Poets of the Confederation: Current Approaches

Robert Lecker, Jack David, Ellen Quigley, eds, Canadian Writers and Their Works: Poetry Series, Volume Two. Downsview: ECW Press, 1983. 304 pp.

The recent publication of the “Confederation Poets” volume in the ECW Press’s Canadian Writers and Their Works series provides an admirable opportunity for a consideration of the state of Canadian criticism so far as this particular period in the nation’s poetic achievement is concerned. Let me say at once that I consider this volume easily the best study that we yet have of the five poets in question (Wilfred Campbell is included alongside the standard four: Bliss Carman, Archibald Lampman, Charles G.D. Roberts, and Duncan Campbell Scott); indeed, it seems to me to set a new standard for criticism of nineteenth-century Canadian literature. It is not definitive, of course, since definitiveness is not possible in as shifting and developing a subject as literary criticism, but it provides at long last a firm foundation which, one suspects, will be the standard and indispensable work on the subject for many years to come. At the same time it allows us to discuss not only what has been achieved but what needs to be done in the future.

     Since this series has only just begun to appear, a brief description is perhaps in order. Each volume is to contain, on an average, five essays written by different contributors on five individual Canadian authors. The editors request that each essay follow a regular pattern, consisting of a four-part division into biography, tradition and milieu, critical overview and context, and (quantitatively the largest section) a critical study of the writer’s main works. Such standardization could easily prove a handicap (one thinks of the artificial and dulling sameness of so many of the Twayne series), but in this case the format is not so rigid as to become oppressive. These divisions are, in fact, helpful since it is easy to locate the particular kind of discussion that one is looking for. The contributions are carefully researched and footnoted, and each contains a select but convenient bibliography of the main primary and secondary sources. And an adequate index is included at the end of the book.

     Each volume in the series is to be introduced by George Woodcock, and here he provides an admirable general discussion that is critically sophisticated and maturely discriminating. In reading Woodcock, one becomes aware of an achieved critical confidence, an ability to discuss the Confederation Poets honestly and justly without feeling that one must either apologise for one’s praise or belligerently assert one’s strictures. And by and large this sense of a critical coming-of-age is borne out by the other contributors.

     Woodcock lays his critical cards (and, one assumes, those of the editors) firmly on the table when he asserts that “the real aim of our critical efforts should be to understand the intrinsic merits of the poet — what makes him worth reading a century afterwards” (p. 15). This seems to me a fair and proper statement, though we should certainly bear in mind Fred Cogswell’s warning in his discussion of Roberts. There he remarks that, when Canadian writers and critics of the present time

turn backward to read and consider the work of their ancestors, they often do so as historians seeking to connect with their “roots” by emphasizing those facets of a writer’s production that seem closest to those of their own times; or, obeying the unwritten assumption of the New Criticism —  “What’s in it for me?” — they attempt to interpret the more striking older poems and stories according to the standards, ideas, and techniques of the present with little concern as to what these works signified to either their authors or contemporary readers.

(p. 201)

The two comments get to the roots of a critical dilemma which is particularly acute in the case of the Confederation Poets. They point up two legitimate but opposed assumptions that coexist uneasily in literary studies.

    Basically, I find myself closer to Woodcock’s position because I believe that the nurturing of a living literature — one that we read for our pleasure and profit rather than as a pious, even pedantic duty — is always an important endeavour and is especially so at the present time. That a smaller number of people should study the monuments of past culture in their own right and on their own terms is also important, and can be valuable in controlling the restraining contemporary excesses. But in the last analysis, though John Gower may have been an important poet in the medieval period, it is Chaucer and Langland who speak most urgently to us. Or, to take a Canadian example that will turn up again in a moment, Wilfred Campbell may have been a significant cultural phenomenon in his own time, but his poetry cannot compare with the best of Lampman, Roberts, or Scott — or even Carman. While each age has its characteristic enthusiasms and blind spots, the capacity of a writer’s work to survive the onslaughts of historical change is, I would argue, a more reliable index than most concerning his profundity and literary quality.

     There is, however, no reason why a sensitive critical commentary cannot take into consideration the relevant historical factors, and draw attention to a writer’s importance in his or her own time, while ultimately coming to a value-judgement in terms of modern tastes and needs. Woodcock himself is successful in these terms. We have surely achieved something when a commentator can describe Isabella Valancy Crawford as a poet “whose diction was high-Victorian and whose imagination ran to the preposterous verges of Romanticism” (p. 9), or acknowledge that Carman’s work “varies astonishingly between great imaginative intensity and —  more often — unbearable triteness” (p. 10), or refer to “an inclination” in an earlier phase of Canadian criticism “to weight silver (e.g., Lampman) against brass (e.g., Campbell) and find them equal” (p. 12). This is a criticism that has won through to, in Arnold’s terms, a “disinterested” perspective on its earlier literature. There is room, naturally, for disagreement and reassessment, but the literature is acknowledged as an achieved body of work that can and should withstand a rigorous scrutiny.

     The writers are arranged in alphabetical order, and by a fortunate accident this means that we begin with the brass and work up to more precious metals. Neither George Wicken’s discussion of Campbell nor the quotations with which he studs his essay persuade me that Campbell can be taken at all seriously. It is doubtless significant that Wicken makes no sustained attempt at literary assessment. He contents himself with arranging poems on a kind of seasonal spectrum from winter to spring or on a grid ranging from doubt to hope or at least a sense of agnostic resolution. Wicken is forced to fall back on possible metaphorical meanings (see, for example, p. 41), presumably because he cannot discuss with any confidence the texture of the words and rhythms that are actually there on the page. In this essay we find the rather desperate special pleading that the other commentators have mercifully banished to the criticism of the past. It’s no good quoting seven decidedly mediocre lines from Campbell and claiming that they “recall the final stanza of Wordsworth’s ‘Intimations’ ode” (p. 43). A prose summary of the two works might reveal superficial similarities, but as poetry they are as different as chalk and cheese. And it is the poetry that matters. Wicken erects a consistent formal structure to encompass Campbell’s work — and the purely informative details of biography and critical reception are not without value — but that is all. The illustrative quotations (with the exception of those from “Lazarus”) come as so many dull thuds.

     Moreover, Wicken hardly ever follows through the arguments he initiates. While discussing “The Were-Wolves,” he complains that it “has been particularly attacked as morbid by those of Campbell’s critics who feel that the darker side of human experience is an inappropriate subject for poetry” (p. 49). If this is a fair description, the critics in question are not worth considering. The real question concerns not the nature of the subject-matter but the quality of the verse, on which he is silent. He is generally content with prose summary, but is often unclear. He amazes me by arguing that “The Mother,” which ends (by his own account) with the dead woman taking the child with her to the grave, is a celebration of “the triumph of love over death” and “the triumph of spirit over science” (p. 56).  The obvious objections (what do these abstractions mean in this context? what about the fate of the child?) do not seem to have been anticipated.   Finally, towards the end of the study, Wicken quotes (without clearly indicating either approval or disapproval) a lot of imperialistic blather —  blather not, be it noted, because it is imperialistic but because it is so inept as verse. All in all, the essay’s main usefulness is unintentional: it proves only too evidently that most of Campbell’s work fades into insignificance beside the work of the more familiar Confederation Poets. Indeed, it casts grave doubt on whether Campbell can, in the strictest sense of the term, be considered a poet at all.

     Terry Whalen faces a more difficult task, I suspect, in trying to produce a fair estimate of Carman, and although he insists on using the word “major” of Carman and his work without, in my view, earning the right to do so, he generally succeeds in extracting a good deal of impressive poetry from among the dross. His commentary is valuable not only for the reconsideration of Carman that it encourages but for the larger claim for a kind of poetry which both modernist and post-modernist champions either ignore or ridicule. A difference between Whalen and Wicken is that Whalen is more prepared to acknowledge the weaknesses of his subject and is thereby more credible when arguing for the strengths. Thus he makes the interesting observation that “much of Carman’s later poetry . . . falls to the level of skeletal idea” (p. 115), is prepared to talk of “Delsartean dogmatic doggerel” (p. 115), and acknowledges that Carman’s “impulse to instruction mars much of his work after 1899” (p. 117). But he boldly suggests that Carman is “more courageous and thoughtful in his optimism than the fashionable criticism of his work has allowed” (p. 99), is intelligent on the impact of music on Carman (pp. 100, 101), and is persuasive in arguing that he “is always an elegiac poet” (p. 119). Above all, Whalen possesses the knack of convincing quotation, always picking out extracts that display Carman at his best. Despite his tendency to repeat himself, I know of no better assessment of Carman’s contribution to Canadian literature.

     L.R. Early’s discussion of Lampman begins extremely well. He offers a clear and authoritative account of Lampman’s life and immediate cultural context. He remarks acutely that a great deal of Confederation Poetry “challenges our ability to discriminate superficial imitation from a creative use of tradition” (p. 138) and illustrates his point with a brief but apt reference to “April” and “The Frogs.” He also makes a shrewd observation, apropos of the account of Lampman offered by many earlier commentators, when insisting that, “if Lampman escaped anywhere, it was into nature poetry, not nature” (p. 146). When we come to the section on Lampman’s works, however, we find that Early seems interested exclusively in his thoughts and attitudes. Verse is quoted for its meaning, not for its poetic quality. He classifies the poetry admirably, but rarely examines its closely. (A note informs us that part of the discussion overlaps with Early’s forthcoming Twayne volume on Lampman — which may explain some of the deficiencies.) Since the best of Lampman’s poetry responds well to close analysis, this failure to provide it seems unfortunate. As a result, Lampman emerges from the discussion as considerably less interesting than he really is. None the less, Early has individual insights that provoke thought and stimulate the reader’s own response. He has a pleasant gift of adding a further dimension to otherwise commonplace statements, as when he remarks that Lampman “was at his best in the sonnet and the short lyric, forms admirably suited to express a stasis” (p. 167).

     I approached Fred Cogswell’s study of Roberts with special interest since I have written at some length on Roberts myself (indeed, Cogswell startled me by asserting that I have “written more extensively on Roberts’ poetry than has any other scholar” [p. 198]). His commentary is admirably balanced, providing a firmly historical analysis of Roberts’ contribution and at the same time offering a just account of those aspects of his work that remain most interesting to the modern world. In the section on “Roberts’ Works,” he concentrates on intellectual biography rather than literary criticism in its purest sense, but the emphasis is particularly useful in Roberts’ case and, as a distinguished poet and Maritimer, Cogswell is in a unique position to give us a mature and considered overview of Roberts’ work as a whole. (It is worth noting here that his discussion of the fiction, though excellent, is brief since a fuller account of this material is promised in another volume.)

     Since I have been reasonably close to the development of Roberts criticism over the past twenty years, however, I would like to digress for a moment at this point and discuss the matter from (as it were) the inside. It may help us to understand something of the process of critical evolution. All the contributors to this volume have remarked that, for the Confederation Poets, the critical pendulum has swung from perhaps excessive praise in their own time through a period of hostility and/or neglect to the (one hopes) more balanced attitude that is beginning to emerge. When I began to write seriously on Roberts in the midsixties, I detected a somewhat odd coexistence on the first two stages. The “old guard,” armed with Elsie Pomeroy’s effusive biography, saw him as the grand old man of traditional Canadian poetry gallantly holding the fort against the inroads of the new barbarians; the younger generation, faced with a mass of poetic material that varied enormously in quality and from the technical standpoint seemed for the most part regular and oldfashioned, had consigned him to the “Canadian Authors Meet” stage of our literary development, long outgrown. Above all, his animal-stories were firmly classified as children’s literature, which had not then become a fashionable subject; in effect, this meant that they were generally ignored.

     My Charles G.D. Roberts (1969) attempted to salvage what seemed to be important and possibly congenial to changing times. It was a young man’s book, and I would write it somewhat differently today. But its basic approach (pace Robin Mathews) seems to me appropriate to the circumstances and justified in the result. I considered Roberts simply and deliberately as a writer in English, and made what I believed (and, for the most part, still believe) to be the necessary discriminations between work that remained impressive and writing that contained little to interest the modern reader. In 1983 some of the assertions se-em a little over-simple and even crude — the result, I believe, of a sophisticated criticism in the intervening years that my book may perhaps have encouraged. As a (comparatively) recent immigrant, I hadn’t fully adjusted my ear (have I yet?, I wonder) to Canadian cadences, and I can now see the difference between what Early calls “superficial imitation” and “a creative use of tradition” more clearly. But I did provide a reasonably stable critical position — one that was not particularly new (as Cogswell justly observes) since many of the points had been made earlier by Desmond Pacey and Roy Daniells, among others. The points were, however, made forthrightly and seemed to have some influence upon those who opened up literary-critical discussion of Canadian literature in the 1970s. It was a position that could be debated, accepted, rejected, or modified. In the last fifteen years, it has, I think, been partly accepted, partly modified (I have made some modifications myself, as Cogswell notes, and he has supplied some more here). I labour the point because this is surely the way critical discussion proceeds and should proceed. The present volume is a testimony to this process as it has been at work across the whole range of nineteenth-century Canadian poetry. (End of digression!)

     The book closes with Gordon Johnston’s discussion of Duncan Campbell Scott. Of all the essays here, his concentrates most singlemindedly on the use of verse-forms, metres, and individual poetic cadences. Some readers may find his analysis too dryly technical, but it is in my view thoroughly justified by the particular poetic features that Scott’s work exemplifies. As Johnston writes, Scott’s “interest in the poetry he read was to discover examples of perfection of line, and his concern in writing was to write perfect lines” (p. 240). He is especially illuminating in his examination of Scott’s characteristic exploitation of what Johnston calls “the variable line,” existing in two forms, “one slightly longer and unstable,” another “shorter, cadential” (p. 254). These technical matters are, in the event, by no means unrelated to the subject-matter of the verse. Thus Johnston remarks of three of Scott’s early Indian poems: “the regular form of each poem is an ironic reminder of the white conceptions of the native people and of the pressure those conceptions exert on their lives. It is not clear how conscious this use of form was on Scott’s part since it is not clear how thoroughly he regarded white conceptions of the Indians as ironic or problematic” (p. 256). In such remarks Johnston surely furthers both our technical and our thematic understanding of the well-known “tensions” that give a curious urgency and originality to Scott’s generally understated poetic effects.

     There are times when I wish Johnston could have pushed his ideas even further. While he invariably identifies the variations of line-length and stanza-pattern within individual poems — indeed, he claims that “the use in a single poem of various rhythmic norms is the most characteristic structure . . . of Scott’s poetry” (p. 258) — he doesn’t always explain why such changes occur or justify them poetically. Thus he merely asserts that, after the Indian is shot in “On the Way to the Mission,” “the poem miraculously is transformed into a version of the ballad stanza” (p. 257). But “miraculously” seems to me to evade the issue. Personally, I don’t share Johnston’s high evaluation of this poem, and he doesn’t convince me that I must rethink my position. In the main, however, he is decidedly convincing, and has fresh thoughts to bring even to a poem as frequently discussed as “The Height of Land.”

     The difference between Johnston’s emphasis and the approaches of the other contributors is noticeable, and I am not persuaded that this is accounted for wholly by Scott’s particular poetic interests. It seems fair to ask whether discussions of the other Confederation Poets would not benefit from a similar analysis. Johnston is surely doing — admittedly in somewhat extreme fashion — what literary criticism ought centrally to be doing, and he is doing it because Scott’s own emphasis on poetry as an art is itself central. I should stress at this point that I am not advocating the dry classification of iambic pentameters and abbas. I am referring to the relation of language and form to subject-matter; the control of nuance through rhythm and emphasis; the subtle distinctions of association and dignity between word and word; all the manifold effects that constitute poetry as a very special order of words. This volume of Canadian Writers and Their Works has brought between two covers the most important biographical and general cultural information about these five poets. It has added immeasurably to our awareness of their successes and faced up to the extent of their deficiencies. In a less constant way, it has improved our appreciation of the poetry as poetry. There is, naturally, more to be said about all these writers; but the important point to insist upon is that this book has set the study of Confederation Poetry on a new road that is leading in a fruitful direction.

W.J. Keith