Non-Fictional Prose

by Charles G.D. Roberts

Edited by D.M.R. Bentley and Laurel Boone


 

SOME REMINISCENCES OF BLISS CARMAN IN NEW YORK (1896-1906)*


 

Just now, when we are all absorbed in the life-and-death struggle of our civilization, it is almost impossible to fix one’s thoughts for a moment upon matters so irrelevant as literary remininscence. I am asked for some notes on that great and greatly loved poet, Bliss Carman, who was my cousin and dearest friend. The only way I can manage to "tie in" any reminiscences of him with our present urgent concerns is by recalling his attitude towards the last war. When he heard that I had enlisted (in England, in the early autumn of 1914) he wrote to me from New York to this effect: "Would to God, Old Man, I could follow your example. But I fear I would be no good in the great game. I would hardly know which end of a gun to put to my shoulder. and I’ve always been gun-shy anyway. But I suppose, with my six-foot-three, I might manage to stop a bullet which would otherwise have scuppered a better man." but comparative ill health, combined with other influences which all too effectually shackled his freedom, prevented him from making any effort to take part in the struggle. His only contribution to it was two or three war poems to which neither he himself nor his most ardent admirers were able to attach much importance. Yet at an earlier stage in his career he had given us such authentic and magnificent martial music as "The War song of Gamelbar" and "Buie Annajohn."

I have often thought since that if Carmen had gone into the war he would have made a much better soldier 5than he imagined he would be. I have seen him a couple of times confronted by a sudden emergency, and he stiffened up like steel. He had, in fact, plenty of courage. But he was quite without aggressiveness. His pose was to avoid unpleasantness and follow the line of least resistance. With his great height, his gaunt leanness, his quiet voice, and his gentle manner, he gave the impression of being frail. But he was a good long-distance runners, and a powerful and tireless canoeist. And his long, slender white hands—beautiful hands—had a daunting strength in their grip. I saw him once turn suddenly and clutch the arms of an impertinent rough who was crowding him too hard. The startled look on the fellow’s face, as he felt that vise-like grip and became straightway amenable, is vivid in my memory.

Several years ago I wrote, and published in The Dalhousie Review and elsewhere, some chapters of Carman reminiscene which covered, very lightly and insufficiently, his career up to the end of 1895, when I left King’s College, Nova Scotia, and joined him a little later in New York. For the succeeding twelve years, while maintaining my legal residence and my family in Fredericton, I did my literary work in New York where my market was; and during this period I was in almost continual contact with him. From time to time he would share my study but he was always elusive and I never could keep hold of him for very long, try as I might. The Hoveys and their circle were my chief rivals in this connection; but as they all, in an only slightly second degree, were my friends also, my contact with him were not greatly interrupted. This circle consisted of Richard Hovey the poet (whose poetry had for a time a great influence on Carman’s work),—of Hovey’s mother, who was a most dear friend of mine and lovingly known to us all as the "Mother of Poets,"—of his wife, Henrietta Russell Hovey, teacher of the Delsarte system of self-expression,—of her friend and disciple, Mary Perry King, a woman of great individuality who later came to exercise a predominating influence on Carman’s life,—of Tom Meteyard, the impressionist artist and disciple of Monet,—of Frank Edge Kavanagh, witty Irish original of "Barney McGee" and the "Davin" poems in the "Songs from Vagabondia" books,—of "Charlie" Martin, the brilliant and erratic young lawyer who had been a student of mine at King’s College,—of my brother William Carman Roberts of The Literary Digest,—and of the brilliant young newspaper-woman, Miss Mary Fanton, who was afterwards to become my sister-in-law.

At this point I am tempted to bring in members of my own personal circle which impinged on Carman’s circle at so many points, and which included such distinguished names as Mrs. Robert Louis Stevenson and her son and daughter, Lloyd Osborne and Isobel Strong,—the Ernest Thomson Setons,—Colonel Edwin Emerson,— the beautiful sculptress, Clio Huneker and her equally lovely sister Irma Perry who was later to become Mrs. Richard LeGallienne,— Roland Perry, the sculptor,—and Oliver Herford, the wit and poet of Life. But I must remember that these are reminiscences not of myself but of Carman.

Carman had indeed a genius for friendship. Wherever he went he promptly acquired new friends, while the old ones he "grappled to his heart with hoops of steel." He influenced and was influenced by these varying personalities. At the same time,—as will be no news to readers of his thrilling "Songs of the Sea Children" and his poignant lyric "A Northern Vigil," surely among the most compelling love-poems of the language,—he was also and always a great lover, a great romantic. but his most impassioned experiences were ever illumined by tenderness and comradeship; so when, as may happen once in a while, disillusionment stripped the radiant scales from his eyes there was left no bitterness in his clearing vision. It was not all fooling when he wrote his "Footnote to a Famous Lyric":—

Abou ben Adhem loved his fellow men,
     And so his name in God’s great Book survives.
Dear Lord, I am unworthier than Ben,—
     Yet write me down as one who loves their wives.

I think that such women as had loved and been loved by Carman always remained imperishably his friends.

When in the early nineteen-hundreds the English poet Richard LeGallienne came to live in New York, he was eagerly hailed by his admirers, among whom, very especially, were Carman, Hovey, and myself. I had already come to know him well, during my visit to England in 1899, and we had found each other very congenial. I had stayed with him for a time at his home in Chiddingfold, Surrey,— where, by the way, he suggested to me the very successful title for my wild-life romance which I was just completing,—"The heart of the Ancient Wood." In New York he at once fitted in with Carman and Hovey, and the four of us went around much together. They were a most picturesque and distinctive-looking trio,—Carman, with his fresh blonde face and wild mop of hair under a wide-brimmed cowboy Stetson, towering above us, his lanky, somewhat slouching figure usually clothed in grey, his Emersonian countenance now brooding, now quizzical;—Dick Hovey, his hair as wild a mop as Carman’s but of an inky blackness and usually surmounted by an old slouch felt, his swarthy skin and dark, indolent eyes, his black beard and his low-moving, well-fed Southern figure, in every respect the antithesis of Carman;—and Dick LeGallienne, a vivid contrast to them both. He was tallish, slim and trim, clothed in immaculate black, his shining black "topper" perched precariously on a vast and wide-spreading bush of black hair, from which his white, aquiline face, ever predatory for beauty, peered forth "like a sickle moon seen through a thicket of pine branches"—as he once described it himself lamentably overshadowed, and in desperation I began trying to grow a distinguished head of hair. I was succeeding, somewhat indifferently to be sure, when a playful article appeared in the New York Sun about us, not altogether uncomplimentary, but labelling us "The Angora School of Poets." Forthwith I betook myself to the barber and acquired a close haircut; but at the same time, in self-defence, I adopted close haircut; but at the same time, in self-defence, I adopted a broad black ribbon to my eye-glasses as my one mark of distinction. My three comrades, however, unmoved by gibes, continued to flaunt their superabundance of locks. LeGallienne’s hair, immortalized by Max Beerbohm’s delicious caricature, was something the literary world could not consent to do without. Hovey’s was too solidly magnificent to suggest an eccentricity, while Carman’s always appropriate to his stature and satisfying to the eye, was already becoming a legend. One day he stalked into my studio waving a letter which seemed to amuse him greatly. He read it to me. It was from an unknown young admirer in one of the southern states. After a burst of adulation, she wrote, "I have seen a lovely picture of you in our local paper. You look so wonderful, Mr. Carman. I am painting a large portrait from it. Won’t you please write and tell me the colour of your hair and your eyes that I may get it quite right?" To me this seemed a bit pathetic. But Bliss saw only the humour of it. He sat down and wrote her as follows, "right off the bat":—

My dear Miss X;—
     My hair is bronze yellow, my eyes are bronze green,
     My complexion is just about halfway between,
     If you’re versed in the modern impressionist plan
     You might try a mixture of purple and tan.
                                          Yours faithfully,
                                                    Bliss Carman.

He received no reply, so I fear the young lady had no sense of humour. But if she had any commercial sense she may have sold the manuscript for a good price and measurably salved her outraged feelings.

It may be well at this point to correct an impression of Carman which has somehow gained currency here in Canada,—an impression which was diametrically opposed to the fact. Nothing could be further from the fact than to suggest that Carman was ever untidy, or forgetful of his personal appearance. In this regard and all that pertained to it he was scrupulous almost to the point of fussiness. Cleanliness was to him rather more perhaps than godliness. He was neat by instinct, inheritance, and training. His raiment was always "costly as his purse could buy"; and when, as might happen in times of stress, that purse could buy but lamentably little, his clothes were always neatly mended. He used to say, paradoxically enough, as he threw away a frayed collar or patched shoe, "always wear the best you’ve got and then you’ll always have the best that’s going." It was a happy faith—which I could not always share!

Not my reminiscences, but my space, now being exhausted, I must reluctantly close these rambling notes.

 


"Some Reminiscences of Bliss Carman in New York (1896-1906)," Canadain Poetry Magazine 5:2, December 1940, 5-10 [back]