Bliss Carman Critical Essays

Introduction

(Poetry Criticism)

Bliss Carman 1861-1929

(Also wrote under the pseudonym Louis Norman) Canadian poet, essayist, and editor.

Carman was at one time Canada's most acclaimed poet, and he remains a central figure in Canadian letters. He was known as a regionalist poet of the Canadian Maritime, and at its best his poetry evokes a strong sense of mood and atmosphere through vivid descriptions of Canada's natural landscape. Although Carman's verse is now considered uneven in merit, his work is acknowledged as formative in developing a Canadian national literature. His most celebrated works are the volumes Low Tide on Grand Pré: A Book of Lyrics (1893) and the Vagabondia series (1894-1912; written with Richard Hovey).

Biographical Information

William Bliss Carman was born in Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada, on April 15, 1861. He was descended on both sides from American loyalists to the British crown who had fled to Canada during the American Revolution. Carman was educated by a private tutor and, later, in a private school. He graduated from the University of New Brunswick with a B.A. in 1881. From 1882 to 1883 he attended Oxford University and Edinburgh University, and received an M.A. from the University of New Brunswick in 1884. From 1886 to 1888 he attended Harvard University, where he studied with the great philosophers William James and George Santayana. At Harvard he also met Richard Hovey, an American poet who styled himself after Oscar Wilde. Hovey became Carman's closest male friend and literary collaborator. In 1890 Carman moved to New York City, where he became associated with the bohemian lifestyle. Throughout the rest of his life he lived mostly in New England, making frequent returns to Canada. During the next twenty years (from 1890 to 1909), he worked as an editor and staff writer for various magazines and journals, including the Independent, Current Literature, Cosmopolitan, Atlantic Monthly, Transcript, Literary World, and Gentleman's Journal. In 1897 he met Mary Perry King, a married woman with whom he maintained a close relationship throughout the rest of his life, living either near the home of Mrs. and Mr. King or in a house located on their property. Through this close association with Mrs. King, Carman was influenced by the doctrine of unitrinianism, which subscribed to an ideal of harmony between the body, the mind, and the soul. He and Mrs. King also collaborated on several volumes of essays. In 1906 Carman received a LL.D. from the University of New Brunswick. During the course of his life Carman traveled widely, and he often wrote poetry about the locations he encountered, such as Italy and India. Carman never married. He died June 8, 1929, in New Canaan, Connecticut.

Major Works

Carman was one of four influential Canadian poets of the late nineteenth century—known collectively as the Confederation group, or the Maple Tree school of poetry—who helped establish a tradition of Canadian literature in the formative years of the nation. Canada became a confederacy in 1867, and these poets, all born in the early 1860s, helped to inspire a sense of Canadian national identity. Carman was widely recognized as a regionalist poet of the Canadian Maritimes, and his poems often celebrate a strong sense of place through the evocation of specific details of Canada's natural landscape, including such recurring images as the maple tree, which populates much of the Canadian wilderness, and the sea. His earliest volume of poetry, Low Tide on Grand Pré, celebrates the Maritime region in which he grew up, and Ballads of Lost Haven: A Book of the Sea (1897) includes meditations on the sea in Carman's characteristic lyrical verse style. Later, Carman successfully embodied a hybrid identity as a Canadian-American poet, in that he also became a regionalist poet of the New England area of the United States. Like the other poets of the Confederation group, Carman was strongly influenced by the Romantic Movement in English poetry, as well as the transcendentalism of such American writers as Ralph Waldo Emerson (who was a distant relative of Carman on his mother's side). The influence of the Romantic poets, such as William Wordsworth, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and John Keats, is evident in the mood of Carman's poetry, which is often lyrical and melancholy, yet infused with a sense of optimism inspired by the presence of nature. By the Aurelian Wall, and Other Elegies (1898) includes elegies on Keats and Shelley, as well as on William Blake and Robert Louis Stevenson. In Sappho: One Hundred Lyrics (1904), Carman adapts one-hundred poems by the ancient female poet Sappho to his own romantic, lyrical style. Carman's transcendentalism is conveyed by the visionary qualities of his poetry, which express a sense of wonder at the mystical elements of the natural world. The Vagabondia series was among Carman's most popular works, appealing to readers as a celebration of bohemian free-spiritedness in a light-hearted, sometimes humorous, easily accessible verse. It consists of three volumes of poetry, written in collaboration with Richard Hovey: Songs from Vagabondia (1894), More Songs from Vagabondia (1896), and Last Songs from Vagabondia (1900). A fourth Vagabondia volume, Echoes from Vagabondia (1912), was published after Hovey's death in 1900. Carman's essay collections, in which he put forth philosophical musings on art, literature, nature, and humanity, include The Kinship of Nature (1903), The Friendship of Art (1904), and The Poetry of Life (1905). The essay collection, The Making of Personality (1908), written with Mary Perry King, expresses many of the precepts of unitrinianism. In all, Carman wrote some thirty volumes of poetry and prose during the course of a literary career lasting more than thirty-five years.

Critical Reception

During his lifetime Carman was one of Canada's most celebrated and most popular poets. In 1928, one year before his death, he received the distinction of being named poet laureate by the Canadian Parliament. Since then, his work has come under closer scrutiny, and he now is considered only a minor poet in his own right, who nonetheless exerted a profound influence on Canadian literature of the twentieth century. Low Tide on Grand Pré, is considered Carman's best collection, and its title poem remains his most acclaimed work in verse. Reviewing Low Tide in 1893, Arthur Symons asserted, “Mr. Carman writes blithely, and with the ease of the true artist.” He hailed the “sense of comradeship with nature, a joyous companionship in little homely things, with, at the same time, a delicate consciousness of the mystery which lies about the deeper reaches of such communion, [that is] the very key-note of Mr. Carman's work.” The Vagabondia series, consisting of four volumes, is regarded among Carman's most original works. In an 1895 review Symons described Songs from Vagabondia as “a book which is at once a tramp's diary and the dream of a poet,” which is “full of the rapture of the open air and the open road, of the wayside tavern bench, the April weather, and the ‘manly love of comrades.’” Symons continued, “the charm and interest of the book consist in the real, frank jollity of mood and manner, the gipsy freedom, the intimate natural happiness, of these marching, drinking, fighting, and loving songs.”

Critics now generally agree, however, that Carman's literary output demonstrates little if any development during the course of his prolific thirty-five-year career. While some point to occasional moments of brilliance among his many poems—Desmond Pacey, for example, declared “Low Tide on Grande Pré” “the most nearly perfect single poem to come out of Canada”—others regard his work as largely unoriginal and monotonous in tone. Many concur, however, that Carman's greatest strength as a poet lay in his ability to create a sense of mood and atmosphere, and to evoke a strong sense of place through vivid descriptions of the landscape of the Canadian Maritime region and parts of New England. Pacey asserted that Carman “is a master of mood and music,” observing that at his best, “he achieves a melodic beauty equaled by no other Canadian poet, and he knew better than any other how to employ the distinctive features of his native environment to effect a compelling atmosphere.” However, to many readers, Carman's poems and essays now seem dated and unremarkable. Pacey noted that “Carman's name is seldom heard outside Canada, and even here he is either given grudging and defensive praise or contemptuously dismissed as the facile and vulgar exponent of a cheap and shallow romanticism.” All, however, concur that Carman remains a prominent figure in the Canadian literary tradition, whose work was invaluable in establishing a distinct identity for Canadian letters and has continued to influence Canadian poets throughout the twentieth century. Pacey stated that “the huge reputation which Carman enjoyed at the first of this century was undoubtedly inflated”; nonetheless, he observed, “[if] there are any ‘masters’ of Canadian poetry, Carman is of their company.”