Fredericton School of Poets
HIS HONOUR LIEUTENANT-GOVERNOR D. L. MacLAREN
Four years ago this month the University of New Brunswick observed Founders' Day for the first time in 142 years. Tonight we are assembled for a similar event, to pay tribute to those early citizens of this province whose vision and foresight laid the solid foundation of what is today one of the outstanding educational centres in Canada, the University of New Brunswick.
It is a very happy occasion for me to be here to speak to you briefly and later to perform an official duty as representative of His Majesty The King. I was very interested in reading recently the history of U.N.B. One could speak at length on its history, its growth and improvements down through the years. Time does not permit me to do this. I am sure, however, that I, like many others, have been deeply impressed with the magnificent record of the university and especially the great success which has been attained by so many of her graduates.
To those students who served in the armed forces, of whom there are some 500, and who are now once again taking up their studies, may I extend the grateful thanks of the people of New Brunswick for a job well done. Some of you may find it difficult to get back to civilian life and to become re-established. This is only natural to expect. But let me say to you that I have every confidence that lads who showed the courage that you did, who have such stout hearts beating within you, who never failed, no matter how difficult the objective, displaying that same courage, that same stoutheartedness will find no objective, in civilian life that you will fail to overcome, once you set your course and go forward as of old, determined to win through. You have the stuff it takes.
I wish to take this opportunity to congratulate the university in having as its president Dr. Gregg. He has all qualities necessary for a great leader and brings to his high office exceptional administrative ability. Surrounded by able Professors and a Faculty of outstanding men, a bright future lies ahead for the University of New Brunswick.
To the student body-—good luck and best wishes. You have a very high record of achievements to maintain. It is a challenge to you all, but I am sure you will do your best to live up to it.
Founders' Day Address
DR. A. J. M. SMITH
Mr. President, Your Honour, Members of the Senate, Ladies and Gentlemen: I must begin by expressing my deep sense of the honour you have conferred upon, me in inviting me to address you on this significant occasion and to thank you for the opportunity of visiting New Brunswick for the first time under such happy and impressive circumstances. It was suggested that I should devote this address to an examination of the part played by this university in creating and nourishing a poetic tradition that has made its influence felt in a most vital way upon the cultural and spiritual life of the whole Dominion; and I assented gladly, not merely because such a task is less difficult than some others might be but because it is in itself such a worthwhile thing to attempt. It was felt, I believe, that the number and excellence of the poets produced by this university was so great and of such a high order that an examination of their work might safely be left in the hands of one who comes from another, though not a very distant, province, the Province of Quebec. But be that as it may, no Canadian, however new to New Brunswick, could fail to respond to the challenge of this subject. For one who cares for the monuments and memories of Canada's real greatness the city of Fredericton and the venerable walls of the university Arts Building take on a kind of sacred grandeur. The records preserved in the museum of the university library and the collection of manuscripts, periodicals, and books concerned with Carman collected by Rufus Hathaway and left by him to this university are of incalculable value to the student of Canadian literature. Largely owing to the exertions of Dr. J. C. Webster, whose loving care for the records of his native province is already bearing rich fruit, the Dominion Government will erect a cairn in this city to the memory of the poets of Fredericton, who are also the poets of Canada. The resting place of two of the greatest of these—Carman and Roberts—here in Fredericton will become something in the nature of a national shrine. They—and the poets before them also-were intimately associated with the University of New Brunswick.
Among the Founders of the university was Jonathan Odell, the Loyalist poet of the American Revolution, one of the most spirited and the bitterest, of the Tory satirists who lent their pen; to the cause of England. "When," as the American literary historian Moses Coit Tyler has written, "the contemptuous wrath of England gave way, and she forced her reluctant king to make terms with the late American, rebels, Odell would not make terms with them . . . . he abandoned the land of his birth and his ancestry and settled himself in Nova Scotia, [New Brunswick] where he sustained a distinguished civil career, and where at last, in extreme old age, he died, without ever taking back a word, or uttering an apology, or flinching from an opinion a proud, gritty member of a political party that had been defeated, but never conquered or convinced." Odell's town house still stands in Fredericton, but his poetry is almost forgotten. Perhaps this is as it should be, for his rhymes and satires have long ago served the purpose they were written to serve—to encourage the Tories in their struggle against rebellious faction and to relieve the feelings of a little group of unfortunate Loyalists in the days of adversity. Yet it may be useful to consider for a moment the fundamental difference between the verses of Odell (and later on of Joseph Howe in Nova Scotia) and the poetry of Roberts and Carman at the end of the 19th century. Odell's verses are social and practical. They are not the expression of a peculiar sensibility; they are the feelings and opinions of a party; and their purpose is a very practical one—to hearten and band together those engaged in fighting an actual battle. Odell is so much at one with the particular audience he is writing for that much of his best poetry consists of sociable verse-political and patriotic drinking songs, written for a special occasion and often performed by the whole convivial group, toasting the King and calling down confusion on his enemies.
Here is an example of Odell's poetry that will show you something of the spirit of the gentlemen, who not so long after this was written, were to help found a college in New Brunswick. The poem was composed on June 4, 1777, in honour of the birthday of George III.
Time was when America hallowed the morn On which the loved monarch of Britain was born, Hallowed the day, and joyfully chanted God save the King! Then flourished the blessings of freedom and peace, And plenty flowed in with a yearly increase. Proud of our lot we chanted merrily Glory and joy crown, the King! But see! how rebellion has lifted her head! How honour and truth are with loyalty fled! Few are there now who join us in chanting God save the King! And see! how deluded the multitude fly To arm in a cause that is built on a lie! Yet are we proud to chant thus merrily Glory and joy crown the King! Though faction by falsehood awhile may prevail, And loyalty suffers a captive in jail, Britain is roused, rebellion is falling: God save the King! The captive shall soon be released from his chain; And conquest restore us to Britain again, Ever to join in chanting merrily Glory and joy crown the King!
What cheerful high spirits and faith doomed never to be justified there was to this jolly poetry! and also (one who is interested in the craft of verse cannot help noticing) what a remarkable metrical skill is shown in the sudden surprising shift from the anapests of the first two lines of each stanza to the dactyls of the next two-—a device that is repeated in the second half of each stanza. This was written by a man who had a good classical education, a clergyman of the Church of England, and the inheritor of a culture that the Loyalists from New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and the New England States were to bring with them into the Maritime Provinces. It was to endure many vicissitudes and suffer many losses before the means of its preservation and transmission were finally assured.
The founding of the college that was to develop into the university dates back almost to the founding of New Brunswick itself by Loyalist settlers. A first move towards the establishment of a Provincial Academy of Arts and Sciences was made in 1785, the year after New Brunswick was separated from Nova Scotia; in 1800 a Provincial Charter established it as the College of New Brunswick; in 1823 it became King's College; and in 1859 it was established as at present, as the University of New Brunswick.
Looking through an old book recently, one of the many guides for emigrants published in the first half of the last century, "An Historical and Descriptive Account of British North America," (Edinburgh, 1839), I noticed a reference to the founding of the college. "New Brunswick at an early period," said the anonymous author, "incurred the reproach of being somewhat illiterate,--a character which applied even to individuals holding high situations under government. A college has, however, been founded at Fredericton, endowed with 6,000 acres of land, and by liberal grants from the crown and the province a handsome building has been erected." Elsewhere the same author wrote, "The college is well-built, and on a scale beyond the actual wants of the colony-—but," he added, "time is remedying this defect."
Another book of a similar character, Abraham Gesner's "New Brunswick: with Notes for Emigrants," published in London in 1847, repeats that "The inhabitants of New Brunswick have heretofore been considered illiterate," and adds that "It is a common remark in this province and Nova Scotia that it is vain to cultivate the higher branches of learning so long as the Home Government bestows the principal offices and best pecuniary situations in the colonies to persons from the Mother country who are sent out to fill them." There is a very interesting suggestion here, namely, that the spread of education and the rise of culture is closely dependent on the struggle for representative government and the escape from too subservient a colonialism. Such a thesis might well be investigated by graduate students in history or education in such a university as this.
(I must pause here to add that I found on coming to the University of New Brunswick that this very problem has recently been dealt with in a monograph by one of the graduate students in the Department of History, and that this monograph is only the first of a series concerning the, cultural development of this province, two more of which are already in active preparation.) But we do not need to assemble any very elaborate instrument of research to realize that conditions in the province in the early days of the college were vastly different from what they were to become when the remarkable group of poets with whom I am mainly to deal made their appearance on the scene nearly a hundred years later.
It was in the seventies and eighties, and in a culture that was ripe and apparently fixed in its ripeness, that a group of young men of Loyalist stock, most of them close kinsmen, came under the influence of a great teacher in the Fredericton Collegiate School and then passed into the university. The most notable of these were Char1es G. D. Roberts, who graduated in 1879, and Bliss Carman, who graduated in 1881. Two men who were to achieve a measure of success as poets not much less than that of Charles Roberts and Carman were Francis Sherman, who attended the university but did not graduate; and Charles's younger brother, Theodore Goodridge Roberts, war-correspondent, story writer, and poet, who was at the university in the nineties, though the lure of adventure called him to sea, to Newfoundland, and the West Indies before he could be capped and hooded with the academic fur. Nevertheless, it was the culture of the best in English literature which he had imbibed in the Rectory library and at the Fredericton Collegiate School that nourished him as a poet and writer. He had contributed a poem to the "Century" by the time he was eleven. His favorite author was Francis Bacon, and he was reading everything he could find at hand, from Samuel Johnson's "Rambler" to Captain Marryat and R. M. Ballantyne.
The two leaders of this school of Fredericton poets, Charles G. D. Roberts and Bliss Carman, are associated with the Ottawa poets, Archibald Lampman and Dr. Duncan Campbell Scott and their work has been lovingly praised by a number of devoted scholars, among whom it will be sufficient to mention Dr. Lorne Pierce, Odell Shepherd, Richard LeGallienne, Miss Muriel Miller, Rufus Hathaway, and the late Professor James Cappon, of Queens University.
Coming after such a distinguished group of critics, it is no longer necessary to write appreciations of these poets. They have taken their place unchallenged as classics of the golden age of Canadian poetry. Instead, it may be useful to suggest the sort of approach that their reputation must now be prepared to withstand for scholarship and criticism have not yet, except in the brilliant studies by Professor Cappon; submitted the poetry of Charles G. D. Roberts and Bliss Carman to any very rigorous and acid examination. I believe their work is ready for the sort of trial by fire that would burn away the dross and leave the pure gold to shine all the more brightly, unmistakable and permanent. Indeed, literary criticism in Canada is faced with a task not unlike that which Dr. D. C. Harvey, the learned archivist of Nova Scotia, speaking here on Founders' Day two years ago, said remained for the historian. "Even on the political and biographical side of history," said Dr. Harvey, "there is still much research to be done; and in doing that research, an effort should be made to overcome the natural vice of eulogy . . . . Even the Loyalists should be made to stand before the bar of history." The speaker, as some of you may remember, stressed the need "to tone down the harsher criticism of the pre-Loyalists and the undiscriminating eulogies of the Loyalists." Well, in the field of literary history too, we must try to view more sympathetically some of our writers before Confederation and to replace temporarily our impressionistic eulogies of the poets born in the sixties by a scholarly examination of the social and intellectual milieu out of which they have risen. And we must make a more rigorous effort to separate their best work from the larger, body of their poetry which is less original, less intense, or less perfect. When these two undertakings have been successfully accomplished we will be able to assess the true contribution of these men to the broadening stream of Canadian culture.
To relate this poetry to the society out of which it has grown and to disentang1e the various threads of intellectual and spiritual influence which made it what it was there is the task that our literary historians must prepare themselves to undertake. It is not a simple or an easy job, but if successfully accomplished it would be well worth while, for we would know our country and our history the better for it.
In these Fredericton poets one observes that a form of expression of varying intensity and varying clarity has been given to such real intangibles as the Tory spirit, the Loyalist tradition, Canadianism, and Imperialism. The student must examine critically the attitude of the poet towards nature, and note also the influences derived not from nature directly but from what other men, have felt and thought about nature, from the poetry of Wordsworth, Shelley, Emerson, or Tennyson. And then there is the health-giving strength of the Classics absorbed largely through the educational culture of Fredericton in the Collegiate and at the University. Lastly, in Carman and in Theodore Goodridge Roberts, and to a somewhat lesser extent in Charles Roberts and Francis Sherman, there is the spirit of Bohemianism, the Vagabond spirit, a form of muscular idealism, that prompts the poet to break away-from what? the critic must ask, and why?—-and to march off in pursuit of the horizon. The historical critic will try to relate this restlessness to other aspects of the romantic movement, to find parallel instances in German and English literature and above all in American literature and will concentrate on those which actually touched our Canadian poets; and the philosophical critic will examine the motives of our poets and estimate the worth of their revolt.
I myself cannot help feeling that Bliss Carman's "vagabond" poetry shows not so much a desire to get anywhere in particular as the desire simply to get away from the here and now. To Carman the very vagueness of the goal is one of its most attractive features. And this in itself is perhaps not very respectable. Indeed, the presence of this feeling in one of the poets that Carman admired most, Browning, has led the philosopher-critic George Santayana to speak of Browning (and Walt Whitman also) as a poet of Barbarism. But perhaps we may discount the vagueness of Carman's goal, not so much because we are charmed by the scenery along the wayside or by the wenches we dally with at the inn door, as because the motive which has prompted the pilgrimage is generous and noble. It is, in the long run, a revolt against accepting the lowest possible view of human nature and of nature. It is an assertion of man's spiritual triumph over Time and Mortality.
One thing certainly that can be said in praise of all these poets is that they took the responsibilities of their craft seriously and believed passionately in the high calling of the poet. What Theodore Goodridge Roberts wrote in the introduction to a selection of his poems is a credo shared by his older brother; by Bliss Carman; and by Francis Sherman alike. "I believe that poetry is the very essence of mankind's highest efforts to express and interpret life . . . . Poets, as individuals, are as other men and women—-brave and timid, false and fair, generous and mean, reckless and cautious, harsh and kind—-but when their peculiar gifts of vision and expression are being applied honestly in the cause or quest of any truth . . . theirs is the authority of a sacred office."
I am not sure that we can separate so sharply the inspiration of poetry from the personality and the momentary temper of the individual through whom it is expressed, but I know that the group of poets with whom we are dealing felt that in writing their poetry they were lifted up into a realm of significance that transcended the trivial and shifting accidents of ordinary living. They held, with Tennyson, that
The poet in a golden clime was born, With golden stars above, Dowered with the hate of hate, the scorn of scorn, The love of love.
He saw through life and death, through good and ill; He saw through his own soul The marvel of the everlasting will An open scroll.
This high seriousness-—which, I must add, was held without any undue solemnity and was quite free from any suggestion of priggishness—-was partly the inescapable heritage of the Victorian outlook as transmitted through Tennyson, Browning, and Arnold, but it was due in the first instance to the kind of society, in the home, the school, and college, out of which Roberts and Carman sprang and which moulded their personalities in the all important years of childhood and youth.
The Fredericton of the seventies, as one reads about it in such books as Joseph Whitman Bailey's life of his father, Professor Loring Bailey, or Willison's "Sir George Parkin," or in reminiscent essays by Sir Charles Roberts, appears like an enchanted city, with its elm-shaded streets, its generously proportioned old homes, its Cathedral, and the college on the hill, while the broad river winding through the town and the wooded slopes behind bring the forests and an echo of the sea almost to people's very doorsteps. Charles Roberts and Bliss Carman, Theodore Roberts and Francis Sherman have all given ample testimony in their poetry of responding to the special charm of such an environment. It is the charm of a quiet, old-world, gentlemanly society, where the culture is that of the Rectory and the classics, perhaps a little provincial, but not raw nor uncertain and saved from any taint of the anemic by the forest and streams and the not too distant sea. Indeed, it was these that spoke first and most insistently to Roberts.
I am a child of the beautiful and storied River St. John, (he wrote) my birthplace being at the mouth of the Keswick stream, ten miles above Fredericton. But a few months after my birth my father was appointed rector of the parish of Westcock and Dorchester, at the head of the Bay of Fundy; and the following fourteen years of my life were spent at the quaint old colonial homestead known as Westcock Parsonage, on the wooded ridge of upland looking out across the green marshes and tumultuous tides of the Tantramar.
Then in 1874 when the future poet was fourteen, his father became rector of Fredericton, and the family moved into the capital. Here he became the inseparable companion of his cousin Bliss Carman, and though they were not in the same form or year, they attended the Collegiate School and the University of New Brunswick together.
At the Collegiate School young Roberts and Carman soon came under the close personal influence of the Headmaster, George H. Parkin, who had just returned from Oxford. Parkin was a teacher of genius, and he made friends and disciples out of his two willing pupils, instructing them in the Classics and firing them with an enthusiasm for the great poets of the day, Tennyson and Arnold, and the new exciting writers, Swinburne and Rossetti. Parkin himself had been born on a small New Brunswick farm and his biographer tells us how in the early days he had learned his Virgil by doing an odd line as the horses were turning around at the end of a furrow. Carman and Roberts have both left direct and eloquent testimony of the way in which Parkin taught them to love and know the Classics and to understand the classical foundation of the best English poetry.
He was a fascinating teacher, (Carman wrote long afterwards). . . . there was never a dull moment in his classroom or in his society. . . . In the classics, which were his chief subjects, his great appreciation of poetry and letters gave unusual scope to the day's work. . . . The amount of Greek and Latin we read before going to college was not so great—-two or three books of Virgil, a book or two of Homer, and a book of Horace, in addition to the usual Caesar and Xenophon--but much of it had to be learned by heart, and all of it minutely mastered, with a thorough knowledge of grammar and construction, and an understanding of all the poetic and mythological references. With him as an instructor, it was impossible not to feel the beauty of Virgil's lovely passages and the greatness of Homer. . . .
This passage perhaps will help to refute those who think that a minute and searching analysis of a passage of poetry, whether it be by Virgil or Milton, deadens the feeling for what is truly poetic. Rather, I would say-—and Carman testifies it here—-such an analytical, study, is the necessary foundation upon which the appreciation of poetry must be based, if our appreciation is not to be merely a form of self-indulgence and self-deception.
But I am digressing—
Carman continues his reminiscences, and he tells us of the way in which the teacher's enthusiasm for the Greek and Roman poets spilled over into a passionate exposition of their great English followers. But Charles Roberts has told the same story, and I will vary the recital by picking it up now in the words of Roberts:
England just then was thrilling to the new music, the new colour, the new raptures of Swinburne and Rossetti; Parkin was steeped in them; and in his rich voice he would recite to us ecstatically, over and over till we too were intoxicated with them, the great choruses from "Atalanta in Calydon," and passages from "The Triumph of Tirne",—but above all, "The Blessed Damozel", which he loved so passionately that Bliss suspected him of sometimes saying it instead of his prayers. But Parkin did not confine himself to the Pre-Raphaelites. He would quote Tennyson, Browning, and Arnold to us, and the taught us to know Homer and Horace as supreme poets and masters of verbal music.
From Parkin the two enraptured scholars went on up the hill to the university. The master himself was, to a great extent a product of the university. In a letter to Professor Bailey, whose portrait adorns these walls and whose. grandson introduced me this evening, Parkin speaks of the gracious influences that surrounded him in his student days. (He graduated in 1867, and was back again for a Master's degree in 1872.) "My wife and I," he wrote almost fifty years later, "often speak of the advantages we gained from living in the Fredericton of our early days. There was an old-fashioned courtesy and dignity—-a real interest in things of the mind and spirit which seem to have somewhat disappeared in the rush of life and supposed progress of later times.
Out of all this there comes a picture of the kind of society and the kind of culture that was to find its spiritual expression in the poetry of Roberts and Carman. It was calm, settled, and certain; conservative and no doubt rather narrow; a beautiful flowering of many traditions—-the Loyalist, the Anglican, and the Classical—-all coming to terms with the wilderness after nearly a hundred years of struggle. It is true, of course, that the spirit which finds expression in this poetry is an essence skimmed only from the dominating classes of the New Brunswick social system, and the social historian, will find scarcely a hint here of the wide diversity of fortune and standards of living and morality that can be gleaned from the pages of early historians like Peter, Fisher or travellers like Patrick Campbell. What we have instead is a society that has established itself firmly through the heroic effort of its ancestors and has now settled down to enjoy and hold the comfortable place it has made for itself. This has its limitations, but it has its advantages too. The lucky artist who is nurtured in such a culture is set free to deal with what is universal, with the fundamental emotions of the human heart, and with the adventures of the soul in its search for an eternal nourishment. He is free, in other words, to write 'pure' poetry, a poetry that is almost timeless and changeless, and that deals with the everlasting verities, human love, human loneliness, the sustaining strength of the earth, man's response to the voices, fancied or real, of nature. And in the New Brunswick in which Carman and Roberts grew up this did not mean so complete a withdrawal as might elsewhere have been the case, for the, most important industries were farming, lumbering, and fishing—activities that were essentially manly and that brought men into close touch with nature.
Charles G. D. Roberts' finest poetry is undoubtedly the poetry in which he has most faithfully and soberly presented the life of the farmer, the fisherman, and the woodsman going about their eternal tasks under the changing sky of the four seasons. How Virgilian is the spirit of the sonnets he collected in 1893 and published under the title "Songs of the Common Day"! What sobriety and dignity shine in such a passage as this from "The Sower"!
A brown, sad-coloured hillside, where the soil Fresh from the frequent harrow, deep and fine, Lies bare; No break in the remote sky-line, Save where a flock of pigeons streams aloft, Startled from feed in some low-lying croft, Or far-off spires with yellow of sunset shine; And here the Sower, unwittingly divine, Exerts the silent forethought of his toil.
And how truly classical, in the richest sense of the word, are these lines from "The Mowing"!
The crying knives glide on; the green swath lies. And all noon long the sun, with chemic ray, Seals up each cordial essence in its cell, That in the dusky stalls, some winter's day, The spirit of June, here prisoned by his spell, May cheer the herds with pasture memories.
Passage after passage can be found among these sonnets of the common day and in the lyrics from "The Book of the Native" which to my mind represent Roberts's greatest contribution to the art of Canada. It is a delicate and objective nature poetry, restrained, but all the more significant for that, and I believe that it is here, rather than in his more ambitious mystical poetry, that the true worth of Roberts' contribution to our literature lies—in his sonnets of country life, and in such a beautiful piece of recollected emotion as the well-known "Tantramar Revisited" or in such a delicate idyl as "The Solitary Woodsman". These poems are the distant fruit of the country boy, George Parkin, learning his Virgil as the horses paused for a moment turning at the end of the furrow.
I wish to come back to the contribution of Parkin for a moment, because some wise words of his, uttered here in Fredericton, in a moment of disappointment, will perhaps make clearer the true meaning of the conservative spirit, while (at the same time) the history of the Roberts family will stand out as an exception to the sequence of events that Parkin was lamenting. In 1899 he spoke as the University Orator at Encaenia. He was at that time Headmaster of Upper Canada College, and he took the opportunity to castigate his province and his city for their failure to establish in New Brunswick a great Public School or adequately to reward the teaching profession:
Nothing seems to me more to be regretted (he said), in the history of these provinces than the way in which the rich and powerful families of the past generations have failed to transmit to their descendants the culture—-the social and political influence-—the personal force which should have been the result of their better opportunities. . . . We are compelled to manufacture our leading men and our governing social forces anew each generation out of the raw material which comes from our farms and workshops. Robust and vigorous it no doubt is, but one who was brought up on a New Brunswick farm may perhaps say without offence that it is often very crude. There is little conservation of that culture which gives their highest tone and greatest efficiency to old communities. . . . This is one reason at least why the wealthy people of our province should support and strengthen a place of higher training such as this. They should bring within easy reach of their children every possible intellectual advantage and stimulus. It will not be enough to send them away to some distant place or University to get what they cannot get here. The higher intellectual life of a country should not be disassociated from the ordinary daily life if it is to have the greatest influence over the latter. Culture should have at least its roots in the soil where it is to grow.
These are wise words; and particularly remarkable is the sequence of ideas. What looks at first like a rather narrow conservatism is seen, when the passage is finished, to be a plea for a culture that is rooted in the soil.
Whatever substance there is to the charge here brought by Parkin against distinguished families that failed to maintain their distinction, it is a charge that could never be brought against the family to which both Carman and Roberts belonged. Charles Roberts' father was Canon Roberts, of Fredericton, and his grandfather had been Headmaster of the Collegiate School and had lectured in the classics at the University. His mother was a Bliss, daughter of the Attorney General of New Brunswick and a descendant of the Reverend Daniel Bliss of Concord, an ancestor of Ralph Waldo Emerson. A sister of his mother was the mother of Bliss Carman, who shared also, therefore, this inheritance from New England culture.
Literary or artistic distinction was not to be the sole possession of the two cousins, Bliss Carman and Charles Roberts. Char1es' sister Elizabeth was a poetess of more than ordinary grace, and his younger brother, Theodore Goodridge Roberts, whose career I have already touched upon, is a writer of romances and tales that have brought him wide fame in England and the United States as well, as in Canada, and a poet whose finest lyrics do not suffer from the comparison when placed beside those of his brother and cousin. But this is not all. It continues for two generations. Sir Charles Roberts' son Lloyd has continued the tradition of writing verse, and Theodore Roberts' son, Goodridge Roberts, is widely recognized as one of the most brilliant and firmly established of the newer school, of Canadian painters.
When we turn from Charles G. D. Roberts to consider the case of Bliss Carman, the critic finds himself faced with a more difficult task. The problem of the poet's relation to the New Brunswick scene and the culture of Fredericton and the University is not capable of any quick or sure solution. A great deal of research remains to be done and a complete and scholarly biography has yet to be written. (There is, by the way, a rather voluminous life of Sir Charles Roberts, but it is not written with the detachment and discernment that the subject demands, and it seems to me to be seriously in error in underestimating the influences of this city and province upon Roberts in his days prior to graduation from the university.)
A fully documented life of Bliss Carman would throw a most significant light on the intellectual and spiritual life not only of Canada but of the United States also. Such a work might be entertaining and it would certainly be instructive; for when be left his native province Carman fell under influences that diluted and distorted the spirit of his work and caused him to fritter away much of the last half of his career in the pursuit of an attenuated transcendentalism that was neither very new nor, intellectually speaking, very reputable.
A simpler task than the biographical one, however, is the task of evaluating the quality of Carman's poetry and sifting out the clear body of first-rate poetry from the larger mass of his work. Carman's ease and facility of writing was so great that he wrote too much, and in many of his poems he has continued on in smooth stanza after smooth stanza long after the laws of concentration and intensity should have cautioned a stop. The first duty of the critic who is anxious to rescue Carman's reputation from the reaction that has followed a to undiscriminating adulation is to define the special excellence of Carman's best work.
As it seems to me, the unique and unforgettable quality that makes itself felt in Carman's finest lines is a magic gleam, intense and troubling, a disturbing mixture of the beautiful and the strange, of the attractive and the frightening. His best poetry is the product of an acute and quivering sensibility, and its successful communication to the reader indicates the presence of great technical accomplishment and the power to create images that are heavily charged with emotion.
At this point, perhaps an example or two are called for. Here are some lines that show the style and substance of Carman at his very best. The substance, or subject-matter, it will be seen, is nothing more than the emotion, the mood, the thrill that the music and the images communicate.
Outside, a yellow maple tree Shifting upon the silvery blue With small, innumerable sounds, Rustles to let the sunlight through.
And then my heart beat once and broke To hear the sweeping rain forebode Some ruin in the April world, Between the woodside and the road.
- * * * * * * *
Come, for the night is cold, The ghostly moonlight fills Hollow and rift and fold Of the eerie Ardise 'Hills!
- * * * * * * *
The windows of my room Are dark with bitter frost, The stillness aches with doom Of something loved and lost.
Outside, the great blue star Burns in the ghostland pale, Where giant Algebar Holds on the endless trail.
This surely is thrilling poetry, but if one stops to examine, it closely, one will find that the effect has been gained by a tight perfection of form, a concise sentence; and a richly-charged but simple and quite idiomatic language. When with this is considered the metrical subtlety of the lines and the formal stanzaic pattern, I would venture to say that, all in all, this kind of writing could not have been achieved by one who had not had the kind of classical training that Carman (who had a special aptitude for it, of course) had got from Parkin.
There is much, too, in Carman's descriptive nature poetry which, although not as realistic or severe as that of Roberts, is undeniably native in its origin. As Roberts has written in an article to be found in the Hathaway Collection in the University of New Brunswick Library "The savour of Canada permeates" Carman's poetry. "The colour and the scent of Canada which bred him—-the Maritime Provinces—-cling to him imperishably."
The sea that washed the New Brunswick coast and the tides of the Bay of Fundy seem to have entered Carman's blood, and come swinging and surging through some of his finest lyrics:
Burying, brimming, the building billows. Fret the long dikes with uneasy foam.
He is restless because in his memory and instinct there is something that responds to a place
Where the sea with her old secret Moves in sleep, and cannot rest.
He is a poet, he tells us,
Because there lies upon my lips. A whisper of the wind at morn, A murmur of the rolling sea, Cradling the land where I was born.
This is a timeless poetry, but it is so because; the time and place where Carman spent his youth was so safe and sure that he didn't have to think about it. The stability and traditionalism of the society in which he grew to maturity set him free to write a pure and universal poetry in which man and the self and the unknown were isolated from the immediate here and now with its pressing needs and turmoils, its economic and political forces, and its practical methods and social ideals. His poetry was not, like that of an earlier day,—-the poetry of an Odell or a Howe,-—social, political, or practical. That is, it did not have to be superficial; it could be universal; and this, at its best, it was; though often, too, it was merely ethereal. Yet it could save its energies for the fundamental problems that touch the heart and spirit, so that its finest flights, if not sustained, at least are high. They enable us to feel some aspect of the mystery and beauty; and also the tragedy of life. I do not think anyone who has written about Carman has dwelt adequately upon the underlying sadness of his poetry. "Low Tide on Grand Pre," beautiful as are its finest stanzas, is a poem of disillusionment and frustration. An ecstatic experience, that should have transcended time and become eternal by its very intensity, is only a fleeting and dying memory. Often the expression of joy in Carman's poetry is marred by a kind of jauntiness that rather easily seems forced, but when he gives expression to the Lucretian sense of tears at the heart of things his writing takes on a simplicity and grandeur that is unmistakable.
. . . . man walks the world with mourning Down to death, and leaves, no trace, With the dust upon his forehead, And the shadow in his face.
Pillared dust and fleeting shadow As the roadside wind goes by, And the fourscore years that vanish In the twinkling of an eye.
But I must resist the temptation, to go on quoting. I must resist, indeed, the temptation to add another to the long list of impressionistic eulogies, of Carman's poetry, and return to something more necessary. Let me conclude this paper, which has been mainly concerned with the past, by dwelling for a moment on the present and the future. I would like to suggest that those universities in Canada—-this university is one, Queen's is another, and so is Victoria--which have benefited by the generosity of bibliophiles and collectors and which have in their libraries valuable accumulations of manuscripts and rare old books have the responsibility of training students to use that material wisely and effectively. These universities should become research centres for the study of Canadian literature and Canadian social history and should make, an effort to encourage graduate students to collect and use the material available for the digging. And the time will come, I hope, when our universities will go farther than that. It is time that they should provide for Canadian students an honours course in the related fields of Canadian history and Canadian literature. Such a course, if it is to be of real value, must be both broad and deep. The candidate for honours in Canadian literature and history would need a thorough grounding in English language and literature, in American literature, and in American history. He would need courses in political economy and in social history and he would need training in aesthetics and philosophy.
Not until this has been accomplished, and a concerted effort has been made to attack the problem of Canadian literature as if, for us at least, it were as important as any literature, will the nation enter into the rich heritage which its poets and men of letters have prepared for it.