The Beginnings of Canadian Modernism
By Ken Norris
Modernism made a gradual entrance into Canadian poetry, beginning in 1914 with the publication of a book of poems by Arthur Stringer entitled Open Water. As Louis Dudek and Michael Gnarowski have noted:
The prevailing tradition in Canadian verse, at this time, was one that had been established by the poets of the Confederation: Charles G.D. Roberts, Bliss Carman, Archibald Lampman and Duncan Campbell Scott. This poetry, although striving for a certain Canadian quality, was very much the offspring of English Victorian verse. The majority of versifiers in Canada were to cling to this mode of expression until the beginning of the 1940's. It was up to a few poets to begin infusing the Modernist spirit into Canadian poetry.
In 1920, F.O. Call published a book of verse, Acanthus and Wild Grape, which, like Stringer's book, was more important for what its preface had to say than for the poetry that the volume contained. The tenets of Modernism began to be exercised before there was a successful Modernist Canadian poem produced. Assessing Call's book Dudek and Gnarowski explain that
The early 1920's saw a slightly increased activity in the writing of Modern verse in Canada. W.W.E. Ross, R.G. Everson, Raymond Knister and Dorothy Livesay were all poets who wrote in the Imagist mode, utilizing free verse during this time. "In short, a scattering of Canadian writers, in no way organized or identified with any Canadian literary magazine, already reflected the changes taking place in the early 1920's."3 Their activity was individual and unrelated; their poems appeared in American and English literary publications. In Canada, there was no focal point, no center of activity as of yet. It would be the rise of the little magazine that would serve as the breeding ground for the true initiation of Modernism in Canada and the subsequent schools and innovations:
The programmatic introduction of Modernism into Canadian poetry as well as the first stirrings of the tradition of the little magazine in Canada began on November 21, 1925 with the printing of the first issue of The McGill Fortnightly Review, a periodical which continued publication until April 27, 1927. Two of the prime movers behind the founding and editing of The McGill Fortnightly Review were A.J.M. Smith and F.R. Scott, two graduate students then attending McGill University. The previous year Smith had edited the McGill Daily Literary Supplement, a publication which functioned as a supplement to the student newspaper. F.R. Scott, in recalling how he first met Smith, recounts the events of this time that led to the founding of the periodical:
The "review" that followed was, in no strict sense, a "little magazine"; it was very much a student publication. It did not emerge with a fighting position with which to do battle with the literary conventions of the time although, with succeeding issues, it took up this fight in subtle ways. The publication's name was itself modeled on a famous nineteenth century magazine published in London since 1865: The Fortnightly. In a manner typical of students, it would seem that the editors sought to ally themselves with the bastions of tradition and institutionalism. (A sign of this is that their first editorial gives praise to a series of lectures that Bliss Carman had given at McGill. Four years later, having become engaged in the battle for a Modernist orientation in Canadian poetry, Scott would write an extensive critique of Carman's verse in The Canadian Mercury.) The McGill Fortnightly Review's initial editorial is not a very fiery one. Interlarded with various editorial comments about Student Council Meetings, McGill-Varsity Games and the refusal of the Harold Lloyd Rugby Trophy, the magazine announces itself and its editorial policies as follows:
In most ways The McGill Fortnightly Review was a typical student publication. It mixed literature and opinion with the general concerns of university students. Because of its university affiliations and liberal approach towards submissions it is, as Michael Gnarowski has pointed out, "in no sense . . . a truly self-willed little magazine. Its historic value is lodged in the fact that it brought a group of promising poets together, gave them editorial experience and finally pointed them in the right direction, thus starting a literary movement on its way."7 The McGill group, as it has come to be known, consisting of Scott, Smith and Leo Kennedy (Klein was to join them later in the pages of The Canadian Mercury), had its first practical experience within the pages of The McGill Fortnightly Review.
Despite the fact that the concerns of poetry were combined with articles about the McGill debating club, the McGill group began to put forward the new ideas of Modernism, and to dispute the present literary currents in Canada. F.R. Scott has commented upon their working principles at the time:
The launching of Modernism in the pages of the Fortnightly was put forward as a two-pronged attack: firstly, there was criticism to be leveled at the literary temper of the times, which the McGill group saw as embodied by the Canadian Authors' Association promoting the quasi-Victorian verse of the twenties. The McGill group took pot-shots at the C.A.A. throughout the duration of the publication of The McGill Fortnightly Review and The Canadian Mercury. Second, there was the new program of Modernism to be put forward; this was presented in articles and in the poems themselves. The second issue of The McGill Fortnightly Reviewwas the first in which both aspects of the Modernist program were presented. The second issue's editorial included a criticism of the C.A.A. and of their promotion methods, and it contained certain basic convictions about the nature of writing which are worth noting:
The McGill group expressed a natural antipathy for "mediocre Canadian books," that is, poetry weighted down by a transplanted Victorian tradition living out a protracted decadence in Canada. In its stead, these poets sought to place the models of the new modern poets, such as the Imagist group, as well as W.B. Yeats and T.S. Eliot.
It was Smith who, in a series of articles, was to be the theoretician of the new poetry and who would define for Canada the role of poetry in the modern world. His first article, "Symbolism in Poetry," appeared in the same issue as the denunciation of the Canadian Authors' Association, issue number 2. It stated the necessity for the use of symbolism in modern writing and provided some theoretical and historical background for this idea. In the final paragraph of the article Smith quotes Yeats on the role of symbolism in relation to modern poetry; it is a principle running strictly counter to the poetic indulgence of the previous fifty years. This symbolism is meant to effect "a casting out of descriptions of nature for the sake of nature, of the moral law for the sake of the moral law, a casting out of all anecdotes and of that brooding over scientific opinion that so often extinguished the central flame in Tennyson, and of that vehemence that would make us do or not do certain things.12 This denunciation of the excesses of Victorianism can also be seen to apply to the Canadian poets of Confederation, who, too often, became caught up in descriptions of nature and in extended moralizing. In the 1920's both Carman and Roberts received high praise from the C.A.A. and the Canadian critics, and had spawned such poetic heirs as Mardorie Pickthall and Wilson MacDonald. The McGill group felt the absolute necessity to get beyond this maple-leaf school of poetry. As Scott has recently observed, "when we were on the Fortnightly there was not a single Canadian poet we paid much attention to, certainly not an old poet like Bliss Carman, Charles G.D. Roberts, Archibald Lampman or Duncan Campbell Scott."13
Yeats and Eliot had a great impact upon Scott and Smith. Smith's second article on Modern poetry in the Fortnightly, "Hamlet in Modern Dress," was an adept analysis of Eliot's difficult poem "The Waste Land"; this article again took note of the poet's use of symbolism. Smith, here and in general, reveals his preference for the Yeats-Eliot axis of Modernism rather than that of Pound and Williams, a point worth noting, since it is the latter two who were to have a great effect upon later generations of Canadian poets. Scott, too, has acknowledged the fact that, at the time, "The Waste Land" "had a terrific effect upon me as a poem."14 Smith's article on Eliot was immediately followed by one of Scott's early satirical poems entitled "Sweeney Comes to McGill" which points ridicule at the processes of education.
It was in his article "Contemporary Poetry" (Vol. II, no. 4) that Smith defined most clearly his view of the purpose and quality of the modern. Smith began by noting that "our age is an age of change, and of a change that is taking place with a rapidity unknown in any other epoch."15 Smith saw the vast technological advancements and simultaneous changes in attitudes towards philosophy, science and religion as transforming the universe of ideas in which we live:
This shaking up of the "erroneous but comfortable stability" of Victorian life and its well-metred but decadent Romantic verse was to be replaced by a new order of life and art. Smith emphatically argued that the new poetry "must be the result of the impingement of modern conditions upon the personality and temperament of the poet."17 This impingement could have many diverse results: the poet could enthusiastically welcome the birth of a new age and new prospects for the individual as Modernists like Lawrence and Williams did, or else he could lament modern man's divorce from the traditional world of values and culture, as did Yeats, Eliot and Pound in their poetry. But whatever the poet's response to modern civilization, Smith rightly saw "the peculiar conditions of the time [as having] forced them all to seek a new and more direct expression, to perfect a finer technique."18 Smith saw the experimentation in the forms of the arts that was so prevalent in the 1910's and 1920's not as something that stemmed out of a conscious choice on the part of writers, but as a condition "forced" upon them. The artist who had his eyes open could not help but see the disparity between the modern world and the world reflected in Victorian and fin-de-siecle works. The new world that was dawning demanded a new art. This new poetry could provide a change in form, that of free verse, although Smith saw the greater part of modern poetry rather as "infused with the new spirit . . . written in the traditional metres and with the traditional rhyme schemes. "19 This was certainly true of the orientation and direction of his own poetry. This new poetry also reflected a change in poetic diction: "the deems, forsooths, methinks, the inversions for the sake of rhyme, the high sounding pomposities and all the rhetorical excesses which make so much Victorian poetry seem over-dressed and slightly vulgar all these have been ruthlessly removed from the diction of contemporary poetry."20 Smith attempted to provide the ultimate clarification of the workings of Modernism by quoting Harriet Monroe, then editor of the little magazine Poetry which played an important part in the development of early Modernism:
The new potentialities of form and diction, and the direct and concrete realities of modern living were to spark modern verse. This doctrine, or orientation, naturally led the McGill group to come into conflict with the writing that was prevalent in Canada at the time.
The poetry of Scott and Smith dominated the poetry department in The McGill Fortnightly Review. Under their own names and the pseudonyms Brian Tuke, Michael Gard, and Vincent Starr they published an outpouring of their early Modernist experiments. Quite often their experiments with form, such as that of the sonnet, or their strokes of satirical verse, appeared under pseudonyms. Most of their poems were not written in free verse but adhered to some principle of metre and rhyme; this is especially true of Smith's own work, which, at times, seemed highly reminiscent of Yeats. From the very beginning Smith was intent upon working with traditional metres in the manner of Yeats and infusing them with "passionate speech." Clearly Smith was a highly formal poet. Scott also worked closely with rhyme and measured metres. It is in their poetic diction that they began to show a real Modernist orientation. Their poetry was written in an approximation of the modern idiom and strove to move away from the conscious poeticisms of the Victorians and their epigones. Early versions of some of their more successful poems appeared first in The McGill Fortnightly Review: Smith's "The Lonely Land" and "Epitaph" (Vol. I, no. 4) and Scott's "Below Quebec" (Vol. II, no. 3) as well as his broadside at the C.A.A., "The Canadian Authors Meet," in the last issue (Vol. II, no. 9-10).
The McGill Fortnightly Review terminated publication at the end of the spring semester in 1927. It ended because its editors had moved out beyond the university and had taken their mission elsewhere. Over a year later they would launch The Canadian Mercury, an enterprise on a more ambitious scale, which further illustrated that The McGill Fortnightly Review was very much a student publication, hardly yet an authentic little magazine. It involved itself in student and university issues and could just as easily take up an argument with the debating society as with the Canadian Authors' Association. The publications of Scott, Smith and Kennedy, for the most part, were in line with the talented work that appears in university publications. Within the pages of The McGill Fortnightly Review Smith tested out his critical theories and powers and the poets brought out their first poetical work. It was in the pages of the independent Canadian Mercury, which owed no affiliation to any institution or organizations, that they next made a more vigorous and self-confident stand for the principles of Modernism in Canadian poetry.
The Canadian Mercury began publication in December of 1928 and ran for seven issues before it terminated with the great economic crash of 1929. Lou Schwartz, who had been the business manager for The McGill Fortnightly Review, served as The Canadian Mercury's "sugar daddy"; he published it and paid its bills. As a result, The Canadian Mercury enjoyed considerable freedom as an independent journal of literature and opinion. Its editorial board consisted of Jean Burton, F.R. Scott, Leo Kennedy and Felix Walter. A.J.M. Smith sent in his contributions from the University of Edinburgh where he was now attending graduate school; Leon Edel was in Paris, whence he filed reports on the literary activity taking place there. Liberated from the trammels of general university concerns, the editors could now more fully involve themselves in the problems of literature. There is a much higher proportion of poetry and fiction as compared with other writing in The Canadian Mercury than in the earlier McGill Fortnightly Review. The McGill group also appears to have become a tighter organization, for the magazine is marked by the appearance of a consistent outpouring of poetry and other writings from a specific group of writers. This spirit of new confidence and independence is given voice in the opening editorial, which merits quoting at some length:
This is a wide open and freewheeling editorial. The editors offer to put forward a "more adequate standard of literary criticism in Canada," and they propose the "emancipation of Canadian literature from the state of amiable mediocrity and insipidity" in which they see it to be languishing. They oppose its parentage of "Decorum" and "Claptrap" which is leading it down the path to idiocy, and they pose, as an alternative, freedom of expression in verse and thought. It is a positive editorial which identifies the enemy and begins to put forward a program of rectification.
The first issue of The Canadian Mercury shows the full scope of this new commitment to Canadian literature. Included in that issue is an article by Stephen Leacock, "The National Literature Problem in Canada"; Leacock argues for Canadian qualities in Canadian literature as opposed to a clinging to English-American models; as regarding the "boostering" of Canadian writing, he is firmly anti-nationalist in the sense of being anti-isolationist. He concludes that Canada cannot close its eyes to the literature of the rest of the world and only look upon the writings of its native sons. Also contained in this issue are individual poems by both Smith and Scott which are of a high quality. Smith's "Proud Parable" is an early version of the poem known now as "Like An Old Proud King In A Parable," the first poem in Smith's Poems New & Collected. There is a problem, at times, in looking at Smith's poetry to discover the precise elements of Modernity in it. Smith has always been a highly formal poet, a poet who has not dissociated himself from traditional forms and concerns. Though predisposed to rhymed, metrical verse, Smith's Modernist sensibility can be glimpsed in the directness of his diction and prosody. Scott's "Vagrant" is a more visibly "modern" poem, although it, too, incorporates regularized metre and rhyme. In this poem Scott does not use capitals at the beginnings of lines, utilizes modern typography in his spacing, and writes in a language fully employing a modern idiom.
Issues 2-4 present a wide diversity of material. Issue number 2 contains a story, "Heat," by Dorothy Livesay, a long poem of uneven quality, "The Haunted House," by Abraham M. Klein, and Leon Edel's "Montparnasse Letter" in which he discusses the periodical transition and the current literary atmosphere of Paris. The third issue of The Canadian Mercury includes the poem "Sequel" by Leo Kennedy (up until this time Kennedy's contributions to The McGill Fortnightly Review and The Canadian Mercury had been prose fiction or reviews), which was to open his first collection of verse, The Shrouding. This poem, like Smith's, is highly formal in structure. (Kennedy, in his preface to the current reprint edition of The Shrouding, says of his poems of the late 'twenties and early 'thirties that they "were written when the world was more formal and poets thought a lot about scansion and almost as much about rhyme. Like the farm boy who learned to make love by mail order, I had no proper tutor and learned my trade if I learned it at all by imitating every poet I liked in the Oxford Book of English Verse and Louis Untermeyer's Modern American Poetry."23 Interestingly enough, we see that Kennedy sought his models in English and American sources rather than in Canadian ones.) Smith's essay, "A Note On Metaphysical Poetry," also appeared in the third issue; in it he followed Eliot in proclaiming the value of the English metaphysical poets; their poetry obviously had an impact upon his own writing. This issue also featured two poems by Scott: "Spring Flame," and an early version of Scott's strikingly beautiful "Old Song." Issue number 4 contained an early version of Smith's poem "Good Friday" and an interesting review of Stephen Vincent Benet's John Brown's Body by F.R. Scott. Scott assesses Benet as a minor poet, but sees great value in Benet's varied use of poetic forms and views the poem as proof of the serious work being done by young American poets.
The first article to appear as one opens issue 5-6 of The Canadian Mercury is Leo Kennedy's "The Future of Canadian Literature," a striking polemic directed at the Canadian Authors' Association. Kennedy sees the Association as fostering everything that is wrong with Canadian writing in the twenties; he sees the C.A.A. promoting archaic transplanted Victorianisms which are then to be judged by purely parochial standards. Kennedy maintains that, at this time, "the least attractive aspects of Victorianism still hold licensed Canadian creative writers firmly by the gullet. In poetry the Tennysonian and Wordsworthian traditions still rule, and are bolstered by none of the genius and technical ability of those poets."24 Kennedy sees this Victorian sensibility sustained by
Kennedy expresses a sure conviction that Canadian literature "will not readily be written by Canadian Authors,"26 meaning, of course, by the partisans of the C.A.A. Kennedy recognizes that the future of Canadian literature resides in the sceptical young writers, a party to which Scott, Smith and Kennedy himself do most readily belong. These young writers discuss Joyce, Hemingway, Shaw, Pound and Aldous Huxley rather than the Canadian poets of the Confederation and their third-rate imitators. Having begun to work their way clear of the dead philosophy and restrictions of the previous age, and having begun to comprehend the modern condition, it is these young writers who will be able to provide Canadian literature with a future. In the last paragraph of his article Kennedy speculates about this future:
Kennedy's assessment is a fairly accurate one. The McGill group of poets would serve in the role of enlighteners and propagators of Modernism. He was also correct in his assertion that the Victorianisms of the time had to be eclipsed in order for Canadian writing to move forward, and in predicting a poetry of regional concern.
Until its termination The Canadian Mercury continued its critical attack upon the old currents that were still dominant in Canadian writing. The final issue, issue number 7, includes a satirical poem entitled "God Bless the C.A.A." which, reportedly, came from an anonymous source in Toronto; a review of Bliss Carman's latest book of verse, Wild Garden, written by F.R. Scott also appeared in this issue. Scott's opinion of the book was that it did not contain one good poem; he observed that "Carman's technique and form is undiluted 1880; he seems impervious to change. He has no conception of rhythm, but only metrical accuracy."28 Scott also found fault in Carman's adding superfluous syllables in order to make a line metrically correct, his use of "poetical" words in order to make a rhyme, and the total lack of new ideas and metaphors. It is a relatively wholesale condemnation of an archaic poetic.
The McGill group of poets knew what was wrong with Canadian poetry in the 1920's and they knew where to find the remedy: in the English and American experimentation in modern verse that began sometime around 1909 and found its crystallization in Ezra Pound's Imagist movement. This had cleared the ground for the writings of T.S. Eliot and the later Yeats, both of whom profoundly influenced the McGill group. In putting forward reasonable grounds for rejecting the Canadian verse of the time, the McGill group, in the pages of The McGill Fortnightly Review and The Canadian Mercury, cleared the ground for the propagation of Canadian Modernism. Although these magazines were not, in the strictest sense, little magazines, they played an important part in Canadian literary history by bringing Modernism to Canada. A sound assessment of the early form this Modernism took in the poetry of Scott, Smith and Kennedy is given by Peter Stevens in his book The McGill Movement:
Their poetry was heavily influenced and occasionally imitative, but working with a new sense of form and an extended range of subject matter, they began to carve out a new poetry adapted to the age.