A Pub, A Catholic Social Worker, and a Playwright

Hell Hole by John Sloan

What does a pub in Greenwich Village, Dorothy Day, and Eugene O’Neil have in common?  Well the story below by Jim Forest explains those connections. The commonality shared by O’Neil and Day is interesting as both felt like outcasts.  However what is notable is as Forest notes: “They also had in common an itchy, hesitantly confessed awareness of the presence of God.”

As the article notes O,Neal loved reciting poetry and one of Days favorite poems was Francis Thompson’s “The Hound of Heaven” .  I once heard a Bishop talk about the  “hound of heaven”  and the tenacity with which God seeks us with his love.  Sometimes in life it is so hard to realize that or even be comforted by it.

This etching was used today as an illustration for the Daily Devotion published by the Living Chruch Foundation which can be found at  Daily Devotion 26 April 2016.  Being that it is poetry month I am publishing the whole of “The Hound of Heaven”  along with Jim Forest piece about the “Hell Hole” .

First, Forest:

Jim Forest:

“Hell Hole” by John Sloan

By lucky chance, a few days ago I came upon an etching — “The Hell Hole” by John Sloan — of the back room of a pub at 6th Avenue and 4th Street in Greenwich Village. One of its patrons in the period the etching was made — it is dated 1917 — was a very young Dorothy Day (she turned 20 on November 17). Another was the playwright, Eugene O’Neill. According to Sloan’s notes, O’Neill is the figure in the upper right. (I wonder who the woman is at the same table? It doesn’t look at all like Dorothy.)

 The pub was officially named Wallace’s, after its owner, a one-time prize fighter, but its patrons had given it several nick-names: the Hell Hole, the Bucket of Blood and the Golden Swan. The last name, the one Dorothy used in writing The Long Loneliness, was due to a gilded swan that was hung over saloon’s front door. For quite a number of writers and radicals of the day, it was a place of refuge. It must have been one of the principal watering holes for the left-wing journalists Dorothy was working with in those day.

 Today the southeast corner of the intersection of 4th Street and 6th Avenue, where the pub was located, has become a small park known affectionately in the neighborhood as the Golden Swan Park. The pub received another sort of immortality by O’Neill using it as the setting for his play, The Iceman Cometh.

 Despite the burst of recognition that had come in 1916 with the opening of his first play, Bound East for Cardiff, O’Neill was depressed and drinking heavily in the winter of 1917. His affair with Louise Bryant had recently ended with her departure for Moscow, where she joined John Reed and wrote about the Russian Revolution. (The O’Neill-Bryant-Reed story is well told cinematically in a film, The Reds.)

 When Dorothy returned to New York from her arrest and imprisonment in Washington (she was one of the suffragettes who picketed the White House November 10th; the group was released by presidential pardon 18 days later), she met O’Neill at the Golden Swan. Friendship struck up between the two so readily that it seemed to his friends that Dorothy might fill the space left by Louise Bryant. Though O’Neill was nine years older, the two had made some similar choices: both had dropped out of college; both had become reporters; both were attempting to make their living as writers; both were drawn to outcasts.

 They also had in common an itchy, hesitantly confessed awareness of the presence of God. Agnes Boulton, who was then sharing a Village apartment with Dorothy and who later married O’Neill, quickly realized that Dorothy was subject to “sudden and unexplainable impulses” which drew her “into any nearby Catholic church” — a religious longing similar to O’Neill’s.

 Agnes Boulton recalled Dorothy joining O’Neill at a Village restaurant one night, accompanied by her two seedy, tough, middle-aged men whom she had found on the icy steps of St. Joseph’s Church and brought along to thaw out. Dorothy ordered three rye whiskeys and proceeded to sing the tragic ballad of “Frankie and Johnny.”

 Dorothy also occasionally sang at the Golden Swan. Agnes recalled how fascinated O’Neill was at such moments, “moving slowly around, his dark eyes alive and pleased, admiring Dorothy’s strange almost staccato singing.” Agnes also found Dorothy impressive. “I saw at once that this girl was a personality, an unusual one.” Dorothy’s face, she said, was especially attractive in candlelight, which “brought out the long classic line of her jaw and the ends of her tousled hair.”

 O’Neill enjoyed reciting poetry, and the poem Dorothy best loved him to repeat was Francis Thompson’s “The Hound of Heaven” which described God’s tireless pursuit of each person’s soul:

 I fled Him, down the nights and down the days,

I fled Him down the arches of the years;

I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways

Of my own mind…

 O’Neill would recite the whole of the poem, sitting across from Dorothy, “looking dour and black,” Dorothy remembered, “his head sunk on his chest,” sighing out the words:

 And now my heart is as a broken fount,

Wherein tear-drippings stagnate…

 Her own loneliness for God often drew Dorothy into St. Joseph’s Church on Sixth Avenue where she experienced a kind of at-homeness and consolation. While she knew very little about Catholic belief, she felt some comfort being in a place set aside for prayer. It was reassuring to be among people who came in for some quiet minutes, their heads bowed toward the consecrated bread hidden beyond the altar that in some mysterious way had been made one with Christ.

 It’s a story I told when I wrote my biography of Dorothy, Love is the Measure, but at that time I knew very little about the Golden Swan (or Wallace’s, the Hell Hole, the Bucket of Blood). I’m delighted that the Sloan etching makes that time in Dorothy’s life a little easier to visualize and hope it can be used in the revised edition of Love is the Measure that I expect to start work on later this year.

And, “The Hound of Heaven” from the Nicholson & Lee, eds.  The Oxford Book of English Mystical Verse. 1917.

239. The Hound of Heaven
By Francis Thompson  (1859–1907)
I FLED Him, down the nights and down the days;
  I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
    Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears
I hid from Him, and under running laughter.         5
      Up vistaed hopes I sped;
      And shot, precipitated,
Adown Titanic glooms of chasmèd fears,
  From those strong Feet that followed, followed after.
      But with unhurrying chase,        10
      And unperturbèd pace,
Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,
      They beat—and a Voice beat
      More instant than the Feet—
‘All things betray thee, who betrayest Me.’        15
          I pleaded, outlaw-wise,
By many a hearted casement, curtained red,
  Trellised with intertwining charities;
(For, though I knew His love Who followèd,
        Yet was I sore adread        20
Lest, having Him, I must have naught beside).
But, if one little casement parted wide,
  The gust of His approach would clash it to.
  Fear wist not to evade, as Love wist to pursue.
Across the margent of the world I fled,        25
  And troubled the gold gateways of the stars,
  Smiting for shelter on their clangèd bars;
        Fretted to dulcet jars
And silvern chatter the pale ports o’ the moon.
I said to Dawn: Be sudden—to Eve: Be soon;        30
  With thy young skiey blossoms heap me over
        From this tremendous Lover—
Float thy vague veil about me, lest He see!
  I tempted all His servitors, but to find
My own betrayal in their constancy,        35
In faith to Him their fickleness to me,
  Their traitorous trueness, and their loyal deceit.
To all swift things for swiftness did I sue;
  Clung to the whistling mane of every wind.
      But whether they swept, smoothly fleet,        40
    The long savannahs of the blue;
        Or whether, Thunder-driven,
    They clanged his chariot ’thwart a heaven,
Plashy with flying lightnings round the spurn o’ their feet:—
  Fear wist not to evade as Love wist to pursue.        45
      Still with unhurrying chase,
      And unperturbèd pace,
    Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,
      Came on the following Feet,
      And a Voice above their beat—        50
    ‘Naught shelters thee, who wilt not shelter Me.’
I sought no more that after which I strayed
  In face of man or maid;
But still within the little children’s eyes
  Seems something, something that replies,        55
They at least are for me, surely for me!
I turned me to them very wistfully;
But just as their young eyes grew sudden fair
  With dawning answers there,
Their angel plucked them from me by the hair.        60
‘Come then, ye other children, Nature’s—share
With me’ (said I) ‘your delicate fellowship;
  Let me greet you lip to lip,
  Let me twine with you caresses,
    Wantoning        65
  With our Lady-Mother’s vagrant tresses,
  With her in her wind-walled palace,
  Underneath her azured daïs,
  Quaffing, as your taintless way is,        70
    From a chalice
Lucent-weeping out of the dayspring.’
    So it was done:
I in their delicate fellowship was one—
Drew the bolt of Nature’s secrecies.        75
  I knew all the swift importings
  On the wilful face of skies;
  I knew how the clouds arise
  Spumèd of the wild sea-snortings;
    All that’s born or dies        80
  Rose and drooped with; made them shapers
Of mine own moods, or wailful or divine;
  With them joyed and was bereaven.
  I was heavy with the even,
  When she lit her glimmering tapers        85
  Round the day’s dead sanctities.
  I laughed in the morning’s eyes.
I triumphed and I saddened with all weather,
  Heaven and I wept together,
And its sweet tears were salt with mortal mine;        90
Against the red throb of its sunset-heart
    I laid my own to beat,
    And share commingling heat;
But not by that, by that, was eased my human smart.
In vain my tears were wet on Heaven’s grey cheek.        95
For ah! we know not what each other says,
  These things and I; in sound I speak—
Their sound is but their stir, they speak by silences.
Nature, poor stepdame, cannot slake my drouth;
  Let her, if she would owe me,       100
Drop yon blue bosom-veil of sky, and show me
  The breasts o’ her tenderness:
Never did any milk of hers once bless
    My thirsting mouth.
    Nigh and nigh draws the chase,       105
    With unperturbèd pace,
  Deliberate speed, majestic instancy;
    And past those noisèd Feet
    A voice comes yet more fleet—
  ‘Lo! naught contents thee, who content’st not Me!’       110
Naked I wait Thy love’s uplifted stroke!
My harness piece by piece Thou hast hewn from me,
    And smitten me to my knee;
  I am defenceless utterly.
  I slept, methinks, and woke,       115
And, slowly gazing, find me stripped in sleep.
In the rash lustihead of my young powers,
  I shook the pillaring hours
And pulled my life upon me; grimed with smears,
I stand amid the dust o’ the mounded years—       120
My mangled youth lies dead beneath the heap.
My days have crackled and gone up in smoke,
Have puffed and burst as sun-starts on a stream.
  Yea, faileth now even dream
The dreamer, and the lute the lutanist;       125
Even the linked fantasies, in whose blossomy twist
I swung the earth a trinket at my wrist,
Are yielding; cords of all too weak account
For earth with heavy griefs so overplussed.
  Ah! is Thy love indeed       130
A weed, albeit an amaranthine weed,
Suffering no flowers except its own to mount?
  Ah! must—
  Designer infinite!—
Ah! must Thou char the wood ere Thou canst limn with it?       135
My freshness spent its wavering shower i’ the dust;
And now my heart is as a broken fount,
Wherein tear-drippings stagnate, spilt down ever
  From the dank thoughts that shiver
Upon the sighful branches of my mind.       140
  Such is; what is to be?
The pulp so bitter, how shall taste the rind?
I dimly guess what Time in mists confounds;
Yet ever and anon a trumpet sounds
From the hid battlements of Eternity;       145
Those shaken mists a space unsettle, then
Round the half-glimpsèd turrets slowly wash again.
  But not ere him who summoneth
  I first have seen, enwound
With glooming robes purpureal, cypress-crowned;       150
His name I know, and what his trumpet saith.
Whether man’s heart or life it be which yields
  Thee harvest, must Thy harvest-fields
  Be dunged with rotten death?
      Now of that long pursuit       155
    Comes on at hand the bruit;
  That Voice is round me like a bursting sea:
    ‘And is thy earth so marred,
    Shattered in shard on shard?
  Lo, all things fly thee, for thou fliest Me!       160
  Strange, piteous, futile thing!
Wherefore should any set thee love apart?
Seeing none but I makes much of naught’ (He said),
‘And human love needs human meriting:
  How hast thou merited—       165
Of all man’s clotted clay the dingiest clot?
  Alack, thou knowest not
How little worthy of any love thou art!
Whom wilt thou find to love ignoble thee,
  Save Me, save only Me?       170
All which I took from thee I did but take,
  Not for thy harms,
But just that thou might’st seek it in My arms.
  All which thy child’s mistake
Fancies as lost, I have stored for thee at home:       175
  Rise, clasp My hand, and come!’
  Halts by me that footfall:
  Is my gloom, after all,
Shade of His hand, outstretched caressingly?
  ‘Ah, fondest, blindest, weakest,       180
  I am He Whom thou seekest!
Thou dravest love from thee, who dravest Me.’


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