Edwardian and Georgian Canadian Poets
1900-1930


 

 

Selected Essays and Reviews

by Bliss Carman

Edited by Terry Whalen


 

The Poetry of Morning*


 

Of late years good fortune has enabled me to live in the country and to be more or less the master of my hours. It is a great boon,-all the greater since I am still within comfortable reach of the city with all its advantages, its undoubted stimulus, its incalculable opportunity, its vital fascination, its glamor, its brilliant lure, to be had within little more than an hour's ride. I miss, no doubt, the helpful routine and the incitement of a hive full of workers, but there is the great compensation of freshness and the possibility of maintaining one's own individual rhythm.

Country life is by no means an unqualified benefit for the artist; indeed an exclusive country life may easily be ruinous for some characters. It throws its devotee unexpectedly back on his own fund of energy; it surrounds him with no atmosphere of successful artistic achievement; it gives no spur to his ambition, no healthy rivalry to keep his industry alive, no varied abundance of companionship to make him humane and wise. He needs must be endowed with a great persistence and a steady zeal, for the sources of his impulse are all within. Nature, after all, is only the paper of the book of life in which we print the story of our days. The country gives us a wide leisurely margin for our romantic history. The purport of those annals, their gist and color, must be derived for the most part other-where,-from experiences in a world of men and women, from intimations that come to the brooding mind, from emotions, actions, dreams, desires, sorrows, raptures, triumphs, and defeats. But to the spirit tested by battle and tempered by enduring toil, the country is a great privilege, and life near the open a wholesome and blessed gain.

To taste the savor of elemental things, to feel the good dirt road underfoot, to breath clean air, to see the wind ruffle the stream, to hear a wild bird call, to look upon the crimson sunset through a grove of pines, or to watch through solemn night the jubilant procession of the twinkling stars, is to be restored like Antaeus by a touch of Mother Earth to the heritage of our primal strength. To stand upon a rocky ledge among our Eastern mountains and catch the distant surf-like murmur of the wind-vexed tree-tops far below, or to walk the unfenced moorlands on a lonely coast and look seaward over the summer blue, is to learn the magic of which high ancient poetry was made. But these are exceptional drafts of the wine of life, transporting us to the dawn of the world. Our daily fare as a rule must be much simpler; and yet no day need ever pass for the country dweller without bringing him some enjoyment of the beauty and power of nature,-that spiritual nourishment so lavishly provided for those who will turn adventurous steps beyond the borders of the town. The first frogs in an April twilight, ringing from the marshy land, or the odor of wild grapes from a tangled roadside in September, or just the lift of a maple crown against the azure sky, may well have sorcery enough to distil for us imperishable happiness in a single ordinary day. So easily are the crude materials of existence touched and transformed into fairy joy.

It is the poetry of morning that brings the keenest zest and refreshment for the prisoner of cities who returns to country ways. The spaciousness of time so long forgotten, the sense of ecstasy and deliberation,. the relief from tension, the escape from insane haste, unholy warfare, inhuman greed and the sore dread of ruthless interruption! To waken in a clean quiet place, in possession of one's own soul, to open one's eyes to actual sunlight on the floor and the moving of boughs beyond the window, to be roused by volleying rain on the piazza roof, or by a gust of snow across one's face, to feel consciousness come slowly back to its accustomed channels and realize without horror or perturbation the coming of another day, to stretch like a healthy creature, to rise and dress like a sane human-a lord and not a hireling of time; these are tenuous but real goods in life, hardly to be compassed in a modern city. The countryman tumbles out of bed with a light heart; you may hear him whistling in his bath or humming an air as he ties his cravat, and you may see him come to his breakfast, already with a tinge of rose upon his cheek. He has slept like a farmer, in the fragrant air of orchards and pasturelands; there is no fever in his pulse, no tremor in his hand, no panic in his soul; and while his fellows of the town are waking to dejection in a poisoned air, he steps forth, a sound mind in a sound physique, eager with the zest of life, into the promise of another day.

Before the sun is clear of the garden tree-tops is the cream of the day. It is then that life is fragrant with hope and dewy with romance. Then the mind is most alert, the heart most ready for enterprise. It is the time for new knowledge and creative effort. In my dreamful youth, when it was required of us to be diligent over our books, I found no hardship in reading, and the morning hours were ever the richest and most enchanted of all. To get up with the sun in summer, while all the neighbourhood slept, and sit in the bedroom window overlooking an old rose garden where elm trees hung and purple martins, bickered, poring over Virgil or Euclid, Csar or Xenophon, was no task at all. It was actually to live in the morning of the world. There were the shadows traversing the sides of the hills, just as Virgil saw them nearly two thousand years ago. Here, if one had the wit to cross the pons assinorum, lay a whole new world of wondrous truth, outspreading in the distance like an unexplored continent before the gaze of a discoverer on a lofty divide. And who, having followed the track of the Ten Thousand, but must feel his blood quicken with that joyous shout, Thalassa, Thalassa!, as the home-longing warriors beheld once more their sparkling sea. Such study was not toil, but the wholesome play of a normal imagination wisely kindled with the poetry of morning and already appreciating the solace and nutriment of books.

Such training lasts. From such early impressions and conceptions of life there can be no permanent retrogression. The personality that is well-born and well-schooled is already two-thirds of the way on the road to success; and though we should never reach the goal of our ambitions, the first draught of morning poetry will never be quite fruitless nor forgotten; we shall have always at our command the means of refreshment, of nurture, of growth, and be enabled in any morning hour to pluck victory from disaster and set a triumphant foot upon the neck of discouraging night. What accident, sorrow, evil or dismay can actually undo the spirit that has drunk of the ever-living springs of truth and looked on beauty in the morning light? Age cannot quench the soul, nor penury shut it away from joy. It still transcends "outrageous fortune," and comes into its own in spite of all defeats.

We should be stamped by culture, and wear the fine bloom of the mint of time, like those imperishable Greek coins, still current as a standard of beauty, untarnished by time, undebased by use. The drift of ages may go by, new cities may rise on the ruins of old civilizations, but the value of reverence, of scholarship, of learning, of beauty, of poetry does not wane. The poetry of morning is still the measure of happiness, and only those are truly rich who have it in store against the darker day. He who will pass his youth with a book under his arm is forging a talisman against failure and despair more potent than any other sorcery could devise. Grief may pass his door, as she visits all the homes of men, but her shadow cannot stay where wisdom dwells; and patient time, that is the ancient mother of knowledge, will come with many a quiet sunrise, bringing man a rearisen hope, to that fortunate habitation, before the final dusk.

If people are tending to live more and more in the country, as seems to be the case, who can wonder at the choice? After passing through the rage of battle in populous cities, and taking well or ill their teaching and their triumphs, their rapturous pleasures and immortal friendships, the tempered and experienced soul is glad to find again its earlier environment, and with all its lore so strenuously acquired, to the quietude of fields, the shadow of woods, the springtime music of migrant birds, and the heavenly changing lights of the unpolluted sky. Praise be for all the goodly poetry of cities, their architecture, their books, their gay shops, their teeming thoroughfares, their wise and lovely women, their forceful men! Not to have known these things and these mortals, is not to have lived modern life. But here on the borders of the wild, beyond the suburbs, where trees rustle and grass springs underfoot, where apples hang unmolested over a roadside wall, and the call of cattle comes on the resonant air, is the better home for a full grown man or woman. You may grow here more stalwart of limb, wear a serener countenance, and with every full clean breath feel revive our inalienable kinship with the infinite and the eternal.

Here is no solitude, for the Lord of life is moving among the chestnut groves, as he walked in the garden long ago; no loneliness, for that sickness of the soul only breeds in the black houses of fear and the rookeries of dissipation. Beauty at all hazards we must have for our daily fare, if the spiritual life is to be kept wholesome and the heart from turning in upon itself. And nowhere so abundantly as in the country may great beauty be had for so little cost. A hut by the sea or a tent among the hills will give you such a continual feast of beauty as only the wealthiest city dweller can command, and all without an hour's care of your priceless possessions, or a moment's anxiety concerning them.

To appreciate the poetry of morning to the full, the edge of health is needed, not necessarily great muscularity, but a wholesome vigor and a well-attuned physique. The artificial excitements and stimulants common to city life must be put away, if we are to listen to the oracles of nature, whose subtle meaning will escape any sense but the finest. We must bring to them fresh unjaded tissues, not the dull ear and bilious vision of the town. A sensitive skin and a clean-fed well-ventilated body are as requisite for the understanding of nature as a keen curiosity and a loving enthusiasm. Tea, coffee, wine, spirits, rich foods, even I must sorrowfully add beneficent tobacco,-all these goods must be used in Oriental moderation, and life must be made a fine art, if we are to enjoy the delicate flavor of the poetry of existence as it is distilled for us in the morning of our days. One need not be an ascetic. There are courses of discipline short of a hermit's crust and a hair shirt. Our object is not to torment, but to perfect the body, maintaining all the senses at their finest condition as avenues of impression, ever ready to report to the attentive and eager soul the passing of the Angel of Revelation. For this purpose a Spartan regimen is not always best; there are times when a sane moderation, a happy mean like Nature's own, will bring us nearer to her heart. Horace, we know, was well content with olives and a salad, yet did not scorn the generous Falernian. Yet true it is that he who would know nature and be received into her inner sanctuary must live simply, cleanly, and sparingly withal. The lyric poet must have a lenient heart for the life of the city squares, but the modern adept in the great poetry of out of doors must be keyed, as Emerson and Thoreau were, to the heroic rule of the Epic bard with his wooden bowl.

Fine health is the thing. We should walk like seraphs in the flesh, not like cheerless slaves. Whatever makes for the finest physical condition, without obscuring the mind and dulling the spirit with an overplus of brute muscle, makes for the finest capacity to enjoy and appreciate the natural poetry of earth. A unitrinian creed is the only creed,-a faith which links soul to body, and intelligence to both, in a co-equal sovereignty and freedom, and recognizes that no ideal perfection can be attained for any one of these without the co-operation of the other two. Some nobleness of spirit, some true comprehension of science of life, some sensitive instinct for the art of living; these forces must draw together in the personality, if we are to touch the fine rewards which await us in the paradisal hours.

It matters not whether the page for our perusal be Homer or Browning, Darwin or Plotinus, February snowfall or April sunlight on brooks and fields; in this threefold culture lies the secret of radiant success for any mortal who would hear and understand poetry of morning, beholding all the mysterious beguiling pageantry of this common world, as the Greeks beheld it, as early man beheld it,-drenched in beauty, significant with meaning, and, for all its way-worn griefs and tattered tragedies, in the ultimate analysis ineffably and supremely good.


"The Poetry of Morning," Literary Miscellany, Autumn 1911 [back]