Edwardian and Georgian Canadian Poets
1900-1930


 

 

Selected Essays and Reviews

by Bliss Carman

Edited by Terry Whalen


 

From "Marginal Notes"

(October 8, 1898)*


 

Perhaps we are apt to speak of nature's moods without quite realizing the weight of the phrase and with just the least lack of conviction, as if our very confident education and triumphs of civilization had given us immunity from her sway, as if we were somehow superior to her ancient power and could afford to smile at her over-zealous worshippers. And yet how sensitive we are, after all, to her delicate influence, how dependent on season and climate, air and sun. It is not for nothing that our universal conversation begins with the weather; there must always be an advantage to those who love their out of doors over those who can endure to be absorbed wholly by streets and walls. We do not always appreciate fully the delicacy of this mortal machinery; it is so stout and long suffering, so adaptable to circumstance we forget its sensitiveness. Yet all the while it is amenable to the finest shades of natural change, the shifting of the seasons, the weather's mood.

And of all the seasons giving a character to their associations, you would say that autumn is the artist's time of year. Summer is for the farmers and those who must toil in the tan of the sun; winter will do well enough for book-worms and frivolous persons; and the spring is for lovers and vagrants, the sorrow-mongers and carefree. But for the artist these slow days of "everlasting October."

It is now that nature's mood coincides with that state of mind and feeling we have come to call artistic temper. The mornings are not too energetic nor the evenings too luxurious, for the moderate procedure of the creative spirit. The sun broods for hours of moveless meditation over mountain and shore, deliberating, you might fancy, some new marvel of broidered crimson and gold, some fresh study in impressionism. The whole day is like an hour of afternoon, infinitely patient, reverent, loving; full of solace and the sweet satisfaction of accomplished purpose-not only purpose accomplished but new purpose, vaguely discriminated, and to be achieved somehow in the far-away fullness of years. It is a time of rest; there is a lull in the busy operations of all created life, a breathing space before the excitement of winter storm. There is not, perhaps, as much real inactivity of nature at this time as there seems to be, but the effect is the same.You would say that the earth seemed to have paused in her doings and to be standing still. It is the moment of absolute passivity in which the new impulses spring to life. As the spring is the breeding time of all material existence, so the autumn is the time of spiritual fecundity.

It would be interesting to know just how far seasons influence artists, and whether they are more productive in the fall than at other times. It may be the purest fancy, but certainly I can hardly imagine the creative faculty as so impressionable, elastic and serene in April as in October. These days of unruffled happiness, where the oldest unseen divinities seem to preside, are pregnant, one would guess, with the richest revelations for the artist.

The idle world seems given over to the spirit of color, drenched in the poetry of its own life. Just now come the rare days when every mortal who treads a naked road steps with elation. Care falls away and the elasticity of perennial joy returns. It is impossible to be dejected long. And the glummest of us has a touch of contentment, I am sure.

Then, too, beside the mere ecstasy of living in such weather, in addition to the physical uplift of the air, there is the solemn yet loving presence in sky and hill of a something we venerate. This is the festival of the year. The feast of St. Michael and All Angels is almost the only one of the holy days which Nature observes, unless, perhaps, we may add

"Bartholomew
With his cold dew."

and

"Barnaby bright
All day and no night."

Still the early fall is the most solemn of all occasions in the natural year. It has none of the gush and fervor of spring, none of her youthful and riotous abandon; but there hangs about every sunburnt hour an air of mature and sober radiance, sweetly victorious over every ill. The mind in a great calm turns to ponder the meaning of life, neither vexed by the failure of bygone endeavor, nor troubled for what may come. And yet the time is too serene, too happy and far too wise for criticism; the human spirit shares something of the universal harvesting of forest and acre, and is too laden with happiness to be merely scientific or inquisitive. It feels the prompting of beautiful thoughts; the sentiments of glad being take possession of it; and the beautiful outward earth is hardly beautiful enough to hold all its joyous expression. The masterpieces of nature on every tree and hillside stir the heart into vivid life. The springs of the creative impulse begin to run again after their long summer idleness. To those who give any of their life to the making of beautiful things, and strive ever so humbly to increase our small store of simple aesthetic pleasure, I should think the autumn must seem the one time when toil and joy are fully synonymous.

And then the different books we read as the seasons wheel by-our summer novels, our winter science, our April and May-time volumes of travel or love lyrics. While at the fall of the leaf, I should wish for no book that was not soaked through and through with serenity and resignation, and yet with the calm strength of autumnal vigor. All the writings of Thoreau and his more illustrious townsman Emerson have this native power, this combination of quiet gladness and assured wisdom. Indian summer is the transcendentalism of time. And this afternoon I have been turning the leaves of another book, embodying the very spirit of the autumn year. In Gleanings from Buddha Fields you read at once an enchanting invitation to go upon a pilgrimage of dream. This soft, slanting light that falls filtering through the pure yellow beech leaves, is it real? Are those mountains yonder, or only shadows of impalpable blue mist? Then near by, over the old silent purple rocks the chipmunks are running and chasing each other. The fine, thin voice of crickets sifts up though the silence. The shimmering threads of gossamer hang and wane in the sun, turning from green to violet as they shift in the light. Tiny motes are shining in the beams. And even when there is a breeze comes over the ledge and stirs the gold leaves, it does not seems to disturb for a moment the placid meditation of the year. And as I turn the pages of these "studies of hand soul in the Far East" they appear to have shared the terror of serene brooding which permeates earth and air on this early autumn day. Perhaps the civilization of Japan, through its long centuries of ripening growth has come to the fulness of human thought. Certainly it is very different from our own, and to turn from it is like turning away from these sun-filled trees and reddening hills to the prosaic distractions of town. It is easy to fall into an idle day dream on such an afternoon, but if one did the fantasy could hardly be more lovely and serene than Mr. Hearn's pictures of Japan. His subtle interpretation of the spirit of that people, their religion and their sense of art are something more than admirable. They have a delicacy of insight and a sympathy of exposition which remove them from the ordinary class of books of travel. A residence of several years now has given him a deep knowledge of the country we all hope to visit one day, so that his writings have an exceptional authenticity. More than that, they have the charm of the most exquisite art. Full of the profound matters of philosophy, they are yet so unstrained and limpid that one cannot help receiving something of the wisdom of the mind of the Orient, however casual one may be. Its large, sweet, inactive tolerance broods over the pages, as the sunshine broods over the woods to-day. What wonderful chapters are these on "Dust" and "A Living God."

"This sense of the voidness of things comes only when the temperature of the air is so equably related to the temperature of life that I can forget having a body. Cold compels painful notions of solidity; cold sharpens the delusion of personality; cold quickens egotism; cold numbs thought, and shrivels up the little wings of dreams."

"To-day is one of those warm, hushed days, when it is possible to think of things as they are-when ocean, peak and plain seem no more real than the arching of blue emptiness above them. All is mirage-my physical self, and the sunlit road, and the slow rippling of the grain under a sleepy wind, and the thatched roofs beyond the haze of the rice fields, and the blue crumpling of the naked hills behind everything. I have the double sensation of being myself a ghost and of being haunted-haunted by the prodigious luminous spectre of the world."

The Japan one imagines is, of course, not the real Japan, but I cannot help believing that the Japan one sees through Mr. Hearn's eyes is very near the reality. Its great beauty is convincing, and the sweetness and calm of its religion speak from his words. I ask no happier volume than this for this happy day, and as I lazily turn these delightful pages the sun falls warmly and gently through the yellow beech leaves, suffusing sense and soul with rich contentment. This glimpse of a wonderful people is enough; I do not wish over-ardently to see them in the flesh now; I have no more restless desire to travel abroad; this mountainside is fair and good enough; the light wind rustles down a few more mellow leaves, but the great earth dreams on, her long marvellous day dream of perfection.

How hard it is to come even occasionally a step forward on that road- the path to perfection! Not many of us have time to steep ourselves in the love of any wise and ancient people. We are too busy for that, we think. But there must be few who can not spare at least one day for blessed idleness in the soft October sun.


Untitled "Marginal Notes" column, Commercial Advertiser, Oct. 8, 1898 [back]