Edwardian and Georgian Canadian Poets
1900-1930


 

 

Selected Essays and Reviews

by Bliss Carman

Edited by Terry Whalen


 

A Canadian Lyrist*


 

The poems of Archibald Lampman, edited with a memoir by Duncan Campbell Scott," have just been issued by a Toronto house. And as one handles the stout volume there returns anew the sense of irreparable pity and bereavement. Even those who did not know Lampman personally, and yet had felt the gentle charm of his genius, have their own sorrow now that he can speak to them no longer. For they have felt that in his rare poems there breathed the inspiration of Nature hardly matched in English letters since Wordsworth's day.

In glancing over this collected edition of his work one must give the first word to praise to Mr. Scott for his memoir. It would be difficult to accomplish so delicate a task more adequately. We have the few facts of Lampman's life simply related, but with a temper and sympathy and style altogether unusual and delightful.

For the casual reader Archibald Lampman's name will as yet have an unfamiliar sound, perhaps; but I cannot help thinking that this devoted interpreter of Nature must in time be accorded an incontestable place among the greater band of English poets. It is not necessary to attempt to estimate Lampman's place among contemporary writers. The truer benefit is to be derived from the simple enjoyment of his work. In the field of his choice he is a master. His sonnets, so full of wood and field lore, so gentle and so wise in their outlook on life, are an almost incomparable vade mecum for the northern lover of Nature. They have all the strict literal adherence to outward fact, which is so characteristic of modern art. This lends them a charm which must attract even the unpoetic. At the same time they have the magic pull, the mysterious reach, the incommunicable wizardry of diction that only the veritable poets have at their command. Like Wordsworth, too, he needs no resounding theme, but is at home in the commonest happenings and finds a princely opportunity for art even in the simplest subjects. His sonnet on the song sparrow is an instance:

Fair little scout, that when the iron year
Changes, and the first fleecy clouds deploy,
Comest with such a sudden burst of joy,
Lifting on winter's doomed and broken rear
That song of silvery triumph blithe and clear;
Not yet quite conscious of the happy glow,
We hungered for some surer touch, and lo!
One morning we awake and thou art here,
And thousands of frail-stemmed hepaticas,
With their crisp leaves and pure as perfect hues,
Light sleepers, ready for the guide's news,
Spring at thy note beside the forest ways-
Next to thy song, the first to deck the hour-
The classic lyrist and the classic flower.

Or, again, in the sonnet on Evening, we have the same faithfulness to the outward object and the same inward illumination of sight, the same felicity of phrase:

From upland slopes I see the cows file by,
Lowing, great-chested, down the homeward trail.
By dusking fields and meadows shining pale
With moon-tipped dandelions. Flickering high,
A peevish night-hawk in the western sky
Beats up into the lucent solitudes,
Or drops with guiding wing. The stilly woods
Grow dark and deep and gloom mysteriously.
Cool night winds creep, and whisper in mine ear;
The lonely cricket gossips at my feet,
From far-off pools and wastes of reeds I hear
Clear and soft-piped, the chanting frogs break sweet
In full Pandean chorus. One by one
Shine out the stars, and the great night comes on.

All of Mr. Lampman's poetry is filled with just such satisfying pictures as these, which sing to the eye as well as to the ear. Often a couple of lines or even a single pentameter suffice to convey the idyll, as in the lines,

Beyond it stands a plum-tree in full blow.
Creamy with bloom, and humming like a hive,

Or,

The hopeful solemn, many-murmured night, night.

In another aspect of his genius this Canadian poet appears as a calm, prophetic gospeller of peace and wisdom and unworldly progress:

THE CLEARER SELF

Before me grew the human soul,
    And after I am dead and gone,
Through grades of effort and control
    The marvellous work shall still go on,

Each mortal in his little span
    Hath only lived if he have shown
What greatness there can be in man
    Above the measured and the known;

How through the ancient layers of night,
    In gradual victory secure,
Grows ever with increasing light
    The energy serene and pure:

The soul that from a monstrous past,
    From age to age, from hour to hour,
Feels upward to some height at last
    Of unimagined grace and power.

Though yet the sacred fire be dull,
    In folds of thwarting matter furled,
Ere death be night, while life is full,
    O master spirit of the world,

Grant me to know, to seek, to find,
    In some small measure though it be,
Emerging from the waste and blind,
    The clearer self, the grander me!

In Lampman, Canada had a poet worthy of her lovely features, her serene and sterling aspirations, her simple traditions of plain living and high thinking. His was not a muse of battles, nor of heroics, and the splendid history of his native land found him no celebrant. He was not a balladist; he did not write of deeds and persons, but in that quiet region where religions are born and the ideas of men are moulded he was at home. The glad mysterious wisdom of the solitary north was his, and the insight which often passes understanding. His life was not distracted by the noise and smother and futility of our great centres of activity, he was secure in the tenor of his communing with great nature. And the singleness of his work is his recompense.

It is a favorite deduction of the omniscient reviewer to say that Canada can never have a literature until she is independent, and that her artists must be imitators for the most part. Those who know Canada, will have other and higher confidence in her future, whether they feel called upon to enunciate their faith or not. Meanwhile here is one poet at least, the product of her soil, who must be given a distinguished place among the great before he finds his peers.


"A Canadian Lyricist," Commercial Advertiser, Aug. 11, 1900 [back]