Edwardian and Georgian Canadian Poets
1900-1930


 

 

Selected Essays and Reviews

by Bliss Carman

Edited by Terry Whalen


 

The Seven Seas*


 

A reading of "The Seven Seas" is one of those happy occurrences which lighten the reviewer's heart, yet make himself seem quite superfluous. There is so little to say of it, after all; one can merely add to the chorus of praise. Fortunate artist, to have achieved so splendid a success with his own hand, and at the same time to have it awaited with so much expectation and acclaimed with such generous enthusiasm! Not since the departure of our elders has any book of verse been looked for so eagerly; nor indeed fulfilled so well that kindled expectation. And considering the nature of the work, its robust character, the tremendous force and vigor of it, there is, after all, a subject for reflection in the very unanimity with which it is greeted.

For Mr. Kipling stands preŽminently for manliness in letters. His poetry and his fiction alike celebrate the survival of daring, the inherent virility of life. Chary of sentiment, he is always prodigal of romance, and Whitman himself was not more insistent for the apotheosis of brawn. Romance- there is the gist of his creed, the priestess of his faith. His standpoint and conviction are revealed, in this respect, in two poems, "To the True Romance" and "The King." The former we have already learned in his "Many Inventions."

"Thy face is far from this our war,
    Our call and counter-cry;
I shall not find thee quick and kind,
    Nor know thee till I die;
Enough for me in dreams to see
    And touch thy garments' hem:
Thy feet have trod so near to God
    I may not follow them."

In the latter there are two stanzas that particularly drive home this sentiment to our every-day recognition.

"'Romance!' the Season-tickets mourn,
'He never ran to catch his train,
But passed with coach and guard and horn-
    And left the local-late again!
Confound Romance!'.And all unseen
Romance brought up the nine-fifteen.
His hand was on the lever laid,
    His oil-can soothed the worrying cranks,
His whistle waked the snowbound grade,
    His fog-horn cut the reeking banks.

The eye to see romance everywhere in this world we are wont to call so prosaic, and the skill to reveal it to the very best advantage to his readers, give him his unique place among Victorian writers. Who else save Browning had such an eye for subjects caught and selected by every roadside and seashore? Arnold, despite his matchless narrative poems, all too few, was chiefly absorbed in the intellectual life, the musings of the soul. Tennyson, for his magnum opus, must revert to the buried romance of the past. Emerson was the priest of nature, who "went to the god of the wood, to bring his word to men." Longfellow was a graceful balladist and a finished artist. They maintained for us and carried on the traditions of earlier poetry, consoling us in grief, stimulating us in dejection, easing for us little by little the Gordian knot of existence. But for sheer force, which of them ever overmatched the "Ballad of East and West" or "The Song of The Banjo" or "Fulta Fisher's Boarding-House"? These poems are comparable only to "The Revenge" or "Harvey Rill." While for this power of endowing common objects with their true poetic significance, Mr. Kipling certainly fulfils Emerson's requirement of the poet-that he should "give to pots and pans, grace and glimmer of romance." In his lyric on "The Bell Buoy," published only yesterday, how resonantly, how magnificently he voices the iron heart of that guardian of the coast, with its tolling refrain!

"They christened my brother of old-
    And a saintly name he bears-
They gave him his place to hold
    At the head of the belfry stairs,
Where the minster-towers stand
    And the breeding kestrels cry.
Would I change with my brother a league inland?
    (Shoal! 'ware shoal!) Not I!

There was never a priest to pray,
    There was never a hand to toll,
When they made me guard o' the bay,
    And moored me over the shoal.
    I rock and I reel and I roll-
My four great hammers ply-
    Could I speak or be still at the Church's will?
(Shoal! 'ware shoal!) Not I!"

Already the laureate of the English on land, by virtue of his Barrack-Room Ballads, we must now acknowledge him English laureate of the sea. For that fine, patriotic poem on the English Flag is now re-enforced by such things as "A Song of the English," "The Last Chantey" and "McAndrew's Hymn." And one sees with painful clearness how right in judgment those critics were (many of them in this country) who advocated Mr. Kipling's claims to the distinction of Tennyson's successorship. He is by every instinct and characteristic a laureate such as the men of English speech have never had. Their hardihood, their enterprise, their belief in their own destiny; yes, and their trust in muscularity, too-are all here. Do you know of any other lyric which so well embodies the English faith in the God who is on the side of heavy battalions, as this "Hymn Before Action"?-

"The earth is full of anger,
    The seas are dark with wrath;
The nations in their harness
    Go up against our path!"

There is a grave and solid dignity about that opening, worthy of the Thirty-Nine Articles and the Authorized Version. Were it not for the unorthodox fifth stanza (the best of all, by the way):

"Ah, Mary, pierced with sorrow,
    Remember, reach and save
The soul that comes tomorrow
    Before the God that gave!
Since each was born of woman,
    For each at utter need-
True comrade and true foeman,
    Madonna, intercede!"

one might imagine the embattled cohorts of British Philistia, with the archbishop of Canterbury and Lord Wolseley at their head, marching in triumphal procession around the globe. The proud look and high stomach would not be absent, not that somewhat haughty bearing which may have been inherited along with the Mosaic theology from an elder stiff-necked generation. Extending empire and spreading a convenient Christianity (not so uncompromising as to forbid the use of the sword) this mighty host would follow the trail of the setting sun over the high shoulders of the world, encouraged by this martial strain:

"E'en now their vanguard gathers,
    E'en now they face the fray-
As Thou didst help our fathers,
    Help Thou our host today!
Fulfilled of signs and wonders,
    In life, in death, made clear-
Jehovah of the Thunders,
    Lord God of Battles, hear!"

Not quite consistent with our profession of Christianity, perhaps, yet very genuinely expressive of the Saxon fighting humor. For there are unconscious worshippers of Thor at the high altars still, as well as on the football field; and after all to what better use could one put that ancient Jewish war-god, with his sounding name and his blood-thirsty propensities, that to embody him in the forefront of a splendid British battle-cry.

But if Mr. Kipling's theology is somewhat moth-eaten, his spirit is always fresh and sincere. Like every good poet, he is better than he knows; and we may safely trust ourselves to his deep fidelity. One surmises that he is not of those who wear the heart upon the sleeve, and that there are stores of righteous conviction and sound sentiment underlying his most roistering songs, and still to be revealed. For he is not without a wayward, whimsical demon at his heels to unsteady his aim at times; as for instance, where "An American," a poem of great insight and nobility, is marred by a flippant opening quite unjust to itself. For the most part, however-indeed, almost always-he is remarkably even and finished in execution, each piece of work well sustained at its own level.

As for the New Barrack-Room Ballads, they have all the humor and "go" that made their predecessors so memorable. They share with his greater work that exhilaration of health, that rush of energy, which give his pages the intoxication of perpetual youth. As a clever woman said of him (it was at Smith College, by the way, where, Mr. Barrie seems to have lost his heart-so excusably): "Where a man would get drunk, I read Kipling." There is a good deal of subtle interpretation in the remark. Certainly we shall not suffer from any moping sobriety in the company of this lusty young viking.

Among his immediate contemporaries, hardly one of who could measures shoulders against him, his achievement should act as a rare tonic. His painstaking, his restraint, his labor, his unflinching artistic devotion, should lend a new stimulus to his fellow craftsmen, however tentative and timorous their efforts may show beside his. For there is always something discouraging to an artist in contemplating the masterly work of his neighbor-so hopelessly good as in the Seven Seas-unless he can solace himself himself with renewed industry and a joyful emulation. One could wish, too, that the book might even have some effect in stopping the mouths of those gusty imbeciles who never tire of harping on the decay of poetry in an age of science-as if the two were not wedded together skin to skin, more closely than brothers.

That, however, is not a thought should detain us in thinking of a new poet and his beautiful tasks. We should rather be remembering the earlier ballads, "Dannie Deever" and the rest, and those incomparable Mowgli tales, which raised their author at one step from the rank of a clever short-story writer to an assured place among the first imaginative creators of his time; for they are the work of a poet, with their insight, their tenderness, their Homeric simplicity and nobleness, their wonderful symbolism, their mordant satire; and we shall only be filled with quiet gratitude that anything so fine and satisfactory as The Seven Seas has come to bear them company in our households.

Well, as Babette says:

"Here's to you, Master Kipling, a-marching in the van!
You're a poor benighted Briton, but a first-class writing man."


"The Seven Seas," Boston Evening Transcript, Nov. 28, 1896 [back]