Edwardian and Georgian Canadian Poets



Selected Essays and Reviews

by Bliss Carman

Edited by Terry Whalen


Speech-Culture and Literature*


The relation between speech-culture and literature may not be apparent at first glance. Not only does it exist, however, but it is fundamental and therefore of prime importance.

Consider for a moment the position of literature among the fine arts, and some of the qualities inherent in literature which make it a fine art.

But what do we mean by the fine arts? In what do they consist? What characteristics do have they in common by which we may distinguish them? We may say, theoretically, that art is nothing more nor less than the result of man's attempt to give expression to his thoughts, his aspirations, his hopes and fears, in forms of beauty. We may say, briefly, that art is the manifestation of the human spirit. But everything we do is to some extent expressive. Our acts, our looks, our gestures, the tones of our voice, may all be said to be expressive in that they convey to others some impression about ourselves. An advertising sign on the fence is a form of expression, in that is serves to convey information from the proprietor to the public. Indeed, nothing that man does can be wholy without expression. How, therefore, can we distinguish these forms of expression which are worthy to be termed the fine arts?

If I say to you that a+b equals c, or that 2+2 equals 4, I am giving expression to a statement which appeals at once to your reason. It requires only your mind to appreciate the information. You don't care anything about it. But if I say "the sailor and the hunter have come home," that piece of information begins to interest you. I begin to touch upon your emotions. You fancy there is to be more of the story; you like the sailor better than the hunter; or perhaps you wish that the hunter had returned alone: at all events, your sympathy is awake, and awaiting the development of the story. It is no longer a pure and simple statement of fact, such as we had at first in 2+2 equals 4. Now, if I go further and quote you Robert Louis Stevenson's lines:

Home is the sailor, home from the sea,
And the hunter home from the hill,

What's the result? We not only have our mind informed as before; we not only have our emotions enlisted as before; we have our senses appealed to as well. The statement already had mental and spiritual qualities, and now there has been added to these a physical equality, the equality of beauty. These three qualities of truth, spirituality and beauty, are the essential characteristics of all the fine arts. And among all the achievements and activities of mankind, no form of expression can be classed as fine art unless each of these qualities is present. And, also, any industry may at any moment rise to the height of a fine art if the workman is given sufficient freedom and has sufficient talent or genius. In that case he will impress upon the work something of his own personality; he will make it expressive of himself; he will put into his work, reason and love and beauty. He will make it appeal to our mind, our spirit and our ęsthetic sense.

You see then that these three distinguished characteristics of art are representative of the threefold nature of the artist. And these three qualities, inherent in every work of art, implanted there by its human creator, a reflected image of himself, will turn appeal to the living trinity within ourselves. All art has charm; it has what Rosetti called fundamental brain work: it has emotion. To say the same thing and in another way, art must make us satisfied and glad and content; it must give us something to think about, something to love, and something to recall with a thrill of pleasure.

It is the province of art, of every art and every piece of art, to influence us is in these three ways. And any artist whose work is lacking in any one of those directions is in so far as limited and imperfect creator.

Art, then, is the result of man's attempt to express himself adequately, with intelligence, with power and with charm. But when we say that art is the embodiment of expression, that does not mean that the expression is given necessarily a permanent form. Some of the arts, such as architecture, painting and sculpture are dependent on materials for their embodiment. But their greater or less permanence has nothing to do with their essential qualities. It would not detract in the least from the excellence of a painting if it were destroyed the minute it was finished. Other arts, again, like music and dancing and acting, are merely instantaneous, and have no permanence whatever; they perish more quickly than the impulse which produced them, except in so far as they can be preserved in the memory and reproduced by imitation.

Now in order to arrest the perishable beauty of these instantaneous arts, certain mechanical inventions have been devised from time to time-the inventor of writing, of printing, of photography, for example. And by their useful creations of art, which must otherwise be lost to the world, may be preserved and transmitted and multiplied for the enjoyment of thousands. And the point I wish to emphasize is, that music and literature are in precisely the same case in this respect. Literature, like music, is dependent on writing only as a means for its preservation. And all its essential qualities, like those of music, are perceived only when it is reproduced as modified sound. And in Stevenson's lines, which we quoted a moment ago, you remember that we found he had taken a simple statement of fact, which contained truth and interest, and raised it to the dignity of poetry, by adding a single quality-the quality of beauty. His genius and knowledge of English gave him the power of arranging a few words so that they should not only interest us as they had done before, but should enthral us with a new and added charm. That charm was the charm of Sand.

Or to take another example, take this sentence: "So, among the mountains by the winter sea, the sound of battles rolled all day long." There is a statement of fact, a bit of expression, which conveys information and which has interest. But now listen to the same words when Tennyson has added beauty to their thought and emotion:

So all day long the sound of battle rolled
Among the mountains by the winter sea.

This new beauty is purely a beauty of sound. Tennyson's taste as an artist led him to perceive when these sixteen words were so arranged as to produce their greatest charm, their maximum effect upon us.

I must conclude, therefore, that poetry, or literature, is an oral art. And that aspect of it which appeals to the ęsthetic sense, does so, and can only do so, through the harmonious arrangement of melodious words.

If I repeat, then, that it is the inherent characteristic of art to be beautiful and to appeal to our sense of beauty; and furthermore, that the only way literature has of fulfilling this condition and becoming a fine art, is by the beauty of the spoken word; I think that we may very safely conclude that any composition which fails in this test fails of being literature.

And, further, this relation between literature and speech is not only a fundamental one, but its maintenance have an important effect. Literature, as it were, only a glorified form of speech, produced with greater care and skill and forethought. The literature of the nation is the quintessence of the speech of the nation. Think for a moment what sometimes happens when any community becomes detached from the current of civilization; when it becomes isolated and narrow and self-centred; it often happens that these impoverished communities deteriorate rapidly, and that they show mental weakness, moral depravity, physical debasement. Had their speech become as corrupt and inefficient as themselves, you would not have expected literature from such people.

On the other hand think of the case of those nations which have reached a high grade of civilization in the world's history. They have always been nations which have bequeathed to us valuable and significant treasures of literature and the plastic arts. Indeed, we have no means of measuring the greatness of a people except by the fine arts it encourages and produces. For the fine arts, as we said, are only the embodiment of men's aspirations and ideals. The surpassing literature of Greece and Rome is a true exponent of the degree of civilization at which they had arrived. And it is, too, simply a record of their speech. It were surely impossible that Greek poetry should exhibit such qualities of perfection as they do, unless the Greek tongue had first attained those same perfect characteristics, those traits of power and beauty and adequateness of expression.

If we do not admit this and still profess to think there is no relation between speech and literature, we are driven by the force of logic to admit that Shakespeare's plays might quite have well been written by some wise old Chinese philosopher, who was a deaf mute and spent his whole life in a hermit's cell. I am only repeating in regard to letters what Mr. Dittmar said the other day in regard to the drama-namely, that art can only be improved as our own capacity for expression becomes more widespread. Any art will flourish in a nation's educated instinct for that art.

If I could acquire a knowledge and use of language such as Stephenson possessed, such as two or three people of my acquaintance possess; if I could know the English tongue with all its shades of meaning and subtle association; if I could use it with readiness, with exactness, with capriciousness, with feeling, and if, in addition to this, I could acquire a beautiful and well-controlled voice, such as one occasionally hears, so that after I knew my words I could make use of them, I should in that case not only be a better-educated man, but I should have greater power. I should have given myself the rudiments of a literary education (such as is nowhere provided in our schools or colleges), and I should have fitted myself as a citizen to be one of that intelligently critical public, without which the fine arts cannot flourish, cannot, indeed, exist. Moreover, I could fit myself to be an intelligent and sympathetic, though obscure, appreciator of the art of literature in no other way than by these two means.

I do not know how it may be with you, but I cannot recall more than a half a dozen people among those I have ever known who preserved this happy degree and kind of culture. If, however, instead of being so rare, speech culture were made prevalent; if such knowledge and power of expression could be made universal, consider what a public we should have! And think how impossible. A great mass of our contemporary literature, with its barbarous offenses against good taste, its ruthless disregard of beauty, its atrocities against English speech-think how impossible such a work would be. Do you think that a widespread culture of our own language, a national instinct for exact, flexible and pleasing speech, would have no influence upon our literature? I find it difficult to imagine such a perfected standard of diction as that, and literary mediocrity existing in the same nation at the same time.

As bearing directly on the question, allow me to quote a fragmentary poem by Richard Hovey, entitled:


I dreamed that a child was born; and at his birth
The Angel of the Word stood by the hearth
And spake to her that bare him: "Look without!
Behold the beauty of the Day, the shout
Of color to glad color, rocks and trees
And sun and sea and wind and sky! All these
Are God's expression, art-work of his hand,
Which men must love ere they may understand,
By which alone he speaks till they have grace
To hear his voice and look upon his face.
For first and last of all things in the heart
Of God as man the glory of his art.
What gift could God bestow or man beseech,
Save spirit unto spirit uttered speech?
Wisdom were not, for God himself could find
No way to reach the unresponsive mind,
Sweet Love were dead, and all the crowded skies
A loneliness and not a Paradise.
Teach the child language, mother.."

This, then, is the very brief statement of the bearing of speech culture upon literature, as it appears to me; and our investigation closes here. In conclusion, however, I should like to guard against the implication of an overestimate of the value of the fine arts and their importance in life. If one insists on the vital necessity for education in expression, it is not merely to the end that the fine arts may flourish. For though the fine arts are lovely and desirable in themselves, they indicate the existence of something even more wonderful and desirable-they indicate the presence of an instinct for truth, an instinct for goodness, and an instinct for beauty in the people which produced them. They reveal, as I think we said before, the high degree of civilization which that people had been fortunate enough to reach.

If we give ourselves to the culture of expression, we shall undoubtedly have greater art as a result of that education; but its best result will be the effect upon ourselves; for in the process of that culture, in calling forth of the capacities which reveal themselves in art, we shall be developing those powers which alone beautify life, those qualities which alone enlighten and ennoble a nation.

"Speech-Culture and Literature," Commercial Advertiser, Feb. 2, 1901 [back]