Edwardian and Georgian Canadian Poets



Selected Essays and Reviews

by Bliss Carman

Edited by Terry Whalen


The Purpose of Poetry*


A place for the fine arts among our various human activities can be found by making a rough classification of our subject. The most primitive and necessary occupations we engage in, such as fishing and agriculture, trading, navigating, hunting, were called industries. These mark the earliest stage of man's career in civilization. Then he comes to other occupations, requiring more skill and ingenuity; he weaves fabrics, he makes himself houses, he fashions all sorts of implements for the household and the chase. He becomes a builder, a potter, a metalworker, an inventor. He has added thought to work and made the work easier. And these new occupations which he has discovered for himself differ from his earlier ones, chiefly in this, that they result in numerous objects of more or less permanence, cunningly contrived and aptly fitted to use. They are objects of useful or industrial art.

Now, two things should be noted about this step forward which man has taken toward civilization; in the first place he required some leisure to do these things, and in the second place the objects he made reveal his ingenuity and forethought. They are records of his life. And it will happen that as his leisure increases, his implements will become more and more elaborate and ornate. Every workman will have his own way of fashioning them, using his own device and designs, so that they will become something more than rude relics of one historic age or another; they will tell us something of the artificer himself; they will embody some intentional expression of human life, and come to have an art value. In so far as they can do this, they contain the essential quality of the fine arts. And the more freely the workman can deal with his craft, the more perfectly he can make it characteristic of himself, the greater will its artistic quality become.

The single purpose of the primitive industries was utilitarian. The prime object of the industrial arts is also utilitarian; but they have a secondary object as well, they aim at beauty. They not only serve the practical end for which they were intended; they serve also as a means of expression for the workman. Now, just as we passed from the industries to the industrial arts, by the addition of this secondary interest, this human artistic expressional quality, so by making this quality paramount, we may pass from the industrial arts to the fine arts themselves, where expression is all important, and utility is almost lost sight of. It is the distinguishing mark of the fine arts that they afford a means of expression in terms of intelligible beauty.

I have made this distinction between the fine and the industrial arts merely for the sake of clearness, and to come to a notion of what is the essence of all art. But really the difference is not important, and having served its turn, may be forgotten. There is an element of art, of course, in everything that we do; the manner of the doing, that is the art. The quality of art which we should appreciate and respect may quite as truly be present in a Japanese tobacco box as in a Greek tragedy. The Japanese, indeed, offer an instance of a people who have raised the handicrafts quite to the level of the fine arts. All those fascinating objects of beauty, which they contrive with so much skill, are often, one may guess, only so many excuses for the workman to exhibit his deftness and his taste. This black oak cabinet inlaid with pearl, or that lacquer bowl, may perhaps be counted useful objects; but I fancy that before all else they were just so many opportunities for the artist; and when he fashioned them he had in mind only the creation of something beautiful, and thought very little of the use to which they might be put. He was bent on giving play to his imagination, and you may be very sure he was glad in the work of his hands and wrought all those intricate effects with loving care. Surely the result is much more deserving of respect than a mediocre epic or a second-rate painting. It is not what we do that counts, but how well we do it. There is no saying one kind of work is art, and another kind is not art. Anything that is well done is art; anything that is badly done is degrading.

I do not wish either to confine the word "useful," in its application, to material needs. Everything we do ought to be useful, and so it is, if it is done well. Tables and chairs are useful; but so are pictures and cathedrals and lyrics and the theatre. If we allow ourselves only what are called the necessities of life, we are only keeping alive one-third of being; the other two-thirds of our manhood may be starving to death. The mind and the soul have their necessities, as well as the body. And we are to seek these things, not for future salvation, but for salvation here and now, that life may be helpful and sane and happy.

It is easy to see how a fine art may grow from some more necessary and commonplace undertaking. The fine art of painting, for instance, arose from the use of ornamental lines and figures, drawn on pottery, or on the walls of a skin tent, where it served only to enhance the value of the craftsman's work, and please his fancy. Gradually, through stages of mural decoration, perhaps, where ever-increasing freedom of execution was given the artist, its first ornamental purpose was forgotten, and it came to serve only as a means of expressing the artist's imaginative ideals. So, too, of sculpture and architecture, of dancing and acting. It is an easy transition from the light-hearted, superfluous skip of a child as it runs, to the more formal dance-step, as the child keeps time to music and gives vent to its gayety of spirit. It is an easy transition from gesture and sign-language, employed as a useful means of communication, to their more elaborate use in the art of acting, where they serve merely to create an illusion. So, too, whenever a piece of information is conveyed by word of mouth, and the teller of the tale elaborates it with zest and interest, making it more memorable and vivid, the fine art of letters is born.

It is noticeable that the quality of art begins to appear in all our occupations, as the dire stress of existence is relieved, and man's spirit begins to have free play. Art is an indication of health and happy exuberance of life; it is as instinctive and spontaneous in its origin as child's play. To produce it naturally the artist must be free, for the time being at least,-free from all doubt or hesitation about the truth, free from all material entanglements, free from all dejection and sadness of heart. So that the primitive industries mark the first grade in the human story, when we were barely escaping from the necessity of unremitting hand-to-hand physical struggle for life; and the second grade in this progress is marked by the appearance of the industrial arts; while the fine arts may be looked upon as an index of the highest development, in the transition from savagery and barbarism to civilization. And perhaps we shall not go very far astray, in this comparative estimate of nations and their greatness on the earth, if we rank them in the order of their proficiency in the arts.

Now, the fine arts having thus had their rise in the free play of the human spirit, as it went about its work in the world, and busied itself with the concerns of life, became a natural vehicle for giving expression to all man's aspirations and thoughts about life. Indeed, it was this very simple elemental need for self-expression, as a trait in human character, which helped to determine what the fine arts should be. To communicate feelings, to transmit knowledge, to give amusement by creating a mimic world with imaginative shapes of beauty, these were fundamental cravings, lurking deep in the spirit of man, and demanding satisfaction almost as imperiously as the desires of the body. If hunger and cold made us industrious humans, no less certainly love of companionship and need for self-expression molded our breath into articulate speech. Since, therefore, the fine arts are so truly a creation of man, we may expect to find in them a trustworthy image of himself. Whatever is human will be there. All his thoughts, all his emotions, all his sensations and hopes and fears. They will reveal and embody in themselves all the traits of his complex nature. Art is that lovely corporeal body with which man endowerss the spirit of goodness and the thought of truth. For there are in man these three great principles, a capacity for finding out the truth and distinguishing it from error, a capacity for perceiving goodness and knowing it from evil, and a capacity for discriminating between what is ugly and what is fair. By virtue of the first of these powers, man has sought knowledge, has become the philosopher and scientist; by virtue of the second, he has evolved religions and laws, and social order and advancement; while by virtue of the third he has become an artist. Yet we must be careful not to suppose that either one of these powers ever comes into play entirely alone; for man has not three separate natures, but one nature with three different phases. When, therefore, man finds expression for his complete personality in the fine arts, there will always be found there not only creations of beauty, but monuments of wisdom and religion as well. Art can no more exist without having a moral bearing than a body can exist without a soul. Its influence may be for good or for bad, but it is there and it is inevitable. In the same way no art can exist without an underlying philosophy, any more than man can exist without a mind. The philosophy may be trivial or profound, but is always present.

Art is enlisted beyond escape, both in the service of science and in the service of religion. Great art appears wherever the heart of man has been able to manifest itself in a perfectly beautiful guise, informed by thoughts of radiant truth, and inspired by emotions of limitless goodness. Any piece of art which does not fulfill its obligations to truth and goodness, as well as to beauty, is necessarily faulty and incomplete.

At first thought objection may be raised against such a canon of criticism as this; for truth is the object of all science, and goodness is the object of all morality, and some persons have been accustomed to say that art has nothing whatever to do, either with morality or science, but exists for its own sake alone, for the increase and perpetuation of pleasure. But art cannot give complete pleasure, if it only appeals to the senses, and leaves unsatisfied natural curiosity and wonder, the need for understanding, and the need for loving. That is to say, reason and emotion must always be appealed to, as well as the sense of beauty.

For instance, I am entranced by the beautiful diction and cadence of the poem; at the same time, its conception of life and the universe may be patently false and puerile, and from that point of view it would not please me at all; it would disgust me. Or it might show a just estimate of life, it might be true to philosophy and science, and yet celebrate some mean or base or ignoble or cruel incident in a way that would be revolting to my spirit. In other words, while it satisfied my sense of beauty, it might fail utterly to satisfy my sense of right or my desire for truth. To be pleasing, the fine arts must satisfy the mind with its insatiable curiousity, and the soul with its love of justice, quite as thoroughly as they slake the needs of the senses.

The great preėminence of Browning as a poet does not rest on any profound philosophy to be found in his work, nor in his superior craftsmanship, nor yet in his generous uplifting impulse, and the way with which he arouses our feelings, but rather on the fact that he possessed all these three requirements of a poet in an equally marked degree. The work of Poe or of William Morris, on the other hand, does not exhibit this fine balance of strength, intellectuality and passion. On its sensuous side, it is wonderfully beautiful; and yet it is not wholly satisfying, since it fails to give us enough to think about. Its mentality is too slight. Neither of these poets, to judge from their poetry alone, had any large and firm grasp of the thought of the world, such as Browning possessed, and that is why the wizardry of Poe, and the luring charm of Morris are not more effective. An artist must be also a thinker and a prophet, if his creations are to have breadth of life. And again, poetry may easily fail by being overladen with this same requisite of mentality. It may have more thought than it can carry. Browning himself, in several of his later books, like the "Inn Album," quite loses the fine poise of his powers, and almost ceases to be a poet, in his desire to be a philosopher. This is the one great central truth which must illumine all criticism, and help our understanding of life, as well as of art.

When it is said that the business of art is to give pleasure, in all three of these possible ways, of course it must be understood that the arts differ one from another, in their ability to meet such demand. The art of music cannot satisfy my reason as completely as the art of poetry, for example; because it cannot transmit a logical statement of fact. It may appeal to my senses more charmingly than poetry can; it may arouse my emotions profoundly; but it cannot appeal to my mind in the way poetry does. On the other hand, poetry itself is less strictly rational than prose literature; it does not attempt to satisfy the curiosity as completely as does prose, though it pleases the ęsthetic sense more. There need be no question of one art being greater or less than another; we need only remember the way in which they vary, and how each has a different proportion of the three requirements which are necessary to them all.

To speak quite simply, then, art is concerned first of all in the creation of beauty. At the same time it is closely related to science on one side and religion on the other. But how? I suppose we may say (to speak again quite roughly) that science is all we know about things, and religion is all we feel about them. Naturally, therefore, every artistic conception to which we give expression will betray something both of our philosophy and our morality. It cannot be otherwise. In the case of literature the human spirit is finding expression for itself through the medium of human speech; and speech is the most exact means we have for conveying definite thought, and narrating facts. So that every literature contains a great body of work which is almost pure science. In De Quincey's useful phrase, "There is a literature of knowledge and a literature of power." Euclid's geometry, Newton's "Principia," Darwin's "Origin of Species" are works of science rather than of letters. They appeal solely to our reason, and do not attempt to please our sense of the beautiful by their literary structure and the arrangement of verbal sounds, nor to work upon our emotions in any way. Euclid does not care whether you like his forty-eighth proposition or not, so long as he can convince you that it is true. Neither does Darwin care whether his theory pleases or not. He is only interested in getting at the truth. How that truth may affect our feelings is quite another matter. So it is with theological and philosophic writers, like Spinoza and Kant; they are primarily scientists, not artists. But in a work like Plato's dialogues, there are two new elements which have entered into the making of the book. Plato is not only interested in finding out the truth, and convincing you of its reasonableness; he wishes at the same time to make the truth seem pleasant and good; he tries to enlist your feelings on his side; and also to satisfy your sense of beauty with his form of words. He has added a religious value and an art value to the theme of pure philosophy. He has made his book a piece of literature.

And as literature is related to science on one hand, it is related to religion on the other. A book of meditation or of hymns may be extremely devout in sentiment, without possessing any of the values of literature. Because, very often it takes a certain set of ideas for granted, without caring very much whether they are the largest and truest ideas or not; and also because it makes no effort to be fine and distinguished in its diction. It may be entirely worthy in the fervor of its sentiment, and yet be quite unworthy, in an artistic way. With great religious books this is not so. Works like the psalms or passages in Isaiah, or the poetry of Job, or Tennyson's Crossing the Bar, are first of all religious in their intention; they are meant to play upon our emotional nature; but they do not stop there; they are cast in a form of words so perfect and fresh that is arrests us at once, and satisfies our love of beauty. At the same time they accord with the most profound and fundamental ideas about life and nature that humanity has been capable of. They satisfy the mind and the ęsthetic sense, as well as the spiritual need. It is because of this three-fold completeness that we class them as pieces of literature, and not merely as records of religious enthusiasm? Depth of religious feeling alone would not have been sufficient to make them literature, any more than clear thinking and accurate reason alone could have made Plato's book a piece of literature.

It must be remembered, too, how vapid the artistic quality is, when it exists by itself, without adequate intelligence and underlying purpose. Think how much of modern art is characterized by nothing but form, how devoid it is of ideas, how lacking in anything like passionate enthusiasm. I believe this is due, to some extent, to a failure to realize that these components of which I have been speaking are absolutely requisite in all art. We forget that there is laid upon art any obligation except to be beautiful; we forget that it must embody the truest thought man has been able to reach, and enshrine the noblest impulses he has entertained. This is not so much a duty for art to undertake, as an inescapable destiny and natural function.

It is a sad day for a people when their art becomes divorced from the current of their life; when it comes to be looked on as something precious but unimportant, having nothing at all to do with their social structure, their education, their political ideals, their faith or their daily vocations. But I fear that we ourselves are living in just such a time. Fine arts may be patronized even liberally, but they have no hold on us as a people; we have no wide feeling for them, no profound conviction of their importance.

There may be reasons for this, and it is a question with which we are not directly concerned here. One reason there is, however, it seems to me, which is too important not to be referred to. The fine arts are an outgrowth and finer development of the industrial arts. One would expect them to flourish only in a nation where the industrial arts flourish; only in such a nation would the great body of the people be infused with the popular love of beauty and a feeling for art, which could create a stimulating, artistic atmosphere, and out of which great artists could be born. So much will be readily admitted. Now under modern industrial and commercial conditions the industrial arts are dead; they have been killed by the exigencies of business processes. The industrial artist has become the factory hand. To produce anything worth while, either in the fine or the industrial arts, it is necessary that the worker should not be hurried, and should have some freedom to do his work in his own way, according to his own delight and fancy. The modern workman, on the contrary, is a slave to his conditions; he can only earn his bread by working with a maximum of speed, and a minimum of conscientiousness. He can have neither pleasure nor pride in his work; and consequently that work can have no artistic value whatever. The result is, that not only are there no industrial arts, properly speaking, but the modern workman is losing all natural taste, and love of beauty, through being denied all exercise of that faculty. If I am allowed to learn the art of book-binder, or a potter, or a rug-maker, and to follow it for myself as best I can, my perception and love of what is beautiful will grow with my growing skill. But if I must work in a modern factory, where such things, or rather where hideous imitations of those things are produced, I should not be able to exercise my creative talent at all, and whatever love of beauty I may have had will perish for lack of use. Thus it happens that the average man to-day has so little appreciation of beauty, so little instinctive taste; and that the people give so scant a regard to arts and letters. Before they can be reinstated in that position of honor which they have always held, hitherto, among civilized nations, it will be necessary to find some solution for these industrial difficulties.

It may seem at a superficial glance that the arts are all very well as a pastime, for the enjoyment of the few, but can have no imperative call upon busy men and women in active modern life. And if the average American should be told that in his country there was no widespread love of beauty, no popular taste in artistic matters, he would not, I believe, take the accusation very much to heart. He would probably admit it, and with pride point to the wonderful material success, the achievements in the realm of trade and commerce, the unmatched prosperity and wealth. But that answer will not do. You may lead me through the streets of the great cities, and fill my ears with stories of uncounted millions of money, unrivaled advance among the nations; but that will not divert my soul from horror at a state of society, where municipal government is a venial farce, where there is little reverence for law, where Mammon is a real God, and where every week there are instances of mob violence, as revolting as any that ever stained the history of the Emperors of degenerate Rome. The soul is not deceived. She sits at the centre of being, judging severely this violence, this folly and crime.

All this, of course, goes almost without saying. But the point I wish to make is, that this decay in moral standards goes hand in hand with the loss of taste. The sense of beauty and the sense of goodness are so closely related, that any injury to the one means an injury to the other. The nation which cares nothing at all for art cannot be expected to care very much for justice or righteousness. A man who does not care how hideous his surroundings are will not care very much about his moral obligations. And that national position of true greatness which many Americans have dreamed of can never be reached; those personal traits of dignity, honor, and kindliness, which many old-fashioned Americans still retain, will be lost, unless the vital need of moral standards and ęsthetic ideals is recognized, and an effort made to secure them. The two must go hand in hand.

Such ideals of conduct, in the widest sense, it is the aims of art to supply, and education to inculcate. And education like art has its three-fold object. It has to set itself not only to train the mind in a desire for the truth, but at the same time to train the spirit to love only what is good, and the bodies to take pleasure in only what is beautiful wholesome; and the work of education in any one of these directions must always be intimately related with its work in the other two. Emerson's wise phrase is profoundly true here,

"All are need by each one,
  Nothing is fair or good alone."

An education which does not quicken the conscience, and stimulate and refine all the senses, and instincts, along with the growing reason, must still remain a faulty education at best.

I am sure too much stress cannot be laid on this philosophic conception of man, and the three aspects of his nature. I believe it will be a solvent of many difficulties in education, in art, in life, in social and political aims. I believe that without it all endeavor for advancement in civilization will be sadly hampered and retarded, if not frustrated altogether. For the simple reason that art and civilization and social order exist for man; and they must therefore be adapted to the three differing kinds of requirements in his make-up. His intellectual needs and capacities must be trained and provided for; his great emotional and spiritual need of powers must be given exercise; his sensitive physical instincts must be guided and developed.

With this notion in mind, it may be well to consider what tasks literature must set itself, and what it may be expected to do for a people. In the first place it is the business of literature, as of all the arts, to create an illusion,- to project upon the imagination a mimic world, true to life, as we say, and at the same time more goodly and fair than the actual one we know. For unless the world of art be in some way more delightful than the world of everyday experience, why should one ever visit it? I turn in sympathy to art, to music or reading, or objects of lovely color and shape, for recreation and refreshment, and solace and inspiration. I ask to find in it, ready to hand, these helpful and pleasant qualities which are so hard to find in real life. And the art which does not give them to me is disappointing, however clever it may be. It is this necessity of being beautiful, this necessity of providing an immediate pleasure, that makes pure realism unsatisfying in art. Realism is necessary, but not sufficient.

For instance, I see a photograph of a beautiful elm-shaded street in an old New England town. It fills my eye instantly with a delightful scene. But by and by something in it begins to offend me, and I see that the telegraph pole is too obtrusive, and spoils the composition and balance of the picture. The photograph loses its value as a pleasure-giving piece of realism. Now a painter, in reproducing the same scene, would probably have left out the telegraph pole. That is the difference. And that is why photography, as usually practiced, is not one of the fine arts. It is said by those who contend for realism, for the photographic in literature, that art must be true to nature, and so it must to a certain extent; but there are other things besides the physical fact to which it must conform. The photograph was true to nature, but it was not true to my memory of the scene. The painter's reproduction was truer to that; he preserved for me the delightful impression I carried away on that wonderful June morning, when I visited the spot. For me his picture is more accurate than the photograph. When I was there I probably did not see the telegraph pole at all. It is, therefore, right that literature and art should attempt something more than the exact reproduction of things as they are, and should give us a city more charming, and a country more delectable to dwell in than any our feet have ever trod, and should people that world with characters, varied and fascinating, as in real life, but even more satisfying than any we have ever known.

There is another reason why art must be more than photographic: as time goes by the earth grows old, man himself develops, however slow, in nobleness and understanding. His life becomes different from what it was. He gradually brings it into conformity with ceratin ideals and aspirations which have occurred to him. These new ideals and aspirations have always made their first appearance in art and literature before they were realized in actual life. Imagination is the lamp upon the difficult path of progress. So that even in its outward aspect, art must differ from nature. The world is by no means perfect, but it is always tending toward perfection, and it is man's business to help that tendency. He must make his life more and more beautiful, simply because by doing so he makes himself more healthy and happy. To this end, art supplies him with standards, and keeps him constantly in mind of what perfection is. The influence of good art helps to make ugliness impossible. As long as I am satisfied with the photograph I am content to have the telegraph pole. And I shall continue to be satisfied with them both until the artist comes and shows me the blemish. As soon as I perceive the fault, I begin to want the telegraph pole removed. This is what a clever writer meant when he said that art does not follow nature, but nature follows art.

I lay so much stress on this point, because the conviction that literature and art must be more beautiful than life is somewhat lost sight of. We readily admit that they must be sincere servants of truth and exemplars of noble sentiment, but there is an idea abroad, that in its form and substance art need only copy nature. This, I believe, is what our grandfathers might have called a pestilent heresy.

If art and literature are devoted to the service of beauty, no less are they dedicated to the service of truth and goodness. In the phrase which Arnold used to quote, it is their business to make reason and the will of God prevail. So that while literature must fulfill the obligations laid upon it to be delightful,-to charm and entertain with perennial pleasure,-quite as scrupulously must it meet the demands for knowledge, and satisfy spiritual needs. To meet the first of these demands, of course, it is not necessary for literature to treat of scientific subjects; it must, however, be enlightened by the soundest philosophy at its command, and inform with all the knowledge of its time. It may not deal directly with the thought of its age, but it must never be at variance with truth. There can be no quarrel between science and art, for art sooner or later makes use of all knowledge, all discoveries, all new ideas. It is the business of art to assimilate new knowledge and make it a power, for knowledge is not power so long as it remains mere knowledge, and does not pass from the mind into the domain of the will.

In a scientific age like our own, when the limits of knowledge are being extended so rapidly, prose is a much more acceptable medium of expression than poetry, because it can keep nearer to science than poetry can; though poetry, in the long run, has quite as much need of accurate, wide information as has prose.

It is only that they make different use of the same material. Prose serves to bring definite reports of science, it appeals to reason, to curiosity. But poetry has another motive as well; it wishes to emphasize its subject so that it can not only be known more clearly, but can be felt more deeply. Of course prose has this aim in view, also, though to a less extent; and it invades the dominion of poetry whenever this aim becomes paramount. In literature prose must not be separated too dogmatically from poetry.

The attempt which literature makes to deepen one's feeling about a subject, is the spiritual purpose of art. And this spiritual or moral influence is always present in all literature, whether apparent or not. Art has its religious value, not because it deals directly with religious themes, but because it plays upon the moral nature and enhances emotions. How intrisically incumbent it is upon art, therefore, to stimulate generous and kindly feelings, rather than cruel or violent or selfish impulses!

It may often be necessary for art and literature to deal with human crime and depravity and moral obliquity, but it must never dwell upon them exclusively, nor make them seem to prevail. For evil does not rule the world; however powerful it may seem for the moment, in the long run it is overcome by the good. There is a tendency in modern letters to deal with repulsive themes, and depict the frailty and sorry short-comings of human nature, and to do this with an almost scientific accuracy. Some people praise this sort of thing as being true to life, while others call it immoral because such objects are touched upon at all. A juster view of the matter may perhaps lead to a different opinion. Since it is the prime duty of art to make happiness, to give encouragement and joy, to urge and support the spirit, to ennoble and enrich life; surely the one way which art can be most immortal is to leave the heart depressed and sad and uncertain of the final issue between sorrow and gladness.

I have not said much about the technic of poetry, because I wished to indicate, if I could, a scope and destiny for poetic art more significant than we are accustomed to grant it. If we assure ourselves of the vital importance of art to a nation, if we set ourselves resolutely to change the tenor of public sentiment in regard to it, if we turn from the absorbing and ridiculous worship of unnecessary possessions and are generously devoted to the cause of beauty and kindliness, the specific development of poetry may be left to take care of itself.

"The Purpose of Poetry," International Quarterly, Jan. 1905 [back]