Edwardian and Georgian Canadian Poets



Selected Essays and Reviews

by Bliss Carman

Edited by Terry Whalen

A Poet in Color*


Out of Nature we came, and back to Nature we return. The transit is called life, and all records of it are called art. Art, the history of man's passage between two oblivions, the story of his voyage from one unknown continent to another, with infinity all about him and vague remembrances of eternity in his soul.

Seeing how avid we are of beauty, how hungry for knowledge, how lonely for sympathy and understanding, is it any wonder that we should leave traces of these qualities wherever we pass? All around us the world looms in mysterious loveliness, a beauty whose mystery only seems to deepen, the more it is regarded, and whose meaning is forever eluding us as we proceed. The labor of science reveals laws and causes, the lofty meditations of philosophy yield wisdom and encouragement in the difficult task of existence, but the spell of beauty is still beyond complete analysis. That inexplicable enchantment, it is the aim of art to convey. True, art has its obligations to be a ministrant to our eager minds and hearts as well as to our senses, but it is to the senses it makes its first and its most primitive and profound appeal. It is bound to furnish some answer to the great enigma, some solace to the craving soul, but most of all it is bound to cast its sorceries over the cunning and delicate senses, to satisfy their imperious yet fastidious demands.

What are these impressions which Nature makes upon us, and which we are always trying to verify and reproduce? The impression of wonder, first of all-an indeterminate feeling of strangeness and awe. This is first of all the primal emotions, underlying the other instincts of curiosity and admiration. And any art which lacks this primitive religious element must always remain shallow and thin, however exquisite or clever or full of information it may be. A painting or a poem may be marvellous in technique and brimming with significance, but if it fails to touch us with rapture and inspire us with glad pleasure, its wisdom and brilliancy are vain.

It is particularly true of painting that it should accomplish this service for us. Color itself is so sensuous and full of charm, even when unmodified by the painter's mastery-so superfluous in Nature, so far as we can understand-that it seems only to have been created for the purpose of pleasure, a gratuitous and superabundant gift. A dry and didactic poem may be endured-at least by some. But who can find satisfaction in a picture which does not excel by virtue of its lines and hues, its primal sensuous elements?

I stand before Mr. Leon Dabo's paintings and am carried away by the same emotions which enrapture me when I stand before Nature. Here first of all are space and amplitude and solemnity and wonder, the strange vast beauty of the earth, in whose presence I sink into insignificance. The beauty of nature is never obtrusive, yet it pervades everything. The beauty of these representations of Nature, also, is never assertive, yet always potent. I am not dazzled by the craftman's wizardry, for that is lost in his sincerity. I am touched by the simple awe and impressiveness of the universe. I perceive that here a mortal must have looked in the face of Nature, and, with profound sensitiveness to her spiritual signification, turned and recorded in enduring color the delight that rose within him. All else is reduced to a minimum. Houses and figures and trees and boats are here, but they seem as small and as secondary as they do in the real out of doors. The vast of sky is always present, and the ego appears infinitesimal in the cosmos. There are doubtless excellent qualities in execution which a skilled critic might find, but I cannot speak critically. I only refer to the more obvious qualities of the work which any layman can feel, the color, the poetry, the quiet infinitude and satisfying poise-the satisfactions which we get from Nature herself when we would seek rest from distraction and weariness and this too complex modernity. A man who can help us find these consolations in the open world and bring them indoors for our perpetual refreshment is a benefactor of the common weal. Such a poet in color is Mr. Leon Dabo.

"A Poet in Color," catalogue of "Exhibition of Paintings by Leon Dabo," Dec. 31, 1906 [back]