Non-Fictional Prose

by Charles G.D. Roberts

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


 

BLISS CARMAN *


 

It is not my purpose here to attempt anything like an exposition or a critical analysis of Carman’s genius. I cannot yet, if ever, stand sufficiently apart from him for such a task. Moreover, the doing of it would be superfluous, for the present. It has just been done by another hand, and done so brilliantly that one might well shrink from risking comparisons. Dr. Cappon’s study of "Bliss Carman’s Beginnings", in the autumn number of the Queen‘s Quarterly, covers more ground than its title would seem to imply. It is so adequate and so illuminating that any analysis I might attempt would resolve itself into a kind of running comment, with here and there some additions, perhaps, but no significant disagreement. When Dr. Cappon says "Carman’s tendency is to transcendentalize experience rather than to explore it psychologically", he uncovers for us the very core of Carman’s genius. I can not imagine any clearer guidance to the understanding of Carman‘s poetry as a whole than that one revealing sentence. This poetry is so considerable in bulk, and has appeared in so many small separate volumes, that it is seldom viewed as a whole even by its most convinced admirers. It is so varied, alike in form and mood and matter, so full of complexities masking behind simplicity of expression, that the essential unity underlying all its variety has hitherto, I think, eluded us. Dr. Cappon has dragged it into light.

My purpose then, in this article, is to catch and imprison in words, before they fade, some of those impressions of my great kinsman, friend and exemplar which yet linger in my memory, in the hope that they may help to build up such a portrait of the man himself as shall appear not unworthy of the imperishable works which he has left us. And I must beg forgiveness in advance if, in the course of these reminiscences, I may seem to obtrude too much of my own personality. It is worth while to risk the charge of egotism if thereby I may hope to make the picture of my friend in any degree more intimate or more vivid.

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Born in Fredericton, New Brunswick, on the 15th of April, 1861, Carman was only fifteen months younger than myself. But as I grew up much faster than he did, in matter of writing verse I got the start of him by many years. Before I was twelve I had begun to scribble verses,—or rather, I had begun striving laboriously to construct fragments of verse which never seemed to me worth finishing. After three of four years of such striving, however, stimulated by the wise and sympathetic criticism of my father, who had fed me from babyhood on the best of poetry—on Milton, Shelley, Byron, Tennyson in particular—I gained craftsmanship enough to bring some of these youthful efforts to completion, and so was able to issue my first book of verse at the age of twenty. At this time Carman was just trying his hand on some metrical translations from Homer. The appearance of my little book, and the generous way it was welcomed by kindly critics, undoubtedly stimulated him to further efforts. But these efforts showed no sign whatever of having been influence by anything that I had written. Bliss took so much longer to grow up, both intellectually and physically, than his more diminutive cousin, because it was decreed that he should have so much further to grow. It was much the same way in the field of sports. In the hundred yard sprint Bliss was no match for me at all; but in long distance races his lanky six-foot-three of wiry sinew left me at last panting but undismayed far in the rear. Apropos of this lean length of his, which was fitly carried out in his extraordinarily long arms, his beautiful tapering hands, and his narrow number twelve feet—and also of the fact that his birthday was exactly in mid-April—he was wont to describe himself as a cross between an April Fool and a Maypole.

Not till I had passed my fourteenth year did I come to know Bliss intimately. Like him, to be sure, I am a child of the beautiful and storied River St. John, my birthplace being at the mouth of the Keswick stream, ten miles above Fredericton. But a few months after my birth my father was appointed rector of the parish of Westcock and Dorchester, at the head of the Bay of Fundy; and the following fourteen years of my life were spent at the quaint old colonial homestead known as Westcock Parsonage, on the wooded ridge of upland looking out across the green marshes and tumultuous tides of the Tantramar. During all these years, as far as memory serves me, I saw Bliss but once,—on a brief visit to Fredericton when I was about eight years old. In that home city of the clan, which seemed to me chiefly populated by grandfathers and grandmothers, uncles and aunts, and cousins innumerable, I was taken, of course, to see "Uncle Carman" and "Aunt Sophie" (my mother’s sister)—and "Blissie". Blissie‘s little sister, Murray, was then too young and in my eyes too unimportant to leave any impression on my memory. But "Blissie", as well as his father and mother, I remember very vividly. "Aunt Sophie" I loved at once. Tall and rather thin, she had features of a clean-cut austerity in marked resemblance to our great kinsman, Emerson, whose mother also was a Bliss. But her mouth and her eyes revealed the unfailing kindliness which made her the best loved of all the aunts. My "Uncle Carman" I admired tremendously. He was very tall—some inches over six feet—and very distinguished looking, with his luxuriant waving hair and well-groomed beard and peculiarly bright dark eyes. My admiration for this splendid figure would have been wholesomely mixed with awe, but for the indulgent twinkle which tempered that penetrating regard. Toward Blissie I was inclined to be just a little patronizing; for was I not a whole year and three months older than he, although he was already a couple of inches the taller? I remember thinking his hair (it was golden bronze) ought to be cut at once. Mine was always kept short. He was a grave, shy little boy, and he looked to me awfully "good",—an appearance, by the way, which inexplicably clung to him throughout his after life, and now and again led to some misunderstanding. However, I presently learned that one must not always judge by appearances. Blissie and I were sent out into the garden, to play and get acquainted. I found that Blissie had a lively imagination, quick in response to large and constructive ideas. In the course of our well meant efforts to put these ideas into effect, some unavoidable damage was done to the hitherto perfect lawn. I was grieved to find myself more than suspected of having led my (then) exemplary little cousin into mischief. But Blissie was staunchly insistent in claiming an equal share of whatever credit might be due for large, constructive ideas. It is possible that he was telling the truth. It is arguable that then, as was frequently to happen in later years, our intellects had struck fire from the contact with each other. However it may be, from that hour I fully appreciated my cousin.

When, in 1874, my father became rector of Fredericton, and from Westcock Parsonage we were transplanted to the massive old Georgian house of red brick known as The Rectory, I was brought into almost daily contact with Carman. We both attended the Collegiate School; and though he was in the Form junior to mine, we were both in the same coterie of schoolboy intimates bound together by like tastes and pursuits. From that day till my graduation from the University of New Brunswick in 1879, our paths lay never very far apart.

We were an enterprising and somewhat robustious lot of youngsters, half a dozen of them our own cousins, that coterie of intimates. Carman was much the quietest and least aggressive of the lot. He did not box or wrestle, and he lazily avoided quarrels when he could. But no one ever "picked on" him unduly, or tried to take advantage of his mildness. He was highly dangerous in a rough and tumble. The vice-like grip of his long, inexorable fingers was known and respected. His lank stature did not fit him for general sports and gymnasium work, and he was much too deliberate for the fierce struggle of football,—to all of which I was feverishly addicted—but he was a fine long distance runner, a powerful swimmer, an expert and tireless canoeist. In his school work he was no plodder, but just reasonably diligent,—enough so to give the general impression that he could make a brilliant showing if he tried. But he was not emulous. And he was not keenly interested in any of his subjects excepting the Greek and Latin. He was too much of a dreamer, and too absorbed in his outside reading to strive for high marks in his examinations; but once in a while he would win a prize,—perhaps inadvertently, perhaps to please his devoted father and mother. His unfailing and courteous attention in the class-room, however, and his instinctively chivalrous dislike of making things difficult for those of his teachers who had not the gift of discipline, gained him at last a distinction which he was far from seeking. He was awarded the Good Conduct Prize. I can still see the wide, embarrassed grin with which he received it. I can still hear his whimsical apology to his schoolmates, his modest suggestion that he might live it down. But his father and mother didn’t seem to mind at all.

During my first couple of terms at the Collegiate School, the Head Master, George R. Parkin, was away on leave, taking post-graduate work at Oxford, and making a deep impression in the debates at the Oxford Union by his fervent and convincing eloquence. In his absence, the post of acting Head Master was filled by Dr. H. S. Bridges, who afterwards became Professor of Greek and Latin at the university. He was an altogether admirable Head Master, commanding not only obedience but unqualified respect, and those of us who had the good luck to study our Latin and Greek under his guidance have reason to remember him with gratitude. But he was somewhat aloof and awe-inspiring, and none of us came very closely in contact with him. Parkin, on the other hand, was intensely personal, and essentially an inspirer. To him each pupil in his classes was an individual interest, and to be handled individually. It was a very phlegmatic pupil indeed who could resist catching fire from his vivid and sympathetic enthusiasm.

To Carman and myself in particular, Parkin‘s return to the school was an event which stamped itself ineffaceably on our lives. The influence of that stimulating contact was never afterwards quite to fade away. Gladly we worked for him, and in his classes it was never dull. What seemed the dryest of passages from a Ciceronian oration might suddenly come alive and significant to us when our great teacher would interject a few flashing words to tell us how he first saw the honey-coloured moon rising over the roofs of Rome and flooding down its radiance upon the pale ruins of the Forum. By the look in his eyes we could see that he was far away from the classroom at that moment, and dreaming again among those ghostly columns. And it seemed to us that we shared the vision with him.

But it was outside school hours that Parkin did most for us two ardent boys,—that he gave us most inspiringly of himself, of his high enthusiasms, and of the atmosphere of that wonderful far world of art and letters from which he had just returned. Filling our pockets with apples, (he was addicted to apples, as Adam was, but more judiciously!) he would take us favoured two for long hikes over the wooded hills behind Fredericton. He would take us as comrades, not as pupils; and his talk would weave magic for us till the austere fir-clad slopes would transform themselves before us into the soft green Cumnor Hills, and the roofs and spires of Fredericton, far below, embowered in her rich elms, would seem to us the ivied towers of Oxford. England just then was thrilling to the new music, the new colour the new raptures of Swinburne and Rossetti; Parkin was steeped in them; and in his rich voice he would recite to us ecstatically, over and over till we too were intoxicated with them, the great choruses from "Atalanta in Calydon", passages from "The Triumph of Time", and "Rococo",—but above all, "The Blessed Damozel", which he loved so passionately that Bliss suspected him of sometimes saying it instead of his prayers. But Parkin‘s love and understanding of poetry was not confined to the work of the Pre-Raphaelite group. He would quote Tennyson, Browning and Arnold to us; and he taught us to know Homer and Horace, not as subjects for laborious translation and scansion and parsing, but as supreme poets and masters of verbal music. In conversation with us, indeed, he was given to quoting Horace as familiarly as from the English poets—and sometimes with a neatness that would surely have delighted the genial Q. H. F. himself. One day, when the three of us were trout fishing on the upper waters of the Nashwaak,—or rather, when Parkin and I were fishing, while Carman dreamily trailed his flies over a sunlit shallow where no trout would ever happen by,—I struck sharply to the rise of a fish so small that the rash fingerling was flung high into the air, where it caught and clung gleaming in the upper branches of an elm. On the instant, pointing upward, Parkin declaimed solemnly—

Piscium et summa genus haesit ulmo. Surely as pat a sally as one could encounter!

When I passed on "up the Hill" from school to the gray old university, I was foolish enough to let myself lose that intimate contact with Parkin which Carman was to enjoy, and richly profit by, for yet two years more. And of Carman himself, during those two years, I saw little enough. My time was taken up by all those absorbing interests which go to fill the life of a not-too-studious undergrad. But during the summer vacations we were together as before, on camping trips and long expeditions by canoe into the wilderness regions of Northern New Brunswick. These expeditions usually consisted of two or three canoes, and the personnel would often vary somewhat. Among the school and college mates who accompanied us at one time or another were several who were to win distinction in after life—Frank McInnes, who had once saved my life at the imminent risk of his own by plunging beneath a raft of logs and dragging me forth when I had been sucked under by the current,— Douglas Hazen (now Sir Douglas), my most frequent rival and usually vanquisher in the competition for scholarships and medals,— Allan Randolph and Leigh Babbitt, later to become eminent in the banking world. But there was one without whom, for either Carman or myself, no such expedition could ever be complete—that most loved and relied-upon of all our cousins, Andrew Straton, to whom we have both paid tribute in our verse. Andrew, at that time Bliss’s closest comrade, with me a feeble second, was a remarkable personality. Had he lived, he would surely have made a name for himself. He was two or three years older than I. Tall and powerful, an all-round athlete and expert woodsman, he was the unquestioned leader in all our expeditions. His courage and his resourcefulness were equalled only by his unfailing kindliness and cheerful humour,—and whatever he said went! Moreover, he had a finely equipped mind, eyed good poetry wisely, and on occasion could turn a bit of finished verse which never lacked colour and music. I dwell upon Andrew Straton here, not only because I loved him myself, but because he exerted a shaping influence on Carman‘s character if not upon his [text illegible].

These long canoe trips, of course, took place in the vacation months, the closed season for all beasts and birds of interest to the hunter. And we respected the game laws. Yet we always carried two or three guns with us, in case of the unexpected. But the cold, clear amber waters of the northern interior of New Brunswick swarm with trout, and we were all keen sportsmen—except Carman. He would never touch a gun at all, lest he should inadvertently shoot something; and though we could sometimes persuade him to cast a fly, it was always in the hope that he would not catch anything. And he never did. None the less, when we had caught the trout, he had no objection to helping to clean them—no delectable task when the black flies and vicious little "bite-em-no-see-ems" were burrowing in eyes and hair. And when the trout, well peppered and salted within and rolled in yellow corn-meal without, were fried in pork fat to just the right rich shade of brown, Carman had no compunctions whatever about devouring them. All he was averse to was being their executioner. He would have been rather aggrieved if the rest of us had become infected with his gentle aversion.

I have never seen Carman so happy, so utterly at home, as on these wilderness expeditions. He was essentially native to the woods and the lonely inland waters. He paddled and handled his canoe like an Indian. He trod the forest trails like an Indian, noiseless, watchful, taciturn, moving with a long, loose-kneed slouch, flat-footed, and with toes almost turned in rather than out—an Indian‘s gait, not a white man‘s! That love of the sea which was later to show itself in so much of Carman’s poetry was perhaps atavistic, an inheritance from some of our New England and approximately "Mayflower" ancestry.

After my graduation, in 1879, I rather lost personal touch with Carman for some years. Leaving Fredericton, I had flung myself headlong, with the audacity of my nineteen years, into the strenuous adventure of living. I had moved to the north shore of the province, to the old deep-sea-shipping and lumber town of Chatham, on the Miramichi, and become Principal of the Grammar School there. I had taken unto myself a wife, carrying off an undeniably comely bit of Fredericton in the act. I had brought out a book. I imagined myself very important. Life to me was crowded, much to the detriment of my dreaming.

Carman, meanwhile, remained at Fredericton,—and it was good to be in Fredericton in those days. He finished his college course with distinction, graduating with honours in both classics and mathematics. For a little while he taught in the Collegiate School, under Parkin, but found teaching by no means congenial to his temperament. He never could understand people not understanding things which to him seemed perfectly clear; and all through his life he hated to explain. He would even rather be misunderstood,—as his whimsical humour often led him to be. He gave up his post in the Collegiate, therefore, and settled down to read law. It was not that Blackstone’s Commentaries had any particular charm for him, or that torts and kindred mysteries interested him in the least, or that he harboured any serious ambition to become a legal luminary. All he sought was a reasonable excuse for living at home, where he knew that he was needed. In his heart he was restless. His feet were itching to wander. He wanted Oxford, England, Italy. But he quietly clamped down the lid upon his restlessness, and stayed. His father, who had been by no means young when he married Bliss’s mother (having already brought up a large family by a previous marriage) was now old and feeble, and his mother, though so much younger than her husband, had grown so frail as to cause anxiety. He knew they would be unhappy if he were to leave them. He knew also that, in their devotion, they would be still more unhappy if they thought they were thwarting any of his ambitions. So he pretended, and altogether successfully, that his chief ambition was to study law in Fredericton.

As I have already suggested, the Fredericton of those days was a good place for a poet to be. The lovely little city of the Loyalists, bosomed in her elms and half encircled by the sweep of her majestic river, was stirring with a strange aesthetic ferment. With not more than six thousand inhabitants, she was not only the capital, with Government House, the House of Assembly, the Law Courts, and all they stood for, but also she was the cathedral city, as well as the educational centre of the province. She had little of the commercial spirit, and I fear she was hardly as democratic as is now-a-days considered the proper thing to be. But she was not stagnant, and she was not smug. Instead of expecting all her people to be cut of one pattern, she seemed rather to prefer them to be just a little queer. She was indulgent to their eccentricities as long as these were not too offensive. Conformity, that tyrant god of small town life, got scant tribute from her. There was much good reading done,—up-to-date reading; and if people wrote verses, they had no need to be apologetic about it. To Fredericton it did not seem impossible that some of them might even turn out to be good verses. Good verses were, indeed, being written, not only in the Carman house, the big brick Rectory, and that high-gabled old dwelling on Brunswick St. which our husky cousins, The Straton boys, vivaciously inhabited,—where all the clan foregathered,—and where that most erratic genius of the clan, Barry Straton, shy recluse and wilful roughneck, was composing a little volume of fine poetry called "The Building of the Bridge", now very precious to collectors of rare Canadiana. In other Fredericton homes also, where good literature was loved and studied, the newly awakened impulse to beauty was groping toward expression. A slim, dark-eyed and black-browed youth, by the name of Francis Sherman, when not toiling at his desk in the Bank, was dreaming with William Morris and Rossetti over old romance of Camelot and Lyonesse. The ultimate fruitage of this dreaming was a volume of poems called "Matins", which remains to this day almost unknown in Canada or elsewhere. But I cannot believe that it will always remain so. I feel that for sheer poetry, distilled and quintessential, we have produced little to equal it. This sudden outflowering of the poetic impulse which, for perhaps a score of years, made the name of Fredericton conspicuous in the world of letters, is a thing which some critics have been puzzled to account for. I am inclined to ascribe it, in no small part, to the vitalizing influence of George R. Parkin, falling upon soil that was peculiarly fitted to receive it.

More Reminiscences of Bliss Carman*

In the previous chapter of these reminiscences I omitted to speak of Carman‘s trip to England which he made soon after his graduation from the University of New Brunswick. There were two reasons for this omission. I was not in close personal touch with him at the time,—1881-82; and those months spent in London and Oxford and Edinburgh seem to have left so slight a mark on his development. But the fact that they did affect him so slightly calls for some explanation.

He was not yet ripe for the experience. He knew neither what he wanted to get from it nor how to get anything from it. He was, as I have already pointed out, slow to mature; and moreover, then—as always throughout his life to the very end—he was peculiarly dependent upon personal contacts. Sympathetic companionship meant everything to him. He had no gift for solitude. In Robinson Crusoe‘s place I don‘t think he would have taken the trouble to survive.

When he reached London he felt himself utterly alone,—except for the books to which he fled for the refuge in the bookshop of John Bumpus on Oxford Street. Daunted and homesick, he moved on to Oxford, which called to him with the ardent voice of Parkin and the haunting cadences of "The Scholar Gipsy." But even here, after the first thrill of finding boyish dreams come true, and satisfying himself that the tranquil Isis and the storied piles of Magdalen and Oriel were even lovelier than their names, he was presently homesick again. He made no real personal contacts. And suddenly he knew what he wanted.

Away in the misty North, in Edinburgh, at this moment was a living, breathing bit of Fredericton. Herbert Pickard, a college mate of Carman’s and head of his class, having won the Gilchrist Scholarship for New Brunswick, had elected to carry on his studies at Edinburgh University. Carman turned his back on Oxford, joined Pickard in Edinburgh, and settled down contentedly to study. I am under the impression that he took lectures in English and Mathematics, but they seem to have left no very vivid impression upon him, for afterwards in his talks with me about those Edinburgh days he never referred to them. All his talk was of his quiet life in lodgings with Pickard, and their adventurous prowlings about the grey old city. Pickard had a gentle and lovable personality, and an able intellect. But he was interested in books rather than in life. Unlike Carman, he was in Edinburgh with a definite purpose and ambition. He was fitting himself for a professional career. He gave himself up to his studies with an ardour which was ultimately to sap his vitality and cut him down before he reached his goal. As far as fresh cultural influences were concerned, these two young exiles from their beloved little city on the St. John, shut in upon themselves by their inexperience and strangeness, might as well have been in a monastery. And so it was that when, 1883, Carman returned to Fredericton, he brought with him little more than a few surface impressions, and a confirmation of his own restlessness and uncertainties.

The Muse, set on shaping a poet to her taste who should own no divided allegiance, kept diplomatically heading him off from the entanglements of anything like a settled career. Back in Fredericton, after experimenting, as I have said, with school-teaching, and incuriously sniffing at the musty tomes in a law office, he tried his hand at surveying for a while, which was more congenial to him because it took him into the wilds and he could make-believe he was just "camping-out." But meanwhile he was fitting himself, whether consciously or unconsciously, for his destined work in life. He was writing quantities of verse, all in intricate and rigid forms which he taught himself to handle not only with ease but with severest exactness. He had got hold of a little volume on "Ballades and Rondeaux" and other French verse-forms, by Gleeson White, which fired him by the fascinating difficulties it presented. Presently he was turning out a profusion of perfectly wrought ballads, rondels, rondeaux and triolets,—but the last two especially. That most unyielding of verse-forms, the rondeau, was plastic as wax in his hands. When I was editor of the Toronto Week, (in 1884, I think), I printed a column-and-a-half poem of his, called "Ma Belle Canadienne, Julie," of which every stanza was a rondeau. That frail and tricky trifle, the triolet, light as a thistle-down yet unbending as glass, was complaisant to his touch. He addressed to me a triolet beginning—

My glad Greek boy, in love with life,
    Wake the old echoes with your song—

which my memory, alas, stubbornly refuses to recall in full. It was written on the fly-leaf of one of my own books which has been "borrowed"—I fear irrevocably. At this period also he wrote some polished sonnets and quatrains. One of these quatrains, entitled "Bulrushes", I sent to my friend Richard Watson Gilder, editor of the Century, who accepted it with warm praise, and paid for it with a cheque which Carman modestly considered beyond its desserts. We were both of us fairly modest then.

In all this prentice-work, through which Carman gained that simplicity and easy mastery of form so characteristic of his verse, there was not only consummate craftsmanship, but a wealth of essential poetry. Yet none of these early compositions—exercises he considered them—are to be found in any of his printed volumes. Where are they to be found? Here, surely, are riches to be unearthed by the fortunate treasure-seeker.

For some years after my move from Fredericton to Toronto I saw nothing of Carman, and our correspondence was casual. In 1886 he went to Harvard, and there he began to find himself. Dr. Cappon says "His academic studies there do not seem to have won him any specific distinction." But that, indeed, was the last thing he was looking for. He took lectures. I don’t think examinations concerned him at all. 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. He took philosophy under Professor Royce, who gave him just what his spirit craved. The influence of Royce, in my judgment, was second only to that of Parkin in the shaping of Carman’s genius. But not less significant were certain of the friendships which he made. The name of Richard Hovey, of whom I shall speak more fully later, will always be associated with that of Carman. He and Carman were to become the closest of comrades. He was a broadening and emancipating influence. He had the effect of liberating those robuster elements in Carman’s character, inherited from a very virile and large-moulded ancestry, which had hitherto lain dormant.

There is no apparent excuse for talking of my own affairs at this point,—which is perhaps the reason I feel impelled to do so. At least it will serve to bridge a gap, and lead me onward to the point where my own intimacy with Carman was happily renewed. My experiment in journalism, when I was editor of The Week, could not be regarded by my most indulgent critics as a shining success. When that great (and sometimes greatly mistaken) man, Goldwin Smith, started The Week, as an organ for the advancement of culture and for the promulgation of his own peculiar views as to the destiny of Canada, he made one of his mistakes when he called me up from Fredericton to Toronto to take the post of editor. My chief qualification for the post was a touching but quite unjustified faith in my fitness for it. I had a much more vivid realization of the importance of editors than I had of the importance or the rights of proprietors. Also my views as to the destiny of Canada were passionately, and vocally, opposed to those of Goldwin Smith. My heart goes out in sympathy to him when I think of the annoyance I must have caused him,—and that for so much longer than I could have expected! Then, with generous compensation, he dispensed with my services, and I returned to Fredericton, the richer by an interesting, if strenuous, experience. About a year later I was appointed to the chair of English at the old U. E. Loyalist University of King‘s College, at Windsor, Nova Scotia, where I was to spend perhaps the most fruitful ten years of my life—and where I was to find the opportunity of renewing my old intimacy with Carman.

Of all my sins of omission, the one for which I am most often moved to do penance is my neglect to keep a diary. Any kind of diary, however haphazard and fragmentary, is infinitely better than none. How I wish I were able to give now the date of Carman’s first visit to me at King’s College! I remember only that I had been several years at King’s before I succeeded in luring him away from his journalistic and other adventurings in New York to the lovely and storied Acadian land, which was to stamp its colour and its emotional atmosphere so ineffaceably into the texture of much of his greatest poetry. That first visit was to give us, eventually, "Low Tide on Grand Pré" and a long line of kindred poems. He came, saw, and was conquered. Thereafter he came often and often lingered long, knowing well that the latch-string of Kingscroft-in-the-firs was always hanging out for him with eager expectancy.

It was natural that Carman should feel himself at home here from the first. King’s College, founded by the Loyalists, modelled on Oxford, and first of all colonial universities to be endowed with a Royal Charter, had a gracious, old-world atmosphere peculiarly contenting to Carman’s distinctly aristocratic spirit. The college building itself, standing grey and venerable among its elms on the brow of a park-like westerly slope, and looking out across wide green dyke-meadows toward the far-off misty purple of the Ardise Hills, was screened from view of the town of Windsor by the dense fir masses and tumbled ravines of College Woods. But to the busy yet dignified little town clung much of the atmosphere and tradition of the college. Just beyond the College Woods, on the outskirts of the town, shadowed and enfolded by a grove of ancient trees, stood a low, wide-roofed, white-walled, green-shuttered house which, so long as it shall endure, must make Windsor a place of pilgrimage for all who are concerned with the story of Canadian letters. This was the home of Judge Thomas Chandler Haliburton, jurist, historian, humorist, immortal creator of "Sam Slick, The Yankee Clockmaker," and father of what is known in modern literature as "American Humor." The Windsor of those days was something more than a little country town with a distinguished university. The spacious estuary of the Avon, brimmed and emptied twice in each twenty-four hours by the tremendous Fundy tides, had made her a sea-port. She had an outlook upon the world. She built ships, and sailed them. Windsor ships and Windsor sailors were to be met with in all the ports of the Seven Seas. She had speech for both Carman the inlander and Carman the lover of the sea. Moreover, only fifteen miles or so away lay storied Grand Pré and Wolfville amid their orchards, looking out across the marsh-meadows of the Gaspereau to the red tides of Minas and the guardian promontory of Blomidon,—a land whose colour and intimate personal associations were to tinge the weft of Carman’s poetry through many after years.

Carman always wrote abundantly during his visits to "Kingscroft"—as we called my cottage among the young fir-trees on the fringe of College Woods. And during his visits my own verse also would come freely. For my own part, I have always found that my verses would not even begin to take shape unless I was quite alone. But with Carman I could get solitude and companionship in one. He had a genius for companionable silences. His presence was utterly unexacting. We stimulated and inspired each other, and had no need to talk about it. Carman was as undomesticated as a faun. But the affairs of a busy household, with four children, and dogs and cats, chickens and rabbits enlivening the atmosphere, did not disturb him in the least; because my cheerful study, when its door was shut, was an inviolable sanctuary from whose windows he could see the high, rough pastures and open hill-tops inviting him when he should feel the impulse to wander. Toward the children, who called him Uncle Bliss, his attitude was one of genial and humorous aloofness. They liked and admired him immensely, and were always pleasantly excited when they heard he was coming to visit us. But they seemed to regard him as an agreeable mystery, and never got very intimate with him. When they saw him prowling aimlessly about or around the house, loose-jointed, riotous-haired, and far blue eyes unseeing, while he murmured and mumbled inarticulately, ("like a big bumble-bee", as they put it), they would decide that he was composing a "pome" and would drift off, much impressed to some far corner of the woods or the football field, that their play might not disturb the sacred process. They seemed to understand this sacred process instinctively. But to my wife it was a never-ending source of mild amusement. She approved of him,— but it seemed to her such a queer way to write poetry.

Different as are Carman’s methods from my own, and much as we differ in some fundamental characteristics, there was always such a degree of sympathy between us that in all our years of association we never got on each other’s nerves, or had anything like a misunderstanding. We disagreed quite widely on many important points. But that was of no more consequence to us than the difference in our stature or in the way we wore our hair. His method of composition, as a rule, was to write right on,—leaving gaps when he came to obstacles which could not be taken in his stride,—and afterwards to revise with meticulous care. My own method has always been to write very slowly, finishing and condensing as I go, and stopping to deal with each difficulty as I come to it. I cannot think that the one method is better or worse than the other. It is a matter of temperament. When Carman conceived a poem, it was likely to grow in the writing to a greater length than he originally intended. When I plan a poem, it is likely to turn out much shorter than I expected, my idea of revision being to cut everything that can be spared.

Over and above the innate sympathy which existed between us, there seemed to be at times a sort of telepathic contact. One morning at breakfast I told Bliss that in the night I had dreamed a poem, of which on waking I could remember nothing except the two opening lines. I said these line were good enough, but I couldn’t do anything with them. They meant nothing to me, and did not seem to belong to me. They ran this way:—

Buried alive in calm Rochelle,
Six in a row, by the crystal well.

Bliss pounced upon them at once. "Give them to me, Old Man," he exclaimed eagerly. "I feel them all right. That dream got into your brain by mistake. It was intended for me. I’ll capture the whole poem."

"Go to it," said I. And the result, within a few days, was the fantastically haunting ballad of "The Kelpie Riders."

But not always was I so ready to han over to him my loot from the treasuries of dream. On another occasion (it was a spring morning, and we were vagabonding together) when he was mumbling to himself in the effort to catch a poem that was playing hide-and-seek in his brain, I broke in on his preoccupation to tell him a few lines which had just come to me out of the Unknown. They were the opening lines of my poem "A-foot," beginning

Comes the lure of green things growing,
Comes the call of waters flowing,
     And the wayfarer Desire
Moves and wakes and would be going.

Bliss‘s eyes gleamed, and his long arms grabbed me.

"That’s mine," he exclaimed exultantly. "That’s what I was just going to write. Give me those lines, and I’ll finish the poem."

"Not on your life" said I with decision. "I‘m writing this poem."

He tried to argue the point with me, and finally, with reckless extravagance, tried to buy the lines from me with one of his rare and valued ten-dollar bills. But I shut my eyes to the bait, and stood firm.

"Very well then," said he with his characteristic spacious grin, "keep your rotten old lines. I’ll go ‘round the other side of those bushes, so you can‘t tap my brains again, and I’ll write a lot of better verses on the same subject." And he did. So it comes that we each have to our credit a piece of spring poetry bearing the title of "A-foot."

But there are sundry other poems of ours which bear identical titles. On several of Carman’s visits to me he brought Richard Hovey with him, much to my content. Hovey was both a delight and an inspiration. One of the first things he did to stimulate the output of verse amid the pleasantly astonished shades of King‘s College was to invent a game for poets, which was to have an enduring vogue in the Kingscroft circle. Carman and Hovey, like myself, were much given to inventing picturesque or suggestive titles. We held, I think rightly, that a good title, planted in the right soil, might germinate and grow to a good poem. We kept lists of titles in our note-books, and every now and then one would prove to be just what was wanted. For my own part, I have titles enough to keep me supplied for the next hundred years or so,—and I am continually adding to my list. Apropos of the subject, let me digress for a moment to recall one night in New York when Carman and I were dining with Gilbert Parker at Mouquin’s. Carman said something about a poem he was going to write, to be called "The Gift of The Simple King." Parker instantly fell in love with the title and begged for it. Carman was inexorable. At last Parker said "I want it for a story. That won’t prevent you using it for your poems. I‘ll put it in quotation marks if you like. Here’s twenty-five dollars for it. But if you won’t sell it to me, I‘ll commit highway robbery and take it."

"I couldn’t bear to be responsible for your moral downfall," said Bliss, and contentedly pocketed the cash.

But to return to Dick Hovey‘s game for poets. This was the manner of it. First we would agree as to what form of poem we were to exercise our craftsmanship upon, whether a fixed form,—sonnet, quatrain, dizain, as might be chosen,—or a piece of verse of any form, or of any length up to about a hundred lines. We limited the length because we limited the time,—usually to forty-eight hours. Never less than that, because we took the game very seriously, and would not encourage the perpetration of any slap dash impromptus. These weighty points settled, we would each select three titles upon which we would like to write. Each title was written on a separate slip of paper, folded minutely, and dropped into a hat. Then some unprejudiced hand would draw one slip, and read out the title. After that it was a go-as-you-please until the appointed hour, some days later, when we would meet in my study and compare the fruits of our labours.

And these labours were not altogether unfruitful. Among the compositions thus produced we each of us found two or three which we judged worth preserving, and afterwards included in our collections. Of the three, Hovey was rather the best at the game. He always managed to turn out something worth while, at the same time conforming strictly to the rules with which we deliberately fettered ourselves. Carman was the most lawless in this respect. If a quatrain or a sonnet was the form called for, he might start upon it conscientiously enough, but suddenly burst the bars and express himself in a forty-line lyric. On one occasion the title which had been given him by the fortune of the draw proved so much to his liking that he came to the show-down with a hundred-line fragment, which he said was merely the introduction to his poem. We frowned, at first, on this reckless infraction of the rules. But when he read us what he had written, we enthusiastically forgave him. That poem ultimately ran to between three and four hundred lines, and appeared in one of his volumes of the "Pipes of Pan" series; but the title, alas, has slipped my memory, and I could not identify it without going through the volumes, which I have not by me at the moment.

The next time Bliss and Dick came to Kingscroft together, we dropped our game and buckled down to serious undertakings. It was in 1892, the year of the Shelley Centenary. We were all three very much in earnest that summer, all three engaged on some of our most important work. Hovey was composing "Seaward", his great elegy on the New England poet Thomas William Parsons, a poem which has been so far amazingly overlooked by students of American Literature. I am weighing my words carefully when I say that, in my judgment, it is the greatest elegiac poem, in the classical tradition, which America has produced. It belongs in the august company of "Adonais" and "Thyrsis." Carman was at work on his Shelley memorial poem, "The White Gull,"—a poem crowded with passages of poignant and haunting beauty, but not, it seems to me, quite reaching the first rank among his works by reason of some diffuseness of thought and incoherence of structure. For my own part, I was writing ardently on the "Ave", my own tribute to the adored memory of Shelley. During those days of ecstatic self-absorption, we were given to prowling apart and treating each other with an understanding aloofness which was somewhat puzzling to those about us. But in the evening we would foregather again, and produce mutual commendation and criticism (the commendation greatly predominating), what the day‘s delighted travail had brought forth.

 


"Bliss Carman," Dalhousie Review 9:4, October 1939, 409-17 [back]

"More Reminiscences of Bliss Carman," Dalhousie Review 10:1, January 1940, 1-9 [back]