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THE

CANADIAN MAGAZINE.

VOL. VIII.

DECEMBER, 1896.

CANADIAN POETRY.

A Criticism.

A

GLANCE at the shelves of any collector's library shows that the number of persons in Canada who publish verses is very large. A further glance at the uneven row of thin volumes shows that the poetic impulse does not last. Many a writer who has in his few timid pages given promise of good work is heard of no more. There are, doubtless, many causes for this lack of sustained enthusiasm. It may be that, taken up with a great material development, we have no appreciation of the fine arts, or that we lack historic associations, or that our culture is still provincial. Open, however, volume after volume of these abandoned ambitions, and one will be convinced that these writers are servile imitators; there is no sense of unconscious effort, no evidence of a free hand. A closer study of later publications discloses the fact that poetic inspiration runs fairly in the narrow channels made by a small coterie of writers, the chief among whom are Campbell, Carman, Lampman and Roberts. These poets, having won the ear of a generous and patriotic, though uncritical press, have been raised to an imposing authority, which restrains all originality and all determined devotion to poetry as a fine art.

It is, therefore, important that these writers should be critically examined. If they be found to be not true poets,

No. 2.

but blind leaders of the blind, they should be deposed, and the hope of a distinctively Canadian literature may be made one step nearer its realization than it now seems to be.

How, then, shall we know if Canadian verse deserves the name of poetry. or even estimate its merit? Every reader, of course, settles for himself the worth of a volume of poems when he throws it aside as uninteresting or unproductive of pleasure. If he be a reader of no refinement, his uncritical judgment may be of no value. If, however, most readers do not cast a volume aside, but peruse it with pleasure, it is strong evidence that the poet has produced good poetry. Whatever the purpose of the poet may be, we may assume the purpose of poetry to be the production of pleasure, and it would seem to be proper in order that we may criticise poetry, to enquire what subjects give pleasure when dealt with in poetry—whether some subjects are in their nature productive of mor pleasure than others, and then to enquire whether the poet has used the most effective means to th end which he has in view.

The subjects with which poetry may deal are human action, ideas of universal human interest and scenery, using scenery broadly to include objects animate and inanimate, as well as outdoor effects. Of these, human action is by

far the most important, though ideas, if they be sane ideas of the great problems of human life, readily lend themselves to the art of poetry. Scenery, on the other hand, is the most barren topic of poetry. Aside from human associations, the pleasures of scenery are forced and affected. At most, it does not do more than excite feelings of sublimity and repose. Its other effects are, doubtless, merely physical. But, as the representation of action in poetry is limited only by æsthetic taste, the poet of action may range the whole field of human experience and find matter to appeal to every human emotion. If, therefore, poetry be weak in action or ideas, and strong in scenery, it will make but a limited appeal to human interest and play upon a narrow range of feeling. It may be safely said that no poetry of la-ting merit is possible which does not base its claim to our attention on action or reflection concerning action.

The relative importance of the subject matter of poetry may be made still clearer: Why do we skip Scott's prolix descriptions when reading his prose or poetry? The answer is plain. We are more interested in action and ideas of human interest than in scenery. Our interest in action never flags. Consciously or unconsciously, the reader sees always in the action r presented a reflection of his own, and there is thus provided a constant motive of interest on which the artist may rely. Detailed description is an effort to represent not the universal idea in the poet's mind, but some particular vision of his imag nation. Hence the effect produced on the reader, if he should make an effort to re construct the poet's vision, will be void of human association and fail in artistic effect. Moreover, interest in action is more intense than interest in scenery, because of the element of suspense in action; and the pleasures of represented action are, te efore, more vivid. Action takes place in time: one action suggests another, arouses curi

osity to know what it will be. The interest which holds breathless the spectators of a horse race, though not so laudable in its object, owes its intensity and its vulgar pleasures to the same conditions as those which keep an audience eager to know whether Juliet will rise in living beauty from the tomb. On the other hand, succession in time does not enter into the contemplation of scenes and objects. A single vision is a complete presentation to the mind, and its artistic effect lies in the whole effect of a moment. Such an effect even Scott was unable to produce.

But language is not adequate to the detail description of cenery; aside altogether from its limited interest, and its meagre power to appeal tɔ human feeling, it cannot be represented in detail by the poet as vividly as action. The presentation of objects to the mind is the proper work of the painter or sculptor. The painter presents his subject in detail, and it produc s its whole effect at one flash of vision. The poet, attempting detailed description and not merely suggestion, produces on the mind of he reader only a confused and distracted effect. The mind of the reader attempts to grasp the first detail by calling up from memory the image most like that suggested by the poet's words. This is an effort of some difficulty, and will produce some sense of pain, destructive of the pleasure which it is the purpose of art to awaken. Having got one detail of the picture, he seeks to recall another and another, until the whole has been attempted. But, at each succeeding attempt, he must drop the images which have preceded, and at the end he will have a confused impression of details and not the vivid representation of a whole.

While scenery is in itself relatively indifferent as subject matter, and the elaboration of it in detail impossible in poetry, it may yet be made to play a most important part. The pure

forty sonnets and a similar number of
what he terms poems, and closes with
"Ave; An Ode for the Centenary of
Shelley's Birth." A few titles of these
verses show fairly the method and
content of Mr Roberts' work. The
Furrow, The Sower, The Cow Pas-
ture, Frogs, The Cicada in the Firs,
The Night Sky, Rain, Mist, Moon-
light, and The Night Hawk, do not
suggest either ideas or action. One
or two feeble attempts at dramatic
interest are made in "The Tide on
Tantramar," and "A Christmas Eve
Courtin'," the latter in dialect, and
after the style of Carleton.
whole is overwhelmed by description,
not the suggestion of general images
nor literary impressionism but descrip-
tion so minute that a painter, without
reflection, might well repeat any scene
upon his canvas in every detail of
form colour. "The Sower" may be
given in full as a fair sample of his

work.

ly artistic purpose of poetry is to excite pleasant feeling; its method is not to imitate nature but the idea existing in the mind, to call up imagesnot the particular image of the poet's mind, but general images in the mind of the reader, such as that of a brook, a waterfall, or the face of a beautiful woman. This the poet does by suggestion, by naming the most striking element of the image desired, by the addition of apt metaphor, striking epithet, or by any one of a hundred wellknown means. Such description, as it can scarcely stand alone, must attend on a theme of human interest, whether of action or reflection.

Little need be said of the means of the art of poetry. The main theme must be human life. Poetical form, as well as the choice of words and the use of figures, may be left to each writer's judgment. The unerring test will always be the effect produced upon readers of refined feeling.

Tried by these tests, Canadian poet

ry of the day fails. Campbell, Car- A brown, sad-coloured hillside, where the soil,

Fresh from the frequent harrow, deep and fine,
Lies bare; no break in the remote skyline,
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 there the Sower, unwittingly divine,

Exerts the silent forethought of his toil.
Alone he treads the glebe, his measured stride

Dumb in the yielding soil; and, though small
joy

man, Lampman and Roberts can hard-
ly be said by the most generous to
have written anything of lasting mer-
it. The reader who can twice strain
his imagination to the contemplation
of their painfully wrought miniatures
would indeed be a curiosity. They
are not without virtues, and it may
be fairly said that they are all men of
great talent.
They have mastered the
mechanics of versification. They have
music and a flowing rhythm. They
have great elevation of diction, and
their patriotic zeal well befits the
honourable enterprise in which they
are engaged. Action they scarcely
attempt, unless it be action to strut
before impossible landscapes. Their
works are singularly barren of ideas
of universal human interest, although
there is a constant recurrence to
Wordsworth's idea of kind mother
earth.

"Songs of the Common Day" is the title of Mr Roberts' latest work, published in 1893. It contains about

Dwell in his heavy face, as spreads the blind, Pale grain from his dispensing palm aside, This plodding churl grows great in his employ; God-like, he makes provision for mankind.

As description, this is well done. The language is direct, the metaphors natural. The climax of reflection is, however, extremely tame While one or two expressions are effective to represent the object which the poet had in mind, there is little to appeal to the reader's emotion. Mr. Roberts inverts the relation of poet and reader. The poet should awaken general images in the reader's mind, not force upon him the poet's own particular images. The particular scene here pourtrayed, may

have for the author the tenderest the true scope of art had he pondered associations; for the reader there will these lines of Wordsworth: be suggestion only in individual phrases in the universal elements of the scene attempted.

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The Summer Pool" may be compared with Tennyson's lines in "The Miller's Daughter: "

I loved the brimming wave that swam
Thro' quiet meadows round the mill,
The sleepy pool above the dam,
The pool beneath it never still.

"Ave; An Ode for the Centenary of Shelley's Birth," is an ambitious poem of some length. It opens with a long and painful description, in the poet's best style, of Tantramar, a locality, in the neighbourhood of the Bay of Fundy, where Mr. Roberts seems to have spent his youth. The marshes of Tantramar are like Shelley's "compassionate breast," wherein dwelt "dreams of love and peace, and the ebb and flow of tides from the salt sea of human pain hissed along the perilous coasts of life and beat upon his brain." Thence he pursues the storm-strained Shelley through many stanzas of turgid declamation, replete with the same unnatural metaphor. But the poem lacks interest. It does not strike home. There is not a phrase which the reader carries away to ponder, as the Scotchman ponders his humour. The poem attempts Shelley's style, and fails because Shelley's style died with him.

Mr. Roberts also draws inspiration from Wordsworth. How well he has caught Wordsworth's tone may be judged by reading together "Tantramar Revisited," and Wordsworth's "Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey." In the latter the scenery is general, and always subordinated to the affecting moral theme which prevails in every line. "Tantramar" opens and closes with reflections of no mean interest, but the intermediate lines run on at great length in an utterly ineffective twaddle of description. He would have learned

For I have learn'd
To look on Nature, not as in the hour
Of thoughtless youth; but hearing oftentimes
The still, sad music of humanity,

Not harsh, nor grating, though of ample power
To chasten and subdue. And I have felt
A presence which disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts.

The music of colour and scene, or of empty, jingling words, may please some ears, but the music of humanity is the only music which the world will hear from poets.

What has been said of Roberts is

the like.

also true, in the main, of Lampinan. He writes of April, An October Sunset, The Frogs, Heat, Winter, and Though his descriptions are fatal to his merit as a poet, he does not indulge in so much detail as Roberts. He has a habit of broadly suggesting scenes which is very effective, and of going on to treat them in a way that is very tiresome. He does not know when to stop. One of his most interesting poems is entitled Freedom." The first thrce stanzas bring us from the unnatural and unbeautiful life of the city into the joy and peace of the country:

(6

Into the arms of our mother we come,

Our broad, strong mother, the innocent earth, Mother of all things beautiful, blameless, Mother of hopes that her strength makes blameless,

Where the voices of grief and of battle are

dumb, And the whole world laughs with the light of her mirth.

Here he might have stopped, and he would have produced a poem of much beauty, but yielding to the vicious habit of description, he goes on for seven or eight stanzas to describe the scenery of the country in detail after the moral proposition, the human interest, has been announced. Though his description is detailed, his scenes are larger than those of Roberts, and he is, therefore, enabled to put more suggestion in each line. His diction is more simple, and his metaphors are

natural. Though the range of his ideas is not very wide, there is an earnest tone in his poetry which, in itself, wins our sympathy, and makes us hope that he will do more than any of the writers mentioned. But this everlasting plague of description among our Canadian poets, how tiresome and oppressive it becomes! From bombast to doggerel, it runs through everything. Open any volume, at any page, and the golden haze, the rock-ribbed coast, the sighing south wind, the grey monotony start upon us. Human associations which alone can make description an avenue to the heart are forgotten in the affected joys of colour and landscape.

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Low Tide on Grand Pré, a Book of Lyrics" is the title of a volume published by Mr. Bliss Carman. The poems in this volume, he tells the reader, have been collected with reference to their similarity of tone. They are variations of a single theme. They are in the same key. The words, tone, theme, and key are terms of the language of music, and their use implies a similarity between the range of the human feelings and the musical scale. The tone of his poems is weird. The feelings excited are subdued feelings of gloom and foreboding. Although they respond readily, they are of a very limited range and afford a very slight foundation for a great reputation. It is possible, of course, to produce a masterpiece in a minor key. An ambitious composer one would expect to play upon a wider range of feeling. There is nothing definite about Mr. Carman's verse. His themes are vague. His narrative must be largely supplied by the reader, and with painful effort. His scenes are quite unlike those of Roberts and Lampman. They are personified outlines, stalking shadows, which suggest vague and threatening presences. It is perhaps safe to say that the chief artistic effect of his writing lies in the ghostly suggestions of dark corners. Although he is a descriptionist, he is often more effec

tive than Roberts or Lampman. As for example :

Outside a yellow maple tree,

Shifting upon the silvery blue With small, innumerable sounds, Rustles to let the sunlight through.

Throughout his verse, it must be said in his favour, there is a voice of human interest, vague and limited though it be.

And all the world is but a scheme

Of busy children in the street, A play they follow and forget, On summer evenings, pale with heat. 'Behind the Arras" is a later publication, which shows his style to have become more defined. There is the same weird and grotesque vagueness, the same slipping of persons into shadows, the same incongruous conjunction of the limits of time and space. Such a fantastic style is not to be imitated. It cannot possibly be made the means of a great utterance. The human voice of Shakespeare, or Milton, or even Tennyson, could hardly struggle through it. And yet most readers will turn from Roberts and the others to Carman for relief. He is a greater artist; he writes to affect our imaginations, not to teach them the images of his own He deals with life, vague and fantastic though it be.

"The Dread Voyage" is one of the latest publications of William Wilfred Campbell. If description be the crowning effort of poetry, he is entitled to take his place beside Ariosto and Bombastes. A new order of beings must be created to appreciate him, for, surely, there is not in all the stores of imagination the material of his fancy. He is always at full steam; everything is in the superlative degree or at the point of climax. His chief endowments are of the eye and ear. The most striking characteristic of his work is the want of refinement of taste, the inability to discern fine shades of feeling or to know when he pleases or offends. In his description he continually mars his effects by using words and comparisons which

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