Edwardian and Georgian Canadian Poets
1900-1930


 

 

Selected Essays and Reviews

by Bliss Carman

Edited by Terry Whalen


 

Riley-Poet of the People*


 

I have been asked to say something about Mr. Riley as a poet. I suppose it is because I have tried to write poetry myself, and have also written about poetry-though that would not make one a critic, by any means.

Then there is another reason that almost disqualifies me from making any firm estimate of the poetry of Mr. Riley. As I said when I promised to undertake this brief article: "It is too much of a personal matter with me. I can't think of him as a poet; I just think of him as himself. At the same time I think he is about the only man in America who is writing any poetry."

That is practically all there is to say, but perhaps it needed to be said. People in general do not need to be told that life is greater than poetry, greater than art. And people who care for poetry and art and culture do not need to be reminded of the worth and value of those things. But it may be we all need to be reminded that art and life belong together, that our present habit of thinking of them as separate is all a mistake, and that we ought to do all we can to bring them together again as they were in the old times. Art and poetry have grown artificial, anĉmic and cheap through being separated from life; and life has grown vulgar and poor, sordid and dull, through being separated from poetry and art.

This may sound mere pedantry at first; but when you come to think of it, it must seem reasonable. Art and poetry were not originally exclusive and precious and uncommon things, to be enjoyed only by the rich. They were enjoyed by everybody and appreciated by everybody, because in some form they were produced by everybody. Every workman ought to be an artist in his own craft, and so he would if he had freedom. But the cunning of art can never return to the hand of the artisan, nor the magic of taste be restored to his mind, until he is liberated from the bondage of commercial slavery. It is the commercial spirit that has driven art and life asunder, and will keep them apart until we perceive the terrible waste and unhappiness that spring from their divorce. For people will not always be willing to live without beauty. They will insist on having it, just as they now insist on having money. They will see that beauty and art and culture are not to be despised as things of small value in a practical world, but are indeed the most valuable things a practical world can get through its toil. We shall come to see that these things belong to life inherently, that every man has a natural right to some share in them, and that they are not extravagant, fantastical luxuries to be purchased at will.

Then, too, poetry in some form will be restored to men's respect and affection; not poetry like the puny rimes of current periodical literature, which are produced so readily, and are so justly held in little esteem; but poetry of a character that shall become an adequate, rational, and helpful comment on life, sufficient, sincere, spontaneous, intelligent, and universally admired and revered-poetry such as a more sane life than ours once evolved, and must evolve again.

Meanwhile, in this day when poetry is thought so little of, when it has come to be so artificial for the most part, and so far from any real attachment to living issues, Mr. Riley's work stands out prëeminently by reason of its naturalness, exuberance, vitality and sincerity. It is native to the soil, it is born of a common life, and keeps close to the common sentiment of American men and women. It is always sure of a welcome because it speaks to us in a manner we can understand, and about things we care for. At the same time it is not commonplace nor uninspired, but is spirited, fresh, original, and full of the sap of life.

Mr. Kipling is almost the only other poet of the English-speaking world of whom the like may be said. He is, of course, different from Mr. Riley in many ways. His themes and ideals and standards and interests are all different. But he has that great virtue in an artist, a rational pertinence to life. He appeals to an immense audience-just as Mr. Riley does, just as Longfellow and Tennyson did-because he always treats of things which are in men's minds, and in a way that is intelligible. In following the poetic gleam neither Kipling or Riley has allowed himself to be led away from the solid ground of actual life into the interminable marshes of ineffectual dream. Their work has always plenty of idealism, plenty of imagination, plenty of sensuous beauty, and yet it is never trivial, insignificant, nor hard to understand. It is never over our heads, nor aside from human interests, and yet it has all the vigor and emotional abandon that we could ask for.

Poets, particularly minor poets, often fail for one of two reasons. If they are sincere they are apt to withdraw themselves from an indifferent world and indulge their wayward fancy in a dreamy, unintelligible rapture, fitting rimes which can never command an audience, because they have no bearing upon universal experience and sentiment. If they are insincere they pay so much heed to what the world wants, that they lose all dignity and influence.

Poets of happier fortune are those who are sane enough not to quarrel with a topsy-turvy world, and at the same time are of too noble a spirit to sacrifice their allegiance to beauty and truth. They live close to the deep, loving, foolish old heart of humanity, yet never disregard the intimations that seem divinely wise and lawful to their own quiet judgement. The secret of their success is not only that they keep the lantern of inspiration burning clear, but that they use it for lighting the dusty road before them- not for flighty excursions into impenetrable thickets and over quaking bogs. Such poets are among the sanest and most helpful of mortals, though they be credulous, child-hearted dreamers all their lives.

It will readily be admitted, I think, that Mr. Riley is one of these happy personalities, a poet who has always followed the fine authentic promptings of his own genius, and yet has never got far away from the great trend of common human interests and emotions. His poetry has imagination in abundance, gaiety, fancifulness, and originality, and at the same time is free from the vagaries of wilfulness and the futile affectations which stultify the work of so many clever men. With all his whimsical caprices of fancy he never does violence to common sense; and with all his shrewd humor and sanity he is never without the inevitable spark of imagination which makes poetry what it is. He is one of the most admirable of poets because of his humanity, and one of the most lovable of men because of that perennial spring of youthful poetic fancy which has never been quenched in worldliness or dismay.


"Riley-Poet of the People," Book News Monthly [back]