Beauty and Life

by Duncan Campbell Scott

© Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1921.


Afterword


 

Looking at the title of Duncan Campbell Scott’s sixth collection of poems, one might be forgiven an initial presumption that the collection eulogizes a bygone literary era.  The name Beauty and Life (1921), given to this work by a poet whose career began in the previous century, seems instantly to confirm the most commonplace of assumptions about writers and the First World War—namely, that the Great War marked the sunset of old ways of writing poetry (especially late Victorian ones) and the fiery dawn of the new in poetic diction, form, and concerns—an apocalyptic new day from which no return to the past was possible.  Generations of students have been raised on the narrative of the aesthetic break that the war made between late nineteenth-century and Edwardian writing on one hand and the new writing movements that would become known as Modernism on the other.  Such a cleavage between the old and the new, it is often assumed, cut the literary ground from under the poetic “old guard” (the established poets who were hitting their middle or late careers when the war broke out), redefining this older generation as the relic of a bygone aesthetic era from which the present and the future had decisively turned.  Whereas the new poetry was a poetry of violence, rupture, and imagistic sparseness, this “outdated” poetry, like the title of Scott’s post-war collection, appears to turn away from the grim realities of the death-ridden world that British soldier-poets such as Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon had rendered inseparable from the horror of conflict.  Given the historical moment at which Scott’s collection appeared, one may well wonder what possible role abstractions such as beauty could have in exposing the world for the immense European theatre of war that these younger poets, who spoke for their generation, believed it to be.  One might also conclude that the focus on such abstractions only betrays a clinging to old certainties that, by 1921, were permanently sunk beneath the mud of the Somme.

            This understanding of how twentieth-century Modernism was born accepts a major premise about abstractions like beauty—that celebrating them betrays a secret and impossible desire for transcendence, for something stable beyond the disappointing physical and spiritual ugliness of the world in which we live.  Beauty is perhaps the vaguest of all abstractions.  Whereas “life” at least names something roughly explicable as animate being, “beauty” eludes even a grasp as tentative as this.  The Greek etymology of “beautiful” (kalón) allies beauty with perfection, as Hugh Bredin and Liberato Santoro-Brienza inform us in Philosophies of Art and Beauty: Introducing Aesthetics (5).  But beauty’s association with perfection offers nothing more specific to those who would like to know how to recognize beauty, particularly how to recognize it in the “real” world, and how to see it as part of the “life” that forms the other half of Scott’s title.  As James Kirwan writes in Beauty, the paradoxical nature of beauty, which is subjectively determined yet also held to be an objective ideal, can make it seem insubstantial, a dream that is preferable to a less attractive, though tangible, reality (2).  And so, in the aftermath of the “war to end all wars,” Scott’s choice of title appears to mark him as a man retreating from life as it actually is in his world, a man seeking solace in ideals that are no more.

            Another response to this title, however, might rejoin that beauty and life are not superficially connected but rather intrinsically so—that beauty can never be split from life, least of all after a war.  Bredin and Santoro-Brienza make exactly this case, arguing that beauty is “inseparable” from artistic pursuits, which are in turn inseparable from human life and the surroundings that human beings create for themselves (2).  Beauty is a quality attached first, and most memorably, to the material objects that the physical senses apprehend and appreciate.  One has only to imagine a world where “[e]verything ...  whose ingenuity or skill might awaken in people the shock of the sensuous” has disappeared to realize that this is true (1).  Without some notion of and desire for beauty, the fine arts, performance, and crafts—and with them, the world as we know it—would not exist (1).  As difficult as it is to define, beauty is as inescapable a part of life as any war, a central feature of human-made environments.

            No doubt the case for an incontrovertible tie between beauty and life was hard to make in 1921, despite a great deal of verse that insisted that the First World War had gloriously defended transcendent ideals.1  But Scott did not accept, as did some other early twentieth-century poets, that the war had so thoroughly changed the world that pre-war ideals or the arts that were concerned with them had retreated before the advance of a totally reinvented aesthetic.  Scott observed in his 1922 essay “Poetry and Progress” that if the “tremendous activity of verse-writing during the war” by the new breed of young British poets had elicited the “hope that there was to be a renaissance of poetry,” this literary activity did not sustain itself beyond the war’s end (310).  While voicing the implicit belief that the war altered poetry, he expresses the equally strong view that the fundamental purposes of art—to respond to the imagination and to express the age “nobly”—remain unchanged across space and time, including wartime.

            In making Beauty part of his title, Scott reveals something of his aims for the book.  The collection unabashedly celebrates beauty’s sensuousness in poems such as “Portrait of Mrs. Clarence Gagnon” and “The Water Lily.”  But beauty for Scott is no mere matter of subjective taste or sensual pleasure.  “Created,” he argues in “Poetry and Progress,” “beauty persists; it has the eternal element in its composition, and seems to tell us more of the secret of the universe than philosophy or logic” (301).  While subjects’ immediate, empirical experience always has a role in their sense of the beautiful, only something eternal and essential in beauty could compel human beings to seek it out as consistently as they have.  Scott is certain that this search continues unabated after the war.  No single event, he suggests, could fully disrupt “age-old methods of artistic expression” (301), methods that do not merely embody the conventions of representation, which face a constant pressure to change, but values and priorities that take centuries to evolve.

            Scott opens his collection by celebrating a fellow poet’s contribution to the history of beauty as an aesthetic idea in the “Ode for the Keats Centenary.”  The famous opening lines from Keats’s Endymion—“A thing of beauty is a joy forever: / Its loveliness increases; it will never / Pass into nothingness”—are the obvious ancestors of Scott’s assertion that “Created, beauty persists,” and in the “Ode,” beauty is represented as the one thing that cannot be annihilated, no matter how obscured it may sometimes be.  Scott’s speaker suggests that Beauty (capital Scott’s) has “withdraw[n]” from the world—not vanished entirely, but gone into hiding somewhere “beyond the bitter strife” from “our life / That grew too loud and wounding.”  In the world as the speaker describes it, people can only apprehend beauty when secluded in tranquillity away from “the distracted world and men.”

            A sense of the place where beauty has hidden itself emerges in this first poem, and it is a place that often resembles an English idyll as felicitously as it does a Canadian landscape.  The following passage, for instance, makes a word-picture from elements common to many a Canadian woodland.  “Beauty is gone,” declares the speaker,

            To live on roots of fern and tips of fern,
            On tender berries flushed with the earth’s blood.
            Beauty shall stain her feet with moss
            And dye her cheek with deep nut juices,
            Laving her hands in the pure sluices
            Where rainbows are dissolved.

Still, sympathy with nature should not be confused with the representation of an exclusively Canadian nature, as the “chill orchids” elsewhere in the scene seem to caution.  The fine detail of the picture, and yet the absence of any unmistakable geographical location for it, illustrates a point that Malcolm Ross makes in “Poets of the Confederation.”  Because the “leap from colony to nation was accomplished [in Canada] without revolution, without a sharp cultural and ideological break from Europe, without the fission and fusion of civil war” (89), Ross argues, there is a corresponding cosmopolitanism in Confederation writing that resists the notion that a national literature must always find and celebrate objects that are peculiar to the homeland.   In “The Poetry of Duncan Campbell Scott” (1948), A.J.M. Smith puts forward the related argument that it is a mistake to assume that Confederation poets such as Scott were maple-painting national boosters.  Criticism that does so “has mistaken for national what is local or universal, and it has overemphasized the value of what it has chosen to see as national” (48), such as descriptions of natural scenery.  The imagery deployed in this poem is placed in the service of subjects, such as beauty, that are both local and international in scope, as is the literary tradition into which Scott deliberately places himself in this tribute to Keats.2     

            If, as Scott believes, the war did not produce a total break in aesthetics between the past and the present, then what, if any, aesthetic change did it produce?  With the exception of the final poems, the rare references specifically to the war in this collection are usually brief and unelaborated.  Otherwise, the war is only elliptically present in the occasional appearances of cacophony and fragmentation in the text, both of which are features of the rhetoric that many writers used then and use now to describe the West’s postwar identity.  As “The Tree, the Birds, and the Child” tells the story of birds that lose their old nesting tree, its description of them “[d]isquieted with foreign winds and shadows / Banished and dispossessed” encourages readers to reflect on a recent, larger kind of disquiet and dispossession.  Yet such references still have to share space with the poems’ equally continuous Keatsian overtones, overtones that offer a place in the text for literary tradition and continuity, as well as the sense of beauty aligned with both.  The primroses of the epigraph to the book’s second piece, “Variations on a Seventeenth-Century Theme,” belong to Henry Vaughan, but their reappearances in this series of lyrics owe as much to Keats’s “The Eve of St. Mark” and “I stood tip-toe on a little hill” as they do to any Jacobean or Restoration writer.  Whatever the war means to aesthetics, such a combination of references suggests that it has, at the very least, a dialogical relationship with the tradition that it supposedly supplants.

            Another treatment of this relationship between the war and art is found in the musical imagery that fills the collection, imagery that sometimes illuminates the literary tradition and sometimes helps articulate the several crises that the war brought with it.  Musical references permeate much of Scott’s work, not only Beauty and Life, undoubtedly because Scott himself loved music and played the piano well.  In this particular collection, however, music is an especially apt trope for the world that Scott attempts to represent, a world in which the war reverberates, yet also a world that the conflict has not thoroughly redefined.  Like beauty, music has an important sensual component.  It immerses the subject in a “flow of sonorous events” that elicits intense feelings (Bredin and Santoro-Brienza 164).  But the patterns that organize music address themselves to the intellect as well as the senses, appealing to the listener’s intuitions of order, proportion, and balance.  Scott’s exploration of the tension between the feelings that music evokes and the sense of order to which it also speaks helps organize the poems, and it is worth examining in some detail.

            Given that the poems often appear to distinguish between the past of tradition and a present marked by strife, one might expect that the references to the past and those to the present postwar context will receive different musical expressions.  On the contrary, both are characterized in terms of the same central musical component, melody.  Melody is one of the words that, in the “Variations,” gives a hopeful inflection to the possibilities of human life on earth as the speaker envisions its future dying days.  Later, by contrast, the bells in the poem of the same name, which sound their notes “in leisured sequence,” evoke the memory of lives lost during the war. 

            “Bells” belongs to a cluster of five poems just at the halfway mark of the collection.  Beginning with “Last Year” and ending with “Reverie,” all five of these pieces use a combination of musical tropes and rhythm to explore what it means to live with upheaval and the loss of life.  That the war is a point of rupture between the past and the present is suggested initially in the silence of bells that tolled “last year” in the first of these poems, the appropriately-entitled “Last Year.”  In the immediate context of 1921, their silence might signal the end of the deaths for which such bells had tolled for so long.  Here, however, they signal no such renewal.  Reversing the usual meaning of the springtime motif, the cold spring described in this lyric calls to mind not rebirth but the “chill night[s]” of the past year.  It seems that the sequence of notes that once repeatedly announced losses still hang in the air.  The next poem, “On the Death of Claude Debussy,” subtitled “March 26, 1918,” begins with a cacophonous “confusion of light and sound.”  The dissonance is only temporarily resolved by an “enharmonic change of vision” that sees a personified Death entwined with the figure of the composer Debussy.  However, the fused form of Death and Debussy, which has metamorphosed into the fused form of “France and her heroes,” “loses outline” almost at once, returning readers once more to the disharmonious light and sound with which the poem began.  The bell chimes that ring out once more in the succeeding poem, “Bells,” seem to confirm that the momentary transcendent vision of “On the Death of Claude Debussy” provides no lasting comfort.  The “broken melodies” that they lead the speaker to recall emphasize evanescence over stability, the “tones ...  born in air” only “throb[bing]” and “d[ying],” “[l]eaving no traces anywhere.”  In these three poems, melody signals despair more than hope. 

            The next poem, “Reverie,” is thematically connected to this melancholy cluster, its introductory “then” syntactically joining it to the preceding pieces.  Conceivably, “Reverie” responds to the rhetorical question that the speaker poses to the bells in the previous poem, “What know ye of life?,” a question that asks not only about knowledge but about the meaning of life in such an uncertain world.  “Reverie” indicates that there is no answer; death, arguably the “double of the thought” of life that the speaker described first in “Bells,” cannot be avoided or overcome.  In fact, one thought is the essence of the other.  But if death and life come together here, they do not blend into a single entity.  The poem possesses many polyphonic elements, elements most noticeable in the aural patterns created by assonance, consonance, alliteration, and para-rhyme to mimic polyphony’s “interaction of several melodies, organized in accordance with principles of selection and variation” (Bredin and Santoro-Brienza 171).  The opening lines demonstrate:

Then something moves in the unquiet mind,
Something impalpable and hard to bind,

The double of the thought or the thought’s essence:

The annunciation of its subtle presence

Is a slight perfume, or a fragile shading,

Hardly perceived ere it is frayed and fading….

The repetitions of sounds, not to mention words like “something” and “thought,” echo in the ear the idea of the “doubled thought,” of a state of mind in which two distinct and possibly contradictory ideas preoccupy the subject simultaneously.  The generally iambic pattern of the feet is constantly counterpointed by a rhythm that would make several feet pyrrhic (“in the unquiet mind,” “double of the thought”), creating the aural impression of sound that fades in and out.  There is, on occasion, a haunting tetrameter double to the iambic pentameter; “Is a slight perfume, or a fragile shading,” for instance, scans as  x x / x / x x / x / x.  The inversion of the iambs into trochees at the ends of lines three through ten and thirteen through sixteen reinforces this fading effect, which is especially noticeable in the enjambed lines.  Sound and sense converge as Scott makes sophisticated use of the technical aspects of poetic form and language to bolster the speaker’s description of life and death as two distinct phenomena that somehow occupy the same space and time without fusing into one another.

            Here and elsewhere, Scott manipulates the dimension of sound to reinforce a vision of a multidimensional reality.  The contrapuntal diction and imagery of “Reverie”—its simultaneous “presence” and “shadow,” death and deathlessness, apparitions and immortality—indicates that the concepts polyphonically doubled in this poem are those of death and life.  As a response to questions about life in uncertain times, the proposition that life and death coexist in permanent tension has further Keatsian overtones.  It may be taken to describe an instance of negative capability, where the speaker accepts “being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”3  The epiphany that his or her “unquiet mind” holds together two different, even contradictory phenomena like life and death, which cannot be resolved into a single entity, leads the speaker to question the notion that death is really only reincarnation, an idea that not only denies that death is a real state but trivializes present life by turning it into “a spectral show / Of something real that perished long ago.”  Rather, this speaker rejoins, life and death are opposites that are always tied together.  Furthermore, their conjoint identity epitomizes the ideal of beauty, an ideal that may be not singular (“Beauty”) but twinned (“Beauty” and “Beauty’s afterthought”).  In other words, beauty is not only a part of life but a part of the mind’s ability to avoid excessively rationalizing either life or death by celebrating one at the expense of the other. 

            Musical imagery and references also weave through the remaining half of the collection, where the second of the title’s abstractions, life, comes into the foreground.  True to the conclusion of “Reverie,” this new attention to life never detaches it from death, as the poem “Threnody” illustrates by its title (a threnody being, of course, a type of dirge) and by its antiphonal presentation of two very different notions of what life is.  In this series of linked poems, Scott explores a theme that his friend and fellow Confederation poet Archibald Lampman also investigated in his narrative poem The Story of an Affinity (first published in 1900)—that of a female desire to embrace the “alluring” mysteries of life, a desire thwarted by, among other things, the limitations that a well-intentioned but uncomprehending lover places upon her.4

              “Reverie” and the “Ode for the Keats Centenary” are two, but far from the only two, poems in Beauty and Life that host Scott’s explorations of the effects of combining rhymed and unrhymed lines with different configurations of repetition and internal rhyme.  Those effects are, again, primarily aural.  They place in print what Philip Hobsbaum (discussing Keats) calls “the nuances of the speaking voice” (41), giving readers sound images of the complexity of the subjects that the speaker explores.  Thus it is no surprise that the poem that focuses most clearly on the question of what life is, “A Road Song,” should also constitute another achievement of rhyme and rhythm, its aural effects enhancing the speaker’s communication of a central idea.  Readers will detect in “A Road Song” echoes of the ballad and long metres, an impression that comes from an irregular combination of dimeter, trimeter, and tetrameter lines.  The feet are predominantly trochaic, creating a forward momentum that overpowers occasional turns to the iamb and signals a turn away from the reflective tone that many of the poems’ ruminations on beauty have.  If beauty calls for contemplation, the quicker beat here affirms that the meaning of life lies somehow in movement, as the speaker asserts in the final lines: “Life is not the goal, / It is the road.”  The sentiment expressed here is familiar, too, from other Confederation poetry, most notably the work found in Songs from Vagabondia (1894) by Bliss Carman and Richard Hovey.  At the same time, though, the lighthearted forward momentum in this poem is slowed down by the lines’ many paused endings, and by the long vowel sounds in those endings.  The presence of end-rhymes and half-rhymes draws readers’ attention backwards rather than forwards, further checking the movement in the poem.  Thus the poem’s sound component balances the strong tendency to motion with a slower, more deliberative movement.  The piece registers two contrasting impulses, much as “Reverie” holds two contradictory concepts together without collapsing them into one, and it does so once more by managing the sound of the poem to convey a sense of tension between opposites.       

            Elsewhere in Beauty and Life, the ballad metre is echoed (“Lilacs and Hummingbirds,” “Afterwards”) or reproduced (“The Enigma,” “In the Selkirks”), emphasizing again the musical affinities of the poetry that Scott gathers here.  This musical aspect provides a certain continuity as the poems shift, in the final pages, more specifically toward the idea of war in poems such as “Lines on a Monument” and “After Battle.”  The subject matter of these pieces appears, at first, to set them quite apart from most of the earlier poems, which nearly all avoid explicit references to war.  But similarities of theme and tone quickly emerge between later poems such as “The Eagle Speaks” and the penultimate poem, “To A Canadian Aviator Who Died for his Country in France.”  Moreover, “Aviator” and the final poem, “To the Canadian Mothers,” bring beauty and life together in a final configuration that advocates the end of mourning both for the war and vanished beauty in a manner that reminds readers of the introductory “Ode.”  The speaker’s lament in the “Ode” was a lament for beauty vanished from a world grown “too loud and wounding”; it also suggested that even in times of violence and instability, beauty was only in hiding.  The burial ground of the war dead alluded to in “To the Canadian Mothers” might well be one of the quiet places to which beauty has withdrawn.  Compare the following description of beauty in the “Ode” to the soldiers’ graves as depicted in “Canadian Mothers”:

She [Beauty] hangs her garlands in the by-ways;

Lissome and sweet

Bending her head to hearken and learn

Melody shadowed with melody,

Softer than shadows of sea-fern,

In the green-shadowed sea.   (“Ode for the Keats Centenary”)

Here in the dim rock-chambers, garlanded

With frail sea-roses perfumed by the sea
That murmurs of renown, and murmuring,
Scatters the cool light won by the ripple
From the stormless moon, cloistered with memory,
Whose dim caves front the immortal vistas
Plangent with renown….                (“To the Canadian Mothers”)

Even if the “Ode” did not also describe Keats’ spirit’s voice “[b]reaking like surge in some enchanted cave,” locating the first scene like the second in a seaside cavern, the reverberating sound and word repetitions in both passages convey the sense that the second complements the meaning of the first.  Like the war that they fought, the soldiers have not ushered in a strange new world where beauty is dead, lost, or irrelevant.  On one level, the meaning is obvious: These men are the defenders of the elusive ideal that other aspects of the world have forced into hiding, the heroes who have made possible beauty’s re-emergence from the cave back into the world.  The speaker also claims that the soldiers made a fusion of life and beauty possible, for their deaths signify not only the supreme sacrifice for the country but the supreme sacrifice for global humanity.  Their deaths have transformed them into “the index of the time, / The stay and nurture of the world’s best hope, / The peerless seed of valour and victory.”

            The final war poems, then, expand on the collection’s dominant motifs of withdrawal from a chaotic world and the discovery of hidden, tranquil spaces where beauty still resides.  In spite of the contiguities between the first and last poems in this collection, however, it is impossible to regard Beauty and Life as a poetic narrative that moves from loss to the successful mourning of that loss, or from the withdrawal of beauty followed to its triumphant re-emergence on the world stage through the soldiers’ heroic actions.  The sense of completion that one might experience in the last poem is counterpointed by the speaker’s direct address to Canadian mothers, which attests that there is no neat closure awaiting readers in this finale.  By advising the mothers to “Be comforted, nay sob, if sob thou must,” the speaker admits that the vision of the soldiers as beauty’s standard-bearers can give solace to many, but not to all. 

            Indeed, the collection as a whole may be described in rhetorical terms more accurately than in narratological or even poetic ones.  They do not tell a single story, nor do they present themselves as a miscellaneous treatment of diverse subjects.  What they do is make inventories—of kinds of loss, of places where beauty may be found, and of conjoined visible and invisible realities.  Thus the poems offer a kind of argument about their two foregrounded abstractions, even as they affirm that neither beauty nor life is explicable in any final sense.  Both belong to a truth that demands that readers notice more than what is most immediately obvious to them.  Whatever beauty is, this collection’s inquiry into it does not express a concern about the existence of a transcendent realm of ideals so much as affirm that the real consists of at least two interwoven parts, one of which is sometimes only interstitially perceptible.  This is why Beauty and Life is no outdated tale of sadness and hope.  On the contrary, it is the case, put forward at a crucial historical moment, that no matter where or when it is undertaken, aesthetic work endeavours to do justice to the complexity and incomprehensibility of this world.

 

Notes

 

  1. See Jonathan Vance’s Death So Noble for a discussion of this verse, and why many who had lived through the war enthusiastically read and supported it. [back]

  2. Tracy Ware makes a similar point in “Notes on D.C. Scott’s ‘Ode for the Keats Centenary’” when he asserts that while there are some recognizably Canadian scenes in the poem, Scott “knew that the [Keatsian] virtues of ‘intensity and restraint’ are not specific to any one country or region, and that any English-speaking poet anywhere should be able to read Keats with profit” (177). [back]

  3. Keats’s letter to George and Thomas Keats, 21-27 December 1817.  In English Romantic Writers, ed. David Perkins, 1209. [back]

  4. This poem and “The Anatomy of Melancholy” lend themselves well to feminist readings. [back]

 

Works Cited

 

Bredin, Hugh and Liberato Santoro-Brienza.  Philosophies of Art and Beauty: Introducing Aesthetics.  Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2000.

Hobsbaum, Philip.  Metre, Rhythm, and Verse Form.  London: Routledge, 1996.

Kirwan, James.  Beauty.  Manchester: Manchester UP, 1999.

Perkins, David, ed. English Romantic Writers. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1967.

Ross, Malcolm. “Poets of the Confederation.”  The Impossible Sum of Our Traditions: Reflections on Canadian Literature.  Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1986. 87-93.

Scott, Duncan Campbell.  Beauty and Life.  Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1921.

—.  “Poetry and Progress.”  Duncan Campbell Scott: Addresses, Essays, and Reviews.  Ed. Leslie Richie.  London, Ont.: Canadian Poetry P, 2000.  299-320.

Smith, A.J.M.  “The Poetry of Duncan Campbell Scott (1948).”  On Poetry and Poets.  Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1977.  48-59.

Vance, Jonathan. Death So Noble. Vancouver: U of British Columbia P, 1997.

Ware, Tracy.  “Notes on D.C. Scott’s ‘Ode for the Keats Centenary.’” Canadian Literature 126 (Autumn 1990): 176-80.