Edwardian and Georgian Canadian Poets



Selected Essays and Reviews

by Bliss Carman

Edited by Terry Whalen


On Being Strenuous*


In Lafcadio Hearn's new book, In Ghostly Japan, there is a remarkable chapter on silkworms. "In Nümi's neighbourhood, where there are plenty of mulberry trees, many families keep silkworms..It is curious to see hundreds of caterpillars feeding all together in one tray, and to hear the soft, papery noise which they make while gnawing in their mulberry leaves. As they approach maturity the creatures need almost constant attention. At brief intervals some expert visits each tray to inspect progress, picks up the plumpest feeders, and decides by gently rolling them between forefinger and thumb, which are ready to spin..A few only of the best are suffered to emerge from their silky sleep-the selected breeders. They have beautiful wings, but cannot use them. They have mouths, but do not eat. They only pair, lay eggs, and die. For thousands of years their race has been so well cared for that it can no longer take care of itself."

The moral to be deducted from this instance is obvious. Compare with the silkworms our mortal selves. These happy grubs are tended by a kindly boy, who supplies their every need; they have not a wish unsatisfied. By a sort of miracle, a supernatural power (as it would seem to them), they have been removed from the field of competition. For them the struggle for existence no longer exists. One imagines that if they were capable of prayer they could ask no more perfect gift than that which has been bestowed on them-immunity from strife and security in the comforts of existence. What more do we ourselves ask? Our prayer is almost never that we may persist, endure and overcome, but rather that we may be removed by a kindly providence from the region of struggle to some benign sphere where all the delights of life may fall to our lot without an effort.

It is probably an idle and wicked dream; witness the case of the silkworms. If you would form some notion of what the imagined heaven might do for us, consider the case of our small friends among the mulberry leaves. When we think of the lilies of the field, and promise ourselves a state like theirs according to the word, "Shall He not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith?" We are prone to forget that every moment of their life for untold ages has been filled with a strenuous purpose, quiet and unperceived, yet none the less strong on that account. Yes, we may have the motive and the vesture of our little sisters of the field, but we must have their tenacity and their indomitable endurance as well. To cease to strive is to begin to degenerate. As Mr. Hearn says:

"An early stage of that degeneration would be represented by total incapacity to help ourselves-then we should begin to lose the use of our higher sense organs-later on the brain would shrink to a vanishing pin-point of matter; still later we should dwindle into mere amorphous sacs, mere blind stomachs. Such would be the physical consequence of that kind of divine love which we so lazily wish for. The longing for perpetual bliss and perpetual peace might well seem a malevolent inspiration from the lords of death and darkness."

Then follow these memorable sentences, "All that life feels and thinks has been, and can continue to be, only as the product of struggle and pain- only as the outcome of endless battle with the Powers of Universe. And cosmic law is uncompromising. Whatever organ ceases to know pain- whatever faculty ceases to be used under the stimulus of pain-must also cease to exist. Let pain and its effort be suspended, and life must shrink back, first into protoplastic shapelessness, thereafter into dust."

And then:

Calm soul of all things! make it mine
    To feel, amid the city's jar,
That there abides a peace of thine,
    Man did not make and cannot mar,
The will to neither strive nor cry.
    The power to feel with others give!
Calm, calm me more! nor let me die
    Before I have begun to live.

How is one to reconcile Arnold's prayer for calm with the remorseless law of perpetual trial, perpetual endeavor? Is there indeed, a peace "man did not make and cannot mar?" Is the tremendous strain of modern life, its killing excitement, its relentless rush, its breathless haste, its eager and ruthless competition, a part of the inevitable development of man's existence? Or should we combat these things as temporary aberrations from the normal? Shall I serve my hour and generation best by combating the idea of strife and by insisting on peace and repose in my own surroundings or by entering heart and mind into the race and battle of the strong? Certainly I shall best serve my fellows by following my own conviction in the matter. That at least is sure; that at least is the cosmic law; to each individual his own ideal and the will to follow it. But how to know in the first place? How to tell the best ideal from the second best?

Or is there, perhaps, some way of harmonizing both ideals in a single line of action?

In that great pageant of the seasons which passes by our door year after year, in the myriad changes of wonderful spectacle of this greening and blanching orb, in all the processes of that apparition we call Nature, do I not see both strife and calm exemplified? That "calm soul of all things," which Arnold invokes, is really in constant strife. Every moment the apparent calm of nature covers a relentless battle for existence, tribe against tribe, species against species, and the price of life in unceasing struggle, the whole earth groaning and travailing together. So that the appearance of calm which settles on the face of our mother earth, in the long, slow summer afternoon, is in reality but the veil and deception of the truth. Is it? Or may we think that the uncounted powers of life at play in variance through the world partake of a universal peace as well as of a universal strain?

How is it with ourselves? Is there any man who can wholly possess his heart in patience? Is there any who must always be striving? Is it not rather true that to the most strenuous of us there come fleeting moments when calm and self-possession seem good? And does there live the most confirmed quietest who has not at times been roused to action by love or patriotism or generous indignation?

It may very well happen that circumstances have placed you in the forefront of the fight, where all your splendid life long you shall have never a minute to call your own, where you shall never once be able to rest or meditate or sun your spirit in a basking hour of leisure. Complain not. This is the fortune of the captains of humanity; be glad the good gods have laid upon you a work as great as your powers. The stern struggle and victorious achievement can never be cramping to the soul. And the vast cisterns of repose may be opened to you in another incarnation; indeed they were possibly yours long since and from them you have derived this burning energy.

It may be, on the other hand, that inactive doubt and timorous certitude beset me, and that I am becoming stale for lack of use. Never mind, the hour will one day strike, and the lethargic torpor of temperamental incapacity will be broken up, and I shall be remoulded into something more trenchant and available for the forwarding of beneficent designs.

Meanwhile for both of us, it may be, we shall find solace in a wise philosophic blending of the two ideals. It is somehow possible, I think, to be as strenuous and efficient as nature herself in action, and yet to have in mind always as a standard of normal being the inflexible serenity of the wheeling sun.

"On Being Strenuous," Commercial Advertiser, Jan. 6, 1899 [back]