Edwardian and Georgian Canadian Poets



Selected Essays and Reviews

by Bliss Carman

Edited by Terry Whalen




It is customary to sound the praises of simplicity in our day and to belaud the habit of an earlier time, when, as we declare, life was less complicated than at present. In the midst of a vital and nascent civilization we are perhaps none too prone to emulate the virtues of our fathers or imitate their excellent qualities. Yet we may easily mistake their blessings. Is simplicity, after all, so admirable a trait of character, so fine a quality in art?

And what is this simplicity of life for which we sigh? We speak of the simplicity of a flower, but surely nothing is more wonderfully complex than all the beautiful products of the natural world. A leaf, for instance- one single fresh, green maple leaf, from the myriads of the forest to-day- seems at first glance simplicity itself. Yet its symmetry is not geometrical, but only artistic. It conforms but roughly, though inexorably, to its type. It has no perfect fellow in all the whole earth full of green companions. It is not a machine product. It hasn't the simplicity of straight line and circle. It cannot be reproduced, can hardly be imitated. It has individuality, properties, parts, functions, growth, color, vitality and a period of its existence. That is no simple matter.

Lower in the scale of nature there is greater simplicity. Inorganic is simpler than organic. Last of all comes primal cosmos (or chaos); which is simplicity itself. On the other hand, the farther you go ahead in the development of nature the more complex does it become. Simplicity, truly, means life reduced to its lowest terms, But that is not what we actually desire, I fancy.

You tell me you love the simplicity of nature, you are glad to get away from the complications of city life. Yes, that is the phrase we commonly use, but I think there is a good deal of error in it. What is it that wearies us in town? Not the work we have to do so much as the strain of unnatural ugliness and noise in which we allow ourselves to dwell. For work is not a burden, but a pleasurable activity, a natural function of the healthy and happy; but noise and ugliness are against the trend of spirit as it passes from the lower to the finer life. Noise and ugliness are primitive and simple; music and beauty are complex, and we only reach them in our progress toward ideal perfection. To take a single instance; you will admit that many of the gongs on the street cars make a hideous din; they contribute not a little to the dissonance of city noises. But suppose that we should go to the trouble and expense of making our gongs musical. Suppose they were all made of the finest bell-metal, carefully attuned, how much pleasanter that would be. And then, further suppose that each bell were made to strike its own musical note, and that all were harmonized, how much more pleasant to the jaded nerves! And in each improvement, you will observe, we should be making a step away from the simplicity of noise and towards the complexity of music. We should be discarding machinery in favor of art.

And, again, think of the hideousness of our streets- our rows and rows of brownstone fronts, as you look down the side streets on the way up- town-every house exactly like its neighbor, and every street almost exactly like the next. There is monotonous simplicity for you, and the result is deadly. Now if every house were given a beautiful and individual character of its own, and that character so modified as to conform to its neighbors, how fine a block you might have! And, further, if each block were made to harmonize to some extent with those about it, how fine a city! Again, in each step of improvement we should be advancing from the simple to the complex, from chaos to art. For art is not the antithesis of nature; but nature and art are both the antithesis of chaos. It is when we give up thought and put our trust in machinery that we begin to move backward to monotony, simplicity, ugliness and death.

And if we would remedy the annoyance of city life we must be willing to take thought for it. We must be willing to spend time and trouble and money in order to have music instead of noise in our car bells, in order to have beauty instead of simplicity in our architecture.

Now if you think you can solve the problem of modern life for yourself by withdrawing from the fray, you are mistaken. You may set up your studio in the top of a twenty-story building, and moon there over your emasculate daubs, while the twentieth century is racing to hell beneath your feet; but you will never lay on a brushful of paint that will stay. There is a lot of dirty work to be done in the world yet, and if we are not fitted to help in it we must at least stand by and give it our sympathy.

Then in the realm of art itself, it is not simplicity we admire, but harmonious unity, the complex blending of colors and tones. Simplicity would mean the crude juxtaposition of one raw color by another, the striking of one note without regard to its fellow. And in poetry, when you pass from the regularity of the school of Pope to the apparently freer metrical usage of Wordsworth and Tennyson and Keats, you fancy at first that you are returning to simpler methods; and when you come to Emerson and Whitman, you say you have reached simplicity itself. But that is exactly the reverse of truth. The cadences of "Leaves of Grass" are far more intricate than those of "The Essay on Man."

The only simplicity that is desirable is simplicity of soul, a certain singleness of aim and quiet detachment of vision, a mood of enduring repose not at variance with constant endeavor, a habit of content, contemplation and peace, that abides undistracted in harmony with other habits of activity and toil. This is not the simplicity of chaos, but the simplicity of order, the assurance that comes from the perception of law and the triumph of beauty. This is the higher simplicity, the simplicity of nature and mathematics, which comprehends their many complexities in a unity of being.

"Simplicity," Commercial Advertiser, June 23, 1900 [back]