Edwardian and Georgian Canadian Poets
1900-1930


 

 

Selected Essays and Reviews

by Bliss Carman

Edited by Terry Whalen


 

The Golden Age*


 

In my Golden Age, when the world was as yet all a beautiful, incredible dream, my sister and I used to play together in an old Canadian garden, facing the South.

There were roses there in June. In all the profusion of their old-fashioned varieties, white and crimson and yellow and pale pink, they came to deck the holiday of the year, while the yellow warbler reiterated his hot, keen song from the elm-tree above the hedge. You could gather wonderful collections of the fallen petals from the ground. Sometimes if a rose were very, very full blown and almost ready to fall, you could shake it a little and make the rose leaves drop into your hand. It was no harm to do this, and it was pleasanter than waiting for great Nature, in her deliberate way, to fill the measure of your impatient desire. In Autumn, when the flowers were all gone and the birds departed, the maple-trees would still make a golden light to enhance the glory of the shortening days, and would let their leaves fall very silently down one by one into the grass. They were more durable than the flowers and not less lovely. When Winter came at last, and the volleying snow swirled down from the gray heavens, day after day sometimes, obliterating the beds and paths and making the garden a white wilderness, it never lay too deep for enjoyment. You could always snowshoe across the levels, and dive from the fences and tunnel out Esquimaux houses in the drifts.

There, in the Springtime, when the snows were all melted, except a lingering patch or two, you could gather up the evergreen boughs that had been used to cover the tulip-beds and rose-bushes through the Winter, and build wigwams of them in the sunniest angle of the house. To these wondrous retreats you could carry your treasures, marbles and gingerbread and apples, and seated there, often in speechless content, lead the adequate life of childhood, without question and without misgiving. Whether we were most often Indians or hunters or royal personages, I do not recall; but I can still smell the odor of the dead spruce leaves; I can see the pale-green shafts of the tulips beginning to thrust themselves up through the breaking ground; I can feel the growing power of the sun, and hear in the still Spring days the small silvery lisping sounds from the remnants of the melting snow bank, as it dripped itself away into the earth, or settled now and then with a sudden crunch of its dissolving mass. The glamor of life was in that time, the unvanquishable zest, the untarnished faith, and we two insignificant mannikins, playing in the sun and creeping under our shelter of boughs, tasted the pride of emperors and lived the pageantry of kings.

All this happened in a world which is still our world, still locked under the clamp of frost, still full of flowers and sunlight and branches of the fir-trees, and in a life which is still our life, still plastic beneath our hands, still alluring to our fancy, still awaiting the accomplishment of our wills and the bringing about of our desires. We lived, you will declare, as children in a dream. But the point is that we made our dream come true. We were only rehearsing, perhaps, for the parts we were soon to play in the actual drama of the world, and growing somewhat at home on the vast and imposing stage; but at least, we never treated our roles with indifference or scorn. Every hour was so full of satisfaction, that except for a few accidents, with their natural tears, there was not a moment left for sorrow. The spacious present, in that delectable age, was great enough for all our needs, yet not too large for us to fill with the pomps of our imagination and all the absorbing details of our endless doings. We stretched our mimic life to the confines of the airy bubble of the universe. There was in it no vacuity nor sadness, no space for languor nor vacillation nor misgiving, no grim past to haunt the memory with remorse, no spectral future to terrorize the teeming mind. We were too busy to harbor resentments or learn the practice of cajolery and cant, but played our parts with ample dignity, ardor, honesty and vivacity, without self-consciousness or second thought. While then, as now, all times were not alike, time itself was so fully employed we did not even guess that it is a golden opportunity.

How does it fare with me now, when childish values have been discarded and the garments of make-believe long ago folded up and laid aside? I may look back upon the shelter of boughs with an amused and superior regard, just as our kindly elders looked down upon us then, but do I deal any more competently with life, now that I am grown, than I did in those innocent years which seem almost legendary? Can I fill the great bubble of the universe full to its rim with satisfaction and gladness? Is the mighty present sufficient for me? And do I play my apportioned role with earnestness, with modesty, with assiduous care?

In the Golden Age every flower was a miracle, every pebble a precious stone. Are they not still as treasurable, as full of beauty, and as deeply touched with inevitable magic? After all these years of studious toil to slake an insatiable curiosity, after all the revelations of science and the sobering effects of experience, after suffering what we are pleased to call disillusion, is the meaning of the universe any plainer than before? Is its structure any less marvelous, its loveliness any less enthralling? Is there, indeed, any such thing as utter disillusion? We allow ourselves to fancy that daily life consists in dealing with commonplace things in a commonsense way; but are we really free from the enchantment of beauty, the sorcery of love, the lure of knowledge? Are we not captivated still by the glory of the earth, and does not the goodly savor of existence still possess us with exuberance of joy?

It seems that we have, each one of us, some secret trail over the impassable mountains of sorrow into the country of the heart's delight. Is not the most worldly of us a dreamer and a visionary at times, cherishing some scheme of good, some plan of life, some project for a blameless enjoyment, to be accomplished one day when he shall have conquered fortune and wrested a little freedom from the hands of inexorable destiny? Does he not front his fellows with a countenance of acerbity and a forbidding air, oftentimes from a foolish shame at the faith still lurking in his heart? One is a connoisseur of paintings, another is a collector of pottery and gems, a third is a lover of poetry and secretly addicted to the muse, a fourth has a passion for first editions or rare bindings or old mahogany, or hand-wrought copper of Blue Belden setters or some other impractical craze, while a fifth clings to the belief that the day will come when he can abandon care and immerse himself in the leisure of a country life-all "hard-headed business men," forsooth, and all tainted with this strain of mortal madness, an imperishable belief in a Golden Age.

Though we look upon the earth with different eyes for the most part now, it is still in our rarer moments the same wonder-work that bewitched our imagination in childhood and bewildered our minds with many conundrums. Upon this stage where we now play the great drama in earnest, we still may see the shifting scenes of scarlet Autumn, frosty Winter, and the Springtime green of orchards. The variable lights of sun and stars and crescent moon, for laborers and mariners and lovers, still flash forth without mischance or check. The drafty gusts of invisible air from the wings of the East or West still blow across it. Its streets and woods are still muffled with silent snow or drenched with veritable rain, or along its horizon white clouds are billowed over the Summer hills. And still at times above the awed beholder the magic Northern streamers may wave to and fro, like bands of saffron and emerald on the purple dark. The valleys still resound with the clamor of ice-cold brooks in the April night, and the myriads of frogs send up their deafening chorus from marshy places as of old. In June the thrushes come back with their solemn music, calm as time and inevitable as morning. And as the season of the falling leaf draws round, the days are touched with an ethereal pathos and heroic beauty, wherein we move, spellbound by an old illusion and haunted by the ancestral dream of an everlasting October. All this we may perceive with the old astonishment, whenever for a moment we lift our eyes from our all-engrossing labors.

So the child is father of the man, and the Golden Age does not belong to any one time of life. It is a charmed cycle in which childhood perpetually dwells, but its gates are never shut against any mortal in whom a trace of childheartedness still survives. Unless we have lost the power by wilful disuse, we may step back within its borders on the instant, whenever we will, and find ourselves once more in that magic air of happiness, that atmosphere of simplicity and romance. It is a passage more swift than a journey on the flying carpet of the fairy-tale. It needs no transportation of the body, but only the transport of the heart, the elation of the spirit by some fortunate breath of inspiration or happy change of thought. Often a sudden circumstance, or a new idea cast into the mind, will bring us there all unexpectedly and make us heirs again of those regions of beatitude.

It is easier to reach the dominion of the Golden Age than to float down stream in a log canoe. It requires only resolution to renounce the tyranny of things and set at naught the supremacy of fear. Whoever will do this without compromise, yet without truculence, may enter that charmed existence again for a day or a year or a lifetime, as his courage endures. For many the Golden Age returns in flares of exhilaration, under the sorcery of success or in moments of admiration; some, sad to say, born scoffers and disbelievers and sullen rebels, hardly ever catch a gleam of its blessed sunshine; while a few are so fortunately constituted that they never pass utterly outside its borders in all their lives. To be cruel, to be unforgiving, to be greedy, to be suspicious or censorious or unjust or distracted or mean, above all, to be sour and dispirited, is to make the Golden Age a fable indeed. To be kind, to be gentle, to be generous, to be blameless as a mortal may, to have faith in nature and trust in people, to have belief without credulity, serenity without indolence, and intensity without violence or debasement-these are some of the virtues we must possess, if only for an hour, before we can enjoy that rare state of mind and quality of spirit in which life, often so leaden seems truly golden and the irreparable flux of time appears but the unregretted passing of immeasurable content. In such moods of blameless rapture we take on the stainless guise of an immortal childhood, and, purifying our man's estate, attain a little of the poise which seraphs wear.

It is a common frailty of the spirit to deplore our accumulating years and look with envy on the luxuriant carelessness of youth, as if experience and culture and the enrichment of memory were not almost the only true wealth. It is good to be young, but it is better to be wise; for youth is often sad, and wisdom's chief concern, after all, is happiness.

I have known persons, two or three, of so rare a character that time did not seem to touch them as it passed. By some blessed miracle of nature they appeared immune from all deterioration or impairment, undistraught by difficulties, unembittered by distress, unarrested by any calamity or toil. Sorrow could not break their singing spirits, nor misfortune cast them down for long. They had fine balance of disposition, which is the chiefest of blessings. They could be counted upon to confront any enigma of existence with an eager, impartial intelligence, always looking for new truth and always abiding by the truth already found; their instinct for beauty was too keen and too great to suffer either satiety or perversion; and their fund of love too profound to be depleted. If natural grief came to them or they were overtaken in some irrational disaster, they bowed before the wind of destiny and sorrowed mightily, as great hearts must, but came up again out of the dust, pliant and undestroyed; unshaken in faith as before and lovelier than ever in the gentleness of their regard. You could not guess their years, you could only say they seemed to live by some perennial charm in a state where all evil was incongruous and decrepitude could never come. And with all their maturity of mind, their magnificent qualities of strength and sympathy, there was always about them a touch of the child, a breath of perpetual innocence and wonder, as if they might be immortals in disguise or wanderers from the fabulous Age of Gold.


"The Golden Age," Smart Set, June 1906 [back]