The Sappho of Bliss Carman
The Sappho of Bliss Carman
BY FLORENCE EARLE COATES
As a wan weaver in an attic dim—
Hopeless yet patient, so he may be fed
With scanty store of sorrow-seasoned bread—
Heareth a blithe bird carol over him;
And sees no longer walls and rafters grim,
But rural lanes where little feet are led
Through springing flowers, fields with clover spread,
Clouds, swan-like, that o'er depths of azure swim,—
So, when upon our earth-dulled ear new breaks
Some fragment, Sappho, of thy skyey song,
A noble wonder in our souls awakes;
The deathless beautiful draws strangely nigh,
And we look up, and marvel how so long
We were content to toil for sordid things that die.
"ALL art," says Schiller, "is dedicated to joy." Surely it was a gift of fortune to receive the name Bliss Carman—a name, in its melodious utterance, suggestive of song; and, through the exercise of faculties as fortunate, that name has now become familiar to all lovers of literature and art. The day has gone by when Mr. Carman's verse required an introduction; for the remnant who care for poetry (at a time when, as Mr. Stedman tells us, the Muse sits neglected in the hemicycle of the arts) care especially for his, and extend to it an appreciative welcome. They realize that the higher order of verse is written to-day—can be written—by few; and that, however careless or indifferent we may be regarding it, poetry is a necessity of our nature, "its object truth, its office to purify the passions."
Mr. Carman has written impressive prose; but in his recent assertion that "prose is toil, while poetry is play," there is an unconscious acknowledgment of the fact that he himself is first of all a poet—a poet by the grace of God.
Amidst the encroachments, the turmoil and dissonance of our contemporary life, our struggle for preferment and power,—he has worshipped at an altar not made with hands, and has kept the flame within him burning pure and high. He has sought for beauty everywhere, and in all things he has found it. It has entered the innermost sanctuary of his spirit, growing into the fibre of the mind, and lending its atmosphere and quality to all that he creates.
Sainte-Beuve tells us that "there exists in the greater number of men a poet who dies young, and is survived by the man"; and, while lamenting the truth of this, we are proportionately grateful for the ideality and imagination that do not fail, for the vision that remains unclouded, and the wings that do not tire.
Of the Lesbian Sappho it is here not necessary to speak. All that may be known concerning her has been set forth by Mr. Roberts in his admirable introduction to Mr. Carman's work. It impresses one, however, as a curiously felicitous chance that, more than two thousand years after Sappho's death, it should have occurred to a poet possessed of the adequate genius and scholarship to rehabilitate her Muse, and, from slightest fragments, to reconstruct her lost—yet unrelinquished song.
To quote from Mr. Roberts: "It was perhaps the most perilous and the most alluring venture in the whole field of poetry.... The technique" (of her verse) "was exact, complex, extremely elaborate, minutely regulated; yet the essential fires of sincerity, spontaneity, imagination, and passion were flaming with undiminished heat behind the fixed forms and restricted measures." From such sentences an idea may be gathered as to the difficulties of Mr. Carman's undertaking; but his were no ordinary qualifications, and hazardous as was the attempt, he has achieved a success, creating lyrics of so sustained a loveliness and perfection that she whom men have called "The Tenth Muse" need not have blushed to claim them as her own.
It is difficult to speak with moderation of what is eloquent to the heart, but surely these unrhymed lyrics with their enthralling cadence have the distinction and beauty which Arnold declared to be "the great sources of the interesting."
If one has sometimes felt a touch of coldness in Mr. Carman's work, there is no coldness here. Beneath the fine reserve—the measure and restraint which are characteristic—there throbs the pulse of life; and these Sapphics, Greek in their simplicity, utter the lyric cry—the cry of her who sang the γλυχύπιχρος—the bitterness of things too sweet. They are the utterances of the impassioned heart—the sorrowing, rejoicing, defeated, and triumphant human heart; and after all that has been said and written upon the subject, the conviction still abides that
"The test of the poet is knowledge of love,
For Eros is older than Saturn or Jove."