One Man's Access to Prophecy: the Sonnet Series of Frank Oliver Call
by R. Alex Kizuk
In an article recently published in Canadian Literature, Avrum Malus, Diane Allard and Maria Van Sundert have shown how the poetry of Frank Oliver Call (1878-1956) belongs to a strong poetic tradition in the Eastern Townships.1 This article is one instance of a growing interest in Canadian writing of the early part of the century. The authors have supplied an invaluable supplement to Canadian literary history, which has for too long regarded poets like Call as unacceptable subjects for study and analysis. Yet an old bias persists in this study. Attention has been focused on the modernism and free verse of Call's Acanthus and Wild Grape (1920) at the expense of disregarding his true achievement in Blue Homespun (1925), a book of sonnets and a final statement of Call's poetic views. In this essay I discuss the gradual emergence of a prophetic voice in Acanthus, his earlier verse, and the allegorical sonnet series of Blue Homespun.
Call defended the "vers librists" in his "Foreword" to Acanthus, setting off his "blast", like Arthur Stringer before him in Open Water (1914), with military metaphors. Stringer's view of modernism promised a technical means of expressing strong private emotion within a postSymbolist context. Call's interest was quite different in that he saw modernism as a way of reconciling feeling and reason, "it seems to me", he writes, "that it matters little in what form a poem is cast so long as the form suits the subject, and does not hinder the freedom of the poet's thought and emotion".2 The manifesto puts forward an idea of poetic form as a manifest "union of thought, emotion and beauty". This unity, however, is a reflection of "strength" in poetry, a strength of poetic conception that transcends aesthetic questions because for Call any free expression of mind and heart united will be beautiful. Call is more interested in freedom of expression than in the techniques of free verse, in effect dismissing all questions of conservatism and technical experiment as subordinate to the quest for a strong poetry. This quest determines the structure of Acanthus and Wild Grape, a balanced two-part book of conventional lyrics and poems in free verse.
The purpose of this arrangement was probably not as Munro Beattie has said, to "demonstrate the superiority of free verse."3 Call pursues the same unities of concept and feeling in both parts of the book. A pattern of thematic parallels emerges which apparently demonstrate the notion that poetry's ability to communicate "visions" has little or nothing to do with form and technique. Hence, in the two title poems "Acanthus" and "Wild Grape", content is sublimely unaffected by form.4 "Acanthus" is a sonnet calling attention to itself as a sonnet; the other flows in and out of a basic iambic in varying line-lengths. Both announce that beauty is eternal. Like an apple halved, the parallelism throughout the book draws attention to what Call has to say rather than how he says it.
The conventional "Acanthus" section reprints almost half of Call's first book, In a Belgian Garden. It begins with a set of fourteen sonnets. The experimentally informal "Wild Grape" section begins with a set of five poems on subjects such as eternal beauty and divine immanence, then continues with another set of poems on Japanese, Swiss and Venetian scenes. The conventional verse closes with "The Answer", a slight lyric despite its formidable title in which the speaker asks himself why he chooses to listen to the song "Of pine-boughs singing all day long". He is drawn to the "silver sound" of a spring and fantastic images of "Pearl ships upon a sapphire sea" that are forming in cloud-shapes. He then tells us that these figures comprise a language unknown to him. He imagines that "Ten thousand poets", too, have failed to perceive the secrets of this vision. In "Prayer", the closing poem of the "Wild Grape" section, a "wind-bell" sounds in the "gateway of an ancient temple" and a pool reflects sunrise and sunset within the temple grounds. The bell draws "the people" to prayer with "music echoing in their ears", and a vision of the pool remains with them when they leave, "rose and gold and crimson in their eyes". These are people who have never heard the "music of the wind" and who never lift their eyes from "gray dusty streets" to appreciate such colour. Both "The Answer" and "The Prayer" point out that there are truths in open landscapes and closed temple grounds alike which neither poets nor ordinary people have adequately perceived. The book ends with an invocation to the Maker of music and beauty to allow him the privilege of emulating the bell and the pool, that is, to be able to direct his reader toward the thresholds of visionary truth.5 The bell or angelus will become a major symbol in Blue Homespun.
The inclusion in Acanthus of earlier poems placed at the beginning and the call for a prophet's vision at the end suggest that the poet is not satisfied with his experiment. The book does, however, progress from apprentice-pieces to maturer verse. "Swiss Sketches", "Visions", "Japanese Prints" and other poems in the back of the book re-envision place and history less rhetorically and more personally than the conventional "To a Modern Poet" and the free verse "The Foundry", earlier in the book. Yet despite this progress, Call is frustrated in his desire to speak freely from a reconciliation of mind and heart. The dialectic that his parallelism implies itself becomes a hindrance to poetic `freedom' and `strength', as though the poems were pointing to one another saying, `That's not exactly what I meant either'. The poems that precede Call's invocation of the prophetic in "The Prayer", moreover, "Cups of Jade" and "The Loon's Cry", plainly and personally expresses the discovery that vision will relegate language and poetry to silence once it has been attained. Thus, a sense of the poet's frustrated search for a language in which to express his vision overrides the neat balancing act in Acanthus.
In the closing poems, Call successfully purges his language of the aesthete cliches in which most of the book is cast because he chooses to direct his attention to the landscapes and idiom of his own locality. Necessary for a plainer language, this move also helps to clarify the logical impasse into which the book has led him. Call recognizes that vision must be a third term arising from his either/or dialectic between convention and experiment. This discovery existentially complicates the lovers' predicament in "Cups of Jade,"
Since Call finds a way out of this predicament in his next book, Blue Homespun, Acanthus may be seen to represent only the mid-point of his quest.
In a Belgian Garden, published in London in 1917, is the startingpoint of Call's quest for a poetic medium through which to perceive reality as a prophet who speaks a truth unfettered by language. This is very much a war-book at times echoing the manner of John McCrae, and the first Canadian item to be included in the English "Little Books of Georgian Verse" series. The London publishers hoped to sell Belgian Garden by stressing Call's love for the "motherland" and introducing him as a "disciple of the cult of the open road . . . camping and canoeing". In one of the landscape poems, "The Chambly Rapids", Call speaks of white-water canoeing in the Eastern Townships as an experience of demonic, "hell-born light", a "fitful fire, pale and blue/ That burned my spirit through". The trite rhymes and shop-worn imagery of the poem, however, overwhelm this sense of an underlying horror. The book is weakest in its uncritical adoption of aesthete stereotypes. "The Vision", however, contrasts this precious imagery with a plain declaration of love that makes the jewelled vision dim in comparison.7
most arresting poems record Call's personal response to the destruction
wreaked on Europe's cities by the First World War. In two of these,
"The Madonna" and "The Lace-Maker of Bruges", Call
communicates his sympathy for the suffering he sees through the eyes of an
old woman cast adrift in "the midst of the surging crowd",
defeated by modernity and war. These empathic verses contrast with others
such as "An Idol in a Shop Window", which focuses on the
detachment of a Buddha who, with "eyes half closed in a mystic's dream/
Of his poppy-land of long ago", remembers "the kneeling throng he
used to know" and watches the crowds passing in the street only to wrap
himself once more "in his mystic shroud."8
aloneness of "Cups of Jade" perhaps has its inception in this
conflict between compassion and detachment. Call empathizes with the pain of
Europe in 1917, but he is also filled with a visiting Canadian's sense of
separateness as well as the remembrance of walking tours on the continent as
a student at Marburg and Paris a few years before war broke out.9 This
experience of mingled pain and pleasure leads to a paradox in the Belgian
Garden verses, which are as internally divided as Acanthus is outwardly. In
"The Mystic", for instance, his beatific subject perceives life as
a "dim, weird pageant passing by". The speaker points out that
"the pageant is real, himself the dream", yet the mystic is
undecided whether the reality he perceives is a dream, or the dream reality.10 This preoccupation with the nature of subjective perception
appears again in "The Indifferent Ones", "The Obelisk"
and "The Golden Bowl". In short, Call's experience of shattered
Europe struck a divisive cord, which In a Belgian Garden attempts to heal.
His final and most coherent attempt to reconcile mind and heart is Blue
of Jade" records Call's confrontation with the silence of an
inexpressible vision. In the context of his oeuvre, the poem records Call's
decision to speak out plainly as "the voice of his people" and
thereby abandon earlier notions of the poet as an artificer of delicate
beauty. Moreover, the poem occupies a point in his quest at which Call
discovered that divination and soothsaying can be mutually exclusive modes
of visionary poetry. The Romantic connection between poetry and divination
is perhaps Coleridge's "armed vision" in which the `I Am' is
perception's guide. But for Call poetry became a matter of "telling it
like it is", a struggle to tell the truth about oneself and one's
place. This struggle begins in early poems like "The Chambly
Rapids", where the speaker is stung by terror when he beholds the white
water. The whole of Belgian Garden attempts to reconcile conflicting
emotions brought on by a divided perception of war's horrors, but the verses
are conceived essentially as objects of beauty in which a beatific vision
has revealed an archetypal pattern that is detached from reality. As such,
the book records visionary experience and privileges artifice. Acanthus
demonstrates a will to perceive another reality beyond the contraries and
dilemmas that confront a modern poet. Call hoped to actualize his vision by
bracketing it between two contrasting types of poetic language, but this led
to an intellectual cul-de-sac. In Blue Homespun, Call chooses to write a
poetry that will no longer merely record his divinations, but will
communicate his vision and that vision's application to present reality.
Consequently, he retains the plain language and local setting of the poems
in the close of Acanthus. The later poems are now clearly prophetic
utterances that direct present pain toward the bliss of an imminent renewal.
There is always an unstated "Hear ye" appended to the address.
identifiable human voice exists in poetry there is at least the image of a
real person behind that voice. In Blue Homespun the image is that of a
prophet, but not a Victorian or Edwardian poet-prophet —rather a
modern version of the Old Testament type. The Hebrew word for
"prophet," ndbd, means "to bubble forth" or "to
utter". In the time of
Samuel other words,ro'eh and hozeh, came into use in the sense of a "seer". The "prophet" proclaims the word of God; the "seer" beholds it in silence. The ndbi predicts, warns, conveys religious instruction, interprets current events, promotes enterprises beneficial to the people, blesses and reveals hidden truths such as the imminence of judgement and the evil of the days. Like the pronouncements of an Old Testament ndbi, Call's Blue Homespun presupposes an attitude toward the status quo in which it is assumed that "the people" have wandered from the correct path, and that their perception of reality is impaired.
Series of French
Canada", the first of the
three sustained sonnet series in Blue
Lorne Pierce with the simplicity and sincerity of Call's portrayal of "habitant life". Lionel Stevenson commented
favourably on the simplicity of these
word-pictures, "reminiscent of Millet's
paintings". The Canadian
points out that Call was "not a full-fledged modernist" and
suggests that he is "at his best, writing sonnets."11 These remarks
require some further elaboration regarding Call's representation of life as it is lived in a particular locality, Millet,
and the sonnet as his preferred form.
the close of Acanthus Call discovered a plainer, more personal use of
language, and many of his
poems are meditations on specific places. His third book combines these
elements in a verse that seems to speak personally of communion
and community despite the sonnet's formality. Stevenson's perceptive remark
suggests that this sincerely local voice might also be construed as a
"voice of the
people". Call's figures of simple
people in rural landscapes do recall Millet's paintings of winnowers,
sowers, harvesters, potato planters and so forth. One could say that Call's
romanticism borders on socialism, as does Millet's. In Millet the everyday
lives of simple
people are what makes a landscape sublime. Similarly, Call's
word-pictures are concerned with a reconciliation of vision and
locality, which bubbles forth in companionable praise for its
"true-to-life" inhabitants. Finally, Call is not
"at his best writing sonnets" but rather in what he attempted with
the sonnet series. In terms of his poetic, one form is as good as another, but the
sonnet's formal yolking of observation
and commentary suited his conception of poetic unity as
heart and mind united. More importantly, the sonnet series as a group of
interlinked but discontinuous moments of
grace and freedom was particularly useful to him in
its capacity for a wholeness greater than its parts. Blue
Homespun is in fact a series of three sonnet series, which presents his reader with a
truth founded upon the plain piety and way of life of the francophone farming communities around
Lennoxville, Quebec. Call looks for and finds a timeless wisdom enduring in
this locality despite the incoherence of
times. For Call this homespun vision transcends questions of literary
taste, whether that be Romantic, Symbolist, aesthete, or modernist, and the
form that he believes least impedes its free and prophetic communication is
the allegorical and discontinuous sonnet series.
In the book's
first section, a sonnet series of French Canada, Call begins by unearthing
truths he believes modern man can live by, and from which
man has strayed. In "The Oven" the mother of a family is presented
from two points of view, one mundane and the other archetypal,
is a woman at peace with herself and the place to which she belongs (barefoot
in the kitchen, alas). At the same time, however, she is "the priestess
of an ancient shrine,/ Keeping alight the sacrificial spark/ That made old
altars through the ages shine". The poem superimposes her "dull
contentment" upon a "sacred oil" that "burns and glows
through storm and sun and dark". It is this `layering' of vision and
perception with which Call is primarily concerned. The sonnet makes no claims
beyond the simple allegory that it frames and highlights. Out of context it is
a small thing, recording a small moment. As part of a series, however, the
poem directs the reader's attention and focuses it upon another level of
meaning flowing beneath the surface. The sonnets are not static objects or
`captured' moments of observation but a series of wells sunk in the flow of
time and on-going life.
and "The Raconteur" point out that any art that excerpts itself from
daily life will be limited in its capacity to speak the truth. When the
habitants sing or tell stories, they enjoy it fully, then go to bed in
silence. Narrative and song are pleasant but no more lasting than a good meal.
In the Belgian Garden
Call had seen an image of unnamable horror in the Chambly rapids. Here, in
"Chambly", the rapids are a monotone "dull rune/ Of ancient
days" — "in tune/ With beating steel-blue wings of
dragon-flies" and the old lullabies of the region. This image
encapsulates Call's conception of an art that reverberates point for point
with its audience and the environment in which communication takes place. Now,
the rapids, the mother's oven, and art's tinkling cymbals are all harmonic
tones in the "mystery" of a community at one with itself and its
people of this locality are privy to an enduring knowledge, and Call has
learned from their example not to try to nail it down. He allows the locality
to speak for him and through him. Vision is a hidden treasure that the people
and their poet share, and silence is the cost of knowing such secrets. Hence
it is not language but the landscape and the customs of the people that have
meaningful speech, as we see in "An Old Habitant":
His perception of reality is one and the same thing
as his thought. The
moment of beholding him, moreover, epitomizes mind and heart united,
moment of beholding him, moreover, epitomizes mind and heart united,
The truth by which the old man lives is inseparable from the cycles of growth and decay to which he belongs and would not amend. Nor will the poet, either with fantastic imagery or with experiment, for to amend the vision would be to insert errors in an already perfect whole. This is why the mystery must not be exposed, and why the voice of these 'speaking pictures' must be the voice of this place, articulating its lived reality. Taken together, the poems amount to the poetic utterance of a Gestalt in which the locality and its poet participate.
The middle series, "From a Walled Garden", is a sequence of poems on the seasons that relates the poet's own efforts to live by the truths he has found. The allegory becomes three-fold in the context of the habitants' farming, the city-man's gardening , and God's horticultural exploits in the Garden of Eden. In "Tulip Time" Call implicitly renounces the aesthete imagery with which he had tried to express vision in earlier poems on gardens. The speaker of "Carpe Diem" chooses to abandon the past for "one day of ecstacy,/ One day — and be content for evermore". There is a "price we pay" for such vision, however. In "Gray Afternoon" "The worth of noontide" must be learned, but to know its moral and intellectual value is also to know that it will be removed by time. Hence the recognition in "November Snow",
A few brown stalks tell summer's story, but the speaker cannot equate that representation with the "strange white silence" that blossoms in the garden and in his heart,
In the central series, then, vision and knowledge threaten to divide the speaker's perception of reality and thereby separate him from his audience. Silence is the price of a vision that is lived by a community at one place and at peace with itself. In order to return to this lived vision in the third series, called "Simples", Call attempts to bring time to a standstill in a manner that is characteristic of prophetic writing.
de Man has suggested that prophetic writing figuratively "spatializes"
time in the sense that apocalyptic rhetoric demands an act of faith on the
part of the reader by which the history of man's folly may be understood as
coming to an end.16 Prophecy thus converts time into space, herding the events of the past into an immense Now on which God passes
"Simples" (reprinted from the chapbook Simples
and Other Poems of 1923), locates a spatialized present such as de Man describes at or
beneath a `layering' of death and what Call refers to as "my magic
craft" in the first poem of the series. Call hints that poetry will
recover "the scented dusk behind a secret door" when it returns to
simple things. It is in this return and the simplicity of his verse that Call
hopes to prophesy a possible end to man's wandering and the hardening of man's
heart. The third series focuses upon the theme of death as the one experience
aside from birth that all men will share, and the circular structure of the
full series superimposes the holy togetherness of Christ's Kingdom of Heaven
upon this theme.
On second reading, a sense of journeying, errancy, and return emerges from the book's colour symbolism, and one realizes that the sonnets comprise a kind of discontinuous narrative of a prodigal son. The first sonnet of the volume, "The Road to Ste. Angele", contrasts the passage of time "in silent flight" with a pathway that "goes without a bend/ To a white wayside calvary at the end". Blue Homespun's title poem juxtaposes Old Marie's sky-blue cloth and the Holy Virgin's robe, "After the evening angelus had rung". The middle series encounters the whiteness of death like a serpent in Call's `walled garden' (the etymological meaning of `paradise'). The third series presents the poet's personal journey along an "endless pathway" in which there are "secrets only Death can know," as we read in "Knowledge."17 In "An Old House", "The crumbling garden wall is overgrown/ With pallid bindweed flowers", and dead fingers clutch at the latch in an unearthly twilight. In the book's close, a "white-throat" sings "his song again" among the white birches of a silent plain. For Call, whiteness appears to symbolize death and hope in the manner of an epiphany in the religious sense of the word. He has come full circle and returned to the terror that pierced him "camping and canoeing" the white-water of Chambly. This attempt to reconcile endings and beginnings, the Here and Now and Calvary, is a necessary complement to his quest to emulate the bell in the temple-grounds of Acanthus's "The Prayer".
last three sonnets, "Curtains", "Burned Forests", and
"A Chinese Poet", thus constitute a finale not only to this work,
but also to his search for atonement and prophecy. In "Curtains",
the sonnet form becomes almost emblematic of a wilful reconciliation of
remembrance and perception when he says,
tapestry brought back a memory of youth and spring, but Call also remembers
that he could not not stop his ears like the Buddha in a shop-window,
blissfully detached from the sounds of passers-by. Hence he chose to
strip the windows "That I might see the human crowd outside".
"Burned Forests" moves from remembered experience to an epiphany
in present time. Here, fire has stripped the landscape of summer's colour,
but charred, white birches "stretched like praying hands" provide
the silence necessary to hear the distant white-throat's song, a note that
signals an uncurling of new growth from the ashes. It is not enough,
however, merely to glimpse the truth in moments of grace that time
repeatedly snatches away.
"Burned Forests" moves from remembered experience to an epiphany in present time. Here, fire has stripped the landscape of summer's colour, but charred, white birches "stretched like praying hands" provide the silence necessary to hear the distant white-throat's song, a note that signals an uncurling of new growth from the ashes. It is not enough, however, merely to glimpse the truth in moments of grace that time repeatedly snatches away.
In the final sonnet, Call returns to the garden motif of the middle series in an effort to represent the magic craft of a visionary poet as the fourth level of his allegory. The poem promises that the garden-vision is accessible to us should we but choose to listen. If we so choose, however, we must undergo a kind of `little death' through which the world will be forsaken in favour of an archetypal reality. Hence the significance of placing figures of destruction and renewal in the preceding sonnet. "A Chinese Poet" describes, moreover, the lines of communication that are formed between prophetic poetry and those who know how to read it correctly:
The octet attempts to represent this bounded space of `true reality' in the rectangular images of a row of trees and a hedge as well as in the symetrical placement of the internal edged/hedge rhyme. In this way, Call attempts to make the sonnet's form a mimetic copy of its content. Similarly, the Li Fu's green tablet laid in green shade suggests that his visionary scroll is but a transparency stretched across an order and purpose that exists beyond nature's apparent randomness. The plain monosyllabic last line of the octet emphasizes the thought that Li Fu's practice was intended not merely for pleasure, but as a source of knowledge. It does not matter, however, if no one reads his written words, since the medium of communication is the bounded garden-vision itself. The visions of Li Fu's soul are recovered in another tongue millennia later because Call has fashioned a walled garden located in the same archetypal space. Now it is up to us as readers either to accept the vision and walk with the prophet — or reject it.
Call was all too aware that the relative merits of convention and technical experiment could complicate the simplicity of his message. Consequently, he hoped to communicate his truth `silently', that is, through an allegorical but discontinuous arrangement of images as opposed to an unsupported symbolism or imagism. His experience of the Great War created conditions that were ideal for the emergence of a prophetic calling. The war's destruction inspired a need to prove that his perceptions of reality were limited, that in the ruins remembered life and beauty somehow survived. As a poet he decided that the kingpin of his limitations was his attitude toward language, and this led to his interest in poetic prophecy not only as a means of communication but also as a means of creating an elect company of readers. Generally speaking, should an audience accept a vision such as Call's as a variety of prognostication and omen, its perception of reality will have been altered by an act of faith. From the view-point of Call's ideal reader, the context described by "A Chinese Poet", reality converts to `true reality', a shared perception in which words are merely contingent upon the truth. Thus, Blue Homespun arranges conventional wisdom, locality, the simple life, and his own quest for a free expression of the truth in order to affirm the existence of an Eden accessible to us, just beyond the veil of the Here and Now.
are others for whom war has coincided with a decision to pursue an
allegorical, discontinuous poetic in which past error and present wisdom
occupy the same literary space. The early years of the French Revolution
partly inspired the atemporal world of The
Heaven and Hell, after which Blake's spiritual form set out "to walk through the
whole world of time and space, interpreting its secret history and
meaning."18 Nietzsche's experience as a medical officer in the FrancoPrussian
war preceded The
Birth of Tragedy by two years. Neruda's deeply troubled Alturas de Macchu Picchu recorded
his response to the approach of World War II, and as Enrico Santi believes,
his triumphant and coherent access to prophecy.19 Of course Call's minor
achievement is a mere candle compared to the beacons of these others' works —
but it is a candle, and it is flickering in our literature.