Chapter 15
Remembering with Architecture
by D.M.R Bentley


The capacity of architectural structures and literary architexts to generate feelings of dismay and pathos is seldom more evident than in the paintings and descriptions of abandoned houses and homesteads that began to appear in Canada during the early Victorian period and retained their respectability until well into the twentieth century when they fell afoul of irony’s disdain for anything sentimental and demoted to the ranks of kitsch.28 A remarkable literary instance of the genre is provided by Sir Francis Bond Head (1793-1875), the lieutenant governor of Upper Canada during the rebellions of 1837-38, in the volume of “Political History ... [and] light sketches” that with characteristic obliquity he entitled The Emigrant (1846):

In riding through the forest I often passed deserted log-huts, standing in the middle of what is called “cleared land,” – that is to say, the enormous pine trees of the surrounding forest had been chopped down to stumps about a yard high, around which there had rushed up a luxurious growth of hard brush-wood, the height of which devoted that several years must have elapsed since the tenants had retired.
    There was something which I always felt to be deeply affecting in passing these little monuments of the failure of human expectations – of the blight of human hopes!
    The courage that had been evinced in settling in the heart of the wilderness, and the amount of labour that had been expended in cutting down so many large trees, had all ended in disappointment, and occasionally in sorrows of the severest description. The arm that had wielded the axe had perhaps become gradually enervated by ague ..., until death had slowly terminated the existence of the poor emigrant, leaving a broken-hearted woman and a helpless family with nothing to look to for support but the clear bright blue heavens above them. (89-90)

Bond Head proceeds to provide examples of log-huts and shanties that have become “monuments,” including the “lone shanty” near the Rideau Canal where on August 28, 1819 the then governor general of the Canadas, the Duke of Richmond, died of rabies-induced hydrophobia (see 90-107). In the wake of Romanticism, numerous visitors and emigrants to Canada registered “the appalling loneliness and depressing monotony of the boundless forest” (Howison 186) as the cause of “a feeling of gloom almost touching on sadness (Traill 63), but Bond Head is one of the earliest writers to regard abandoned log houses and shanties not merely as “deeply affecting,” but also as “monuments” to blighted hopes and untimely death. Thirty years after the publication of The Emigrant the Pioneer Lob Cabin at the American Centennial Exposition of 1876 in Philadelphia would transform log houses into “the great frontier symbol of Upper Canada” and result three years later in the installation of “John Scadding’s cabin, built in 1794 on the east bank of the Don River,” to “Exhibition Park in Toronto...to memorialize ‘Toronto’s oldest house’” (Gowans 6).29 In Alan Gowans’ view, the log house was merely “a harbinger of civilization rather than one of its manifestations” (7), but, of course, it was both30 and, intimately associated as it was with the arrival and advance of that civilization, a potential source of either gloom or cheer.” “[E]specially when isolated in the mass of a dark heavy forest,” “[n]othing looks less cheerful than the hut of a primitive settler [in] Upper Canada,” wrote Francis Hall in Travels in Canada, and the United States, in 1816 and 1817 (1818), but a closer look reveals “pleasant comfort and progressional improvement” (215-16).

    Alongside the association of shanties and log houses with the vicissitudes of European settlement came the Romantic association of rural workers and their isolated dwellings with escape from the corrupting effects of advanced civilization and with exposure to the healing qualities of the natural world. Besides serving as an inspiration to later poets such as McLachlan and as a spur to immigration to Upper Canada, Moore’s idyllic evocation of a “cottage” amid “green elms” in a “‘lone little wood’” stands at the beginning of a Canadian continuity that drew succour from such sources as Wordsworth’s depiction of Romantic solitaries and Thoreau’s enactment of this very topos on Walden Pond and achieved its most accomplished realization in two poems by members of the Confederation group, Archibald Lampman (1861-99) and Charles G.D. Roberts (1860-1943). In the earlier of these, Lampman’s “The Woodcutter’s Hut” (written in December 1893 [Early, “ Chronology” 83]),31 the solitary is an “animal man in his warmth and vigour, sound and hard, and complete” whose life follows the rhythm of the seasons, taking him to his hut in the mountains to cut wood in winter and to the farms in the valley “To handle the plough and the harrow, and scythe” during the remainder of the year (Poems 249). When his “lonely hut,” a structure consisting of “a few rough beams that show / A blunted peak,” lies empty during the summer it provokes a response reminiscent of Bond Head’s meditation on “deserted log-huts” in The Emigrant:

So lonely and silent it is, so withered and warped with the sun and snow,
You would think it the fruit of some dead man’s toil a hundred years ago;
And he who finds it suddenly there, as he wanders far and above,
Is touched with a sweet and beautiful sense of something tender and gone,
The sense of a struggling life in the waste, and the mark of a souls
  command,
The going and coming of vanished feet, the touch of a human hand.
(Poems 250)

Reading this after Bond Head’s meditation throws into relief the fanciful and erroneous nature of the thoughts and feelings attributed to the “You” and “he” who stumble upon the woodcutter’s hut and, lacking knowledge of what it actually is, endow it with a false history and a necessarily inauthentic emotional content. By 1893, it would appear, all log dwellings were amenable to interpretation by the ignorant or fanciful as symbols of the successes and failures of Upper Canada’s pioneers.32

    First published over three years after “The Woodcutter’s Hut” and perhaps written under the influence of Lampman’s poem,33 Roberts’s “The Solitary Woodsman” (1897) focuses more on the woodsman than on his hut, which is nevertheless described as a structure with a “lonely door” and “rough log walls” that are as integrated as he is into the natural world:

... about his sober footsteps
Unafraid the squirrels play.

On his roof the red leaf falls,
At his door the bluejay calls,
    And he hears the wood-mice hurry
Up and down his rough log walls.

·          ·         ·

And the wind about his eaves
Through the chilly night-wet grieves,
And the earth’s dumb patience fills him,

Fellow to the falling leaves.

(Collected Poems 230)

In contrast to “The Woodcutter’s Hut,” which bears the stamp of Lampman’s socialism in its emphasis on the woodcutter’s actual work, “The Solitary Woodsman” glosses over that aspect of the woodsman’s life (“All day long he wanders wide / With the grey moss for his guide, / And his lonely axe-stroke startles / The expectant forest-side”) to present him less as a manual labourer than as a naturalist in the tradition of John Burroughs, Bradford Torrey, and other American writers of the day (“And he hears the partridge drumming, / The belated hornet humming, / All the faint, prophetic sounds / That foretell the winter’s coming”). It is probably not fortuitous that the solitary woodsman’s dwelling is twice referred to as a “camp,” a word that by end of the nineteenth century was widely used to refer to vacation cottages and compounds as well as to the quarters of soldiers, lumbermen, and other semi-nomadic groups (see Kaiser).

Notes

  • This has not prevented the continuation of the sub-genre; see, for example, “Prosser’s House” (1979) by the Saskatchewan poet Tom Howe where “an abandoned farmhouse” in the Peace River country evokes thoughts of its builder nailing together its “planks and boards ... in a homesteading dream” and finally “whisper[ing] ‘enough’” and leaving” (52-53). [back]
  • For the rise of the log house to iconic status in American (and, subsequently, Canadian) culture, see Harold R. Shurtleff, The Log Cabin Myth. [back]
  • To Howison, the “[d]iminutive log-houses, surrounded with a few acres of cleared land” that he encountered near Lachine on the St. Lawrence west of Montreal represented “feeble vestiges of civilization [that] seemed to be divided by ... clumps of immense oaks that every where waved their colossal boughs as if threatening destruction to all below” (21). [back]
  • The date of the poem’s composition, coupled with Lampman’s fascination with The White City at the Columbian Exhibition in Chicago in 1893 (see Northern Reflections), opens the possibility that it was at least partly inspired by the Hunter’s Camp that was designed for the Exhibition by Holabird and Roche and contributed to the perception of the log cabin as a materialization of “the essential American ‘natural’ character” (Christine Macy and Sarah Bonnemaison 41, and see 45). [back]
  • In “The Settler’s Tale,” also written in 1893, Lampman recounts the tragic tale of a settler who builds a log “hut by a northern lake” (“The logs I measured and hauled and hewed.... I raised and mortised them close and well, / ... I finished the roof .... I carved and fitted it fair within”), but soon afterwards loses first his wife and then his daughter (see “Twenty-Five Fugitive Poems” 61-63). Driven to despair by his losses, he loses his will to live and is rescued from suicide by an Indian, but shows no signs of recovering psychologically (“My joy went forth as a word that is said; / It is gone, and forever; my heart is dead”). [back]
  • See Roberts’s Collected Poems 504 for the publishing history of “The Solitary Woodsman” and The Heart of the Ancient Wood (1900) for a much more extended use of a log house as a retreat from society. Log houses also figure in several of the other novels and short stories that Roberts wrote around the turn of the century. [back]