The Integrity of Carmans Low Tide on Grand Pré
By Tracy Ware
Although most critics agree that Bliss Carmans first book contains many of his best poems, little attention has been paid to the integrity of Low Tide on Grand Pré: A Book of Lyrics. Carmans prefatory note to the volume, however, calls attention to his care in ordering its contents:
Carman was aware that this method of publication ran the risk of monotony, but he consistently followed it (with varying success) because it gives the volume a unity and an artistic completeness (I hope) that it could hardly have had otherwise.2 This article will suggest that Carmans prefatory note is misleading only in its modesty. After a close examination of the keynote title poem, I shall argue that the unity of Low Tide on Grand Pré is due to more than a similarity of tone: there is a definite progression apparent in the volume, and Carmans strategies of arrangement allow him to adopt a striking variety of lyric stances.
In Desmond Paceys opinion, Low Tide on Grand Pré is the most nearly perfect single poem to come out of Canada. It will withstand any amount of critical scrutiny.3 In the time since the appearance of Paceys reappraisal of Carman in the 1950 volume of Northern Review, however, Carmans poem has received some praise but little scrutiny. Two exceptions to this critical trend are Tom Marshall and John Robert Sorfleet. Marshall notes that Low Tide on Grand Pré is a return poem4; as such, it finds a place in the tradition that extends from Wordsworths Tintern Abbey through Roberts The Tantramar Revisited to such modern poems as Glasscos Luces Notch and Purdys The Country North of Belleville. Sorfleet places the poem in the contexts of mysticism and of Carmans career:
Written in June, 1886, and first published in the Atlantic Monthly in March, 1887, six years before its eponymous inclusion in Carmans first volume, Low Tide on Grand Pré gives eloquent testimony to Carmans great talent, however sporadically that talent would be realized in his prolific career.
Low Tide on Grand Pré is addressed to an imagined interlocutor, who is analogous to Dorothy Wordsworth in Tintern Abbey. The identity of Carmans interlocutor is left unspecified; we know only that this person, in the past, shared the mystical experience with the speaker, and we may assume that this person is the beloved who is now So long from home and Acadie (Carman, p. 16). Although critics have argued that the poem refers to the death of a beloved woman, nothing in the poem indicates that such is necessarily the case. It is reasonable enough, in view of the poems passionate tone, to see the interlocutor as a woman, but her absence does not automatically imply her death. It is still less reasonable to join those critics who, incapable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason, to borrow Keats words, attempt to guess her identity. Of the various guesses, Paceys is the most acceptable, because it is presented as a mere biographical detail. Pacey points to Julie Plante, Carmans lover until 1886. Less acceptable is John Nauses suggestion that Carmans poem describes a clandestine and illicit romance. Most eccentric of all is Donald Stephens opinion that the poem refers to the death of Carmans mother.6 What is of interest here, however, is that, while Low Tide on Grand Pré does not necessarily refer to the death of a beloved, the poems following it in the volume do explicitly involve such a death. Evidently some critics have tacitly and casually followed Carmans prefatory remarks on the unity of his book. This article will pursue the implications of those remarks in a more systematic manner.
Like The Tantramar Revisited, Low Tide on Grand Pré is concerned with the epistemological problem of perception versus projection. The opening stanza involves a conscious pathetic fallacy:
This landscape is a subjective correlative of the mood created by Carman in the poem. A sunset in itself might cause melancholy intimations of mortality, but the poems first line, being innocent of adjectives and adverbs, does not go much beyond mundane description. It is in the use of the adjective barren in the second line that the landscape becomes figurative of the speakers projected depression. On the reaches, the mud flats surrounding the river, fall the unelusive glories of the sun; the adjective unelusive is a curiously effective (if ungrammatical) coinage that stresses the apparent accessibility of the numinous, while the word glories recalls Wordsworths memory of nature having The glory and the freshness of a dream.7 In the following two lines, however, the speaker realizes that the unelusive glories are as impermanent as all other natural objects. He can almost dream that the sunset will last until the coming of the tide, but he knows that the will of nature is not his will. He knows also that the privileged moments of glory are as transitory as the tide or the sunset. Two distinct orders of time are established here: the epiphanic and the linear. The problem of integrating these two orders is central to Carmans poetry and to the return poem.
In the second stanza, the rhetorical turn evident in the conjunctive phrase And yet indicates the speakers attempt to recall his previous projection:
No matter how nature may appear to us in the ecstasy of dream, he argues, it has a purpose that is not for us, and that exists independently of our perception of it. Yet even when he expresses this sense of the separation of the human and the natural, he personifies the sun (He lingers), thereby endowing it with volition. The speaker knows that his imaginative projections are potentially delusive, but he is unable to see nature as devoid of human significance. Although he knows that, unlike man, nature is uncomforted of dream, he continues to view nature in anthropomorphic terms, calling the stream grievous and adding that it frets. The former adjective is repeated in the next stanza, where the projections continue:
Midway through the stanza, the sceptical comparison introduced by as if shows that the speaker realizes that his perceptions contain a degree of projection, but the persisting personifications (grievous, wandering) imply that this degree is irreducibly present in all perception. The anthropomorphism of language prevents us from ever seeing nature as it exists in itself, and hence the opening stanzas of Low Tide on Grand Pré reveal as much about the speaker as they reveal about nature. Carmans stanza form is well-suited to this dual subject: the ababb rhyme scheme, with its repeated end-words in the second and fifth lines, and the hesitant tetrameter lines, reflect both the vacillations of the speakers mind and the fluctuations of the tidal waters.
At this point a moment might be taken to move from these opening stanzas to Carmans position on the issues involved. As an idealist in the related traditions of Romanticism and Transcendentalism, Carman was not so sceptical of the revelations provided by nature as this discussion might have implied. His speaker in Low Tide on Grand Pré is to some extent an ironic one, though ironic is an unsatisfactory word in this context. It is better to regard that speaker as a nascent version of Carman: the speaker simply describes the mystical experience that became the basis for Carmans philosophy. Other and later poems in this volume and elsewhere give that philosophy a fuller expression. Commenting on Carmans development of a coherent and consistent philosophy, Sorfleet notes in Low Tide on Grand Pré an intense awareness of the psycho-emotional revelation that is mystical experience, as compared to the experientially-based (though metaphorically-couched) resolution of spiritual doubt in such later poems as Pulvis et Umbra.9 The depressed mood of the speaker in Low Tide on Grand Pré prevents him from achieving such resolution; part of the fascination of the poem, however, is that, as Sorfleet implies, Carmans subsequent position is implicit in it. As indicated in a letter of 1892, Carman does not believe that he who perceives divine significance in nature is a victim of his own wayward imagination:
Believing in the possibility of a personal communion with a divine force in nature, Carman insists that the great heart of this divinity is benevolent but not so personal as to respond to the grief of the individual. He stresses that communion is possible only at times, at the rare moments of privileged perception. His idealism is subjective to the extent that it depends on the personal effect of Natural beauty on the imagination of the poet. Like a good Transcendentalist, he maintains that nature and art are both metaphors of the soul of man: Art, if you care to say so, is all made of metaphors, is itself the universal metaphor of the soul. And who shall prove that nature is not a metaphor, too?11 Accordingly, his poetry follows Coleridges dictum and seeks to make the external internal, the internal external, to make nature thought, and thought nature.12
In the fourth stanza of Low Tide on Grand Pré, the speaker remembers his experience of a personal communion. Here nature is neither a simile nor a projection it is a symbol in the full Coleridgean sense, a manifestation of the translucence of the Eternal through and in the Temporal13.
Pacey points to the waving rhythm of the stanza, and to the disciplined simplicity of statement that requires only one adjective, waving, to describe the effect of the wind on the Fundy marsh grasses.14 For all its simplicity, the stanza establishes the second of the two orders of time that are crucial to the poem: the timelessness of the mystical moment. The speakers question casts no doubt on the validity of his mystical experience. Instead, his question testifies to the sadness that settled on him after his inevitable descent to the mundane world of linear time. The mystical moment gave the speaker a revelation of the eternal world, but such an experience, as Sorfleet notes, cannot be induced again at will.15 The events of a year ago now seem like lives ago, as if the very sense of a unique individual life were now rendered problematic. The transience of time is stressed by the comparison of the summer with the flight of a bird, a comparison that may derive from the following lines from Fitzgeralds Rubaiyat: The Bird of Time has but a little way/To flutter and the Bird is on the Wing.16 In any event, the comparison has the effect of making an abstraction (time) graspable and concrete as well as stressing the transience of the season. Against the fleeting moment the speaker can strive only by turning to his memory, and from memory to a proper reading of the divine traces, the unelusive glories, in the present landscape. Lacking both the rites and the dogma by which the integration of the sacred and the secular orders of time is ordinarily achieved,17 the speakers sole resources are his memory and his imagination.
The speaker remembers especially the effect of the twilight on the river at our feet (Carman, p. 16). This phrase may be an appropriate echo of Wordsworths account of a similar memory in the Immortality Ode: The Pansy at my feet/Doth the same tale repeat:/Whither is fled the visionary gleam? (Wordsworth, 11. 54-56). In both poems a specific aspect of nature is perceived in radically different ways at different times, emphasizing the psychological change in the speaker. The stream that resembled running gold (Carman, p. 16) in the past is identical to the one now perceived as grievous. In the past, the couple launched their enchanted boat in the gleam, (a Wordsworthian and Tennysonian word expressive of transience); in the present, the speaker stands disconsolate on the reaches. Other contrasts follow. They include the intensity of the past experience, conveyed in the synesthetic phrase twilight scented fine like musk (Carman, p. 17), versus the speakers present spiritual torpor, and the past communion versus the present isolation. There may be a sexual basis for that sense of communion, as Nause argues, but the poem is deliberately vague on this point, for the communion is of a spiritual order, involving the union of soul and soul (Carman, p. 17).
One of these contrasts necessitates a qualification of the scheme of two orders of time that this discussion has abstracted from the poem. The speakers sense of stillness in the past contrasts with the pain of his return to temporal and spatial flux. The Fundy waters become a metaphor of the wheeling of the years (Carman, p. 17). Clearly we should distinguish the cyclical time of the natural seasons from, on the one hand, the linear time of the mundane world, and, on the other hand, the timelessness of the mystical moment. Christopher Salvesons discussion of time in Wordsworth is apposite: the workings of memory, while making him aware of time, also lead him out of time out of the linear flux of human life into the continuous repetitions of Nature, or, more absolutely, into a mystical calm.18 For both Carman and Wordsworth the way out of linear time is through the cyclical time of nature, and the way out of cyclical time is through memory and imagination. Nowhere in Low Tide on Grand Pré does the speaker realize that memory offers a form of transcendence, but such a realization is implicit in his ability to relive his past experience.
The seventh stanza is crucial to any interpretation of the poem. For Pacey, it is the weakest stanza in the poem, basically because it is relatively vague and abstract.19 Pacey admits the mystical nature of the stanza, without realizing that, because precision and specificity can never be the virtues of mystical poetry, the stanza is necessarily vague, though greatly suggestive:
Typically, the young Carman does not connect his sense of the numinous with any orthodoxy, but his attitude towards the numinous is not a sceptical one. If there is doubt here, it is the kind in which faith can live. Like Wordsworth and Shelley, Carman is sceptical of the minds ability to comprehend the things it may apprehend. The object of the experience is left unspecified as Spirit of life or subtler thing, but its incorporeal existence is assured. While the spiritual truth of the experience still resists formulation, since it is The secret of some wonder-thing, its effect on subsequent cognition is undeniable. We know only that the experience loosed the bands/Of death, and we may assume that it did so by revealing, or intimating, spiritual truths that transcend death, and therefore remove the fear from death. The phrase we took into our hands, a variant repetition of two lines from the fourth stanza, sets up the melancholy conclusion of the poem, in which the cause of the experience is incapable of being grasped again. This incapability does not necessarily make the experience a delusion, although Pacey and Nause argue that it does. For Pacey the past experience is a romantic illusion. For Nause, stanza seven grows logically out of the vain delusion which precedes it, and leads inevitably to the culmination of the delusion in stanzas eight and nine.20 Not only do such interpretations attribute to the poem an improbably severe irony, they also make Carmans doubts into certainties, and Low Tide on Grand Pré into a palinode for the poetry that Carman would continue to write for the next forty years.
Similarly, Pacey and Nause interpret the remainder of the poem in terms of their preconceived identification of mysticism with delusion. Nause is at least specific in his comments on the eighth stanza. There, addressing his beloved, the speaker remembers her mystical transfiguration21:
The verb seemed, Nause argues, emphasizes the illusory nature of the experience, and the verb deemed means intemperate judgment.22 Unfortunately, the O.E.D. supplies no authority for the second of those interpretations. It is better to regard the stanza as expressive of contradictions clearly established earlier in the poem. Again we have a transient moment, as is vividly registered in the reference to the shadow of the sun. Again the speakers mistake is to believe in the permanence of this moment, and to confuse a personal revelation of eternity with the imminent end of time itself, when the years will have done their wheeling.
The futility of this desire to move immediately and permanently from the temporal to the timeless world is evident in the ninth stanza:
Here Carman alludes to the opening of Rossettis sonnet, The One Hope:
Carmans allusion will acquire resonance later in the volume, when he states that his one hope involves eventual reunion with the beloved after death. According to William Michael Rossetti, such a reunion was also the basis of his brothers one hope. In Low Tide on Grand Pré, however, the speaker is still beseiged with vain desires. The abstractions listed in the ninth stanza desire, regret, fear, memory, delight, and temporality (Morrow and yesterday) are all operative in the present, making it all too obvious that they were not annihilated by the mystical moment. As Sorfleet notes, all desire and all regret vanished at that moment because mysticism involves the abandonment of egocentric desires and feelings in a movement from the familiar ego to the transcendental or real I.24 In later poems in the volume, Carman is able to integrate these two subjects by moving from memory to meditation.
Pacey notes that the ninth stanza completes the pattern of the inset memory, then argues that the tenth and concluding stanza bursts the bubble of romantic illusion. 25 In addition to the objections already advanced to this position, it should be added that if Carman were concerned merely to dispel a naive illusion, then his final presentation of the speakers grief would surely be immoderate. In order to discover a reason for the speakers lament, Pacey, Nause, and other critics go outside the text of the poem to refer the grief to the death of the beloved. There is really no need to oppose the grief to the mysticism. Willard L. Sperrys comment on Wordsworth is equally applicable to Carman: He was a mystic, and therefore liable to his meed of that accidie which mysticism promises its exemplars.26 It is this accidie, this spiritual dejection, that shapes the Fundy landscape into a final and, for the speaker, unconscious pathetic fallacy:
When first published in The Atlantic Monthly, this stanza, like the third and ninth stanzas, originally ended with an exclamation mark, which Carman subsequently recognized to be superfluous. This concluding stanza completes the poem in two ways not realized by Stephens, who writes that to end the way [Carman] does is dramatic, and has a nice poetic quality, but what does it really say thematically?27 In the first place, the stanza returns to the problems of the present, thus giving a structural integrity to this return poem by completing its symbolic geography. Low Tide on Grand Pré begins in the present on the barren reaches (Carman, p. 15), where the prospect of the tides becomes an image of temporal flux. From there the speaker remembers a spot of time that occurred by a drowsy inland meadow stream (Carman, p. 16), a still and benign landscape. The poem concludes with a return to the opening setting, and to the linear order of time. In the second place, the ultimate irony of the poem is that the speakers grief, involved as it is with temporality, is no more permanent than the symbolic night, which will inevitably lead to a dawn. That last detail is not fortuitous. Low Tide on Grand Pré depicts the onset of a dark night of the soul, but it does so in terms of a prior illumination. Of this poem we may say what A.C. Bradley has said of Shelleys similar lyrics: clearly the lament which arises from loss of the ideal, and mourns the evanescence of its visitations or the desolation of its absence, is indirectly an expression of the ideal.28 The relation of Low Tide on Grand Pré to Carmans ideal would be even clearer if he had written his planned companion piece, High Tide on the Bay of Fundy.29
Additional support for the present interpretation of Low Tide on Grand Pré may be gained by an investigation of the structural integrity of the volume that it opens. Earlier critics, such as Harry W. Brown and Duncan Campbell Scott, recognized in the volume a unity that has not been examined in detail. 30 Central to that unity is the quality described by the reviewer in The Week, who praises Carmans remarkable power of association whereby the present object brings back the memories and scenes of the past.31 The volume itself, then, is to an extent Wordsworthian, for the association of past and present is fundamental to Wordsworths technique. Unlike Wordsworth, however, Carmans visionary consolations occur despite the present landscape, as he repeatedly builds his hopes on memories and anticipations: in Scotts words, the volume is given over to the spirit of unrest, to the longing that looks before and after and pines for what is not.32 The mysticism of the title poem involves a most un-Wordsworthian desire to annihilate memory and time. That annihilation cannot be finally effected, but the very desire for it reveals the distance between Carmans return poem and Tintern Abbey. This distance decreases in subsequent poems in the volume, some of which achieve a more Wordsworthian consolation.
Now there are at least four valid objections to any attempt to find unity in a Carman volume. The first is that the various poems have invariably been published separately over a period of a few years. To this it may be replied that Carmans careful arrangement can nonetheless be revealing. The second objection is that Carmans habitual repetitiveness ensures a modicum of unity in any volume of his work. Against this it is argued that the integrity of Low Tide on Grand Pré is based not on monotony but on what Coleridge called multeity in unity. The third objection is that the search for unity in any volume tends to be self-confirming. From this the critics best defence is vigilant awareness. The fourth and final objection is that Carmans architectonic power is limited, as is amply shown by The Pipes of Pan. To this it is replied that Carmans sense of structure is less limited than is generally assumed.
The three poems after the title poem all continue its elegiac mood, to which they give varying and dignified expression in the context of specific deaths. In the next poem, A Windflower, the elegiac mood reaches its nadir:
A shift occurs with In Lyric Season, where the coming of spring evokes an old unrest in the speaker (Carman, p. 30). The last two stanzas offer the volumes first explicit consolation, the promise of an afterlife:
As Sorfleet notes, in this poem, and in other poems in the volume, absolute beauty is symbolized by the personification of Nature as a beautiful woman.33 One effect of this personification is to make Carmans nature poetry into variations on the themes of his love poetry, and thereby to unify the volume. After two nature poems and one love poem, the first third of the book then concludes with the emblematic Seven Things. Here Carman compares mans quest for an ideal with the urge/Of the great worlds desire, and implies that the heart that abides to the end will obtain its release (Carman, pp. 53-54).
It must be admitted that the poems in the middle of the volume, including such fine lyrics as A Sea Child, Pulvis et Umbra, and A Northern Vigil, add little or nothing to the Wordsworthian pattern that this article is concerned to trace. Indeed, as James Cappon argues (and despite Roberts protestations to the contrary), the chief influence on these poems is probably Edgar Allan Poe.34 The influences of Poe, Rossetti, and Wordsworth go some way towards accounting for the tone of Low Tide on Grand Pré. From Poe Carman may have derived his concern with the death of a beloved, as well as his predilection for haunting proper nouns (Arrochar, Golden Rowan, of Menalowan Carman, pp. 68-69). From Rossetti he may have received an inspiration for his attempt to fuse sacred and secular love. From Wordsworth he learned the poetic value of his panentheistic insights. Carmans ability to fuse three such disparate influences is a credit to his own creative intelligence, and proof that eclectic detachment was present in Canadian poetry before A.J.M. Smith coined the phrase.
Through the Twilight, which comes near the center of the volume, bears significant resemblances to Low Tide on Grand Pré. Again the beloved is absent, and again the speaker has memories of a year ago:
With a calm faith unknown to the speaker of Low Tide on Grand Pré, the speaker of Through the Twilight believes that Gods hand between our hands forever/Will set no bar (Carman, p. 72). His hope for an imminent reunion is excessive, but the poem ends with the achievement of another form of communion:
With In Apple Time, the Wordsworthian influence is again apparent. In a manner similar to Frosts After Apple-Picking, which Carman could have influenced,35 In Apple Time describes an autumn harvest and then invests it with symbolic associations. The phrase The foresters of time (Carman, p. 89) in the opening stanza immediately raises the poem beyond the literal level. The interlocutor in this poem may represent either a woman or a personification of nature, or both:
Following the traditional associations of the seasons with the phases of mans life, the poem moves from springs unrest to autumns calm. The song of spring is imperious in two senses: it is both urgent and arrogant. The speakers quest continues through alien summer lands to find its consummation in autumn: To-day, where russet shadows are,/I hold your face between my hands (Carman p. 90). He regards this communion as the completion of his youthful longings: Remembrance and desire, undone,/From old regret to dreams return (Carman, p. 90). These lines bear an important relation to the ninth stanza of Low Tide on Grand Pré, in which the speaker remembers that all desire and all regret,/And fear and memory, were naught (Carman, p. 18). There the speaker wishes to abolish linear time and his familiar ego. In the later poem, the speakers dream enables him to retrieve his memories, and so to accept the exigencies of time. The last stanza contains a Wordsworthian consolation:
Prime can denote the day, spring, youth, and a specific religious service. Similarly, the brooding calm suggests twilight, autumn, maturity, and the presence of grace. Carmans last stanza is analogous to the conclusion of Wordsworths Immortality Ode, which speaks of how The Clouds that gather round the setting sun/Do take a sober colouring from an eye/That hath kept watch oer mans mortality (Wordsworth, 11. 197-99). Having gradually gained a faith that looks through death,/In years that bring the philosophic mind (Wordsworth, 11. 186-87), both poets are able to conceive of the temporal world as a vale of soul-making.
Five of the remaining six poems in the book are songs of vagabondia, expressions of Carmans preference for the freedom of the open road over the comforts of domesticity. As such, these poems could not have occurred earlier in the volume without disrupting the elegiac mood of the earlier poems. After In Apple Time, in which Carman comes to regard experience as formative, the vagabondia poems confirm and amplify his joyous acceptance of the natural world: The world is Vagabondia/To him who is a vagabond (Carman, p. 125). In the rather prolix Wanderer, the tidal image of Low Tide on Grand Pré returns, but with a difference:
Here the ebb and flow are recognized as the inevitable rhythm of life. Now the transience of mortal things is accepted and placed within a religious orientation. Now the one hope is that the dream of the heart will endure by-and-by (Carman, p. 100). In Wayfaring, Carman revealingly lists Chaucer, Keats, Shelley, Wordsworth, and Shakespeare as his predecessors in the company of the ancient mother, and as his fellow interpreters of natures old secret (Carman, pp. 109-11).36 In The End of the Trail, the very title of which moves the volume toward its conclusion, the speaker finds traces of his beloved in the beauties of nature:
He is able to wait patiently for his eventual reunion with his beloved, sometime ere the long night (Carman, p. 122). Whither, the wistful concluding poem, completes the volume by returning to the theme of romantic separation. As its last stanza states, the lovers are not to be reunited in this world:
By now, however, Carmans religious ideals have been well-established. The lovers look forward to their eventual reunion, When the wind . . . Into the long ago/Lures [them] away (Carman, p. 131). Without abandoning the idealism advanced in previous poems in the book, Carman humanizes it by blending it with the melancholia that so distinguishes Low Tide on Grand Pré.
In Low Tide on Grand Pré, Carman demonstrated an ability to respond to various nineteenth-century poetic traditions in a resourceful and intelligent manner, and to arrange his lyrics in a well-wrought volume showing multeity in unity. Several of his later volumes, notably Behind the Arras, By the Aurelian Wall, Sappho, and Sanctuary, might profit from an examination along similar lines to those advanced in this article. If so, it would no longer be possible to dismiss Carman as a derivative writer, although it would be necessary to discriminate his successful poems from his failures. A proper recognition of his nineteenth-century contexts can enhance our appreciation of Carman, and of his Confederation peers. In short, I am suggesting that Confederation poetry be given the respect that is customarily accorded the poetry of the McGill movement. Such a critical approach might succeed in removing the pervasive but dubious anti-Romantic tenets of Canadian modernism, tenets that have lingered here long after they have been questioned elsewhere. It would be remiss to conclude without noting that A.J.M. Smith came to recognize the need for such an approach to the Confederation poets: They had not read Hulme or Eliot or Dylan Thomas, Smith ironically argues, but we must not condemn them entirely for having read Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats, or Matthew Arnold as most of them, and I think fruitfully, had.37 Canadian literature will be truly mature only when it accepts its own past.
I am grateful to D.M.R. Bentley and R.M. Stingle for their comments on an earlier version of this paper.
Carman, 1886-1894, p. 208.[back]