Edwardian and Georgian Canadian Poets
1900-1930


 

 

Selected Essays and Reviews

by Bliss Carman

Edited by Terry Whalen


 

Poetic Drama*


 

The great success of Cyrano de Bergerac, opening up the whole question of the use of versification in dramatic writing, is another refutation of the fallacy that prose is as good as poetry. In a decade which has no commanding poet in the full exercise of his powers, influencing, stimulating, enheartening men, reŽstablishing their conviction and faith in his art, the croaking critic will not be silent. There will be voices enough ready to cry out that the age of poetry is past, we are living in modern times, verse is only an amusement for children, the rudimentary form of expression natural to the infancy of the race. We have outgrown the time for poetry, they will say, as we have outgrown the iron age.

This is not so. And we can only momentarily admit such false reasoning when we forget what poetry essentially is. People seem to think that art is a kind of toy, a harmless amusement, to be indulged in by the opulent and leisurely, something with which the real business of life can have no concern. In reality this is only the point of view of a civilization degenerating through its own commercial prosperity. A little reflection, a little consideration of the relative value of material and intellectual welfare, would dissipate such an idea.

Art is one of the ultimate, as well as one of the primal, activities of humanity. Our first business was to be warmed and fed, clothed, housed and content in body. And our demand for amusement, for diversion and entertainment and intercourse, mind with mind, was just as early an instinct. Certainly it is no less permanent; and there are reasons for thinking it of equal importance. Industrialism, and the thousand forms of activity we call business, are only a complicated means of supplying our creature wants, after all. Very necessary, if you will, but hardly the height of ambition for mortals. But spirit is too restless a thing to be satisfied forever with cakes and ale; it is not to be put off with the attainment of luxury; it has a dominion and calling of its own; and this demand every race must come sooner or later to recognize. Now, art is one of the chief roads of the unabiding, questing, untiring human spirit out of the land of bondage into the borders of freedom and light.

If this is so it is only a question of time when we shall come as a people to look upon the arts with more respectful eyes. We shall grow to be somewhat skeptical of the worth of prosperity alone; we shall begin to think there may be other measures of greatness, after all; and then in the richness of humility we may become worthy for the pursuit of some native national art.

I should be sorry to be of those who constantly seek to belittle their own times, but I shall be more sorry to be of those who are complacently satisfied with a world that is "good enough for them." And to affirm our superior needs is to affirm the superior value of art.

It was quite natural that Mr. Zangwill's recent criticism of the drama should have been so sharply received by people of the stage. And yet from another point of view his strictures seem moderate enough. I do not suppose any one would soberly contend that the average modern stage production could rank as literature. That the best of them are adaptations from novels is itself criticism of the drama as we have it. And it would not occur to me to think of the theatre in London or New York as a patron of English drama. The new, the daring, the ambitious and original thing is always produced by the artist alone. He always has tradition, convention and established order to conquer before he can win a victory for his art. And here is M. Rostand, a new poet, coming forward and upsetting all our accepted theories of the inefficiency of poetry, with a poetic drama, whose fame walks around the world like sunshine.

It ought to go far toward hastening a revival of the drama; it ought to make us all skeptical of our lack of faith in poetry. It ought to be the beginning of a new era in American letters as well as in American stage management. If managers should come to rely a little more on the poetic sympathy of their public, writers should come to rely much more on their own inspiration and the wisdom of conviction. They would abandon the idle task of writing with both eyes on the box office, and pay some little heed to the demands of art and beauty. They would see the fatuousness of heeding any one's business but their own. And success, which escaped their pursuit, might visit them in the dignity of a more modest, but more ambitious, endeavor.

And the matter of verse. It is safe to say that not one person in a hundred, hearing Mr. Mansfield's admirable rendering of Cyrano, guesses the version is written in blank verse-the form of Shakespeare's plays and the English drama generally. Yet I am sure that much of the charm of the performance would have been lost had Mr. Mansfield been a less devoted artist than he is, and contented himself with any prose translation. As it is, he is the embodiment and personation of a beautifully poetic masterpiece, and every one who cares in the least for beauty or art or poetry owes him a debt of gratitude. That any manager should be willing to put forth a garbled travesty of the play, merely to suit the calibre of his company, shows by comparison to what degradation unscrupulous illiteracy has brought the American stage.

What the blank verse translation on which Mr. John Davidson is engaged may prove to be one cannot say; meanwhile, Mr. Kingsbury's is easily the best. I must say I was disappointed in Mrs. Gertrude Hall's prose rendering. She is herself a poetess of such charm, and she has given us such sympathetic verse translations from Verlaine, that I had looked forward eagerly to her version of Cyrano-only to find it prose, with the savor of the poetry quite evaporated. It seems to me much too hard and literal, and I believe she could not have let the original suffer such detriment had she allowed it to retain the illusion and glamour which verse bestows. Mr. Kingsbury, for instance, turns one of Cyrano's famous speeches in part thus:

                    "And what must I do?
Seek some protector stray, get me a patron,
And like some humble vine, that twines a trunk,
Upheld by it, the while it strips its bark,
Climb by mere artifice, not rise by strength?
No, thank you. Dedicate, as others do,
Verses to bankers? Make myself a clown
In hopes of seeing on a statesman's lips
A friendly smile appear? I thank you, no!"

While Miss Hall has for the same passage:

"And what should a man do. Seek some grandee, take him for a patron, and like the obscure creeper clasping a tree-trunk, and licking the bark of that which props it up, attain to height by craft instead of strength? No, I thank you. Dedicate, as they all do, poems to financiers? Wear motley in the humble hope of seeing the lips of a minister distend for once in a smile not ominous of ill? No, I thank you."

There you have the difference between verse and prose. Mr. Kingsbury's simple and conscientious use of metre has helped him to an acceptable rendering of the poetry, while Mrs. Hall's gift for poetry has not saved her from the stilted banality of our old schoolboy "cribs."


"Poetic Drama," Commercial Advertiser, Nov. 19, 1898 [back]