Edwardian and Georgian Canadian Poets



Selected Essays and Reviews

by Bliss Carman

Edited by Terry Whalen


On Criticism I*


I have just been reading in a recent periodical a fresh discussion of that threadbare topic, the relative value of signed and anonymous criticism. It is said, on one side, that when a critic is writing over his own name he has much less temptation to be spiteful; that he will be restrained from showing prejudice; that he will deal less in personalities; that he will be under a certain potent inducement to do his best. On the other hand, it is argued, the unsigned critique is the only means of dealing with the work of contemporaries with any degree of freedom; one cannot speak without embarrassment of the excellence or shortcoming of this or that writer or painter before his face, as it were.

I think myself that all criticism should be signed. And this for various reasons. But such an opinion must depend on what one understands by criticism, what standards one sets for it, and what one may hope for it to accomplish. And when you think of modern journalism, with the enormous power it wields, and consider how small a percentage of that gigantic force is devoted to the distribution of news, and that fully a half of its energy is exercised in a critical capacity, the question appears to come at once within the scope of interests we condescend to call practical. We are apt to think of criticism as something very unimportant, and to offer it the merest tolerance as the pastime of leisurely scholars and visionaries, with no bearing on daily life. But the power of the press is very largely a critical power, wielding a direct influence on all our undertakings in art, in politics, in religion, in affairs. And when I hear any one speak of signed or unsigned criticism I am inclined to ask myself what criticism ought to be and what we might expect it to do for us.

In the first place, it seems to me that criticism bears very much the same relationship toward literature and art that literature and art bear toward nature and actual life.

Criticism resembles original creation in that it has both a scientific and an artistic side. It is scientific so far as it has to do with the analysis of phenomena, the collecting and arrangement of data, the discovery and elucidation of principles, and the exposition of the natural laws of art. It is artistic, in that its purpose is to offer its conclusion to the student with as much convincing grace and polish as may be. It is not merely the part of criticism to investigate the achievements of art, and to record the result of those investigations in a bare tabulation of fact; it is equally its business, surely, to win men to an allegiance to the beautiful, to direct them courteously. It is not enough that we should be brought face to face with all the best interpretations of nature and humanity. It is needful that they be made clear, convincing, luminous, intelligible.

You see, this is very nearly the service art renders us with respect to life and nature. That famous saying of Arnold's, "Poetry is a criticism of life," is a concise statement of the same idea. It was never intended, I take it, for a definition of poetry, yet it expresses very aptly one aspect and function of all art. And this, without in the least implying anything like didacticism, or the dreary obligations of a so-called moral purpose. Even the most faithful reproductions of realism are hardly impersonal utterances. They cannot but betray the critical standpoint of their author, however dispassionate he may be. If they are revolting and painful in their bleak veracity, they speak, perhaps, for his pious indignation at some hideous wrong, some social injustice, some piteous tragedy of existence; and we may go our ways, the better for his wholesome though disagreeable lesson. If they are engrossed, even to the point of tediousness, with the familiar, the common, or the dull, unrelieved by any spice of romance, unheightened by any touch of extraneous beauty, they are still, it may be, so many expressions of a serene and humane personality, perceiving good everywhere and implicitly declaring the worth of life. Let him be as literal, as uncompromising, as he will, his temperament and philosophy are still inevitably revealed on every page. Not a word is traced on paper, not a color laid to canvas, but carries some hint of the delineator's hand. The artist's identity is patent in his work, his accent lurks in every line, his features look from every phrase. And at the last, whether he intend it or not, his collected work will form a commentary, or at least a foot-note, to the great book of Nature.

There it lies, this green volume of the earth, the dark sea on one page, the dark forested hills on the other, and the creamy margin of shore between, with a ribbon of surf to mark the place. And there you may read to your heart's content; the story will never be finished, not the interest flag, till you drop the task some night for very weariness and your candle goes out with a puff of wind. But while the brief light lasts, and your strength holds out, how enthralling a book it is. What legendry and science, what song and story. The obscure records of the mountains and the tides, the shifting pictures of clouds and ruffling forests and changing fields from year to year; the multitudes of the living trees and grasses, and last, most wonderful of all, the perishable talking tribes of men. And then to think, before this volume how many students have sat and mused, pondering the meaning of its fair text-so fair, yet so obscure as well. Here Shakespeare read and smiled; here Homer and Horace looked and doubted; here Job and Plato, David and Dante, Angelo and Darwin, Virgil and Voltaire, Spinoza and Rubens and Cervantes, found life-long solace mingled with disquiet. Scholars and saints, painters and ploughmen, lovers and skeptics, emperors and peasants and poets and kings; and what had they all to say about their reading? No comment? Did they find the work amusing, or was it squalid, or only dull? Perhaps they found it "morbid," if I may use the favorite adjective of the reviewer. Think of the poetry of Emerson or Wordsworth: what is it but a critical interpretation of nature? Think of the work of Fielding or Thackeray or Hawthorne; what was it but a running commentary on humanity?

There is one sense in which all the arts are one-in that they are all but differing forms of expression, different methods in which the spirit of humanity finds a voice and embodies its thought about the universe, and in that sense, surely, all art is an appendix to nature, a criticism on experience. Fiction and painting for example, seem clearly to have had their origin as simple pastimes, yet how significant a body of commentary they contain. I suppose the art of painting arose in the idlest hour, from a very superfluity of leisure and fancy, the chance discovery of some dreamy bygone summer afternoon; yet every line or shade tells tales of the vanished painter's sentiment as he looked out at the world about him. And modern fiction; there is a fine art which would seem to have had its beginning in nothing more serious than the telling of tales over a winter fire. Yet now, in all its varied complexity, so philosophical, so intentional, how evidently critical it has become.

We must not forget, either, to make ample allowance for that conception of art which claims for it a province quite apart from the actual world. According to this view it is the business of art to create for our enjoyment a fictitious universe, within our own, yet dissevered from it-an unreal, imaginary palace of pleasure, having no bearing upon actual life. This was the dream of the pre-Raphaelites. For them the fairy tale was the true model of fiction. They revelled in creations that leave nature panting far behind. You would certainly never go to them for a criticism of life. And yet what does the presence of such a fanciful creation mean-springing up side by side with the actual, and resembling it so little? Is not its mere existence a most significant comment on the world of fact it pretends to ignore? Is it not an avowal of the insufficiency of nature, the imperfection of our lot? It is easy to scoff at such fantastic wistfulness in art, but for my part I think it more profitable than a complacent abiding in "things as they are."

If you consider the attitude of the artist, the painter, the poet, the man of letters-as an attentive observer, things about him, as a portrayer of natural phenomena, a reporter at large in all the splendid bright avenues of the earth, bringing home to the attention of his fellows many facts from many sources, adding some hint of his own thought concerning them, elucidating them from his fuller knowledge than ours, suggesting by his chosen preference which seem to him most memorable and noteworthy, you will be reminded of the attitude of the critic, and see how closely they resemble each other. Admitting this similarity of functions, what are those qualifications of the creative artist which are requisite to the right critical temper as well?

First of all, I should place openness of mind. One would think that a very obvious requirement, the least that could be asked of a personality bringing itself under the spell of new forms and fresh influences of beauty. But how rare it is, that spiritual candor which shows itself to the utterly unprejudiced disposition of a great, patient, humility. It is linked on one side to the religious sense, the capacity for wonder, and on the other to a profound curiosity that is forever questing, questing, questing-the scholar's gift. It involves a love of truth, too, undauntable and unswerving, ready on the instant to abandon the most cherished ideal for the sake of one more tenable in reason. With an exquisite susceptibility to impressions, and with a depth of feeling rather than conviction, the artist steeps himself in the atmosphere of every scene he would reproduce, the critic surrenders himself to the subtlest influences of the masterpiece under his hand. To either case it is a finely sensitized mechanism, as delicate as a piece of litmus paper, played upon by the potent element of beauty in the chemistry of the soul, and bearing unimpeachable evidence of the test. Such a being is in little danger of coming to destruction through the self-confidence of the prig. He is more likely to be the most unassuming of mortals. There will characterize him a sweet eagerness for knowledge, not incompatible with a gentle regard for beliefs no longer possible and ideals no longer true. He, too, will be quite willing to pass with the slow procession of created things from one illusion to another, without dejection or regret. None will be more passionately and keenly alive to events than he; no one more detached in contemplating them. A sedulous, kindly nature, earth-born and instinctive, will be his; so that while he is almost strenuous in following a bent, he will completely realize the futility of insistence and the folly of overstrain. Such a mind will not be affluent nor impressive, but it will be infinitely exact in its own way, infinitely careful of distinctions, infinitely scrupulous in speech. To the sobriety of science it would add the elation of art; and to the elation of art it would add the smiling after-thought of indecision.

Whether these are the most important traits for a critic to possess, I do not know. They seem so to me, roughly as I have been able to state them. Whether or not they are best preserved by an anonymous system of criticism, is a consideration I must beg leave to take up in a second paper.

"On Criticism I," Commercial Advertiser, July 9, 1898 [back]