Edwardian and Georgian Canadian Poets



Selected Essays and Reviews

by Bliss Carman

Edited by Terry Whalen




The Japanese, if one may believe travellers' reports of them, are the most restless of civilized peoples, and move their homes oftenest. The common workman of Japan, says that charming stylist, Lafcadio Hearn, journeys easily and far, and frequently passes from city to city as the migratory mood comes upon him, bidding him away to fresh ventures and unfamiliar scenes. All his methods of living favor this detached and wandering habit; his dwellings are unsubstantial, his garments light, his wants frugal and his impediments few. With little hinderance he becomes a traveller, and the very slightest of barriers stands between him and the realization of his impulse. When the whim takes him to rove he has but to pack his workman's tools in a bundle and step into the open road. The world is before him, afoot and light-hearted, to go whither he will.

How different it is with ourselves! How we are cumbered with our possessions and tied to our own hitching post! We must have trunks and bags and hat boxes and golf sticks and dress-suit cases and a caged parrot (or a pet poodle), and we must have a van to move all these household and personal gods before we can think of starting. Indeed, we must break our backs for two days in preparation, even with the aid of a man servant, a maid servant and a couple of porters. While the modern American woman is about as difficult to move as a circus.

Even the typical American workman is very unlike his Japanese fellow-craftsman in this respect; he is much more stable and much more home-keeping. His ideal of life, like that of his more prosperous townsman, is by no means simple. It includes a piano and a sewing machine and a roll-top desk and a house with nine rooms and carpets and superfluous furniture and endless "tidies" and countless bric--brac, all hideous, ill-made, and for the most part, far more hinderance than help to life. The man is not only a slave to his job, he a slave to his own possessions as well. All of us are. We seem to have no ambition but to buy a house and pile it so full of furniture that we cannot move without breaking our chins. If we have any other ambition it is to have more clothes than we can wear, more horses than we can drive, more of everything than we can possibly use, or even take care of without a retinue of attendants.

But I do not want to rail against luxury, or seem to do so. Cynicism of that sort is so cheap, and (I must think) so false. It is because I want to have the complete enjoyment of life that I should not want to be cumbered with too many possessions. I am sure that we all feel the strain of this fashion of having things and owning things. There is not a man in the country who does not long for a breath of leisure, an adequate holiday. The enormous and unparalleled wealth of the Unites States is beginning to pass all the bounds of imagination. We are all prosperous together, very unequally and unjustly, of course, but still very really prosperous. And what is the use of it all? Do we not all feel the burden of life more keenly than ever? Whether we are day laborers, or capitalists, or merchants, or in the professions, every mother's son of us is working more than any sane man cares to work. Why do we? Is it not silly madness? Has not some demon of asininity possessed us?

Not at all. We have simply become infatuated with the notion that we must own things. The idea is abroad that it is impossible to be happy without great wealth. Those of us who can in some measure command the labor of others don't dare to stop working for fear of being outstripped. Every man is afraid his neighbor will get a larger share than himself. His brain is infested by the maggot of greedy fear. While the man who is driven to work by necessity and is not his own employer cannot stop, even if he wanted to. Old-time slavery was human and merciful. Modern industrial slavery is inhuman and as obdurate as the law of gravitation. We shall have no freedom from it until we readjust the system entirely.

I am told that the coal strike has cost the country so many million dollars. Well, what of it? If the miners have had a holiday for a couple of months I should say it was cheap at the price, and I hope they enjoyed it. I hope it will give them a taste for leisure that they will never get over. I wish the whole American people would follow their example and go on strike for two months every summer. They could perfectly well afford, if only they would agree to do it. At least, so it seems to me. But, of course, one may be wrong, and we must be careful not to hold our convictions too violently. If our convictions are really true, really a part of the truth, then they will pass into an emotional life and again be transmitted into conduct and action, until all our life is affected by them, and gradually they will obtain currency in the common life of the community.

It is good, however, to think as near the truth as we can, and to shape our conduct as near excellence as we can. And (to end where we began) it does appear to be a fact that none of us have as much freedom, in our daily coming and going as is natural and healthy. How many of us stay indoors because it is too hot, or too cold, or too wet, or too dark! How many of us are content to sit still by the mere force of sodden inertia, when we might be off on a holiday, if it were only for a half an hour! Because June happened to be a cool month people stayed in town. The old rut of habit held them. But it is good to go out, no matter what the weather is. It is good to leave town, no matter whether we need to or not. Habits may be good, but it is also good to break habit. For if habit helps the weak will it is also capable of stultifying all will and crushing out initiative impulse entirely.

I have an admiration for that young lady of whom I recently heard who went to the Grand Central station, walked to the ticket office, put down a dollar bill, and asked for a ticket. When the man politely asked "Where to?" she did not quite follow the lines of the stock story and say, "What have you got?" She said, "Anywhere you like, that I can go for a dollar." He gave her a ticket, and she went. She had never been there before, but she liked the place, stayed the summer, and now is an established cottager in that vicinity.

Of course, fortune favoured her-and the intelligence of the ticket seller-and we might try many times with no such happy result. But the spirit of that girl was right. She just wanted to get away, and she got away. Most of us, if we had such a day-dream, would only turn over and go into dreaming again, instead of getting up and making it come true.

The nomadic spirit is older than we are. It resides in our deeper, primitive, ancestral selves; and wakes under the summer sun to send us a-gipsying through the lovely earth once more. It has no fear of weather, nor of hunger; nor is it timid about finding its way. It knows very well that all roads lead somewhere, and that happiness is not at the journey's end, nor exclusively in this inn or that, but comes to us each instant as fitfully or overpoweringly as the perfumes of the fields.

"Nomadie," from galley proofs for Commercial Advertiser, [n.d.] [back]