Charles G.D. Roberts
by D.M.R. Bentley and Laurel Boone
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Chartres, or Canterbury seem out-of-date.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Note on Modernism," Open House,
ed. William Arthur Deacon and Wilfred Reeves (Ottawa:
Graphic, 1931), 19-25 [back]