The Poet-Impressionist: Some Landscapes by
by Anne Compton
The development which L.R. Early notes in Archibald Lampman's poetry is from
"an almost obsessive interest in landscape to a greater concern [in his last years]
with ethical and social questions" (Archibald Lampman 45), and these later
poems have not received "their proper share of attention" ("Archibald
Lampman," New Canadian Anthology 22). Ralph Gustafson cautions us, however,
against forcing upon Lampman the identification of socialist poet: "Lampman was not
cut out to be a socialist poet; he was a nature poet" (5). Misguided or
insufficiently informed, our estimate of Lampman's socialism remains suspended. His best
work, it is generally agreed, is his poetry of natural description. Lampman himself
thought so: "`The contents of my book [Among the Millet] are very varied, but
those that are devoted to nature description are certainly the best . . . '" (Doyle
39). The superiority of the nature pieces derives from what is unique in Lampman's vision,
what is distinguishable from, yet complementary to, the Romantic heritage. Making
excursions into the country, Lampman was, W.J. Keith writes, "preparing himself for
both thought and dream" (18).
Escape, companionship, recovery of innocence, and spiritual
regeneration have all been offered as motives for these excursions. All or any of them
might be true, but what exactly, I want to know, was gathered in the tilled or in the
fallow field as preparation for "thought and dream." Lampman himself speaks of
poetry as the second harvest, following the farmer's, of the rural field ("Poetic
Possession"), but one wants to feel, touch, smell the second harvest as one does the
former, the farmer's. For A.J.M. Smith, "Sensation, rather than idea, is what Lampman
derives from landscape" (182). Sensations, inflected by consciousness, synthesized
into an impression, make up the harvest. Impressions---the immediately conscious effect
resulting from sensations---are offered to us in his poetry. What we experience of
landscape is entirely refracted through the temperament of Archibald Lampman.
Impressionism, according to Raymond Cogniat, is "Nature seen through the eyes of the
individual" (6). The emphasis here is on the individualism of visual perception. The
statement is literal not metaphorical. Claude Monet, for example, paints the effect of
landscape as it actually exists before his eyes (Blunden 162). He relies on immediate
sensory perception, the experience of the individual. As distinguished from the Romantic,
who also places the individual, his attitudes and feelings, at the center of artistic
expression, the Impressionist is always attentive to the actual, never transcendent. Truth
to the object or scene---to the actual---is fidelity to one's own sense experience.
Disclaiming anything beyond the actual, Impressionism also discountenances a priori
assumptions. Quite apart from their technical innovations, the French Impressionists
shocked their public because, in their paintings, they insisted that there was no common
normative view of things. "`We must render the image of what we see, forgetting
everything that existed before us,'" writes Cezanne (Nochlin 95). Absolutes, either
transcendental or normative, are inconsistent with the impressionist view of reality as
changeable. Nothing more than momentary truths can be established. "Impressionism is
a realistic style of description," argues Rodney O. Rogers, "precisely because
reality is ephemeral, evanescent, constantly shifting its meaning and hence continually
defying precise definition" (265). Lampman shares with the Impressionists an
attention to fleeting effects, and he is similar to them in his emphasis on visual
experience. "Visual perception," Early writes, "remains the dominant sense
in Lampman's body of poetry" (Archibald Lampman 74). Moreover, light,
changeful light, is the optical phenomenon which predominates. Lampman is the poet of
light, the effects of light, and of the mobility of landscape in light.
Lampman, we are told, is descriptive, "pictorial"
(Connor 154), achieves "picturesque realism" (Daniells 398), provides "a
picture gallery of the seasons" in Lyrics of Earth (Unwin 87), has a
"painter's eye" (Keith 20)---but what kind of painter?---and "He made trim
little etchings of snowcapes [sic], crows in flight, and hepaticas in season . . . "
(Kennedy 123). Identifying poetry as a symbol-making art, Barrie Davies defends Lampman
against the charge of being merely descriptive (Archibald Lampman: Selected Prose
7-8) and rightly so since as early as 1896 Lampman was castigated for his "vicious
habit of description" (Waldron 104), but to be really, rather than "merely"
descriptive is to describe what is actually there---light, or to be subjective, the
sensations caused by light (Bell 8).
Lampman's impressionism has been remarked upon most fully by
Louis K. MacKendrick, but also by others, including Early who speaks of the
"impressionistic method that generally shapes Lampman's nature poetry" (Archibald
Lampman 76), but it is usually the case in Lampman criticism that attention to the
impressionistic method quickly gives way to an exploration of symbols and emblems, visions
and dreams. Just as A.J.M. Smith has been dubbed a metaphysical poet, so Lampman has been
described as an impressionist but without much investigation of the term and without
showing what exactly makes his work impressionist.
In the 18 June 1892 Mermaid Inn column, Lampman writes,
"You do not need to go to the Rocky Mountains or the Yosemite Valley in order to find
the beautiful; it is in the next field; it is at your feet" (94). Man need only,
Lampman adds, "accustom himself to the intelligent use of his senses." Like the
Impressionists, Lampman lauds the adequacy of the ordinary and the sufficiency of
sensation. Clive Bell describes the common aim of the French Impressionists: "No need
for the artist in search of subjects to go to history or mythology or literature; no need
to ransack the gorgeous East or the mysterious North . . . let the artist walk into the
street or railway station . . . there he will find beauty galore" (7). Their
techniques enabled them to record their visual sensations so that the spectator sees not
the normative but the sensational truth of things. Between 1874 and 1886 there were eight
French Impressionist exhibitions. The label derives from a journalist's derisive reference
to Monet's Impression: Sunrise, 1872, which appeared in the first exhibition. The
first word in Monet's title draws attention to an essential factor---the beholder's
fidelity to the unique moment. Around the same time as the Impressionists were
distinguishing sensation in this way, Walter Pater, in the "Conclusion" to The
Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry (1873), was similarly anatomizing objects and
exalting sensation. The experience of an object, according to Pater, dissipates the
solidity of the object in a "swarm" of intense moments: "each object is
loosed into a group of impressions" and "those impressions of the individual
mind to which, for each one of us, experience dwindles down, are in perpetual flight . . .
" (248). Pater was theorizing what the Impressionists were practising. For the visual
artists, light is responsible for the "perpetual flight" of the impression. The
Impressionists aimed to represent the appearance of the world out of doors as it is
affected by light, the reflection of light, and by atmosphere (Murray 8), all of which had
to be conveyed with the freshness of the initial sensation. As a result, their work had
the vigorous and spontaneous appearance of a sketch and an incomplete, unfinished look
(Cogniat 47). The techniques which they developed---the restriction to pure colours and
the application of colour in thick flecks and short, small brush strokes---put into
practice what they believed: colour is not in objects but in the light (Kronegger 42).
Although Lampman tried outdoor sketching only a little,
"many of his poems," Carl Connor observes, "were like pictures . . . and he
was much interested in the pictures and the progress of art in the Dominion" (154).
In the Mermaid Inn column (24 June 1893), Lampman urged the Dominion government to
increase and to improve the "so-called national gallery" (337). Reviewing an
Academy exhibition (16 April 1892), Lampman and D.C. Scott deem the landscapes most
successful, and of the landscapists, Homer Watson is especially praised: "He has so
thoroughly mastered a certain kind of landscape under definite conditions of atmosphere. .
. . [H]e reproduces the landscape under the presence of those cool, half-stormy days when
the fields are darkened by great shadows and swept by splendid gleams and he conveys a
delightful impression of the reality" (54-55). Watson is commended not for
reproducing reality but for conveying his impression of reality. The finished
presentation, they concede, can deliver no more than the impression as experienced by the
When Lampman speaks about poetics in "Poetic
Interpretation," there is a similar emphasis on the individuality of the impression.
Distinguishing the great poet from the perfect poet (whom he prefers), Lampman says that
the great poet because of his style---his settled method and tone---has "failed to
render the pure and absolute impression produced by the phenomena of material nature, and
the movement and emotion of human life." Without this impeding style, the perfect
poet will "arrive unerringly at the perfect rendering of everything" (Selected
Prose 88-89). In the poetic soul there exists an "answering harmony" to a
received impression; each separate impression will register its "musical value"
on the poetic soul, and the perfect poet will reproduce not only a "vivid
picture" and "accurate description" but also through the "subtle
arrangement of word and phrase," a "marshalling of verbal sound," he will
communicate the "stir in the soul" wrought by the impression (87). What is
remarkable about this essay is the pre-eminence which Lampman gives to the impression. Not
only is the distinctiveness of every phenomenon---May day sunrise or October sunset---to
be exactly rendered but it is to be rendered as it registers on the "answering
harmony" of the poet's temperament. Working out his aesthetic, Lampman presciently
proposes a theory of literary impressionism. Successive critics---as early as Arthur
Symons in "The Decadent Movement in Literature" (1893) and as recently as Peter
Stowell in Literary Impressionism, James and Chekhov (1980)---have continued to
explore the fruitful hybridization of literature and painting in literary impressionism.
Although each medium has its own techniques, the impressionist writer and painter share a
view of the nature of reality. Commenting on the novel, James Nagel writes, "As a
total aesthetic, the themes and techniques of Impressionistic fiction derive their
coherence from the assumption that human life consists of the interaction of an individual
intelligence with a world apprehensible only in terms of sensory experience" (21).
And for Elizabeth Kronegger, "the interplay of the individual's consciousness and the
surrounding world," what Lampman is describing above, constitutes the impression
The fundamental characteristic of the "surrounding
world" for the painters---and the one which led to their particular techniques---was
the instability of atmosphere and light in nature. Recognition of that instability
required, in the observer, a continual adaptability---a flexible responsiveness to light
and atmosphere wed to scrupulous observation. Fleeting change, in impressionist painting,
had to be incorporated into the representation of nature. Lampman, in his essay
"Poetic Interpretation," prescribes for the poet the same flexibility in
response to the "phenomena of material nature" and recognizes that
"pictures" so produced will be deeply inscribed with the "stir of the
soul" which the perceived phenomena produces. Impressionism, therefore, combines the
changeability of natural phenomena and the "answering harmony" of the individual
temperament. Like the French Impressionists, Lampman extols the ordinary, recognizes the
sufficiency of sensation, and prescribes a flexibility which would answer to nature's
It is my contention that Lampman arrived independently at an
impressionist presentation of landscape. His poetry, and his remarks in prose on poetics
and painting, reveals premises and procedures analogous to those of the French painters.
Whereas in Europe and England, the painters exerted an influence on the French Symbolists,
the Aesthetes and Decadents, the stream-of-consciousness novel, and eventually on the
Imagists, Lampman is not in that line of inheritance. He arrives at impressionism not by
way of these literary developments but out of his own close relationship to landscape, a
relationship shaped to a large degree by his interest in painting. As an impressionist,
Lampman is closer to the painters---Monet, Manet, Renoir, Sisley, and Pissarro---than he
is to Impressionist poets such as Arthur Symons and Lionel Johnson. Particular landscapes,
notes Early, suggest "the art of Monet or Renoir" (Archibald Lampman 51).
Lampman's landscapes correspond to early Impressionist landscapes by Manet, Monet, and
Renoir rather than to their later figural work, and to Sisley, in particular, he bears
resemblance. Both poet and painter were interested in the effects of light on snow.
It is likely that there were no impressionist canvases in the
Academy Exhibition of 1892 which Scott and Lampman reviewed. Their remarks do suggest,
however, their sensitivity to the painters' handling of light. In Canada in the 1890s
Canadian artists adopted impressionist methods; Lucius O'Brien's Towing Barges on the
Hudson River 1895 is usually identified as the first Canadian Impressionist painting.
Lampman was well acquainted with O'Brien's work; Lampman and Scott speak of the excellence
of O'Brien's exhibits in the 1892 Academy Exhibition, commenting particularly upon The
Mill Pond at Blair, a painting of a "misty cataract with the light upon it
[which] is a delicious surprise" (At the Mermaid Inn 57). They are
appreciative of the sudden shock---the "delicious surprise"---with which light
so rendered invests its object. What the report on the Academy exhibition tells us is that
Lampman approached painting, as he did landscape, attentive to the values of light, to the
way in which light creates landscape. Impressionism arrived in the U.S.---in Boston---a
decade earlier, in 1883. The chief proponent of Impressionism in America was Lampman's
friend Hamlin Garland, the novelist and essayist: "the literary articulation of the
movement in painting came largely through the efforts of Hamlin Garland, who . . .
lectured on Impressionism and wrote about it in Crumbling Idols . . . . [H]is
ideas were an important influence throughout the 1890s" (Nagel 14-15). Garland knew
Lampman for ten years; their correspondence was established in 1889, and they met in 1892
when Garland visited Ottawa. Enthusiastic about "Heat" (shown to him by an
editor at the Boston Transcript) (Doyle 38), Garland initiated the correspondence
with a "fan letter" to Lampman. Two key letters from Garland to Lampman---one in
response to "Heat," one critical of Among the Millet---have not survived
(Doyle 38-39). It is likely, however, that Garland's comments on Lampman's work were
governed by his zeal for Impressionism. Although lacking the benefit of direct
contact---viewing impressionist canvases---Lampman may have become acquainted, through
this correspondence, with impressionist theory. Other occasions of contact are possible.
Lampman's friend and correspondent Edward William Thomson left
Toronto for Boston in 1891 to become editor of the Youth's Companion. Lampman
visited Thomson in Boston in August 1891 and again in April 1893 (Bourinot 9, 18). Perhaps
there, or perhaps at home, Lampman encountered this revolution in the visual arts, and
even if he didn't, he anticipated it. Lampman is remarkable not because he applied to his
poetry an emerging theory and practice but because out of an extraordinary relationship to
landscape, he came to it on his own.
In his Mermaid Inn column, 18 February 1893, Lampman speaks of
the "wonderful painting to be done" by the Canadian painter who takes as his
subject the midwinter landscape. Perceiving this potential, Lampman predicates the
transformation in Canadian painting, in the late 1890s,1 from Academicism to
On some of these splendid February mornings it cannot but occur to one that there
is some wonderful painting to be done, which has perhaps not yet been even attempted. In
the winter dawn, with every gradation of red and gold and blue; even in the early
forenoon, when the towers of our northern capital stand westward, pale luminous, touched
with rose, against a pale, greenish-blue sky, when every roof fronting the sun is a sheet
of dazzling cream . . . and every shadow a patch of the clearest crystalline violet; in
the coming of the winter night, with its gorgeous changes of colour, subtle and
indescribable, what an infinite variety of choice there is for the hand of the painter. .
Everywhere Lampman looks, he sees colour in light. His imagined canvases celebrate
light's range, "its infinite variety"---luminous, dazzling, crystalline---in
Canadian midwinter landscapes. If midwinter provided "indescribable" changes in
light, high summer heat translated the visual into visceral terms so that the poet
reporting on heat's effects is himself charged with those effects ("Heat").
In "Heat"2 Lampman records his
experience of a landscape in noontime heat as a series of intense moments. The poem
registers the successive impressions wrought on the speaker's temperament moment by moment
as the objects on the hill, of the field, and in the shade of the trees flash upon the eye
and the sounds "spin" into the ear. His intense engagement with the scene is
presented not as a narrative but as a record of impressions which are passed on to the
reader and from those impressions, the reader construes the scene, much as the spectator
of an impressionist painting, led on, as it were, from one local area of colour activity
to another, fuses the blobs of colour in the painting into a unified field.
"Heat" invites a similar participation to link what Desmond Pacey calls the
"sequence of emotional impressions" (179). The sensory experience is directly
rendered; no expository comment punctuates the consecutive sensations. Visual, auditory,
and tactile, the poem is predominantly visual. The eye travels "From plains that reel
to southward dim," follows the road "up the steep hill" where the road
seems to "melt into the glare." In other words, objective data are combined with
subjective apprehension to yield an impression of just that place in a specific moment of
time, what is for the perceiver the "one and unique occasion" (Nagel 28). Glare
and blur modify sight; gloom---"The cool gloom of the bridge"---and the shadows
of the elm-tree, in the foreground, further affect sight, giving the impression of
"Dark patches in the burning grass." The scene is interpreted in colour and
form, light and shadow: "The woods far off are blue with haze: / The hills are
drenched with light." The sensory effect of the scene, not the scene itself, is
Lampman's project here. Perhaps this is what Early means when he says, "If Lampman
escaped anywhere, it was into nature poetry, not nature" ("Archibald
Lampman," Canadian Writers 146). Roy Daniells compares Lampman to Cezanne
(398)---"he has his own little sensation in the face of nature"---and it was
Cezanne who said, "`Art should not imitate nature, but should express the sensations
aroused by nature'" (Nochlin 95). What especially determines the sensory effect here
is the heat. James Nagel, in Stephen Crane and Literary Impressionism, writes:
Of particular interest is the obscuring of vision in Impressionistic painting, a
systematic limitation of the sensory reception of the essentials of scene. Such obscuring
is generally the result of natural phenomena (trees, fog, snow, darkness, distance) or,
less often, problems arising from human civilization (smoke, flags, buildings, crowds).
Heat, and its effects, is the obscuring medium in Lampman's scene. A
disturbance-free stillness pervades the scene. The moment is "windless." The
stillness enables an acuity of perception; the marguerites are numbered "one by
one," yet the heat, because of its "glare," seems to melt object and scene.
Heat casts a haze over the wood, colouring the line of wood blue. Sunlight saturates flora
and drenches the hills in light. Heat, like an obscuring film, suffuses the scene. Not
only does heat create the visual swimming effect---the impression that the plains
"reel"---but also the natural result of intense heat, the dust, further obscures
vision. Movement stirs dust, and the wagoner is "Half-hidden in the windless blur /
Of white dust puffing to his knees." The "puffing" dust augments the
impression that in the heat the scene swims. Lampman establishes the impressions which the
scene and its objects make upon him as seen through, and in, heat. Acuity of perception is
qualified by the intervening heat, the heat that falls between the eye and the object,
affecting the eye. None the less the poet---it is a visual exertion---discriminates
exactly, "Upward half-way, or it may be / Nearer the summit," the position of
the wagoner. He does not offer a normative common vision of the scene; "Heat" is
how this landscape is seen by precisely this temperament in a single passing moment. Had
Lampman been interested in anything other than the impression which the scene had upon
him, he would have elaborated on the thoughts promoted by this visual moment, but even of
these thoughts he speaks sensually. "In the full furnace of this hour / My thoughts
grow keen and clear" remains at the level of sensation. The inward sensation---the
invigoration---differs not at all from the beneficence of sensory effects provoked by the
Heat textures ("melts," "soaks") the scene
and deepens the space. The appropriate reflection of the scene's depth is sound; the
thrush's "revolving tune" (stanza four) slides, it would seem,
"leisurely" towards the poet from an indefinite "somewhere on the
slope" although the slope is "near by." The heat, which obscures visually,
contributes a depth to the landscape so that sound reaches the poet slowly, as across a
great extent. The perceptions, inventory-like, of the active eye are suspended in the
"sense-transference" (Ower 27), the shift to the auditory in stanza four. The
thrush's "revolving tune" encourages the intervals of dreams during which other
sounds "spin into mine ear," but the grasshopper's crackling, like the thrush's
tune from "somewhere," is "A small innumerable," and therefore
indefinite, sound, a spinning only. Either the poet could drift and dream in those
mesmeric sounds or he could recharge in the blinding field of light: "I lift mine
eyes. . . . " The colon-punctuated lines of description---simple, subtle and
luminous---marshall the impressions received in the restored visual focus.
I lift mine eyes sometimes to gaze:
The burning sky-line blinds my sight:
The woods far off are blue with haze:
The hills are drenched in light.
The recharging enables the poet to reflect on his modes of perception and his pleasure
in them: "And yet to me not this or that / Is always sharp or always sweet," and
although the sensations, auditory and visual, do not always so distinctly precede dream
and thought respectively, in this situation, there can be little doubt that the
pre-eminently visual (veering to tactile) experience of the landscape has made a refining
furnace of the brain. Merging impressionistically with the "surrounding world,"
the individual con-sciousness, the brain, takes on the furnace features of the landscape.
There is something appallingly lonely in the individual
testament---whether in poem or painting---of the single passing moment. The impression is
always a lonely affair. "I so utterly alone," concludes the speaker in
"Winter Solitude" (ALS 21). Lampman's use of "the isolate `I' (eye)"
(Steele 48) in the nature poems emphasizes the singular---the sole beholder in the
unprecedented moment. No landscape is so congenial to the impressionist's lonely moment as
the Canadian landscape in winter. For one who wanders into that landscape, there is always
the sense of the single unique moment, a moment never to be experienced by another and
never to be experienced again. The impressionist-poet is the only witness, and there is
only one moment of witness. In poem after poem---"January Morning," "Winter
Evening," "Winter Uplands"---Lampman records such moments. Often the
singularity of the moment is heightened by the impending fall of darkness: "A little
while / And night shall darken down" (PAL 117), or "Glittering and still shall
come the awful night" (PAL 243). In "Evening" (PAL 199), "the great
night comes on," and all "Shall be gathered into the night" (PAL 143). In
these landscape sonnets, more than anywhere, Lampman establishes what "Soon, soon
shall fly" ("Winter Evening"), the evanescent moment. Like Alfred Sisley,
who was also fascinated by the evening sky, Lampman records "the charm of things
which are going away" (Blunden 162). On the space framed by the sonnet form, he
deftly and quickly strokes in the sense-data. In longer, more discursive poems such as
"The Frogs," he is less of an impressionist. The sonnet and the short lyric were
well suited to the paradox of impressionism---the arrest of the fleeting moment.
Just as the French Impressionists painted the same subject
from the same perspective---Monet's Rouen Cathedral, West Facade, Sunlight,
1894 and Rouen Cathedral, Sunset, 1894 (Blunden 206)---but at different times
and under differing conditions of light, so also Lampman repeatedly presents the same
view---the horizon of the city as seen from a distant rural position---but seen in
different climatic, atmospheric, and light conditions. Monet's presentation of the same
subject, Rouen Cathedral, in different light conditions confirms that reality is a matter
of perception (Nagel 13). In Lampman's "Winter Uplands" (PAL 299), the cityscape
seen in evening is "The far-off city towered and roofed in blue / A tender line upon
the western red," but in "A January Morning" (PAL 286) the "city
towers up-borne / Glimmer faint rose against the pallid blue." There is a perceptual
shift in colour due to the effect of light (evening light, morning light) although the
mass is constant and the subject remains the same. The distant city, the massing of the
towers the same, is yet again different in "Winter Solitude": "I saw the
city's towers on a luminous pale-grey sky; / Beyond them a hill of the softest mistiest
green . . . " (ALS 21). Gazing upon the same scene, Lampman records how the sensory
effect of the same varies; the scene is always different. Lampman illustrates that no two
moments of perception are the same; for the poet-impressionist the reality of the city is
in the perceiver's eye. Lampman is no more interested in the massiveness, the structural
fixity of the city towers, than he is in the business going on in these towers. He is
visually teased by the variable line. Facing the city, what he saw was an undulating and
ever-changing line not a fixed and permanently contoured shape.
Since the variable line is a matter of perception, it occurs
as a sensory perception whether one gazes upon a natural, a constructed, or a human
subject. In the landscape sonnets, there is frequently, for instance, a line of carters,
woodmen's sleighs "team by team," a line of wagoners. Sometimes it is a flight
of swallows ("A Thunderstorm") or a file of animals ("Evening"). More
often it is the human line: "The woodmen's carts go by me homeward-wheeled, / Past
the thin fading stubbles, half concealed . . . " (PAL 117). The figures in a Lampman
landscape, always on the verge of leaving, are not anecdotal. As in Monet's Cart on the
Road Near Honfleur or Sisley's Snowscape with Huntsman, the figures are
integrated into a natural, and changing, landscape. Closer to home, in Maurice Cullen's
landscapes---The Ice Harvest or The Last Loads---one sees a similar flowing
line of figures in a snowscene. The undulating line is Lampman's refusal to see a scene as
fixed. Because the scene is ever-changing, nothing more than a momentary impression can be
rendered. The momentary impression is, for Lampman, the truth of things.
Lampman never delivers the fixed scene; there is always a slow
shift in landscape due to snow or mist or dusk or tide. "Les Eboulements" is one
of those silent scenes of slow shift. Even the title "A Sunset at Les
Eboulements" (PAL 273-74), not "The Sunset . . . ," suggests the
tentativeness of the scene and consequently the provisional quality of what is glimpsed
there. The sonnet's emphasis on silence proposes that at any moment sound or shift will
shatter the scene. The delicacy of the perceived moment is inherent in the image of the
benign hay-carts, which homeward moving, disrupt and disturb the shallow coastal water:
"Splashing the pale salt shallows." Silence and shadow, the auditory and the
visual, invest the scene: the speaker perceives the objects---fragments of the scene---as
situated in these conditions. The "dun rocks" are seen against the
"Fawn-coloured wastes of mud," both wastes and rocks are undergoing change as
the in-coming tide slips over and around them. Here, too, in the in-coming tide, the
fishing apparatus is apprehended not as function but as pattern---"wattled
fisheries"---its flexible withes interwoven. The slipping tide momentarily heightens,
to the perceiving eye, the pattern of lines. Lampman is an impressionist not only because
he renders pattern provisional, but also because the scene is presented as the impressions
register on the observing eye as it moves from object to object. Interpretation, anecdote,
meaning are suspended in the perceptual report on ephemeral phenomena. Fragments of the
scene are focused as the eye sweeps from mountain side to hay carts on the beach (which
have descended from the scythed mountain fields) to shoreline objects in change in the
in-coming tide. The eye follows the crows, rising from the pooling tide, lifting into the
sky where "Soon will the first star shine," but not yet because the surveying
eye sees in the "pale-green distances," the "sun's last shaft"
drenching the Kamouraska villages "golden." Scrupulously attentive to change in
light and tide, "Les Eboulements" renders, in what Pater calls "the passage
and dissolution of impressions" (249), the evanescent moment when shadowy dusk is
streaked with light. It does so through an uncontaminated report from the visual sense.
For Lampman the flood-tide at Les Eboulements occasions a
flood of everchanging sense impressions. For Charles G.D. Roberts, with whom Lampman is
often linked as a painterly poet, "the tides vexing the Westmoreland shores"
("Tantramar Revisited"), occasions memory. Whereas Lampman's landscapes are
drenched in light, Roberts' are drenched in time. This is particularly so in Songs of
the Common Day (1893) where Roberts moves between "The Salt Flats," echoing
with "the keels of centuries ago," and the "well-loved,"
long-established "Fields of Tantramar" ("The Pea-Fields"), spaces
where lives---domestic and labouring---were spent. Roberts' "Sower," significant
in his eternal provision for mankind, is a figure larger than the landscape he occupies.
The figures in Roberts' landscapes, whether it is the single figure of the mower or the
group, the "harvest-folk" ("The Potato Harvest"), are fully modelled,
contoured, and realized. In Lampman's sonnets figures occur only in an undulating line.
But what especially differentiates these poets as to their painterly qualities is the
handling of light. In Lampman, light---radiant, qualified, or reflective---falls in an
impartial manner over all. Even in a poem such as "Winter Hues Recalled," with
its complex structuring of time (Early, Archibald Lampman 56), what is recalled is
light. Remembering a February, southward journey by snowshoe, Lampman describes field,
forest, and hill, a snow-bound waste, colour-created by sunlight.
I saw them in their silence and their beauty,
Swept by the sunset's rapid hand of fire,
Sudden, mysterious, every moment deepening
To some new majesty of rose or flame.
The whole broad west was like a molten sea
Of crimson. In the north the light-lined hills
Were veiled far off as with a mist of rose
Wondrous and soft. Along the darkening east
The gold of all the forests slowly changed
To purple. In the valley far before me,
Low sunk in sapphire shadows, from its hills,
Softer and lovelier than an opening flower,
Uprose a city with its sun-touched towers,
A bunch of amethysts.
The light which transforms the landscape---"Leaving no spot the
same"---furnishes the memory, the "well-stored picture house," with moments
"laid away," which will emerge later through "luminous doors." Memory
is a place of pictures; the retrieval of pictures is "luminous." In Lampman's
"Winter Hues Recalled," the Wordsworthian "spot of time" is generated
by light. The recovered experience is similarly luminescent. "Winter Hues"
indicates how Lampman, in the light of a Canadian landscape, adapted and refined a
Romantic concept. Whereas Roberts, as he says in the prologue poem to Songs of the
Common Day, aimed to make "familiar things divine" (45), Lampman celebrated
the fleeting, and thus unfamiliar face, of familiar things.
The silence which pervades Lampman's landscape sonnets is
connected with the solitariness of the impressionist moment. The low-toned
"Solitude" (PAL 120), which anticipates the Imagists' clarification of the image
and perfecting of diction, recreates the spell of a silent space through the visual
suggestiveness of sound, about which Lampman speaks in "Poetic Interpretation,"
his essay on poetics. Silence and sound, octave and sestet, relate as background and
How still it is here in
the woods. The trees
Stand motionless, as if they did not dare
To stir, lest it should break the spell.The air
Hangs quiet as spaces in a
Even this little brook, that
runs at ease,
Whispering and gurgling in its knotted bed,
Seems but to deepen, with its curling thread
Of sound, the shadowy
Sometimes a hawk screams or a
Startles the stillness from its fixèd mood
With his loud careless tap.
Sometimes I hear
The dreamy white-throat from some far off tree
Pipe slowly on the listening solitude,
His five pure notes succeeding pensively
The quietness is spatial ("quiet as spaces") and as in "Heat,"
sound is the index of depth; here the "curling thread / Of sound," from the
brook, deepens the woods' "motionless" silence. Not so in the foreground. Just
as sun shafts pierce the shadowy stillness, so sound "Sometimes" and
"Sometimes" pierce ("screams," "startles") the solitude.
Lampman's carefully chosen words as well as the natural sounds themselves contribute to
the visual suggestiveness; the woodpecker's tap, appears sudden and "careless,"
like movement, in this motionless space. After that rupture, the lazier note of the
white-throat---"five pure notes"---appropriately slows the poem to silence
The loneliness of the unique moment is nowhere more obvious
than in "Winter Uplands" (PAL 299), a sonnet written, D.C. Scott says, fourteen
days before Lampman's death. What tempers loneliness is the vivacity with which
impressions are received. "Winter Uplands" is a composition of rapid notations
("The frost," "The long white drift," "The rippled sheet of
snow," "The far-off city," and so forth, begin the lines: strokes of a
scene sketched in). Lampman's tendency to move rapidly from point to point parallels the
quick, fluent strokes in Impressionist painting. Fluency, in poem or painting, is a
response to changeability. However different their media, poet and painter similarly
devise techniques appropriate to their common conception of reality as shifting. The first
quatrain positions the speaker in the snowscape---
The frost that stings like fire upon my cheek,
The loneliness of this forsaken ground,
The long white drift upon whose powdered peak
I sit in the great silence as one bound---
anticipating the coming walk home, "And then the golden moon to light me home---.
. . . " Sitting "as one bound," the poet is perfectly, passively receptive
to his situation: the "answering harmony" of the poet's consciousness will,
however, synthesize and modulate the sensations. As Kronegger points out
Just as light has come [in Impressionism] to invade matter, so the mood of the subject
has come to invade and to transform the object. . . . Imperceptible transitions and
dissolutions of subject and object reduce them to homogeneity, to a state of immersion.
A comment on "Winter Uplands" by Margaret Coulby Whitridge enables me to
clarify this point: "This poem, ostensibly a description of a winter night in Ottawa,
actually contains an intensely personal expression of self, superimposed upon the natural
scene" (xxviii). Whereas the poet's temperament---specifically, his present mood and
attitude---is a legitimate element in the tendered impression, to suggest that the scene
is like a blank upon which the self is "superimposed," ignores what is most
important to Lampman---the sensation-provoking possibilities of landscape and the need, in
response, for "the intelligent use" of the senses. Lampman acknowledges, often
in a poem's conclusion, the dissolution of subject and object: "I roam the glorious
world with praise / . . . / Till earth and I are one" (PAL 127-28). What has often
been taken as a Romantic declaration---his contiguity to nature---results, in fact, from
his impressionist aesthetic. Not surprisingly, snow and frost, soft or sharp, are the
predominant atmospheric elements in a Lampman winter scene. Fallen or falling snow is
responsible for the merging of object into object, so that one sees not distinct contours
but undulation: even land and sky appear merged, and sometimes, as in "Winter
Uplands," the snowscape appears aquatic: "The rippled sheet of snow where
the wind blew / Across the open fields for miles ahead" (emphasis mine). In an
Impressionist painting although contours are indistinct, and haze, fog, smoke, or
whatever, blurs landscape, loci of colour occur. Similarly, in "Winter Uplands,"
in spite of the "long white drift" and the drift of landscape into sky,
localities of colour occur; in fact, colour predominates over objects. The city is
perceived as "A tender line [a blue line] upon the western red," and further
skyward, stars are "jets of silver from the violet dome. . . . " The vivacity of
"Winter Uplands" results from the discernment of colour, the "beauty
everywhere," cast by the setting sun. For Lampman, as for other impressionists,
colour is not in objects but in the light and light is what makes a scene transitory.
These are poems of the purest sensory perceptions. Impressions
of this and that in heat, dusk, sunrise, are communicated with an exact fidelity not to
the object but to the sensory experience. How different is a poem such as "In
November" (PAL 158) where the sensations are subordinated to narrative or to myth.
"In November" narrates the speaker's discovery of "scores of mulleins long
since dead," which he instantly identifies as "some spare company / Of hermit
folk," but what happens when narration eclipses sensation, when natural objects are
humanized, is the attribution of character to light, a reversal of what in other poems is
a sustained attempt to document poetically the effect of light on the perceiver. The light
which "In November" is invested with "melancholy"---"So sere, so
melancholy bright"---is inaccessible to the visual eye because it is already burdened
with human or mythic reflections, "the half-reflected gleam / Or shadow of some
former dream. . . . " This obscuring of light to the visual sense is quite different
from the eye's work through, and with, a naturally obscuring medium, as in
"Heat." In "Comfort of the Fields" (PAL 148), Lampman speaks of
draining "The comfort of wide fields unto tired eyes," but rather often Lampman
conflates the "mist of light" with the mist of dreams. Actually, Lampman didn't
much like his "Comfort of the Fields." Writing to Thomson (28 Oct 1891), he
says, "It is called `Comfort of the Fields.' It is written out in six or seven long
heavy stanzas. I do not know what they [Scribners] took it for. They have refused and sent
back many a better piece of work . . . " (Bourinot 11). One suspects he preferred his
"transcripts from nature" (Bourinot 12). There is, however, in the otherwise
prescriptive "Comfort of the Fields"---"Drink, and be filled, and ye shall
understand!"---the lovely line: "Far violet hills, horizons filmed with showers.
. . . "
Lampman's poetry is quite simply at its best when he limits
himself to the jubilance of the senses, but when what is heard or seen is attributed to
Nature "in her common rounds" ("Voices of Earth") or to the
"earth our mother" ("The Frogs") or to the residue of "some
former dream" ("In November"), Lampman loses, or sacrifices, precision to
platitude. The meteorological "A Thunderstorm" (PAL 214-15), focused on a
pivotal atmospheric change, has a great deal more to say about "nature's
altitude" than the platitudinous "Outlook" (PAL 107-08) where the mind
broods "On life's deep meaning, nature's altitude / Of loveliness, and time's
mysterious ways. . . . " Depth of atmosphere, which usually interests Lampman, is
concentrated in "A Thunderstorm" into frontal force. Nature's mustering and
deployment of force is expressed in a military metaphor (MacKendrick 57), one which has,
what T.E. Hulme thought requisite in a metaphor, the effect of a direct impression (Gage
19). There is little figurative language in these landscapes; there is, however, more
"brooding" than this analysis has so far indicated.
The preponderance of dream in Lampman's poetry has frequently
been remarked upon, but how, one might wonder, can the dream-state co-exist with the
empirically based nature poetry of sensation and perception. Certainly there is in
Impressionist novels, by Conrad and Woolf for example, a similar emphasis on sensation
co-existing with dreamlike qualities. Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness opens with
a breath-taking impressionist sweep of sky over Thames, the setting for Marlow's narration
of his very specific sensations in the Belgian Congo, yet the narrator knows the
experiences whereof he speaks can have no more solidity for his listeners than a dream.
Indeed, even for the narrator recalling them, those experiences have a dream-like quality:
"It seems to me I am trying to tell you a dream---making a vain attempt, because no
relation of a dream can convey the dream-sensation . . . " (57).
For the impressionist, reality is visual and the visual is
ephemeral, evanescent, and transitory---is, in fact, fleeting as a dream. The
impressionist's project---to render the one and unique moment---parallels the dreamer's
effort to convey the dream. The dreamer does his utmost to reproduce the sensations of the
dream experience, an experience of discontinuities, of seemingly unconnected but
significant images, which combining bequeath to the waking consciousness the dream's
effect. The dematerialization in the dream parallels the dissolution of landscape in
ever-changeful light. The seeming impossibility of recording things just as they are in
the one and unique moment is analogous to the effort of narrating the dream. The dream in
Lampman's nature poetry appears frequently concluding the effort of rendering an
experience and acknowledges, in spite of the effort involved, a reality as elusive as
dream. Moreover, as Kronegger explains it, the impressionist experiences, in this effort,
a dissolution, a merging into his subject. There are very good reasons why Lampman might
have recourse to the metaphor of the dream to describe his experience.
The distinctly other kind of dream in Lampman's poetry
envisions or prescribes an ideal relationship to nature and occurs in poems such as
"An Old Lesson From the Fields," "A Prayer," "Comfort of the
Fields," and "The Frogs," hymns to nature's putative majesty, simplicity,
and opiate-effect. Nature seems in these poems "muffled"; images are marshalled
to serve prescription. In such poems, as Sandra Djwa points out, Lampman sees "into a
fixed plan or `dream,' which he hypothesizes as underlying the active surface motion of
nature and the universe" (29). The difference between the two kinds of dream
parallels the difference aesthetically between Impressionism and Symbolism:
"`[impression-ism] holds to the real, stabilizes the ephemeral; the other [symbolism]
is turned toward the absolute, the dream and the ideal'" (qtd. in Kronegger 27, 119).
In poems such as "Heat" and the "In November" sonnet, Lampman is not
dreaming after some great truth, some underlying truth; he is content to stop with the
reality apprehended by sensation. Although the landscape can be dream productive, the
dream remains, in "In November," in content and in mood undefined: "I alone
/ Am neither sad, nor shelterless, nor gray, / Wrapped round with thought, content to
watch and dream" (PAL 117). "`A clean grasp of the facts . . . a succession of
clear cut statements'" (Ball 96) characterizes, according to E.W. Thomson, "In
November," a sonnet which arrives, through a fidelity to what is seen and heard, at
dream. The poet's dream, as different from the idealist's dream or the visionary's,
generates no world beyond the poem itself.
Sandra Djwa, in her comprehensive "Lampman's Fleeting
Vision," explores as well as Lampman's dreams in relation to nature, those
"dreams" which carry implications of religious or social vision (22-39), and
Early, in his Archibald Lampman, provides a typology of Lampman's dreams: the dream
as transcendence, the actual (nocturnal) dream, but in "most of Lampman's poetry,
`dream' occurs as a metaphor . . . in two utterly contrary metaphorical
senses"---"life-as-dream" and "Art as dream." In this last usage,
Early continues, "the dream becomes identified with the poem itself" (41-42). In
the impressionistic landscapes, the dream is part of the poetic process, often its
conclusion. In these poems, the poet-impressionist acknowledges that what he has been
doing---rendering transitoriness---is as impossible as narrating a dream. The metaphor of
the dream appropriately renders "the stir in the soul" created by that effort.
Such dreams refer to nothing beyond the experience itself.
The poet-impressionist is selective rather than inclusive in
presenting landscape. The eye sweeps a scene---distant, near-at-hand, distant
again---selects only the essential elements and ruthlessly shears away, like a mower, all
else. In "Among the Timothy" (PAL 13-16), the speaker places himself in "A
circle clean and gray," a mower-made circle, where at least initially, "it is
sweet to lie" lethargically, "Nor think but only dream," an enterprise
which in its nature seems little different from "the drifting hours" spent in
the city, which he is avoiding. The city is antipathetic to "A sweeter
world"---a dream world---"where I in wonder strayed" among "dreams
that moved through that enchanted clime," not, it would seem, a very profitable
expenditure of time since it "beareth nought." The poet turns himself over, in
this clean circle, not to dreams but to the effects of wind and sun: "so I lie and
feel the soft hours wane / To wind and sun and peaceful sound laid bare. . . . " This
passage of time registers as tactility of wind and as "bare," distinct, sound.
This sensory experience is inspiriting and activating: "I bid my spirit pass / Out
into the pale green ever-swaying grass / To brood, but no more fret." He is
"surely," writes D.M.R. Bentley, "indicating the power of nature to awaken
fully the faculties of even the most `sleepy' and `languid,' the strayed revellers, among
us" ("Watchful Dream" 22). The boon of this attentiveness is "an eye
made quiet," as Wordsworth describes a similar effect ("Tintern Abbey"),
regardful, now that fret has passed, and capable of impressions.
And hour by hour among all
shapes that grow
Of purple mints and daisies gemmed with gold
In sweet unrest my visions
come and go;
I feel and hear and with quiet eyes behold;
And hour by hour, the ever-journeying sun,
In gold and shadow spun,
Into mine eyes and blood, and
through the dim
Green glimmering forest of the grass shines down,
Till flower and blade, and every cranny blown,
And I are soaked with him.
The locus of the poet's passage from dream-nostalgia to sharp attentiveness---"I
feel and hear and with quiet eyes behold"---is the "circle clean and gray,"
a space which presages (see Early's dating, "Chronology" 78-79), the "full
furnace" of the "heat-held land" ("Heat"), where thoughts
"grow keen and clear."
The "sweet unrest" of this active/receptive state is
contrasted with his earlier, early afternoon, lying about: "it is sweet to lie / . .
. / Nor think but only dream." The "unrest" is produced by the sights,
which "come and go," of shapes "that grow" in colour. Responsible for
perceptual shift, light is also is an integral principle of organic change, and of human
change. The light of "the ever-journeying sun" viscerally affects the poet. The
full impression of this scene comprehends, beyond the surface of the scene, a change
wrought deep within place and speaker: "every cranny brown, / And I are soaked with
him." One of the titles which Lampman considered for his second volume, Lyrics of
Earth 1895, was "A Gift of the Sun" (Bentley, "Introduction" 8).
Landscape for Archibald Lampman is really an account of light, and the changeful effects
of light are cognate with the transforming power of the sun. The report from the mowed
field, "Among the Timothy," celebrates the light that touches and transmutes.
The "immersion," which occurs in impressionist literature, results in change not
For the sake of his harvest, the mower shears away what has
grown up. "Dead daisies" are mixed with harvest swathe. The poet, like the
mower, must shear away those "high moods of mine that sometime made / My heart a
heaven, opening like a flower" so that he can gather the second harvest in the
field---the sensations "I feel and hear and with quiet eyes behold." As
rigorously attentive as the painters, Lampman, in these poems, establishes the instability
of landscape in light which leaves "no spot the same," and like other writers in
the impressionist manner, his fidelity to impressions as they occur moment by moment
results in "a thing most keenly real" ("Winter Hues Recalled").
If we take seriously Lampman's impressionism and do not apply
the term casually as a synonym for descriptiveness, we begin to appreciate his realistic
and relativistic world view. The spokesman for the adequacy of the ordinary and the
sufficiency of sensation is neither a transcendentalist nor an apologist for a late, lost
golden age. Nor is he a pessimist. Against the notion of Lampman, the troubled prophet of
urban and industrial malaise, we must place Lampman, the poet of light.
1 Of the thirty artists represented in the exhibition Impressionism in Canada:
1895-1935 at the Art Gallery of Ontario in 1973, twenty-four of them studied in Paris
between 1890 and 1920. All of them, with the exception of Robert Harris and William
Brymmer, came back to Canada influenced by Impressionism, and Harris and Brymmer later, in
Canada, assimilated the style (Murray 10).
2 The Poems of Archibald Lampman (including At the Long Sault), intro. Margaret
Coulby Whitridge (Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1974) 12-13. All Lampman poems are quoted from
this collection. Those from At the Long Sault, included in Whitridge's text, are
indicated ALS. For the dating---composition and publication---of this and other Lampman
poems, see L.R. Early, "A Chronology of Lampman's Poems," Canadian Poetry
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