Edwardian and Georgian Canadian Poets
1900-1930


 

 

Selected Essays and Reviews

by Bliss Carman

Edited by Terry Whalen


 

A Reply to the Poet Laureate*


 

Whether or not there actually is a growing distaste for the higher kinds of poetry is more a matter of observation than of judgment; and the opinion of a statistician, if he could find the proper data anywhere, would be more valuable than that of the wisest critic. I have no means of coming to an adequate conclusion on the subject, but I dare say many thoughtful persons must regretfully share Mr. Austin's apprehension that poetry has nothing like the hold it used to have on men's minds.

This, however, would not necessarily mean the final decay of poetry as a fine art. It might only indicate a temporary condition, a passing fluctuation of history. Periods of fine civilization, of intellectual freedom and spiritual activity, have before now given place to ages of grossness, barbarism, ignorance, and decay. They may again. If not a book of poetry were sold in a year, it would not prove the death of poetry; it would only prove the degeneration of the time. At least that is the faith which the story of man up to the present time justifies us in holding.

We can hardly quarrel, I think, with Mr. Austin's insistence on the quality of transfiguration in poetry. It certainly is the essence of all poetry and art. But we may, perhaps, differ with him as to what we had best consider the higher kinds of poetry. The division of poetry into Descriptive, Lyrical, Reflective, and Narrative (Epic and Dramatic) is useful academically; it will hardly give us sufficient help in determining the relative value of poetical works, and is very likely to lead us astray. We should scarcely be justified in calling "The Lady of the Lake" or "The Lays of Ancient Rome" a higher kind of poetry than "Tears, Idle Tears," or "Lead, Kindly Light," simply because the former deal with action and the latter with emotion,- though this, perhaps, is citing a rather unfair comparison. I believe we shall derive more help in our consideration of the subject, if we reflect rather on the aims and natural function of poetry, than on the various forms in which it manifests itself.

There are essential qualities common to all poetry, and the excellence or eminence of poetry depends on the extent to which these qualities are present and the proportion in which they co-exist in any particular instance. Poetry, like the other fine arts, has arisen in answer to definite permanent needs in our human constitution. It is a sublimated means of expression or communication, transcending our daily speech, and helping us to realize ourselves. It fixes the delight of our happiest moments in some recognizable shape to add to the delight of others. It may be called a criticism of life, because it contains the wisest and most mature thought of the race. It is more than a criticism of life, however, since it records not only the best that has been thought, but the best that has been felt also, as Arnold himself says. It is not content to appeal to our minds, it must appeals to our emotions also; it must move as well as inform us; it must convince us by its reasonableness, and at the same time it must quicken us by its passionate sympathy and warmth. In addition to these two essential qualities which good poetry possesses, it must have another: it must appeal to an instinct for beauty, it must charm our ęsthetic sensibility with its rhythms and cadences and lovely sounds and entrancing images. It must give us thought, indeed, but thought "touched with emotion," thought suffused with feeling and drenched with beauty. When a poem does these three things for us in an eminent degree, it matters very little whether it is lyrical or epic. Poetry may, of course, show one quality without the others or in excess of the others. It may be extremely thoughtful at the expense of emotion and beauty, as in the case of some of Browning's longer poems; or it may appeal chiefly to our feelings, as in the case of so many sentimental poets; while, again, its chief pre-eminence may be its wonderful mastery of sensuous beauty, as in the work of the pre-Raphaelites. But in whichever way poetry excels, it is just that particular excellence that gives it value. The comparative worth of a poem depends on the intensity with which it reaches us and the profoundness with which it influences our springs of action. And poetry can never have its utmost effect except when it makes use of these three avenues of approach, and sways our personality in each of these three ways.

Again, great poetry, like any great art, is only produced in exceptional moments; it is not the product of average every-day life, but of every-day life raised to the pitch of normal perfection; it is the record of heightened, if not unusual, experience. It gives definite utterance and memorable form to our universal aspirations and reflections. Whenever a piece of human experience is embodied in words, with more clarity of thought, more intensity of feeling, more haunting charm of speech, than have ever before been bestowed upon it, then is a new poem created which outranks all others on the same theme. It is widely appreciated because it refers to a common experience, and it is highly prized because it make us realize that experience with uncommon vividness and intensity. It attains value in our eyes, and will continue to be treasured until in its turn it is superseded by another even more true, more stirring, and more beautiful.

These fortunate occurrences, these happy realizations of the creative impulse, seem to be quite beyond the control even of the sanest poets. Homer nods, and Wordsworth, as Mr. Austin reminds us, is often far from his best. No poet, if all his poetry could be recovered, but would have some verse to show which would prove him fallible. All the more wonderful, therefore, seem the instances of perfection; so that we have come to attribute them to inspiration and to invest them with reverence.

This exceptional quality which we prize in poetry is not, let us remember, one of technique alone. We do not value most highly poetry which is most beautiful in execution, unless it also satisfies our longing for the true and the sublime. It must record for us the noblest aspirations of the human spirit, the ultimate reach of the soul after goodness; and it must reveal to us the clearest widest view of truth the human mind can attain. These spiritual and intellectual feats are only to be achieved in rare moments of ecstasy and insight, when the individual is lifted out of himself and brought into relation with the larger thought and volition of the universe,-of the overself. Naturally such rare and exceptional experiences cannot be appropriately expressed in common or average language. They demand heightened and transfigured forms of expression for their embodiment; and only when they succeed in finding such appropriate lodgment for themselves are their purpose and destiny fulfilled. They manifest themselves in all the arts, and enrich the world with shapes of beauty. When they choose the medium of words, and succeed in moulding it to some happy presentiment of themselves, they produce poetry of the highest rank, of whatever variety it may happen to be. The Book of Job, the Psalms, the Iliad, the plays of Shakespeare, have never been superseded, because they have never been surpassed. They deal with permanent human interests and perplexities that will draw men's attention as long as the world lasts, and they deal with them in a supremely beautiful way. If ever they are supplanted in our affectionate esteem, it will be because these same themes will have found other poets to treat them even more appropriately,-more lovingly and convincingly and with greater charm. The future appreciation and fame of the poets and artists of any age rest upon no other ground than this.

If we take this view of poetry, we shall see that it is the result not only of happy concurrences in the nature of the poet, but of exceptional conditions in his age also, since he, even more than other men, must be sensitive to his surroundings and colored by the temper of his time. A dull or supine or depraved period does not foster what is heroic and ennobling and lovely. This is the law which holds in spite of the fact that such an age may offer to poetry and art a stimulating opportunity, through its very disregard of all they hold most dear, arousing them, by its opposition and contempt, to champion all the more valiantly those altruistic causes which it holds in derision. But in the main the art of an age is the measure of that age. The poetry of a people is an index to the character of that people. A pronounced and continued decline in the art and literature of a nation means a deterioration in one or more of those qualities of taste and aspiration and intellectual power from which art and literature spring.

If, therefore, there actually is a growing distaste for good poetry among us, only two conclusions are possible.The fault is either in ourselves or in poetry. Either we have become so supine, spiritually and ęsthetically, that the lofty ideals of existing poetry are abhorrent to us, or else we have outgrown them, and the pabulum which nourished our fathers will not do for us.

There may be some argument in favor of the latter conclusion.With changing times and manners, many forms of art must be laid aside as no longer pertinent. Our wants and beliefs are not those of any other time or place; we must require the sustaining power of a literature quite different from that of the age of Augustus or Queen Anne or the Pilgrim Fathers. The past century has been one of immense and amazing unfolding of knowledge, and a consequent re-arrangement of all our ideas. We have not had time to assimilate all our new thought and to imbue it with feeling; and since science must be saturated with emotion and become part of the familiar furniture of the mind before it can be properly used in poetry, we have hardly had time to evolve any poetry or art commensurate with our increased spiritual needs and representative of our enlarged stores of knowledge. And much of the old poetry may be inadequate. "Paradise Lost," for example, can hardly have the same hold on us that it had on our parents. For them it was an impressive rendering of what they believed to be supernatural facts. It must have retained for them something of the glamour and authority of religion. For us it is a twice-told tale, an ancient legend retold in our English tongue, less lovely than many of the Greek myths that have come down to us, conspicuous through the stateliness of its verse, but holding no unquestionable moral sanction, having no such spiritual significance as it may once have possessed. So, too, the vogue of Byron passed with the passing tastes and requirements of his day. Because he satisfied the sentimental need and intellectual hunger of a hundred years ago, it does not follow that he should satisfy ours. The same thing may be true of a great deal of poetry that was once highly thought of,-it may no longer be capable of affording the satisfaction which it is the business of poetry to give. I can well believe that many thoughtful people to-day cannot find in poetry what they need. Matthew Arnold in his poetry gave some expression to the soul-sickness of his time. But it may be that the poetry which is to cure that sickness has yet to be written. Is there not a very large class of modern men and women who are most eager for something great in poetry,-something that shall deal strongly with their mental disquiet, something that shall help them to live, something that shall allay despair and re-establish their courage? Any adequate poetry ought to do this. Why is it not being produced for us? Here is the garden; where is the voice of God?

Perhaps, however, the first conclusion is the right one, and the fault does not lie in poetry but in ourselves. There are critics who accuse us of a too great devotion to affairs,-to the practical and material side of life,- who point out our ruthless greed, our immeasurable self-confidence, our flagrant corruption, our growing inhumanity. If such accusations are just, and if we are suffering a temporary lapse into the brutality of materialism, then certainly many of our finer instincts must be in eclipse, and a distaste for the beauties of poetry is only a natural consequence. Poetry appeals to the better self in man, and when that better self is obscured, poetry must languish. To care for poetry, one must first care for honor, for righteousness, for truth, for freedom, for fair play, for generosity, for unselfishness,-in short, for all those ideals of rectitude and loving-kindness which the long battle of civilization has been waged to establish. If it is true that our life as individuals and as nations is permeated with cheap facetiousness, with disregard for public honesty, with disparagement of personal nobleness, with forgetfulness of the high traditions which belong to our birth, then it would be very unreasonable to expect us to care for poetry. It is the pious office of poetry to bring solace and encouragement and lofty purpose to the heart. To those who are recreant to their ideals it can bring nothing but a sense of shame; it can be no delight but only a rebuke.

But if we are become a gross and materialistic people, why does no great poet arise to reprove us and lead us back toward perfection? Here is the wilderness; where is the voice?

Lovers of poetry are not the only complainants of the present day, however. A gentleman in the University of Chicago has been calling attention to the unwillingness of educated men to enter the ministry. His grievance is exactly parallel to Mr. Austin's. He declares that out of twelve hundred students in Harvard, Yale, Columbia, and Princeton graduating this year only twenty-eight of all denominations are reported as intending to enter the ministry. Again, where does the fault lie, with religion or with us? Why should any educated man wish to enter the profession of divinity? As a calling, religion is almost as poverty-stricken as poetry itself, and its ministers as little esteemed. We don't want religion any more than we want poetry. Why not? Have we out-grown it, or are we so debased that it is altogether distasteful to us?

No sane and thoughtful man can believe for a moment that a great human trait like our need of religion has passed away, any more than he can statedly believe the literal declarations of the old orthodoxy. And because we cannot find new forms to replace the old formulas, we seem to be losing our grip on the essential elements of faith and piety. But even if this be partly true, faith in ideals will return. The power of goodness may seem to be overcome for a time, but it must prevail anew as it prevailed of old. After a season of indifference, uncertainty, and worldliness, we shall take up the fight again against iniquity, and dishonor, and corruption, and oppression, as we have done so many times before in the long history of the world, and re-establish our broken ideals with the beautiful and the good.

Poetry will return with religion.


"A Reply to the Poet Laureate," The Critic, Nov. 1904 [back]