Edwardian and Georgian Canadian Poets



Selected Essays and Reviews

by Bliss Carman

Edited by Terry Whalen




In the Sunday edition of one of our soberer newspapers there appeared this week a series of cuts taken of course from photographs, illustrating the work of a western college taken at some of its recent exercises.These were Delsartean exhibitions. The school was a Delsartean school. The cuts represented the pupils in Delsartean attitudes.

Poor Delsarte!

I have a great respect for small colleges. I am indebted to one for the greater part of the small education I possess. No one will deny that they form the buttresses of that structure of national intelligence which has the great universities for its cornerstones. Also one must respect the sincere endeavors of well-meaning minds and their departure in the search for truth in whatever direction. But of all the expositions of bleathering inanity into which modern faddism plunges with so light a heart, the revelations of so-called Delsartism are the most absurd. Here were a group of grown-up men and women, gathered on the campus of their college, who had allowed themselves to be "taken" with their arms draped in meaningless curves above their heads. Here was another knot of maidens in Greek garments, disposed in melting curves of varying imbecility. Here a figure was yearning over a tamborine in the pose of the crouching Venus. I have only once seen so pitiable a display of mis-guided ardor, and that was in real life, or rather in actual flesh and blood, for it was on the stage. Perhaps you will recall that great charity performance, given at the Metropolitan Opera House a year or two ago, when the pupils of a New York Delsartean teacher disported themselves before the footlights to slow music in a series of fatuous gyrations and empty poses.

Now, what of Delsarte? What sort of impostor and poseur must the master of these philandering idiots have been? Poor fellow, let us hope the pious dead are thoroughly oblivious to all our doings, else how unhappy his state must be! For Delsarte, yes, the very man, whose noble name is smirched to-day with the catch-penny jargon of every hungry charlatan, was a sober philosopher, a studious discoverer, a teacher of power and wisdom. Measure him not by the ignorant, the vulgar, the hopelessly vapid clap-trap that proclaims itself so loudly as his saving doctrine. He left no written word; and no man has suffered more in the tortuous paths of fame. His discoveries and teachings were in a realm peculiarly congenial to the mountebank and the impostor. The eagerness with which they seized upon his principles goes to prove the importance of them. The folly, the ignorance, the stupid affectation with which those principles have been so copiously alloyed are none of his. They are his unfortunate monument. And when you see blatant vulgarity professing to illumine credulous simplicity in the name of Delsarte, be not too disgusted for words; but remember this: Wherever you find to-day a teacher of any art whatsoever, whose work is fresh and vital and interesting, the core of that teaching is based on the philosophy of Delsarte. Visit our dramatic schools, for instance, and mention Delsarte's name. They will deny it with a curse, they know not the man. But observe their methods carefully, and seven times out of eight you will find instruction proceeding on the sound principles he deduced.

For Delsartism is not a method, but a science. Delsarte was the first to perceive that truth which Tolstoi, amid many errors, has still enunciated clearly in his recent book, What is Art? He saw that all art is merely expression; that the nine fine arts are so many means which the human spirit, entombed in mortal clay, employs for communicating and perpetuating its thoughts and aspirations. And while these fine arts are methods of deliberate voluntary expression, there are other modes of expression more or less involuntary and instinctive-speech, gesture, bearing, deportment and the like. The clothes we wear, the rooms we live in, all the things we do and say, our manner of doing and saying them, everything, in short, that is embraced in the great art of life, is of necessity subject to the laws discovered by Delsarte. Since, then all human activity is expressive, it follows simply enough that everything man does must reveal the traits and characteristics of man. But what are the simplest, most primary and fundamental elements of man's nature which we may look for in the creations of his hands? "Man." said Delsarte (accepting a truth already recognized), "is of a threefold nature; he has three natures in one-his physical self, his emotional self, and his intellectual self. And these three natures" (here was his discovery) "are invariably and of necessity revealed and expressed in all he does." It is not possible for any manifestation of man's nature to be purely physical, or purely mental, or purely spiritual; but every evidence of his existence, every trace of his being in the universe will bear marks of all three natures involved in ever-varying proportions in a single entity. Evidently man cannot express himself in pure thought, for thought must be materialized before it can be transferred; and in the materialization some trace of feeling will adhere to it. Neither can man reveal himself in any purely physical way. The rudest monument of the stone age has meaning; the square alone impresses us in one way, the round column in another. One purpose, therefore, in studying art must be to find and to differentiate those traits which are physical, those which are intellectual, and those which are emotional or spiritual. It is a large field almost unexplored, save for the luminous pioneering François Delsarte.

In the much misunderstood sphere of personal expression, too (if I may use the phrase to designate matters of gesture, and voice, and bearing), the thoroughly scientific discoveries of Delsarte apply as truly as in the sphere of the fine arts. Our bodies being media of thought and feeling, it is only necessary that they should be maintained in a pristine perfection of obedient strength and pliability; our native expressions will then find play through them; and the true Delsartean will be as natural as a hen. If he is also as graceful as a panther, that will be the simple attribute of his personality, manifested without consciousness and without hindrance, it will not be a spurious affectation of ludicrous motions which do not properly belong to him at all.

You see how far his misguided pupils have departed from their master's teaching; and also how sane and wholesome his true doctrine is, and how it makes for sincerity, for simplicity, for beauty, in the art of life.

Do you not?

"Delsarte," Commercial Advertiser, Nov. 18, 1899 [back]