"The Clearer Self": Lampman's Transcendental-Visionary Development
By Richard Arnold
Recent criticism of Lampman, while successful in finally getting away from reading him merely as a descriptive nature poet, has neither closely examined his ambivilent relationship with Emersonian Transcendentalism, nor indeed looked at his poetical career as a whole. A number of critics still portray Lampman as a "dreamer of dreams", an escapist, and those critics who have noticed transcendental tendencies in his poetry conclude that his poetical career was, like that of Emerson or Thoreau, a sustained retreat into nature. After glancing briefly at recent trends in Lampman criticism and looking at Lampman's views of Emerson's work, this study examines chronologically Lampman's three volumes of verse in order to show that there is a development, a maturing, of his poetic vision. His first volume, Among the Millet (1888), reflects an attempt to give expression to the Emersonian identification of man with nature; in his second, Lyrics of Earth (1895), after adopting a transcendental outlook, he sees the dishonesty and inadequacy of this philosophy; and in his last volume, Alcyone (1899), he abandons his transcendental quest for unity with nature and gives uninhibited expression to his frightening, direct vision of nature and human nature. In Lampman there is an important, but hitherto neglected, transcendental visionary development.
Even as late as the 'seventies, critics saw Lampman as an escapist, a painter of pretty prospects. F.W. Watt says: "It is true, as these poems show, that he continually turned to rural scenes as the simplest kind of anodyne or release";1 Lampman found his "consolations in the natural world".2 Roy Daniells, in the Literary History of Canada (1965), says without qualification that Lampman "is consistently Wordsworthian; he finds his consolation, his sense of the divine, his daily sensuous delights, all in the countryside, the world of farm and forest, lake and rock and stream".3 Lampman's poetry is a dream and the "dream is a protection from actualities".4 What is more startling and almost inconceivable is Daniells' double-barrelled assertion that there is virtually no development in Lampman's poetic vision, and that he is, of course, primarily a descriptive nature poet:
D.G. Jones agrees in 1970 that Lampman's main need was "to escape from the garrison of a culture" that was oppressive, "to escape from boredom and sterility", "to embrace the wilderness of nature".6 Lampman's verse, says Jones, is "a direct echo of Wordsworth"; like the English poet, Lampman had "an excessively benevolent conception of nature and an excessively passive conception of man's relationship to her".7
A significant departure from the conventional highway of Lampman criticism is made by Barrie Davies in The English Quarterly in 1971. Though Davies' portrayal of Lampman as "a poet of the city" is not new, his reading of certain poems as serious social criticism tended to reorient later criticism toward seeing Lampman in a wider context than that of nature poet. But Davies still implies, like other critics, that nature is benevolent and the city is the evil power. Sandra Djwa agrees in Canadian Literature, 1973:
Djwa recognizes the deceptiveness and deeper significance of Lampman's verse, but she too simply equates nature with benevolence and dream, and the city with the uneasy and disturbing undertones in the poetry. She agrees that Lampman is an escapist, saying that his dream becomes a way of "circumventing the pain of everyday reality".9
The most recent collection of Lampman criticism is a number of essays that form The Lampman Symposium (1976). Though the book claims to be a "reappraisal" of this poet, several of the articles, though quite ingenious on the sophisticated surface, are ultimately rather disappointing and old fashioned. For example, Ralph Gustafson accepts the axioms that Lampman is a dreamer and that he is simply a nature poet; Gustafson ingeniously justifies both of these qualities in Lampman by saying that he should not have to be a social poet he was a nature poet: "He took refuge where all intelligence can find refuge, in things natural".10 Louis Mackendrick sees Lampman escaping into nature, but gives this act an interesting twist: "Nature became for Lampman, in archetypal Romantic fashion, a place where large eternal matters, not human tininesses, could be absorbed, not thought upon".11 Dick Harrison, however, looks beneath the surface of the verse and senses that something is amiss with "the innocent earth": "Beyond this largely conventional elegiac tone, some of Lampman's most intense images are of terror, pain, and grief in nature . . . ".12 Harrison notices, as do only a few other critics, that pain and fear are associated with nature quite often in Lampman's poetry.
More recently still, articles have appeared that look closely at various aspects of Lampman's poetry; two of these articles are quite valuable indeed. D.M.R. Bentley discusses the importance of "Pan" in Lampman's verse (and in the verse of other Confederation poets) and points out that Pan is a potent image of "not only the poet, but also of human nature and Nature itself . . . ".13 In suggesting that Pan is a dualistic figure that encorporates "'torture' and 'mirth', 'hope' and 'terror', 'toil' and 'bliss"', Bentley notices that for Lampman nature was a multi-faceted entity that needed to be mythologized and made comprehensible. Lampman's struggle to capture the essence or spirit of place of the Canadian wilderness is admirably investigated by Kathy Mezei, who shows in her close reading of the different versions of "Among the Timothy" that Lampman saw the need during his poetical career to create a vivid sense of locality in his verse.14 In his first volume he establishes a pastoral mood of "pensiveness and delight in simple beauty" of nature, but later this pastoral vision gives way to a need to depict the "wild spirit of the land" and to glimpse the essence of the "mysterious wilderness". Mezei's paper is really the first to suggest that Lampman's poetic vision changed, and to point out that Lampman did not remain the happy nature poet. Though these articles are valuable in their close and intelligent readings of particular poems, there is still missing from Lampman criticism a discussion of Lampman's philosophical outlook and of how the important changes and developments in that outlook find expression in his poetry.
Although a few recent critics have noticed that there are influences of Emersonian Transcendentalism in Lampman's work, they have neither examined Lampman's career closely in the light of this philosophy, nor have they asked when and how he adopted this philosophy. Barrie Davies points out that Lampman liked Emerson's writings, but he moves on to say that although there are Emersonian influences in the poet's work, his basic philosophy is much broader and more general than Transcendentalism; Lampman is more profitably read as a Platonist.15 Carl Klinck, in his close reading of "The Frogs", states first that there "can be no doubt about Lampman's acquaintance with Emerson's ideas", and then that "transcendentalist terms and ideas" crop up in the poem.16 Klinck asks: " . . . if Lampman could escape from something, should there not be a closer examination of what he escaped to?17 Though Klinck's article is admirable for the reading it gives to Lampman's poem, and though it does show what a subtle and sensitive thinker Lampman is, it still does not get away from seeing Lampman as somewhat of an escapist and confirmed optimist. Klinck implies that Lampman is an escapist because he is a transcendentalist. And Sandra Djwa, agreeing that Lampman is a transcendentalist, justifies his retreats into nature by saying that they were a way of learning about man and the universe.18
But is Lampman ever a fully-fledged transcendentalist? Is his poetic achievement, as critics are now arguing, a result of his adopting an Emersonian relationship to nature? Or does his true poetic and visionary achievement lie in the fact that he examined Transcendentalism even attempted to be Emersonian but found this philosophical framework somehow inadequate?
That Lampman knew Emerson's work thoroughly cannot be doubted. On November 19,1892 he published in The Globe "Vision", a poem which is Emersonian in theme and style. Here he speaks of recognizing "What is lovely, what sublime" and of becoming "One with earth and one with man",19 like Emerson, who says: "Beauty through my senses stole; / I yielded myself to the perfect whole".20 Lampman's god is called "the All" and "the Immensity", terms used frequently by the Sage of Concord. One of Lampman's manuscript workbooks from 1889-92 contains the following fragment:
Lampman adopts Emerson's ontology here and his belief that all is right with the world if one looks past transient particulars. In another notebook (1894-99) Lampman has jotted down some terms from Hindu religion and Vedantic mysticism, terms that Emerson would have read in the transcendental Bhagavadgita:
Mirhanoya final complete
At the very least these jottings suggest that Lampman was thinking about Transcendentalism and its sources. In his essay entitled "The Poetry of Byron" Lampman speaks of human nature "working forward slowly, surely and ever infinitely nearer to what is pure". Human nature "will not permit itself to be shaken or thrown back in its divine progress".23 On April 22,1893 Lampman writes in The Globe:
In his first volume of poetry, Among the Millet (1888), Lampman attempts to achieve this total identification with nature in order to feel "the eternal movement of life". But this identification is never completed; Lampman sees something in nature that causes him to draw back in fear. There is something ominous, threatening, even terrifying, about the naked natural world something that Emerson evidently overlooked.
In the early poems of this volume Lampman echoes Emerson on the topics of the poet and nature. The poet, according to Emerson, by becoming one with nature, transforms the world of solid particulars into a unified world of spirit: the poet dissolves "all that fixture is, / Melts things that be to things that seem / And solid nature to a dream".25 Similarly, Lampman says in the very first poem in Among the Millet that "the sweetest poets I will deem / The men of old for moulding / In simple beauty such a dream".26 Lampman knew the Emersonian passage cited above; he himself quoted it in The Globe column, "At the Mermaid Inn". Emerson sees nature as a power and symbol of the great Oversoul: "I . . . suppose / The self-same Power that brought me there brought you".27 Lampman agrees: "I think some blessed power / Hath brought me wandering idly here . . . ".28 But while Emerson can and does "yield"' himself "to the perfect whole", while nature's beauty does move through his being ("Beauty through my senses stole") and the distinction between himself as subject and nature as object does vanish as he is absorbed into the benevolent All, Lampman, try as he may, can never fully experience this union.
A typical transcendentalist experience, whether of Emerson or Thoreau, is depicted by having the human being leave the busy city for the quiet country, and here he becomes one with nature and all creation. In Lampman's "Freedom" this typical quest begins: "Out of the heart of the city" and away from its "labour", "struggle", "usurer's hold", "horrible crash", "clamour" and "din and glare", comes the poet. He heads for "the arms of our mother", "Our broad strong mother, the innocent earth", who is "beautiful", "light", "mother of hopes" and "mirth". For the next three stanzas the poet traverses "over the swamps", "over the meadow", "over the fields", to get to the heart of grand nature. Finally he goes into nature, but the description of this nature is curious:
Nature is threatening, sinister, and frightening: it manifests "tombs" and not "light", "glooms" and not "mirth", "dead trees" and not "beauty". Frightened, the poet quickly leaves the forest, climbs a hill, and then says he can "clear [his] eyes to the beauty" before him, to "Earth with the glory of life on her breast . . . ". There has been a significant logical twist or shift in meaning in the poem: in the beginning, beauty and innocence, light and mirth, are nature; at the end (nature having been seen as frightening) the beauty, innocence and light are the vision of nature. The "great mother" is not nature; the "great mother" is the detached view of nature. Lampman has attempted the Emersonian quest for unity with nature but once too close to nature is frightened by its inexplicable gloom and ominousness. Interestingly enough, in the manuscript workbook where this poem was originally written, all the stanzas except stanza nine, the "tombs" stanza above, are roughly in order and are together. Stanza nine appears some thirty pages later and looks quite worked over. It is as if this part of Lampman's experience of going into nature needed more thought than the rest of the poem, as if he hoped he could exorcize his ambivalent feelings.
This marked ambivalence toward nature is evident in many poems in the volume. In "Morning on the Ličvre" Lampman evokes the Emersonian oneness or wholeness of the universe: "Softly as a cloud we go, / Sky above and sky below. . ."; the forest is mirrored in the lake; forest and stream "meet and plight like a dream". All combines into a unity, silent and still. But the poet has only been observing nature impressionistically; when he looks closely at the particulars, his language carries fearful and sinister connotations: " . . . the lazy river sucks / All the water as it bleeds" from a creek; muskrats "sneak / In around the sunken wrecks / Of a tree . . . ". Finally, seven ducks disappear behind a "rocky spur / Just ahead", and only their "whir" is heard. This last observation by the poet may not seem sinister in itself, but it harkens back strangely to the beginning of the poem: that is, the motif of something unknown hidden behind the observable aspects of nature opens and closes this poem. It begins:
It seems that, were the poet to observe nature very minutely, he would perceive clearly what he only senses at a distance: there is some undefinable and intangible element throughout nature that makes the poet very uneasy. The closer he observes nature, the more sinister it seems.
In "In October" the poet can at a distance praise the "low long strip of dolorous red that lines / The under west", the brown meadows, and the pines that are "like tall slim priests"; but when he listens closely to the leaves falling close about himself he hears "A soft strange inner sound of pain-crazed lips, / That move and murmur incoherently". He recognizes that the "sad trees rustle in chill misery" as "slowly earthward leaf by red leaf slips . . . ." He paradoxically moves toward and away from nature simultaneously by sitting down upon a "naked stone" and by drawing his "coat closer" with "numbed hands". Hearing the "ferns sigh" and the "wet woods moan", he concludes that though man can be like nature in a sense, nature is foreign to man; man is painfully outside of it and "none but stars and biting winds" may read nature.
"Ballade of Summer's Sleep" tells the story of the coming of winter:
The pronoun "they" in the opening line again betrays a hint that the poet sees a living malevolent being (or several) operating behind the visible scenes of nature. The poem depicts very vividly the eradication of light by darkness, the ending of life, the spreading of malevolent "shadows", and a huge spirit of death and nothingness that looms immanent:
At the end of the poem, however, the poet curiously and clumsily appends an afterthought by mentioning the return of spring:
The poet will not let go of the hope of rebirth. But this "Envoi" is an untidy addendum rather than a part of the organic whole of the poem. An "Envoi", a traditional device in a ballade or sestina, should conclude what went before, but this ballade seems to have ended before the "Envoi" began. It is as if the poet here wants to believe what Emerson says (in these same terms) about the goodness of things: "If the red slayer think he slays, / Or the slain think he is slain",29 then they know not the larger benevolent design.
There seems to be almost no end in the volume to poems that emphasize the eeriness and even cruelty of nature. In "Winter" the season is personified and watches the macabre dance of his subalterns. Winter
Finally the "elfin spirits" "sting" and smite "flower and fruit and weed"; "The wet woods moan: the dead leaves break and fall". In the midst of the great storm
In the final stanza, mankind garrison themselves into their homes while nature rages and threatens destruction:
Nature here is an awesome power; and what is worse is that it takes delight in the destruction of life. The scene here, it is true, is one of a storm in winter, but even in poems which describe quiet, peaceful scenes, this frightening aspect of nature is never absent.
"Midnight", for example, begins in a tranquil setting:
One might expect a quiet contemplation to follow, a romantic reverie such as in "Frost at Midnight". But this expectation is not met; instead, a fearful, Tennysonian crying haunts the poet:
Again there is some living force that is behind, or rather, is hidden in, the universe some force that is a source of fear and agitation to the poet. The sound made by this force is totally incomprehensible; it is like the sound heard in "In October" an incoherent utterance that is evidence of something living, something frightening, right at the heart of the existing universe. Lampman acknowledges this element of the universe throughout his poetry; in the final stanza of "Midnight" he admits that he can never exorcize it from his sensibility:
In spite of the "crying in the dark", however, Lampman never loses sight of his transcendental ideal. In the closing poems of the volume Lampman conjures up Emersonian ideas in an Emersonian tone. In "Sight" the poet claims that "the world is bright with beauty" but human beings see through a glass darkly:
Life is good if seen in totality. Though Emersonian, this poem nevertheless lacks Emerson's certainty. Lampman's poem is in conditional tenses: "could we but tear away the walls" of our narrow perceptive faculties; "if we could but lift our earthward eyes"; "could we only know true ends from false". Emerson's tone of voice, on the contrary, is generally affirmative, boastfully certain: "I yielded myself to the perfect whole"; "I inhaled the violet's breath"; I am "full of light and of deity".30 In "An Old Lesson From the Fields" Lampman says: "I saw myself made clear as in a glass", an image which, in a sense, is not unlike that used by Emerson when he claims "I become a transparent eyeball".31 In both images the human speaker becomes indistinct from the natural world. But whereas Emerson goes on to say, "I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me . . . . I am part or parcel of God",32 Lampman sees something different: "my soul was for the most part dead". He cries out for light and ends the poem in uncertainty: "Could we but cast away its [life's] conscious stress, / Simple of heart becoming even as you". Lampman desires the Emersonian unity with the universe but cannot allow himself to have it. "Conscious stress" plagues him throughout the volume: he wants to experience the "elemental joy" and to be part of the "eternal movement of life", but he sees nature in a more complex light than did Emerson. As the title of the volume suggests, he is among nature but never united with it. In one of the last poems, the sonnet "In November", he finds himself in the "naked uplands" and as an ominous, creeping darkness sets in he again pulls up short of a union with nature: he is "wrapped around with thought, content to watch and dream". Lampman sees nature in Among the Millet as beautiful and ugly, beneficent and malevolent, happy and sinister always it is a complex entity that harbours the unknown, the eerie, the frightening. Hence his nature poems are something more than just descriptive sketches, reveries, and "melting into the landscape". Lampman desires unity with nature; he seeks unity with the All in a transcendental sense. But it does not come about in this volume. In order to achieve a complete and simple unity with a godlike nature Lampman will have to ignore his complex, ambivalent feelings and sensitivity and adopt a "thoroughly" transcendental stance toward nature. This he does in his next volume, Lyrics of Earth.
Even a cursory glance at the titles in this volume of 1895 informs a reader of a difference in tone from Among the Millet: "The Sweetness of Life", "April in the Hills", "The Return of the Year", "In May", "June", "Comfort of the Fields", "A Reassurance", "The Sun Cup"; all these titles promise a more optimistic, happy mood as opposed to the troubled mood of the earlier volume's "In October", "Storm", "Midnight", "Unrest", "Lament of the Winds", "The Coming of Winter", "A Night of Storm", "Winter", and "Solitude". The optimistic mood is a result of Lampman casting himself into the transcendental mould: this time he will "yield" himself "to the perfect whole".
The volume opens with "The Sweetness of Life", in which the poet reaches out and communicates with the natural world. He asks its creatures and plants why they are happy and they answer him:
The poet cannot extract from the natural world "why" its creatures are happy he knows only that they are. That nature even speaks to the poet is quite a change from the earlier volume wherein it invariably made only incomprehensible and frightening noises. After receiving this same answer from the "meadow", the "roses", the "valley", and the "brooklet", he asks the same question of himself. Identifying himself with nature, he proposes that his answer would be the same as nature's:
Man, the poet is suggesting, is a part of nature and is under the same laws and conditions. He realizes "the sweetness of life" when he becomes aware of this fact that he is part of a controlled natural order and there is therefore no reason to seek answers. In other words, nature is the All and the All is nature; this is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
This tone of happiness and vision of nature as exclusively beautiful and grand is picked up again in "April in the Hills", a very Emersonian poem. The description of nature begins:
and it continues in such happy language. After painting a beautiful and serene picture of "jetting falls", "dashing streams", "little lakes", "bluebirds", "robins" and "shore-larks", he locates himself, a "wanderer in enchanted lands", who is tasting "the springs of life". In the final stanza, the poet does what Emerson does so well, and in the latter's terms (the emphasis is mine):
It seems that Lampman has achieved a transcendental unity with nature here: "the subject and the object are one",33 as Emerson would say, and the very optimistic and affirmative tone that pervades this poem, especially this last stanza, is reminiscent of many of Emerson's poems.
"Favorites of Pan" seems to be the transcendental answer to "Midnight" of the earlier volume. In "Midnight" the poet listens to nature and hears a haunting "crying in the dark" that cannot be driven from his ear. In "Favorites of Pan" he again listens to nature, but it is a transcendental conception of a benevolent and sympathetic natural world he hears:
The poet suddenly experiences a sort of cosmic consciousness, "A sudden brightness of the heart", and sees the world in a grain of sand:
This is common in Emerson's work also, where "the huge world comes round to the man",34 where he sees all the warring components of human existence at once as a whole. Instead of hearing "crying", "moaning" or "pain-crazed lips", the transcendentalist in this poem of Lampman's hears the "murmur of Pan's pipes":
Just as "Favorites of Pan" seems to be a transcendental version of "Midnight", so also "The Meadow" seems a transcendental version of "Freedom" from Among the Millet. In "Freedom" the poet fled the loud, troubled city in order to get to nature, "the mother", "the innocent earth". Once in nature, however, he sensed its ominousness and ugliness and he became fearful so he climbed a high hill in order to be able to admire nature yet remain at a distance. "The Meadow" depicts the poet going into nature, but this time, unlike in "Freedom", he perceives nature as beautiful, revivifying, and benevolent:
What is more significant than this is that he "sought these upland fields and walked apart, / Musing on Nature, till my thought did seem / To read the very secrets of her heart. . . ." In Among the Millet nature is always incomprehensible to man: "none but stars and the biting winds" can read nature's secrets. Here the poet can. A poem similar to "The Meadow", and intended as another answer to the earlier volume's failed transcendental quest in "Freedom", is "Life and Nature". This poem begins in good transcendental fashion: "I passed through the gates of the city", the poet says as he realizes that in "the midst of the city" all life seems melancholy: "'O Life! O Life!' I kept saying, / And the very word seemed sad". After reaching the country he lies on "the earth's quiet breast". Suddenly, the thought of life, which had always seemed sad, is miraculously changed: "'O Life! O Life!' I kept saying / And the very word seemed sweet".
Several of the poems looked at in this volume thus far, particularly "April in the Hills", "The Meadow", and "Life and Nature", seem to be truly transcendental experiences: the poet becomes one with, and is refreshed by, a benevolent nature. Lampman has somehow avoided his feelings of fear and uncertainty about nature that infected the earlier volume. But how?
The answer seems to be that Lampman never does feel the Universal Being circulate through him as Emerson does; he never actually yields himself to nature; he never becomes united with nature. He yields himself to, and becomes united with, a dream of nature. In "April in the Hills" he wanders not in a vividly realized landscape, but rather in "enchanted lands". In "The Meadow" it is not nature that he unites with, but rather a dream or reverie of nature: "Its conquering joy possessed me like a spell. / In reverie by day and midnight dream / I sought these upland fields . . . ". In reverie and dream not in reality. He has not focused his attention directly upon nature but rather upon an ideal reverie of what he wishes nature were like: "Ah, I have watched till eye and ear and brain / Grew full of dreams . . . ". In "Life and Nature" the poet is entranced into a reverie by repeating "O Life! O Life!"; nature, he says, "sang me to rest", and finally in this half-asleep state he mumbles that the word life seemed sweet. Lampman wants the transcendental experience but does not want actually to have to face the reality of nature too closely. In "The Sweetness of Life" he is only happy because he dreams, not because he is united with nature: "Thou dream'st and are strangely happy. . . ." His joy of seeing the rebirth of nature in "The Return of the Year" is occasioned only by his ability to dream about an ideal nature: " . . . once again the dream! the dream!" he says, and then and only then the "glamours of the gods return". Nature in "Favorites of Pan" is not really the nature Lampman knows, but rather "A limitless dream remote and strange". By rendering nature into a state of dream Lampman can unite with it because it is purged of the eerie and threatening elements that in reality it possesses. Lampman does not "dream" in order to escape society and withdraw into himself and nature. It is quite the reverse that is true. He dreams in order to escape himself and the reality of nature because his mind, his sensibility, is too alive to the complexity of nature; he is only too conscious that nature is not an Emersonian meadowland but is rather a place of beauty and ugliness, benevolence and malevolence, life and death, darkness and light. He desires an Emersonian relationship to nature and he admires Emerson's philosophical outlook greatly. But he cannot allow himself to become a fully-fledged transcendentalist because he sees in nature awful, threatening elements which Emerson obviously overlooked, and also because he cannot allow himself to look at reality through the same optimistic glasses worn by Emerson. The only universe that deserves an optimistic view is the world of dream and reverie for Lampman. The world of dream is the world of, in his own words, "the ought-to-be", the "might-have-been". The world of reality is much different, much more complex.
But Emerson's philosophy still seems attractive to Lampman as a solution to his problem of seeing in nature elements that instill fear and uncertainty within him. "Distance" is a short monument to the Emersonian ontology (again, the emphasis is mine):
Much of Emerson's cosmic view is contained in this little poem: the world of earthly existence is but a transient and discordant one; but the larger universe is good and complete, and at death the human soul becomes a part of the whole. One might be tempted to pass quickly over this as a piece of derivative Emersonian tripe: its bouncy rhythm, epigrammatic language, and easy expression make it seem like a poem that was not given a great deal of thought. But a closer look at this enigmatic poem, in the light of its Emersonian underpinnings, can be rewarding. Emerson did say that one can "feel the whole" of the universe, and so does Lampman. But the important difference is that Emerson believes (and Thoreau does too) that one can "feel the whole" or be united with the natural world now. At any time, the human being can "become a transparent eyeball" and see and be a part of all of creation. Emerson feels the All as he walks through a meadow or sits in a forest, Thoreau as he fishes in a stream or even thinks about nature. But Lampman seems to stress here that the experience of being united with the universe is one that resides in the distance; it is something that one can strive for but never really attain. This experience is "beyond", "far beyond", and will only be attained when "this earth is lost in heaven". Also, it is interesting to note in this poem that Lampman says "Peace is not in burgh or meadow" (emphasis mine). A reading of his verse suggests indeed that he cannot find peace in the "meadow". Nature is not, for Lampman, the "great comforter", the "great mother", the "refuge", the "place of rest", as critics invariably claim it is.
"In November" is another enigmatic poem. Here the poet wanders into the woods and offers a clear perception of the frightening and eerie natural world: it is (emphasis mine)
These mulleins are "shrivelled", "haggard", and "austere". They stand "lifeless". The poet says that they look like "hermit folk" who had "chanced upon this lonely way" and had been surprised by death at their "compline prayer". Having described this ominous scene of nature, the poet says that he "stood / Among the mullein-stalks as still / As if myself had grown to be / One of their sombre company, / A body without wish or will". This is Emerson's simple identity with nature but with a double edge: Emerson insists that he feels the Universal Being circulate through him when he unites with nature; he becomes "part or parcel of God" and is revitalized and filled with cosmic energy. Lampman's poet here, however, is one "standing lifeless there"; perhaps the sober suggestion is that if one becomes nature, one becomes the essentially inert, unconscious being that nature is. Or, if one becomes united with nature, one must enter into its life-death cycle and die like the shrivelled mulleins. The poet here does experience a sudden illumination of sunlight, a "shadow of some former dream; / A moment's golden reverie", but this higher vision or momentary cosmic consciousness is only a dream. The poet, perceiving himself "standing idly there", now awakens from the golden reverie and sees naked, objective nature all around him. This realization elicits a complex reaction from him:
Realizing that he cannot be one with nature, he shelters himself from it; yet there is something in his instinctual self, in his "blood", that takes pleasure in the self-annihilating idea of identification with nature. It is no accident that the word "austere" is also used to describe the dead, gray, shrivelled mulleins. To wish union with nature is, in one sense, to wish death. For nature can be, as well as a living, dynamic being, a cold, unconscious, even destructive, mass.
The longest and most important poem in Lyrics of Earth is "Winter-Store". In its opening sections Lampman seems to lift expressions from Emerson's work: as human beings we should "clear our eyes" to "see the wonder as it is", the "threads that bind us to the All, / God or the Immensity". Just as Emerson sees man as a part of the All, a part which is evolving toward perfection, so also Lampman says that "on the eternal road / Man is but a passing mode". Human beings cannot see that change or evolution is constantly taking place and that man and all things are signs of a great and perfect whole that awaits. But one who can see through life's ordinariness and vicissitudinousness can experience the transcendental union with the universe (the emphasis is mine):
The poem goes on to describe the poet's wanderings in grand nature. Just as Emerson communicates with nature and vice-versa flowers "nod to me and I to them"35 so also does this poet: "I shall hear the crickets tell / Stories ...." A more Emersonian poem would be hard to imagine. The poet lies "In the pungent balsam shade", wanders in "some low meadow land", searches "in crannied hollows", strays "by many a stream", collecting beautiful impressions of nature from simple things, much as does Emerson in "Each and All". After this long excursion into nature, however, the poet turns his thoughts to "darker days", to "a vision sad and high" that takes over his attention and the poem: he sees the "labouring world", those in misery and affliction and now he begins piling up ugly and realistic impressions of the human world around him:
The poem now becomes a vision of the pressing actuality of human misery; he is experiencing "evil thoughts" which are "shade by shade and line by line, / Refashioning what was once divine". This vision of urgent and actual misery, this replacing of the vision of the "All, / God or the Immensity" with that of "old men with the mask of death", possesses the poet; it is, he says, "A something I cannot control, / A nameless hunger of the soul. It holds me fast". Against this his former vision of beauty and perfection is "vain":
This poem, ending in all its inconclusiveness, is ultimately a rejection of Emersonian Transcendentalism. The poet discards the great vision of the "All" for the vision of the sordid actuality of his world. Emerson emphasizes that whatever is, is right, and that the "All" is what is really important. Lampman is too sensitive and perceptive to accept this. The painfully clear vision of human misery and the vicissitudes of early existence seems to possess his mind more fully than does the transcendental vision. It is on this note that Lampman intended to end the volume, but an editorial or publishing oversight, which caused the short and trivial "Sun Cup" to be omitted, led Lampman to permit the appending of it to the end of the volume.36 Nevertheless, Lampman's original intention was to end the volume with "Winter-Store", thus abandoning his transcendental quest. His third and final volume, Alcyone (1899), is a frightening, naked portrayal of the human situation.
The most startling and effective poem in this last volume is "The City of the End of Things", in which is presented an apocalyptic view of the world industrialized. Perhaps to call it a "view" is misleading because the reader is meant primarily to feel and hear the final city rather than clearly see it. Its physical description is deliberately vague: "Its roofs and iron towers have grown / None knoweth how high within the night. . .". Its streets are "murky", in which move "stalking shadows". But the aural quality of the city is very pronounced it assaults the ear effectively:
The elements of "fire and night", "clanking hands", "iron lips", "the thunder and the hiss", "a monotonous cry", and ceaseless "unheard commands", all constitute a "gigantic harmony", an "inhuman music". This is a sharp contrast to the younger Lampman's idea of life as "filled with music" of "innumerable harmonies". In this world of industry all human qualities in man have been eradicated: the figures that obey the "hideous routine" "are not flesh, they are not bone, / They see not with the human eye . . . ". In the end everything
There is no benevolent All or Immensity, no immortality, no "return of the year". Darkness closes down upon the world and it falls forever into "silence and eternal night".
Another terrible vision is presented in "Chione". Here a child has died and the mother is so agonized and despairing that she sinks into a psychotic state: she experiences an elaborate delusion and finds herself in a horrid natural world; she sees "an awful vale", a "grizzled stream", a "mute and murky stream, / As cold and cavernous as the eye of death". She wanders in a land of "dismal beaches", hideous streams, "gloomy meadows". The description of this natural world seems to be the visionary inverse of his earlier views of nature; it is totally unlike anything Lampman had written earlier. After setting the terrible scene, Lampman depicts the mother praying to the "gloomy masters" of this world; she asks them to take her life. In the end she sees "dark waters and an unknown shore, / And the gray shadows crept about her soul". She falls "silent", and Lampman says, very ironically, "the grim gods had heard her prayer". Mother and child then are subsumed not into a great All or Immensity; they are subsumed into this horrible hell. This poem is a study of human suffering and a vision of the hellish and awful "afterlife".
"A Vision of Twilight" and "The Land of Pallas", two other important poems in Alcyone, seem, however, to be the visionary inverse of these two poems. In both, the poet sees ideal settings where there are "men of a diviner making" and "gardens wide and fair". In "A Vision of Twilight", there is a world of beauty and understanding:
And in "The Land of Pallas", "a happy land", "strife and care were dead", and life was a "placid river". It is a land "where beauty dwelt supreme", a "land of equal gifts and deeds", a place of "peaceful days". But the difference between the ugly visions ("Chione" and "The City of the End of Things") and these happy visions is that the latter are clearly intended to be mere dreams. "The Land of Pallas" begins: "Me thought I journeyed along ways that led for ever / Throughout a happy land . . . ". At the end of the poem people smile incredulously at the rather mad vision and the poet assumes very tentatively that "somehow" the "end of human life is Peace". "The Vision of Twilight" takes place "On the outer edge of space, / Where the body comes not ever, / But the absent dream hath place . . . ". It is deliberately said to be a collection of "Dreams of distant worlds". "The City of the End of Things", however, has a conviction and urgent tone and effect that make it very real and horrifying. The enjambed and short lines give it a driving Miltonic force and the reader is assaulted through the ear as well as the eye; one hears every clank, crash, and hiss of the steel city. Also, never in "Chione" is it said that the poem is a dream; the poem is dream-like in its imagery because it is portraying a horrible schizoid state, but this imagery suggests the incredible monstrosity of hell and the delusion, not that the poem is a dream. And again, the conviction is too great, the study of the woman's grief too minute and sincere, for the poem to be an "absent dream" like the happier visions. A look at Lampman's proofs for the titles of two of these poems is revealing also. Until the final correction of the proofs for Alcyone, "The City of the End of Things" carried the following title:
And the title for "The Land of Pallas" was
"The City of the End of Things" is a direct vision of what is and what is coming about, while "The Land of Pallas" is a mere trifling dream it is a conception of what ought to be but what, of course, will never be. Vision and dream are relaxing pastimes, Lampman has come to realize, but they ultimately have no validity or applicability to the real world, which, for Lampman, was becoming a very bleak place:
In an earlier manuscript version of this poem, "The City", the opening line is: "When shalt thou rest, O city . . . ".39 This line implies that the city will rest in time, but the final version of the line implies that the city cannot rest, that modern urban civilization is caught up in a kind of self-perpetrating vertigo that makes the human consciousness dizzier and dizzier. The city is seen as a self-nourishing organism of madness, misery, greed, and killing:
The numerology of "one" was important to Lampman in his earlier volumes: the "one", or "whole", or "All", symbolized for him the perfect order of things. Now the oneness is perfect disorder, or, paradoxically, perfect chaos. In effective rhythm and machine-like simplicity, he describes what he sees in his society:
This is Lampman's vision of society. No longer can he trifle with dreams of elysian fields and happy, fulfilled people his transcendental vision is gone: " . . . the days are gone like a vision / When the people wrought and sang".
Dreams have not only been a waste of time for Lampman, but they have caused him great disillusionment. The more dreams he has gone through, the more bitter and sad he has become, he says in "Sapphics". This poem begins with Lampman describing the decay and ruthless stripping of the maple trees, intending this as a metaphor for his own life:
He then makes the analogy to his own life:
Earlier in his career Lampman said that "dreams are real and life is only sweet". He is realizing in this volume that dreams are mere illusions, and damaging ones at that; he is realizing that modern life and society are sad and misshapen things, that he as a human being is not on the road to "the All, God, or the Immensity", but is moving ever so hopelessly toward final annihilation. The universe is not full of "innumerable harmonies" as he once tried to believe.
Nor is human life evolving toward perfection. In "The Better Day", the ironic conclusion is that there is no better day coming. This poem begins with Lampman's summary of what comprises modern life and society:
Emerson would never mention even the possibility of these elements triumphing, because "If the red slayer think he slays", then he is wrong he can never slay. But Lampman here implies that these malignant elements can triumph and that perhaps they cannot be still. Lampman is admitting plainly that he now cannot subscribe to Emerson's view of the apocalypse. He asks:
The rest of the poem is composed of such hopeless questions; in fact, of the six sentences in this poem, five are questions eternally unanswered ones. After all these questions he concludes by asking, will rest and peace be found only "in the grave?" The suggestion in this poem is that there are no answers. He cannot write affirmatively or even speculatively about "the better day" because there is no better day coming.
Many of the later poems in the volume are filled with moods of despair and sadness. After giving a superb description of the city in "Winter Evening", for example, he concludes with a lament at the loss of the vision of summer, which lament can also be read as the loss of the vision of summer, which lament can also be read as the loss of Lampman's transcendental vision:
This final, despairing vision is only balanced by the fact that Lampman, though uncertain and bitter about society and the human predicament, never totally gives up hope for something better. In 1892 or 1893 Lampman wrote in his workbook a poem entitled "The Clearer Self". This is the period in which Lampman wrote his other transcendental poems, and "The Clearer Self" was probably originally intended to appear in the volume of 1895 instead of that of 1899. "The Clearer Self" seems a very Emersonian poem, as one might expect from this period. But that Lampman modified it and included it in Alcyone suggest that though he knew the Emersonian vision was not a possible cosmic view for him, nevertheless the imaginative striving for a vision "Above the measured and the known" is still a noble pursuit, though it must always be held at the status of vision and not elevated to a religion, belief, or reality. In the first version he writes (emphasis added):
The italicized parts were significantly changed for the published version, in which the first line quoted here reads: "Though yet the sacred fire be dull. . .". Lampman no longer sees himself as elect for a personal transcendental experience. The "sacred fire" is of all existence, not just his own. The "Master Spirit" of this world becomes the master spirit of the world; again the line becomes more impersonal, more general. Most importantly, in the first version Lampman wants to "hold in proud security" this vision of his clearer self. In the later version he says (emphasis added):
By including this poem in Alcyone he shows that he has hope for the human experience; yet all he wishes for at this time is, "in some small measure", a vision of his greater position in the cosmic scheme of things. The cosmos is somehow sound. There is somewhere a purpose for existence. But the quiet suggestion in the final stanza, indeed, throughout Lampman's poetry (particularly his later work) is that the human being cannot ever know the "Master Spirit" of the world. He can never, during earthly existence or even thereafter achieve the transcendental unity with the universe or "Immensity". All man has is experience; it is experience and life as such that he must face. Ironically, this is the exact position that Emerson came to take late in his life in his last essay, "Experience". Lampman believes that one can dream of the Land of Pallas, of the Ought-to-be or Might-have-been, but one must always remember that it is only a dream something outside of reality, not an alternative for reality. Nature, the whole universe, is good and evil, beautiful and ugly, frightening and soothing; but human life, a good thing, though troubled and at times morbid, must go on.
It is quite wrong to agree with the many critics who say that Lampman is "a dreamer of dreams", one who escaped to the countryside and there found consolation and calm. Equally erroneous is the idea that the city symbolizes the evil and the country the purity and beauty of existence; Lampman was too subtle a thinker to adopt such a simplistic duality. And finally, the view of Lampman as transcendentalist can be misleading if one does not understand his complex and changing relationship with this visionary framework. Lampman, as this study has attempted to show, wanted to subscribe to this framework but never fully could. He began his poetical career by articulating his vision of nature while following the Emersonian lead. Then he found it necessary to conceal his ambivalent feelings, his own complex vision, if he was to achieve the Emersonian "clearer self". Never being able to avoid seeing nature "simply as it is", however, he had to unite himself with a dream of it; he had to exorcize the demons from the world of visible phenomena, and transform that world into an ideal, dream vision. Finally, he saw the futility and dishonesty of this kind of visionary framework, so he cast off his Emersonian spectacles in order to look directly and painfully at life and nature as they really are. He separated dream and reality, instead of trying to conflate them, and articulated some very frightening, realistic, and moving poems. In Lampman there is a transcendental-visionary development that makes his the most moving, fascinating, and penetrating poetry in nineteenth-century Canada.
Roy Daniells, "Lampman and Roberts", in The Literary History of Canada (Univ. of Toronto Press, 1965), p. 390.[back]
Ibid., p. 389.[back]
D.G. Jones, Butterfly On Rock (Univ. of Toronto Press,1970), p. 98. [back]
Sanda Djwa, "Lampman's Fleeting Vision", Canadian Literature, 56 (1973),22. [back]
Ralph Gustafson, "Life and Nature: Some Re-appraisals of Archibald Lampman", cited in The Lampman Symposium, ed. Lorraine McMullen (Univ. of Ottawa Press, 1974), p. 6. This book is hereafter referred to as Symposium.[back]
Louis K. Mackendrick, "Sweet Patience and her Guest, Reality: The Sonnets of Archibald Lampman", cited in Symposium, p. 55.[back]
Dick Harrison, "So Deathly Silent: The Resolution of Pain and Fear in the Poetry of Lampman and D.C. Scott", cited in Symposium, p. 65.[back]
D.M.R. Bentley, "Pan and the Confederation Poets", Canadian Literature, 81 (Summer, 1979), 60.[back]
Kathy Mezei, "Lampman Among the Timothy", Canadian Poetry, 5 (Fall/Winter, 1979), 57-72.[back]
Barrie Davies, "The Forms of Nature: Some of the Philosophical and Aesthetic Bases of Lampman's Poetry", cited in Symposium, p. 76.[back]
Carl F. Klinck, "The Frogs: An Exercise in Reading Lampman", cited in Symposium, p.23.[back]
Ibid., p. 29.[back]
Sandra Djwa, "Lampman's Achievement", cited in Symposium, p. 111.[back]
At the Mermaid Inn: Wilfred Campbell, Archibald Lampman, Duncan Campbell Scott in 'The Globe,' 1892-3, ed. and intro. by Barrie Davies (Univ. of Toronto Press), p. 191. Hereafter cited as At the Mermaid Inn.[back]
Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Each and All", 1834. Cited in Introduction to American Poetry and Prose, ed. N. Foerster (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1971) p. 296. Hereafter referred to as Foerster.[back]
Lampman MS. Poems,1889-92, University of Toronto Library.[back]
Lampman MS. Papers, MG D59, Vol. 2, Public Archives Canada.[back]
Lampman MS. Papers, MG29 D59, Vol. 2, Public Archives Canada. "The Poetry of Byron" has been published, with a "Prefatory Note" by D.M.R. Bentley, in Queen's Quarterly, 83 (Winter,1976), 623-632.[back]
At the Mermaid Inn, p. 297.[back]
Fragment by Ralph Waldo Emerson, cited by Lampman in The Globe, April 22,1893.[back]
Archibald Lampman, "Among the Millet". Cited in The Poems of Archibald Lampman, ed. Margaret Coulby Whitridge (Univ. of Toronto Press, 1974). All further quotations from Lampman's poetry are from this standard text.[back]
Ralph Waldo Emerson, "The Rhodora",1834. Cited in Foerster, p. 295.[back]
Archibald Lampman, "Heat".[back]
Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Brahma",1856. Cited in Foerster, p. 305.[back]
Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature, 1836. Cited in Foerster, p. 307.[back]
Ralph Waldo emerson, "The Over-Soul", 1841. Cited in Transcendentalism in America, D.N. Koster (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1975), p. 39.[back]
Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature, 1836. Cited in Transcendentalism in America, D.N. Koster,1975, p. 34.[back]
Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature,1836. Cited in Foerster, p. 307.[back]
In the "Introduction" to his Archibald Lampman, Lyrics of Earth (1895) (Ottawa: The Tecumseh Press, 1978), D.M.R. Bentley explains how "The Sun Cup" came to be inappropriately the last poem in Lyrics of Earth. Whether because of "Lampman's own carelessness, or to Thomson's editing, or merely to a printer's error", the poem did not find its proper intended place which was between "In May" and "Life and Nature". It was omitted. Lampman, wanting it included, allowed it to be placed at the end of the volume. Nevertheless, Lampman's original intention was to end the volume with "Winter-Store".[back]
Lampman MS. Papers, MG29 D59 Vol. 3, Public Archives Canada.[back]
Lampman MS. Papers, MG29 D59 Vol.3, Public Archives Canada.[back]
Lampman MS. Papers, MG29 D59 Vol. 3, Public Archives Canada.[back]
Lampman MS. Papers, MG29 D59 Vol. 3, Public Archives Canada.[back]