Edwardian and Georgian Canadian Poets
1900-1930


 

 

Selected Essays and Reviews

by Bliss Carman

Edited by Terry Whalen


 

Poems by the Way*


 

It is not easy to estimate a work like this without taking into consideration the author's aim-without knowing something of his endeavor, achievement, and purpose. It is not a natural product of our own day, and strikes one at first as being artificial. For all we can read in these poems to the contrary, Mr. Morris might just as well have lived five hundred years ago.

More than a quarter of a century ago a few young men gave impulse to a movement in English art which was destined to be widespreading in its effect. They believed in "art for art's sake," in beauty for beauty's sake alone; and they called themselves the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. The best-known of these early enthusiasts were Mr. Burne-Jones, Mr. Swinburne, and Mr. William Morris, but the most powerful force among them at the beginning was a strange, moody, silent man, who lent inspiration to these friends of his, yet himself remained content with a part in the new enterprise quite unknown to fame. He wrote his poems and painted his pictures and persistently refused to have them made public.

Possibly he was not sure of himself. Finally grief came upon him, and in his young wife's coffin he buried his manuscript volume of poems. Not until many years later, when his friends were achieving distinction and honor all about him, did Dante Gabriel Rossetti permit the disinterment of that volume and its publication.

Now Rossetti's poetry is all of a piece. It cares nothing at all for the thought of to-day; it knows very little of nature, yet it is good and beautiful art. Much of Mr. Swinburne's earlier work is of the same kind. And Mr. William Morris's first volume, published in 1858, "The Defence of Guinevere and Other Poems," must always stand as the one most typical and most perfect product of the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood.

What were these men trying to do? They saw that the life of their time was vulgar and unlovely; they wished to lead it back to the common aristocracy of simple beauty. And to do this they would give it art and standards of art wholly freed from the tainting ugliness that was daily before their eyes. If there was anything beautiful in their daily life they did not see it.

They lived in an alien clime of their own fabrication. Their houses were of stained glass, their women were wan and languid and on their trees hung golden apples. There was not a breath of sea-wind to be heard, not a glimpse of deep rich English pasture-land anywhere to be seen.

Now, the mistake in all this was that their fellows could not appreciate it, could not take it all home to themselves. These poets lived in a foreign land of delight, and to be pleased with what they had to tell it was necessary to journey after them.

The work was not the flower of contemporary life; it was exotic; it is beautiful; much of it is lasting; but it remains at last only a glorious freak. Such was that attempt to give new standards to English poetry, new ideals to English life, and to create new shapes of imperishable beauty. It was making bricks without straw.

Now, Wordsworth had a different plan. The Wordsworthian scheme proposed to make bricks out of straw alone. The immortal old scuff-heels of Cumberland also wished to lend beauty, romance, and dignity to the life of his time; but he made the mistake of thinking that the romance and the dignity were so evidently inherent in that life that they needed no emphasis in art. This fallacy, which he followed to the bitter end with so unflagging and persistent zeal, is not dead yet by any means. Indeed its voice is loud in many a marketplace today: it is the fallacy of realism. Wordsworth was a great poet only in spite of himself. Where he followed his pitiful little theory he was nothing but a dull and tedious rhymster, prosy beyond endurance, prolix beyond relief. But when the Great Spirit took him, rapt away from his own control, and set between his lips such deathless lines as "The Daffodils," he was indeed one of England's greatest, one of earth's most immortal.

In material, too, in technic both Wordsworth and the Pre-Raphaelites erred; Wordsworth in using the common speech of his country side without giving it any distinction, any grace, any subtle quality of the inevitable; the Pre-Raphaelites in using a quaint and antique tongue, wholly foreign to their birth, without enriching it with the thousands of useful, striking, and mellifluous words imported into it through many centuries and common to their own firesides. Both errors were grave; both must prove fatal in the end.

How have other poets done? Browning, Arnold, Tennyson-these men have eagerly absorbed all the life about them, and in portraying their thoughts and ideals have used the speech of their own time and place, pressing every means of vestal communication into the service. Of Tennyson is this particularly true as to the substance of his work; and of Browning it is particularly true as to his diction.

It is only just to remember that Mr. Swinburne has long since broken away from the traditions of his earlier years; although in this country we have hardly yet ceased to judge him by the "Poems and Ballads."

Mr. William Morris, however, has remained devoted to the dreams of his feather-head youth. We are indebted to him for much; for our Morris furniture, our Morris wallpaper, our "Earthly Paradise," and thousands of lines of epic poems which will be a perpetual delight to our children and their children after them. The man who has given to the world "The Life and Death of Jason," "The Earthly Paradise," and "The Story of Sigurd" can never be classed among "minor poets," yet these late volumes "The House of the Wolfings," "The Story of the Guttering Plain," and "Poems by the Way" impart bulk rather than incisiveness to the impression he is making on the tough hide of our Philistinism.

Open the present volume at page 94 and begin to read "The Folk-Mote by the River:"

It was up in the morn we rose betimes
From the hall floor hard by the row of times.

It was but John the Red and I,
And we were the brethren of Gregory;

And Gregory the Wright was one
Of the valiant men beneath the sun;

And what he bade us that we did,
For ne'er he kept his counsel hid.

Evidently this is a ballad of the olden time. Mr.Morris likes to go back to the days when men thought the earth was flat and the sun a huge red cartwheel rolling across the hills. Chaucer is modern compared with Mr. Morris; and his language is packed full of recent imported Gallicisms that must never be breathed on Wardour street. Now all this is very artificial, very fatuous, and a pitiful waste of good, wholesome energy. It is a part of that same generous, flaming, feather-head enthusiasm that led out the crusade of the Pre-Raphaelite Brothers, and now leads Mr. Morris through all the cruelly foolish exaggerations of his Socialistic, collarless gang. He might as well go chase the marsh fires in the night.

It is another sad proof of the difficulty of the world-old problem, now so long unsolved, "What is the noblest activity to which man can devote his best energy?" Ah, no! Mr. Morris, your poetry does not help us to solve it; your Socialism does not help us, though the product of your art stores helps us a little.

Your Socialism does not help us, because the trend of science is against you; your poetry does not help us, because it has naught of heroism in it, and because from out of our modern life you have carried back to the earliest years of which you sing the modern despair and lassitude alone.

How much better if you could only have brought some of the earlier freshness and vigor to these times. Yet this is largely idle criticism.

One point, however, is to be noted; it is the vivid power of natural description which Mr. Morris has at his command. In this he is eminently modern. In the poem quoted from above, we may read on:

So out we went, and the clattering latch
Woke up the swallows under the thatch.

.      .      .

It was dark in the porch, but our scythes we felt,
And thrust the whetstone under the belt.

.      .      .

Through the cold garden boughs we went
Where the tumbling roses shed their scent.

.      .      .

Then cut a-gates and away we strode
O'er the dewy straws on the dusty road.

This last line is so fragrant and altogether lovely that one is almost tempted to revoke all unfavorable criticism of this winning master of Saxon. "Poems By the Way," though they may not greatly help our failing heart, will pass an hour pleasantly away, while one or two of the poems, such as "Earth the Healer, Earth the Keeper," are surely applicable to us all:

Yet now the pain is ended
    And the glad hand grips the sword,
Look on they life amended
    And deal out due award.

Think of the thankless morning,
    The gifts of noon unused;
Think of the eve of scorning,
    The night of prayer refused.

.      .      .

Lo! lo! the dawn-blink yonder,
    The sunrise draweth nigh,
And men forget to wonder
    That they were born to die.

Such work is peculiar to no time or country, but is common to the world. It may very well have been attributed to Mr. Morris's own Wolfings or his Kindred of the Mark, but it is just as full of meaning for us here and now. In this lies its worth; in this lies the worth of all art. For such service to our race, regardless of time, not discriminating in its favors, have we called art imperishable.


Rev. of Poems By the Way, World, Apr. 24, 1892 [back]