Edwardian and Georgian Canadian Poets
1900-1930


 

 

Selected Essays and Reviews

by Bliss Carman

Edited by Terry Whalen


 

Mr. Charles G.D. Roberts*


 

Mr. Roberts is one of those writers who must be regarded in their environment, to be justly estimated. Born and reared in the maritime provinces of Canada, with the blood of the loyalists in his veins; he is one of the patriots of the Dominion who, whether they look to an Imperial Federation or an Independence of rule, are before all else devoted to the honor and progress of their native land. The acknowledged laureate of this vigorous young nation, his poetry is in large measure the product of his enthusiasm and patriotism.

"O Child of Nations, giant-limbed,
Who stand'st among the nations now
Unheeded, unadored, unhymned,
With unanointed brow!"

So he opens his dignified ode on Canada. And in his verses on Canadian streams he weaves the story and legend of each with its musical name.

"O rivers rolling to the sea
From lands that bear the maple-tree,
          How swell your voices with the strain
Of loyalty and liberty!

.      .      .

"Thou inland stream, whose vales, secure
From storm, Tecumseh's death made poor!
          And thou small water, red with war,
'Twixt Beaubassin and Beauséjour!

"Dread Saguenay, where eagles soar,
What voice shall from the bastioned shore
          The tale of Roberval reveal,
Or his mysterious fate deplore?"

Then too the every day aspect of country life and the common-place things of the Canadian landscape have moved Mr. Roberts to love and sympathetic expression. "The Sower," "The Fir Woods," "Burnt Lands," "The Potato Harvest," "The Herring Weir,"-such are the themes that he has treated in a series of sonnets and published, along with other poems, in his most recent volumes, "Songs of the Common Day." And it is, of course, rather in these and similar themes that such a poet will find his happiest expression. For however the noble and brave and devoted story of his own country may move him, it must still fail to touch his work with fire unless he have himself personally heard the clash of arms and drum roll at his own door. In times of peace the world is one; and the more philosophic and meditative subjects touch the artist fervently. I shall not quote here any of those sonnets I have mentioned, but give preference to two others which illustrate Mr. Roberts in two admirable ways.

The first sonnet I shall quote is an example of the simplicity-the value of treating simple human themes in the simplest way.

THE DESERTED CITY

"There lies a little city leagues away.
Its wharves the green sea washes all day long.
Its busy sun-bright wharves with sailors' song
And clamor of trade ring loud the live-long day.
Into the happy harbor hastening, gay
With press of snowy canvass, tall ship throng.
The peopled streets to blithe-eyed peace belong,
Glad housed beneath these crowding roofs of grey.

'Twas long ago this city prospered so,
For yesterday a woman died therein.
Since when the wharves are idle fallen, I know,
And in the streets is hushed the pleasant din;
The thronging ships have been, the songs have been;-
Since yesterday it is so long ago."

The other sonnet is an example of the writer's power in coping with the largest subjects. It is just here that Mr. Roberts is at his best. His hand is too heavy for bric-a-brac verse, but the most serious aspects and aspirations of life are plastic in his sure grasp. There is a dignity and fineness in his attitude towards the problems of this little earth, characteristic of the amplest-minded artists of all times. He is never petty and never vindictive. Without superstition of any sort, he is yet imbued with the ancient worship of Nature; the quiet of a northern pantheism pervades all his deeper work. For example, in these very lines:

"In the wide awe and wisdom of the night
I saw the round world rolling on its way,
Beyond significance of depth or height,
Beyond the interchange of dark and day.
I marked the march to which is set no pause,
And that stupendous orbit, round whose rim
The great sphere sweeps, obedient unto laws
That utter the eternal thought of Him.
I compassed time, outstripped the starry speed,
And in my still soul apprehended space,
Till, weighing laws which these but blindly heed
At last I came before Him face to face,-
And knew the Universe of no such span
As the august infinitude of Man."

Mr. Roberts places in the front of his book an invocation that reveals the aim of his work:

"Across the fog the moon lies fair.
Transfused with ghostly amethyst,
O white Night, charm to wonderment
The cattle in the mist!

Thy touch, O grave mysteriarch,
Makes dull familiar things divine.
O grant of thy revealing gift
Be some small portion mine!

"Make thou my vision sane and clear,
That I may see what beauty clings
In common forms, and find the soul
Of unregarded things!"

And yet, it is not in "common forms," and "unregarded things," that he touches his most consummate height of song. For the larger, more wondrous and dim, pulses of life beat through his imagination like the lift and fall of the sea.

"That in my veins forever must abide
The urge and fluctuation of the tide,"

This sums up the sentiment for nature, the sympathy with the outer world and passion for its perfection of loveliness, which make Mr. Roberts akin to Keats and the Greeks; a sentiment that reveals itself in such minute an human expression as in the two lyrics beginning

"Oh, purple hang the pods
On the green locust tree!"

and

"The valley of the winding water
Wears the same light it wore of old."

And then this sentiment for the beauty of the world is touched with pathos, with an unstrained ancient childlike pathos, in the "Epitaph for a Sailor Buried Ashore," perhaps its author's finest and most appealing brief lyric.

"He who but yesterday would roam
Careless as clouds and currents range,
In homeless wandering most at home,
Inhabiter of change;

"Who wooed the west to win the east,
And named the stars of north and south,
And felt the zest of Freedom's feast
Familiar in his mouth;

"Who found a faith in stranger-speech,
And fellowship in foreign hands,
And had within his eager reach
The relish of all lands,-

"How circumscribed a plot of earth
Keeps now his restless footsteps still,
Whose wish was wide as ocean's girth,
Whose will the water's will!"

It is in a still higher flight, however, a still more ambitious sphere of poetry, that we shall find our author at his best. Matthew Arnold has said that poetry "interprets in two ways; it interprets by expressing with magical felicity the physiognomy and movement if the outward world, and it interprets by expressing, with inspired conviction, the ideas and laws of the inward world of a man's moral and spiritual nature." In a few of his poems, in the sonnet I have quoted above, and in one or two lyrics lately published in the magazines, Mr. Robert shows, as it seems to me, "the faculty of both kinds of interpretation, the naturalistic and the moral." In the opening of a lyric called "Afoot,"

"Comes the lure of green things growing,
Comes the call of waters flowing-
            And the wayfarer desire
Moves and wakes and would be going.

"Hark the migrant hosts of June
Marching nearer noon by noon!
            Hark the gossip of the grasses
Bivouacked beneath the moon!"

and in the closing of another lyric, a prayer to Nature, entitled "Kinship,"

"Tell me how some sightless impulse,
Working out a hidden plan,
God for kin and clay for fellow,
Wakes to find itself a man

"Tell me how the life of mortal,
Wavering from breath to breath,
Like a web of scarlet pattern
Hurtles from the loom of death.

"How the caged bright bird, desire,
Which the hands of God deliver,
Beats aloft to drop unheeded
At the confines of forever;

"Faints unheeded for a season,
Then outwings the furthest star
To the wisdom and the stillness
Where thy consummations are."

In passages like these poetry is at its best; it is doing for us what nothing else can; it is interpreting for us the beauty of the outward world and the inward mysterious craving of the human mind. Poetry, the poetic quality in all art, has in it something of the hushed wonder of a child in the face of the unknown; it is the rapt, not quite coherent, exclamation of the spirit, awaking to a consciousness of itself, allured at once by the outward passion for beauty, and teased by the inward curiousity for knowledge. To translate the cryptogram of Nature, that strange traditional record in an unknown tongue, whose cypher has not come down to us, is the joyful self-rewarded labor of the poet; then to this translation so magically divined, to add the comment of his own meditation. For poetry is to be a commentary on nature as well as a criticism of life. It is no scant praise, then, and yet I think that it is not unjust, to say that Mr. Roberts in the work he has so far done has shown power in both these directions, both as a loving prophet of Nature and as a critic of the human aspiration. It is just so, by devotion to both these aims, that he will come to earn a secure place in English poetry.

I have said that Mr. Roberts had best be considered in connection with his national surrounding. There is in Canada a small body of men, the more earnest perhaps for their very isolation from the centers of thought and civilization, who are keeping alive a very real and pure worship of Nature. The ennui of a closing age has not sapped their enthusiasm; the discouraging triumph of a corrupt plutocracy has not yet touched their country; and while they are cut off from the mental activity which underlies the scientific and socialistic and philosophic speculation of London, they are also saved from the deadly blight of New York, that center of American letters, that gangrene of politics on the body of democracy. With their Loyalist traditions, their romantic history, their untold resource, their beautiful land, their vigorous climate, their future all to make, their days of immeasurable leisure, it is little wonder their songs should have all the genuine assurance of youth, the freshness of the fields. And with these conditions, it is a matter of course, too, that their poetry should deal chiefly with Nature and the interpretation of her signs.

The names of Mr. Archibald Lampmen and Mr. Duncan Campbell Scott, along with Mr. Roberts's, have attracted our attention from time to time, and all three will be found, I think, not only devoted but imaginative interpreters of the beautiful outward world, not unworthy children of Keats and Emerson and Wordsworth. Upon its sensuous side their interpretation is near to that of Keats; upon its spiritual side it is near to the disinterested idealism of Emerson. And in the small but choice and significant body of verse which this school of young writers has given us, nothing will be found, I think, more perfect than the two lyrics I have quoted from above. Indeed, it is only in poets of the first order that we will find the haunting quality of the couplet,

"Hark the migrant hosts of June
Marching nearer noon by noon,"

or the terse penetration of the stanza,

"Tell me how some sightless impulse,
Working out a hidden plan,
God for kin and clay for fellow,
Wakes to find itself a man."

In these two poems the note which the Canadian cult is sounding so sincerely, if not very forcefully as yet, reaches its clearest utterance, the note of a worship of Nature from which modern knowledge has cast out fear, the note of a religion that was on earth before Paganism had a name. To keep this note unstrained and pure will not be easy; to make it distinctly audible not to say dominant, in English letters even for a season, would be a task for Byron's force or Browning's unquenchable vigor; and this is the task set my friends by their love of the outward world, by their bent for blithe seriousness; yet there are influences at work in their aid, so that in the end their devotion will not be altogether fruitless or unavailing. "He that believeth shall not make haste."


"Mr. Charles G.D. Roberts," The Chap-Book, Jan. 1, 1895 [back]