Edwardian and Georgian Canadian Poets



Selected Essays and Reviews

by Bliss Carman

Edited by Terry Whalen


A Forgotten Poet*


We are apt to forget how many of them there must be. Since the world began, think of the innumerable army of mortals, happy or ill-starred, who devoted this brief hot life to the cold, beautiful service of words, then laid them down to dusty slumber, unremembered as the leaves! And how absurdly illogical it all is! How shall we explain the phenomenon of the artist? He spends his energy, his time, his blood and spirit, freely as water to further his own tiny aims. He is not paid; he does not wish to be paid; he does not work to please others; he does not claim any place in the social scheme. He has really no excuse for living-this ridiculous useless devotee of colors, or sounds, or shapes. Why should we regard him at all? Is he not truly the most absurd of beings? We who go down into the city every day, and toil for some purpose-we have a substantial reward. We taste the fruit of our own toil, and the zest of life is sweet, though the hours be long. But this maniac of art, this lover of syllables, this dauber of shades, this mooning, moody sufferer of the time-spirit, what gain has he? Not a sou for all his labour-not a penny for his deprivation. We dine, and wine, and smoke, and lounge at ease, and are warm and well-groomed, because we had the industry to win these things and the sense to care for them. But what idiocy can possess the artist's soul that he can forego our solid comfort and be content to "live in a garret aloof and have few friends, and go poorly clad," and come to nothing at last?

It is a curious problem. His position is supported by most unreasonable logic. He must be as blindly faithful as the coral insect, building for a day he shall never see. And the curious thing is, that even when the artist (in one case out of a thousand) is really successful in our worldly sense, when he gains some popular favor and solid regard for his work, he seems to himself still most insignificant.

So that the whole army of martyrs to the cause of art is closely knit to the small handful of its conquering heroes. And while there are few whom we all know by heart, there are the shadowy multitudes whom no one knows, who toiled and dared in their little day, yet reaped no visible reward. One comes on traces of their work occasionally, sometimes to find it astonishingly fresh and vigorous, and even authoritative.

I have before me such a record this morning, a book whose title page reads: Old Spookses' Pass, Malcom's Katie and Other Poems, by Isabella Valancy Crawford. Toronto: James Bain & Son. 1884. Perhaps the first quality of the work to strike one its sureness, its precision. There is in it almost none of the groping and ineffectual sort of writing which usually characterizes the immature. Isabella Valancy Crawford (it is enough to say) was a young Canadian who died before she had done more than this single volume. And yet it is reverberant with an almost masculine vigor, and it stands easily among the most notable first volumes of poetry in the western world. There is a lyric force in the lines quite uncompromising, spontaneous and final. And there is a breadth and variety of sympathy and interest only to be matched in the truest poets. It is the utterance, indeed, not of a beginner, not of an amateur, not of a small provincial bard, but of one who was equipped for great things, though destined for so brief a term of accomplishment.

Many of the poems are narrative in dialogue-that dangerous form of art where failure is so easy, yet where some of our best writers-Lowell, Bret Harte and James Whitcomb Riley-have been so happy. The ballad of Old Spookses' Pass itself is a stirring romantic tale of a night stampede, set forth in masterly fashion. The speaker tells the story with home-spun soliloquies. He hears the creek coming down through the stones of the gully as he keeps mounted watch over the herd,

It ain't no matter wharever ye be,
    I'll 'low it's cur'as sort of case,
Whar thar's runnin' water, it's sure to speak
    Of folks to home and the old home place.

And yer bound to listen an' hear it talk.
    As yer mustang crunches the dry, baid sod;
Fur I reckon the hills an' stars an' creek
    Are all of 'em preachers sent by God.

An' them mountains talk to a chap this way;
    "Climb if ye can, ye degenerate cuss."
An' the stars smile down on a man, an' say,
    "Come higher, poor critter, come up to us."

An' I reckin, pard, thar is One above,
    The highest old star that a chap can see,
An' He says, in a solid etarnal way,
    Ye never can stop till ye get to Me."

.      .      .

Fur He knows that he made him in that thar way,
    Somewhars to fit in his own great plan;
An' he ain't the Bein' to pour His wrath
    On the head of a slimpsy and slippery man.

An' He says to the feller, "Look here, my son,
    You're the worst case that I ever see,
But be thet it takes ye a million y'ars,
    Ye never can stop till ye get to Me."

With much incidental feeling of this sort, the main theme of the ballad-the rescue of the stampeded herd by a superhuman unseen rider who comes to the herder's assistance, and succeeds in "milling" the cattle-is admirably set down, with spirit and stirring power. Again there is a deal of excellent homely wit like Lowell's own in other dialect studies. For instance, in The Deacon's Daughter,

He didn't, when he sunk a well,
    Inspect the stuns and gravel.
To prove that Moses was a dunce,
    Unfit for furrin' travel;
He marvell'd at them works of God-
    And broke 'em up to mend the road.

or again, in Farmer Stebbin's Opinions,

I never bet on Paul agin
    The argyments of Peter;
I never made the good old Book
    A kind of moral teeter
To pass a choreless hour away,
    An' get the evenin' over;
I swallered it jest as it stood,
    From cover clar to cover.

It is a startling revelation of versatility to turn from such a work to a lyric like Roses in Madrid:

Roses, Dounas, roses,
    None so fresh as mine,
Plucked at rose of morning
    By our lady's shrine.

.      .      .

Roses, roses, roses!
    Hear the tawny bull
Thundering in the circus,
    Buy your arms full.

.      .      .

Roses by the dozen!
    Roses by the score!
Pelt the victor with them-
    Bull or toreador!

In The Land of Kisses there is a note of lovely, fleeting, wistful human sadness like the undertone of Rossetti's poetry-something not at all imitative, either, but wholly spontaneous and convincing. And when one comes on such a quatrain as this from The Helot,

Sapphire-breasted Bacchic priest
    Stood the sky above the lands;
Sun and moon at east and west,
    Brasen cymbals in his hands,

there can be no longer any doubt of the writer's authenticity. On that modest shelf of English letters reserved for the "inheritors of unfulfilled renown" she must have a place of honor.

"A Forgotten Poet," Commercial Advertiser, Feb. 11, 1899 [back]