Confederation Poets’ Companionship with Nature: Contexts
(This is the first in a series of prefaces on environment in the work of the Confederation poets.)
These stern coasts, now thundered
against by Atlantic storms, now wrapped in noiseless fogs, these
overwhelming tides, these vast channels emptied of their streams, these
weird reaches of flat and marsh and dike, should create a habit of
openness to nature, and by contrast put a reproach upon the commonplace
and the gross. Our climate with its swift extremes is eager and waking,
and we should expect a sort of dry sparkle in our page, with a
transparent and tonic quality in our thought. If environment is
anything, our work can hardly prove tame.
We know that climatic and scenic
conditions have much to do with the moulding of national character. In
the climate of this country we have the pitiless severity of the climate
of Sweden with the sunshine and the sky of the north of Italy, a
combination not found in the same degree anywhere else in the world. The
northern winters of Europe are seasons of terror and gloom; our winters
are seasons of glittering splendour and incomparable richness of colour.
At the same time we have the utmost diversity of scenery, a country
exhibiting every variety of beauty and grandeur. A Canadian race, we
imagine, might combine the energy, the seriousness, the perseverance of
the Scandinavians with something of the gayety, the elasticity, the
quickness of spirit of the south. If these qualities could be united in
a literature, the result would indeed be something novel and wonderful.
When Roberts and Lampman suggested that the scenery, climate, and atmospheric qualities of Canada might one day give rise to a Canadian national character and, hence, to a distinctive Canadian literature, they were not merely echoing statements made about New England by Washington Irving1 but, like Irving himself, articulating a concept of environmental determinism whose roots lay in Locke’s theory of mental development and Herder’s theory of national identity. Since "our imagination nourishes itself" "[u]pon the impressions which our senses gather in during childhood," "[i]t takes the colour that it feeds on" runs Roberts’s version of Locke in "The Savour of the Soil" (1892); thus, "individuality is much the product of the soil upon which it took shape" and, by Herderian extension, nationality is an inevitable component of any writer’s work no matter what its "themes and scenes": "[w]hersoever the . . . imaginations [of writers] wander, they carry with them the savour of the soil" (252). As the enormously influential French literary historian Hipollyte Adolphus Taine put it in an essay on "Art in Greece" (1869; trans. 1875) that was very likely known to Roberts if not Lampman, "[a] people always receives an impression from the country it occupies," "[c]ountless circumstances of soil and climate combine" to form the "mental mould" of a people, and, from that mould, "all ideas" and artistic creations "issue in relief" (362, 387).
In one or more of many articulations, such theories and assumptions lie in the background of R.G. Haliburton’s The Men of the North and Their Place in Canadian History (1869), William A. Foster’s "Canada First: Our New Nationality" (1871), William M. Hingston’s The Climate of Canada and Its Relations to Life and Health (1884), and numerous other iterations of the environment—mentality—art thesis, including, of course, the many claims of Canadian heirs of the Young Ireland movement that Canadian poetry will be or has become "racy of the soil."2 "Those who expect to see ‘A new Athens rising near the pole’" in Canada "will find themselves extremely disappointed," Arabella Fermor had asserted in The History of Emily Montague (1769); "genius will never mount high, where the faculties of the mind are benumbed half the year . . . [and] the cold . . . brings on a sort of stupefaction" (Brooke 130).3 On the contrary, wrote Thomas D’Arcy McGee as the Confederation period was dawning, Canada’s geographical position is "favourable" to the production of a "National Literature": "northern latitudes like ours have ever been famed for the strength, variety and beauty of their literature" and Canadian writing "must assume the gorgeous coloring and gloomy grandeur of the forest. . . . Its lyrics must possess the ringing cadence of the waterfall, and its epics be as solemn and beautiful as our great rivers" (). If Iceland is anything to go on, suggested Hingston, Canada’s literary future was assured, for had not the learned Lord Dufferin, the new Dominion’s third governor general (1872-78), observed that "‘devoting the long leisure of their winter nights to intellectual occupations’" had enabled "‘the Icelandic settlers . . . [to become] the first of any European nation to create for themselves a native literature’" (qtd. 108n.)?
It is tempting but too easy to argue that the line of transmission thus briefly sketched means that the Confederation poets inhabited an intellectual as well as a physical environment sealed by the American border. The debts of Roberts and Lampman to Irving militate against such an exclusionary argument, as does a large body of evidence indicating that, in turning towards the natural environment for materials that were recognizably original because local or indigenous and, therefore, outside the existing repertoire of English Romantic and Victorian Poetry, the Confederation poets were largely guided by American nature writers. Nor is this surprising, for, as the easy adaptation of Irving’s statements by Roberts and Lampman clearly indicates, the Northeastern states, the Maritime provinces, and the southeastern portions of central Canada have a great deal in common in terms of their scenery, climate, atmosphere, flora and fauna. Indeed, the chief guide for the Confederation poets among American nature writers of the later nineteenth century, John Burroughs (1837-1921), repeatedly sanctions such commonalities in "Nature and the Poets," the very essay in his Pepacton collection of 1881 that, as it happens, Roberts added to the English syllabus at King’s College in 1886 ("The Work of the English Department"): for example, Burroughs pronounces "[o]ur common blue violet . . . the only species . . . found abundantly everywhere in the North" and, à propos Edmund Clarence Stedman’s "Snow-bound," observes that "[i]t is characteristic of our Northern and New England fields that they are ‘edged with green’ in spring long before the emerald tint has entirely overspread them" because "[a]long the fences, especially along the stone walls . . . the land is fatter there . . . from the deep snows and other causes [and because] the fence absorbs the heat, . . . shelters the ground from the wind, and [hence] the sward quickly responds to the touch of the spring sun" (7:102). It is a coincidence born both of environmental similarities and of Burroughs’ influence on the Confederation group that explains why a great many of the flora and fauna of New England that he describes in "Nature and the Poets" as "rich materials...that have yet hardly been touched" in American poetry (7:109) also appear in the work of the Confederation group (to give but a partial list: the mullein, the golden-rod, the hepatica, the white and yellow violet, the bluebird, the bobolink, the vireo, the cat-bird, the phoebe-bird, and the oven-bird [7: 84-110]). Little wonder that in his At the Mermaid Inn column for July 9, 1892 Lampman observes that "according to Burroughs" "the hermit [-thrush] . . . [is] the finest of our songsters" or that a week later in the same forum William Wilfred Campbell asserts that "[f]or those who love nature and nature’s studies Burroughs is a never-dying friend" (110, 111). Among the Confederation poets, as in the United States, Burroughs’ "prestige" was apparently as great in the eighteen eighties and nineties as that of Emerson and Whitman, two writers to whom his own "love [of] nature and nature’s studies" was, of course, deeply indebted (Westbrook 50).
As obviously an heir to the environmental determinism of Herder, Taine, and especially, the Montesquieu of De l’Ésprit des lois (1748) as well as to the aggressively American Romanticism of Emerson and Whitman, Burroughs was convinced that the origins of national characteristics and variations lie in climate. "[N]o doubt many of the differences between the English stock at home and its offshoot in our country are traceable to this source," he argues in Winter Sunshine (1875): because the English climate is temperate, "the English are a sweet and mellow people" whose life and literature are characterized by such qualities as "reverence . . . [and] homeliness"; in contrast, Americans and their literary productions are given to "finincal, self-complacent smartness" and "forward[ness]" because the "American climate has a much keener edge" that "sharpens the wit . . . favours an irregular, nervous energy . . . [and] goads us day and night" (2:174-75, 148-49, 158). Especially formative of the (North) American character in Burroughs’ analysis are seasonal extremes and the rapidity of seasonal changes, particularly, in the "initiative month" of April in the continent’s more northerly regions (6:107, 93). "[I]s there anything like an April morning?" he asks in his essay on "April" in Birds and Poets, with Other Papers (1877), a first edition of which was owned by Lampman4;
"Does not the return of the year, the sudden and golden dawn of our summers, come to us with an energy of exhileration quite unknown to the people of southern latitudes?" asks Lampman in his At the Mermaid Inn column of April 9, 1892; "[w]ith us the coming of spring is the signal for a physical and intellectual revolution and revival, a new birth of buoyant and unconquerable energy rendering us capable of undreamed of labours and immense undertakings" (51-52). In "April in the Hills" (1895), the first version of which was written a few days earlier, on April 6, 1892 (Early "Chronology" 86), Lampman sees the rejuvenation of the year as a source of personal, spiritual awakening ("I rise / With lifted brow and upward eyes. / I bathe my spirit in blue skies, / And taste the springs of life" [Poems 28], but in At the Mermaid Inn he uses it as a point of departure for a series of observations about the formative effects of climate on character that echo those in "Two Canadian Poets" and also intimate in their emphasis on seasonal extremes and changes the presence of Burroughs as well as Irving in Lampman’s "meteorological determinism" (Westbrook 94):
Our summer heats are keen and wholesome, and neither depress nor enervate. Autumn with its refreshment of splendid colours and its tonic days comes before we have lost anything of the vital impulse, and carries us on with renewed energy into the depth of that trying season which is our severest test. Yet even through the winter months, bitter but bracing, labour is a moral necessity, and we continue to prosecute it with strenuous energy, if not with actual joy. In Canada with the snows and frozen months of Stockholm and St. Petersburg we combine the long days, the blue sky, and the splendid sunshine of the north of Italy. There has never been any other nation on earth so situated, and we cannot but suppose that our people will in the future develop an unusual buoyancy and novel energy of character. (52)
There may also be Canadian sources for Lampman’s "meteorological determinism" but its very evident origins in the work of Irving and Burroughs (whose 1875 collection, it will be recalled, is entitled Winter Sunshine) render it a curiously American—specifically New England—expression of the effect of climate on Canada’s national character.
Both in Birds and Poets, and Other Papers and in Pepacton Burroughs repeatedly draws attention to a creature whose "prophetic . . . sounds" he regards as a uniquely (North) American sign of the arrival of spring:
Among April sounds there is none more welcome or suggestive to me than the voice of the little frogs piping in the marshes. No bird-note can surpass it as a spring token; and as it is not mentioned, to my knowledge, by the poets and writers of other lands, I am ready to believe it is characteristic of our season. . . . Generally the note is very feeble at first . . . , and only one voice will be heard, some prophet bolder than all the rest. . . . Soon, however, . . . say toward the last of the month, there is a shrill musical uproar, as the sun is setting, in every marsh and bog in the land. . . . There is a Southern species, heard when you have reached the Potomac, whose note is . . . harsh and crackling. . . . The call of the Northern species is far more musical.5 (6:96-97)
What a chorus goes up from our ponds and marshes in spring! The like of it cannot be heard anywhere else under the sun. In Europe it would certainly have made an impression upon the literature. An attentive ear will detect first one variety, then another, each occupying the stage from three or four days to a week. The latter part of April, when the little peeping frogs—hylodes—are in full chorus, one comes upon places, in . . . drives or walks late in the day, where the air fairly palpitates with sound; from every little marshy hollow and spring run there rises an impenetrable maze or cloud of shrill musical voices. After the peepers, the next frog to appear is the clucking frog. . . . (7:144)
In the first of these passages (from Birds and Poets, and Other Papers) may be the textual origins not only of the "trill and trill" of the "Tremulous sweet voices" that "flute-like, answer . . . / One to another" "From the pale-weeded shallows" in Lampman’s "April" (1888), but also of the "piping" that emanates from "whispering river meads / And watery marshes" "when spring [is] in her glee" in "The Frogs" (1888) and, like the singing of Keats’s nightingale, enables the speaker of the sonnet sequence briefly to escape the temporal world to "lands where beauty hath no rest . . . and the sun" is "But ever half-way sunken toward the west" (Poems 7-8). In the second (from Pepacton), perhaps in conjunction with Lampman’s poems,6 may lie the textual origins of "When Milking-time is Done" and "Frogs," two sonnets in the spring portion of Roberts’s Songs of the Common Day (1893) in which frogs figure as "cool-fluting ministers of dream" whose "myriad . . . mellow pipes" when heard at "sunset" "Make shrill the slow brook’s borders," render "all the air . . . tremulous," and bring therapeutic "release" to "tired ears" (Collected Poems 117, 121). If so, then credit must go once again to an American writer for alerting Lampman and Roberts to the presence in their natural environment of a creature whose sound, through not unique to Canada, is nevertheless characteristic of the central and eastern Canadian spring.7
A further aspect of Burroughs’ writings that may well have helped to awaken Roberts and Lampman to the characteristics and effects of the natural environment is his notion that in the seasonal cycle in northerly regions both Spring and Fall are sites of fierce conflict between Winter and Summer and, thus, April has an inverse counterpart in November, as, less starkly, does May in October. "In the fall, the battles of the spring are fought over again," he suggests in the essay entitled "Autumn Tides" inWinter Sunshine:
While this passage raises some echoes in the Spring and Fall sonnets of Songs of the Common Day, particularly in "The Flight of Geese" (1893), where the sounds of the lightless night are "filled" with April remembered and "forecast" (Collected Poems, 129), its resonances in Lampman’s work are both numerous and rich, probably because, in conjunction with similar passages in Burroughs’ work, it lent seasonal substance to the Spring/morning/youth and Fall/ evening/old age quadrants of the cyclical system that, as argued elsewhere,8 lends structure to the poetic oeuvre.
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——. Poems. Ed. Duncan Campbell Scott. Toronto: Morang, 1900.
——. "Two Canadian Poets: a Lecture." In Essays and Reviews. By Archibald Lampman. Ed. D.M.R. Bentley. London: Canadian Poetry Press, 1996. 91-114.
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"Our Glorious Climate." Evening News (Toronto) 18 March 1884. 3.
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——. Collected Letters. ed. Laurel Boone. Fredericton: Goose Lane, 1989.
——. "The Outlook for Literature: Acadia’s field for Poetry, History and Romance." In Selected Poetry and Critical Prose. By Charles G.D. Roberts. Ed. W. J. Keith. Literature of Canada: Poetry and Prose in Reprint. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1974. 260-70.
——. "The Savour of the Soil" in "Modern Instances." Dominion Illustrated NS 1 (May 1892): 251-52.
——. "The Work of the English Department." King’s College Record (Windsor, N.S.) 9 (Nov 1886): 18.
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