Malcolms Katie, Hugh and Ion : Crawford Changing Narrative Vision:

by James F. Johnson

     The poetry of Isabella Valancy Crawford has not gone completely unadmired since her death in 1887, though it has never been elevated to the stature of  the work of Lampman and Roberts. Students of Canadian poetry, throughout this century, have generally been aware of a handful of lyrics and of the narrative poem Malcolms Katie, or at least of excerpts from this long work. Based on these poems there has developed a view of the poet — as a brilliant but unironic possessor of a sensuous, romantic imagination — which, while not untrue, seems now somewhat incomplete. A new complexity concerning Crawford’s perception of the world has been suggested recently by the discovery of an unfinished narrative poem, called variously The Hunters Twain, Narrative Two and Hugh and Ion. This fragment of eight hundred and forty lines which, one can speculate, likely represents Crawford’s final literary project during the last period of her short life, presents a marked contrast with the earlier poetry and particularly with the earlier narrative poem. Not enough of the unfinished poem exists to allow us to say that Crawford was entering a new stage in her development; at the least, however, it reflects a significant departure for her, not only as poet but also as social critic.

     Malcolms Katie, Crawford’s major narrative production published in 1884, stands out sharply among the many narrative poems of the nineteenth century on the basis of its poetic integrity and imaginative strength. While appearing on the surface melodramatic and stereotyped, Crawford’s love story is compelling and powerful; what seems at first a conventional conflict between rival suitors for the hand of the heroine becomes a serious, even profound, account of philosophical, social and ideological confrontations. These wider implications of the poem are, however, contained in and controlled by the undisguised, almost aggressively foregrounded, romance superstructure. The symmetrical, enclosed romance framework of Malcolms Katie is articulated with such confidence and exuberance that one feels that Crawford must have accepted the romantic vision without ambiguity; the poem in all its aspects provides clear evidence that the poet understood the implications of the romance form and was in complete control of her material. However, while Malcolms Katie, considered in isolation, appears lucid, self-confident, dynamic and unambiguous, when it is juxtaposed with Hugh and Ion interesting questions are raised.

     The first thing to be said about Hugh and Ion is that its fragmentary nature must make every comment tentative; no critical agreement has been reached so far about such basic matters as the order of the text or the assign ment of speeches. Nevertheless, if we accept the edition of the fragment prepared by Glenn Clever1 certain broad outlines appear. In general, we can see that the-incomplete work is a kind of inversion or parody of the earlier, finished poem, and that the romantic idealism which provided the structural core of Malcolms Katie is, in Hugh and Ion, pulled inside out and subjected to rigorous questioning. Several episodes in the unfinished poem seem consciously to parallel important scenes in the earlier work, with the differences in emphasis and atmosphere making Hugh and Ion a sort of gloomy, distorted mirror image of Malcolms Katie.

     The action, in Malcolms Katie, begins with a ringing affirmation of the power of love. The pledging of eternal vows between Max and Katie in the first section provides the impetus for the circular, and essentially comic, movement of the poem back to reaffirmation. The opening section of Hugh and Ion also shows us a lover taking leave of his beloved, but the mood, tone and situation are precisely the opposite an unnamed, predatory woman casually rejects her suitor and sends him away in despair. This “falcon lady” with a “hard, high soul,” who blinds herself against the mystery and power of love with a “jewell’d hood,” is the reverse image of Katie. The connection between them is made unmistakable by the use of related descriptive images: early in Part One of Malcolms Katie, Katie’s “small, rose face” is described as “A seed of love to cleave into a rock / And bourgeon thence until the granite splits / Before its subtle strength;”2 the spiritual distance between these two women is illustrated when the falcon lady is described in the first lines of the fragment as having “within the strong stone of her soul / A little feeble seed of womanhood.”3

     In Malcolms Katie love is a powerful and positive force. Max and Katie, by virtue of their love, inhabit a special world which has, according to Max, “its own sun — its own peculiar sky, / All one great daffodil.”4 In the second poem, however, the matter of love is seen in a much more ironic light. For the falcon hay, love is “the deep, dense darkness of the soul / Beaten by arms that passionately grope / And catch the void.” (32-4) Love is an illusion which leads only to “virile Hate — or to languid Loathing,” (112) and this she rejects in favour of a soulless, superficial, patrician mode of existence; romantic love is rejected, as Christ was rejected, in favour of Barabbas, who appears here as a portly stockbroker, who

cup in hand, laid all the little light
Of dull and dreamy eyes — not on his love
But on the phantom of the dead days “deal”
On stocks and margins. (38-411)

The falcon lady is not presented as an individual but as one of a class of people and, although she does not reappear in the fragment, she suggests a sense of wilful isolation that is important to this poem in the same way that Katie’s virtue dominates the earlier work.

     When Max leaves Katie at the end of Part One, he proceeds immediately to the forest where, spurred on by love, he begins to build their future home. No discontinuity is suggested between the settlement where Katie’s father has his home and mill, and the “dim, dusky woods” where Max in tends to repeat the process — all that divides one from the other is time and a good deal of axe-labour. In stark contrast to the idyllic setting at the start of Malcolms Katie, the opening sections of the later poem are set in a demonic urban world which is separated from the pioneer pastoral world of the earlier poem by more than just an interval of time. Life in the “infant city”, where it appears that the rejected lover must stay until spring, is an extension of the materialistic, exploitive ethic of the falcon lady:

Loose us Barabbas” all the busy marts
Buzzed with the cry, “for none but robber thews
Can wrestle with fierce Fortune, now-a-days.” (190-92)

     The city is a concentration of vice and squalor surrounded by an untouched wilderness, and no continuity whatsoever exists between the two settings. All of the evils of a materialistic, class society have been walled in, and any vision of the wilderness as a “bounteous mother” able to succour all of the “fleers of the waves of want”5 has been walled out. The sense of the containment of the fetid city by the primal forest is nicely conveyed both in the structure and the content of the following passage:

With the illimitable wilderness around
From the close city hives rang up the groan
“So little space! — we starve — we faint, we die!”
Lord! Lord! to see the gaping city sewer
Beaded with haggard heads — and hungry eyes
Peering above the heaving of the dram
And hear the harsh, unreasonable cry
“We starve, we starve!” While half a world lay fresh
And teeming, out beyond the city gates. (199-207)

     Both Malcolms Katie and Hugh and Ion are constructed on the dialectical tension between meaning and meaninglessness, but the treatment of the debate in the two poems is quite different. In Malcolms Katie the conventional nature of the form seems to direct, even demand, a somewhat rigid, black-and-white resolution of the dialectic. The central episode of the poem, both structurally and thematically, is the confrontation of Max and Alfred in the forest, a relatively short but highly charged scene which ends with the apparent victory of Alfred. The melodramatic rivalry of the two men overshadows the Intellectual debate between nihilism and faith; Alfred is seen as a villain, and remains one, despite some attempts by Crawford to imply an eventual unification of contraries.

     The scene in the unfinished poem corresponding to the confrontation of Max and Alfred again shows significant differences. It is, first of all, much longer — almost five hundred of the eight hundred lines are devoted to the wilderness debate, which makes it the major section of the poem. As well, the debate between Hope and Dispair is not encumbered by romantic intrigues; Hugh and Ion are not rivals in love but friends who amicably disagree about philosophical questions. It is unclear which of the two, if either, is the rejected lover of the first section, and while such details of narrative continuity might have been clarified with revision, it could also be a conscious attempt to suggest that both hope and despair can emerge from rejection.

     The spokesman for Hope is Hugh, whom we meet first in the city, reacting with revulsion to the human degradation that is all around. With the coming of spring Hugh goes to the wilderness to be purified, but pledges to return to redeem the people of the city from the Barabbas-ethic, even against their will if need be:

Then will I come again when I am healed
And shout such gospel of the woods and plains
As, like the music of the lean Hindoo
Shall drag from sewers and drains, and noisesome holes
The worm-like men who bore their abject way
In pain and darkness through the city mire . . .
I’ll have them out! - a saviour of their flesh —
Yes—even while they howl about the streets
‘Loose us Barabbas—we will cheapen toil
For him, and throne the robber on our necks.’ (296-308)

The spokesman for Despair is Ion. At another time Ion was an artist who enjoyed considerable success, but with the coming of a “troublous love” he “flung / His canvas to the dust” and “hurri’d far / Into the wilds from his false falcon love.” (603-613)

     We observe the two friends for one full day, from before dawn until after nightfall, and as they camp, fish and canoe together they debate the great question of life: do events move according to a plan towards harmony and order, or is life a constant, and losing, struggle against chaos? Hugh is regenerated by the wilderness and sees evidence for Hope everywhere; the large, beneficent pattern can be perceived, he argues, if we have the strength “To clamber up God’s breast, and look abroad / From thence across the universe, and see / All His broad purpose.” (410-12) Ion scorns and rejects such self-indulgence “Full-fed and prating peace from dimpling lips;” (424) he opts in stead for “despair’s strong certaint — I’ll stand / On that grim cliff, and dominate the world.” (397-98) Hugh sees in the wilderness the answer to the vice and woe of the city, and he describes his idea in terms that suggest the unselfish, inclusive paradise presented in the final section of Malcolms Katie:

A fine, full soil — free grants for every soul —
Pure water — timber — hills for little towns —
Shelter for cattle in the valley dips
I’ll search no further — hither my colony
Shall tramp; here tent, and touch red Plenty’s robe. (731-35)

Ion responds by outlining the inevitable evil consequences that attend on human home society, and that will undoubtedly turn Hugh’s colony into another city: “Prepare the wilderness for crime — and  Man!” (746) At the end of the day neither side has weakened; the debate is unresolved and both men go to sleep.

     The completely enigmatic final section of the fragment, which breaks off in mid-sentence, gives one little help in speculating about a possible resolution. Is Hugh’s terrifying nightmare, in which he is hanging on a sheer cliff face, a psychic trial from which he will emerge able to translate his program into reality? Or is it a vision of the true state of spiritual affairs? One view is suggested in Glenn Clever’s “Introduction”: “Ion’s realistic humanism stands out against the blurred idealistic values represented by Hugh and offers a tentative resolution of the major tension.”6 Although Ion’s ironic and pessimistic perspective is not as extreme as Alfred’s bleak vision of “the blank paths of Space and blanker Chance,”7 the latter is rejected so emphatically in Malcolms Katie that it is difficult to conceive of Crawford abjuring her idealism so completely. To suggest that Ion’s view would ultimately prevail in the finished poem is to imagine Crawford making a tremendous imaginative leap away from the romantic optimism of Malcolms Katie.

     Another ending, perhaps more likely, might see Hugh return in some manner to the city to effect a reconciliation between the wilderness and the city. The description of Hugh prepares us for his role as an intermediary between the two worlds:

Hugh’s eyes held all the heritage of light,
From Council fires that fac’d a thousand moons,
And warm’d the tribal wisdom into life,
From age to age — so loved he prairie crests
And awful forests, and the might of hills,
The surfs of quaking lakes — and like a net
His heart cast out at men to draw them up
From swarming city shallows — light the locks
Of Saxon yellow fell on Saxon brows
And the stern humour of the Saxon stood. (558-67)

Whether Crawford means literally that Hugh is a blond Metis, or whether it is only that he has a strong spiritual affinity with the Indian way of life, the implication is that he has a foot in both worlds.8 A reconciliation between the city and the wilderness, by creating an alternative society in a forest colony, would only be a partial solution, however. The city, still inhabited by the falcon lady and the Barabbas-people, will remain. The serpents of individualism and materialism are securely within the garden now, and will not commit suicide in despair, like Alfred, in the face of unshakeable virtue. The redemptive potential of Hugh, though real, is very tenuous in comparison with that of Max and Katie.

     In Malcolms Katie, Crawford’s response to the question of pioneer settlement is an emphatic and exuberant “Yes!” — it is possible to reshape the wilderness in humane and creative ways. The process of building a nation in that poem is a manifestation of the power of love, as much as is the union of two lovers. This unblinking optimism, however, appears to change in Hugh and Ion to an attitude of more than a little misgiving. When we move from Malcolms Katie to Hugh and Ion we move from a rural, pastoral world where except for conscious malevolence men can live in harmony with other men and with nature, to a demonic, urban world of isolation and blindness which has wilfully cut itself off from the regenerative power of the wildernese. The confident innocence and romantic idealism, which account for much of the inner fire of Malcolms Cable, have simply ceased to be operative in the world of the unfinished poem. The romantic framework has been shattered, and the distortions and discontinuities that remain work to undermine any sense of gratuitous optimism. Nowhere else in nineteenth-century Canadian literature, with the exception of Lampman’s “City of the End of Things”, is there another example of the creative imagination being brought to bear, in so Blakean a manner, on the nascent social evils of the “infant city.”


  1. Isabella Valancy Crawford, Hugh and Ion, ed. with Introduction by Glenn Clever (Ottawa: Borealis Press, 1977). For another version of the fragment see: Dorothy Livesay, “The Hunters Twain”, Canadian Literature 55 (Winter, 1973), pp. 75-98.[back]

  2. Isabella Valancy Crawford, Collected Poems, ed. James Reaney (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1972), p. 173.[back]

  3. Crawford, Hugh and Ion (Ottawa, 1977), p. 1. All quotations will be from this edition and will be cited in the text by line number.[back]

  4. Crawford, Collected Poems, p. 203.[back]

  5. Crawford, Collected Poems, p. 236.[back]
  6. Glenn Clever, “Introduction”, Hugh and Ion (Ottawa, 1977), pp. xv-xvi.[back]

  7. Crawford, Collected Poems, p. 217.[back]
  8. In Malcolms Katie, however, it is Alfred, and not Max who is described as having “Saxon gilded locks.” For further discussion of Hugh’s racial background see: Mary Martin, “Another View of Hunters Twain”, Canadian Literature 71 (Winter, 1976), pp. 111-12.[back]