Non-Fictional Prose

by Charles G.D. Roberts

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


 

A NOTE ON MODERNISM*


 

Modernism is reaction. That sounds like a paradox. But in reality, as applied to the arts—poetry, painting, sculpture, music, dancing—it is a mere statement of fact. To architecture, of course, it does not exactly apply, because what architecture creates is based primarily upon material needs; and though these may slowly evolve, they cannot fundamentally change any faster than the nature of man changes. Architecture is a matter of long vision. New materials of construction may come into use, to meet new conditions and make possible new forms; but the most fantastical skyscraper of modern Germany, (the home of fantastical skyscrapers,) built of chrome-steel instead of stone, does not make the cathedrals of Cologne, Chartres, or Canterbury seem out-of-date.

Modernism, a strictly relative term, has gone by different names in different periods, but always it has been, and is, a reaction of the younger creators against the too long dominance of their older predecessors. One or more great poets, two or three great painters, win their way to general acceptance and authority in their period. Their genius raises up a swarm of disciples and imitators, who can reproduce their form, though not their fire. Their form comes to be regarded as the only proper medium of expression. By that time the virtue, the impulse, has gone out of it. It has hardened into a fetter. Then come the reaction—which, for a generation, is modernism, by whatever name it may be called and whether the phenomenon occurs in the 18th., 19th., or 20th. century. The more complete and prolonged the dominance, the more violent and extreme the reaction. Wordsworth, Shelley, Coleridge, Keats were "modernists" in the beginning, rebelling against the sway of Pope and his school. Slowly they became accepted and supreme. The great Victorians, continuing and developing their tradition, made that supremacy so absolute that it seemed as if no poetry could be written save in the manner, more or less, of Tennyson or Swinburne, of Arnold, Browning, Morris or Rossetti. In painting, too, the mode of Reynolds, Romney, Raeburn, of Constable and even of Turner, carries on with a difference in Millais, and Leighton, Burne-Jones, ruled with an unquestioned authority. Then began, tentatively at first, the reaction. The seeds of it, in poetry, were scattered unawares by Browning, and even by Arnold; and in painting by Turner, always a high law unto himself. Here and there revolt lifted its head. Rodin appeared, a portent tremendous and magnificent. DeBussy began to weave his seemingly lawless arabesques of sound. And then, of a sudden, "modernism" was upon us—a chaos of startling, elusive beauty and defiant ugliness, of strange, wild harmonies and ear-splitting dissonances, of stark simplicities and grotesquely unintelligible obscurities; and those who could not immediately be famous could, it appeared, with much more profit be notorious.

In all this present that welter of productivity, wherein genius, and near genius, and loud mediocrity, and thinly veiled insanity, jostle for recognition and are sometimes hardly to be distinguished from each other, the critic is at least delivered from monotony. His wanderings become a ceaseless adventure. He may be confronted by absolute beauty, radiant as if new risen from the sea. He may lose himself in a vast maze of words, or forms, or sounds which none can understand—though many profess to! Or he may run into some miracle of obscene hideousness before which he can no more than cringe and gape. Cubism, imagism, futurism, have had their fantastic way with the people, who, ashamed to acknowledge their bewilderment, have hastened to acclaim them lest they be thought conventional. Some younger persons have, figuratively speaking, danced in the streets without their trousers, and thereby achieved a great reputation for originality. I know an artist, a man of indisputable talent, who now acknowledges that he painted his cubist nightmares with his tongue in his cheek, but with such profit to his purse that he can now afford to do the work by which he hopes his name will live. In sculpture we see, though happily but seldom, such monstrous abortions as the great Epstein, his fingers to his nose, frequently permits himself to perpetuate. But on the other hand, to give us heart and faith again, we have poets and painters who achieve a serene and captivating loveliness to which certain oddities of expression are only an enhancement.

To Canada modernism has come more slowly and less violently than elsewhere. This applies more particularly to poetry, and indeed to literature in general. The older generation of Canadian poets, Carman and Scott—and Lampman in a lesser degree because his career was so untimely cut short—had already initiated a departure, a partial departure, from the Victorian tradition of poetry, years before the movement began in England. They had been profoundly influenced by the transcendentalism of Emerson and the New England school of thought. They were more immediately in contact with nature, and they looked upon her with less sophisticated eyes. And in the deep but more or less unconscious optimism of a new country whose vision is fixed upon the future, they had no time for the pessimism and the disillusionment of the old world. Therefore there was no violence of reaction. They kept one hand, as it were, on the Victorian tradition while they quietly stepped aside and in advance of it. Carman had long ago developed the seeds of change which he found in his master, Browning, and had harked far back to Blake for his further inspiration. Lampman, in his great sonnets, had not changed the sonnet but had carried it beyond the point where Wordsworth had left it. Scott had developed those "seeds of change" which he, for his part, had found in Meredith; and had kept in the forefront of his time. He remains always by a process of imperceptible gradations, a contemporary of the youngest generation.

And so it has come about that since there was no repression, there has been no revolt. Eager young spirits who thirsted to imitate Miss Sitwell or E. E. Cummings, have disgustedly felt themselves patted on the back instead of pasted in the breeches. Modernism has come softly into the poetry of Canada, by peaceful penetration rather than by rude assault. We all lie down together very amicably, the lions and the lambs; and no one can be quite sure which is which, except that here and there a lamb may growl and a lion essay a propitiatory bleat.

What I have said of Canadian poetry applies also to Canadian prose fiction. The Canadian temperament is set against extremes. It will go far along new lines, but it balks at making itself ridiculous. I am prudently resolved to avoid personalities in this paper. But I must make an exception in one instance because it so well illustrates my point. Mr. Morley Callaghan is reported as having declared himself a humble disciple of Mr. Hemingway—as having learned his art from Mr. Hemingway. If this be so, the disciple has on many counts excelled the master. Compare the two novels, Strange Fugitive and The Sun Also Rises. The latter is marred by eccentricities in the vogue of the moment. You find yourself skipping whole pages of conversation whose only purpose is to display the reiterant vacuities of the drunken mind. Able as it is in many respects, the book will hardly, I think, survive a change of fashion. It carries too great a burden of mere words. Mr. Callaghan’s story, on the other hand, carries no such burden. There is not a superfluous word in it. The style is clear, bare, efficient. It is modernism—the subject matter is very "modern". But it has sanely avoided the modern fault of striving after effect. It does not date itself; and it may well appear as readable a hundred years hence as it does today.

In the case of painting and sculpture there is a difference, but rather a degree than kind. The reaction against older manners and methods is more sharply defined and much more controversial. That is because the movement is more organized, self-conscious and militant. There is the "Group of Seven," for instance, well armed and more than ready for battle. But its militancy finds so little to militate against that it doffs its armor and hides its hatchet under its blouse. Somewhat to its disappointment, perhaps, it finds the exponents of the older school of art for the most part more curious than hostile. Some of them, even, coming to curse, remain to bless. The reason for this happy consummation is not far to seek. It lies in the Canadian dislike for extremes. These young rebels are essentially sane. They love not ugliness for its own sake, or incomprehensibility for the sake of being thought profound. Neither do they care for those petty affectations which are designed only to emphasize aloofness from the common, kindly race of men. Now and again, to be sure, there may be a gesture, of defiant propagandism or of impatient scorn. But in the main they are altogether preoccupied with beauty. And beauty they not only see with new eyes, but show it to us with simplicity and truth.

 


"A Note on Modernism," Open House, ed. William Arthur Deacon and Wilfred Reeves (Ottawa: Graphic, 1931), 19-25 [back]