Edwardian and Georgian Canadian Poets
1900-1930


 

 

Selected Essays and Reviews

by Bliss Carman

Edited by Terry Whalen


 

Art and War*


 

I suppose the temporary Dewey memorial at Twenty-fourth street and Fifth avenue is one of the most beautiful arches in the world. Certainly it is far more beautiful than the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. Its position partly accounts for this. The sturdy Roman arch is not so much an embodiment of aspiration as of strength; it is properly a section of a viaduct; its genius is not solitary, but communal; it is one of an infinite number whose office is to connect heights across intervening space, so that its characteristics are better displayed in a crowded thoroughfare, between buildings of its own height than in an open space. If the Dewey Arch, for instance, should be removed to Riverside Drive or any other open spot it would lose half of its significance and half its charm. It might remain a monument of a people's gratitude, but its magic would be gone.

And when a public monument is as beautiful as this it becomes inherently an instrument of peace. It is a memento of war, but an active aid to that state of repose in which war is forgotten. Its figures and inscriptions bid us bear in mind the fighting deeds of heroes, but its calm beauty belies its message and draws us into the peaceful mood of brotherliness and wise detachment. So that it is hard to say which is the greater, the capture of Manila or the artistic creation which commemorates it.

It is said that there is a difference of opinion at present among British poets on the war in South Africa, this one sympathizing with the pastoral Boers, while another is full of imperial enthusiasm. But the question is really deeper than that. It is not a question of whether or no the war is a just war, but whether war and justice can ever coincide. If war can ever be just, then every war is a holy war, on one side at least. But if not, then every war is a simple iniquity. There is no compromise possible between Tolstoi and Mr. Kipling.

But patriotism is one of the last Pagan virtues to be uprooted by Christianity, and dies stubbornly in the human heart. And yet you must admit that there is no perfection of spiritual culture possible as long as the spark of martial fervor burns in the distracted soul. We profess the religion of renunciation and universal love, but the racial traits are not so easily overcome. At heart western civilization is capable of bloodthirstiness still; and all its hymns and Sunday schools cannot save it from savagery the moment a decent excuse for fighting arrives. "Very well," say our valiant friends; "that is no disgrace. Human nature is wider and bigger every way than your peace-at-any-price politicians and poets."

Very true, but this is a criticism of the doctrines of Christianity, and you have no shadow of right to believe in the Sermon on the Mount so long as you are willing to fight for your country. On the other hand, if you refuse to fight, off you must get-off the earth and make way for those who have fewer scruples.

There remains the very solid fact that wars have been and will be again; that we have moved from there to here through what we call progress, in spite of war and by means of war equally. But the art which celebrates war and finds its inspiration in strife as a human incident must still continue to be a bystander and no partisan; a lover of the picturesqueness and lyric thrill of war, but an unruffled disbeliever as well.

It has often been pointed out that war has been one of the most fertile subjects of inspiration to the artist; but we must be careful to remember that in the body of lovely art no breath of hatred has ever entered. For hate can only kill, while love is the vivifier and creator in the world. And while men struggle and contend, strive and die, love and hate, war and laugh in wisdom and folly, there will always be the disinterested mind standing by to note and illumine the scene. To see all things, to take part in all things, but to take sides in nothing, is the work of the artist. The average man is first for himself, second for his country, last of all for humanity; the normal man, the perfect type, is first a man, second a citizen; last of all an individual, until he shall attain perfection-perfection of that individuality he must renounce in order to make perfect. So there we are at a second dilemma, and there I for one prefer to leave the matter.

 


"Art and War," Commercial Advertiser, Nov. 4, 1899 [back]