Bliss Carman, a distinguished poet, essayist, journalist, and editor, was born on April 15, 1861, in Fredericton. He was the child of William Carman, a lawyer and court official, and Sophia Mary Bliss, originally from New Canaan, Connecticut.
With a lineage tracing back to loyalists, Carman received his education at Fredericton’s Collegiate School, where George Robert Parkin served as headmaster, and the University of New Brunswick (BA 1881, MA 1884). He later attended the University of Edinburgh (1882-83) and Harvard University (1886-87).
Upon returning to Fredericton from Scotland in 1883, Carman dabbled in teaching, surveying, and law while writing reviews for the University Monthly, reflecting his restless nature and affinity for journalism. At Harvard, Josiah Royce’s spiritualistic idealism and Ralph Waldo Emerson’s transcendentalism significantly influenced him, shaping his first major poem, “Low tide on Grand Pré,” penned during the summer and winter of 1886.
In the late 1880s, Carman briefly returned to the Maritimes before permanently relocating to the United States. From 1890-92, he served as the literary editor for the Independent (New York), the first of many similar roles with American magazines. In 1894, he co-founded the Chap-Book (Boston), contributed a weekly column to the Boston Evening Transcript between 1895 and 1900, and in 1904, published the ten-volume series The World’s Best Poetry (Philadelphia) as editor-in-chief.
Before permanently settling in the United States in February 1890, Carman, with the support of his cousin Charles George Douglas Roberts, began building a reputation as a skilled and promising poet. He published his first collection of poems, Low Tide on Grand Pré: A Book of Lyrics, in 1893. Over the years, Carman’s lyrical talents resulted in over twenty more poetry books, including the three-volume Vagabondia series (1894-1900), co-authored with American poet and essayist Richard Hovey.
Initially mentored by Hovey’s companion, Henrietta Russell, and later by Mary Perry King, a significant love interest in his life, Carman drew upon François-Alexandre-Nicolas-Chéri Delsarte’s theories to develop a mind-body-spirit harmonization strategy. This approach aimed to counteract the physical, psychological, and spiritual damage caused by urban modernity. His therapeutic ideas were eloquently expressed in works like The Kinship of Nature (1903) and The Making of Personality (1908), co-authored with Mrs. King. These concepts culminated in the five volumes of verse compiled in Pipes of Pan (1906), a collection containing many outstanding lyrics but also revealing the pitfalls of a soporific aesthetic. Carman’s finest poetry volume, Sappho: One Hundred Lyrics (1903), emerged from a fusion of these interests and the discipline of Sapphic fragments.
Like other members of the “confederation” group of Canadian poets, including Roberts, Archibald Lampman, William Wilfred Campbell, Duncan Campbell Scott, and Frederick George Scott, Carman’s fame in Canada was propelled by post-confederation nationalism and the ensuing demand for a unique and distinguished Canadian literature. Outside of Canada, Carman was not only seen as a quintessential Canadian poet but also as one of the most prominent American poets from the generation that matured during the 1880s and 1890s. As he told a correspondent after a trip to Paris in 1896, “I passed everywhere for a ‘young American writer.’ I wept inwardly but could not refuse the compliment.” Carman’s influence on American literature is evidenced by Wallace Stevens composing poems “to the accompaniment” of a line from Carman’s “May and June” in 1909 and by his appointment as editor of The Oxford Book of American Verse (1927). Moreover, Carman’s impact and reputation extended beyond North America; during the 1890s, his work received praise from Arthur William Symons and other discerning British readers, while in 1904, Francis Thompson described him as “a Canadian poet of deserved repute this side of the water, with a lusty and individualized joy in nature.”
Much of Carman’s poetry and prose in the decade before World War I was as repetitive as the title Echoes from Vagabondia (1912) suggests. However, after the war (and a battle with tuberculosis in 1919-20), he rekindled his spiritual adventurousness under the influence of theosophy and other esoteric philosophical systems. During the war, Carman collaborated with a group of American writers to encourage the United States to enter the conflict. In the following years, he reestablished his connections with Canada, which rewarded his loyalty through multiple successful reading and lecturing tours (1920-29), corresponding membership in the Royal Society of Canada (1925), and the society’s Lorne Pierce Medal for distinguished service to Canadian literature (1928). It was during the first of these Canadian tours that he earned the unofficial title of Canada’s poet laureate. Four volumes of poems published in the 1920s, most notably Later Poems (1921) and Far Horizons (1925), reflect his spiritual and patriotic reawakenings, as do Talks on Poetry and Life (1926), a collection of lectures and readings delivered at the University of Toronto, and Our Canadian Literature: Representative Verse, English and French (1935), an anthology completed after his death by Lorne Albert Pierce.
With one book of poetry (Wild Garden) recently published and another (Sanctuary: Sunshine House Sonnets) in progress, Carman passed away due to a brain hemorrhage on June 8, 1929, in New Canaan, where he had spent at least part of every year since 1897 to be near Mrs. King. His ashes were interred in Forest Hill Cemetery, Fredericton, and a national memorial service was held at the Anglican cathedral. It wasn’t until May 13, 1954, that his 1892 wish expressed in “The Grave-Tree” was granted: “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 significant reason for the lengthy delay in fulfilling Carman’s wish was the shift in poetic taste that occurred with the rise of modernism in Canada between the wars, leading to the dismissal of phrases like “scarlet maple” and “quiet sun” as sentimental and vague. It is unfortunate that Carman continues to be underestimated, as he is, at his best, one of the finest lyricists Canada has produced, and several aspects of his thought, particularly his belief in personal harmony and his reverence for nature, remain valuable. As Padraic Colum wrote in the preface to Sanctuary, “I have known few poets anywhere… who… so dedicated himself to the service of poetry as Bliss Carman. His life had a frugal dignity which was in itself a rare and fine achievement.” Margaret Lawrence, one of the many women devoted to him, added, “He was like an old king from a fairy story… He spoke his words distinctly, giving them their due, as one who loved them dearly.”
Bliss Carman Middle School in Fredericton was named in his honor, as was a school in Toronto, Ontario. “Bliss Carman Heights,” a subdivision in Fredericton overlooking the Saint John River, includes Essex Street, Gloucester Crescent, Reading Street, Ascot Court, and Ascot Drive. An extension of the Bliss Carman Heights subdivision, called “Poet’s Hill,” comprises Bliss Carman Drive and Poets Lane.
Fredericton’s reputation as the “poets’ corner of Canada” was solidified in 1947 when the Canadian government erected a monument at the University of New Brunswick in honor of three Frederictonian poets: Bliss Carman, Charles G.D. Roberts, and Francis Sherman.
This post has already been read 1817 times!