Edwardian and Georgian Canadian Poets
1900-1930


 

 

Selected Essays and Reviews

by Bliss Carman

Edited by Terry Whalen


 

A Canon of Criticism*


 

It has always been a difficult problem with critics how to redeem criticism from the mere vagaries of personal whim and reduce it to the orderly dignity of a science. It is easy for the man of cultivated taste to say, "this pleases me," or, "that seems to me unlovely;" and the great mass of our current criticism has no other logic. In an estimate of art we are dependent on just such arbitrary judgements of critics- honest opinions, indeed, but without any philosophic basis. Now how are we to rid ourselves of these obiter dicta? Is there no sound canon of criticism to be substituted for this haphazard method of judging a work of art?

To answer these questions we had better ask ourselves again for the thousandth time, What is the nature and purpose of the fine arts? In the first place, it will recur to us, the fine arts are a natural product of human imagination finding expression in various forms through various media. Such a product inevitably embodies the characteristics of the creative impulse to which it owes its origin; and if we would enquire what are the invariable and inevitable essentials of art-of all the arts, of music, poetry, painting and the rest-we must ask what are the invariable and inevitable characteristics of human nature. For whatever features human nature presents we shall surely find in any work of human nature. Now one of the most salient features of human nature is this, that it has not one but three distinct ways of appreciating the outer world. It perceives things about it by means of the senses; it apprehends certain stated facts as true and others as false; and it looks on the universe always with a partial spirit-has preferences likes and desires. To put it in plain terms, we are made up of body, mind, and spirit, indissolubly linked together.

Now not only will all art, therefore, show traces of this threefold nature of man; it will, of course, appeal to each man in each of these three ways. Art must convince our reason, it must enlist our sympathy, it must charm our sensuous nature.

To accomplish the first of these objects art must be true-true to life, as we say. It must preserve such a semblance of reality that even when it is incredible we shall be half inclined to believe it. And this verity, on which so-called realists insist so strongly, while it is not the end of art, is certainly the beginning. More than this, the subject-matter of art must be truth. It is just as much the purpose of art to discover and disseminate truth as it is of science and philosophy. No art can be worth while which makes no attempt to satisfy the curious mind of man.

To accomplish its second purpose, the arousing of our emotions, art must itself be impassioned. However profoundly true an artist's convictions may be, however wise his philosophy, however comprehensive his acquaintance with science, he will forever fail to engender the stir of action in his fellowmen, if he cannot impart warmth to his productions and the vital force of love, or hate, or fear, or courage, or wonder, or whatever passion he will. And so looking upon his work we may admire his skill, and agree with his conclusions about life, but we shall never be really influenced, nor be moved to alter our own conduct a hair's breadth on that account. And his work, though brilliant, will be faulty and futile.

To accomplish its third purpose and bring us palpable pleasure, art must be beautiful; this is the business of technique. And while this requisite is likely to be over-emphasized by the artist himself, it is quite as likely to be undervalued by the layman.

This is particularly the case in our own day in regard to art. A distracted and uncertain age, astonished with the many revelations of science, must necessarily find itself engrossed more with the matter than with the form of art. We demand of art an answer to our innumerable problems. This answer it is the business of art to give. But in our haste we forget that no answer, however conclusive to our reason, which is not at the same time consummate in language and stirring with ardor can ever be final. We ask what literature has to say, and care very little how it is said; in fact, we demand from literature what more strictly belongs to science. And since poetry is the one sort of literature in which the form is made of equal importance with the substance, we are inclined to be indifferent to poetry altogether.

But the temper of any period is, perhaps, never wholly normal; it always shows a bias in one direction or another. One age may insist on the excellence of the physical, the necessary element of sensuous enjoyment, the paramount need for beauty in the world; the next may issue quite as strenuously on the eternal dominance of spiritual and religious qualities in life; while the third is engrossed with eager thought, with science, with metaphysics. So that at no time do we have mankind engaged in the effort to establish a balance between these three diverse yet inseparable phases of our nature. And yet this is the one thing we must attempt if we would help ourselves forward on the interminable path to perfection.

When we shall have established the worthiness of such an ideal, when we shall have begun to make it prevail among men, then we shall have at hand not only a canon of criticism, but a canon of conduct and culture as well. Even now we may begin to apply such a standard of criticism to every kind of art, indeed to all our civilization, whenever we have need to bring any work within the range of judgement. We shall no longer be slaves of personal caprice, dependent wholly on our individual point of view, often all the more vehement because it is irrational. Nothing human, indeed, will be alien to us, but, on the other hand, nothing human will seem excellent which does not make at least some pretense to represent human nature in its entirety, which does not tend to foster and encourage that threefold ideal. Men and manners, art, industry and religion, every guise in which our activity shows itself on this earth, will be subject to this unique, irrefutable canon.

If a new and deservedly popular novel comes up for discussion, we shall say of it, perhaps, "Yes, it has great beauty and strength; it moves us profoundly; and yet after all it does not give us any sound or comprehensive judgement upon life; it is ineffectual in its philosophy." Here would be an instance of a work of art lacking on the mental side. Or again it might have a different fault. It might be profoundly keen and discriminating in its psychology, stirring in its appeal to our sympathy, and yet after all so slovenly and ill done as to be wholly wanting in beauty. There would be an instance of neglect of the physical side of art.

So to a painting or a statue or a piece of music. Our first question must always be, How does it respect the great law of normal human development, how nearly does it come to representing normal poise? Or of human character, when we come to discuss its merits and defects, we shall be able to say this one was at fault here, another was at fault there, because of a lack of force or a lack of emotion and will or a lack of reasoning capacity.

It is the business of art to charm and entertain us; it is the business of art to move and inspire and ennoble us; and lastly it is the business of art to enlighten us. To see that art does this is the business of criticism.


"A Canon of Criticism," Literary World, June 1903 [back]