In the history of many creative minds it should be possible to fix definite points of experience from which new influences arose, leading sometimes to important changes in the development of genius, and sometimes to the strengthening and enrichment of genius without diverting the stream from its main channel. Archibald Lampman’s greatest gift to us is his interpretation of nature in its varied aspects, from the gentleness of spring flowers to the wildness of winter storms. He had other powers, for he was greatly interested in men and affairs; he has said some memorable things about life and has made plain what was his ideal for the good life. It is not disparagement to say that he was first of all the poet of nature and there is no derogation of that finest of his powers to say that, at the end of his days, he was dealing with life’s larger problems and even with heroic action.
I am indulging in no fancy when I say that the definite point in experience from which came the enrichment of that chief gift of his was reached when he came to Ottawa in 1883. That was his first contact with the romantic scenery of the province of Quebec; he then first realized the vital beauty of rivers and mountain lakes, and of forests not entirely subdued. Before then he had lived in pastoral parts of Ontario. He discovered beauty there and recorded it; but he was moved by another and a deeper beauty when he knew the Gastineau, “rushing from its northern wilds,” the river Lievre, the Ottawa and, later, the Lower St. Lawrence. His ideal of life was to be close to nature in the woods and by the lakes, and that feeling was intensified by the Quebec environment which, for him, had the ever-present spirit of the voyageur, the trapper and the settler on virgin lands. The dominant stream in his ancestry was adventurous, the pioneer element that sought for wilderness to conquer, that [page 475] felt a kinship with the earth and was aware of the beauty in nature unspoiled; these qualities met and found expression in the poet.
His forbears of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were mid-Europeans; his mother’s family, the Gesners, were rooted in Switzerland; his father’s, the Lampmans, in Hanover. The Gesners drifted into Holland, and afterwards, in 1710, to the British colony of New York. The Lampmans passed from Hanover through Holland, and the first American emigre came to New York in 1750. Both families were loyal to the British Crown during the American Revolution, and, after many vicissitudes, found themselves peacefully established in Upper Canada, and not widely separated. Bother families were successful colonists, and it was in cultivated Upper Canada, which they had done much to civilize, that Archibald Lampman’s parents, Susannah Charlotte Gesner and Archibald Lampman were married at Morpeth, in Kent county, in May of 1860. The poet was born there on 17th November, 1861. It is interesting to note that six native strains met in him; French, Dutch, German, Swiss, Scotch and English; and that both his grandmothers were Highland Scotch.
Mr. Lampman had graduated Bachelor of Arts from Trinity College, Toronto, in 1857; in 1860 he was incumbent of Trinity Church, Morpeth. He was a man of reading and general culture, and enthusiast of the Augustan age of English poetry and from this classic view-point he gave his son his first insight into the art of verse. The poet’s mother had strong musical bent; her character was a blend of strength and tenderness, and in the circumstances of her life she had need to call upon those reserves of courage that gave her personality distinction. The poet was conscious of the debt to his parents and in dedications in two of his books acknowledged it. There was an affectionate warmth in the address to his mother whose valiant will had battled long ago; he called his father a poet who first instructed him in the art of verse. In thinking of Archibald Lampman’s early life one can be aware of surrounding memories of courage and loyalty and of traditional gentle standards of domestic life.
In 1867 the family moved to Gore’s Landing, a small town on the shore of Rice Lake. In some respects the change might have meant an advance in the family fortunes. Archibald could remember nothing of Morpeth but had some happy memories of the surroundings at Rice Lake and his sojourn there; but Gore’s Landing proved inhospitable to him and to the first hard conditions of residence [page 476] there might well be traced a lasting weakness in his constitution. The only house available for a rectory was an old stone tavern, damp and even dilapidated; there Archibald contracted rheumatic fever and suffered acutely. Fortunately the tenure of the tavern was not lengthy and a comfortable house was occupied before long, but the effect of this illness was felt by the boy who was lame for some time. The families resident about Gore’s Landing were of the fine stock that built Upper Canada and Lampmans had free intercourse with them. Archibald was fortunate in his first school-master, F.W. Barron, M.A. of Cambridge who had a boarding-school in the village. He was a strict disciplinarian, believing in the power of the road as an aid to both culture and order. Culture in Lampman’s case was the chief advantage as he was tractable, and from Mr. Barron’s methods he gained that love of things well ordered which persisted throughout his life. The course of his education was to continue in the British and Anglican tradition.
Mr. Lampman was appointed curate of St. Peter’s church, Cobourg, and the family took up residence there in 1874. During the last four years at Gore’s Landing his health had begun to fail; the governance and, to a growing extent, the maintenance of the family devolved upon Mrs. Lampman. She proved worthy of the trust; she was determined that her children should be well educated and that their talents should be developed, and she was successful. After a year at Cobourg Collegiate, Archibald went to Trinity College School at Port Hope. His expenses there were nearly covered by scholarships, and he won many prizes. In 1879 he entered TrinityCollege, Toronto, and mainly by the help of scholarships he completed his course and graduated in 1882, B.A., with second class honours in classics. This ranking does not show a high attainment and might mean either a lack of natural ability or a failure of intense application. Only the latter cause can apply in his case. The recollections of his friends show that he was more studious at the preparatory school than he was at the college. That is easy to understand; at the school he had not many companions and no great diversions. Port Hope was hardly more than a large village and its life had the pattern of Cobourg and of all small Upper Canada towns; there was even no mild excitement, and young Lampman stuck to his books. He there had the standing of a student and was a leader as well. His lack of strength kept him off the football field but he took an interest in the sports and was a good skater and swimmer. In his second [page 477] year he was head boy and prefect of the school; this position carried disciplinary duties; he was responsible for the conduct of the boys after school hours. If he had any early powers in this direction they were not strengthened as years went by, as will be seen later by his experiences as school-master. When he went to Toronto he entered the life of a growing city, of a college with a history; and he came in contact with companions drawn from all parts of the province under masters who did not treat their pupils with familiarity. The family feelings of the school disappeared in the more important and varied surroundings which put a boy on his mettle. Lampman stood up well under the new conditions and before long he had his place in the college life; but it was not that of a devoted student.
One of his first acts after entrance was to join the Literary Institute; it showed where his tastes and his ambitions lay. His contribution to the life of the college became more and more a literary one. There was an outlet ever-present for the student-writer in the college magazine, Rouge et Noir, and to its pages Lampman contributed both verse and prose; his first poem was printed in Rouge et Noir, in February 1882. No doubt his studies were interfered with by these activities and by his growing delight in companionship which overflowed from the college to the city. He was everywhere welcomed, for he gave much to his friends and also gained much from them in the constant play of thought and free discussion.
During the summer of the year in which he graduated, he had been endeavouring to obtain a position in one of the Ontario schools and was accepted as assistant master of the Orangeville High School. His career was short and it proved that he had few of the qualities that go to the making of a successful teacher. He wrote: “like the poet, the pedagogue is born not made,” and he gave his friends amusing descriptions of his failure to maintain order in his classroom. As he was born ‘poet’ he escaped most happily from a type of bondage into a way of life that more nearly suited his inclinations.
In those days, the good old fashion of political patronage was the method of appointment to the Civil Service; it was subject to grave abuses but when it was abolished the claim might have been fairly made that it had given Canada competent and trustworthy succession of public officials. By its method Lampman reached the Post Office Department, nominated by Sir Alexander Campbell, Postmaster General, whose son had been the poet’s friend at college. [page 478] He was appointed on the 16th January, 1883 and found a place in the Secretary’s branch. Friendship and patronage were the causes of his appointment and not literary merit, and his single promotion came about in the way of official routine and not as recognition for his standing as a poet, which by that time had been acknowledged. He was a faithful and competent clerk and had earned advancement.
When he came to Ottawa, the town’s population was about twenty-five thousand; when he died in 1899 it had increased to about fifty-seven thousand. Bytown had had greatness thrust upon it, and, as Ottawa, was valiantly struggling with its problems. The charm of the place is its picturesque situation and easy access to the country, to the Gatineau Valley, and to the many lakes lying amid hills to the north. This environment had growing influence on Lampman, and he found new friends among men and women who shared his delight in poetry and nature. In this stimulus to the main interests of his life he was most fortunate; his family moved to Ottawa shortly after his appointment and for some time he enjoyed that well-loved association; his happiness was completed in 1887 when he married Maud Playter, the youngest daughter of Dr. Edward Playter. Three children were born of the marriage, a daughter in 1892, a son in 1894 (who died in infancy), and a son in 1898. Certain of his poems show how deeply he felt the loss of the child.
To Civil Service clerks in the position he occupied, the monotony of routine is as tedious now as it was then; the only escape from it is to some interest or to some passion which is the real life of the subject. Lampman’s real life was in poetry and the other life was alien to it. As years went by he became even hostile to it and he looked forward with increasing eagerness to complete severance from the Government service. In those days office hours were short and there was a reasonable annual vacation, and Lampman had certain leisure for reading and writing, for walks and rambles in the woods, for canoeing and snowshoeing and, during vacation, for visits to Boston, to Montreal and to the Niagara peninsula where his family traditions lay. Under these conditions, during his residence of sixteen years in Ottawa, he produces the bulk of his finest work, most of the longer descriptive lyrics and nearly all the sonnets. He was chary of self-criticism but he was right in his opinion that his best work was to be found in his sonnets. In perfection the best of them take their place with the best in English literature, and bring a [page 479] new train of beauties into the catalogue. Year after year his poems gave delights to readers of periodical literature in Canada and the United States. He published only two books during his lifetime. In 1895 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada.
About 1895 it became apparent that his health was impaired although that was not immediately traced to a weakness of the heart induced by the attack of rheumatic fever, that illness so serious in his boyhood. It is probable that during the camping trip which he made in the autumn of 1896 he strained his heart. He was always anxious to do his share of the portaging and the camp work and would never admit over-exertion. When it became clear that he should have a complete rest and change of scene, a few of his friends made it possible for him to travel in comfort, and part of the summer of 1898 he spent with friends at Lake Wayagamack, in Montreal and Boston, and in Digby. During the autumn of that year and the early winter of the next, there was no appreciable improvement in his condition and he died on 10th February, 1899. He was buried on the next day, Saturday, in Beechwood Cemeter, Ottawa. In the Memoir and in the Introduction which accompanied the Memorial Edition of the poems (1900), and Lyrics of Earth (1925), I attempted to give essential details of his disposition and way of life, of his opinions and ideals that may enable the reader to form some image, however faint, of his character and personality. I have no space to repeat them here, and I would not presume at this time to improve on their sincerity or vividness.
I have not yet quoted from the poems, as this is, in the main, a biographical sketch; but the details of a life cannot be separated from the cause which made it distinguished, and in Archibald Lampman’s world all was centred on poetry. He once wrote: “To have written a good stanza is the finest sensation on earth.” In 1893 he wrote; “Poetry has seized and enveloped the whole field.” This devotion to an ideal stimulated his great creative gift. Linked with the love of nature and with a growing experience of life, it gave him substance on which to work. Nature, one must put first, but he was ever conscious of life’s problems. These problems began to interest him more and more the older he grew; but his life was cut short before he could follow the current that was leading him into deeper waters. It is idle to speculate on a possible development, on what he might have written; but there remains the surety of his finished [page 480] work for our study and admiration; it is worthy of both, and I can refer the reader to it with confidence.
I began this sketch with a reference to Lampman’s reaction to the scenery and atmosphere of your province. If I could quote the whole of the sonnet, “Sunset at Les Eboulements,” it would of itself make good this point and show his strength as a sonneteer; but the closing lines must serve: