Essays and Reviews

by Archibald Lampman

Edited by D.M.R. Bentley


 

Two Canadian Poets[:]
a Lecture


 

In the last twenty years great advances have been made in this country, and many things have been accomplished which are a sourse of hope and comfort to those who are beginning to feel for Canada the enthusiasm of Fatherland[.] Already there are many among us whose fathers and grandfathers have lived and died upon this soil, who are neither British, French nor German, but simply Canadians. For them everything connected with the honour and well-being of their country has come to be a matter of daily interest. The enthusiasm of Fatherland, the attachment to native soil, the love of the name of our country[,] is one of those generous impulses which have always been a moral necessity and an encouraging help to people who do not live by bread alone. It is getting rather customary in our time to underrate patriotism as one of the virtues, and to substitute in its place cosmopolitanism or the enthusiasm for the advancement of all mankind, making no distinction in favour of any country. Nothing could be finer than that; but unfortunately our energies, if made to cover too wide a ground, are apt to lose themselves in mere speculation, and to fall short of practical effect. Perhaps it is safer therefore to be interested chiefly in the well fare of our own country, provided that we do nothing to hinder the just advancement of that of others. At any rate the true spirit of patriotism has always been a considerable factor in the best upward movements of the human race. Let us however discountenance blatant patriotism as we would discountenance everything that is suspicious and ridiculous. Dr. Johnson’s old saying about patriotism holds true in a new country like ours more markedly than in any other, and there are a greater number of those who find that it pays to be extremely zealous about their Fatherland. Already there is a good deal of talk in the public press which reminds one a little of Elijah Pogram and Jefferson Brick. At this time when our country’s destiny, its very independent existence perhaps, is a matter of doubt and anxiety, it behooves us to be silent and do no boasting, but look seriously about us for the wisest thing to be said and done at each crisis.

A good deal is being said about Canadian Literature, and most of it takes the form of question and answer as to whether a Canadian Literature exists. Of course it does not. It will probably be a full generation or two before we can present a body of work of sufficient excellence as measured by the severest standards, and sufficiently marked with local colour, to enable us to call it a Canadian Literature. It is only within the last quarter of a century that the United States have produced anything like a distinctive American Literature. There was scarcely any peculiar literary quality in the work of the age of Longfellow, and Hawthorne to mark it decidedly as American[.] But within the last twenty five or thirty years, along with the evolution of a marked American race, certain noticeable American peculiarities of mind and character have been developed, which have strongly affected literary expression. Our country is still in the house-building land-breaking stage, and all its energies must go to the laying of a foundation of material prosperity upon which a future culture may be built. Those capable minds, which in old and long-civilized countries might be drawn into literature, in Canada are forced into the more practical paths[.] They are engaged in making fortunes and founding families. Their descendents, the people who shall inherit the fortune, leizure, station secured by them will be the writers or the readers of the age when a Canadian Literature comes to be. At present our people are too busy to read, too busy at least to read with discernment, and where there are no discerning readers there will be no writers. Also our educational institutions—even our best universities—are yet too raw to develop a literary spirit. All they can now be expected to do is to furnish the country with smart lawyers, competent physicians, able business men. As we advance in age and the settled conditions of life, these things will be gradually changed[.] There will arise a leizured class, a large body of educated people, who will create a market for literature and a literary atmosphere. And when that happens a literature will be produced for them. If our country becomes an independent compacted, self-supporting nation, which is, or ought to be, the dream of all of us, its social and climatic conditions will in the course of time evolve a race of people, having a peculiar national temperament and bent of mind, and when that is done we shall have a Canadian literature[.]

It is no doubt futile to speculate on the character of a thing as yet so remote as a Canadian Literature; yet one might hazard a thought or two on that subject. We know that climatic and scenic conditions have much to do with the moulding of national character. In the climate of this country we have the pitiless severity of the climate of Sweden with the sunshine and the sky of the north of Italy, a combination not found in the same degree anywhere else in the world. The northern winters of Europe are seasons of terror and gloom; our winters are seasons of glittering splendour and incomparable richness of colour. At the same time we have the utmost diversity of scenery, a country exhibiting every variety of beauty and grandeur. A Canadian race, we imagine, might combine the energy, the seriousness, the perseverance of the Scandinavians with something of the gayety, the elasticity, the quickness of spirit of the south. If these qualities could be united in a literature, the result would indeed be something novel and wonderful.

But if we have not yet anything that we can call a full Canadian literature, we are not without our writers. Every Canadian who has read no further than the newspapers has heard of Judge Haliburton, Charles Heavysege, Dr. Kingsford, Dr. Bourinot, W.D. Lesueur, Abbé Casgrain, Sir William Dawson, Octave Cremazie [sic], Louis Fréchette, Professor Alexander, Professor Roberts[,] Miss Machar, Hunter Duvar. These are names of which we have reason to be proud. In the last decade or two a small quantity of work of very decided excellence has been produced by Canadians. If we confine our view to pure literature a great part of this small quantity of excellent work has been done in verse. It is natural that the poet should be the most conspicuous product of the awakening literary impulse in a new country like ours. The philosopher, the historian, the critic, the novelist are more likely to represent a long established civilization. In a new and sparcely settled land the urgent problems of life do not force themselves on the attention of men as they do in the midst of dense populations. Consequently though they may interest themselves in the study of philosophy as a matter of culture, they are not likely to produce much original work of that sort. The field for the historian is also not very extensive. The critic has no place because he has nothing to examine. Even the novelist is likely to be a later product; for it is in the press of the older civilizations, where life in all its variety throngs about him, that he finds birth, food and stimulus. But for the poet the beauty of external nature and the aspects of the most primitive life are always a sufficient inspiration. On the border of civilization the poet is pretty sure to be the literary pioneer[.] For the poet of external nature no country is richer in inspiration than ours. For the balladist or the narrative writer we have at least as good a field as our neighbours of the United States. For the dramatic poet, if a dramatic poet could be produced in our age, there are I should think several excellent subjects in [the] history of old French Canada.

In searching for a subject for this paper I could not think of any upon which I could have greater pleasure in writing than the one I have chosen; viz., the writings in verse of two Canadians, Professor Charles G.D. Roberts and the late George Frederick Cameron. The first is a writer, whose marked quality of imagination and powerful gift of style have gained him attention both in England and the United States; but what specially prompted me to choose this subject was a desire to say something of the late Mr. Cameron, a writer of a higher order of excellence as judged from the purest standpoint, of some very remarkable qualities of feeling and expression, who has not, as far as I can learn[,] attracted the attention he deserves.

As regards Mr. Roberts work I have always had a personal feeling which perhaps induces me to place a higher estimate upon it in some respects than my hearers will care to accept. To most younger Canadians, who are interested in literature, especially those who have written themselves, Mr. Roberts occupies a peculiar position. They are accustomed to look up to him as in some sort the founder of a school, the originator of a new era in our poetic activity. I hope my hearers will pardon me, if I go out of my way to illustrate this fact by describing the effect Mr. Roberts’ poems produced upon me when I first met with them.

It was almost ten years ago, and I was very young, an undergraduate at College. One May evening somebody lent me Orion and Other Poems then recently published. Like most of the young fellows about me I had been under the depressing conviction that we were situated hopelessly on the outskirts of civilization, where no art and no literature could be, and that it was useless to expect that anything great could be done by any of our companions, still more useless to expect that we could do it ourselves. I sat up all night reading and re-reading "Orion" in a state of the wildest excitement and when I went to bed I could not sleep. It seemed to me a wonderful thing that such work could be done by a Canadian, by a young man, one of ourselves. It was like a voice from some new paradise of art calling to us to be up and doing. A little after sunrise I got up and went out into the College grounds. The air, I remember, was full of the odour and cool sunshine of the spring morning. The dew was thick upon the grass. All the birds of our Maytime seemed to be singing in the oaks, and there were even a few adder-tongues and trilliums still blossoming on the slope of the little ravine. But everything was transfigured for me beyond description, bathed in an old world radiance of beauty, the magic of the lines that were sounding in my ears, those divine verses, as they seemed to me, with their Tennyson-like richness and strange, earth-loving Greekish flavour. I have never forgotten that morning, and its influence has always remained with me.

I am now able to discern Mr. Roberts’ deficiencies. I know that he lacks tenderness, variety, elasticity and that he never approaches the nobler attitudes of feeling; yet that early work of his has a special and mysterious charm for me—and it is indeed excellent, of an astonishing gift in workmanship, with passages here and there which are in their way are almost unsurpassable.

Almost all the verse writing published in Canada before the appearance of Orion was of a more or less barbarous character. The drama of Saul by Charles Heavysege and some of Heavysege’s sonnets are about the only exceptions, which can be made to this statement. Mr. Roberts was the first Canadian writer in verse who united a strong original genius with a high degree of culture, and an acute literary judgment. He was the first to produce a style, strongly individual in tone, and founded on the study of the best writers. Mr. Cameron, although a poet of greater spontaneity, a more passionate force, and a much higher range of feeling, than Mr. Roberts does not equal him in perfection of style. He neither aimed at, nor attained the same artistic excellence of workmanship.

Mr. Roberts’ work, so far as it is available for purposes of criticism, is contained in two small volumes; the first Orion and Other Poems, published in 1880, when he was still an undergraduate of the University of New Brunswick, and not yet twenty years of age; the second In Divers Tones, published in 1887, when he was in his 27th year. The first volume was of course immature, but it was an immaturity full of promise, and full of exhilaration for the poet’s younger countrymen. Some of the work in it is astonishing work for a Canadian Schoolboy of eighteen or nineteen. Two of the poems included in this volume, "Memnon" and the "Ode to Drowsihood"[,] had already attracted the admiration of Dr. Holland, the late editor of the Century, and had been published in that magazine. The second volume, that of 1887, may be considered the work of Mr. Roberts’ maturity, for he has published nothing as good since. In this the promise of the first was strengthened and in part fulfilled. A few of the poems were remarkable accomplishments, and the workmanship of them all excellent enough to secure Mr. Roberts a high place among the writers of the continent.

All Mr. Roberts’ writing is of a very scholarly character; it is the work of an artist and a student, possessed of a decided original tone of feeling. In each of his volumes the longest and most important work is a poem in blank verse, the subject chosen from Greek classic legend; "Orion" in the first, and "Acteon" [sic] in the second. In these poems Mr. Roberts has won the rare distinction of having succeeded admirably in blank verse—a severe test. The blank verse of "Orion" and "Acteon" [sic] is an interesting study. It has a highly original quality, and at the same time shows a curious mingling of many influences. It is the workmanship of a student of Homer, influenced largely by Milton and Tennyson, somewhat also by Keats and Matthew Arnold. I do not know of any writer, with the exception of Matthew Arnold in his "Balder Dead", who has given to blank verse a more charming touch of Homer than Mr. Roberts. His verse is [not] quite so Homeric in its lightness and a swift movement as that of "Balder Dead", but it has more weight and a greater fulness of music. It is touched somewhat with the halt and restraint of Milton, corrected with a spice of the rich impulsiveness of Tennyson’s "Oenone". On the whole it is very fine; probably no better has been done on this side of the Atlantic.

"Orion" is the story of the gigantic huntsman, who made a compact with Œnopion, King of Chios, to rid his island of wild beasts in exchange for the hand of his daughter Merope. When Orion had performed the task, deemed impossible, Œnopion, fearing his terrible strength, intoxicated him with drugged wine, and in his sleep deprived him of sight. Orion however managed to make his way by divine direction to a neighbouring mountain height, where as he stood fronting the East at dawn, the first rays of the rising sun falling upon his eyes restored him to sight. Several passages in the poem in which Mr. Roberts retells this tale are so picturesque, and so thoroughly well written that I cannot pass without quoting one or two.

Out of the foamless sea a heavy fog
Steamed up, rolled in on all the Island shores,
But heavier, denser, like a cloak, where lay
The Hunter; and the darkness gathered thick,
More thick the fog and darkness, where he lay,
Like as a mother folds more close her child
At night when sudden street brawl jars her dreams[.]
But now the folding vapors veiled him not,
The ineffectual darkness hid him not,
For one came with the king, and bare a torch,
And stood beside the Hunter where he lay;
And all the darkness shuddered and fled back
Sullenly into the grim visaged crags,
Beneath their battered foreheads; and the fog
Crept up a chilly horror round the King,
Made huge the writhed and frowning mountain brows,
Till cliff, and cloud, and chaos of thick night
Toppled about the place, and each small sound
Of footstep or of stealthy whisper rang
Tortured and shrill within the cavernous hollows.
Before the King, before the torch-bearer,
Stood one beside the Hunter’s head,—a slave
Beside the god-begotten,—and he bare
Back with one arm his cloak, and in his hand
He bare a cup—with such like juice in it
As slew Alcmena’s son—above the face,
The strong, white, god-like face, more deathly white
Even than death; then into each close lid
He dropped the poison with a loathing hand,
While he whose light made manifest the deed,
Winced in his eyes and saw not, would not see,
Those eyes that knew not of their light gone out.
And heavy drops stood forth on all the rocks,
And ocean moaned unseen beneath the fog;
But the King laughed—not loud—and drew his cloak
Closer about him and went up the beach,
And they two with him.

Another, when Orion on the mountain summit, fronting the dawn, awaits the healing presence of the sun.

The cliffs are rent and through the eternal chasm
A far-heard moan of many cataracts,
With nearer, ceaseless murmur of the pines,
Came with the east wind, whilst the herald gold
From cloven pinnacles on either hand
On gradual wings sank to that airy glen;
And many-echoed dash of many waves
Rose dimly from the cliff-base where they brake,
Far down, unseen; and the wide sea spread wan
In the pale dawn-tide, limit-less, unportioned—
Aye sentinelled by these vast rocky brows
Defaced and stern with unforgotten fires.

But he intent leaned toward the gates of dawn
With suppliant face, unseeing, and the wind
Blew back from either brow his hair and cooled
His eyes that burned with that so foul dishonor
Late wrought upon them, whispering many things
Into his inmost soul. Sudden the day
Brake full. The healing of its radiance fell
Upon his eyes, and straight his sightless eyes
Were opened. All the morning’s majesty
And mystery of loveliness lay bare
Before him; all the limitless blue sea,
Brightening with laughter many a league around,
Wind-wrinkled, keel-uncloven, far below;
And far above the bright sky-neighboring peaks;
And all around the broken precipices,
Cleft-rooted pines swung over falling foam,
And silver vapors flushed with the wide flood
Of crimson slanted from the opening east
Well-ranked, the vanguard of the day,—all these
Invited him, but these he heeded not

I think that that is very remarkable writing for a lad of nineteen.

The style which in its immaturity showed so much imagination and intellectual force in "Orion", is developed, pruned, and compacted in "Acteon [sic]". Here the verse is full of strength and melody, clearly wrought and excellently balanced. While reminding one of the Greek, of Tennyson, and of Matthew Arnold, it is so penetrated and coloured by Mr. Roberts’ own peculiar picturesque quality as to form an altogether original style. The "Acteon [sic]" is certainly the best poem of that kind that has been written in America, and as regards workmanship I think it will stand comparison favourably with Tennyson’s "Oenone".

Acteon you will perhaps remember, was that prince of Thebes, the pupil of Chiron the Centaur, who, as he was hunting with his fifty hounds on Mount Cithæron, came upon Diana and her nymphs bathing in a mountain pool. The Goddess, stirred with sudden anger at the intrusion, turned him into a stag, and he was torn to pieces by his dogs. Mr. Roberts[’] story is put into the mouth of an old woman of Platæa who tells how she saw the fate of Acteon with her own eyes, as she was searching upon the mountain for herbs. This is the conclusion of her tale:—

I have lived long and watched out many days,
Yet have not seen that ought is sweet save life,
Nor learned that life hath other end than death.
Thick horror like a cloud had veiled my sight,
That for a space I saw not, and my ears
Were shut from hearing; but when sense grew clear
Once more, I only saw the vacant pool
Unrippled,—only saw the dreadful sward,
Where dogs lay gorged, or moved in fretful search,
Questing uneasily; and some far up
The slope, and some at the low water’s edge,
With snouts set high in air and straining throats
Uttered keen howls that smote the echoing hills.
They missed their master’s form, nor understood
Where was the voice they loved, the hand that reared;
And some lay watching by the spear and bow
Flung down.
And now upon the homeless pack
And paling stream arose a noiseless wind
Out of the yellow west awhile, and stirred
The branches down the valley; then blew off
To Eastward toward the long grey straits, and died
Into the dark, beyond the utmost verge.

Mr. Roberts’ genius has in it a strongly pagan, earth-loving, instinct[,] a delight in the mere presence of life and nature for their own sake, a delight half intellectual, half-physical, touched with a passionate glow. This quality is most strongly marked in two poems which are also noticeable for their success in an unusual form of verse. The "Tantramar Revisited" and "The Pipes of Pan" are written in the Elegiac Distich of Tibullus and Ovid, a form which has been transferred into English with good effect. There is a certain passionate stress in it, which makes it specially applicable to descriptive writing of an emotionally meditative and reminiscent character. Lines like the following from "Tantramar Revisited" illustrate our poet’s keen sympathy with nature and his strenuous and scholarly gift of expression.

Miles on miles beyond the tawny bay is Minudie.
There are the low blue hills; villages gleam at their feet[.]
Nearer a white sail shines across the water, and nearer
Still are the slim gray masts of fishing boats dry on the flats.
Ah, how well I remember those wide red flats, above tide-mark
Pale with scurf of the salt, seamed and baked in the sun!
Well I remember the piles of blocks, and ropes and the net-reels
Wound with the beaded nets, dripping and dark from the sea!
Now at this season the nets are unwound; they hang from the
                                                                                      rafters
Over the fresh-stowed hay in upland barns, and the wind
Blows all day through the chinks, with the streaks of sunlight
                                                                          and sways them
Softly at will; or they lie heaped in the gloom of a loft.

What a vivid naturalistic expression there is in some of the following lines from the "Pipes of Pan"—a beautiful poem. You will observe what artifice of phrase the poet uses to convey to all the senses of the reader the rank warm luxuriant aspect of the spot he is describing.

Here is a nook. Two rivulets fall to mix with Peneus,
Loiter a space and steep, checked and choked by the reeds[.]
Long grass waves in the windless water, strown with the
                                                                                     lote-leaf;
Twist through dripping soil great alder roots and the air
Glooms with the dripping tangle of leaf-thick branches, and
                                                                                    stillness
Keeps in the strange-coiled stems, ferns, and wet-loving
                                                                                    weeds.
Hither comes Pan to this pregnant earthy spot, when his piping
Flags; and his pipes outworn breaking and casting away,
Fits new reeds to his mouth with the weird earth melody in
                                                                                    them,
Piercing, alive with a life able to mix with the god’s.

It is possible that some of these lines are in a slight degree over done, reminding one in that respect of the American poet Edgar Fawcett, who is very fond of reaching natural effects by artifices of this kind. The idea in the "Pipes of Pan" is that Pan, coming to this "pregnant earthy spot" when his pipes are worn out, plucks new reeds from the river and flings the old ones away, and the old pipes, in which the "God-breath" still lingers, float with Peneus to the Ocean, and are scattered over the whole world.

                                                               And mortals
Straying in cool of morn, or bodeful hasting at eve,
Or in the depth of noonday plunged to shadiest coverts,
Spy them, and set to their lips; blow and fling them away!
Ay, they fling them away—but never wholly! Thereafter
Creeps strange fire in their veins, murmur strange tongues in their
                                                                                   brain,
Sweetly evasive; a secret madness takes them,—a charm-struck
Passion for woods and wild life, the solitude of the hills.
Therefore they fly the heedless throngs and traffic of cities,
Haunt mossed caverns, and wells bubbling ice-cool; and their
                                                                                   souls
Gather a magical gleam of the secret of life, and the god’s voice
Calls to them, not from afar, teaching them wonderful things.

The fancy is a beautiful one, and there is a sort of silvery joyousness in the movement of all the poem, which causes it to grow upon one’s like the more frequently it is read[.]

The ode is a kind of verse in which Mr. Roberts is perhaps not qualified to be very successful[.] He has not sufficient ease and flow to work well in complicated stanzas[.] His talent applies itself best to blank verse for which a certain self-retardative, almost cumbrous tendency of movement, peculiar to him, is an excellent qualification. Nevertheless in his first volume there is a very good ode, that to "Drowsihood"[.] It is a purely sensuous production and rests its claim to distinction entirely upon the beauty of its workmanship. Two of the stanzas in particular I will quote as being remarkable for some happy phrases[.]

The startled meadow-hen floats off, to sink
    Into remoter shades and ferny glooms;
    The great bees drone about the thick pea-blooms;
The liquid bubblings of the bobolink,
                 With warm perfumes
From the broad-flowered wild parsnip, drown my
                                                                  brain
    The grackles bicker in the alder-boughs;
The grasshoppers pipe out their thin refrain
    That with intenser heat the noon endows:
Then my weft weakens, and I wake again
                  Out of my dreamful drowze.

Ah, fetch thy poppy baths, juices expressed
    In fervid sunshine, where the Javan palm
    Stirs, scarce wakened from its odorous calm
By the enervate wind, that sinks to rest
                   Amid the balm
And sultry silence, murmuring, half asleep,
   Cool fragments of the oceans foamy roar,
And of the surge’s mighty sobs that keep
   Forever yearning up the golden shore,
Mingled with songs of Nereids that leap
                   Where the curled crests down-pour[.]

Occasionally Mr. Roberts’ work is spoiled by an effect of strain and elaborate effort, the movement of the scarcely successful labourer. A stanza like the following from "The Isles", an ode in his second volume, leaves no satisfactory impression upon the ear, even if the sense be grasped.

One moment throbs the hearing, yearns the sight,
     But though not far, yet strangely hid—the way,
     And our sense slow, nor long for us delay
                    The guides their flight!
The breath goes by, the word, the light, elude;
     And we stay wondering. But there comes an hour
Of fitness perfect and unfettered mood,
     When splits her husk the finer sense with power
                    And—yon their palm-trees tower!

"In the Afternoon", a truly beautiful little poem, is an illustration of Mr. Roberts’ most noticeable faculty, the power of investing a bit of vivid landscape description with the musical pathos of some haunting reminiscence or connecting with it a comforting thought, some kindly suggested truth.

Wind of the summer afternoon,
Hush, for my heart is out of tune!

Hush, for thou movest restlessly
The too light sleeper, Memory!

Whate’er thou hast to tell me, yet
’Twere something sweeter to forget,—

Sweeter than all thy breath of balm
An hour of unremembering calm!

So he begins, and there follow many descriptive couplets, full of happy and life-like touches—here are some of them:—

Waist-deep in dusty blossomed grass
I watch the swooping breezes pass

In sudden, long, pale lines, that flee
Up the deep breast of this green sea.

I listen to the bird that stirs
The purple tops, and grasshoppers

Whose summer din, before my feet
Subsiding, wakes on my retreat.

Again the droning bees hum by;
Still-winged, the grey hawk wheels on high[.]

In "On the Creek", another happy poem, we find such stanzas as these

For scents of various grass
    Stream down the veering breeze;
Warm puffs of honey pass
    From flowering linden trees.

And fragrant gusts of gum,
    From clammy balm-tree buds
With fern-brake odours, come
From intricate solitudes[.]

This last stanza is an instance of our poet’s tendency to clog his lines with clusters of consonants. It is not the result of carelessness with him, but a whim of his own ear. Sometimes he carries it too far, and writes a stanza like the following, which is hard to articulate.

From off yon ash-limb sere
     Out thrust amid green branches,
Keen like an azure spear,
     A king fisher down launches[.]

I cannot help calling particular attention to a single quatrain from a poem entitled "Off Pelorus", in which Mr. Roberts retouches the old story of Ulysses and the Syrens, putting his song into the mouth of one of the sailors of the wandering king. You remember that the sailors bound Ulysses to the mast and caulked their own ears. As they pass the shore where the Syrens are singing

See the King! He hearkens,—hears their song,—strains forward,—
As some mountain snake attends the shepherd’s reed.
Now with urgent hand he bids turn us shoreward,—
Bend the groaning oar now; give the King no heed!

I quote this stanza as an illustration of Mr. Roberts’ picturesque power and his genuine poet’s capacity for getting the utmost musical and dramatic effect out of words.

One can hardly open Mr. Roberts’ book anywhere without meeting with some richly descriptive phrase or happy stroke of the imagination. Such lines as the following, transcribed here and there at random, stand out even from the excellence of the poems in which they occur, and touch the fancy with a delighted surprise[:]

Oh tenderly deepen the woodland blooms
And merrily sway the beeches
Breathe delicately the willow blooms
And the pines rehearse new speeches[.]

The yellow willows full of bees and bloom[.]

The sleepless ocean’s ceaseless beat,
The surge’s monotone[.]

Far down the south a dreary gleam
Of white light smote the sullen swells,
Evasive as a blissful dream,
Or wind-borne notes of bells[.]

A yellow-sanded pool, shallow and clear,
Lay sparkling, brown about the further bank
With scarlet-berried ash-trees hanging over[.]

                                           But this mount
Cithæron, bosomed deep in soundless hills,
Its fountained vales, its nights of starry calm,
Its high chill dawns, its long-drawn golden days,
Was dearest to him[.]

                                  The everlasting gods,
Girt with their purples of perpetual peace[.]

Yellow beach-grass, whose brown panicles
Wore garlands of blown foam.[.]

The echo-peopled crags[.]

The star-consulting silent pinnacles[.]

The sun, far-sunken o’er the wold,
Through archéd windows sluicing gold
In sloping moted rows[.]

The wealth of the poet’s thought
Tho sweet to win, is bitter to keep[.]

When the veering wind hath blown
A glare of sudden daylight down[.]

But one must read the entire poems in which these scraps occur in order to fully appreciate the gift of the poet.

As a sonnet-writer Mr. Roberts has been unevenly successful. Two or three of his sonnets are impressive in thought and excellently modulated: but others bear traces of effort and consequently do not thoroughly capture the ear. I think the following sonnet entitled "Reckoning" is his best[:]

What matter that the sad grey city sleeps,
    Sodden with dull dreams, ill at ease, and snow
    Still falling chokes the swollen drains! I know
That even with sun and summer not less creeps
My spirit thro’ gloom, nor ever gains the steeps
    Where Peace sits, inaccessible, yearned for so.
    Well have I learned that from my breast my woe
Starts,—that as my own hand hath sown, it reaps[.]

I have had my measure of achievement, won
    Most I have striven for; and at last remains
    This one thing certain only, that who gains
Success hath gained it at too sore a cost,
If in his triumph hour his heart have lost
    Youth, and have found its sorrow of age begun[.]

Another of Mr. Roberts’ sonnets "The Sower", apparently a transcript in verse of François Millet’s famous picture of the same title, has received just praise

A brown sad-colored hillside, where the soil,
    Fresh from the frequent harrow, deep and fine,
    Lies bare; no break in the remote sky-line,
Save where a flock of pigeons streams aloft,
Startled from feed in some low-lying croft,
    Or far-off spires with yellow of sunset shine;
    And here the Sower, unwittingly divine,
Exerts the silent forethought of his toil.

Alone he treads the glebe, his measured stride
    Dumb in the yielding soil; and tho’ small joy
    Dwell in his heavy face, as spreads the blind
Pale grain from his dispensing palm aside,
    This plodding churl grows great in his employ;—
    Godlike, he makes provision for mankind.

Amongst other things Mr. Roberts has tried his hand at writing some rousing patriotic poems; with the degree of success which usually attends deliberate effort of that kind. They are clever, but heavy, pompous, and more of the tongue [than] the heart. The time has not come for the production of any genuine national song. It is when the passion and enthusiasm of an entire people, carried away by the excitement of some great crisis, enters into the soul of one man specially gifted, that a great national poem or hymn is produced. We have yet to reach such an hour, and we may pray that it will not come too soon or too late.

It is always difficult to form an estimate of any contemporary writer; but I think that anyone who has read through Mr. Roberts’ two volumes, particularly the second, will conclude that he has been in contact with a very clever man, a scholar, a man of wide culture, variously appreciative, evincing especially a sort of deep physical satisfaction in the contemplation of nature, united to a strenuous and original gift of expression. He will find in him passion, strong, though not of the finest ring, a rich and masterful imagination, the genuine faculty of verse, an ear intolerant of any failure, and a cool and subtle literary judgement, but I think he will also find him wanting in spontaneity, in elasticity, in genuine tenderness, and in delicacy of feeling. His want of tenderness and genuine delicacy appear most strongly in two love poems, included in his second volume "Tout ou Rien" and "In Notre Dame"; the first, a declaration which could only proceed from the most boundless and pitiless egotism; the other, to me a still more disagreeable poem, an expression of brawny passion, pitched in an exaggerated and oversensuous key.

In Mr. Roberts’ work, notwithstanding the great ability that has gone to the making of it, there is often a certain weightiness and deliberateness of phrase, which suggests too strongly the hand of the careful workman, and robs it of the fullest effect of spontaneity. Although his poems are written upon many various subjects, and either of his books might appear upon a cursory glance to be somewhat remarkable for variety, only three or four really different notes are struck, and all the poems are found to be attuned to these. Mr. Roberts is purely an emotional and artistic poet like Poe or Ros[s]etti, and never attempts to lead us to any of the grander levels of thought and feeling. He has nothing to teach us beyond some new phases of the beauty of nature, which he has interpreted admirably; and altogether his work impresses one as the product of a strong artistic talent, rather than of a soul accustomed to the atmosphere of the nobler and severer beauty.

Mr. Roberts is a living poet. It is an easier, and in a certain sense a more satisfactory task to speak of one of our writers who is no longer living; I refer to the late Mr. Cameron of Kingston. Of him above all others of our poets Canadians have reason to think with pride. He was a writer of rare spontaneity, whose genuine poetic impulse rings in every line. He had all the fervour, the breadth and energy of thought, the sensitive humanity, that Professor Roberts lacks. He was unequal and careless; there are not many of his poems which do not show frequent weaknesses and blemishes; but he goes straight to his thought, and the thought, even if it be at times a trifle dark, is always sharp from the battle of life. In Mr. Cameron’s work we reach a larger and fresher atmosphere; we come into contact with a soul serious, sensitive, passionate, a man who dwells among genuine thoughts and genuine feelings, and speaks a language full of spontaneity, force and dignity.

There is a strong Byronic quality in Cameron’s genius, and his utterance has the Byronic nerve and imperious directness. It is penetrating, elastic, and full of high sound. Cameron’s gift was purely a lyric one. He was a poet of life, and his work rings with the truth of experience. The joy, the grief, the passion, the aspiration, the weariness of life, are there, uttered with wrapped [sic] sincerity and careless self-revelation. Cameron was young when he died—only thirty-one—and that short life appears from the evidence of his verse and what little I can learn of him, to have been very full, very varied, and on the whole not happy. His verse is in the main sad, bitter, and pessimistic, though this dark hue is relieved now and then by tender and genial touches, and some brave thoughts. But in Cameron there is no attitudinizing; his gloom is a darkness and bitterness bred of experience; and when he speaks the language of purpose and hope, his utterance is simple, manly and bracing. There are some of Cameron’s poems that one cannot read without the profoundest thrill of admiration and reverence. They have a largeness of outlook, a passionate keenness of love, or anger, or pity, of praise or denunciation, and are spoken with a proud greatness of tongue, that make one doubt whether any praise is too high to be awarded to the memory of their author. Some day Cameron’s name will stand high upon the list of the poets of this age; and there are one or two short poems of his that will be found in the collections of the English masterpieces of all time. There is one little poem, written in 1885, the last year of his life, that for grace and dignity of expression you can rank with anything in the language.

Ah, me! the mighty love that I have borne
   To thee, sweet Song! A perilous gift was it
My mother gave me that September morn
   When sorrow, song, and life were at one altar lit[.]

A gift more perilous than the priest’s; his lore
   Is all of books and to his books extends;
And what they see and know he knows—no more,
   And with their knowing all his knowing ends.

A gift more perilous than the painter’s: he
   In his divinest moments only sees
The inhumanities of color, we
   Feel each and all the inhumanities.

What a noble sonnet is the following, "To Wisdom"; what an old fashioned pride and ease of diction there is in it:—

Wisdom immortal from immortal Jove
   Shadows more beauty with her virgin brows
Than is between the pleasant breasts of love
   Who makes at will and breaks her random vows,
And hath a name all earthly names above:
The noblest are her offspring; she controls
   The times and seasons—yea, all things that are—
The heads and hands of men, their hearts and souls,
And all that moves upon our mother star,
   And all that pauses ‘twixt the peaceful poles.
Nor is she dark and distant, coy and cold,—
   But all in all to all that seek her shrine
In utter truth, like to that king of old
Who wooed and won, yet by no right divine.

This upon Milton too is perfect:—

A name not casting shadow any ways,
    But gilt and girt about with light divine;
A name for men to dream of in dark days
    And take for sun, when no sun seems to shine—
Thou sightless wearer of immortal bays,
Thou Milton of the sleepless soul, is thine!

The following lyric entitled "Standing on Tiptoe", written in the very month of his death, is exquisite for the breadth and beauty of the idea and the austere, clean-cut, grace of its expression.

Standing on tiptoe ever since my youth,
    Striving to grasp the future just above,
I hold at length the only future—Truth,
               And Truth is Love.

I feel as one, who being awhile confined
    Sees drop to dust about him all his bars—
The clay grows less, and leaving it the mind
               Dwells with the stars[.]

Such a poem as that deserves place with Landor’s famous quatrain:—

I strove with none, for none was worth my strife,
    Nature I loved, and next to Nature, Art:
I warmed both hands before the fire of life;
    It sinks, and I am ready to depart.

The following stanzas will convey some idea of the passionateness of Cameron’s melancholy, a sadness that as he grew older seems to have darkened to despair.

All heart-sick and headsick and weary,
   Sore wounded, oft struck in the strife,
I ask is there end of this dreary
   Dark pilgrimage called by us life?

I ask is there end of it —any?
   If any, when comes it anigh?
I would die not the one death, but many
   To know and be sure I should die.
                   •           •           •
To know that somewhere in the distance,
    When nature shall take back my breath,
I shall add up the sum of existence,
    And find that its total is death!

Of this mood of his he says himself:—

With all my singing I can never sing
    A gay glad song, an honest song of mirth:
In vain my fingers seek some tender string
    Whose voice would catch the dainty ear of earth[.]
Why is it so? Because the fount and spring
    Of all my song was sorrow; it has birth
In gloom and desolation and dark hours,—
’Twas not the offspring of the happy flowers.

There are some stanzas entitled "To Louise", addressed by Cameron to his sister, in which the heart of the poet is laid bare. It is solemn beautiful and bitter poem. After dwelling with sadness and irony upon the futility of life and the resistlessness of destiny, he calls to his sister:—

But let us dream awhile that we are free,
   Free as God’s azure! Casting care aside,
Be once again the things we used to be.

He draws a picture of their youth, and endeavours to revive the freshness of its careless gayety; but it is in vain; he breaks off at last, crying with that clear touching intonation of his:—

To-morrow waken? I have wakened now!
   The scene grows dim, and broken is the spell:
The lines of age come back upon my brow—
   The heart grows older than the tongue can tell:
   Enchantment, Beauty, Pleasure—all farewell!
Oh, blame me not, Louise, that I did call
   Illusion to delight me from her cell!
Her tone was sweet as ever yet did fall
   On mortal ear:—alas, ’tis silent soon and all!

And there is another poem, entitled "What Matters It", which must be read in its entirety in order to appreciate the peculiar beauty of its strange weary sadness.

But our poet’s life and work were not all of gloom. Sometimes we meet with such stoical lines as these[:]

Earth hath not much to love; but soon I learned
    To love those things it hath of good or great;
To noble deeds and noble words I turned,
    And marked my own bright pathway. If stern fate
    Hath changed its proper current, mine estate
Is not less noble: I shall walk alone,—
    Not with a mien defiant and elate,
But in humility,—and if I own
No kinship with the crowd, to them ’twill not be known[.]

Or these others:—

The future! Who of us will see
    This future—in its brightness bask?
Ye ask the future?—Let it be!
    Ye know not what ye ask.

’Tis best—let Folly still lament
   The past or for the future yearn—
With this large present well content
    To watch, and work, and learn:
Assured that if we do aright
    What must by us to-day be done,
The three shall open to our sight,
    Past, present, future—one!

Sometimes we happen upon a lyric as joyously and musically happy as the following:—

                  To the West Wind

West wind, come from the west land
         Fair and far!
Come from the fields of the best land
         Upon our star!

Come, and go to my sister
          Over the sea:
Tell her how much I have missed her,
          Tell her for me!

Odours of lilies and roses—
          Set them astir;
Call them from gardens and closes,—
        Give them to her!

Say I have loved her, and love her:
          Say that I prize
Few on the earth here above her,
          Few in the skies!

Bring her, if worth the bringing,
          A brother’s kiss:
Should she ask for a song of his singing,
          Give her this!

Cameron wrote a great number of love lyrics. Some of them are beautiful, most of them spirited, and all of them carelessly sincere. Where they are not marred as is frequently the case by an unpleasant dash of cynicism, there is a charm in their bold naïveté. The following lines called "Amoris Finis" are touched with Cameron’s rare gift of expression, that largeness of utterance, that great way of saying things, which is a characteristic only of the master poets.

And now I go with the departing sun
   My day is dead, and all my work is done[.]
No more for me the pleasant moon shall rise
   To show the splendor in my dear one’s eyes
No more the stars shall see us meet; we part
  Without a hope, or hope of hope, at heart;
For Love lies dead, and at his altar, lo,
Stands in his room, self-crowned and crested,—Woe!

Cameron is a successor of Shelley in his fiery championship of liberty. Many pages at the beginning of his volume of lyrics are taken up with exhortations to freedom and denunciations of tyrants—poems earnest and vigorous, in which in spite of many crudities bold and impressive passages may be found.

It will perhaps be said that Mr. Cameron like Professor Roberts has not actually taught us many things in a certain sense. Yet he has left us in his own degree the same sort of gift that Heine left to the world, the picture of a brilliant passionate imperfect human soul, and the record of its eager contact with the world. Such a life-work may not be of much use to us for guidance, but it will always be intensely interesting and intensely stimulating to the student of literature and life. Mr. Cameron’s work, as I have said, is often faulty, and incomplete, often much too facile, but it has the authority and impressiveness of strong feeling, based upon an independent judgment of life in a nature genuinely poetic.

In regard to the circumstances of Mr. Cameron’s life there is little to be said. Almost all that I know of it is that he was born at New Glasgow, N.S., in 1854, lived some considerable part of his life at Boston, where he studied law for a time, and was at the time of his death in September 1885, editor of the Kingston News.

With George Frederick Cameron and Professor Roberts Canada has, so to speak, taken a place in the poetic literature of the world, and I believe that the work of these two writers is well worthy of our attention, not only as Canadians but as students of literature generally[.] It is our duty also, not only as Canadians, but as lovers of all literature, to see that a man like the late Mr. Cameron, whose life-work lies finished before us, is not forgotten. That a body of writing, instinct with so true a poetic energy, should have been produced by a native of our own country, the product of our own soil, is a matter for national pride and encouragement.