Non-Fictional Prose

by Charles G.D. Roberts

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


 

THE WORLD OF BOOKS: Among the Millet*


 

Among the Millet. By Archibald Lampman. [1888] Ottawa: J. Durie & Son.

 

Through the magazines the name of Mr. Lampman has been for several years before us. To a few friends among Canadian men-of-letters his work has been more thoroughly known in manuscript; and now, when his long expected volume* appears, he finds himself with an audience awaiting him—an audience to whom his name is already deeply significant.

To one who is watching with fervent solicitude the awakening of intellectual life in Canada, the past year has been one for profound congratulation. There have been manifestations, unmistakable enough to the heedful observer, of an approaching harvest for these acres which so long we have been tilling almost in vain. The indications here in Canada are, it seems to me, far more favorable than those to the south of us. The note among our rising writers is more of passion, more purpose, more seriousness and import than that studied by the younger Americans. It is a note akin rather to that which our neighbours heard when the voices of Bryant and Poe, of Longfellow, Holmes and Emerson captured their ears. With us in Canada, though we may appear to triffle a little with ballades and villanelles and triolets, there is a strenuous undercurrent almost always to be detected. The apparent trifling is but the striving after an unimpeachable technique; the underlying motive is one of deep seriousness and impassioned expectancy.

The verse of Mr. Lampman is strongly individual and distinctive. It is the work, unquestionably, of an original singer, one possessing the essential, but Protean, quality which we indicate by the term genius. It is, nevertheless, not difficult to detect certain affinities. It helps us much to an understanding of a poet’s subtler utterances if we find out the masters who have moulded him. It seems to be that Keats, that shaper of poets, has taught Mr. Lampman much; that Emerson, the consummate flower of the genius of New England, has effectively marked his thought; and that the matchless rhythms of Mr. Swinburne have at times ensnared his feet. Surely this is a promising choice of masters. It shows a right appreciation of values. Each one of these masters supplies some splendid excellence which others partly lack. Hence the admirable completeness which we find in Mr. Lampman’s work is the less surprising to us. There are, for a volume of first fruits, comparatively few defects, and these unimportant. There is now and again a touch too much of what I may call, for lack of better phrase, naivete. Two or three of these poems do not quite escape the charge of diffuseness, or at least of over-elaboration. There are one or two places in which I cannot but feel that a keener sense of humor might have led Mr. Lampman to express himself differently, as where he says:

On a sudden seven ducks
With a splashy rustle rise,
Stretching out their seven necks
One before and two behind,
And the others all arow.

This may show its ludicrous side to no one but myself; but surely few will disagree with me whom I take exception to the phrase "goatish smell," which defaces the otherwise fine sonnet on "The Poets." There is no other slip so serious in the volume.

Mr. Lampman’s work is such as the lover of nature will revel in. His every description is transfused with human feeling and flooded with

The light that was never on sea or land,

yet minute in its fidelity and accurate in its interpretations Mr. Lampman seems to drench himself in his landscapes, so that the very essence of them is reproduced in his verse. He is also a fervent humanity, pathos, a rich creative imagination, the romance flavor, and the true singing-voice. He can invent, moreover, strange and delightful rhythms, such as those in "One Day," from which I take the following extract:

The trees rustle; the wind blows
    Merrily out of the town;
The shadows creep, the sun goes
    Steadily over and down.

In a brown gloom the moats gleam;
    Slender the sweet wife stands;
Her lips are red, her eyes dream;
    Kisses are warm on her hands.

A strange and weird piece of fantasy is "The Weaver"—a poem which I cannot praise fitly without appearing extravagant:


THE WEAVER.

All day, all day, round the clacking net
   The weaver’s fingers fly:
Grey dreams like frozen mists are set
   In the hush of the weaver’s eye;
A voice from the dusk is calling yet,
   "Oh, come away, or we die!"

Without is a horror of hosts that fight,
   That rest not and cease not to kill,
The thunder of feet and the cry of flight,
   A slaughter weird and shrill;
Grey dreams are set in the weaver’s sight,
   The weaver is weaving still.

"Come away, dear soul, come away, or we die;
   Hear’st thou the moan and the rush! Come away;
The people are slain at the gates, and they fly;
   The kind of God hath left them this day;
The battle-axe cleaves, and the foemen cry,
   And the red swords swing and slay."

And the weaver wove, and the good wife fled,
   And the city was made a tomb;
And a flame that shook from the rocks overhead
   Shone into that silent room,
And touched like a wide red kiss on the dead
   Brown weaver slain at his loom.

For masterly rendering of elusive effects I will quote—being debarred from the longer poems—the strong and simple quatrains called


MIDNIGHT.

From where I sit, I see the stars,
   And down the chilly floor
The moon between the frozen bars
   Is glimmering dim and hoar.

Without in many a peaked mound
   The glinting moondrifts lie;
There is no voice or living sound:
   The embers slowly die.

Yet some wild thing is in mine ear:
   I hold my breath and hark;
Out of the depth I seem to hear
   A crying in the dark:

No sound of man or wife or child,
   No sound of beast that groans,
Or the wind that whistles wild,
   Or of the tree that moans:

I know not what it is I hear;
   I bend my head and hark:
I cannot drive it from mine ear,
   That crying in the dark.

I would like to quote, had I space, the intricate and exquisite melodies of the "Song of the Stream-Drops"; the stately and luminous lyrics of "April," "Winter," "Storm," and "Among the Timothy"; the fine Italian story of "The Monk," with its reminiscences of "The Eve of St. Agnes" and "Isabella"; the faithful home pictures, moving, strong, tender, and Canadian, of "Between the Rapids"; and very many more of hardly inferior excellence. But I must quote a sonnet or two, for in this department is some of Mr. Lampman’s most characteristic work. This section of the volume contains some 29 sonnets, the majority of which are altogether admirable. Here is some of the most lucid and suggestive sonnet-work yet done in the New World. Take, for instance, this entitled

OUTLOOK.

Not to be conquered by these headlong days,
   But to stand free: to keep the mind at brood
   On life’s deep meaning, natures altitude
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.

And even finer, perhaps, is "Knowledge," or this, called

 

THE TRUTH:

Friend, though thy soul should burn thee, yet be
           still.
  Thoughts were not meant for strife, nor tongues
           for swords.
   He that sees clear is gentlest of his words,
And that’s not truth that hath the heart to kill.
The whole world’s thought shall not one truth fulfil.
    Dull in our age, and passionate in youth,
    No mind of man hath found the perfect truth,
Nor shalt thou find it; therefore, friend, be still.

Watch and be still, nor hearken to the fool,
The babbler of consistency and rule:
    Wisest is he, who, never quite secure,
      Changes his thought for better day by day:
     Tomorrow some new light will shine, be sure,
       And thou shalt see thy thought another way.

The get-up of the volume is characterized by dignity and quite good taste. The publishers are to be congratulated. Books made in Canada are all too seldom free from gaudiness on the one hand, or commonness on the other.

 


"The World of Books: Among the Millet," Progress 1:39 (Saint John, N.B.), 26 January 1889, 6 [back]