Duncan Campbell Scott:
The Magic House, and Other Poems

Afterword

by W. J. Keith


 

The Magic House, Duncan Campbell Scott’s first book of poems, was published in London and Ottawa in 1893, a Boston edition appearing two years later. It therefore appeared in the same year as Bliss Carman’s Low Tide on Grand Pré (also a first book), Charles G. D. Roberts’s Songs of the Common Day, and William Campbell’s The Dread Voyage. Archibald Lampman had established his poetic presence with Among the Millet in 1888, and Lyrics of Earth would follow in 1895.

Scott’s début volume has attracted relatively little attention from literary commentators, perhaps because his work in the Department of Indian Affairs had not yet led to those official journeys into the Canadian northland among the native peoples that inspired so many of his later more distinctive (and controversial) poems. Most critics have therefore been content, understandably, to confine themselves to brief comment about the immediate influence of the Pre-Raphaelites and more general poetic debts to Keats, Tennyson, and others. One exception, however, was Desmond Pacey, in Ten Canadian Poets, who wrote enthusiastically:

The Magic House is a first volume of surprisingly high quality.There is not a really bad poem in the book, and there are a number of extremely good ones ....

Although The Magic House does not contain any one poem equal to the title poem of Bliss Carman’s Low Tide on Grand Pré, taken as a whole it is the best volume by any member of the Group of the Sixties (145-7)

Scott’s book has now been available for over a century, and Pacey’s comment (which reflects his crusading zeal during a period when early Canadian literature was being reassessed) is itself over forty years old. It is worthwhile taking a further look at The Magic House from a more detached perspective at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

One conspicuous feature is Scott’s efforts to place himself within the company of the poets we have come, with the rather desperate cataloguing of hindsight, to call “the Poets of Confederation.” Although the dedicatees of Scott’s poems appear under initials only, it is easy to recognize his successive acknowledgment of Lampman (“The Fifteenth of April”), Campbell (“At the Cedars”), Carman (“The Reed-Player”), and Roberts (“A Flock of Sheep”). That Lampman was the poet to whom Scott was closest is further indicated by the poem entitled “Written in a Copy of Archibald Lampman’s Poems.” This impression is strengthened by the general style and tone of the volume as a whole. Several descriptive sonnets, including “In an Old Quarry” and “September,” would not have seemed out of place in Roberts’s Songs of the Common Day, while more meditative descriptive poems like “A November Day” recall Lampman. The dedication of “At the Cedars” to Campbell suggests that the violence and vigour of the poem reflect Scott’s image of Campbell himself, and “The Reed-Player” is not only dedicated to Carman but reproduces his rather dreamy classicism.

Modern readers, I suspect, are unlikely to share Pacey’s enthusiasm, but they might well be struck by Scott’s experimentation with verse-forms and metres. It can hardly be accidental that all three major forms of the sonnet (Petrarchan, Spenserian, Shakespearean) are represented here. In addition, Scott appears to test a number of original verse-forms, two of which (see “The Fifteenth of April” and “A Night in June”) are unusual in incorporating a non-rhyming line into each stanza. Readers interested in prosodic matters may also notice that in the many poems written in quatrains (amounting to well over a third), while the rhymes are invariably constant, the syllables within the lines can vary–sometimes quite drastically. The reasons for such variation are not immediately obvious, but, given Scott’s fastidiousness (as well as his musical interests and expertise) it seems doubtful that this is the result of carelessness or oversight. Most probably Scott found the occasional substitution of longer or shorter lines rhythmically–and so aesthetically–satisfying.

The best-known poems in the collection are undoubtedly–and deservedly–“At the Cedars” and “In the Country Churchyard.” The former, as every commentator notes, is conspicuous because it sticks out tonally like the proverbial sore thumb. Here, too, one suspects deliberate experimentation, since the material seems more in tune with Scott’s short stories, which he had already begun to write; violent narrative, of course, is to become a feature of his later verse (“On the Way to the Mission,” “At Gull Lake”). As for the elegy to his father, Scott seems at pains here to discover how far he can achieve a personal originality with an apparently overpowering traditional theme. The subject is obviously Gray’s, and Scott flaunts the connection by mentioning the humble villagers “disguised amid the multitude” and even including a line about lowing cattle. Yet here Scott deliberately and wisely eschews the quatrain-form, his seven-line stanza allowing him a more Arnoldian richness and melancholy. The fact that his elegy is for a person rather than a group is also noteworthy. Above all, the speaker emerges as a quiet, pensive individual, the kind of narrator who is to appear again in “The Height of Land” and elsewhere.
Finally, I would like to draw attention to a remarkable poem rarely mentioned in studies of Scott. “From the Farm on the Hill” is notable as an early experiment in irregular, even free verse. Scott’s control here is admirable. In the first stanza, for example, each of the three syntactical units might have found their place, rhythmically speaking, in separate poems. Yet they combine pleasingly, requiring in the reader a palpable but manageable shift in tone and reading-speed that creates a fruitful tension. Moreover, the sensitive evocation of the natural scene in the last three stanzas blends seamlessly with the characteristic Scottian emphasis on personal aspiration in the final lines:

Let me touch the next circle of being,
For I have compassed this life.

For the first time we hear, indisputably, the stuttery but engaging rhythms that are to become a feature of Scott’s mature poetic voice.

 

Works Cited

 

Dragland, S. L., ed. Duncan Campbell Scott: A Book of Criticism. Ottawa: Tecumseh Press, 1974. (Includes influential essays by E. K. Brown and A. J. M. Smith.)

Groening, Laura. “Duncan Campbell Scott: An Annotated Bibliography,” in Robert Lecker and Jack David, eds., The Annotated Bibliography of Canada’s Major Authors, Volume 8. (Toronto: ECW Press, 1994), 469-576.

Johnston, Gordon. “Duncan Campbell Scott (1862-1947),” in Robert Lecker, Jack David, and Ellen Quigley, eds., Canadian Writers and Their Works: Poetry Series, Volume 2 (Downsview, ON: ECW Press, 1983), 235-81.

Pacey, Desmond. “Duncan Campbell Scott,” in his Ten Canadian Poets (Toronto: Ryerson Press, 1958), 141-6.

Scott, Duncan Campbell. The Magic House, and Other Poems. London: Methuen, 1893; Ottawa: Durie, 1893; Boston: Copeland and Day, 1895. (Text identical in all editions.)

Slonim, Leon. A Critical Edition of the Poems of Duncan Campbell Scott. 2 vols. Ph.D. dissertation, University of Toronto, 1978. (Contains excellent textual and explanatory notes.)