Wednesday, July 18, 2007

viva la saint lawrence

I'm taking a break from the anthology today due to the fact that it is quickly doing my head in. In the meantime, I'm going to tackle some of the other works from the poetry section of the list. Today, I'm looking at Charles Sangster, who is not a poet I am familiar with, but who published in 1856 the first Spenserian sonnet sequence in Canadian literary history. He was also one of the first poets to use obviously and undeniably Canadian images and subject matter as the backbone of his poetry. As bad as I am at (a) long poems and (b) colonial literature, I enjoyed this, and I think I've found a few things to say about it... Hopefully things I can process relatively quickly because I have a birthday party to get to. Yee haw!

The St. Lawrence and the Saguenay
by Charles Sangster

Quebec -- how regally it crowns the height!
The Titan Strength has here set up his throne;
Unmindful of the sanguinary fight,
The roar of cannon mingling with the maon
Of mutilated soldiers years agone,
That gave the place a glory and a name
Among the nations. France was heard to groan,
England rejoiced, but checked the proud acclaim, --
A brave young chief had fallen to vindicate her fame.

Fallen in the prime of his ambitious years,
As falls the young oak when the mountain blast
Rings like a clarion, and the tempest jeers
To see its pride to earth untimely cast.
So fell brave Wolfe, heroic to the last,
Amid the tempest and grim scorn of war,
While leering Fate with look triumphant passed,
Pleased with the slaughter and the horrid jar
That lured him hence to see how paled a hero's star.

This poem recounts a journey of the imagination from Kingston, Ontario and the St. Lawrence Seaway to the mouth of the Saguenay and Cape Eternity. The narrator of the poem is on a spiritual quest to be reunited with the woman he loves, known in the poem only as the Maiden. He is also on a pilgrimage to show his devotion to God, and indeed the reunion with the Maiden is a reunion with God as well, as the three seek to "prove / How unutterably deep and strong is Human Love" (that love being both between humans and of humans for God). The poem is also about embracing the creations of God -- the journey from the St. Lawrence to the Saguenay represents an internal journey from being controlled by a world of business, commerce, and the drive to possess, to the victorious act of shaking off those bonds and emerging free from the world of the material and ready for the world of the spiritual. Finally, the poem is about art, and the realization that the greatest art of all is God's creations of the natural world and of man. The narrator, over the course of the poem, comes to realize that nothing else can compare with God's design.

As the first narrative poem in Spenserian stanzas in the history of Canadian literature, the poem gets big points for effort, and though there re patches where the verse is rocky or rhythmically problematic, the overall effect is quite something. The impact is even more noteworthy when one considers that Sangster had almost no formal education beyond elementary schooling, and as such his poem is one of the beauty of Canada written by a Canadian everyman. This is not an academic telling, but rather a story that struck a talented but ordinary Canadian who was struck by the majesty of his country. This is not to say Sangster was ignorant (indeed, his poetry is filled with invocations of mythology, biblical allusion, and so on), but that his story is one of a Canadian man with a Canadian education telling a story of Canada. Such things are certainly worth celebrating.

One way the poetry is uneven, however, is in Sangster's compulsive romanticization of the Canadian landscape, especially in his descriptions of the Canadian Shield and other rocky geographies. His use of classical allusions and pastoral diction blunts and pasteurizes the rugged beauty of the landscapes he is trying to describe. The river "bubbles silver" and is "isle-enwoven." Even storms are signs of God's strength rather than violent, frightening experiences. This is all to add to the effect of the poem as an homage to God's creation, and while it's exquisitely as a pastoral it rings false to anyone who has been to this area of country and seen nothing that could be remarked upon as pastoral.

And interesting feature is how much Sangster draws on the history, both aboriginal (though heavily one-sides) and white, of the area he writes about. As in the example above, with Wolfe and Montcalm, the effect is one of chronicling a history and myth-making about place. Sangster is self-consciously creating a story of Canada, and the effect is a powerful one. It reminds us of the importance of this kind of documentation in the early days of Canadian literature, because the tradition had to first be built in order for it to be built upon.

An ancillary theme in the poem is that love, and especially the love of God, supersede art, as he writes: "The lips of Love / Make mellower music than a thousand strings / Of harps." God's creation, too, is more beautiful than anything man can create artistically, and even the poem we are reading pales in comparison to God's work; as devout as it is, and as much of a celebration as it represents, it is in "puny contrast" to the creation of God. Art does not reach us closer to God, but it allows us an opportunity to offer devotion to him and show awe of his creation. This is by far the most devout, Christian piece I have read thus far, and if startling in its lack of cynicism and its innocent optimism. Overall, even for the aggressively agnostic like myself, it was a welcom break from the hopeless cynicism of much of our national literature.

No comments: