New Canadian Modernist Studies


Anne Compton. A.J.M. Smith: Canadian Metaphysical. Toronto: ECW, 1995. 260 pp.

T. Nageswara Rao. Inviolable Air: Canadian Poetic Modernism in Perspective. Delhi, India: B.R. Publishing, 1994. xiv + 233 pp.

Anne Compton’s physically striking new book on A.J.M. Smith’s poetry wraps up with the following defensive remarks:

Smith begins with the objects and moments of ordinary experience, but these sometimes lead him to that rather rarefied atmosphere of metaphysical speculation. When we cease to demand from our poets a constant affirmation of our Canadianism, when we accept that the objects and moments of ordinary experience can be subjected to analysis and still cherished, we will come back to A.J.M. Smith, our homegrown, self-made, Canadian metaphysical. (234)

Compare these with the conclusion of Dorothy Livesay’s review of Smith’s News of the Phoenix, from First Statement (2, vi [April 1944]):

In the present mood of the world, such poetry will not give sustenance nor direction. It is the poetry of an exile, and an exile in a retreat. Canadians, emergent now from that sequestered life, are not likely to pause here. They demand a more virile, challenging art to express the possibility of things to come. But perhaps, by our children’s firesides we may turn to Smith again, and be fully refreshed.

The differences between Compton’s apologetics and Livesay’s civil sneer are blatant: which makes their common forecast of a Smith "comeback" in our critical senectitude especially compelling. Like his earliest detractor, Smith’s most recent good critic is curiously uneager to judge him as he is to us today, as if he might still provide some further evidence of genius. Why would such critical ambivalences persist for fifty years? And how might we move Smith studies forward, how reach "our children’s firesides," before Compton’s book, like every volume of Smith’s poetry, is out of print?

A.J.M. Smith: Canadian Metaphysical has in fact a good deal to offer in answer to my second (easier) question. Compton is usually a skilled explicator of Smith’s poems, deeply read in her source-poets the English Metaphysicals and amply familiar with the archival and documentary sources pertinent to critical discussions of Smith and of Canadian modernist poetry. The kind of criticism she performs is the kind needed at the moment for Canadian modernist writers. Its depth and impact here are somewhat enervated, though, by two chief constraints on her critical imagination. The first of these is signalled by her unfortunate title; the second is her excessive consciousness of Smith’s declining reputation and relative inattention to the logic of his current eclipse. Even conjoined, these two constraints do not make A.J.M. Smith: Canadian Metaphysical a weak study: but it plainly could have been stronger, and not by taking on a greater theoretical contemporaneity.

One would have thought, indeed, that calling anyone a Canadian somebody else would be impossible after John Glassco’s devastating ridicule in Memoirs of Montparnasse, in which the silly Buffy goes on at a party about "Lampman, the Canadian Keats, and Carman, the Canadian Swinburne [and] Smith, who is sometimes hailed as the Canadian Yeats, but whom I prefer to all of them." (He is asked in return, "May I ask if you yourself are already the Canadian avatar of someone else?") The flat-handed rhetorical gesture of Compton’s title grants the merely contextual Metaphysicals sole and determining efficacy in Smith’s self-formulation and submits Canadian creative energy to British terms: neither of which implications is often enacted in her better critical practice. Nevertheless her book, largely a compendium of explications, is really only governed by the titular rubric, so whatever conviction we come to share with Compton will pertain to our sense of the justice of a reading, or to its real relevance to the larger Metaphysical thesis, or to that thesis’s comprehensiveness and accuracy.

Compton is by and large a talented critical reader of Smith, and although one is rarely caught off guard by fresh and original treatments of the poems, one is equally rarely disgruntled by mishandlings of evidence. She can it is true be highly impressionistic and get carried away in a critical language that is itself inchoate in a quasi-Metaphysical manner (see, for instance, her badly jumbled remarks on "The Plot Against Proteus," 155-56); and she can be uneminently curt, as when she quotes large swatches of text, sometimes whole poems, practically without comment (see the treatments of "The Woman in the Samovar," 73-74, "Tree," 102, and "The Dead," 216). Despite these infelicities, I found little of substance to disagree with in the first five of Compton’s nine chapters of comment, dealing either with Smith’s apprenticeship poetry or his most explicitly Metaphysical work. "Pagan" she misreads as "a bacchantic throwing off of restraint" (92), a reading surely refuted by its hapless subjunctive mood ("Were I the great God Pan" means "I’m not really") and its ironically detumescent formalism, and the comparison of Smith’s exercised "Good Friday" with John Donne’s brooding "Good Friday, 1613. Riding Westward" chiefly for their titles and apparent tripartite meditative structures is forced, to say the least (126-29), but these are hardly damaging to her larger purposes. They are outweighed by her skilful recognition of Metaphysical allusions and echoes in Smith’s poems, especially rich and detailed in Chapter 5, "Death and Faith," and yielding real fruit in her well-justified claim that of all the English Metaphysicals Thomas Traherne bears the greatest proleptic resemblance to Smith’s modernist poetics (82-83, 234). Her skill with the poems’ allusiveness is well-blended with the completeness of her archival and documentary sources, most of which are taken up for their parallels to the aesthetic implications of the poems. These include excerpts from Smith’s letters, poems in manuscript, little-known essays and reviews, the Master’s and doctoral theses, the McGill Fortnightly Review, and so on, and Compton’s exploitation of such materials should be exemplary for the current generation of Canadian literary scholars-in-training. Finally, Compton’s constant attention to the arrangement of poems in Smith’s volumes yields some valuable insights into the poet’s grasp and representation of his own oeuvre: see, for instance, illuminating remarks on Smith’s arrangement of his quasi-Imagist poems (194) and on the manuscript contiguities of "The Offices of the First and the Second Hour" and "Ballade Un Peu Banale" (126).

My praise of Compton’s method and contentment with her readings are perhaps less revealing of the book’s achievement, though, than my more substantive uneasiness with her relative and tacit evaluations of Smith’s various poetic kinds. Her acute awareness of Smith’s plunge from the firmament occasions both over-compensatory praise where less is due and odd moments of bickering with Smith’s language and style. These quirky evaluative tendencies are not immediately apparent. She is right to read most of his McGill period poetry (in Chapter 3, "McGill and the Moderns") with a measure of jaundice, and the favour she bestows in Chapters 4 ("Metaphysical Poetry") and 5 ("Death and Faith") on Smith’s earlier and most obviously Metaphysical poems is both understandable, given her thesis, and credible: whatever the power of the colloquial poems on death written from 1956-1964 (103), Smith’s real vocation had been fulfilled and in my view played out by the time A Sort of Ecstasy appeared in 1954. When dealing with poems less obviously Metaphysical in nature, however, than, say, "Prothalamium" and "To Henry Vaughan"—whose imitation of Metaphysical poetics is explicitly acknowledged in the texts—Compton reveals two paradoxical and significant tendencies of critical judgment and taste: on the one hand, to wrench poems outside the Metaphysical pale into her paradigm and, on the other, to devalue Smith poems that cannot be so wrenched. This matter comes especially clear in Chapters 7 ("The Body") and 9 ("The Social Poetry"), giving the book’s final third a rather dispersed argumentative energy that perhaps explains the defensive and apologetic conclusion I remarked earlier.

In "The Body" Compton deals with Smith’s ostensibly "erotic" poetry, clearly hoping to align such eroticism with the celebration of the body and of sexuality in a poet like Donne. Beginning with considerations of powerful poems like "To the Christian Doctors" and "Bird and Flower" to establish a broadly Metaphysical context, Compton goes on to defend Smith against those who, like Frank Davey and Roderick Harvey (180), dismiss him as a poet all of intellect, lacking tangibility and desire. Her desire is to the good: Smith has certainly suffered at the hands of critics who cannot themselves recognize the fact of the flesh in any but the most sexual terms. But to defend him carelessly on this matter is dangerous, as Compton does with many of her defensive statements: "His own poems demonstrate a mixture of voluptuousness and elegance" (175), they are "spirited celebrations of human sexuality" (180), they reveal the poet’s "naturally erotic aspects" (178). Smith is no erotic poet, though he is (as her cautious chapter title suggests) splendidly conversant with the pleasure and desire of the body. His gift in this matter lies almost exclusively in the realm of theory: poems like "To the Christian Doctors" are in truth "spirited" philosophical defences of the abstract concepts of "sensation" and "Mind." When he tries to represent the erotic force in action, however, Smith is usually embarrassing, and strikingly unwilling to bring any of his hinted-at coitus to climax: see "Souvenirs du Temps Bien Perdu," where climax is elided between second and third stanzas, and leads to a vicious post coitum triste, or "An Iliad for His Summer Sweetheart," where it only occurs after the poem is discreetly concluded, the white paper around the brief poem serving to screen the actual love-making, even if the poet insists they "need [ . . . ] no blinds" to hide their desire, or the supposed erotic pastoral of "The Country Lovers," an ironic tribute to Irving Layton’s sexual candour, where even "Venus" has to feel "a pure blush" at the sexual license of the rival poet. Smith was deeply uneasy, I should say, with the representation of sexual release in poems, and to make claims for his "erotic aspects" is a tactical error. The better defence against the dismissiveness of his detractors is to deny their logic that an inability or unwillingness to represent the body in sexual pleasure is proof of a disdain of the body and its environmental earth. Smith’s philosophical joy in the body in poems like "Bird and Flower," "Song / Made in lieu of many ornaments" and others is a source of his power and originality: praise these, I think, and leave the matter there, as a sufficient rebuttal.

Compton’s over-compensation for the poems’ erotic deficiencies has its roots in her desire to align that strain of his work with the exuberant sexuality of Donne. There was no real need: the more meditative Smith poems on sexuality and physicality are themselves strongly reminiscent, not of Donne’s "Songs and Sonnets," but rather of the "Holy Sonnets" whose erotic language of faith is among their most stunning powers. Smith in turn uses the language of devotion to unveil the intensity and beauty of human desire. Suppressing such a nuance is the danger, though, of Compton’s rubric, its self-fulfilling duty to make of Smith the obedient "Canadian Metaphysical" of the title: Smith must share the candour and delight in sexual action that makes the early Donne brilliant. And that which cannot be subsumed must be somehow rendered relatively insignificant: the flip side of Compton’s over-estimation of Smith’s eroticism is her needless devaluation of much of his social poetry, a manoeuvre that weakens her ninth chapter. Compton finds herself here in sudden unacknowledged agreement with Smith’s materialist detractors: when he engaged the social world, she says, "[h]e did not come out with a plan of action; in some ways, he did not come out at all" (222). She has perhaps been trapped by her thesis again: she theorizes that "the social situation was not soluble through the personal procedures Smith had fashioned for poetics and for facing his own death" (222)—"procedures" she has explicitly aligned with his Metaphysical inheritance. Compton presumes that Smith approached the social poems with his Metaphysical cast of mind, found that procedure inadequate to his sense of social responsibility and lapsed into pessimism and "despair" (225), the latter word tolling heavily throughout the chapter. But a deeper motive for her subsequent downgrading of his "nonsatiric social poetry" (224), the language of which (we are told often) is "vitiated" (219, 233), must surely be that modern social poetry can have no useful anticipation in the work of the Metaphysicals.

Compton’s search for authentic social comment leads, for instance, to a disparagement of "A Hyacinth For Edith," in which "the graft of social statement to Sitwellian ‘infantilism’ is unsuccessful" (207) rather than—as I take it—formally ironic. She finds "a jeering self-righteousness," not a purposive overstatement, in "Son and Heir: 1930" (212), and "a vitiated cadence" in Smith’s finest poem, "Ode: The Eumenides" (219). In the trio of sonnets "Business as Usual 1946," "Fear as Normal 1954" and "Universal Peace 19—," Compton finds "a verbal deadness that contrasts with the dynamic word transformations in poems such as ‘Bird and Flower’ and ‘The Plot Against Proteus’" (224). Such brief castigations are disturbing, not only because they weaken the chapter’s claimed thesis—that Smith was a poet who could indeed engage with the social world— but because their negative import is unincorporated into her larger defence of Smith, both as Metaphysical and as under-valued good poet. It is certainly difficult to reconcile this disparaging refrain with Compton’s relative praise for such poems as "Noctambule," "Far West" and, indeed, "Ode: The Eumenides," whose "vitiated cadence" does not apparently weaken its status as Smith’s "flagship poem" (219), especially when the chapter concludes by suggesting that Smith’s sense of failure in social poetry was functional in his poetry’s general withering in the 1960s and 1970s. Can high praise for a few of his social poems bear up under such a conclusion? Of course, the attempt to demonstrate Smith’s engagement with the social world is also logically thin because it has nothing to do with the book’s larger thesis: this final chapter is almost without reference to the Metaphysicals who had apparently anticipated much else in Smith’s oeuvre.

Compton and I will hardly come to terms here over our relative evaluations of Smith’s erotic and of his social poetry. It is possible, though, to comment upon the implications of her decisions in this regard. Accepting in both pertinent chapters the terms of Smith debate laid out by his detractors, she actually gives sustenance to those who would cheapen Smith’s stock by their dismissal of his conceptual delight in the body and his often formal and aesthetic interpretation of social ills. Having internalized a modicum of the Smith critique now prevalent, Compton is forced to his defence in post-modern terms largely inappropriate to a real understanding of Smith’s modernism. She seems to have little interest in the broader matter of modernism’s subtle appropriation and explicit caricature by an apparently "post" modern culture (see for this Astradur Eysteinsson, The Concept of Modernism), but Smith’s case is greatly illuminated by the critical circumstances today of world modernism. He is hardly alone in facing the charges of formalism, elitism and apoliticism that sound constantly in the current condescension to modernism: and certainly, like his precursors Eliot and Pound, he is not without faults that bear some relation to those charges. But these same terms of modernism’s disparagement can be virtues to an open mind and must be defended by those who believe in them: as I think Compton does, despite the woeful forecast of Smith’s eventual appreciation with which her book concludes.

We need, then, a comprehensive accounting of Smith that will assist in our evaluation of his merits and weaknesses, that will allow us to reconcile poems that have clear Metaphysical antecedents and mannerisms with poems that have none, and that will return fire on its own terms at those whose materialist interpretations of sexuality and of society work to his detriment and dismissal. The Metaphysical context, while well known to be valuable and strongly documented by Compton, seems clearly insufficient to that task: as it is also to her chapter 8, "Nature," on Smith’s Imagism, wherein again only minor Metaphysical references are made, and to her chapter 6 on Smith’s poems on poetics, despite her attempt there to align the "self-discipline" (146) and sacramentalism (161) of Smith’s aesthetic injunctions with parallel principles in his Metaphysical poems of death. (Indeed, we sometimes seem to have two books here: one, contending for the Metaphysical strain in some of Smith’s work, and another, more typical of ECW’s "Canadian Writers and Their Works" method, surveying the whole of the poet for an introductory audience.)

Compton’s methodology however—as opposed to her thesis—is a better guide to the new directions possible in Smith criticism. Her careful work with documentary sources, her attention to the arrangement of poems in volume and manuscript, and her skilful location of intertextual allusions are all methods that approach Smith on his and his period’s terms: further pursuit of these practices will inevitably lead to our accomplishment of a number of desiderata in Smith criticism. A broad chronological study of Smith’s development, for example, is still badly needed. Compton I think has such an argument to offer, for she hints at it frequently here, as in her useful juxtaposition of "What the Emanation of Casey Jones Said to the Medium" (1957) with Smith’s sudden return to a contemplation of death in poems from 1956-1964 (225), and in her attention to the chronological development of Smith’s early Metaphysical poetry (Chapter 5). We also need some explanation of the disjunction between his abstract praise of the body’s intensity and his practical unwillingness to dramatize that intensity at one of its heights. And what are the causes and contexts, after all, of Smith’s autobiographical repressiveness? Why did he so resolutely exclude personal and lyric expression from his concept of the "poetic"? If there are answers to these questions that go deeper than a glance aside at modernist ideas of impersonality, they will only be turned over in another thorough excavation of his papers and of the historical and personal circumstances of his environment and education. Finally, we need to have a much better documentation and theorization of Smith’s intense imitativeness, his "eclectic detachment" that mirrors aesthetically the suppressions of selfhood and experience just noted, and only the methodology Compton has taken up is going to provide one.

To the extent that A.J.M. Smith: Canadian Metaphysical adumbrates these issues it is a successful stimulant to Canadian modernist studies, even if it registers an ambivalence about its subject that plays into the hands of Smith’s current antagonists.


T. Nageswara Rao on the other hand has no doubt whatsoever of the value his subject-poets Smith and F.R. Scott. Written from a critical perspective well outside the Canadian academic context, and largely directing its remarks to an Indian readership unfamiliar with Canadian modernist literature, Rao's Inviolable Air: Canadian Poetic Modernism in Perspective covers much familiar scholarly ground in a way readers in Canada will find inevitably introductory. Too many of his findings are well-rehearsed for the book to have substantial impact on Canadian readers. A section on Smith’s and Scott’s Imagism, for instance, concludes that there is a disjunction between Imagist theory and Imagist practice (184): this telling gap has been thoroughly articulated by John T. Gage in his In The Arresting Eye: The Rhetoric of Imagism of 1981. Canadian readers will also be somewhat puzzled by the scholarly conventions of Rao’s work, especially by a method of quotation which presents frequent passages borrowed from the prose criticism of Rao’s two poets (chiefly Smith) as the critic’s own wording: a substantial example occurs on page 111, wherein a dozen unchanged lines from Smith’s essay "Eclectic Detachment: Aspects of Identity in Canadian Poetry" are interpolated into Rao’s prose without benefit of quotation marks or citation. In most cases these borrowings are vaguely signalled by phrases like "Smith believed that" or by a coincident citation of the relevant source within a page of the unacknowledged quotation. This method will pose no problem for specialists in Canadian literature, who will recognize the frequency of silent quotation, but readers less familiar with the criticism will need to see the quoted essays to make the distinctions sharper.

Few of Rao’s readings of specific poems will be helpful to those seeking new insights into Scott’s and Smith’s poetry. Most of them function by paraphrase, and a few that do not go mightily askew: among these is a reading of Scott’s "Winter Sparrows" that takes the literal object of representation in this imagist poem—the birds of the title—and renders it metaphorical by supposing that the "real" object, the tenor to which the sparrows are a vehicle, is a flurry of snow blowing from tree-branch to ground. The error might not be worth remarking were the reading not performed twice without variation (73, 171-72) and the second occasion not offered as the basis for a reinterpretation of Imagist metaphor. The regrettable and understandable absence of a thorough critical context for such readings is a major source of their weakness, of course, and Inviolable Air finds better material when Rao’s innovation occurs not at the level of interpretation but of conceptualization.

The strongest moments in the book pass in its final section, a prolonged comparison of Smith and Scott particularly for their Imagist and satiric practice. Despite his conviction that Imagism is inaccurately rendered as a species of metaphor when its juxtapositive aesthetics implies a tension between metaphor and metonymy in Imagist practice, Rao examines Scott’s Imagist poetry for its metaphoric and Smith’s for its metonymic bases. The idea (so long as the over-riding dichotomy is better sustained) is new and helpfully illuminates well-known imagistic poems by the pair, like the "North Stream" and "Old Song" (173-74) of Scott and Smith’s "Sea Cliff" (179) and "The Creek" (183). Rao’s consequent implication that their divergent Imagisms signalled two distinct ways forward for Canadian poetic practice is more contentious but deserves examination and follow-up in future criticism. Of similar value and freshness is Rao’s application of Bakhtinian concepts of "heteroglossia" and the "carnivalesque" to the satiric poetry of, respectively, Scott and Smith. The readings of individual poems here are more convincing, and although it seems to over-state the case to hear distinct and cacophonous voices in Scott’s satires (191), the contention is nicely in keeping with Scott’s later tendency, in the trouvaille, to pick up fragments of overheard language wherever he could. Similarly the concept of carnival is revealing and insightful as a context for such Smith satires as "Souvenirs du Temps Perdu" (197): to this single reading might have been added the farcical inverted worlds of "Political Intelligence," "Noctambule" and "Song / Made in lieu of many ornaments." What one appreciates in these gestures is the sheer freshness of Rao’s ideas, the critical temper that sees no reason not to test the whole of Canadian poetry against all possible theories and contexts of literature and the other arts. It seems to me likely that the distance from the Canadian critical context, the deleterious effects of which I remarked above, has here worked to Rao’s benefit: it is hugely difficult for Canadian critics to read familiar poems anew, without hearing instead their mediation, for better or worse, by a long-standing critical practice.


I spoke earlier of two limits to the critical imagination evident in Anne Compton’s A.J.M. Smith: Canadian Metaphysical, both having to do with an excessive determination of her approach by the existing contexts, positive and negative, of Smith criticism. I also spoke of the valuable methodology she relied on, and of her gift for critical interpretation. In turn I have reproved a number of aspects of methodology and interpretation in T. Nageswara Rao’s Inviolable Air: Canadian Poetic Modernism in Perspective, while appreciating the freshness of certain approaches permitted, partially, by his distance from the Canadian critical mainstream. Perhaps I have been orchestrating. But it does seem to me that we need to do our best these days to step well outside the familiar narratives of Canadian modernism to see our poets as newly as we think possible, and it does seem as well that the best method available for such a renewal is a thorough-going scholarship with solid theoretical roots in the practical interpretation of documents, poems and lives. My use of these two scholars’ work in order to make the point is certainly an appropriation: though I wonder if the dialogue in which they might engage us isn’t badly needed after all, even if it does allow me to close the case with a gesture of argumentative unity.

Brian Trehearne