Modern Canadian poetry may be said to have begun with publication, in 1880, of Orion, by Charles G.D. Roberts [1869-1943]. It struck the original note that had been absent, or present only fitfully, in the work of the poets that had preceded him. It connected the poetry of Canada with all that is excellent in English poetry the world over. It maintained the traditions of form and diction that must be respected if poetry is to continue as the art through which the utmost aspiration of the human spirit is to be expressed.
Looking back over the years that went before the publication of Orion, there is only one name that represents the same spirit, Charles Heavysege [1816-1876].
With this exception there is scarcely any work of the elder period that is remarkable for original power. But in the main, judged by the highest standards, this early Canadian poetry is by no means contemptible or unworthy of attention.
It is not worse in kind nor less in quantity than the mass of American verse produced at the same time under like conditions.
Anyone who at that period had been used to read Canadian poetry and lament its lack of power must have recognized in the work of Mr. Roberts a new and potent force; the academic imagery, the forced cadence, the lack of invention had disappeared. Almost for the first time a Canadian reader whose ear was attuned to the music of Tennyson, Keats and Arnold might, in quoting one of his own poets, do so with the feeling that here at last was verse flowing with the stream of general poetical literature. Six years later Mr. Roberts published In Divers Tones, and at that time, so far as books of verse are concerned, he was the sole representative of the now existing school of Canadian poetry. [page 62]
It was during the next year that the poems of George Frederick Cameron [1854-1885] were collected. They proved the great loss that Canadian letters sustained by the untimely death of this brilliant man.
One year later, in 1888, Archibald Lampman [1861-1899] joined Mr. Roberts with Among the Millet; Frederick George Scott [1861-1944] with The Soul’s Quest, and in 1889 William Wilfred Campbell [1861-1918] with Lake Lyrics. Previous to the year 1890 there appears to be no other books of importance whose authors have contributed to the poetry of the last ten years.
The term, School of Canadian Poetry, might be accepted with hesitation and some diffidence had not various competent critics adopted it uniformly. As applied to the group of writers usually mentioned under the appellation it may be too pretentious. It is valuable in that it conveys the idea of nationality, and if the Canadian people cannot thank its poets for immortal verse it may thank them for having forced the recognition of a growing national literature separate from that of the American Republic.
The decade of 1890 was in its second year before Mr. Roberts added another to the books I have mentioned. Ave, and Ode for the Centenary of the Birth of Shelley, was published in 1892 and was included in Songs of the Common Day, issued during the following year. The latter book included also a series of sonnets dealing “with the aspects of common outdoor life.” They exhibit Mr. Roberts in one of his happiest moods and they show the kinship that exists between the most prominent of this group of writers.
The remainder of Songs of the Common Day was occupied by lyrics and ballads, that repeated with a firm and unfailing touch the accent to which the earlier volumes had accustomed his readers. There was but one reminiscence in Marysas of that earlier, classical manner that has unfortunately in succeeding books quite disappeared.
In 1891 Mr. J.F. Herbin [1860-1923], of Wolfeville, made his appearance with a small group of poems, and in 1893 and 1899 added The Marshlands and The Trail of the Tide to this first venture.
Mrs. J.W.F. Harrison [1859-1935], under the pen-name of “Seranus,” had been a frequent contributor to periodical literature and in the year 1891 she published Pine, Rose and Fleur de lis, a collection of old world forms, for the most part, with a Canadian and French-Canadian atmosphere, the result being happily suggested by [page 63] the title. The book contains a tribute to Isabella Valancy Crawford [1850-1887], that fine genius who by her fiery temperament and her natural gift of expression must be counted the most richly endowed of our native poets.
While mentioning Mrs. Harrison’s deft verse the performances of her sister-poets come to mind. Miss Pauline Johnson [1862-1913] and Miss Ethelwyn Wetherald [1857-1940] published their volumes in the same year, 1895. Their verses occasionally published in the magazines had prepared the public for the very great poetic pleasure that these books gave. Miss Johnson’s virile touch and strong imagination may be contrasted with the delicacy and shyness of Miss Wetherald’s genius.
Mrs. Jean Blewett [1862-1934], whose verse has that warm human touch that has given infinite pleasure to her readers, added to their delight by collecting her scattered poems in 1897 under the apt title of Heart Songs.
Much of the charm of the book entitled Northland Lyrics, breathes from Mrs. Elizabeth Roberts MacDonald’s [1864-1922] share in it. Her lyrics are equal in power with those of her brothers, Thodore Roberts [1877-1953] and W. Carman Roberts [1875-?]. The three have joined powers to produce what is, even considering its source, a noteworthy book. Miss Machar [1837-1927], whose excellent verse has been admired by a generation of readers, also collected her scattered poems in a volume called Lays of the ‘True North.’
By its lamentable finality the complete edition of the poems of Archibald Lampman is the most important addition to our poetic literature in the last decade. I do not feel called upon to state his rank with his contemporaries or to attempt a forecast of what the future has in store for his present fame. He was himself careless as to the one and unthinking as to the other. As regards everything worldly connected with his art, he had a perfect innocence; his one great concern was to produce his best.
The memorial edition of his poems was made up with the most catholic spirit. Consulting my own taste and with an eye to a final judgment, I might have omitted a few things that seem to me not to add to its value. But the most of those were included in books that had already seen the light, and I felt that they might be missed by many who had an equal right with myself to be pleased with poetry.
The narrative poem, “The Story of an Affinity,” while weak in construction and lacking the invention of incident that is the life of [page 64] such work, has many fine qualities, and is set in a framework of such beauty that it stands against any adverse criticism.
“The Drama,” or “Poem in Dialogue,” contains much of his finest blank verse; the characters are clearly differentiated, and the whole treatment is cogent and sincere. His sonnets are, of course, everywhere glorious, and hardly another poet since Wordsworth can show so many of the highest quality, or a whole series of such varied interest.
I trust the collected poems dispelled the illusion that had arisen, that he was a poet occupied altogether with descriptions of nature. Nature in his interest came very near to man, but did not occupy the foremost place.
In his work, however, the use made of natural phenomena is very large, either where the matter is treated in a descriptive way, purely, or where it comes in by way of illustration to the human nature.
But this has been largely the practice of poets from all time and will continue so to be. A great proportion of the poetry that holds a very lofty place in the estimation of the world depends for its effect upon the happy blending of images and similes drawn from external nature with the thought-substance or emotion of the poem.
There are but few of Lampman’s poems that do not lead from nature by a very short path to human life. The first impulse of his genius was the interpretation of nature, no doubt, but the desire to deal with human emotion, with the springs of human action, with the great hopes and desires of the human soul, was implicit in his mind. From the earliest of his writings to the latest this secondary quality demands attention, will be heard, keeps gaining strength and importance.
A year or two before he died he had begun to observe a more just balance between the divisions of his genius. In such grave, noble and suggestive poems as “The City of the End of Things,” “The Land of Pallas,” “The Largest Life,” and very many others that I might mention we possess his natural accent not less than in such pieces of realism as “Heat,” or “Among the Millet.”
There are several attributes in which his genius resembled that of Keats, and no one of them is more striking than the power of growth and development which may be determined from a study of his poems. That other attribute, a generous nobleness of soul, and its various confederate qualities, he shared in degree with his more [page 65] gifted forerunner. Where a discerning reader finds the greatest cause to lament the broken work of Keats is in his letters. There may be seen vestiges of the deep mentality upon which the poems were based. Lampman left no such record, but another in the hearts of his friends. There it exists. To the mind of one of them, at least, it is clear that the power for growth and the solid philosophy which possessed his mind would together have produced a finer, more spiritual poetry, a poetry giving more of comfort and more of insight into life than any he has left.
While closing the last paragraph the thought of another, who shall no more draw upon his genuine gift for our profit, springs to mind. Dr. Theodore Rand [1835-1900], who for years had been associated with all that was purest in Canadian poetry, died in 1900.
During his last years he gave much of his leisure to the compilation of an exhaustive anthology of Canadian poems which was published in 1900 under the title, A Treasury of Canadian Verse.
Another distinct loss to letters was that occasioned by the death of Sir James D. Edgar [1841-1899], whose last work was published in 1893, This Canada of Ours.
Mr. E.B. Brownlow’s [1857-1895] scholarly verse may be found in the volume published posthumously in 1896, entitled Orpheus.
But I must complete the record of Mr. Charles G.D. Roberts’ achievement during the decade by mentioning that delightful book which holds between its covers so much of Canada as to be called The Book of the Native. It was published in 1896. New York Nocturnes followed two years later, a collection of striking genre pieces, having for motive, chiefly, the turbulent life of the great city.
The whole of Mr. Bliss Carman’s [1861-1929] production in book form falls within the period with which I am dealing. Low Tide on Grand Pré appeared in 1893; two years passed and Behind the Arras was published; in 1897 came Ballads of Lost Haven; in 1898 By the Aurelian Wall; and A Winter Journey in 1900. With the help of a kindred spirit he produced three books that are unique in their way and that have received much attention from a public that cares for a definite attitude. The Songs from Vagabondia were closed just the other day by the issue of the third and last volume, for Richard Hovey [1864-1900] is lost forever to his companions and fellow-craftsmen, and to us who admired his genial power. Each separate volume of Mr. Carman’s has a distinctive tone. Low Tide on Grand Pré is given over to the spirit of unrest, to the longing that looks [page 66] “before and after and pines for what is not”; Behind the Arras is taken up with allegories of human fate; Ballads of Last Haven with concern of the sea, its mystery and the mystery of those who traffic upon it; By the Aurelian Wall is a book of Elegies; A Winter’s Journey contains tropical pictures, and recollections of the northland from the equator. Each of these books, so diverse in content, is permeated with the charm of Mr. Carman’s manner, a manner that came in with him and that remains inimitable.
Mr. William Wilfred Campbell’s first book belongs to the earlier decade, but The Dread Voyage, which was issued in the year 1893, better displays the essentially dramatic quality of his gift and the rare instinct that he possesses for a sympathetic interpretation of nature. None of our poets have so frequently grappled with the greatest problems of life and destiny and the humanism of his poems is their most striking quality. After The Dread Voyage came a book of tragedies in 1895; one, Mordred, upon the Arthurian legend, and the other, Hildebrand, dealing with the life of Pope Gregory VII, his character and his aims. After this book, in 1899, appeared a collection of Mr. Campbell’s poems under the ægis of Houghton, Mifflin & Co., bearing the title of the initial poem “Beyond the Hills of Dream.” The selection was happily made; it includes such notable work as “Lazarus” from Lake Lyrics, and “The Mother,” “Pan the Fallen,” “An August Reverie,” from The Dread Voyage. It comprises newer pieces, some of the strongest of which appeared first between the covers in this volume. I refer to the powerful poems, “Peniel,” “The Vengeance of Saki,” and “Phaeton,” and those others, less forceful but not less important, the elegy, “The Bereavement of the Fields,” and that charming idyll, “The Wayfarer.” The book contains also several stirring contributions to national poetry under the titles “England,” “The World-Mother” and “The Lazarus of Empire.”
In the natural selection of strenuous subjects Mr. Campbell has a companion in the Rev. Frederick George Scott [1854-1907]. In the three books he has given to the public, My Lattice in 1894, The Unnamed Lake in 1897, and Poems: Old and New in 1899, the greater space is occupied by poems that deal with stormy motives, such as “Thor,” “Samson,” “The Frenzy of Prometheus.” Such subjects are full of opportunity for vigorous writing and are dealt with by Mr. Scott in a direct and forcible style. [page 67]
The only Canadian poet who can be said to stand in a class by himself is Dr. W.H. Drummond. Long before The Habitant made its appearance in 1897 his name was a household word in Canada and the humours of “The Wreck of the Julie Plante” were known even where his name had not penetrated. Popular clamour led to the collection to the poems that had appeared in the newspapers from time to time. The book had an instantaneous success. It was purchased as no other book of verse published on this continent has been, and its success was deserved. The quaint dialect in which it is written had something to do with The Habitant’s good fortune, but it was the least potent factor in the case. It is true the dialect throws about the book a native and essential atmosphere, but that constituent is so mingled with deep humour and fine pathos that the vehicle and the matter expressed cannot be divided. The dialect we may liken to étoffe du pays, the substance and spirit of the poems to the flesh and soul of Jacques Bonnehomme. The result of this union is, that we have reproduced, in variety, a most lovable individuality, whose heart is easily moved, whose humour is contagious because it is so natural, and whose pathos is piercing from the same cause. Phil-o-rum’s Canoe and Madeline Vercheres were issued in 1898 and repeated the triumphs of the earlier volume.
Merely as a matter of record I may here interject that in 1895 I published The Magic House and in 1898 Labor and the Angel.
Mr. Francis Sherman [1854-1907] commands attention by his first book Matins issued in 1896 and by several privately-printed booklets. The most remarkable of the latter is that entitled In Memorabilia Mortis, a series of sonnets in memory of William Morris whose work is re-called in more than a superficial way in reading that of Mr. Sherman. The latter’s work unrolls itself in a tapestry glowing with subdued but deep colours and shrouded in an atmosphere of romance.
Another book that I recall with an impression that it has not had the attention it deserves, is Mr. John Henry Brown’s Poems, Lyrical and Dramatic, which was issued in 1892. The sonnets contained in this volume are of excellent workmanship, and throughout the book give the impression of high ideals and deep thought.
Another poet who has shown great progress during the last few years in Mr. John Stuart Thomson [1869-1950]. His first volume was Estabelle issued in 1897, his second, A Day’s Song, in 1900. In reviewing this last book, in these columns, a few months ago I took occasion [page 68] to point out its power. It appeals to the highest standards of technique and has a fine restraint. Mr. Thomson possesses a manner that is somewhat rare; a manner that combines native strength with classical unity of purpose and expression.
Mr. Arthur J. Stringer [1874-1950] has lyrical power of a very exceptional quality. His style is concise and aphoristic. He fills his verses with striking suggestions and situations. His three books, Watchers of Twilight, Pauline, and Epigrams, followed each other at intervals of a year, the first being issued in 1894.
I recall also with pleasure Mr. Bernard McEvoy’s [1842-1932] volume, Away from Newspaperdom, which appeared in 1897 and made available the poems which from time to time he had contributed to various periodicals and journals. They have an idyllic touch and a wide range of human interest.
It was within the decade just closed that Rev. A.J. Lockhart [1850-1926] issued Beside the Narraguagus, which contains several ballads of excellent quality.
Mr. Gilbert Parker [1862-1932], whose verse is infrequent, produced in 1894 A Lover’s Diary, in sonnet-sequence, a well-developed series of much psychical interest.
Dr. Thomas O’Hagan [1855-1939] also added to the general fund his two books, In Dreamland and Songs of the Settlement.
Altogether about fifty books of verse have been published within the last decade. The record is remarkable when the difficulties that beset the author who offers matter for which there must always be a limited sale, are understood. It is difficult to appraise the value of this verse production, but it has surely not been without some result.
To glance at the effect beyond our boundaries, it may be ventured that a slight impression has been produced in England by the foremost of the poets I have mentioned. No encouragement has been given to any Canadian poet in that country either in a demand for editions of his poems, or in any extensive acceptances for periodical publication. In the main, our verse remains a matter of very little moment to the English public.
The United States, with whom we have mental affinities, has welcomed the work of Canadians, given it space and treated it seriously. The standing of Canadian literary men at home has depended largely upon the commendation of this support. Without that there would be less distinction or discrimination. Mr. William [page 69] Dean Howells [1837-1920] made the success of Lampman’s first book. His genial criticism forced the recognition of that writer upon his own countrymen. Mr. Edmund Clarence Stedman [1833-1908] showed the breadth of his view by including in the Victorian Anthology a large selection of Canadian verse. This generous act did much to gain acknowledgment for our poets as worthy to rank in a final summing up of the work of the era.
When helped by foreign opinions our people have been quick in their interest and support, and, considering the conditions, it may be hazarded that appreciation has kept pace with performance.
So far as I am aware, there has been no single piece of verse that has spoken with so sure an accent as to become current among the Canadian people. Amid all this multitude of poems there has not been one that has entered deeply into very many hearts and become an epitome of individual longing or national hope. Using popular in one of its least hackneyed meanings, we must confess that there is no Canadian poetry that is popular with the Canadian people. This statement at first will wear a condemnatory face. If our poets cannot win the people to sing with them, of what use is the song?
The question has been asked and must be satisfied. Such poetry as we nearly all demand, poetry that will stir the heart, poetry that will enthral, poetry that will lead and support great deeds is not written under the conditions that now obtain. The poet is the bondman of his time, and must serve, moulding bricks without straw, as the demand is made.
Our time, if not out of joint, is at least thewless. It is the uncertain aim, the lack of any national solidarity that acts and reacts upon everything thought and done.
The uses of such poetry as we have are, however, sufficiently evident. In the first place it stands for progress; in the second it begins to form the basis of tradition. Advance is essential in art; and tradition is most valuable. At present it is wise to judge this poetry in the mass, and not by particular examples. So judged it gathers into a sphere of very considerable importance. It is inspired by wholesome ideals and filled with the genuine spirit of nature; it is an advance upon pre-Confederation poetry, and it forms a standard and reference for future Canadian writers. [page 70]