Edwardian and Georgian Canadian Poets



Selected Essays and Reviews

by Bliss Carman

Edited by Terry Whalen


A New Symbolist*


We have been so greatly enriched in the past two or three years by an introduction to Mr. Maurice Maeterlinck and his work, that one cannot but welcome the first translation of the poems of his friend and compatriot, Emile Verhaeren. The present volume is all too brief, containing, as it does, hardly a score of lyrics; but it is a beginning, and one may hope for more. The poems here presented have been selected and translated by Alma Strettell, who will be remembered as the collaborator with Carmen Sylva in The Bard of the Dimborvitza.

From a brief introductory note we gather that Emile Verhaeren was born at St. Amand, near Antwerp, in 1855; that his boyhood was passed on the banks of the Scheldt, "in the midst of the wide-spreading Flemish plains, a country of mist and flood, of dykes and marshes;" that after some time spent in a college in Ghent, he became a student at the University of Lorrain, where he founded and edited a journal called La Semaine and where he also formed his close friendship with Maeterlinck; that he was called to the bar at Brussels in 1881, but soon abandoned his legal career to devote himself to literature. In 1883 he published his first book of poems, and since that time he has brought out no less than eleven volumes.

Perhaps the first thing one notices in these poems is their uncompromising realism. In the opening poem on "Rain," for instance:

Since yesternight it keeps unravelling
Down from the frayed and flaccid rags that cling
About the sullen sky,
The low, black sky;
Since yesternight, so slowly, patiently,
Unravelling its threads upon the roads,
Upon the roads and lanes, with even fall

It is a realism like Whitman's or Emerson's, and reveals the vigilant eye of the born artist whom nothing escapes. And yet there is much more than realism on every page, the symbolism of a larger significance, as in "The Ropemaker:"

In his village gray
    At the foot of the dykes, that encompass him
With weary weaving of curves and lines
    Toward the sea outstretching dim.
The rope-maker, visionary white,
    Stepping backward along the way,
Prudently 'twixt his hands combines
    The distant threads, in their twisting play,
That came to him from the infinite.

Of course the magic of poetry vanishes in all but the best of translations, and these renderings of Verhaeren's novel and powerful lyrics leave much to be desired; they are, indeed, almost hopelessly flat and vapid; but even so, one perceives a large imagination gleaming through them. They reveal a smouldering Titanic fancy, like Francis Thompson's, which cannot but impress itself sooner or later on the English, speaking world.

But what do we mean by symbolism in poetry? If the question could be answered in one word, perhaps we should have to say we mean implication. Not that symbolistic art is not explicit as well. It may be eminently explicit, clear, definite and realistic, so that a casual look at it would reveal no more than a simple and faithful transcript from nature. But presently as we regard it, there is borne in upon us by some turn of phrase, or some shade of possible meaning in the words, the dawning conviction that more may be meant than we at first supposed. There is something implied, behind and beneath the obvious apparent work of beauty.

Symbolism differs from allegory in being less obvious, more subtle. Allegory invented the symbol to stand as a crude explanation of its thought; symbolism merely hints at the underlying allegory by the faintest implication of suggestion. It does not depend on the grosser values of words, but on their finer, acquired incidental qualities. In allegory we are given the personification of abstractions; in symbolism we are allowed to gather our abstract conclusions from the concrete form. Symbolism does not condescend to the use of personification; it finds that childish method of art somewhat inadequate to its purpose-much too tedious and simple. For the growth of our devotion to simplicity in art must be qualified. We are constantly insisting on the necessity of simplicity; but as a matter of fact, this new simplicity is more apparent than real. For complexity and implication are the corner stones of art. It is not until we begin to combine colors and lines that drawing and painting begin; it is not until we begin to combine the complex qualities of words and rhythms that poetry is born.

So, too in the new sort of simplicity, we have abandoned the old cumbersome device of allegory and personification; but, at the same time, we have added the subtle quality of implication, and in doing so we have vastly extended the domain of art in the psychic world. As long as art is perfectly obvious and definite, it is appealing to the perfectly definite range of human reason. Rational art is a limited art. The allegory of Pilgrim's Progress can mean only one thing, perfectly explicable and defined. But the moment we drop this method of art and introduce symbolism, we are passing outside the horizon of rational thought into the vast borderland of undefined emotions, premonitions and conjectures. Symbolism is competent to deal not only with phenomena of thought but with all those vaguer unclassified phenomena of psychic influence as well.

You cannot tell why a certain cadence affects you in a certain way, or what is the meaning of the color blue; and yet these are powerful and legitimate means of expression. True, they are only beginning to be studied as artistic media, but they have always been used by the native cunning of the painter and the word-builder. Symbolism, depending on them as it does, cannot but inherit new dominions of spirituality in man's nature, extending the territories of art and enlarging the borders of human joy. For that, after all, is the greatest function of art-the emancipation of the spirit, the enlargement of our mental horizon, and the refining and extension of happiness. And I think we may be sure that, whatever strange vagaries art may indulge on the way, its ultimate development will always reach toward these ends.

"A New Symbolist," Commercial Advertiser, Mar. 25, 1899 [back]