Lorne Pierces 1927 Interview with Charles G.D. Roberts (as Reported by Margaret Lawrence)
Edited and Introduced by Terry Whalen
To say the least, interest in Sir Charles G.D. Robertsin his life, cultural context, literary milieu, his regional, national and cosmopolitan literary achievementshas been generous in shape and abundant in volume over the past few years. The nineteen eighties are beginning to exist as a decade in which scholar-critics have almost completely righted an imbalance in earlier critical assessments of the works of Canadas so called Confederation writers; and Roberts has thus far been the biggest beneficiary of this shift in critical temperament, this gradual movement toward a crisper carefulness of critical response. In the past five years we have seen the publication of papers from two Roberts symposia, a monograph on his poetry, a major new study of his life, a variorum edition of his collected poems and new editions of two of his novels. Much has been recovered, and still more is on its way.1
In the midst of this activity, the following interview with Roberts would seem quite inevitably to take on both a stimulating and a nicely sobering value at once; for it is an interview in which the spiritual weightiness of the figure is omnipresent, and it is one in which Roberts says many things (about his life, literary likes and dislikes, attitudes to influence, attitudes to his reputation for wildness, and attitudes to education) that might give us healthy and informed pause before we too quickly write up many more new, ambitious abstractions about the literature he wrote or the life he lived. This interview has never before appeared in print, so its publication at this time has an especial aptness when so many people other than the writer himself are having their say about his achievement.
Most of us, of course, bear in mind ideas like D.H. Lawrences claim that we should always trust the tale more than the teller when we hear or read authors talking about their own sense of what they have accomplished. And certainly there will be many who will want to disagree with Roberts in certain instances in this interview where he understates the extent to which he has been influenced by this or that particular master of the past or by his contemporaries; he most certainly understates here, for example, the extent to which Bliss Carman and Richard Hovey influenced the shape of at least a few of his poems. In any case, the most important point which is established by this interview is that Roberts thought about his literary affinities in a very complicated and self-critical way in the first place. Like many of his contemporary Canadian peers, he demonstrates that he had a highly sophisticated attitude to the very matter itself of derivation and tradition, and he brought to such issues more precise thoughtfulness than have many of his later (usually modernist-biased) critics.
Some readers (and certainly Margaret Lawrence, in her adept asides) might notice instances in the interview where Roberts employs his well-known charm and poise, his dignified manner and wit, as distancing devices used to skirt past those questions of Lorne Pierces which he fears are coming too close to his best kept secrets, be they literary or more personal in issue. Yet for the most partand clearlyboth Roberts and Pierce emerge in this piece as quite candid, maturely adult, open-minded and realistic in spite of the reputedly Jekyll/Hyde cum Dorian Gray identity of one figure and the Victorian moral severity of the other.
The interview is listed as having taken place in the apartment of Charles G.D. Roberts, in the Ernescliffe, Wellesley Street, Toronto, on June 3, 1927, and [was] reported by Margaret Lawrence. Roberts was sixty-seven years of age at the time and he had completed two cross-country recital tours since his return to Canada from London in February of 1925. In 1926 he had been elected National President of the Canadian Authors Association and awarded the Lorne Pierce gold Medal of the Royal Society of Canada. A few months after the interview, during the winter of 1927-28, he would travel to Vancouver to give a lecture series on Canadian literature at the University of British Columbia. In 1927 he had not yet been knighted (1935) and had not as yet received his honorary Doctor of Letters degree (1942). He was also still a few years away from his service on the editorial boards of the Standard Dictionary of Canadian Biography (1934-38) and the Canadian Whos Who (1936-39). He was in the midst of that late phase in his writing career when he had returned to the writing of poetry after much success, on both sides of the Atlantic, as a writer of romance and wilderness fiction. Bliss Carman was still alive at this time, as was Roberts estranged wife, May (Fenety) Roberts. He had already met Elsie M. Pomeroy, his first biographer, and he was still sixteen years away from his marriage, in the last year of his life (1943), to Joan Montgomery, Lady Roberts.
The interview is now in the Lorne Pierce Collection at the Queens University Archives, Kingston, Ontario. It is listed under Roberts, Sir Charles Douglas, 1860-1943, and sublisted in the category, Biographical and Critical Commentaries, in the collection, as the item, Charles G.D. RobertsLorne Pierce. That there is no loud indication that this is in fact an interview item perhaps accounts for why earlier researchers appear to be unaware of its existence. It can be found in Box 75, File Folder #7, and it consists of twenty-two typescript pages (8½ x 14 in.) which are in excellent physical and editorial condition. The all-round condition of the document exists as one of the innumerable signs of Lorne Pierces and Margaret Lawrences care as creators and enablers of Canadian literary culture, and its insights into Roberts character attest to the sharp rightness of their preservative instincts.
In the original document the speakers (Roberts, Lawrence, Pierce) are not identified each time they speak, so I have added the identifications for the convenience of the reader. Otherwise, given the polished condition of the document, I felt that it was necessary only to correct typographical errors, delete a few instances of arbitrary capitalization, adjust spelling oddities in the name of consistency in the text, make accurate the literary titles referred to by the speakers, and include (always in square brackets) a series of dates and name completions which are intended to clarify Roberts allusions and simultaneously refresh the readers mind as to the chronology of Roberts life and works. The interview appears below, therefore, in its entirety; there is not one sentence of it that I have left out.
* * *
I wish to thank the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada for a research grant which enabled me to travel to the Queens University Archives for a bibliographical search on Bliss Carmans canon and responses to it. It was while working on that (continuing) project that I first came across this valuable and surprising find. As well, I wish to thank all the staff at the Queens University Archivesand particularly George Henderson and Helen Cobbfor their helpfulness and their extraordinary goodwill both during and after my visit to Queens. I am grateful to David Bentley for his very keen efforts in seeing to it that the interview comes into print, and to L.R. Early and W.J. Keith for their scrupulous editorial suggestions. My deepest gratitude goes to H. Pearson Gundy, who has been very patient in his response to my many questions about Roberts and Carman archival materials, and who has, as the literary executor of the Lorne Pierce estate, kindly given me permission to edit, introduce and have published this endlessly fascinating text.
Notes to the Introduction
CHARLES G.D. ROBERTSLORNE PIERCE
Lawrence: Dr. Roberts received us at eight oclock at the door of his apartment, kissing my hand in the approved European fashion, directing us to comfortable chairs and producing port wine and cigarettes. After a few minutes spent in polite preliminaries, he dismissed the lady who was there when we arrived and signified that he was ready to proceed to the business of the evening.
He brought out a sketch of his first home, which he said belonged to his son, Lloyd Roberts. Dr. Pierce was interested and said that he wished to take the sketch and have it copied by the artist, [Charles William] Jefferys, famous in Canada for his paintings concerning subjects in Canadian history.
Dr. Pierce produced a small notebook in which he had written important questions for the attention of Dr. Roberts. We were off
Charles G.D. Roberts was born [10 January 1860] in Douglas Parish [N.B.], but went to Westcock [N.B.] when he was eight months old. The windows of the house there looked out upon the Tantramar and his garden sloped to the marshes. All the Tantramar poems came from this environment.
Roberts: I lived in Westcock until I was fourteen. There were three children in our family then, my brother Goodridge, who died afterwards, and my sister, Elizabeth, who afterwards became Mrs. [Archibald] Macdonald. Theodore and Will were born later in Fredericton.
Pierce: Did you go to school in Westcock?
Roberts: For two months only to the village school. I was taught at home by my father.
Pierce: What did he teach you?
Roberts: Latin, arithmetic and algebra. Of course, I am not counting reading. I do not remember being taught to read. I know that I was reading childrens books at 5, and the adult books from my fathers library at 8. My father taught me for only a few hours a week. It was merely direction. He was a busy man, with a large country parish and a farm. He was an outdoor man, fond of athletics, and he encouraged athletics among his children.
Pierce: Did your father turn you to poetry?
Roberts: Not deliberately, but poetry was a matter of daily living in our family. My fathers favourite poet was Tennyson. He also liked Byron. My father was literary in his tastes. He was a profound theologian, but not concerned with the hair-splitting points of doctrine.
Pierce: He did not teach you Greek?
Roberts: No, he wished me to be a thorough Latinist first.
Pierce: What did you read in Latin?
Roberts: Horace, Virgil, Livy, Cicero.
Pierce: Which influenced you most deeply?
Roberts: Horace and parts of Virgil.
Pierce: Was there a literary life in New Brunswick which one might say influenced your boyhood, that is, any literary tradition?
Roberts: None, other than that which I felt in my own home. My father himself could turn out a finished piece of verse, and wrote a beautiful essay.
Pierce: Was your father interested in politics?
Roberts: Yes, he was an ardent confederationist. I owe the emotion that I felt for the confederation of Canada to my father. I heard both [Sir Charles] Tupper and [Sir Leonard] Tilley. They were friends of my father and mother.
Pierce: What did you read mostly in your boyhood?
Roberts: I read everything in my fathers library. He turned me loose among his books. I became an omnivorous reader, and I read for pleasure, steeping myself in books because they were necessary to my happiness. I read history because I loved the sweep of events, but little biography. I did not care for isolated details or the analysis of them. I read lots of fiction, but I read more verse than anything else.
Pierce: How did you read verse, studiously, knowing you were going to write, and therefore searching for a model?
Roberts: No, absolutely not. I read from sheer pleasure in sound and because of the thrill the poets had for me. I absorbed them.
Pierce: Had you any stimulating companionship in your early boyhood?
Roberts: None, other than my father. There were children that I played with, of course. I remember a boy called Alfie Barnes who lived across the road from the parsonage, and who had two sisters. I remember another family called Evans.
Pierce: Did you mix much with the people around, say the fisherfolk?
Roberts: Yes, I used to go out occasionally with the fishermen. I would say that I knew their lives intimately. Westcock was a shipbuilding centre, wooden ships, I mean. The Heart That Knows  showed that I knew these people.
Pierce: Were they interested in the history of the place in which they lived?
Roberts: I would say that they felt a deep interest. Beauséjour was near.
Pierce: Did you attend Mount Allison at this time?
Roberts: Yes, I took classes in drawing and painting, two days a week, for an hour. They were amusing classes. It was a ladies college. The head, Professor [John Warren] Grey, was a friend of my fathers. He had a peculiar method of teaching. He would teach for awhile, then saunter out of the room and stay out often for about fifteen minutes. I was eleven years old then and the only boy in the classes. The big girls who attended the college used to fight over me. I used to take turns dancing with them.
Pierce: Is that where you learned to blush?
Roberts: That is where I learned to stop blushing. They were a wild crowd of girls. They flirted with the little fellow of eleven outrageously.
Pierce: Were you writing then?
Roberts: I began things tentatively while I was by the Tantramar. The country around entered into me, and always when I return I can feel the early thrill of its spaciousness, its vast, wild, simple colour. I was an out-of-doors boy, even though I read so ardently. I had duties on the farm. I took care of the animals.
Pierce: Were you concerned with the great problems of the universe, with life and death, and immortality, as most young writers are?
Roberts: Yes, but with no intention of writing about them. I knew that my thoughts upon such subjects were not of importance, that I had no contribution to make, but even then I felt acutely that I did have something to say about the tides and the marshes and all the moving beauty around me. I was thrilled with it all.
Pierce: Did you know Bliss Carman then?
Roberts: Certainly, he was my cousin, and we were a clannish family. He came to us on his holidays as a small boy and I visited him in Fredericton.
Pierce: Did you go to school in Fredericton?
Roberts: Yes, to the Collegiate school, of which Sir George Parkin was then headmaster.
Pierce: You were advanced enough to step right into the high school?
Roberts: Yes, I was so thoroughly drilled in some subjects that they overlooked the others in which I was behind.
Pierce: Did Parkin have an influence upon your development?
Roberts: Yes, and also upon Bliss. He had come back from Oxford full of enthusiasm for Swinburne and Rossetti, Morris and Arnold, and he introduced us to them. He stimulated further the already grown passion for poetry.
Pierce: Did he have any other influence?
Roberts: Yes, the wholesome influence of a manly man.
Pierce: How did you spend your leisure time in those days?
Roberts: In the out-of-doors. I played a good deal with Bliss Carman. We went canoeing together, and made pilgrimages into the woods, we called them wilderness-expeditions. My poems, Birch and Paddle and the Epistle to Bliss Carman are reminiscent.
Pierce: Did you work hard at high school?
Roberts: No, I read a great deal, but that was natural to me. I took the Douglas medal in Classics, but not because of any particular love of honours. I just took it. It was a silver medal. There was another Douglas medal, in gold, awarded in the College for an English essay. I did not compete for it. I was not interested.
Pierce: I understand that Sir George Foster was one of your teachers. Did you get along well with him?
Roberts: Yes, I did, because I loved the classics as literature. Foster did not like teaching. I was a favourite and I liked him, but most of the students did not. He was what I might describe as lazily sarcastic to stupid people.
Pierce: Did anything in your high school experience make a particular dent in you?
Roberts: It was all dent. I absorbed experience.
Pierce: Was Bliss Carman in college with you?
Roberts: He was two years behind me.
Pierce: Was he fond of classics also?
Roberts: Yes, neither of us paid much attention to English at the University. We did not specialize in the English course. We did not regard English as a subject. It was an element. We liked the Professor who taught English, Dr. [Thomas] Harrison. He had a true appreciation of good literature, but he had to teach it to a big class and to follow a certain outline. This outline was a fleabite to us.
Pierce: Were you reading Keats and Shelley then?
Roberts: Yes, but not to a great extent. I became acquainted with them through Palgraves Golden Treasury. We also used Stopford Brookes Primer of English Literature. Dr. Harrison did not formalize his teaching of English. He would read the poems and commend them to his students, telling them to live with them, associate with them and draw them into themselves. He gave no biographical details and no analyses. I followed this same methodwhich seems to me the true method of teaching literaturewith my own classes later in Kings College.
Pierce: Was Carman writing in college?
Roberts: No, Carman did not begin to write at all until he was out of college. I was writing a little. My first poem [Memnon] appeared in Scribners [June 1879] while I was at college.
Pierce: Did that event attract much attention in the college?
Roberts: My professors were individually pleased, but otherwise no notice was taken of it.
Pierce: What were your outstanding interests in this period of your life? Roberts: I was an active young man. Sports interested me. I played on the rugby team. I went snowshoeing and skating and tobogganing in the winter, and paddling in the summer. Paddling was a passion with me. Bliss Carman and I used to take long trips in a canoe, sometimes for weeks at a time. In my studies Greek interested me most, though I liked political economy very much also.
Pierce: What did you read in Greek?
Roberts: Homer, both books; Sophocles; Aeschylus.
Pierce: What did you particularly enjoy of Aeschylus? Roberts: The Prometheus and the Agamemnon.
Pierce: Did you care for Euripides?
Pierce: Was it because you are temperamentally averse to satire?
Pierce: Were you interested in Sappho as Carman was?
Roberts: Carman was not thinking about writing Sappho in college. His work [Sappho: One Hundred Lyrics, 1905] was an imaginative translation, as I have explained in my introduction to the work.
Pierce: What did you bring out of your studies in the classics?
Roberts: Everything that I am. It was my most formative period. I was moulded on the classics, and Greek especially was a great passion with me
Pierce: Would you defend the study of classics in the college programmes?
Roberts: I would defend it sweepingly for those who have the taste for classic literature. It is useless to try to make others appreciate its beauty.
Pierce: How old were you when you entered the University of New Brunswick?
Roberts: Between sixteen and seventeen. I was three years a student there.
Pierce: Did you live in residence?
Roberts: No, my father, being the Rector of Fredericton, had a rectory in the city. His parish was the whole of Fredericton. He was Canon also of the Cathedral of Fredericton. The Cathedral was a true Cathedral in its ecclesiastical constitution and was not a parish church. Most Cathedrals in Canada are of the other order and are connected with parishes. The Cathedral had nothing whatsoever to do with my fathers parish.
Pierce: Who were your principal companions at the University?
Roberts: Bliss and another cousin to both of us, Andrew Stratton. We had our own family circle. We are clannish, we have fights among ourselves, but never rancour. The family sticks to this day.
Pierce: Was there any Maritime feeling among the students?
Roberts: No, we were conscious only of our own province. Nova Scotia meant no more to us than Ontario.
Pierce: Was there any literary tradition in New Brunswick, for example, about Haliburton and his Sam Slick?
Roberts: The Clockmaker was read a good deal and discussed, but it was not taken so much as the drawing of a local figure, as a world figure. The book was accepted as part of general literature. It was myself and Carman who started the literary tradition of New Brunswick.
Pierce: Was there any national, or patriotic feeling among the students then, including yourselves?
Roberts: I had been brought up with a political consciousness. My father discussed politics, but among the students generally there was not any interest taken in the condition of the country, or of the province. There was a saturday night debating society, but the debates were chiefly of a literary flavour.
Pierce: Were there any outstanding men in your class?
Roberts: Sir J. [Douglas] Hazen graduated tie with me.
Pierce: Was he a friend?
Roberts: Yes, an intimate friend of Carman and Stratton and myself.
Pierce: Was Carman interested in sports at College?
Roberts: Yes, he liked long distance running, but he played no football.
Pierce: Was he a good student?
Roberts: Yes, but he did not take prizes. He took his work as a matter of course. Neither of us ever strove for prizes or high marks. When we liked a subject we worked at it as a matter of course, because we had pleasure in it. I only worked for high marks once, and that was in mathematics. I had taken my mathematics very easily one year, and as a result had failed, so the class accepted it as a fact that I was no good in mathematics. I worked secretly all the next term to bring myself up, and surprised everyone in the examination by coming out at the head of the class. That was the only time I ever worked for marks.
Pierce: Were there any men in your year, or in your time at college who worked their way through? The presence of such students always tends to give a more serious atmosphere to college experience.
Roberts: There were two or three men who did that, but they fell in with the tone of the rest of the students. They did not dominate. The feeling of the college was against the plugger. Studies were never supposed to interfere with pleasure. Our college life was just life, which is rather typical of the older civilizations. We did not take education seriously as education, but culture was inherent in our social life.
Pierce: Was Carman active in the social life of the college?
Roberts: Our social life was disseminated through the town. We had our own family circle, many kinsmen. Carman was apart. He was shy and diffident in college and never much of what is called a mixer, but he was not a recluse. I entered into social life more fully, though. The river was the centre of the college life, and our class was an athletic class. I was prominent in athletics; I won events, among them the hundred yard dash. Pierce: Were you into many escapades?
Roberts: I was the only man in my class who never got caught drunk. I could take it and never show it, so I was appointed the one to steer the others when they went too far. We were a fighting class and were into many pranks. We initiated the firing of the cannon on the night of convocation. The town had bought an old French cannon and had set it up; the boys of our class stole the cannon, and carried it by means of a team of horses to the woods where we buried it. Then every year on convocation night we dug it up and let it off. The town was terrified. That became a tradition, but a later class, not being informed about how to let it off, exploded the whole thing and destroyed the cannon.
Pierce: Did you have parties?
Roberts: Yes, supposedly stag parties. There was no co-education and girls were forbidden to be inside the university residence. But the boys used to invite the girls of the town up to their rooms, and would get them into the building by hoisting them up in baskets from the shrubbery below.
Pierce: Did Carman attend these parties?
Roberts: Some of them. He was not very adventurous. His parents watched him well too. They were rather more prim than my parents and he had to give a stricter account of himself.
Pierce: Was there the same sort of understanding friendship between him and his father, as there was between your father and yourself?
Roberts: There was love and appreciation, yes, friendship, but not quite the same camaraderie. His father was much older. Bliss was the child of his second marriage.
Pierce: Were there inter-provincial meets in those days?
Roberts: No, there were matches, but they were not between the colleges of the provinces. We played the town mostly.
Pierce: Was the discipline of the college stern?
Roberts: We were harsh disciplinarians of ourselves. There was no official student government, but we kept an eye on one another, and for infringements of our own rules, we had a programme of punishment. We used to hang each other up by the heels in the gymnasium, and we also had a sort of gladiatorial contest, putting two men in a ring and letting them go at each other with leather straps. The faculty did all the official disciplining, and it was good, wise and reasonable.
Pierce: What did you do after graduation, which I believe you took with high honours?
Roberts: Yes, I took the Alumni prize for an essay in Latin. As to your first question, I became headmaster of the grammar school in Chatham [in September 1879]. It was a hard school and I really got it because our family had a reputation for being excellent disciplinarians. It was a school of big boys from rough sailor families and they needed an iron hand. I was able to manage them very well. That was the one thing about the experience that was easy.
Pierce: Did you not enjoy teaching?
Roberts: I did not enjoy it.
Pierce: Were you writing then?
Roberts: Yes, my first book [Orion and Other Poems, 1880] came out when I was at Chatham.
Pierce: Did you sell it?
Roberts: No, I paid the publisher [J.B. Lippincott & Co.] three hundred dollars to print it. That was, of course, necessary for the first book of an unknown writer. Publishers are not philanthropists.
Pierce: Did you send your poems to the publisher from Chatham?
Roberts: No, I remember mailing them from Fredericton.
Pierce: How long were you in Chatham?
Roberts: One year.
Pierce: What did you do next?
Roberts: I taught for a year in the York Street School in Fredericton.
Pierce: Did you write continually?
Roberts: Yes, a certain number of poems all the time, and adventure stories for The Youths Companion. I wrote no novels until The Forge in the Forest , which came later.
Pierce: You were married then?
Roberts: Yes, I married at twenty.
Pierce: You came to Toronto to edit The Week, about then [November 1883], did you not?
Roberts: Yes, I edited The Week for six months. My difference with Goldwin Smith was concerned with his enthusiasm for annexation. I was a staunch Canadian, and he was full of annexation, and he would not allow me to edit the paper on my own policy. He wanted to dictate.
Pierce: What did you think of him personally?
Roberts: I admired him. I considered him a very fine essayist, but he was not the figure in Canadian literature that some critics are inclined to say. He had a definite place in English literature. But he was a constant supporter of causes that did not materialize, and he wanted me to echo him. All my life I have insisted on being myself.
Pierce: What interesting group of people did you meet in Toronto, if any?
Roberts: I met Lampman. He was a student at Trinity then. I published some of his poems in The Week. He was a dear, natural, genuine, sincere, charming fellow. He was reserved. I saw a great deal of him, and I took it for granted that he would be significant.
Pierce: He was enthusiastic about your work, and put himself on record.
Roberts: Yes, though he did not say so to me. We just took such things for granted, and did not talk very much about ourselves.
Pierce: Was there a literary coterie in Toronto?
Roberts: None that I knew of, except Lampman and myself.
Pierce: Were you conscious then of the rise of the spirit of Canadianism?
Roberts: I knew what I was trying to do.
Pierce: Were you influenced by the others who were writing or who had written, Mair, Sangster, etc.?
Roberts: Most certainly not. I did not consider Sangster seriously at all. I did not attach any importance to any of the Canadian group except Mair, who, I thought, had written some real verse. I never considered him a dramatist, though.
Pierce: What about Kirby?
Roberts: I liked The Golden Dog as a story, but as literature it does not count. It is badly written, in poor English, and has no art at all, but it is valuable material speaking strictly of things Canadian. I paid no attention to Kirby. My taste was cultivated from the best work in Europe, and I would not accept anything less in Canadian work. I set myself the standard of the best work in Europe.
Pierce: What about the French writers?
Roberts: I read [Louis-Honoré] Fréchette eagerly. I remember getting some French books down from Montreal and Quebec with my pocket money while I was still a boy at school. I had always read French easily. I loved Fréchette. I do not remember that anyone else was reading Fréchette or the other French writers, outside of the people of Quebec. It was alien to our people.
Pierce: Do you think that these French writers influenced the writers in English in Canada?
Roberts: I do not think they did.
Pierce: It was chiefly because of the Protestant narrowness, and British provincialism in the English speaking people of Canada, do you not agree?
Roberts: No, I think it was largely that we were for the most part unaware of the art life in French Canada. As I said before, I knew of no one else at that time who was reading these French poets.
Pierce: Were your circle reading the writers of old France?
Roberts: I never belonged to any circle or coterie or group. I have always stood by myself. I do not remember that there was any great interest in the French writers in Europe.
Pierce: You would say that Sangster had no influence on your nature school of poets in Canada?
Roberts: None, at all. I never took him seriously.
Pierce: And Mair?
Roberts: I did not come across Mair until much later. I never knew of his existence until the publication of Tecumseh, then I looked up his other work. There is good poetry in Tecumseh. It is not drama, but rather a narrative poem in dramatic form. But Mair really is a poet.
Pierce: Then you would count all the early Canadian writers out in so far as their influence upon the group of sixty is concerned?
Roberts: Absolutely. We were looking to the big men in the old world. We felt that there had been no poetry written in Canada. We were Canadians and we wished to write about Canadian subjects, but we moulded ourselves upon the English masters, for style.
Pierce: That is very obvious to me. When did you meet Duncan Campbell Scott?
Roberts: After he had printed poems in Scribners. The first thing I saw of his caught me absolutely. Carman had the same impression of him at once.
Pierce: Would you say that the group of sixty influenced each other?
Roberts: Not at all. We worked separately and very independently. Right at the beginning I had formed the habit of never showing unfinished work, or of discussing it even. I never showed my earliest work to my father until I considered it completed.
Pierce: I understand that, but I mean, was there a conscious spiritual reaction, one upon the other, among you?
Roberts: None that we were conscious of at the time.
Pierce: What did you do after you left The Week [February 1884]?
Roberts: I did freelance journalism for a year in Fredericton, then I went to Kings College [in September 1885].
Lawrence: At this point the assiduous secretary pleaded for mercy. So Dr. Roberts suggested a snack and a cup of coffee in his kitchen, which was eagerly accepted by the above mentioned secretary. We moved to the kitchen, and Roberts made the coffee and cut three slices of Hovis bread, produced butter and a sandwich paste, put them down before the lady and invited her to go to it. He himself had port wine. Dr. Pierce drank coffee and ate oakcakes, and I made away with the slices of bread and two lemon tarts which Dr. Roberts brought out of the cupboard when he saw my eye roving acquisitively after I had finished the bread. I got my notebook and we worked the rest of the evening in the kitchen. It was less formal. But even with the last half of the interview I was not satisfied. Roberts would need to be taken unaware. He subconsciously resents a formal interview, and he dodges direct questions very astutely.
Pierce: Who were your companions at this time?
Roberts: Carman, chiefly, though the Professor of Classics on the staff, a man called [W.A.] Hammond, who is now on the staff of Cornell, was a good chum. There was also Canon [F.W.] Vroom.
Pierce: Were you happy in your associations at the college?
Roberts: Very. It was a theological college, but the governors were anxious that in the Arts department the students should get something that was not purely of the theological bent. I took that at its widest interpretation and made my work the very being of cosmopolitanism. I had symposiums for the students, invited them to my house, gave them drinks and let them talk. They had the run of my library.
Pierce: Norwood has put himself on record very gratefully in regard to that.
Roberts: Yes, and what I did for Norwood I did for them all. Norwood was brilliant and took the most advantage of it. I staged poker parties too. In fact, as one of the staff expressed it, I contributed the world the flesh and the devil for Kings College undergraduates. I did it thoroughly, you may be sure.
Pierce: What did you do during your holidays?
Roberts: I took long canoe trips with Carman. We studied wild life. I had a passion for investigating animal life, but not from any cataloguing enthusiasm, but from the sheer pleasure of it. I have always watched the wild creatures with peculiar delight since boyhood. I had then no intention to write about them and was not in the least collecting material.
Pierce: Not consciously, anyway. Had you read Thoreau?
Roberts: Certainly. I read all nature stuff. But I had no idea of being a Thoreau myself. It was simply another part of life to me, and I had a passion for the whole of life.
Pierce: Did you write The Forge in the Forest then?
Roberts: No, not until after I left Kings. I was writing verse, and fiction from time to time, chiefly stories of adventure.
Pierce: Was Carman writing then?
Roberts: Yes. He wrote the large part of Low Tide on Grande Pré at my house one summer. Richard Hovey camped one summer on my grounds with a lady [Henrietta Russell], the lady who afterwards became Mrs. Hovey. They came there under my aegis and I had to let it out that they were married, though I think that most of the people suspected that they were not. The Maritime people are not so intolerant as you Ontario people. As long as they have a neat explanation for a situation ready at hand in case of emergency they quite enjoy their own doubts about regularities and irregularities in human relationships. That summer Hovey wrote an ode [Seaward] in memory of [T.W.] Parsons while I wrote Aye! for the Shelley memorial.
Pierce: Did Hovey influence you as he did Carman?
Roberts: No, I am not susceptible to influence in the same way and to the same degree as Bliss. But I enjoyed Hoveys society. We used to consume large pots of Jamaica rum and talk by the hour. It wasnt always philosophy and art that we discussed either.
Pierce: I understand that Carman was very much in love that summer.
Roberts: He was devoted to the girl [Minnie Pratt] who was engaged to my brother [Goodridge]. He had another flirtation too [with Nancy Pratt], but it was not serious. Bliss had always had a penchant for falling in love with ladies who are securely tied elsewhere. After my brother died and the family began to think that Bliss would marry my brothers fiancée he became wary, and the affair came to nothing. Bliss has often done things just like that. He does not want to be tied. Twice he has fallen in love with my sweethearts.
Pierce: Did his family not take a hand in his affairs?
Roberts: They would not have ventured to steer his love affairs. But it was a family influence that would more or less tend to develop orderliness. It was not pagan, by any means, but still not at all priggish. The family was of secure social position, Anglican, cultivated, respectable and gentle. The father was a very fine old man, very much the old country gentleman.
Pierce: Do you feel that you owe much to Keats and Shelley?
Roberts: Every poet owes infinitely to his predecessors, particularly to those for whom he has felt a special attraction. Every poet is derivative. We carry on a tradition.
Pierce: Which had the deeper influence upon you, Keats or Shelley?
Roberts: It is difficult to measure an influence, especially in my case. I soaked in the sheer poetry of each, the cadence and the colour. I did not give a damn about the philosophy of either of them, but their beauty moved me. In Shelley the colour is ethereal, transparent and fine. In Keats it is earthen, like flowers and seasons, rich and luscious. I drank deeply of both of them.
Pierce: What other poets among the Victorians touched you?
Roberts: Arnold. I found his prose first, and later on his poemswhich are far more important than his prose. All that I care about is the essential poet.
Pierce: Do you mean his style?
Roberts: No, more than his style, the something about him that finds you and which eludes description. I cant analyze it and put into words any more than I could separate the colours in a soap bubble. The thought of a poet might be absolutely alien to me, yet I would find myself answering to the incommunicable something in him. That is what I mean when I say certain poets influenced me. I do not mean that I made myself over on their plan, or even at their inspiration. I read the great Victorian poets all together, and at different periods. I never came under the sway of Browning as Carman did. Emerson interested me greatly, in both his prose and his verse.
Pierce: Were you sympathetic to his transcendentalism?
Roberts: Very much so, but it was a general impression and not the acceptance of a system of thought. I have always shied at systems of thought. Bliss in some moods likes a formula, and he can take tutelage for a time at least. I cannot tolerate it. I would not take it even from my beloved father.
Pierce: You appreciate parts of Browning, do you not?
Roberts: Yes, but as in Wordsworth there are quantities of it that I would banish. Some of Browning is mere intellectual exercise in verse and has no more relation to poetry than the multiplication table. In Paracelsus and A Grammarians Funeral there is magic and bewitchment and sheer poetry, but I dont give a damn intellectually for A Grammarian s Funeral. Suddenly its lyric quality found me and then I loved it. That often happens with poetry.
Pierce: I suppose the pursuit of a thought for itself interests Carman more than it does you, and that is why Browning was a delight to him.
Roberts: No doubt, Carman himself pursues thought through a labyrinth in Behind the Arras.
Pierce: Which do you consider the outstanding individual volume among your publications of verse.
Roberts: I consider The Book of the Native  my first really significant volume. In it I achieved getting down to the expression of purely Canadian themes. There are specimens of this in my other volumes. I never consciously set to work to make a book of a certain type of poems. I collect them afterwards. And I have tried to avoid collecting one kind of poem in one book. I prefer variety. I have opposed Carman in this. There are poems in my last book similar in mood to poems in my first book. The Book of the Native contains more of the poems that I consider significant than any other volume of mine. I aimed to carry the Wordsworthian nature worship beyond the point of Wordsworth, to make it more transcendental and more mystical.
Pierce: Why did you go to New York?
Roberts: In order to be in a larger community. I wanted to get out of the parochial rut. It was not for markets. I could sell all that I wanted to from Fredericton. After my first book my work stood on its own feet financially.
Pierce: What did you do first in New York?
Roberts: I was associate editor of The Illustrated American for a year [1897-98]. I left in order to be free to write. I had various orders. I divided my time between Canada and New York, and I always kept my residence in Fredericton, and left my family there.
Pierce: Who were your principal friends in New York?
Roberts: Carman, of course, then LeGallienne, Hovey, Lloyd Osborne, Mrs Robert Louis Stevenson, and Isabel Strong.
Pierce: Did the reading of Stevenson influence your prose style?
Roberts: By sympathy, yes. I loved Stevenson. I would say that Stevenson influenced Carmans poetry. There are very few prose writers with whom I have associated intimately. I mean that in its literary sense, that is, that there are very few prose writers whom I have loved enough to soak them into my consciousness.
Pierce: Your son Lloyd reports that there were some gay doings during those times in New York.
Roberts: Lloyd is right, but most of the doings would not be fit for print. I was the leader of the gang, as at college, for the reason that I never could get unmanageably drunk. They called me The Old Man. I had the biggest supply of clothing, so the rest used to help themselves to my stuff. I used to have to keep some of my bureau drawers locked; that is, I did when I wanted to be sure of having a shirt to wear. One night I came in and saw one of the gang going out with my evening clothes on. I was intending to go out that night myself, so I made him go back and take them all off.
Pierce: Was Carman as hilarious as the rest of you?
Roberts: Carman well oiled is delicious. Most of the time we called him Bliss, but when he was happy we called him Willie. He was on The Independent then.
Pierce: When did you write?
Roberts: At any time, and in any place. I have always hated routine and set hours. I have had to do a great deal of writing in that way, but I avoid it whenever I can. It is not conducive to the best work. It turns out the most work, of course, but it tends to stiffen the technique.
Pierce: Would you say that the years in New York [1897-1907] were the happiest of your life?
Roberts: In one way, yes, because of the companionship of Bliss. But all my life has been happy, in that it has been interesting. I have wanted to touch all life. I have been happy and also miserable in many places.
Pierce: Was your The Book of the Rose  autobiographical?
Roberts: Yes, I was intensely in love. The lady is also in the New York Nocturnes poems  and in A Sister to Evangeline .
Pierce: It was your period of eroticism.
Roberts: I felt that I must express what I had been living for years, yes. But it is only one phase of me. Some people have stopped with those poems of mine.
Pierce: Just as they have stopped with the Vagabondia poems of Carman.
Roberts: Just so, and they are only one corner of Bliss. When my Nocturne of Consecration appeared in The Independent, [R.H.] Stoddard, who you know was rather an exacting and unpleasant critic, told the editor that it was the greatest love poem in English since Spenser.
Pierce: Which of your novels interests you most?
Roberts: The Heart that Knows was most important to me. It is valuable as a presentation of life, but is not particularly good in construction. The Forge in the Forest is in admirable style, but is also poor in construction. I regard my poetry as my most vital work, though I do believe that my novels will attract more attention later when the present vogue for intimate characterization is past. I have told them as stories pure and simple, and not as analyses of certain irrelevant characters, which does seem to me the main thing about many, about most of the novels of this day. The vogue will wear itself out in time though, because in a novel the story is the essential, ancient thing. My stories have romance and colour and consummate English. I have never dashed off any work. Barbara Ladd  receives good reviews in English papers with every new edition, and Meredith was enthusiastic over it when it first came out. I have studied the master novelists, all of them, my object being always to study them by association, rather than by analyses, that is subconsciously, rather than consciously. I have always held with the Biblical sentence. He that walketh with wise men shall be wise. I have learned by contact and association, I always impressed this method upon my students and upon all those who have come to me for advice.
Pierce: Did you and Carman get into many escapades in New York? Lloyd told me about one night when you made the round of all the saloons and at the end kicked one another standing under a lamppost on a corner. Then you parted agreeably.
Roberts: Yes, I remember that night.
Pierce: He told me another story about saloons, when you all were lit up, and got to quoting stuff of your own in turn, and a pink-cheeked Englishman who had joined the party stood up and quoted a long piece of Shakespeare very eloquently. Your contribution was to lift Hovey up by the rung of the chair on which he was sitting. Then the party broke up.
Roberts: Yes, and I can still do that.
Pierce: I suppose you could tell a lot more stories like that?
Roberts: I could tell much worse, only you would never want to use them.
Pierce: Why did you leave New York to go to London? You were happy among your peers.
Roberts: For the same reason that I left Fredericton to go to New York. I wanted variety and more life. I wanted the cosmopolitanism of the London life. But I went further than London. I was one year in Paris, in the Latin Quarter; two years in Touraine among the people of the ancient régime, a year and a half in Munich among artists. I was also in Naples and Capri. But the most important thing about my stay abroad was the war, of course. I threw everything over for war work.
Pierce: What did you gain from Europe?
Roberts: Necessary food. It is difficult to say offhand. I have no gift for cataloguing. I was writing, except during the years of the war, nature stories, and prehistoric stories, and poems. The years there must have had an influence, but I have never changed fundamentally. I am not malleable. I have never been susceptible to change from outside influences. I am egocentric. I have evolved steadily and very independently, and entirely from within myself. I have allowed myself to be broadened and enriched by my experience, but I have influenced others more than I have been influenced myself. My changes have all been on the surface. I am intensely resistant to other personalities. I have never asked advice, not even in youth from my father. I have been detached, and therefore I have been able always to find fresh interests everywhere.