The Challenge of
Duncan Campbell Scott
The Duncan Campbell Scott Symposium.
Edited by K.P. Stich. University of Ottawa Press, 1980. xiv + 157 pp.
Of all the so-called "Poets of
Confederation," Duncan Campbell Scott has quietly (the word in this context is
hackneyed but inevitable) established himself as the most congenial to contemporary taste
at least in judicious selections. For all his 'old-fashioned' attributes he
gives evidence of a decidely 'modern' sensibility. As a poet he can at his best be
traditional without becoming merely derivative ("In the Country Churchyard," for
example), yet another side of him seems, if not innovative, at least independent. As
a writer of fiction, though less prolific and ultimately, I think, less substantial
than Charles G.D. Roberts, he is more consistent in standard and brings to his
short stories the same meditative detachment that is so prominent a quality in much of his
He is, then, a highly
appropriate subject for one of the University of Ottawa's "Reappraisals"
conferences, but he poses a distinct literary-critical challenge. Although his
effects are often modest, the methods by which he achieves them are correspondingly
subtle. Appropriate commentary needs to make precise and delicate distinctions,
appreciate slight nuances, be open to inconspicuous changes of tone and voice. And
there should be firm but respectful scrutiny as well, leading to judgments on the man (the
"Indian question" becomes pressing here), on his intellectual rigour, on his
poetic technique. Scott himself was clearly both shrewd and sensitive; his
commentators need to display similar qualities. How do the Symposium
critics measure up? Well, let me say at once that I consider this book one of the
better volumes in the series. There is much here that is new and important, that
furthers the cause of sound scholarship and intelligent criticism. At the same time
inevitably, I suppose, given the collaborative nature of the exercise some
contributors are decidedly more satisfactory than others. Since the differences in
standard are revealing in ways that go beyond the immediate area of concern, they are
worth discussing in some detail.
Commentators on Scott are fortunate in that, years ago, A.J.M. Smith wrote two important
essays on him that laid a firm foundation for subsequent literary-critical consideration
and argument. The first, immediately after the poet's death, was originally
published in the Dalhousie Review in 1948, while the second appeared a decade
later in Our Living Tradition, edited by Robert L. McDougall, and in slightly
different form in the first issue of Canadian Literature; both are available in
S.L. Dragland's collection of Scott criticism (Tecumseh, 1974). Taken together, they
represent a seminal critique recalling Matthew Arnold's essay on Wordsworth
pioneering work brilliantly discriminating in its identification of important poems but in
need of qualification and refinement. Their significance lies in the attempt to
isolate Scott's major work and to offer a concise and cogent description of the kind of
poet he is. Of the three essays that open the Symposium by presenting general
accounts of Scott's poetry, only one Gordon Johnston's usefully extends the
discussion that Smith initiated.
Matthews and Kathy Mezei are both concerned with that favourite Canadian literary-critical
procedure, the erection of a neat intellectual pattern into which the poetry can fit.
Matthews isolates "two dominant concepts throughout Scott's poetry which mesh
as an informing principle to his concept of synthesis" (I quote to illustrate the dry
abstraction involved here). One is "sea change," the other "the
moment of becoming," and as Milton Wilson has already treated the former Matthews
concentrates on the latter. Certainly these are subjects about which Scott likes to
write, and Matthews discusses them quite intelligently. My dissatisfaction arises
from the fact that he quotes Scott for the content only. I find myself
retorting: yes, yes, all right, sea-change and becoming are important to Scott, but
is he a good poet? does he make poems well? does he use words excitingly,
creatively? Matthews has little to say explicitly on such questions which are
surely the questions.
(whose essay was not, incidentally, delivered at the conference itself) is preoccupied
with planes, circles and what she ominously calls "spatial archetypes."
She tends, I fear, towards the simplistic: "for Scott, the height of land is an
ideal image because elevated places inspire elevated thoughts." She wants to
schematize Scott's imagery and structures, and rests content when she has done so.
Her central pattern is established as follows: "In Scott, the vertical
motion assumes the form of an ascent to the ideal mountain top or air and light
or a descent to the depths of the earth, pool or ocean." Now it so
happens that Gordon Johnston beautifully undercuts this sort of approach in his essay
entitled (not, I think, very happily) "The Significance of Scott's Minor
Poems." He is, of course, well aware of the patterns; he tells us on his first
page that "Scott's mind was dominated by the doubleness of rational thought, by the
process of thinking in terms of twinned opposites," but unlike Mezei he does not
assume that this is a good thing just because he has noticed it. On the contrary, he
finds it a weakness rather than a strength: it can lead to a facile formula because
a pat, balanced resolution is always available. Let me quote some isolated
Scott's easy poems, the ones in
danger of being bad, are usually generated by this rational perception of relations, or by
a sentimental submission to the "idealized" form of a conflict, its ideality so
apparent in the pale personifications of his mental dramas: Pain and Passion, Wonder
and Expectance, Grief and Pity, Love and Service.
. . . his interest in
perfect poems leads him to write some of his worst poems, those which clear away
obscurities and contradictions too easily, and those which settle for formal perfection at
the expense of the thought.
The powerful poems by Scott are
the ones which go beyond or above these distinctions, the simplifications of polar
The point to be made here is that
Mezei stops thinking at the very point where Johnston (properly) begins.
there is more to be said than that. Johnston's thought is directed to Scott as a
maker of poems, not just as a creator of patterns. He continues: "When
Scott has sufficient control over the language, its meaning and sound levels, then even
poems which are dominated in their thinking by the rational polarities can be successful;
they can express genuine reactions to credible situations in a schematic but not the less
powerful way." Precisely. Johnston, a true critic, now begins to show
how the success (or otherwise) of the poetry depends not on the patterns but on how they
are treated, on the quality of mind and language that manipulates them. This essay,
I believe, is as seminal as Smith's. It is full of new insights, and raises Scott
criticism to a new level. Naturally, it too can be qualified. His
classification into "major," "minor" and "bad" is somewhat
crude, but it represents the necessary kind of initiating process that can be refined
later. Here is a critic who thinks about poetry in poetic terms; why are such
critics so rare?
also contributes a short poem, a poetic "epilogue" to Scott at the end of the
volume, and is so doing suggests a possible answer to this last question. Can it be
accidental that the other successful paper on Scott's poetry is Fred Cogswell's
"Symbol and Decoration: 'The Piper of Arll' "? This is a useful and
original interpretation of an elusive but haunting multi-layered poem; he does not explain
all the mystifying details (I cannot fit the three pines that turn into plundering
warriors into his reading, and, although he comments helpfully on the legend of the Narrenschiff,
he neglects to show how it blends into that of the demon-lover), but "The Piper of
Arll" is larger than any single reading of it, and Cogswell offers an explication
that is both sensitive and imaginative. He is, of course, an established poet
himself, and this fact lends force to my suspicion that the most satisfactory critics of
poetry are generally those who have some first-hand experience of the craft.
points towards what I consider a missed opportunity in the Symposium: its
failure to provide a paper centred upon Scott's poetic technique. Surely this is an
inescapable topic if Scott (any poet, of course, but especially Scott) is to be
discussed adequately. Anyone who has responded to the rhythms of his verse at all
must have been on the one hand impressed by the satisfying quality of many of Scott's
cadences but on the other puzzled by individual lines which either read lamely or tend to
stumble which I find myself calling his metrical stutter. One example must
suffice. What are we to do in "Lines in Memory of Edmund Morris" when,
after a series of short accentual rhyming lines, and a few that already vary uncertainly
between irregular pentameter and a hint of anapests and dactyls, we suddenly encounter the
When you steal upon a land that man has not
sullied with his intrusion
which sounds to my ear like a particularly
fumbling, bumpy, unsatisfactory prose? There are many, many similar examples in his
work from single lines that seem for no apparent reason to break the flow of regular
stanzas to puzzling shifts of metrical convention from one line to another. As
literary critics we cannot just ignore the difficulties involved.
This is a problem
complicated by the well-known fact that Scott was highly musical. Robert L.
McDougall, indeed, describes him as "a musician whose love for music surpasses even
his love for poetry." Johnston refers in his poem-tribute to "Your
excellent ear" and goes on to observe:
The sounds we hear in the strings and hammers
of your words are beautiful, and hint
at the way you breathed and phrased
when you entered time . . .
One can only assume that a poet with this kind of
musical expertise knew what he was doing but how to account for it?
Personally, I have a poor musical ear and can make no useful contribution to this subject;
on the contrary, I am desperately in need of help. But what troubles me is that
most of the commentators here do not seem to recognize either that there is a problem or
that it is one that must be faced. For instance, Stan Dragland, in a useful
discussion of "Spring on Mattagami," correctly distinguishes between Scott's
verse-form and his model in George Meredith's "Love in the Valley" by noting
that "Scott allows himself more metrical latitude than Meredith." True
enough, but one of the results is that Scott's poem is much more difficult to read.
Without the urgent and insistent beat of the Meredith (which for me tends towards
vulgarity) Scott's lines can often be read metrically in a number of different ways and
this becomes a barrier to a continuing reading. Dragland skirts the edge of the
problem but never addresses himself to it.
extreme case is provided by Catherine E. Kelly, who offers a detailed paper on "Lines
in Memory of Edmund Morris" but confines herself to a rather pedestrian
section-by-section discussion of the poem's structure. She never even mentions the
way in which the line-lengths vary from section to section, never discusses the
significance of the metrical variations, never seems to consider that Scott might suit his
metric to his material and that this might therefore be an aspect of the poem not only
worth considering but essential to a full discussion. She possibly made a conscious
decision to devote herself to other matters, but in view of a revealing reference to metre
in the course of her paper, I suspect an inadequacy here. I quote the relevant
. . . this moon
independently ventures out within the pattern given, uncertain, but with the unreachable
ideal firmly there, the star, not to direct overtly, but, as the metre indicates, to be
I am not sure that I understand the logic of the
prose ("out within" is clumsy, and I lose track of the syntactical flow of the
rest) but I am mainly concerned with the way in which "the metre
indicates." What good does this crude scansion achieve? And how can metre
indicate anything? No one in his senses reads the lines according to this rigid
and primitive system of scansion, and any rhythmic substitution can alter not only the
emphasis but the meaning. Personally, though I could understand someone retaining a
beat on "be," I find in my own reading that I instinctively lay the emphasis on
"with." There is room for disagreement about the rhythm, but Sister
Kelly's argument collapses because the metrical norm proves nothing (what would she do
with Lear's five never's?).
the matter because I find it disturbing that a teacher of English, a literary critic, can
display such vagueness about rhythm and metre, that she can give a paper at a
well-attended conference, submit it to an editor and have it published and in the
whole process no one apparently points out the elementary objection. Criticism of
Scott is not going to get very far unless his commentators can demonstrate a greater
sensitivity to the basic mechanics of verse.
from the questions arising directly out of details of rhythm and metre, however, there are
a number of other aspects of poetic technique in Scott that seem crying out for attention.
There are the effects in poems that lie intriguingly half-way between traditional
blank verse and vers 1ibre, and what may well be a related effect of vocabulary in
which emotionally charged "poetic" words appear side by side with prosaic
matter-of-fact ones ("Golden and inappellable" is the best-known instance, but
many others are to be found in Scott). Then there is the embarrassing prevalence of
stale clichés ("Ode for the Keats Centenary" is full of them), which might be
merely acknowledged as Scott's characteristic form of badness were it not for the fact
that a number of his successful poems (I think "Compline" fits here) gain an
effectiveness from the way in which they tremble on the verge of cliché yet manage to
revivify the old forms and phrases. An effect that I can only describe as impressive
monotony, a seemingly willed flatness, lies at the heart of Scott's poetry and is part, I
suspect, of what we find congenial in him. These matters remain undiscussed and
unresolved in the Symposium, which is a pity. But they involve approaches to
literature that Canadian criticism in general has not yet recognized as important to
sophisticated literary discussion. It should.
of the dominant interest of this journal I have devoted most of my space to the poetic
contributions, but the other papers must not be ignored. Criticism of Scott's
fiction is apparently even less advanced than that of his poetry. This may be
because, though readable, his short stories (the Untitled Novel is now
available, but Glenn Clever's discussion failed to arouse my interest in it) are rarely
ambitious or distinguished enough to encourage probing critical comment. And I had
better state bluntly at this point that John Flood's "Native People in Scott's Short
Fiction" should never have been accepted for publication. First of all, it is
badly written sometimes to the point of incoherence. Two samples:
What complicates the stories is that the business
of trade takes precedent [sic] over the desire to be where the trade must, for
the sake of profit, take place.
The reduction of characters to nameplates
impinges on their potential to actualize the essence of their being.
A fog of sloppy word-usage settles over the whole
essay; often I found it impossible to extract a comprehensible argument out of a
paragraph. Small wonder that the writer can say nothing that is likely to interest a
serious reader of fiction. Scott seems (one can never be absolutely sure on account
of the poor prose-style) to be criticized for portraying Indians as stereotypes in stories
where the emphasis is on white traders, and Indians only appear as supernumerary servants
and customers. That the white protagonists themselves are often also stereotypes is
not discussed, but when a trader is made to describe Indians as "fools," Scott
is interpreted as displaying prejudice.
I am not
denying that a case might be made against Scott on the basis of certain stories.
Some of the narrator's remarks in "Clute Boulay," for instance, certainly
grate on modern ears sensitive in such matters. But as Flood makes no distinction
between this story and "Charcoal" where, as several commentators have noted,
Scott goes out of his way (even to the extent of altering his source) to make the Indian
protagonist sympathetic, he is not in a position to put the case cogently. Moreover,
the problem in "Clute Boulay" may be primarily a literary one: Scott wants
to evoke a scene of savagery (Stan Dragland notes in his introduction to his New Canadian
Library collection of stories that the climax "is as northern as a Norse saga"),
and words like "savage" and "primitive" may be introduced to
strengthen the suggestion of harsh barbarity. If so, Scott's literary skills rather
than his racial attitudes are at stake; but, judging by this performance, such necessary
distinctions are beyond Flood's powers.
startling (and reassuring) contrast stands Robert L. McDougall's polished and mature
account of his forays into Scott biography and the location of manuscript material.
He succeeds in pinpointing the places where E.K. Brown's portrait in his
"Memoir" introducing the Selected Poems needs to be expanded and to some
extent revised, and a fuller and convincing picture of Scott especially the older
Scott emerges in the process. Along with Johnston's essay, McDougall's marks
the high point in the volume, and his projected full-scale biography is awaited with all
the more expectation. His paper is proof (if proof were needed) that quality of
writing choice of word and image, control of rhythm, etc. can make all the
difference between an adequate essay and an excellent one.
rest, the critical dialogue between Stan Dragland and Martin Ware over "Spring on
Mattagami" was an experiment well worth making, though I found it rather too long.
Glenn Clever's essay on the fiction is in formative but unexciting. Otherwise
Sandra Campbell contributes a well-written and soundly-researched report on the friendship
between Scott and Pelham Edgar, James Doyle a harmless but inevitably low-key essay on the
impact of American literature, and C.M. Armitage a very brief and not particularly helpful
note on Scott's letters to Lionel Stevenson. Finally, Sister Kelly provides a
selective but none the less ample bibliography which, so far as I know, is the best to
concluding words on editing and production. While reviewing some of the earlier
volumes in this series, I have had occasion to complain of poor (I suspect, non-existent)
proofreading. This resulted in a rash of typographical errors, spelling mistakes and
faulty punctuation that was irritating to encounter and provoked dark thoughts about the
competence of those in charge. While there is still a larger number of misprints
here than one would expect to see in ideal conditions, this volume shows a considerable
improvement. K P. Stich, as editor, can be faulted for not insisting that Flood
resubmit his paper in decent English, but otherwise this is an attractive book, well
arranged and carefully balanced. The series has now established itself as an
important on-going contribution to Canadian literary studies. Until now, however, it
has tended to reflect the average level of critical commentary in the area, and the time
has surely come for it to make a stand in the interests of higher standards. There
is no point in reproducing mediocre papers just because they were delivered at a
particular moment in time. The editors responsible for these "Symposium"
volumes should take the lead and insist on a judicious selection-process to eliminate
expendable dross. What we need are volumes that are full of essays as good as
Johnston's and McDougall's; this would result in literary criticism of which we could all
W. J. Keith