Edwardian and Georgian Canadian Poets
1900-1930


 

 

Selected Essays and Reviews

by Bliss Carman

Edited by Terry Whalen


 

A Lover of Earth*


 

When Archibald Lampman died, a few weeks ago, he had given us only two modest volumes, Among the Millet, printed in Ottawa in 1888, and Lyrics of Earth, issued by Messrs. Copeland and Day in 1895. It is not the voluminous output, but nearly all of it counts, and that second title is indicative. One might characterize Lampman as a lyrist of earth. And in this I mean the best of praise. He was a lover of the beautiful outward world in all the phases of the circling year; he had the modern passion, the feeling of religious naturalism.

One can hardly write simply enough of so simple and genuine a poet as Lampman. His strain is so sincere, so limpid and uninsistent to reiterate it too vigorously would be to break its charm. One might say of him, I think, that he was a poet of nature. He certainly was no less; and perhaps he would not have wished to be more. I know it was always refreshing to take up those unsullied lines of his and read their wonderful transcripts from the book of the earth; and I was never sorry to be spared the injection of philosophy to which we are accustomed in so much contemporary verse. But Lampman was as clear as a brook and warm as the sunshine. The commonest beauty was singular enough for him and took on for us a heightened charm and glamour in the tone of his line.

When the first star precedes the great red moon,
    The shore lark twinkles from the darkening field.
    Somewhere, we know not in the dark concealed,
His little creaking and continuous tune.

Or again the sonnet on solicitude:

                                       Sometimes I hear
The dreamy white-throat from some far-off tree
Pipe slowly on the listening solicitude
His fine, pure notes succeeding pensively.

Or once more:

That crazy fiddler of the hot mid-year,
The dry cicada plies his wiry bow
In long-spun cadence.

These are examples of that happy power in describing the daily operations of nature in which Lampman so greatly excelled. His eye was faultless, and his ear was never to be deceived; all the myriad murmurous life of the April hillside and the summer fields he knew; nothing escaped him; nothing was trivial or unworthy; whatever formed a part of that visible world of being went to make up the tale of the creation also. And even the seeming commonplaces of human activity assumed proportions of grace as he repeated them, so consummate was his taste, so fine his instinct for art.

He speaks of:

The crackling rustle of the pitch-forked hay
And lazy jerk of wheels,

And in the poem "Heat" we have this wonderful impression of open air and summer, along with the human interest:

From plains that reel to southward, dim,
    The road runs by me white and bare;
Up the steep hill it seems to swim
    Beyond, and melt into the glare.
Upward half-way, or it may be
    Nearer the summit, slowly steals
A haycart, moving dustily
    With idly clacking wheels.

By his eart's side the wagoner
    Is slouching slowly at his ease
Half-hidden in the windless blur
    Of white dust puffing to his knees.

The same felicitious delineation, too, is to be found in his verses "At the Ferry;"

A tugboat up the farther shore
    Half pants, half whistles, in her draught;
The cadence of a creaking oar
    Falls drowsily, a cold draft
Creeps slowly in the noon-day gleam
    And wheresoe'er a shadow sleeps
The men lie by, or half a-dream
    Stand xxxx at the idle sweeps

In all these selections there is evident a love of nature and xxx beauty such as Keats possesses, or much as possessed Keats, perhaps one ought to say. They convey that sense of willing rapture, the luxurious joy of the spirit: in beauty. They are greater because they are wholly native, wholly Canadian, with the least possible indebtedness to any purely literary impulse. With his severe Wordsworthian sincerity, it is difficult to say what more wonderful interpretations of nature Archibald Lampman ought not have given us. But that wild, soft flow of his is stilled now; the great frost has quelled the sound of his alluring pipes and there will be not a few, even among those who knew him distantly, through his books, to whom this returning April will come sadlier up the earth because he is not here.

It is too soon for anyone to speak finally of Lampman. He was a reticent poet, not exuberant; and it is not surprising to learn that he left a good deal of unpublished work behind him, which his friends are preparing to issue. When this complete volume of poetry shall be made public it will be time enough for criticism to measure his niche in the temple of renown. And even then whether that place is large or small, prominent or obscure will be of not much importance to his true lovers. They will be content to have his book beside them, a reminder if that were needed of his fine charity of spirit, his serene temper, his wise undoubting mind, so sure and energetic. They will recall, too, for their own encouragement that lovable indifference which I fancy to have been his.

Wisest is he, who, never quite secure
    Changes his thoughts for better day by day
To-morrow some new light will shine, by sure,
And thou shalt see thy thought another day.

And they will turn the pages of a recent magazine for his last utterance, reading these lines, to which death has given so stringent a pathos now:

So to address our spirit to the bright
    And so attune to the valiant whole,
That the great light be cleared for our light,
    And the great soul the stronger for our soul.
To have done this is to have lived, though fame
Remember us with no familiar name.

Lampman was not a poet of force, but he was a lover of truth; and if the trend and tenor of his work did not win him great popularity, it was none the poorer on that account. He was engrossed with the ultimate question, the affairs of the spirit of man. And every effort of his beautiful art was devoted to the reassuring and ennoblement of that spirit. He was of the new era, the generation whose faith is less robust but more pure than their ancestors. His influence in English letters cannot be large, perhaps, but his note remains significant; he was feeling his own way toward expression in a direction where there is still much to be said-the realm cleared by science in the jungle of romantic ignorance. To see nature as it is; to purge the mind of the gross and heathenish superstitions of traditional credulity; and yet to preserve an undistorted, free, glad sentiment toward life, is not easy. But it is needful; it is our one hope of salvation. In the new religion which science and art will one day combine to give us, this habit of absolute content will find place. It breathes from the pages of Archibald Lampman as it does from the splendid volumes of Whitman and Emerson. And to be named not unworthily as a follower of these prophets of a new day is perhaps reward enough.


"A Lover of Earth," Commercial Advertiser, Aug. 8, 1899 [back]