/Each night a star to guide thy way to heaven." Widely translated, reprinted in varying format from advertisements to tracts seeking reform of inmates of prisons and guests of almshouses, extensively quoted in graduation speech and sermon, "Opportunity" brought Malone a string of testimonies from persons to whom the poem brought invigorated resolution to "wake, and rise to fight and win."

Malone's corpus magnus, which he hoped would ensure him lasting if not immediate literary reputation, was his epic poem "De Soto." His effort to complete "DeSoto" became a race against death. In 1909 Malone published an exordium from the greater work which he hoped would appear within the following year. However, it was another five years before the six hundred thirty page, fifteen thousand line work was completed. Though its recognition has not been sufficient to regard it as even a minor regional classic, "DeSoto" is an extensive document that probably deserves greater respect as dramatized history than poetry. Perhaps the most apt and sucient characterization of "DeSoto" is Donald Davidson's observation that it is one of the "most ambitious" poems ever written by an American.

In 1905 Malone was appointed to a judgeship on the Shelby County circuit court. He was subsequently confirmed by popular election and re-election, retaining the post until his death. Malone's death was front page news in Memphis. His obituary in the Commercial Appeal described him as the judge "who used his courtroom for good in bringing his love for humanity into play," and though "a good lawyer . . . commanding in his knowledge of the law . . . he never permitted it to wean him from his love of poetry."

[The biographical sketch of Walter Malone is republished here with the gracious permission of the University Press of Mississippi]