Non-Fictional Prose

by Charles G.D. Roberts

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


 

Canadian Poetry in its Relation to the Poetry of England and America*


 

I have no words to thank you—no words to half express my deep and heartfelt appreciation of the very great honour done me here tonight and of the more than generous gift with which I am overwhelmed. You have given a most eloquent and emphatic contradiction to that old whining complaint about a prophet not being without honour except in his own country. For you have made it plain that in his own country a prophet may have both honour and—profit. May I try to show my appreciation, and to justify myself in the role of profit, by prophesying a distinguished and distinctive future for Canadian Poetry.

I have taken as the subject of my address tonight, "Canadian Poetry in its relation to the Poetry of England and America." I purposely refrain from saying "of the rest of the English-speaking world," because the poets of Australia, New Zealand and South Africa seem to be linked more closely and more exclusively with the Mother Country than we are in Canada. Their poetry has less of a separate corporate existence than ours, has a more decided tendency to look to the Mother Country for recognition than has ours. This, for two main reasons, is only to be expected. They are, all three, much younger and less populous peoples than Canada. For all practical purposes they are under but one stream of influence, they inherit from but one source, the Mother Country; while we inherit from three sources, in varying degree,—from the mother Country, America, and France. The influence of France has been, as yet, comparatively slight upon the poetry of English-speaking Canada, which alone I am considering here,—though I hope it may be greatly extended in the future, when the cultural characteristics of the two great races from which we spring may come to be more intimately interfused. But American influence, though altogether secondary to that of England and growing more so as our national consciousness matures, has been strong upon us in two ways. The mass immigration of that strong and dominant Loyalist American stock, influential out of all proportion to its numbers, provided us with a great proportion of our spiritual and intellectual endowment, that element of character which is the ultimate test of a people’s stature; and our social relations with modern America have had their effect, not invariably a happy one, upon our verse structure and forms.

Our English Canadian Poetry may be divided, very loosely, and for the purposes of this address, into two periods,—the pre-war and the post-war. The pre-war period may be considered as beginning in the 80’s, with the publication of Crawford’s Old Spookses’ Pass, and Lampman’s Among the Millet, 1888. At this point, if you will forgive me, I am compelled to become personal for a moment. In the course of this survey I am going to disregard entirely my own various books of verse and their influence, if any, on the development of Canadian Poetry. But it is necessary, to avoid misunderstanding, that I should refer to my little volume of juvenilia, Orion and Other Poems, which appeared in 1880. This book, which obtained in Canada and abroad a recognition out of all proportion to its merits, has been accepted as a sort of landmark. All the verses it contains were written between the ages of sixteen and nineteen,—most of them before I was eighteen. They are the work of practically a schoolboy, drunk with the music of Keats, Shelly, Tennyson and Swinburne. They are distinctly ‘prentice work, distinctly derivitive, and without significance except for their careful craftsmanship 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.

The distinctively Canadian poetry, of significance beyond the borders of Canada, therefore, may be considered as beginning with Isabella Crawford’s Old Spookses’ Pass, 1884; Charles Mares Tecumseh, 1886; Archibald Lampman’s Among the Millet, 1888; F. G. Scott’s The Soul’s Guest, 1888; W. W. Campbell’s Lake Lyrics, 1889; D. C. Scott’s The Magic House, 1893; Bliss Carman’s Low Tide on Grand Pré, 1893. Pauline Johnson’s White Wampum, 1894; [and] Arthur Stringer[‘s] Watcher of Twilight, 1894; but it must be borne in mind that for seven or eight years previous to 1893 Carman’s poems had circulated widely in privately printed broad-sheets, and had exerted an immense influence, before his first publication in book form.

Though Mair’s Tecumseh appeared in 1886, it seems to stand apart from the new movement inaugurated by Crawford, Lampman, Carman and Scott. It marks the end of the old period,—Mair’s first and only other volume of verse, Dreamland and Other Poems, having appeared in 1868. It looks backward rather than forward. Deriving, in its conception and its structure, straight from Shakespeare himself, but with its verbal music borrowed from Keats, it is a dignified and massive closet-drama, dramatic in form but narrative in spirit; and it stands up as great isolated rock against the incipient tide of Canadian lyric verse. Isabella Crawford, on the other hand, seems to me to be looking forward rather than back. Her verse, though so different, belongs with that of Lampman, Carman, and D. C. Scott. It has a distinction and strength which have not yet been sufficiently recognized. Her early death was a great misfortune to our literature.

Now, having thus cleared the way, I will try to trace the influences which affected Canadian verse during this first period, and to point out wherein Canadian verse was distinctive from the verse of England and of America. Of course it is obvious to us all, that Canadian verse, like American verse, is but a branch of the one splendid parent stem. American verse, beginning to thrust forth from the parent stem nearly two hundred years ago, has by now attained a stature which fairly rivals that of its parent. Today it would be hard to say which shows the loftier and more sturdy growth. It is my claim that Canadian Poetry, a young shoot which began to bud forth not fifty years ago, started under happier auspices, developed more rapidly, and has already attained an authentic separate existence. It is of course overshadowed by its great rivals, but it is not obliterated by them. When the long but beneficent tyranny of the Tennysonian tradition in England—buttressed rather than shaken by Swinburne, Arnold, Morris, Rossetti (rudely assaulted but not overthrown by Browning) at last began to fall into saccharine decay, English poets seemed somewhat at a loss for guidance. Masters of craftsmanship like Stevenson, Le Gallienne, John Davidson, William Watson, Henley, Wilde, seemed to be groping in all directions for themes on which to exercise their craft. Francis Thompson wrote one magnificent and immortal poem; Alice Meynell produced a tiny sheaf of exquisite and stringently reserved verse, but both sounded their poignant notes upon approximately one theme. The choir had brilliant individual singers, but there was no leader, and the result was a mere confusion of sweet sound. To be sure there were no blatant discords. These were to come later!

Meanwhile, how was it faring with poetry in Canada? For one thing, there was singularly little confusion of purpose, or casting about for themes. In the main it was Nature poetry, of one sort or another. The Canadian scene and the Canadian atmosphere, were always present, sometimes as a very conspicuous background to the subject, sometimes as the subject itself. It was frankly enthusiastic. It was patently sincere. There was never any need to whip up the inspiration. From the "Bite deep and wide, O axe, the tree," of Isabella Crawford, to the "There is something in the autumn that is native to my blood," of Carman, there is the note of looking forward, of the optimism of a young and confidently aspiring people. The pervasiveness of this note gave a certain unity to the work of all the otherwise differentiated Canadian singers. It was a note that had practically faded out from the infinitely louder American chorus.

The influence of Tennyson—with the one brief exception already noted,—is not evident in this Canadian Poetry. It is descended rather from Wordsworth, Milton of the earlier poems, Landor, Keats, Shelley, Blake, and from Arnold in form and language though manifestly not in spirit. It also drew one strong stream of influence from Emerson and the New England school of transcendentalists, to whom it is heavily in debt for its philosophy and for its employment of the plain, blunt words of common speech. It owes something also to that very great American poet, Sidney Lanier. Whitman’s influence both in thought and in form upon our poetry of this period is entirely negligible. And if I may be permitted to differ flatly from a very distinguished critic, Dr. Cappon, the wonderful poems of Edgar Allen Poe, were almost as negligible in their effect upon us. Even Carman, contrary to Dr. Cappon’s thesis, was not greatly interested in Poe’s form, and with Poe’s philosophy of life he was emphatically out of sympathy. I can detect Poe’s influence upon one only of our Poets, Tom McInnes, and he belongs to our later period. Carman was influenced in one portion of his career by Browning, but that influence ultimately worked itself out. And Duncan Campbell Scott now and again shows traces of having fallen under the spell of George Meredith’s more inspired verse. And it may be noted here that our poets were doing thirty or forty years ago what certain of the quieter and more serious poets of England have been doing since the war.

There is another consideration which gives unity to our Canadian poetry of this period. In doctrine, in dogma, in creed, our poets may differ very widely, from strict orthodoxy, through a sort of mystical theosophy, to a Neo-Platonic pantheism or Nature worship. But they all worship. They are all religious, in the broad sense, in their attitude toward this life and the future. They are all fundamentally antagonistic to everything that savours of materialism, and even of such high and stoical pessimism as that of Matthew Arnold. They are all incorrigible and unrepentant idealists.

I think I have traced the chief sources from which our poetry has sprung, and indicated, in the main, those characteristics which differentiate it from the work of contemporaries in England and America. I will conclude the survey of this first period by reading a sonnet of Lampman’s and a lyric of Carman’s, two poems which, of their kind, have not been surpassed by any of their contemporaries in England or America. They may serve to illustrate certain of the points which I hope I may be considered to have made:

"Outlook"

Not to be conquered by these headlong days,
But to stand free: to keep the mind at brood
On life’s deep meaning, nature’s attitude
Of loveliness, and time’s mysterious ways;
At every thought and deed to clear the haze
Out of our eyes, considering only this,
What man, what life, what love, what beauty is,
This is to live, and win the final praise.
       Though strife, ill fortune and harsh human need
Beat down the soul, at moments blind and dumb
With agony; yet, patience—there shall come
Many great voices from life’s outer sea,
Hours of strange triumph, and, when few men heed,
Murmurs and glimpses of eternity.
                                              A. Lampman

"Exit Anima"

"Hospes comesque corpis
Quae nunc abitis in loca?"

Cease, Wind, to blow
And drive the peopled snow,
And move the haunted arras to and fro,
And moan of things I fear to know
Yet would rend from thee,
       Wind, before I go
On the blind pilgrimage.
Cease, Wind, to blow.

Thy brother too,
I leave no print of shoe
In all these vasty rooms I rummage through,
No word at threshold, and no clue
Of whence I come and whither I pursue
The search of treasures lost
When time was new

Thou janitor
Of the dim curtained door,
Stir thy old bones along the dusty floor
Of this unlighted corridor.
Open! I have been this dark way before;
Thy hollow face shall peer
In mine no more. . . .

Sky, the dear sky!
Ah, ghostly house, good-by!
I leave thee as the gauzy dragon-fly
Leaves the green pool to try
His vast ambition on the vaster sky,—
Such valor against death
Is deity.

What, thou too here,
Thou haunting whisperer?
Spirit of beauty immanent and sheer,
Art thou that crooked servitor,
Done with disguise, from whose malignant leer
Out of the ghostly house
I fled in fear?

O Beauty, how
I do repent me now,
Of all the doubt I ever could allow
To shake me like an aspen bough;
Nor once imagine that unsullied brow
Could wear the evil mask
And still be thou!

Bone of thy bone,
Breath of thy breath alone,
I dare resume the silence of a stone,
Or explore still the vast unknown,
Like a bright sea-bird through the morning blown,
With all his heart one joy,
From zone to zone.
                                     B. Carman

Between the first and second periods of Canadian poetry there is no break, but rather a very gradual transition. Some members of the first group are in full singing vigour today, as in the cases of Duncan Campbell Scott, and have, indeed, more or less identified themselves with the mood and temper, even the external forms, of the second period. Others were already becoming well known in the decade preceding 1914. Preeminent among these is Tom McInnes, standing somewhat apart from the stream of our poetry, and tracing the inheritance of his very individual talent to François Villon and Edgar Allan Poe, with an occasional dash of Keats. And I must mention here that remarkable woman Mrs. Harrison, known as "Seranus," who began her political career with "the stretchèd metre of an antique song" in Pine, Rose and Fleur de Lis, 1891, using old French verse forms and seeking to interpret the spirit of French Canada to English Canada; and who now, in Songs of Love and Labor and in Penelope and Other Poems, brings herself thoroughly abreast of modern movements and methods.

During and since the War new forces began to make themselves felt in Canadian verse, influencing both its matter and its manner. But in our verse, as in our painting and sculpture, the pervading sanity and balance of the Canadian temperament, its obstinate antagonism to extremes, saved us from the grotesque excesses indulged in by some of our English and American contemporaries. Modernism, so called, came without violence to Canada. It was with us not revolution but evolution. The slender but exquisite genius of Marjorie Pickthall seemed to flourish apart, hardly affected by latter day changes. I can do no more in this paper than touch upon some half dozen of the many singers who now form our choir. Katherine Hale, with her extremely meager output, is nevertheless very significant, because thoroughly modern in theme and treatment. Nature, with her, is always strictly subordinate to human nature. Charlotte Dalton treats big themes in a big way, her intellect and her genius being of the major order. A.M. Stephen, in the breadth and variety of the subjects which he treats, combines both the younger and the older schools. He is at times a Nature poet, at times a poet of humanity. But in the matter of form he has not as yet fully escaped the influence of Amy Lowell and Carl Sandburg. There are many others of whom I would wish to speak but the familiar "exigencies of time and space" forbid. And, of course, my lips are sealed in regard to the poetry of Lloyd Roberts and Theodore Roberts, my son and my brother.

But there are three poets whom I feel called upon to discuss more in detail, because they represent three distinct trends in modern Canadian poetry, and differ from each other fundamentally. I refer to Doctor E. J. Pratt, Mr. Wilson MacDonald, and the late Dr. Robert Norwood.

Dr. Pratt is the most predominantly intellectual. Under whatever he writes the thought processes are definite and precise, whether the writing be lyrical or narrative. Yet the thought is always adequately fused in the emotion. And he has the saving gift, the vital gift, of humour. He is easily the greatest master of pure narrative that Canada has produced. In The Witches’ Brew, with its vast Rebelaisian humour and grotesque fantasy. "The Cachalot," with its splendidly robust and red-blooded imagination; and "The Roosevelt and the Antinoe," with its sustained strength, its gripping directness, its severity of diction and its unflagging interest,— he has given us poetic narratives hardly to be matched in contemporary letters. He is almost exclusively objective.

Mr. Wilson MacDonald is purely a lyrist, with a very wide range of form and theme. His best work is forged in the white heat of emotion, and is always definitely stamped with his own personality. It is primarily subjective. In his shorter, personal lyrics, such as "Exit," he achieves at times an unforgettable poignancy. In his passionately humanitarian poems he is modern in spirit, but in form he is distinctly classical. He has been so bold as to experiment frankly with Whitman’s peculiar form and content, and he has justified the experiment. He has succeeded at times in breathing into that harsh form a beauty of words and cadences which Whitman never achieved.

The late Robert Norwood is, first, last and always mystic. His great narrative poem, "Bill Boram," is a lyrico-mystic creation masquerading under a thin disguise of realism. Its emotional fervour is always breaking through the disguise. His religious dramas, The Witch of Endor and The Man of Kerioth, are great lyrical poems rather than pure drama. His book of dramatic monologues, Browningesque in form but at the opposite pole from Browning in thought, content and approach, are mysticism intellectualized. That peculiarly individual poem, "Issa," is a mystical autobiography in lyrical form, sustained with almost unflagging fervour throughout seven cantos. It is a remarkable tour de force. The three volumes of lyrics and sonnets contain poems of varying merit, from mediocre religious rhetoric to the highest quality of craftsmanship and lyric significance. But always in the web and texture of them is the pervading sheen of that mysticism which was Norwood’s breath of life. The keynote to all his work is in the line "And let there be a going up to stars."

And now let me conclude with a few words about our younger poets, those who are just winning their spurs. And let me say at once that I survey their work with the profoundest satisfaction, feeling that the future of our poetry is in safe hands. It is the prerogative of youth to rebel. But our Canadian youth has sufficient sanity to save it from the extravagant and grotesque excesses of rebellion. I find here and there among the young poets a tendency to hark back to the artificiality of the post-Elizabethans,—a tendency, also, to stress the intellectual at the expense of the equally important emotional side of poetry. Some of them show the effect of a study of the works of the so-called metaphysical school, which derives from Ben Jonson rather than from Shakespeare. But I am not sure that this is altogether to be deplored, as a reaction against over sentimentalism. To Beauty, however, if not always to simplicity, they are faithful. There is none of that deliberate sabotage of beauty, that adulation of ugliness in the name of realism, in which certain wild-eyed extremists in other lands are wont to riot. I find traces of T. E. Brown, de la Mare, and Hopkins,—the influence of Emily Dickinson, Elinor Wylie, Edna Millay. I do not, God be thanked, find the influence of E. E. Cummings or Marianne Moore. Among these our younger poets I will not take the responsibility of selecting any names for mention here, lest I should do some an injustice by omitting them,—or prove myself a false profit. I will only say that I believe some of them will go very far. Indeed, I think I will even go with them a little way, if my years—and my decrepitude—will permit!

"The old order changeth, yielding place to new."

 

Dr. Charles G. D. Roberts proposed the toast of "The Royal Society of Literature." As most of the illustrious in contemporary English Literature were there before him, he said, and nothing so embarrassed an Englishmen as to praise him to his face, he would respect that endearing characteristic. He would mere say a few words about Canadian Literature.

"We still have in Canada," he observed, "a few university professors who, with none of your good will and still less of your good hope, deny that there is any such thing. I have no time, in this brief talk, to provide that these few superior persons are wrong. I shall merely beg you to take my word for it that they are emphatically wrong."

The writers of English in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa inherited from but one strain of influence, while Canadians derived in varying degrees from three,—from England, France, and America. The English influence was altogether predominant. The American strain was secondary, though of vital importance. The influence of France was not yet as strongly in evidence as he hoped and believed it would come to be, French Canadians had produced a richly significant literature of their own, which had won generous recognition in France. But there was no time to discuss it on that occasion.

There was no real national literature in Canada before Confederation. At that time the great and powerful nation to the south was more than ready to gobble up the Canadians, and they refused to be gobbled. Having become a nation instead of a collection of scattered provinces, they speedily began to develop a genuinely national consciousness. Their poetry had been more distinctively Canadian than their prose. It was distinctively Canadian in theme, thought, emotion, and atmosphere. And in craftsmanship it was adequate to what it sought to express. This branch of English poetry, starting under happier auspices than its American predecessor, attained an authentic separate existence, overshadowed but not obliterated by its great rivals.

This young Canadian poetry, unlike the poetry of England and America, had a certain unity of character and of purpose. In England, when the splendid Victorian tradition had lapsed into somewhat saccharine decay, there were individual singers of the utmost power and beauty, but no definite leadership. There was a casting about for novelty of theme and treatment, a determination to be new at any cost. Meanwhile in Canada there was at least harmony and a definite trend. It was in the main Nature poetry, with the Canadian scene and atmosphere always for background. It was always frankly enthusiastic and sincere, with the forward-looking optimism of a young and aspiring people. This poetry drew from Wordsworth, Milton, Shelly, Keats, Blake, and a little sometimes from Browning. It was deeply indebted to Emerson and Thoreau for its transcendent philosophy and for its plain blunt common speech. An it owed its spiritual characteristics to the United Empire Loyalists, who sacrificed everything to the Imperial idea and trekked en masse from the comfort and luxury of their homes in the revolting colonies to the hardships of remote Canadian wilds. In creed, the Canadian poets differed widely,—from orthodoxy through a mystical theosophy to a Neo-Platonic Nature worship. But they were all incorrigible idealists. In illustration of this he concluded by reading the short poem "Exit Anima" by the greatest of his country’s poets, Bliss Carman.

 

Roberts delivered his address extempore, and in a most satisfactory manner left unsaid all that which he was expected to say, by saying it many times over by implication.

For a change, I am not going to say "Thank you," whatever may be in my heart to say. If I were to undertake to half express my appreciation, our appreciation, of all the warm and gracious and deeply understanding courtesies which have been showered upon us since we set foot in this, our beautiful Motherland, it would take up all my time and still the most of it would be left unsaid. And neither am I going to talk about the Royal Society of Literature,—as I might be expected to do. Most of the illustrious in contemporary English literature are here before me; and I have observed that nothing makes an English man or woman so blush with embarrassment as to praise him to his face. It is an endearing characteristic, and I must respect it. I know your work, as we all do in Canada, and as I could not speak of it without eulogizing it to the point of extravagance, I will not speak of it at all.

His address proper was on Canadian literature, and more particularly English-Canadian Poetry, making but a brief reference to French Canadian literature,—"Our French fellow-citizens have produced a richly-significant literature of their own, which has won generous recognition in France." He directed attention to the influence in Canada of American Poetry, "the sturdy branch put forth somewhere about one hundred and fifty years ago from the parent stem of English poetry and which has grown so rapidly as almost to rival the parent stem." Canadian Poetry he referred to as "another branch put forth a hundred years later from the parent stem," and he claimed that "this branch of English poetry, which started hardly fifty years ago, started under happier auspices than its American predecessor, developed more rapidly, and has already attained an authentic separate existence. It is, of course, overshadowed by its great rivals, but it is not obliterated them." He concluded his address by quoting Carman’s great poem, "Exit Anima."

 


"Canadian Poetry in its Relation to the Poetry of England and America," address [back]

Roberts gave this address at a testimonial dinner in his honour on 18 March 1933. He sent the first draft of this address to Cecil Charles Jones, the president of the University of New Brunswick, for the Canadiana collection which Roberts had virtually forced Jones to start in 1926. The copytext is the signed holograph manuscript held by the D.B. Weldon Library at the University of Western Ontario, as published for the first time Canadian Poetry 3 (Fall/Winter 1978), 76-86, with comments by D.M.R. Bentley.