Edwardian and Georgian Canadian Poets



Selected Essays and Reviews

by Bliss Carman

Edited by Terry Whalen


The Provincial Note in Art*


In a certain sense, and allowing oneself a certain latitude of meaning, one may say that while good criticism must always have the cosmopolitan temper, creative work must always have something of the provincial air about it. Criticism is the product of civilization, of study, of deliberate purpose, of self-conscious analysis, and it presupposes a divorce of reasons from the emotions. Creative effort, on the other hand, is more native, untutored, spontaneous, irresponsible, unconscious and illogical; and presupposes the subordination of the reason to the emotional nature. Criticism, one easily sees, must flourish best at the centres of thought in cities where the racial mind is at its keenest, and all the conclusions of racial deliberation (if so improbable a thing could exist) are put in practice; while creation needs the freedom from distraction only found in provincial corners of the earth.

It will be answered at once that the provincial artist cannot hope to speak for the better and more sophisticated persons of his time, that he will be hopelessly out of touch with the thought of the day, as we call it. But it is forgotten that the provincial artist is more surely in touch with the thought of the years. "The thought of the day," which is the very breath of life to criticism, is, after all, a secondary consideration in creative endeavor. The creator concerns himself first of all with those primitive and enduring human traits which underlie the chance of fortune and the change of fashion, which are the foundation of society; his office is more profound and elementary than that of the critic, and the complexities of the cosmopolitan life tend to obscure the main business of his existence. And I think one sees very often in the art and poetry of our capitals, in our art and poetry that is inflected with the cosmopolitan spirit, a baneful influence of the critical spirit. It seems to grow timid, sophisticated and petty, if, indeed, it does not grow vulgarly facetious or cheaply cynical.

I do not mean to say that the cosmopolitan spirit, the critical spirit, is superfluous in fostering a national art. It is absolutely necessary; but its usefulness is still a subordinate one, and its aggressive cleverness should be well guarded against by the artist himself. That seems rather an absurd thing to say, too. It is hard, at first blush, to fancy any artist or writer too open to criticism. Few of us are ept to be overblessed with the openness of mind implied in the word criticism. But the artist who lives in the tide of cosmopolitan thought is likely to be so thoroughly immersed in it that he does not perceive its drift; he does not know that he is absorbed in a critical atmosphere. Its influences are so alluring, so all pervasive, so powerful, he is swept on their coil far out of his own true course, and gives his days too often to half-accomplishments, misdirected effort and wrong ambitions. And all the while the more important toil his real destiny appointed for him lies incomplete or unattempted at his side.

The critical faculty, so admirable in itself, so needful to regulate our work, to give us balance and proportion, to show us where we are, to help us comprehend ourselves and our place in a larger scheme, is still a sterile force, incapable of fructifying spirit. It is a governing, even a dominating power, rather than a cosmical energy. It modulates, and at its best illumines the results of the artist's energy, the inventor's skill, the reformer's purpose; but its very aloofness and coldness keep it from participating in any of these occupations. Criticism is the afterthought of the spirit, but creation is its unthinking natural function; criticism may be a pleasure, but creation is a joy. Just so the pleasures of life thrive abundantly in a cosmopolitan current; indeed, cosmopolitanism makes pleasure its chief business. But the joys of life abide more undistractedly, if less vividly in the eddies and backwaters of provincialism.

Provincialism is hopeless, of course, in dealing with matters of scholarship and the trend of affairs. It is an incompetent guide in national undertakings or racial advancement: it must not be relied on as a safe judge in that complexity of life which goes by the name of modern civilization; one could never dream of permitting the provincial note to be heard in any of the wider activities of criticism. It is too slow, too instructive and unrational, for critical undertakings. It relies too much on the natural heart, as we say, and not enough on hard science. The quality of being hard-headed is attributed by common consent to men of affairs, men of science, statesmen and leaders of cosmopolitan life generally. It is to them, and to them alone, that matters of pressing importance of the day can be entrusted with safety. In matters of art, in matters of the more slowly changing spiritual life, you may go with greater safety to the provincial spirit for inspiration. Inspiration does not abide in walls; they are the home of criticism. And it is because criticism and inspiration are both necessary to life that the highest development of art can only be attained by a blending, or, rather by a mixture, of the provincial and the cosmopolitan in our existence.

The truth of their suggestion appears in the case of the individual as well as in the more general tendency. There is in every one a critical power, regulating and overseeing the moral power. The artistic nature, that is, the moral nature, finding a bent for its will in art rather than in action, must be accompanied by some trace of the critical faculty, however rudimentary. Otherwise it will spend its precious force in futile effort more often than not. And yet the critical faculty must be only a servant to the master passion for creation, else it will rule the house of art like a domineering domestic, orderly and sedulous, perhaps, but absolutely commonplace, well bred, reputable and dull beyond redemption.

The provincial note in poetry and art is good, not because it forgets man and worships nature, but because it considers man in his truer relation to life. Men's actions and aspirations must always remain the greater subject for art, and the interpretation of nature is less important, however enthralling it may be to many. The point is, that man degenerates in the mass. As every crowd tends to become a mob, to lose its human characteristics and retain only its more brutal instincts in the one direction, and its more mentalized tendencies in the other, so the art which is fostered in crowds tends to become more clever and at the same time more profane.

"The Provincial Note in Art," Commercial Advertiser, Dec. 17, 1898 [back]