Non-Fictional Prose

by Charles G.D. Roberts

Edited by D.M.R. Bentley and Laurel Boone




Like Rossetti, Mr. Carman had won an enviable reputation as a poet before he fairly challenged opinion with a printed book. From time to time in the magazines appeared verses of strange flavour, over a name which readers resolutely mistook for a nom de plume; and discriminating ears detected a new voice rising over the sweet but rather monotonous concord of the general choir. From time to time, also, come manuscripts and printed slips, which passed from hand to hand like Shakespeare’s "sugared sonnets among his private friends"; and so distinctive and penetrating a quality was there in these flying leaflets, that the praise of them went far beyond the circle of their readers. People who had never seen a line of Mr. Carman’s came to hear his name so often that they grew curious about him. And presently there arose a demand for a volume of his verse. In the gratification of this demand, Mr. Carman showed no indiscreet haste; but at last he has put forth a small volume of lyrics, under the title of "Low Tide on Grand Pré."

This collection, being made up of poems exclusively in the minor key, leaves unrepresented one side of Mr. Carman’s genius,—a side which is of particular importance in these dilettante days. Certain poems in the periodicals have shown him to possess a joyous major note, masculine and full-throated. But in the quieter moods and more reserved measures of the volume before me, his distinctive qualities are not less unmistakably displayed. One of these is a combination of verbal simplicity with an extreme complexity of suggestion and intention. He is master of the inevitable phrase, the unforgetable cadence. As far as technique is concerned, this, I think, is his peculiar achievement. His lyric utterance is thoroughly individual, and in its music so fresh and alluring that its influence is quickly apparent in the verse of contemporaries. His style has that distinction which, in the case of an older writer, we would call the mark of the master, and which declares its authority by attracting disciples or imitators. It is in many such stanzas as this:—

Because I am wanderer
    Upon the roads of endless quest,
Between the hill-wind and the hills,
    Along the margin men call rest.

It is in all that perfect and impassioned lyric called "A Northern Vigil," of which I must quote some portions:—

"I sit by the fire and hear
    The restless wind go by,
  On the long dirge and drear,
     Under the low bleak sky.

"When day puts out to sea
    And night makes in for land,
  There is no lock for thee,
    Each door awaits thy hand!

*                    *                    *

"When the zenith moon is round,
    And snow-wraiths gather and run,
  And there is set no bound
    To love beneath the sun,

"O wayward will, come near
    The old mad wilful way,
  The soft mouth at my ear
    With words too sweet to say!

*                   *                   *

"The windows of my room
    Are dark with bitter frost,
  The stillness aches with doom
    Of something loved and lost.

*                    *                    *

"And though thy coming rouse
    The sleep-cry of no bird,
  The keepers of the house
    Shall tremble at thy word.

"Come, for the soul is free!
    In all the vast dreamland
  There is no lock for thee,
    Each door awaits thy hand.

*                    *                     *

"Yea, wilt thou not return,
    When the late hill-winds veer,
  And the bright hill-flowers burn
    With the reviving year?

*                    *                    *

"The curtains seem to part;
    A sound is on the stair,
  As if at the last... I start;
    Only the wind is there."

When memorable line or inescapable grace of turn and fall it waylays us deliciously in almost every poem of the collection. It is the whole charm of the flawless fragment called "A Sea-Drift":

"As the seaweed swims the sea
    In the ruin after storm,
  Sunburnt memories of thee
    Through the twilight float and form.

"And desire when thou art gone
    Roves his desolate domain,
  As the meadow-birds at dawn
    Haunt the spaces of the rain."

Of poetry, half is in the manner, half in the matter. Mr. Carman’s matter is not less distinctive than his manner. Whatever concerns of the human heart may occupy his song,—pain or pleasure, love or death, a memory or a desire,—the voice of nature is always making itself heard. He does not transcribe nature, or set himself to interpret her; but in terms of her all his emotions express themselves. He can no more escape her than can the strings of the æolian harp escape the wind. In his lines we hear the irresponsible, elusive speech of the rain, the trees, the grasses; we catch hints of the incalculable purpose of wind and sea. He is elemental. The savour of nature is in his grain, as the salt of the sea is through and through the fibre of a bit of driftwood.

In the case of a poet so significant and vital, it is worth while trying to trace his poetic lineage. It seems to me that Mr. Carman derives in the main from Emerson and Swinburne,—a strange and piquant blend. But the fusion is complete, the influences not to be detected without careful analysis. A study of Arnold, too, has doubtless helped Mr. Carman much, contributing to his purity of phrase. And here and there we feel that he has been conscious, not altogether to his advantage, of the spell of Browning. As a stimulus and an awakener Browning is admirable, but as a master he is dangerous. He will not fuse. In the work of those whom he has influenced his influence gathers in little intractable nodules.

This brief note is concerned not with the defects but with the beauties of Mr. Carman’s work, because when an admirable poet has arisen it is the duty of the critic to call the attention of readers to the new delight that has come within their reach. Nevertheless, as the critic’s authority is apt to be called in question unless he shows himself on the alert for flaws, I shall proceed with diffidence to point out what seem to me to be Mr. Carman’s weaknesses. His structure is often defective,—he is not always careful in regard to the architectonics of verse. Many of his poems are built as waywardly as a dream, and one sometimes feels that parts of one poem might as easily fit into the framework of another. He has a tendency to repeat his effects; and while his poems are sharply differentiated from those of other poets, they are also, at times, a curious and bewildering intricacy of thought which may justly be called obscurity; but this is a fault which Mr. Carman is rapidly eliminating from his work.

The volume before me is one of the second edition of "Low Tide on Grand Pré." As a piece of book-making it is so artistic and satisfying that I can not refrain from complimenting the publishers upon it.


"Mr. Bliss Carman's Poems," Chap-Book 1:3, 15 June 1894, 53-57 [back]