Flint and Feather

by Emily Pauline Johnson



INTRODUCTION

IN MEMORIAM: PAULINE JOHNSON


I cannot say how deeply it touched me to learn that Pauline Johnson expressed a wish on her deathbed that I, living here in the mother country all these miles away, should write something about her. I was not altogether surprised, however, for her letters to me had long ago shed a golden light upon her peculiar character. She had made herself believe, quite erroneously, that she was largely indebted to me for her success in the literary world. The letters I had from her glowed with this noble passion: the delusion about her indebtedness to me, in spite of all I could say, never left her. She continued to foster and cherish this delusion. Gratitude indeed was with her not a sentiment merely, as with most of us, but a veritable passion. And when we consider how rare a human trait true gratitude is—the one particular characteristic in which the lower animals put us to shame—it can easily be imagined how I was touched to find that this beautiful and grand Canadian girl remained down to the very last moment of her life the impersonation of that most precious of all virtues. I [Page vii] have seen much of my fellow men and women, and I never knew but two other people who displayed gratitude as a passion—indulged in it, I might say, as a luxury—and they were both poets. I can give no higher praise to the “irritable genius.” On this account Pauline Johnson will always figure in my memory as one of the noblest minded of the human race.
    Circumstances made my personal knowledge of her all too slight. Our spiritual intimacy, however, was very strong, and I hope I shall be pardoned for saying a few words as to how our friendship began. It was at the time of Vancouver’s infancy, when the population of the beautiful town of her final adoption was less than a twelfth of what it now is, and less than a fiftieth part of what it is soon going to be.
    In 1906 I met her during one of her tours. How well I remember it! She was visiting London in company with Mr. McRaye—making a tour of England—reciting Canadian poetry. And on this occasion Mr. McRaye added to the interest of the entertainment by rendering in a perfectly marvellous way Dr. Drummond’s Habitant poems. It was in the Steinway Hall, and the audience was enthusiastic. When, after the performance, my wife and I went into the room behind the stage to congratulate her, I was quite affected by the warm and affectionate greeting that I got from her. With moist eyes she told her friends that she owed her literary success mainly to me.
    And now what does the reader suppose that I [Page viii] had done to win all these signs of gratitude? I had simply alluded—briefly alluded—in the London “Athenæum” some years before, to her genius and her work. Never surely was a reviewer so royally overpaid. Her allusion was to a certain article of mine on Canadian poetry which was written in 1889, and which she had read so assiduously that she might be said to know it by heart: she seemed to remember every word of it.
    Now that I shall never see her face again it is with real emotion that I recur to this article and to the occasion of it. Many years ago—nearly a quarter of a century—a beloved friend whom I still mourn, Norman Maccoll, editor of the “Athenæum,” sent me a book called “Songs of the Great Dominion,” selected and edited by the poet, William Douw Lighthall. Maccoll knew the deep interest I have always taken in matters relating to Greater Britain, and especially in everything relating to Canada. Even at that time I ventured to prophesy that the great romance of the twentieth century would be the growth of the mighty world-power of Canada, just as the great romance of the nineteenth century had been the inauguration of the nascent power that sprang up among Britain’s antipodes. He told me that a leading article for the journal upon some weighty subject was wanted, and asked me whether the book was important enough to be worth a leader. I turned over its pages and soon satisfied myself as to that point. I found the book rich in poetry—true poetry—by poets some of whom have since then come to great and world-wide [Page ix] distinction, all of it breathing, more or less, the atmosphere of Canada: that is to say Anglo-Saxon Canada. But in the writings of one poet alone I came upon a new note—the note of the Red Man’s Canada. This was the poet that most interested me—Pauline Johnson. I quoted her lovely canoe song “In the Shadows,” which will be found on page 72 of this volume. I at once sat down and wrote a long article, which could have been ten times as long, upon a subject so suggestive as that of Canadian poetry.
    As it was this article of mine which drew this noble woman to me, it has, since her death, assumed an importance in my eyes which it intrinsically does not merit. I might also say that it has become sacred to me among my fugitive writings: this is why I cannot resist the temptation of making a few extracts from it. It seems to bring the dead poet very close indeed to me. Moreover, it gives me an opportunity of re-saying what I then said of the great place Canadian poetry is destined to hold in the literature of the English-speaking race. I had often before said in the “Athenæum,” and in the “Encyclopædia Britannica” and elsewhere, that all true poetry—perhaps all true literature—must be a faithful reflex either of the life of man or of the life of Nature.
    Well, this article began by remarking that the subject of Colonial verse, and the immense future before the English-speaking poets, is allied to a question that is very great, the adequacy or inadequacy of English poetry—British, American, and [Page x] Colonial—to the destiny of the race that produces it. The article enunciated the thesis that if the English language should not in the near future contain the finest body of poetry in the world, the time is now upon us when it ought to do so; for no other literature has had that variety of poetic material which is now at the command of English-speaking poets. It pointed out that at the present moment this material comprises much of the riches peculiar to the Old World and all the riches peculiar to the New. It pointed out that in reflecting the life of man the English muse enters into competition with the muse of every other European nation, classic and modern; and that, rich as England undoubtedly is in her own historic associations, she is not so rich as are certain other European countries, where almost every square yard of soil is so suggestive of human associations that it might be made the subject of a poem. To wander alone, through scenes that Homer knew, or through the streets that were hallowed by the footsteps of Dante, is an experience that sends a poetic thrill through the blood. For it is on classic ground only that the Spirit of Antiquity walks. And it went on to ask the question, “If even England, with all her riches of historic and legendary associations, is not so rich in this kind of poetic material as some parts of the European Continent, what shall be said of the new English worlds—Canada, the United States, the Australias, the South African Settlements, etc.?” Histories they have, these new countries—in the development of the human race, in the growth of [Page xi] the great man, Mankind—histories as important, no doubt, as those of Greece, Italy, and Great Britain. Inasmuch, however, as the sweet Spirit of Antiquity knows them not, where is the poet with wings so strong that he can carry them off into the “ampler ether,” the “diviner air” where history itself is poetry?
    Let me repeat here, at risk of seeming garrulous, a few sentences in that article which especially appealed to Pauline Johnson, as she told me:

“Part and parcel of the very life of man is the sentiment about antiquity. Irrational it may be, if you will, but never will it be stifled. Physical science strengthens rather than weakens it. Social science, hate it as it may, cannot touch it. In the socialist, William Morris, it is stronger than in the most conservative poet that has ever lived. Those who express wonderment that in these days there should be the old human playthings as bright and captivating as ever—those who express wonderment at the survival of all the delightful features of the European raree-show—have not realised the power of the Spirit of Antiquity, and the power of the sentiment about him—that sentiment which gives birth to the great human dream about hereditary merit and demerit upon which society—royalist or republican—is built. What is the use of telling us that even in Grecian annals there is no kind of heroism recorded which you cannot match in the histories of the United States and Canada? What is the use of telling us that the travels of Ulysses and of Jason are as nothing in point of real romance compared with Captain Phillip’s voyage to the other side of the world, when he led his little convict-laden fleet to [Page xii] Botany Bay—a bay as unknown almost as any bay in Laputa—that voyage which resulted in the founding of a cluster of great nations any one of whose mammoth millionaires could now buy up Ilium and the Golden Fleece combined if offered in the auction mart? The Spirit of Antiquity knows not that captain. In a thousand years’ time, no doubt, these things may be as ripe for poetic treatment as the voyage of the Argonauts; but on a planet like this a good many changes may occur before an epic poet shall arise to sing them. Mr. Lighthall would remind us, did we in England need reminding, that Canada owes her very existence at this moment to a splendid act of patriotism—the withdrawal out of the rebel colonies of the British loyalists after the war of the revolution. It is ‘the noblest epic migration the world has ever seen,’ says Mr. Lighthall, ‘more loftily epic than the retirement of Pius Æneas from Ilion.’ Perhaps so, but at present the dreamy Spirit of Antiquity knows not one word of the story. In a thousand years’ time he will have heard of it, possibly, and then he will carefully consider those two ‘retirements’ as subjects for epic poetry.”

    The article went on to remark that until the Spirit of Antiquity hears of this latter retirement and takes it into his consideration, it must, as poetic material, give way to another struggle which he persists in considering to be greater still—the investment by a handful of Achaians of a little town held by a handful of Trojans. It is the power of this Spirit of Antiquity that tells against English poetry as a reflex of the life of man. In Europe, in which, as Pericles said, “The whole earth is the tomb of illustrious men,” the Spirit of Antiquity is omnipotent. [Page xiii]
    The article then discussed the main subject of the argument, saying how very different it is when we come to consider poetic art as the reflex of the life of Nature. Here the must of Canada ought to be, and is, so great and strong. It is not in the old countries, it is in the new, that the poet can adequately reflect the life of Nature. It is in them alone that he can confront Nature’s face as it is, uncoloured by associations of history and tradition. What Wordsworth tried all his life to do, the poets of Canada, of the Australias, of the Cape, have the opportunity of doing. How many a home-bounded Englishman must yearn for the opportunity now offered by the Canadian Pacific Railway of seeing the great virgin forests and prairies before settlement has made much progress—of seeing them as they existed before even the foot of the Red Man trod them—of seeing them without the physical toil which only a few hardy explorers can undergo. It is hard to realise that he who has not seen the vast unsettled tracts of the British Empire knows Nature only under the same aspect as she has been known by all the poets from Homer to our own day. And when I made the allusion to Pauline Johnson’s poems which brought me such reward, I quoted “In the Shadows.” The poem fascinated me—if fairly haunted me. I could not get it out of my head; and I remember that I was rather severe on Mr. Lighthall for only giving us two examples of a poet so rare—so full of the spirit of the open air.
    Naturally I turned to his introductory remarks to see who Pauline Johnson was. I was not at all [Page xiv] surprised to find that she had Indian blood in her veins, but I was surprised and delighted to find that she belonged to a famous Indian family—the Mohawks of Brantford. The Mohawks of Brantford! that splendid race to whose unswerving loyalty during two centuries not only Canada, but the entire British Empire owes a debt that can never be repaid.
    After the appearance of my article I got a beautiful letter from Pauline Johnson, and I found that I had been fortunate enough to enrich my life with a new friendship.
    And now as to the genius of Pauline Johnson: it was being recognised not only in Canada, but all over the great Continent of the West. Since 1889 I have been following her career with a glow of admiration and sympathy. I have been delighted to find that this success of hers had no damaging effect upon the grand simplicity of her nature. Up to the day of her death her passionate sympathy with the aborigines of Canada never flagged, as shown by such poems as “The Cattle Thief” (page 12), “The Pilot of the Plains” (page 9), “As Red Men Die” (page 6), and many another. During all this time, however, she was cultivating herself in a thousand ways—taking interest in the fine arts, as witness her poem “The Art of Alma-Tadema” (page 131). Her native power of satire is shown in the lines written after Dreyfus was exiled, called “‘Give us Barabbas’” (page 117). She had also a pretty gift of vers de société, as seen in her lines “Your Mirror Frame” (page 119). [Page xv]
    Her death is not only a great loss to those who knew and loved her: it is a great loss to Canadian literature and to the Canadian nation. I must think that she will hold a memorable place among poets in virtue of her descent and also in virtue of the work she has left behind, small as the quantity of that work is. I believe that Canada will, in future times, cherish her memory more and more, for of all Canadian poets she was the most distinctly a daughter of the soil, inasmuch as she inherited the blood of the great primeval race now so rapidly vanishing, and of the greater race that has supplanted it.
    In reading the description of the funeral in the “News-Advertiser,” I was specially touched by the picture of the large crowd of silent Red Men who lined Georgia Street, and who stood as motionless as statues all through the service, and until the funeral cortège had passed on the way to the cemetery. This must have rendered the funeral the most impressive and picturesque one of any poet that has ever lived.

THEODORE WATTS-DUNTON.

THE PINES,
       PUTNEY HILL.
20th August, 1913.