Enduring Landscapes

Susan Glickman, The Picturesque and the Sublime: a Poetics of the Canadian Landscape. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1998. xi + 212 pp.


Towards the end of the Preface to The Picturesque and the Sublime: a Poetics of the Canadian Landscape, Susan Glickman writes: "[i]t is the argument of this book that eighteenth-century aesthetic conventions still inform English Canadian poetry, particularly the poetry of landscape. Picturesque emphasis on concrete description continues to support a sublime view of the natural world" (ix). That is a fair summary of The Picturesque and the Sublime, even though the book ends a long way from the eighteenth century. Glickman offers another account when she declares that she is "not interested in constructing a master narrative. This is a collection of essays in literary history, not the unfolding of a thesis" (x). How can you construct an argument without unfolding a thesis? Since I greatly enjoyed this book, I would ignore this contradiction if it were not so telling: the best passages in this book occur when Glickman boldly attacks the conventional wisdom of Canadian literary history, not when she dutifully surveys the categories of landscape aesthetics. To argue that the sublime "is one of the formative ideas of Canadian culture" (59), she needs a definition flexible enough to include Abrams Plains, Roughing It in the Bush, "Ave," "Bushed," and Paulette Jiles’ "Song to the Rising Sun." So her book is something of a "ramble," to use her description of her introduction, though the term does not do justice to Glickman’s immense learning and polemical flair.

The seventeen-page "Introductory Ramble" covers landscape poetry from antiquity to Wordsworth, and Glickman cites a variety of authorities from Edmund Burke to Paul de Man. She traces to Joseph Warton the "slippery" term "picturesque," which she defines as "that which is suitable for pictorial representation" (9). By contrast, the distinctive feature of the sublime is that it exceeds any possible representation: "since sublimity was held to consist of that which is indefinable and immeasurable, subjects incarnating these principles were often unsuitable—if not impossible—to paint" (10-11, her italics). The introduction ends with a fine section on Wordsworth, who is crucial to this book because of his influence upon Canadian poetry, and because the "whole picturesque movement in travel, painting, and poetry was associated, from the start, with the Lake District" (13). That association would be a problem for some Canadian critics, but not for Glickman, since she believes that there is more to Wordsworth than his settings. She follows James Heffernan and Geoffrey Hartman in finding that "Wordsworth anticipated the general rejection of the picturesque that was to follow with the Romantic movement, but not until he had incorporated its central tenets of enthusiasm for nature, and respectful attention to all its manifestations, into his own work" (18). One of Glickman’s most compelling points is that much of that passage could also apply to such contemporary poets as Roo Borson and Don McKay as well as to the poets of the Confederation.

The next two chapters adapt these concepts to early Canadian poetry and give the book a strong foundation. One chapter analyses the uses of picturesque conventions in Thomas Cary’s Abrams Plains (1789) and J. Mackay’s Quebec Hill (1797), and the next chapter treats various aspects of the Canadian sublime. In the former, she rightfully acknowledges her debts to the work of D.M.R. Bentley, but what is distinctive in Glickman is her striking counter-attack on what Gerald Lynch once called "the slash-and-burn tactics" of Modern Canadian critics. Here she notes that such critics as Sandra Djwa and Peter Stevens assume that Romantic influences are not "viable" in Canada but never explain why: "[o]ne can only wonder where the right language is supposed to be found, if the voice of a writer in his or her own day is deemed inauthentic" (21). She returns to the idea in the chapter on the sublime: "Somehow, thematic criticism has managed to be as ahistorical in regard to Canadian literature as did the formalist ‘New Criticism’ it succeeded, and to which it proposed itself as an alternative, nationalist mythology" (57). By this point, Glickman has her targets steadily in view, and they include Northrop Frye, John Moss, D.G. Jones, Marcia B. Kline, Margaret Atwood, and Gaile McGregor. Anyone who thinks that thematic criticism is simply obsolete has not read Atwood’s Strange Things (or I.S. MacLaren’s review in this journal). In Glickman’s view, "we have tended to be too quick to assume that any Canadian representation of fear or awe at nature’s power is of the terminal rather that the transitional kind" (55) associated with the sublime, as in D.C. Scott’s line, "After the beauty of terror the beauty of peace." In addition to her skills as a polemicist, Glickman is also brilliant at close reading. In these chapters she shows that Abrams Plains and Quebec Hill are not merely "colonial" or "conventional" because each poem uses picturesque conventions in utterly different ways.

Glickman’s virtues as both a polemicist and a close reader are even more evident in the next two chapters. In a discussion loosely-focussed on Susanna Moodie’s Enthusiasm (1831), there are many opportunities to debunk the myth of Moodie inspired by Atwood: "More than any other writer in Canadian literature, Susanna Moodie has come to symbolize the repulsion from nature Canadians are alleged to feel, a repulsion she neither felt herself nor would have countenanced in others" (60). On the contrary, Glickman argues, Moodie "takes it for granted that nature is spiritually exalting, and that it provides the best evidence for divine presence in the universe" (71). The chapter on Charles G.D. Roberts’ "Ave" is compelling for different reasons. Here Glickman moves from the late nineteenth-century literary context to a superb reading of this neglected poem. She is especially good on the "sublime terror" (98) of the concluding stanza, with its odd reference to "the keen stars’ conflicting message" (l. 307). In her reading, "the stars’ message must always be susceptible of two interpretations, since they are at once representative of the beauty and beneficence of nature and, in their mysterious distance from this world, symbols of transcendence" (101). Similarly, the "lord of men" who ponders the stars is divided between contemplation and action, much like Roberts himself (101). Because this chapter situates Roberts so convincingly in his time and place, it gives one a new appreciation of this elusive poet.

The following chapter, "New Provinces? Or, In Acadia, no Ego," is the highlight of the book. Beginning with a look at Roberts’ 1893 sonnet sequence, "Songs of the Common Day," as a "picturesque" counterpart to the "sublime" "Ave" (103), Glickman argues that "the movement towards restrained diction and concrete imagery in Roberts’ sonnets can certainly be seen as going in a modernist direction, even if he had yet to dispense with closed form" (113). It is not necessary to agree with that statement to be impressed by Glickman’s remarks on the still-pervasive myth of a Modernist breakthrough in Canadian poetry. She concludes a devastating section on W.W.E. Ross with this summary:

In general, an obsession with novelty of technique has been the most unfortunate legacy of the modernist movement. But the reverence with which Ross is regarded today indicates something more particular: the extraordinary pressure the critical establishment in Canada has felt to derive a genealogy of local modernism. (117)

I take her point, but I doubt that today’s "critical establishment" bothers to read Ross at all. When Linda Hutcheon writes in a "Guest column" of PMLA that "the early history of Canada’s literature is familiar to those who study the imperial legacy in other parts of the world," she assumes that earlier writers do not have to be known to be dismissed. Hutcheon’s voice is hard to distinguish from what Glickman calls the "established consensus":

that Canadian literature was irretrievably colonial, at least until it became explicitly "post" or "anti"-colonial, and that "colonialism," more than being just a transitional stage in social development, was a mental framework that automatically rendered poets incapable of meaningful response to the world they inhabited. (vii)

It would take another book to expose the self-serving orthodoxies of Canadian Post-Modernism, but Glickman would be a good guide.

The last chapter, "Song to the rising Sun," attempts to bring the argument forward to contemporary poetry, with mixed results. Glickman’s belief that Atwood’s "Progressive Insanities of a Pioneer" is "a more schematic and therefore less compelling poem" than "Bushed" (141) seems both unfair to Atwood and unconvincing, based as it is on the notion that Birney’s protagonist "may actually be redeemed by this ‘otherness’ he fears" (140). Glickman recovers with a fine reading of Paulette Jiles’ "Song to the Rising Sun" as "a contemporary revisioning of pastoral elegy" (145) and an example of the persistence of the sublime. The ensuing discussion of the possibility of a feminist sublime is so rich that many readers will join me in wishing that Glickman had devoted a chapter to the subject. I once heard Wendy Robbins repeat Dorothy Livesay’s claim that "Serenade for Strings" (1944) was the first Canadian poem on childbirth. Without responding to Robbins or Livesay, Glickman discusses Constance Lindsay Skinner’s "Song of Cradle-Making" from 1913, and she notes that it appeared in John W. Garvin’s 1926 anthology, Canadian Poets, along with Jean Blewett’s "The Firstborn" and Isabel Ecclestone Mackay’s "The Mother" (206 n77). So Livesay’s claim proves to be as empty as her assertion that she was alone as a woman poet when she started writing. As Marilyn Rose has noted, Livesay’s mother was one of many Canadian women poets before Livesay.

The Picturesque and the Sublime enriches our sense of the past and opens new perspectives on the present. That it received the Gabrielle Roy Prize for 1999 should be encouraging for all readers of Canadian Poetry.

Tracy Ware