Preface: Minor Poets of a Superior Order
It may surprise even some of the most committed students of Confederation poetry to learn that this is an excerpt from a letter, not by Nathaniel son or a Miss Crotchet, but by the young Wallace Stevens, a poet not usually considered to be indebted to Bliss Carman or to any other Canadian writer. Yet a week earlier, in a letter of January 24, 1909, Stevens wrote:
Apparently Steve scribbled poems, one of them called From a Vagabond, on the the flyleaves of the three Vagabondia volumes that Carman co-authored with Richard Hovey.3
Nor was Wallace Stevens the only American poet at the turn of the century who found material to admire and use in Carmans poetry, particularly the Sappho and Vagabondia volumes. In introducing a selection of William Carlos Williams The October, 1912 issue of the London Poetry Review, Ezra Pound noted that he had greatly enjoyed The Songs of Vagabondia by Mr. Bliss Carman and the late Richard Hovey.4 As Noel Stock has pointed out, there is an echo of Carmans Sappho in Pounds Ripostes and an illusion to the Canadian poet in Canto LXXX.5 Other American poets who, in one way or another, felt the influence of Carman were the Edwin Arlington Robinson who found an unquestionable touch of greatness6 in a Carman poem in the Chap-Book and, quite likely, the Robert Frost of After-Apple Picking.7 The fact is that Carman was very much a presence in American poetry and criticism in the pre-modern period. Not only did the reality and zest8 of the Vagabondia volumes assist in the opening-up of ideas and poetics that led to Modernism but the brief, crisp lyrics of the Sappho volume almost certainly contributed to the aesthetic and practice of Imagism.9 In conservative circles Carmans presence in American letters remained strong into the twenties, when he was asked to edit The Oxford Book of American Verse (1927).10
Largely because of the well-known account of the influence of The Piper of Arll on John Masefield, Duncan Campbell Scott has achieved a pre-eminence in many minds as the Confederation poet whose influence negotiated the Atlantic to England. This may well be the case,11 but it is worth recalling that, like Scott, both Roberts and Barman published poems in prominent periodicals and anthologies in England (Carmen had a poem in The Savoy, for example) and that the latter was especially well-known in English literary circles. In Francis Thompsons reviews of Songs from Vagabondia and The Kinship of Nature Carman is not only credited with being better known than Hovey but also described as a Canadian poet of deserved repute this side of the water.12 Of course, the Fredericton poets had personal contact with several late-nineteenth-century English writera, including Swinburne, Wilde, Richard Le Gallienne and William Sharp. It seems more than likely that P.G. Wodehouse had Carman in mind (and perhaps Robert Service and Wilson MacDonald as well) when he created the Ralston McTodd of Leave It to Psmith (1924); the author of Songs Squalor and other volumes, McTodd is a powerful young singer of Saskatoon, a gloomy looking young man with long and disordered hair,13 whose wonderful poems . . . are, of course, known the whole world over (so at least says one of his admirers). The Stephen Leacock of such works as Moonbeams from the Larger Lunacy was not the only writer in the period around the First World War to perceive in the Canadian poet a figure large and recognizable enough for humorous treatment.
At least as noteworthy as the impact of the Confederation poets on their contemporaries in America, England and, of course, Canada is their presence in later Canadian poetry. Although several features of Canadian Modernism, including its cosmopolitan bias and its myth of discontinuity ended in the period around the Second World War to encourage the devaluation or ignorance of the Confederation poets, the influence of Carman found its way to various modern poets, including the Smith of ch poems as Pagan (Were I the Great God Pan.14) and To Hold in a Poem15 and the Purdy of The Enchanted Echo (which includes a Summons to Vagabonds) and Pressed on Sand. Probably because of changing tastes and temperamental disaffinities that were reflected in Canadian criticism for example in E.K. Browns (puritanical) hostility to the Fredericton poets in general and to Carman in particular16 interest in the Ottawa Group, especially in Lampman and Scott, began to increase after the Second War. Like Avison (The Iconoclasts) and Souster (A Letter to Archibald Lampman), Purdy has written a poem in conscious, and at least partly admiring, response to Lampman (Lampman in Heat), and Douglas Lochhead though a poet of the Tantramar like Roberts has taken the title of his Collected Poems from Lampmans Heat (The Full Furnace). Also quite recently D.G. Jones has used Lampman as a point of departure in his Kate, These Flowers . . . (The Lampman Poems) and John Flood has used Scotts poems of the Indians and the North as his pretext in The Land They Occupied. Despite such formidable forces as the hostility of Modernism to Romanticism and that of Postmodernism to all tradition (not to mention the agonizingly repetitive assertions of George Woodcock and others that Canadian literature began with Canadian Modernism), the Confederation poets have continued to be a presence in Canadian poetry. The responses of Canadian poets to them are numerous (too numerous to be calculated here) and varied, as are the responses of Canadian critics. Could it be that the agreements and arguments between contemporary Canadian writers and their Canadian predecessors are a sign that Canada is not, after all, doomed to hearing in perpetuity belated announcements of its own literary birth or coming-of-age by the latest amnesiac importers of a new ism?
No one would wish to claim from the examples, instances and quotations assembled here that the Confederation poets were either individually or collectively seminal thinkers who dominated and determined the course of poetry in their own times or ours. Yet through personal contacts, through periodical publications, and, above all, through those little volumes of poetry of which Stevens wrote, the Confederation poets achieved more of a presence in American, English and Canadian literature than is often realized. Like their best successors in the Canadian continuity, they are minor poets of a superior order. As such, they attracted the attention of both stronger and weaker writers among their contemporaries and successors. As such they will continue to attract the attention of Canadian criticism, probobly with increasing intensity and discernment. What James Reaney has recently written of Crawford, Lampman and Roberts can be extended to Carman, Scott, Campbell, Sherman, Pickthall and others: they wrote well and were of note.17 In this issue of Canadian Poetry is again embodied the hope with which Malcolm Ross concluded the Introduction to his influential anthology of Poets of the Confederation the hope that the materials here presented will remind us that we possess a poetic tradition of considerable merit and of recognizable character a tradition which endures. . . .18
I am grateful to Stan Dragland, Murray MacArthur and Tracey Ware for calling my attention to materials cited in this Preface.