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William Bliss Carman FRSC (April 15, 1861 – June 8, 1929) was a Canadian poet who lived most of his life in the United States, where he achieved international fame. He was acclaimed as Canada's poet laureate during his later years.
In Canada, Carman is classed as one of the Confederation Poets, a group which also included Charles G.D. Roberts (his cousin), Archibald Lampman, and Duncan Campbell Scott. "Of the group, Carman had the surest lyric touch and achieved the widest international recognition. But unlike others, he never attempted to secure his income by novel writing, popular journalism, or non-literary employment. He remained a poet, supplementing his art with critical commentaries on literary ideas, philosophy, and aesthetics."
He was born William Bliss Carman in Fredericton, New Brunswick. "Bliss" was his mother's maiden name. He was the great grandson of United Empire Loyalists who fled to Nova Scotia after the American Revolution, settling in New Brunswick (then part of Nova Scotia). His literary roots run deep with an ancestry that includes a mother who was a descendant of Daniel Bliss of Concord, Massachusetts, the great-grandfather of Ralph Waldo Emerson. His sister, Jean, married the botanist and historian William Francis Ganong. And on his mother's side he was a first cousin to Charles (later Sir Charles) G. D. Roberts.
In 1896 Carman met Mary Perry King, who became the greatest and longest-lasting female influence in his life. Mrs. King became his patron: "She put pence in his purse, and food in his mouth, when he struck bottom and, what is more, she often put a song on his lips when he despaired, and helped him sell it." According to Carman's roommate, Mitchell Kennerley, "On rare occasions they had intimate relations at 10 E. 16 which they always advised me of by leaving a bunch of violets — Mary Perry's favorite flower — on the pillow of my bed." If he knew of the latter, Dr. King did not object: "He even supported her involvement in the career of Bliss Carman to the extent that the situation developed into something close to a ménage à trois" with the Kings.
Through Mrs. King's influence Carman became an advocate of 'unitrinianism,' a philosophy which "drew on the theories of François-Alexandre-Nicolas-Chéri Delsarte to develop a strategy of mind-body-spirit harmonization aimed at undoing the physical, psychological, and spiritual damage caused by urban modernity." This shared belief created a bond between Mrs. King and Carman but estranged him somewhat from his former friends.
In 1899 Lamson, Wolffe was taken over by the Boston firm of Small, Maynard & Co., who had also acquired the rights to Low Tide... "The rights to all Carman's books were now held by one publisher and, in lieu of earnings, Carman took a financial stake in the company. When Small, Maynard failed in 1903, Carman lost all his assets."
Down but not out, Carman signed with another Boston company, L.C. Page, and began to churn out new work. Page published seven books of new Carman poetry between 1902 and 1905. As well, the firm released three books based on Carman's Transcript columns, and a prose work on unitrinianism, The Making of Personality, that he'd written with Mrs. King. "Page also helped Carman rescue his 'dream project,' a deluxe edition of his collected poetry to 1903.... Page acquired distribution rights with the stipulation that the book be sold privately, by subscription. The project failed; Carman was deeply disappointed and became disenchanted with Page, whose grip on Carman's copyrights would prevent the publication of another collected edition during Carman's lifetime."
Carman also picked up some needed cash in 1904 as editor-in-chief of the 10-volume project, The World's Best Poetry.
After 1908 Carman lived near the Kings' New Canaan, Connecticut, estate, "Sunshine", or in the summer in a cabin near their summer home in the Catskills, "Moonshine." Between 1908 and 1920, literary taste began to shift, and his fortunes and health declined.
"Although not a political activist, Carman during the First World War was a member of the Vigilantes, who supported American entry into the conflict on the Allied side."
By 1920, Carman was impoverished and recovering from a near-fatal attack of tuberculosis. That year he revisited Canada and "began the first of a series of successful and relatively lucrative reading tours, discovering 'there is nothing worth talking of in book sales compared with reading.'" "'Breathless attention, crowded halls, and a strange, profound enthusiasm such as I never guessed could be,' he reported to a friend. 'And good thrifty money too. Think of it! An entirely new life for me, and I am the most surprised person in Canada.'" Carman was feted at "a dinner held by the newly formed Canadian Authors' Association at the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Montreal on 28 October 1921 where he was crowned Canada's Poet Laureate with a wreath of maple leaves."
The tours of Canada continued, and by 1925 Carman had finally acquired a Canadian publisher. "McClelland & Stewart (Toronto) issued a collection of selected earlier verses and became his main publisher. They benefited from Carman's popularity and his revered position in Canadian literature, but no one could convince L.C. Page to relinquish its copyrights. An edition of collected poetry was published only after Carman's death, due greatly to the persistence of his literary executor, Lorne Pierce."
During the 1920s, Carman was a member of the Halifax literary and social set, The Song Fishermen. In 1927 he edited The Oxford Book of American Verse.
Carman died of a brain hemorrhage at the age of 68 in New Canaan, and was cremated in New Canaan. "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." "His ashes were buried in Forest Hill Cemetery, Fredericton, and a national memorial service was held at the Anglican cathedral there." Twenty-five years later, on May 13, 1954, a scarlet maple tree was planted at his gravesite, to grant his request in his 1892 poem "The Grave-Tree":
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