Non-Fictional Prose

by Charles G.D. Roberts

Edited by D.M.R. Bentley and Laurel Boone


 

Carman and His Own Country*


 

So large a portion of Carman’s life was passed in a land that was not his own, so much of his work was produced amid surroundings and under influences which, however congenial to him at the time, were distinctly foreign to those under which he had been born and reared, that certain misunderstandings have arisen, not unnaturally, in regard to his relations with his own country, his general attitude towards Canada, and the attitude of Canada towards him. I should like if possible to clear up some of these misunderstandings.

Until within the last ten years or so, at any rate, it has been taken for granted in America, and to some extent conceded, however reluctantly, in Canada, that Carman had been quite Americanized by his prolonged sojourning among our cousins to the south and by influence of the close intimacies which he had formed there. He was claimed by the Americans as an American poet, in spite of the evidence afforded by the inclusion of his work in authoritative English and Canadian Anthologies. There were several long periods in his life during which his wanderings never led him back to his native fields and streams. There were periods when the atmosphere and background of many of his poems were those of New York’s literary Bohemia, of the Catskills, of that New England sea-and-country side with which he had an inherited kinship, rather than of his own northern land,—even as so much of Shelley and of Browning superficially took on the colouring of that Italy in which they chose to dwell.

But all these things were mere extraneous facts, accidents of time and circumstance, not rooted in the fibre of Carman’s being. If he was claimed as an American poet it would never occur to him to publicly correct the mistake. He would never take the trouble to protest against an adverse criticism even, let alone against a mistake that was wholly a tribute and a compliment. It was enough for him that his intimates should know he was a Canadian and would never entertain any thought of changing his allegiance. His ineradicable Canadianism was too well understood and respected among his friends for him to feel the need of asserting it. And I cannot think that his American friends would have wished it otherwise. It was an integral part of the personality they loved. Moreover Carman was never under what might be regarded as definitely "Americanizing" influences. To what is inclusively but vaguely called the "American Idea" he was temperamentally impervious. And his intimates,—the kind of people to whom he was attracted and who were attracted to him—were more or less aloof, intellectually and aesthetically, in their attitude towards it. They were not conspicuously concerned with any efforts to "make the world safe for democracy."

If during one long stretch of years Carman seemed to have forgotten the deep-grassed meadow islands and shadowy elms of the Saint John, the blossoming orchards and yellow, rushing tides of Grand Pre, it was because remembering would have stirred too many poignant regrets. From Fredericton, and from Windsor, Grand Pre, Wolfville, had departed his dearest associates,— comrades, kinsfolk, lovers,—some on the journey which knows no returning, some to scatter wide across the face of earth. To me it seems altogether understandable that Carman should have so long shrunk from revisiting those scenes which of old had meant so much to him. To the rest of Canada, during all this time, he was merely a name, a voice, rather than a living and breathing personality. Toronto, Montreal, Winnipeg, Vancouver might have had him abundantly long before they did, had they given any sign of wanting him. But he was never one to "crash the gate."

As for the general atmosphere, background, landscape of Carman’s poetry, no one surveying that poetry as a whole could have any doubt as to his nationality. The savour of Canada permeates it. The colour and the scent of that section of Canada which bred him,—the Maritime Provinces,—cling to him imperishably, however far afield he may have wandered in the choosing of his themes. Coelum non animam mutant qui trans mare currunt.

Throughout his periods of richest productivity his themes themselves are predominatingly native. Canadian place-names are continually singing through his lines. And the most important book of his latest period, "Far Horizons," contains comparatively little that is not purely Canadian alike in matter, manner and inspiration. In that hauntingly musical and wistful poem, "Rivers of Canada," (which all Canadian teachers should have their pupils commit to memory) he fervently proclaims himself the child and lover of Canada.

"O all the mighty rivers beneath the Polar Star,
They call me and call me to follow them afar.

Peace and Athabasca and Coppermine and Slave,
And Yukon and Mackenzie—the highroads of the
               brave.

Saskatchewan, Assiniboine, the Bow and the Qu’
               Appelle,
And many a prairie river whose name is like a
               spell.

They rumor through the twilight at the edge of
               the unknown
There’s a message waiting for you and a kingdom
               all your own!

*        *        *

O well remembered rivers that sing of long ago,
A-journeying through summer or dreaming under
               snow.

Among the meadow islands through placid days
               they glide,
And where the peaceful orchards are diked against
               the tide.

Tobique and Madawaska and shining Gaspereaux.
St. Croix and Nashwaak and Saint John whose
          haunts I used to know.

And all the pleasant rivers that seek the Fundy
          foam,
They call me and call me to follow them home."

If to certain poems the lovely heights and deep, wild "cloves" of the Catskills supply the romantic background, if to others the storied hamlets and rocky pastures of Connecticut or the rippling shallows of the Silvermine furnish the inspiration,—well, he would not have been the poet that he was had he shown himself insensitive to the influence of such surroundings.

Recently a certain American friend and devotee of Carman’s, on being reminded that Carman was a Canadian and not an American poet, demanded indignantly "What did Canada ever do for Carman?" I have sometimes heard a similar protest voiced on this side also, with the well worn complaint that Canada is neglectful of her writers and her artists. For my own part it has always seemed more becoming that our poets and our artists should concern themselves with what they could do for their country than with what their country should do for them. It has always seemed to me that whatever we can do for the country we love, the country which breeds and nurtures us, is no more than our country’s due, and we have no right to expect to be coddled just because we can’t help writing verses or painting pictures, instead of courting the reluctant dollar. As for Carman, his feeling was not that Canada had neglected him but that he had neglected Canada. Too long, he felt, had he suffered himself to be unmindful of her.

When, somewhere about eleven years ago, Carman was seized by a dangerous illness and was taken away to the Adirondacks in the dead of winter to battle for his life, the anxious concern with which all Canada watched that gallant struggle was sufficient answer to the charge that she was indifferent. After his recovery came the quite unexpected news that, while still too frail for the strain of steady work at his desk, he was in what we know euphemistically as "straightened circumstances." The response of Canada was prompt and warm. It was also practical and tactful. His Canadian friends organized for him public recitals, readings from his own works, in Montreal and Toronto, on a scale which yielded him handsome returns. These were repeated at other centres, and presently expanded into a tour of all Canada, from the Maritimes to Vancouver Island. On every hand he was greeted with an enthusiasm which not only brought him relief from his financial difficulties but gave him back his joy in life and his confidence in his own powers. He had been thinking himself finished, as far as creative work was concerned. He had been planning to write advertising as a means of earning his bread for so much longer as he should need it. He had confided to one of his intimates, casually and resignedly enough, that he was "just waiting for the end." But now all was changed. He had an incentive. Life once more seemed to him worth living. He said to a friend of mine—"Since Canada cares so much for me, and expects so much of me, I must try and do something to justify her expectations." And he did. Thereafter he spent a portion of almost every year in Canada, giving courses of lectures at various universities and recitals from sea to sea. Once more he wrote with the old rich abundance. Once more he lived with the old zest. His body seemed to be regaining its old vitality. His verses were recapturing the old vigour and magic. And when the end came, instantly and without warning, that June forenoon of last year, it struck us all with the shock of a dreadful surprise; for we had thought of him as just starting out on a path of new and splendid achievement.

But so indeed, perhaps, he was.

 


"Carman and His Own Country," Acadie 1:1, April 1930, 2-4 [back]