Bliss Carman

Bliss CarmanPhoto: Public Commons
Bliss Carman
Photo: Public Commons

William Bliss Carman (poet, essayist, journalist) was born in Fredericton, New Brunswick on 15 April 1861. As an integral member of the Confederation School of Canadian poetry, Carman’s work helped to shape a poetic voice in Canada. He was strongly influenced by the Romanticism of the nineteenth-century and is best remembered as a lyrical poet of the Maritime landscape.

Carman was the son of William Carman, a barrister, and Sophia (Bliss). Both of his parents had Loyalist ancestors who migrated to New Brunswick in the eighteenth-century. As a four-year-old, Carman severely injured the membranes of his nose, resulting in chronic bleeding and frailty. Due to this medical problem, he received private tutoring until 1872, at which point he entered grade six at the classical school near his home. At fourteen, Carman graduated to the Collegiate School in Fredericton, where one teacher, George Parkin, introduced Carman and his cousin, the poet Charles G.D. Roberts, to classical, Romantic, and Victorian poetry. Carman spent a significant amount of time with Parkin after winning a trip to Prince Edward Island for being one of the top four students at the Collegiate School; Headmaster Parkin supervised the trip.

While poetry was a tradition within the Bliss family, it was Parkin who taught Carman the craft of writing poetry. Parkin also took Carman and his cousin Roberts on hiking and canoeing trips, instilling in them the love of nature that is evident in their poetry. In 1874 Roberts and his family had moved to Fredericton from Westmorland County, and the cousins spent a great deal of time together.

By their mid-teens, Carman and Roberts were writing identifiable scanned verse in all the established English forms. Carman’s first published poems appeared in the University of New Brunswick’s Monthly in 1879. He graduated from UNB in 1881 with honours in Latin and Greek, and then spent a year (1882-1883) at Oxford and then Edinburgh University before homesickness drove him back to Fredericton. Over the next few years, he explored several career paths, including teaching, law, engineering, and real estate, but nothing seemed to suit him. However, he did find time to continue writing. His thesis “English Literature from Chaucer to Elizabeth” earned him an MA from UNB in June 1884.

After the death of his father in January 1885 and his mother in February 1886, Carman left Fredericton once again, this time for Harvard University where he studied English. Carman found an intellectually challenging environment at Harvard, and while he did not finish enough courses for a degree, he did make the acquaintance of a man who would greatly influence his life; that man was Richard Hovey. Hovey was the person who convinced Carman to devote his life to writing poetry. Carman published poems in The Harvard Monthly and in The Atlantic Monthly before leaving Harvard in 1888.

Over the next four decades, he published a prodigious body of poetry and essays. His first published volume, Low Tide on Grand Pré: A Book of Lyrics (1893, poetry), was very well received and established him as a major Canadian poet. Donald Stephens writes that the title poem of that volume is “a representative poem of his time [and] is Carman at his best” (40). With its reverence for nature, this poem shows the influence of Romanticism on Carman. In “Low Tide on Grand Pré” Carman finds a “Spirit of life [which] / Breathed on us there, and loosed the bands / Of Death” (ll. 31-34).

Carman’s next publication, Songs from Vagabondia (1894, poetry), was co-authored with his good friend Richard Hovey; they each contributed poems to this publication. The Vagabondia poetry series (also including More Songs from Vagabondia, 1896) was written with the intention of bringing attention to North American poetry and shifting the focus from English poetry. George L. Parker writes that in Songs from Vagabondia, Carman found a new voice – “that of the literary vagrant whose back-to-nature heartiness and optimism had wide appeal and helped to initiate a revolt against ‘the genteel tradition’ [of the poetry of the time]” (174). As in Low Tide on Grand Pré, the Vagabondia poems feature strong connections with nature that are clearly Canadian. For example, in “A Vagabond Song” (More Songs from Vagabondia) Carman writes: “The scarlet of the maples can shake me like a cry” (6). This strong emotional connection with nature and the Canadian symbol of the maple tree betray Carman’s preoccupation with Romanticism that came to colour the Confederation movement.

Carman’s fixation on transience in his poetry was mirrored in his own life. After leaving Harvard in 1888, he worked in New York and Boston as an editor for several publications, including the Independent (1890-1892) and the Chap Book (1894-1897). He spent a lot of time travelling between New York, Washington, Boston, Fredericton, and Windsor, Nova Scotia, where his cousin Roberts was teaching, yet his main residence after 1908 was in New Canaan, Connecticut near the home of Mary Perry King and her husband. Perry King was his companion, patron, and the strongest female influence in his life. She influenced his writing by introducing him to her Unitarian philosophy; this philosophy is characterized by the idea that God is only one individual and contrasts the Trinitarian belief that God is comprised of three individuals (the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit).

While living his transient and unsettled life, Carman still found time to write and publish vast amounts of poetry. His next great work, The Pipes of Pan (5 volumes, 1902-1905, poetry) was an attempt at epic poetry, a goal that he did not quite reach. However, these volumes do demonstrate “Carman’s whole imaginative vision” (Stephens 41). The majority of the poems in these five volumes are still closely based in nature, yet Carman also includes many mystical elements, such as in “The Magic Flute.”

Despite delving into the mystical and the philosophical, Carman is by nature a poet of the Maritime landscape, and Caron says that he was “the first Canadian poet to transform the external world into an interior, psychic landscape that delineated his characteristic moods” (174). Unfortunately, Carman often wrote out of need for money rather than for the aesthetic, and this led to prodigious lines of poetry, some of which were not well conceived. He would sort his work based on theme or mood, instead of chronologically, a practice which frustrated many of his critics and reviewers. By the 1910s, many reviewers were bored with his redundancy, and were aware that in a growing era of modernist poetry, Carman was caught in the time of the Victorians and could not move forward. By the time of his death, “he was at the edge of being perceived as a strait-backwardly moving poet, a traditional and irrelevant Romantic” (Whalen 10). However, his poetry, especially his earlier works, remains important in the cultural history of Canada, and of New Brunswick in particular.

Despite a decline in critical acclaim towards the end of his career, he did remain popular during his lifetime. In 1906 he received honourary degrees from the University of New Brunswick and McGill University. He was elected a member of the Royal Society of Canada in 1925, and he received the Lorne Pierce Medal for distinguished service to literature in 1928. In 1929 he was awarded a medal from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. A middle school in his hometown of Fredericton is named for him.

Carman died of a stroke on 8 June 1929 at his home in New Canaan. Following his death, Mary Perry King refused to notify Roberts and the rest of Carman’s family, wishing to maintain her hold on him. It took two months, and the influence of New Brunswick’s Premier J.B.M. Baxter and Canadian Prime Minister W.L.M. King, for Carman’s ashes to be returned to Fredericton. Following a memorial service in Fredericton, a long procession of Frederictonians followed Carman’s ashes along Waterloo Row to Forest Hill Cemetery, where his ashes are buried. His grave is marked by a granite shrine and, fittingly, a scarlet maple.

Kelsey Allan, Fall 2010
St. Thomas University

For more information on Bliss Carman, please visit his entry at the New Brunswick Literature Curriculum in English.

Bibliography of Primary Sources

Carman, Bliss. April Airs: A Book of New England Lyrics. Boston: Small, Maynard, 1916.

---. Ballads and Lyrics. London: Bullen, 1902.

---. Ballads of Lost Haven: A Book of the Sea. Boston: Lamson, Wolffe, 1897.

---. Behind the Arras: A Book of the Unseen. Illus. T. B. Meteyard. Boston: Lamson, Wolffe, 1895.

---. By the Aurelian Wall: and Other Elegies. Boston: Lamson, Wolffe, 1898.

---. Echoes From Vagabondia. Boston: Small, Maynard & Co., 1912.

---. Far Horizons. Boston: Small, Maynard, 1925.

---. The Friendship of Art. Boston: Page, 1904.

---. From the Book of Valentines. Boston: Page, 1905.

---. The Kinship of Nature. Boston: Page, 1903.

---. Later Poems. Boston: Small, Maynard, 1922.

---. Low Tide on Grand Pré: A Book of Lyrics. London: Nutt, 1893.

---. The Making of Personality. Boston: Page, 1908.

---. Ode on the Coronation of King Edward. Boston: Page, 1902.

---. A Painter’s Holiday: and Other Poems. New York: F.F. Sherman, 1911.

---. The Pipes of Pan. 5 vols. Boston: Page, 1902-1905.

---. Poems. London: Chiswick, 1905.

---. The Poetry of Life. Boston: Page, 1905.

---. The Rough Rider: And Other Poems. New York: Kennerley, 1909.

---. Sanctuary: Sunshine House Sonnets. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1929.

---. Sappho: One Hundred Lyrics. Boston: Page, 1904.

---. Songs of the Sea Children. Boston: Page, 1904.

---. Wild Garden. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1929.

Carman, Bliss and Mary Perry King. Daughters of Dawn: A Lyrical Pageant or Series of Historic Scenes for Presentation With Music and Dancing. New York: Kennerley, 1913.

---. Earth Deities: And Other Rhythmic Masques. New York: Kennerley, 1914.

---. The Man of the Marne: And Other Poems. New Canaan, Conn.: Ponus, 1918.

Carman, Bliss and Richard Hovey. More Songs from Vagabondia. Boston: Copeland and Day, 1896.

---. Songs from Vagabondia. Boston: Copeland and Day, 1894.

Bibliography of Secondary Sources

MacKendrick, Louis K. “Bliss Carman.” Profiles in Canadian Literature. Ed. Jeffrey M. Heath. Vol 3. Toronto: Dundern, 1982. 53-56.

Miller, Muriel. Bliss Carman: Quest and Revolt. St John’s, NL: Jesperson Press, 1985.

Parker, George L. “Bliss Carman.” Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature. Ed. Eugene Benson and William Toye. 2nd ed. Toronto: Oxford UP, 1997. 173-176.

Roberts, Charles G.D. “More Reminiscences of Bliss Carman.” Dalhousie Review 10 (1930): 1-9.

Stephens, Donald. “Bliss Carman.” Dictionary of Literary Biography: Canadian Writers 1890-1920. Ed. W.H. New. Vol 92. Detroit: Gale Research Inc., 1990. 38-44.

---. Bliss Carman. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1966.

Stewart, Margaret A. Bliss Carman: Poet, Philosopher, Teacher. Diss. Halifax: Dalhousie U, 1976.

Whalen, Terry. “Bliss Carman.” In ECW’s Biographical Guide to Canadian Poets. Toronto: ECW Press, 1993. 55-60.

---. Bliss Carman and his Works. Toronto: ECW Press, 1984.