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must be based upon action or reflection concerning action. It must not attempt detailed description, or, indeed, pure description in any form. Purely descriptive poetry has not the elements of life.
Now, let us see how this standard applies to English verse. If it does not hold good with regard to recognized masterpieces it is, of course, worthless as a test for Canadian poetry, which must always aim at the best. A poem comes at once to the mind as not conforming to Mr. Waldron's rules-Milton's "L'Allegro." Its claim on our attention is not based on "action or reflection concerning action." Moreover, it contains some pernicious bits of pure description : "Straight mine eye hath caught new plea
bury pilgrims. Browning's wonderful "Childe Roland" depends for its effect entirely upon the skilful use of detailed description. But these two poets, like Shakespere, fall foul of Mr. Waldron's statement that "the poet attempting detailed description, and not merely suggestion, produces on the mind of the reader only a confused and distracted effect." The above instances are all of the highest type of verse, yet according to Mr. Waldron's theory they do not constitute poetry of lasting merit.
Upon the same theory is based its author's attack on Canadian poetry, "Campbell, Carman, Lampman and Roberts," he says, "can hardly be said by the most generous to have produced anything of lasting merit. The reader who can twice strain his imagination to the contemplation of their painfully wrought miniatures would indeed be a curiosity." We have seen some of the English poetry excluded under Mr. Waldron's canon, and it must be said that our poets are damned in excellent company! The "vicious habit of description," "this everlasting plague of description," has brought them to such a sorry pass. But let us examine some of the banned poetry. I open Professor Roberts' "Songs of the Common Day" and come upon the following:
THE DESERTED CITY.
There lies a little city leagues away
And clamor of trade ring loud the livelong day.
Glad housed beneath these crowding roofs of grey.
'Twas long ago this city prospered so, For yesterday a woman died therein. Since when the wharves are idle fallen, I know, And in the streets is hushed the pleasant din ; The thronging ships have been, the songs have been; Since yesterday it is so long ago.
Here is detailed description, and an absence of the essential basis of "ac
Have we here a "weird and grotesque vagueness?" Does the chief effect of this poem lie in its "ghostly suggestion of dark corners?" But fine as the poem is, with its lyric quality and its music and passion, it possesses no lasting merit because it "does not base its claim to our attention on action or reflection concerning action." I glance at a fine thing of Mr. Campbell's, "A Lake Memory;" but it, too, is actionless and descriptive. I turn to Mr. Lampman's "Lyrics of Earth;" and alas! alas! how great the lack of "poetry of lasting merit." "April in the Hills," "Favourites of Pan," "September," "An Autumn Landscape," though they deal adequately and artistically with scenes and fancies dear to all in our northern land, though they contain pictures such as this:
floats the distant
Under cool elm-trees stream, Moveless as air; and o'er the vast warm earth
The fathomless daylight seems to stand and dream,
A liquid cool elixir-all its girth Bound with faint haze, a frail transparency, Whose lucid purple barely veils and fills The utmost valleys and the thin last hills, Nor mars one whit their perfect clarity, and many a goodly thought; yet they are not based on "action or reflection concerning action," and the trail of description is over them all.
But enough of this. The truth of the matter is that poetry cannot be bound in by a narrow and personal definition. As Mr. Waldron remarks: "In poetry, as in all other arts, there is a wide latitude of individual freedom." And the censorship needed by Canadian poetry is not that which Mr. Waldron would impose.
To set an arbitrary standard and then to dogmatize, "tried by these tests Canadian poetry of the day fails. Campbell, Carman, Lampman and Roberts can hardly be said by the most generous to have written anything of lasting merit," would be only amusing were there none who might be misled. As it is, the article is written in a style which gives it an importance to which no claim can be laid from a critical point of view, and a somewhat detailed answer is necessary in order to show that Canadian poetry is not in so deplorable a condition as Mr. Waldron would have us believe.
What is the real position of modern Canadian verse? First, let us see wherein true poetry consists, and then we may be able to approximate the value of that which is produced by Canadian writers. Mr. E. C. Stedman has given a definition which is perhaps as fair and broad as any that has been attempted. He says: "Poetry is rhythmical, imaginative language, expressing the invention, taste, thought, passion and insight of the human soul." A moment's consideration will show that this, as Mr. Stedman says, is both defensible and inclusive. It comprehends the work of greatest and least; it includes the large utterances of the
past as well as the lesser language of the present day. Thus it is of the widest significance as regards both matter and manner. It applies equally to Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, Shakespere's Plays or Tennyson's Idyls; it takes in verse so different in thought and expression as Sidney's
My true love hath my heart, and I have his,
There never was a better bargain driven; My true love hath my heart, and I have his." Shelley's
Lamp of earth! where'er thou movest
Its dim shades are clad with brightness, And the souls of whom thou lovest
Walk upon the winds with lightness Till they fail, as I am failing,
Dizzy, lost, yet unbewailing!
or Matthew Arnold's
The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth's shores
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Of the night wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world. . .
A broad definition is necessary to cover the field of English poetry. This is afforded by Mr. Stedman's statement, and we may accept it as sufficient. But we have as yet no touchstone as to the quality of poetry. For this we cannot do better than quote Mr. Stedman once more: "No work of art has real import, none dures, unless the maker has something to say some thought which he must express imaginatively, whether to the eye in stone or canvas, or to the ear in music or artistic speech; this thought, this imaginative idea moving him to utterance being his creative idea, his art ideal."
All the great poets have been impelled to utterance by the stress of their imaginings. Homer, Dante, Shakespere live-and will always live -by virtue of having given to the world something worth giving, something that the world had need of. The greatest periods of our literature-the Elizabethan, the later Georgian, the Vic
torian-have been characterized by sincere and worthy thought. The writers have had something to say, and have said it imaginatively. And the more markedly this is the case, the more real is the poetic note. "No work of art has real import, none endures, unless the maker has something to say— some thought which he must express imaginatively."
In judging contemporary verse there are two chief difficulties to be met. We are liable to err, first, from what Matthew Arnold calls the
"personal estimate." Our personal likes, our personal points of view, often influence our opinions of poets of our own day; we attach to their work more importance than it deserves, and our praise is extravagant. A second difficulty lies in the large poetic production of the present day. More verse is written than at any other period of history, and a great deal of it is worthless. Amateurish verse begets an amateurish audience and amateurish criticism. We see bad work praised immoderately, and, from pure disgust, we sometimes overlook the good. But this tendency must be avoided as carefully as that which is due to the personal estimate. We must have the feeling for good work; and good work varies in degree no less than in kind. Catholicity of taste, subject always to the recognized laws of art, is a canon of good criticism. No sane critic would refuse to grant the excellence of Chaucer as well as Shakespere, of Dryden as well as Tennyson, of Landor as well as D. G. Rossetti; yet how diverse is the character of their work! One star differeth from another in glory, yet all are stars. Breadth is essential to criticism, and the best critic is he who has the truest appreciation of all that is good in literature. Therefore, in dealing with poetry of our own day we are not to damn it wholly, nor to laud it to the skies in bulk; we are to distinguish good from bad and value each in its measure.
And so we come to Canadian poetry. Let us bear in mind that the excellent work which is being done must not be
decried because of its failure to attain Shakespere's scope or Milton's sublimity. Our zeal for the good must not blind us to all that falls short of the very highest standard. To begin with, then, the basis of our poetry is sound. As a whole it possesses the essential foundation of culture. Roberts
has a thorough and sympathetic knowledge of the Greek and Latin classics, which gives him sureness of epithet and clarity of expression. Carman's culture is gathered from half the world. And there is little provincialism in the work of Lampman and Campbell. All the leading Canadian poets have thorough grasp of technique,—the "rhythmical language" of Mr. Stedman-another requisite of true poetry. Their leadership is good; their work expresses the "invention, taste, thought, feeling and insight of the human soul," and has behind it the necessary thought. Take these four poems: Campbell's "The Heart of the Lakes," Lampman's "Favourites of Pan," Roberts' "The Night Sky," and Carman's "Beyond the Gamut," and it will at once be seen that the work of Canadian poets obeys the dicta of Mr. Stedman.
But we may claim more for our verse than a mere inclusion within the bounds of a general definition. We may claim originality; no one will deny that having in mind "Afoot," "The Night Express," "The Winter Lakes" and "An Autumn Landscape. We may claim, for each of the leaders individuality of thought and diction; each has his own point of view and his own mode of expression. We may claim variety of subject and treatment. And last, but by no means least, we may claim the right poetic note-it crops out all through Canadian verse, appearing, for example, in D. C. Scott's
And as I followed far the magic player
And when I passed the stars had risen there,
or in Miss Wetherald's
The wind of death that softly blows The last warm petal from the rose,
The last dry leaf from off the tree,
as undeniably as in the work of the leading spirits, which shows (Mr. Waldron's remark about the "literary coterie" to the contrary notwithstanding) that their influence is altogether for good. And everywhere we see the vigour and buoyancy of youth.
The condition of Canadian poetry, then, is, at least, not hopeless.
It may be here said that Mr. Waldron misses altogether the human interest which underlies a great part of Indeed, he accuses Canadian poetry of lacking life and interest, and assigns a partial explanation. "Want of moral enthusiasm," he says, "of the inspiring energy of new ideas and large hopes of human progress, leaves men of talent no other course than to seek a false brilliancy in the trickery of exaggerated description and strained sentiment. Scott and Byron, Shelley and Wordsworth were full of the new wine of the French Revolution, and spoke as their hearts burned. Tennyson reflected the minds of men who had seen the hopes of their fathers fail. . . . . It may be that in these later days human enthusiasm has flickered out. If so, we cannot expect great poets till there be a re-kindling of new ideas and new hopes of humanity." It is a little difficult to take this explanation seriously; for it means simply that everything written by the five poets mentioned, except what was inspired by "moral enthusiasm " or
large hopes of human progress," is worthless, is only the "trickery of exaggerated description and strained sentiment." Farewell to the Adonais, to the Immortality Ode! Farewell to Tennyson's Lyrics! These are inspired only by the love of truth, of beauty, of poetry. Neither the "new wine of the French Revolution," nor "moral enthusiasm,” nor "large hopes of human progress" inspired Shelley's
"The one remains, the many change and pass;
Heaven's light forever shines, earth's shadows
Life, like a dome of many-coloured glass,
"Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting; The soul that rises with us, our life's Star, Hath elsewhere had its setting
And cometh from afar.
Not in entire forgetfulness
And not in utter nakedness
But trailing clouds of glory do we come From God, who is our home."
It is because of the absence of "new ideas and new hopes of humanity" that the Canadian outlook is so poor. 'Of course, from the point of view just stated, it is idle to hop for any valuable work so long as the development of Canadian letters is "delayed by the misdirected efforts" of Messrs. Carman, Roberts, Lampman and Campbell. But, as was said, Mr. Waldron has strangely ignored one of the dominant notes of Canadian verse-the note of human interest. A single instance will illustrate the point. Roberts' fine sonnet, "The Sower" (upon which so critical a paper as the New York Nation bestowed unstinted praise) was cited by Mr. Waldron as a "fair sample" of the poet's work and was found wanting. I quote in full :
A brown, sad-coloured hillside, where the soil Fresh from the frequent harrow, deep and fine,
Lies bare; no break in the remote sky line,
Alone he treads the glebe, his measured stride
Mr. Waldron blames this for weakness in the climax, for the use of particular images, for its scanty appeal to the reader's emotion and, of course, for its descriptive quality. But let the simple question be asked, "Why was
The theme lies in these two lines. A careful perusal of the poem will show how rigidly all extraneous detail has been excluded, and how everything is subordinated to the single thought and the essentially human interest of the whole. The failure to perceive this, not only in the case adduced, but in much other Canadian verse, shows a lack of poetic judgment.
There is one point more which may be mentioned, and a very important one it is: the foreign appreciation of Canadian verse. This is valuable, because it is influenced by nothing except absolute merit. Now, more than one sound critic has given to Canadian singers the primacy among the younger poets of the day. Mr. Carman's "Low Tide on Grand Pré" was most warmly praised in England and the United States, and Le Magazine International speaks as follows of the work of him who was the pioneer of modern Canadian poetry: "Dans le volume de vers de Charles G. D Roberts, 'Songs of the Common Day,' j'aime surtout la serie de sonnets. . . . Plusieurs sont superbes de profonde émotion, d'intense énergie, de simple et sobres force; la poésie originale et essentielle de la terre y'est exprimée avec une noble sincerité;" and with regard to "Ave," which Mr. Waldron will have none of, "L'ode pour le centenaire de la naissance de Shelley contient de très belles strophes inspirées de la nature à Tantramar. . La forte pensee de Roberts trouve pour s'exprimer une longue admirablement nette, concise et riche."
We can claim for our poetry the qualities which make the best work, and that unprejudiced meed of praise which only good work obtains. Canadian poetry is well founded, and its growth is healthy and sure. We have no reason to be discouraged at the achievement of our singers or the condition of their art.
A. B. De Mille.