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Carman, Bliss

The Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature

George L. Parker

Carman, Bliss 


William Bliss Carman, a first cousin of Charles G. D. Roberts and a distant relation of Ralph Waldo Emerson, was born in Fredericton, New Brunswick, and educated at the University of New Brunswick. He spent an unhappy year at Oxford and Edinburgh in 1882–3, and then tried various professions in Fredericton before attending Harvard University in 1886–8, where he met Richard Hovey (1864–1900), who later coauthored several books of poetry with Carman. At Harvard he attended the lectures of Josiah Royce and George Santayana, whose anti-materialistic philosophies he found congenial. He became a literary journalist in New York, first with a religious weekly, The Independent, and later in Boston, where he worked for The Atlantic Monthly, The Chap-book, and the Boston Transcript. On these and other periodicals, he helped Canadian writers into print. In 1896 he met Mary Perry King, who became his lifelong patron and companion, and after 1908 he settled near the Kings in Connecticut. Although not a political activist, Carman during the First World War was a member of the Vigilantes, who supported American entry into the conflict on the Allied side. In 1921, terribly impoverished and recovering from a near-fatal bout of tuberculosis, he undertook the first of several strenuous poetry-reading tours across Canada, and was acclaimed as an unofficial poet laureate. He renewed his connection with the Maritimes with membership in The Song Fishermen, an informal group centred in Halifax and composed of local writers such as J. D. Logan and Charles Bruce and ex-Maritimers such as Carman and Robert Norwood. He was elected a corresponding member of the Royal Society of Canada in 1925 and received the Lorne Pierce Medal for distinguished service to literature in 1928 and honorary degrees from the Universities of New Brunswick and McGill; he was awarded posthumously the medal of the Poetry Society of America. Carman died in New Canaan, Connecticut, USA, following a reading tour, and his ashes were buried in Fredericton.

Like his cousin Charles G. D. Roberts, Carman was a poet of the Maritime landscape, a blend of forest, field, and sea that he employed both realistically and symbolically. He was the first Canadian poet to transform the external world into an interior, psychic landscape that delineated his characteristic moods—yearning, loss of love, melancholy, grief, and, on occasion, rapture. His particular sensibility was nurtured by Wordsworthian ‘pantheism’ and Emersonian transcendentalism, both of which emphasized humanity's oneness with the universe. He borrowed the Pre-Raphaelites' fondness for associating colours and emotions. He was attracted to contemporary fin-de-siècle Romanticism, which rejected the scientific rationalism of the age and sought reality in a visionary dream world whose symbols were drawn from art and nature. Having drifted from the Anglican faith, Carman recognized Nature as the source of his creative power and spiritual consolation. His poetry celebrates the ‘kinship’ he felt with all living things, and his work, particularly up to 1910, records his quest for a philosophical system to underpin his emotional experiences. Josiah Royce, Richard Hovey, and Mary Perry King provided Carman with the means of combatting his own melancholy with optimistic philosophies that would integrate the universe of art and the world of human experience.

A mystical vision in 1886 sustained Carman in his earliest volumes: Low tide on Grand Pré: a book of lyrics (New York, 1893), Behind the arras: a book of the unseen (Boston, Toronto, 1895), and Ballads of lost haven: a book of the sea (Boston, 1897). This experience is at the centre of his finest poem, ‘Low tide on Grand Pré’, in which the grieving speaker recaptures the timelessness and ecstasy of what may have been a past love affair. In these volumes Carman's voice, elegiac and gentle, observes the fragility of life, the passing of time, and the coming of death. In his collaboration with Hovey on Songs from Vagabondia (Boston, 1895; rpr. 1972, 1992), Carman found another ‘voice’, that of the literary vagrant whose back-to-nature heartiness and optimism had wide appeal and helped to initiate a revolt against the ‘genteel tradition’ that characterized much American poetry of the time. Hovey helped Carman to see how exaltation of the physical could lead to spiritual insights. The sequels include More songs from Vagabondia (Boston, 1896; rpr. 1972) and Last songs from Vagabondia (1901; rpr. 1972); and Carman by himself wrote Echoes from Vagabondia (1912). Turning to classical themes in the carefully organized Sappho: one hundred lyrics (1904), Carman produced several flawless and timeless songs, some of which are ‘translations’ and ‘restorations’ of Sappho while others are Carman's original poems. The figure of Pan, the goat-god, traditionally associated with poetry and with the fusion of the earthly and the divine, becomes Carman's organizing symbol in the five volumes issued between 1902 and 1905 and reprinted as The pipes of Pan: containing ‘From the book of myths,’ ‘From the green book of the bards,’ ‘Songs of the sea children,’ ‘Songs from a northern garden,’ ‘From the book of valentines’ (1906). His intention was to trace the religious and philosophical evolution of man through Pan's music.

Carman's search for a more substantial philosophy was aided by Hovey's wife, who introduced him to François Delsarte's theories of aesthetics in the teaching of dramatic expression through the co-ordination of the voice with bodily gestures and—in the United States—with gymnastics. Delsarte's complex interrelationships between the human faculties and sensations was called Unitrinianism. This became Carman's criterion for judging art; as he wrote, ‘art approaches perfection in proportion as it charms our senses, convinces our intelligence, and elates or moves our spirit in something like equal degree. And a similar three-fold manner of thinking is my only criterion in the conduct of life….’ Thus Carman merged this philosophy with Mary Perry King's and his own notions about personality—which they drew from the Greek concepts of Truth, Beauty, and the Good—into a system in which a balance was achieved between the physical, the emotional, and the mental. In collaboration with Mrs King, Carman expounded these theories in a book of essays, The making of personality (1908); and in two dramas, Daughters of dawn: a lyrical pageant or series of historical scenes for presentation with music and dancing (1913) and Earth deities, and other rhythmic masques (1914). Occasionally his poems illustrating this theory are didactic. His later poetry retains the same subjects and themes, but the mystical and visionary characteristics are less prominent, and his language and rhythms are closer to colloquial speech; too often the sound is more important than the sense. After 1914 Carman's popularity was due to poems like the semi-religious ‘Vestigia’; the ballad ‘The ships of St. John’; ‘The eavesdropper’ and ‘A northern vigil’, with their haunted atmospheres; and his own elegy ‘The grave-tree’. His later volumes include April airs (1916); Later poems (1921); and Ballads and lyrics (1923); Far horizons (1925); Wild garden (1929); and Sanctuary (1929).

In more than fifty volumes of poetry, Carman showed great versatility with musical cadences, and with poetic forms ranging from lyrics and dramatic monologues to meditations. Often accused of verbosity, he admitted his ‘prolixity’ and his problems in editing repetitive passages and trite language. Despite the early praise he received from poets such as Ezra Pound and Wallace Stevens, modernist poets and critics in Canada, particularly the Montreal Group, spent half a century torpedoing most of Carman's oeuvre. However, since the 1970s he has received more positive reappraisals. Contemporary poets such as Al Purdy, D. G. Jones, and Elizabeth Brewster have come to Carman's rescue, and recent critics have found much to admire in his poems.

Carman's essays include The kinship of nature (1903); The friendship of art (1904); The poetry of life: Longfellow, Emerson, Swinburne (1905), reprinted by R. West in 1973; Address to the graduating class 1911 of the Unitrinian school of personal harmonizing (1911); James Whitcomb Riley (1917; rpr. 1976); and Talks on poetry and life; being a series of five lectures delivered before the University of Toronto, December 1925 (1926), transcribed by Blanche Hume. He edited The world's best poetry (10 vols, 1904; rpr. 1975); The Oxford book of American verse (1927; rpr. 1976); and Our Canadian literature; representative verse, English and French (1922), edited with Lorne Pierce, then revised by V. B. Rhodenizer as Canadian poetry in English (1954; rpr. 1976).

Carman's poetry in print includes a selection in Poets of the Confederation (1960, Ncl) edited and introduced by Malcolm Ross; The poems of Bliss Carman (1976, Ncl) introduced by John Robert Sorfleet; and Canadian poetry from the beginnings through the First World War (1994, Ncl) edited and with an afterword by Carole Gerson and Gwendolyn Davies.

See H. D. C. Lee, Bliss Carman: a study in Canadian poetry (1912); Odell Shepard, Bliss Carman (1923); James Cappon, Bliss Carman and the literary currents and influences of his time (1930); Malcolm Ross, ‘A symbolic approach to Carman’, Canadian Bookman, 14 (Dec. 1932); Desmond Pacey, ‘Bliss Carman’ in Ten Canadian poets (1958); Donald Stephens, Bliss Carman (1966); John Robert Sorfleet, ‘Transcendentalist, mystic, evolutionary idealist: Bliss Carman 1886–1894’, in Colony and confederation (1974) edited by George Woodcock; Malcolm Ross, ‘“A strange aesthetic ferment”’, Canadian Literature 68–69 (Spring-Summer 1976); Robert Gibbs, ‘Voice and persona in Carman and Roberts’ in Atlantic provinces literature colloquium papers (1977) edited by Kenneth MacKinnon; D. M. R. Bentley, ‘Pan and the Confederation Poets’, Canadian Literature 81 (Summer 1979); Letters of Bliss Carman (1982) edited by H. Pearson Gundy; Terry Whalen, ‘Bliss Carman’, in Canadian writers and their work: poetry series: volume two (1983) edited by Robert Lecker, Jack David, and Ellen Quigley; Tracy Ware, ‘The integrity of Carman's Low tide on Grand Pré’, Canadian Poetry 14 (Spring/Summer 1984); D. M. R. Bentley, ‘Threefold in wonder: Bliss Carman's Sappho: one hundred lyrics’, Canadian Poetry 17 (Fall/Winter 1985); Barrie Davies, ‘English poetry in New Brunswick 1880–1940’, in A literary and linguistic history of New Brunswick (1985) edited and with an introduction by Reavley Gair; Mary McGillivray, ‘Colour out of silence: a study of the poetry of Bliss Carman’ (1985), Ph.D. dissertation, Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario; Muriel Miller, Bliss Carman: quest and revolt (1985); Malcolm Ross, Bliss Carman and the poetry of mystery: a defense of the personal fallacy (1985), reprinted in his The impossible sum of our traditions (1986); Bliss Carman: a reappraisal (1990) edited and with an introduction by Gerald Lynch; C. Nelson-McDermott, ‘Passionate beauty: Carman's Sappho poems’, Canadian Poetry 27 (1990); Gwendolyn Davies, ‘The Song Fishermen: a regional poetry celebration’, in Studies in Maritime literary history (1991); and Thomas Vincent, ‘Bliss Carman's “Low tides”’, Canadian Literature 129 (Summer 1991).

George L. Parker