Poems of October: Lampman’s Elegies
by L.R. Early
Although elegies by Lampman’s contemporaries have had a good deal of attention, the powerful elegiac moments in his own poetry have received almost none.1Quite reasonably, most of his critics have directed their attention to more prominent areas of his work: nature poetry, love poems and, to a lesser extent, moral and political verse. Nevertheless, elegy is a recurring and noteworthy element in Lampman’s writing, traversing these themes and emerging in its own right in a number of very fine poems. The following essay undertakes a study of three elegiac phases in Lampman’s career. The first involves the adumbration of an elegiac myth in several early poems about autumn written between 1883 and 1886, the second consists of the sonnets inspired by Tennyson’s death in 1892, and the third focuses upon the deeply personal poems mourning the death of Lampman’s infant son in the summer of 1894. Finally, by way of identifying a coda to these intervals in Lampman’s work and producing a coda to this discussion, the essay will examine the partial integration of these phases in the relatively late lyric "Sapphics," written in 1895. Among the issues that will be considered are the dialectics of mourning in these poems, their engagement with classical and English traditions, the significance of their gendered images and speaking positions, and their formal and technical accomplishment.
The Mythos of Autumn
Elegy, especially pastoral elegy, is among the most formidably traditional of genres. Writing in the late nineteenth century, Lampman was aware of the riches of this tradition, which extended from classical poetry to such recent, powerful voices as those of Wordsworth, Shelley, Tennyson, and Arnold. While he did not undertake a pastoral elegy in the strict sense, he did engage the genre imaginatively in his early poems about autumn. Evoking the primordial link between elegy and the changing seasons, he redirects the resources of elegiac poetry from its customary focus on human mortality to the cycle of life and death in nature. As Peter M. Sacks points out (following Sir James Frazer and others), elegy had its classical origins in ancient rites that "mimed the death and return of the vegetation god" (20); moreover, this vegetation god may be regarded as "the predecessor of almost every elegized subject and provides a fundamental trope by which mortals create their images of immortality" (26). The story of Adonis is the most important classical expression of this myth in terms of a male figure, while the story of Persephone is its female counterpart. As we shall see, the latter version is the one most directly relevant to Lampman’s early poems on autumn.
Autumn need not be represented in elegiac terms; indeed, in some of its most celebrated representations by English poets, the emphasis falls on its meaning as the season of ripeness and bounty rather than on its figuration of death.2 For Lampman, however, autumn is the quintessentially elegiac season—perhaps even, as Louis Dudek suggests, his "preferred season" ("Significance" 189). It does not follow that Lampman was afflicted by pessimism and melancholia (at least, at this period of his life), or that "the note of suffering…is the very keynote of Lampman’s poetry" ("Significance" 186). Rather, his autumnal elegies, mostly written during his early twenties, indicate an intense engagement with poetic tradition and with the theme of nature that was to persist as a central concern throughout his career.
The nature poems at the outset of Lampman’s first book, Among the Millet (1888), are arranged according to the cycle of the seasons, and an elegiac voice recurs, variously modulated, throughout this cycle, becoming dominant in three lyrics: "In October" (1883-84), "Lament of the Winds" (c. 1886), and "Ballade of Summer’s Sleep" (1883).3 These poems constitute a carefully crafted sub-sequence in which Lampman evokes the origins and formal conventions of pastoral elegy to work through its possibilities for his own project as an aspiring late Victorian (and late Romantic) nature poet. In this set of poems he adapts the conventions and language of elegy as he ponders the principle of change, loss, and mortality inherent in nature. The central feature of his mythos of autumn is his affirmation of imaginative endurance in the face of death, an affirmation achieved through the construction of an elegiac erotics that confronts pastoral convention with Gothic power. It is this tension between pastoral and Gothic that gives these poems their peculiar atmosphere, and it is the Gothic element that makes their treatment of gender a salient issue for investigation.
The circumstances in which "In October" (Poems 21-22) was composed are significant. Like most of Lampman’s poems on the seasons, it was written in season, in this case during the month of October. Unlike most such poems, it was completed not at once, but over the course of two autumns, in 1883 and 1884.4 These two periods correspond to the representation of an autumn landscape in stanzas one and two and the expression of the speaker’s subjective response in stanzas three and four. This is not to suggest that the poem lacks unity, but that the circumstances of its composition underscore its dramatic turn to the situation of the speaker and the summoning of his inward powers. "In October" belongs to that seminal Romantic genre, the meditative landscape poem, in which, as M. H. Abrams explains, "an individual confronts a natural scene and makes it abide his question, and the interchange between his mind and nature constitutes the entire poem, which usually poses and resolves a spiritual crisis" (92). The spiritual crisis for the speaker of "In October" is the apparent triumph of a destructive over a creative principle in the autumn landscape around him.
It is probably not coincidental that the image of distant pines in the opening stanza inverts the connotations of a similar image in the poem generally regarded as the earliest extant pastoral elegy. At the beginning of Theocritus’s first idyl, a shepherd says to his companion, "Sweet is the whispering, goatherd, of yonder murmuring pine by the springs and sweet also is your piping" (25). In contrast to this beauty and harmony, the opening of "In October" depicts a landscape of waning vitality, torn by anguish. And far from offering pastoral beauty—or pastoral care—the pines, "like tall slim priests of storm," appear to be somehow complicit in this desolation. As D.M.R. Bentley observes, "the Wordsworthian cathedral of nature is depicted, not merely as a wasteland of sorrowful Catholic ritual, but as a barrier (‘bar’) standing between the poet and the sky…" ("Watchful Dreams," Part 1, 203). Ominously, these "priests" preside like Gothic villains over the torment that wracks the world, their stern rigidity contrasting with the more vulnerable woods of stanza two. Toward the end of the first stanza, specific features of conventional pastoral scenery are evoked as absences: desolate cornfields and vanished bees signify fertility in abeyance, and the withered foliage of the autumn landscape might once have provided shade from the summer sun.
The simile of priests is extended in the second stanza in the notion that masses of dying leaves might be saying masses for their dead companions. Here two influential motifs of pastoral elegy are fused: the figuration of nature’s mortality in human form and the representation of nature as itself engaged in mourning. The conceit of masses for the dead puts into ironic perspective the sacrament through which Christians have traditionally sought to resolve the problem of mortality and find consolation. The efficacy of this rite is brought into question as much by the fanciful quality of the simile as by the sinister connotations of the "priests". Contrary to the conventions of pastoral, the universal mourning of nature is represented as meaningless: in the proliferation of signs ("traceries") that balk interpretation, in the sounds of rustling leaves that produce gibberish even as they mimic ritual significance, and in the wind’s failure to rouse inspiration, as it commonly does in Romantic nature lyrics.
The universe of death surveyed in the first half of the poem is countered in its second half by the consolidation of the speaker’s subjectivity, figured in the pulling of his coat more closely about him.5 This meditative "I" proves equal to the landscape in more than one sense. While he shares the season’s mood and apprehends the incoherence of the world, he can find the strength to speak meaningfully. "I will," thrice uttered, affirms his determination to withstand loss through articulating a coherent meaning, in contrast to the "failing murmurs" of archaic creeds—not only the creeds of conventional religions, but also, implicitly, the conventions of pastoral elegy. In a typically Romantic gesture, then, the speaker of "In October" turns from a ritualized supernaturalism to rely upon his own imaginative power in confronting death. This resolution is enabled by three gestures familiar in Romantic poetry: a "wise passiveness" or openness to sensory apprehension, an act of imaginative identification, and an invocation of sustaining memories in the midst of loss. First, the speaker listens to the wind. Then, in the poem’s pivotal line, he resolves to "send [his] heart out to the ashen lands," that is, to comprehend the wasteland sympathetically and extend to it his own imaginative vitality. Finally, he invokes the memory of summer, linking his sense of creative power to a former time figured in terms of erotic delight.
The result of these three gestures is seen in the concluding stanza, where the first three lines recall the opening of one of the best-known lyrics of autumn, Shelley’s "Ode to the West Wind." In Shelley’s poem, windblown leaves are compared to ghosts flying before a supernatural power; in Lampman’s, to relics of a supernatural power in decline. As Bentley has suggested ("Watchful Dreams," Part 1, 204), these leaves also allude to the practice of the Cumaean Sybil, whose prophecies, written on leaves, were rendered unintelligible when scattered by the winds. The prospect of spring’s return is perhaps implied by the allusion to Shelley and by the memory of summer, and there are other details that also mitigate the bleakness of the poem’s final lines. The speaker, "not torn by pain of any lurid hue," has emptied both landscape and poem of Gothic terror—that is, of the lurid images and anguish bordering upon madness that dominate the first two stanzas. Having confronted the spectres of death and a meaningless universe, he survives to await the regeneration of nature and his own vitality. His enervated language ("very gray and dreary") is the sign not of defeat, but of the exhaustion that this psychic ordeal has cost him. While there is no passionate avowal of triumph, as at the conclusion of Shelley’s poem, there is a subdued triumph in the speaker’s ability to find sweetness in the "sombre" lands of autumn just as he has previously found it in the "golden madness" of summer.
It is not surprising that Gothic elements should occur in a late nineteenth-century lyric in which the speaker confronts manifestations of death in nature. Throughout the century, Gothic literature shadows and subverts the redemptive project of Romanticism. Gothic also raises issues of gender, and in Lampman’s three lyrics of autumn these issues converge with the myth of Persephone. Barrie Davies has observed that "Lament of the Winds" and "Ballade of Summer’s Sleep" are informed by this myth (59-60), which is also evoked when the speaker of "In October" laments the disappearance of a "golden" time envisaged in terms of female youth and beauty. On one level the myth of Persephone is associated with intervals of fertility and barrenness in the seasonal and agricultural cycle, while on another it is profoundly concerned, as Helene P. Foley has emphasized, with the politics of gender (see especially Foley 112-18). Both meanings are amplified by the recontextualization of the myth in Lampman’s sequence of autumnal elegies. Sitting "upon this naked stone," the speaker of "In October" assumes the very position of Demeter calling for her lost daughter, though his point of view is that of a bereaved lover rather than a grieving mother.6 This appropriation of Demeter’s role is provocative, especially in the context of a myth that Robert Graves has said "refers to male usurpation of the female agricultural mysteries in primitive times" (1: 93).
Does the speaker of "In October" usurp Demeter’s position while mourning the disappearance of Persephone refigured as a muse who embodies erotic pleasure and creative "madness"? All three of Lampman’s autumn lyrics invite questions of the sort raised by feminist critics about the gendering of nature in Romantic poetry and about the threatened maiden of Gothic literature with whom Persephone has obvious affinities. Indeed, my reading of "In October" would seem to expose Lampman to charges of the sort that Melissa F. Zeiger brings against the entire male elegiac tradition:
In effect, the articulation of all human suffering, including the women’s, becomes the martyred vocation of the male melancholic culture hero, particularly after the Renaissance, while the suffering of women is doomed to remain speechless, incoherent, or excessive.… The male melancholic thus at once denies Symbolic expression to women’s grief and appropriates it as symbol. (6)
In a similar vein, Anne K. Mellor has accused "masculine Romanticism" of privileging the male visionary poet who makes a feminized and silent nature his object. Mellor goes on to emphasize, however, that the dynamics of gender in works by male poets may be far from simple: "The dialogue and struggle between masculinity and femininity is one that occurs not only between the writings of men and women…but also within canonical Romantic poems and prose works" (29). In fact, Lampman’s sequence of elegies moves from a distinctly male viewpoint—and perhaps a usurpation of the female—in "In October" through an even more emphatically masculine perspective in "Lament of the Winds" to a predominantly feminine vision in "Ballade of Summer’s Sleep."
"Lament of the Winds" and "Ballade of Summer’s Sleep" depart from the subjective mode of the meditative landscape poem by employing impersonal speakers and stressing the ritual dimension of elegy through strong rhythms and insistent verbal repetition. "Lament" is spoken by personified autumn winds who bury the "corpse" of summer in "the graveyard of the flowers." Although pastoral convention is suggested in nature’s grief and in the dead leaves that deck summer’s grave, there is more than a touch of the macabre in this poem. As the scene of summer’s burial, the "holy forest bowers" evoke not serenity and sanctity, but seclusion, pain and mystery: a landscape of Gothic uneasiness rather than the prospect of divine comfort. The invocation of holiness to intensify a sense of gathering horror is typical of Edgar Allan Poe’s work, as are the poem’s driving trochaic rhythms. Poe, of course, famously declared that "the death…of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world—and equally is it beyond doubt that the lips best suited for such topic are those of a bereaved lover" (425). In "Lament" it is the dying leaves rather than the speaking winds who have the role of summer’s lovers—or perhaps her children—and who share her fate in the final stanza. In throwing emphasis upon the inexorable fact of death, "Lament of the Winds" represents a nadir of autumnal grieving between two poems that mitigate that fact with suggestions of survival and rebirth. Indeed, "Lament" contains its own intimation of rebirth when the winds place themselves, in the opening stanza, "By the forest, near the mould." The latter word signifies not only decay, but also fertility and creative form; in this context, the dying leaves whose metaphorical hearts cover summer’s grave will provide a matrix from which new life will spring. Here the word "hearts" recalls the crucial gesture of the speaker of the preceding poem, who sends his heart "out to the ashen lands." Thus the closing lines of "Lament," which change the poem’s earlier frenetic rhythms for more ruminative cadences, reintroduce the power of eros at the moment that death appears to prevail.
The third in this sequence of lyrics, "Ballade of Summer’s Sleep", is Lampman’s most accomplished exercise in a challenging form that originated in medieval French verse and enjoyed a revival in the work of Swinburne and other late Victorian poets.7 Its cyclical rhyming is wonderfully appropriate both to the subject of the seasons and to its acts of invocation and incantation, performed as a charm against the powers that threaten summer’s sleep. The voice in this poem is neither that of a situated human speaker nor a personified natural force; possibly it is intended as the impersonal voice of poetry itself, invoking its own redemptive power against the perils of time. In constructing this voice through a rigorously fixed form, a tissue of mythological allusions, conventional diction, and fluent anapestic rhythms, "Ballade" risks cliché while reaching for the archetype, and its central metaphor of death as sleep certainly increases that risk. The poem succeeds by virtue of Lampman’s technical skill in adapting classical mythology to the myth of dreams that pervades his work. Although, as several critics have shown, the meanings of the word "dream" are varied and ambiguous throughout Lampman’s poetry, its privileged meaning is as a metaphor of the imagination (see especially Djwa, and Early, Archibald Lampman 41-42). In "Ballade," the power of imagination is identified with a set of spirits—"Dreams"—who allude to and subsume the Hours and Fates as well as the Muses of Greek myth. Such adaptations of classical mythology are commonplace in nineteenth-century poetry in English, and particularly reminiscent of the first part of Shelley’s "Adonais." What is of greater interest in Lampman’s poem is its reconfiguration of the same pastoral and Gothic elements that shape "In October" and "Lament of the Winds."
"Ballade" begins where "Lament" ends, with the interment of summer, but its initial effect is less Gothic than pastoral in its allusion to "the ghosts of the dead flowers" at play in a setting reminiscent of Elysium. The opening lines evoke the Hours (and perhaps the Graces), figures from classical myth whose role here is that of sympathetic mourners. The first stanza is structured on a thematic turn, emphasized by cyclical rhyme and syntactical inversion, that changes the autumnal scene of death to a mythic scene of dormant life. While the power of Dreams is invoked to conjure away threatening images of the kind that dominate "In October" and "Lament," these images return to haunt the following stanzas, necessitating that the conjuring continue in the slightly varied refrain that culminates in the envoy. The Gothic element is manifest in the portrayal of summer as a threatened female figure whose integrity must be sustained by the Dreams called up in the refrain. The second stanza introduces an image of female sexuality menaced by patriarchal power, and aligns this Gothic plot with its precursors in classical myth: stories of maidens like Persephone who were amorously pursued or ravished by the gods. The strongly gendered antithesis that structures this stanza might invite a Kristevan interpretation of the text as positing a maternal or "semiotic" principle in opposition to the symbolic order of the Father’s Law. Winter’s ambiguous domain—legalistic, threatening, and mortal—is countered by a realm of mysterious but protective Dreams whose "woven hands" link them to an archetypal female craft and to the Fates whose powers rival those of male deities in Greek myth. The appearances ("shadows") of ceremonial order that attend the advance of Winter in stanza two are belied by the violence and terror of the third stanza, which brings into view the same desolate landscape that dominates the two preceding autumn lyrics. Perhaps the most fascinating thing about this stanza is its implied drama of sexual violation and oppression. The distraught figure of autumn and the spectral figure of winter are shapes in a shadowy family romance that threatens the sleeping, but strongly sexualized figure of summer: her "moan," a word denoting only grief in the other autumn poems, here suggests eroticized distress. Once again, the contours of the Persephone myth emerge, giving force to the plea made in the poem’s envoy:
Till the slayer be slain and the
Until the female principle returns in the militant and triumphant form of spring, the latent possibility of summer must be guarded from corruption. In the final lines of this poem, it is the heart and head of a sleeping female figure that harbour the potential for a renovated world.
The gendering of seasons is by no means consistent in literary iconography or in Lampman’s poetry. It is significant, however, that "Ballade of Summer’s Sleep" represents spring, summer, and autumn as female, with winter as the sole male. There is a suggestion here of the threefold goddess of Greek mythology who embodies maiden, nymph and crone, in opposition to the unitary phallic authority perhaps too obviously symbolized by winter’s mace. This suggestion of multiplicity in the female is indicated as well in the indeterminate number of Dreams. Winter, heralded in relatively concrete terms in stanza two, becomes a ghost in stanza three, and an altogether vanquished power in the prophetic conclusion where female Dreams occupy the position of the prince or patron traditionally addressed in ballade envoys. The realm of Dreams is a space in which threatening images of the mortal world are supplanted by benign counterparts: the ghost of winter by ghosts of dead flowers, the wastes of autumn by the "gray place" of summer’s sleep, and the menacing shadows of advancing darkness by the "shadowing" gesture of guardian spirits. In the end, the envoy suggests that the danger of base dreams may be averted by the mysterious Dreams who protect and sustain the sleeper. In the refrain that repeatedly invokes these Dreams, the emphasis on their hands ("golden," "woven," "glowing") is multiply suggestive: of maternal caresses, protective ritual, and the ability to confer creative power. In terms of the poetics of Gothic recently elaborated by Anne Williams, "Ballade of Summer’s Sleep" rejects the "male Gothic" emphasis upon the female protagonist as victim in favor of the "female Gothic" plot that moves her towards an awakening from troubled dreams to a rebirth.8
While more might be said about the larger seasonal sequence that frames these autumn poems, the present discussion is concerned with their significance as elegies. What, or who, is being mourned in these lyrics? An answer to this question should include at least the following objects of mourning: nature in its decay, humankind in its mortality, and occluded visions of erotic love and beauty. My subtitle appropriates Northrop Frye’s designation of tragedy as the autumnal mythos, one of four modes into which he divides all imaginative literature. While I would not wish to impose Frye’s intricate system on any writer’s work, there is an affinity between his taxonomy of the imagination and the tendency in Lampman’s early poetry toward a systematic mythology of the seasons.9 In Lampman’s work, autumn provides the focus for a remarkably rich and nuanced elaboration of this mythology. His mythos of autumn is, however, neither ultimately tragic—it insists on the cycle of resurrection—nor perfectly consistent. While on one level it may be seen as a young poet’s tribute to convention, on another it is a serious exploration of the language of mourning. On a third level, it brings classical pastoral into a creative conjunction with nineteenth-century Gothic, and in this context perhaps its most remarkable feature is the movement from a masculine position toward a perspective that acknowledges and valorizes female power. This elegiac and mythopoeic treatment of autumn fades into the background or vanishes altogether from most of Lampman’s later nature poems, including those about autumn, which instead develop an impressionist mode that Anne Compton has recently analyzed in detail. His later elegies, with one or two important exceptions, shift their attention from nature to the human world.
The Death of Tennyson
Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Poet Laureate of Great Britain, first poet of the Empire, and author of the most famous elegiac poem of the age, died in the early morning hours of October 6, 1892. Over the next two days, Lampman wrote three extraordinary sonnets inspired wholly or in part by his death.10 The first and third are explicit elegies for Tennyson. The second, eventually published as "The Autumn Waste," makes no direct reference to the Laureate but is strongly linked to the two commemorative sonnets by its date of composition and elegiac content.11 These three poems have never been published as a group; indeed, the two commemorative sonnets were not published together during Lampman’s lifetime, though he did pair them as "On The Death of Tennyson" [I] and II in a fair copy manuscript (where they are immediately followed by "The Autumn Waste"), and he paired them again in the table of contents for his projected but never published volume "A Century of Sonnets."12 The three poems form a decidedly meaningful group that may be approached in several ways. They can be read as a sequence, suggesting a narrative of Lampman’s response to Tennyson’s death. They can be regarded as a series that juxtaposes different elegiac responses without any resolution. And they can be seen (as in the manuscript mentioned above) as a pair of commemorative sonnets that sets aside the problematic poem coming between them in order of composition. While all these ways of looking at them are valid, the first approach is taken in the following discussion. For clarity’s sake (following Lampman’s lead), the two commemorative sonnets are referred to as "On the Death of Tennyson I" and "On the Death of Tennyson II".
Tennyson’s stature in late nineteenth-century Canada was equal to his pre-eminence in Victorian England, and it is not surprising that Lampman should feel moved to pay tribute to him on the occasion of his passing.13 Lampman, Duncan Campbell Scott and William Wilfred Campbell all contributed lengthy eulogies to the October 15, 1892 issue of "At the Mermaid Inn," their weekly column in the Toronto Globe. Characteristically, Scott emphasizes the perfection of Tennyson’s style, Campbell the Englishness of his achievement, and Lampman the nobility and wisdom of his life and work. In the present context, it is suggestive that Lampman, unlike his two fellow eulogists, does not refer to the immense influence of Tennyson on later nineteenth-century English poetry—possibly because Tennyson was a comparatively minor influence on his own work. While traces of Tennyson’s style can be found in Lampman’s poems, the Laureate’s chief importance for the young Canadian poet was as the advocate of an idea: his persistent theme that humanity is evolving towards a higher spiritual condition was also one of Lampman’s articles of faith.
It is indicative of Lampman’s relation to Tennyson that the latter is given only casual, though respectful, notice in the literary essays and lectures that Lampman produced during the 1880s and ’90s. The most substantial remarks on Tennyson in these essays occur in the opening paragraphs of "The Modern School of Poetry in England" (1886), where Keats and Tennyson are praised as exemplars of "variety" and "geniality," compared with whom the Pre-Raphaelite poets are found wanting (Essays 59). Keats, who is the subject of Lampman’s longest essay, was a much more decisive influence on his poetry. Those qualities in Tennyson most congenial to Lampman’s style are in fact Keatsian, and were absorbed directly from Keats. For these reasons, it would surely be mistaken to seek in Lampman’s relation to Tennyson evidence of an agonistic struggle with a precursor, after the example of Harold Bloom’s theory of influence. If there is such a struggle in these commemorative sonnets, it is not with Tennyson but with one of the latter’s principal contemporaries, and also perhaps with certain tendencies in Victorian poetry that Lampman viewed with dismay. In this light, his two sonnets on Tennyson may be regarded as examples of the tombeau, the name that Lawrence Lipking adopts from Mallarmé for elegies in which surviving poets take the measure of great contemporaries after their deaths (Lipking 138-79). Such poems may but need not include a Bloomian struggle of the survivor with the precursor.
In "On the Death of Tennyson I" Lampman’s high praise for Tennyson detaches that profoundly Victorian writer from the particulars of his oeuvre and era, and places him in a transcendental sphere. Perhaps it is appropriate, then, that these poems should be distinctly un-Tennysonian. The sonnet, after all, is one of the few traditional forms in which the Laureate was not conspicuously accomplished. In the version published in The Owl in 1892, "On the Death of Tennyson I" reads as follows:
To-night while the grey wings of
storm are spread,
Aye, he is dead! Even as those
great ones die
While much in this poem deserves comment, tribute is first due to the skill with which Lampman handles the sonnet. His command of the form has been praised by many readers and discussed at length by several critics, notably Dudek ("Lampman") and Louis K. MacKendrick. "On the Death of Tennyson I" makes a slight change to the Petrarchan paradigm, bringing a c rhyme into the octave rather than repeating the b rhyme of lines two and three. Here Lampman exploits a familiar property of the Petrarchan sonnet in turning the meaning of the sestet against the burden of the octave: in this case, affirming the immortal order of poetry against the transient orders of nature and quotidian human life. The octave moves deliberately toward its culmination in the delayed production of its grammatical subject: "the word," which, passed from one anonymous mouth to another, announces a death. The sestet reverses this pattern, moving through a complex of predicate clauses toward the discovery, in the sonnet’s final line, of four transcendent legacies of poetry. The first legacy, positioned to repeat the beginning of line eight, is "The word"—not the casually spoken word that announces news from abroad, but the poet’s word, analogous in its creative force to the Logos. The gathering triumph in the sestet is finely orchestrated, following up the negative terms that end its first three lines with positives at the end of its last three, and redeeming the images of mortality that dominate the octave with their immortal counterparts. Just as the quotidian word gives way to the poetic word, so the destructive force in nature yields to the power of poetry, the blindness of humanity to the poet’s vision, and the murmur of ordinary voices to song.
"On the Death of Tennyson I" begins by describing a landscape that recalls the autumnal lyrics of Among the Millet, but moves on to address more specifically human issues. Lampman makes Tennyson’s death the occasion for affirming a highly conventional vision of the timeless value of poetry—or at least of English poetry. The sixth line is, of course, designed to solder the Laureate of Empire to his colonial peers: Canada, as an "English land," claims a full share in the obsequies as well as its share in the legacy of English verse that Tennyson represents. In its language and allusions, Lampman’s sonnet evokes that legacy in a pattern that moves, significantly, from the present to the past. The Victorian poet whom the poem most urgently engages is not in fact Tennyson, but Matthew Arnold, whose "Dover Beach" is the single text most powerfully summoned up. While the verbal and metrical correspondences between the two poems are relatively slight ("To-night…dark… world…ceaseless…eternal"), the tidal metaphor for the incessant restlessness of humanity in the sonnet’s sixth and seventh lines is profoundly evocative of Arnold’s melancholy monologue. In this light Lampman’s sonnet can be read, in part, as a reaction against Arnold’s pessimism and the poetics of contingency that emerged during the Victorian age to challenge the transcendental poetics of Romanticism. The sestet confronts death, that greatest agent of contingency, through evoking the poetry of an earlier age, and thus dramatizes the immortality that the sonnet claims for the poetic word. The interjection personifying death as vulnerable (lines 11-12) is strongly reminiscent of figurations of death in Renaissance English poetry—for example, in Shakespeare’s Sonnets 73 ("That time of year thou mayst in me behold") and 146 ("Poor soul, the centre of my sinful earth"), and Donne’s Holy Sonnet 10 ("Death be not proud…"). Although the rhyme on "dust" and "trust" that encloses this interjection is broadly conventional, some of its most resonant occurrences are to be found in Sir Walter Raleigh’s "The Author’s Epitaph, Made By Himself" and a number of George Herbert’s poems. These echoes of earlier English lyrics hover upon the borders of allusion and serve to reinforce the view of poetry that "On the Death of Tennyson I" asserts. Not perfectly demonstrable, but strongly insinuated, they suggest the "essence" of great poetry that, according to Lampman’s sonnet, survives the deaths of individual writers and defies the power of mortality. Against Arnold’s "eternal sadness," Lampman affirms an "eternal trust," and although his octave acknowledges the benighted turbulence of Arnold’s "darkling plain," his sonnet ends in praise of vision.
"The Autumn Waste," which must have been drafted within a day—and perhaps within hours—of "On the Death of Tennyson I," is antithetical in tone and emphasis. Here Lampman surpasses the bleakest moments in the autumn lyrics of Among the Millet, concentrating their desolate imagery and eerie mood within the sonnet’s formal limits. The speaker marks signs of death in the waste landscape, expresses incredulity that lovers, flowers, or songbirds could ever have existed there, and hearkens to a "lisping moan, an inarticulate cry…among the charnel solitudes" (Poems 229). Both eye and ear are stricken by a sense of horror. Gothic foreboding overwhelms pastoral vision, and so strongly felt is this desolation that MacKendrick regards the poem as an anomaly. Leaving it last for comment in his survey of Lampman’s sonnets, he calls it "a uniformly dreary poem, sordid and unredeeming, haunted by images of death, uncharacteristically morbid and unlike Lampman…. Something has interfered with his usual undemonstrative contemplation; the environment is a direct and convenient expression of some very dark matter in the viewer" (61).
Such painful moments are not as unusual in Lampman’s poetry as these remarks suggest; an inventory of similar works in Poems would include the sonnets "Despondency" (1888), "The Cup of Life" (1889), and "Sorrow" (1895). Nevertheless, MacKendrick is right in intuiting that "The Autumn Waste" projects "some very dark matter" not made explicit. That matter is almost certainly Tennyson’s death, which had just moved Lampman to write a commemorative poem affirming the triumph of imaginative vision over mortality. Perhaps Lampman felt uneasy that this affirmation, however sincere and well articulated, was too easily won or too conventional, and was unwilling to let it stand as his definitive response to Tennyson’s death. "The Autumn Waste" gives expression to the same sense of irremediable loss, and the same unsettling intimation of a meaningless universe brought on by such loss, that Tennyson himself struggled with in In Memoriam. It was happenstance that Tennyson died in early October just as Lampman’s elegiac season returned but it is no coincidence that on that day Lampman composed a sonnet more like the autumnal elegies of Among the Millet than any of his other later poems. The supposition that "The Autumn Waste" concerns the death of Tennyson is supported by the echo in lines three and four of the opening of "Break, Break, Break," probably Tennyson’s most famous elegiac lyric after In Memoriam. Only the equivocation (recurrent in Lampman’s poetry) on the word "seem" in line thirteen qualifies the bleak prospect that this sonnet unfolds. If youth, beauty, and eros seem to be illusions in the midst of death, the apparent triumph of death may also prove to be an illusion. Nevertheless, "The Autumn Waste" puts into question the confident refutation of death’s dominion expressed in "On the Death of Tennyson I." Like "Lament of the Winds," it constitutes a nadir of mourning between two elegies that provide stronger statements of consolation.
"The Autumn Waste" retains a trace of the Petrarchan form in its extension of the a rhyme into its second quatrain, creating an envelope rhyme for the octave, but is otherwise Shakespearean in structure. "On the Death of Tennyson II" is thoroughly Shakespearean in its rhyme scheme, and aptly so for reasons that its content makes obvious. At the same time (at least, as punctuated in the Thomas Fisher Library manuscript), it plays against the reader’s expectations through deploying a triadic rhetorical structure rather than the familiar four-part design associated with the Shakespearean paradigm. It also presents a response to Tennyson’s death that differs yet again from those expressed in the two preceding sonnets:
They tell that, when his final
hour drew near,
This sonnet begins where "On the Death of Tennyson I" ends, with Tennyson’s induction into poetic immortality. His apotheosis is as confidently affirmed here as it is in the earlier sonnet, but in a transitory subordinate clause rather than as the culmination of the poem. The carefully managed tone and strongly stressed line-endings produce a stateliness and dignity appropriate to the occasion: Lampman succeeds in transforming an anecdote about Tennyson’s death into something formal, rich and strange.14 His syntax overrides the typical Shakespearean sonnet structure through positioning the strongest pauses near the middle of lines seven and nine. These pauses enclose the dying poet’s crucial gesture: a communion, not with the Book conventional in such scenes, but with the canonical book in English literature, in a gesture that changes "rue" to "serenity" at his last moment. Line eleven is splendidly ambiguous: is "this glorious world that Shakespeare loved so well" the actual world or the world in his book? The answer, of course, must be both, and the doubled meaning of "play" in the penultimate line extends this idea. There is also an unusual turn in line twelve, where it is not the poet who, "as at a beck," withdraws from life, but the world that passes away from him.
The question might be asked whether "On the Death of Tennyson II" is genuinely elegiac or whether its predominantly expository tone eliminates the note of mourning altogether. In my view it is deeply elegiac, giving mortality greater weight than the earlier commemorative sonnet does. In this respect it might be read as resolving the narrative of Lampman’s reaction to Tennyson’s death by bringing into balance the extremes of consolation and loss that govern "On the Death of Tennyson I" and "The Autumn Waste." The allusion to the dirge "Fear no more the heat o’ the sun" in Cymbeline (4.2.258-281) is fitting in this context, as is the still more powerful allusion in the sonnet’s closing lines to Prospero’s great speech towards the end of The Tempest (4.1.148-58). Prospero, it will be remembered, links the dissolution of the imaginative to the dissolution of the actual, giving mortality its full due while insisting, as Lampman’s sonnet does, on the beauty of what passes.
No sensitivity to the passing seasons, the deaths of poets, or the consolations of elegiac poetry could have prepared Lampman for the death of a child. His infant son, Arnold, born on May 12, 1894, died less than three months later, on August 4, after an attack of dysentery. Lampman’s letters to his friend E. W. Thomson provide a moving and revealing record of his feelings at the time.15 He had entertained "great hopes" and affection for his son, who thrived in the first weeks following birth and who seemed to manifest "a disposition of extraordinary gentleness and sweetness" (Correspondence 123). Lampman took the loss deeply to heart, confessing to Thomson on August 19: "My little lad’s death has given me the horrors. I had never before had anything to do with death, and now I tremble for everything that is dear to me…. This loss has brought upon me what I never experienced before—a thorough disgust of life. I have suffered various kinds of agonies and have been hypochondriacal enough at times, but I never really felt the desire to be over with life—before" (Correspondence 123-24). By late October he had weathered the worst of this despair and was recovering his more genial spirits, having in the meantime written a group of remarkable elegiac lyrics. Mostly composed during the month of August, apparently in the following order, this group comprises "White Pansies," "We Too Shall Sleep," "In Beechwood Cemetery," "The Vain Fight," "To Death," "The Largest Life (I)," "Paternity," and one or two unpublished fragments. This discussion will concentrate on three of these poems, "White Pansies," "In Beechwood Cemetery," and "To Death," which extend and significantly modify Lampman’s earlier work in the genre. Not surprisingly, their central dialectic is between the personal circumstances at their root and the formal dimensions of language and thought that the poetic treatment of these circumstances entails. Also not surprisingly, the conventions of pastoral elegy recede as Lampman finds more apposite models in domestic elegies such as those by Ben Jonson for his little boy and Milton for his dead wife.
"White Pansies" (Poems 227) is one of Lampman’s finest short lyrics. Evidently the first poem to be written out of his experience of bereavement, it is also the most extreme in its grief. Its grace, beauty, and strong feeling are the more powerful for its restrained expression, disciplined to the ostensible artlessness of the ballad stanza. Like many such lyrics, and like Wordsworth’s Lucy poems in particular, it is not at all simple but extends and amplifies its meanings through the connotations of its images and the precision of its emotional movement. The floral motif introduced in the title is one of the central devices of elegiac poetry; in this context, however, it is no longer the conventional image of pastoral tradition but an intensely focused symbol. "White," according to Jean Chevalier and Alain Gheerbrant, "is the colour of purity, and originally it was not a positive colour showing that something had been undertaken, but a neutral, passive colour showing that something had yet to be fulfilled. This is certainly the original meaning of virginal whiteness and the reason why Christian ritual prescribes the burial of children in white shrouds decorated with white flowers" (1107).16 An awareness of these associations is necessary but insufficient for an interpretation of the symbol in Lampman’s poem; the text also aligns whiteness with the speaker’s sense of emptiness and with the union of death and beauty in the "pansies white as snow" placed on the infant’s grave. Pansies, as Ophelia says, are "for thoughts" (Hamlet 4.5.176-77). Deriving its name etymologically from pensées, the flower is a fit symbol for the thoughts that come in time of suffering with an emotional urgency and concision that distinguish them from the more leisured and detached spaces of meditation.
Structurally, the poem moves, in an enactment of grieving, back and forth from thoughts about the beloved child to the anguish of the bereaved speaker. The latter is caught between the sharp antitheses of an experience that can be resolved, he feels, only in oblivion. The opening stanzas introduce the question of value that becomes critical at the poem’s centre. Because all value appears to be concentrated in the lost child (in his "dearness"), the greater world— indeed the cosmos—now appears vacant. The word "things" at the beginning of the third line is exact in suggesting this emptiness, just as the syntax of the preceding line is exact in representing the mere equivalence of things that have become meaningless:
Day and night pass over, rounding
If we are aware of the importance of natural cycles in most of Lampman’s poetry, the suggestion that these cycles are now void of comfort will acquire even greater pathos. The third stanza begins with an intensification of feeling, an insistence and extravagance that suggest surging passion brought up short by the succinct statement and shift to trimeter in its second line:
He was mine, mine all, mine only,
The meaning of the first line will vary depending on where we hear the stresses: mine all, mine only, or mine all, mine only. I am inclined to hear the latter, but in either case there is a suggestion of the irrational, beyond mere pressure of grief, in the possessiveness and exclusiveness that the grieving speaker declares. How we read this line will condition our understanding of the crux that follows, at the poem’s centre, in the reference to a debt, the meaning of which is not made explicit. On the simplest level, we may read it as the proverbial "debt to nature," but we give the poem less than its due if we are satisfied with that. It is probably not a coincidence that one of the most famous elegies in English on the death of a son expresses a similar sense of indebtedness. In "On My First Son," Ben Jonson writes, "Seven years thou wert lent to me, and I thee pay,/Exacted by thy fate, on the just day" (lines 3-4). Jonson refers to his son’s immortal soul, owed to its Divine Maker, and thus has recourse to a traditional Christian consolation common in poems about dead children. As Jahan Ramazani notes of such texts, "elegists like Jonson and Bradstreet rationalize the loss as the repayment of a sacred loan" (255). But while Lampman doubtless knew Jonson’s poem and, consciously or not, appears to echo it, the speaker in "White Pansies" does not seek a Christian consolation. If we allow the gendering of this speaker that our knowledge of the poem’s origin warrants, its ninth line may be seen as binding father and lost son in an intense and exclusive relationship. Their "debt," then, might very well be read as what is owed to the male line through the son’s loss. It is probably not irrelevant to an understanding of the poem that Arnold Gesner Lampman was the poet’s first son (though second child), nor that his middle name and surname brought together those of the poet’s maternal and paternal family lines.17
The second half of stanza three invites consideration of one further dimension of the speaker’s indebtedness: a debt of understanding owed to the event itself. There is a nice balance of severity and tenderness in these lines, which are ambiguous as to the object of "forget." The speaker will not forget that all things—"Earth and Life and Time"—are subject to change, but in despite of these changers, neither will he forget his dead child. On this level, then, the fourth stanza is metapoetic: the pansies for his son—"heartsease"—are the thoughts (pensées) that mourning has generated, with the qualified but real measure of comfort that they bring him. In this context, "white pansies" are a figure for the sentiments of the poem. Its words and lines are not "Like dull narcotics, numbing pain," as Tennyson feared that his lyrics in In Memoriam might be, but a ritual expression of love, knowledge and praise. In contrast to In Memoriam, however, they do not move toward a vision of transcendence. The final stanza returns to the speaker’s anguish and desire for oblivion. If we know that dreams are repeatedly affirmed in Lampman’s poetry as the vital principle of his work, the speaker’s yearning for a "dreamless" rest will enlarge our sense of the sorrow that threatens to overwhelm him at the poem’s end.
"We Too Shall Sleep" (Poems 228), composed immediately after "White Pansies," is interesting for its form, an apparently irregular but rigorously constructed stanza; however, its heavily rhetorical voice makes it rather less appealing. In focusing on the fact that the dead child will be spared miseries that afflict "we of the living flesh," this poem also echoes Jonson’s elegy, which seeks solace in the idea that the poet’s son has "so soon ‘scaped world’s and flesh’s rage." As its title indicates, the speaker of "We Too Shall Sleep" identifies with his dead child in a less personal sense than is the case in "White Pansies." Shifting from the "I" of the earlier lyric to "We," he moves toward a more generalized and impersonal mode of consolation. This movement becomes even more clearly defined in the sonnet "In Beechwood Cemetery" (Poems 288-89), a meditation by Lampman on the site of his son’s interment, and the place where he himself would be buried less than five years later. Here he succeeds through subtlety and sureness of tone in clothing some very old ideas in language that makes them fresh and lucid. The sonnet inverts the elegiac topos of infinitely returning seasons that highlight the pathos of the finite individual life. In Beechwood Cemetery—in the perspective of eternity—the weary round of seasons is contrasted with the enviably permanent condition of the "sleeping" dead. The seasonal myth that informs much of Lampman’s nature poetry is modified suggestively here: nature is represented in terms that gesture toward that myth, but without the sense of power and significance that usually accompanies it, as though the myth itself were exhausted and giving way to more literal description. Simultaneously, the poem develops an alternative myth representing death as a fulfilment that surpasses the possibilities of mortal life. The world of generation evoked in the poem’s first half prepares the way for the metaphor of generation in its final lines, re-envisaging death as a birth into "perfect being." The Shakespearean sonnet form that takes shape through lines one to eleven suggests that a final couplet will follow, but Lampman confounds this expectation. Shifting the couplet to a penultimate position, he diminishes the risk of facile closure and achieves the effect of an opening vista.
"In Beechwood Cemetery" makes no specific allusion to the death of Lampman’s son, though if we are aware of the context in which it was written, its references to "perfect being" and "Children" may be more poignant. For the moment, personal mourning is sublimated in generalized meditation. In "The Vain Fight" (Poems 283) and "To Death" (Poems 282), two further sonnets composed over the next few days, Lampman returned to the circumstances of his personal loss. They are touching poems whose merits are compromised by their rather too obvious, unassimilated debt to Milton’s "Methought I Saw My Late Espoused Saint" and Keats’s "Ode to a Nightingale." "The Vain Fight" brings to mind Milton’s poem through its prominent allusion to the myth of Alcestis, and Keats’s ode in the suggestion that the lost child had been "in love with Death." In "To Death," Milton’s sonnet is even more palpably evoked: "Methought in dreams I saw my little son—/My little son that in his cradle died." Lampman’s "dreams" establish their difference from Milton’s through setting aside the consolation of Heaven envisaged in Christian terms. Nevertheless, like the figure in Milton’s vision, his dreamt-of son has been transfigured. With the economy demanded by the sonnet, Lampman intimates not only the stages of his son’s imagined growth (infancy, childhood, and maturity), but also his "full-grown" character, with all his potential for wisdom, love and sympathy fully realized. In view of the exclusive paternal grief expressed in "White Pansies," it is noteworthy that this sonnet admits the child’s mother to the site of grieving. But while the force of grief is acknowledged and conveyed in "To Death," its power to yield visionary meaning is left in doubt. Like the conclusion of "Ode to a Nightingale" and so many other Romantic poems, including several of Lampman’s, "To Death" ends poised between the alternative possibilities of dream as illusion and dream as vision. In "Methought I Saw My Late Espoused Saint," Milton awakes from a dream of his wife in paradise to the "night" of his own mortal life and blindness, but maintains "trust" in their ultimate celestial reunion. In "To Death," Lampman’s late Romantic imagination yields an equally moving vision of his lost child but is left uncertain about its validity and significance in "the night of life" that he continues to endure.
It is tempting to look for the same sort of pattern in these poems that can be seen in the autumn lyrics of Among the Millet and the sonnets written in response to Tennyson’s death. In moving from grief to affirmation and back to grief, "White Pansies," "In Beechwood Cemetery," and "To Death" might be seen as inverting the triadic pattern of affirmation to negation to renewed affirmation that governs the earlier elegiac sequences. Such an argument would be spurious, however, for other poems of bereavement intervene between and follow the three texts emphasized here. Lampman’s poems of August 1894 provided no resolution to the trauma of losing a child, nor should one expect them to. Although the crisis passed, its traces remain visible in his work. Two months later, he completed "Chione," an odd and uncharacteristic verse narrative based loosely on Greek myth, dealing with a mother’s grief for her dead child. Toward the end of October, in "To Chaucer," he reflects upon "the drop of life lost in eternity," and in late December he completed a narrative monologue about the Christian martyr Perpetua in which infants, death, and the rival claims of time and eternity are centrally important.
Although the New Year brought other matters to the forefront of Lampman’s attention, there can be little doubt that his experience of bereavement had a lasting effect on his moral perspective and imaginative life. As has been noted elsewhere (Early, Archibald Lampman 143), there is an elegiac undertone in a number of his late poems, especially some of the sonnets written during his final year. There were, however, no further intervals of sustained, closely focused elegiac composition, and after 1894 he wrote few poems that can be regarded as elegies in the formal sense. The most impressive of them is, once again, an autumn poem. Lampman enclosed "Sapphics," composed on October 14, 1895, in a letter to Thomson with the following remarks: "I send you a little poem written in the strophe that Sappho used to use. I rather like it. Most men who have attempted to write Sapphics in English have misused the measure horribly, and made a thing unreadable; but I flatter myself that these are real Sapphics, and the proof of it is that the movement is musical" (Correspondence 156). As critics of prosody have often observed, the attempt to write quantitative verse in English is indeed problematic. Nevertheless, as a devoted student of Greek literature and a gifted practitioner of English metrical forms, Lampman was well placed to undertake the challenge of approximating the sapphic measure, and his judgement of the result is well founded. Formally and technically, his lines probably come as close to "real Sapphics" as English permits. As he suggests, his "little poem" is more rigorous in imitating the classical strophe than the attempts of some of his peers, and arguably it is as accomplished as Swinburne’s sapphics, often cited as the most successful Victorian examples of the form.18
In the fall of 1895 Lampman was in the midst of a prolonged period of spiritual turmoil that lasted almost two years. His letters suggest, often without elucidating, the several causes of this distress, including his son’s death, doubts about his writing, an apparently frustrated romantic attachment, and perhaps other less palpable troubles as well. As far as his writing went, 1895 was an undistinguished year, but at the end of September he wrote to Thomson: "I think I see my way out of the difficulties and afflictions which have encompassed my spirit. I feel very humble, however, and must not boast. I have gone through so much inward trouble that it has somewhat broken me and I do not take wing, so to speak, very readily" (Correspondence 152). At this time he was also working on an essay, "Happiness," which was "pretty nearly finished" by the ninth of October (Correspondence 154). This prose meditation, eventually published in Harper’s, is highly pertinent to an appreciation of "Sapphics." Lampman’s approach to a theory of happiness focuses upon what he sees as fundamental conflicts in the individual’s psyche:
Only a few blessed souls stand scatheless above the common tumult—those in whom nature has balanced the conflicting motives of selfishness and devotion in so rare and fitting a harmony that they seem never to be at variance, but one gives way to the other at the proper moment, as if by a delicate, divinely adjusted instinct. These are the beings who move among men like the gods—at ease, joyous, and untroubled, receiving and conferring pleasure, universally loving and beloved. Joy comes to them with the fulness of health. Sorrow afflicts them but as a noble chastening. (Essays 192)
The emphasis in "Happiness" on the importance of a balance of forces in the psyche corresponds to the striking formal balances as well as the thematic concern with emotional and spiritual equilibrium in "Sapphics." Moreover, this poem might well be described as expressing the conventional Victorian view of sorrow as "a noble chastening." While its implications transcend any simple relation to Lampman’s essay and personal circumstances, the links among those circumstances, the essay, and the poem are demonstrable and important. However nebulous the biographical record is, clearly the "difficulties and afflictions" that he had experienced for more than a year are in the background of his meditation on happiness, and they also resonate in the "changes, bitter and full of evil" that the speaker of "Sapphics" has suffered.
What is more germane to the present discussion is the way in which Lampman uses the highly disciplined classical strophe to revisit and modify the materials of his earlier elegies. The poem brings into a fine equipoise the conventions of the autumnal elegy, the burden of personal sorrow, and the possibilities of consolation explored in his earlier work. The sapphic stanzas, adroitly managed, construct this equipoise through carefully regulated hendecasyllables, strong medial pauses, measured adonics, and occasional spondees (always, as the form prescribes, occurring in the second foot). These prosodic effects are reinforced by a balancing of utterances and ideas, at times subtle and at times explicit as in the opening stanza: "full of divine remembrance/Full of foreboding." In its sensuousness, severity and emphasis on the limitations of mortal life, "Sapphics" is as evocative of classical poetry as it is of the Romantic forms more typical of Lampman’s work—especially his previous autumn lyrics. In this poem, the season arrives in beauty and silence, unaccompanied by the moaning winds and dreary scenes prominent in those earlier texts:
Clothed in splendour, beautifully
sad and silent,
Soon the maples, soon will the
Yet they quail not: Winter with
wind and iron
Me too changes, bitter and full of
Mute and barren. Yet will I keep
Brief the span is, counting the
years of mortals,
Shining white anemones, mixed with
Like the autumn mythos of Among the Millet, this poem presents the seasons as personae in a cyclic drama in which the erotic fulfilment of summer is diminished to a dream. Autumn, for all her splendour, embodies the transitory condition of nature and human life. Encompassing both the beauty and destruction in nature, she is in this sense identical with the earth as "careless mother" toward the end of the poem. These stanzas bring numerous antitheses into tenuous harmony on the levels of sound (the "musical" movement of which Lampman speaks), visual imagery, ideas, and emotions. Thematically, perhaps the most important antitheses are those of the natural and the human, beauty and destruction, and mourning and fortitude. Structurally, the lyric moves from a vision of beauty pregnant with destruction, through an expression of the speaker’s personal loss and affliction, to a vision of mortality blessed by beauty. While the proportions of the poem might at first appear to give more attention to the external world than to the speaker’s subjective state, only the opening stanza refers to the objective landscape of early autumn in which he is situated. In the stanzas that follow, he foresees the destruction that will visit this landscape, recalls the destruction of his own dreams, and ends with a meditation on mortality and the returning seasons. The cruxes of the poem are in its gendered imagery, the speaker’s response to suffering, and the nature of the consolation in its final stanzas.19
The construction of gender in "Sapphics" is fascinating in light of Mellor’s remarks on a "dialogue and struggle between masculinity and femininity" in certain texts by men, and in view of Lampman’s ideas about "conflicting motives" in the psyche. In "Sapphics" summer appears as a bride, autumn as a classical goddess, winter with a hint at the conventional trope of tyrant, and spring in the floral profusion of the final stanza. In this poem, however, the victim of time and change is not the maiden-figure of summer but the speaker himself. This shift away from a myth of female despoliation is accomplished through his self-identification, as "brother," with the trees "dowered by summer" but stripped of their wealth when the season changes. Although they are thus gendered masculine, these trees are praised in the third stanza for embodying an attitude that unites conventional masculine and feminine virtues: they are not only "tameless," and "gravely enduring," but also "silent and uncomplaining," and "beautiful still and gracious." However invidious such distinctions may appear today, this stanza envisages an idealized state in which they are reconciled, or at least "met and equal." That such a condition is more visionary than real, or more tenuous than enduring, becomes clear as the poem proceeds. The fourth stanza arrives at its emotional nadir, with the speaker’s reference to his despoliation at the hands of fate. Echoing his predecessor in "In October," he asserts his will to endure the ravages of change, and he resolves, in an emphatically masculine stanza, to remain "grandly ungrieving." As I argue below, this heroic posture is subsequently put into question. The final turn in the play of gender occurs in the reference to the earth as a "careless mother" nonetheless capable of gentleness and bounty. In her maternal character and association with an abundance of flowers, this figure combines aspects of Demeter and Persephone, suggesting their reunion after the crises of the daughter’s abduction and the mother’s quest. What is notable here is the apparent absence of a male counterpart, much less the figure of the divine patriarch who is frequently the source of consolation or authority in such contexts. In any event, all such distinctions are obliterated in the leveling inclusiveness of the poem’s closing.
The speaker’s introspective turn and abjuring of grief in stanzas four and five present the central crux of the poem because he endorses a position that Lampman himself found questionable, and one that is not sustained in the concluding stanzas. The speaker’s declaration that he will remain "grandly ungrieving" has about it an extravagance, a flourish of bravado, that renders it suspect in a poem of carefully modulated balances. Moreover, it comes close to stoicism, an attitude about which Lampman was extremely ambivalent (see Early, Archibald Lampman 38-39). While on some occasions he wrote positively about stoicism, he explicitly rejects it in a passage of "Happiness" that is apposite in several respects to "Sapphics":
To the vigorous and well-nurtured soul
there is the finest of all joys in triumphing inwardly over the external
pressure of circumstance, and thus displaying in the noblest and most
human fashion the unconquerable lordship of the spirit. Thus the poet,
when he might give to the impulse of expression the freest and wildest
liberty, chooses for his own pride and pleasure to confine himself
within the difficult bounds of the sonnet. The form is finite and
severe, but it is his glory to prove that the spirit within may be
gracious and infinite.
The "unconquerable lordship of the spirit" that Lampman recommends here is similar to the "grandly ungrieving" attitude that the speaker of "Sapphics" aspires to, but it is also very close to the stoicism repudiated only a few sentences later. Lampman’s meditation on happiness confronts but does not resolve the problem of grief and the powerful, contradictory drives for its expression and repression. Perhaps the key issue here is the difference between a static and dubiously triumphal stance and a more dynamic response to experience. Lampman’s late lyric of autumn deals with this problem in a more satisfying way than his essay does, through a dialectical movement beyond the moment of repression at the end of stanza five. In the following stanza, notwithstanding his vow to rise above grief, the speaker continues to apprehend the condition of human life as ineluctably "strange and sad."
Composed in a form even more demanding than the sonnet, "Sapphics" conveys a grace under discipline and a creative response to suffering that enable its speaker to move beyond the posture of heroic stoicism and embrace the contingencies of experience. In the end, his capacity for sympathy and awareness of beauty keep him "too human for the stoic’s part," as Lampman put it in a sonnet written about his friend Katherine Waddell the following year.20 To be human is to transcend the mute fortitude that he ascribes to the trees in winter. It is to remain responsive to the sadness that constitutes part of experience, and—for a poet—it is to articulate that response. Rather than stifling his grief, the speaker of "Sapphics" transfigures it in the lovely equilibrium of praise and mourning in the poem’s final stanzas. With their resumption of feeling, loosened syntax, and informal tone, these stanzas embrace the contradictions of a transitory existence. Even the idea of "balance" gives way to the less rigorous notion of the "mixed" character of experience and a recognition of the diverse forms of beauty that experience yields. The apparent randomness in the naming of blossoms in the concluding stanza is amplified by their mixed symbolic associations, but also brings death into perspective through celebrating the abundance of life.21 That this consolation is troped by flowers, renewing the most familiar of pastoral conventions, seems fitting in Lampman’s final autumnal elegy and one of his finest achievements in the form.
I am grateful to Edna Hajnal of the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library at the University of Toronto for permission to quote the holograph version of "On the Death of Tennyson II," and to D. M. R. Bentley for eliciting this essay and making many helpful suggestions.
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