There is something in October sets the gypsy blood astir;
We must rise and follow her,
When from every hill of flame
She calls and calls each vagabond by name.
Canadian youngsters who were in grade seven anytime between the mid-1930s and the 1950s were probably exposed to the foregoing lines from Bliss Carman’s “A Vagabond Song.” The poem appeared in The Canada Book of Prose and Verse, Book One, the school reader that was used in nearly every province. It caught the eye because the editors had printed a facsimile of Carman’s handwritten copy. Appropriately, his barely legible scrawl gave the lines the look of something that had been dashed off by a footloose traveller.
The reader containing “A Vagabond Song” was the first in a series of five that were published jointly by the Ryerson Press and Macmillan of Canada. Books One, Two and Three were edited by Lorne Pierce, head of Ryerson Press, and Dora Whitefield, wife of the head of Macmillan of Canada. Neither of those persons had any pedagogical qualifications for judging the capabilities and interests of young people in what Canadians were just beginning to call Junior High School (a term borrowed from the United States). They were guided mainly, it would seem, by their untested concept of the literary experiences that age group ought to have. Since Bliss Carman was represented by fourteen poems—by far the heaviest dosage from any poet—they apparently thought they had found the right prescription for the literary health of Canadian adolescents. Furthermore, given the patriotic title of the series, it probably seemed fitting to quote liberally from someone who was still widely accepted as the greatest Canadian poet of all, famous for his songs of the open road.
Yet, even as Pierce and Whitehead published their school anthologies, the so-called Confederation Poets were being buffeted by a critical windstorm whipped up by the self-styled Modernists. Before the squall subsided, no literary reputation toppled farther than that of Bliss Carman. The emphasis was on the shortcomings of his work: too discursive, too monotonous, too didactic, too careless, and sometimes too silly. Those faults are easy to find, but the reader never has to look far for the qualities that make him an “individual” poet in the best sense of the word. Amid the bulk of mediocre work, there are stray lines, or whole stanzas, and sometimes entire poems that are memorable for their engaging lilt, striking phrases, and haunting images. At its best, the virtuosity of Bliss Carman remains unique in Canadian literature.
William Bliss Carman, to give him his full name, was born in Fredericton, New Brunswick, on 15 April 1861. He was referring to himself when he wrote in “The Wanderer”: “... thy mother bore thee / In the sweet April night.” In his more whimsical moments, he sometimes remarked that his mid-April birth and six-foot-three stature made him “a cross between an April Fool and a Maypole.”1 Although he revelled in all the seasons, April was his favourite time of the year, judging by how often it inspired his poems. His use of it as a symbol of renewal became familiar to many readers through his much-anthologized “Spring Song” with its opening supplication: “Make me over, mother April/ When the sap begins to stir!” Happily, the theme remained popular with editors who were bringing out spring editions of their magazines.
He was the third Carman in successive generations to be named William.2 His grandfather, the first William Carman, had been only three years old when his United Empire Loyalist family was evacuated in 1783 to Parr Town (now Saint John) from Long Island where his British ancestor, John Carman, had settled in 1631. The second William Carman, father of Bliss, served for many years as the Registrar of the Appeals Court of New Brunswick, which made him the Number Two man in the province’s Department of Justice. Bliss Carman, despite being christened William, would never be known by his first name. However, as an adult, he would sometimes use “Willie” as a code for the more licentious side of his nature.
His favoured middle name, Bliss, came from the surname of another Loyalist family. His mother, Sophia Maria Bliss, was the great-granddaughter of Daniel Bliss, a Massachusetts lawyer who fled to the St. John River area at the end of the Revolutionary War. Daniel never became as famous as his first cousin, Ralph Waldo Emerson, the American essayist and poet, but he was a big fish in the small pond of early New Brunswick politics. His grandson, George Pidgeon Bliss, Sophia’s father, was the Receiver-General of New Brunswick before his untimely death at the age of thirty-six, leaving a widow and six children: four daughters and two sons, ranging in age from thirteen to less than a year. The eldest was Sarah, who would marry Francis Straton and become the mother of a large family that included her son Andy (born 1858), Bliss Carman’s boyhood hero. The infant was Emma, who would grow up to marry the Reverend Goodridge Roberts and become the mother of Charles G.D. Roberts (born 1860).
Sophia Bliss was William Carman’s second wife. Her photographs reveal a plain, thin-faced woman with sharp features remarkably like those of Emerson, her distant relative. She looks rather austere; but, according to her nephew, Charles G.D. Roberts, Aunt Sophie’s “mouth and eyes revealed the unfailing kindliness that made her the best loved of all the aunts.”3 Over thirty at the time of her marriage, she was an “old maid” by the standards of the day, which may have influenced her acceptance of a widower who was nearly twenty-four years her senior. Be that as it may, William was still a good “catch”: a handsome six-footer with a youthful twinkle in his eye and a prestigious job in the government.
One drawback for Sophia may have been the presence in William’s home of his two daughters by his first marriage. The elder, nearly the same age as Sophia, was recently widowed and had come back home with her infant son. The other, the youngest of the first family, had just turned nineteen. William’s three grown-up sons had already left home by the time of his second marriage. While Carman was still a small boy, both of his half sisters left the household, and there is no evidence that as an adult he kept in close touch with them or with his half brothers. His fraternal feelings seem to have encompassed only his younger sister, born in 1863. She was christened Jean (after her mother’s unmarried sister) and Murray (after her great-great-grandmother’s family). To avoid confusion with her namesake aunt, she was known by her second name, which was often varied to a more feminine sounding “Muriel.” In later years, Carman frequently referred to this cherished sister as “Mumsie,” indicating his emotional dependence upon her.
Growing up in a sheltered atmosphere with doting but older-than-average parents, Bliss Carman developed from “a grave, shy little boy”4 to an passive adolescent with a high-pitched voice and the distracted air of a dreamer. He appears as “Queerman,” a slightly fey sixteen-year-old, in Roberts’ Around the Campfire, a work based on a summer trip that he had taken with Carman, Andy Straton and three other boys from Fredericton in 1877. Although, in Roberts’ vocabulary, “queer” had not yet acquired any hint of sexual deviation, the “Queerman” label indicates a perceived quality that set Carman apart from his companions. As he matured, it would be a factor in turning him into an aesthete whose numerous poses included that of a fin de siècle vagabond.
Andy Straton, the nephew of Sophie Carman and Emma Roberts, was a special favourite of his slightly younger cousins, Bliss and Charles. They recognized him as a born leader, as brainy as he was manly. Physically impressive, being tall, lithe, and powerfully built, he was acknowledged by his peers as the best all-round athlete among them. Carman, especially, was no match for him except when it came to handling a canoe. Nevertheless, they were frequently paired together, not only on camping trips with other boys, but on excursions by themselves. Andy was an expert woodsman, and some of Carman’s happiest moments were spent with him, exploring the wilderness regions of New Brunswick and Maine. Moreover, Andy had a passion for poetry that endeared him to both of his versifying cousins. However, while Roberts cherished him, Carman idolized him with the ardour of a Jonathan for his David.
Although Carman was usually the least outgoing among his boyhood companions, often more of an observer than a participant, he was noted for occasional flashes of drollery from the impish underside of his personality. Impish, but not rebellious. It was not in his nature to question the conservative values his parents had inherited from their Loyalist ancestors. Always dutiful at home, he was obedient at school and sufficiently diligent “to give the general impression that he could make a brilliant showing if he tried.”5 It was at the Collegiate Grammar School that his studies first became meaningful. Coming under the influence of the charismatic headmaster, George R. Parkin, he was imbued with a love of literature ranging from Virgil and Homer to Swinburne and Rossetti. So instrumental was Parkin in kindling Carman’s youthful imagination that, like Roberts, he would be forever grateful for the formative role this inspiring teacher had played in his life.
Graduating from the Fredericton Collegiate at the head of his class, Carman entered the University of New Brunswick in the autumn of 1878. Unfortunately, none of his professors was able to stimulate his interest as Parkin had done. Although he graduated in 1881 with honours in Greek and a gold medal in Latin, he failed to win the coveted Gilchrist Overseas Scholarship which would have taken him to Oxford. Hoping to qualify the following year, he remained at home to prepare for the examination, but was unable to apply himself to his studies in a systematic manner. By temperament, he was not methodical enough to follow a rigourous plan if left on his own. When he failed once again to win the the Gilchrist, his parents decided to make the financial sacrifice to send him to Oxford. However, after being there less than a week, he was so lonely and homesick that he fled to Edinburgh to join a former classmate, Herbert Pickard, who was enrolled at Edinburgh University. Arranging to share quarters with Pickard, he began classes at the university with the idea of preparing for the University of London B.A. examinations for external students in July of 1883. Again, not having enough self-discipline, he applied himself only half-heartedly, especially in mathematics, which he flunked miserably in the London examinations and thereby failed to qualify for a degree. In August, he returned to Fredericton with nothing to show for his time or his family’s money.
On Parkin’s recommendation, he was hired to teach French at the Collegiate, but it was soon apparent that he had little aptitude for the work, being a weak disciplinarian and a poor communicator. He found it so fatiguing, both physically and mentally, that he jumped at the chance to quit in the early spring to join Andy Straton, who was working with a survey crew on a new railway line. In the fall of 1884 he began articling with a law firm in Fredericton—hardly the right environment for someone of his bent, but he was desperate to find something that would offer financial security for himself and his family. William Carman had lost his government position after the New Brunswick Conservatives had been defeated in a recent election, and the victorious Liberals had retained the old man’s services only on a part-time basis at a greatly reduced salary.
Before going overseas, Carman had become secretly engaged to Julie Plant, a close neighbour and distant cousin, who was the same age as himself. Her French-Canadian father (whose surname was Plante originally) had married into the Wetmore family, making Julie related to Carman through his maternal grandmother, Sarah Wetmore Bliss. Her parents had led a fairly peripatetic life, having lived in New Brunswick, in Quebec (where Julie was born), and in Jamaica. When the 1881 census was taken, her mother Isabella was a widow of fifty living in Fredericton with Julie and two younger children in the same house as the aforesaid Sarah Wetmore Bliss. Sarah’s lawyer son George is listed as the head of the household, which also included, besides his wife and five children, his unmarried sister Jean.
The reasons for keeping the engagement secret are not entirely clear, although it appears that both Carman and Julie expected parental disapproval. It has been suggested that the Plant and Carman families had been on bad terms in the past,6 but there is no proof of any real animosity. If some coolness existed, it may simply have been the result of an uncomfortable adjustment on both sides to their respective French and English backgrounds. The concealment may have had more to do with the fact that Mrs. Plant and the Carmans would be against an engagement that might lead to an early marriage, long before the youthful bridegroom would be in a position to support a wife and possible children. After all, they were currently witnessing the dismal spectacle of his cousin, young Charlie Roberts, struggling as an underpaid schoolteacher and having to move into his parents’ home with his pregnant wife.
Shortly after Carman arrived in Edinburgh, his mother found out about the engagement. She immediately set out to become better acquainted with Julie and was gratified to find that this attractive girl, whom she had barely known, had impeccable manners, a good intellect, and plenty of common sense. In other words, she would make a suitable wife for Bliss someday. In her letters to her son, Sophia resisted any admonitions against rushing into marriage too soon. Relieved over his parents’ attitude, he wrote home:
You and F. are so good I don’t know what to say, so I generally wind up not saying anything. Jule likes our home very much, and no wonder. There is always something about you in her letters, which come so regularly.7
Unfortunately, none of the letters to which he refers has survived. Neither did the romance, although the engagement would drag on for years without ever being formally terminated. Reportedly, after Carman learned that Julie was about to be married to Edmund (Ned) Cutler, a businessman of Boston and St. Paul, he consigned “nine years of his old sweetheart’s letters to the flames of his open hearth.”8 That outcome could not have been foreseen, however, in the summer of 1883 when he lauded his beloved poetically in “Ma Belle Canadienne.” For sixty-four lines, he follows the course of their love across the changing seasons:
“Ma belle Julie” throughout the year
The poet sang, his heart to cheer.
He saw the swallows come and go;
The mornings dawn, the evenings glow;
The hawthorn bloom, the beech grow sere.
All to his very heart were dear,
They shared his joy and calmed his fear.—
But one alone his love could know—
La belle Julie.
He dispatched the poem to Charles G.D. Roberts, the recently appointed editor of The Week in Toronto, who replied: “Am delighted exceedingly with ‘Ma Belle Canadienne’. I congratulate her who inspired it.”9 It appeared in The Week on 27 December 1883, the first of Carman’s poems to be published outside a college paper.
“Ma Belle Canadienne” has none of the word magic that would distinguish the best of Carman’s later work. Nor does it sound like the expression of a deep and consuming love. Undoubtedly, there was a strong bond of affection between Carman and Julie, but it may have been more a matter of comradeship than passion. In fact, William Ganong, Muriel’s future husband, believed that Bliss and Julie became engaged only because they were “the two unattached members of a large group of which the others were paired off.”10 Besides, as time would prove, Carman relished the euphoria of being “in love” and liked being perceived as a lover, but always shrank from the bonds (bondage to him) of marriage. He made excuses, putting the blame on his indecisive mentality: “I was always too slow for earthly use;”11 but, as Northrop Frye hints, it may have been his libido that was too sluggish. Commenting upon the lines “Make me anything but neuter/ When the sap begins to stir,” from Carman’s “Spring Song,” Frye concludes:
The critic E.K. Brown remarks on this poem that the tone is “jaunty” and that jaunty cannot be poetic. I think myself that Carman has fallen foul of another well-known literary principle, the positive force of negative statement. One who says “the day was not hot and stifling” has said something much hotter than he means; and when Carman prays to be “anything but neuter” he is sowing doubt in his reader’s mind whether, when the sap rises in the spring, the poet will be able to rise with it.12
That may indeed be a defensible view of the sexual side of the matter. On the practical side, he felt incapable of providing for a wife and family. At the age of twenty-seven, thinking of his over-worked cousin Roberts, now burdened with a wife and four children, he wrote to a friend: “I thank Providence that I am not yet blessed with a family of four. The thought of it loosens my hair.”13 Unlike Roberts, he was too much of a free spirit to settle down very long to a routine job that would pay the bills while he squeezed in as much time as possible for creative writing.
Back in the spring of 1884, however, it was taken for granted by both of their families that Carman and Julie would eventually marry. Likely he truly believed it himself, not yet being ready to defy the social expectations for “normal” males. When Mrs. Plant decided to leave Fredericton to live with a relative on the old Wetmore property, midway to Saint John, Sophia Carman invited Julie to stay with her and William for an indefinite period. Carman, who was working with Andy Straton on a surveying job in Maine, wrote to his mother: “I am glad Julie is with you, she likes it and has no home of her own....”14 For several summers after Julie rejoined her mother, Carman made a practice of spending a holiday with her and Mrs. Plant, the latter spoiling him “badly, excessively,”15 according to his own report. These visits came to an end after Julie went to live in Michigan with her brother Herbert, then married to her closest friend, Helen Bliss, who was Carman’s first cousin. Later, Julie moved with them to Saint Paul, Minnesota, where she found a more agressive suitor in the person of Ned Cutler. No one will ever know for certain why she chose him over Carman. Perhaps she had outgrown her schoolgirl crush and discovered a replacement of greater substance. Maybe by this time she had given up on Carman for a variety of reasons, including his dilatory attitude towards marriage and his poor prospects. She would remain on kindly terms with him, however, and as late as 1916 wrote to congratulate him on the appearance of his latest volume, April Airs. He responded by addressing her as “My dear Julia,” expressing good wishes for Ned’s health, and sending “Love to you all.” He also promised that a copy of the book would go to her “at once.”16
On 2 January 1885, William Carman died in his sleep. Although he was in his eighty-first year, his death was completely unexpected. Right to the end, because he was still physically active and mentally alert, he had been able to continue his part-time work for the government. With his sudden passing came the loss of his salary (reduced though it had been) and straitened financial circumstances for his widow, who was left with only the house and less than four thousand dollars. Now, more than ever, it was important for her young son to continue his legal training. The situation changed, however, when Sophia, who had been in frail health for a long time, died on 10 February 1886, having survived her husband by just over a year.
Her death would be the most devastating blow of Carman’s entire life. As much as he had loved and respected his father, his emotional attachment to his mother had been still greater. Their unusually close relationship may have been a factor in the early development of those feminine sensitivities that were sometimes noticed later in his work as well as in his manner. Mother and son had resembled each other in several ways: he inherited her “shyness,”17 and, like her, possessed the craggy features that distinguished so many Bliss descendants. His first collection of poems, Low Tide on Grand Pré, would be dedicated “To S.M.C.,” whose lamented spirit pervades the book in poems such as “The Unreturning”18:
The old eternal spring once more
Comes back the sad eternal way,
With tender rosy light before
The going out of day.
The great white moon across my door
A shadow in the twilight stirs;
But now forever comes no more
That wondrous look of hers.
The terms of the family will specified that, after their mother’s death, the estate was to be divided equally between Carman and Muriel. Once Sophia’s funeral expenses had been paid, they were left with the house and two thousand dollars in bonds. Carman could not bear the thought of selling the house immediately even though he had no intention of remaining in Fredericton. He dropped his law course with the idea of pursuing a Ph.D. degree at either John Hopkins University or Harvard. John Hopkins held out the possibility of a scholarship, but in the end he opted for Harvard because its program was more liberal. After making his decision, he happened to meet a Mrs. Mosher and her daughter Maude, who were visiting in New Brunswick from Cambridge, Massachusetts. Finding that they lived in a big house within walking distance of Harvard, he made arrangements to board with them when he began his studies in the autumn. Mrs. Mosher had another daughter, Grace, but it was Maude, a promising violin student, who became almost another sister to Carman—one of many “sisters” who substituted for sweethearts—and remained a close confidante for the rest of his life. He enrolled in four English courses at Harvard, three of them under Francis Child, renowned for his study of folk ballads. He also selected a course in philosophy given by Josiah Royce, who had recently published The Religious Aspect of Philosophy, a book of unorthodox observations from which Carman would draw support for his own attitude towards religion.
Muriel had dreams of going to Wellesley College, but Carman thought the plan was “quite unworkable,”19 basically because it would mean selling the house. Instead, Muriel remained at home to run the place as a boarding house for university boys with the help of her unmarried aunt, Jean Bliss. After a year had passed, Carman was still against selling the house. In fatherly tones, he wrote to his sister:
I know you are tired of a house full of boys, and it is hard work,
but it seems to me the only thing to do is to go on for
another year. You see, you cleared all expenses last year.
That means that you and Jean had board and lodging without
any cost except your labour. I can see no better thing to do.20
Since he was not working as hard as his sister, his advice sounds somewhat insensitive and selfish. Of his five courses at Harvard, philosophy was the only one he completed. Instead of registering for any courses in his second year, he simply hung around the campus, reading and writing in his habitually random fashion. Luckily for Muriel, she had won the heart of Will Ganong (scion of the Ganong chocolate dynasty in New Brunswick), who married her on 29 March 1888 and bought Carman’s share of the Fredericton house. Aunt Jean was taken to live with Muriel and Will, first in Cambridge where Will taught in Harvard’s botany department until 1893, and later in Northampton, Massachusetts, where he remained a professor of botany at Smith College for the rest of his career.
Recalling his Harvard experiences fifteen years later, Carman declared: “I got most from Royce in Philosophy and Francis J. Child in English,”21 but Royce, only six years his senior, was clearly his favourite and the teacher whose influence upon him was second only to that of George Parkin. Child was a man in his early sixties with systematic methods that were the antithesis of Carman’s habits. While it may be true, as some scholars have suggested, that Child’s preoccupation with ballads generated Carman’s preference for using that particular verse form, the simple four-line stanza was a natural choice for him because it required less sweating over technique and allowed his meandering imagination more freedom. The degree of Carman’s indebtedness to Royce is much easier to assess. Having already been disposed to the dictum of Emerson, his distant kinsman, that each individual is a portion of the divine Oversoul, he accepted Royce’s premise that
... Universal Thought combine[s] the thought of all of us into an absolute unity of thought together with all the objects and all the thoughts about these objects that are, or have been, or will be, or can be, in the Universe. This Universal Thought is what we have ventured, for the sake of convenience, to call God. It is not the God of very much of the traditional theology. It is the God of the idealistic tradition from Plato downwards.22
That philosophy, with its corollary that “We must see the Divine everywhere,”23 would permeate Carman’s poetry.
Carman’s two years at Harvard did not prepare him for an academic career, which had been his original goal, but they changed his life profoundly. He was there during one of the university’s golden eras of innovation in curriculum and teaching, and was fortunate to meet some remakably talented contemporaries, both on and off the campus. He gravitated to a milieu that had flourished after Oscar Wilde’s visit to Boston a few years earlier had “made the New England capital the center of aestheticism in America....”24 As Roberts commented many years later, “He got what he was looking for,—stimulating personal contacts, and a sudden clarifying of his ambitions, and a philosophy of life which, with modifications of his own, was to serve him faithfully throughout all after years.”25 The “traditional theology” upon which he had been raised was recast to be more liberal and inclusive. With this new outlook came the feeling that he was no longer bound to the puritanical notion of a “practical” career. He was free to follow his inclination to become a full-time poet. Much of his liberation from the constraints of his upbringing began with his introduction to the aesthetic orientation of those “personal contacts” he made while at Harvard.
The first budding aesthete he met was probably Bernard Berenson during the latter’s stint as student-editor of The Harvard Monthly26 to which Carman contributed nine poems altogether, beginning in December 1886. Born Bernhard Valvrojenski of Jewish parents in Lithuania in 1865, Berenson was ten years old when his mother left her native land with her three children (two sons and a daughter) to join her husband, who had immigrated to Boston a year earlier and had already changed his Slavic-sounding surname to Berenson. His son Bernhard would wait until the United States entered World War I before completing his alias by altering his first name to Bernard. Although the family was nominally Jewish, the father was so anti-religious that he would ostentatiously eat ham sandwiches in front of the synagogue on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of prayer and fasting in the Jewish calendar. At the age of twenty Bernhard (Bernard) outdid his father by abandoning the Jewish faith completely and being baptised a member of Boston’s Trinity Church by Phillips Brooks, a distinguished Episcopalian clegyman, best remembered today for writing the words to “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” By this time, the youthful Berenson was a non-conformist in appearance as well as thought, wearing shoulder-length hair that was parted in the middle and fell in “the carefully trimmed curls of a Renaissance portrait.”27 It was a prophetic affectation for a man who would become an authority on Italian Renaissance art. To Carman, he was a revelation: an individual who flouted convention and got away with it on the strength of his brilliance and self-confidence.
In the spring of 1887 Berenson became enthusiastic about the idea of founding a monthly arts magazine to counteract a trend towards standardization which he felt was stifling creativity. To denote the magazine’s forward-thinking nature, he planned to call it “The Twentieth Century Review.” He rallied a group of his close friends to the cause, all of whom would work as volunteers except for Carman who, as the managing editor, would be the only full-time salaried member on the staff. The first issue was to appear in the autumn; but, before it was ready, the wealthy backer, upon whom Berenson had been counting, had a change of heart and the project fell through. The next spring Berenson graduated from Harvard, but sailed for Europe before the Commencement and became so enamoured with Italy that he would not return to America for seven years. Thereafter, contact between him and Carman was maintained chiefly through his beautiful sister Senda to whom Carman was devoted in his typical “brotherly” fashion.
Berenson’s intimate circle, in addition to his Harvard classmates, included several young intellectuals who were not enrolled at the university. Among them was free-spirited Louise Imogen Guiney, a local poet whose verse had appeared in such important monthlies as Scribner’s, Harper’s, and The Atlantic. What was even more impressive, a collection of her poems had been published in 1884 and another was soon to appear. Her adored father, a general in the American Civil War, had died when she was sixteen, leaving his wife and daughter with only a meager pension which, as time went on, Louise augmented by her writing and by working first as a postmistress and later as a librarian. Possessing beauty as well as brains, plus an irrepressible sense of humour and a tomboyish love of hiking and climbing, she was considered “the best of good fellows”28 by the coterie that formed around her. When Berenson introduced her to Carman, it was the beginning of a special relationship that would be lasting and mutually rewarding without ever becoming romantic. Besides being the same age, sharing common interests and possessing a similar detachment from worldly affairs, both of them had ambiguous attitudes towards the opposite sex. The masculine companions Guiney preferred were “physically unthreatening young men [my italics], especially poets and the artistically inclined.”29 Along with Berenson and Carman, this favoured group included the aesthetically-minded F. Holland Day, Ralph Adams Cram, Tom Meteyard, and Richard Hovey.
Fred Day, later known professionally as F. Holland Day, was a distant cousin of Louise Guiney, but there was a vast difference in their family fortunes. While Louise and her mother struggled in near-poverty, Fred was the privileged only child of an astute father who increased an inherited fortune until he became a millionaire. Summers were spent at the family home in Norwood, twenty miles south of Boston, but in winter the Days fled to the city. Three years younger than Louise, whom he sometimes addressed as “Mother” while she called him “Sonny,” Fred exhibited a devotion to her (often paying her bills) that was closer than any relationship he ever had with any other member of the opposite sex. His idol was Oscar Wilde, whose showmanship he tried to match by wearing his hair longer than the accepted fashion, sporting a Van Dyke beard and a pince-nez, and dressing in brocaded vests and elegant black suits. As early as 1886, he had begun to establish himself as a photographer, eventually specializing in portraits of male nudes in the guise of woodland deities. As time went on he became more daring until in 1898 he shocked Bostonians by holding a show that displayed the first photograph of frontal male nudity ever to appear in a public exhibition in their city. Despite his preoccupation with the male body, there is no proof that he ever indulged in homosexual activities in the physical sense. The same cannot be said of Herbert Copeland, a young dandy who was his partner in a brief publishing venture and later became overtly homosexual. As Copeland and Day, the partners would publish Songs from Vagabondia, which catapulted its co-authors, Bliss Carman and Richard Hovey, into fame as poets of the open road.
Beginning in the late 1880s, Ralph Adams Cram was Guiney’s neighbour for several years on Pinckney Street in Boston. Born in 1863, he had left the family farm in Hampton Falls, New Hampshire, to study architecture, first in Boston and later in Europe. Not only was he brilliant and precocious, but at five-foot-seven he cut a fine figure with his sandy hair, firm chin, and his “well-turned limbs” of which he “was vain enough to brag.”30 Like Fred Day, he sported a pince-nez and dressed flamboyantly. One weekend when he arrived home in a peacock-blue suit and a purple tie, his mother came close to shutting the door in his face. Because of the sexual ambiguity of the open-minded company he kept on Pinckney Street, questions were raised about his own inclinations, but (as with Day) there is no evidence of overt homosexuality. He was destined to have a distinguished career as an exponent of Gothic design, his most monumental work being the re-designing of the nave and west front of the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine in New York City. When he first became acquainted with Guiney, however, he was working as the art critic for the Boston Transcript. It was through her that he first met Tom Meteyard, Richard Hovey and Bliss Carman.
For several years, beginning in the early 1890s, Cram was the leader of an exclusive group who called themselves “The Visionists” and devoted their meetings to discussions of new developments in philosophy, religion, and the arts. Two small publishing companies were spawned by these sessions: one founded by F. Holland Day and Herbert Copeland, the other by Herbert Stone and Hannibal Kimball. Both companies would be among Carman’s early publishers, Copeland and Day issuing Songs from Vagabondia, and Stone and Kimball buying the rights to Low Tide on Grand Pré from the original publisher. Besides Carman and Hovey, other members of the club included Bertram Goodhue (Cram’s architectural partner and most intimate friend) and Philip Savage (whose untimely death in 1899 prompted a lengthy eulogy from Carman). Tom Meteyard, recently returned from studying with Claude Monet and others in France, introduced the group to the artistic experiments of the Impressionists.
Meteyard, Carman’s junior by nearly five years, became as close as a younger brother. Being a cherished only child, the posthumous son of an officer who had been killed near the end of the Civil War, Tom had a particularly close relationship with his mother, Marion Lunt Meteyard, a classics teacher, with whom he was sharing an apartment in Boston when Carman first met him. Mrs. Meteyard embraced her son’s friends with such maternal warmth that Ralph Adams Cram called her a “mother to us all.”31 Carman regarded her as “one of my closest and pleasantest friends ... a woman of wide culture and a most genial spirit.”32 He would spend many future holidays with her and Tom in Scituate on the estate that had belonged to Mrs. Meteyard’s late father, a Massachusetts polititian and former editor of the Boston Daily Courier. In the aesthetic set to which he belonged, handsome young Tom, with his short dark hair and neatly trimmed beard, was one of its least outrageous members in appearance and dress. As a beginning artist, influenced by the French Impressionists, he was already displaying a style that was virile but sensitive and noted for its brilliant use of colour. He would design several of Carman’s volumes of poetry, beginning with Songs from Vagabondia (1894), the first of the collections to be issued jointly with Richard Hovey.
Like Meteyard, Richard Hovey grew up a mother’s boy, lacking a nurturing masculine influence in his young life. Born in 1865 after his father, a Major-General in the Civil War, was discharged because of injuries that rendered him unfit for soldiering, Richard’s upbringing was left almost solely to his mother while his father went away to study law. After General Hovey set up a practice and settled with his family in Washington, D.C., he was too busy to spend time with Richard or his other son, Alfred, who was four years older and as blond and robust as Richard was dark and delicate. “If the boys ever amount to anything,” the General told his wife, acknowledging that he neglected them for his work, “you should have all the credit, for your consecration to them has been complete.”33 Alfred was a lovable, adventurous lad, but Richard’s remarkable precocity and greater readiness to learn appear to have made him his mother’s favourite. Having been a successful schoolteacher before her marriage, she felt competent enough to teach him at home where his individualistic nature would be unfettered by the restrictions of a regular classroom. His only formal education before he entered Dartmouth College in the fall of 1881 was two years’ training in Latin and Greek.
Since its founding in 1769, Dartmouth College, the most northern of the Ivy League institutions, has had a symbiotic relationship with the New Hampshire town of Hanover in which it is located. It is the town’s chief distinction, being important to its economy as well as a source of pride and sometimes bemusement. In his day, Richard Hovey created a stir in the town as well as at the college because neither was quite sure how to respond to his brash flouting of conventional behaviour. Figuratively thumbing his nose at staid middle-class propriety, he wore his hair to his shoulders, appeared in knickerbockers and black silk stockings, sometimes affected a monocle and carried a sunflower, and talked like Oscar Wilde. When someone told him that Gilbert and Sullivan’s Bunthorne in Patience, their latest operetta, was “a capital burlesque of Swinburne, Rossetti, Wilde, Hovey & Co.,”34 he felt immensely flattered to be included in such an unorthodox group. He was too different from the other college boys to be widely popular, but he was pledged to the Psi Upsilon fraternity soon after enrolling at Dartmouth and was initiated the following spring. For someone who “held masculine friendship in Elizabethan esteem” as deeply as Hovey did, “the fraternity, like class and college, was a symbol of love of comrades.”35 The stimulus of male comradeship would be celebrated again and again in his poetry
After graduating from Dartmouth in 1885, Hovey remained in Hanover for a few weeks, rehearsing for a local production of Patience in which he was pleased to be cast as Bunthorne. It was a role he had been practising throughout his undergraduate years. Nevertheless, he eventually took a more serious turn, enrolling in the Episcopal Seminary in New York in the fall of 1886 with the intention of becoming a priest. After his first year there, he came to the conclusion that poetry was his true calling. Feeling at loose ends, he enrolled at Harvard with the vague notion of preparing for an academic career that would allow him to write as an avocation. Later, that plan would be abandoned also, but his meeting Bliss Carman at Harvard in the fall of 1887 led to “a friendship that was the richest and closest of his life.”36
Hovey has been described as Carman’s “alter ego.”37 The term is appropriate, although outwardly their friendship appeared to be the attraction between two opposites. Their physical differences were striking: Carman was slim, blond, and clean-shaven; Hovey, “broad, black and bearded”. In manner, Carman was “elusive” while Hovey “roared in the gale of his own exuberance.”38 To a large extent, each represented the reverse side of the other’s personality. For all his bravado, Hovey was basically a shy man; conversely, there was a flamboyant streak lurking in the underside of Carman’s retiring nature. Not only did they have a meeting of minds, but each responded to an aspect of the other that matched his own second self. Hovey warmed to his new friend’s sensitivity; Carman let his hair grow into a long saffron mane, and finally became daring enough to swash about in flowing cravats, open-toed sandals, and flashy jewellery.
Carman’s metamorphosis from partridge to peacock took place slowly, however. No longer being able to afford to live in the Cambridge and Boston area, he was back in New Brunswick for much of 1888 and 1889, where he avoided raising too many eyebrows. For several months, beginning in January 1889, he became a circumspect teacher again, filling in at the Fredericton Collegiate until a replacement could be found for George Parkin, who had recently been appointed secretary to the Imperial Federation League in London. In February 1890, largely on the strength of a recommendation from Horace E. Scudder of The Atlantic and a character reference from the Anglican Bishop in Fredericton, he was appointed office editor and literary assistant to Dr. William Hayes Ward, the editor-in-chief of The Independent, a semi-religious New York weekly. Since he had been required to sign a declaration that his personal conduct would be exemplary, it seemed prudent to be cautious about his dress as well as his behaviour. Dr. Ward’s tolerance was put to the test once when the New York Sun printed, without asking permission, a couple of stanzas Carman recited one evening during a “stag” dinner at the Salamagundi Club:
Here’s to the day
That wondrous May,
A-roaming through the heather,
When her little shoes
And my big boots
Were out on the hills together.
And here’s to the night
Of our delight,
That held the stars in tether,
When her little shoes
And my big boots
Were under the bed together.
The next morning, Dr.Ward appeared with a copy of the Sun tucked under his arm but, instead of the admonishment Carman expected, he merely remarked: “I notice that your Muse was rather skittish last night, Mr. Carman.”39
Carman’s working relationship with Dr. Ward continued to be harmonious, but the Independent’s owner and publisher, Henry C. Bowen, was a man whose religious fervour was greater than his love of literature. Informing Carman on 28 April 1892 that there would be no place for him in a planned re-structuring of the editorial staff, Bowen gave him the choice of resigning either on the first of June or the first of July.40 Reeling in shocked surprise, Carman chose the latter date to allow himself more time to look for something else. It was a sad day, not just for Carman, but for some of the Confederation Poets and other Canadian writers, whose work he had always been ready to consider for The Independent. Brief stints would follow with Current Literature, Cosmopolitan, The Chap-Book, and The Atlantic Monthly, but after 1895 he would be strictly a contributor to the magazines and newspapers, never an editor in any department.
It was not until he left The Independent that Carman seriously began to emulate the unconventional grooming of Hovey, Berenson, Day and Cram. Like those four friends and their circle, he was proclaiming himself an aesthete in the manner of Oscar Wilde. In doing so, he was identifying himself with a movement that had gained the reputation of being homosexual in its outlook and frequently in its practices. Nevertheless, while Carman and his associates revelled in male comradeship and sometimes addressed each other in terms of endearment, it appears that most of them never crossed the boundary between homosociality and homosexuality. Nor, with the exception of Day’s photographs of male nudes, is there much in their work that seems to be hiding behind the drapery of “artistic licence.” It should be noted, however, that Hovey’s frank appreciaton of male physiques (“they are so beautiful”) in “The Bather” is hardly altered by the fact that the observer in the poem is a woman.
Anyone undertaking a biography of Carman is faced with rumours that he was homosexual. Because the innuendoes have been so prevalent,41 some attempt to confront them may be in order. Muriel Miller in Bliss Carman: Quest and Revolt, while not mentioning the rumours directly, chose to refute them by exaggerating the erotic side of his relationship with various women. In all likelihood, however, Carman's orientation was not as lustily heterosexual as Miller would have us believe. He remained forever unable to make any commitment to marriage, using the plausible argument that anyone who could barely support himself should not think of taking on a wife and possible children. “You must see,” he explained to his sister, then married to Will Ganong, “that the great happiness of life which you have can hardly be for me.”42 His pose was that of a dedicated poet, reluctantly forfeiting love for art. Whether his sacrifice was entirely altruistic is open to question. It may be closer to the truth to say that his dread of settling down to the responsibilities of marriage was greater than the love he ever felt for any woman. If a relationship became too serious, he always found a way of wriggling out of it in time to escape matrimony. As his cousin Roberts once noted, one of his ways of playing it safe was to have affairs with women who were “securely tied elsewhere.”43 Mitchell Kennerley, who was Carman’s apartment mate in New York for an extended period beginning in 1897, recollected in 1932:
Carman was fond of women, to the end of his life. He did not parade it but he did not hide it from his few close friends. He never said “Let’s go find women.” But if we were out on a spree, that is having dinner together, with a bottle of wine, and afterwards walked the city streets, he was open to an occasional adventure with whoever passed by. These occasions might have been more frequent if we had had more money.44
Kennerley expressed himself cautiously—he was replying to a query from Lorne Pierce, the strait-laced editor of the Ryerson Press—but his meaning is clear: Carman enjoyed having sex with women and sometimes picked up prostitutes. However, while Roberts and Kennerley attest to Carman’s heterosexual appetites, they do not make him sound like a man with a strong libido. Nevertheless, there is no reason to believe that he ever had sex with men—not even any circumstantial evidence has ever come to light—although, like Professor Higgins in My Fair Lady, he was known to ponder the question: “Why can’t a woman be more like a man?” He once told Louise Imogen Guiney: “I should dearly love ... to have you for a chum, but then you had to go and be a girl ....”45 Admittedly, it is clear from the context that he was using “chum” as a synonym for “roommate” (at a time when cohabitation between unmarried members of the opposite sex was still a scandal), but it may not be totally off the mark to infer that in general he found men more satisfactory as chums.
Just after his protracted engagement to Julie Plant finally trickled to an end, Carman was the guest of Hovey’s parents for several months in Washington where he met Jessie Kappeler, a beautiful young girl who aspired to be a professional singer. Reportedly, “he fell madly in love, though she was half his age.”46 The romance reached its zenith during the summer of 1893 when Jessie accepted his proposal of marriage despite her mother’s strong objections. It is uncertain how long it took for Carman’s ardour to cool, but in a letter to his sister, dated 14 February 1895, he appears to be having second thoughts: “The soul is not to be fooled twice,”47 he tells Muriel. However, in his typically indecisive fashion, he allowed the affair to drag on for another year before calling it off.
While Carman remained single all his life, four of his close friends among the aesthetes eventually married: Berenson, Cram, Meteyard and Hovey. While visiting in London, Berenson had enticed a married woman, Mary Costelloe, to leave her husband and two daughters to become his understudy in Florence. Carman’s correspondence with Berenson seems to have lapsed around this time, but he may have known about the scandal since Senda Berenson and Mrs. Costelloe’s friend, Gertrude Burton, were among his confidantes. The wayward lovers married in 1900, the year after Mrs. Costelloe’s husband died. If Carman ever heard about the progression of their future marital troubles, he may have felt it confirmed the wisdom of his own decision. Although the Berensons remained together until Mary’s death in 1945, their relationship went downhill almost from the moment of the wedding. Cram, whose close bond with his partner Bertram Goodhue had earlier been the source of gossip, married Elizabeth Carrington in 1900. Theirs seems to have been a happier union than that of the Berensons, and saw the birth of a son and two daughters. Meteyard, who moved to England with his mother in 1908, married Isabel Montagu Barber of London two years later. When their son Robert, their only child, was born in 1912, Carman sounded somewhat envious in his congratulatory letter: “[I]f regrets were not an abomination not to be entertained for a moment, I should be filled with misgivings at the approaching desolation of inveterate bachelorhood.”48
It would be inaccurate to say that Hovey had a shotgun marriage, although the birth of his illegitimate son was one of the pressures that led to matrimony. While spending the winter of 1889-1890 with his parents, he caught the attention of Mrs. Henrietta Russell, an advocate of Delsartian theories on dress and physical culture, who was lecturing in the drawing rooms of Washington. He was twenty-five and she was forty, but he had always been more comfortable with older women and she found the darkly-handsome young poet irresistible. By enlisting his help with a book she was writing about Delsartian principles, she ensured that they would spend many evenings together in her apartment. In the spring of 1891, she discovered she was pregnant with his child and had to face the fact that, although estranged from her husband, she was still married to Edmund Russell, a hapless actor who once had the misfortune of splitting his tights while playing Hamlet. Hovey, anxious to conceal the situation from his parents, set off for England on the same ship as Mrs. Russell, ostensibly to test the literary waters of London. For the actual birth, they went to France where the infant was left in the care of a foster mother when his parents returned home in 1892. Preparing for the time when the boy could be brought to America, Hovey concocted a story that he had hastily married a young French woman, who died during childbirth. Meanwhile, Mrs. Russell set about getting a divorce from her husband. Hovey’s reaction—“My God! She means to marry me!”49—hardly made him sound like an eager bridegroom, but he had no alternative for a reunion with the child. After their marriage, they returned to France to bring the boy back with them, his real mother now pretending to be his stepmother.
Carman never felt close to his friend’s rather imperious wife, whom he sometimes addressed in mock-deference as “Lady Richard” or “Lady Hovey.” Even as he recognized her many admirable qualities, he confided to a friend:
I know exactly the sort of impression the lady makes wherever she goes. It is a case of the best intentions with the worst results. Too bad! She has so much we must be glad of—a true interest in poetry and art and new thoughts, and a fund of knowledge in the subject of Unitrinian philosophy and Delsarte’s doctrines. We are enormously indebted to her on that account as on others. But—injudicious, and lawless beyond all need of sense.50
To give “the lady” her due, however, it was she, not Hovey, who was the breadwinner of the family. Even if she had wished to become a full-time wife and mother, she had no choice but to conduct classes and continue lecturing. When she introduced Carman to one of her pupils, Mrs. Mary Perry King, it would be a turning point in his life.
Mrs. King, a diminutive, vivacious blonde, the same age as Carman within a day, was “good to look at and be with.”51 Her flair for the dramatic had been recognized early when she won a scholarship to study acting at the Philadelphia Academy of the Arts. She furthered her career by marrying Morris Lee King, a medical doctor, the son of a wealthy Swiss-American businessman. Many of her acqaintances dismissed Dr. King as a “fussy nonentity,” albeit “amiable and harmless,”52 but he was sympathetic to the arts and spent a lot of money promoting his wife’s acting career and other artistic pursuits. He even supported her involvement in the career of Bliss Carman to the extent that the situation developed into something close to a ménage à trois. In the summer of 1897 Carman accompanied the Kings to Haines Falls in the Catskills where Dr. King bought a property christened “Moonshine” by his theatrical wife. Thereafter, Carman spent his summers in a nearby cabin called “Ghost House.” From 1908 onward, his winters were spent next to “Sunshine House,” the Kings’ estate in New Canaan, Connecticut. Thus, for the rest of their lives, “Carman and Mrs. King were hardly out of sight of each other for long, and never out of mind.”53
Mitchell Kennerly, who began sharing Carman's bachelor apartment in New York a few months after the advent of Mrs. King, is probably the best authority on her relationship with Carman:
Mrs. King was beautifully devoted to Carman, but at that time there was nothing tragic about it & Carman was not romantic about her. On rare occasions they had intimate relations at 10 E. 16 which they always advised me of by leaving a bunch of violets—Mary Perry's favourite flower—on the pillow of my bed.
As we grew older, Mrs. King seemed to lose her sense of humour, & hung on to Carman with increasing weight both spiritual and physical & people began to talk and King lost his naiveté and I believe there were some difficult moments. . . . It seemed to weigh on Carman.54
To many of Carman’s friends, it seemed that Mrs. King deliberately isolated him from his old associations and made certain that no new acquaintances ever became too intimate. Charles G.D. Roberts, for one, felt that Mrs. King’s “influence was violently hostile”55 to him. Hovey’s mother, who regarded Carman as another son (“I’ll convince you that there’s a mother here hungry for her boy,”56 was a typical invitation for him to visit), expressed motherly disapproval over Mrs. King’s proprietary claim to Carman’s attentions.57 The grip would not loosen with the passing years, nor did Carman make any serious attempt to escape from it, not even when the aging Mrs. King lost her good humour, good looks and good health. He came closest to wavering in 1922 after meeting Kate Eastman, a Canadian schoolteacher-turned-secretary. A beautiful blonde, twenty-six years his junior, Kate would endear herself to Carman by arranging a successful cross-Canada reading tour for him. Whether or not he actually proposed, he certainly gave her every reason to believe that she had won his heart. Then he backed off, using his loyalty to Mrs. King as an excuse: “But for all Willie’s vagaries [his attraction to women like Kate] ... there has been one lode-star [Mrs. King] for me.”58
Mary Perry King has often been portrayed as the great love of Carman’s life, but Mitchell Kennerley’s intimation that his devotion to her was more passive than passionate may be closer to the truth. Since she was a strong-willed woman and he was dependent by nature, he slid easily into a situation that—to put it bluntly—made him look like a gigolo. It was not a flattering role, but as Lorne Pierce has pointed out, it was problably the best thing that could have happened to him:
Possessive [Mrs. King] no doubt was, and no rival for Carman’s interest long survived, but it is doubtful whether he himself would have survived without her. She put pence in his purse, and food in his mouth, when he struck bottom and, what is more, she often put a song on his lips when he despaired, and helped him sell it.59
Lorne Pierce’s view of the relationship is coloured by the confidences Mrs. King shared with him after Carman’s death. In her version, she and the poet were star-crossed lovers, never faltering in their devotion to each other, but forced to sacrifice themselves on the altar of convention. In reality, however, their circumstances may have been neither as tragic nor as romantic as Pierce was led to believe. At the start, when Mrs. King was still sexually attractive, Carman undoubtedly felt safe in the knowledge that she (to quote Roberts again) “was securely tied elsewhere.” If that makes him sound like a cad, it must be remembered that Mary Perry King was a woman who wanted to eat her cake and still have it. While clinging determinedly to Carman, she succeeded in placating her husband and continued to enjoy his indulgent support.
There are those who believe that in time “Carman saw in Mrs. King rather a mother than a mistress.”60 Ever since the death of his own mother, he had been looking for a replacement. In succession, he had found something close to that in the women he called “Mother Meteyard” and “Mother Hovey”. To a degree, his emotional dependence upon his sister was similar, but Muriel had other responsibilites and was unable to give him the lavish attention that Mrs. King showered upon him. Even if the latter’s possessiveness eventually came to weigh upon him somewhat heavily, as Mitchell Kennerley implies, he felt too deeply indebted to abandon her. Whatever his shortcomings, Carman was not lacking in loyalty.
He had “a song on his lips” long before he met Mary Perry King. In fact, it has been argued that under her influence his singing lost much of its lilt.61 That claim may be unfair—poets often lose their spontaneity and start repeating themselves as they age—but it is true that his poetry began to sound increasingly trite and preachy the more his thinking fell into line with Mrs. King’s unitrinian belief in the necessity of an equal balance between one’s physical, emotional, and mental states. His work had been appearing regularly in various Canadian and American periodicals, beginning in his Harvard days, but his first collection, Low Tide on Grand Pré: A Book of Lyrics, was not published until 1893. The title poem of that volume, arguably the finest achievement of his career, continues to be widely admired. James Cappon, writing in 1930, felt that it fell short of being a masterpiece, but called it “unforgettable.”62 Nearly thirty years later, Desmond Pacey declared: “[I]t still seems one of the most nearly perfect poems to originate in Canada.”63
The first version, called “Low Tide on Avon,” was written in June, 1886, while Carman was acting as Deputy Examiner in English at King’s College, Windsor, Nova Scotia. In those days, it was customary to select an outside person to conduct oral examinations of graduating students in each department during the final six weeks or so of the college year. Charles G.D. Roberts, who had been teaching at King’s since the previous autumn, secured the appointment for him. It was his first visit to the area, but he fell in love with it and would return annually during Roberts’ ten-year stint at the college.
The King’s College Record, a monthly magazine edited by students under Roberts’ supervision, printed “Low Tide on Avon” in its October issue, 1886. The opening lines describe the low tide at Windsor where the Avon River flows out to the Minas Basin:
The sun goes down, and over all
These barren reaches by the tide
Such unelusive glories fall,
I almost dream they yet will bide
Until the coming of the tide.
In the following months, the poem underwent extensive revision and a change of title.64 In the final version, by substituting “Grand Pré” for “Avon,” Carman establishes a setting that was already known to many of his readers from Evangeline, Longfellow’s popular epic on the expulsion of the Acadians. Although Grand Pré is actually only a small village, some thirty miles west of Windsor, the name takes on a much wider meaning as Carman uses it to conjure up emotional associations with the whole Acadian region. Since he was still feeling bereft after the death of his parents, especially the loss of his beloved mother only four months earlier, his mood was attuned to the tragic story of Evangeline’s search for her lost lover. Nor were his spirits lightened by his languishing relationship with Julie Plant. Out of this emotional background came the reflections on impermanence and loss that prevail in “Low Tide on Grand Pré.”
There has been much speculation over Carman’s allusion to “one beloved face” in the third stanza. While this unnamed person is sometimes thought to be Julie Plant, it seems more likely that she is just as much a product of the imagination as Longfellow’s fictitious heroine. Nevertheless, however fanciful the absent or lost love may be, Carman easily adopts the pose of a forlorn suitor who sees his grief reflected in nature:
And yet I know that not for us,
By any ecstasy of dream,
He lingers to keep luminous
A little while the grievous stream,
Which frets, uncomforted of dream—
A grievous stream, that to and fro
Athrough the fields of Acadie
Goes wandering as if to know
Why one beloved face should be
So long from home and Acadie.
Carman’s use of pronouns seems to need clarification here. If he has no companion with him, perhaps “for us” may have the general meaning “for anyone.” The use of “We” in the beautifully evocative fourth stanza may be understood to be addressed to someone in absentia:
Was it a year or lives ago
We took the grasses in our hands,
And caught the summer flying low
Over the waving meadow lands
And held it there between our hands?
Although the specific setting continues to be Grand Pré, the scene now becomes more reminiscent of another part of Acadie, an elm-lined stream near Fredericton where he had drifted in his canoe, admittedly often with Julie:
There down along the elms at dusk
We lifted dripping blade to drift,
Through twilight scented fine like musk,
Where night and gloom awhile uplift
Nor sunder soul and soul adrift.
He remembers a moment that was magical and seemingly lasting:
And that we took into our hands
Spirit of life or subtler thing—
Breathed on us there, and loosed the bands
Of death, and taught us, whispering,
The secret of some wonder-thing.
Then all your face grew light, and seemed
To hold the shadow of the sun;
The evening faltered, and I deemed
That time was ripe, and years had done
Their wheeling underneath the sun.
So all desire and all regret,
And fear and memory were naught;
One to remember or forget
The keen delight our hand had caught;
Morrow and yesterday we naught.
Nightfall and the return of the tide bring him back from his reverie, destroying the illusion of permanence and leaving him with a tidal rush of emotions:
The night has fallen and the tide ....
Now and again comes drifting home,
Across these aching barrens wide,
A sigh like driven wind or foam:
In grief the flood is bursting home.
In his prefatory note to the first edition of Low Tide on Grand Pré, Carman wrote: “The poems in this volume have been collected with reference to their similarity of tone.” The reader soon discovers that it is a muted tone, one that is in keeping with the intent of a book dedicated to the memory of a cherished mother. While the overall effect is not exactly cheerful, there is often an appealing cadence to the melancholy as in “In Apple Time”:
The apple harvest days are here,
The boding apple harvest days,
And down the flaming valley ways,
The foresters of time draw near.
Or in “Wayfaring”:
And yet, what ails the fir-dark slopes,
That all night long the whippoorwills
Cry their insatiable cry
Across the sleeping Ardise hills?
There are several satisfactory lyrics in Low Tide on Grand Pré, but none can equal the artistry of the title poem. What is more, although Carman would publish over thirty other volumes during his lifetime, none of them contains anything that surpasses this poem he wrote when he was barely twenty-five years old. All his best characteristics are to be found in it: deft impressionistic strokes, verbal music and piquancy of phrase. Here, in contrast to so many of his poems, even the vagueness is more intriguing than frustrating. Nor is the symmetry marred by discursiveness, the tendency to let his imagination ramble uncontrolled, that often diluted the impact of his work.
Low Tide on Grand Pré was followed quickly by Songs from Vagabondia (1894), in collaboration with Hovey, and Behind the Arras (1895). In each of the new volumes Carman followed his earlier practice of bringing together poems that were “in the same key.” Whereas Low Tide on Grand Pré is elegiacal and melancholy, Songs from Vagabondia is mostly light and jaunty, while Behind the Arras is philosophical and heavy. Since there would be three subsequent collections of “Vagabondia” poems, perhaps this is the best place to discuss them as a group before turning to Behind the Arras.
Carman and Hovey were the first poets after Walt Whitman to gain a reputation for celebrating the joys of the open road; but, as Alan Houston Macdonald points out in his biography of Hovey, their Vagabondia series had additional themes:
The success of Hovey and Carman lay in their combination of a number of attitudes and forms of expression which had hitherto stood singly: the love of nature, the joy of the open road, comradeship, physical courage, medievalism, sexual democracy, the scholar gypsy, and the vivid contrast between vital energy and mere existence.65
Apparently it was Hovey’s father who first came up with the idea that a joint collection of their diverse poems might make “an attractive and popular volume.”66 As it turned out, General Hovey was right: the first volume, Songs of Vagabondia, was an immediate success, and would go through sixteen printings (ranging from 500 to 1000 copies) over the next thirty years. The three Vagabondia volumes that followed fell slightly short of that record, but each went through numerous printings. Carman and Hovey quickly found themselves with a cult following, especially among college students, who responded to the poetry’s anti-materialistic themes, its celebration of individual freedom, and its glorification of comradeship.
The end pages of all the volumes except the last were illustrated by Tom Meteyard whose countenance appears along with the heads of Carman and Hovey in a circular design on the cover. Carman, blond and clean-shaven, is in the middle; the long-haired and darkly-bearded Hovey is on his right; Meteyard, with trimmer dark hair and beard, is on the left. If Carman stands out as different in this drawing, so, too, does his “vagabond” poetry differ in style and manner from that of Hovey. Compared to Hovey’s robust lines, Carman’s contributions appear quiet and often more literary. While Hovey experiments with free verse and contrasting long and short lines, Carman is content to work within more traditional verse patterns. Of the thirty-three poems in Songs from Vagabondia, fourteen are by Carman, the best known being “Spring Song” and “The Joys of the Road.” Both poems have considerable charm, but reveal his typical shortcomings: prolixity, the the habit of alternating between artistry and doggerel within the same poem, and the use of rhymes that have a cloying monotony.
In his invocation to “mother April” in “Spring Song,” euphonious lines are followed by lapses in tone:
Let me hear the far, low summons,
When the silver winds return;
Rills that run and streams that stammer,
Goldenwing with his loud hammer,
Icy brooks that brawl and clamor,
Where the Indian willows burn;
Let me harken to the calling,
When the silver winds return,
Till recurring and recurring,
Long since wandered and come back,
Like a whim of Grieg’s or Gounod’s,
This same self, bird, bud, or Bluenose,
Some day I may capture (Who knows?)
Just the one last joy I lack,
Waking to the far new summons,
When the old spring winds come back.
“The Joys of the Road” begins well:
Now the joys of the road are chiefly these:
A crimson touch on the hardwood trees;
A vagrant’s morning wide and blue,
In early fall when the wind walks, too;
The outward eye, the quiet will,
And the striding heart from hill to hill.
Most of the thirty stanzas that follow are effective in themselves and contain striking images; nevertheless, the reader is likely to grow weary of the monotony of rhyming couplets long before the end.
In the second collaboration, More Songs from Vagabondia (1896), other than “A Vagabond Song,” there is nothing of lasting interest by Carman. Nor does he have anything memorable in the final collaboration, Last Songs from Vagabondia (1900), published less than a year after Hovey’s untimely death from a blood clot following minor surgery. It contains “The Lost Comrade,” Carman’s tribute to Hovey, which is undoubtedly heartfelt if not inspired:
So ’t is, Back to the Inn! for me,
Where my great friend and I were happy and free.
And I will remember his beautiful words and his ways
For the rest of my days.
This elegiac tone predominates in Last Songs from Vagabondia, which, to an even greater degree than the previous volumes, contains tributes to friends and personal allusions that lack significance for anyone not in the know. In 1912, Carman published Echoes from Vagabondia; but, like most echoes, the poems are faint repetitions. The collection contains several impressionistic nature poems, such as “The Flute of Spring,” but most of them reverberate with a hollow unitrinian cheerfulness:
O heart, hear thou the summons.
Put every grief away,
When all the motley masques of earth
Are glad upon a day.
Alack that any mortal
Should less than gladness bring
Into the choral joy that sounds
The saraband of spring.
Even “The Enchanted Traveller,” with which the volume ends, is no more than a feeble attempt to recapture the mood of Vagabondia:
We travelled empty-handed
With hearts all fear above,
For we ate the bread of friendship,
And drank the wine of love.
Ironically, Carman and Hovey gained early reputations as men of the open road when both of them preferred their creature comforts to the rigours of life in the out-of-doors. Being neither particularly adventurous nor vigourous, they hardly qualified as “vagabonds,” not even in the narrow meaning of “wanderers.” Nor, other than a walking-tour down the New England coast in the late fall of 1887, was much of their travelling done on foot. Nevertheless, they became identified with such celebrated wanderers as Robert Louis Stevenson, whom Carman would eulogize as the “prince of vagabonds” (“At the Road-house,” More Songs from Vagabondia). Coincidentally, Stevenson was receiving treatments at the Trudeau Sanitarium in Saranac, New York, in 1887 when Carman and Hovey were passing through New York State, but it is unlikely that they crossed paths with him.67
If Carman is not really a vagabond, neither is he much of a philosopher. Behind the Arras, sub-titled A Book of the Unseen, is preoccupied with the deeper meanings that lie hidden behind the curtain of outward appearances. By using allegory, Carman attempts to reach some understanding of the issues raised by Josiah Royce’s views on Universal Thought. The rooms of the “old house” in the title poem, for example, represent different choices in life:
I hardly know which room I care for best:
This fronting west,
With the strange hills in view,
Where the great sun goes,—where I may go
When my lease is through,—
Or this one for the morning or the east,
Where a man may feast
His eyes on looming sails
And be the first to catch their foreign hails
Or spy their bales.
Expectations are raised that the parallels in the poem will lead to something meaningful. Unfortunately, long before it ends, over thirty stanzas later, there are so many asides that the allegory is lost along with any point the poet hoped to make. The reader is left with a diffuse elaboration of Browning’s “God’s in his heaven— / All’s right with the world.” As a philosopher, Carman strives for more than he can achieve.
Still keeping to the practice of publishing collections on a single theme, Carman included his latest poems about the sea in Ballads of Lost Haven (1897). The opening poem, “A Son of the Sea,” begins:
I was born for deep-sea faring;
I was bred to put to sea;
Stories of my father’s daring
Filled me at my mother’s knee.
I was sired among the surges;
I was cubbed beside the foam;
All my heart is in its verges,
And the sea wind is my home.
If questioned, Carman could protest that he is not calling himself “a son of the sea.” As we know, he grew up beside the St. John River, miles away from the sea, the son of a lawyer, not a seaman. Furthermore, Carman was not a good sailor. Charles G. D. Roberts remembered a stormy crossing from Yarmouth to Boston with his seasick cousin looking “greenish yellow, and his long, blond hair damp with perspiration.”68 That he was fascinated by exploits at sea is evident in ballads like “The Nancy’s Pride” and “Arnold, Master of the Scud,” but he viewed them with eyes of a landlubber. Nevertheless, his readers, unaware of the facts, might be excused for thinking that he was truly a sea-faring poet. Very likely, he was happy to be seen in that light. The pose, like that of aesthete or vagabond, was a means of giving himself another dimension. The narrator in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray reflects upon this kind of pretense: “Is insincerity such a terrible thing? I think not. It is merely a method by which we can multiply our personalities.”69 So it was with Carman.
“In a sense, Carman is always an elegiac poet,”70 as Terry Whalen (one of his most sympathetic modern critics) has noted. While the elegiac note is sounded in many poems scattered throughout his collections, By the Aurelian Wall (1898) consists entirely of elegies, ranging from tributes to famous people like Keats, Shelley and Stevenson to obscure individuals he mourned, like Goodridge Bliss Roberts (a younger brother of Charles G. D. Roberts) and Andy Straton, his boyhood hero, whose death in 1891 was the most devastating blow since the loss of his mother. “The White Gull,” commemorating the anniversary of Shelley’s birth, is the most ambitious of the lot. It was written in August 1892 while he and Hovey were spending a month in Windsor, Nova Scotia, with Charles G.D. Roberts, who was also writing a tribute to Shelley. The gull is only one of the symbols Carman uses for the spirit of Shelley (“A white gull searches the blue dome / With keening cry”), resulting, as Roberts would later comment, in “some diffuseness of thought and incoherence of structure.”71 Those are the weaknesses that make it inferior to Ave!, Roberts’ elegiac ode to Shelley. In “The Grave Tree,” the final poem in By the Aurelian Wall, Carman anticipates his own death:
Let me have a scarlet maple
For the grave-tree at my head,
With the quiet sun behind it,
In the years that I am dead.
He could not foresee that he would lie buried in Fredericton’s Forest Hill Cemetery for twenty-five years before someone would heed his request and plant a maple tree over his grave.
In a span of just over three years, Carman published a series he called Pipes of Pan. In all, there are five volumes: From the Book of Myths (1902), From the Green Book of Bards (1903), Songs of the Sea Children (1904), Songs from a Northern Garden (1904), and From the Book of Valentines (1905). Carman’s version of Pan was one that had undergone a metamorphosis from the ugly, lecherous piper of Greek mythology to a more engaging satyr whose beguiling music was meant to enchant without causing mischief. In effect, what we have here is Carman in yet another pose, this time as a latter-day Pan trying to revive a veneration for love and beauty:
Ah, the world is growing old!
Of the joys it used to hold,
Love and beauty, naught have I
But the fragrant memory.
None of the Pipes of Pan series covers any new ground in style or subject matter except for the occasional erotic abandon in Songs of the Sea Children. D.G. Jones, disregarding Pauline Johnson, claims that “Carman is the only poet of his immediate generation who could fairly be called a love poet.”72 Roberts, Lampman and even D.C. Scott dabbled in love poetry, but produced nothing as “hot” as this:
I loved you when the tide of prayer
Swept over you, and kneeling there
In the pale summer of the stars.
You laid your cheek to mine.
I loved you when the auroral fire,
Like the world’s veriest desire
Burned up, and as it touched the sea,
You laid your limbs to mine.
However, it would be misleading to claim that those lines are typical. Mostly, Carman seems to be posing yet again, merely posturing as a lover. “One feels,” says James Cappon, “that the erotic note has not much depth, it is only fancy caressing the idea of love,”73 as in
Lord of the vasty tent of heaven,
Who hast to thy saints and sages given
A thousand nights with their thousand stars,
And the star of faith for a thousand years,
Grant me, only a foolish rover
All thy beautiful wide world over,
A thousand loves in a thousand days,
And one great love for a thousand years.
While Carman was still sharing quarters with Mitchell Kennerley, the latter gave him a copy of H.T. Wharton’s collected fragments of the poetry of Sappho (c.610-c.580 B.C.), an aristocratic Greek woman who spent most of her life on the island of Lesbos. As was the fashion at that time among women of her social class in Lesbos, Sappho gathered around her a group of female companions devoted to the arts and other leisurely pastimes. To some of these women she dedicated poems that were expressed in terms of passionate love, giving rise to the term lesbianism, although there is nothing in the extant fragments that specifically connects her group to homosexual practices.
At Kennerley’s suggestion, Carman expanded upon the Sappho fragments in a series published as Sappho: One Hundred Lyrics (1904). Written more or less contemporaneously with the love poems in Songs of the Sea Children, the Sappho reconstructions continue the amorous theme from a feminine point of view. Nevertheless, the feelings ascribed to Sappho are pure Carman in their sensitive and elegiac melancholy:
I loved thee, Atthis, in the long ago,
When the great oleanders were in flower
In the broad herded meadows full of sun.
And we would often at the fall of dusk
Wander together by the silver stream,
When the soft grass-heads were all wet with dew
And purple-misted in the fading light.
And joy I knew and sorrow at thy voice,
And the superb magnificence of love,—
The loneliness that saddens solitude,
And the sweet speech that makes it durable,—
The bitter longing and the keen desire,
The sweet companionship through quiet days
In the slow ample beauty of the world,
And the unutterably glad release
Within the temple of the holy night.
O Atthis, how I loved thee long ago
In that fair perished summer by the sea!
Next to Low Tide on Grand Pré, Sappho: One Hundred Lyrics seems to be the collection that continues to find the most favour among Carman’s critics. D.M.R. Bentley, for example, calls it “undoubtedly one of the most attractive, engaging and satisfying works of any of the Confederation poets.”74
Carman published four other collections of new poetry during his lifetime and two more were ready for publication at the time of his death: The Rough Rider, and Other Poems (1908), A Painter’s Holiday, and Other Poems (1911), April Airs (1916), Far Horizons (1925), Sanctuary (1929), and Wild Garden (1929). James Cappon’s comment on Far Horizons applies almost equally to the other five volumes: “There is nothing new in its poetic quality which has the sweet sadness of age rehearsing old tunes with an art which is now very smooth though with less vivacity than it used to have.”75 There is, however, a noticeable difference in the purpose behind much of the later poetry.
As Carman came to share Mrs. King’s unitrinian view that poetry should be uplifting and optimistic, his work became increasingly didactic and full of forced cheerfulness. This attitude prevails in his once-popular “Vestigia,” written in 1920:
I took a day to search for God,
And found him not. But as I trod
By rocky ledge, through woods untamed,
Just where one scarlet lily flamed,
I saw his footprint in the sod.
In the next three stanzas in turn he hears God’s voice in the song of the hermit thrush, feels God’s touch in the wind on his brow, and sees the “glory of His robe” in the sunset. Then
Back to the world with quickening start
I looked and longed for any part
In making saving Beauty be ...
And from that kindling ecstasy
I knew God dwelt within my heart.
Early in her relationship with Carman, Mrs. King had enlisted his help in organizing her Unitrinian School of Personal Harmonizing, which was financed by her husband and held in re-modelled premises at “Moonshine” during the summer and later at “Sunshine House” in the winter. The classes proved to be popular and the young women who attended were reportedly charmed by the affable poet who helped write pageants and masques for them. Two of these works, Daughters of Dawn (1913) and Earth’s Deities (1914), both written in collaboration with Mrs. King, were published by Mitchell Kennerley (out of friendship, not admiration) after every other publisher Carman approached had turned them down. Their contents may have served a purpose in the classroom, but do nothing to enhance Carman’s literary reputation. The same can be said about the unitrinian focus of his prose works: The Kinship of Nature (1904), The Friendship of Art (1904), The Poetry of Life (1905), and The Making of Personality (with Mary Perry King, 1908). These collections of essays in Carman’s rambling but often engaging prose style “can still surprise in their moments of incidental wisdom,”76 but are of interest chiefly to scholars who wish to investigate his literary biases.
Carman was a creature of many mood-swings. His letters to his friends and relatives show him alternating between depression and optimism, especially in the later decades. The unexpected death of his sister in 1920 was a blow from which he never fully recovered. Ever since the death of his mother, he had turned to Muriel for an undemanding love and understanding that was free of the possessiveness of someone like Mrs. King. He was also in poor health and on occasion was admitted to the tuberculosis sanitaria at Saranac and Lake Placid. To add to his troubles, the course of the King/Carman ménage had run into turbulence. It had taken Dr. King a surprisingly long time to realize “Where Carman is Bliss, ’tis folly to be the doctor,” although that malicious quip had been making the rounds behind his back for several years. When he finally lost his naiveté, his wife used his anxiety over her precarious health to force his reluctant toleration of Carman. She would use the same weapon to hold on to Carman when she felt threatened by his interest in Kate Eastman.
Just when Carman’s morale was at its lowest, his spirits received an unexpected boost. The rally began in the late autumn of 1920 during a visit to Toronto to thank the organizers there who had arranged a Benefit to help defray his medical expenses. To show his appreciation, he agreed to give several poetry readings in the Toronto area. The response was so enthusiastic that he was persuaded to undertake a reading tour of Western Ontario early in 1921 even though the thought threw him “into a palpitation, like any old maid.”77 Happily, he was soon heartened by the reception he received: “Breathless attention, crowded halls, and a strange, profound enthusiasm such as I never guessed could be,” he reported to a friend. “And good thrifty money too. Think of it! An entirely new life for me, and I am the most surprised person in Canada.”78
It was not a matter of Carman being repatriated. He had never ceased to be a Canadian in either his allegience or his sensibilities. Despite his long residence in the United States, he had not taken out American citizenship. Nor, even though American anthologists and critics frequently claimed him as their own, can it be said that his poetry reflected nothing of his origins. His settings—Grand Pre, Saint John, Ardise Hills, etc.—were often specifically Atlantic Canada. Even elsewhere, his impressionistic response to nature is as suggestive of his native Maritimes as it is of the geographically similar New England countryside.
This “new life” continued with a dinner held by the newly-formed Canadian Authors’ Association at the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Montreal on 28 October 1921 where he was crowned Canada’s Poet Laureate with a wreath of maple leaves. According to one report, “he accepted his new dignity with great good humour,”79 but in the ceremonial photographs he looks just as silly as he probably felt. However, it was good advance publicity for his tour in November to the West Coast, where the locals were undoubtedly titillated to learn that a Poet Laureate was in their midst. A later tour to the West was arranged by Kate Eastman, whose infatuation with him had grown steadily since she first heard him read at the University of Western Ontario where she was secretary to the President.
The readings were exhausting for the ailing Carman, but out of financial necessity he contined touring to the time of his death. In New Canaan, Connecticut, on the ninth of June 1929, after his morning shower, he collapsed on the floor, dead from a massive brain-haemorrhage at the age of sixty-eight. Mrs. King took it upon herself to make the funeral arrangements as she saw fit, insisting all the while “I do not wish to seem bizarre, I am not his widow,” but turning up at the service “in the deepest of crepe, simply swathed in it.”80
A large contingent of mourners from out of town, including Carman’s brother-in-law Will Ganong, his cousins Charles and Will Roberts, and numerous friends from the past, reached New Canaan to find that Mrs. King, still antagonistic to old associations, had made no preparations for their arrival, had booked no accommodations, etc. The Carman relatives were especially upset to learn that she planned to bury his ashes in New Haven instead of Fredericton. She remained deaf to any entreaties until Lorne Pierce, Carman’s executor, enlisted the the help of the Canadian Prime Minister, Mackenzie King, to make her change her mind. Thereupon, she commissioned a New York couturier to design a mourning outfit, which she wore to the service at Christ Church Cathedral, Fredericton, carrying Carman’s ashes in an urn and moaning audibly behind her veil. Afterwards, a story was circulated that before receiving the Prime Minister’s telegram, she had already scattered the ashes over the Hudson River. According to the rumour, Lorne Pierce was so determined to have Carman honoured by a burial in his native city, no matter what, that he substituted coal ashes. Pierce always denied the story vehemently, insisting that it was a tasteless joke concocted by a mischievous civil servant in Fredericton.
Among the eulogies for Carman, perhaps none encapsulated his personality better than this tribute from Padriac Colum, the Irish-born poet, who had been his neighbour in Connecticut: “Bliss Carman was above everything else a sweet-natured man. I am sure no one ever parted from him without thinking, ‘I hope I shall see dear Bliss Carman again.’”81 James Cappon, who was finishing his seminal study of Carman’s poetry when he learned of the poet’s death, added a terse postscript: “[A]t least his tale was fully told; he had certainly said all that God had given him to say, perhaps a good deal more.”82