Edwardian and Georgian Canadian Poets
1900-1930


 

 

Selected Essays and Reviews

by Bliss Carman

Edited by Terry Whalen


 

Winter Sunshine*


 

From Mr. Burrough's latest book, Fresh Fields, which is wholly given up to English scenes and topics, one turns with interest to one of his earlier works, Winter Sunshine, which contains, in "An October Abroad," his first impressions of the old country. Here, in notes on "Mellow England" and "English Characteristics," we have the strong, eminently healthy and exact rendering of the spirit of English life which has given the author his well deserved reputation as a keen-eyed observer. I know of no writer who has so truly and finely marked the distinction between the English and the American.

"A difference in favour of the greater 'cuteness, wide-awakeness, and enterprise of the American, is simply a difference expressive of our greater forwardness. We are a forward people and the god we worship is smartness. In one of the worst tendencies of the age, namely, an impudent, superficial, journalistic, intellectuality and glibness, America, in her polite and literary circles, no doubt, leads all other nations. English books and newspapers show more homely veracity, more singleness of purpose, in short, more character than ours. The great charm of such a man as Darwin, for instance, is his simple manliness and transparent good faith, and the absence in him of that finical, self-complacent smartness which is the bane of our literature."

The very homeliness and peculiar air of London are in these pages. They are full of the riper and healthier life of the mother land.

"England is a mellow country and the English people are a mellow people..We are pitched several degrees higher in this country. By contrast, things here are loud, sharp, and garish..Our goings out and comings in as a nation are anything but silent. Do we not occasionally give the door an extra slam, just for effect?"

For truth and accuracy and a wholesome flavor combined with a lucid style, this writer is admirable.

Through the whole range of things a traveller notices in England, he hits off everything with charming felicity of expression and a frankness and vigour, that make one believe he has appropriated a large share of English heartiness to add to his Yankee keenness; so that you will say, "Well, if you cannot go to England, read Burroughs." But there are other papers in this volume; and among them some of the most delightful essays, to my mind, that their author has written "Autumn Tides," "The Apple," "The Exhilerations of the Road," are exquisite prose idyls-translations into limpid and manly English of some of the many lines of the poetry of nature, which we all may follow, but few can read, and fewer still sing.

Wake Robin, another of these dainty volumes, is entirely given up to the birds. "The Return of the Birds," "Birds-Nests," "The Invitation," "The Bluebird," are essays which treat of them alone, and fill one with a longing to become at least an amateur ornithologist; so sweet and racy is the air of the woods flowing through them. And one reading will not exhaust these books. Mr. Burroughs is an author to whom you will turn back with pleasure and increased profit. There is more thought than at first appears in these easily-written sentences. One cannot but think that the purpose of Wake Robin will be realized.

"This is mainly a book about the Birds, or more properly an invitation to the study of Ornithology, and the purpose of the author will be carried out in proportion as it awakens and stimulates the interest of the reader in this branch of Natural History.

"Though written less in the spirit of exact science than with the freedom of love and old acquaintance, yet I have in no instance taken liberties with facts, or allowed my imagination to influence me to the extent of giving a false impression or a wrong coloring."

That is the beauty of Burroughs, and one of the chief charms of all his work: he in no instance takes liberties with the facts. But more than other writers, he invests every-day facts of nature with much of their beauty and loveliness, whose inexpressible influence must always be the despair and delight of poets.

To "awaken and stimulate" the love of nature until it becomes a constant and powerful influence in us, is no less the privilege of the Poet than that higher duty of his-to be the "friend and aider of those who would live in the spirit," to appeal to the soul with the glory of speech, in the strength of convincing and impregnating truth. The distinction of these aims is superficial; one is only the development of the other. From a higher and rarer air you will often turn to the rich, warm breath of the meadow-lands for ease and rest. Of those who have been most successful in reproducing such an atmosphere in their writings, Mr. Burroughs is among the first. With all Thoreau's love of woods and streams, he has the literary instinct, which Thoreau lacked. As an author Thoreau was scarcely more than an amateur; as a man he was the unique hermit of Walden. Of the life of the author of Wake Robin, on the other hand, we know very little, but we are all sure that we find his books among the most delightful and wholesome of our day. They are masterpieces in their own sphere-the sphere of the loveliness and delicacy and sweetness of nature.

This English, or rather Scotch, edition is an example of the really cheap literature; the finest paper and the clearest print at a small cost. Their form, too, is exactly what one would choose for Burroughs-a volume to be carried in the pocket with knife and string and a day's lunch.


"Winter Sunshine," University Monthly, May 1885 [back]