The Scott/Brown Letters
The Poet and the Critic, edited and with an introduction and notes by Robert L. McDougall. Ottawa: Carleton University Press, 1983.
The Poet and the Critic is principally "a literary correspondence," as the subtitle puts it, "between D.C. Scott and E.K. Brown." That is the core of the book, the most important part, but it is by no means the whole. Writing to Brown about their first joint project, the editing of Lampman's unpublished poems, Scott says "The book ought to justify itself entirely, not alone by the Poems but by the surrounding matter, the editing etc. so that it might be a unique volume." McDougall's surrounding matter is everywhere interesting and apt, and it contributes mightily to a full understanding of the context out of which the letters arise. McDougall's two "principals," Scott and Brown, are men of taste and discrimination, both of them holding firm to high standards in an era during which "the national criticism," as they called it, tended to supply over-written gush where tough-minded clarity was needed. A sloppy edition of their letters would have been shown up from within. McDougall may be as proud of what he has done in The Poet and the Critic as the two men were when they first looked over At the Long Sault and Other New Poems.
Besides being thoroughly informative, with in written portraits of Scott and Brown, its discussion of the provenance of the letters, its comments on the letters themselves and on editorial procedures, McDougall's Introduction is written in the lively style that his readers have come to expect. I read the Introduction with delight, I enjoyed the present-tense summaries that preface each section of the seven years of the Scott/Brown correspondence, I even enjoyed the copious footnotes. There are seventy-one pages of notes, which would be a lot to throw away, so to speak, if a reader did not feel rewarded when s/he turns to them.
Placing the notes at the back of the book makes them awkward to get at from the text of a letter, and I did feel like turning to them quite often, but on the whole I think that placement is best because it respects the letters as they were written, and it is not distracting to readers who wish to charge right through. The footnotes result from a great deal of scholarship on the part of McDougall and the research assistants he heartily thanks at the end of the Introduction. They (the notes) go a long way towards restoring the context of people and situations that the two correspondants had no need to explain to each other. For example there are capsule biographies of every person of importance who is mentioned in the letters. These compose a Who's Who of Canadian culture in the 1940's. All of the inadequacies of Arthur Bourinot's editing of the two previous collections of Scott letters are punctiliously annotated. Margaret Whitridge's innuendoes suggesting that Scott suppressed information about Lampman's flame, Katherine Waddell, are shown to be without foundation. The notes are not without their flashes of wit, another indication that McDougall took pains with them. When he has not been able to track down a reference, he says so, thus pinpointing the work that remains to be done.
I give so much space to the notes because they are extremely important in helping to make available exactly what Scott and Brown meant, and that is true even when the letters as they appeared in archives, or even in the Bourinot collections, seems to present no problem of meaning. As an example I think of a letter Scott wrote in the summer of 1944. In it he refers to John Masefield's response to Brown's On Canadian Poetry, which Scott had sent him, and encloses a copy for Brown to peruse. In Scott's letter there is what I used to think was a sarcastic remark about Bliss Carman: "I was not overcome by the association of my name and Carman's with those great ones of the past. As you know, Bliss and I were not ploughing and sowing together." McDougall's footnote, supplying the pertinent part of the rather empty letter from Masefield, helps shift the aim of Scott's irony from Carman to the British poet: "But the ploughing and the sowing are the vital things; and what seems to me to be so continally needed is just such a gathering of young poets, as you and Carman; or Shakespeare and Southampton; or Ronsard and Du Bellay, or Keats and Reynolds; with a few standards and many hopes and much enthusiasm." Had Masefield actually read On Canadian Poetry, he could have substituted Lampman's name for Carman's, though that would not have prevented his oblique compliment from ringing false. Anyone interested in catching nuance in the Scott/Brown letters will be indebted to McDougall.
Completing the scholarly appartus of The Poet and the Critic, except for the index, is a section called "Documents," a series of appendices which supply texts of some relevant letters to and from figures of importance in the Scott/Brown exchange like Lorne Pierce of the Ryerson Press, for example. (It is amusing to see Scott's annoyance at Pierce's business practices erupt again and again; one begins to watch for the inevitable apology. The net impression is that Scott was almost perfectly ambivalent about Pierce.) The documents also include, very sensibly, the draft of Lampman's "Daulac," which Brown discovered in Lampman's last notebook, and which he and Scott tinkered into "At the Long Sault." There is also Scott's poetic greeting "To Deaver Brown," much mentioned in the correspondence.
What of the letters themselves? The lover of Scott's best writing, the student of his work, has to stand back and admit that he did not write great letters. Nor did Brown. McDougall understands this, and does not make claims too large for the correspondence to bear. His reservations have chiefly to do with content. There are "no great issues" discussed, he says in his Introduction, and what is discussed is done with unfailing good manners and a formality that never relaxes beyond a certain point. In the first letter, Brown writes to Scott as guest editor of Poetry, requesting a poem, and he takes the opportunity to say "how great my admiration for your work has been." Scott sends the poem, and responds "I value your critical faculty very highly." That interchange sets the tone for the whole correspondence. Each writer demonstrates in detail how sincere he is, over the years, and I think the reader will agree that the mutual admiration is entirely justified, even if it does circumscribe the correspondence somewhat.
The most serious question McDougall raises about the letters, no doubt because as Scott's biographer he is always trying to place Scott in his time, has to do with the very few references in them to the war that raged through much of the time when they were being written. "I am trying to make an observation," McDougall says about this, "rather than a moral judgement but that may not be possible." It is true that the Scott/Brown letters register very little of the international trauma, and that seems odd. By itself, though, it does not prove that the two were oblivious to what was happening or uncaring about it. Perhaps had they been asked they would acknowledged their correspondence as a refuge in which they could Or a time forget the world's maddness. Perhaps this is too charitable a views but it does have a source in something each writer says about current affairs. This is Brown in November of 1944:
On January 30, 1945 Scott sends this greeting to the Brown's year-old son Deaver: "I hope he will live as long as I have and feel as well as I do now and be living in a better world."
To my mind not only the absence of great issues keeps these letters from ranking with those written by masters of epistolary form. Scott and Brown do have "matters of some consequence" to discuss, as McDougall puts it not only their various books, some of them landmarks on the Canadian cultural scene, but the general critical darkness of the country that they were labouring to lighten. Neither of them was a Keats or a Hopkins, though. Neither sustains a style that rises very much above the ordinary. Each has his pedestrian moments, and each gets off the odd "good one," but generally their letters are stylistically workmanlike. Well, the two were writing to each other, not trying to make undying prose. There is certainly enough wit and humour bandied back and forth to make the exchange quite lively at times, and it is always possible to see the writers as people because they are never on, never performing for each other. Perhaps that is owing to the Canadian restraint that Brown inveighs again elsewhere. He, at least, could swing right along when he was writing for publication. It was style as well as substance that made Scott such a fan ("I keep everything I can get of yours," he said to Brown at one point), and it helps to make David Staines' Brown collection, Responses and Eualuations, a treat to read.
It is to speak in the spirit of Brown's criticism to say that The Poet and the Critic is a significant document in Canadian literary history and probably of modest interest to readers outside the country. Brown often complained that there was a sort of wall around Canadian literature, by which he meant both that writers, critics and readers were generally too provincial, and that the best of our writers had next to no audience abroad. He knew as well, as he wrote in his 1948 University of Toronto Quarterly survey of poetry, that "It is obvious to anyone that there has not been in the range of Canadian poetry anything as impressive as the best writing of the few best English and American poets of the past hundred years; but there is no reason in this to require of our practicing critics that they bewail the absence of something to equal The Waste Land." He never made the lack of maturity of Canadian literature an excuse to ignore it. He was a respected critic who published prolifically on English and American writers, and who yet naturally and unapologetically spent a great deal of his considerable energy serving the literature of his own country. His letters show him to be a shrewd man, something of a literary broker, perhaps the authority on Canadian literature though he lived and taught in the States, an "impresario" McDougall calls him at one point, but most importantly a man who loved literature and unselfishly lived in service of it. He changed the face of Canadian criticism, by being objective and tough. "The kind of criticism that I try to write," he wrote to Scott,
Looking with objectivity at Canadian poetry, Brown decided, as he said to Scott in July 1943, that "our literary history must be rewritten, and some of the landmarks removed. Carman and Roberts will no longer do as landmarks. I think that A. L and you and Ned Pratt will do, and that you three must be the main landmarks." Brown was right, in the main, and he pursued his beliefs indefatigably. He accomplished a lot before his premature death, much of it on behalf of Canadian literature. One of the real contributions of The Poet and The Critic is to raise the profile of this valuable and interesting man. The Brown material, both in the letters and in McDougall's comments about him, is after all the least familiar part of the contents of the book. Some at least of the Scott side of things has been known because of Brown, and other critics, and because some of Scott's letters have been available before.
What of Scott as he appears in this correspondence? He shows himself to be a little in awe of Brown's erudition at times, though he is Brown's equal when it comes to careful, close editing. Each seeks the other's advice on literary matters that concern them both, and each profits from the exchange. It feels as though Scott had more to gain from Brown's interest in him than vice versa. Brown was an academic star. One feels no more uncertainty in his letters than one sees in the Karsh photo that appears right after Scott's in the front of the book. This man is so confident that he never even has to boast. Things were different for Scott. He was an important man, a public figure, but he had no sense that his eminence entitled him to the letters from Brown that he valued so highly. He felt somewhat isolated in his cultural interests and sometimes sounds starved for intellectual contact. He says of one of his oldest friends, writing to Brown in February 1945, "Pelham [Edgar] and I do not indulge in literary conversation." Odd; they used to. Of John Watkins, a friend of Brown's who became a familiar of the Scott household in the last two years of Scott's life, he says "he is a man to whom I can speak of books and writing and they are rare." Of course he talked a great deal of such things in his letters to Brown. He was obviously gratified to have the ear of a reader and critic of Brown's quality, not least became this eminent critic had almost single-handedly brought him back into literary prominence. Sir Charles G. D. Roberts may have been, as Brown says, "in the 7th Heaven" over Elsie Pomeroy's biography of him, but Scott and Brown thought the book was an example of "our national criticism at its worst." Brown was one of the best Canadian critics, and Scott knew that his word meant something. Generally, in these letters, he jokes about having been a neglected writer (there is a nice running joke about Guy Sylvestre having indirectly called him a poet "of the Golden Age"), but nevertheless one feels how deep is his gratitude at being so convincingly rescued from obscurity. And Brown's letters became very important to him. They "keep me alive," he says at one point, and, later: "I value your letters, and they are of use to me mentally and spiritually, but they must not fatigue you as a task to be undertaken."
That last comes to be a familiar note, as Scott worries that he is bothering the busy critic. "This is one of my usual long screeds;" he says in the last year of his life (about a very interesting letter provoked by Brown's appreciation of The Circle of Affection) "the garrulous outpourings of an Ancient." It is a little sad to see this fine mind mistrusting its own attractiveness. Certainly he was lucky to have so much of Brown's attention, but he held up his end of the conversation; Brown was well repaid for his considerable efforts, and the beneficiary now is the reader who knows all sorts of things about Soott's literary taste, his reading, his friends and so on- much that he would never have committed to paper if Brown had not come along to make the occasions.
One of my thoughts when I first heard that R.L. McDougall intended to offer the Scott-Brown correspondence in a single volume was, does this not throw the editing of the total body, of letters out of whack? Perhaps it does. It will not be possible to present all the others in the two-sided way, though it might be worth trying with the Scott/Edgar correspondence. But The Poet and the Critic does make a satisfying unit, more so, to my mind, than do the two other recent volumes of letters with which it asks to be compared. Helen Lynn's An Annotated Edition of the Correspondence Between Archibald Lampman and Edward William Thompson (l880 1898) is an admirable book. It is not the fault of the editor that many of Thompson's letters are missing. H. Pearson Gundy has also done an excellent job with Letters of Bliss Carman, adopting the more accepted practice of printing only Carman's letters and supplying context before and after each one. The quality of editing for all three books is high; if McDougall's stands out it is only because he was lucky enough to have been able to reconstitute nearly the whole of an important Canadian correspondence. The success of The Poet and the Critic persuades me that ideally all books of letters should be published in this way.