John Frederic Herbin: A Reconsideration
by F. Ross Large
John Frederic Herbin (1860-1923), a native of the Minas Basin region of Nova Scotia, remains a relatively unknown contributor to the literature of the Confederation period.1 Mentioned, if at all, only in passing (even the Literary History of Canada contains but a single reference to his name), J.F. Herbin has been the subject of only one critical study: a ground breaking M.A. thesis by Kathryn Mary Parker Haughton that was completed in 1970 at the University of New Brunswick.2 In contrast to Haughton's thesis, which, for all its merits, takes an essentially dismissive view of Herbin, particularly as a poet, the following paragraphs will attempt to argue and to demonstrate that Herbin has been unjustly ignored by past and contemporary critics of Confederation poetry. The aim of the present undertaking is simply to awaken critics to what Herbin has to offer as a poet and, it is hoped, to establish a basis for further consideration of his work.
As a result of her attempt to deal with the complete works of two minor authors, Herbin and Charles Tory Bruce, within the limited space of an M.A. thesis, Haughton's consideration of each writer is at best superficial, leading frequently to conclusions based upon mere generalities. Concluding that "Herbin preferred history to fiction, and [that] his melodramatic, old-fashioned style makes him one of Canada's weakest writers,"3 Haughton argues that
Such conclusions and arguments are based upon a faulty foundation. Apparently basing her priorities on the fact that Herbin is better known for his novels, Haughton considers him as a novelist, rather than as a poet. By approaching Herbin primarily as the author of Grand-Pré (1898), The Heir to Grand-Pré (1907), The Land of Evangeline (1921) and Jen of the Marshes (1921), Haughton assumes that his poetry is inferior to his novels and, thus, finds in his poems only deficiencies that blind her to their inherent strengths. Had she read his poetry more sympathetically, looking carefully for a pattern or structure looking, that is to say, beyond the poet's weaknesses to discover his strengths she might well have come to a different conclusion, perhaps even the one argued here, namely that Herbin's poetry has been badly underrated and unjustly overlooked. Yet, despite its misjudgement of Herbin as a poet, Haughton's work on him remains valuable for its biographical details.5 Perhaps her most important observation is that Herbin maintained an intense predilection for history throughout his life specifically for the history of the Acadian people. Not only does Herbin's work reflect this predilection (it is invariably located in and concerned with the historical and physical environment of the Minas region), but in doing so it indicates that Herbin was, in the truest sense of the word, a regionalist author. Since he was a direct descendant of the deported Acadians, Herbin often exhibits in his work a bitterness towards the English and towards his ancestors' harsh treatments Canadian history; however, this bitterness will be shown to be a controlled and intended emotion, and not one that "overshadows his concern for writing well."6
Since this study aims to illustrate Herbin's strengths as a poet, no attention will be paid here to the early, apprentice work of Canada, and Other Poems (1891); rather, attention will be focused on the stronger and more mature work that is to be found in Herbin's two later collections: The Marshlands, first published in Windsor, Nova Scotia in 1893; and The Trail of the Tide, first published in the same volume as a second edition of The Marshlands in Toronto in 1899.7 After some fairly brief comments on the architectonics of the combined Marshlands and Trail of the Tide volume of 1899 comments aimed at suggesting, not only that the volume has a complex bipartite structure, but also that its author possessed the complexity of vision necessary for the creation of such a structure close attention will be paid to several of the more obviously successful poems in The Marshlands collection. By focusing on such aspects of The Marshlands as Herbin's use of a persona, his linking of poems through theme, and his depiction and personification of Nature, the discussion will attempt to refute Haughton's contention that the Acadian poet failed either to write well or to "capture the feel of Nova Scotia. . . ."8
A question that immediately arises about the collection of poems that Herbin published in Toronto in 1899 is why the poet decided to combine a second edition of The Marshland with a first edition of The Trail of the Tide. Why would he risk detracting from the unified wholeness of each separate collection through the use of a bipartite structure which might suggest disharmony and contrast? The answer can be found in the volume's untitled preface poem, a sonnet in which the opening quatrain establishes and emphasizes a contrast that points to the comparative relationship that exists between The Marshlands and The Trail of the Tide collections:
The third line of the quatrain establishes a contrast between the land and seascape, a distinction between the "green marshlands" and "red tides" of the Minas Basin that is reminiscent of Charles G.D. Roberts' "Tantramar Revisited" (1886). In effect, the poet is making the reader aware of a contrast that plays a vital role in the development of the theme of the entire volume: where The Marshlands deals with the sights and sounds of the landscape surrounding the Minas Basin, The Trail of the Tide explores the character of the Basin itself. An awareness of this contrast is essential to an understanding of the interdependence of the themes of The Marshlands and The Trail of the Tide an interdependence that creates a unity within the bipartite construction of the volume. The physical movement of the preface poem's speaker from the sheltered marshlands of the Minas Basin to its waters, tides, and islands, reflects the speaker's mental act of looking beyond his immediate and understandable environment to new frontiers of thought; the speaker is, in effect, extending his field of vision and, with it, the limits of his thinking. It is this process of visual and mental expansion that underlies the movement of the volume as a whole towards expanded horizons and ideas.
In The Marshlands the speaker views an enclosed world: while noting the influence of the surrounding waters of the Minas Basin, he is more concerned with the terra firma that is enclosed within and protected by the Acadian-built dykes. This is not a claustrophobic world whose enduring boundaries entice the speaker to taste the glorified life of the vagabond, but, rather, a domesticated world that affords security. The exterior world of water, a terra incognita of sorts, is kept at a distance by the dykes, but is never absent, for always "The sea's dark fingers press upon the shore" ("In the Gaspereau Valley") and "The echo is caught of the ocean's faint roar . . . on the marsh's broad floor" ("Marsh Meadows"). The incomprehensible power of the watery realm is kept at bay by civilized man's ingenuity in the creation of the dyke, against whose side "the sea's strong arm falls puny" ("The Marsh"). Yet, there always exists a question as to the durability of the security afforded to man by an unnatural buffer-zone unnatural because the dykes and resulting marshlands were created by taking possession of land that was "once the ocean's own." "The Broken Dyke" illustrates the threatening power of the ocean and the precariousness of the artificial domestication of the environment achieved by the dykes:
It is the incomprehensibility of the realm that exists beyond the marshlands that prompts the speaker to limit his vision to the boundaries supplied by his ancestors' dykes. As a result, his comprehension of the spiritual qualities of his life and environment are also limited, for he is only able to gather and to store the revelations afforded to him by the scenes within his limited and immediate environment. The speaker of The Marshlands has only one field to harvest; hence, his yield is limited, just as a mower's harvest of salt-grass is limited, to his enclosed marshlands "from upland to the tide" ("Aftermath").
By contrast, in The Trail of the Tide collection the speaker appears to have come to terms with the enclosed nature of the marshland environment, and to have overcome his underlying fear of the ocean's incomprehensibility. He has seen the reflection of his own life in the marshlands' natural cycles, but has also been led to look beyond the dyke-lands to detect an even larger unity. The speaker says in the title poem of The Marshlands:
Here in "The Marshlands" the speaker is able to see beyond the unity that he earlier realized existed between his life and that of the marshlands, to look towards a new and even larger unity that is beckoning; thus, as the marshes become exposed to the sunlight when the tide goes out, the speaker's mind is exposed to a new and revealing "light that has entered [his] soul." He loses his narrow individuality; he "knows not himself any longer," though he gains an organic relationship with the natural world, in which he is able to detect his "life in the trail of the tide" ("The Trail of the Tide").
With his horizons thus extended, the ocean becomes incorporated into the speaker's existence, and he into its existence, with the result that the terra incognita loses its strangeness. The fierce ocean that threatened the dykes of The Marshlands becomes "shining waters," "blue reaches," and a "regal sea." With the incomprehensibility of the ocean gone, the speaker is able to understand the waters in human terms to the point where the Basin becomes a living, breathing, and thinking organism that is continually
Not only is the ocean's presence endowed with life and breath, but it is also anthropomorphized to the degree that it is capable of the human emotions of vengeance and regret:
The ocean is also described as being capable of the emotions of hope and love:
Nature, including both land and seascapes unified,9 becomes, not only a reflection of the speaker's life and thoughts, but also an extension of his being; in other words, each and everything becomes a part of the unity of creation that links all life animate and inanimate, together. In the volume's title poem, "The Trail of the Tide," the speaker points this out:
In this quotation the unity of creation is suggested by the establishment of a familial bond between the speaker, his ancestors, and the sea. Just as the plains are "tethered" to the ocean through the harnassing and unifying force of the tide, so, too, is the speaker joined to the ocean through the Prattian metaphor, "The blood is a tide in my veins." Man, sea, and marshland are reconciled within the mind of the speaker, just as the contrasting relationship between The Marshlands and The Trail of the Tide is overcome within the unified structure of Herbin's volume of poetry.
It cannot be forgotten, however, that the unity detected by the poet-speaker lies within his own mind; after all, it is he who is the perceiver of unity and the creator of metaphor. Nature acts as a field of potential metaphors for the poet a field that offers the poet a metaphorical crop of ideas, perceptions, and reflections. As Herbin writes in "The Sea Harvest": "Even the sea must garner for [Man's] good." Essential to the awareness of the interrelationship between Man and Nature, and to the harvest of what the sea has "garnered for his good," is the faculty of imagination. The bipartite structure of the Marshlands-Trail volume reflects the growth of the poet-speaker's imagination as he learns not only to overcome the division between the land and seascapes, The Marshlands and The Trail of the Tide, but also to incorporate them into his own mind. The process of growth is dynamic. It can be illustrated both by a comparison of the two collections, and by an examination of the process within each individual collection. With this in mind, we may now proceed to a more focused and detailed study of selected poems in The Marshlands.
The concluding quatrain and sestet of this, the sonnet that introduces The Marshlands makes it clear that the poet's intention is not only to capture in words the physical beauty of the Basin's scenes, but also to reveal the spiritual essence of beauty that lies behind the veil of the physical. The similarity may already have been noticed between Herbin's intention here and that of the Charles G.D. Roberts of the Songs of Common Day (1893). Just as Herbin says that he hopes not only to show "that life has pleasure for the eye," but also to "point the way into the heart / Of all this glory," so Roberts says in his "Prologue" to Songs of the Common Day that he hopes to make "dull, familiar things divine" and to "see what beauty clings / In common forms, and find the soul / Of unregarded things." The "heart" of Nature that Herbin seeks to reveal is referred to by Roberts' in his essay, The Poetry of Nature, as a "power," but both poets agree upon its habitat. Roberts says:
There can be, I think, no doubt as to Herbin's awareness of his similarity to Roberts, both in his employment of the land / sea contrast, and in his intention to capture the inner beauty of common things. Herbin may even be acknowledging this similarity with an allusion to Roberts' title of Songs of the Common Day in his claim that his poems are but "sketches of the common way," though it is more likely that both poets are alluding to Wordsworth's "Intimations Ode." More important though, this line in The Marshlands introduces Herbin's perception of his own work as "sketch" or "picture poetry" (a concept that is further accentuated by the threefold repetition of "picture" in the preface poem's remaining lines). As a painter with words, Herbin's pen becomes his brush, his paper the canvas, and the sonnet's controlling form his frame. The idea of the poet as the creator of pictures which capture moments of time was popular in Herbin's time, and numerous references to it can be found in Confederation Poetry.11 Herbin pays tribute to Roberts as a "picture poet" in a sonnet dedicated to him:
The subject of Herbin's own poetic portraits is the ever-elusive Beauty whose spiritual essence can only be temporarily and occasionally glimpsed within the physical world. In the opening sonnet of The Marshlands the poet refers to this Beauty as a "fleeting picture-glory" whose eternal dwelling place is likened unto a "light-flooded day," and he expresses his hope that he can "stay" those transitory moments of awareness by capturing them in words. These poetic pictures will, of course,only be indirect representations of Beauty, like the shadows on the wall of Plato's cave. Herbin displays an awareness of the limitations of his word "pictures" when he describes them as "but glints from a light-flooded day." As a man existing in the physical world, he can only offer "glints," reflections, or representations of spiritual Beauty. The poetry, then, becomes a symbol of the intention expressed by the poet in the preface poem, for it, like any painting, attempts to represent the scene that it portrays. Ideally, the poetry will act as a medium for communion with Beauty (as originally the Basin's scenes have acted for Herbin), and will not, to quote Roberts again, degenerate into "mere description of landscape in metrical form."13 Rather, the poetry should become:
A final point to be made about the sestet of the preface poem to The Marshlands is that it clearly reveals the Romantic characteristics of Herbin's poetry, especially in the connection that the poet draws between music and the "wakened life" through his choice of the word "rhapsody." The connection between music and insight is obviously intended, since the otherwise consistent pattern of a cde rhyme scheme is broken to accommodate the word "rhapsody." The connection between music and imaginative awareness, between the harmonious soul and the "wakened life," resurfaces throughout Herbin's poetry, and is sometimes characterized by explicit allusions to the Romantic concept of the aeolian harp.15
The image of the aeolian harp deserves consideration because it emphasizes the interrelationship between Man and Nature which plays such an important role in the collection The Marshlands. Herbin clearly believed that the imagination plays an active role in the act of perception and, by extension, that the imagination must be attuned to the harmony of creation if the individual is to perceive that harmony. Man, therefore, becomes like the aeolian harp, in that he must be both receptive to and in tune with the natural world if he is to experience the harmony of creation. The image of the harp acts as a suitable departure point for the analysis of The Marshlands volume, for it illustrates the importance of a balanced interrelationship between the poet and nature. If the poet's imagination is essentially passive in the act of perception, the poetry that will result will be essentially descriptive, and of little creative value. As Roberts puts it:
Roberts goes on to point out that, conversely, if the poet is overly active with his imagination, the nature that he perceives will merely be a reflection of his own mind:
Kathryn Haughton's major criticism of Herbin's poetry that his "concern for the Acadians overshadows his concern for writing well" would seem to place his poetry in the category outlined above by Roberts. Indeed, it seems to suggest that much of his poetry is the product of a tyrannical imagination unable to perceive the spiritual beauties of the Minas Basin through the bitterness of the memories attached to it. However, this criticism assumes that the poet Herbin and the poems' speaker are analogous, and denies the existence of a persona. I would suggest that Herbin intentionally incorporated several poems into The Marshlands that show the bitterness of the Acadian speaker overwhelming the controlling form of the sonnet and destroying the potential quality of the poetry, and that he does this, moreover, to exemplify the dangers of a purely subjective and one-sided perception of nature.
The problem of a subjective approach to the external environment is established in the opening poem of "Across the Dykes" where the natural world is shaped in the speaker's perception by his overpowering imagination. Eventually, this problem will be seen to be overcome in "Restoration" and other poems. By displaying the problems associated with a tyrannical imagination in the collection's opening poem, Herbin is able to accentuate the resolution later achieved. Furthermore, the contrast between a proper and an improper relationship with the external world is directly related to that of the landscape / seascape opposition, for both contrasts share the same resolution. Once a balanced relationship is established with Nature in The Marshlands, the sea loses the negative characteristics that were projected onto it by the speaker's imagination and the result is a sympathetic portrayal of the sea in The Trail of the Tide. Ultimately, the speaker and his external world will be reconciled and unified, just as The Marshlands and The Trail of the Tide are bound together within a single volume.
"Across the Dykes," the collection's first sonnet is, like all the others, written in the Petrarchan or Italian form. The octave is purely descriptive of the Grand-Pré marshlands, while the sestet finds a meditative theme behind the octave's description. In the octave, "the Grand-Pré" takes on paradisial characteristics (it is "abundant with corn / And honey which it always hath"); however, if we look more closely at "Across the Dykes," it becomes apparent that the speaker is consciously forcing these idyllic qualities onto the scene before him. The sunlight seems to have an inconstant quality (it is "quivering") and the "old places" are not sweet in themselves, but are "made sweet" by the bobolinks. Religion, and the harmony of faith are lacking here; their sounds must come to the speaker from "across the dyke." Similarly, the form of the octave of "Across the Dykes, " lacks the harmony that we associate with the description of any Edenic scene. Notable are the forced rhymes of the abba rhyme scheme where "swath" must be forced to rhyme with "path," and where the mechanical rhyming of "morn," "worn," "born," and "corn" grates upon the ear.
In the sestet of "Across the Dykes" a reason is supplied for the disharmony of the poem's octave. The speaker, like the Acadians who have suffered so much wrong, has had his vision of the idyllic scene "marred" by "great sorrows." He can hear the sounds of the natural world and he can see its glory, but he is unable to feel it to "point the way into the heart of all this glory" because he is not attuned to its harmony. The speaker is not partaking of the "unremitting interchange" of Wordsworth, but is having his vision marred by his own sorrowing imagination; he is finding in Nature an expression of himself. He sees the present scene in terms of the past, through the imaginative eyes of bitter memory, thereby denying himself the hope that an awareness of the future would afford to him. As a result, he is only able to detect the disharmony and disunity that his memory supplies.
In "Across the Dykes" the poet has stated a problem in a problematic sonnet. The problem is simply that "The visions of their last great sorrows mar / The greeness of these meadows. . . ." The unity of all creation will not be recognized by the speaker until his memory and hope, the past and the future, are reconciled. Until that time, his utterances will remain shaped by an imagination that is rendered disharmonious by the sad burden of the past. That this is so can be illustrated by another poem, "The Returned Acadian."
Not only does the title of "The Returned Acadian" suggest that the speaker will view the external world in terms of memory, but it also indicates that this sonnet is a romantic return poem with generic parallels in Roberts' "Tantramar Revisited" and Carman's "Low Tide on Grand Pré." The speaker is established in the first line of "The Returned Acadian" as an exile in his own land; the dykes upon which he walks are not a part of his present life, but exist only as relics of the past. In fact, the dykes are even further alienated from him by the possessive quality of "fathers'," suggesting not only his alienation from his own family, but from all Acadians. He appears to be an Ancient Mariner of sorts, a figure whose incessant wandering is emphasized by the adverb "again." Even the willows curse him with their memory, for they were brought to Acadia by the original settlers. Herbin has earlier written of the willows in Grand-Pré:
In the octave of "The Returned Acadian," memory, without its counterpart hope, controls the speaker's imagination, causing the descriptive qualities of the sonnet to be replaced by meditative musings. Descriptive details are replaced by vague memories, as marshes become "miles of green" and individual "creeks and rivers" can only be remembered by their "ruddy stains." The Grand-Pré meadows become a metaphorical graveyard of memories where "hope has died" and where every physical beauty has become a "sad memorial." With his hope dead, the speaker's contact with the future is destroyed, and as a reault his perception of the potential beauty in the external world of the present is denied. Unlike Roberts who returns to his home after many years in his "Tantramar Revisited" and chooses to gaze from afar for fear of detecting change where he sought permanence, the speaker in "The Returned Acadian" looks for change to justify his alienation.
The opening of the sestet, with its sudden recognition of details (grass, oxen) intimates that some sort of reconciliation or turn of thought will occur; however, Herbin does not allow the poem to run to an artificially positive ending: the meditative mood of the speaker remains concentrated upon the existing changes in Acadia and the resultant alienation that he himself feels. Because he is alienated from the harmony of nature, "the dykes" may "wave with grass" and "the oxen" may "stir," but nor for him. The point here is that the landscape itself has not changed; the dykes, oxen, willows, and creeks are still as they always have been. It is the speaker of "The Returned Acadian" who creates his perception of change by manipulating the external world through the power of his imagination and its tool, memory. His predilection for the past has alienated him from the present; everything has become "new" and "strange," and definable only by negation since "No voice cries out in welcome" and "these halls / Give food and shelter where I may not bide."
"An Acadian at Grand-Pré" presents an identical situation to that of "The Returned Acadian" and is obviously intended to be a companion poem to the former. In both cases the speaker has returned to Grand-Pré to view the land that once was his. Even the difference in title displays the difference between the two speakers' attitudes towards the external world. The title of "An Acadian at Grand-Pré" places its emphasis upon the present tense, whereas the title of its companion poem locates the speaker's present in terms of the past through the adjective "Returned." This stressing of the present is further emphasized by the location of "To-day" at the start of "An Acadian at Grand-Pré."
In "An Acadian at Grand-Pré" the speaker remains isolated as he was before, for he is now "alone of all my scattered race" as he was previously "alone of all their children scattered wide." Significantly though, he appears to be attuned to the language of nature for he is able to do more than "scan the sad memorials"; he is able to "see again the beauty." Furthermore, he is no longer alienated from the land itself as he was in "The Returned Acadian" (where the dykes were not a part of his life, but were in the possession of "fathers' "); now, the land is colllectively shared by past and present generations, and is remembered by the speaker as "our land." Though he remains isolated from his "scattered race," the speaker seems to have partially overcome the self-inflicted separation from the natural world which caused him to misinterpret nature's symbols as nothing more than "sad memorials" of a bygone race. In "The Returned Acadian" it was the speaker who remembered the tragedy and death of his people's past and he who projected that memory onto external forms. Now, it is a pesonified Nature that does the remembering ("And Nature has remembered. . .") while he interprets this memory as being positive, as being evidence of "the calm Acadian life" that "yet holds command." In "An Acadian at Grand-Pré" it can be seen that the speaker no longer assumes the only active role in the Man / Nature relationship; instead, he has accepted the Wordsworthian doctrine that man "both half-perceives and half-creates,"19 or, as Herbin himself puts it in "The Dykes of Acadie," that man must continually be "Absorbing and outgiving all" in the act of perception.
Having learnt to be both passive and active in perception, the alienation of the speaker that was evident in "The Returned Acadian" is replaced by a communion with the natural world in "An Acadian at Grand-Pré." The willows that earlier beckoned the speaker to the despair associated with the past can now awaken him to the beauty of the present. In "The Returned Acadian" the speaker had forged a relationship between the willows and his ancestors, thereby divorcing the trees from their natural habitat and placing them in his own 'mental-garden' with all the other "sad memorials." In "An Acadian at Grand-Pré," the willows have been returned to their habitat and to their place in the harmony of nature; indeed, they are said to be "rustling . . . telling the breeze's pace." With the natural order re-established, the speaker is able to move from the objective act of description in the octave to the subjective act of meditation in the sestet.
In the meditative sestet of "An Acadian at Grad-Pré," the speaker expresses the unvoiced lesson that Nature has taught him. The weak man must give in to the force of the strong, for rigidity will ultimately result in injury; thus as the willows rustle and the grass bends in reaction to the breeze, so too must the speaker adapt to the quality of passive acceptance of that which cannot be changed. More important, the speaker alludes to the danger of maintaining wrongs of the past through the tyranny of memory by stressing the verb "forgive" by way of a caesura. To forgive does not mean to forget; instead, it entails an acceptance of the past as being a part of the ongoing process of time. The speaker realizes that the "bitter deed" of the past can never be "set aright" through the power of words. The past of his ancestors and his own past are accepted as being a part of unchangeable history, and his bitter and vindictive poetry is recognized as being only "glossing words of reason and of song."
The process that Herbin has intended his reader to detect in the differences between his persona's perceptions of the external world in the companion poems, "A Returned Acadian" and "An Acadian at Grand-Pré" is only partially completed. The speaker has learnt to control the tyranny of his memory over his perception through the benevolence of forgiveness, but he has not yet displayed the quality of hope. He has reconciled himself to the past, but has not yet realized the connection between the past and future, between memory and hope. It is only through the realization of the unity of time and life that the "wakened life" of the preface poem will ever be achieved. Ultimately, this awareness does come to the speaker in the sonnet "Restoration."
The title of "Restoration" reflects the movement that occurs within its structure; in the course of the sonnet the speaker's past is, in a sense, restored to him for use in future years. In "An Acadian at Grand-Pré" he learns only to "grieve not." But in this later sonnet the speaker learns, as Wordsworth does in the "Intimations Ode," that:
The octave of "Restoration" establishes the same motif of the returning Acadian that was seen in the previous sonnets. Initially, the speaker appears, just as before, to perceive the past in his natural surroundings. The ruins of an old Acadian home, the dykes, the apple trees, and the "leafy willows" are reminiscent of the "sad memorials" of "The Returned Acadian"; however, the speaker is no longer isolated in himself since he now stands facing the reminders of the past with his "sweet love" by his side. The isolation of "The Acadian at Grand-Pré" from all his "scattered race" is replaced with the communion of a couple as they view the "scattered stones" of a ruin. Furthermore, the incessant wandering of "The Returned Acadian" (as seen, for instance, in his words "I roam again") seems to have ended for the speaker of "Restoration" is said to "stand," unmoving in the landscape. Harmony, peace, and balance are now a part of his existence. The sestet of "Restoration" provides the reason behind the speaker's attainment of the "wakened life." The spondee of "now here" wrenches the speaker from his meditation on the past and places him in the immediate present. By locating himself so definitely within the temporal equilibrium of the present, between the past and future, the speaker of "Restoration" is able to return to his thoughts on the past without becoming trapped within those thoughts by a tyrannical memory. With his memory counter-balanced by hope "not a sorrow nor a pain" is forgotten by a speaker who is able, at the same time, to "forgive the hateful deed" of the Acadian expulsion.
The restorative force within "Restoration" is love. The speaker's previous driving force of hatred and bitterness has now been displaced, "For love is reigning as their lives did bleed." Since it so completely affects an individual's perception of the worlds of time and nature, love is a potent force in Herbin's philosophy. In Herbin's novel, The Heir To Grand-Pré, a young Acadian girl first feels the pangs of love and is affected in this way:
The speaker of "Restoration" like the young Acadian girl, Marie, has come to perceive the past through the eyes of love. Being reconciled with the past, the speaker of the poem is able to approach the future with an optimistic hope. Just as the Wordsworth of the "Intimations Ode" finds "soothing thoughts that spring / Out of human suffering," so the Acadian of "Restoration" finds a "joyous" and compensatory "good for all the other years."
The process is now complete. The speaker has discovered "the rhapsody / Of wakened life," and "the heart / Of all this glory" that Herbin outlined in the perface to The Marshlands. The problem established in the sonnet "Across the Dykes," explored in "The Returned Acadian" and "An Acadian at Grand-Pré," is ultimately resolved in "Restoration." Through the spiritual growth evident in the speaker of the sonnets discussed, Herbin has shown his reader the way to a "wakened life." By following the evolving thoughts of Herbin's persona the reader is able to share in his process of awakening. Thus, Herbin does not actually take his reader "into the heart / Of all this glory," but he does fulfill his intention to indirectly "point the way," and he does follow Roberts' maxim that the "most inaccessible truths are apt to be reached by indirection."
In closing, it is worth taking a few moments to examine briefly one of the longer poems in The Marshlands volume, a poem which also illustrates the way in which sorrow can be overcome and replaced by joy if the individual learns to incorporate himself into the unity of creation and to incorporate that unity into himself. "Willows," begins with a description of the trees themselves, not as dim reminders of the speaker's Acadian heritage, but as anthropomorphized trees that seem prophetic in their apparent ability to "whisper strange" to whoever may be near. Initially, the speaker of "Willows" seems to be alienated from the trees because of their strangeness and incomprehensibility; he seems unable to reconcile the eeriness of the trees' "hueless trunks" and "snake roots" with their contradictory "green / And gentle wavings." The ambivalence of the speaker's attitude towards the willows is, in fact, a construct of his own imagination a reflection of his own being. Upon the realization that the "strange whisperings" of the trees may only seem "strange" because he is not of a frame of mind attuned to the language of the natural world, and that "Mayhap some story-wind would have thee hear," the speaker consciously forces himself to listen "List, mine ear," he says to the sounds of the willows. Having thus actively and subjectively forced himself into the passive and objective act of listening, the speaker successfully achieves a balance between "absorbing and outgiving." By his conscious act of psasive acceptance he is in fact able to hear and to understand the breeze's tale that would otherwise have gone "Again unheeded and again unheard."
The tale told is a tragedy of frustrated love. A young Acadian girl awaits the return of her departed lover by the willows, though the vow uttered by her lover that he would return before a planted willow branch grew into a mature tree has already been broken. The tragedy implicit in this story is counterbalanced by the speaker's description of a young boy who creates musical joy from the same willow by fashioning a "willow-pipe to speak a noisy note." Just as the "story-wind's" tale is the expressing of the sorrow in the young girl's heart, so too are the young boy's notes of joy his "heart-song." Ultimately, joy and sorrow, the piper and the love-sick girl, are reconciled:
In addition to providing the poem with closure, the introduction of rhyming couplets to these final six lines adds a simple musicality to the conclusion of "Willows" and a unified structure within which the "piper," "breezes," and "willows" are contained and unified. Within this trinity, the speaker finds a "heaven" into which he is himself incorporated. The important point here is that the speaker of "Willows" can be both a part of and apart from the unity that exists between the individual components of the trinity; he can be both subject and object. As subject, the speaker perceives the "piper," "breezes," and "willows" as objects of his sensory perception; as object, he becomes a part of the unity that they share. This objective state is not, of course, achieved by unconscious dreaming, by entry into a passive state in which the individual is acted upon by forces out of his subjective control. The speaker of "Willows" is no idle dreamer; rather, he achieves the dream-like state of awareness through the conscious act of opening his mind to the language of nature an act begun with the line, "List, mine ear." From the speaker's struggle to realize and to unify his external world a struggle central to Herbin's poetry there results a harmony between the subject and the object, between the speaker and his external world.21
This paper does not pretend to classify John Frederic Herbin as an unacknowledged genius among Canadian poets; rather, it hopes only to create further critical interest in a Confederation Poet who has been unjustly overlooked, to foster a general reassessment of his work, and to call into question Kathryn Haughton's denigration of his talent. Haughton's judgement of Herbin as "one of Canada's weakest writers" is undoubtably based on a superficial and unsympathetic analysis of his oeuvre. This reconsideration of The Marshlands and The Trail of the Tide volume has attempted to establish that Herbin consciously structured the collection to complement its didactic purpose. Furthermore, it has attempted to show through a detailed discussion of selected poems in The Marshlands that Herbin manipulated his persona to create an internal and psychological movement within the sequence, a movement which incorporates the reader into the spiritual growth of that persona and his ultimate union with the external world. It is the relationship between form, content, and purpose in Herbin's work, and the poet's awareness of the poetic tools at his disposal, that must be applied to such problematic sonnets as "Across the Dykes" and "The Returned Acadian," if the poet's intention is not to be mistaken for a lack of talent. Unashamedly, this reconsideration of the poet has only touched the surface of The Marshlands and has been content to deal with a limited number of poems, questions, and themes. Further critical study of Herbin's poetry is in order, and would prove worthwhile even to the most casual of readers, if only for the quality of such fine poems as "The Sea Harvest," "The Night Mower," "The Diver," "Haying," "Scowing," "In the Rain," and "The Southern Voice."
I should like to thank the
editor and referees of Canadian Poetry for valuable suggestions towards the
revision of this paper.[back]
Haughton, p. 2.[back]
Haughton's research on the
man behind the poetry fills the gaps evident in biographical dictionaries that offer the
bare minimum of facts on his life. Herbin's father was a voluntary exile from
Cambria, France, who came to Canada as a result of writing an indiscreet political letter
that reflected his beliefs as a Huguenot. He met and married a native Nova Scotian
who was also an exile of sorts, being the granddaughter of one of the original Acadian
exiles. John Herbin, the father, started and lost a jeweller / watchmaker business
three times before he eventually moved to Colorado. His son, John Frederic Herbin,
joined him there in 1881 and taught school for several years before returning to Acadia
college, from which he graduated in 1890 with a Bachelor of Arts. He married Minnie
Rounsfell Simpson in 1896 and eventually sired two sons and two daughers. By trade,
J.F. Herbin was both a jeweller and an optometrist, but his many interests included
geology, history, and archeological studies of Acadian historical remains. Later in
life, Herbin became mayor of Wolfville, Nova Scotia, and through the political influence
that this position afforded him he was instrumental in securing land at Grand-Pré for the
establishment of a park dedicated to his ancestors.[back]
Haughton, p. 2.[back]
All quotations from
Herbin's poetry in this paper are taken from The Marshlands (Second Edition)
and The Trail of the Tide (Toronto: William Briggs, 1899), with the
titles of the individual poems cited in the text.[back]
Haughton, p. 2.[back]
Just as Nature contains and
unifies both land and seascapes, so too does the bipartite structure of the volume unify The
Marshlands and The Trail of the Tide.[back]
Charles G.D. Roberts,
"The Poetry of Nature," in Selected Poetry and Critical Prose, Charles
G.D. Roberts, ed. W.J. Keith (University of Toronto Press, 1974),
p. 276. Hereafter cited as Roberts.[back]
For a discussion of poetry
as word painting see, D.M.R. Bentley, "The Poetics of Roberts' Tantramar Space,"
in The Proceedings of the Sir Charles G.D. Roberts Symposium, Mount
Allison University, ed. Carrie MacMillan (Halifax: Nimbus, 1984), pp.
"Roberts" is the
second sonnet in Herbin's sonnet sequence entitled, "To the Singers of Minas,"
and dedicated to Rand, Carman, and Roberts.[back]
Roberts, p. 281.[back]
Two examples of direct allusions to the Romantic image of the aeolian harp occur in the sonnets, "The Marshlands" and "Return":
Roberts, p. 277.[back]
Ibid., p. 279.[back]
William Briggs, 1898), p. 82.[back]
"Tintern Abbey," 11. 106-107. All quotations from Wordsworth's poetry are
taken from The Poetical Works of Wordsworth, ed. Thomas Hutchinson, revised
E. de Selincourt (London: Oxford University Press, 1960) and are cited in the text.[back]
John Frederic Herbin, The
Heir to Grand-Pré (Toronto: William Briggs, 1907), pp. 143-44.[back]
The speaker's realization in "Willows" that the sorrow of the abandoned girl has its counterpart in the joy of the piper, finds another form of expression in the sonnet entitled "In the Gaspereau Valley." In this sonnet the balanced relationships of the natural world act as metaphors for the balance of all creation. The octave describes the movement of the two natural cycles of the sun and the tides. As the tide comes in the daylight departs, and an emptiness and silence results; however, the speaker is able to detect the relationship between day and night, movement and stasis, gain and loss. Silence is established in the first line of the octave of "In the Gaspereau Valley" as the music of Nature, associated with the river's flow, ceases with the advancement of the tide. The speaker appears to be uneasy about the resulting quiet and vacuity of the natural world, for he says that the "water's hush is strange." The sestet begins at the end of the natural cycles; "the day is gone" and tide is only a "lingering hand." The only living and moving energy seems to exist in a lonely bat, for even "the sea's dark fingers" seem immobile as they hardly "press upon the shore." It is not until the concluding couplet that the speaker is introduced and the loss of day is offset by realization of the interrelationship of gain and loss. The speaker achieves this awareness by not approaching the night only in its relationship to the past day (it will be recalled that "The Returned Acadian" perceived his present only in its relation to the past). Instead, the speaker of "In the Gaspereau Valley" allows himself to flow with the natural cycles of time (in this case day and night) thereby achieving a union with his temporal and physical environment. The loss of day is realized to be counter-balanced by the gain of night; the loss of the river's song is offset by the gain of high tide. True to the pattern detected in the poems discussed, the speaker who achieves a union with his external world is both passive and active in his relationship with it. He is passive in the fact that he is the "acted-upon' in the phrase, "The silence deepens over me," and yet he is also active in his perception of the "fulness of the night." Significantly, the emptiness and loss that the arrival of night symbolized are now replaced by the paradoxical quality of "fulness" a "fulness" that is of the very essence of night.[back]