Edwardian and Georgian Canadian Poets
1900-1930


 

 

Selected Essays and Reviews

by Bliss Carman

Edited by Terry Whalen


 

Poetry and Religion*


 

Under this weighty title Mr. George Santayana has written one of the best books of criticism yet issued in America. It is seldom poetry receives such serious and profound consideration at the hand of our literary men; for in this country the critic and professional writer is very likely to be too hurried, too encumbered with affairs, or too much infected with the popular spirit of slipshod excellence to make thorough research or really philosophic inquiry. But Mr. Santayana is a student and a thinker first of all; he showed that a few years ago when he published his first critical volume, The Sense of Beauty. And at the same time we must accord him his place among men of letters, by virtue of his very first book, a collection of sonnets and other poems. That small volume marked its author at once as the possessor of a pure classic style in versification, and an indubitable genius for poetry. Its quiet, unaffected radiance of thought, and its limpid Horation manner were most notable. So that with his academic training and his original endowments Mr. Santayana was well equipped for the task of criticism.

Indeed, for myself, I feel in Poetry and Religion the breath of the Harvard chill blowing on me too distinctly. It is very sobering certainly, but just a little depressing; and while I should cheerfully recommend it to the frivolous and self-satisfied, I am conscious of preferring a slightly higher temperature than that which prevails in the environs of Boston. I am afraid I should even dare to be guilty of enthusiasm at times. Still an unbiassed judgement must pronounce these essays altogether admirable in their unflinching sincerity and uncompromising service to truth.

Some notion of the scope of the work may be had from the preface, where the writer points out that his leading idea is "that religion and poetry are identical in essence, and differ merely in the way in which they are attached to practical affairs. Poetry is called religion when it intervenes in life, and religion, when it merely supervenes upon life, is seen to be nothing but poetry."

Readers of Tolstoi's interesting book called What is Art? will recall that he finds the basis of poetry, as of the other arts, simply in the need of expression felt by the human soul; but that he further makes the arts the children of religion, attempting to show how religion alone has been the fostering influence in which art has sprung into existence. Mr. Santayana's conception is certainly more sound. Indeed, I see no way of honestly avoiding his main conclusions. He is eminently the advocate of sanity, of severe thought, of intelligence; and the critic of all those misty semi-emotional creeds which are never lacking in followers.

Considering the sort of critical writing we are accustomed to in current literature, the inane and false and hurried judgements that prevail on every hand, one must admit that a good deal of Mr. Santayana's book will be profoundly novel; to the few who care for the stability of logic and truth, however, it will be a welcome discovery, to be treasured with the Essays in Criticism and Religious Aspects of Philosophy.

It is in his essay on "The Poetry of Barbarism" that he comes more closely in contact with current interest. Already his conclusions in this chapter have aroused not a little excitement among the faithful followers of Whitmam and Browning. I must confess I look upon any invasion of the Browning sanctuary with bated breath, though the desecration of the Whitman myth would leave me unmoved by comparison. Still, is it not astounding to have two demi-gods slain at a blow? As I have read Mr. Santayana's dispassionate arraignment, and as step by step I reluctantly assent to reason, I am torn between two feelings. I do not know whether most to be regretful for the vanishing domination of a master or grateful for the emancipation from his influence. I am afraid Browning will never quite be what he was before. Perhaps this is the use of all criticism, to deliver us from one entrancement after another, until we are at last brought more closely into understanding that service which is to be said to be "perfect freedom." Anyhow, if you have been a Browning lover or a Whitman lover, here is a test for that openness of mind of which our little attempts at culture may have made us proud. Can you relinquish your pet divinity at the inescapable compulsion of a ruthless thinker? Do you still place adherence to reason above loyalty to personal predilection? Will you forsake the immortal Walt and Robert and follow after the absolute Veritas, fleeting though she may be? If not-if you are not equal to this sacrifice-you may as well skip "The Poetry of Barbarism," for if you are not made wholesomely uncomfortable you will be made unwholesomely annoyed. On the whole, I believe I am most grateful to Mr. Santayana for his diligent work, so luminous, so helpful, so free from any vagary or inflation of any kind. And I could wish that he would bring the same acumen to bear on other recent masters of letters. His studies of Arnold and Tennyson, for instance, would be a distinct gain to our confused time. But then, I am sure, wherever his search may lead him we shall be the gainers.


"Poetry and Religion," Commercial Advertiser, Apr. 28, 1900 [back]