Edwardian and Georgian Canadian Poets
1900-1930


 

 

Selected Essays and Reviews

by Bliss Carman

Edited by Terry Whalen


 

A Touch of Magic*


 

For a good many of us the Atlantic Monthly has come to be a green (though not shady!) oasis in the arid desert of periodical literature. With what thoughtfulness we open its quiet pages, escaping on the instant from the clack of the novice and the contortion of the mountebank! What a relief to have even an hour's respite from half-tones! At times, perhaps, it may strike us a little too conservative and old-fashioned, a little off the centre of correct judgment; but this is a small fault compared to the great boon of its gifts to us. In spite of the greater commercial success of its rivals, the monthly picture-books, it remains the one American magazine which can claim to be in any just sense a patron of letters. To turn its leaves is to be transported for the time beyond the bounds of journalism in a borderland (at least) of literature.

For some time now there have been appearing in it those wonderful essays in comparative international criticism, Mr. Lafcadio Hearn's studies in Japanese life and thought, perhaps the most penetrating and careful interpretation of one people for another since Emerson's English Traits. Where else could such papers have found space?

In the January number among other good things there is a brief essay by Mr. Bradford Torrey on "Verbal Magic," in which he turns again to that unsolved and unsolvable problem, the charm of poetry. And in his delicate treatment of the subject he follows Arnold's method of criticism-a perilous one, it must be confessed. For the Arnoldian touchstone for good poetry was nothing less than Arnold himself. "This line, and this and this," said Arnold, in effect, "are examples of what is good in poetry," and if you ask "Why?" the only answer is, "Because they are." And of course that is the proper method. It presupposes a genius for poetry, that is all. And, indeed, how else is one to be equipped for the criticism of poetry?

"Take, then, says Mr. Torrey, "the famous lines from Wordsworth's 'Solitary Reaper':

"'Will no one tell me what she sings?-
Perhaps the plaintive numbers flow
For old, unhappy, far-off things,
And battles long ago.'

"The final couplet of this stanza is a typical example of what is here meant of verbal magic. I am heartily of Mr. Swinburne's mind when he says of it: 'In the whole expanse of poetry there can hardly be two verses of more perfect and profound and exalted beauty'-although my own slender acquaintance with literature as a whole would not have justified me in so sweeping a mode of speech. The utmost that I could have ventured to say would have been that I knew of no lines more supremely, indescribably, perennially beautiful. Nor can I sympathize with Mr. Courthope in his contention that the lines are nothing in themselves, but depend for their 'high quality' upon their association with the image of the solitary reaper...Yet of what cheap and common materials are they composed, and how artlessly put together. Nine every-day words, such as an farmer might use, not a fine word among them, following each other in the most unstudied manner-and the result perfection!"

I must say that I think Mr. Torrey in the right in saying that the beauty resides in the lines themselves. His all too brief paper might form the basis of an instructive study in English poetry. And not the least suggestive paragraph of it is the note where he advances the statement that "really magical lines are seldom or never to be found in the work of the more distinctively musical poets-say in Coleridge, Shelley, Tennyson and Swinburne."

That is a little overstated, perhaps, yet it has enough truth to make one pause and think. And it is true that in Swinburne, the most musical of the four, there is less of the sort of magic Mr. Torrey is speaking of than in the others. It was perhaps some such conception of poetry that was upper-most in Mr. R.H. Stoddard's mind when he said that Mr. Swinburne "had written no line that lingers in the memory;" though he certainly is full of memorable cadences and musical terms. Yet there must be magic in him too; for what is this magic but the very life of poetry? It is as evanescent and fleeting as that elusive something which forever eludes the scientist in analyzing the beautiful forms of created things-the spirit which dwells where none of us can pry. If it were possible to say just why the line

"Down the swift Hebrus to the Lesbian shore"

is poetry, while the line,

"An honest man's the noblest work of God,"

is not; if it were possible to place our finger on the magic, it would be possible, one can almost imagine, to say just how the mysterious thing called life resides in beast and flower. And since life is the magical and mysterious thing in outward creation, why should we hesitate to declare that this magic is the very life of poetry and art? Certainly it is the quality which makes poetry and art fascinating and lasting. Without some touch of it, are they not dead? And how without the magic of life are these things, art and poetry, these precious and belauded achievements of man, to kindle new fires in us, arousing gentleness and righteousness and love of beauty and enthusiasm of all sorts. Is not their magic the one trait which lifts the soul-possessing sonnets of Shakespeare above the brute-creation of algebra? Until it is touched with magic, until it is heightened and made lyrical, in short, until it becomes poetry, is not human utterance a mere statement of fact, a scientific enunciation of truth; it might quite as well be written in Latin as in the vulgar tongue, and reduced to its lowest terms it becomes a+b=c. Geometry is the skeleton of truth; poetry is its breath of life; a magic thing.

But not to wander from a definite inquiry. In which, then, of the poets does this quality of magic most appear. If I do not mistake Mr. Torrey's meaning (and bearing in mind those two lines of Wordsworth's,

"For old, unhappy, far-off things,
And battles long ago"),

I believe we should find as much magic in Arnold as in any of the Victorians. It is surely in the line,

"Lorn autumns and triumphant springs."

You may tear that from its context and yet its haunting magic quality remains. It pervades whole poems, like "The Forsaken Merman," and something of it possesses passages like the close of "Schrab and Rustum," and the close of "The Scholar Gypsy," where the line

"Emerge and shine upon the Aral sea,"

must ever after describe the stars for us; while the line

"And on the beach undid his corded vales,"

wanders in the memory, too, with its lovely cadence.

Mr. Torrey says that this magic does not depend on artifice or perfection of elaborate technique. And very likely it cannot be evoked by them; but I wonder if cadence may not have something to do with the marvel. Most passages which have this magic have a final and conclusive cadence about them, like the dying fall of the wind. They are very often passages (quite apart from their context, of course) which you would guess to be the close of some stately poem. They have a cadence which affects us as a story coming to a close, a tale that is told.

And that arouses the further question, whether they may not always have the accent (these magic lines in poetry) the very accent of the solemnity of nature. Are not the poets in whom such passages are found, men like Burns and Chaucer and Shakespeare and Wordsworth and Arnold- are they not men penetrated through and through with a sense of the plangency of life? They are, too, poets of great simplicity of mind. They rather put us in the mood of nature, than affect us with any special thought of their own, in these magical passages of theirs. To compare them with other poets quite as great as they, though less filled with the magic cadence, is to deduce the evidence of their peculiar quality. In Mr. Swinburne, with his very beautiful music, the magic quality is overlaid with the charm of sound; in Browning, it is overborne by the stress of thought. It is in those poets who sink into themselves, or into the core of nature, and brood, that we will find most magic, perhaps. For as magic is life in nature, we must give the moods of nature free play in art, else the magic breath will be lost, and our too alert mental activity or our too vivid physical sense of music will be unduly protruded.

Certainly, Mr. Torrey has touched on a theme of vital interest to artists and students, and one not without interest for all thoughtful men and women-if we believe that art and poetry are anything more than amusements. And I think we are apt to forget that the future of art in America depends on every one of us. It cannot come alone from the efforts of our artists; it must have the support of a cultivated, open-minded and artistic community. It must constantly keep bringing to the consideration of artistic questions, a fresh enthusiasm for them, and (if it can) a delicacy of taste such as this essay in the current Atlantic shows.

It must also be ready, surely, to approach the work of new men, in the spirit in which Mr. Kipling and Mr. James Lane Allen are treated in the same magazine.


"A Touch of Magic," Commercial Advertiser, Dec. 26, 1896 [back]