The Beginnings Of A National Literary Tradition
Essay, Research Paper
Canadians throughout their history have been concerned over the status of their national literature. One of the major problems facing early Canadian writers was that the language and poetic conventions that they had inherited from the Old World were inadequate for the new scenery and conditions in which they now found themselves. Writers such as Susanna Moodie, Samuel Hearne, and Oliver Goldsmith were what I would consider “Immigrant” authors. Even though they were writing in Canada about Canada their style and their audiences were primarily England and Europe. These authors wrote from an Old World perspective and therefore were not truly Canadian authors. It took a group of homespun young writers in the later part of the 19thCentury to begin to build a genuine “discipline” of Canadian literary thought. This group, affectionately known as ‘The Confederation Poets’, consisted of four main authors: Charles G.D. Roberts, Bliss Carman, Duncan Campbell Scott, and Archibald Lampman. The Poets of Confederation “established what can legitimately be called the first distinct “school” of Canadian poetry”(17, Keith). The term ‘The Poets of Confederation’ is a misnomer since not one of these poets/authors was more than ten years old when the Dominion of Canada was formed in 1867. However, all of these writers were aware of the lack of a distinctive Canadian literary tradition and they made efforts to create one for their successors. While each of these men had their own distinctive writing style they all sought to contribute and create a ‘national’ literature. According to R.E.Rashley in Poetry in Canada: The First Three Steps ” there is no Canadian poetry before [The Confederation Poets] time”(98). These men were the first in a long line of authors and artists to conceive of the need for a discernible national literature. The Confederation Poets function was to “explore the new knowledge that they had acquired of themselves that had been created by the interaction of environment and people and the concept of evolutionary growth”(Rashley 98). Archibald Lampman was a key note in the beginnings of a national literary movement. Before Lampman and the other Confederation poets there seemed to be a mere repetition of European ideas in literature in Canada. Even though Lampman was influenced by the great Romanticists in Britain, such as Keats and Wordsworth, he is still one of the most integral writers in Canadian poetry and literature in general. Lampman signaled the move from the ‘Immigrant’ authors like Moodie and her counterparts toward a true and distinct Canadian literary movement. It is important to note that in order to appreciate the quality of 19th Century Canadian literature, an effort of sympathy and a leap of imagination are both needed because it is here in the 19th Century that our nations true poetic history begins.
In early Canadian poetry the most influential and universal poet is undoubtedly Archibald Lampman. While his career, like his life, were short-lived his poetry remains as a reminder to the origins of Canadian literary thought. Lampman was one of our first major literary figures to try and identify a “national” literature. He realized the importance of having a specifically Canadian literary tradition. An important stepping point in Lampman’s career came after he read the work Orion by Charles G.D. Roberts. Lampman describes his over powering emotion when as a youth he came across this published work(in the quote on the title page). The importance of having this distinct literary “school” was a driving inspiration in his art. Lampman is regarded “as the most talented of The Confederation Poets”( W.J. Keith 18). It is amazing that this unspectacular man could have such a profound effect on the evolution of Canadian literary tradition. His upbringing was in a very conservative environment as Lampman descended from Loyalists on both sides of his family and his father was an Anglican clergyman. It seemed that “every element in Lampman’s upbringing told against the development of Canadianism in [him], but Canadianism did develop very early”(E.K. Brown 97). As a child growing up around Ontario he had the pleasure of holding acquaintance with both Susanna Moodie and Catherine Parr Trail at Rice Lake. Both of these writers were in their 70’s when Lampman met them but perhaps they were an influence on his desire to explore the Nature of Canada. As a young adult Lampman was educated first at Trinity College and then he pursued his studies at the University of Toronto. After he had graduated, he taught High School for a few unhappy months before he chose a career as a clerk in the Post Office Department in Ottawa where he remained for the rest of his life. This position allowed for him to have a generous amount of free time which coincidently allowed him to write poetry at his leisure. The mobilizing point in Lampman’s career was during his explorations of the countryside around Ottawa, sometimes by canoe but most often on foot. During these times he was often alone to contemplate his thoughts; there was occasion when he would be accompanied by close friends such as Duncan Campbell Scott. These intimate walks through the wilds of Ontario provided Lampman with the subject matter and inspiration for his verse. It is no surprise that Archibald Lampman published two major volumes of verse in his lifetime. The first being Among the Millet in 1888, which consisted of mainly sonnets and poetry of natural description, and the second being Lyrics of the Earth in 1895, which was “not as interesting as the first [volume] but contained more perfect poetry”(115, Guthrie). When Lampman died in 1899 at the age of 37, his third volume of poetry Alcyon was in the process of being published. In the years that followed his death there were poems that were found and published by friends and family specifically Duncan Campbell Scott who seemed particularly interested in discovering and publishing Lampman’s work. Scott must have seen the influence and potential of Lampman’s work. Lampman’s career cannot be described in terms of development from apprenticeship to maturity as his career was influential but short- lived.
Although there is an absence of human elements to Lampman’s poetry he makes us aware of our human relation and tie to nature. Lampman makes us feel as though it was nature that makes us human. In Among the Millet, Lampman’s first published work displayed him as “an Apostle of beauty, feeling, and meaning of the Canadian scene, a title which he will always be best and most widely known”(Connor 102). This first volume contains thirty sonnets of which Lampman uses to ‘Landscape’ the nation. Lampman is a pictorial artist. He uses images to allow the reader to see what he sees. Connor describes this first volume of poetry as the “exponent of a great soul, a gentle heart, a refined taste, and a pure life”(97). Among the Millet is a delicate record of the surface of nature. To Lampman nature was the surest of subjects. He once said that “for the poet the beauty of external nature and the aspects of the most primitive life are always a sufficient inspiration”(Brown 89). This first volume of published poetry held thirty sonnets while his second published work held none. It is thought that the sonnet was Lampman’s favored vehicle for disclosing what was going on within himself. Lampman’s poetry is that of Reflection, rather than of Inspiration. The Poet “does not unveil for us the hidden workings of his own heart and life”(Crawford 29). Objectiveness rather than Subjectiveness is characteristic of his poetry. Lampman’s poems are “chiefly the result of long and lonely contemplations, and in consequence uniformly serious, meditative, [and] austere”(Barry 17). The circumstances of Lampman’s life allowed him plenty of leisure time to explore his surroundings and at the same time explore his literary work. It has been said of Lampman’s work that “such strong imagery produces a powerful effect on the mind of the reader. It peoples woods and meadows for [them] with a life that is almost human, and interests [them] to fascination. It compels [the reader] to habits of close observation and awakens within him something of the ardor which stimulates the poet in his constant quest of beauty”(Barry 13). Lampman’s poetry directs the readers to what he is seeing. His imagery can conjure the scene like a dream in our minds. Lampman’s poetry has a preoccupation with dreams and reverie. Landscaping for him was a way of exploring consciousness: the aesthetic, moral, mythical, and religious aspects of human existence, of Canadian existence.
Nature poetry had been one of the dominant genres for nearly a century and a half, and by the 1890’s many critics were tired of it. Therefore while Lampman was alive, his popularity as a poet had not yet reached its full potential. However, Lampman’s skill as a naturistic poet allows us to experience his poetry not just to read it. His poems are of a “natural description and those in which he communicated and recreates his own response to countryside, have stood the test of time”(Keith 22). Lampman’s poetry is fundamentally emotional and retrospective on one hand, and on the other it is intellectual and progressive. His intellectual position tended to be idealistic and austere. While Lampman’s poetry can be accused of being limited in range, it is notable for its descriptive precision and emotional restraint. Lampman wanted very much to affirm the sweetness of life and the virtue of hope unfortunately his circumstances often made that difficult. Poor health, financial worries, the death of a son, and an especially painful extramarital attachment to fellow postal worker Kate, as we find out in the 1940’s after the publication of a book of poems about her, took their toll on him. However, the poet’s own personal attitude toward his art can be best summed up in his poem “The Poet’s Possession” from The Poems of Archibald Lampman:
Think not, O master of the well-tilled field,
This earth is only thine: for after thee
When all is sown and gathered and put by,
Comes the grave poet with creative eye,
And from these silent acres and clean plots,
Bids with his wand the fancied after-yield
A second tilth and second harvest be,
The crop of images and curious thoughts.
This poem depicts Lampman’s method of creating his poems. He looks at the scene and then tries to give it a second life through poetry. Lampman’s poetry is an introspective study of the individual in relation to nature. Lampman states “I feel and hear and with quiet eyes behold”(qtd. in Rashley 77). Lampman can feel Nature as it exists. The Canadian wilds hold a type of magic for him. He was drawn to nature because “in the energies of his own soul he is aware of a kinship to the forces of nature and feels with an eternal joy as if it were part of himself, the eternal movement of life”(Connor 128). To Lampman, man is part of Nature and Nature is an expression of the spirit. The conflict of science and religion has been replaced with a new concept of man and Nature. To be “in contact with Nature there is a heightening of sensitivity, a feeling of limitations having been lifted”(Rashley 91). This idea that we are somehow linked with Nature is an integral part of Lampman’s poetry. It is here that a parallel can be drawn from Lampman’s poetry to that of the Romantics.
Although Lampman has been criticized for ‘copying’ the style and content of the English Romanticists movement, it is evident that while he is influenced by this movement he is by no means duplicating it. Lampman and his contemporaries shared a respect for tradition. He sought from the English Romantics “instruction not in what to see or how to feel, but in how to express what he saw and how he felt”(Brown 90). He used their skill and knowledge to better his expression of himself. Lampman admired much about the Romanticists because he saw the post-Romanticists movement of his own time as “dreary and monotonous realism and [a] morbid unhealthiness of [the] soul”(Early 142). This admiration of Nature and its relationship with man was as much moral as it was aesthetic. Truly great poetry strengthens the understanding and the spirit. The poetry of the English Romanticist movement served to remove the ‘gloom’ of human existence. Lampman had many qualities within himself that attracted him to the English Romanticists. Lampman, like most of the Romanticists, saw science and poetry as cooperative modes of knowledge. He shared the Romanticists “concern for salvaging spiritual values from what he believed to be an obsolete religious system and for adopting these values to a human, rather than supernatural, dispensation”(Early 141). The similarity in the belief that poetry’s true purpose is to advance the human spirit toward ultimate renovation and transfiguration engaged Lampman to the English Romanticist movement. To Lampman and the English Romanticists “nothing in Nature is ugly either in itself or in its relations to its surroundings, and that any other condition is due to the perverting hand on men”(Connor 148). Lampman’s sense of identity as a poet developed in the “tradition of prophetic humanism”(Early 142). However, while Lampman was devoted to this art there were qualities that separate him from completely imitating the English Romantics. His desire for sharp accuracy in his poetic descriptions of nature separated him from the sometimes faulty poetry of the Romanticist movement. Furthermore, Lampman had a nervous sensibility in his poetry that detached him from the intense passion felt in many of the Romanticists poetry. Lampman lacked the “drive [of the Romanticists] toward ultimate synthesis”(Early 142). Ultimately, Lampman’s variety of influence and attitudes in his poetry indicate an uncertain and eclectic disposition that differentiates him from the poets of the English Romanticist movement. Lampman remained exceptionally open to influences throughout his career yet he managed to retain his own brand of “Canadian” poetry.
In Lampman’s poetry he finds companionship in Nature. We can see through many of his poems that he was “solitary so far as human beings are concerned, but we know from the poem ["Solitude"] that he is anything but lonely”(Keith 19). The poem “Solitude” found in The Poems of Archibald Lampman depicts the whole feeling that the poet gets when he is on one of his treks in the woods:
How still it is here in the woods. The trees
Stand motionless, as if they did not dare
To stir, lest it should break the spell. The air
hangs quiet as spaces in a marble frieze.
Even this little brook, that runs at ease,
Whispering and gurgling in its knotted bed,
Seems but to deepen, with its curling thread
Of sound, the shadowy sun-pierced silences.
Sometimes a hawk screams or a woodpecker
Startles the stillness from its foxed mood
With his loud careless tap. Sometimes I hear
The dreamy white-throat from some far off tree.
This poem gives Nature an almost human face. Lampman’s ability to create an image in the mind of the reader is perhaps his greatest gift. Even today the imagery of his poems can be seen in the minds of those with imagination. Lampman’s poetry creates “a mood, usually of reverie and usually approaching melancholy”(Rashley 77). All Canadians, past and present, can relate to Lampman’s poetry because we are all connected to the land in some manner. We all identify with the seasonal extremes, the changing terrains, and just the sheer vastness of the country. Lampman’s poetry “reminds us of what we might otherwise be in danger of forgetting; that we are part of a larger world, that we share the environment with other living things, and that natural beauty is a necessary background for what makes us human”(Keith 22). Lampman responds to a relationship he sees man as having with nature. He is meticulous with details and takes delicate care in his descriptions and landscaping as if it were of the utmost importance in connecting the reader and himself to the land. The poetry of Lampman is an introspective study of the individual in relation to nature. Nature is a “release of energy, discovery which for a time, [gives] a fresh, eager enthusiasm and a boundlessly idealistic concept of life”(Rashley 90-91). Likewise, if Lampman observes natural objects with accuracy and love then what must opinion of the man-made be? Nature drew Lampman into its folds not only because it was great and beautiful in itself but because it was a refuge from the society he had found to have neither. Nature is a refuge for man from the angst and frustration of day to day urban life. While his published verse was for the most part naturistic, living in Ottawa had given him a sense of disgust for urban civilization. This is perhaps most evident in the poem “The City of the End of Things” written in 1895. The poem sees urban settings as “valleys huge of Tartarus/ Lurid and lofty and vast it seems”(Brown, Bennet & Cooke 156). The most evident part of the poem in which he sees urban life and mankind as being in an apocalyptical situation is in the final passage:
And into rust and dust shall fall
From century to century;
Nor ever living thing shall grow,
Nor trunk of tree, nor blade of grass;
No drop shall fall, no wind shall blow,
Nor sound of any foot shall pass;
Alone of its accursed state,
One thing the hand of time shall spare,
For the grim Idiot at the gate
Is deathless and eternal there.
The idea that urbanization and industrialization will somehow destroy mankind is a visionary and prophetic view of the globalization and environmental damage we are currently facing. Lampman felt that man can resist corruption by maintaining close and passionate contact with Nature. These ideas are reflected throughout Lampman’s poetry, from the poetry that depicts his feelings of the natural world such as “Solitude” as well as the poetry that condemns the urbanized/industrialized world as in “The City Of the End if Things”. Society does corrupt man and E.K Brown even felt that Ottawa had almost corrupted Lampman(106). Lampman was privately inclined by both temperament and circumstance. His despair went deep but never so deep as to destroy or even disturb his “intuition that the core of the universe is sound”(Brown 106). His own private demons shaped his poetry. It is evident that while Lampman could see the beauty in life and in nature he had a true contempt for the society of urban life. Ottawa had even given him a disgust for politicians. An unpublished verse that he kept within his circle of friends asserted his condemnation of the system which he was forced to live in :
From the seer with his snow-white crown
Through every sort and condition
of bipeds, all the way down
To the pimp and the politician (qtd in Brown 93).
Lampman appeared to believe that political trickery and financial exploitation were permanent staples of the city. His contempt for an urban civilization seemed to draw out and depend on the worst elements of human nature. He believed that the function of Nature was to “increase the good . . . to make man nobler so that his guiding concepts and social organization will implement that nobility”(Rashley 91). Societal restrictions make it difficult for man to live in the midst of nature. Lampman felt that society makes it difficult for a relationship to occur between man and nature. He wants to leave behind the city and its toil and tension to go into the country in search of rest and renewal. Even in present times human interest in the natural world has remained strong despite the great impact that urbanization has had upon our lives.
At the time of Lampman and ‘The Confederation Poets’ Canada was young. It had “no antiquity, no legends, no impressive monuments, no places hallowed by the memory of heroic achievement, no noble architecture past or present. Everything [seemed] new and raw”(Marshall 36). With the writings of Archibald Lampman, Canadian poetry started to reach for consciousness. The significance of life was in its meanings in terms of the environment and Nature. The recognition of the identity man has with Nature brings with it a feeling of spiritual release. The recognition that we as Canadians can identify with our land, its vastness, its extreme brings us closer to identifying with a national literature. In “Let Us Much Be With Nature” Lampman expresses just that: “I feel the tumult of new birth;/Waken with the wakening earth”(qtd. in Rashley 77). For Lampman the proper approach to our nations poetry was “self-critical Canadianism” that is still very much relevant to the poets succeeding him. There is an appreciation of the poetry’s individuality combined with judgement informed by the highest standards. According to L.R. Early Lampman “felt he was in a literary void and was deeply interested in the prospects of Canadian poetry”(137). Lampman contributed to the Canadian sense of national literature through many instruments. His depictions of the seasons and their extremes and his use of Canadian flora and fauna eased Canadians into poetry that the nation could relate to and be familiar with. Lampman encouraged a Canadian sense of place that we can still relate to today. He wrote to a Canadian audience about Canadian images; the previous writers tended to write for European audiences that were “back home” whereas Canada was home to Lampman. Lampman felt that the “Canadian poet should make himself its sensitive recorder and thus reflect the nation without tarnishing his poetry”(Brown 95). The Canadian poet must depend on Nature and on himself, and on these alone. Lampman’s Canadianism was of the rarest and most precious kind. It was instinctive.
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