William Bliss Carman was born on 15 April 1861 in Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada. He was educated at the Collegiate School in Fredericton and at the University of New Brunswick (BA 1881, MA 1884), and he subsequently attended the University of Edinburgh (1882–83) and Harvard University (1886–87). At Harvard, he was heavily influenced by Josiah Royce, whose spiritualistic idealism, combined with the transcendentalism of Ralph Waldo Emerson, lies centrally in the background of his first major poem, “Low Tide on Grand Pré,” written in the summer and winter of 1886. After returning briefly to the Maritimes in the late 1880s, he moved permanently to the United States, where he worked for two years (1890–92) as literary editor of The Independent (New York; 1848-1928), the first of many similar positions on various American magazines. In 1894 he helped to found and became the first editor of the early American little magazine The Chap-Book (Boston, 1894; Chicago, 1894-98). Between 1895 and 1900 he wrote a weekly column for the Boston Evening Transcript (1830-1941); in 1904 he published the ten volumes of The World’s Best Poetry (Philadelphia), of which he was editor-in-chief.
Even before his permanent removal to the United States in February 1890, Carman had begun, with the help of his cousin Charles George Douglas Roberts (1860-1943), to establish a reputation for himself as an accomplished and promising poet. In 1893 he published his first collection of poems, Low Tide on Grand Pré: A Book of Lyrics, and in ensuing years his gift for lyricism resulted in over twenty more books of poetry, including the three volumes of the Vagabondia series (1894-1900) that he co-authored with the American poet and essayist Richard Hovey (1864-1900). Under the tutelage, first of Hovey’s companion, Henrietta Russell (1849-1918), and then of the woman who became a major love of his life, Mary Perry King (1865-1939), he drew on the theories of François-Alexandre-Nicolas-Chéri Delsarte (1811-1871) to develop a strategy of mind-body-spirit harmonization aimed at undoing the physical, psychological, and spiritual damage caused by urban modernity. By turns charmingly, orotundly, and fancifully expounded in such prose works as The Kinship of Nature (1903) and, with Mary King, The Making of Personality (1908), his therapeutic ideas resulted in the five volumes of verse assembled in Pipes of Pan (1906), a collection that contains many superb lyrics but, overall, evinces the dangers of a soporific aesthetic. It was a combination of these concerns and the discipline of the Sapphic fragments that produced his finest volume of poetry, Sappho: One Hundred Lyrics (1903).
Like other members of the Confederation Group of Canadian poets (Roberts, Archibald Lampman, William Wilfred Campbell, Duncan Campbell Scott, and Frederick George Scott), Carman was lifted to fame in Canada by the wave of post-Confederation nationalism and its accompanying call for a distinctive and distinguished Canadian literature. Outside the country, however, he was widely regarded not merely as a typical Canadian poet, but also as one of the most prominent American poets of the generation that was coming to maturity in the 1880s and 1890s. “I passed everywhere for a ‘young American writer,’” he told the American poet Louise Imogen Guiney (1861-1920) after a trip to Paris in 1896; “I wept inwardly, but could not refuse the compliment” ( Letters 110). His impact on American letters is suggested by the fact that in 1909 Wallace Stevens composed poems “to the accompaniment” of a line from Carman’s “May and June” and by his appointment as editor of The Oxford Book of American Verse (1927).
Nor was Carman’s influence and reputation confined to North America: in the September 1896 number of The Savoy (1896) he published “ In Scituate” and his work was well received by, among others, Arthur Symons (1865-1945), who reviewed Low Tide on Grand Pré, Songs from Vagabondia Behind the Arras: A Book of the Unseen (1895), and, less favourably, More Songs from Vagabondia (1896) in the 14 April 1894, 6 April 1895, 27 March 1897, and 25 December 1897 numbers of the Athenaeum. During a visit to London late in 1896 — before Symons’s approval and encouragement of Carman had given way to the conviction that he was “writing too much” — Symons took him to meet the poet whom Carman memorably describes as “the William Blake of this smaller generation”: “your dark Celtic velvet inspired mystic eloquent refined” W.B. Y[eats] ( Letters 109-10). That Carman’s sense of kinship with the “smaller generation” was limited at best is reflected in his comments to Guiney on English and American little magazines shortly after the publication of “In Scituate”: “I like the Savoy. The fiction is superfluous, but some of the papers . . . are good . . . All those Yellow and Chap Books and Savoys and Philistines [Aurora, NY; 1895-1915]) are capable of egregious bad taste and offensiveness. But I tolerate them because they are willing to dare” ( Letters 111-12).
Much of Carman’s writing in poetry and prose during the decade preceding World War I is as repetitive as the title of Echoes from Vagabondia (1912) intimates, but after the war (and after a battle with tuberculosis in 1919–20), he resumed his spiritual adventurousness under the influence of Theosophy and other esoteric philosophical systems. During the war Carman had worked with a group of American writers, the Vigilantes, to bring the United States into the conflict, and in the years that followed he renewed his ties with Canada, which rewarded his loyalty with various awards and in several highly successful reading and lecturing tours (1920-29), during the first of which he was unofficially dubbed the poet laureate of Canada. Four volumes of poems published in the 1920s, most notably Later Poems (1921) and Far Horizons (1925), reflect his spiritual and patriotic awakenings, as do Talks on Poetry and Life . . . (1926), a collection of lectures and readings delivered at the University of Toronto, and a substantial coedited anthology, Our Canadian Literature: Representative Verse, English and French (1935). With a book of poetry ( Wild Garden) recently published and another ( Sanctuary: Sunshine House Sonnets) in preparation, Carman died of a brain haemorrhage on 8 June 1929 at New Canaan, Connecticut, where he had spent at least part of every year since 1897 in order to be near Mary King. His ashes were buried in Forest Hill Cemetery, Fredericton, and a national memorial service was held at the city’s Anglican Cathedral. Not until 13 May 1954 was he granted the wish that he had expressed in 1892 in “The Grave-tree”: “Let me have a scarlet maple / For the grave-tree at my head, / With the quiet sun behind it, / In the years when I am dead.”
A major reason for the long delay in granting Carman’s wish was the shift in poetic taste that began with the triumph of Modernism in Canada between the wars and led to the dismissal of such phrases as “scarlet maple” and “quiet sun” as sentimental and vague. The continuing underestimation of Carman is regrettable, for at his best he is one of the finest lyricists that Canada has produced, and several aspects of his thought, not least his belief in personal harmony and his reverence for external nature, will always have much to recommend them because of their holistic and ecological dimensions. “I have known few poets anywhere . . . who . . . so dedicated himself to the service of poetry as Bliss Carman,” wrote the Irish poet Padraic Colum (1881-1972) in the prefatory note to Sanctuary (1929). “[He] was above everything else a sweet-natured man. I am sure that no one ever parted from him without thinking, ‘I hope I shall see dear Bliss Carman again’” (vi). “He was like an old king from a fairy story,” said Margaret Lawrence (1896-1973), one of several women who had been devoted to him. “He spoke his words distinctly, giving them their due, as one who loved them dearly” (qtd. in Bentley, “Introduction” xiv). He never married.
© 2021 D.M.R. Bentley
Distinguished University Professor and the Carl F. Klinck Professor in Canadian Literature at Western University, London, ON Canada
Selected Publications by Bliss Carman
- April Airs: A Book of New England Lyrics. Boston: Small, Maynard, 1916.
- Behind the Arras: A Book of the Unseen. Boston: Lamson, Wolffe, 1895.
- Bliss Carman’s Letters to Margaret Lawrence, 1927-1929. Edited by D.M.R. Bentley, assisted by Margaret Maciejewski, Canadian Poetry Press, 1995.
- By the Aurelian Wall and Other Elegies. Boston: Lamson, Wolffe. 1898.
- The Friendship of Life. Boston: L. C. Page. 1905.
- The Kinship of Nature. Boston: L. C. Page. 1904.
- Letters of Bliss Carman. Edited by H. Pearson Gundy, McGill-Queens UP, 1981.
- Low Tide on Grand Pré: A Book of Lyrics. New York: Charles L. Webster, 1893.
- More Songs from Vagabondia. With Richard Hovey. Boston: Lamson, Wolffe, 1896.
- Pipes of Pan. Definitive Edition. Boston: L.C. Page, 1908.
- Poems of Bliss Carman. Edited by John Robert Sorfleet. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1976.
- Poems. Edited by R.H. Hathaway, Dodd, Mead, 1931.
- The Poetry of Life. Boston: L. C. Page. 1905.
- Malory, Sir Thomas. Le Morte Darthur. London: J. M. Dent, 1893-1894.
- The Rough Rider and Other Poems. New York: M. Kennerley, 1909.
- Sappho: One Hundred Lyrics. Boston: L.C. Page. 1903.
- Songs from Vagabondia. With Richard Hovey, Boston: Copeland and Day, 1894.
Selected Publications about Bliss Carman
- Bentley, D.M.R. The Confederation Group of Canadian Poets, 1880-1897I, U of Toronto P, 2004.
- —-. Introduction. Letters to Margaret Lawrence, 1927-1929. Edited by D.M.R. Bentley, assisted by Margaret Maciejewski, Canadian Poetry Press, 1995, pp. ix-xxi.
- —-. “Threefold in Wonder: Bliss Carman’s Sappho: One Hundred Lyrics,” Canadian Poetry, vol. 17, Fall/Winter, 1985, pp. 29-58.
- Colum, Padraic. “Preface.” Sanctuary, by Bliss Carman, McClelland and Stewart, 1929, pp. v-vii.
- Doyle, James. “Canadian Writers and American Little Magazines in the 1890s. Canadian Literature , vol. 110, Fall 1986, pp. 177-83.
- “Kennerley on Carman.” Edited by H. Pearson Gundy, Canadian Poetry, vol. 14, Spring/Summer 1984, pp. 69-74.
- Roberts, Charles G.D. “Some Reminiscence of Bliss Carman in New York.” Canadian Poetry Magazine, vol. 5, Dec. 1940, pp. 5-10.
- Ross, Malcolm. “A Strange Aesthetic Ferment,” Canadian Literature, vols 68-69, Spring-Summer 1976, pp. 13-25.
- Sorfleet, John Robert. “Transcendentalist, Mystic, Evolutionary Idealist: Bliss Carman 1886- 1894.” Colony and Confederation, edited by George Woodcock, University of British Columbia Press, 1974, pp. 189-210.
- Ware, Tracy. “Arthur Symons’ Reviews of Carman.” Canadian Poetry, vol. 37, Fall/Winter 1996, pp. 100-13.
- Whalen, Terry. Bliss Carman and His Works. ECW Press, 1980.
Bentley, D.M.R. “Bliss Carman (1861-1929),” Y90s Biographies, 2021. Yellow Nineties 2.0 , edited by Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, Ryerson University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2021, https://1890s.ca/carman_bio/.