Edwardian and Georgian Canadian Poets
1900-1930


 

 

Selected Essays and Reviews

by Bliss Carman

Edited by Terry Whalen


 

On Criticism II*


 

Last week in these columns I began to speak of the comparative value of signed and anonymous criticism for journalistic purposes, and then fell back on the underlying question of the value and function of criticism itself, what we could wish it to be, and what we might expect it to do for us. Perhaps our brief consideration of the matter did not go very far; but still the very briefest glance must be sufficient to show how really important the subject is, even to those of us who are professedly "practical," as we call it.

And there were two points I tried to make: First, the similarity between creative and critical effort-the essential likeness in temperament between the artist and the critic; and second, the necessity for openness of mind above all other qualities in either the one capacity or the other. That a painter, or a writer, or an artist of any sort must be receptive, seems almost self-evident. It is his business to be sensitive, to keep on the alert for all passing phenomena of beauty, all the suggestive incidents of life. Not a line or a gesture must escape him of the manifold human drama daily enacted before his eyes; not a shade or tone of color must be lost on him of all the wonderful fleeting loveliness of sky and sea, mountain and cloud, sun and rain. The changing face of the universe is his continual study, and his appreciation will never fail to catch the gusts of passion and mood that sweep across the tumultuous regions of the mind. Whatever else he may be, he can never for one moment be fixed or stable, save in the purpose to be always free, always unprejudiced, always ready for the new impulse, the new impression, the new inspiration. For whether we think of inspiration as coming though experience or through intuition, it demands an equally receptive habit of thought. And one who would be guided by it must have an equally sedulous regard for the inward meaning and the outward apparition of things. He must be endowed with senses of no ordinary keenness, like that figure in Norse mythology who could hear the grasses growing; and a very wizardry of instructive comprehension must be his. Culture for him will mean not so much self-perfection as self-absorption in nature and life for the others, and at the instance of an uncontrollable propensity. He is the unwearied listener at the Sphinx, the eternal wanderer by all trodden and unfrequented paths, he is a nomad in the blood, and an incredulous believer from his birth. And this natural aptitude for indecision and appreciation is emphasized by a daily use, is encouraged and developed and grows by practice; until your typical artistic temperament, as the phrase runs, becomes proverbially impressionable and fastidious.

And all this that he may convey some expression of his new knowledge to the audience of his fellows. He is eyes and ears for multitudes less fortunate than himself. We rely on him for daily fresh reports from every corner of the house of life, with all its wonderful galleries and crannies, crowded with fact and haunted by illusion. But what is our attitude toward him? I remarked that many of those traits which are most useful to the artist are most useful to the critic as well. Flexibility or openness of mind, is one of them, and the most important. If the artist must exercise absolute freedom in his art, are we ready to grant him that right? I mean, do we look with tolerance on the new and strange in art? If we were to approach a new book or a new picture with anything of the same receptiveness which the writer or the painter felt in dealing with his subject, we should, first of all, be attentive, curious, receptive. We certainly should not be carping and antagonistic. Our first effort would be to understand. We should apply thought to our subject and not prejudice.

Think, however, what is the usual state of mind in which we approach an original creation. Recall for a moment the mass of everyday criticism in which our average sentiments are embodied. Is it tolerant, intelligent, alert, sympathetic? I am afraid not. Our attitude toward the artist is seldom one of confidence, and the very word "critical" has come to be almost synonymous with "censorious." Criticism as generally exercised resolves itself into the gentle art of making enemies. Cain was the first critic, and his slashing criticism of his brother's religious observances remains the type of theological controversy to the present day. But there are many varieties of criticism, from the high censorious British snort to the patronizing sniff of the latest free lance among journals. And they are all equally valuable. The most lamentable thing about them, however, is the ease with which they may be acquired. They resemble all other forms of sin in that.

And all our worst methods of critical procedure-the censorious, the patronizing, the furtively malicious, the acrid, the snarling, the insulting, the brutal-flourish best anonymously. Indeed, they are hardly possible otherwise. The vicious system of unsigned criticism (vicious as it seems to me) must surely be responsible for most of the brutalities and vulgar personalities in which we indulge so freely. And the evil is not so much in the direct harm it does in that way, for it does no one any serious damage to be cut up a bit or even falsified occasionally. But the greatest mischief is that such a system corrupts all honest efforts at fairness. Most men need all their self-respect to help them be rid of vindictiveness and laziness. Then, too, an anonymous system ruins those who exercise it by investing them with undue authority.

Instead of growing in culture, one tends to warp into the bent of the party which he has espoused. A man who is speaking in his own person must always be limited and stimulated by his own characteristics; but when he assumes the editorial impersonality the chances are he will assume all the blind prejudices of his paper at the same time. Or, rather, it would be fairer to say, any publication which stands for certain principles and sentiments, is already biased. Individual criticism is no longer possible. The judgment of any set or party is of no value critically; for a party is held together by adherence to principle, and the very life of criticism is to have no principle. It must stand apart, without creed or predilection. The academic point of view, so valuable for all scientific purposes, is out of court in critical affairs; since the gist of art is revelation, the accomplishment of something unprecedented. The underlying science of art is as fixed and stable as all other natural law; but the manifestations of art are always surprising, often in seeming contradiction to all tradition. So that the purely scholastic mode of appreciating them is inadequate. To set up standards of bygone excellence in art and then bring all new achievements into comparison with them, is unjust to both. You pin your faith to Dante and Shakespeare and Milton and Wordsworth, let us say, and then you bring a new book to be tested by their standard. If it does not conform, you say it must be poor. But if it did conform, art would be a dead thing. Art and poetry are not inventions, we must remember; they are not pretty contrivances designed once for all in the early history of our race for mere amusement. They are living and vital forces, growing with civilization, and making themselves felt in fresh ways every day. So that it is impossible, as it seems to me, to confront them with any preconceived notion of what they ought to be. It is only possible to criticize them in a spirit of absolute impartiality. And this can only be done by the individual, never by the school or sect.

Now, how does this bear on the signing of criticism? The Daily Censor, let us say, represents certain well-defined principles: it stands for one set of persons in the community; it has a pronounced bias of its own. But when a new book appears or a new play is put on, I don't want to know how it impresses a man who has The Daily Censorian sort of mind; I can guess that already. I want to know how it impresses a man of open and free mind. The Daily Censor may be an admirable sheet; it may be absolutely honest, but it is bound by an honorable allegiance to a certain set of principles. It cannot be candid; it has no right to be candid. And the man who writes for it tacitly sinks his individual judgment and retains only so much of it as will tally with the likes and dislikes of his constituents.

It is largely, too, a matter of authority. The banding together of men for government constitutes the authority of the state. The banding together of men in religion constitutes the authority of a church. And the state or church has some apparent right, at least, to exercise its little authoritative power. But in matters of art there can be no constituted body of authority, with power to approve or disapprove. And it is not desirable that there should be.


"On Criticism II," Commercial Advertiser, July 16, 1898 [back]