Edwardian and Georgian Canadian Poets
1900-1930


 

 

Selected Essays and Reviews

by Bliss Carman

Edited by Terry Whalen


 

Women and Art*


 

A perusal of Mr. Stedman's new American anthology will lead to many questions. Among other things you may remark the influence of women on poetry of the last hundred years in this country. Of all contributors to Mr. Stedman's invaluable book, more than a quarter (to be accurate, about 27 percent) are women. We have not placed any woman as yet on the same shelf with Poe and Whittler, Emerson and Longfellow, Lowell and Holmes, Bryant and Whitman. Probably the only man who has any claim to a place beside these poets is Lanier. And I am not sure that I would not surrender Lanier for Emily Dickinson; in fact, I am sure that I would. Emily Dickinson seems to me to have a large measure of that force and incisiveness which contemporary American verse lacks so lamentably. Her poems lay hold of you: there is no denying them. They have a subtlety that is almost uncanny, it is so insistent, so persuasive, so inescapable. She is not wide in her range, it is true; yet within the somewhat narrow borders of her own favorite province, Emerson alone is her equal in power; while for originality no one but Whitman can be compared with her.

She seems to be endowed, like all great artists, with a virile power-a power of dominating others by sheer force of character, a power exceptional in women, but indispensable to the work of origination. Among American writers I should say there were two or three women living who have an indisputable share of this quality; and in virtue of it they play their part among their fellow-creators with more than credit. Indeed, it may almost be said that it is they who save American letters from the charge of effeminacy.

It is not coarseness we need, nor indecency, but just plain good manhood. And this you won't get from more than half a dozen writers to-day. We don't want books that no young person could read, but we do want books that no young person would ever dream of writing. And, yet, if you read the new Anthology, or observe carefully in the audiences in our thea- ters, you will have the conviction borne in upon you that the young girl is the arbiter of letters and the drama to-day. This has become a commonplace of observation, but it is none the less lamentable.

Mr. Stedman's anthology suffers from the fact that it is an anthology, illustrative of the great body of American verse in the past hundred years, rather than a treasury of the best poems only. One must take the good and the poor together, just as one does in the magazines. And looking at the latter part of the work, representing the contemporaneous verse, I fancy I know why men don't read poetry to-day. That is to say, I know the reason, though I don't know the cause. The reason is simply that it is not written for men. It is written largely by women, and for women only. This seems to me a great pity. If poetry is to be no better than this, we had best throw it away at once-as most men do. Can you blame them? Imagine a grown man, tempered in the strenuous reality of life, pressed by affairs, confronted with difficulties, overstrung to exertion, regaling his immortal soul on the watery slush provided for him periodically, month by month.

And yet it is not the editor's fault. He prints the best work he can find, up to a certain limit of conservatism set by his readers. It isn't the fault of the poets certainly; they write as well as they can. It isn't anyone's fault apparently.

Yes it is, it is every one's fault. It is the fault of our blood, our canting Saxon respectability, that insists on being and thinking one thing, while it professes something quite different. There are things for fresh, venturesome man-poetry to do, other than those Mr. Kipling has accomplished so successfully. But there is only one way in which to do them, and that is Mr. Kipling's way-the way of unflinching originality, the way of truth. However much the author of "The Seven Seas" has enriched English literature directly, he has rendered it indirectly the greatest service of his generation. He has said things that every man knew, and felt, and believed, and yet was afraid to declare. He has destroyed our snivelling English cant at one fell shock.

He's the only thing that doesn't give a damn
For the savior of respectabilitee.

It is truth he cares for, and his fellow men. If you are timid and conservative, you must stay at home with the women, a lion of tea-tables, a shoo-pussy of the drawing rooms. In the work of the great world of art and science, for the advancement of man, you can have no share. But if you are ready to go poor for the truth that is in you; if you would rather break stones by the roadside than earn a competence by writing less or other than you believe; then there is some hope for you. You have a few rudiments of manhood in you somewhere. And by dilligence and fortitude you may come to be numbered with the saving remnant. Otherwise, however rich you may become, however sought after and successful, to Grub street you belong, and in Grub street you will remain.


"Women and Art,"  Commercial Advertiser, Oct. 20, 1900 [back]