Bliss Carman, "Poetry of the Month."

The Reader 1:1 (Nov. 1902): 87-88.

It is customary to use the word poetry in rather a loose way, as meaning whatever is printed in lines of a definite length, either with or without the recurrence of rhyme.  I use the word in that sense for the heading of this paper.  And the first volume which comes to the front for notice is Mr. Hope's "India's Love Lyrics."  There is matter in this volume that will make the respectable squirm in holy disgust.  But a book need be none the worse for that; and if that were its only attribute, one might praise it generously.  It is very much better that people should be shocked into attention, rather than that they should not attend at all.  As M. Maeterlinck says, "Even unhappiness is better than sleep."

Unfortunately, however, Mr. Hope has allowed himself to be daring in his choice of theme, while he remains quite prosy in his treatment.  The result is unpleasant--and unhappy, too; for while the Philistines will say that he has made altogether too much of the opportunity, lovers of good poetry will say that his opportunity has been lost upon him.  If I were not anxious to grant a stranger (to say nothing of an honest craftsman in the fine arts) every courtesy, I should be tempted to say that his style is almost as unelated and casual as that of the "Epic of Hades."  And nothing could be more unfortunate for his purpose.  A commonplace subject with commonplace sentiments may do very well with common diction; but when the artist ventures into the realm of the unusual and unconventional, he takes a dangerous hazard, if he permits himself to speak without distinction and reserve.  Polite literature, like polite society, may allow itself a broad range of discussion, so long as it is fine enough and delicate enough in its choice of language.  As an instance of what seems to me the fault in Mr. Hope's poetry, let me open his volume almost at random and quote the opening stanza of one of his lyrics.

"The tropic day's redundant charms
Cool twilight soothes away,
The sun slips down behind the palms
And leaves the landscape grey.
    I want to take you in my arms
    And kiss your lips away!"
Well, no doubt any man might want the same thing, but he wouldn't mention it.  Such intimate and vital promptings, natural and universal as they may be, are much too spiritual to be treated with commonness.  They form a part of that inward life from which our highest and most religious feelings spring, and they deserve, in consequence, a richness and beauty and variety of diction to worthily enshrine them. [<87]

The author of these Indian Love Lyrics is by no means alone in his failure.  Whitman made the same mistake when he touched on the sensuous side of love.  In a natural disgust at false prudery, he allowed himself to be carried away with a ridiculous frankness--or rather with a baldness of speech quite proper to science but not at all proper to art and religion.  Mr. Kipling, on the other hand, with all his frankness, makes no such blunder.  His delightful old ruffians in "The Seven Seas," when they relate their amours for polite listeners, do so in no common language, but in a speech to which force and trenchant picturesqueness have lent ditinction.  And we hear them without taking offence, because of the wonderful vigor and unusualness of their language.

Perhaps I have not sufficiently praised Mr. Hope's honest attempt to do what is so difficult to do for English readers; and it may be others, less critical of the form, will enjoy the substance of his exotic poems more than I have. [<88]