Joseph Howe's Acadia: Document of a Divided Sensibility

by Susan Gingell-Beckmann

In "Joseph Howe's Acadia: Noble Savages and Bestial Fiends"1 David Jackel takes issue with a view of the poem that had remained unchallenged since George Woodcock's assertion that an "especially striking aspect of Howe's Acadia lies in its dichotomy of attitude towards the Indian."2  Despite Howe's reputation in the political arena as a liberal crusader for rights and freedoms, Jackel argues that in the portrait of the Indian Howe offers in Acadia, he shows himself to be very much a man of his time. Jackel discovers no fundamental discrepancy between the portraits of the Indian in Parts I and II of the poem, and thus sees Acadia as a unified work with a steadily maintained point of view.

     I find, on the contrary, that the poem exhibits a lack of unified sensibility in its treatment of theme, approach to subject matter, and style, but the poem is at its best precisely where Howe's intelligence and well-developed powers of observation break through the conventionalized poetic idiom and attitudes he inherited from eighteenth-century English poetry or absorbed uncritically from generally held views of his own day. Howe's patriotic feeling for anything British is at least partially responsible for the conventionalized treatment of subject matter that expressed itself in a stylized diction often glaringly inappropriate to the North American context. The intents of his patriotic expression seem, however, to have been at times subconsciously undermined by his broader humanitarian instincts, a state of affairs which is reflected not only in the dichotomous view of the Indian to which Woodcock refers, but also in odd juxtapositions of events in Acadian history which have contradictory bearings, but which are recounted with apparently equal sympathies.

     To make a convincing case for the consistency of Howe's characteriza tion of the Indian, Jackel must find in Part I evidence of an unsympathetic view of the native, since there can be no doubt that the Indian is characterized as a fiend in Part II. Jackel finds such evidence in the description of the way the native surveys aspects of the natural world around him, for the passage is consciously designed, asserts Jackel, to show that the native lacks an ordering principle. The pertinent passage reads:

. . . he casts his proud and fearless glance,
O'er each fair feature of the wide expanse,
The blushing flowers — the groves of stately pine —
The glassy lakes that in the sunbeams shine —
The swelling sea — the hills that heavenward soar —
The mountain stream, meandering to the shore —.3

Rather than moving from top to bottom or bottom to top in the ordered fashion Jackel claims characterizes the non-Indian view of nature in the poem, this description shifts the reader's line of sight haphazardly over the scene. The lack of hierarchial order in the perception of the native is viewed by Jackel as an indication that, even in Part I, Howe's picture of the Indian shows the native to be a force of disorder that needs the improving hand of European civilization laid upon it.

     What Jackel sees as a lack of an ordering principle in the Indian's processes of perception may in fact be explained by either of two factors. That Howe describes the Indian as glancing at the various aspects of the landscape before him suggests that the poet did not consciously intend to convey a lack of a patterning principle in the perceiving consciousness. The Indian's is a casually conducted activity, letting the eye move as the topographical features strike the sight in a kind of observation not unknown amongst the most civilized of men. I suspect, however, that the order in which the elements of the landscape are noted has more to do with the demands of meter and rhyme than it does with any intent to impute a lack of admirable or civilized qualities to the Indian. A poet who allows a "downy palm" (p. 20) to intrude into his catalogue of Acadian trees in order to meet the difficulty of finding a rhyme for the word 'charm,' is surely one who would elsewhere re-order elements in a sequence to meet demands of a similar nature.4

     The diction of the already cited passage and that of the immediately preceeding one also argue for an approving view of the Indian in the state of nature. Would the modifiers 'proud' and 'fearless' be attached to the noun 'glance' if Howe did not wish in some measure to indicate the nobility of the native up until the time of his contact with the Europeans? Similarly, the choice of the adjectives 'dexterous,' 'slender,' 'hardy,' and swift' to describe the Indian's activities and accoutrements, dispose the reader to think well of him. The portrait of the Micmac hunter stresses the self-reliance of the North American Indian and his perfect adaptation to his way of life:

The Miemac bends beside the tranquil flood,
Launches his light canoe from off the strand,
And plies his paddle with a dexterous hand;
Or, as his bark along the water glides,
With slender spear his simple meal provides;
Or mark his agile figure, as he leaps
From crag to crag, and still his footing keeps,
For fast before him flies the desp'rate deer,
For life is sweet, and death she knows is near.
No hound or horse assist him in the chase,
His hardly limbs are equal to the race,
For, since he left, unswathed, his mother's back,
They've been familiar with each sylvan track;
They've borne him daily, as they bear him now,
Swift through the wood, and o'er the mountain's brow —.
                                                                                                      (p. 22)

The hunt of course associates the Indian with a kind of violence that is given a slightly distasteful quality because Howe, who is scarcely ever able to introduce a noun without providing an adjectival modifier, first refers to the object of the Indian's chase as "the desp'rate deer," and later characterizes the slain animal as "the bleeding victim" (my emphases, p. 22). It should be noted, however, that here at least the conflict is one on one; the poet stresses that the Indian is alone on foot — "No hound or horse assist him" (p. 22) — and he needs to prove his speed and stamina equal to that of the deer he pursues. This is no pack of wolves dragging down a noble and hopelessly outnumbered creature. The description in Part II of the Indian attack on the settlers' homestead does, however, paint a very different picture: The attack bears considerable resemblance to the situation conveyed by Archibald Lampman's infamously loaded epic simile in "At the Long Sault: May, 166O,"5 for Howe's Indian besiegers are compared to "wolves assail[ing a] . . . gentle fold" (p. 29), while the settler has only his wife to help him keep the devilish attackers at bay.

     Real confusion in the imaginative conception of the Indian manifests itself in the stanza following the one describing the deer hunt. Within four lines the Indian is referred to as "the forest's dusky child" and then as having pride glow in "his manly cheek" (my emphases, p. 22). This male aura turns out to be occasioned by the satisfaction of possessing the territory he surveys, and Howe, by alluding to Othello compares that pride in possession to that in male possession of the female:

He feels, yes proudly feels, 'tis all his own.
    Thus, as the am'rous Moor with joy survey'd
The budding beauties of Venetia's maid,
Drank in the beamings of her love-lit eye,
Her bosom's swell, the music of her sigh
He felt, and who can tell that feeling's bliss,
Moor though he was, her beauties all were his. (p. 23)

That Howe should represent the Indian's feeling in this way is entirely in keeping with his earlier characterization of Acadia as a beautiful, charming, and captivating woman. Home is that place "Where all the eye surveys can charms impart / That twine, unbroken, round the generous heart" (p. 18), and for his home and love, Acadia, Howe would "Twine a rude wreath" (p. 19) to deck her lovely brow. His appreciation of the "sylvan beauties" of Acadia grows and changes like a youth's passion turning into a mature love:

Pearl of the West — since first my soul awoke
And on my eyes thy sylvan beauties broke,
Since the warm current of my youthful blood
Flow'd on, thy charms, of mountain, mead, and flood,
Have been to me most dear. Each winning grace
E'en in my childish hours I loved to trace,
And as in boyhood o'er thy hills I strode,
Or on thy foaming billows proudly rode,
At ev'ry varied scene my heart would thrill,
For, storm or sunshine, 'twas my Country still.
And now, in riper years, as I behold
Each passing hour some fairer charm unfold,
In ev'ry thought, in ev'ry wish I own,
In ev'ry prayer I breathe to Heaven's high throne
My Country's welfare blends —. (p. 19)

The battle between the Indians and the whites for territorial possession is thus sentimentalized into a lovers' triangle in which two rival swains war for possession of a lovely woman.

     Furthermore, the simile comparing the Indian and his Acadia to Othello and his Desdemona is not itself altogether consistent with other aspects of the situation Howe describes. While the moor possesses the 'civilized' Desdemona, Howe implies that Acadia is only appropriately mated to the Indian because she is as yet a wild, untutored maiden; once Science and Art have made her a cultivated woman, she will be more properly mated with the European settler. Thus, after the Indian has killed the deer and surveyed his terrain with all the possessive pride of an Othello, he is described as pursuing "his devious way"6 home through a landscape "Which Nature's hand has negligently dressed / With charms well suited to the Indian's breast" (p. 23). This view of suitable mating is implicit when Howe introduces the Indian near the beginning of the poem as the dominant and lordly possessor of the untamed beauties of the wild maid Acadia, speaking of her as she was in the past:

Ere her wild beauties were by Culture graced,
Or Art had touched what Nature's pencil traced;
When on her soil the dusky savage stray'd,
Lord of the loveliness his eye survey'd. (p. 21)

     The idea of the Indian as at once "dusky savage" and "Lord" is doubtless Rousseauesque in origin, but Howe develops the image of the Indian as feudal lord in a fashion that blurs the distinction the poet wishes to maintain between native and European. By first referring to the Indian as a Lord, and then to the deer he hunts down as a "fallen tenant of the wild" (p. 22) he invites the reader to see the Indian in European terms. Furthermore, since the feudal structure is a divinely sanctioned system of order, the Indian's possessions of Acadia should have, by the extension of similarities, a corresponding sanction, but Howe seems totally oblivious to the ramifications of his own diction.

     The implications of likening the Indian to Othello and the tone of the passage connecting the two figures also command consideration. There is in the line, "Moor though he was, her beauties all were his" (p. 23) the implication of some racial unworthiness and a barely supressed astonish ment that such a state of affairs could exist, and further problems arise if we recall that Shakespeare's Moor is an impressively noble figure who loses "Venetia's maid" largely because of the jealous machinations of lago, who is, significantly, of Desdemona's race, not of Othello's own. The analogy with Othello, then, prepares the reader of Howe's poem for the Indian's loss of Acadia, but it also implies a villainy in the European race that leads to the tragic destruction of the Micmac people.

     Such an implication is reinforced at the end of Part I when Howe describes the Micmac reactions to the first sight of a European sail. At first, "Lost in amaze, the lordly savage" believes the ship to be "some spirit of the deep, blue sky" or else "a god [who] had left his coral cave," but Howe reports that the warrior is soon painfully disabused of such notions: "But, when the white man landed on the shore,! His [the Indian's] dream of gods and spirits soon was o'er" (p. 25). Howe indisputably attributes the cause of hostilities between the Indians and whites to the thoughtlessness and callousness of the Europeans:

He saw them rear their dwellings on the sod
Where his free fathers had for ages trod;
He saw them thoughtlessly remove the stones
His hands had gather'd o'er his parents' bones;
He saw them fell the trees which they had spared,
And war, eternal war, his soul declared.
                                                                                               (p. 25)

This view of the matter accords with the one that Howe seems to have taken in his political life. He willingly accepted the post of Commissioner of Indian Affairs in Nova Scotia, and in his Report on Indian Affairs of 1843 called attention to the misery and dependence of the Micmacs, commenting on their having been assigned the more sterile of lands for their reserves, and on the way they had been defrauded of many of the best lands to which they had held title. Howe describes the Indians at the conclusion of the report as "a people, for whose many good qualities a more extended intercourse has only increased my respect, and who have, if not by treaty, at least by all the ties of humanity, a claim upon the Government of the Country. . .7

     But Howe's British patriotism often lies incongruously alongside his clear-eyed view of the original way of life of the Indian and of the cause of native-white hostilities. Following a lengthy description of Indian music and dance, a description which is framed in language which suggests a lack of order and control8 — the dancer's eyes bespeak "A savage joy"; the maidens' hair floats "wildly on the ev'ning air," as "with frantic bounds they spring" (p. 25) — Howe presents a view of British settlement in Acadia that shows no awareness whatsoever of any failings on the part of the settlers:

For ages thus, the Micmac trod our soil,
The chase his pastime, war his only toil,
Till o'er the main, the adventurous Briton steer'd,
And in the wild, his sylvan dwelling rear'd,
With heart of steel, a thousand perils met,
And won the land his children tread on yet. (p. 25)

     That this same view of British settlement immediately precedes the account of the Indians' well-justified disillusionment with the whites shows how blind Howe's patriotic fervour could make him to inconsisten cies within his own work, especially its historical aspects. In the stanza of capsule history just quoted the Micmac are described as having for ages "trod our [i.e. British] soil"; in the next stanza, however, we are reminded that Acadia had for years been home to the Indian, and therefore by the poem's own argument in its opening stanzas, sacred to him. Acadia's is "the sod / . . . his free fathers had for ages trod" (p. 25). It is the same age-long treading on the same soil in the two stanzas, but the first treading is made to seem a kind of trespassing, the second a long-established right.

     This kind of vacillating perspective is evident in a number of other places in Part I. The passage describing the grace, agility, speed, and hardihood of the Micmac hunter is, for example, preceded by these lines of melodramatic violence:

. . . through the leafy grove and sylvan dell
His fearful shout or funeral chant would swell,
While death-notes breathed on every passing gale,
And blood bedew'd the flowers that sprung along the vale.
                                                                                                       (p. 21)

Since the period of history Howe is describing is that of "ages past" before the "soft impress of Improvement's hand" (p. 21) had been felt upon the land, to use the words 'sylvan' and 'vale' to characterize the land is to import an inappropriate, even contradictory, diction. 'Sylvan,' although it can be used to mean simply 'of or pertaining to woods,' conjures up pictures of classical sylvan deities,9 and 'vale' has so often been used in the writings of the English pastoral tradition that its use to designate an aspect of Acadia's wild beauties is an equally unhappy choice.

     The word 'sylvan' in fact recurs a number of times in connection with the Indian world. The Micmac hunter's "hardy limbs" are, for example, "familiar with each sylvan track" (p. 22), and the Indian encampment is called a "sylvan city" (p. 23). The section of the poem describing this 'city' sets the Indian in a post-lapsarian state, for the camp is "rude as those of yore, / By patriarch hands within the desert built, / When fresh from Eden's joys and Eden's guilt" (p. 23). The Indian, according to this figurative comparison, has fallen from grace and thus will need the redemptive powers of European culture, though Howe goes on to remind his readers once more that home is sacred, no matter what its external features: ". .. 'tis man's abode where round him twine / Those ties that make a wilderness divine" (p. 23).

     The detail with which Howe portrays the Micmac way of life reflects his acute powers of observation, but the effectiveness of even his fascinatingly specific accounts of the native homes and activities is sometimes undercut by the language he employs and his desire to deny the Indians any Art at all.10   He begins his description of the teepees well enough, giving the objective facts, and allowing only one subjective judgment, inherent in the word 'rude,' to intrude upon the account:

Some slender poles, with tops together bound,
And butts inserted firmly in the ground
Form the rude frames — o'er which are closely laid
Birch bark and fir boughs. . . . (p. 23)

But he gets himself in trouble describing the door:

A narrow opening, on the leeward side,
O'er which a skin is negligently tied,
Forms the rude entrance to the Indian's home —
Befitting portal for so proud a dome. (p. 23)

The negligence with which the skin is reportedly tied just will not accord with the diction of "so proud a dome," a diction no doubt dictated by the exigencies of the rhyming couplet. Having once lapsed from clear-sighted observation, Howe allows conventional formula and prejudicial diction to dominate once more, describing the "motley inmates" as "scatter'd careless" around a fire, though he allows that their basket-weaving is performed with "assiduous care" (p. 23)! His quotation from Hamlet (I.v.13) when he writes of how other Indians "around the box of bark entwine / Quills, pluck'd from off the 'fretful porcupine'" (p. 24) is a piece of sheer self-indulgence, but had he not allowed his addiction to alliteration to determine the subsequent characterization of the Indians' meal as a "frugal feast" (p. 24) the cataloguing of the cooking methods and foods that comprise the meal would have been graphic enough to rescue this section of the poem from the vagueness and irrelevancies that mar the poem as a whole:

The squaws proceed, upon the coals to broil,
Steaks cut from off the newly-furnished spoil,
And these with lobsters, roasted in the shell,
And eels, by Indian palates loved so well,
Complete their frugal feast. . . . (p. 24)

     Although the structuring of events recorded in Part I leaves much to be desired, the most jarring juxtaposition of passages in the poem occurs in the concluding lines of Part I and the initial stanzas of Part II.11  Having just related how the whites profaned the grave-sites of the Indians and denuded their groves, Howe shifts to a review of British history, writing of the time when Britons had known what it was to be invaded by "rude Barbarians," a time

When Freedom's shrine, by lawless power profaned,
With many a gory sacrifice was stain'd,
While foul Oppression o'er the spirit threw
The gloomy influence of its sombre hue. (p. 26)

     Howe's purpose in providing this account of the British past is, as successive lines and the following stanza show, to herald the British as sturdy champions of freedom and independence, and representatives of a culture whose pursuits and qualities are so exemplary that they are all capitalized:

. . . 'neath the dome the sun of Science gleams,
Religion cheers — Imagination dreams,
The Muse's lyre ennobling thoughts recalls,
And Art his treasures hangs around the walls. (p. 26)

The British flag is, in Howe's words, "The hope — the guide — the glory of a world," but the effect of stating this viewpoint hard on the heels of a description of the way in which explorers and settlers carrying that same flag had profaned Indian lands, is implicitly to align the British North-Americans with the "rude Barbarians" responsible for "foul Oppression."

     Inspired once again with British fervour, Howe now shows an appreciation for the hardships of the British settlers only:

. . . the stout-hearted rear'd amidst the wood,
Their sylvan homes, and by their thresholds stood
With stern resolve the savage tribes to brave,
And win a peaceful dwelling, or a grave. (p. 26)

His concern is that future inhabitants of Acadia should have a "historic page" to hang over in admiration at the feats of their forefathers in the same way that "Britain's son" (p. 26) has. Until Howe writes his Acadia their achievements have gone unsung, like the accomplishments or unrealized potentialities of those interred in the country churchyard whom Gray rescues from obscurity in his classic "Elegy." By quoting from Gray's poem, Howe seems to be acknowledging that although the early settlers of Acadia may not have achieved the heroic status of England's Hampden or Cromwell, they nonetheless deserve to be honored:

Gone are the patriarchs — but we still may weep
Where ''the forefathers of our hamlets sleep."
For us they freely pour'd life's crimson tide,
For us they labour'd, and for us they died. (p. 26)

     Howe's rendering of the settlers' lifestyle is as filled with interesting detail and as flawed in style as his picture of Indian life discussed earlier. Howe sometimes wrenches English syntax unbearably in a fashion that should remind us that nothing Sarah Binks produced exceeds in awfulness the models that provoked the parody. When Howe relates that the settlers "Scatter'd the fruitful seeds the stumps between," (p. 27) he sounds as if he is translating execrably from another language, and I cannot help but think of Sarah's immortal translation of "Du Bist Wie Eine Blume," and particularly of the lines "I look you on and longing, / Slinks me the heart between."12  But more to the point for illustrating Howe's general failure to adapt language and mythology to his New World situation is the fact that in a description of a distinctively North American agricultural practice, the poet feels no incongruity in introducing a classical deity:

They felled the forest trees with sturdy stroke,
The virgin soil, with gentle culture broke,
Scatter'd the fruitful seeds the stumps between,
And Ceres lured to many a sylvan scene. (p. 27)13

Many of the details in the account of the settlers' lives, such as the descriptions of the clearing of the land or of the domestic scenes within the settlers' hut, may well have reminded readers of the account of rural life in the sixth and seventh stanzas of Gray's "Elegy," and it is by appealing to situations and sentiments which readers would instantly recognize from their reading that Howe builds the reader's sympathies with the settlers before the Indian attack begins.

     The Micmac who beseige the unnamed, and therefore representative, settlers are seen as the incarnations of evil. They give out with a "horrid and soul-piercing yell" that seems to be "the war-cry of a fiend from Hell" and just as the British had embodied important generic, and therefore capitalized, pursuits and qualities of the civilized mind so now the Indians become the representatives of "Hate, Revenge, and Murder" (p. 29). Besides being a "howling crew" and "shrieking fiends," they have a malignant eye" and "treacherous hearts" so that they quite naturally love the night for their "work" (pp. 30-31).

     The section of the poem dealing with the attack is the most often approved section of Acadia and it undoubtedly has considerable dramatic power, but I can see in it no trace of the attitude towards the Indians that Woodcock discerns. He writes of the attack: "Howe pities the victims, yet there is obviously a part of the mind of this fierce fighter for rights and liberties that feels with the savage victors, and their inevitable and doomed resentments. . . . "14   All humanity is taken from the Indians, yet the settler woman who stabs a Micmac warrior remains, somewhat startlingly, "gentle" — "a knife is planted deep / In one dark breast, by gentle woman's hand" (p. 31).

     Howe's patriotically-induced blindness seems to be cured again in that part of the poem that sympathetically recounts the exile of the French Acadians. Howe establishes the love between family members as father is torn apart from wife and child in such a way that the reader cannot help but recall the family portrait of the British settlers and the more violent separation of mother and child in the Micmac attack. But for all the violence of the tearing is "The wretched mother from her babe is torn," (p. 31) significantly more heart-wrenching than this?:

The father stoops, while yet he may, to trace
His manly features in his infant's face,
To soothe the anguish of the heaving breast,
That form'd the pillow of his nightly rest,
And knows that ere a few short hours expire
His wife will want a mate, his child a sire. (p. 34)

     Though the structure of the poem suggests a parallel between the brutalities of the Indians' attacking the British settlers and the brutalities of those who expelled the French settlers, on a thematic level Howe glosses over the British responsibility for the agonies occasioned by the expulsion of the Acadians from their homeland.

     Instead the poem develops a kind of 'Paradise Regained' motif. All hostilities between Indian, Englishman, and Frenchman are reported to have ceased, the victoriously waving British flag having the miraculous, if mysteriously unspecified, power ascribed to it of bringing about a "happy union" (p. 35) between races once at war. Art and Nature are said to hold joint sway in Acadia, and Howe apparently rejoices that "there are spots by Art still unprofaned," (p. 36) yet in his imagination he populates one such spot, Locaber Lake, with European mythological and folktale characters. The lake is a place "Where chaste Diana might her beauties lave." Howe also speaks of a "fairy tracery / Wove[in] round the homes of some enchanting race, / The guardian nymphs of this delightful place" (p. 37). Such imaginative populating takes place without any appearance of an awareness that where Nature still reigns, there perhaps ought to be a place for the Micmacs that Howe himself had characterized as children of Nature. But just as the early North American settlers had struggled to take physical possession of the land, so his European mind attempts to take imaginative possession of the land by using a language, a mythology, and folk sources familiar to him, albeit foreign to the environment. The settlers learned quickly that they would have to adapt their agricultural techniques to their new situation, but it would take several generations of poets to make a parallel poetic adaptation.

     It might still be argued that some of the inconsistencies that I have been pointing out in Acadia may be the result of its unfinished state, but Howe's small poetic canon is riddled with inconsistencies and tendencies that make this explanation seem to me largely an insufficient one. In Acadia he can laud the patriotic spirit that "illumed his eye when Nelson fell" or "urged the unerring shaft of Tell" (p. 18), yet in a poem called "Fame" he can ask:

And what is Fame? Go seek some battle field,
Where the war trumpets deepest tones have pealed;
Where to the winds proud banners were unfurled;
Where met the mighty masters of the world
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Oh! Fame, will man ne'er cease to bow the knee
Before thy bloody shrine . . .?15

In a poem simply entitled "The Micmac" Howe issues a no-doubt well intentioned plea for his readers to forget that the Indians have been overwhelmed by". . . the fire-water's deadly wave / Which even pride could not control"16 and remember them only as they had once been, the noble children of Nature. In this poem Howe admits that European Science and Labour have "changed the features of the land, / And dispossess'd [the Indian] of the soil," but his solution to the problem here appears to be to dream that problem into non-existence:

Then let fair Fancy change the scene,
    While gazing on the Micmac's brow,
And showing what he once has been,
    Make us forget what he is now.17

     Howe's non-poetical writings reveal that in a political forum he was decidedly more hard-headed. His Report on Indian Affairs, for example, is based on a carefully considered position of the Indian situation and offers some concrete suggestions about what could be done to improve the Micmac lot. He prefaced his factualaccount of what he had discovered with these remarks:

. . . the civilization of barbarous tribes — the eradication of habits and prejudices, the growth of centuries — the substitution of one kind of knowledge, absolutely indispensable to success, or even existence, in a new state of society, for another kind, equally important in the old, is a work of time. 18

Howe was obviously an intelligent man, but as a poet his sensibilities were divided. The kind of sentimentality that he would, I believe, never have tolerated in the political sphere, he apparently held to be entirely appropriate to the province of poetry. M. G. Parks in his first-rate introduction to the University of Toronto Press reprint of Howe's Poems and Essays records the results of his study of Howe's critical writings, and suggests that the poet's tone and diction are governed by a clearly discernible theoretical stance on what constitutes good poetry. "Homeli ness of expression"19  Howe reportedly found totally unsuitable for verse, and Park's examination of Howe's few emendations to his poetry demonstrates that Howe consciously sought to achieve a more stylized diction as he revised. The summation that Parks provides of Howe's critical position tenders an eloquent explanation of why the style of Acadia is so often at odds with the subject matter:

For Howe, then, serious poetry presents universal themes and feelings in an elevated manner by means of elevated or 'poetic' diction; it is morally edifying and emotionally affective. Conversely, it does not concern itself, except incidentally, with the specific, the particular, the local; it shuns the common and vulgar in subject and language; it takes care not to make the base in man's moral nature attractive; its prime appeal is not to the reasoning intellect.20

     Many of the basic materials of Howe's poem are common and local, and in striving to make them grander or more 'poetic' than they are, he is betrayed into such falsenesses as calling an Indian teepee "so proud a dome" (p. 23) or the Atlantic "azure waters by the zephyrs curled" (p. 34). Similarly, in his anxiety not to make the base in man seem in the least admirable, he makes the Indian behaviour during the attack on the settlers appear to be totally without justification. The artist's desire to create drama may at first sight seem to be a reasonable aesthetic defense for the one-sided characterizations of the Indians and settlers during what is made to seem a totally unjustified attack, but consistency in the broader narrative framework is sacrificed by acceeding to such a desire. Finally, since Howe believed the prime appeal of poetry was to the heart and not the head, the flaws in Acadia's logic would scarcely have worried him, but to the reader of today, the poem's thought and feeling seem to collide rather than to complement each other.

     Acadia is, ironically, a better poem at the points where Howe has not allowed his highly conventional theory to undermine the truer instincts of his poetic practice. When he ceases to concern himself with catering to European proprieties and tastes, and confronts, in the Indian attack, the violent realities of Acadian history, he is at his most compelling. The sense of what is proper to poetry may be violated and the tastes of the European parlour outraged by the images of a woman plunging a knife hilt-deep into a chest, of one man armed with an axe cleaving another through the head to the chin, and of a baby dashed to earth in front of its parents' eyes whereupon the life is trodden out of its deformed and quivering body until that baby is no more than a "bruised, senseless, and unsightly clod" (p. 31) but the power of such images is real. Furthermore, the diction of Acadia is at its most engaging in the descriptions of what Howe would apparently dismiss as incidentals — the details of the specific, the particular, and the local — in the life styles of both Indians and settlers. When patriotic sentiment is set aside and the reasoning intellect 'intrudes' into the poem to argue that the attitudes and actions of European settlers lay at the root of Indian-white hostilities, then it is that the reader is most convinced that Howe has something original and important to say. That reader can only regret that conventionality all too quickly again exercises its stranglehold on such ideas, ideas that challenge the complacent view of European man as the highest product of civilization. Acadia is thus badly flawed aesthetically and its thematic treatment often trite, despite occasional passages that reflect genuine feeling and significant thought.


  1. The paper was delivered at the ACUTE. meetings of the 1981 Learned Societies Conference in Halifax.[back]

  2. George Woodcock, "The Journey of Discovery: Nineteenth-Century Narrative Poets," Colony and Confederation: Early Canadian Poets and Their Background, ed. George Woodcock (Vancouver: Univ. of British Columbia Press, 1974), p. 33.[back]

  3. Joseph Howe, Acadia, rpt. in Nineteenth-Century Narrative Poems, ed. David Sinclair (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1972), p. 22. All further references to the poem appear in the text. Because Sinclair's emendations to the 1874 edition of Acadia were made on solidly based editorial principles, I have preferred his edition to that which was published in Joseph Howe, Poems and Essays (Montreal: John Lovell, 1874), a collection of Howe's literary writings prepared without special editing skills by Howe's son Sydenham.[back]

  4. M. G. Parks, in his Introduction to the Literature of Canada reprint series of Poems and Essays (Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press, 1973), was the first to call attention, in print, to this strange addition to the flora of Nova Scotia.[back]

  5. Lampman's description of the bravery of Daulac and his men against the Indian attackers may be found in Archibald Lampman, At the Long Sault and Other New Poems (Toronto: Ryerson, 1943), p. 2.[back]

  6. 'Devious' is here being used in its older sense to mean simply 'roundabout'; there is no suggestion of deceit or guile intended.[back]

  7. Joseph Howe, Report on Indian Affairs (Halifax: no pub., J[a]nuary 25, 1843), p. 11.[back]

  8. Despite this loaded language, Howe had earlier warned against a condescending attitude to the Indian dances — "Nor smile ye modern fair," he cautions — for such occasions light "love's hallow'd fire" in Indians as they do in whites, "swelling gallant hearts with fond desire" (p. 24) regardless of race.[back]

  9. 5. G. Zenchuk in "A Reading of Joseph Howe's Acadia," Canadian Poetry, 9 (Fall/Winter, 1981), 50-71, argues that Howe's use of 'sylvan' to apply to both Indian and European settler homes reflects a conscious attempt to make his readers aware of the parallel situations of the two groups in order to point out to his contemporaries the mistakes the European settlers had made in the past so that such mistakes could be avoided in the future. What Zenchuk's reading fails to do, here as elsewhere, is to consider the wisdom of such a choice from the aesthetic point of view.[back]

  10. It is interesting to note that the specific descriptions of the Indians' encampment, their meal, and activities was, according to M. G. Parks, "The Composition and Text of Joseph Howe's Acadia," Conadian Poetry, 8 (Spring / Summer, 1981), 1-7, a late addition to the poem. Parks argues that the first version of Acadia was completed before September 1833 and that when Howe revised the poem in late 1833 or in 1834, he added "a much fuller and more concrete picture of Micmac life before the coming of Europeans," believing it "would improve the poem" (p. 4).[back]

  11. S.G. Zenchuk argues that the two passages are "effectively connected by irony" because the "distance between the two scenes is illusory, since the Indians declare war in an attempt to preserve their culture, while the musings of the Briton are concerned with precisely that same thing. Irony is involved in that the British fail to note this glaring similarity between themselves and their supposedly barbaric foe" (p. 52). But Zenchuk may be confusing her 'British' here. Only the 'British' readers of Howe's poem have the historic reminder of their own past brought before them; those 'British' who face the "supposedly barbaric foe" have not had the "glaring similarity" in the two situations pointed out to them. Yet the narrator who should supposedly benefit from his awareness of the parallel situations goes on to talk about the Indians in the most viciously denigrating terms in Part II. The attitude expressed towards the Indians in the poem is not consistently ambivalent; no threat to the poem's unity would be posed were it so. The fact remains, however, that in Part I of the poem the view of the Indian is predominantly sympathetic, while in Part II no shred of this sympathy remains. Zenchuk makes a convincing case that Acadia was designed to be a "poetic admonition" (p. 50) to his countrymen, a way of showing them, "particularly those in positions of authority, the errors which had led to the corruption and bloodshed of the past, thus enabling them to avoid future conflicts" (p. 55) but Zenchuk completely fails in her attempt to make the poem seem an artistically sound realization of Howe's intentions.[back]

  12. Paul Hiebert, Sarah Binks (Toronto: Oxford Univ. Press, 1947), p. 28.[back]

  13. Zenchuk's handling of these lines seems to me wrong-headed for the most part. To suggest even the possibility that the first three lines quoted may be meant as an image of rape is to show an insensitivity to the connotations of the diction in this passage, particularly of phrases such as "gentle culture" and "fruitful seeds." Furthermore, I see no evidence that Howe or his narrator sees any inappropriateness in attempting to lure Ceres to Acadia since Howe describes the Acadian scenes as 'sylvan,' a term that is, as I have already pointed out, connected with European pastoral.[back]

  14. Woodcock, p. 33.[back]

  15. Howe, Poems and Essays (1874), pp. 67 & 71.[back]

  16. Ibid., p. 90.[back]

  17. Ibid.[back]

  18. Howe, Report, p. 1.[back]

  19. Parks cites this phrase, taken from a short article by Howe on Thomas Campbell published in the Acadian (August 3, 1827), in the introduction to the reprint of Poems and Essays (1973), p. xix.[back]

  20. Ibid, pp. xx-xxi.[back]