Canadian Poetry: From the Beginnings Through the First World War
selected by Carole Gerson and Gwendolyn Davies
Instead of starting with a quote from the text as I usually do, I'm going to do a survey of the themes across this collection and use quotations from the different poets as appropriate. The text here is broken into two sections -- part one is Foundations, and part two is Continuations. Foundations is the colonial period, and Continuations is the confederation period leading into the moderns only so far as the immediate post-WWI period can be considered modernist in Canada.
The Foundations period is a time of celebrating Canada, and comparing Canada to England and America. Robert Hayman, for example, wrote of the comparisons between Newfoundland (where he was a governor) and England as early as 1628. Jonathan Odell spoke of leaving America and coming to Canada as the time he "renounced our native hostile shore" in his "Our Thirty-Ninth Wedding Anniversary" in 1810. The comparison to the homeland reminds the reader of the newness of Canada, and adds importance to the development of a national literature separate and apart from the poets' home countries.
The comparisons tend to focus on celebrating the freedom and the democratic spirit of Canada, as for example Alexander McLachlan writing "The Man Who Rose From Nothing" in 1874:
In other lands he's hardly knows,For most of the poets in this Foundations period, freedom is celebrated and preferable in comparison with the comforts of England -- better to be less comfortable but to own one's own land than to have creature comforts but live as a tenant. In the end, it seems, the real thing that Canada offers to immigrants is relative freedom compared to the oppressive circumstances of England / America.
For he's a product of our own;
Could grace a shanty or a throne,
The man who rose from nothing.
Indeed, there seems to be a consciousness in the early poetry of Canada of the role of poets as nation-builders. For example, Griselda Tonge was a poet who lived from 1803-1825. She was the great-granddaughter of Deborah How Cottnam, an earlier Canadian poet, and she makes an effort in her own poetry to echo back to the work of her great-grandmother. She is on one hand simply acknowledging the good works of a family member, but she is also creating a Canadian cultural legacy, showing that there is a lineage to writing in Canada and creating a kind of literary dynasty.
Many of the celebratory poems were loosely-veiled or not-so-veiled forms of propaganda to encourage immigration to the new colonies. In 1750, the anonymous "Nova Scotia: A New Ballad" emerged to sing the praises of Nova Scotia and remind people that, in the new world:
No landlords are there the poor tenants to teaze,This is clearly propaganda, but other celebratory poems are perhaps less overtly tools for the attraction of new immigrants. One example of such is the joyful "Annapolis-Royal" by Roger Viets, which was actually distributed in pamphlet form.
No lawyers to bully, nor stewards to seize;
But each honest fellow's a landlord, and dares
To spend on himself the whole fruit of his cares.
Towards the end of the Foundational period, a real social consciousness emerged from the poets. John Arthur Phillips, for example, focused on the plight of the female workers who were making less than their male counterparts (sound familiar?) in his "The Factory Girl" in 1873:
A man gets thrice the money,There's also the anonymous "A Popular Creed" that satirizes the idea that money is what creates a good man, and that the worst crime a man can commit is the crime of poverty. Other emergent themes are not really surprising, because they echo from the literature of the period -- a deference to God, a focus on the natural world, natives as representatives of pre-White Canada, and a sense of optimism about the choices and options available to people through immigration. These themes in large part carry through to the poetry of the Continuations period, because Canadian poetry will likely always feature things like nature in some capacity, but there are shifts that occur.
But then "a man's a man,
And women surely can't expect
To earn as much as he can."
Of his hire the laborer's worthy,
Be that laborer who it may;
If a woman can do a man's work
She should have a man's full pay,
Not to be left to starve -- or sin --
On forty cents a day.
If she sins to escape her bondage
Is there room for wonder then.
First of all, there is a stronger sense of an emergent national identity, and with that comes the beginning of a questioning of the demands of the empire. For example, as William Wilfred Campbell argues in "The Lazarus of Empire" in 1899:
But lowest and last, with his area vast,Campbell is clearly concerned with the relationship to the empire, which is interestingly early in Canada's progress as a nation. This way of exploring the Canadian identity is supplemented by a fear of brain drain and the challenges of being loyal to Canada. Charles G.D. Roberts wrote of this phenomenon as early as 1886 in a poem called "The Poet Is Bidden to Manhattan Island." This poem about 19th Century brain drain ends with the narrator of the poem referring to the United States as "pastures new," and pointing out that a Canadian poet has "piped at home, where none could pay." In the US, then, there is financial support for poetry -- the Canadian poet must choose between staying at home to develop the Canadian poetic scene. There is a sense of responsibility in the artists in Canada in this period that they are creating a national art.
And horizon so servile and tame,
Sits the poor beggar Colonial
Who feeds on the crumbs of her fame.
How long, O how long, the dishonor,
The servile and suppliant place?
Are we Britons who batten upon her,
Or degenerate sons of the race?
This development of Canadian poetry was really important to the works of Charles G.D. Roberts. In his poem "Aye!," for example, Roberts sets an Ode to Shelley in the Tantramar. New Brunswick is inserted into the canon, here, but furthermore the Canadian marshland is equated with Shelley -- both are considered poets in the writings of Roberts, which is an interesting idea and adds legitimacy to the burgeoning poetic scene of Canada.
Not all poets saw it this way. For Bliss Carman, for example, in his "The Ships of Saint John" from 1893, he depicts Canada as a "great nurse and mother." Canada, then, is something that gives you what you need to grown, but that you eventually must leave. In this poem, Carman makes it clear that dreams are something that you fulfill elsewhere, not in Canada. This is fitting for a writer who started in Canada but eventually settled down and became a professional writer in the United States. (In "Wild Geese," he revisits this theme by lusting and longing to be with the geese who fly south -- he views it as an exodus and longs to be a part of it.)
The other major theme that emerges, especially in the Confederation Poets, is a privileging of the rural over the urban. In "Among the Timothy," for example, Archibald Lampman contrasts the "blind grey streets" of the city with the "enchanted climes" of rural Canada. There is an emerging nostalgia for the natural world that develops as a response to the urbanization and industrialization of Canada.
I have no pretty way to end this post beyond saying that it's midnight and I'm tired. More poetry tomorrow, ladies and gentlemen.