Charles G.D. Roberts’
“The Tantramar Revisted

by William Strong

     “The Tantramar Revisited” is Charles G.D. Roberts’ poetic masterpiece, and it has generally been acknowledged as such.”1  As early as 1905, in his study of Roberts and the Influence of His Time, James Cappon not only quotes twenty-eight of the poem’s sixty four lines, but also characterizes it as “a true whole” which, “amongst all the varieties of [the] Canadian idyll” theretofore attempted by Roberts “leaves the strongest impression of originality in tone and treatment.”2  The feat accomplished by Roberts in “The Tantramar Revisited,” Cappon thought in 1905, “could not easily be repeated.”3  Nearly half a century later, in Creative Writing in Canada (1952), Desmond Pacey refers to Roberts’ poem as “undoubtedly one of the best . . . ever written in Canada.”4  In Ten Canadian Poets (1958) and in a later paper on “Charles G.D. Roberts” (1961) Pacey would go on to describe “The Tantramar Revisited” as “descriptive poetry of a high order”5 and as a poem which, for him, exhibits a “definite and satisfying structure.”6  Even more recently, W.J. Keith, while allowing as, in some measure, both Cappon and Pacey had done, that in “thought,” “situation,” “diction,” and “verse form”, “The Tantramar Revisited” is not absolutely original or especially remarkable, admits that the poem provides the reader with a “compelling experience and, moreover, stands alone amongst Roberts’ poems repaying “detailed attention.”7  Some five years after making these remarks in his 1969 monograph on Charles G.D. Roberts Keith would go further; “The Tantramar Revisited,” he says in his “Introduction” to Roberts’ Selected Poetry and Critical Prose (1974) shows the poet “at the height of his power,” and it transcends the poetry of mere “nostalgia and rural description” to be “a sensitive and intelligent inquiry into the nature of memory and change.”8  It is not the aim of the present discussion to dispute any of the claims made by Cappon, Pacey, Keith and others on behalf of “The Tantramar Revisited.” On the contrary, the purpose of the following essay is to expand upon the necessarily brief examinations of the poem offered by these critics in an attempt to show that it attains to a fine and complex unity of form and language, imagery and thought, that “The Tantramar Revisited” is, indeed, Charles G.D. Roberts’ poetic masterpiece.


     “The Tantramar Revisited” is divided into five stanzas of irregular length, each containing variations on what has variously been seen as the hexameter or the elegiac metre, Cappon, for instance, arguing for the former and Pacey for the latter.9  In view of the great metrical variation in the poem and of the fact that the elegiac metre itself consists of alternate hexameter and pentameter lines, it seems both prudent and felicitious to say simply that in “The Tantramar Revisited” Roberts first opens with and then plays against a hexameter norm.  (More of this, however, in due course.) When commenting on the verse form of “The Tantramar Revisited” most critics, including Pacey, cite the hexameters of Longfellow’s Evangeline (1847) as Roberts’ precedent and model, usually ramarking that the poem is derivative and reminiscent without being original or innovative.   (Pacey, who remarks, rightly, it could be argued, that the “imitation surpasses the model,”10   provides something of an exception to the general rule.)  Of Roberts’ familiarity with Evangeline there cannot, of course, be any doubt.  Longfellow was one of the poets whose work inspired the Canadian writer “in his earliest days with the love of poetry”11 and Longfellow was amongst those to whom Roberts sent a copy of Orion and Other Poems in 1880.12  Moreover, between the first appearance of “The Tantramar Revisited,” under the title of “Westmorland Revisited,” in the December 20, 1883 issue of The Week, and its publication in the In Divers Tones volume of 1886, Roberts made reference in his address on “The Outlook for Literature: Acadia’s Field for Poetry, History and Romance” to “Longfellow’s handling of Acadian story” in Evangeline which, he said, had “simply glorified the theme for later singers”13 a remark which echoes forward to his own A Sister to Evangeline, published in 1898.  And in 1890, in an address delivered in Boston, he described Longfellow as “the greatest of New England’s poets” and Evangeline as an instance of the way in which the Maritime Provinces and the New England States had “acted and reacted upon one another. . . .”14   The same thing might be said of Roberts’ own “The Tantramar Revisited.” For the point needs to be made that, while Roberts did not invent a new form for his poem, his decision to remember and to echo in “The Tantramar Revisited” the verse form, the cadences, and even specific details15 of Evangeline is both apt and appropriate, not only because his poem takes as its theme “nostalgic remembrance,”16 but also because it takes as its subject a portion of the landscape of the Maritimes, and indeed precisely that portion which Cappon appositely calls “the land of Evangeline.”17  The suggestion, then, is that the verse form of “The Tantramar Revisited” is more than mere “masterly”18 handling of the form that Longfellow had made his own Evangeline; it is a suitably allusive use of the hexameter by means of which the Canadian poet echoes the American poem and, in so doing, adds historical depth and resonance to his meditation on the effects of time and memory in the region of the Tantramar marshes on the Bay of Fundy.  “The Tantramar Revisited” thus gains an historical dimension (and it is worth remembering here Roberts’ well-known fascination with the history of the Maritimes) through an allusion inherent in its verse form and its cadences.

     The verse form of “The Tantramar Revisited” is interesting for reasons other than its allusiveness.  Both Cappon and Pacey have remarked upon the facility and skill with which Roberts handles his metre, the former commenting on the larger effects of the poem and the latter on individual in stances of the poet’s skill.  To Cappon’s broad observation that the hexameter involves Roberts in a “struggle . . . Between the metrical mould and the natural idiom of the language . . . ,”19 a struggle which results in “some rough lines” as well as in “some freedom and naturalness,”20 may be added the suggestion that this “struggle” is, in fact, consistent with the overall mood and theme of the poem.  For by setting up the expectation of a hexameter rhythm and then playing against it the rhythms dictated by the verbal sense and the reading voice, or, to be more specific, by establishing a hexameter norm at the beginning of the poem (the first line has a full sixteen syllables) and then proceeding to modify it with more natural rhythms, (few lines in the body of the poem have more than thirteen syllables).  Roberts serves the reader’s ear notice of what, in effect, is the imaginative adventure of the poem: the speaker’s discovery of the disjunction between his expectation and the reality, between his expectation that the marshlands have not been affected by Time and the reality that, of course, they have.  Put somewhat crudely, the suggestion is that, just as the classical metre, which as a classics metre might seem immune to the forces of “change” is, the reader discovers, far from immune to change in “The Tantramar Revisited,” so the speaker of the poem comes to realize that even in the landscape of his youth the same forces are at work.  Such a correspondence should not be pushed too far; nevertheless it gives credence to Keith’s comment that “the form which the poet . . .  imposes on his material” in “The Tantramar Revisited” bears a distinct relation to the effect which the landscape has on the poet.”21

     In his 1961 paper on “Sir Charles G.D. Roberts” Pacey assembles several specific instances of the way in which the poet’s metrical and verbal skill allows him accurately to depict features of his beloved boyhood landscape: the word “Laboring” in the first stanza, says Pacey, is “calculated exactly to summon up the picture of . . .   long marsh grass . . .  constantly in slow, troubled motion. . . .”; “Turbid”, also in the first stanza, “catches exactly the twisting, muddy tumult of the incoming . . . tide. . . .”; “barred by the hurtling gusts,” with which the first stanza closes, is, to Pacey’s eyes, a similarly accurate description of a meteorological effect of the Tantramar area.22  Drawing in part it would appear (as the present discussion shall again in a eminent) on the theories of Norman G. Stageberg and Wallace L. Anderson regarding sound symbolism in poetry,23 Pacey also calls attention to the way in which Roberts “uses the long, unpunctuated line ‘Skirting the sunbright upland stretches a riband of meadows,’ with its repeated ‘r’s’ and its short vowels, to suggest length and light, and then breaks the next line, ‘Shorn of the laboring grass, bulwarked well from the sea,’ in half to give, first, the effect of the short, clipped grass, and, second, the effect of the dike blocking the sea.”24   It may also be observed that, on occasion, Roberts uses spondees (seen by Cappon as frequently “awkward”25), not just to suggest the slow, ponder movement of the speaker’s thoughts, but also, as in “Dips from the hill-tops down, straight to the base of the hills” and “Dotting the broad bright slopes outspread to southward and eastward,” to convey the spatial forms of the features described, the heavy stresses suggesting bulks and in inclines.  To convey both the features of the landscape and the effects of light upon its details Roberts draws up the “gl” and “sp” sounds (in “gleam,” “glance,” and “sparkle”26) in the latter part of the poem, just as towards the beginning he draws upon the ‘o’ sound (as in “come . . . gone,” “swallow,” “sorrow,” and “shadow”) to convey the unhappiness and nostalgia of the speaker.  The use of what might be termed visual onomatopoeia, calculated rhythmical effects, and phonetic intensives in “The Tantramar Revisited” confirms that this is, indeed, “descriptive poetry of a high order” in which each word (and “aslant,” “scattering,” “vexing,” and “green-rampired” are amongst other words whose appropriateness could be explored if space permitted) and each line have been carefully chosen and constructed to convey “the exact nature of the scene before the poet’s eyes.”27

     Many readers of “The Tantramar Revisited” are initially surprised to discover that it is unrhymed.  The reason for this, perhaps, is that the poem contains so many repeated sounds, words and phrases that it conveys the illusion of rhyme.  As W.J. Keith has rightly said (and notice the suggestion that the repetitions have a mimetic quality): “phrases and images within the poem . . . recur and repeat, like the pattern of grass and dykes on the marshes.”28   Not just individual words, such as the “summers” and “many” of the opening lines, but also phrases such as “chance and change,” “Miles and miles,” “Well I remember,” and “Now at this season,” as well as the imagery of the Tantramar landscape and its human inhabitants, are repeated over and over again, lending pattern and unity to the poem.  Roberts’ iterative use of word, phrase, image and, of course, syntax too is precise as well as evocative; its purpose is not just to lend design and structure to the poem but also to evoke a sense of the particular locale under observation and a sense of the speaker’s emotional response to it.

     Before turning away from the technical aspect of the poem, one final feature of its verse form demands attention.  Since several writers have seen “The Tantramar Revisited” as a poem which anticipates to quote Pacey “many of the qualities [that] occur in Roberts’ sonnets,”29 it does not seem unfair to ask whether the verse form itself (in addition to the observation of the large features of a landscape and the particular details within it that the poem manifests) might not be one of the qualities which looks forward to the sonnets of the Songs of the Common Day volume of 1893.  The answer must be yes, for two reasons.   Firstly, it seems clear that in “The Tantramar Revisited” the poet is playing the pentameter against the Hexameter measure and, in the process, allowing the strengths and attractions of the five foot line not only to take him away from the ‘elevated,’ classical metres and subjects which had dominated Orion and Other Poems, and which, to some extent, dominate In Divers Tones, but also to move him to wards the sequence of Canadian nature sonnets that is Songs of the Common Day.  Several of the nature sonnets included in Songs of the Common Day, notably “The Sower,” “The Potato Harvest” and “In September”, in fact appear on either side of “The Tantramar Revisited” in the In Divers Tones volume.   And, secondly, it is worth noticing that one of the central stanzas of “The Tantramar Revisited” consists of fourteen lines, that the long first stanza of the poem is end-stopped at the fourteenth line, and that the final two stanzas of the poem, when run together as they are in at least one printing of the poem,30 also total fourteen lines.  With only minimal difficulty the poem may thus be seen to contain three fourteen line stanzas, suggesting that the sonnet shape is present as an infra-structure in this extended lyric.  In structure, as well as in subject, “The Tantramar Revisited” would appear, like the In Divers Tones volume itself, to represent a stage in Roberts’ movement from the earlier classical poems towards the nature sonnets to follow, a stage in and a discovery of the appropriate form and voice in which to treat his native landscape.


     “Nature-poetry,” wrote Roberts in the December, 1897 issue of Forum (New York), “is not mere description of landscape in metrical form, but an expression of one or another of many vital relationships between external nausea afoul ‘the deep heart of man.’”31  The one such “vital relationship” which perhaps overrides all others, certainly the one with which Roberts himself, from his early essay on the pastoral elegy32 through The Heart of the Ancient Wood (1900) to the later animal stories, was vitally concerned, is the relationship between Nature per se and Man per se.  It may have been in part from the classical pastoral elegies of Bion and Moschus that the Canadian poet derived his concern for the fact that Man alone, being both a part of and apart from the natural world, feels the burden of Time and Death, while Nature itself, whether it be through mere endurance (as in the case of geophysical formations such as rock and ocean) or through seasonal and cyclical recurrence (as is the case with trees, grass and other aspects of the vegetable world), seems immune to the forces of Time and Death.  Be this as it may, I shall try to show that a concern with the effects of Time and Death on Man and Nature lies at the core of “The Tantramar Revisited” and, moreover, that the interaction between “external nature” and the “heart” of the speaker is the source of the dialectical and dramatic development that takes place in the poem.  This development resides in the gradual transformation of the speaker’s attitude to and perception of the Tantramar landscape from a place where, in contrast to his own life, there has been “no change” to a place where the forces of “chance and change” have also taken their toll.   By means of the interaction between the speaker (Man) and the landscape (Nature) the poem explores the effects of Time and comes close to implying that memory is the only means of preserving even the “illusion” that anything or anyplace is outside or beyond the reach of Time.

     It is by no means fortuitous that the cadence and imagery of the opening line of “The Tantramar Revisited”—“Summers and summers have define, and gone with the flight of the swallow”—is reminiscent of two poems by Tennyson, “Tithonus” and the ‘Swallow Song’ from The Princess.  Both these pieces are concerned with the passage of Time and the cycle of the sea sons, and the echoes of them that sound at the beginning of “The Tantramar Revisited,” together with the verbal and syntactical repetitions that are picked up in the second line (“Sunshine and thunder have been, storm, and winter, and frost”), serve notice of the poem’s central themes, while at the same time, setting in motion its cyclical imagery.  In fact, it is now possible to recognize that cyclical imagery provides the basis for the first of several interlacing image patterns in the poem.  In the first two lines which have already been quoted, cyclical imagery is implicit in the repetition of the word “summers,” and it is reinforced by the pauses on the commas between “Rome, and gone” and after “been,” “storm,” and “winter.” Just as these Petitions and pauses serve to emphasize the slow, cyclical movement of Time as manifested in seasonal and meteorological changes, so the return and departure of the swallows emphasizes the circular cycle of the seasons.   As the stanza moves forward the recurring cycles of Time are shown to have had their effect, not only on the human world (“Many and many a sorrow has all but died from remembrance, / Many a dream of joy fall’n in the shadow of pain”), but also on mother Earth herself (“Even the bosom of Earth is strewn with heavier shadows”).   It is following the line just quoted in parentheses that the speaker focuses on what he initially perceives to be the unchanged Tantramar landscape.  Before proceeding to examine his evolving response to the landscape, account must be taken of the other two image patterns that are implicit in the opening movement of the poem.

     The first of these patterns resides in the use of the imagery of darkness and its opposite, light.  As has probably been observed in the passages quoted, darkness is initially associated in the poem with the effects of Time, which brings to the speaker “the shadow of pain” and to the Earth “heavier shadows.”  Throughout the poem, in fact, darkness (shadow, night) is associated with the forces of “chance and change” and Time, while light (sunshine, day) is associated, initially at least, with the Tantramar landscape and its surroundings, with the area which, the speaker wants to believe, has remained immune to the ravages of Time.  The other pattern of imagery inherent in the opening movement of the poem is the one which devolves from the personification of (mother) Earth as a woman, initially with a “bosom” but subsequently with a “riband” (“Skirting the sunbright uplands”), grass that gossips, “scarf,” and dawn with “teeth”—a progression which, in its gradual and deliberate accretion of suggestions of disease and mortality to the personified body of the Earth and to the Tantramar marshland, is indicative of the speaker’s gradually changing perception of his boyhood landscape.   As shall be seen in a few moments, it is by means of such movements within the image patterns of “The Tantramar Revisited” that Roberts bodies forth the dialectical and dramatic development of the poem.  To detain us a moment longer, however, there is one more set of contrary images in the poems long opening stanza.

     It has already been observed that the images of darkness are complemented by images of light at the beginning of the poem and that this dark/light image pattern is, initially, polarized on either side of the central tension of Time vs.  stasis which the speaker creates as he sets the transitoriness of his own life against the apparently unchanging quality of his boyhood landscape.  Similarly, the poem’s cyclical imagery (imagery based, note, on the circle and cognate shapes) is complemented by an opposing body of images based on the horizontal plane (“long clay dikes,” “wide red flats,” and, of course, the “Miles and miles” — the phrase is repeated four times for emphasis — of “flat,” “level” marshlands) and associated solely with the apparently timeless, static landscape of the Tantramar.  Serving a mediatory function between, on the one hand, the speaker’s (cyclical, curved) world of change and time and, on the other hand, the supposedly timeless, static (horizontal, flat) world of the Tantramar marshes are, of course, the (convex) “green hills” and “sunbright uplands”.  These “hills” and “uplands” span the gap between the speaker’s “vantage-point” and the lower landscape and, moreover, contain signs both of the effects of Time and Nature acting on the human world (“scattering houses, / Stained with time”) and of the human attempt to transcend Time and Nature (a “meadow / Shorn of the laboring grass, bulwarked well from the sea”).  In the first long stanza of the poem, then, the polarity consisting of dark v.  light and cycle v.  plane, is used by the speaker as a bulwark for his notion that, in contrast, to his own world of “chance and change,” the Tantramar marshland is static and Timeless.

     The point may now be made that in the middle stanzas of “The Tantramar Revisited” the speaker’s comfortable polarities begin seriously to break down and, in the process, seriously to threaten his “darling illusion” as he observes increasingly that the landscape is not entirely light or flat or immune to the forces that exact their toll on the world of Man, that, in fact, Time, bodied forth in cyclical imagery and in the imagery of darkness, operates here too.  Cappon is wrong in his contention that Roberts’ “lavished the resources of his style a little too freely on [the] description of the empty net-reels”33 in the central stanzas of the poem.  For surely the lengthy and detailed description of the “net-reels” is needed to emphasize the fact that cycles, which is to say the forces of Time, are present too in the Tantramar marshes.  Yet the reels are “empty and idle”.  Time does appear to be standing still.  This stasis is threatened by the memories of the speaker, however, as he recalls, in stanza two, “the net-reels / Wound with beaded nets, dripping and dark from the sea” and, in stanza four, in a passage which brings home to him the realization that movement and Time are aspects of the Tantramar Landscape, remembers how “each reel” used to groan under the pressure of Agile nets.  Related to the repeated references to the circular “net-reels”, may be the increased emphasis on vertical, as opposed to horizontal or planar lines, in the middle stanzas of the poem — such details as a “white sail” and “the slim, gray masts of fishing boats” also representing the human, and, thus, temporal, presence in the landscape.  Similarly, the speaker discovers evidence of darkness in the marshland and its environs: the nets that “lie heaped in the gloom of a loft” and loom “sombrely over the land.” And, more overtly, his repeated references to the effects of wind and tide (both of which have strong temporal connotations) on the Tantramar marshes serve to reinforce the sense that the landscape is prey to the ravages of Time.

     To use the word ‘prey’ in this context is to suggest another way in which Roberts makes us conscious of his speaker’s growing awareness of the fact that the landscape he is visiting is neither timeless nor static.  It is in the third stanza that the speaker observes most pointedly the (circular) “reels . . . / Over the [horizontal] lines of the dikes,” and it is here that he allows himself to imagine the dark, nocturnal and predatory life of the marshes, the life which reveals unmistakably the presence in the landscape of the forces of mortality, survival and Time.  As he imagines the events that occur in the marshes as the sun, in the cycle, note, of a single day, passes from “morning,” through “afternoon” and “sunset,” to “night” and back to “dawn,” he becomes increasingly aware of the presence there, not only of Time, but also of death — death in the personified vegetable world where “gossiping grass” is cropped and stored for consumption by domestic animals and death in the world of wild animals, of “foraging gulls,” fish-eating “cranes,” and the “Winnowing soft gray wings” of predatory “marsh-owls.” (The word “Winnowing” as applied to the wings of the owls yokes together the vegetable and the animal worlds as parts of the food chain.)   Even though by the end of the third stanza the speaker is able to imagine “the awakening wind” blowing out of the predatory “teeth” of the “dawn” and to allow a pristine vision of the “shore jewelled with dew” to supplant his dark vision of the real life of the marshland, the stanza closes on an ominous image — “sea-spoiling fathoms of drift-net / Myriad-meshed, uploom[ing] sombrely over the land” — which ensures that neither he nor the reader can quite forget the darker side of the Tantramar landscape.  The third stanza of “The Tantramar Revisited” reminds the reader, too, that this is the same Roberts who would go on to publish The Heart of the Ancient Wood in 1900 and nearly three hundred animal stories.

     It should now be clear that the third stanza of “The Tantramar Revisited” contains a more complex conception of the speaker’s boyhood landscape than the one offered at the beginning of the poem and modified through the first and second stanzas.  By the third stanza the speaker has arrived at a conception of the marshes in which remembrance, imagination and reality are intermingled, a conception in which circle and plane, dark and light, time and stasis, coalesce and threaten to the point of destruction his earlier assumption that only in his boyhood landscape has there been “no change.” Little wonder, then, that in the fourth stanza the speaker retreats almost desperately to the realm of memory: “Well I remember it all” the stanza begins, echoing the same phrase in the second stanza but betraying too, the desire to remember in both senses of the word “Well.” He is to be frustrated, however, in his wish to retrieve pleasant and happy, timeless and static, memories of the landscape.  Instead, his memory offers him a “salt raw scent” (the “raw” itself recalling, through its association with meat, the previous stanza) and the image of labouring “men at the windlass, groaning each reel” as the “net” is drawn in.   In addition to what has already been said about the “groaning” of the “net-reels,” two things in this stanza are especially remarkable.  The first is that here, as nowhere else in the poem, the speaker alludes explicitly to human figures in the marshlands, to the “men at the windlass” and then, in the last line of the stanza, to “each man” returning (in a possible and appropriate reminiscence of Gray’s “Elegy”) “to his home.”  The significance of this is that here the speaker is remembering real men in the real world, men working, moving, living, and, inevitably, dying — in a word, being anything but static and timeless.  The second significant aspect of the stanza resides in the speaker’s memory of “the net, / Surging in ponderous lengths [which] uprose and coiled.” Here the “drift net” has been given a sinister life of its own, transformed, indeed, into the leviathan of the sea or the snake in the garden, symbols of the mundane, fallen world where hard work, linear Time, and, of course, Death are Man’s lot.  The “well I remember it all!” which follows the description of the “drift net” and which closes the fourth and shortest stanza of the poem is by no means a “throwaway” phrase: repeated in its new context, where the exclamation point assures a strong emphasis on “all!,” it indicates that, at last, the full life (which includes Time and Death) of the Tantramar marshes has become accessible to the speaker’s memory in all its harsh reality.

     But “human kind / Cannot bear very much reality.”34  Thus it is that in the fith and final stanza of the poem the speaker retreats from his memory of the Tantramar landscape as a place of “change,” movement and time and resolves to concentrate, instead, on the present stasis of the marshlands, to

. . . sit and watch, this present peace of the landscape, —
Stranded boats, these reels empty and idle, the hush
One gray hawk slow-wheeling above yon cluster of haystacks, —
More than the old-time stir this stillness welcomes me home.

While the stasis and silence of the speaker, the “landscape,” the “boats” and the “reels,” suggest that the Tantramar marshes can transcend movement and sound in the fixity that is essential to ‘still life’ (the French term ‘nature morte’ comes also to mind here), the figure of the predatory “gray hawk slow-wheeling above yon cluster of hay-stacks,” echoing back as it does to the gray-winged “marsh owl” and the “fresh-stowed hay” of previous stanzas, makes certain that motion, Time and Death, albeit in a slowed-down (“slow-wheeling”) form, are ineluctably present in the scene.   If the speaker cannot stop time altogether, he can at least focus his attention on features of the landscape that suggest the negation of time: stasis, silence, stillness and, at worst, slow movement and slow time.  The “stir” of the “old-time,” though still more sweet than bitter to the speaker (“how once it stung me, with rapture, — / Old-time sweetness,” he exclaims, “the winds freighted with honey and salt!”), has been related to the memory of a memory and so distanced in a manner which is psychologically analogous to his “spatial detachment from the scene.”35

     What, now, is to be made of the final decision of the speaker as expressed in the last lines of the poem?

Yet will I stay my steps and not go down to the marsh-land, —
Muse and recall far off, rather remember than see, —
Lest on too close sight I miss the darling illusion,
Spy at their task even here the hands of chance and change.

There is a very real sense in which these lines bring the poem round “full circle,”36 taking the speaker back to his initial attitude to and perception of the landscape.   But the conclusion of the poem differs from the beginning in one important respect, namely that having discovered “dissolution and decay”37 in his beloved landscape, the speaker admits the value of and necessity for illusions.  In this context the corollary to “human kind / Cannot bear very much reality” must surely be “human kind cannot do very well without illusions.”  It is part of the dialectical and dramatic action of the poem that, even having remembered and imagined the forces of “chance and change” at work in the landscape of his youth, the speaker of “The Tantramar Revisited” should wish, in the final analysis, to preserve the “distance that lends enchantment” to the marshland, to observe only the pleasing outlines and not the disturbing details of the scene, and to preserve intact, if only for a renewal of the psychic interaction between the memory and the remembered, the “darling illusion” that there is a corner of past space where there is “no change.” Part of the enduring appeal of “The Tantramar Revisited” resides in the fact that it does not allow for any simple resolution of its themes.  Instead, it admits man’s need for illusion as well as reality, and more timelessly even than the landscape it describes, it invites the reader each time he encounters the poem to discover and assess the inevitable disjunction between the remembered and the real, and to retain, if he wants, his own ‘darling illusion’ about whatever part of his life or his world he wishes to remain beyond the “hands of chance and change.


     I should like to suggest, by way of conclusion, one further reason why Roberts’ poetic masterpiece, “The Tantramar Revisited,” is of enduring interest and significance.  The reason has to do with the position that the poem occupies in the history of Canadian poetry.  “The Tantramar Revisited” is, in part, a topographical poem, a piece of verse whose subject, in Dr.  Johndon’s famous definition, “is some particular landscape.”  Its topographical aspect has formidable precedents in a tradition that stretches back in English poetry, through poems by Tennyson, Wordsworth, Crabbe, Thomson and numerous others, to Denham’s Coopers Hill (1642) and, in Canadian poetry, through verses by Sangster, Mair, Howe and others, to Cary’s Abrams Plains (1789).  It is by comparison with Cary’s survey of the resources of Canada, his confident affirmation of the benefits of British rule in Quebec and his optimistic prognosis for the future of the new colony, that a further historical dimension is added to “The Tantramar Revisited.” When Roberts’ poem was first published in The Week in December, 1883 Canada was not even twenty years old.  Yet it was already apparent that a new urban, capitalist, industrial age was in the making, an age that would take the young country away from the rural, agricultural, Maritime roots of the post conquest and pre-Confederation period.  And when it was subsequently published in the In Divers Tones volume of 1886, which begins with the “Collect for Dominion Day” followed by “Canada,” not only the completion of the C.P.R., but also the second of the Riel rebellions, were fresh in the memories of Canadians.   With these things in mind, it is possible and plausible to hear in “The Tantramar Revisited” the strains of an elegiac lament for a lost innocence and a halcyon past, not merely in the youth of the speaker, but also in the youth of Canada.   What Roberts’ speaker hopes to find as he revisits the Tantramar marshes is a landscape unchanged despite the passage of Time; what he does find, all other considerations aside, is a landscape with all the signs — a “road,” “dikes,” “orchards,” “houses, / Stained with time,” “villages” — of a human civilization in tune with the natural rhythms of farming and fishing.  In a word, he finds Goldsmith’s “Rising Village” or Howe’s “Acadia” over half a century later.  My suggestion, then, is that the nostalgia of the speaker in “The Tantramar Revisited” can be seen, at one level at least, as a nostalgia for the “old-time” of the country itself.   That on amination the supposedly “olden” age of the past may prove to be an illusion is, of course, a major theme of the poem; that, in the final analysis, such a “darling illusion” is necessary, however, is another.  “Dreams,” as, no doubt, Roberts knew as well as Lampman, are indeed “real.


All quotations from “The Tantramar Revisited” are taken from In Divers Tones (D. Lothrop and Company: Boston, 1886), pp. 53-58.

  1. While only E.M. Pomeroy, Sir Charles G.D. Roberts; A Biography (Toronto: Ryerson, 1943), p. 48 and W.J. Keith, Charles G.D. Roberts (Toronto: Copp Clark, 1969), p. 54 actually refer to the poem as, respectively, “one of [Roberts’] masterpieces” and “probably his masterpiece” the critical comments assembled in the introductory paragraph to the present essay indicate a broad consensus as to the merits of “The Tantramar Revisited.”  Hereafter cited as Pomeroy and Keith.[back]

  2. Roberts and the Influences of his Tine (Toronto: William Briggs, 1905), p. 31.  Hereafter cited as Cappon.[back]

  3. Cappon, p. 37.[back]

  4. Creative Writing in Canada (Toronto: Ryerson, 1952), p. 46.[back]

  5. Sir Charles G.D. Roberts,” Essays in Canadian Criticism, 1938-1968 (Toronto: Ryerson ,1969), p. 192.  Hereafter cited as Essays.[back]

  6. Ten Canadian Poets (Toronto: Ryerson, 1958), p. 48.[back]

  7. Keith, pp. 45-50.[back]

  8. Selected Poetry and Critical Prose (University of Toronto Press, 1974), p. xxi.[back]

  9. Cappon, pp. 31-35 and Essays, p. 193.   See also Pomeroy, p. 48 and p. 48n.[back]

  10. Essays, p. 193.[back]

  11. Pomeroy, p. 9.[back]

  12. See Pomeroy, pp. 38-39.[back]

  13. Selected Poetry and Critical Prose, p. 263.[back]

  14. Quoted in Pomeroy, p. 98.[back]

  15. Two tone quotations from the opening sections of Euangeline, The Poetical Works of Longfellow (London: Frederick Warne, n.d.), pp. 106 and 109, should be sufficient to establish the connections.  

    Dikes, that the hands of the farmer had raised with labour incessant,
    Shut out the turbulent tides; but at stated season the flood-gates
    Opened, and welcomed the sea to wander at will o’er the meadows.
    West and south there were fields of flax, and orchards, and cornfields
    Spreading afar and unfenced o’er the plain; and away to northward
    Blomidon rose . . . .
    Now had the season returned, when the nights grow colder and longer,
    And the retreating sun the sign of thy Scorpion enters.
    Birds of passage sailed through the leaden air. . . .[back]

  16. Ten Canadian Poets, p. 48. [back]

  17. Charles G.D. Roberts (Toronto: Ryerson, [1925]), p. 12.[back]

  18. Ten Canadian Poets, p. 48.[back]

  19. Cappon, p. 35.[back]

  20. Cappon, p. 34.[back]

  21. Keith, p. 50.[back]

  22. Essays, p. 192.[back]

  23. Poetry as Experience (New York: American Book Company, the present essay.[back]

  24. Essays, p. 193.[back]

  25. Cappon, p. 34.[back]

  26. As in glow, glint, glare, glisten, and glitter and in spark, spire, spot, and spike where the ‘sp’ sound indicates a point and/or a point of lights [back]

  27. Ed, p. 192.[back]

  28. Keith, p. 50.[back]

  29. Essays, p. 194.[back]

  30. See Douglas Lochhead and Raymond Souster, eds. 100 Poems of Nineteenth Century Canada (Toronto: MacMillan, 1974), pp. 119-121.[back]

  31. Elected Poetry and Critical Prose, p. 281.[back]

  32. According to Pomeroy, p. 105, Robertst on “The Pastoral Elegy,” which he regarded as one of his “best pieces of prose,” was written between 1885 and 1895 when he was at King’s College, Windsor and published in The Forum (New York).  Keith, being “unable to trace” this earlier version (p. 282), gives the relevant section on Shelley’s “Adonais” which the poet used in the introduction to Shelleys Adonais and Alastor (1902).  See Selected Poetry of Critical Prose, pp. 282-295, and also p. 278 for some comments on Bion in “The Poetry of Nature” essay.[back]

  33. Cappon, p. 37. [back]

  34. T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets in Collected Poems (London: Faber and Faber, 1963), p. 190.[back]

  35. Keith, p. 50. [back]

  36. Keith, p. 50. [back]

  37. Creative Writing in Canada, p. 46. [back]