Edwardian and Georgian Canadian Poets
1900-1930


 

 

Selected Essays and Reviews

by Bliss Carman

Edited by Terry Whalen


 

The Poetry of To-morrow*


 

I believe that the poetry of to-morrow will be greater than the poetry of to-day, because I believe that to-day is greater than yesterday.

I do not say that we are better than our fathers or happier; but I believe that we are greater-greater in accomplishment, greater in aspiration. That we are greater in accomplishment is the veriest commonplace; when we can spare a moment from our inventions and discoveries and the conquest of time and space, we are busy belauding ourselves for these gigantic achievements of the manikin. That we must be greater than our fathers in aspiration seems to me true, since we are weighted with so much more an intolerable burden of despair than they. As the frontiers of thought are extended, the margin of cheerfulness and contentment seems to diminish at a galloping ratio, just as the margin of production is diminished with the advance of cultivation.

When knowledge was as wide as a house, when witches rode broomsticks and the earth was flat, religion must needs be only a comfortable fire upon the hearth, and art no more than the telling of a tale whose beginning was "Once upon a time," and its end "lived happy ever after." But this house of knowledge, this makeshift shelter from the elements, was not to last. Those restless young Vandals, Galileo and Newton and Columbus and Darwin, could not keep their hands from mischief; they rose up and took off the roof, beat down the walls, cursed the poor old grandmother with her fireside tales, and let in the pitiless fury of a wintry dark upon the dwelling. Can we expect to be as comfortable as our fathers were? No; but did not these destroyers also let in the sweet white rain and the wholesome sun itself? The handful of fire was smothered out, you fear, by the first wild inrush of the wind. Even so, even in so sad a case as that, is there not the sun with his thousand fellows to warm us and cheer? How childish to fret about one or two solar systems fewer or more!

The ages of depression, of faint-heartedness, of despair, are only momentary in the history of the world. They are the unfit, and in the natural selection of eternity they will not survive. We are here because there is a joy in living common to the oyster and the octogenarian, the philosopher and the frog, the elephant and the epicure, the icthyosaurus, the iguana, and the idiot.

It has sometimes been said that the greatest poet is he who most perfectly voices the trend of emotion of his day. And it is claimed that the greatness of Arnold is attested most clearly in such poems as "A Summer Night," "Dover Beach," "The Youth of Man," and a score of other such beautiful meditations which are full of the grievous sadness of our time. It is said that his claim upon the future ages for remembrance will lie in his mournful note, because the mournful sentiment was most distinctive of his own.

But this is not true. Even in the day of doubt, the dolorous singer will not be listened to by his contemporaries as gladly as will the sturdier hero who has set his face against the desperate gloom all about him. And Arnold, the gracious and wistful abjurer of strife, has his place among the great English poets, among the first score, by reason of such faultless creations of beauty as "Sohrab and Rustum," "Tristam and Iseult," "The Neckan," "The Forsaken Merman," and "The Scholar-Gipsy." He can be considered a minor poet only because so large a part of his work is in the minor key. He is less than Browning or Tennyson, not because the body of his productions is less, but because his heroism, his assurance, his valor, his faith, are less than theirs. In many ways he is their equal.

Measure for measure there is no part of the "Idyls of the King" comparable in romantic feeling to "Tristram and Iseult;" they are as candlelight to moonlight. There is no pseudo-classical poem of the dead Laureate's equal to "Sohrab and Rustum." and, bulk for bulk, there is no portion of the "In Memoriam" that for simplicity, for inevitableness, for sheer and undoubted poetic quality, can compare with "The Scholar-Gipsy." The latter poem has not a line of prose in it; the former has whole stanzas of mere prose.

Still all this does not make Arnold the equal of him who has just been laid by Browning's side. There in front of Chaucer's tomb they lie, the Sons of Thunder of the Victorian age. We have honored Tennyson the more because his speech was the easier to understand. Men will hereafter not honor Browning the less, for in time it will seem puerile that we could have thought him always obscure, or have missed the forthright rush and lyric abandon of his utterance. The songs they sang, the creations that came from their hands, taught self-reliance, heroism, joy. And these mark you, are qualities dear to the ages. For the race of man, alike with the creatures of the field, persists by self reliance, by heroism, by abiding joy. And the great poet is he who gathers these virtues in his heart.

It was easy to be a poet in the morning times of Elizabeth, for then heroism and joy and self-reliance were everywhere. Conquest was in the air and triumph in every wind that blew. And to-day is not less great in discovery; only the discoveries are of a more intellectual, a less material, and therefore a less suggestive sort. The Elizabethans found new islands of the sea, and their discoveries fed the imagination; we have made far explorations into the region of the unknown, and our homecoming is attended with no floating of banners, no sound of drums; for we have hardly been able to set foot upon the sighted shore, nor to bring back any certain report of the friendliness and treasure of those dim Altrurian Isles.

But to-morrow the Captain of the Ocean Sea will come, the adjuster and revealer of new realms of poetry. Nor is he likely to forget how cruelly his prototype, Columbus, was discredited at first.

We may know him in his own time, tho that is not likely. His work will be done without conceit, yet with entire disregard of the blame of his fellows or their wildest approval. Just what that work will be it is not possible to say; for he himself, when he shall arrive, will not be able to tell the secret of his delirious vision. The task which his fancy shall so cunningly contrive in an idle noonday rest, his handicraft may finish before sunset; yet it will give no hint of the sudden revelation that may be awaiting for him in the doors of the following dawn.

Still there are some traits of his work that we may be sure of. That it will be large and glad and valiant and joyful, we have seen; for these qualities inhere in the heart of man, not to be thrust out by the overthrow of empires, or the founding of republics, or any trifles of history whatsoever. These are the things that help the race along; and anything that does not so help will speedily be forgotten as a hindrance. But, above all things, the poetry of to-morrow will not be commonly understood; it will appeal only to the children of to-morrow-of its own morrow. And this, not because it will be poor art, but because the artist, the true artist, speaks from within by authority; and his new word, so potent to himself, is a sealed book to his troubled fellows. If he is great, he will be gently obstinate about his work; yet none will be a more willing learner than he, gladly considering even the crudest criticism.

Nature, the beautiful outer world, is all there was found to say before man's time came upon the earth. Art is the constant slow insistence of God to express himself through the heart of man. Poetry is what the world would say if it could speak. Art, then, is far above Nature; and the man who thinks the highest achievement in art is to be attained by the most perfect copying of what he has seen, may be a photographer or a scientist; but he is not an artist, he is not a poet. For the painter and the novelist and the musician, as well as the poet, must speak from within.

Here is the fallacy of our modern school of realists (as they are called), that school which has for its most distinguished leader in this country, a man so gentle and fair and kindly, so full of all that is best in human nature, as quite to disarm criticism of the theories he supports. How delighted those who know him would be if they could ever find in his novels a character as ennobling and stimulating as his own!

If the end of art were to please alone, then, indeed, the realists would not be altogether wrong. But art has something else to do. It must please, in order that it may teach; but its first and last business is to teach. It will not teach by the polished wit of "The Essay on Man"; it will teach by imposing a dominant beauty upon life. It will lead and stimulate and suggest. It will content itself with the creation of the utterly beautiful, knowing that there lies the easiest and the shortest road to the conquest of evil, to the ennobling of the race, to the bettering of the world. Its influence will be as generous as the sun and as impassive as the dew, as abundant as the wind or the sea, and as subtile and sure as the touch of environment upon the unborn child.

When Arnold said that poetry is a criticism of life, he did not mean that as a definition of poetry. It is true as far as he meant it, as far as it goes; but poetry is much more than a criticism of life; it is the aspiration of a new life, the persistent and blind cry of the soul, a flickering shadow of ourselves cast huge against the sky.

It is the function of art, of poetry and music and the plastic arts, to show us a better and more beautiful life than that we daily know. It marches like a ragged child, proud and glad and unconscious, with the drums of the vanguard. Only the place of the artisan, the charlatan and the purveyor of amusement is with the camp followers in the rear.

Again, the poetry of to-morrow will be so like the poetry of to-day that few will be able to tell the difference; for the elements of poetry are abiding and not fluctuating; they are based on the eternal needs of the soul, and are forged according to changeless laws of Nature. Englishmen seem to think that America must produce something absolutely new in art; but America is only man taking a new start. The conditions are the same. At best it is only Eden over again-or a little better. This accounts for the tremendous vogue of Whitman in England. But we must not be deceived here. Whitman was the compiler of a large poetic notebook, little more. The need for rhythm and form in art is deeper than he knew; the need of self-effacement and humility in the artist is greater than his egotism would permit him to perceive. Whitman's work will die and not live, because it is not beautiful. The preacher who rants, cuts his own throat; the poet who proses, breaks his own pen.

The poetry of to-morrow will be closely akin to all the best poetry of the world-to Homer, to Isaiah, to Omar, to Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton and Browning. For these never grow old; they are so simple that Time takes them always for children. A man may always do a new thing in art, and he may do it in a new way; but he must still work by the old elemental rules. These he must find and follow, for they are as changeless as the law of gravitation. To transgress, then, is to die, to violate, then, is to commit suicide. Yet the most fatuous kind of criticism is that which has a few perfect standards and brings all new work into comparison with these.

Now it may happen that after this Victorian Age, the to-morrow of poetry may be postponed for a hundred years. So it was after Chaucer's death. But that is no reason for discouragement. The ages are not in a hurry, it is only Chicago and London that are in a hurry. The greater than Shakespeare will come. It is foolish to suppose that the Word which was in the beginning, and which has been spoken from the lips of men so often in these brief centuries, will leave itself without more perfect utterance at the last. Meanwhile, while all things are under discussion and philosophy has no sure answer to any question the immediate business of poetry is to be heroic. Indifferentism is but a sorry creed; yet indifferentism which covers the heroic heart will not be altogether idle. Omar has lived not because of his doubt, but because of his heroism; he is dear to us for that to-day.

I have said nothing of the probable technical qualities of poetry in the future; but there will be a greater simplicity and directness of structure, and more perfect articulation. Every line, every stanza, every poem, will be as simple and direct as if it were prose. Inversion for the sake of rhyme or meter will be impossible. In this regard, Browning will for some years to come be our best teacher. In articulation we may still learn from Tennyson, with his

"mellow lin-lan-lone of evening bells."

But to speak of the poetry of to-morrow within the compass of two thousand words, is as if one should send a mosquito against the armies of Israel.


"Poetry of Tomorrow," Independent, Nov. 3, 1892 [back]