Edwardian and Georgian Canadian Poets



Selected Essays and Reviews

by Bliss Carman

Edited by Terry Whalen


What is Poetry?*


Mr. Edmond Holmes, whose volume of sonnets, issued last year under the title, "The Silence of Love," drew deserved attention on this new writer, has now written an essay on the theme, "What is Poetry?" He is a rash man who would venture to enter that debatable field without grave preparation, and one feels instinctively before opening Mr. Holmes's book that he must be doomed to make ignominious exhibition. Not at all. One sees at once that it is the work of a careful thinker, and one who closes the cover with a grateful acknowledgment of his achievement. The essay is a genuine and welcome contribution to current poetical criticism, serious, earnest and sound.

Mr. Holmes divides his work into two parts, considering in the first what are the essential characteristics of poetry and the poet, and in the second, how these characteristics get themselves expressed in concrete form.

In the first part of his essay, again, he has two chief propositions: that poetry is the expression of strong and deep feeling, and that wherever there is feeling there is something to be felt. From these assumptions he builds up an interesting dissertation on poetry, supposing that the outward world is no more real than the world of thought. "I sometimes think," he says, "that the very mainspring of poetry is a desire-a dim and instructive, but profound and passionate desire-to escape from self (in the narrow sense of the word), to expand the soul till it shall transcend all wonted limits, and at once lose and find itself in the larger life of the living whole." And this thought carries one on to the further idea that the poet "goes so deep into himself (and therefore into outward things) by the force of his emotion and insight, that he at last reaches a level of existence below that (perhaps I ought to say above that) at which nature seems, for the individual consciousness, to bifurcate into the subjective and objective worlds; a level which is, comparatively speaking, near to that universal world-deep life in which all things-inward and outward, animate and inanimate-live and move and have their being." The poet is thus "able to free the individual ego from the bonds of subjectivity, and to send it forth into the outward world, whence, after diffusing itself through all material things, it returns to him as the universal ego,-from one point of view the inner life of the Cosmos, from another his own true self."

This sound a trifle strained, but you will find it very near the truth. For Mr. Holmes has apprehended the philosophical and spiritual aspects of poetic phenomena with a rare clarity of insight. He has perceived that, as he puts it, "in the poet's philosophy the inward and outward aspects of existence are ever tending to lose themselves in a higher unity." He emphasizes this unity of nature and human nature and insists that the expansion of the poet's thought about the visible world is not the mere embodiment of a futile dream, but shadow of very real influences from the unseen, subliminal universe. "In other words, the imagination that enables him to discover and reproduce Nature's obscurer aspects is the outcome of the sensibility that enables him to respond to Nature's more occult influences." And again, "The very qualities of his work which we are most ready to attribute to his fervid imagination, the rarer and more volatile essences to which his poetry owes its special charm have been distilled by his passionate sympathy.from some of the most real, though doubtless least palpable, of Nature's environing realities."

In the second part of his essay, dealing more directly with expression, Mr. Holmes answers the question, "How does the poet make us feel what he feels, and so see what he has seen?" very simply thus: "By letting his feeling find its own voice." And he notes that in all the best poetry there are two qualities chiefly remarkable-spontaneity and the power of communicating feeling. And he makes for the inspirational view of art; he observes that a great emotion in trying to find expression for itself will be baffled if it is too curiously noted. "It is impossible for a man both to be swayed by strong emotion and to observe with intellectual interest the workings of the heart." And he deduces this paradox: "It follows that poets who write with clear consciousness write without inspiration; in other words, that they do not write poetry."

But Mr. Holmes is perhaps at his best in discriminating between personality and individuality. "Under the head of individuality we sum up all those peculiarities of physique, of intellect, of disposition, of character, which differentiate each man in turn from all his fellows. The personality of a man is constituted by three great attributes, which differentiate him not from his kind but from the best of nature-thought, will, love. In fine, it is by means of his individuality that a man separates himself from his fellow-men, whereas it is by means of his personality that he becomes one with them."

This is an important and suggestive distinction, with fruitful teaching for the artist. For it follows, of course, that all the best art is an expression of personality rather than of individuality; and that the embodied expression of these individual characteristics, traits and preferences can never be of more than ephemeral interest.

This should make us pause in our critical judgements; make us careful to try and eliminate from contemporary art all that is merely strange and queer and conspicuous. Art must shun the abnormal. Its path to distinction and effectiveness is not be being extraordinary, but by being admirable, sober, beautiful. It is not the business of poetry certainly to give us new sensations: it is rather its object to keep the old sensations fresh, to help men forward in the common way, to enhance their common joys, to mitigate their common sorrows, to sustain and ennoble and encourage them under a common lot.

"What is Poetry?", Commercial Advertiser, Apr. 21, 1900 [back]