Edwardian and Georgian Canadian Poets
1900-1930


 

 

Selected Essays and Reviews

by Bliss Carman

Edited by Terry Whalen


 

Mr. Francis Thompson's Poems*


 

No other book of verse in the past two years has had such a sudden and surprising vogue among the critics as this of Mr. Thompson's. The reason is not easy to find, for he has not the qualities of prettiness and commonplace which make for usual popularity. He is neither simple nor sweet. His thought is neither vulgar nor obvious. The immediate phrase and the memorable cadence are alike beyond him. He is no little Wooden Wordsworth; to read him is like chewing sand. Still he is being talked about, and his private life is food for the paragrapher.

I do not believe that his notoriety is due to the originality of his badness, nor to our own slavery to the reign of the Queen under which we live. I would rather believe it due to some taint he has of that finest, most inseparable element of all art-the element of imagination. This is the touch that even the Literary Critic cannot escape.

Imagination he certainly has, as several of his lines attest, flaring and undoubted; but it is an imagination uncouth and unschooled. It has never had its hair cut. He cannot depend upon it.

It dances before him like a Jack-o'-lantern and leads his judgment down woful, dark ways of flinty diction, where the forlorn reader toils after him, distraught and out of temper, only to be bogged at last in some ferocious solecism of idiom and good taste. He has made an indulgence of Browning. The pardonable sins of that great master have become in him a loathsome habit. There was in Browning's voice an occasional wayward accent, a personal inflection, that removed much of his work from the perfect sphere of the great normal English, the poetry where all individual tones are submerged in the single beauty of a completely simple expression. And this wayward accent, this wholly personal mannerism, Mr. Thompson has acquired and elevated into a dialect. He is never simple nor direct nor sufficient for himself.

And yet I am not quite fair here, for it is Browning's vice rather than his manner that Mr. Thompson has acquired. He is worse than Browning's worst (in versification, I mean, of course), but he is not imitative. His evil deeds are his own and not another's. Though he fails lamentably of access to Heaven, he is yet, unlike Tomlinson of Berkley Square, worthy of damnation for sins original with himself.

"Chaste and intelligential love."

"If I would praise her soul (temerarious if!)"

"The Stopped Sun-toper as ever drank hard-
    Stares foolish, hazed,
    Rubicund, dazed,
Totty with thine October tankard."

Shade of Keats, what a jargon! And in this distorted fashion of speech all the work labors for utterance. The diction is affected and abominable, the technique is barbarous, slovenly and wilful. There is no excuse for an artist in words today allowing himself such gross liberties with his mother tongue. Tennyson and Milton have not lived in vain, and Mr. Swinburne, while he is a deadly model, is an indispensable master. But the English,- I mean, we English,-are the lords of whim, and every stripling who cannot master his art with ease, sets himself to acquire fame by his oddity.

An affection of style is about as sensible as an affectation of dress. Mannerism is odious, manner is adorable. Affectation is the cardinal sin in all art. For art is the outcome of expression, and expression is the revelation of self,-sincere or nothing. The only excuse for manner and style is the compelling blind necessity the person has felt for just that expression and no other. He then becomes master even of his own style. But the little man is a slave to manner, even to his own manner; he is a mannerist.

Not that Mr. Francis Thompson is a mannerist, not at all. He is too young to be a mannerist. His manner is his own, and it is entirely sincere, but it is an essentially bad manner. And in ten years, unless he assiduously correct it, and strive for simplicity and naturalness and common dignity, it will have been stereotyped, it will have become mannerism.

If there were nothing, however, in this new book of poems but a strange manner of verse and a rough provincial accent, it certainly would not be worth mentioning. But there is more than that. There are fitful, wayward gleams of imagination, as I have said.

"Across the margent of the world I fled,
And troubled the gold gateways of the stars."

"This laboring, vast, Tellurian galleon,
Riding at anchor off the orient sun,
Had broken its cable, and stood out to space."

It is not common to write so. And a few lines like these fully justify one in taking Mr. Thompson to task for his multitude of offences, his vagaries, his slipshod verse, his intolerable ugliness of phrase, his unhappy minting of words, and his straining of fancies to their death. He treats a fancy of a conceit as a child might treat a butterfly. He pulls the gauzy wings apart until the poor thing is wracked beyond all hope of loveliness forever. Indeed all his fault is the fault of youth. Whatever his age, he is a very young poet. He follows his eye too far abroad. He is not content to be simple; he has that great first lesson still to learn.

"And with the sea-breeze hand in hand,
Came innocence and she."

"Her skin was like a grape, whose veins
Run snow instead of wine."

"But the rose's scent is bitterness
To him that loved the rose."

"Ere thy poet-mouth was able
For its first young starry babble."

"Made to unedge the scythe of Time.

"The chambers in the house of dreams
Are fed with so divine an air,
That Time's hoar wings grow young therein."

"The pang of all the partings gone,
And partings yet to be."

"For we are born in other's pain
And perish in our own."

Scraps such as these (five of them are from one poem) are simple enough, but they are painfully infrequent in this overrated volume. Acres of turgid juvenility and a few spears of poetry,-no such very great things after all.

No, I cannot feel that Mr. Thompson has yet written a single poem, I can only feel that he has allowed himself to put forth a premature volume of execrable verse, blotched here and there with an untutored though genuine fancy. Still his failures and offences are alike pardonable in his years,-I should say, in his inexperience. And if he will devote himself to the goddess Simplicity, that beauty whom the old parishioner of Rydal so shamefully bedraggled, he may yet write something that people can read, which shall also be worthy of his own vision.

The few romantic reports of Mr. Thompson's private life speak him a man of single purpose and childish heart, one indeed unlikely to be spoiled by praise of critics, or perturbed even for a moment by frank impressions such as these.


"Mr. Francis Thompson's Poem," Chap-Book, May 15, 1894 [back]