Early Canadian Women Poets
edit an anthology is to set forth a constellation
of related (and relative) literary judgments in historical
McGann, "Literary Pragmatics and the
the perimeters of an anthology is one of the most
challenging tasks facing an editor; every decision
that one makes has far-reaching theoretical and practical
implications. In order to illuminate some of the choices
that shaped this anthology, I will tell the tale of
the title, working backwards from the end.
shall measure the heat and violence of the poet's
caught and tangled in a woman's body?
an anthology to a single conventional genre appears
to undermine the principle of inclusiveness which
is "now a characteristic orientation of revisionist
'literary' history and feminist scholarship"
(Martin 3), and yet it is one area of early Canadian
women's writing in need of rescue. In recent years,
much effort has been dedicated to "re(dis)covering"
the [Page xvii] work of Canadian
literary foremothers who have all but disappeared
from Canadian literary history, a process traced by
Carole Gerson in her seminal article, "Anthologies
and the Canon of Early Canadian Women Writers."
Because of the dedicated work of "feminist literary
archaeologists" (to use Gerson's phrase), many
of the silenced have again been given a voice; however,
much of the recovery work that has been undertaken
so far, has been directed to fiction, perhaps because
we have entered what Donna Bennett identifies as "the
period when poetry and fiction have exchanged canonical
importance" (142), a point which Gerson also
makes (64). Poetry was "the dominant form of
'literary' writing in Canada until the 1920s and remained
the most valued form long after" (Bennett 141),
but this is no longer the case, a fact that works
against early Canadian women poets in two ways. At
a time when poetry was most valued, they were forced
by patriarchal and practical pressures into marginalized
or less prestigious types of writing such as fiction,
children's literature, and journalism. And now, any
effort to recover their poetry is exacerbated by the
shift in canonical priorities.
With a few exceptions, the
twelve women represented in this anthology enjoyed
considerable popular and critical success during their
lifetimes, being variously championed by some of leading
poets of their day including Archibald Lampman, Charles
G. D. Roberts, D. C. Scott, E.J. Pratt, Ezra Pound,
and Amy Lowell. Of the nearly 50 books of poetry published
by these women, not one remains in print, and many
are only available in non-circulating rare book archives
or on microfilm. In addition, some of their best work
appeared in the even less accessible form of one-time
publication in journals and newspapers. This anthology,
then, is one attempt to open the door to a hitherto
hidden room of early Canadian literature.
One could argue that some
of these women are not poets at all; indeed Moodie,
Leprohon, and Machar are better recognized for their
prose, and many of the others took an interdisciplinary
approach which included visual art and music, as well
as a variety of literary forms. Their poetry nonetheless
provides a significant glimpse into their talents
and concerns, and marks them as forerunners in the
strong Canadian tradition of writers who operate successfully
in more than one genre. [Page xviii]
looked it over, and something more than surprise seized
me,--a deep conviction that these were not common
effusions, nor at all like the poetry women generally
write. I thought them condensed and terse, vigorous
and genuine. To my ear, they had also a peculiar music--wild,
melancholy, and elevating.
Bronte, on her sister Emily's verse
Notice of Ellis and Acton Bell"
Bogan speaks of turning down the "pretty job"
of editing "an anthology of female verse' because
"the thought of corresponding with a lot of female
songbirds made [her] acutely ill" (86). However,
specialized anthologies of all sorts are a way to
get forgotten or undiscovered material into the hands
of readers so that a new sorting and shifting may
begin. The women in this anthology did not want to
be dismissed as mere "poetesses" because,
as Germaine Greer writes in Slip-Shod Sibyls,
"to pin a tail to the word 'poet' is to anchor
it to earth, to condemn it to less than best"
(37). In 1923, Katherine Hale wrote: "Isabella
Valancy Crawford was never a "poetess,"
and perhaps her work refutes the theory that to have
great artists there must be great audiences"
(107). The fact that the poets in the anthology often
came to one another's defence confirms the "importance
of sorority and collegiality to female writers in
Canada" (9) to which Sandra Campbell and Lorraine
McMullen draw attention in their introduction to Aspiring
Women: Short Stories by Canadian Women 1880-1900.
These women do not restrict
themselves to "feminine" or "domestic"
topics but address, with innovative vigour, the themes
and subjects then challenging their male counterparts
including the hinterland experience of "going
North." Women become active partners in the northern
experience, eager to unite past and future through
creation and procreation. Repeatedly, the pioneering
women of these poems are presented as warriors wielding
their songs like swords. It is true, as Francess Halpenny
points out, that "their eyes were not ours"
(46) and that what might be interpreted as sentimentality,
derivativeness, or strong religious feeling makes
some of the poetry less appealing to modern readers,
but there is much that startles with its continuing
relevance. The emancipatory strategies they attempt
in their work are many and subversive, though often
deeply encoded. Deciphering the codes and unmasking
the disguises is part of the excitement of making
old work new. [Page xix]
is a country
where a man can die
-Alden Nowlan, "Canadian
as we have discovered in the thirteen decades since
Confederation, is a complex, often vexed, adjective,
particularly when applied to the early period of our
history. In selecting the poets for this anthology
I have tried for geographic representation: Hensley
from the Maritimes; Bowman, Leprohon, and Harrison,
from Quebec; Moodie, Crawford, Machar, Wetherald,
and Hale from Ontario; Dalton and Pickthall from the
West. Johnson's poetry, like the travels necessitated
by her career, ranges from one end of the country
to the other. However, what does one do with authors
who were born in Canada, but lived much of their lives
elsewhere, or were born elsewhere and lived their
creative years here?
To be entirely accurate, the
title of the anthology should indicate "in English"
as do many Canadian anthologies. I reluctantly decided
against using translations because, as John Glassco,
editor of The Poetry of French Canada in Translation,
points out, translation where it exists has "always
been capricious and sporadic" (xvii). Also, though
the work of Pauline Frechette and Blanche Lamontagne
is mentioned in "Suggestions for Further Reading,"
I have not yet discovered a poetic counterpart of
the French Canadian novelist Laure Conan. Similar
difficulties attend the work of Native poets working
in aboriginal languages, though it is hoped that the
work of Pauline Johnson will serve to represent the
First Nations. The decision to include more work by
fewer poets has meant that poetry by women such as
Constance Lindsay Skinner, L.M. Montgomery, and Isabel
Ecclestone Mackay had to be excluded. I see this project
not as a destination, but only as one stop along the
way that will encourage readers to look at these poets
with new eyes, and to bring forward other names to
join them. [Page xx]
act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of
entering an old text from a new critical direction--is
for women more than a chapter in cultural history;
it is an act of survival.
Rich, "When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision."
charts that appear with Gerson's article, "Anthologies
and the Canon of Early Canadian Women Writers,"
confirm that the early days of Canadian poetry were
dominated by the Confederation Group: Charles G.D.
Roberts, Archibald Lampman, Bliss Carman, and D.C.
Scott. These men deserve the acclaim they have garnered,
but poetry was also being written by women-- determined
professionals intent upon contributing to an emerging
vision of Canada and illuminating the margin as a
magical place. In her introduction to Re(Dis)covering
Our Foremothers, Lorraine McMullen writes that
"Canadian literary history will be read very
differently when women are re-inscribed in its roles
for the women express a different vision of Canada
and Canadian experience than is conventionally held"
(2). This anthology is one part of the effort to "re-inscribe"
the visionary voices of women with an understanding
of the self-replicating quality of anthologies and
the hope that the most worthy of this material may
eventually find its way into the mainstream. Jerome
McGann describes the "broadening of the poetic
franchise" as "an imperative scholarly task,
particularly at this time when certain narrow and
even imperial concepts of writing and culture are
once again seeking to define the limits of what is
best and culturally possible" (16).
Having said this, how does
one mark the division between "early" and
"late" in Canadian women's writing? Several
anthologists have used 1914 to mark a new era in Canadian
consciousness, and undoubtedly World War One did forever
change the way Canadian men and women saw themselves.
If the publication in 1923 of E.J. Pratt's Newfoundland
Verse can be seen as "a turning-point for
Canadian literary history" (Brown 283), the publication
five years later of Dorothy Livesay's first book Green
Pitcher can be seen as the opening of a new chapter
for women's poetry in Canada. Rosemary Sullivan, in
her Introduction to Poetry by Canadian Women,
acknowledges the importance of Livesay's role, but
places the coming of age of women's poetry in Canada
into the forties and fifties with the work of P.K.
Page whose first book As Ten as Twenty was
published in 1946. Both Livesay and Page are well
represented in contemporary anthologies, so Hidden
Rooms is accordingly devoted to women of previous
[Page xxi] generations. Though the
writing careers of some of the women extended well
into the twentieth century, they all came of age in
the nineteenth (the youngest, Marjorie Pickthall,
was 17 at the turn of the century). Living as they
did in tumultuous times of tremendous change for women,
for Canadians, and for poetry itself, their work reveals
shifts in form and theme. Transitional work can be
prone to unevenness, and their material is no exception,
and yet women's poetry in Canada would not be what
it is today without their contribution. The exact
lines of influence need to be more fully explored.
As Woolf explains, with women as with men, it is by
"drawing her life from the lives of the unknown
who were her forerunners" (112) that the poet
disguised as a non-room
a secret space
I am showing it to you
fearful you may not
guess its importance
"The Hidden Room"
for the anthology was originally "Herself at
War," a line from Hale's poem "Poetesses."
Though not one of the strongest in the anthology,
the poem and the phrase articulate the changes then
occurring in the lives and writing of women. Addressing
both her foremothers and her own early writings, Hale
writes, "You were a thing so feminine / That
even of war you sang in tender notes. / But now another
one has come, / Who is herself at war." I was
struck by this attempt to express the transition from
songstress to warrior, Penelope to Odysseus, but also
by the syntactical ambiguity of the phrase "herself
at war" which describes both a figure who is
learning to fight, and one who is experiencing internal
conflict. Hale completes the stanza with the image
of women's songs as swords with which they "mean
to cut tradition." Hale's choice of verb is significant;
the many meanings of "cut" demand several
pages of the dictionary: to wound, to excise, to pass
through, to reduce, to rebuke, to re-tailor, to castrate,
to dilute, to surpass, and so on. Nonetheless, some
of the early readers of the [Page xxii] anthology
objected to the title "Herself at War" as
misleading, indicating that it implied an anthology
of war poetry. There are certainly war poems, Crawford's
"War," Hensley's "Courage," Hale's
"The New Joan," Pickthall's "Marching
Men," but most are poems of peace and passion
To prevent confusion, it seemed
worthwhile to change the title. I first considered
"Fire-flowers" from the title of Johnson's
poem about the wild flower that hides the fire-scarred
landscape "with almost human hands." The
oxymoron of the title signals the healing potential
of poetry, an area where Native poets especially,
according to Daniel David Moses, can teach us much
(xxiv), and also echoes the thread of floral imagery
that extends from one end of the anthology to the
other. But the language of flowers also implies a
stereotype from which many of these women were attempting
I also considered "Unheard
Niagaras," the title of a Wetherald poem which
anticipates Dylan Thomas's "force that through
the green fuse drives the flower...." As a peculiarly
Canadian and New World icon for the sublime, Niagara
seemed a fitting symbol for the thunder of poems that
somehow remained unheard and unseen. And yet in a
sonnet such as Harrison's "Niagara in Winter,"
we see a woman struck dumb by the cataract's power
to "entice,/ Enchain, and enchant..." Rather
than be silenced by "such awful majesty"
she seeks instead to redeem a gentler idiom, to justify
poems of the homefront as well as of the frontier.
I came at last to the title
of a poem by Crawford, "The Hidden Room."
It seemed fitting that Crawford should be honoured
in the title since her unique voice has belatedly
earned recognition for the second sex in early Canadian
poetry. Functioning as "our Emily Dickinson"
(Gerson 62), her continued appearance in anthologies
kept the door ajar to the hidden rooms of Early Canadian
women's poetry, allowing readers and scholars to enter
in and remember the forgotten. In this poem she speaks,
as many women writers before and after have spoken,
of the way in which women's lives, their very selves,
are compartmentalized. So much of them is owned by
others, but she hopes for a hidden room in which she
believes but is uncertain how to access. "Is
it God, or man, or I who hold the key?" In the
very last poem in the anthology which ends, like poems
by Dickinson, with a dash, Pickthall's persona enters
a room that has been shut up for the winter to find
a dead bird and a stifled thought. Clearly the struggle
was just beginning. [Page xxiii]
Seven years after Pickthall's
death, Virginia Woolf was to insist that having rooms
of their own and the financial means to enter them
was essential for women writers. And in 1997, over
one hundred years after Crawford's poem was written,
another Canadian woman poet, P.K. Page, was to title
her Collected Poems after a poem of her own
with the identical title. She enters the "secret
space" when "it permits" and has even
found the courage to show it to others, but is still
fearful those who visit will underestimate its worth,
miss its magic. The image of hidden rooms endures
in the writing of Canadian women poets and in the
writing of women in general. It goes backward and
forward, and through and through.
The poems that appear in the
anthology are based on the latest authoritative text.
Details of the first known publication in a newspaper
or periodical, and the first publication in a collection
follow each poem. All poems have been presented to
include the complete text including authorial notes,
and to approximate as far as possible, the layout
of the original. Original spelling and punctuation
have been retained.
The twelve poets have been
placed in chronological order according to date of
birth. The selection of poetry by each poet is preceded
by a headnote that presents biographical material,
a brief overview of the critical reception of the
poet’s work, and an indication of central concerns.
Also included for each poet is a Selected Bibliography
listing collections of poetry, and a selection of
biographical and critical sources listed in chronological
order according to date of publication. Each Bibliography
is intended to serve as a Works Cited for the headnote
that precedes it. As indicated above, some of these
women are better known for their work in prose, but
the selected bibliographies focus primarily on their
The anthology concludes with
Explanatory Notes that explain or identify words or
references that might be unfamiliar to modern readers,
Some Suggestions for Further Reading which lists some
additional early Canadian women poets and their collections,
and Afterwords comprised of a sequence of poems that
creatively reflect the editor’s engagement with
the twelve poets in Hidden Rooms.
This anthology, like most,
is heavily indebted to the many scholars who have
worked in the field, and I am grateful for the visionary
process they began, and hope this anthology is seen
as one more step along that journey away from silence.
My decisions about which poets and even which poems
to include will certainly be open to question, but
I can only say that I included those that spoke to
me and to my students, those that reached [Page
xxiv] across the years with urgency and eloquence.
Greer writes that we should be aware that while attempting
to reclaim women's work "we are more likely to
find heroines than poets" (xxiv). I believe we
Cited in the Introduction
Donna. “Conflicted Vision: a Consideration of
Canon and Genre in English-Canadian
Literature.” Canadian Canons: Essays in
Literary Value. Ed. Robert
Lecker. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1991. 131-149.
What the Woman Lived: Selected Letters of Louise
Ed. Ruth Limmer. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1973.
“Biographical Notice of Ellis and Acton Bell.”
1850. rpt. Boston: Bedford, 1992.
and Donna Bennett, eds. An Anthology of Canadian
English: Volume I. Toronto: Oxford UP, 1982.
Sandra and Lorraine McMullen, eds. Aspiring Women:
Short Stories by Canadian
Women 1880-1900. Ottawa: U of Ottawa P, 1993.
“Anthologies and the Canon of Early Canadian Women
Our Foremothers. Ed. Lorraine McMullen. Ottawa:
U of Ottawa P, 1990. 55-76.
John. The Poetry of French Canada in Translation.
Toronto: Oxford UP, 1970.
Slip-Shod Sibyls: Recognition, Rejection and the
London: Viking, 1995.
Isabella Valancy Crawford. Toronto: Ryerson,
Francess. “Problems and Solutions in the Dictionary
of Canadian Biography,
1800-1900.” Re(Dis)covering Our Foremothers.
Ed. Lorraine McMullen. Ottawa:
U of Ottawa P, 1990. 37-48.
ed. Women Writers in Renaissance England. London:
“Literary Pragmatics and the Editorial Horizon.”
Devils and Angels:
Textual Editing and Literary Theory. Ed. Philip
Cohen. Charlottesville: UP of
Virginia, 1991. 1-21.
Lorraine. “Introduction.” Re(Dis)covering
Our Foremothers. Ed. Lorraine
McMullen. Ottawa: U of Ottawa P, 1990. 1-4.
David and Terry Goldie. “Preface.” Anthology
of Canadian Native
Literature in English. Toronto: Oxford UP, 1998.
“Canadian January Night.” Between Tears
and Laughter. Toronto: Clarke
Irwin, 1971. 35. [Page xxv]
The Hidden Room: Collected Poems. Vol.1. Erin,
ON: Porcupine’s Quill,
“When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision.”
On Lies, Secrets,
and Silence: Selected Prose 1966-1978. New York:
Norton, 1979. 33-49.
Rosemary, ed. Poetry by Canadian Women. Toronto:
Oxford UP, 1989.
The Collected Poems of Dylan Thomas. New York:
New Directions, 1957.
A Room of One’s Own. 1929 rpt. Harmondsworth:
Penguin, 1972. [Page