Edwardian and Georgian Canadian Poets



Selected Essays and Reviews

by Bliss Carman

Edited by Terry Whalen


From "The Modern Athenium"

(June 16, 1897)*


I make it an almost invariable habit not to read the newspapers, for two reasons.

In the first place, the intrusion of facts upon one's mind is such an extremely dangerous event. They are almost sure to have their influence upon the imagination. And on any power so subtle and fine and sensitive and capacious and elemental [as] imagination, only the most beautiful forces should be allowed to play. And it is undeniable, I think, that the current facts of life, as they are reported to us in our daily press, are often unlovely, almost always trivial, and not seldom extremely revolting. The influence of such sordid and immoral suggestiveness is immense and baneful; and it seems to me safer to avoid it altogether, as our friends the transcendentalists avoided sin, by denying it a place in their philosophy at all. It would appear at first sight that this would lead to embarrassment, and that one might be put to confusion in one's pleasant human intercourse, by not knowing the topic of the hour; but I find that I get along very well with a good general knowledge of the almanac. This keeps me posted on the progress of the more important world events, the changes of dynasties, and so on; and my delicate sensibilities are spared the horrors of all the revolting atrocities of petty crime, the turmoil of party politics, the jangle of controversy, and the tedium of contact with mediocre minds. It allows me to preserve an exclusive and aristocratic habit of thought, a certain distinction of ignorance, and immunity from that cheap omnivorousness which is so deadly to true culture. It enables me to feel myself more intrinsically a part of the abiding and the beautiful, and less a whirling atom of the transient and ephemeral.

In the second place, I like the surprise of hearing the news from the lips of a friend, or catching it perforce over the shoulder of a stranger. The other day, in a street car, I caught sight of a portrait (recognizable without the name) of a distinguished woman of letters. It must have been a fortnight ago, now, and I do not know yet whether the good lady is dead or only married again. Now, how much more agreeable that is, how much more conducive to openness of mind and the play of fancy, than knowing the actual facts of the case. And again, when my friend in Maiden lane or State street says to me, of a fine morning:

"What a terrible catastrophy!"

I shake my head and reply:

"Yes, awful, awful."

And I seldom run any danger seeming ignorant. He is sure to drop a cue, so that I shall be able to guess whether the disaster is a train wreck, or the foundering of steamer, or a simoon in India, or a bank failure. I find this practise in conversation gives me great power of seeming intelligent and at the same time remaining exempt from the fatigue of exactness and detail.

The habit of mind engendered by a diligent course of ignorance of this sort, is an incalculable aid to the imaginative faculty. For the artist it is the only line of self discipline to pursue. The moment he cumbers his thought with fact, with actuality, with the existence of things in time and place, that moment his imagination begins to be fettered and inert; his fancy trails a drooping wing; and the fine well of inspiration is checked. The imagination needs facts, only as a dictionary needs words, or as a language needs an alphabet; it must be free and untrammelled to make what use it pleases of them. So that old facts are the best for its purpose, since they cannot be called in question, and may be used as mere conventional terms of expression.

However, one cannot altogether escape knowing what is passing in the world, and occasionally (very occasionally, praise fortune!) hints of literary gossip are blown across one's range of hearing. It seems that one of those unnecessary personages of modern civilization, an editor, some time during the past winter, opened a discussion by printing in his paper the ten best short poems in the English language. I do not recall his list, but I believe it contained contributions in verse from a gentleman named Kipling, and from Mr. Thakeray the novelist, and from poor Tom Hood, that genius who was killed by facts. And I understand that others have been amusing themselves more recently by making similar rosters of the masterpieces of English lyric verse. Of course, there can be no final list of this sort. If you pick out one of Shakespeare's lyrics, there is no possible test which could declare it superior to another of his songs. And now chose between L'Allegro and the Penseroso, for example? The truth is, the whole body of English lyric poetry is too vast for such niceness of distinction. And any attempt at judicial settlement of the matter lapses inevitably into a declaration of personal preference.

Now I am inclined to hold that the only interest and value of criticism is its personal quality, just as the chief interest and value of all original work is a personal one. The important thing about Shelley, for example, is not one or the other of his poems; it is the whole trend of his work, his influence, what he stands for in the work of art and thought. In the same way the important thing about a critic like Arnold is his point of view, his temper, his habit of mind, much more than any one of his essays in criticism. So that, however futile any attempt to settle the relative merits of the best English lyrics may be, it is still interesting and instructive for us all to make up our own minds on the important subject, and see that our conclusions are duly set before the public.

I understand that in a number of opinions called for by a literary syndicate, the list made out by my friend, Mr. Charles Roberts, had the distinction of being entirely different from all others. He chose, it seems, not a single poem pitched upon by any other expert. I have not Mr. Roberts's list by me, but I am sure it showed sound, sane, catholic taste. And if I venture to append below my own small contribution to the growing volume of discussion, I only trust that I may be sure in my instincts as I feel he must have been.

In my opinion the ten greatest lyrical poems in the English language are these:

  1. "A Northern Vigil"
  2. "A Spring Song"
  3. "The Moondial"
  4. "At the Granite Gate"
  5. "The Gravedigger"
  6. "The Nancy's Pride"
  7. "The Red Wolf"
  8. "Behind the Arras"
  9. "The Last Watch"
10. "In a Gondola"

It will be noted that I have omitted Shakespeare from the list. I have done so because Shakespeare's best short poems are his sonnets, and anything is better than a sonnet.

I have chosen "In a Gondola" because I wished to make room for Browning. He and Arnold are really the only other Victorians one can consider in such a connection, and I hesitated long between them, finally submitting (I must confess) my own personal preference to the weight of general opinion.

It occurs to me, on second thought, that not all of these poems have become household words in English. But that is not my fault.

Untitled "The Modern Athenium" column, Boston Evening Transcript, June 16, 1897 [back]