His full name was Charles George Douglas Roberts. It was too big a mouthful, he realized, to roll easily off the tongue, but plain “Charles Roberts” seemed to lack distinction. Facing this problem at the beginning of his writing career, he settled on “Charles G. D. Roberts” without realizing at the time how much trouble the public would have with those two initials. In the future, many people would resort to the mnemonic “Charles God Damn” to keep the order straight. His friends would sometimes use the phrase as an expression of jocular affection. A few of his detractors would mutter it as a curse.
He was called “Charles” after two uncles, but his second name “George” went back through at least four generations of distinguished Roberts men, staunch Anglicans all, from whom he was directly descended. His great-great-grandfather, the Reverend George Roberts, scion of minor landed gentry in Anglesea, Wales, had held a parish near London. His great-grandfather, George Roberts, a landowner in Somerset, had been educated at Oxford, and is chiefly remembered for compiling a Latin Grammar for use at Eton. His grandfather, George Roberts, also educated at Oxford, had immigrated in 1830 to Fredericton, New Brunswick, where he became the long-serving headmaster of the Grammar School. These “George” forebears had married into prominent families such as Goodridge, noted for its scholars, and Gostwyck (or Gostwick) that boasted a baronetcy, which the Reverend (George) Goodridge Roberts (Charles’ father), being the last direct heir, could have claimed if he had wanted it. The family’s continuing pride in their Goodridge and Gostwyck ancestry is demonstrated by the number of times those names were incorporated into the Christian names of later generations.
His other name, “Douglas,” was for his father’s New Brunswick parish where Charles was born on the 10th of January 1860. His actual birthplace at the mouth of the Keswick River is about ten miles north of Fredericton, the undersized city with which his name is most often associated. Although he reached his teens before he ever lived in Fredericton, he had roots there, not only though his grandfather, the headmaster, but more significantly though his mother, née Emma Bliss, great-granddaughter of the Honourable Daniel Bliss, the United Empire Loyalist whose descendants in Fredericton continued to follow the traditions he upheld. While Charles was still an infant, his father became the rector at Westcock in New Brunswick’s Tantramar region where he would serve for the next thirteen years.
When Charles was about nine years old, he was taken to nearby Sackville several afternoons a week for art lessons at the Mount Allison Ladies’ College. His father, an amateur painter, possessing considerable skill with watercolours, hoped that his son might have inherited some artistic talent; however, Charles, who was the only boy in the class, was more interested in the girls than he was in painting. From boyhood to old age, he remained a Don Juan whose flirtations became legendary. He grew to a height of only five foot eight, but his compact build and dark Byronic looks exuded sex appeal. With the additional attributes of charming manners and a honeyed tongue, conquests came easily.
Instead of painting with brushes, he would chose to paint with words. As “Charles G. D.,” Roberts became the first Canadian of his generation to attract attention as a poet. In 1880, while he was still several months short of his twenty-first birthday, a precocious volume called Orion and Other Poems introduced his name to the public. It was a vanity production for which the publisher, J. B. Lippincott & Company of Philadelphia, required him to pay an advance of $300, most of which he borrowed from George E. Fenety, the Queen’s Printer for New Brunswick, soon to become his father-in-law. There is no record of how well the book sold—perhaps Fenety had to write off the debt as a wedding gift—but it made a big splash in certain waters and had a ripple-effect of considerable consequence. Bliss Carman was encouraged by its appearance, and Archibald Lampman regarded it as a voice “calling us to be up and doing.”1 We cannot be certain how much it influenced Duncan Campbell Scott; but, if nothing else, there was an indirect connection through the latter’s association with Lampman. Whether or not the book came to the immediate attention of three other aspiring poets—William Wilfred Campbell, Frederick George Scott and Pauline Johnson—they soon became aware that Roberts was blazing a trail they wished to follow.
Of the twenty-nine poems in Roberts’ first volume, ten of them (including a chorus from the title poem ‘Orion’) had been published previously. Five had appeared in The Canadian Illustrated News, three in Rose-Belford’s Canadian Magazine, and two in Scribner’s Monthly.2 Not only was Scribner’s a leading American periodical, but enclosed with the cheque for the first poem (“Memnon” in the issue of June 1879) was a note from the editor saying “that it was the best poem he had received in three months, and that other productions of like quality would be readily accepted.”3 With that encouragement, Roberts immediately sent them “Ode to Drowsiness,” which was published in the November issue. Those successes were the biggest boost to his confidence since making his début as a poet with “Spring” and “On the Dying Year” in The Illustrated Canadian News, March 30, 1878. He had happily pocketed five dollars for those latter pieces, but they no longer met with his approval by the time he chose his selections for Orion.
Even with those exclusions, Orion and Other Poems remains predominantly a collection of juvenilia, written while the poet was still a teenager. A creditable accomplishment it may be for someone so young, but Roberts was no child prodigy. The book’s most astonishing attainment is the widespread admiration with which it was greeted. Typical of the reaction in Canada are the reviews in Rose-Belford’s Canadian Monthly and the Montreal Gazette. The former proclaimed: “Here is a writer whose power and originality it is impossible to deny—here is a book of which any literature might be proud”; the latter predicted that Roberts would “confer merited fame on himself and lasting honour on his country.”4 Had this extravagant praise been restricted to Canadian reviews, it would be easy to dismiss it as literary nepotism, putting patriotism ahead of merit. However, several American periodicals reviewed it favourably, including the New York Independent, which described it as “a little book of choice things, with the indifferent things well weeded out.”5
The sheer number of reviews is surprising, and is attributable in part to Roberts’ industry in sending out review copies on his own. Self-promotion (as well as a readiness to promote the work of his peers) would be one of his enduring qualities. Brashly, he sent copies of Orion to Tennyson, Swinburne and Arnold in England; and to Longfellow, Whitman and Oliver Wendell Homes in the United States. Neither Tennyson nor Swinburne deigned to reply; Longfellow and Whitman merely sent polite acknowledgments. He had better responses from Arnold and Holmes: the former writing a three-page letter of encouragement; the latter concluding a lengthy letter with an invitation for Roberts to visit him in Boston.
Overall, the reception given Orion was warmer than the young poet had any right to expect. Instead of pouncing upon its immaturity, the critics gave it high marks for its artistry and subject matter. Roberts’ own assessment, made with critical candour some fifty years later, stresses its impact rather than its intrinsic merits:
All the verses it contains were written between the ages of sixteen and nineteen,—most before I was eighteen. They are the work of practically a schoolboy, drunk with the music of Keats, Shelley, Tennyson and Swinburne. They are distinctly ’prentice work, distinctly derivative, and without significance except for their careful craftsman- ship and for the fact that they dared deliberately to steer their frail craft out upon world waters,—certain of these youthful efforts appearing in the pages of the chief English and American magazines. But the only importance attaching to the little book lay in the fact that it started Lampman writing poetry and was the decisive factor in determining Carman to make poetry his career.6
Nevertheless, because Orion motivated many aspiring poets of his generation, not just Lampman and Carman, it is rightly regarded as one of the important landmarks in Canadian literature. Furthermore, as pointed out by L.R. Early (“ ‘An Old World Radiance,’ ” Canadian Poetry, Spring/Summer, 1981) and Ross Kilpatrick (“Introduction,” Orion and Other Poems, Canadian Poetry Edition, 1999), its flashes of promise preclude its dismissal as merely a literary curiosity.
The profound influence of Roberts’ schooling and reading on his early work is evident in his adaptations from Greek and Egyptian mythology and Arthurian legend. His classical studies gave him the background for four poems that, taken together, form the bulk of the volume: “Orion” (467 lines), “Memnon” (126 lines), “Ariadne” (126 lines), and “Sappho” (132 lines). In his use of myth, he was imitating Shelley, Keats and Swinburne, who cast their visions in the mold of mythology. But Shelley and Keats were both twenty-three when they gained celebrity with Alastor and Endymion respectively; Swinburne was twenty-eight when he skyrocketed to fame with Atlanta in Caladon. As youthful as those poets had been, they still had more maturity and artistic independence than the teen-aged Roberts.
While none of the lengthy poems is the harbinger of an original poetic voice, there is a scattering of descriptive phrases that are fresh and striking. Here we glimpse the beginning of Roberts’ ability to paint vivid word pictures of familiar surroundings. When he tries to depict the Greek landscape, what he sees is the geography of his native province. The “writhed extremities” of rock are those that gird the coast of New Brunswick. The “stunted tufts/ Of yellow beach grass” belong to its seashore. In the “long-drawn sobbings of the reed-soaked surge” we hear the sound of the Fundy tides.
Many of Roberts’ experiments in the rest of Orion have been aptly dismissed by Desmond Pacey as “mere finger exercises.”7 They lack a distinctive voice and barely hint at the direction his poetry would eventually take. In “Ballad of the Poet’s Thought” (which he later corrected to “Ballade”), his “wearied” poet vows “I will go, and at Nature’s lips drink deep,” but there are not many signs that Roberts had the makings of a sensitive nature poet, particularly not in the sing-song stanzas of “The Maple”:
But the maple it glows with the tint of the rose
When pale are the spring-time regions,
And its towers of flame from afar proclaim
The advance of Winter’s legions.
This poem soon found its way into school readers, but in 1892 a more mature Roberts asked to have it excluded from J. E. Wetherell’s anthology, Later Canadian Poems, explaining “I don’t like the technique of it.”8
The dedication of Orion “to my father and dearest friend” must be taken at face value. It is a sincere tribute, not the punctilious gesture of a dutiful son. In calling his father his “dearest friend,” Roberts means exactly what he says. Being the eldest child, he may have had a special primordial bond with the Reverend Goodridge Roberts, although there is no evidence that he was favoured over his four siblings, all of whom were too much younger than Charles to have been his boyhood companions. Although each would later display some literary talent, they were too far apart in age to become scribblers together from childhood like the Brontë family. Roberts’ only surviving sister, born in 1864 and christened Jane Elizabeth Gostwyck, was known in the family as “Janey” or “Nain”, although she would call herself “Elizabeth” after she became a writer and took an active part in the Women’s Suffrage Movement. His brother Goodridge (born 1870) had already shown promise as a poet before his untimely death at the age of twenty-two. A second brother, William (born 1875 and variously known as “Billy” or “Will”), also dabbled in verse, but a lifetime as the busy managing editor of the Literary Digest increasingly left him little time for creative writing. The youngest brother, “Thede” (Theodore Goodridge Roberts, born 1877), became a prolific writer of prose and poetry but, to his bitter resentment, would always be overshadowed by Charles.
Of his childhood in Westcock Parish, from infancy to his fourteenth year, Roberts would declare that his only “stimulating companionship” had been that of his father.9 Other than two months at the village school, he was taught at home by his father, a few hours a week. “It was merely direction,” he recalled, because the rector “was a busy man with a large country parish and a farm.”10 Of special significance were the informal nature lessons that inspired a lasting interest in plant life and the creatures of the wild. By the age of twelve, he had grown into such a sturdy lad that he became one of the hired men, working beside his father on the farm. Those were some of the factors forging a “firm love” that “Distance shall quench not, nor time bewray.”11 He undoubtedly felt affection for his sharp-tongued though kind-hearted mother, Emma Wetmore Bliss, but he would wait eighteen years and a dozen books later before dedicating a work to her. Emma was not a bookish person like her husband, but she came from a literate family, one that counted Ralph Waldo Emerson among its descendants. While we cannot be certain that Emma’s children owed any of their talent to her genes, several of them, including Charles, inherited her restless temperament.
In late November 1873, the Reverend Goodridge Roberts left Westcock for Fredericton to become the rector of Saint Anne’s Anglican Church, a position he held until his death in 1905. Although Roberts would never lose his sentimental attachment to the countryside that had nurtured his childhood, it was in Fredericton that he first found stimulating companions near his own age. Chief among them were two cousins, Andy Straton and Bliss Carman.
Together with several other boys, the three cousins remained close comrades throughout their teenage years. Their escapades ranged from harmless high jinks to competitive sports, canoe trips on the river, and camping expeditions during the summer holidays. None of the participants entered into these activities with greater zest than Roberts, whose scholarly nature never overshadowed his high spirits. An irrepressible joie de vivre would remain one of his most distinctive characteristics during his long and remarkable life. In his sixty-fifth year, in the eyes of his niece, Dorothy Roberts (Thede’s daughter), “dynamic Uncle Charles” was “so much more lively and involved”12 than Bliss Carman. Later still, his widowed second wife summed up the essence of the man in a simple statement: “Charles loved life.”13 According to reports from numerous close acquaintances, two other endearing qualities were his total lack of envy and meanness of spirit. Like the father he so greatly revered, he had a gracious but paternal manner combined with a commanding presence (despite his modest stature), which earned him the moniker “Old Man,” even among his boyhood chums.
Seniority in that youthful circle actually belonged to Andy Straton, born in 1858, the son of Emma Roberts’ eldest sister. A rugged youth with a prominent jaw, Andy had a strong personality that made him a leader among his contemporaries and raised high expectations for his future. Becoming a civil engineer, he never aspired to be a writer himself,14 but his appreciation of poetry was an additional bond between him and Charles. The “Rondeau to A. W. Straton” in Orion celebrates a special friendship that flourished.
To fledge the hours with mirth and ease
And wing their feet with pleasantries....
Sadly, in spite of his robust appearance, Andy carried a fatal gene that would lead to his death from tuberculosis at the age of thirty-three.
The “Epistle to W. Bliss Carman,” written in September 1878, is the most autobiographical poem in Orion. Bliss Carman, born in 1861 to another sister of Emma Roberts, was a tall, dreamy youth, usually content to follow the leadership of his more extroverted cousins, Andy and Charlie. In the poem, Roberts addresses him in 104 lines of rhyming couplets,15 recalling their recent summer holiday together, and pondering his own future as he begins his final year at the University of New Brunswick. Carman is a freshman, entering with a record that does credit to himself and the “wise master” who taught him at the Fredericton Collegiate School. The unnamed headmaster is George Parkin under whose guidance both Roberts and Carman had developed a love for the Greek and Roman classics and were introduced to “the new raptures of Swinburne and Rossetti.”16 Roberts, having “but one quick-slipping year” under “the fostering roof” of the university, seems envious of Carman, who has a “happy three-year’s course” ahead of him before facing the “sore uncertainty” of what to do with his life. The path that Roberts longs to follow, he confesses, is one that would allow him to be a poet: “Then would I work and sing.” The poem is full of youthful exuberance and contains some well-formed phrases, but it is interesting mainly for what it tells us about the young Roberts and his intimacy with Carman.
When he graduated from university, Roberts turned to teaching as a suitable profession for an aspiring poet, although he underestimated how much it would drain his creative energy. On 10 November 1879, he assumed the principalship of the High School and Grammar School in Chatham, New Brunswick. He was young for the position (a fact he tried to conceal by growing a full beard), but being the grandson of a respected headmaster was probably an asset in the eyes of the school trustees. Being the son of a godly man like the Reverend Goodridge Roberts, while not an absolute guarantee of good character, was in his favour as well. Having already published some poems was likely of less importance.
The town of Chatham, situated on the south bank of the Miramichi, is located about twelve miles from the point where the river empties into the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Where it flows past the town, the Miramichi is nearly a mile wide. In Roberts’ day it was full of trading-ships from all over the world. Here, while coping with the heavy demands of teaching, he polished his poems for publication; or, as he expressed it, they were
Ripened beside the tide-vext river,—
The broad, ship-laden Miramichi.
In this “ripening” process, he was aided by the advice and encouragement of (Joseph) Edmund Collins, the ebullient editor of the Chatham Star, who soon became an “intimate friend.”17 A short, stocky Newfoundlander, five years older than Roberts, Collins was a self-taught man with two consuming passions: poetry and politics. His third predilection was for strong drink, which would later lead to his downfall. He regarded Roberts as an important new literary voice with “a note as sweet, as high and varied as any singer in the British choir.”18 It was typical praise from Collins, who tended to get carried away whenever he was enthusiastic about something. His convictions were so strongly held that he was usually very persuasive whether he was promoting a friend’s poetry or his own political views. In fact, he briefly convinced Roberts that the time had come for Canada to declare its independence from Britain. Although Roberts’ conversion to republicanism did not last, he retained his less radical belief that Canadian poetry should preserve “a fragrance distinctive of its origin.”19
Meanwhile, Roberts dreamed of setting off to study at Oxford as soon as he could save enough money. A rondeau in Orion presages the circumstances that would end the dream. Although she is not named, the poem refers to May Fenety, a pretty little brunette with a pouty expression, to whom Roberts became engaged before he left for Chatham. It was written one evening after May stormed into the house in a sudden and unexplained temper fit, leaving Roberts standing in bewilderment:
And so to guess as best I may
What angered her, awhile I’ll stay
Beneath this blown acacia bough,
Without one kiss.
May made an even bigger scene when she realized he was serious about going to Oxford. Close to hysterics, she refused to be pacified until he agreed to abandon the idea.20 He may have had serious misgivings, but for May’s sake it seemed the honourable thing to do. Accordingly, they were married on 29 December 1880. Neither had reached the age of consent, although Charles would turn twenty-one early in the New Year.
May literally got off on the wrong foot on their wedding night by accidentally stepping into the chamber pot. Roberts, unable to suppress his mirth, was temporarily banished from the room for laughing at her chagrin.21 It was a farcical beginning to a union that would not bring wedded bliss to either of them. They were too far apart in their interests and temperaments to understand and accept their differences. Beguiled at first by May’s pretty face and variable moods, Roberts was slow to admit that the intellectual gap between them was unbridgeable. If May ever had any romantic illusions about being the sweetheart of a dashing poet, they were soon dispelled by the reality of living with a husband who spent so much of his time writing prose and verse in which she took no interest. While Roberts was gregarious, usually the life of any party, May was shy and retiring. If he could have had his way, their home would have been teeming with visitors; but May, who found it taxing to entertain under any circumstances, had to cope with the additional worry of keeping up appearances on a limited budget. Four children, born at two-year intervals, meant that she was kept busy having babies and looking after them. Not being able to afford hired help some of the time gave her another excuse for objecting to company. The outcome was predictable: May, having plenty of reasons for self-pity, turned into a nagging wife; Roberts, having a roving eye anyway, found compatible female company elsewhere.
Even during the theoretical honeymoon period of their marriage, May was never the inspiration of any of Roberts’ poetry. In 1881, he printed a small sheaf of nine recent compositions, called Later Poems, for private circulation; in 1882, he privately printed six more pieces, again called Later Poems. Both collections were judiciously distributed in the hope of furthering his reputation as a committed poet, someone to watch for in the future. The contents include poems based on classical, historical and religious subjects; tributes to Sidney Lanier and Louis Fréchette; and several nature lyrics. Not a single poem in celebration of love or marriage appears in either collection.
It is a tribute to Roberts’ dedication that he found any time at all to write poetry during the first years after the publication of Orion. In addition to teaching, he prepared extramurally for his M.A. degree, which he received at the University of New Brunswick in June, 1881. The following January, he left Chatham to become headmaster of the York Street School in Fredericton. He and May were both glad to be back home, but teaching young children and supervising the classes of four other teachers was far more exhausting than he had expected. His poetry suffered, he lamented, “because the schoolday noise and nerve-strain leaves me no energy to put my designs in execution.”22 Furthermore, he was turning increasingly to the writing of prose, realizing that his dream of a literary career could not be based on poetry alone.
Meanwhile, his Chatham friend, Edmund Collins, who had gone to Ontario to join the staff of the Toronto Globe, was moving in circles where he met Archibald Lampman, an undergraduate at Trinity College. Quite likely it was Collins to whom Lampman was referring when he wrote later that “One May evening someone lent me Orion and Other Poems then recently published.”23 Within a short time, Lampman was sending Roberts copies of his own poems for comments and advice. In one of his replies, Roberts wrote:
I suppose from your intimacy with Collins, that you are one of us right through, a Canadian Republican! We want to get together literary and independent Young Canada, and to spread our doctrines with untiring hands. Does anything of this sort occupy [a] large share in the space you and Collins devote to castle building in evenings over your pipes and rye? I hope on those occasions you always remember that my spirit is hovering over you ... and applauding vigorously every seditious utterance! I am anxious indeed to get to Toronto to live where I would straightway begin striving to put into execution many schemes. I hope under those circumstances the close duet of C and I would become an equally inseparable trio, yourself making the third of the triumvirate.24
In almost exactly a year, Roberts’ wish was partially granted. He moved to Toronto with May and their seventeen-month-old baby, Athelstan, to become the editor of The Week, a new magazine founded by Goldwin Smith. He arrived in the city at the end of September, 1883, but since Lampman had been appointed to the Civil Service in Ottawa eight months earlier, the triumvirate could not meet on a regular basis. However, there may have several opportunities for convivial evenings during a three-week holiday Lampman spent in Toronto in October. Meanwhile, Roberts’ “close duet” developed into daily propinquity when Collins and his wife (Roberts’ second cousin) moved in with him and May to share the rent. Roberts was feeling deeply indebted to Collins whose Life and Times of Sir John A. Macdonald, published early in 1883, had named him “the greatest Canadian poet”25 and devoted more than fifteen pages to his work in a chapter on the “Thought and Literature of Canada.” In the alumni oration that Roberts was asked to deliver at the University of New Brunswick on 28 June 1883, he declared that in its category the Macdonald biography was “the most brilliant production of our prose literature,” but refrained from discussing it “on account of my personal friendship for Mr. Collins and for other reasons affecting myself.”26
The biography is dedicated to Goldwin Smith, an opinionated former Oxford professor, living in retirement in Toronto where, as a self-styled bystander, he wrote extensively on Canadian and international affairs. Collins, who agreed with many of his radical views, cultivated his friendship, but had to decline his offer to become the editor of The Week because of a commitment to write a book about Lord Lorne. It seems likely that it was on his recommendation that Roberts was chosen for the editorial job. Smith was already aware of the young schoolmaster’s ability since (again on Collins’ recommendation, presumably), Roberts had been secretly contributing articles to The Bystander, a publication that Smith was supposedly writing in its entirety.
Roberts lasted only five months at The Week before resigning in frustration from overwork and clashes with Smith. At first, exhilarated by the excitement of producing a new magazine, he had not minded working ten to twelve hours daily, but on January 11, 1884 (the day after his twenty-fourth birthday) he confessed in a letter to Carman: “My head is in a continual whirl and I am getting to be a miserable dog from overwork.”27 Smith wrote a weekly column called “Current Events and Opinions,” but left Roberts to seek out contributors, read through manuscripts, review books, and personally write about half of the material in each sixteen-page issue. Furthermore, his early “seditious” views vanished completely when Smith insisted that The Week should advocate the annexation of Canada by the Unites States. Even when he was under Collins’ radical influence, Roberts had been too much of a nationalist to dream of any union with the American republic. Since he still found the proposal unacceptable, Smith’s editorial interference over the issue gave him a good excuse to quit. He gave the impression of resigning solely on a matter of principle, insisting “I could have got on comfortably here by being a stalking horse for G.S., but not otherwise.”28 Despite Roberts’ lofty claims, however, likely the difference in their political views had less to do with his decision than his concern over becoming a worn-out drudge with no time or energy for his own work. His resignation took effect at the end of February.
Only twelve issues of The Week were produced under Roberts’ editorship, but they contain some of the most interesting material to appear in that publication before it folded several years later. Given his personal interests, it is not surprising that Roberts devoted a lot of space to poetry—as much as he dared, perhaps, since Smith was known to be indifferent to contemporary verse. It is particularly noteworthy that he published the first poem by Bliss Carman and the second poem by Archibald Lampman ever to appear outside a college journal. The third issue contains his own poem, “Westmorland Revisited,” which was likely written sometime in the summer of 1883. Under a new title, “Tantramar Revisited,” it would be the most accomplished piece in his next collection of poetry, if not the most outstanding poem of his career.
Roberts was now unemployed; but, having obtained the rest of the year’s salary as severance pay, his situation was not immediately desperate. During a trip to New York City, he made some promising contacts, but found no job prospects. At the end of the summer, no longer being able to maintain a household in Toronto, he took May and the baby to live with his parents in the rectory in Fredericton before setting off for Ottawa to check out the possibility of landing something in the civil service. He had an interview with Sir Leonard Tilley, a fellow New Brunswicker and Minister of Finance in Macdonald’s government, who gave him his blessing without promising any employment. He was more successful socially, being invited to several lively parties where he was asked to read his poetry to enthusiastic (and predominantly female) audiences. He also renewed his acquaintance with Lampman through whom he met Duncan Campbell Scott for the first time. He returned to Fredericton for the birth of his second son, Lloyd, born on Hallowe’en, but left soon afterwards to try his luck again in Toronto. He ran out of money before anything turned up, and had to borrow from his father-in-law and his cousin Bliss to pay his board bill and buy a ticket home.
Too poor to do any more traveling, he remained at the rectory in Fredericton with May and their two children throughout the winter, dependent upon his parents’ charity since he was unable support his family on his minuscule income from freelance writing. To make matters worse, he suffered for many weeks from a bout of diphtheria. Happily, the coming of spring brought the good news that King’s College in Windsor, Nova Scotia, had accepted his application for a teaching position. Beginning in the fall term of 1885, he would start his appointment as professor of English and economics, and as a temporary replacement during the French professor’s absence. Hoping to supplement his salary of $1,000 with his writing, he stipulated that all his classes should be held in the mornings to allow uninterrupted time for creative work in the afternoons and evenings.
Because there were no married quarters available during Roberts’ first year at King’s, May and their two small sons remained in Fredericton. Never being a man of all work and no play, he entered enthusiastically into whatever social life Windsor had to offer, feeling like a bachelor again and probably ready for some mild flirtations. Back in Toronto, he had already had at least one brief extra-marital fling for which he suffered pangs of remorse. In spite of their incompatibility, he still cared for May. His visit home during the Christmas holiday was a happy reunion. When he returned to Kings in January, 1886, May was pregnant with their third child. Daughter Edith was born in September and in due course, after a suitable house had been completed for them on the edge of the college woods, father and family were reunited in Windsor where Douglas, their fourth and final child, was born in 1888. Life in their new home, christened Kingscroft, continued with outward stability although Roberts, now sporting a rakish Louis Quinze mustache instead of a beard, was diverted by several affairs, two of which took on serious proportions. One with Maud Clark, hired as a governess and part-time secretary, was conducted discreetly right under May’s nose without arousing her suspicions. The other involved a young artist named Jean Carré, who nearly persuaded him to run off to Italy with her before he came to his senses.
King’s was too small to hold big secrets, and rumours of peccadilloes were bound to reach the Board of Governors. In January 1888, Roberts was hauled up on the carpet to answer charges of impropriety involving women. At the same time, his best friend on the faculty, bachelor William A. Hammond, a lecturer in classics and German, was accused of having a woman in his rooms. Roberts pleaded that he was innocent of any improper conduct, and got off with a stern reprimand for having “given cause for rumours injurious to the College.”29 Hammond, who admitted only to an indiscretion, was not as lucky: he was dismissed at the end of the term. From that point onward, feeling that he was forever on probation, Roberts began a secret but unsuccessful search for an academic appointment elsewhere.
Towards the end of 1886, Roberts’ second volume of poems, In Divers Tones, was published by D. Lothrop & Company of Boston. The title aptly describes the hodgepodge of its contents. The selections vary greatly, not only in style and subject matter, but also in quality. Out of a total of fifty-seven poems, thirteen had already appeared in his privately-printed pamphlets of 1881 and 1882. Among those written between 1883 and 1886, although the results are still uneven, there is evidence of a maturing talent. In fact, it might be argued that at least three of these poems, “The Tantramar Revisited,” “The Sower,” and “The Potato Harvest,” were never surpassed by any of his subsequent verse.
In choosing “Tantramar Revisited”30 as a title, Roberts was undoubtedly thinking of William Wordsworth’s “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey on Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour.” This seems to be confirmed since Roberts’ opening lines,
Summers and summers have come, and gone with the flight of the swallow;
Sunshine and thunder have been, storm, and winter, and frost;
echo, with elaboration, the beginning of the earlier poem
Five years have past; five summers, with the length Of five long winters!
But that is where the similarities end. Whereas the countryside above Tintern Abbey has not changed since Wordsworth’s first visit five years earlier, the Tantramar region, as Roberts knew it in his boyhood, exists now only in his memory. Wordsworth’s uniform lines reflect his tranquility; Roberts’ mood is expressed in elegiac lines that vary with his emotions. From a hill-top vantage point, the Tantramar scene below seems frozen in time, but Roberts fears a closer view will risk the pain of shattered illusions. In his heart, he realizes (as Thomas Wolfe says) you can’t go home again. Furthermore, Wordsworth’s landscape is generalized (“wild secluded scenes” and “pastoral farms”) because his “vision is occupied not so much with Nature as with the relations between Nature and his inmost self.”31 He is more interested in telling us how he is affected than he is in telling us why. In contrast, Roberts’ pictorial details emphasize why this revisitation is such a moving experience. His most successful descriptions are much more than mere photographic images. The phrase “Stained with time,” for example, conveys more about the longevity and durability of the old houses than any camera could ever capture. These fragments from the poem are a sampling of the remembered detail and heavy nostalgia:
Here, from my vantage-ground, I can see the scattering
Stained with time, set in warm orchards, meadows, and
Dotting the broad bright slopes outspread to southward and
Wind-swept all day long, blown by the south-east wind.
Skirting the sunbright uplands stretches a riband of meadow,
Shorn of the labouring grass, bulwarked well from the sea,
Fenced on its seaward border with the long clay dykes from
|| the turbid
| Surge and flow of the tides vexing the Westmoreland
Miles and miles beyond the tawny bay is Minudie.
There are the low blue hills; villages gleam at their feet.
Nearer a white sail shines across the water, and nearer
Still are the slim grey masts of fishing boats dry on the flats.
Ah, how well I remember those wide red flats, above tide-
Pale with scurf of the salt, seamed and baked in the sun!
Well I remember the piles of blocks and ropes, and the net- reels
Wound with the beaded nets, dripping and dark from the
Yet, as I sit and watch, this present peace of the land-
Stranded boats, these reels empty and idle, the hush,
One grey hawk slow-wheeling above yon cluster of haystacks,—
More than the old-time stir this stillness welcomes me home.
Ah, the old-time stir, how once it stung me with rapture,—
Old-time sweetness, the winds freighted with honey and salt!
Yet will I stay my steps and not go down to the marshland,—
Muse and recall far off, rather remembering than see,—
Lest on too close sight I miss the darling illusion,
Spy at their task even here the hands of chance and change.
Of the seven nature sonnets in In Divers Tones, the ones that have been reprinted most often are “The Sower” and “The Potato Harvest.” Both were written after “Tantramar Revisited” and display the same maturity of style. According to Roberts, the inspiration for “The Sower” was a print of Millet’s painting of that title, presented to him by Richard Watson Gilder, editor of The Century, whom he had met during his first visit to New York.32 Although Millet’s sower was probably striding the fields around the French village of Barbizon, he reminded Roberts of New Brunswick farmers spreading grain by hand, “unwittingly divine,” making “provision for mankind.” In “The Potato Harvest,” the “day-worn” workers leave the field as dusk falls “and day fades out like smoke.” That final picture is one that no painting or photograph could reproduce. For today’s readers, both sonnets provide visually accurate records of an era that has passed.
In Divers Tones contains three patriotic poems: “Collect for Dominion Day,” “Canada” and “An Ode for the Canadian Confederacy,” the first two having appeared in periodicals shortly prior to their inclusion in the new collection. The “Collect” is a prayer for national unity (“Father of unity, make this people one”). The other two have a common theme: now is the time for Canadians to wake up and fulfill their country’s potential through independence. “Canada,” with its stirring introduction (“O Child of Nations, giant-limbed”) would soon become familiar to Canadian children from its inclusion in their school readers. As hackneyed as the rhetoric of these poems may sound today, it was Roberts’ heartfelt response to the current debate as to whether Canada should remain independent of both Great Britain and the United States. None of the poems shows any promise of his becoming “a great national poet,” as at least one critic has pointed out,33 and he did not long aspire to the role. Over forty years would pass before he wrote another overtly patriotic poem (“These Three Score Years”) and that was only under pressure from the organizers of the New Brunswick Celebration of Canada’s Diamond Jubilee combined with the incentive of some much-needed cash from the T. Eaton Company that wanted to use the poem in its advertising.
The dozen love poems included in In Divers Tones introduce a preoccupation that would last longer than his nationalistic phase. Written between 1884 and 1886, when he was already both husband and father, they appear to be addressed to someone other than his wife. The setting of “The Footpath,” overlooking a “clustering village” fronting “the blue lake-water,” could be Owen Sound, Ontario, the home of a young woman referred to as Marguerita in his letters to Carman. Not much is known about his affair with Marguerita, but it began sometime while he was in Toronto. The romance languished with distance, although he continued to correspond with her for many years. During the autumn of 1884, she was so much in his thoughts that he confessed he travelled to Ottawa with divided feelings, “part of me in Owen Sound, & part of me in the little Elm City [Fredericton].”34 He recollects the footpath up “the windy hill” to “the place we used to meet,” but knows that “she, my own,” is no longer part of that scene. Another poem, In Notre Dame (published in The Current, 16 August, 1884) also refers to a love from whom he is “many bitter leagues apart.” It concludes:
Love, in the northern night of Brittany,
Hear you no voice divide the night like flame?
In these gray walls the inmost soul of me
Is swooning with the music of your name.
Love poetry would not be a successful genre for Roberts, but there is no mistaking the sincerity of several of these early attempts, filled with references to real but clandestine relationships. Nevertheless, when the reader is faced with poems like “Nocturne,”35 with its echoes of Tennyson’s “Sweet and Low,” it is easy to understand why a critic would generalize and refer dismissively to “a group of love lyrics which seem almost incredibly artificial and laboured.”36 We will never know what went through May’s mind if she ever read them. Since all poetry was artificial to her, perhaps she was content to believe that her husband was simply doing what she expected of any poet: making things up out of his imagination.
Over the next six years, in addition to his academic duties, Roberts published more than thirty poems in numerous American periodicals, but mostly in The Independent while Bliss Carman was on its editorial staff. During the same period, he published almost an equal number of stories, primarily for juvenile readers, in periodicals like The Youth’s Companion. He also edited Poems of Wild Life (1888), completed a 270-page Canadian Guide Book (1891), wrote about a dozen articles on a variety of topics, and gave lectures in various centres from Halifax to New York. The project dearest to his heart during this period was the writing of “Ave!”, an ode to mark the centenary of Shelley’s birth in 1792. It was completed during the summer holidays of 1892 while Bliss Carman and Richard Hovey, Carman’s poet-friend, were visiting in Windsor. All three men were busy writing elegies: Hovey was working on “Seaward” in memory of the New England poet, Thomas William Parsons; Carman was paying tribute to Shelley in a memorial called “The White Gull.” Although they kept apart each day, absorbed in the creative process, they spent most evenings together, discussing each other’s work, offering cautious criticism, and basking in mutual admiration.
“Ave!,” consisting of thirty-one ten-line stanzas, was privately printed soon after being completed. The following year, it was reprinted in Roberts’ next collection, Songs of the Common Day. The setting of the ode is the Westmorland area of Roberts’ childhood, not any scene associated with Shelley. In part, the ode is another “Tantramar Revisited” except that this time the poet is returning only in memory, not in person. His indentification with the region is much more personal than his tribute to Shelley:
You know how I have loved you, how my dreams Go forth to you with longing ....
The “raucous” and “changeable” river that gives the region its name has taken hold of him: “Shaping my soul with its impetuous stress.”
In the ninth stanza, the same connection is made between Shelley and the Tantramar:
Strangely akin you seem to him whose birth
One hundred years ago
With fiery succour to the ranks of song
Defied the ancient gates of wrath and wrong.
In the stanzas that follow, Roberts attempts to prove his point by showing how Shelley’s poetry reveals him as a “child of change,” as a child of the Tantramar. The analogy is strained, but the style and language are evocative of Shelley without being tiresomely imitative. While “Ave!” has elegiac dignity and many eloquent phrases, it is not deeply moving, being a tribute from a disciple of a later generation, expressing his veneration, not his personal grief.
Roberts’ Songs of the Common Day and Ave!, dedicated to Bliss Carman (“friend, kinsman, and fellow craftsman”), has a “Prefatory Note” dated May 1893, thirteen years after the appearance of Orion. During the interval, he had reached the height of his poetic powers. Except for the poem, “Marsyas” (about the satyr who challenged Apollo) and the indirect references to Greek mythology in “Ave!” (Alastor, Proteus, Prometheus), he abandons classical subjects in the new volume. Instead, in his prologue, he entreats his muse:
Make thou my vision sane and clear
That I may see what beauty clings
In common forms, and find the soul
Of unregarded things.
It is the sonnet sequence of Songs of the Common Day that has established Roberts’ reputation as a landscape poet. Although landscape is not the main subject of eight of the sonnets (out of a total of thirty-seven), the “common forms” of the country scene predominate, as many of the titles indicate: “The Cow Pasture,” “The Pea-Fields,” “Buckwheat,” “The Pumpkins in the Corn,” etc. Mostly, Roberts’ descriptions are based upon what D.M.R. Bentley refers to as his “time-haunted perception of the Tantramar landscape.”37 Evidence of the Tantramar setting occurs in lines like “How sombre slope these acres to the sea” (“The Furrow”), “These marshes pale and meadows by the sea” (“The Salt Flats”), and “My fields of Tantramar in summer-time” (“The Pea-Fields”). The descriptions are full of evocative details:
I hear the low wind wash the softening snow,
The low tide loiter down the shore. The night,
Full filled with April forecast, hath no light.
(“The Flight of the Geese”)
Back to the green deeps of the outer bay
The red and amber currents glide and cringe,
Diminishing behind a luminous fringe
Of cream-white surf and wandering wraiths of
(“The Herring Weir”)
In some of these sonnets, James Cappon, the best of Roberts’ early critics, finds “a new plainness of style and treatment,” which he attributes to the “realistic influences”38 of Wordsworth. Few of the later critics have disagreed with Cappon, but there is also another factor to consider. Having turned more and more to prose to supplement his inadequate salary, he was shedding the rhetorical excesses of his adolescence and learning out of necessity to write with greater simplicity. Above all, it is important to emphasize that Roberts is not imitating Wordsworth. A later critic, W.J. Keith, hit the mark when he concluded that, in describing nature, “Roberts’ style has ceased to be in any way derivative.”39
In addition to the sonnet sequence and “Ave!,” the Songs of the Common Day volume contains a miscellaneous mix of twenty-eight other poems, about a third of them being in the elegiac mood. Three of the elegies (“The Valley of the Winding Water,” “Severance,” and “Grey Rocks and Greyer Sea”) were written in memory of Louise Wild (or Wilde), a musician, of whom, when she was alive, he had written passionately in “A Serenade,” regretting that “unfathomed seas divide us.” It is not certain whether Louise was single when Roberts first became infatuated with her, but she was married at the time of her death. The sad news was brought to him by one of his students, who added cryptically: “I thought you should be told when you were alone, sir.”40 Three of the other elegies (“To G.B.R.,” “The Bird’s Song, the Sun and the Wind,” and “Oh, Purple Hang the Pods”) are in memory of Roberts’ brother, Goodridge, a divinity student at King’s college and a member of the household at Kingscroft, who died of pneumonia, 4 February 1892. Although these expressions of personal grief are unquestionably heartfelt, there is nothing strikingly original about them. Several attempts at folksy yarns, such as “A Christmas-eve Courtin’,” indicate that Roberts’ had little flare for that type of verse. A group of narrative poems, based on legends and history, are equally stilted and forced. Even his landscape descriptions lack the precision of his sonnet sequence and “Tantramar Revisited” as can be seen in these stanzas from “The Tide on Tantramar”:
Beyond the marsh and miles away,
The great tides of the tumbling bay
Swing glittering in the golden day,
Swing foaming to and fro;
And nearer in a nest of green,
A little turbid port is seen,
Where pitch-black fishing boats careen,
Left when the tide runs low.
Sadly, the overall mediocrity of these miscellaneous poems stands in contrast to what Roberts had shown himself to be capable of writing. They foreshadow the disappointing performance in his next collection.
Meanwhile, although Roberts was a popular and successful teacher, he had grown increasingly dissatisfied with his situation at King’s College. Aside from his uneasy relationship with the Board of Governors, he was underpaid and forced to supplement his salary. Writing was not a mere avocation, but an economic necessity, and the pressure of juggling two careers was wearing him down. His letters to Carman began to dwell upon his longing to escape occasionally from the relentless grind he felt his life had become. When the Board turned down his request for a leave of absence at the end of the 1895 spring term, he took the bold step of resigning. He was unsure whether his reputation was established firmly enough to allow him to earn his living solely by his pen, but he was hoping to get by until he found suitable employment that was not too demanding of his time and energy.
It was not easy to break up the home at Kingscroft, where the family had settled into a stable routine over a period of ten years. The initial wrench was made easier, however, by returning to Fredericton where he and May had so many close ties, but right from the beginning the move was planned as a temporary measure until he could locate in a more stimulating environment. Renting a house, which he christened “Edgecroft” because it was near the city limits, he settled down to write, consoling himself that he was within fairly easy reach of America’s literary centres, Boston and New York.
One of the remarkable features of The Book of the Native, published in 1896, only three years after Roberts’ previous volume, is the quantity of the poems: fifty in all, including a dedication in memory of his brother. During that same period he had written approximately thirty short stories and articles, nearly completed a lengthy history of Canada, published four full-length works of fiction (Reube Dare’s Shad Boat, Around the Campfire, Earth’s Enigmas, and The Forge in the Forest), and produced a travel booklet on the land of Evangeline for the Dominion Atlantic Railway. All this, in addition to the teaching load he had only recently relinquished and the disruption of the move to Fredericton, surely accounts to some degree for his failure to build upon his achievement in the best of his earlier poems. He was often too hurried, too ready to dash off verse for which the popular magazines were willing to pay him the cash he so badly needed. Even if we accept his contention that, always in writing poetry, “I wrote precisely what I wanted to write at the time,”41 it appears that he was now too rushed to be sufficiently self-critical. Nor did his critical faculties improve with age. Thirty year later, he declared: “The Book of the Native contains more of the poems that I consider significant than any other volume of mine. I aimed to carry the Wordsworthian nature worship beyond the point of Wordsworth, to make it more transcendental and more mystical.”42
For most critics, Roberts’ attempts at philosophical mysticism is the main reason for the disappointing quality of The Book of the Native. Northrop Frye contends that Roberts was incapable of writing this kind of intellectualized poetry because he “had nothing intellectual in his mind.”43 Like some of Frye’s other memorable quips, this pronouncement is a breezy overstatement. What motivates Roberts seems to be “a sort of spiritualized and emotional Pantheism, vivified by a breath of the very essence of Christianity,”44 such as he found in Shelley’s Adonais, but his expression of it is obscured by too many vague phrases: “the borderland of birth,” “the candour of the sod,” “the loom of death.”
As their titles often indicate, the numerous seasonal poems in The Book of the Native were written with an eye on the monthly requirements of the magazines: “The Brook in February,” “An April Adoration,” “July,” and “An August Woodroad.” Once again, he is generally at his best in the poems in which he depicts these seasonal stages of nature with the palette of a realistic landscape painter. The evocative details of “An August Woodroad,” for example, take the reader on a visually abundant stroll where the frightened “partridge covey” scatters, “the dry cicadas twang,” a beetle basks like a “blazing gem,” and “Drunk with day, the night-hawks drowse.” Unfortunately, the ending is carelessly banal:
The old road leads to all things good;
The year’s at full, and time’s at flood.
It is an example of Roberts’ frequent laxity when he turns from description to reflection. Too often, he settles for conventional platitudes with which the average magazine reader would be comfortable.
Roberts, now in his late thirties, was growing more restless than ever. In spite of his fondness for the Fredericton area and its people, he had no wish to be stuck there for the rest of his life. He had long been envious of Bliss Carman who had been living in New York, flitting from one editorial position to another, and mingling with the city’s literati. “You are damn luck[y], dear Old Man,” he wrote after visiting Carman in 1894, “to be so congenially associated.”45 It was the cry of a man who was starved for regular contact with creative people. King’s College had not been able to offer him that kind of stimulation, neither could Fredericton. Consequently, he leapt at the opportunity to go to New York when his friend Frank Bellamy, the newly-appointed editor of a Manhattan weekly called The Illustrated American, offered him the position of assistant editor, starting in February, 1897. It marked the beginning of an odyssey that would last over twice as long as Ulyssey’s ten-year journey home from the Trojan War.
May, who had no desire to play the part of a waiting Penelope, was upset that she and the children would be left behind in Fredericton until her husband could afford to send for them. To add to her distress, they were in such straightened circumstance that they were forced to move into a smaller, cheaper cottage. Wedged between two other buildings and backed by two barns, it never got the sun and was pervaded by dampness and bad odours. Before he left, Roberts euphemistically christened it “Cosycroft,” but his family would always remember it as “Dark House.”46 At first, he probably had no intention of leaving them there indefinitely; but, as the weeks and months passed, he began to find excuses for delaying the time when they could join him. He told a skeptical May that, until his finances improved, he could not manage to support them unless they remained in Fredericton. A message on the fifteenth birthday of his son Athelstan seems to be the only one of his New York letters to his family that has survived. Dated May 7, 1897, it concludes: “With all best love to Mamma & you & Lloyd & Dud [Douglas] & Edith ...”47 Given his apparent reluctance to be reunited with May, the love he conveys to her may have been little more than an effort to keep up appearances.
The children were another matter. Evidence of his love for them can be deduced from the way they idolized him. “We not only loved our Papa tremendously but we also respected him, a rarer emotion,” Lloyd would later recall. “We were sure that he possessed no frailties; he never lost his temper, or grumped, or nagged, or talked loud, or swore, or did any other of the things that lesser mortals did.”48 Of his father’s departure for New York, he wrote:
Suddenly security and play were gone! Suddenly there was no one to run to when danger threatened!.... But, before all, who was there to tuck one into bed the very last thing, with a kiss and a cheery laugh and a strong foot-fall receding down the stair, challenging ghosts and nightmares to enter the nursery if they dared! Such a father was a precious thing indeed, the very sum and substance of life ....49
“Good Lord, how I miss you chicks!”50 Roberts would exclaim during his infrequent visits home. He was probably expressing the heartfelt regret of a man whose unhappy marriage separated him from his children. He was not long without family in New York, however. Before the end of the year he was joined by his young brothers, Will and Thede, for whom he had found editorial positions on the The Illustrated American and The Independent respectively.
In the second week of October, 1897, Roberts received a telegram from his wife with the alarming news that their son Athelstan had developed meningitis following a bout of typhoid fever. By the time the distraught father reached Fredericton, the boy had lapsed into a coma and died three days later without regaining consciousness. Probably it was unfair of him, but Roberts never forgave May for not sending for him sooner.51 With his heart hardened against her, it was undoubtedly easier for him to excuse a passionate affair that had already begun and would occupy the next six years of his life.
Roberts had been in New York just over a year when he published New York Nocturnes and Other Poems (1898). In this volume, as D.M.R. Bentley points out, the poet attempts to “reconcile the disparate and conflicting elements—the urges towards both the profane and the sacred— which he found in his own divided nature.”52 Lines such as these show Roberts trying to sanctify his carnal (and illicit) desires:
At thy love my life
Lifts from its clod
As the lily lifts
From its dark sleep toward God.
Much of the time, he is either apostrophizing his inamorata (“O Love, what poignant ecstasy is this/ Upon my lips and eyes? Thy touch,—thy kiss.”) or his God (“O Thou who hast beneath Thy hand/ The dark foundations of the land”).
When a “Nocturne of Consecration” appeared in The New York Independent prior to its publication in the new collection, it apparently received high praise from Richard Henry Stoddard one of the venerable figures in New York’s literary circles. “The greatest love poem in the English language since Spenser’s ‘Epithalamium’,” he reportedly told the magazine’s editor.53 Since then, critics have dismissed most of the love poems as being forced and uninspired. Yet, however artificial the sentiments may sound, Roberts confided later to Lorne Pierce that he “was deeply in love” at the time. He admitted: “The lady is ... in the ‘New York Nocturnes’ poems.”54 He added that she was also the heroine of his novel, A Sister to Evangeline (1898), and the subject of the love poems in The Book of the Rose (1903). He never disclosed the lady’s identity, however, not even to Elsie Pomeroy, his hand-picked biographer.55 The reason for his secrecy was not generally known until Laurel Boone, editor of The Collected Letters of Charles G. D. Roberts (1989) found the explanation in a letter dated 19 September 1904. It is addressed to Mary Fanton, a journalist, eleven years younger than himself, whom he had first met during a trip to Boston to make arrangements for the publication of his History of Canada. Mary was to become the wife of his brother Will in 1906, but until 1904, as Roberts chides her in the aforesaid letter, “I had every right to believe that you were in love with me.”56 He certainly considered their first meeting to be a “turning point”57 in his life, and the knowledge that Mary was living in New York may have been another reason why he accepted the Illustrated American position with such alacrity.
The gypsy-like Mary was not beautiful, but men found her attractive. All of the Roberts brothers had a crush on her, but she told Charles that being with him counted “more than anything else.”58 It is impossible to know the extent to which Mary was torn between him and Will, or how much her final decision was influenced by the fact that Charles was already married. “Your place in my heart was absolutely alone and supreme,” he told her after his rejection, “and with all my heart I desired to make you my wife.”59 Mary, who was no fool, knew him well enough to realize he was probably incapable of inflicting the pain a divorce would cause his wife and his parents.
Most of the nature poetry in Roberts’ New York Nocturnes and Other Poems was written before he moved to New York. It belongs to a period of upheaval, desperation and overwork, which may at least partly account for its disappointing slackness. Even “The Solitary Woodsman,” much anthologized and frequently praised,60 is a series of unremarkable images made tedious by fifty-two lines of irritating rhythm and rhyme. These two stanzas are fair examples of the poem’s weaknesses:
When the birches twinkle yellow
And the cornel bunches mellow,
And the owl across the twilight
Trumpets to his downy fellow,—
When the nut-fed chipmunks romp
Through the maples’ crimson pomp,
And the slim viburnum flushes
In the darkness of the swamp,—
Roberts seldom looks at New York with the eye of a painter, and never captures its essence with the effectiveness he displays in his best pictures of rural landscape. He was not a city poet even though he basked in the cultural and social milieu of New York. Instead of turning an inquiring eye upon urban conditions, he is inclined to retreat from “the city’s fume and stress” and “clamour” (“The Ideal”). One of the welcome aspects of love is its power to transport him elsewhere:
A breath from childhood daisy fields
Came back to me again,
Here in the city’s wearied miles
Of city-wearied men.
Roberts was not really one of the “city-wearied men” of whom he wrote. For him, New York was still an exciting place in which to live and work. Being away from most of his family obligations, he had the freedom of a bachelor. In short order, he had formed important friendships with magazine editors; and within his party-loving circle, where the entertainment was apt to be more boisterous than literary, he could boast that he was an acknowledged leader mainly, he believed, “for the reason that I never could get unmanageably drunk.”61
He was able to capitalize on the lingering interest in Acadian romances that dated back to Longfellow’s Evangeline. Happily, also, the overnight success of Ernest Thompson Seton’s Wild Animals I Have Known (1898) created a new demand for the kind of animal story he had offered to reluctant editors as early as 1892. The prospects for his fiction were so good that in mid-January, 1899, he resigned from The Illustrated American to live by prose to the near-exclusion of poetry. This was a bold move since he was still deeply in debt.62 In addition, he suffered a financial loss around this time (over $700, he claimed63) when his publisher, Lamson, Wolfe & Co., went bankrupt. Soon, however, he placed his books in the hands of Silver, Burdett & Co., and immediately announced that this publisher was sending him to England “(expenses paid) on a profitable undertaking, I hope.”64 There seems to have been a plan for him to begin research at the British Museum on a history of Britain that would be suitable for American schools.
In April, 1899, he paid a visit to Fredericton to announce his plans to spend the spring and summer in England. He had ready answers when May wondered how he could afford the trip when he was still unable to move his family to New York. His publisher would pay most of his expenses. Besides, being in London in person would enable him to make the kind of contacts he had made in New York. In the long run, gaining access to the English markets would pay for any additional expenses many times over. It was an investment. Furthermore, he was taking Lloyd, their fourteen-year-son, with him for company. Not only would it be a wonderful experience for the boy, but it should satisfy the gossips (whose wagging tongues May dreaded) that he was not running off by himself to have a fling. Also, his brother Will would accompany them, giving the excursion an added air of propriety.
May’s mind might not have been so easy if she had known about the two women who joined the Roberts party when they sailed from New York on 4 May aboard the Atlantic transport Menominee. One was Irma Perry, the beautiful wife of his sculptor friend, Roland Hinton Perry. The other was her equally beautiful sister, Cleo Huneker, also a sculptor. There are grounds for suspecting that Irma’s marriage to Roland Perry, her cousin, was not altogether happy. The trip to England, chaperoned by her sister, may have been a convenient excuse to spend some time away from him. En route, Irma may not have entirely succeeded in making Roberts forget Mary Fanton (whom he had urged to join him in London later), but it was obvious to Richard LeGallienne, the first of Roberts’ literary acquaintances to greet the party in London, that there had been something close to a shipboard romance between them. LeGallienne fell in love with Irma, literally at first sight, and begged Roberts “to give him a chance.”65 Thus began an affair that would eventually lead Irma to seek a divorce from her husband and marry LeGallienne.
It is difficult to determine how much time Roberts spent at the British Museum, but his research did not result in the proposed history of Britain.66 However, he was satisfied with the outcome of his trip, both professionally and socially. He wrote to Carman on 13 August:
I think I have done well in my visit. I have made many and influential friends & effectively paved the way for success with my books when they come out. Have got pretty solid with Editors, without seeming to seek them. And have well sampled the most various grades of Society, from the Princess Louise at Kensington Palace down—!67
Having been diligent in securing letters of introduction beforehand to people like Canada’s High Commissioner, Lord Strathcona, and a former Governor-General of Canada, the Marquis of Lorne (Princess Louise’s husband), he found many doors opened to him. Once, when he was invited to breakfast with the Lornes, they were joined by Princess Louise’s brother, the Prince of Wales, soon to be King Edward VII, who dropped by unexpectedly. On several occasions, Lloyd was left behind at the country homes of his father’s new society acquaintances while Roberts disported himself in London. One disappointment, he confided to Carman, was “a certain lady [Mary Fanton] having decided not to come over.”68 They were not to be reunited until Roberts returned to New York in December.
While Roberts was in England, May’s father died, leaving an estate of $100,000. In his will, after providing for his wife and the three children of a son who had predeceased him, he left the residue to be divided equally among his surviving four sons and three daughters. The sons were to receive their shares at once, but the daughters’ shares were to be held in trust with the interest being paid to them annually. For May, although this yearly income was small, it meant that her situation would be slightly less desperate in the future if the support cheques from her husband came late or fell short. On her own initiative, she moved with the children from “Dark House” to a boarding house, but kept hoping they would be moving to New York as soon as Roberts returned from England. Instead, to her great disappointment, he took a fourth-floor flat at 22 West Ninth Street, near Washington Square, with Bliss Carman and artist Frank Verbeck. Only by sharing the rent, he told her, could he possibly afford an apartment in the city.
Within the next four years, Roberts published a lengthy volume (529 pages) called Explorations and Discoveries in the [Nineteenth] Century; two novels: The Heart of the Ancient Wood and Barbara Ladd; and two books of short stories: By the Marshes of Minas and Kindred of the Wild. Most of the Acadian tales in By the Marshes of Minas had previously appeared in popular magazines, including The Atlantic, The Saturday Evening Post and The Independent. Kindred of the Wild contains all the animal stories he had written since Seton started a vogue for that genre. One reviewer of these stories added a gossipy aside, suggesting that “Roberts was writing about his wild life in Canada to divert attention from his wild life in New York.”69 Unfairly or not, he was being judged by the bohemian company he kept and by his amorous poetry in periodicals like The Smart Set. Increasingly, love was the subject of the limited number of poems he found time to write in addition to his outpouring of prose.
In 1901 he published Poems, his first “collected works,” reprinting the contents of his previous volumes, although he omitted some of the juvenilia of Orion and Other Poems. In addition, Poems contains twenty-two recent pieces that thus far had appeared only in periodicals. Some of the new material, such as “A Song for April,” was undistinguished seasonal fare for the magazines. Poems like “The Stack Behind the Barn,” “The Farmer’s Winter Morning,” and “In the Barnyard’s Southerly Corner,” being vivid recollections of farm life, are superior examples of the poetry favoured by The Youth’s Companion and Truth. Aside from a couple of topical trivialities, the weakest component is the love poems. One of the most fervid is “New Life,” which unwittingly answers the question it raises about its worth:
Since I have seen within thy heart my heaven,
Life has been changed and earth has grown divine.
Hope, health, and wisdom, these thy love hath given,
And if my song have any worth, ‘tis thine.
His next volume of new poems, The Book of the Rose, appeared in 1903. It is divided into two sections: “The Book of the Rose” (thirteen poems) and “Miscellaneous Poems” (seventeen). In “On the Upper Deck,” from the first section, he explains his use of the rose as a symbol:
We talk of roses, meaning all things fair
And rare and enigmatic, but the rose
Transcending all, the Rose of Life, is you!
Although the “Rose of Life” (Mary Fanton) was real, Roberts handling of the symbol sounds artificial at best and sometimes downright fatuous. Although most of the poems in the second section are unimpressive, there are a few exceptions. “Heat in the City,” noteworthy for being the best poem he ever wrote about city life, effectively evokes the distress and despair of the tenement-dwellers:
From breathless pit and sweltering loft
Dim shapes creep one by one
To throng the curb and crowd the stoops
And fear tomorrow’s sun.
The final poem in the book, “The Aim,” is remarkable for its frank self-analysis:
O Thou who lovest not alone
The swift success, the instant goal,
But hast a lenient eye to mark
The failures of the inconstant soul,
Consider not my little worth,—
The mean achievement, scamped in act.
The high resolve and low result,
The dream that durst not face the fact.
But count the reach of my desire.
Let this be something in Thy sight:—
I have not, in the slothful dark,
Forgot the Vision and the Height.
Neither my body nor my soul
To earth’s low ease will yield consent.
I praise Thee for my will to strive.
I bless Thy goad of discontent.
Since Roberts’ digressions into love poetry generally produced inferior work, it is just as well that his major outbursts came to an end with The Book of the Rose. The main reason for the hiatus was Mary Fanton’s declared preference for his brother Will, which closely followed the publication of the Rose poems. Just before this turning point in Roberts’ life, his son Lloyd, now nearly eighteen, had joined joined him in New York, making a fourth in the crowded Ninth Street flat. Lloyd finally saw how his father’s attitude to marriage had changed and realized that it was only to spare May any more anguish that he “refrained from declaring the circumstances that would have clinched the argument and killed the last shred of her hope for a return to things-as-they-once-were.”70 Though courageous in many other respects, Roberts was incapable of making the clean break that might have caused his wife less pain in the long run. Mary Fanton understood that side of his character, and so did Lloyd, who later reflected: “The real Charles—what a strong, weak, lovable, remarkable character!”71 The break-up with Mary Fanton merely turned his thoughts more resolutely to prose; his estrangement from his wife had gone too far for any reconciliation.
The death of his father on 11 October 1905 meant that Roberts lost the confidant whose opinion and approbation he valued above all others. The saintly rector could sympathize with his son’s marital problems—life with Emma Bliss had not always been easy, either—but he made no secret of being troubled over the matter.72 Therefore, it may have been the thought of his father’s disapproval, almost as much as any consideration for May, that kept Roberts from making the separation official. Once his father was gone, he undoubtedly felt less pressure to keep up appearances.
Although the next fifteen years of Roberts’ life were eventful, they mark a long gap in his production of poetry. During that period, he wrote four more novels (The Prisoner of Mademoiselle, The Heart That Knows, A Balkan Prince, and In the Morning of Time) and hundreds of animal stories. To remind the public that he was still a poet, he issued a revision of his “collected works” (Poems. 1907), adding The Book of the Rose but nothing new. At the same time, putting even greater distance between himself and May, he left for Europe in March 1907 for several months, a precursor for his return trip in November which extended until 1925.
It would be misleading to say that Roberts spent his time swanning around Europe. While he never passed up a chance to socialize, he continued to work hard at his craft. Still a ladies man, however, he had several short-lived “flings,” but a relationship with Mrs. L. Morris, a wealthy American, was more lasting. The first three years of his long sojourn abroad were spent in France with his son Douglas, but near the enchanting Mrs. Morris. After Douglas returned to Canada, Roberts followed Mrs. Morris to Munich until the likelihood of war drove them both to England where the affair appears to have ended. As soon as World War I began, he enlisted in the British army by lying about his age; but, as soon as possible, he successfully requested a transfer to the Canadian army. Beginning as an army instructor in Britain, he was later sent to the front as a war historian, eventually rising to the rank of major. After the armistice was signed, he elected to remain in England for another seven years.
New Poems, a slim volume published in 1919, shows the drop in both the quantity and quality of Roberts’ poetry during his European years. At least half of the pieces had been written before he left America, some as early as 1903. The theme of love (his final paeans to Mary Fanton) reappears in two of the earlier poems: “From the High Window of Your Room” and “The Hour of Most Desire”. The latter, consisting of five four-line stanzas without rhyme, is full of strong passion weakly expressed:
But every hour it is
That I desire you most—
Need you in all my life
And every breath I breathe.
Another prominent note in New Poems is a recognition of the brevity of life. Outwardly, he appeared to his friends to be always in blithe spirits, but increasingly his poetry reveals the anxieties of a man in middle-age crisis. Crossing the Atlantic in the cheerless March weather of 1907, for example, he was haunted by the prospect of nearing fifty:
Under the pillars of the sky
I played at life, I knew not why.
The grave recurrence of the day
Was matter of my trivial play.
The solemn stars, the sacred night,
I took for toys of my delight.
Till now with startled eyes, I see
The portents of eternity.
Surprisingly, the new volume contains only three poems about the recent war. The patriotic rhetoric of “Cambrai and Marne” and “To Shakespeare in 1916” may have been timely, but there was never any chance of it becoming timeless. Simpler and more effective is “Going Over,” where the tumult and danger as the soldier goes over the parapet seems less real than his dream of home:
Over! How the mud sucks! Vomits red the barrage.
But I am far off in the hush of a garden of lilacs.
For a girl’s voice in the night troubled my heart.
Tender and soft as a sigh, clearly I heard it.
This contrast between the battlefield and the lilac garden follows the pattern of Roberts’ city poems where his thoughts turn from the stress of urban life to recollections of rural tranquility. While some of the images of warfare in “Going Over” convey horror, Roberts was not writing an indictment like his younger contemporary, the British poet Siegfried Sassoon. He may have been appalled by the brutality of war, but he believed too strongly in the justness of his country’s cause to rail against it.
After being demobilized, Roberts remained in England for nearly five years, finding himself in deepening difficulties as literary tastes began changing in the post-war period. Even his animal stories, which had been his bread and butter, were increasingly out of fashion and difficult to market. When news reached him of a profitable reading tour that Bliss Carman had taken across Canada and the United States, he was tempted to return home for a similar engagement to bolster his dwindling income. His daughter-in-law, Lloyd’s wife, offered to arrange the bookings and negotiate the fees if he wished to come. Accordingly, after giving assurances to some of his English creditors, who threatened to delay his departure, he sailed for America to give his first reading at the Jarvis Collegiate Institute in Toronto on 5 February 1925. It was to be the beginning of a series of tours that would keep him crisscrossing Canada for several years, literally singing for his supper.
Being acclaimed “the dean of Canadian literature” at his homecoming was heartwarming, but there were painful reminders of his neglect of family duties. His widowed mother had died in 1923, waiting in vain to see her eldest son again. His wife, naively believing that a reconciliation might still be possible, sent word that she wanted to see him, but he was easily persuaded by his sons that it was better to stay away. Nevertheless, after May’s death in 1930, he would be guilt-stricken for never gathering enough courage to face her. Even though his regrets and explanations might not have satisfied her, his conscience told him she had deserved the courtesy of hearing them in person. “Lloyd and Douglas were wrong,” he decided in reproachful afterthought. “I should have gone to see her.”73
Among those who welcomed Roberts with great enthusiasm was Lorne Pierce, a staunch nationalist, who used his position as editor of Ryerson Press to promote Canadian literature. He immediately brought out a chapbook of Roberts’ poetry called Sweet o’ the Year and Other Poems. Of the ten selections in the booklet, nine were reprinted from New Poems. Only the title poem, “The Sweet o’ the Year,”74 a slight lyric with jangling rhymes, had not been published in any previous volume. Ironically, the chapbook helped_ to confirm a criticism in another of Ryerson’s recent publications, James Cappon’s 1925 monograph on Roberts in the Makers of Canadian Literature series. “What remains of his career,” Cappon declares, “might be described with some truth in the words of a well-known French verse: ‘Une poète mort jeune, à qui l’homme survit’.”75 At the time, it seemed like a safe epitaph for a poet, now sixty-five, whose best poetry to date had been written long ago, but Cappon (who died in 1939) would be proved wrong. There was a reawakening of Roberts’ creative powers that extended from 1926 to a short time before his death in 1943. The themes are not new; but, sharpened by the experiences of a lifetime, they have a defter touch. The man did not outlive the poet; instead, the poet outlived his critic.
The renewed creative energy that coincided with Roberts’ return to Canada has been described by Desmond Pacey as “the Indian summer of his poetic career.”76 It seems that Roberts himself preferred to think of it as a late return of spring. He expresses that view in “Spring Breaks in Foam,” ostensibly a love lyric (rough draft written in 1922; revised 4 September 1926), where the reference to spring in his heart implies the restoration of creative powers:
And in my heart
Spring breaks in glad surprise
As the long frosts of the long years melt
At your dear eyes.
He told Elsie Pomeroy, an unmarried grade eight teacher in Toronto (where he had chosen to live) that her “dear eyes” had inspired that stanza.77 They had met in July, 1926, at the Summer School of Canadian Literature in Muskoka, where Roberts was one of the speakers. He soon discovered that she had been a devoted follower of his work since childhood and had read and re-read his poetry until she could quote much of it by heart. Finding her more than just an adoring fan, however, he was attracted by her engaging personality, her fun-loving but kindly and sensitive nature. They were to become fast friends, almost inseparable, for nearly seventeen years. There was never any hanky-panky involved. Elsie was not that kind of woman and, even if she had been, she was not the type that Roberts found physically attractive. Twenty-six years his junior, she was a plain, sparrow-like individual with a slight spinal curvature that had caused back problems all her life. Her most redeeming feature was her warm, expressive eyes, although they were not the first (nor would they be the last) to inspire Roberts. Elsie was aware that he was susceptible to the charms of other women, usually younger and prettier than herself, but she excused his various “flings” on the grounds that he was a lonely old man. Besides, no dalliance ever altered his devotion to her or replaced his growing dependence upon her moral support.
Roberts’ “Indian summer” was only barely apparent in his next volume, The Vagrant of Time, published by Pierce in 1927, first in a deluxe edition, then followed by a regular edition containing “These Three Score Years,” his rather pedestrian ode commissioned to celebrate sixty years of Canadian confederation. Of the remaining thirty-eight poems in the regular edition, twenty-four are repeated from New Poems and one is repeated from each of In Divers Tones and Songs of the Common Day. The title poem (completed 7 September 1926) is an autobiographical sketch, somewhat romanticized, of his peripatetic life. Its vigorous tone is weakened by lapses into trite optimism: “But stout heart keeps my courage warm,” “I find a-many dreams come true,” etc. Among the best of the new poems is the one with this inspired opening line: “Spring breaks in foam along the blackthorn bough.” A comparison of the 1922 draft of this poem with the 1926 revision shows a remarkable improvement in the final stanza (see above) over this original version:
And at your eyes
My dream & my desire
Awake to rapture
In life’s renewing fire.
In another love poem, “In the Night Watches,” written in 1926, his command of free verse is natural and unstrained, unlike the laboured language and forced rhymes of his earlier love poetry. Its synthesis of lonely wilderness setting with feelings of separation and longing is harmonious and poignant right from the opening lines:
When the little spent winds are at rest in the tamarack tree
In the still of the night,
And the moon in her waning is wan and mishapen,
And out on the lake
The loon floats in a glimmer of light,
And the solitude sleeps,—
Then I lie in my bunk wide awake,
And my long thoughts stab me with longing,
Alone in my shack by the marshes of lone Margaree.
In the years between 1927 and 1934, Roberts fulfilled the promise that was occasionally intimated in The Vagrant of Time. Although his poetry was limited in quantity during this period, in quality it is distinguished by his revived descriptive power and his ease in handling form. This accomplishment is all the more remarkable if one takes into account the stress he was under. With no money in poetry, and the fad for animal stories being over, his livelihood depended on a hectic schedule of public readings. In addition, he served two terms (1927-29) as national president of the Canadian Authors’ Association, traveling across the country to visit various branches, and organizing two conventions. The shock of Bliss Carman’s death in 1929, followed by the death of May Roberts the next year, left him in a dispirited state from which it took a long time to recover. As his finances plummeted, he took on the drudgery of editing the Canadian Who Was Who for Trans-Canada Press. When the Canadian Authors’ Association planned a literary tour of Britain for the summer of 1933, many members hoped that he would accompany them to lend his prestige to their pilgrimage. Unable to afford the modest $300 cost, he declined until the tour organizer informed him that an anonymous benefactor had paid his fare. Several other bright moments were to follow. His final collection of animal stories, Eyes of the Wilderness, published in the autumn of 1933, briefly renewed an interest in his prose.
Early in 1934 he met Joan Montgomery, a slim young woman with “beauty and brains”78 and big soulful eyes. Despite being fifty years his junior, Joan would play an increasingly important role in his life, although he tried to keep the closeness of the relationship from Elsie Pomeroy. Later that year, he published The Iceberg and Other Poems, containing only twelve new poems, but generally considered his most important volume of poetry in almost forty years.79
Most critics rank “The Iceberg” (265 lines), the title poem of the new collection, as one of Roberts’ outstanding achievements. It is almost as ambitious as “Ave!” in conception; its cold, unemotional images are as apt and precise in their detached way as the warmly-remembered descriptions in “Tantramar Revisited.” The iceberg’s autobiograpical narrative, perhaps the most successful of Roberts’ rare experiments in free verse, is a variation of the biographical pattern he often used in his animal stories. While none of his animals ever speaks for itself, the inanimate iceberg delivers a lengthy monologue, repeatedly using the pronoun “I”. Straining credibility still further, Roberts has it telling its life story after melting “in the all-solvent sea”—speaking from the dead as it were—and displaying an amazing knowledge of geography, biology and navigation. It is easy to overlook these incongruities, however, because in passages like the following the action rings true and the details are convincing:
Unjarred by thundrous buffetings of seas,
Shearing the giant floes aside,
Ploughing the wide-flung ice-fields in a spume
That smoked far up my ponderous flanks,
Onward I fared,
My ice-blue pinnacles rendering back the sun
In darts of sharp brilliance;
My bases fathoms deep in the dark profound.
The “old time stir” and “darling illusion” of “Tantramar Revisited” find expression once again in “Westcock Hill,” completed on 14 October 1934, but recalling the emotions stirred by his return to the Tantramar region in 1926:
As I came over Westcock Hill
My heart was full of tears.
Under the summer’s pomp I heard
The spending of the years.
Oh, the sweet years! The swift years!
The years that lapse away!
I saw the green slopes bathed in sun,
The marshlands stretched afar,
And hurrying pale between its dikes,
My memoried Tantramar
Oh, the sweet years! The swift years!
The years that lapse away!
I wander down to Westcock Church,
The old grey church in the wood.
Kneeling, I heard my father’s voice
In that hushed solitude.
Oh, the sweet years! The swift years!
The years that lapse away!
I saw again his surpliced form.
I heard the hymning choir.
Shadows!—and dreams! Alone remained
The ache of my desire.
Oh, the sweet years! The swift years!
The years that lapse away!
He sleeps;—how many a year removed,
How many a league withdrawn
From these dear woods, these turbid floods,
These fields that front the dawn.
Oh, the sweet years! The swift years!
The years have lapsed away!
Undoubtedly, it was poems like “Westcock Hill” that E. K. Brown had in mind in discussing Roberts’ later poetry. His remarks in On Canadian Poetry (1943) are ambivalent, if not contradictory. He begins by conceding that “Much of his most accomplished verse belongs to his later years;” next, he calls it the “disappointing” work of an old man, without the spontaneity of youth, repeating himself in a tradition that has long been outdated.80 Although some of the poems may indeed be disappointing, that charge cannot be made against “The Iceberg” nor several of the other selections in the 1934 volume. While it is true that poems like “Westcock Hill,” “The Squatter” and “Taormina” are heavy with nostalgia—ever a recurrent note in Roberts’ poetry —it is a recollection of the past that has been viewed and put into focus by experience. “The Squatter,” while not overtly nostalgic, pictures a backwoods life that had largely disappeared during Roberts’ lifetime. A comparison with a much earlier but similar poem, “The Solitary Woodsman” (1897), shows what his treatment of the subject has gained in technique: a straightforward simplicity and a more natural flow from one image to another. “Taormina” is an evocative and moving recollection of a “little tumbled city on the height” and the person who once stood there with him, “hand in hand.” “Westcock Hill” transcends his personal feelings to become an expression that is universal in its appeal.
Meanwhile, a group of Roberts’ influential friends had become deeply concerned about his dire financial circumstances. A movement, spearheaded by Pelham Edgar of the English Department at Victoria College in Toronto, set out to establish a Canadian Writers’ Foundation Fund with Roberts as the first beneficiary. Late in 1934, reacting to persistent lobbying, the federal government finally arranged for him to receive $2,500 annually. Within a few months, his life’s work would receive another special recognition, one that added no money to his purse, but was greatly valued for the distinction it added to his name. This accolade came in the announcement on 3 June 1935 that he was one of three Canadians on King George V’s honour list to receive a knighthood, the others being Charles Saunders, the developer of Marquis wheat, and Ernest MacMillan, the new conductor of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. If Goldwin Smith, Roberts’ old employer, could have known about the honours, he might have sneered as he did in 1888: “A few titles of the lowest grade have been conferred upon colonial men of science or letters, whose eminence has gained nothing by the addition....”81 Since Smith’s time, a growing number of nationalists were viewing titles from a British sovereign as deplorable vestiges of colonialism, but many Canadian were still impressed by them, and there was a consensus that the aura of “Sir Charles” added a touch of class to any enterprise with which Roberts was associated. His own reaction was a mixture of humility and pride: “I know I am no better poet than Duncan Campbell Scott,—nor as good a one as Carman,—but I tell myself that no one of my colleagues has written with so definite a purpose of developing a national consciousness in Canada.”82 His wording indicates his belief that he was being honoured primarily as a poet.
The next year, as Sir Charles G.D. Roberts, he undertook to confirm his worthiness by issuing his Selected Poems. In a “Prefatory Note,” he explained:
In making my selections I have sought to show the whole range of my work in verse from the earliest derivative stuff ... written in my teens, up to “Westcock Hill” which was written just in time to be included in my 1934 volume.... From early youth to the present day I have always been alive to the moment, keenly aware of contemporary currents of thought, action and emotion.... There is a vast change to be noted between the rigid Ovidian elegiac metre of “The Tantramar Revisited’ and the “Pipes of Pan” (1887), and ... the freedom of structure of “The Iceberg,” the interstanzaic fluidity of line of “The Squatter” (1934). I am far from claiming that this change is of necessity growth. But it is divergence, and as such might, I think, be taken into account in any serious evaluation of my verse....83
However, since he arranged the poems either according to form or subject matter instead of chronology, it is very difficult to trace any progression. Furthermore, although Selected Poems includes only about half his total work, it is obvious that the winnowing should have been more rigourous. Like many poets, he was not the best judge of his own work. Consequently, the inclusion of too many inferior poems dilutes the overall impact. To trace the development of his poetry, one needs to turn to The Collected Poems of Sir Charles G. D. Roberts (Wolfville, N.S.: Wombat Press, 1985), edited by Desmond Pacey and Graham Adams. For discriminating selections, readers may wish to consult Desmond Pacey’s Selected Poems of Sir Charles G.D. Roberts (Ryerson, 1955) and W.J. Keith’s Selected Poetry and Critical Prose:Charles G.D. Roberts (University of Toronto Press, 1974).
Having had the stamp of approval put on his career, Roberts began to worry about preserving a record of his personal life. His first choice for a biographer was Lorne Pierce, but his busy editor was too pressed for time to take on any extra work. His son Lloyd, who had already published some candid essays about the family (The Book of Roberts, Ryerson, 1923), was eager to undertake the task, but his manuscript, called “Dark Houses,” exposed so many family skeletons that Roberts forbade him to publish it. He hit upon a safer solution one day when Elsie Pomeroy showed him a sketch she had written after listening to his reminiscences of Westcock. Under his coaching, they both agreed, she could do the research and piece together the information he supplied. The project, which took almost seven years, was a bond that drew them even closer together as they reconstructed his life and reshaped it in the fashion by which he wished to be remembered. They had Lorne Pierce’s implicit assurance that it would be published as soon as it was completed.
Unlike his limited poetic response to World War I, Roberts’ reaction to World War II, and the events leading up to it, resulted in a spate of poems that condemned the appeasers as well as the aggressors in defiant tones. He admitted: “I can’t tell whether they are any good or not. At least they are damn well felt.”84 There is no doubt that they fitted the mood of the times, and Ryerson Press was happy to publish them in a fifteen-page chapbook called Canada Speaks of Britain (1941), which sold for the modest price of sixty cents with the author’s royalties and the publisher’s profits being donated for the purchase of books for the Canadian armed forces. The title sonnet is typical of the volume’s pro-British sentiments, which probably had a greater resonance for Canadians in that era than they will ever have again:
She calls. And we will answer with our last breath,—
Make light of sacrifice, and jest with death.
Even the truly powerful rhetoric of “Peace with Dishonour,” written after the Munich crisis in 1938, is probably too topical to reverberate as long as it should.
Also included in Canada Speaks of Britain were Roberts’ three poems from World War I and three miscellaneous poems: “Two Rivers,” “Twilight Over Shaugamauk” and “As Down the Woodland Ways.” In “Two Rivers” he sees a connection between the contradictions in his character and the New Brunswick rivers associated with his boyhood and youth: the turbulent Tantramar and the placid St. John, both of which, he declares, “are in my blood and bone.” The analogy is serviceable, but the real explanation of his divided self is likely to be found in the opposing genes he inherited from his parents. By all accounts, his father, the godly Canon Roberts, was as “strong and tranquil” as the St. John, while his mother was given to moods as unpredictable and “ever-changing” as the tides of the Tantramar. Even though he loves both rivers, as he loved both parents, it is the “calm shores” of the St. John that he will choose for his final resting place. Death is also the theme of “Twilight Over Shaugamauk” and “As Down the Woodland Ways.” As he passed the age of eighty, it was a subject with which he became increasingly preoccupied, not feeling particularly morbid about it, but realizing the need to put his affairs in order while he still had control over them.
Uppermost in his mind was the publication of his biography. When Pierce seemed to be hedging, he wrote a sharp letter, demanding that the book be published no later than the spring of 1943. “I have explained to you frankly how vital it is to me that this almost auto-biographical record appear in my lifetime,” he reminded Pierce, adding “I have been badly under the weather and have got very little sleep, from the worry and suspense.”85 After further badgering, Pierce gave in to his demands; the book was ready for distribution on 12 June 1943, allowing Roberts’ mind to rest easier now that an authorized version of his life was finally on record. The whole truth about his personal struggles might have done him more justice in the long run than a portrait suspiciously free of warts, but Elsie Pomeroy was persuaded that the man should be judged by his strengths rather than his weaknesses. Although Roberts himself had hinted that the book was almost a camouflaged autobiography, Elsie always bristled at the suggestion that she had been little more than his amanuensis. While he had provided most of the information, the drudgery of shaping it and putting it into orderly prose had been hers alone.86 Given the circumstances under which it was written, the biography was bound to lack objectivity, but Lorne Pierce was right in stating: “It is a useful book and will be referred to a good many times in the future.”87
Another matter that needed resolution was Roberts' relationship with Joan Montgomery. Within a year of their first meeting, he had arranged for her to be hired as his assistant on the Canadian Who Was Who project. Despite the fifty-year difference in their ages, they soon became lovers, eventually living in the same building complex, although they had apartments in separate wings for the sake of appearances. Only Roberts’ son Lloyd and a few others knew that most of the time they were living together as man and wife. Elsie Pomeroy had no idea that after working with her on the biography, night after night in her apartment, he was going home to Joan. About the time the biography was published, Lloyd pressured his father to marry Joan, pointing out that, in the event of his death, Joan would be left in an awkward position.88 For Joan’s sake, Roberts agreed, it would be the right thing to do, but he knew how vehemently Elsie would condemn a marriage to someone young enough to be his granddaughter. He loved Joan, but felt indebted to Elsie and dreaded losing her good will and the closeness of their companionship. Lloyd contended that, if he could not have it both ways, his first duty was to Joan. Finally, hoping that Elsie could be won over, he married Joan on 28 October 1943. Elsie reacted in outrage: not only did she refuse to attend the wedding, she was unwavering in her resolve never to see him again.
It was a stressful time for Roberts. He knew that he had misled Elsie into thinking she was the most important person in his life, and he was full of remorse over the pain he had caused her. Adding to his distress was the public’s reaction when news of his marriage appeared in the press. Just as he had feared, attention was focussed upon the disparity between the ages of the bride and groom. The angina attacks, from which he had been suffering for several years, increased in severity. In less than three weeks after his marriage, he was admitted to Toronto’s Wellesley Hospital. Twelve days later, on 26 November 1943, he died.
The following spring, Joan and Lloyd took his ashes to Fredericton to be buried in the Forest Hill Cemetery, overlooking the St. John River, in fulfillment of his prophecy:
Dear and great river, when my feet
Have wearied of the endless quest,
Heavy with sleep I will come back
To your calm shores for rest.
It was Elsie Pomeroy, however, who paid for an impressive monument to be erected over his grave.89 Her bitterness towards Roberts had been replaced by the conviction that Lloyd had forced a frail old man into marriage just to keep him away from her. Since Lloyd had made no secret of his jealousy when she had been chosen to write his father’s biography, it was easy for her to believe that he had engineered the marriage out of revenge. As she forgave the man who had been the subject of her “hero-worship” since childhood,90 she recalled his response when Lloyd predicted that the biography would be a whitewash: “Just remember, Lloyd, if anyone attacks me after after I am gone, Elsie will keep the wires burning in my defense!”91 Taking his rejoiner as a call to duty, she would spend the rest of her days—she died in 1968—protecting and burnishing his image.
In spite of Elsie’s efforts, the lustre of his reputation as a poet began to fade soon after his death. Frequently over-rated during his lifetime—Elsie herself being one of the chief offenders— Roberts the poet was now being dismissed with faint praise. The first balanced re-evaluations would come with the appraisals of Desmond Pacey and W.J. Keith. “Roberts’ enduring distinction as a Canadian poet,” Pacey wrote in 1958, “is in the fact that he was the first to realize the poetic possibilities of a straightforward description of the topography of his own land.”92 Judging him by broader standards, not solely as a Canadian poet, Keith (1974) considered about a third of his total output to be “accomplished and satisfying” though unequal to the best work of his American and British contemporaries.93 In the 1980s—a hundred years after his first volumes appeared—a major Roberts revival took place, producing monographs, a complete edition of his poems, a new biography, a collection of his letters, etc. A Roberts Symposium at Mount Allison University (1982) and another at the University of Ottawa (1983) included several scholarly reappraisals of his poetry.
In her tribute to Roberts at the annual dinner of the Toronto Branch of the Canadian Authors’ Association, 6 May 1944, president Amabel King remarked: “He was a great Canadian, perhaps the greatest patriot Canada has produced for he founded a Canadian Literature, and his living words have inspired and will continue to inspire generation after generation to a loyalty and deeper love of their native soil.”94 In spite of its hyperbole, Mrs. King’s statement has some validity. While it may not be accurate to say that Roberts founded a Canadian literature—he did have antecedents—he launched an important new movement in Canadian poetry, one that looked at the country with perceptive and appreciative eyes.
His songs of the common day still illuminate even though their impact upon today’s more urbanized society has dwindled. Basically, he remained a man of the late nineteenth century in style and as well as in subject matter. He was aware of the new aesthetic in poetry as defined and promoted by Ezra Pound, but he was not influenced by it. “I know Ezra Pound personally,” he wrote to a friend, “—and I thoroughly dislike him as a man, & still more thoroughly as a poet.”95 He admired some of Pound’s followers, notably T.S. Eliot, but he could never fully appreciate their technical invention. While there is little that is experimental or innovative about his own technique, at his best Sir Charles G.D. Roberts was a careful craftsman who wrote with clarity, precision and warmth about the environment he knew and loved.