Edwardian and Georgian Canadian Poets
1900-1930


 

 

Selected Essays and Reviews

by Bliss Carman

Edited by Terry Whalen


 

Wisdom Literature*


 

It is Mr. Richard Moulton, I believe, who makes use of the term Wisdom Literature; and he uses it to designate such books as the Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes, Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, The Imitation of Christ, books of meditation, epigram, and conclusions upon life. They might be called the books of solace, tending as they do to comfort and peace. And certainly no other kind of writing has had so deep a hold on men's hearts. Other books have entertained us, encouraged us, supported a failing cause, shattered a worn-out superstition, shaken us with laughter or tears; but these have been companions of our deeper life, they have shared our profounder hopes and apprehensions.

Novels are for women, lyrics for lovers, but the books of solace are for the weary and sad-yes, and for gay, too, in their serener hours. It is the office of these works to stimulate the best; they are not merely sorrowful-visaged friends, companioning us with woe-begone countenance in times of dejection; they are brave and fair and fresh; they have the accent assurance and health, too, and the rugged may find in them even more nourishment than the puny. They are preŽminently religious books; many of them grow out of accepted religious beliefs; but the greater of them are themselves sources from which religion itself takes its rise. They form the most august and authentic message, and there is in them a winning, convincing note of assurance. If they sometimes lack the rapture which poetry lends to human utterance, they are never without a compensating fervor, a quality you may call faith. So that they infect the spirit with a lovely radiance, and we learn from them more beautiful demeanor of the soul. They are, as Arnold said of Marcus Aurelius, "friends and aiders of those who live in the spirit."

In our own day it was Emerson who made the greatest contribution to this Wisdom Literature. He takes his place beside the Roman emperor, as truly inspired as Solomon or Plato; and his help for us is in ways greater than theirs, since he knew our needs the better. Indeed, every age must have its own religion, as every morning must have its own sunlight. And the pity of it is, we are forever expecting the sunshine of yesterday to warm us. Religion is the spring-water of life; creeds are but reservoirs of stone. And he who has once drunk at a well-head will shun the pestiferous supply which the community provides, so accessible, so abundant, so polluted.

According to one scheme of ideas, one may think of literature as mainly divisible into two kinds, the dramatic and the religious-speaking very roughly, of course. The dramatic deals with people in their relation to one another; the religious deals with people in their relation to the universe. How much of the interest in art and poetry is centred in its dramatic quality. Not only all plays, but all novels and personal poems, are solely of this dramatic interest. And art and literature in the past quarter of a century has dealt chiefly with themes of this interrelation of persons, themes essentially dramatic. And it is noticeable, I think, that the more recent quickening of literary and artistic activity has been rather of a religious character. What our younger men seem more particularly interested in is not so much the relation of man to his fellows as the relation of man to his surroundings, to his environment; as we say-his status in the eternal plan. Our great interest in nature is a part of this religious turn. Questions of economy and conduct; problems of the condition of women; the cruelty of unequal wealth; the interplay of race and temperament; the amelioration of hardship; the force and counter-force of will against will; all these are problems which ingenuity can settle sooner or later, surely. They amount to no more than the difficulty of providing a comfortable lodgment for ourselves in a more or less inclement, inhospitable world. But the other question, the question of man's relation to the universe (to give it a sounding phrase), who is to fathom for us? That perennial enigma still awaits the magic word. Many answers have been proposed; many nations have risen and warred and perished for the sake of their own interpretation of the truth; civilizations have grown and faded in the strong belief on this or that solution of the puzzle; while the mystery to-day is as fresh as it was upon that memorable evening when our parents abandoned Paradise in the cause of science.

After Emerson, Maeterlinck. For the beloved saint of Concord, the first interest in life was the question of the Sphinx. It was our place and welfare in the tide of being that piqued his curiosity. And it is just that same absorbing interest that gives Maurice Maeterlinck his eminent position among contemporary writers. His prime interest in life is a religious interest, not a dramatic one. He has written plays, it is true; and you may even be right in thinking them his most important, as well as his most original, contribution to letters. None the less their significance is a religious rather than a dramatic one. In them we are invited to consider the characters, not as they influence one another, but as they are themselves influenced, by the eternal elements of life, love or death or terror. They differ from the ordinary drama in that they are not intended to reveal the human will manifesting itself in action, but rather the human soul shaken by fear, quailing under fatality. They do not present to us our kindred flesh and blood, going about the avocations of the world; they show us human souls in whom the active will is subordinated to sentiment and emotion. Yet they are not plays of emotion so much as pictures-decorations for the temple of modernity.

It was not surprising, therefore, that Mr. Maeterlinck should make a more direct contribution to our wisdom literature as he has done in The Treasure of the Humble and more recently in Wisdom and Destiny. The former book will have the greater praise from the elect, no doubt, and for those who will school themselves a little in sympathy and receptivity of mood it has many beautiful things to say. The later one is more practical, less orphic; speaks intelligibly of conduct and happiness, and yet is quite fearless and untraditional.

"It is not by self-sacrifice that loftiness comes to the soul; but as the soul becomes loftier sacrifice fades out of sight, as the flowers in the valley disappear from the vision of him who toils up the mountain."

"It is easier far, as a rule, to die morally, nay, even physically, for others, than to learn how best we shall live for them."

"It is well to believe that there needs but a little more thought, a little more courage, more love, more devotion to life, a little more eagerness, one day to fling open wide the portals of joy and truth."

"A strenuous soul never ceases to take, though it be from the poorest; a weak soul always is giving, even to those that have most."

These random sentences, you see, show that we are dealing with a contributor to Wisdom Literature. And I cannot help thinking that Wisdom and Destiny and The Treasure of the Humble will come to occupy no mean place among our books of solace and be counted oracular in the religion of to-morrow. At least there is deep encouragement in Maurice Maeterlinck's simple serenity, in his singleness of purpose, his nobility of aim. And there should be found many, even our distracted way of living, to whom he will speak with the refreshing accent of truth.


"Wisdom Literature," Commercial Advertiser, Dec. 3, 1898 [back]