Edwardian and Georgian Canadian Poets
1900-1930


 

 

Selected Essays and Reviews

by Bliss Carman

Edited by Terry Whalen


 

One of the First Score Poets*


 

There are many thoughts that come to mind when Tennyson is mentioned, and we are bidden to remember that he was born a hundred years ago. Already he belongs to another age, and the impartial dust of the great Abbey begins to accustom him to immortality. He was not only the chief poet of his time, he was once the chief poet of the English race, one of the first score, and, as Matthew Arnold reminded us, "in nothing is England so great as in her poetry."

That may seem to our strife-and-labor-deafened ears a fantastic exaggeration, a mere making of phrases. And yet when one sits down quietly in the shade of a tree and considers the causes of the nations of men, what after all remains of them that is as great as their spiritual and intellectual achievements, their literatures and arts?

In a hundred years from now what will our skyscrapers avail if we have not been happy in them? The wealth of a country may be greater or less, but that country which is without prophets of the mind, without incentives to an ever-widening life of the spirit and intelligence, is poor, indeed.

Tennyson was fortunate in his life. He had the best in birth and breeding and education that England has to give. That was a great boon. He had neither poverty nor riches, and the competence he acquired he made from the practice of his heavenly calling. He was not a lover of his age. He had none of Browning's sharp inquisitiveness about the immediate drama of common life all around him, but found himself rather a perplexed bystander in the confusion, aims, and crumbling beliefs and new-sprung sciences of the nineteenth century. He wrapped himself in his poet's mantle and dwelt apart, a life of exceptional dignity and reserve. Yet he was by no means a shirker in the great battle, for he labored dutifully and splendidly to the end.

By an unfaltering adherence to the best that was in him, and unceasing cultivation of his powers, he left behind him in the imaginations of men the image of a beautiful and eminent personality. Who will may read and enjoy their haunting cadences echoeing through our English tongue. His life, too, is as memorable. It should be a rebuke and an inspiration to us; a rebuke to the man of affairs who too often in the stress of daily living forgets the greater and essential things, and allows himself to become skeptical about poetry, about learning and wisdom, and their supremacy in this world; an inspiration to the doubting craftsman in any art who, beset by difficulties, permits himself to be overborne by the caprice or seeming materialism of his time, who fails to see poetry in the splendid pulsing life of the world today, who is tempted to cry out in weakness against the hard requirements of his fortune, and abandon that spiritual battle which it is his magnificent privilege to carry on.

There is no privileged class in God's universe, the empire of the good. But that of the artist-the seeker of truth the interpreter and creator of beauty-comes nearest to being one. Tennyson sat in the House of Peers. It was the highest honor his appreciative country had to bestow. But his place is among the lords of song, with Virgil and Sophocles, with Danto and David, in that great citizenship which knows neither creed nor country and acknowledges only the supremacy of the best.


"One of The First Score Poets," in feature, "American and English Scholars Celebrate Tennyson Centenary," New York Times, Aug. 1, 1909 [back]