Edwardian and Georgian Canadian Poets
1900-1930


 

 

Selected Essays and Reviews

by Bliss Carman

Edited by Terry Whalen


 

Books of the Bush*


 

 

It is now, on the threshold of June, that the pious, nature-loving heart says to itself, "Thank Heaven for out-of-doors!" And now, if ever, our spirit is enlarged and the elation of a return to nature takes possession of us. Yes, there is a good deal of cant indulged in on this subject of nature and our love of nature, but that does not alter the fact that the sentiment exists. It rather proves it. And if John Doe really prefers a roof garden and a stein to a pine wood and a forest spring, that does not concern you and me either. The truth is, we all of us like the roof garden, more or less, and we all of us like the woods, more or less.

It is a heritage we have from our English parentage, from those country-loving, animal-loving folk, who have their town life, indeed, for a month or two of every year, but who have always by preference a home amid trees and lawns and streams. In our people it undergoes a certain transmutation, due to differences of time and zone, and becomes a love of the wilderness, as if we not only inherited it from an ancestry, but from our predecessors, the red men, whom we dispossessed. The Indian, in a sense, is one of our spiritual progenitors. In colonial days, and indeed, until not so long ago, our contact with these silent people of the wilderness must have had its inescapable effect on our character. Perhaps this will seem a fanciful and far-brought supposition, but I think there is some truth in it. And, certainly, the Indian must have taken hold of the imaginative among us, his life and character must have perceptibly influenced growing American letters and art. He must have had for our artists and writers a touch of something more wild and moving, more primitive and significant and full of the poetry of the earth, than anything folk could have seen in England since the days of Robin Hood. I do not mean that it made American literature or art any better than English; I only mean that it made it necessarily different. And, certainly, in books dealing with nature we have made a distinct mark.

In the first place, there is Emerson, whose name will occur to every one. Not only his essay on nature reveals the influence of wild life I am speaking of; almost every page of him shows it. He is easily our first author on the great theme: and almost any volume of his will do as the foundation of a great library, a vade mecum series. It was he who first sounded the religious note in our sentiment for nature, who fortified our timid conviction when we began to perceive that deity is indifferent to walls and roof, and that the meeting house is only of value in proportion as it becomes too small for us. He taught us not to be ashamed of our old yet new religion, and to confess without fear that the serene and ennobling enjoyment we find in the face of nature is quite as authentic as the ecstasies of Moses or John.

The literature of nature that has been produced in America is surely one of our most praiseworthy accomplishments. After Emerson and more exclusively vowed to nature than he, comes to his townsman Thoreau, that inveterate fieldsman, the founder of the cult of leisurists and birdseekers. With but indifferent success in his own day, Thoreau has grown more and more in fame, until he takes rank among the best of our prose men. There is a simple and unadorned directness in him very much to out recent taste. He was thoroughly emancipated, as Emerson was, from the literary style, the traditional manner and conscious method of the earlier century. He was the first of that ever-growing host who write because they have something to say, not because they wish to say something.

You might think at first that the art of writing English prose is on the wane in America, there are so few men who seem to cultivate it for its own sake. With scores of people writing and publishing books, you still feel, I think, that hardly anyone is giving to his work that deliberate care which made writing a fine art. Everyone is more intent on the matter of his writing than on his style. And if you keep pace with the current periodical literature you will see how large a part of it is produced by men who are specialists, authorities in some branch of industry, but by no means trained writers. This means that the art of writing is becoming universal, does it not? So much the better if it is so. For then we should be sure to have a large mass of work, well informed and accurate. The style in which it is presented may be trusted to take care of itself. And there are always a few men, the specialists in science or affairs or travel or sports, who also have the innate feeling for expression as well, so that their work becomes literature.

Among the followers of Thoreau, every year growing more numerous, there must be counted a few whom we with all recognize as masters of the art of observation and description. Mr. Burroughs has his place assured beside Thoreau as a lover of bird and beast lore, and Mr. Bradford Torrey is not far behind him on the delightful trail. More lately comes Mr. Ernest Seton-Thompson; with his well-deserved success, and I must ask leave to add the name of Mr. William J. Long, whose books on Ways of Wood Folk and Wilderness Ways seem to me unsurpassed in scrupulous accuracy and charm of narration.

These men give us Nature as she is. There is no mere use of nature as material for literature, but the truth about things, which is far more fascinating as well as far more valuable than romance. I confess, of course, to thinking the Jungle Book equal to Ęsop, and quite Homeric in its way. But it is, after all, not a question of comparisons, but of positive excellence. Let genius do what it will, there is no "arguing agin success," as Artemus Ward said. And we shall continue, no doubt, to have a plentiful supply of literature which is of the imagination pure and simple. Meantime there is this whole new kind of literature, the literature of natural fact, which is growing up about us, so instructive, so delightful, so full of zest and spirit and clear air and open sky. Is it not more significant than at first it seems?


"Books of the Bush," Commercial Advertiser, June 1, 1901 [back]