Edwardian and Georgian Canadian Poets
1900-1930


 

 

Selected Essays and Reviews

by Bliss Carman

Edited by Terry Whalen


 

From "The Modern Athenium"

(December 19, 1896)*


 

If I were a young poet like Mr. Francis Sherman, I should feel very gay at making my first appearance in such a gala dress. The beautiful scarlet title-page of his "Matins" is itself sufficient reward for many pains. But then all title-pages are made so beautiful now; type and paper are so tastefully combined; editions are consumed with such startling rapidity; it is really no wonder that every man is his own poet-on the title page.

But what of them, when they come to the main text? And what of Mr. Sherman when he turns from the valiant scarlet to the sober black type? I quote the opening of the first poem:

"Swing open wide, O Gate,
    That I may enter in.
And see what lies in wait
    For me who have been born!"

Ah, Mr. Francis Sherman, there are many things lying in wait for you on this side the gate you have entered so bravely with your little sheaf of exotics. In the first place, you must come out of your Blue Closet. What is this I read, opening your volume at random?-

"It was quite dark within the place
Wherein the Lady Alice slept."

Or again in another poem, on the same page:

"It was an hour before the dawn,
When they deemed it best to awaken Sir John."

Am I reading "Matins" by Francis Sherman or that wonderful book published forty years ago, "The Defence of Guenevere," by William Morris? Not many of your readers will be familiar with that book, not one in ten of your reviewers will ever have seen it. Still it does exist. In it Morris did the pre-Raphaelite business in English poetry once for all. Rossetti is but another variation of the same strain. And you would need to do very well indeed to surpass them. Even then, I doubt if you could make such work more than an echo. Is it worth while? For my part, I hope you will never open a Morris or a Rossetti again for five years; but I wish you would take the fancy to drench yourself in Arnold's "Tristram and Iseult." It is worth all of Morris's and Tennyson's Arthurian studies put together. You will there be in company, not with a writer who has turned his back on his own age as prosaic and attempted to live among ghosts, but with a writer who lives in his own time, and regards the past from the modern standpoint, a very different thing. Morris, if you will allow me to say so, had a mediĉval mind. Lovely as his work is, it never had any influence in the thought of the world; it could not have; it was an anodyne to thought; it begged the whole question of existence here and now. Morris strained the language through a Saxon sieve, and used the refuse in mortar for his House of Dreams; an impossible jargon in a preposterous dwelling. I am speaking now from this side of the Gate, of course, not from the side whence you have just come.

Plainly and honestly what I mean is just this, nobody cares a rap for the Blue Closet kind of poetry, and if you want a hearing you must talk English. English as it is today, and you must talk about things that men are thinking of, things they are either thinking of now or thinking of all the time. Arnold did, Browning did, Emerson did, Tennyson often did; and if you don't think the present time has any romance left in it, get the "Seven Seas" and swim in them for a month or so. They'll take the fog out of your brain.

Now you must n't be discouraged because one blundering reviewer is telling you what he thinks. There will be dozens to patronize you and take you out to afternoon tea-just on the strength of your titlepage, so red and beautiful. But I have read your stuff from cover to cover, and I have been on your side of the Gate, too; you must n't forget that. There are a good many dead ladies and vacant years and third-person-singulars ending in- eth, in your poems; but that is the way it is inside the Gate; and you'll find when you have been outside awhile, that there are lots of living ladies and full years here-and that they're a great deal nicer, too, than any you have been chasing through the moonlit jungle of your imagination. You may gather that I don't appreciate your poetry; but I do. There are some things in your book that were not worth doing, simply because they had been better done already; but there is nothing done badly, and there are several things that are good. "The King's Hostel," for instance:

"Let us make it fit for him!
He will come ere many hours
Are passed over. Strew these flowers
Where the floor is hard and bare!
Ever was his royal whim
That his place of rest were fair.

Such a narrow little room!
Think you he will deign to use it?"

That is a good poem. It is not equal to Miss Guiney's

"Open, Time, and let him pass,"

but then, few recent poems are. So you need not wince.

You may be somewhat astonished, Sherman, at this pat-on-the-back cuff-in-the-ear sort of notice. But you will soon get used to it. It is really the usual treatment to accord an artist-until he is too old to improve, and then we form societies for the glorification of his defects. Oh, you will learn many things out here. And first and last of all, let me persuade you that we are not living in the middle ages. You will not believe me at once, and when you do, you may regret the fact: but I am very thankful, and I am sure other people are.

THE VENGEANCE OF NOEL BRASSARD

You say we English like to boast
Of our fair play and British pluck.
Well, here's a tale for you who toast
Your toes and wish your friends good luck,
This snowy Christmas time.

You take our soft Acadian land
In summer for your thoroughfare;
One of the gardens from God's hand,
Orchard and dike, it greets you there-
A dream of the world's prime.

But winter, when the snow comes down
From the red edges of the fall,
To cover babbling stream and town
With velvet silence like a pall,
Can you guess what it means?

The rivers sleep; the sun is lost;
And in the deep woods now and then
Some great tree, riving in the frost,
Barks, and the stillness fails again
Among the evergreens.

But one man learned too well who prowls
Those wintry barrens choked with snow,
And guessed what manner of Thing cowls
Its empty visage from man so,
Seeing that face too near.

The Shadow Hunter, whose long stride
Mortal has yet to tire or tame,
Like moonbeam over mountain side
Following round the world-whose name
Men hold their breath to hear.

And yet, they say, he has a word
Sweeter than any save the sea,
To summon those who once have heard
Beyond the bourns of misery.
Though one man doubted, I must think.

Noel Brassard dit Beausoleil,
That lovely fall.It was the year
The English traitor did betray
His king and honor; far and near
He made his hapless province drink

The dregs of sorrow; blood and bone,
He ground them into dust between
The upper and the nether stone,
The French and English. Wide and green
The farms lay in the sun;

The apples hung in scarlet ropes
And golden clusters; the ripe grain
Went billowing up the mountain slopes;
And over running dike and plain
The thousand cattle one by one

Trailed their long shadows by the sea.
Grand Pré, Port Royal, Tantramar,
Minas and Shubenacadie,
Cobequid, Beausejour, Canard,
Melanson, Aulac and Pereau.

What easier than, simple folk
Fearing the majesty of law,
To scatter them as the slow smoke
Is scattered on a windy flaw
From Beaubassin to Gaspareau!

Pluck them and sow them down the world-
A second St. Bartholemew -
Leaving the land whence they are hurled
For Lawrence and his pirate crew,
Which we enjoy today!

Noel Brassard stood by his door,
And there was haste. The last to flee,
When brand was set to granary floor,
House, barn and church, in Chipoudy
That fall, must yet a moment stay.

Loading his cart to climb the crest
The sun at Michaelmas just clears.
His wife with her last child at breast,
His mother with her ninety years-
Safe now and halfway up the hill.

And there they halted; the red sun
Crimsoned the fir tops over them;
Below they saw the great tide run
Between the grassy dikes that hem
The meadows, when the rivers fill

From Fundy like a sluice. They saw
Their windows in the sunset glare,
Then the first smoke of burning straw
Steal from a rick and burst and flare.
But soft! What ails you, mother Brassard?

What fancy shakes your age? "My son,
I shall not go with you, for I
Am dying; and my strength is done;
And by your father I shall lie,
Where the white crosses are,

This night." They listened. She was dead.
(The record is La Guerne's, the priest
Who buried her.) And as she said,
It happened; the first soul released
Upon that march with Death!

At night two figures, digging late
For safety, had brought to a close
Their pious work; the graveyard gate
Creaked on its hinges; the moon rose;
And the white valley held its breath.

Ah, Beausoleil, before you now
The wilderness; and by your side
The shadowy Walker of the Snow,
To journey with you, stride for stride,
On many a drifted valley floor!

Behind you, worse than Death can do!
As dust upon the stream is spilled,
The wreckage of your kin shall strew
The shores of the world. The land they tilled,

A cattle lifter's prize of war.
Small choice, Brassard! Your folk are sown
To the four winds; to men henceforth,
From Baton Rouge to Blomidon,
Labrador and the unpeopled North,
"Acadian" is an exile's name.

He chose the wilderness. Be sure
There is a record of that trail
From sounding Fundy to Chaleur.
In the great map that does not fail!
Yet now we only read, he came

To the blue Restigouche with spring,
Under their ice-floors did he hear
Tobique and Napadogan sing?
And Mamozekel whisper clear
Secrets not good to know?

By Villebon's fort did he press on,
Where dwell the unwarlike Melecites
By the great route of the St. John,
In boreal colds and summer heats,
From Nerepis to Cabineau?

Or was his way by the North Shore,
Far up to lonely Tracadie,
Where the sand islands hear the roar
Of the great gulf, and Miramichi
Slows to meet the tide?

Did the Sevogle see him flit,
A gray and haggard shape of woe?-
Or the headlong Nepisiguit,
Where the Basque sailor long ago
Wedded his Mohawk bride?

He saw in the long solemn night
The giant lanterns of the sky
Streaming about the pole, to light
His haunted trail. Nay, Beausoleil,
Dark was your sunshine then!

And always at the dusk of day,
Out of the brushwood, pace for pace,
Would come to join them on the way
The One whose snowshoes left no trace,
They knew not whence nor when.

Mother and children, one by one,
He bade the strangers stay with him;
And they stayed. Beausoleil went on,
With reeling mind and senses dim,
One-three-five-nine-

He saw them smile and close their eyes,
As the tall Spectre of the cold
Detained them by some wooded rise,
Then sink to sleep within the fold
Of moonlit drift and shine.

In the first breaking-up of spring,
To the blue Restigouche there came,
With two pale children following
Upon his heels, his eyes like flame,
In the gaunt semblance of a man,

Noel Brassard. Say, rather, one
Who had looked horror in the face,
And the bleak goblin had undone
The latches of his soul. Yet trace
Of hunter's skill to a scheme and plan

Was left,-the mind to hunt and hound
His persecutors from the land.
A frenzy at the very sound
Of English names would twitch his hand
To let the flintlock's hammer fall.

Before he died on D'Anjac's roll,
By thronged stockade and lonely hut
He marked them; never missed a soul;
And nicked them on his musket-butt,
Twenty and eight in all.

That is the story straight and plain.
Because one Englishman could pawn
His country's honor for mere gain,
More need we English should not fawn
On Truth to cloak his crime.

Too simple your Acadian heart.
My Noel, and too late you strove!
Not in the world was your fit part.
Yet peace! The world moves on to love,
This snowy Christmas time.


Untitled "The Modern Athenium" column, Boston Evening Transcript, Dec. 19, 1896 [back]