Edwardian and Georgian Canadian Poets
1900-1930


 

 

Selected Essays and Reviews

by Bliss Carman

Edited by Terry Whalen


 

Subconscious Art*


 

There is a general recognition of the fact, but no clear comprehension of the power, of subconsciousness expressing itself in various forms of art. We readily recognize in a painting, a poem, a piece of music, the presence of a force ("a something," we are likely to call it) which we do not readily define. We say perhaps that the picture has soul; it sways us, we know not why; it allures us, we cannot tell how. And a too exact critic might perhaps ridicule our susceptibility to a vague charm we could not pretend to understand. His very philosophic and rational mind would insist on clarity, on definiteness. For him the painting must be logical, conclusive, limpid. But somehow, we say, we do not care whether it means anything or not, so long as it moves us pleasurably. We can enjoy Browning's "Child Roland" or William Morris's "Blue Closet" without asking what they mean. And we are right too. Art does not always have to mean something. Some poetry is addressed to the mind and some is not. The best poetry, of course, addresses the mind and the emotions as well. But just as a deal of good poetry has been written which appeals chiefly to the rational self in us (nearly all of Pope and Dryden, for example) so a good deal has been written which appeals to our irrational instinctive self. And indeed in all poetry, even the most rational, there are certain qualities which pass the threshold of the outer mind and pass in to sway the mysterious subconscious person who inhabits us.

The most obvious of the qualities in poetry is the metre or rhythm. The measure of verse has an influence on us beyond our reckoning, potent and ever present, though unrecognized. So that the simplest, most unexalted statement of truth, commonplace though it be, if once thrown into regular verse, comes to us with an added force. Perhaps I should say with a new force. It may not make a statement any plainer to our mind, to versify it; it may not make it any stronger mentally; but it gives a power and influence of a sort it did not possess before. This added power is one of the things that distinguish poetry from prose-art from science. Now the principle of recurrence is the underlying principle of rhythm and metre and rhyme and alliteration. And I wonder whether this constant reiteration, this regular pulsing recurrence in poetry, does not act as a mesmeric or hypnotic agent.

It is quite true that good art is the expression not only of the rational waking objective self, the self which is clever and intentional and inductive, but of the deeper unreasoning self-the soul- as well. It is also true that good art impresses the deeper as well as the shallower self. The outer objective self may be extremely brilliant, may master technique and become skilled in every lore of the craft, may, indeed, become as masterful in execution as the masters themselves, and yet if it have not the aid of a great strong inner subjective, unconscious self, it can do nothing of permanent human interest. You know how accurate a draughtsman may be, and how learned an anatomist, and yet how dismal and uninspired his paintings after all. You know what brilliant execution as a pianist Miss B. may have, and yet how cold her recitals leave you, how wooden she is. This is the achievement of intentional mind unassisted by the subconscious spirit. And necessary as it is, it is not alone sufficient; it is talent without genius.

To attain the best results in art we must have both the personalities of the artist working at once. All the skill which training and study can give must be at his command, to serve as the alphabet or medium of his art, and at the same time the submerged, unsleeping self must be set free for active creation. Scientific formulŠ are an admirable means of communication between mind and mind, but art is a means of communication for the whole being-mind, body and spirit.

This being so, it is necessary-in doing any creative work, in following any of the arts-it is necessary to cultivate the power of submerging our useful, objective self far enough to give free play to the greater subjective self, the self beyond the threshold. This is exactly what occurs in hypnosis, and I dare say the beat and rhythm of poetry serves just such a purpose.

"Dearest, three months ago,
When the mesmerizer Snow
With his hand's first sweep
Put the earth to sleep--"

In these lines of Browning's there resides, I am certain, a power like that he describes. It resides in all poetry. It is the magic we feel but cannot fathom, the harm we must follow, discredit it as we may.

Apply this test to any piece of good poetry of which you are fond. Take Tennyson's "Crossing the Bar," for instance. That poem appeals to our mind with a definite idea, a definite image, which you may easily transpose into prose. The poem might be translated without loss of the thought. But what of the magic charm of the lines:

"For though the flood may bear me beyond
    the boundary of time,
I hope to see my good Pilot's face when I
    shall have crost the bar."

I have not altered the thought, but I have destroyed the stanza. The spell has vanished with the metre. The reason that Tennyson's verse is more pleasing than our mangled version of it is this-simply that it speaks to us more completely. It not only appeals to our intelligence, it appeals to our sense and soul as well. The soul has memories of regions and lives of which we have never heard. The soul swells with us as tacitly as a silent companion who should share our habitation for years, yet never reveal the secrets of its earlier life. And good poetry and good art have much to say to this work-a-day understanding of ours; yet they have more to say to the soul within us, which comprehends everything. The difficulty is in obtaining access to the soul and securing egress for it. The creative artist must subordinate cunning to intuition, and he must embody his beautiful creations in some form that will be able to elude the too vigilant reason of his fellows and gain instant access to their spirit.

If I were a poet I should not merely wish to set down my conclusions about life and the universe; I could accomplish that better by being a trained philosopher. I should not merely want to convey to you new and important facts of nature; I could do that better by being a scientist. I should not want to convince your mind only, for I could do that better by logic and rhetoric. But I should wish to do all these things and to win your sympathy as well. I should not only which to make you believe what I say, but to believe it passionately-with your whole heart, as the phrase is. In order to do this I should have to secure free communication of spirit, as well as mind with mind. I should not only have to satisfy reason, I should have to lull and charm it. I should have to hypnotize that good warder of your house before he would allow me to enter. Just as I had to mesmerize myself with the cadence of my lines before I could fully make them express my whole nature, so you in your turn as reader would have to feel their undefinable magic before you could appreciate and enjoy my poems to the utmost capacity of your nature. I could only secure this result through the senses, through the monotonous music of my verse.

This may seem to you nothing more than the wisdom of the snake-charmer. Well that is all it is. But that is enough.


"Subconscious Art," Commercial Advertiser, May 19, 1900 [back]