Carman's Unelusive Glories

Letters of Bliss Carman, edited and with an Introduction by H. Pearson Gundy.  Kingston and Montreal:  McGill-Queen's University Press, 1981.  xix + 388 pp.

"It has become a convention of Canadian criticism," writes John Robert Sorfleet in Colony and Confederation (1974), "to hold that Bliss Carman' s poetry . . . is, as a whole, careless and confused, derivative and diffuse, philosophically obscure and incoherent."  It is unlikely that the publication of the Letters of Bliss Carman in the painstakingly researched and elegantly produced edition of H. Pearson Gundy will, in itself, reverse the steady decline in Carman's critical reputation that has been taking place, despite the committed efforts of such writers as James Cappon, Desmond Pacey, Malcolm Ross and, of course, Sorfleet himself, since the early decades of this century.  The six hundred and thirty letters assembled by Gundy do, however, make readily and widely available some of the key documents upon which will be based a long-due critical reappraisal of Carman's poetry and thought.  Such a reappraisal seems both desirable and inevitable now that time and its post-modernist minions have called into question the assumptions of both early Modernism and the New Criticism, assumptions which cast a supposedly "confused . . . and diffuse" Carman beyond the well-wrought urn and, in fact, were never adequate to a full understanding and appreciation of much late nineteenth-century poetry.

     While the constantly self-deprecating Harvard man who speaks through Gundy's Letters could hardly be expected to have predicted the benefits that might accrue to himself from the decay of lying effected by, amongst others, the Yale school and its associates, he shows himself to have been as aware as Wilfred Owen of the consequences for life and literature of the First World War:   "Perhaps when the war is over, and we begin to arrange our ideals of life on a new basis, we shall have some fine poetry again," he told Rufus Hathaway in 1917, "But I feel that when that time arrives, only new men, young men, or those who have taken part in the struggle will be entitled to take part in the parliament of art.   The Victorian days belong to history. . . . I doubt if any of the men who came to maturity before the great war will be able to find the new key, the new mode, the new tune" (p. 244).  Carman's intuition was correct, at least for himself; certainly his confinement in various sanitaria in 1919-1920 yielded no Waste Land.  But if Carman produced no obviously modernist work, he did write some of the finest lyrics in the language and, moreover, did so in a distinctive voice whose verbal colouring has yet to be thoroughly analysed and properly understood. Perhaps with the growing appreciation of poetry that is formalistically loose, the increasing interest in the limbic decades from 1880 to 1920, and the timely publication of the Letters of Bliss Carman, the way will be clear to a sympathetic reassessment of Carman' s place, not merely in Canadian poetry, but in Anglo-American literature of the late-Victorian and pre-Modern period.

     It was an error in the transcription of a Turner letter which led art critics to believe for years that the English painter claimed vagueness as his "forte" rather than regretted it as his "fault."   No such error of transcription need be suspected in the Letters of Bliss Carman, a volume which, though not entirely devoid of minor typographical errors, has been proofread with a meticulousness that would have probably forced even A.E. Houseman into an approving silence.  (Though Houseman might have noticed that in at least two instances — on p. 129 and on pp. 259-260 — there is a discrepancy between the date assigned to a letter in the epigraph and the date given in the letter itself.)   The instance of Turner is illuminating, however, for the light that it throws on Carman's striving, not solely for the suggestive vagueness of which he is so often accused, but often for a clarity and precision that he associated with Greek art.   Although, in 1887, Carman wondered whether Thoreau and Theodore Winthrop did not write from "too near their object" and, hence, "strip the mountains of their haze" (p. 18), less than a year later he rejected the distance that lends enchantment.  Proclaiming "vagueness in Art . . . a sin," he argued that "every line should be cut as clear as the lines of the Venus de Milos.  Poets, when their knowledge of anatomy is at fault, have a way of throwing a drapery of glorious words over the statue's beauty.  This is not what we want altogether" (p. 22).   The key word here is "altogether," for it reveals the duality of Carman's aesthetic allegiances.  On the one hand, he believed that, though his own poems often lacked an "Attick precision," it was the poet's duty to "strive to attain" (p. 31) such precision.  On the other hand, he held that "it is better that [the reader] should be ignorant of some things; his imagination will have room to work" (p. 51).  Such a dialogue is a mirror of the century which produced the Pre-Raphaelites and the symbolistes, Gautier and Swinburne, as well as the poets whom the Letters confirm time and again to have been Carman' s major and most enduring influences:  Arnold, Browning, and Emerson.  It is thus hardly surprising either that Carman expresses preferences, such as "I like . . . fresh diction and freedom from grammatical inversion" (p. 69) which anticipate the strictures of Imagism or that he wrote poems, such as "I loved thee, Atthis, in the long ago," which accord with the aesthetic of Symbolism.  Any critic who elects to focus his attention on Carman, whether as a derivative product or as a distinctive mirror of his age and its aesthetics, must come to terms with many such intriguing dualities both in the poems and in the Letters.

     The question of whether man is or — as Milton argues in The Christian Doctrine — is "not . . . made up and framed of two distinct and different natures, as of body and soul" seems never to have been far from the centre of Carman's mind.  On some occasions it issued, as in a letter of 1924 to Lorne Pierce, in a dualism of mannichean dimensions:

. . . since it is impossible for one's reason to conceive of sentient conscious life as a function of pure matter, so it is impossible to imagine the individual life and consciousness as identical or co-terminous with [a] temporary form of matter . . . . The soul must condescend to live.  We know this in youth, and resent it. Only as we mature do we grow wise enough to tolerate the burden of incarnation which is placed upon us at birth, and trot along cheerfully with our often distasteful and pestiferous lower self (p. 324-325).

At other times, as in a letter of 1927 to Margaret Lawrence, Carman verges on monism, even while lecturing on unitrinianism:  "I am not at all sure that this dualistic notion is true.  I am very convinced that the most important thing is to harmonize ourselves . . . to spiritualize the physical. . ." (p. 351).  Not entirely unrelated to Carman's speculations on matters of the flesh and the spirit, is his dialogue with the Hellenism and Hebraism which furnished the dominant moral and aesthetic continuities of the nineteenth century.  His description, in the letter to Margaret Lawrence, of man's "inmost spirit" as the "conscience" (p. 351) is as intriguing psychologically as his hope that "Canada . . . might become to the twentieth century what Greece was to the world so long ago" (p. 92) is historically — or, as it may be, ethically and aesthetically.  Indeed, the relation between Carman and the Hellenic revival of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries is one of many areas of study (others being the poet's relation to Arnold, to the celtic revival, to the aesthetic-decadent movement, to the literary ballad tradition, to the Sidney Lanier of The Science of English Verse. . .) which the Letters of Bliss Carman confirm to be in need of further and deeper study than they have so far been accorded.

     One of the most attractive aspects of Carman's personality to emerge from the Letters is his awareness of the weaknesses of his own poetry and his openness to the criticism of his friends.  From the beginning he seems to have understood that quantity of poetic output was no indication of quality.   "Last month I averaged eighteen lines a day of creative work," he tells his sister in 1887, "but it was poor stuff mostly. . ." (p. 15).  No doubt natural prolixity and professional need conspired to transform Carman in the middle of his creative career into the tidal bore which he had only witnessed in his youth on the Bay of Fundy.  "In these last six months I have done the work of two years. . . . I have five or six volumes all ready, small of course but very carefully cut" (p. 49).   This is in March, 1893. In October, 1894 he writes:  "I expect to put out one or two books a year for the next three or four years.  If I am not really a poet by that time, I agree to give over the attempt" (pp. 78-79).  In 1910, however, Carman could candidly tell H.D.C. Lee, who was then researching a doctoral thesis on him:   "Prolixity you will find a besetting sin through all [my] work.  It is that which has spoiled 'Syrinx' for you — too much of a good thing. In these early poems. . . there is one occasionally that comes near to being good.  'A Northern Vigil,' for instance, almost gets clear of the fog" (p. 181).  It may have been no more than the lack of detailed criticism, the want of an assiduous vulture to gnaw at the Promethean poet, that caused Carman to err at such great length, particularly in the Pipes of Pan volumes of 1902-1905.  In this respect the frustrated and pleading tone of his letter of November, 1905 to Bliss Perry, then the literary editor of the Atlantic Monthly, has much to say about what Carman lacked and wanted in the way of critical response to his work:  "Why don't you like the recent work?   What is the fault, where is the blemish?  Can you not in a few words formulate the feeling or conviction?  It really is not fair to be so profoundly discouraging without giving reasons.  For if I can see the fault and agree with you, I may amend it.  And if I disagree, I shall not be unhappy.  But to be made half afraid that one is a failure altogether, is too sickening a blow" (p. 149).  It is, of course, impossible to know and hence futile to ask what Carman might have done poetically if the sort of criticism that he needed and deserved had been available to him throughout his career and not merely from 1910 onwards with the interest in him, first of H.D.C. Lee and, later, of Odell Shepard.  As it happened, Carman's loquacious muse was visiting him only sporadically, and then frequently in the role of a pot-boiler, by the time of Lee and Shepard.  The Letters show just how fortunate it was for Carman personally, though not poetically, that the chinooks of Canadian nationalism which warmed the 'twenties brought him north on his reading tours to enjoy "untold treasures of success, recognition, and friendly appreciation" (p. 282).

     A recognition of its prolixity and vagueness was not the only reason for Carman's growing dislike in his middle years for much of his own work.  After the poet embarked on the Mary Perry King period of his life, adding the unitrinian belief in — to quote Gundy's succinct definition — "the balanced cultivation of body, mind, and spirit" (pp. xiii-xiv) to his earlier nature mysticism and rationalistic idealism, he came increasingly to distrust poetry which gives primacy to "rapture" rather than to "thought," to the natural rather than to the human.  Of his own early work the freelance professor of unitrinian philosophy says in a letter of 1905 to Bliss Perry:   "If [sic] offends me by reason of its lack of clarity, its lack of definiteness. It is impassioned perhaps, but it is wanting in ideas.  It is interesting (much of it) only so long as one does not demand a rational view of life" (p. 150).  Unquestionably, Carman is undervaluing the achievement of his own early work here, but the sincerity of his conviction, after reading Santayana's Life of Reason or the Phases of Human Progress (1905-6) in 1906, that "Poetry must not be irrational" (p. 156) cannot be doubted.  What is worth wondering, however, is whether Carman ever re-read closely the work of his compatriots and contemporaries, Archibald Lampman and D.C. Scott with a view to sounding against them his conviction that poetry must be founded in reason and his perception that "to be an 'irresponsible poet' " seemed in 1906 to be "less possible . . . than it used to" (p. 157).  That is, did he ever come to appreciate that in the poems of Lampman and Scott can be found from the beginning the emphasis on right reason and social responsibility which he, perhaps too late and perhaps to the detriment of his own art, came in his later years to value above all else?  The mere possibility that there exists a letter which bears on such an issue but which, for financial reasons, Gundy was not able to include in the Letters of Bliss Carman points to the most dismaying feature of the volume under review:  the fact that, as Gundy tells us, "There are . . . at least three times as many extant Carman letters as those here presented" (p. xi) and, moreover, that the letters here presented contain more ellipses, all of them, we are assured, for the purposes of condensation rather than "editorial censorship" (p. xiv), than even Grove's Settlers of the Marsh.

     Neither H. Pearson Gundy nor the McGill-Queen's University Press can be blamed for the monetary costiveness that has resulted in the production of a radically selected and edited Letters of Bliss Carman.   Nor should it be assumed as axiomatic that all parts of every Carman letter need necessarily have been published, for much that any poet writes to his friends, his admirers, his accountants, and even his publishers is utterly trivial, and quite inessential to an understanding either of his life or of his poetry.  It does appear, however, that financial constraints of one form or another have forced Gundy and his publishers away from the via media along which Gundy, whose "preliminary selection included almost twice as many letters as [his] publishers were likely to accept" (p. xi), would have wished to proceed.  Since the Letters of Bliss Carman is a fait accompli the questions that must be asked are those which bear on the principles of selection that are operative in the volume and on their consequences for the portrait of Carman that is created by the Letters.

     Gundy's selection of letters was governed, he tells us in his forthright "Introduction," by three concerns, the most important of which was "to let Carman reveal himself" in those "letters which reflect [his] complex emotional nature" (p. xiii).  Of secondary and tertiary importance were his concerns (2) to publish "letters of some literary or bibliographical interest or merit" and (3) to publish letters in which Carman "gives his views on the social, economic, political, and religious topics of the day — especially during World War I. . ." (p. xiii).  One practical consequence of this hierarchy of concerns is that Gundy's volume constitutes a fairly full record of Carman' s emotional and spiritual life — only fairly full, alas, because the poet's only "real love letters" (p. xiv) to Julia Plant, Jessie Keppler, and Mary Perry King have not survived.  Other consequences are that the volume — if the selections made from the University of Western Ontario holdings are a fair indication of Gundy's general practice — omits certain letters in which Carman discusses his poetry and philosophy and, in accordance with the emphasis on topicality, includes many letters in which the poet airs his opinions on such subjects as Bolshevism, Ritualism, the Futurists and the suffragettes — opinions which are, indeed, a fascinating register of a sensitive and committed writer's reaction to the signs and events of his times.  No doubt cogent arguments could be made for the inclusion of various letters that have been omitted and for the exclusion of various others that have been included.  And, no doubt, Gundy formulated most of these arguments himself as he made his difficult and careful choices.  What must be recognized is that, because of the necessity for choices which, willy-nilly, are both principled and personal, the (Selected) Letters of Bliss Carman must be viewed as a biographical construct: this is Gundy's Carman, and it takes its place among previous and subsequent interpretations of a poet who, surely, can and should be the subject of many biographical treatments.  This said, however, it must also be recognized that the Letters of Bliss Carman will not live up to the expectations of the most serious scholars and critics of Carman who — aided very likely by Gundy's two useful appendices, "Notes on the Major Canadian Collections" and "Location of the Bliss Carman Letters" — will still need to consult the original manuscripts and, moreover, may even contemplate editing individual correspondences to supplement Gundy's selections.  The cost of future researches and subventions may prove the monies saved through the production of a truncated Letters of Bliss Carman to be in the long run costly indeed.

     It may well be that financial constraints also forced Gundy to limit the number and length of his annotations.  While many of the annotations to the Letters are admirably full and while others are laconically precise (''Fred Bliss's 'affliction' was alcoholism; he later committed suicide," p. 155), there are places where the non-specialist reader might well benefit from a little more help.  Will the man on the Toronto Streetcar know, for instance, why Carman calls himself a "Bigoted Balder" (p. 69) and will he know which "new history of the Acadian expulsion" (p. 102) Carman read in 1895?  Will he want to know which "fragment of Rossetti" (p. 103) appears on the dedication page of Behind the Arras (1895)?  And will he wish to appreciate the witty use to which Carman puts the cadences of "The Blessed Damozel" in the following passage from a letter of 1915 to Gladys Baldwin ("Atom"):

. . . some day you must take me to St. Mary's or Saint Somebody's to smell the incense of peace, and I shall become as one of your little children.  Then nothing will matter, and if I cannot find any standing room in the great "House of Truth" I shall not care.  I can sit outside on the steps of the House of Love, and be happy in the dust and rain and sun.  And Saint Atom will lay her hand on my head as she passes there (p. 221).

The rarity of such quibbles is a tribute to the condensed learning with which Gundy succeeds, through his lucid and graceful annotations, introduction, and appendices, in illuminating most of the dark corners of Carman's letters.

     As the references to religious ritual in the passage just quoted suggest, Boswell's comment of Johnson that "the history of his mind as to religion" is an "important article" could well be applied to Carman.  It is an article that could largely be written from the Letters, beginning perhaps with Carman's comment in 1888 that "the questions of theology are very abstruse and not for persons like you and me" (p. 23), passing through his vehement antipathy to dogma in 1895 (see p. 93) and his amused rejection of ritualism in 1906 (see p. 157), to his affirmation of the gospel teachings of Christ over the "horrible and heathenish" (p. 223) "notions" of the Church in 1915.   Such an article would have to take into account, not only the impact on Carman of the High Church movement as explored by Malcolm Ross in Canadian Literature, No. 68, but also the intimate acquaintance with the Bible that his poems and letters reveal and the religious conscience which he attributed to the "old new England" (p. 189) in himself.  It would also have much to say about the appeal of transcendentalism, rationalism, unitrinianism, and theosophy for a poet who, like so many other thoughtful Victorians, sought solutions beyond the established churches for the spiritual problems of the age.  In his last years Carman, true to some of his Victorian roots, seems to have been interrogating the universe in Dantean terms.   "But who shall say that we are not all — stars, suns, moribund worlds, and our glimmering selves — ruled and revolved by love, from which there is no escape?" (p. 334), he asked Gladys Baldwin Barr in 1926.  That Carman had Dante in mind when he asked the question seems to become more distinct as a possibility with his reference in a letter to Margaret Lawrence of 1927 to the Vita Nuova and with his insistence to the same correspondent that the "soul is terribly lonely . . . and . . . longs for an understanding companionship" (pp. 344 and 346).  In his later years Carman had many lady friends — women not unlike the Lady of the Window (a personification of Philosophy) who comforted Dante after the death of Beatrice — but, as Gundy argues, his "one lode-star" (p. 348), his Beatrice, was unquestionably Mrs. Mary Perry King.

     Although Carman is not usually thought of as a political poet, his thoughts about politics and related matters form another fascinating thread in Gundy's Letters.  As Gundy reminds us in his "Introduction," Carman was by "nature and inheritance . . . conservative and Anglican" but — in a shift which some might consider consistent with a Canadian Red Toryism — "went through a period when he called himself a socialist" (p. xiii).  Prior to the First World War, he contemplated calling The Rough Rider, and Other Poems (1909) "Puritan Ballads" to point up the theme of "the long human struggle for liberty in religion and politics" (p. 164).   During the War, when he was working with the Vigilantes, "a group of pro-British writers and artists who sought to counteract German propaganda in the United States, and hasten American participation with the Allies" (p. xiii), Carman became profoundly sceptical, even Haliburtonian, about America and American democracy.   Recognizing the fatal weakness of liberal democracy, its philosophical reluctance to defend itself against the forces of tyranny whether from within or without ("We have imagined an Eden which needed no flaming sword to guard it," p. 226), he acknowledged the sad necessity for violence in a fallen world, perceiving, moreover (and with Churchillian clarity), that once "Kaiserism" had been defeated, Bolshevism would constitute "almost as great a danger in the future" (p. 256).  In 1927 he flatly declared his antipathy to socialism, communism, and "religious fanatics" and succinctly described himself as "a free-trade tory" (p. 349).   If Carman's political end was in his beginning, then his Loyalist origins would appear to supply the key to the political beliefs and activities which Gundy's Letters serve admirably to cast into relief.

     While there are certain aspects of the Letters of Bliss Carman which give pause for thought about the imperfect world of Canadian publishing, the volume provides a picture of Carman which cannot help but make him more real and accessible than before to a broad spectrum of readers.  The McGill-Queen's University Press is to be praised, not merely for the appearance and sturdiness of the book, but also for clarity of its illustrations and for the comprehensiveness of its index.  These qualities pale in comparison, however, beside H. Pearson Gundy's great knowledge of Bliss Carman and his dedication to Canadian scholarship.  "I abhor writing!  Else I might have been an eminent correspondent.  As it is I am the worst ever" (p. 358).  It is a tribute to Professor Gundy that, when these comments occur in a letter to Lorne Pierce near the end of the Letters of Bliss Carman, the reader knows their author well enough to gauge their contextual truth and utter falsehood.

D.M.R. Bentley