Edwardian and Georgian Canadian Poets



Selected Essays and Reviews

by Bliss Carman

Edited by Terry Whalen


From "The Modern Athenium"

(July 24, 1897)*


Last week in these columns I had the honor of noticing, very inadequately, it is true, M. Maurice Maeterlinck's new volume of essays, "The Treasure of the Humble." They are, as I said, the work of a mystic philosopher; they deal with the very finest and most evanescent traits of the human spirit, and its commonest manifestations-uncommon as it is for anyone to observe these. And it occurs to me to wonder if this work is in some measure the philosophy of symbolism.

What is symbolism? Does the philosophy of the mystics become symbolistic when it attempts to find expression in art? "Symbolism" is a very common phrase among us today. But doubtless it is no new thing. We should all be very glad to know exactly what it is. At least I should, for my part.

Two or three years ago I clipped this advertisement from the London Athenĉum:

"Symbolism-A young Danish author will give lessons about Symbols (in English). It will not only admit to understand the creatures, but to understand the great authors better who only speak through symbols. Ten shillings per hour."

Whether or not this gentleman's lectures have ever been given to the world in a book I do not know. If they have it must be a wonderful production. But still, I do not feel that it would afford us much help in an inquiry into the nature of symbolism. I fear we shall have to go about that business for ourselves as best we can.

Perhaps if we first consider some of the qualities of poetry and its characteristics, as distinguished from prose, we may be able to infer the characteristics of symbolism as distinguished from average poetry. For symbolism in literature is, perhaps, only a higher sort of poetry; just as poetry is a higher sort of prose.

Now in poetry, we may as well admit, not every line is poetry. Some of it is very matter-of-fact prose. Shakspeare, in his plays, constantly makes use of prose when his subject demands it for any reason. He may use prose because the story has run into a comic vein, or because it has become realistic, or because he wishes to make it seem familiar. And again, as his subject demands it, he returns to the greater dignity, significance and power of verse; he returns to poetry.

But sometimes he compromises between prose and poetry, and uses verse without making it poetic: he is content to make it a plain statement of fact. This is done by all poets, and is a necessary part of their art. Without an occasional appeal to our sober senses, in words of commonest use and meaning, they would be above our heads; they would become wearisome, ill-balanced and ineffectual. Poetry, the essence of poetry, is a very delicate and indefinable thing, and yet it is something that has for us all a very powerful and humanizing influence. All that is best and most beautiful in our civilization, all that makes life worth while, is due to either directly or indirectly to the free play of the mind through the medium of art. And it follows that poetry, so fine and so subtle a thing is it, must be brought close home to our understanding. When Keats said:

"A thing of beauty is a joy forever,"

he was not uttering an extremely poetical sentiment, nor was he using an extremely heightened and poetical mode of speech. He was making an epigram, a pithy conclusion, a perfectly self-evident maxim. The sentence might perfectly well occur in a prose work. He has only lifted it to the height of verse, he has not lifted it to the highest reach of poetry.

And so when Wordsworth says, "Plain living and high thinking are no more," to quote from a beautiful sonnet, or when Pope says,

"The proper study of mankind is man,"

they are not writing poetry of the highest order. Although these lines occur in poems, they are in themselves hardly poetry at all. They are not models of good prose, because they have been given something of the modulation of poetry; they have been given the form of verse. Yet they are nearer prose than poetry, because they appeal to us through those channels which are the proper sphere of prose, through our reason and common sense. They require nothing but the most literal interpretation.

And in the same way, when we read,

"Most women have no characters at all,"


"A little learning is a dangerous thing,"


"An honest man's the noblest work of God,"

you perceive at once we are still in the same sphere, the sphere of prose. These admirable household words have passed current for years, and have been honored as poetry; but, in truth, save for their metre, they have no quality of poetry at all. That each is an integral and necessary part of a poem, we readily admit; but that any of them has the character and habit of poetry, beyond the mere versification, surely no one will contend.

But now, still choosing our quotations from the commonest English metre, blank verse, let us turn to work of a different character; let us turn to Shelley's

"Life, like a dome of many-colored glass,
Stains the white radiance of Eternity,"

or to Coleridge's,

"Ancestral voices prophesying war,"

and we find ourselves at once in a very different region of expression. The writer is no longer appealing to our reason and common sense alone. To tell one that life is like a dome of many-colored glass, is to insult my common sense and violate my reason. How can eternity have a radiance, and how can that radiance be stained by anything?

Yet these are lines of acknowledged beauty. Evidently I am in a field of psychical experience, where reason and common sense are not paramount; I must bring other faculties to bear, if I would not miss the full enjoyment of poetry. Here the matter to be expressed has been given not only the modulation of poetry, in that it has been put into verse; it has been given the elation, the heightened effect, of poetry as well. And perhaps the pith and germ of poetry, as we most generally understand it, is a metaphor.

If one were to say, "I warmed both hands before the fire," one would be using the commonest prose expression. But if it were changed slightly, and I should say,

"I warmed both hands before the fire of life,"

the exclamation becomes at once a line of poetry, and very simple and beautiful poetry it is, too. I am speaking of life and the conduct of life, matters perfectly well apprehended by all men; and I make use of a metaphor which all men understands quite as perfectly and readily; I use the simile of a comfortable fire.

And again when Shakespeare says,

"To the last syllable of recorded time,"

it is perfectly clear what he means; only his expression of it, by an apt metaphor, is far more felicitous and forceful than we should have thought of.

In all these examples of poetry, both the object to be expressed and the similar object to which it is compared are known. We have a clear enough idea of what we mean by time, and we have a perfectly clear idea of the last syllable by a record. So that the whole poetical phrase wakes an instant response in us. So, too, we have an instant comprehension when we read,

"There is a tide in the affairs of men."

"The affairs of men" are easily comparable to the tides of the sea. But suppose I wished to go beyond the limits of rational sense and logic altogether; suppose I wished to invade the domain of mysticism, to atempt the expression, moods and feelings, rather than thoughts and conclusions. For there are intimations and convictions of the soul of man too vague to reach up into mental consciousness, too elemental and orbic, perhaps, to be confined in the strict logic of speech, and yet of a constant and powerful influence on our daily actions. And we have no means ready at hand for expressing these things. They are phenomena from a world so little observed that no language has been framed to fit it. The daily life of the human soul, no doubt, bears part in every moment of our conduct; yet so shrinking and elusive is it, that for the most part it has gone about is business unobserved, and no man can name its desires, its resources, it methods, its features, or its habit.

Locke's blind man who could form no idea of scarlet color, unless it might be something like the sound of a trumpet, was precisely in our own case in regard to the phenomena of the soul-life of humanity. When called on to express himself about color, he was dealing with a series of phenomena beyond his senses, with things which he had no means whatever of judging, and he was forced to resort to imperfect metaphor. He became a symbolist.

Perhaps we may say that symbolism is poetic quality of the finest sort, which is foolishness to the mind, but wisdom to the imagination.

The greatest store-house of symbolism, of course, is the Bible. That treasury of the world's best literature was written by very great poets. And most of our sorry mishaps in faith come from interpreting their poems literally. They were talking of affairs of the spirit; naturally their words could have no exact applicability to conduct or thought.

To say that the stars in their courses fought against Sisera, or that the sun stood still in the Valley of Ajalon, is to make use of the most beautiful poetry. And we owe enduring reverence to the genius that could compass such expression. But to interpret it literally-what could be more stultifying and degrading to the soul?

I do not wish to be cheaply iconoclastic. If you can believe that the sun actually stood still for some hours once in the world's history, or that the morning stars actually sang together, and if you derive the unction of reverence from such a conviction, possibly it may do you more good than harm to cling to such a rendering of those poetic phrases. But you must, also, permit others to derive their spiritual consolation from that high poetry by interpreting it in a different fashion. The Eternal Goodness, as I conceive of him, would seem to me more wanton than any child, if he permitted such a catastrophe as the stoppage of the earth's revolution. And as for the singing stars-that is simply ridiculous. And yet both these beautiful scraps of symbolistic poetry are full of the gist of religion, and I believe their profound significance. I have no exact idea what the writer meant who declared that the sun turned back in the Valley of Ajalon, indeed, I am perfectly sure that the sun did nothing of the sort; but I have a fine sense of spiritual elation and freedom when I read those words; I partake of the poet's own rapture; I feel the same nobility of soul which he must have felt, when no more statement of fact could suffice him, when he could only resort to symbolism as a means of expressing his emotional fervor.

The ancient Jews were an extraordinary people, with many revolting savage customs and barbarous religious rites (to which we persist in giving a mystic significance and essential value), but also with a wonderful poetic imagination (whose beautiful products we persist in interpreting with stupid literalness). Their poetry was the poetry of spiritual experience, it must needs utter itself in symbolism; the exact simile and metaphor, so sufficient for a matter of fact mind, were quite inadequate for its imagination and scope. And so when the modern genius of humanity again seeks a vent for itself, when the mortal soul arouses to a renewed consciousness of its own life and possibilities, what more natural than that it should revert to symbolism as a method of expression?

At least we may be very sure that the study of art, the study of poetry and letters, is no mere pastime. It would seem at first sight a supremely trivial question, whether Mr. Maeterlinck is or is not a symbolistic poet. But a moment's consideration shows the greater significance of the inquiry, and its bearing on all our modern thought. In America we are not in the habit of setting much store by the intellectual life after our twenties are passed, and we are prone to view the fine arts with a superior look of indulgence; but in truth they are matters of far greater moment than we realize; they concern every one of us, no matter how busy we may be, and we shall make a mistake if we treat them with too little seriousness.

Untitled "The Modern Athenium" column, Boston Evening Transcript, July 24, 1897 [back]