Edwardian and Georgian Canadian Poets
1900-1930


 

 

Selected Essays and Reviews

by Bliss Carman

Edited by Terry Whalen


 

Corpus Versus Animus*


 

The case is so old that the very mention of it is almost a breach of etiquette. Wars have been waged, empires overturned, and the color of the map changed a hundred times by so trifling a litigation. There appears one day among men a hairy prophet, coming down out of the mountains, a hermit, an ascetic, preaching righteousness and the paramountcy of the spirit. Against the gay, the worldly, the happy, the thoughtless, the free untrammelled children of the earth, this bleak forboder of ill launches his rattling exhortations. In his cosmos there have never been any cakes and ale, and his strenuous mind is bent on contorting the visible world to his own lofty but narrow pattern. Again and again the chosen people of history were called on to listen to such a man, until it happens they have given us the most considerable and remarkable body of prophecy in the world, and have impressed their idea of goodness permanently on one race. And the story of all nations is similar to theirs, revelations of righteousness and relapses to license-Puritan and Pagan at ceaseless war in the long struggle for ultimate perfection. In England, for only one example, how the court and the commonwealth strove together for a futile deadly clutch for mastery! Not a political struggle merely, but a moral one even more. Our friend Corpus, the dashing child of pleasure, horsed and ringleted, cheering after instinct down the delicious flowery roads of earth; and an old friend Animus, severe and noble, imbued terribly with the weight and serious consequence of life.

You may side as you will; and probably you will side at first with one hand then with the other many times through a long youth before you discover the uselessness of partisan quarrels. But then at last some day, most likely in your golden thirties, when the false logic of extremes has dawned upon you, there will come the thought that light cannot exist without darkness, nor right without wrong, that the only thing that can exist without its opposite is non-existence itself. And then your heart will not be torn asunder any more within you over the immemorial litigation in the case of Corpus versus Animus. You will perceive with wonder how eminently right they both are; you will cease giving your undivided allegiance to one or the other; you will content yourself with sharing the joys and sorrows of both alike; and you will heave an enormous sigh of contentment that one more stormy cape of experience is past.

Tolerance, tolerance, tolerance! Be not vexed at all if the roisterer is noisy in the taverns where you must eat a modest meal; neither vaunt yourself as virtuous because cold water is your only drink. For Corpus has his virtues, too-good, strong, generous, faithful, and inescapable Corpus! And never think for a moment that your high asceticism is better than his inane muscularity. He is but training himself according to his kind, that he may serve you the better according to your wisdom. And it does behoove you to temper and control yourself with all learning, so that you can rightly use that loyal and willing servitor.

Is it not true that for the most part we have been willing to correct the excesses and ignorances of the body by a shameful disaffection and neglect? Noble and sincere as was the ascetic ideal, did it not sinfully maltreat an innocent childish creature when it heaped indignity and emaciation in this fair figure of humanity? Was the result not quite as bad as the sorry ravages of debauchery and animalism? Quite. But one may say, surely, that better thought is coming to prevail; that the anciently fancied antagonism between the physical and spiritual is seen to be radically absurd; that no advantage can accrue permanently to either except through the good will of both. All this is indeed commonplace to the last jot, yet it is the sober, wholesome truth by which we need to stand, and to stand courageously, until we realize for every one the Roman standard-the sane mind in the sound body. Let us believe that never yet has that perfect poise of forces been reached. There have been scholars and there have been fighters; but seldom has the normal man walked the earth in utter health of body and spirit. We are too often warped by a wrong thought; the one ideal on the other deludes us; we enroll ourselves under Corpus or Animus, and take sides in that time-worn dispute, to our own lasting injury. Let us have done with it once and forever, and recognize an equal culture of the physical and the intellectual as the only training for perfection. It is so necessary to have a true ideal, to know the better way. And a very small experience should teach us the truth in this case. I could wish that Whitman's prophecies were heeded more generally, and his sturdy, beautiful novel thought more gladly accepted. I could wish that men and women would treat themselves more rationally, with greater care for the balance of their forces. It is true, perhaps, that we shall develop a civilization in time where might will not be the only right; but we shall do so to our own destruction, if we do not take greater and greater care of our physical selves. We shall never be as happy as angels until we are healthy as animals.


"Corpus Versus Animus," Commercial Advertiser, Feb. 24, 1900 [back]