Edwardian and Georgian Canadian Poets
1900-1930


 

 

Selected Essays and Reviews

by Bliss Carman

Edited by Terry Whalen


 

Poetry in the Provinces*


 

By Poetry in the Provinces one means something very different from the Provincial in poetry. The provincial note springs from a state of mind incident to no particular district; the true artistic impulse, vitalizing and universal, pervades the furthest corner of the world, tonic as sunshine. So that from the narrowest base, your true artist will rear you a "monument more lasting than bronze," while your sectarian mind may wander the earth over, carrying his own strict boundaries with him. The provincial character is not so much one who has never realized the immensity of the universe, as one who seems never to have realized the largeness of himself. He preserves all his days a petty attitude of spirit; he wonders at the wrong things, is amused at the wrong things, trifles where he should be serious, and indulges divine anger at phantoms. The provincialism is in his own eye; for no matter where we stand, the earth is the same size-a fixed circle with the ego for centre and the horizon for circumference, a flat green plate covered with a blue bowl. And these conditions are the same in London, in Japan, in the Andes, in Hoboken. It is the man only that makes the difference.

And it is man that makes art. One does not call Burns provincial certainly, yet his inspiration was found within the parish bounds. And I should think we might easily grant Emily Dickinson a place among the first half-dozen Americans poets, although she seldom ventured beyond her own shady garden. Thoreau, too, and Emerson and Hawthorne and many another had just that largeness of character which makes any nook roomy enough; and they found in their own modest circumstance a wide significant environment. From the heel of their own dooryard they could judge the stature of the world; while one without discernment may go a-gypsying for fifty years and never perceive sense or symbol in the shows before him.

When Mr. Thomas Hardy puts forward a volume of Wessex Poems, therefore, the question is not how much Wessex is there in the volume, but how much poetry. When a writer of his genius, the author of more than a dozen admirable novels, sets hand to verse, the venture in itself becomes of interest. Here we have half a hundred poems, only four of which have been previously published, while many were written as much as a generation ago. One might pick out a sonnet, dated 1866, as an example of the poems of one sort in the book:

SHE TO HIM

When you shall see me lined by tool of Time.
    My lauded beauties carried off from me,
My eyes no longer stars as in their prime,
    My name forgot of Maiden Fair and Free;
When in your being heart concedes to mind,
    And judgement, though you scarce its process know,
Recalls the excellencies I once enshrined,
    And you are irked that they have withered so:
Remembering that with me lies not the blame,
    That Sportsman Time but rears his brood to kill,
Knowing me in my soul the very same-
    One who would die to spare you touch of ill!-
Will you not grant to old affection's claim
    The hand of friendship down Life's sunless hill?

There is perhaps nothing very remarkable in these lines, but they serve to give the keynotes of Mr. Hardy's poetical accomplishment. One sees in them the prevailing mental over emotional interest; and one sees the mournful tinge of thought. It is so with the whole volume; it is the work of a thinker who has brooded deeply rather than the ecstasy of a spirit which has lived rapturously-for good or ill. Indeed, several of the larger poems, like The Dance at the Phonix and My Cicely, are novels in miniature, or short stories written shorter yet. The Dance at the Phonix is perhaps the best of the ballads, in spite of its sad, disagreeable theme. It gives us one of those unsolvable problems in human destiny by which Mr. Hardy is so constantly worried; but the movement of the lines has an ease and a freshness not found on every page of his verses.

The piteous story is there with all that metre can do for it, not as pleasant reading as Mr. John Davidson's Ballad of a Nun, but with much of the piercing reality of life-if one cares for that. In other poems Mr. Hardy shows a modern melancholy like Omar's, without any of that amiable sensuousness which has endeared the old Persians to us and made him a contemporary of Tennyson.

If Mr. Hardy's voice comes to us from a shire all his own, there is an even more authentic accent from another country in A Shropshire Lad, by Mr. A.E. Housman. I suppose there is really no excuse, in these prompt times for mentioning a book which is already a year old. But, for my own part, I should have little hesitation in speaking of many of Mr. Housman's lyrics as if they were already English classics. Neither vogue nor time have given them that position, it is true. And it is just because they have been overlooked that it is not unreasonable to mention them again. The last poem in the volume will serve as well as any other to show this poet's particular genius-a genius at once classical and English.

I hoed and trenched and weeded,
    And took the flowers to fair:
I brought them home unheeded;
    The hue was not to wear.

So up and down I saw them
    For lads like me to find,
When I shall lie below them,
    A dead man out of mind.

Some seed the birds devour,
    And some the season mars,
And here and there will flower
    The solitary stars;

And the fields will yearly bear them,
    As light-leaved spring comes on,
And luckless lads will wear them
    When I am dead and gone.

This, you see, you see at once, is the fine and light achievement of a born poet, the sort of thing a thousand may strive to do and never succeed, while one comes at last who accomplishes it so easily that all marvel at the skill. And yet skill is not the final worth; there is more than skill; there is the old and unfading inimitable beauty of poetry at its fairest. Again, turn to a lyric of such convincing cadence as this, with its serene pantheism:

From far, from eve and morning
    And yon twelve-winded sky,
The stuff of life to knit me
    Blew hither. Here am I.

Now-for a breath I tarry
    Nor yet disperse apart-
Take my hand quick and tell me
    What have you in your heart?

Speak now, and I will answer;
    How shall I help you, say;
Ere to the wind's twelve quarters
    I take my endless way.

I have picked these two poems almost at random from a score of others quite as perfect, and I wonder the book is not better known. It seems to me to have just the temper, just the balance between sense and spirit, between zest and sadness, that gives poetry it's enduring hold on us. If we are to look for poetry in the provinces we shall be fortunate to find it as delicate and distinguished and refreshing as Mr. Housman's. It is a book for all lovers of poetry to remember, and for young writers of poetry to mark.


"Poetry in the Provinces," Commercial Advertiser, Feb. 4, 1899 [back]