Edwardian and Georgian Canadian Poets
1900-1930


 

 

Selected Essays and Reviews

by Bliss Carman

Edited by Terry Whalen


 

The Poet in Modern Life*


 

There is such an incongruity between our traditional idea of the poet and our daily experience of modern life that we can hardly recognize the two; and our conception of the poet in modern life is pretty sure, for that reason, to be either comic or tragic. He will seem to us anything but commonplace and we cannot take him as a matter of course. The typical poet is out of date; and the poet of the times is slow to arrive, since the time itself is scarcely ripe for his appearance. If we are to think justly of the poet in modern life, however, we must be careful not to overvalue his office on the one hand, nor on the other to depreciate the worth and significance of the age. And the greater our love of poetry, our sympathy with ideals, our feeling for beauty, the more we shall be in danger of undervaluing our own day when these things are not paramount in men's minds. Let us try to look at the question quite fairly, neither embittered by the facts nor led astray by impossible fancies.

The poet, if we attempt to form a composite photograph of him from impressions gathered here and there through the pages of history, is for the most part a serious figure, nearly always aloof from the affairs of earth, somewhat shy of life and its activities, and dealing more in dreams than in realities. But to be more precise, as I think of the long list of poets whose names still survive, whose words still are alive in our ears, we shall find them dividing themselves mainly into two groups-the religious poets and the dramatic poets-those who were inspired by the moral temper of their time, and those who devoted themselves to the entertainment of their fellows. The poet is both prophet and entertainer, both priest and artist. He stands forever the interpreter of nature to men; that is his sacerdotal office. He is also the revealer of men to themselves; that is his business as a dramatic artist.

David, Isaiah, Job, Dante, Milton, Shelley, Wordsworth, Emerson- these are types of the poet as prophet or priest of Nature. They "saw life steadily and saw it whole," but in their heart there burned forever a passion for righteousness never to be satisfied by things as they are. They were forever stirred by a divine unrest; the fever of God throbbed in their veins; they could never suffer fools gladly, nor look without equanimity upon the sorry spectacle of human weakness. They were lean men and laughed little. Possessed continually by a consuming love of the beautiful, the true and the good, and beholding at the same time how life seems to be inseparable from ugliness and evil, they could never attain the ruddy and placid contentment of the born comedian. The pageant of human endeavor, the interplay of human character, so engrossing to many, was to them only the surface and appearance of the world. They were forever haunted by a sense of the presence behind the mask, the spirit behind the semblance. To their endless unhappiness, one must believe, they were driven forward by an insuperable curiosity for the truth about life, an unassuageable love of the beauty of the earth, and above all by a pure and impossible desire to make actual those ideal conditions of conduct and circumstance which never yet have been realized by man, nor will ever leave him at peace in mediocrity.

As long as the stars remain and the soul of man fleets with the breath of his body, so long must he suffer this bitter divergence between "I would" and "I can." To the great poets of nature this realization has come as an overwhelming influence, a burden of knowledge almost insupportable. They could hardly be other than grave, impressive, unostentatious, simple, single of purpose, strenuous in endeavor, and modest from the very abundance of their wisdom. So great must have been their ideality, so keen their inward vision, it is little wonder if at times they failed in joyousness and permitted a minor strain to sound through their messages of encouragement to men. Thus it is that not all poets have been prophets of gladness, but sorrow and uncertainty had their messengers too. For the life of man, which is so large a part of the poetry of earth, must be given complete expression in beautiful words; and the dominant note of triumphant joy must have its undertone of grievous doubt. Through the glad supreme assurance of large faith and unconquerable achievement, the broken-hearted wistfulness of failure must be heard; else were our poetry imperfect, and half of humanity left without a voice. Moreover, those deep consolations and counsels which it is the business of art and poetry to furnish, can scarcely be rendered effectively without the profoundest sympathy with suffering. The royal Psalmist, on whom so many thousands have leaned for spiritual support, must have tasted the bitter waters of affliction, to be able to reach the hearts of men so surely.

Now, such a conception of the poet in his capacity as interpreter of nature and the deeper moods of the mind, is evidently a very narrow one. When we think of Homer and Virgil and Chaucer and Shakespeare and the writers of the Greek Anthology, we think of the poet in a very different character. He is no longer the seer laboring under the stress of an almost Orphic inspiration; he is the open-eyed, glad-hearted beholder and recorder of life as he sees it. The God has breathed upon him, indeed, giving him greater insight into the foibles of his fellows than most men enjoy, and yet has not wholly rapt him out of himself. He is human, comfortable, friendly, merry and content, a lover of wine and leisure and laughter. He is a lover of beauty, indeed, but his keen satisfaction in the loveliness of nature is not marred by the ever present sense of incompleteness which must always haunt the preeminent poet of nature. The one finds the answer to his questions in a shrewd analysis of human motives and purposes. To the questions of the other, hearkening perpetually for some hinted solution of the riddle of existence, there is no answer possible. Small wonder then that the type of the first should be the jovial Horace or the genial Chaucer, while the type of the second blends something of the austerity of Dante with the zeal of David.

Now human life, when all is said, is not so very different in ancient and modern days. Barbarism or civilization, city or wilderness, the conditions vary, but the prime facts of life remain, and it is with these that the poet deals.

In modern life as in that of old time there are the matters of love and war, friendship and hatred, joy in the senses, sorrow, bereavement, loneliness, faith, disquietude and death; the elemental facts from which the fabric of the universe is built, and the elemental passions and cravings with which we confront them. The poetry of the Old Testament, of Homer or of Virgil does not seem antiquated, except in occasional detail of local color. The lament of David for Absalom, the mighty verses of many chapters of Job and Isaiah, the pathetic parting of Hector and Andromache, Virgil's description of the bees or the shadows on the mountainside, are as fresh as if they had been written yesterday. This perennial vigor, this power to survive the change of fashion and the flight of years, is a test of poetry which most of our modern verse would be pitifully unable to fulfil, and which the best of it will still have to face. All that is whimsical, fantastic, grotesque, of purely contemporary value will gradually be forgotten and cut away, while a few splendid lyrics, a few noble passages, we may imagine, will be jealously preserved and handed on as part of our bequest to the future. Men will not care to perpetuate what is essentially modern in our work, but rather what is essentially human, essentially poetic, essentially beautiful. In the long run only the fair and noble survives, whether in art or life, for the reheartening and regenerating of the earth. So it happens that all great literature that has come down to us is infused with a simple dignity of spirit, a majestic and pure sincerity, which seem for the time quite beyond the reach of our own accomplishment. Yet we may be sure our ambitious attempts, with all their cleverness, all their novelty, all their exact faithfulness to nature, will be wanting in vitality, in permanent interest, if we do not succeed in giving them just these spiritual qualities.

The spirit of the world is eager but inexorable, always in need of new thought, new beauty, new funds of emotion, and yet ruthlessly discarding everything which does not help it forward on the long, arduous progress of the centuries. The ages to come will care no more for our popular airs and songs and paintings than we care for those of vanished civilizations. But whenever the human spirit, under a stress of the intense feeling, and in the face of inescapable difficulty or bitterness of joy or life, rises to impassioned utterance, that utterance, however slight, is likely to be worth saving. This rule is unalterable, and obtains for modern poetry as for the most ancient. No art can outlive its own time which does not rise above the commonplace; and any art which rises sufficiently far above the average of contemporary achievement is sure to be treasured.

This, however, is only one way of looking at the matter. There is much very excellent art and poetry produced by every people, which is not great and which has fulfilled its function when it has been remembered for a year or two, or for a generation or two, to give pleasure and encouragement to thousands to whom any more perfect or profound work would not appeal at all. And no work is to be condemned simply because it is not of the first rank. Even if we have no great artists, it is good to have an interest in art, to have a number of men giving their energy to keep alive a great tradition, until a more favourable season. And one demands of them only a modest sincerity.

It is not my aim in the present paper to attempt any inquiry into the purposes of poetry. But in considering the relation of the poet to modern life, one necessarily takes for granted certain requirements of the poetic art, consciously or not. The business of poetry among the fine arts of expression, as it appears to me, is threefold. It must offer us some delightful counterfeit likeness of life for our entertainment; it must satisfy our intellectual need for truth; and finally it must supply us with spiritual reŽnforcement and consolation. We look to the fine arts in general to give us a refined pleasure of the senses, to answer the questions of our restless curiosity, and to intensify and ennoble our emotional life. We demand all these things of poetry. We ask that it shall have captivating beauty of form, that it shall be consistent with the most advanced discoveries of modern thought and modern science, and that it shall supply us with adequate standards and tests of conduct.

We must ask modern poetry, therefore, what it has to say on every topic of prime importance which bears upon life. We must expect it to embody for us all the new and wonderful revelations of modern science, discarding those old conceptions of the universe, however time-honored and picturesque, which recent knowledge has proved erroneous. It is not easy for poetry to do this all at once, yet do it it must, if the restless mind of man is to be satisfied. It is only a poet of exceptional power who can see the poetry in modern life, its inventions, its discoveries, its ceaseless and venturesome activities, and give that poetic aspect adequate expression in words. The poet, particularly the modern poet, must have the unprejudiced eye and the exuberant spirits of a child, or he will not see the world for himself and love it as it should be loved. And unless he sees clearly, loves intensely and reasons profoundly, his poems can take no lasting hold upon us, however ornate or daring they may be.

To produce the best results in poetry or in any art, then, the artist must be endowed with the alert, observing eye, the questing, unswervable mind, and a temperament at once ardent, kindly and above satiety or corruption. He must love his age and understand it, in order to represent it justly or convert it to his way. And this he can hardly do, if he feels himself out of sympathy with its ideals and pursuits. On the other hand, the actual world of things as they are can never seem quite adequate to the idealist. There is no man so uninspired as to be contented all the time. There will come to him hours of divine dissatisfaction, when nothing short of perfection will seem sufficient. Out of the wistfulness and disquiet of such moments the creative impulse may arise with its passionate longing for beauty, and give vent to that longing in imperishable forms of art. And these creations in colors, in sounds, in magical words, remain to convict the actual world of its shortcomings and stimulate it to fairer endeavor.

Having in mind the opportunity always presented to poetry, what shall we say of its condition and scope today? What of the poet in modern life? Is it a time likely to be favorable for the production of great poetry? And have we any need of the poet with his visions? Let us admit, what seems to be the truth, that there probably never was a time when poetry was held in less esteem than at present. Why is this? We have wealth, we have leisure, we have great prosperity, we have peace, we have widespread intelligence, we have freedom of thought and conscience. All these things, it has always been supposed, go to make up a state of society in which the fine arts can flourish. Why do they not flourish here and now? Why have we no poets whose ability and influence are of national concern?

Because with all our comforts, all our delightful luxuries, all our intellectual alertness, we are steadily losing our moral ideas, steadily suffering a spiritual deterioration. Anglo-Saxon civilization, to speak of no other, has become a humiliating and unscrupulous game. Our fathers and grandfathers cared for many ideals, for honor, for honesty, for patriotism, for culture, for high breeding, for nobility of character and unselfishness of purpose. We care for none of these things. They have gone out of fashion. We care only for wealth, and respect only those relentless and barbarous traits of character by which it is attained. That the ideal state must be established on material prosperity is quite true. But that we should permit ourselves to rest satisfied with such prosperity, and even become engrossed by it, is fatal. All that Western civilization has done in the past thousand years to make life more secure and pleasant and comfortable has been done under the impulse of worthy ideals and human inspirations. Now, having attained so complete a control of all the machinery of living, we seem in danger of losing what is best in life itself. Modern life-that is to say, the year 1903 with its ambitions and triumphs-may seem a very comfortable and delightful age to be alive in, with its immense labor-saving facilities and its many diversions. One does not wonder that people give themselves so unsparingly to the securing of those diversions and luxuries. Yet from another view-point one cannot but be amazed at the shortsightedness of men which allows them to spend laborious lives in preparing to live. One cannot but recognize the shameless materialism of the age, its brutal selfishness, ignoble avarice and utter disregard of all the generous ideals of the spirit. We have gained the whole world, but in doing it we have lost our own soul.

Here is the theme for the modern poet. He is to bring back inspiration to our unillumined days. He is to show us how to regain our spiritual manhood. He is to show us how to make use of our wealth, how to turn our immense resources to some reasonable account. He must not be a mere detractor of his time, peevish and sour. He must love his age, with all its immense folly and pitiable sordidness; and because of his love and sympathy he must desire to reŽstablish for it those moral ideals which it has lost.

The latter half of the past century had, in William Morris, a poet in many ways typical of the modern artist; he loved beauty and hated iniquity with so hearty a good-will that he could see nothing good in his own age. He found nothing in it to love and much to detest. That was his great misfortune. It drove him too far away from us. It made him little better than a mediśval visitor among us. We may be keenly aware of the modern lack of ideals, but we must not forget the immeasurable service which modern science has rendered the world. In the sphere of knowledge, in the liberation of the human mind, no century has been more remarkable than the nineteenth. This is no small matter, it is a very great glory indeed. But it did not seem to be of any significance to William Morris. So far as his conception of the ideal life was concerned, we might as well of been living in the age of Pericles or Theocritus. A man who cares no more than that for the greatest achievement of his time can hardly hope to address it with authority. His noblest ideals must always seem to it somewhat quixotic and ineffective.

Of the two great Victorians Tennyson and Browning, the one brooded upon modern life, yet held himself aloof from participating in it; while the other loved it well and partook of its good things, without attempting to address himself directly to its needs. It was the figure of Tennyson which satisfied the popular notion of the poet in majestic calm, undistracted by temporal affairs. And to the mind of Tennyson all our spiritual difficulties and doubts appealed; all the movements of his time were reflected in his work. Browning, on the other hand, was beset by no such difficulties. His themes were uninfluenced by the tenor of his time. The problems of the human spirit which confronted him and engrossed his thought were elemental and eternal. Perhaps for that very reason he could throw himself into the enjoyment of life with such unquestioning zest.

Of the other two poets of the later Victorian period, Rossetti and Arnold, one was a recluse and belonged to no age, while the other belonged so exclusively to his age that his time was never his own. Though Rossetti lived in our own day, there is no touch of modernity in his work. And Arnold, who comprehended his age so well, was denied the leisure which poetry demands.

The poet in modern life, if one may indulge the fancy for creating an almost impossible figure, would have some of the characteristics of all these men. He should have all of Matthew Arnold's insight into the trend of social events, all of the sympathy of William Morris, all of the large poise and self-possession of Tennyson. Most of all, perhaps, he would resemble Browning in philosophic power combined with a vigorous love of live.

Among poets more strictly contemporary than these, there are two of marked popularity and preŽminent achievement, whose position entitles them to be considered more or less typical in modern life. Mr. Rudyard Kipling and Mr. James Whitcomb Riley are perhaps the only English-speaking poets of the day who can command a respectful hearing. Others may be listened to by a few hundred admirers, but these men, when they speak, address an attentive audience, commensurate with their brilliant powers. They are not only read, but beloved; and their influence is undoubted. And our ideal modern poet, when he makes his appearance, if he is to inherit some of the traits of the greater Victorians, should also possess some of the qualities of our distinguished friends who have written "The Seven Seas" and "Poems Here at Home." He should have Mr. Kipling's capacity for perceiving romance in the midst of the seemingly commonplace, and Mr. Riley's untarnished spirit of kindliness towards this great foolish distracted world. He would be tolerant and intensely human as they are, he would love his age as they do, but at the same time, if such a thing were not impossible, he would be horrified at the consuming greed which is the ruling passion in modern life, and he would be unconquerably possessed by a love of justice and goodness nowhere paramount in the poetry of the day.

Meanwhile our modern bard, of whom we expect so many impossible virtues, will not have a very encouraging progress toward recognition. If he have means at his disposal, he will have to face the many distractions which modern society can make so alluring; and if he have none, he will have to face the still less desirable fate of slow starvation. For no man can serve two mistresses, and the muse will tolerate no rival near the throne. Her devotee must offer her a single-hearted service, and be content with a hod-carrier's wage. He will have a taste for good books, good pictures, good music and all the charming refinements of the modern world, and yet he must be satisfied to enjoy them at only at rare intervals. He will need all the fortitude and cheerfulness of the poor. Indeed he will need more of those admirable qualities, since his appreciation is so keen for all that is beautiful and elegant in life.

It may be contended that the finest achievements of art are born of discouragement and privation, but I must believe there is a limit to the beneficial influence of these severe conditions. A modicum of discouragement, a few years of privation, are probably wholesome and tonic to the artistic temper. A lifetime of them seems more than is necessary. And we are always in danger of having genius perish at our doors. However, perhaps it is better that one genius should perish than that a hundred mediocre sentimentalists should fill the world with babbling.

But we must not leave our subject with so discouraging and petulant a thought. In all that I have said I have had in mind only the more serious aspects of poetry; but it is forever to be remembered that the fine arts were born from sheer exuberance of spirits, and can never flourish long in any dolorous mood. They are analogous to the play of animals and children; they indicate excess of happiness and effervescence of life; they mean always that some mortal had more joy than he could hold, and must find vent for it in expression. The fine arts are quite superfluous in any scheme of life which looks only to the maintenance of a bare subsistence; they could never spring from a condition of bleak, unmitigated slavery. There must be some elasticity of spirit, some freedom of mind and action, to support them. They must, in truth, echo the sorrows of the world; but far more must they embody its gladness, its strength, its loveliness, its confident and careless manhood.

If the modern artist cannot have a good time living, he had better go out of business; success in art is not for him. If the modern poet cannot find a way to take life gaily, resourcefully, unquerulously, he had better quench his songs. He must be poor spirited indeed, if in a time like this, so full of generosity, of confidence, of elation, he cannot find something to be happy about. He may have some difficulty in meeting his obligations, but he should certainly be able to present a gentle and cheerful manliness to the world, and manage to participate in its gaiety. He must not be less a man than his struggling fellows, but more. He must not be abashed or envious at any overabundance of worldly splendor, but exhibit a keen enjoyment of beauty and elegance and leisure, such as very few of our magnificent moderns can attain. He may sometimes think life is difficult, and poetry the most thankless of all pursuits; but he must still be glad to be alive, or no one will care whether he lives or not. Above all, he must see to it that no drop of the poison of ennui finds its way into his work. He must be so loyal to his beautiful art, that he will gladly keep it unimpaired by any chance misfortune of his own. However like a failure his own career may seem to him; however utterly he may lose at times the wholesome appetite for life, the longing for wisdom and beauty, the zest for achievement; however his spirit and flesh may fail before the mighty and inexorable enigma, he will still bear himself with courage before others, and look forth upon the confused concourse of life with an uncraven mind. So doing, he will utter no word of personal plaint, but carefully guard his poetry from the note of dejection. For he will perceive that his art is greater than himself, and scrupulously embody in his work only his gladsome and encouraging experiences, letting his darker hours perish unrecorded. However bitter existence may taste to him personally, he surely cannot help seeing that in the long run, in the large account, life as a whole is desirable, and art as a whole is the reflection of its goodly joy.


"The Poet in Modern Life," Reader, Feb. 1904 [back]