Edwardian and Georgian Canadian Poets
1900-1930


 

 

Selected Essays and Reviews

by Bliss Carman

Edited by Terry Whalen


 

Review of Collected Poems of S. Weir Mitchell*


 

In this book Dr. Mitchell has brought together for permanent publication all his work, previously issued in some seven volumes, so that we now have his contribution to American poetry in a compact form, and its significance is the more readily to be seen.

Perhaps his most salient excellence (to go directly to the core of the matter) is an unerring taste. Now taste in abundance may or may not be one of the characteristics of a true poet. It is certainly one of the first characteristics of every careful artist. Mr. John Davidson has it sparingly, and yet much of his poetry is undoubtedly genuine. Mr. William Watson has it in abundance, and yet his poetry is nearly always uninteresting. Genius and taste have really very little to do with each other, unless perhaps we admit that if a man have taste enough, it amounts to talent; and if he have talent enough, it amounts to genius. Taste is that quality of mind which gives worth to our judgments in matters of art; and he who has it will bring to his own work as severe a criticism as he does to the work of others. And there have been geniuses without number to whom such a task was quite impossible. Wordsworth and Byron and Whitman and Shelley-these were great poets blessed with little taste. When the spirit was upon them, they gave voice to burning utterances from the heart of man; but they could no more distinguish their good work from their bad than the wind can tell a harp from a hair-comb. The critical faculty was never theirs. On the other hand, in men like Landor, and Keats, and Tennyson, and Arnold, and Longfellow taste is never lacking. They may at times fall short of perfection, but they could never be guilty of the solemn dulness of Wordsworth at his worst or the occasional turgid extravagance of Whitman. Milton, of course, was a prince in taste and technique, our supreme artist in English verse. Now it is a cultivated and unfailing taste which has stood Dr. Mitchell in such good stead, and enabled him to leave on his readers so graceful an impression. You may read him from cover to cover without once being annoyed by a jarring note or an incongruous turn. Given the theme or the fancy, his taste enables him to treat it in an appropriate way, smoothly and evenly to the end. It saves him from blundering and ineffectual effort. It makes his book a refreshing change after the slipshod, helter-skelter affectations of too many of our sophomoric minor bards.

For Dr. Mitchell belongs distinctly, in quality if not in years, to the golden age of American letters-the age of Longfellow and Holmes, the time when scholarship and manners and the instincts of the gentleman had not been overborne in the turmoil of the writer's craft. Many of Dr. Mitchell's subjects, too, especially his Old-World dramas and ballads, are just those Longfellow might have chosen: "Dominique de Gourgues," for instance, and "Herndon," and "The Christ of the Snows," and "How the Cumberland went Down." His few occasional poems recall the style of Dr. Holmes, while several lyrics in the lighter vein, like "The Quaker Lady" and "Forget-Me-Nots," are worthy of the Autocrat himself. In this connection also one might quote a couple of polished stanzas from "The Quaker Graveyard":

"Through quiet length of days they come,
    With scarce a change, to this repose;
Of all life's loveliness they took
    The thorn without the rose.

"While on the graves of drab and gray
    The red and gold of autumn lie,
And wilful Nature decks the sod
    In gentlest mockery."

Such workmanship as this and such freedom from effort proclaim the conscientious artist, the taker of infinite pains, the writer who thinks more of his art than of himself. And on every page the reader will feel himself in the company of an accomplished man of the world, who has looked in the face of life without flinching, and found it wholesome and fair. In the poems of nature, too, such as "A Psalm of the Waters," "Elk County," "Nipigon Lake" (all in the metre of "Evangeline," sufficiently modified to be disguised), there is a steady quietness of outlook, a sobriety of thought and feeling, that many a young versifier, who is now breaking his neck in a race for originality, would do well to regard. To me the chief pleasure of the book is that it is never feverish, nor strained, nor affected, but always simple and clear and of an even tenor; and one is thankful for once not to feel the reviewer's temptation to use the phrase "strikingly original."

And yet it would be doing Dr. Mitchell an injustice to leave the impression that he is tame or that he is no more than a well-trained echo of Longfellow; for if one may make a shrewd guess, he has been a constant admirer of a greater poet than the author of "The Skeleton in Armour" and "The Psalm of Life." I mistake if there is nothing of Browning's potent influence in these pages; not in their manner, indeed, so much as in the subjects of some of the poems. There lingers about them, different as they are in treatment, something of his intense humanity and sturdy love of the dramatic. In the opening of "The Swan Woman" the likeness is marked, yet not too marked to be admirable.

But of all the poems, the one which seems to me most individual and memorable is "Responsibility," wherein is related by the poet Attar El Din how the angels of Affirmation and Denial struggled for his soul. At the conclusion of the dispute,

"Said Nekkir, the clerk of man's wrong,
'Great Solomon's self might be long
In judging this mad son of song.'

'Then I who am Attar El Din,
Cried, 'Surely no two shall agree
Thou mighty collector of sin,
Be advised: come with me to the Inn;
There are friends who shall witness for me-
Big-bellied, respectable, staunch,
One arm set a-crook on the haunch;
They will pour the red wine of advice,
And behold! ye shall know in a trice
How hopeless for wisdom to weigh
The song-words a poet may say.'

"Cried Moonkir, the clerk of good thought,
'Ah, where shall decision be sought?
Let us quit this crazed maker of song,
A confuser of right and of wrong,'

"'But first,' laughed I, Attar El Din,
'I am dry: leave my soul at the Inn.'"

After such a conclusion as this there can be no more to say.


Rev. of Collected Poems of S. Weir Mitchell, Bookman, Sept. 1896 [back]