Edwardian and Georgian Canadian Poets
1900-1930


 

 

Selected Essays and Reviews

by Bliss Carman

Edited by Terry Whalen


 

From "Marginal Notes"

(August 6, 1898)*


 

It has been said that in nothing is England more glorious than in her poetry. One is inclined to take that saying with a grain of salt in these days when poetry along with the other fine arts is coming to be regarded with less reverence than in old times. Parenthetically, one may admit the feebleness of modern art as a factor in life, yet stubbornly insist on our continual need of art and poetry in the world, if only it were adequate to its great opportunity. Certainly English is second to no nation in the fame of her poets; it is in letters rather than in music or the plastic arts that the Anglo-Saxon Norman-Celtic genius has found its normal vent. And in the volume of English literature there are no more splendid pages than her songs and dirges and ballads of the sea.

Small wonder the sea should play so mighty a part in the imagination of the island people. It has been their harvest field for centuries; they have ploughed it "with hempen bridle and horse of tree;" they have sown it with the blood of their sons, and its mystery and glamour are at their door. If the English have been masters of the sea, the sea has been mistress of the English. It is not easy to calculate its effect on a maritime folk and the part it plays in their development. There is the direct practical influence in commerce, in expansion, in empire; and there is the ever-present subtle spell of its romance moulding the racial character, liberating the racial mind, impressing the racial fancy. The potent activity and vim of Elizabethan literature are commonly attributed to the impulse which vast discovery gave to national thought. And if the wonderful growth of Great Britain in her own age is not directly reflected in her poetry it must still have been a hidden force. Certainly Victorian literature has its full quota of sea song and story.

There is the poetry of the sea's strange, sad, mystic charm-the Celtic note in Nature-as we have it in Arnold's "Forsaken Merman" and "The Neckan," in Tennyson's "Break, Break, Break," and in so much of Longfellow. You hear it sounding in "The Tempest," and crying through Mr. Swinburne's wonderful lyrics. If the English have suffered from insularity, they have made shift to nourish their imagination on the spacious heritage of the sea. A more specific rendering of what I mean is the sort of feeling Stevenson has caught so incomparably in his "Merry Men." To be moved by that tale is to be touched by the cold secret of the sea and comprehend the religious gloom of Nature.

Then there are those stirring ballads of heroism and daring, from Sir Patrick Spens to "McAndrew's Hymn," of which Tennyson's "Revenge" and Browning's "Herve Riel" are such shining examples. And one must note that it is the humanism, rather than the patriotism in these poems which makes them so dear to the heart. True, "The Revenge" celebrates the valor of that old sea-lord Sir Richard Grenville and his single-handed fight against enormous Spanish odds, but the prime feeling of the ballad is one of enthusiasm for pure manly courage, rather than any narrower glory in a mere English victory. Then, too, the profound cadence, solemn and slow as the sea itself, bringing the noble lines to a majestic close, leave one with a sense of pathos and the littleness of all human strife compared with our destiny in the elemental order of things. The mournful plangency of the sea takes hold of one's imagination, and we forget to rejoice over the vanquished foe. This is surely as it should be. While it is well to commemorate valor, it is better to remember the fallen. It were sad, if we had not yet begun to outgrow the savage strain of a tribal war-song.

In "Herve Riel," Browning actually celebrates the light-hearted, simple courage of a Breton sailor in a sea-fight against the English. This is even more as it should be. What is admirable in bravery is not that it is English or American or French, but rather that it is human. Just as we readily acknowledge that patriotism is a higher duty than devotion to one's family, so we should be ready to acknowledge that devotion to humanity is a higher duty than patriotism. And though the sentiment of the world moves slowly, it is coming nearing to that profession of faith every day. Take Mr. Kipling's "Ballad of East and West," too. There you have the glorification of manliness, and its generous triumph over less worthy racial pride and hatred. And, indeed, in all his poetry of sea-going and adventure, it is not mere national arrogance that is uppermost, but strength and sympathy and natural honest dealing. He has found poetry lurking in machinery, where careless eyes least expected it; but he has found a better poetry in the stout loyalty of man to man. If he is the laureate of British Empire, he also speaks for a still wider dominion, the brotherhood of men.

The popular success of Mr. Newbolt's "Admirals All" shows the stir in people's minds and the persistent trend of English thought. His little pamphlet is not all good, but it has the merit of honoring bravery and a welcome freedom from effeminacy and sentimentalism. Like Mr. Kipling, he raises the imperialistic pćan:

   "Drake nor devil nor Spaniard feared,
   Their cities he put to the sack;
He singed his Catholic Majesty's beard,
   And harried his ships to wrack.
He was playing at Plymouth a rubber of bowls,
When the great Armada came;
But he said, 'They must wait their turn, good souls,'
   And he stopped and finished the game.

.      .     .

"Admirals all, they said their say,
   The echoes are ringing still.
Admirals all, they went their way
   In the haven under the hill."

That may not have the note of great poetry but it has a manly sentiment, like the older, simple, unsophisticated ballads. And in the little three stanza poem with the refrain, "Play up play up, and play the game!" there is an additional feeling which transcends patriotism and becomes simply human.

In the rally of sentiment over the present war, there has been a not inconsiderable stir of the imperialistic spirit. Whether this is wise or not, it must have a certain liberating and educative effect. There is suggestion in the dedication, "To the Wider Patriotism," in a small pamphlet of verses in praise of the American navy which comes from a Chicago publishing house. "Under the Stars and Other Songs of the Sea" is not more bulky than Mr. Newbolt's "Admiral All," and from a severe point of view there may be little in it for unqualified commendation. Its sense of a larger nationalism, if one may use the term, seems to me fine and indicative. Perhaps the best poem in the book, "The First American Sailors," is in honor of those hardy sons of England Sir Humphrey Gilbert, Drake, Raleigh, Grenville and Hawkins. And rightly enough, too: they belong to the great Western world as much as they do to their little island home. Americans must be allowed to share the glory of their great deeds; and England, by the same token, must not be denied its share of pride in the fall of Santiago. There is something taking in these stanzas opening,

"Sir Humphrey Gilbert, he was one,
(And Devon was heaven to him).

.      .      .

"Sir Francis Drake he was two
(And Devon was heaven to him.)"

and so on.

Another collection of verses by a lover of the sea is Mr. Thomas Flemming Day's "Songs of Sea and Sail." It is an uneven volume, but it shows an intrinsic technical knowledge of the sailor's craft. It is hard to imagine a more vivid picture of the rolling ship under full sail, as seem from a reeling yard-arm, than is given in the lines "Making Land." I doubt if the thing has been much better done; it has the feeling of space and giddiness. The "The Coasters," too,

    "Legging on and off the beach,
    Drifting up the strait,
Fluking down the river reach,
    Towing through the Gate-
That's the way the Coaster goes,
    Flirting with the gale.
Everywhere the tide flows,
Everywhere the wind blows,
    From York to Beavertail.

.      .      .

    "Cargo reef in main and fore,
    Manned by half a crew,
Romping up the weather shore,
    Edging down the Blue-
That's the way the Coaster goes,
    Scouting with the lead:
Everywhere the tide flows,
Everywhere the wind blows,
    From Cruz to Quoddy Head."

There is good off-hand poetry of the actual, not poetry of a high order, indeed, yet conveying the zest and romance of life, wholesome, free, unmentalized. But this is not the whole nor the best of Mr. Day's book. In the lines on the "Sailor of the Sail,"

           ."Breed of the oaken heart,
Who drew the world together, and spread our race apart,

.      .       .

"Lord of the bunt and gasket, and master of the yard,
To whom no land was distant, to whom no sea was barred,"

He touches the higher universal strain of manliness of which I have been speaking, and has succeeded in investing his theme with something more than a mere descriptive appreciation. He points to the man behind the machine; and has these not inadequate line to his memory:

"O Sovereign of the Boundless! O Bondsman of the Wave!
Who made the world dependent, yet lived and died a slave.
In Britain's vast Valhalla, where sleep her worst and best-
Where is the grave she made you-your first and final rest?
Beneath no stone or trophy, beneath no Minster tower,
Lie those who gave her empire, who stretched her arm to power.
Below those markless pathways where commerce shapes the trail,
Unsung, unrung, forgotten, sleeps the Sailor of the Sail."

One hears not a little clamor, just at present, for war ballads. Our journalistic sense will not let us rest a minute until every feat of arms has its glorious tribute of poetry. To tell the truth, the war has not been lacking in dramatic and lyric incident; and no doubt they will be worthily treated when the right man comes, and the struggle shall have had time to assume the calm of perspective. One can but hope they will be as generous and universal in tone as "The Revenge" or "Herve Riel."


Untitled "Marginal Notes" column, Commercial Advertiser, Aug. 6, 1898 [back]