Edwardian and Georgian Canadian Poets



Selected Essays and Reviews

by Bliss Carman

Edited by Terry Whalen


From "Modern Athenium"

(September 26, 1896)*


It was some time since I had seen Socrates, when I chanced to meet him at dinner one evening in Bosworth street, at the little restaurant we all know so well. I was a little afraid of wearing out his patience, if I should refer again to our conversations on the decay of art; but it is a subject of so much importance that I ventured to open it once more. I knew that, with all his prejudice for truth, his settled dislike of the merely conservative, his remarks would be temperate as well as penetrating. When the coffee had been brought in, and we had ordered Benedictine, I began:

"You must forgive me, Socrates, but I am not all satisfied with my own conclusions on the question of decadence. Why is it that a few people seem to think we are living in a period of decay, and that our art and letters show signs of decay?"

"Well," he replied, "one cannot answer that off-hand. I think you must be pretty well convinced that the term decadence itself is not used with any degree of definiteness. Let us take some other word or phrase. You say that people speak of this as an age of decay. Are there no other terms you hear them apply to it, or to the art of the day?"

"Yes," I said, "there are several other adjectives in common use, applied to current literature and contemporary art. I have heard people call them morbid, unhealthy, debauched, insane, depraved, idiotic. What do they mean?"

He deliberated a moment before saying, "You have used six adjectives, but I think we may for the present discard three of them as being, like the term decadent itself, too indefinite to throw any light on your inquiry. 'Morbid,' 'unhealthy,' 'depraved'-are not these words a little too vague to be of much service in leading us to any conclusion? I feel in using them that I am not getting any nearer the truth. But when you say 'debauched,' 'insane,' 'idiotic,' I have a much more definite notion before my mind. Each of these words means a very different thing, and yet the meaning of each is pretty well understood. For instance, what do you understand is implied, when a man is said to be debauched?"

"I should understand," I said, "that the man had become debased or depraved through the abuse of his senses. I should say that the physical part in him had been allowed too greatly to predominate in his make-up."

"You refer to the 'physical part in him.' What do you mean by that? In how many different aspects are you considering the man?"

"I was thinking," I replied," of the threefold character of the man. And I spoke of the physical part of him, or his senses, as opposed to the mind or purely mental part, and also distinguished from the emotions or more purely spiritual part."

"Very well," said Socrates, "that is clear enough for the present. I understand now what you are talking about. You would be willing, then, I take it, to call debauchery a triumph of the senses? You would call it the supremacy of the physical in man to the exclusion of all other attributes?"

"Precisely," said I.

"Yes," he said, "that is the usual notion. But tell me, would you be willing to admit that a man could fall into debauchery in a fit of mere absence of mind?"

"Oh, not at all. The very essence of debauchery is that the creature devotes himself to the exercise of his senses. His whole bent is to contrive new sensations for himself."

"I take it, then," said Socrates, "that he will not be lacking in invention. He will rather, in fact, display much ingenuity in devising new pleasures of sense for his own gratification. Is it not so?"

"Yes, I believe you are right," I admitted.

"Then perhaps you can tell me some other characteristic of debauchery, can you?"

"Well," said I, presently, "it seems to me that debauchery is always cold-hearted."

"Yes," said he, "I believe you are right there. And although you were wrong in defining debauchery as the triumph of the senses, the supremacy of the physical, you would not be far wrong if you should define it as the absence of the spiritual in a man. I think you will find that it is only men of some intelligence who are capable of becoming debauched. The average man is not so heartless as to debauch others in cold blood, as we call it, and he has not wit enough to contrive fresh debaucheries for himself. Debauchery only becomes possible when there is in the man a strong preponderance of the imagination and the animal qualities, and a more or less entire absence of the emotional or spiritual nature. But now tell me what you understand by madness or insanity."

After being mistaken in my first notion of debauchery, I was careful to reply now to Socrates, so I said:

"We commonly speak of a madman or a lunatic as a person who is 'out of his head.' But perhaps this is wrong; for certainly the insane are not lacking in reasoning power. They draw conclusions correctly, although their premises are wrong. And they certainly have too much feeling usually. They seem to be in a world by themselves. They are not responsible for their acts."

"Yes," said Socrates, "you are right. They do somehow dwell in another world than ours. They are beings who think and feel as we do; are subject to fear and joy and anger and resentment; but all their thoughts and emotions have no relation to the actual fact; they have no relation to the world as their senses report it to them. They dwell in their bodies like aliens in a foreign country, where they do not know the language and customs save by rote. It seems like an awful catastrophy that they should be confined in these bodies at all, to which they have no real relation. And while his body is fed, and breathes, and moves here and there at his will, it is yet merely a dangerous instrument in the control of the insane, a menace alike to himself and his fellows. It is no exaggeration to say that the body of the demented is like a sharp weapon in the hands of an infant. And I think we may conclude that, although the physical attributes of an insane man may be all complete in themselves, they have, nevertheless, no true relation to his personality. The notions and sensations that come to him from the outer world have no bearing on his inner life. Or rather they do have an influence on him, but he interprets their meaning all amiss. He is living in a world of his own imagining, swayed by fanciful emotions and drawing conclusions from premises that never existed. Do you not think, therefore, that we may say madness implies a more or less entire lack of the physical or sensuous in the man's make-up?"

"Yes," I assented, "perhaps we may."

"Very well, then," said Socrates, we have now come to this distinction; we mean by debauchery the havoc wrought in conduct and character by an overbalance of the sensual and intellectual capacities, that is to say by a lack of the spiritual or emotional capacities; and we mean by insanity, the wreck of character and personality due to an overbalance of the emotional and intellectual capacities, that is to say a lack of efficiency in the proper office of the senses. An idiot, you say at once, is one without intelligence. His actions have relations to the outer world about him; he is trustworthy to the limit of his ability; he is not, like the madman, an unattached spirit let loose on the earth, a peril to himself and a hazard to others. It's on his intellectual side that he is at fault.

"Do you think I am wrong here?"

"No, Socrates, you seem to state the distinctions correctly. And, indeed, when I think of it, I believe all the ailments which the soul of man inherits may be grouped under one or other of these three forms of abnormal life. But now how are we to apply these terms to art and literature, or rather how are we to find in art and letters traces of these terrible obliquties?"

Said Socrates: "You must first put me in mind of your notion of art. What do you mean by literature?"

"Perhaps," I replied, "I should call literature and poetry merely one of the fine arts. And I should say that all art, whether painting or music or poetry, is the embodiment of man's reflections upon himself and his fate and the beauty of the world. It is more than that, too; it is the manifestation of all his aspirations and desires, wrought out in accordance with his ideas of beauty. It is really a complete image of the life of the soul, a record of the human spirit. I should almost say that art is man's commonplace-book."

"In that case," said he, "you would expect to find man very completely mirrored on the many differing pages of the great book of art, would you not? Certainly. And you would not be astonished to find in art, as the ages have gone by, traces of those blemishes and obliquities which you tell me I have rightly called idiocy and madness and debauchery."

"I should expect to find only very faint traces of these weaknesses in art, Socrates, because art has always seemed to me something better and more beautiful than reality."

"Yes," he replied, "that notion is true to a certain extent. And I agree that all great art is better than the reality. But you are thinking only of the historic treasures of art. The world would naturally care to retain only so much of the art bequeathed to it by each age as it found useful to it, helpful to its development. Very much would be lost. All the faulty art would be lost, just as all the faulty men are forgotten. However, this is a phase of the subject I must ask you to defer for the present. But I must ask you to consider the whole artistic activity of your own time and the century immediately preceding it. You thus have at your command for reference, not merely the great and best works of art, but all the faulty ones as well. You thus have a body of work at your command, from which to draw you inferences, far more complete and representative of humanity than if you considered all the art that has been preserved for us through so many centuries. It is as if you sliced down through a cake rather than cut away the top crust merely. And I must remind you, too, that your definitions of the diseases of the soul were drawn from your knowledge of all sorts of men, not merely from men of distinction. Reverting to your definition of art, then I fancy you will after all admit that in a great mass of contemporary art one must expect to find traces of the three blemishes we have been speaking of."

"You may be right, Socrates." I assented, "but I had not thought of the subject in that way before. Tell me, though, where do you note traces of insanity in our literature, for example."

"Perhaps it is not quite fair," he said, "to speak of traces of insanity. For that implies an insanity in the author. I should prefer to speak of traits of insanity. For you see a work of art or a poem might possibly, though rarely, be the work of a perfectly sane person, and yet exhibit the traits of the insane."

"I do not see that," I said.

"I mean," said he, "that you may find inherent in the art itself, quite apart from its subject matter, quite apart from its teaching or purport, certain traits or tendencies corresponding to the traits we have mentioned as existing in individuals. For instance, whenever art is very greatly developed on its physical side, that is, when the technique is very elaborate and wonderful, and when, in addition to this, it shows very great ingenuity and imagination, and yet is lacking in heart or emotion or spirituality, I should be inclined to say it showed signs of becoming debauched. I should say it exhibited traits of debauchery in itself. In itself, mark you, not in its originator. Its author might or might not have had these fatal tendencies in himself. He may have had a purpose in constructing his work in that way. And, again, whenever art is very greatly developed on its spiritual and intellectual sides, when it has great fervor and imagination, and yet deals with very mystic or remote themes, I should feel that it was not closely enough related to the world in which we live, and I should be inclined to say it exhibited traits of insanity in itself. Here, too, the production might or might not be the work of a person who had tendencies towards the peculiar weakness which his art showed. He might himself be perfectly sane, and yet he might have permitted himself for the occasion to press too far in the direction of the unknown. He may have wandered too widely from the domain of our daily life, and his art would lose effectiveness accordingly. Let me ask you to consider a moment the work of the English poet, William Blake. You will not quarrel with me if I take him as an example in literature, will you?"

"On the contrary, Socrates," I said, "I am glad you have named him, for I have always considered him one of the greatest of the poets in the second class, second I mean to Shakespeare and Homer and a dozen perhaps of the supreme poets of the world."

"If you have been reading the Savoy Magazine," continued Socrates, "you will have noticed those articles on Blake by Mr. W. B. Yeats, himself a mystic and almost occult poet, as Blake was. Now Mr. Yeats closes the first of his papers with a very wise sentence. After remarking that 'the errors in the handiwork of exalted spirits are as the more fantastical errors of their lives,' he adds, 'he who half lives in eternity endures a rending of the structures of the mind a crucifixion of the intellectual body.' That is very true. And so it was of Blake; he 'half lived in eternity.' His work had imagination and fervor. It had the traits of great intelligence, and great spirituality. It was lacking, one would say, in the qualities of prose and common sense. You would call him, I dare say, a poet's poet, as you would call Shelley. His fervor and his imagination carried him far afield upon explorations of the unknown. Yet he failed of being perfectly effective in his own day, because he was not perfectly related to it. So that although critics have come to regard him as a sane and beautiful poet, he is yet a stumbling block to many, and in his own day he was thought to be mad. Does it not seem to you that in these beautiful poems of his, the 'Book of Thel' and 'The Songs of Innocence,' you can find traits very similar to traits which you have told me indicate the verge of madness in men?"

"Yes," I assented, "I see what you mean."

"And yet," he continued, "I would not have you think of Blake as a mad poet. Far from it. He was merely a century or two ahead of his time. And again if you will think of that master of imagination, Carlyle, and recall how the qualities of fervor and thought predominated in his work, to the exclusion of beauty of form; if you will recall how fiery he was, and how he reeked himself on his language-how, indeed, he almost tortured expression in the imperious anguish of his conviction-you may find, I think, an analogy between the violence of his art and the wildness of one who is sane, indeed, and yet is driven to the outer boundaries of sanity. And even the poems and essays of your own Emerson, if they can be called faulty at all, must be called so because they so constantly abound in imagination and spirituality. If they seemed to those who first heard them a generation ago, to be lacking in anything, it was in continuity and pertinence. Those who listened to him were cheered and calmed, indeed, but it was by being rapt away out of the coil of their daily habits and surroundings. It was long thought no shame to ask of him, 'What does he mean?' He was, we may say, but imperfectly related to his time. Now I am sure you will not misunderstand me in making use of these names, Blake, Shelley, Carlyle, Emerson, to illustrate my meaning. You must know that I quite agree with you in thinking of them as very great thinkers and poets. At the same time the very fact that one can refer to them as seers or prophets, without any incongruity, supports my somewhat exaggerated contention. Remember we speak of tendencies rather than actual facts in art. If you will permit me to speak somewhat fancifully for a moment, I might say that these four men when they wrought themselves into their pregnant words, were shaken with a delirium not of this world, and haunted by a possession such as the warders of the oracle were supposed to know-as if one of the superior intelligences should condescend to mortality and be borne about in a human body, to which he was only imperfectly accustomed, hampered by inferior relations which he could never quite comprehend. Were they not instances of the saying that 'Great wits are sure to madness near allied'? Did they not always 'half live in eternity'?"

"Indeed, Socrates, I see what you mean to imply. And I think your distinction a helpful one, even if it need to be used carefully for the most part. But now, having given me these instances of what you understand by a tendency to madness in art, will you not follow it up for me with a few specific examples of the idiotic in literature?"

"They are too numerous to mention," said Socrates.

Untitled "Modern Athenium" column, Boston Evening Transcript, Sept. 26, 1896 [back]