Edwardian and Georgian Canadian Poets



Selected Essays and Reviews

by Bliss Carman

Edited by Terry Whalen


From "Poetry of the Month"

(May 1903)*


This is more imitation of Walt Whitman, and as such is a very unfortunate piece of work. It seems a pity that so much admirable intention, so much really noble energy, should be misdirected, merely for the want of a little clear thinking. But in this respect the followers of the good old poet of "Leaves of Grass" seem quite incorrigible. They will persist in giving us echoes of Whitman's voice when we ask for the sincere sound of their own. They will still copy all his mannerisms, imitate all his gestures, when the very gist of his teaching was to emphasize personality and liberate the individual.

The great prime fact about Walt Whitman was his freedom. He dared to be himself. Like all "originals," he overdid it, perhaps. He carried his insistence too far for his good, it may be; and he might have attained even greater perfection as a poet, and reached a higher degree of effectiveness, had he been less peculiar. But your reformer always runs that risk. He is an experimenter, an adventurer, who usually over-emphasizes the truth as he sees it. He is not one who "sees life steadily, and sees it whole." He is rather one who sees some particular phase of life, and devotes himself to elaborating that one view; so that for all his excellent devotion to the cause of humanity, he usually suffers himself. He usually grows narrow and strained.

Not that Whitman grew narrow and strained; he was far too great for that, far too genuine and wise. Moreover, his peculiarities of style were native to him. They degenerated at times to affectations and mannerisms, but for the most part they were spontaneous and characteristic, and therefore entirely unobjectionable to the sensitive taste. After a very little familiarity with him, his peculiar involutions of speech are no bar to the splendid message of the man.

When, however, his disciples come to us chanting in contorted cadences which are palpably imitations of the "Leaves of Grass," the impression is most unpleasant.

Now Mr. Edward Carpenter, the author of "Towards Democracy," is one of the best of English reformers, a man who has thought profoundly, and who dares to believe in his own conclusions; more than that, he has said many things that need to be said without fear. Like Whitman, he is evidently a man of intense individuality, full of passion for goodness and truth. It seems to the ordinary reader deplorable that he should be content with a form of expression that is not his own. And yet, as I say, from the artistic side he is only an echo of Whitman; nothing more. This is the obvious criticism, but it is the true one.

One makes this very frank criticism (surely it will be understood), not because Whitman has too many followers, but because he has too few. The trouble, perhaps, lies here: we fail to remember that every new thought seeks its own equally new setting. That is the mystery of art. In Whitman at his best, the thought and the form are perfectly fused in beautiful expression. Beauty, outward sensible beauty, is always the result of that perfect fusion of thought and feeling with the plastic medium into which they are passed by the artist. If the artist is lacking in emotion, or in brain power, and yet has a fine technical control of his medium, his work will be brilliant but unconvincing and unsatisfying. If, on the other hand, he is endowed with keen reason and passionate sympathy, and yet is wanting in an instinct for beauty, his work will fail to allure and entrance us, however profound and sincere it may be. And the point to be noted is this: that the quality of beauty is just as important in art as the quality of truth or the quality of impassioned helpfulness.

It is not that Whitman's imitators neglect the form in attempting to write poetry, but that they fail to make it attractive. Open Mr. Carpenter's book anywhere and you perceive at once that, so far from being negligent about his manner of writing, he has been exceedingly careful. He has been at great pains to make his thought effective by giving it form. The trouble is that he fails to make it beautiful, so that the manner of his speech offends where it should ingratiate. There can be no excuse for leaving the direct and simple methods of prose save the one purpose-to be more sensuous and pleasing. But Mr. Carpenter and Whitman's other imitators abandon the simplicity of prose without a dream of making their utterance more beautiful, or sensuous, or attractive. Thus they lose all the effectiveness of good prose and do not gain even the effectiveness of poor poetry. For poetry may be very poor indeed in the essentials of thought and emotion, and yet please us by its musical quality, its grace and style. Many a versifier delights our ear for the moment, though he entirely fails to convince our stubborn reason or move the deeper springs of affection within us. His failure in these regards, however, ought not to blind us to his one excellence, nor make us think lightly of a very important part of poetry, its charm. For charm, or sensuous beauty is one third of art, and its lack can never be made up by emphasizing the other two thirds, passionate intensity of feeling and charity of thought. One might as well try to make a two-legged stool stand up by lengthening its legs instead of adding a third.

This is really the mistake that the reformer and the humanitarian fall into when they attempt anything in the domain of art. They are so carried away by the force of their own feelings; they see the truth so clearly that the plainest statement of it seems to them sufficient. Whereas that is not the case at all. If a mere statement of fact were sufficient, then the nearer we come to a mathematical expression of it the better. We should not express ourselves in literature, but in algebraic signs.

The object of literature is to make reason seem more reasonable and emotion more intense; and this it does by making them both more attractive, by giving them manifestation in some beautiful guise. The truth cannot be the whole truth, unless it appears in some form of beauty; nor can goodness be complete, unless it makes us satisfied with its likeness as in love with itself. I am convinced that two and two make four; I am glad to love my fellows; but my whole nature is not made happy until you show me that the beauty of the world, which so enthralls my senses, is a third fact related to these other two-is indeed but a third aspect of the same phenomenon.

Untitled "Poetry of the Month" feature, Reader, May 1903 [back]