Duncan Campbell Scott

Addresses‚ Essays‚ and Reviews




Archibald Lampman [Memorial]

 

It gives me the keenest pleasure to be here today. My close friendship with Archibald Lampman during his lifetime and my long association with his poems since his death have given me a unique interest in everything that contributes to his fame. This is the most important public memorial that has been erected to his memory, and I consider myself privileged to be present at its unveiling and to have been asked by the Committee to make an address on the occasion. I take it that my remarks should not be very lengthy, but to the point, so I have prepared what I have to say in order to omit nothing of importance that should be said.
     No doubt the incidents of the life are fairly well known and my opinions of his work are also familiar, but on an occasion of this kind it is, I think, well to say a few words about his life and to dwell not in eulogy but in moderate appreciation on the outstanding excellencies of his work. In such an appreciation will be implied the reasons why we are here; why so many of our fellow-countrymen have felt that they could contribute to this moment and this monument; and why we may confidently think that the future of our poet is assured.
     Lampman came from pure Loyalist stock in both lines of descent. The poet’s mother was a Gesner, a family that was celebrated for its intellectual attainments and its high qualities of character. The family originated in Switzerland, and the branch from which the poet was descended moved to Holland at an early date. The Lampmans came originally from Hanover, and emigrated to the American colonies by way of Holland. Leaving Hanover and coming to America, they simply transferred themselves without change of allegiance from one portion of British territory to another. [page 382]
      Both families were resident in the American colonies at the outbreak of the Revolutionary War. Lampman’s forebears adhered to till’ Loyalist cause. The Gesners came to Nova Scotia and afterwards to the Niagara Peninsula, and the Lampmans came directly to the Niagara district. Both families were active in the pioneer work of Conquering the woodlands of Ontario; their lives there were reasonably successful. Archibald Lampman, the poet’s father, married Susannah Charlotte Gesner, and the poet was born at Morpeth on November 17th, 1861.
     Six national strains met in his personality, French, Dutch, German, Swiss, Scotch and English, but it is noteworthy that both his grandmothers were Highland Scotch. Surely his nature must have been influenced by these Celtic origins. That melancholy which ever and anon settles upon the Highlander visited him and often colored his thoughts, and he had the Celtic shyness which is so often mistaken for pride, and he had also the aversion to material activities. Thrown in upon the more practical qualities of the Dutch and Germans, their power of merely bearing the pressure of life, these more visionary influences made him a sensitive stoic. I must give tribute to the qualities of the poet’s mother. In the somewhat trying circumstances of his childhood her resolute spirit guided his destiny, and in the dedication of one of his books the poet acknowledged what he owed to the mother who battled for him in those early days.
     His life was uneventful. He graduated from Trinity College in 1882, and on January 16th, 1883, he was appointed to a clerkship in the Post Office Department. He died on February 10th, 1899. Neither his appointment nor any advantage or promotion which he received while in the Service was granted him on account of his literary achievements. I may confidently say that the Governments of those days were insensible to any such influence. He had warm friends both inside and outside his Department, but his advancement was slow, although he was an excellent clerk. The rest of his life was to be spent in Ottawa, and his removal to that city gave him access to a wonderfully interesting country, a country of rolling hills and clear lakes. He became acquainted with the eastern provinces, but he never saw the mountains or the prairies.
     His old friends who are left are often asked for a physical description of Archibald Lampman. Remembering Browning’s poem, they might ask, "and did you once see Lampman plain and [page 383] did he speak with you." When I wrote the first memoir shortly after his death I endeavored to describe his personal appearance, and I might repeat it here, to bring before you, so far as any description can do so, his appearance as we knew him.
     Archibald Lampman was of middle height, and of a slight form. In the city he walked habitually with a downcast glance, with his eyes fixed upon the ground; in the fields and woods he was alert and observant. His manner was quiet and undemonstrative. His voice was mellow and distinct. It would explain the fascination of his personality if that deep, bright, lucid glance could be preserved, if it could look out upon the old and new readers of his poems with the shadowed sweetness  that charmed  and attracted in life. Although his face and its expression were in harmony, the index of his character was written in his brow, candid and serene, and in his eyes, sincere and affectionate. His brow was finely moulded and over it fell the masses of his brown hair, that glowed with a warm chestnut when the light touched it. His eyes were brown, clear and vivid. There was pioneering blood in his veins, and he delighted in the fields and the woods. He had no worldly ambition, and it should be noted that he could look forward to an ideal existence where he would have abundant leisure and a pension of six or seven hundred dollars a year. He was very sensitive to the humorous side of life, and was altogether human in his outlook. He liked a good pipe of tobacco and a glass of wine, but like Elia, Lampman was temperate in his meals and diversions.
     Making no further remarks with reference to his personality and taking a general impression of his contribution to literature, it is clear that he belongs to the tradition and is part of the broad stream of English poetry.
     In reading him we are not disturbed by innovations or stirred by revolutionary ideas of form. He is a contemporary of Matthew Arnold and Tennyson, and an heir of all the technique and vision which have built up the marvellous palace of English poetry. To those of us who have lived beyond the last century and through the Great War, that epoch is closed, and in our minds as Canadians, Lampman belongs to it. Although this present decade may have nothing to show more than a little futile restlessness and a satirical questioning that may seem fleeting by comparison, yet there is a difference, there is a striving and a ferment that is alien to the time so near us, but seemingly so old. And Lampman has all the advantage [page 384] of such association; when we consider his work, we have no sense of anything fragmentary or experimental; we may be conscious of power not fully developed, imagination capable of new inventions suddenly darkened, but what we have is complete and perfect, as the result and sum of a poetic life, lived amid certain conditions of time and environment.
     In reading him we have the assurance that he is in the line of the great masters, that he has revered them and been honorably influenced by them, and has used his genius to depict the Canadian scene and to use the old colors with new forms, with new vigor and with new-world freshness. What Lampman has brought to mingle with the old methods is the joy of a new land, its vigorous climate and life and the excitement of recording impressions of a beauty that is untroubled by human tradition. The product of this graft upon the old stock is fruit with a tang of native flavor to be compared to the fruit of his own ancestral Niagara district; the old form with the gust of a new soil.
     As years go by it will be apparent that one special value of his work, as a landmark in Canadian literature, is that it furnishes a point of departure for criticism. Critics may in the future find that his work does not express their way of looking at things and they may think his forms old-fashioned and mannered, but there he will be, giving them a measure of comparison, serving as a model of perfection and near-perfection and supplying a symbol of moderation and poise in temper and style.
     He had no systematized philosophy of life; we see it by flashes and discover it by implications. It is none the less present, and, if gathered up from these inferential sources and from rarer positive and direct statements, it becomes forcible and clear. There is, it seems to me, a spirit of consecration brooding over the poems; the writer was conscious of the high power of poetry and had vowed himself to that power. In 1895 we find him writing that poetry had "seized and enveloped" the whole field of his life; at last he had become aware of that consecration which had truly been his from the first. Writing of poetry once he said: "If, then, poetry is the transfiguration of life, in order to establish the value of the poet’s work, it is necessary to consider whether the life which he has transfigured is the true life, whether the transfiguration is real; that is, whether he has thrown the true light of the imagination over it, and, finally, how much of the true life his work of transfiguration has [page 385] covered. There is one thing concerning the true life which may be laid down as a guide in criticism. It is this: Life is not a dreary thing. Human beings are not mere hopeless playthings in the hands of chance, utterly governed by a multitude of passions, that must mar and twist them, befoul them or beautify them as they will. Human nature may be represented by the ancient Pan—half human and half beast—but the human is the mightier part, and the whole is ever striving to be divine. The main current of the human spirit through many changes, and many falls, is setting eternally toward a condition of order and divine beauty, and peace. A poet may never have uttered this thought, may never perhaps have been even conscious of it, but unless the general body of his work is in some way accordant with it, unless his transfiguration of life has in some way tended to strengthen and glorify the universal yearning for order and beauty and peace, the heart of man will keep no hold of it."
     Here is a prose statement of Lampman’s creed. It makes plain the tendencies of his work and reveals the hope which sustains it. He desired to transfigure life and to strengthen and glorify the universal yearning for order and beauty and peace. The hope was high, but the task was accomplished.
     This is the creed that takes form in the lines of "Alcyone" in which life is held to be negative unless the spirit can be—"Something radiant and august as night. Something wide as space." It is present in many poems where the cosmic feeling transcends the restricted idea of our planet as the sole reason for the existence of the universe, and of our destiny, as a formalized system of "postmortem rewards and punishments": in such a poem as "The Clearer Self," where life is only thought to be actual if one has proved: "What greatness there can be in man, Above the measured and the known," and in that enigmatic poem "To the Prophetic Soul," where there is a contrast between the materialistic "bustlers at the gate of now or yesterday," and those who have vision of the large and the true. The idea is developed with exceeding beauty in the three sonnets: "The Largest Life." The strangeness of the soul and its part in "the dark march of Human Destiny" is cleared and lightened by its community with the universal creative forces of beauty and of love, and we are called upon to "address our spirits to the height and attune them to the valiant whole." The mention of the three sonnets composing the poem "The Largest Life" suggests [page 386] an appraisal of Lampman’s position as a sonneteer. He, himself, thought his best work was in the sonnets, and I think we may all agree with him, although a poet is not often the best judge of his work. If we consider Lampman as a nature poet, it is certainly in the sonnets that we find his very finest characteristics, and if we look for evidences of his treatment of human life we will find them exemplified in the sonnets. The majority of his sonnets take their place with the best in English literature and bring a new train of beauty into the catalogue, beauty of our own fields and forests.
     It is lamentable that his career was cut short just as he was beginning to develop new and freer forms of expression. His heart, impaired in early boyhood, he had over-tasked later in the sheer enjoyment of physical exertion on the rivers and in the woods, and it suddenly failed him. When his mind was gaining in power, when experience had deepened, and when ambition was strong to do finer things, he was forced to relax and to fend off the attacks of thought and invention, and not allow himself to be captured and possessed by them. It is idle to conjecture what the course of that development might have been, but one can hazard that it would broadly have tended towards the drama of life, and away from the picture of nature.
     While we lament that our poet was not left longer to work in the world, and while we deplore that his whole energy could not be devoted to poetry, we must recognize and try to value at its true worth what he has left us. In his best work there is that clear sincerity which is ever an attribute of the highest poetical production. He rarely fell below a certain level, and a high level it was. Arnold truly says "the greatness of the great poets is that their virtue is sustained," and we may claim that element of greatness for our fellow-countryman. His virtue was sustained. He was not trivial in his comments on life, nor careless in his manner of writing, and his opinions were sane, not embittered and hopeless, but fine and clear and high, tinged and affected by emotion. These are the qualities which have placed him where we find him today; and as they are enduring, amongst things the most enduring, they have established him in a position of growing power. The quality with which he lightens his serious thought is a sort of winsomeness that breaks in everywhere and is contagious and lovable and manly. I think this spirit of his will play no small part in the intellectual life of our country. But that spirit cannot get free to work its will unless readers [page 387] loose it from the printed page and take it into their memories. Monuments of stone are not enough; the true monument of a poet is builded in the affections of his countrymen. Let us, then, build him a fane in some untrodden region of our minds. If those of us who read poetry will read widely and admire with true catholicity, we will find ourselves returning to the poems of Archibald Lampman with, it may be, power to see his limitations but also with power to enjoy his beauties and his felicities. As these come fully upon us with all their dewy freshness, their youthful, winsome spirit, their wisdom and their comfort, we shall also find ourselves influenced and led on by his ideals.
     Is it not fitting to conclude this short address by reading the last sonnet of the group entitled “The Largest Life”?

There is a beauty at the goal of life,
A beauty growing since the world began,
Through every age and race, through lapse and strife,
Till the great human soul complete her span.
Beneath the waves of storm that lash and burn,
The currents of blind passion that appall,
To listen and keep watch till we discern
The tide of sovereign truth that guides it all;
So to address our spirits to the height,
And so attune them to the valiant whole,
That the great light be clearer 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. [page 388]

 

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