Non-Fictional Prose

by Joseph Edmund Collins

Edited by D.M.R. Bentley


Chapter XXIII.

Thought and Literature*


Of our Canadian littérateurs, beyond any comparison the palm belongs to some of the writers of our song; yet nothing of Canadian effort has received so chilling a reception as our home-made verse.  Some coarse-minded writer in the Globe once said that M. Frechette might have a career, but he would not find it on this continent.  Every Saturday the Globe and Mail each gives three or four columns of literature, embracing selections from prose authors, interspersed with snatches of foreign song, a large proportion of which has as much wood as spirit in its composition.  They use translations sometimes of the most worthless of fugitive French verse; but never will print a stanza from the incomparably superior verse of Frechette, who is living amongst us, and whose song is redolent of our woods and lakes, and of everything Canadian, while suitable for all seasons; and though they cram in sonnets and bits that have appeared in the corner of some magazine, into the page, never will they use a line of our own Roberts, of whom no doubt some of them have never heard, but whose song is the equal of Matthew Arnold's, or of Browning's, or of any other of our great English poets' verse, world-wide too, in its sympathy, and ample enough in its range even for season or festival application.  It is our intention now to take a brief review of our Canadian singers and their important songs, in the order of their merit.

Beyond any comparison, our greatest Canadian poet—we have already ranked him with Matthew Arnold, and Browning—is Mr. Charles G.D. Roberts, of Fredericton, New Brunswick.  Besides Mr. Roberts' surpassing gift of song, he is one of the most accomplished of our native scholars, and the master of a marrowy delightful prose that is not surpassed by that of any other Canadian writer.  He is a graduate of the university of New Brunswick, where he took the classical scholarship in his Freshman year, the alumni gold medal in the junior year, graduating, in 1879, with honours in mental and moral science, and political economy.  The first volume of Mr. Roberts' verse, Orion, and Other Poems, Philadelphia, J.B. Lippincott & Co., and dedicated to his father, Rev. G. Goodridge Roberts, M.A., rector of Fredericton, New Brunswick, appeared in 1880.  Of this volume, says a discriminating critic, in a lengthy and almost rapturous review, in the New York Independent: "The author has not rushed before the public with a great bundle of all kinds in his hands, but he has given us a little book of choice things, with the indifferent things well weeded out.  Orion is a poem which Morris might not disdain, and which has this advantage over that poet's treatment of classic themes that it is not dependent for its interest on a sensuous imagination.  *  *  *  Fine as this is, there is more as fine in the little book.  The 'Ballad of the Poet's Thought' is an uncommon piece of work, turning on a deep and subtle thought, which nothing not akin to genius could raise so high above the commonplace form in which we are familiar with it.  Very different is the 'Ballad to a Kingfisher."  But how simply and easily in these lines a common theme grows into a unique creation—a thing apart, like itself alone!"  We have read from time to time a large number of reviews of this volume in English and American press, and one and all have hailed in Mr. Roberts the appearance of a poetic star of the first magnitude: we shall of ourselves now give to such of our readers as have not seen Orion, a glance into some of the incomparable beauties of that volume.  First let us take his invocation of the Spirit of Song.  Surely a grander roll of music has never come from pen of English poet:

"White as fleeces blown across the hollow heaven
    Fold on fold thy garment wraps thy shining limbs;
Deep thy gaze as morning’s flamed thro’ vapours riven,
    Bright thine hair as days that up the ether swims.
Surely I have seen the majesty and wonder,                     
    Beauty, might and splendour of the soul of song;
Surely I have felt the spell that lifts asunder
    Soul from body, when lips faint and thought is strong;
            Surely I have heard
            The ample silence stirred                                     
By intensest music from no throat of bird:—
       Smitten down before thy feet
       From the paths of heaven sweet,
Lowly I await the song upon my lips conferred."

Here we have all the strength, and the richness, and the sensuous music of Swinburne,—not as one picture is painted after another, but as one strong, grand soul resemble another;—here too, we have confessed to us the faith and the humility of genius.  If, then, we find at the threshold such a glorious outburst of song as this, when we get inside we shall not wonder, while we may be astonished, at what may come.  The first and longest poem in the collection is Orion, whence the volume takes its name.  In the steep-shored Chios, the same island, shattered with earthquake about three years ago, once lived the king Œnopion, who had a daughter of wondrous beauty, named Merope.  Orion, a great hunter, seeing the princess, became smitten of her wondrous charms, and demanded her hand of the king; but Œnopion, who secretly hated and feared "the son of three gods," refused the request unless upon the condition that the suitor should rid his island of wild beasts.  The compact was ratified, and Orion went into the jungle.  The poem opens with a description of the island; and at the set of sun Œnopion

"Stood praying westward; in his outstretched hand
The griding knife, well whetted, clothed with dread,"

preparing for a sacrifice.  And then came youths, "chose of Chios' fairest race," bearing the victim.  But let the reader hear this description of the intended offering:—

                   *    *    "A tawny wolf,
Blood-stained, fast-bound in pliant withes, fed fat
On many a bleating spoil of careless folds,
His red tongue lolling from his fanged jaws,
His eyes inflamed, shrinking with terror and hate,
His writhen sinews strained convulsively."

The high-water mark is touched in the three last-quoted lines, which, as a piece of description, we have never seen excelled in English song.  But while the king offers sacrifice, the hunter, who has been among the mountains destroying the wild beasts, returns; and here is how Mr. Roberts tells of his coming through the golden glow of the sunset, and the mien the comer wears:

"Meanwhile, from out a neighbouring gorge, which spake
Rough torrent thunders through its cloak of pines,
Along the shore came one who seemed to wear
The grandeur of the mountain for a robe,
The torrent’s strength for girdle, and for crown
The sea’s calm, for dread fury capable

It thrills us, as we make this extract, to think that we have a native Canadian who can write such verses as these—song that would add a lustre to any living English poet.  More powerful lines than these three given in italics we have never anywhere seen.  Yet, in this poem all is of such astonishing merit, that it is with difficulty we can discriminate in making the extracts.  The hunter now approaches the king, and tells him that he has done his best in ridding the island of the beasts that infested it:

"The inland jungles shall be vexed no more
With muffled roarings through the cloudy night,
And heavy splashings in the misty pools.
The echo-peopled crags shall howl no more
With hungry yelpings ’mid the hoary firs.
The breeding ewe in the thicket will not wake
With wolves’ teeth at her throat, nor drinking bull
Bellow in vain beneath the leopard’s paw.
Your maidens will not fear to quit by night
Their cottages, to meet their shepherd lads."

The king received the tidings with feigned gladness, and filled a cup of sullen wine, in which he poured a Colchian drug, which he bade the hunter drink in pledge

"Of those deep draughts for which thou art athirst;"

and, departing,

                         *       *       "he went
Up from the shore and in among the vines,
Until his mantle gleamed athwart the lanes
Of sunset through the far, gray olive-groves."

The hunter went apart "by the sleepless sea," for the drug had begun to work its spell, "and his eyes were dim and his head heavy;"

"He guessed the traitorous cup, and his great heart
Was hot, his throat was hot; but heavier grew
His head, and he sank back upon the sand;
Nor saw the light go out across the sea,
Nor heard the eagle scream among the crags,
Nor stealthy laughter echo up the shore,
Nor the slow ripple break about his feet  *  *  *
The deep-eyed Night drew down to comfort him,
And lifted her great lids and mourned for him."  *  *  *  *

And as he lay by the shore in the silent night, stealthily out of the fog appeared the king, accompanied by a torch-bearer, and poured a burning poison into the eyes of the sleepy hunter, who knew not his woe till the dawn, when "the maids beloved of Doris," came out of the sea weeping for the "god-begotten" and singing upon their lyres, while "their yellow hair fell round them."  The lyrical interlude here is worthy of quotation in full, but we must tear ourselves away if we would have the reader see other phases of this gifted writer's song.  Following the command of the sea-maids,

"Then get thee up to the hills and thou shalt behold the morning,"

the hunter rises, and groping his way to where

                       *       *       "a sound
Of hammers rise behind a jagged cape,"

one comes forth to meet him, "to be him for eyes," on the journey to the hills, where the radiance of the morning sun would restore his sight.  And when he reached the top, what a picture of surpassing loveliness does not the grand imagination of our author give us: what a scene for the sight of the hunter to whose eyes night had clung because of the treacherous poison:

    *     *     "All the morning’s majesty
And mystery of loveliness lay bare
Before him; all the limitless blue sea
Brightening with laughter many a league around,
Wind-wrinkled, keel-uncloven, far below;"    *    *    *

and here Eos awaited him.

"Now Delos lay a great way off, and thither
They two rejoicing went across the sea."

And listen to the bridal following that our poet gives them:

               *     *     "And every being
Of beauty or of mirth left his abode
Under the populous flood and journeyed with them.
Out of their deep green caves the Nereids came
Again to do him honour,     *     *     *

With yellow tresses streaming. Triton came
And all his goodly company, with shells
Pink-whorled and purple, many-formed, and made
Tumultuous music     *     *     *

                        *     *     "And so they reached
Delos, and went together hand in hand
Up from the water and their company,
And the green wood received them out of sight."

So ends the poem, not anything like a just idea of the wondrous beauty, richness, grace and strength of which we have been able to give by these few extracts.  We noticed in a friendly and appreciative critique of this poet lately by a Canadian writer the statement that Mr. Roberts is under the influence of the English lyrical poets.  This is not correct.  Mr. Roberts, who shows not the faintest touch of provincialism, writes as a master and not tentatively, and while his thought is in harmony with the modern poetical school,—of Swinburne, Matthew Arnold, Morris, Rossetti,—there is nowhere a trace of imitating the manner of any one of these.  Mr. Roberts has a graceful, sustained strength, and a thoroughly classic spirit, aflame with the old Greek religious fire, that no other living poet surpasses; he has a wealth of language and happy epithet that is unrivalled, and is in lyrical rush and intensity the equal of Swinburne himself, though he never runs into the riotousness of passion and phrase, and never mars a line or a thought with a mannerism, as does Swinburne.  There is certainly a striking resemblance between Mr. Roberts and the English singers who are masters, and who appeal to the wide world, unlike Cowper who sang only to England.  And here comes the opportunity for us to state in opposition to the opinion of a writer for whom we have the deepest respect, and who is the friend and benefactor of most of our poets and writers, that Canadian poetry should be Canadian wholly in matter, manner, and everything else.  And why pray should this be so?  The whole world, surely, is as much open to the Canadian singer as to writers in Great Britain or anywhere else.  Tom Moore wrote Lallah Rookh, a poem of the East, though an Irishman, and now Edwin Arnold sings of "The Light of Asia."  No one blames Englishmen for ranging heaven, and earth, and hell for subjects; and why should we be required to set a limit to our soaring, to tie our imagination to one country, a country with all its glorious dawn of promise, still raw, and unfertilized with the life and death of great names of humanity?  No; we should be sorry to see the transcendent genius of Mr. Roberts cage itself within the bounds even of this ample Dominion; and though he may find in our wondrous forests, and our rushing rivers, as he has found, inspiration, and harmony as high as has yet been wakened by human hand, yet if he wish to go beyond, and sing to all quarters of the world a note that posterity will not let die, as he will, for his seems to be the ambition, and his power is supereminent, then shall we gladly let him go, bidding him God speed.  For whether he win laurels at home, or in other lands, since he is ours, with him we shall share the glory.

Let us take a stanza or two from "Ariadne."  The classical story is familiar to the reader, and in brief runs thus: This lovely Cretan, who was the daughter of Minos, and ardent in her passion, fell in love with Theseus, who had come with the offerings of the Athenians for the Minitaur.  But the heart of the beautiful stranger was false, and, sickening of his bride, he left her on the lonely shore of Naxos, and pursued his way.  It so happened that Bacchus, once having occasion to pass along the solitary strand, saw the maiden as "she lay face downward on the sighing shore;" and went away smitten of her loveliness, resolving to return again to woo her.  The maiden saw not her divine suitor, but still lay cast down where her heartless love had left her, and "clenched the ooze in mute despair."  The poem, from which we have taken the two last-made extracts, opens in the evening, the moon looking "like a ripe pomegranate o'er the sea."  Something the maiden hears in the still, silvery air makes her start.  Let us hear Mr. Roberts:

"A many-throated din came echoing
    Over the startled trees confusedly,
From th’ inmost mountain folds hurled clamoring
Along the level shore to droop its wing:
    She blindly rose and o’er the moon-tracked sea
Toward Athens stretched her hands:—"With shouts they bring
    Their conquering chieftain home; ah me! ah me!"

And hear too this next not less lovely stanza:

"But clearer came the music, zephyr-borne,
    And turned her yearnings from the over-seas,
Hurtled unmasked o’er glade and belted bourne,—
Of dinning cymbal, covert-rousing horn,
    Soft waxen pipe, shrill-shouted EVOES:
Then sat she down unheeding and forlorn,
    Half dreaming of old Cretan melodies."


"The thickets rocked; the ferns were trampled down;
     The shells and pebbles splashed into the waves;  *   *

for god Bacchus with his "hoofed sylvans, fauns, and satyrs" had come to woo his love:

*   *   "And straightway by the silver waste of brine
    They laid them gently down with gesture mute,
The while he twinéd his persuasions fine
    And meshed her grief-clipt spirit with his lute.
     *            *            *            *            *            *
And so with silver-linked melodies,
    He wooed her till the moon lay pale and low;
And first she lifted up her dreaming eyes
And dreamed him her old love in fairer guise;
    And then her soul drew outwards, and a glow
Woke in her blood of pleasure and surprise,
    To think it was a god that loved her so."

Hear then this stanza impregnate with that soft, delicate sensuousness to be found alone in Keats, and in that poet only at his very best, that deep breathing of what may be called the refinement of intense passion, touched with a master hand.  The maiden's heart becomes at last captive to the god, and she rose and

"   .   .   Went with him where honey-dew distils
    Through swimming air in odorous mists and showers,
Where music the attentive stillness fills,
And every scent and colour drips and spills
    From myriad quivering wings of orchid flowers;
And there they dwelt deep in the folded hills,
    Blissfully hunting down the fleet-shod hours."

Let us then go away from classic story with our poet into the greenwood, and hear him sing of the maple.  We make no apology for quoting in full:

"Oh, tenderly deepen the woodland glooms,
    And merrily sway the beeches;
Breathe delicately the willow blooms,
    And the pines rehearse new speeches;
The elms toss high till they brush the sky, 
    Pale catkins the yellow birch launches,
But the tree I love all the greenwood above,
    Is the maple of sunny branches.

Let who will sing of the hawthorn in spring,
    Or the late-leaved linden in summer; 
There’s a word may be for the locust-tree,
    That delicate, strange new-comer;
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.

And a greener shade there never was made
    Than its summer canopy sifted,
And many a day as beneath it I lay,
    Has my memory backward drifted
To a pleasant lane I may walk not again,
    Leading over a fresh green hill,
Where a maple stood just clear of the wood—
    And oh, to be near it still!"

We cannot, for our space is growing small, speak the admiration here of which we are so full; and can call attention to those four surpassing lines only by italics.  A short quotation or two must content us from the ode "To Winter," a poem which we would compare to the Allegro in charming vignette, and the rivulet-like lyric-flow.  The poet has apostrophized winter in a succession of master touches, but, turning, challenges comparison with the milder season.  Hear these verses:

"But what magic melodies,                      
As in the bordering realms are throbbing,
Hast thou Winter?—Liquid sobbing
Brooks, and brawling waterfalls,
Whose responsive-voiced calls
Clothe with harmony the hills,                

Gurgling meadow-threading rills,
Lakelets lisping, wavelets lapping
Round a flock of wild ducks napping,

And the rapturous-noted wooings,
And the molten-throated cooings,          

Of the amorous multitudes
Flashing through the dusky woods,
When a veering wind hath blown
A glare of sudden daylight down?"
      *             *             *             *

And turning again to Winter:

      *             *             *            *
"Less the silent sunrise sing
Like a vibrant silver string,
When its prisoned splendours first
O’er the crusted snow-fields burst.
But thy days the silence keep,
Save for grosbeak's feeble cheep,
Or for snow-birds busy twitter
When thy breath is very bitter.

So my spirit often acheth
For the melodies it lacketh
’Neath thy sway, or cannot hear
For its mortal cloakéd ear.
And full thirstily it longeth
For the beauty that belongeth                 
To the autumn’s ripe fulfilling;—
Heapéd orchard baskets spilling
’Neath the laughter-shaken trees;
Fields of buckwheat full of bees,
Girt with ancient groves of fir                 

Shod with berried juniper;
Beech-nuts mid their russet leaves;
Heavy-headed nodding sheaves;
Clumps of luscious blackberries;
Purple-clustered traceries                       
Of the cottage climbing-vines;
Scarlet-fruited eglantines;
Maple forests all aflame
When thy sharp-tongued legates came."

Here the reader is no less sensible that a master hand is painting nature, and what is more, making so intensely a Canadian picture that he who has ever seen our fields or wilds in the autumn or winter, at once recognises the portrait, than he stands to wonder at this very lyrical rush, and the wealth of phrase that waits upon the warm, rich imagination of the poet.  And here also he sees, as in the rest of Mr. Roberts' work, the wrought art the author brings into the service of his verse highly the complete technical mastery, and the firm grip of the subject; and above all the contained enthusiasm and the well-regulated flow of the thought. 

We are sure the reader will not be tired, but rather delighted, if we make an extract from "Memnon," a poem which first appeared in Scribner's magazine.  A traveller,

"Weary, forsaken by fair, fickle sleep,"

rises, and as the moon hangs low over the desert, standing before his tent, is startled to hear an image of stone,

   *    *    "Prostrate, half enwound
With red, unstable sand-wreaths,"

utter words of musical anguish.  Memnon was the son of Tithonus, and Aurora the goddess of the morning.  When he died, the Æthiopians or Egyptians over whom he reigned, erected upon the bleak sand a monument to his memory; and this statue, tradition relates, had the wonderful property of uttering a melodious sound every day at the rise of the sun, "like that which is heard at the breaking of the string of a harp when it is wound up."  And the figure was said to be possessed of all the feeling that belongs to man—to suffer pain, and heat, and cold, and the tortures of the sand-blast.  This is the story which Mr. Roberts' fervid imagination seizes and shapes into a thing of such imperishable beauty.  And now

                 "Faint streaks quietly creep
   Up from the east, into the dusky sky;
Aurora's yellow hair, that up the steep
   Streams to the rear of night full breezily."

This is the mother of the tortured figure coming.  Hear the son's plaint:

"Sweet mother, stay; thy son requireth thee!
    All day the sun, with massive, maddening glare,
Beats on my weary brow and tortures me.
    All day the pitiless sand-blasts gnaw and wear
    Deep furrows in my lidless eyes and bare.
All day the palms stand up and mock at me;
    And drop cool shades over the dead bones there,
And voiceless stones that crave no canopy:
O beautiful mother, stay; 'tis thy son prayeth thee.
  *           *           *           *           *           *
    Hyenas come and laugh into my eyes;
    The weak bats fret me with their small, shrill cries
And toads and lizards crawl in slimy glee.
  *           *           *           *           *           *   
Oh, dewy-lipped mother, stay; thy son desireth thee."

And this surely may pass for a stanza not excelled in our literature:

"Soon will for me the many-spangled night
    Rise, and reel round, and tremble toward the verge;
Soon will the sacred Ibis her weird flight                                      
    Wing from the fens where shore and river merge,
    With long-drawn sobbings of the reed-choked surge.
The scant-voiced ghosts, in wavering revelry
    For Thebes’ dead glory, gibber a fitful dirge:
Would thou wert here, mother, to bid them flee!                            
O beautiful mother, hear; thy chained son calleth thee."

We have made the italics occurring in these extracts; for again we cannot wait to say what our enthusiasm suggests, of the verses so marked.  At one other of Mr. Roberts' poems we can only glance before closing our review, and that "Off Pelorus," which does not appear in the volume before us, but which we find in a number of the Canadian Monthly, under Mr. G. Mercer Adam's editorship.  This poem is founded on one of the incidents in the wanderings of Ulysses.  After the return of the king from the shades, he sojourned on Circe's island; and when he again set forth, he had to pass by the strait of Scylla and Charybdis, where the sirens sang their luring songs.  These were Circe's words of warning to the reckless prince in Pope's mechanical strains:

      *   *   *   "Where sirens dwell you plough the seas
Their song is death and makes destruction please."

As for you, said the goddess to the king, I know your love for me will be proof against the witching music of the sirens; but stuff your rowers' ears with wax, lest the songs might overcome them.  See that before you reach the charmed coast, your rowers bind you to the mast.  Ulysses then set out, and submitted to the instructions of the goddess.  The poem opens off Pelorus, the cape named from the pilot of Annibal.  The sea is drowsy, the sirenss sing, the rowers labour at the oar, the king is bound to the mast:

"Crimson swims the sunset over far Pelorus;
    Burning crimson tops its frowing crest of pine,
Purple sleeps the shore and floats the wave before us
    Eachwhere from the oarstroke eddying warm like wine."

Let us read on.  Circe's precautions were not ample; for what the rowers see intoxicate them:

"Soundless foams the creamy violet wake behind us;
    We but see the creaking of the laboured oar;
We have stopped our ears—mad were we not to blind us,
    Lest with eyes grown drunken sail we hence no more."

The sirens lived on this enchanted coast; and while their song took captive the ear, the luxuriousness of their abode intoxicated the eye.  How matchlessly Mr. Roberts has grasped the spirit of the legend and wrought it into a picture moving with life.  Hear this stanza, and say if even Mr. Roberts may not be proud of it:

"Idly took we thought for still our eyes betray us.—
    Lo! the white limbed maids with beckoning arms divine,
Throbbing bosoms bare, loosed hair, soft hands to slay us,
    Throats athrob with song across the charmed brine.

And here also is a matchless stanza:

"See the king he hearkens,—hears their song—strains forward,—
    As some mountain snake attends the shepherd's reed;
Now with urgent hands he bids us turn us shoreward:—
    Bend the groaning oar now, give the king no heed!"

How admirably does not the movement of the first line picture the action of the mountain snake in the second verse on hearing the shepherd's pipe,—moving in jerks.  It is the community of thought and feeling among the rowers we receive so far.  This, after Mr. Roberts' skilful and harmonious weaving, is the song of the luring charmers on the shore.  They reach out their "beckoning arms divine," as they sing it—and imagine such a song floating across that gorgeous summer sea:

"Much enduring wanderer, honey-tongued come nigher,
    Wisest ruler, bane of Ilion's lofty walls;
Hear strange wisdom to thine uttermost desire,
    Whatsoe'r in all the fruitful earth befalls."

A siren truly might not have been ashamed of such verses.  The song bewilders the poor king, and he struggles to free himself from the mast.  Then the rowers tell us:

"So we rise up twain and make his bonds securer:
   Seethes the startled sea now from the surging blade,
Leaps the dark ship forth, as well, with hearts grown surer,
    Eyes averse and war-worn faces made afraid,

O'er the waste and warm reaches drive our prow sea-cleaving
    Past the luring death, into the folding night:—
Home shall hold us yet—and cease our wives from grieving—
    Safe from storm, and toil, and flame, and clanging fight."

Surely now it is plain to all who have followed us that a singer has risen in Canada of whom any nation, or any literature, might be proud.  Let us with such glorious verse as this hear no more of "hog wash," or be told again that "native literary fruit is wrapped yet in the future."  Space forbade us to show our reader anything of "A Blue Blossom," the "Epistle to Bliss Carman," the "Ode to Drowsihood," the latter perhaps containing a subtler and intenser note than any other poem in the book, "One Night," "A Ballad of Three Mistresses," "Launcelot and the Four Queens," "Sappho," "Ballad of the Poet's Thought," and various other delightful things.  We have been a close student for many years of our modern English singers, and we now say without fear of refutation that we have in Mr. Roberts a poet who has a note as intense, as sweet, as high and as varied as any singer in the British choir.  In strength he is fully the equal of Browning; and in lyrical flow and passion,—his fire is not a spluttering blaze, but a sober, intense glow—he is not surpassed by Swinburne.  Sometimes we find that "lyrical cry," that sad sweet note that marks such poems as "Marguerite" and "The Forsaken Merman" of Matthew Arnold; while in the curious felicity of expression, such as "gossiping grass" for an expanse of sedges and weeds fretted by the wind, the "winnowing soft gray wings of marsh owls" &c., he is not surpassed, if equalled, by any of our modern poets.  How Mr. Roberts would adorn one of our university chairs of English literature!  Surely, if his services are available, Trinity, which has wakened from her sleep and feels a new life and impulse in her veins, and decided to endow a literature chair, might seek his services.  He would, in such a place, draw all the aspiring and better ones among our young men around him; or might not our most comprehensive institution, University College, add to its excellent faculty this adorning star of native talent, this example of Canadian possibility?

       *          *          *          *         *          *          *         *         *        *

Among our younger writers who show decided promise may be mentioned Mr. Archibald Lampman, B.A., of Toronto; and Mr. J.A. Ritchie, of Ottawa.  We have seen in Our Continent, in the Canadian Monthly and elsewhere verses of these young gentlemen that justify us in predicting brilliant things of their future.  Mr. Lampman has an exquisite touch, and has already written some lines of the very highest merit.  Mr. Ritchie has awakened from the strings of his instrument, a soft, mellow music, that is large with promise of admirable things.

In nearly every school-book we find something from Mr. Sangster, which is given as a sample of "good Canadian poetry;" but any of this writer's verse that we have read, and we think we have seen it all, was not worth a brass farthing.  His name only appears here that he may not be confounded with our Canadian poets.

And now while on this subject let us say that as well may we hope for "roses in December, ice in June," as to look for a literature without a nationality.   But in the awakening of that national life for which we yearn, we may count on a creative period in our literature; for the time when our young nation will put on the intellectual blossoms of romance and song.  Some of those who, while believing that the days of subordination and inferiority ought soon to come to an end, still shrink timidly back into their shell, when asked to take up the question of our disenthralment practically, on the ground that our confederation is yet only a tiny thing, that we would be as a waif among the nations, forget that at the date of confederation the joint population of our provinces was greater than that of any one, of thirty-seven European Sovereign States, and that at this day our population exceeds that of either Portugal, Switzerland, Denmark, Saxony, Greece, or Holland, more than doubling that of Denmark, and more than trebling that of Holland.  They have forgotten, too, that the star of empire is moving in our direction; that we have open doors facing towards the emigrant of all quarters of the globe; that we have to the west of us half a continent of wheat land, capable of sustaining ninety millions of people; that already railroads have thrown this unrivalled territory, open to the husbandman; that every ship that crosses the ocean is laden with human freight for our new country; that our western cities are expanding by strides, and that capital, intelligence, and enterprise are coming from all quarters of the civilized world to cast in their lot with us.  Neither are we like the Irishman or the Russian unfit to take the supreme government into our own hands; for a beneficent educational system has been for many years shedding its light among us, that now, the intellectual condition of the mass of our people is far higher than that of England herself, or of any other European state.  That a change must soon come in our political status, no one whose opinion is of any value will now deny; and to the speculating mind one of three courses will be open: Federation with the empire, a scheme which is the birth of a disordered poetic imagination; annexation with the United States—a proposal for which we have not the remotest sympathy, and which, we believe, would be unwelcome to the people, but which is infinitely preferable to that disordered plagiarism of Mr. Justin McCarthy "the plan of a general federation"—and Canadian Independence.  We need not repeat what we have expressed so often, that for this latter scheme are we heart and soul; that no other change will satisfy the manly, yearning spirit of our young Canadians; and that it is our duty now to bestir ourselves, to organize, and to tire not nor rest till our Colonialism shall have become a thing of the past, and our Canada stand robust, and pure, and manly, and intelligent, among the nations of the earth.  But we must awake from our sordid ignominy, our cowardly sloth; unless, indeed, the chains befit us, and we are happy in the bondage.  If we be, then liberty is an impertinence upon our lips, and the rights of free-born citizenship a boon of which we are not worthy.  If we be, then is it the duty of our press and our public men to stifle the impulse of manhood, till, coiling the chain about us, we lie down in our dishonoured rest.

"Freeman he is not, but slave,
    Who stands not out on my side;
His own hand hollows his grave,
Nor strength is in me to save
    Where strength is none to abide.

Time shall tread on his name
    That was written for honour of old,
Who hath taken a change for fame
Dust, and silver, and shame,
    Ashes, and iron, and gold."


From Chapter XXIII, "Thought and Literature," in Life and Times of the Right Honourable Sir John A. Macdonald, Premier of the Dominion of Canada. Toronto: Rose Publishing Co., 1883 [back]