Edwardian and Georgian Canadian Poets



Selected Essays and Reviews

by Bliss Carman

Edited by Terry Whalen


From "Marginal Notes"

(September 3, 1898)*


Mr. W. B. Yeats, himself one of the most prominent exemplars of the Celtic strain in current English poetry, recently wrote a paper on "The Celtic Element in Literature." So single-hearted a devotee of beauty as Mr. Yeats could scarcely be looked to for a popular theory of art or letters, and there are sentences in his essay which will be a joy to the elect and a horror to Count Tolstoi and the Philistines.

Speaking of the Celtic movement, he says: "None can measure of how great importance it may be to coming times, for every new fountain of legends is a new intoxication for the imagination of the world. It comes at a time when the imagination of the world is as ready as it was at the coming of the tales of Arthur and of the Grail for a new intoxication. The reaction against the rationalism of the eighteenth century has mingled with a reaction against the materialism of the nineteenth century, and the symbolical movement, which has come to perfection in Germany in Wagner, in England in the pre-Raphaelites and in France in Villiers de l'Isle-Adam and Mallarmé and Maeterlinck, and has stirred the imagination of Ibsen and D'Annunzio, is certainly the only movement that is saying new things."

That is a comprehensive enough claim, but Mr. Yeats goes on to add a word more significant still. "The arts, by brooding upon their own intensity, have become religious, and are seeking, as some French critic has said, to create a sacred book." Now there is just where the lover of art, the believer in the vitality and worth of art, will differ from Tolstoi and his cocksure theorizing. To create a sacred book is not only the ambition of art and letters to-day; it has been the true function of art and poetry in the whole history of the world. Far and wide as young artists may divagate from the path of natural truth and beauty, whimsical as they may become, freakish, obscure, narrow, grotesque, let us think of them patiently; let us give them every liberty for individual fancy of expression. Let a work be as exaggerated and strange to our eyes as it will, we must yet spare our condemnation. It is only by encouraging an infinite number of variations from the average that any solid or permanent improvement of the average can be secured. This is the one truth forced home on students of the natural sciences, and we ought to remember it in considering questions of art.

To arrive at certain dimly discerned standards of perfection, through ages of experimental effort, seems to be the end of life; and art as a shadowy counterpart of life, can have no very different purpose. It is idle to prescribe for art the strict rule and measure of the reformer and the doctrinaire. It is a natural growth, not mechanism, this thing called art; and it is foolish to expect the world of art to be all a rose garden and clipped hedge, with never a weed or a jungle or a briar patch in any corner of it. So that, of all forms of criticism, I should think the exact, confident, dogmatic, thou-shalt-not sort the most useless of all. Just because art is something bigger and greater than we can quite comprehend, just because it is consistently expressing trends of feeling and emotion which lie outside of exact reason, or at least reaching after an expression of them, we must be careful always to remember our own limitations in dealing with any of its manifestations.

Suppose, then, that art is a great natural force, the manifestation of incalculable and unforeseen "streams of tendency" in human development, would it not seem reasonable to look for the elements of religion it? If there are ever new and powerful tendencies constantly making themselves felt in the slow progress of humanity, where, pray, are we to expect to see them first, if not in art? Grant the efficacy of conservatism in matters of conduct and thought for the average man, there is still the future average man to be considered. You will not contend that what was good enough for the cave-man is good enough for you and me? No, but how came anything better? Who thought of the improvement?

I will tell you. Some poor simpleton of an artist, with nothing better than his own idle business to heed, stumbled on it in the lonely wastes of his imagination. It may have been a very small thing, the first improvement that ever the fancy of man discovered, but it was some dreamer who unearthed it and brought it home to decorate his lodge. And a nice time he had of it, facing the ridicule and sniffing of all his fellow villagers. But he didn't care much-just shuffled along in his own persistent way, fiddling over his pet improvement, making it a little surer every day, until, when at last he came to die, the scoffers (who had something really new and radical to sniff at by that time) said: "After all, his improvement isn't so bad, when you come to think of it. It can't do any harm, at all events." So they all adopted it, and ended by believing it was a worthy discovery of their own.

Not only are the arts seeking to create a sacred book, but they are actually creating it to-day, very slowly and diligently, with a thousand mistakes, but with an approach to perfection, page by page, line by line, word by word. I have seen publishers of tremendous energy who were going to amend the usage of their predecessors, and make a new book in a few days. But I have noticed that their best efforts could not get the volume out inside of several months, or weeks at best; so I should not expect the great sacred book of art to be finished all in a century or two, any more than I should expect to see the great book of nature finished offhand. And I should expect to find all along just as many faults and blemishes and unsuccessful experiments in the one as in the other. But I should not, therefore, grow captious or censorious; I should try to bring myself to consider the work as a whole, to overlook the faults and to know no greater delight than a calm perusal of those wonderful glowing pages, and, if ever I came upon anything which seemed to me unlovely, or upon anything I could not understand, I would say to myself, as the old teacher used to say to his scholars when they encountered a word in reading which he himself could not pronounce, "Shkip it, b'ys; it's a Greek varb."

Untitled "Marginal Notes" column, Commercial Advertiser, Sept. 3, 1898 [back]