Edwardian and Georgian Canadian Poets
1900-1930


 

 

Selected Essays and Reviews

by Bliss Carman

Edited by Terry Whalen


 

From "A Modern Athenium"

X*


 

Good heavens, Socrates, you don't mean to say you find traits of idiocy in our contemporary literature!"

(This, you will remember, was in continuation of our conversation on decadence, when Socrates had diverted me into an admission that madness, idiocy and debauchery were the three diseases of the mind, and that each found its counterpart in art. He had already given me some instances of what he meant by a tendency to madness in letters; and when I had asked him if there were any examples of idiocy as well, he had replied that they are too numerous to mention.)

"Well," he said, "you must not be frightened by the word idiocy; after all, it is only the name for one sort of exaggeration in our human make-up. Remember what you said just now, that idiocy always shows an excess of the emotional and physical qualities, as compared with the mental. When you ask me, for instance, of the idiotic in literature, and I tell you they are over-abundant, you seem surprised. Perhaps I had better ask you what great writer of our own day seems to you most sane and sensible."

"I should think," said I, "that Tennyson might be taken as a good example of the poet, sane in body and in mind and full of emotion, too."

"Yes?" said he. "Certainly that poet cannot be said to lack emotion; and his great popularity proves that he was not detached from our practical world, the world of fact and reality. He is never, like Blake, orphic and scarcely intelligible. And yet you are not to think of him, either, as merely a popular poet. One who could write the 'Morte D'Arthur,' and 'In Memoriam,' and the splendid ballad 'The Revenge,' and those faultless lines to Virgil, and that lyric. 'Crossing the Bar,' must find his proper place surely among the great English poets, beside Burns and Gray and Keats and Wordsworth. But Tennyson did other things as well. You doubtless recall the May Queen.

'You must wake and call me early, call me early, mother dear?

now how would you characterize that poem?"

I should say it was sentimental. Surely sentiment is a very good thing in any art!"

"Yes, it is sentimental, as you say. And the sentimental quality is exactly the one I wish to emphasize. It is also a poem of good finish. It is not lacking in beauty of form; it is not removed, either, from the sphere of our human interest. You could not say that it is the least visionary. You would never dream of saying that it is the product of poetic madness. Indeed, you would never imagine that the author had an hour of anything approaching madness in his life."

"Of course not," I broke in. "Tennyson was a sane, wholesome Englishman; he was a type of man far too rare in these days."

"Yes," said Socrates, "he was a sane, wholesome Englishman, He was the laureate of sane, wholesome Englishmen. But I want you to observe that it takes something besides sanity and wholesomeness to make art of the very first order, to make a poem of the very first order. It takes thought. You yourself have told me that you prefer to hold (for our present purposes) to that threefold division of man's endowments, into the physical, the emotional or spiritual, and the mental.

"Now if you will read that poem of Tennyson's, 'The May Queen,' carefully and coolly, I am inclined to think that you will admit it is lacking in mental ability, lacking in thought. It does not contain any new thought. The thought is commonplace and out-worn. The poet has injured his work with an excess of emotion and sensuous beauty, so that it is an ill-balanced piece of art. It is very fine as an expression of sentiment, pure and simple, if you will: but when one asks of it, is it a great poem, the answer must be no. It is not great because there is one side of man's activity, the mental side, wholly unrepresented in it. Now in real life, to abound in emotional and sensuous traits, and to be lacking at the same time in mental qualifications, is to exhibit the taint of idiocy. Therefore I should say that 'The May Queen' was a fair sample of the idiotic in modern English literature. How prevalent one fault is I need hardly point out to you. Do not think I detract from Tennyson's greatness. The world must have its sentimental poetry; and Tennyson did other things to give him a permanent regard among critics and poets themselves. I am only concerned in showing you the tendency of his faults, the tendency in art of which he affords examples. 'The May Queen,' as you remark is a poem of sentiment, and has its value as such. It is one of his early poems, and youth is the time for sentiment. But turn over to his poem on 'The Fleet,' beginning

'You, you, if you shall fail to understand
What England is, and what her all in all,'

It is addressed to Parliament, and it concludes:

'You, you, that have the ordering of her fleet,
    If you should only compass her disgrace,
When all men starve, the wild mob's million feet
    Will kick you from you place,
          But then too late, too late.

"Now that lyric," continued Socrates, "was not the work of a man past his prime. It appears in the same volume with the lines to Virgil and the 'Locksley Hall Sixty Years After.' His 'Crossing the Bar' and 'Vastness' were still to be written. Yet you will note how, again, it is the element of thought that is lacking here as in the 'May Queen.' The poet has a very practical subject, he is not removed from the sphere of our everyday interests and he is very much moved with his theme. But he so signally fails to apply brains to it that you recognized at once the futility of the production. It is so impotent as to be ludicrous.

'The wild mob's million feet
Will kick you from your place.'

That has the pitiful yet irresistible absurdity of the idiot. It is not the word of a great poet; it is the utterance of a weak mind. Only our regard for Tennyson's other work makes us hesitate to call it a product of imbecility. But, then, you see why may we not consider that men will sometimes lapse into imbecility, just as they sometimes lapse into insanity and into debauchery? I believe we may. And if you will think of Wordsworth, you will find in him another instance of the inherent taint of imbecility which great minds may show. You will grant me, he is a great poet. He is so by virtue of a small and very excellent body of work left to us. But with him this excellence was very rare, so rare that you may almost say it was evidence of divine inspiration. So very occasional were his excursions beyond the jingle of imbecility. Recall his 'Daffodils':

'I wandered lonely as a cloud
    That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
    A host of golden daffodils.'

How beautiful a poem that is! How it surpasses the efforts of all ordinary men! Then recall

'O mercy to myself, I cried,
If Lucy should be dead!'

What bathos! Yet the same man wrote them both. Would you call him a genius with long lapses into imbecility, or an imbecile with occasional flashes of genius? And if you want any other instances of the idiotic in art, you have only to take up a magazine or a new book of verse. Are they not corroded with sentiment? Are they not endowed with just those traits which in real life, you would say were undoubted marks of imbecility?"

"But Socrates," I said, "all those books and magazines represent the great mass of our civilization and culture. You surely cannot mean to imply that we are a set of imbeciles, as set of idiots together."

"I do not wish to imply anything," said he. "I only wish to note that the great mass of your current art and literature has traits which in actual life would be taken to indicate a condition bordering upon imbecility. And I believe, if you think of the matter carefully, you will see that what I say is true. You must remember that we are a branch of the English race, that race which has such a bent for the practical, so that we are in little danger of becoming visionary or detached from an interest in affairs. We are in no danger of having too many Blakes and Emersons. We are not likely to be accused of wildness of madness as a nation. We have too much of the German or Saxon element in us for that. No one ever speaks of the mad Germans. It is the Celts, the Irish, who are called mad. On the contrary, it is the excess of the German in us that gives us that overplus of sentiment which has been shown so continuously in English literature. When you remember the middle of this century, you cannot help bringing to mind the sentimentality with which it was pervaded. It was a maudlin age. What it inherited from Wordsworth it fostered in Tennyson. In nearly all of Wordsworth's work you behold poetry in its dotage; in a great deal of Tennyson's you behold it in its nonage. Both poets in their poor and uninspired moments are different types of feebleness of mind. And this was the age which had Mrs. Hemans for a poet, and many other persons of that sort. Is it any wonder that a poet like Browning or a novelist like Meredith should seem quite mad to such a generation?"

"You think then, do you, Socrates, that even at the present hour we are beset with what you call a tendency to imbecility? You consider that our weakness lies entirely in that direction?"

"There are perhaps a few hopeful exceptions," replied he. "For instance, what do you make of a poem like this:

'I saw a man pursuing the horizon:
Round and round they sped.
I was disturbed at this:
I accosted the man.
"It is futile," I said,
"You can never"-
"You lie," he cried,
And ran on.'

What have you to say to me of such a composition."

"Symbolism," said I.

"I have no idea what you may mean by symbolism," said Socrates, "but you must note that the fault of this sort of writing is not the fault of

'The wild mob's million feet
Will kick you from your place,'

Nor of

'O mercy to myself, I cried,
If Lucy should be dead!'

It does not suffer from lack of thought. The thought may be too curious, or too obscure, or too fanciful, but you feel it is there somewhere. At least the poem has a semblance of thought. Its fault is rather the fault of

'If the red slayer think he slays
Or if the slain think he is slain.'

You perceive in it an impractical and visionary drift or tendency. It is not framed to deal with the real facts of life; it is detached from the actual; it has not common sense. In short, it shows decided traits of insanity. And then again, another poem by the same author:

'There was, before me,
Mile upon mile
Of snow, ice, burning sand.
And yet I could look beyond all this,
To a place of infinite beauty;
And I could see the loveliness of her
Who walked in the shade of the trees.
When I gazed,
All was lost
But this place of beauty and her.
When I gazed
And in my gazing, desired,
Then came again
Mile upon mile
Of snow, ice, burning sand.'

"Now here you will observe," continued Socrates, "the tendencies which appeared in the first poem have become pronounced and exaggerated. A mild lunacy in the one has become settled madness in the other. So that I should say Mr. Crane is at least one exception to the general prevalence of imbecility. And then, too, there is that beautiful poet, Emily Dickinson. She too, with her decidedly Emersonian manner of expression, her mystic and pregnant stanzas, is a very tonic stimulus to our slothful thinking. It seems to be that one would have to class her with Blake and Shelley, with the seers of visions and the dreamers of dreams, with the rapt saints and prophets, the thoroughly inspired."

"Well, Socrates, since you have spoken of the appearance of traits of madness and traits of imbecility in literature, I almost shrink from asking you about traits of debauchery. It is something which we do not like to think about. It seems to be a tendency much more debasing than the other two, much more within our own control, and much more widely spread."

"You need not fear," Socrates replied. "For although a tendency to debauchery may be a very general human calamity, I do not think it is very prevalent in art. You told me that it seemed to you debauchery implied an excess of the physical and mental endowments in a man, overbalancing the emotional or spiritual part in him. So that one of the characteristics of debauchery, or rather the chief characteristic of it, is insincerity. The ingenuity of the mind and the activity of the senses combining to find play and scope, without, as we say, having much heart. And a lack of heart, a lack of zeal, a lack of conviction, insincerity in short, is that trait which marks a tendency towards debauchery in art. Perhaps one might say, therefore, that the debauchee in real life has his counterpart in the dilettante in the realm of art. So that everything consciously imitative or derivative, everything done by way of a jest in literature or art, is of the nature of debauchery, anything done for the effect merely, anything which does not embody the honest feeling of the artist. This is a pretty large subject, and you may look at it from a number of different sides. But I take it, we are regarding art and poetry from a very serious point of view, the point of view which allows us to include all the great poets of the world and all the great thinkers and teachers, like Job and Dante and Omar and the rest. Well, in that case, you will see how important a thing art is to the world, and how really horrified the world is at anything like dishonesty or insincerity in art. The judgment of time shows us that men can overlook imbecility or the excess of sentiment, that they can overlook madness or the excess of visionary thinking, but they find it hard to forgive debauchery or the taint of insincerity in art. I spoke of things done by way of a jest in art. That points you to another line of inquiry too long to follow just now; but you will notice that humor, which is such a salutary disinfectant against the approaches of imbecility and madness in us, has little power to ward off the ravages of debauchery. And have you ever thought of this? that ridicule, which is such a powerful weapon against the foibles and follies of mankind, is quite inefficient against real evil? Evil, the one thing which we would most gladly eradicate, it quite impervious to our most deadly and mortant poison. You can only ridicule petty foolishness; I doubt if you can ridicule vice at all. For while madness and idiocy are beyond the reach of ridicule, vice is of itself a sort of ridicule. In vice, in debauchery, the mind and body have thrown off the alliance with the heart, and gone on a career of mockery and jeering by themselves. Evil is the irony of the universe, the giant sarcasm of existence, the titanic gibe in the teeth of good. It was when Eve tasted the apple that she first saw the point of the joke. And when she was forced to sew fig leaves together, she did not know whether to laugh or to cry. Before the catastrophe neither laughter nor tears had been heard in Eden, but humor and shame were the two shadows that followed the man and the woman out of the Garden. Now, to speak poetically for the moment, you might say that art, in its highest ambition, would attempt to lead us back into the Garden, leaving our shadows behind us.

"I mean to say that when art becomes inspired, when it gives us those tremendous utterances on which whole nations are built and religions are founded, it leaves humor behind it. It is a very serious thing. And it is just in these moods, as we have seen, that art is approaching the visionary stage, the region bordering on insanity, where the weak go mad, sinners experience salvation, and the strong write books of poetry which the generations treasure as inspired. Not wonder then, with religion in sight at one extreme of the trend of art, we look with disfavor upon any frivolity or incongruity or insincerity at the other. Much humor is, or course, innocent. By innocent, I mean it does not sin against beauty. But debauchery in itself has nearly always elements of the absurd in it.

"It is not so much the product of devilish malignity as of devilish glee and wanton whimsicality. So I should be inclined to say that all caricature and parody are, in themselves, of the nature of debauchery in art. And when I recall the depth of depravity and ugliness to which the popular idea of the comic can descend, I feel sure of it. The hideous distortions of the human figure and face which our comic papers present to us and which we consider perfectly decent and respectable, are in reality awful blasphemies against beauty. Those endless and shocking travesties of the features of the Jew, the negro, the Irishman, we only look upon them without wincing because of our long education in vulgarity. But they have the gist of their humor, whenever they are revolting, in an essential debauchery of the soul. However, I dare say it is wrong to speak of such things as art at all. Yet they do have a place and a very considerable place in the public eye."

"But, Socrates," I said, "I asked you to help me find out what people mean by decadence in art and literature, and you seem to me to be hurrying me to the conclusion that everything in those departments of human activity is either debauched or insane or imbecile. Do you not call that being degenerate? Are you not worse than Nordau himself? Do you not prove too much?"

"No," said Socrates, quite blandly, "I do not prove too much. It is Nordau who does not prove enough. If he had followed his logic to the end it would have brought him face to face with all the mad poets and saints and founders of religion in the world. He would have included Gautama, and Confucius, and Mahomet, and Swedenborg, and Blake, and Moses, and St. Paul, and John Wesley in the universal ruin of his polemic. But he could not afford to be logical. He was writing for the normal man, the man of average intelligence. He was writing with the temper and capacity of the man of average intelligence. And there are few things the man of average intelligence abhors as he does logic. The average intelligence produces works of art which seldom show any inspiration or madness, which seldom show any humor or tendency to debauchery; but which do indeed show not a little sentiment or the tendency to imbecility. To the man of average intelligence Emerson was a harmless lunatic, and Thoreau and John Brown pernicious fanatics-quite mad. The only logical expounder of Mr. Nordeau's theory of degeneration is that wonderful philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who calls St. Paul a neurotic refined Jewish Pascal; declares that in the whole New Testament there is only one figure we can genuinely honor- that of Pilate; and alludes to the founder of Christianity as an 'interesting decadent.' That is really the logical position for the Nordans, the people of average intelligence who talk about decadence, to take. But then it requires more than average intelligence to take it."


Untitled "A Modern Athenium" column, Boston Evening Transcript, Oct. 10, 1896 [back]