Seven Canadian Poets



Monday, July 1, 1867

      The date would go down in history as the day the Canadian nation was born. Celebrations were widespread, but not everyone was happy about the accouchement. Joseph Howe, a former premier of Nova Scotia, thought the Fathers of Confederation had collectively sired a bastard. New Brunswickers, threatened by Fenian raids from Maine, had reluctantly joined the midwives, hoping to find safety in numbers.

     Of course, there was already something called Canada in existence before July 1, 1867. It had been created by joining the separate colonies of Upper and Lower Canada by the Act of Union in 1840, although the individuality of the two parts was retained by designating them Canada West and Canada East. The other British North American colonies faced continued pressure to join this Canadian union, but by 1867 only two of  them had agreed: Nova Scotia (whose premier, Charles Tupper, made the commitment without consulting the electorate) and New Brunswick (where nervous voters reversed their opposition as late as 1866). Consequently, people who had been Nova Scotians or New Brunswickers for many decades awoke one historic morning with the debatable distinction of  being “New Canadians.”

     Many of the unwilling converts protested by draping their doors with black crepe or flying the Union Jack at half-mast. Nevertheless, there were fervent advocates like the Reverend Goodridge Roberts, rector of Westcock Parish in the Tantramar region of New Brunswick. Roberts’ seven-year-old son Charlie never forgot his father’s lecture while out driving with their horse and buggy one afternoon prior to the first Dominion Day. After expounding upon the advantages of union with Canada, the rector turned to Charlie with great earnestness: “In the building of this great nation,” he said, “I hope my son will grow up to play his full part in it.”1 Over seventy years later, the son (by then Sir Charles G. D. Roberts) permitted his official biographer to state that his father had stirred a “feeling of personal responsibility towards Confederation, which later developed into a dominant purpose of his life.”2

     In addition, 1867 was impressed upon young Charlie’s mind by his first visit mid-way across the province to Fredericton, the tiny capital city, home to many of his relatives. His paternal grandfather, George Roberts, was still headmaster of the Fredericton Grammar School after nearly forty years on the job. His widowed maternal grandmother was still there, exercising her matriarchal rule over the prolific Bliss family. Among his numerous cousins in Fredericton was six-year-old Bliss Carman, whose name would be forever linked with his.

     The names of Bliss Carman and Charles G.D Roberts appear in the mythology of Canadian literature as if they form a didymous pair as indistinguishable from each other as Castor and Pollux or Romulus and Remus. In adulthood, both men would foster that image by stressing that they had been united from boyhood by bonds of kinship and mutual interests. In reality,  Carman’s closest boyhood friend was another cousin, Andy Stratton, with Roberts rating “a feeble second.”3 Although Carman once described himself as being to Roberts “as his twin,”4 they bore little resemblance to each other in nearly every respect. As an adult, the lanky, six-foot-three Carman was  a whole head taller than the sturdy, compact Roberts. The contrast in colouring was equally striking: Carman being fair with tousled bronze hair; Roberts being swarthier with black hair which he brushed back agressively and sometimes parted in the middle. In temperament, they were too unalike to be truly kindred spirits. Roberts was more ebullient, more inclined to take charge, more conventionally masculine in his manner. Carman was diffident and shy, often indecisive to the point of  indolence,  and displayed mannerisms bordering on the effete. Finally, although each would establish himself as a poet, their literary styles were not similar.

     Sir Charles G. D. Roberts never mentioned whether his first visit to Fredericton coincided with Dominion Day, although that possibility exists. His silence may simply indicate that the celebrations were not particularly impressive, not even for a country boy from the Tantramar. True, the shops were closed and the Union Jack flew from numerous buildings, but there was very little excitement. The chief entertainment of the day was an afternoon shooting match between the Army Regulars and the Volunteers. Many residents took advantage of the sunny weather by booking their passages on the steamer Rothesay for a trip down the river to Saint John.

     As might be expected, the festivities in Ottawa were more upbeat than those in Fredericton. The capital of the new Dominion, given royal approval by Queen Victoria, had not been a popular choice, but it was ready to take its role seriously. Still not more than a lumber village, derided by many as “the Westminster of the Wilderness,” it was conscious of having had greatness thrust upon it. Accordingly, the city councillors prepared to greet the special occasion in a style that befitted Ottawa’s sudden prestige, although a persistent minority protested to the end against the $500 appropriated for the event.

     Fully an hour before midnight on June 30, hundreds of Ottawa citizens began gathering at Major’s Hill, waiting for a bonfire to be lit on the Ordinance Lands. At the last stroke of twelve from the Cathedral clock, an enormous pyramid of wood, tar barrels, and rubbish was set ablaze. The crowd responded with three hearty cheers for the Queen and three more for the new Dominion of Canada. All the city bells rang out, rockets and Roman candles burst into the sky, and the Ottawa Field Battery fired a salute of one hundred guns. By morning, the Citizen reported, all the roads leading into the city were full of wagons “freighted with the loyal yeomen of Carleton with their buxom wives and beautiful daughters on their way to join in the rejoicings of the day.”5

     To the great disappointment of the crowds in Ottawa, the man who had now become the first Governor-General of Canada took no part in the public demonstrations. Since his appointment in 1861 as Governor-in-Chief of British North America, Lord Monck had shown himself to be a sensible and diplomatic administrator. If he erred, it was usually on the side of caution. He had quietly given his support to the concept of Confederation without clashing with its opponents. Having resided in Quebec City during his first five years in office, he had seen the ambivalence of French Canada; and recent reports from the Maritimes warned him that New Brunswick’s mood could at best be described as resignation while Nova Scotia was close to revolt. Official pomp and ceremony at this time, he feared, might fan the flames of dissent. Even the more receptive mood in Canada West (hereafter to be known as Ontario) was not enough to change his mind. He insisted that the inauguration of the new Dominion should take place with a minimum of fanfare.

     Deciding against an official uniform with gold braid and sword, he arrived at the new Parliament Buildings without ado, dressed in a plain business suit. After signing the necessary documents and swearing in a new government under Sir John A. Macdonald, he hurried back to Rideau Hall, his unfinished official residence, which he intended to vacate as soon as possible. Until the opening of the first parliament four months later, he proposed to spend his time at Spencer Wood outside Quebec City. The latter residence and city were much more to his liking. Convinced that Ottawa would flounder as the nation’s capital, he predicted that the seat of government would be moved elsewhere within four years.

     Events would prove him a poor prophet. By the time four years had stretched into twenty-four, Ottawa had eased into its role and silenced the majority of its critics. As the growing pains diminished, parliamentarians and civil servants began to find the city a more comfortable place in which to live and work. Once the major inconveniences were overcome, it was easier to appreciate the natural setting. “Perched upon its crown of rock Ottawa enjoys uncommon and romantic beauty of situation,”6 wrote Archibald Lampman, one of three gifted poets in the civil service. The others were Duncan Campbell Scott and William Wilfred Campbell. Like Charles Roberts, all three were clergymen’s sons, born at the beginning of the 1860s, just a few years prior to Confederation.

     Since Archie Lampman was barely five and a half on July 1, 1867, he may not have grasped why the day should be important to him. For one thing, he was still adjusting to his family’s recent move from his birthplace in Morpeth, on Lake Erie, to Perrytown, near Port Hope, Canada West. To add to the disruption, before he had time to adapt to the strangeness his new surroundings, preparations were already underway for the family to move in October to yet another parish. Probably his mind was too full of the sudden changes to dwell upon something like Confederation that made no difference to his daily routine.

     For Duncan Campbell Scott, the chief memory of the first Dominion Day would be “much shouting and firing of guns” at Iroquois, the little village in south-eastern Ontario where his father was in charge of the Wesleyan Methodist congregation. Not yet five years old, he was terrified by all the clamour. Later in his life, he  would joke that his dislike of any kind of racket had its origins in “that noisy festal day.”7

     William Wilfred Campbell (“Willie” to his family, but “Wilfred” to others) turned seven exactly one month before the first Dominion Day. His father, the Reverend Thomas Swainston Campbell, a peripetetic Anglican clergyman, was again on the move in 1867, but the exact timing is unclear. At some point during the year, he migrated westward from the parish of Douglas in eastern Ontario to the village of Meaford on Nottawasaga Bay, an inlet of Georgian Bay off Lake Huron. Since Wilfred later gained a reputation as “The Poet of the Lakes,” it would be rather fitting  if Confederation Day found him in  the “lake region.”

     Another future poet, six-year-old Frederick George Scott of Montreal, was present for  one of the most spectacular displays anywhere in the new Dominion. Reaction to Confederation might have been less than enthusiastic in much of Canada East (soon to become Quebec) but that was not the situation in Montreal. “There is no other city in Canada,” the Gazette declared, “likely to gain so much commercially and materially as Montreal.”8 With the prospect of such good times ahead, Montrealers were in a mood to celebrate. Nowhere in the whole country were festivities prepared with greater zeal.

     Montreal awoke a 6 o’clock on the morning of the first Dominion Day with a Royal Salute fired from St. Helen’s Island. Thereafter, the celebrations continued unabated until dark, reaching a fitting climax with a magnificent show of fireworks on the side of Mount Royal above McGill University. During the day, young Fred Scott was taken by his father (who taught anatomy at McGill) “to hear the guns firing a salute” 9 on the university grounds. Since his home was only a few  blocks below Mount Royal, he may have watched the evening fireworks from an upstairs window. More likely, however, the Scott family joined the spectators crowding Sherbrooke and other nearby streets for a closer view of the best pyrotechnics the city had ever witnessed. In fact, some of the pieces, imported from Boston for the occasion, had not yet been seen anywhere else in the world. There had also been plans for special street illuminations, but those arrangements had to be cancelled for fear the decrepit gas works might collapse under the added strain.

     The inaugural celebrations in Brantford, Ontario, could not match those in Montreal. Still, having spent $400 on them, the town felt it had acquitted itself  “in as good a manner as any other place its size in the Confederacy.”10 The planning Committee had been authorized to invite various groups, including the Orange Order and the Six Nations Indians, to take part in a grand parade. However, through some negligence on the Committee’s part—or so an editorial writer implied—several groups were missing when the procession marched through the town. Conspicuous by its absence was any representation from the Six Nations Indians.

     The Brantford Expositor regretted that the Orange Order and the Fire Brigade had been left out, but showed no concern over the omission of the Indians, Without directly saying so, the paper took the position that Confederation was the exclusive product of the British spirit in Canada. That attitude was shared by a certain Mrs. James Somerville, who wrote a long patriotic poem which the Expositor displayed on its front page. The following excerpt indicates the essence of her thinking:

                           British Canadians! guard your birthright well,
                           Our country’s future shall the story tell.
                           How many hearts to-day a vow shall make
                           To live and labor for their country’s sake

                           To win for Canada a name—a place
                           Worthy the scion of a free-born race.11

      For some reason, the Six Nations Indians at the nearby reservation postponed their activities until July 5th, possibly awaiting the arrival of the Chief Superintendent, who had been busy elsewhere. The Expositor commented approvingly that they “celebrated Dominion Day in a very enthusiastic and loyal manner” with speeches “suitable to the occasion and games of various kinds.”12 Among the speakers was George Johnson, one of the fifty chiefs of the Six Nations Confederacy, who was widely regarded as a gifted orator. In all likelihood, he was accompanied by his wife, a white English woman, and their four young children.

     Of the Johnson children, two sons and two daughters, the youngest was a pretty six-year-old girl named Pauline. Her tawny colouring was scarcely deep enough to suggest her mixed blood, which was hardly surprising since her father himself was not of pure Indian descent. His maternal grandmother was a white woman who had been captured by the Mohawks as a teenager and adopted into the family of a chief. Therefore, Pauline Johnson was not mathematically a “half-breed” (a term she loathed) since her Indian forebears accounted for a smaller fraction of her ancestry. Nevertheless, by law she was an Indian, and she would grow up with a passionate attachment to that side of her heritage. She would also boast that she was “born in Canada beneath the British flag”13—her sentiments differing only slightly from those of the Brantford Expositor and Mrs. James Somerville.

     All across the land, Dominion Day 1867 began and ended much more auspiciously than Lord Monck had feared. Sunny skies everywhere added to the success of the outdoor activities and kept the crowds in a holiday mood. Seven of the children who witnessed the first Dominion Day would grow up to be known as Confederation Poets: Charles G. D. Roberts, Bliss Carman, Archibald Lampman, Duncan Campbell Scott, William Wilfred Campbell, Frederick George Scott, and Pauline Johnson. They were old enough at the time to remember the occasion later, but too young to have formed any attachments to the system that had been replaced. As a buoyant nationalism evolved, despite  the earlier nay-sayers, they would develop a pride in being part of something new and promising and exciting. That feeling would resonate in much of their poetry.

     They had contemporaries who would also become poets, many of them sharing the same enthusiasms, but failing to have much of an impact beyond their own day. Scarcely any of them receive attention now, not even in anthologies of representative Canadian verse. Albert E.S. Smythe (1861-1947), to take but one example, was once praised for his “refined mysticism” and “exquisitely finished verse,”14 but today, if his name is mentioned at all, it is most likely as the father of Conn Smythe, who built Maple Leaf Gardens and managed the Toronto Maple Leafs to seven Stanley Cup victories.

     While the seven poets under consideration here may not be household names either, they are not entirely forgotten—nor should they be. A.J.M. Smith calls them the poets of “Canada’s ‘Golden Age’.” If that sounds like hyperbole, it must be kept in mind that he is using a narrow definition: “the most complete and satisfying body of work in the whole range of Canadian literature.”15 While that is not the same as saying “A poor thing but our own” (as the acerbic Charlotte Whitton famously described the new Canadian flag  in 1965), Smith markedly refrains from making any comparisons with the best of world poetry. In truth, there are no “masters” among the so-called Confederation Poets (Post-Confederation would be more accurate), but Roberts, Carman, Lampman, the two Scotts, Campbell and Johnson (while not equally gifted) all produced some poems that merit our admiration. Collectively, they may represent only a Gold-plated Age, but they were the leaders in what is generally recognized as Canada’s first important literary movement.


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