Non-Fictional Prose

by Charles G.D. Roberts

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


 

THE WORLD OF BOOKS: Some Recent Canadian Poetry*


 

The author of De Roberval has given us a companion piece to Mr. Mair’s "Tecumseh." These are two noble dramas, on purely Canadian themes, and set in purely Canadian surroundings and atmosphere. Mr. Duvar’s work is the more sprightly and sparkling, but of a less thorough finish than Mr. Mair’s. Both dramas should be in the hands of all Canadians who love good literature and love their country.

The story of De Roberval, as historians give it, is faithfully adhered to in its essentials; but the details Mr. Duvar has added to and emphasized to give the story life-like completeness. The interwoven love-tale of Ohnawa is, so far as we know, fictitious. It gives occasion for some of the choicest poetry in the drama. Mr. Duvar’s characterizations are vivid, his speech quaint, but terse and direct. Every page breathes a wholesome manly spirit, and a Shakspearian geniality of mood. Mr. Duvar never takes the part of one character against another. He loves saint and sinner, rogue and prude alike. He savors of the Elizabethans and the Provencals, and like the Elizabethans he can turn a song with exquisite ease. But, like some of the Elizabethans, he sometimes takes sad liberties with the blank verse line. A splendid swing there is to the drinking song which opens Scene VI of Act II. By a stroke of genius the drama is brought to an end with a bit of lawless lyric, constituting a whole scene by itself, and conveying with a most imaginative indirectness the fate of De Roberval’s fleet. A less subtle poet would have drawn for us the bald horrors of that fate,—but this is how Mr. Duvar manages it:

ACT V, SCENE III.

Off the coast of Newfoundland. Long seas rolling in after a storm. Mermaidens singing.

A gallant fleet sailed out to sea
With the pennons streaming merrily.

On the hulls the tempest lit,
And the great ships split
                          In the gale,
And the foaming fierce sea-horses
Hurled the fragments in their forces
   To the ocean deeps,
   Where the kraken sleeps,
      And the whale.

The men are in the ledges’ clefts,
Dead, but with motion of living guise
   Their bodies are rocking there,
Monstrous sea-fish and efts
   Stare at them with glassy eyes
      As their limbs are stirred and their hair.

                           Moan, O sea!
O death at once and the grave,
And sorrow in passing, O cruel wave!
   Let the resonant sea-caves ring,
   And the sorrowful surges sing,
For the dead men rest but restlessly.

   We do deep account of them,
And sing an ocean requiem
                      For the brave.

The other poems contained in this volume are "The Emigration of the Fairies"—an exquisite bit of sustained jeu d’esprit, in a style of which this generation has well nigh lost the secret—and "The triumph of constancy, a romaunt." This is a gorgeous-colored, passionately romantic story of chivalry, white magic, and fair women, it is told in antique fashion of speech, and is no less interesting than poetic.

Fleurs de Lys is a volume of first-fruits, and derives its chief importance from the richness of its promise. In it the poet learns well the technicalities of his art; and he displays a tendency to the objective treatment of his themes—a tendency which augurs well for his poetic future. In a second volume I should expect to find much more work of the quality of such a line as

Still calls the sea along the darkening shore.

There are bits, here and there through the volume, of this rare and fine poetic quality; but one feels, for the most part, that the singer is as yet feeling for his true voice. That the voice is that of a genuine singer is made plain by a few poems and a host of detached passages in this volume. Instance this, of a sea-shell:

In a lady’s hand it will snugly lie,
  ‘Tis as thin as a red rose-leaf,
Yet it holds the sea-gull’s sorrowing cry,
  And the roar of the tide-lashed reef.

The lines I have italicized are imaginative in the highest sense. And the following have that nice aptness which make sayings memorable:

O! happy period of my early youth!
  When Love was master, Reason but a slave,
When friends seemed heroes, woman crystal truth,
  Success the certain portion of the brave.

But the same poem from which I take these lines contains an instance of what is a common fault with Mr. Weir—an indulgence in words which are out of tune with their surroundings. For instance—"again the changeless stars began to peep," which seems to me a procedure quite unworthy of the changeless stars. Mr. Weir tells a story with power and pathos. "The Spirit Wife" is a simple, delicate, and touching bit of narrative verse, and "Dauntless" has a noble sincerity and directness. The ballads on subjects from Canadian history, which make up the department called "Fleurs de Lys," are vivid and simple, but they are too much what the author calls them in the notes, resumes of what the historians have said. They do not seem to have been infused in the full flame of the author’s imagination. They are manly and stirring, and should be popular; but to some extent they lack the indefinable something which "Dauntless," for example, possesses. The lyric called "My Treasure" is one in which promise is already fulfilled. It is original, dramatic, excellently wrought and deeply suggestive. The note of human experience is in it. Mr. Weir has few specimens of sonnet music, but he does effective work in this most gemlike of metrical forms. The sonnet called "Remembrance" is wholly admirable; and the sonnet sequence on "The Maiden, the Wife, the Mother," certainly shows small sign of juvenility. What simple beauty of scene, what fervent and natural human feeling, one finds in this sonnet called "The Wife":—

There stands a cottage by a river side,
   With rustic branches sloping caves beneath,
   Amid a scene of mountain, stream and heath.
A dainty garden, watered by the tide,
On whose calm breast the queenly lilies ride,
   Is bright with many a purple pansy wreath,
   While here and there forbidden lion’s teeth
Uprear their golden crowns with stubborn pride.

See! There she leans upon the little gate,
   Unchanged, save that her curls, once flowing free,
     Are closely curled upon the shapely head,
   And that her eyes look forth more thoughtfully.
Hark to her sigh! "Why tarries he so late?"
     But mark her smile! She hears his well-known
        tread.

Mr. Weir needs what riper years will, doubtless, bring him— affluence of emotion and imagination, intensity, passion. He also needs to purge his diction of inappropriate words.

My work of reviewing these four volumes of recent Canadian poetry is well rewarded by the sense of encouragement it has brought me. It is impossible to overlook the vast advance which has been made, within the last half dozen years, by Canadian thought. In all Canadian literary effort there is manifest a gain in culture, in breadth, in insight, in facility. In other words, we are ripening. At the same time, with the escape from provincialism of diction, form and method, there is an increased feeling for local coloring and for native themes. We are getting more self-reliant. We are getting more self-reliant. We are beginning to work more in our own way, and at the same time to apply to our work the tests of cosmopolitan standards. Even a beginning of this sort is of deep significance. Such a beginning of this sort is rarely made till a people begins also to realize itself a nation.

The poems of Miss Mary Morgan have less of that most desirable Canadian flavor, are less native, in a word—than the work of Mr. Duvar or Mr. Weir. But they are remarkable for breadth of spirit, for the culture and cosmopolitanism they evince. This poet’s is an intellect that draws its sustenance from all sources. Miss Morgan has enriched her thought and trained herself in the technics of her art by the admirable exercise of translation,—and many of her translations possess a permanent value. But her original work has more significance for us. It is lyrical in form, and lyrical in mood. Its defects are numerous enough—defects of unevenness, sometimes of insufficient inspiration. There is sometimes a lapse into the commonplace; there is too often a lack of firmness, compactness, condensation in the line. But on the other hand one finds often a satisfying simplicity and completeness, and sweetness of cadence, such as are contained in these lines on seeing a child fall asleep:

"The heavy eyelids slowly droop,
  The eyes grow less and less,
The last of languid glances flown
  Has left but peacefulness.
‘Twas like the twilight’s mellow shades,
  That, quivering o’er the snow,
Seemed lingering glimpses from the sun,
  And almost loath to go.

Ere long shalt thou refreshed awake,
  Nor ever know surprise
That weariness from thee took flight
  In such a strange, sweet guise.
As suddenly the Spring anew
  Starts from beneath the ground,
Once more with fresh life to pursue
  Its never-ending round."

Another poem I must quote as showing the intellectual quality which pervades Miss Morgan’s work. Like most Canadian singers of this day, her face is set hopefully toward the future. Few equal her in the confident strength of her hold upon that healthy optimism which is sanguine without being credulous. The following lines seem to me lofty and resonant:

"O Reason, Wonder, Doubt,
   Great warriors three!
A trinity
  No true soul lives without!

Reviled, ye still endure
  In every land—
A stalwart band
  To keep the conscience pure.

To-day the truant king
  Shall crouch before
Your temple-door;
  He knows the spell you bring.

Immortal spirits all!
  Iniquity
And calumny,
  Though others they appal,

Your might cannot subdue,
  Who only rise
With clearer eyes
  To wage the fight anew—

The battle for the sway
  Of liberty,
Fraternity,
  And light of the new day!"

That George Frederick Cameron was a lyric poet of fervor, force, and sincerity, Canadians have begun to realize only since his death. This is owing probably to the fact that he spent a large part of his life outside of Canada. It is to the loving care of his brother, Mr. C. J. Cameron, that he owes his effectual introduction to a Canadian audience. Now the dead poet’s position in our literature is secure. Fame may come but slowly to his name, but he will be recognized as one of the most spontaneous and genuinely lyrical of our singers. Cut off suddenly, and in the midst of his development, he has left, of necessity, quantities of crude, youthful, or half-finished work; but every here and there is a line, a stanza, a whole poem, bearing unquestionable stamp of lyric genius. On another occasion I hope to make a detailed and extended study of Mr. Cameron’s genius, otherwise I should not permit myself to touch his work at all in such a hasty and inadequate note as this. His intellectual drift, the sources of his inspiration, his lyric measures, all these must go unestimated here, and his faults must for the present rest unnoted. I prefer to use my scant remaining space in giving examples of his power, his swinging, free music, his earnestness. As his work is done, there is no immediate need of pointing out his defects; but it is good for us to know with as little delay as possible whatever of noble achievement is attained among us. It helps toward the establishment of our national self-confidence. It is an important part of our education.

Take this, for grave majesty of thought and diction:—

                   *                    *                    *

"I have a faith—that life and death are one,
  That each depends upon the self-same thread,
And that the seen and unseen rivers run
  To one calm sea, from one clear fountain-head.

I have a faith—that man’s most potent mind
  May cross the willow-shaded stream nor sink;
I have a faith—when he has left behind
  His earthly vesture on the river’s brink,
When all his little fears are torn away,
  His soul may beat a pathway through the tide,
And, disencumbered of its coward clay,
  Emerge immortal on the sunnier side."

                    *                   *                    *

As an instance of Cameron’s rich metrical music, I will quote the lines entitled "The Way of the World." Forming my judgment by universal standards, and banishing scrupulously my Canadian prejudices, and bearing in mind the need of avoiding extravagant eulogy, and keeping my eyes wide open to the comparative imperfection of the final stanza, I do not hesitate to claim that in this lyric our literature has a priceless and imperishable possession:—


THE WAY OF THE WORLD.

We sneer and we laugh with the lips— the most of
        us do it,
Whenever a brother goes down like a weed with the
        tide;
We point with the finger and say—Oh, we knew it!
        We knew it!
But see! we are better than he was, and we will abide.

He walked in the way of his will—the way of desire,
In the Appian way of his will without ever a bend;
He walked in it long, but it led him at last to the
        mire—
But we who are stronger will stand and endure to
        the end.

His thoughts were all visions—all fabulous visions
        of flowers,
Of bird and of song, and of soul which is only a
        song;
His eyes looked all at the stars in the firmament,
        ours
Were fixed on the earth at our feet, so we stand and
        are strong.

He hated the sight and the sound and the sob of the
        city;
He sought for his peace in the wood and the musical
        wave;
He fell, and we pity him never, and why should we
        pity—
Yea, why should we mourn for him, we who still
        stand, who are brave?

Thus speak we and think not, we censure unheeding,
        unknowing—
Unkindly and blindly we utter the words of the
        brain;
We see not the goal of our brother, we see but his
        going,
And sneer at his fall if he fall, and laugh at his pain.

Ah, me! the sight of the sod on the coffin-lid,
And the sound, and the sob, and the sigh of it as it
         falls!
Ah, me! the beautiful face forever hid
By four wild walls!

You hold it a matter for self-gratulation and praise
To have thrust to the dust, to have trod on a heart
        that was true—
To have ruined it there in the beauty and bloom of
        its days?
Very well! There is somewhere a Nemesis waiting
        for you.

 


"The World of Books: Some Recent Canadian Poetry," Progress 1:20 (Saint John, N.B.), 15 September 1888, 2 [back]