Research Western

David Bentley: At home in Literature

Born and raised in Kenya, English professor David Bentley’s teenage transition to life in Canada was eased by the words of such Canadian writers and poets as Al Purdy.

Evocative lines like “And where the farms are/it’s as if a man stuck/both thumbs in the stony earth and pulled/it apart/to make room/enough between the trees/for a wife” from Purdy’s “The Country North of Belleville” captured Bentley’s imagination and helped bridge the gap between his two worlds and to make him feel at home in his adopted land.

“Through literature and poetry, people can become grounded in their region or country,” he says.  “Poems especially can give resonance to the region in which people live and allow them to feel a kinship with it.”

Canadian literature would shape not only Bentley’s early years in the country, but his future career and the paths of many students who have since studied with him during his distinguished 33-year tenure at Western.

Over that time, Bentley has been recognized as a leading authority on Canadian and Victorian literary and cultural studies, and as a strong advocate for the importance of scholarship in the Arts and Humanities.

While he continues to contribute influential research related to pre-Raphaelite writing and art, Bentley is best known for his foundational work in Canadian literature and for the Canadian Poetry Project.  Funded by SSHRC and the Ontario Arts Council, this initiative includes the Canadian Poetry Press, which publishes scholarly editions of Canadian poetry, and the journal, Canadian Poetry:  Studies, Documents, Reviews, which has been widely regarded as the leading journal in the field since Bentley founded and began editing it in 1977.

Particularly interested in the long cultural continuity that exists in Canadian literature, Bentley’s studies span the country’s history, pre-dating Confederation and continuing to contemporary works.  His scholarship on pre-Confederation poetry is widely credited with defining and even creating the area of study.  Bentley, who recently received the first Premier’s Discovery Award for the Arts & Humanities, is also renowned for pioneering work in Canadian ecocriticism and on cultural and social memory in Canada.

Some of his recent research examines the relationship between Canadian literature and architecture to determine ways in which writers reflect, and reflect upon, the country’s built environments.  “It comes back to issues of being at home,” he says.  “People take a building structure from England or France and bring it over, but change it – similarly, in Canadian poetry, the sonnet was brought over and adapted.”

An award-winning teacher, Bentley takes the same approach with his students, providing them with the tools to understand Canadian literature and culture, while fully expecting them to branch off in their own directions and enrich the field of study.

“I am repaying the debt I owe to Purdy and other Canadian writers for helping to make me feel literally and literarily at home in Canada – and I am deeply proud of the country’s literary and cultural heritage and continuity,” he says.

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