The Political Poetry of Louis Riel: a Semiotic Study
by Glen Campbell
For most Canadians, the name of Louis Riel is invariably linked to epithets such as rebel, patriot, prophet, mystic, defender of rights and revolutionary. Few would add poet to this list. Yet, throughout his life, Riel wrote a considerable amount of poetry in the form of fables, love poems, songs, letters in verse as well as political and religious compositions. Although certainly not in the category of great poetry, the works nevertheless are not devoid of interest and even assume a certain importance because of the notoriety of their author. By disclosing certain facets of Riels thought processes, they allow us a glimpse of his arresting, often enigmatic personality. Until recently, only a small number of the poems had ever appeared in print.1 With the exception of the poem addressed to Sir John A. Macdonald which appeared in Poésies Religieuses et Politiques, the works discussed in this article are at present available only in manuscript form.2
I have chosen for analysis six poems which, because of their subject matter, may be classed under the rubric political poetry and which are, in my opinion, representative of Riels output in this particular genre. Although there is some doubt surrounding the exact dates of composition,3 I believe that the poems span a period of approximately thirteen years in Riels life, from 1870 when he was experiencing the immediate repercussions of the Thomas Scott affair, to 1883 when, as an American citizen living in Montana, he was jailed on charges of election fraud complicity.4
I have undertaken a semiotic reading of these six works, analyzing the system of signs found in each. The study will emphasize those elements of the Poetic code5 which are imbued with the distinctive traits of the poet. A methodology generally associated with the analysis of narrative structures will be used,6 such an approach being justified by the prosaic, narrative-like quality of much of the corpus.
At the micro-contextual7 (i.e. linguistic or surface) level, the poems appear to be quite different. They deal with a wide variety of individuals and groups: English Canada, George Etienne Cartier, Ottawa, Joseph Dubuc, John A. Macdonald and the American Democratic Party. At the macro-contextual (i.e. thematic or deep) level, the poems are, however, remarkably similar. By uncovering characteristic signs encoded in Riels verse and by hypothetically restructuring the poems, I will attempt to make these similarities more apparent.
A preliminary structural framework was evolved inductively. Pertinent functional components were determined from the composition Crucifiez-le . . ., then tested against the remaining generically similar poems. A definitive analytic grid was elaborated from these results and an inventory of unities made. The semiotic restructuration has a ternary system. Each poem is structured around three interrelated core semes:
The Allegation Discord is revealed in this seme, and a political foe singled out. Riel accuses his adversary of a misdeed which has caused much anguish to him and his people.
The Conflict In this seme the conflicting nature of the antagonists is made known. While declaring his fundamental opposition to his enemy, not only does Riel describe in great detail the immorality of the latter, he takes pleasure in itemizing his own qualities or those of his people, whether French-Canadian or Métis.
The Ultimatum The final seme of this operational model is externalized in a concluding statement about the polemic. It takes the form of a warning or censure and may involve punitive measures.
The poems will now be examined individually, following the postulated order of composition.
1. Crucifiez-le. . .8
This work is untitled and undated. Since the poem deals with the death of Thomas Scott we can place it after March 4, 1870, the date of the execution of Scott, by a firing squad of Riels provisional government. The affair raised the ire of English Canada, especially the Orangist factions of Ontario, who demanded the Métis leaders head. In the poem, Riel justifies the action taken: Linfâme Scott (v.33) allait plonger son fer, la nuit avec malice / Dans le coeur de son souverain (vv.35-36). The souverain referred to is of course Riel who was head of the provisional government. Being guilty of lese-majesty, reasons the poet, Scott therefore deserved to die. (We know historically that Thomas Scott was a belligerent bigot who, after being imprisoned by Riels men, made life difficult for his captors. On one occasion, he attacked a Métis guard in the prison where he was being held. There is no evidence that he ever physically attacked Riel himself. In the lines I have just quoted, we are obviously witness to a certain poetic licence.)
In the poem, Scott becomes a symbol for English Canada and all its faults. According to Riel, the attacks made against him as a result of the Scott execution are really aimed at French Canada:
In reality, the poet claims, English Canadians do not care about Scott he was only a pawn. The true motivation for their actions lies else where; they are alanned at the loss of their political power to a successful rival:
Since Riel exemplifies French Canada and also catholicism the exacting vous wants him eliminated:
The conflict is fueled by the antagonistic nature of the two races which the poet contrasts figuratively. Riel and his people are similar to the noble lion who, although formidable, acts righteously and mercifully. A contrasting simile likens English Canada to the insatiable tiger who instills terror throughout the land:
In the last two stanzas, Riel throws down the glove. He and his fearless Métis followers will hold their ground against the fanatical elements that oppose them. If the Anglais are the more numerous, they are certainly the more worthy. They will defend themselves nobly against the inhuman schemes of the others:
2. Lontario. . .9
In the second poem of the corpus, Riel attacks Ottawa, capital of the new Confederation and seat of the government that he and the Métis have learned to mistrust so intensely. Speaking collectively, he states: Le canada / . . . avait tâché de nous détruire (vv.22-23). Then, on a personal note, he alleges: Cette ville damnée / Veut mon trépas (vv.100-101). Why would Ottawa do this to him?:
In his dealings with the country, he maintains, he has always acted honourably: Je nai traité / Avec le canada que selon la droiture (vv.92-93). And how has the government dealt with him? It has, contends Riel, behaved miserably; it has treated his Christian rights like dirt:
Submission to these confederate puniques (v.49), as the poet calls them, is not possible. With celestial guided either in jail or out, he will continue his fight in order to bring an end to this miscarriage of justice:
3. Fourbe et menteur. . .10
English Canadians are not the only targets of Riels wrath. Some of his own people (Métis or French Canadians) are often subjected to outbursts of poetic diatribe. One such individual is George Etienne Cartier (1814-73) who led French Canada into Confederation. At one time, Riel admired him greatly. In 1865 and 1866, in fact, the young poet wrote three letters in verse to Cartier in which he praises the virtues of the politician.11 A number of years later, however, this youthful admiration long since faded, Cartier is now considered a traitor and has, by his treachery, inflicted much suffering on Riel:
Cheat, liar, betrayer, words generally reserved by the poet as descriptors for English Canada can, then, be equally applied to people of his own race who have gone astray. In opposition to the defects of Cartier, the poet implies that honesty is, for him, an important personal criterion:
The unequivocal Riel has no difficulty reaching his ultimate verdict: Cartier is guilty of breach of faith. As right-hand man to John A. Macdonald, and therefore well-placed to remedy many ills, he has paid only lip-service to Riels cause:
4. Nous tavions pris. . .12
Another one-time friend and compatriot to come under fire is Joseph Dubuc (1840-1914) who was, for a short while in 1874, Attorney General of Manitoba. In the third poem, Riel accuses Dubuc of siding with the enemy and neglecting the well-being of the Métis. In his capacity as Attorney General, argues the poet, Dubuc could be doing more. Instead, he has chosen to let the Metis die:
We thought that you were one of us, that you would defend our rights in the legislature, says an indignant Riel, implying that his own action would have been just that were he in Dubucs place:
However, because of his cowardice, Dubuc has only shown contempt (Que ta conduite est effrontée!, v.91) for Riel and his people. Imitating Dubuc, the poet says mockingly:
The remedy for the transgression is simple: the Procureur général factice (v.67) should resign:
Then, to reinforce his demands, the poet makes reference to divine justice which oversees all worldly acts, and which will act as the ultimate censor of Dubucs wrong doings:
5. Sir John A. MacDonald. . .13
The poem addressed to Sir John A. Macdonald is Riels longest poetic work. It was composed in 1879 when Riel was in exile in the United States. From the draft versions of the poem which remain today,14 it is obvious that a good deal of time was spent in its creation.
The poem is structured on two levels. The first level is personal and is a scathing indictment of Macdonald whom Riel considered a mortal enemy, and the man personally responsible for most of his suffering. Macdonalds government had promised amnesty to the insurgents involved in the Red River Uprising of 1870. The Prime Minister had however reneged on his promise to Riel:
Macdonald is arrogant and insincere, according to the poet, a man definitely not to be trusted: Un homme sans parole est un homme vulgaire (v.10). Moreover, he is a traître (v.37), a scélèrat (v.45) who has sucked Riels lifeblood (vous mavez mangé comme un vampire, v.170) by banishing him from his homeland: Cest à vous, declares the poet angrily, que jen veux pour ma proscription (v.184)
The conflict is intensified by the fundamental differences between the two men and by their opposing methods of operation: Vos moyens daction, John, ne vent pas les miens (v.179). Riel declares himself equitable (v.128) and righteous:
He will never give in to Macdonalds oppressive acts. He will, if necessary, fight to the death, because he knows that he is in the right and is fortified by his unbounded devotion to his cause:
The second level of the poem is structured around the collective struggle of the French Canadians and the Métis. Both groups have suffered for too long under the English yoke, affirms Riel. It is understandable that they should bear ill will against the people who have governed them so scornfully:
Moreover, English Canada has tried to assimilate them:
Even worse, it has undertaken their annihilation:
The English Canadian nest ni droit ni généreux (v.249); he is also égoiste (v.244), states the poet. On the other hand, Riels people are praised as being bon (v.437) and sincère (v.466). At the conclusion of the poem, a warning is sounded. If the French Canadians and Métis are not treated equitably, they will separate from the rest of Canada:
6. The Political voice of Choteau!15
No matter where he was, Riel seemed to have a penchant for getting himself into trouble. During the time he was living in the United States, charges of illegal election practices were brought against him by the Demo cratic party. It was alleged that Riel had encouraged certain half-breeds to vote for the Republican party, the half-breeds in question being unregistered voters. In May, 1883, he was imprisoned for a short while in the county jail at Choteau, Montana; the charges were later dropped. During his incarceration, he drafted The Political voice of Choteau!, the last poem to be examined here.
Although written about another political situation, in another country, and in another language, the poem nevertheless exhibits the same semiotic structure as the others. The three core semes are immediately identifiable. There is the allegation that certain powerful and corrupt Democrats are trying to suppress the freedom of the half-breeds (note the play on the word Choteau, where reside the Democratic officials that Riel is attacking):
Equally, the antithetical nature of the antagonists is evoked. About himself, Riel says:
On the contrary his opponents are high tond and proud pharisees (v.49) who are deceitful (v.65) and practise perfid[i]ous politics (v.63). Riel emphasizes, if somewhat unpoetically:
The Benton Weekly Record, a newspaper which sported the Democrats, also comes under attack. Riels criticism of the newspaper is displayed in the following pun-filled verses:
(Although Riel does not express himself as well in English, his clever sign manipulation, as demonstrated above, reveals that he had a fairly solid grasp of the language.)
The ultimatum consists of a warning and a prediction. Due to their shameful treatment of the half-breeds, the Democrats, predicts the poet, will lose the next election and be forever disgraced:
Since there is often a lack of verbal art in Riels poetry some of the English verse being no more than doggerel, it would be impractical to study it uniquely for its esthetic function. A more worthwhile contribution could be made from an analysis of the emotive function of the verse. The semiotic summary of the six political poems, as shown in the schema, should hopefully help with such an analysis. From the summary, the poets image of himself, and his attitude toward the referents may be determined. It be comes obvious, at a glance, that a highly emotional state is encoded in the poetry.
If we examine the semic paradigms and note the lexical alternatives used in the encoding process, we observe the emergence of certain patterns, patterns which did not perceptibly change during the many years in which these poems were composed. The homologous nature of lexemes contained in the seme Conflict is particularly striking. There, dogmatic amplification leads to a sharply defined polarization of values, a trait commonly found in messianic writings. Riel and his long-suffering people are appraised as righteous, just, noble, etc., while the antagonists are adjudged to list only a few of his derogatory descriptors dishonest, corrupt and treacherous. These elements of the poetic code are obviously impregnated with Riels particular experience, the sermonic overtones of the verse, for example, bearing the distinct traces of his religious upbringing, especially of the more than six years spent at the Sulpician seminary in Montreal.
The reduction of the various poetic components to a single semic archetype summarizes a specific conceptual process. This heuristic procedure externalizes the logic firmly established in the poets unconscious. The continuous interplay of antithetical symbols, as shown on the schema, discloses a moral universe of contrasting stereotypes. Everything for Riel is either black or white, good or evil. This manichean concept of the world is linked in his mind with the themes of distributive and immanent justice. There are the good, he and his people, victims of evil oppression, who will one day be rewarded for their sufferings; and the bad, his enemies, who will ultimately be punished for their sins. The political poetry is thus merely the outward manifestation of his singular and unchanging conscience némésiaque.16
Reality was distorted for Riel by his rigid dialectical reasoning. He refused to accept ideological differences; he failed to recognize his own defects, but criticised others for theirs. The distortion of self-image is especially apparent in Crucifiez-le . . ., a poem noteworthy for its prophetic qualities. Riel paints himself as a long-suffering, persecuted outcast who is the saviour of his people. By means of biblical references, particularly his allusion to the crucifixion, the poet assumes Christ-like dimensions. The iconic imprint left in the poetic fabric need not be surprising; it merely reinforces our impression of the man who often signed his writings: Louis David Riel: Prophet, Priest-King, Infallible pontiff.
This is a revised version of a paper presented at the Canadian Semiotics Research Association Symposium, University of Western Ontaido, May 1978. I am indebted to the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada and to the Calgary Intitute for the Humanities for their support of the research presented in this article. My thanks go also to Thomas Flanagan, Department of Political Science, University of Calgary, for his helpful comments.