Roberts Tantramar Revisited: Another View
by David Jackel
All serious students of Charles G.D. Roberts poetry will be grateful for William Strongs article, in an earlier number of Canadian Poetry, on Tantramar Revisited.1 Strongs stated intention was to expand upon the necessarily brief examinations of the poem offered by earlier critics in order to show that it attains to a fine and complex unity of form and language, imagery and thought, and is, indeed, . . . Roberts poetic masterpiece (p. 26). The resulting article is a valuable one, in many respects the most detailed and coherent study of Tantramar Revisited yet to appear. One may admit this, however, and still argue that the poem requires further critical discussion. In particular, I think that the words unity and masterpiece need both explanation and qualification, and that the poems place in Robertsown development and in its Canadian context needs to be better understood. No more than Strong do I intend to devalue the poems high reputation. My intention in this paper is to examine some of the critical confusions that have grown up around the poem, to point out the difficulties that remain unresolved by Strongs article, and to suggest some resolutions of these confusions and difficulties that will provide a firmer basis for evaluation of the poem.
I begin by discussing the formal elements of the poem its rhythm and structure in order to demonstrate the extent of Roberts control over his materials. The imagery and themes of the poem raise questions about Roberts personal situation that I have tried to answer by placing the work more firmly in the context of its time. A reader of my essay will benefit by having a text of the poem at hand; the version in W.J. Keiths Selected Poetry and Prose is both reliable and accessible.
The verse-form, or metre, of Roberts poem has been the subject of much confused discussion, beginning with James Cappons assertion that Tantramar Revisited was written in the not very pure form of the modern hexameter,2 a form made popular by the influence of Longfellows Evangeline. The possible influence of Arnold and Clough on Roberts choice of verse-form is also noted by Cappon, whose comments on Roberts handling of his metre seem at odds with the generally high praise he accords the poem. The form is said to be high but somewhat artificial, the verse has an exotic character . . . , which after all is a bar to the highest qualities of expression, and it is a strong compelling mould which is apt to draw the poet into iterations and to carry him further than he wishes at one time while reining him up unduly at another.3 If Cappon can make these criticisms, and go on to add that Roberts uses the hexameter with some freedom and naturalness but at the cost of some rough lines, lines overloaded with awkward spondees or technically impure and sometimes falling out of metre altogether, then he has undercut his own judgment that the poem is a true whole unless we can somehow argue (implausibly, I think) that metrical lapses of the kind found by Cappon should not affect our assessment of the poem. Cappons discussion of the metre makes one additional point: that Roberts uses a pentameter variation . . . , following Cloughs example in Amours de Voyage. It is designed of course to afford some relief from the monotonously majestic stride of the hexameter and allow the poet to escape into plainer cadences.4 Again, this presents a problem; monotony, even when majestic, is not a quality we associate with fine poetry. Cappons examination of the metre is far from thorough, and seems to raise more problems than it solves.5
Elsie Pomeroy, in 1943, took up the matter more seriously, challenging what she termed Cappons erroneous description of the verse-form and making her own description the basis for high praise of Roberts craftsmanship:
The claim that Roberts has employed the elegiac measure is clearly stated, but there is no supporting analysis.
Desmond Paceys considerations of the poem do not clarify matters. In Ten Canadian Poets we are told that the verse-form is not original it is virtually identical with that of Longfellows Evangeline but it is perfectly suited to the theme of nostalgic remembrance, and it is handled with masterly ease.7 The position adopted here is close to Cappons, with the important difference that Pacey has no reservations about Roberts metrical skill. In his last essay on Roberts (1961), Professor Pacey offers a slightly different description of the verse-form:
There follow some interesting comments on Roberts power to modulate the movement of the rhythm to suit the material with which he is dealing, but these comments cannot disguise the fact that Paceys general description of the metre amounts to nothing more than a combination of the conflicting views of Pomeroy and Cappon, not a resolution of the conflict.
Later writers, with the exception of William Strong, have either ignored the verse-form or referred to it in very general terms. John Ower notes the marked and regular rhythm,9 and W.J. Keith comments that the verse-form is reminiscent of both Longfellow and Swinburne.10 Robin Matthews seems to find Keiths view unacceptable (the poem could never be confused with a production by Longfellow or Swinburne),11 but he does not say why. Although Strong argues that Roberts has deliberately chosen to echo . . . the verse form of Evangeline, he also claims that the poet first opens with and then plays against a hexameter norm (p. 27). Like other critics he praises Roberts metrical skill, but he also notes correctly, in my view that Roberts has varied his metre by playing against it the rhythms [my italics] dictated by the verbal sense and the reading voice (p. 28). The point is a good one, but it still does not provide us with a sufficiently accurate description of how Roberts has handled the verse-form of his poem.
The claim that Tantramar Revisited has any significant metrical resemblance to Evangeline can, I think, be disposed of fairly quickly, by putting four-line passages from each poem side by side.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
In the first passage, from Evangeline, we see that Longfellow is indeed employing what Cappon called the modern hexameter: the basic unit is the dactylic foot, each line has six feet, the concluding foot is always trochaic, and there are occasional substitutions of trochaic feet for dactylic ones elsewhere in each line. Whatever we may say of Roberts metre, he is certainly not copying Longfellow. He does employ dactylic feet, but there are more frequent trochaic substitutions; in some lines of the poem, in fact, the dactylic metre almost disappears in Miles on miles of green, barred by the hurtling gusts there is only one dactylic foot. Of greater importance is Roberts arrangement of his lines as couplets through the regular alternation of unaccented and accented syllables in his line endings. There is nothing like this in Evangeline, where we find an unvarying succession of trochees.
Pomeroy was correct to call Cappons description erroneous. Yet her own is no more accurate. The classical elegiac measure with its alternating hexameter and pentameter lines was a quantitative metre; each vowel sound had an agreed-upon quantity, long or short, dependant upon the time involved in its utterance. The regular form of the elegiac couplet would, therefore, appear as the following arrangement of long and short syllables:12
Because two short syllables were considered equal to one long, a spondaic foot could be substituted for a dactylic one without disturbing the measure. Yet even if we allow for such substitutions, we cannot argue that Roberts was writing quantitative verse. Difficulties begin with the first four lines.
The third foot of the first line is incomplete, and we cannot rectify matters by making come, and a spondee because and has already been defined by the metre in the first foot as a short syllable. Classical measure does not permit such arbitrary alterations of quantity as would be required to regularize the line. A similar problem occurs in the fourth foot of the second line. Sorrow, in line three, might be read as a spondee, but only in defiance of normal English accent. What we might do to regularize the second foot of the fourth line I do not know, and later lines in the poem produce even more serious problems:
We surely cannot argue that the first two feet of this line are spondaic.
If we argue that Roberts has adapted quantitative measure to English poetry in the customary fashion, by substituting accented syllables for long ones and unaccented for short, we are no better off. Although the line just quoted does have six accents, it is lacking three unaccented syllables. Other lines would give us similar difficulties:
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
If we accept Pomeroys description then the first of these lines is a pentameter and the second a hexameter; yet the first is lacking three syllables and the second four. The second line is, as well, predominantly trochaic. There would seem to be some basis, then, for Cappons statement that Roberts has written a number of lines technically impure and sometimes falling out of metre altogether, and this in turn would lead us to question Pomeroys praise of the poem, founded as that praise is on Roberts mastery of the elegiac measure.
I think that we would be better off to turn our attention from Roberts supposed metrical models to his practice in the poem itself. Robertscontrol of the rhythm of his lines deserves high praise, and it is on rhythm rather than metre that our attention should be focused. The poet has adapted, not attempted to copy, the classical elegiac measure: he has employed six stressed syllables in each line, and retained the couplet effect by alternating unstressed and stressed syllables in his line endings. The second line of each couplet is, in addition, usually but not always slightly shorter than the first. If we search for a metrical norm we find the dactylic foot most often used, yet Roberts makes so many trochaic substitutions and even a few iambic ones that it seems more appropriate to see the lines as consistently having six stresses, with a varying number of unaccented syllables used (in combination with punctuation and the deliberate arrangement of vowel and consonant groupings) to accelerate or retard the movement of each line.
Here, in the passage where Roberts gives us the most vivid, and the culminating, recollection of the energy of life on the Tantramar, the movement of the lines is slowed by internal punctuation, three strong end-line pauses, and some consonant groupings that require careful enunciation the transition from windlass to groaned, for example, which is further retarded by the intervening comma, and the similar effect obtained in the next line with ponderous lengths, uprose. In other passages Roberts speeds up his lines by avoiding internal punctuation and using alliteration: Dotting the broad bright slopes outspread to southward and eastward. The number of accents remains the same, however; each line has the same ordering principle behind it, yet there is sufflcient scope for variation to prevent the order from becoming tyrannical. The couplets also provide an ordering principle, with variety provided by the occasional use of run-on lines and by different sentence lengths (of two, four, and six lines; there is also one half-line sentence). One other aspect of Roberts handling of rhythm should be noted: the way in which he ends his poem by adopting in the last half of the last line a firmly iambic metre:
The metre is not what we have come to expect in the course of the poem, and its use at this point brings Tantramar Revisited deliberately, and with seeming authority, to a conclusion.
There is reason, then, for praising Roberts poem on the basis of his handling of its rhythmical elements. We must admit that on a few occasions he is drawn into what Cappon termed iterations (as in Dips from the hill-tops down, straight to the base of the hills, which seems both iterative and tautological), but in most lines Roberts is admirably in control of his material, and the evidence of that control would support a more detailed analysis than I have offered here. It would be a service to the poets reputation, therefore, if we were to stop associating the verse-form of Tantramar Revisited with anything written by Swinburne, unless our intention is to emphasize, in the case at least of this poem, Roberts superiority.13
Although there has been some confusion in the discussion of Roberts metre, the subject has at least been much discussed. The structure of the poem has been discussed in some detail only by Desmond Pacey and William Strong. Professor Pacey offers the following description:
Elsewhere Professor Pacey makes substantially the same point, adding that Roberts completes the design by bringing our attention back to himself, and his awareness that even here, if he looked closely, he would find the hands of chance and change at work.15
One cannot quarrel with Professor Paceys statement that the poem has a definite structure; and he seems right to insist that Roberts command of his materials is evident in the way he controls our seeing of the landscape in the poem. His assertion that the poem has a three-part structure is, however difficult to accept when we observe that Roberts himself has offered us a five-part structure, with the sixty-four lines of the poem grouped in the following fashion: 24-12-14-4-10. Within each part, moreover, Roberts has paid special attention to such matters as sentence length and the pace of his lines, rendering the character of each section appropriate to the material it contains and the sequence of the sections appropriate to the development of the ideas in the poem. In other words, the structure of the poem is an aspect of its rhythm.
Strong has noted Roberts use of a five-part structure, and has shown how the images and themes are developed through this structure. It is possible to extend his point by showing how Roberts effectively uses various rhythmic devices to support this development. The twenty-four line first section of the poem shows Roberts at his most deliberate. In the opening two sentences, of four lines each, the speaker asserts the pervasiveness of chance and change everywhere but in the landscape before him, and in the following three long sentences of six, four, and six lines he surveys that landscape in an orderly manner, beginning with his own vantage-ground and working outward to the horizon. The lines move with appropriate slowness: end-line punctuation keeps the reader from hurrying through the material (there is only one run-on line), and there are strongly-marked mid-line caesuras in thirteen of the twenty-four lines which further retard the pace. In other cases, although a caesura is not indicated by the punctuation, consonant combinations produce similar effects: the s sounds, for example, in Skirting the sunbright uplands stretches a riband of meadow. The second section, of twelve lines, is not similarly controlled. Here, where the speaker turns from observation of the landscape to recollection of his experience in that scene, the sentences become shorter (four of two lines, and one of four lines) and there is a high proportion of run-on lines (six of twelve). The mid-line pause, furthermore, is noticeable in only four of the twelve lines. We see that the poet is emphasizing the speakers inability, noted by Strong, to maintain the assurance asserted in the opening section. Instead of a sense of stability reinforced by even cadences and balanced statements, we are given in this second section an increasingly emotional departure from the present, underscored by broken rhythms and looser syntactical structures. The effect is particularly evident in the concluding four-line sentence:
Earlier in the poem the syntactical unit has generally coincided with the line or the half-line; here we have three successive run-on lines and the lines are broken internally by punctuation which does not, with one exception, occur near the centre of the line.
The third section, although it begins with the net-reels that the speaker sees, is largely a description not of the observed landscape but of the landscape as it will be when afternoon turns to evening, when evening is followed by night, and night gives way to the live keen freshness of morning. Again, it is the speakers prior experience in the landscape that enables him to offer this description (the fourteen-line section might be compared, as Strong has suggested, to some of Roberts sonnets),16 and the principle of order afforded by the familiar diurnal cycle helps restore, in part, something of the stability evident in the first section. The proportion of run-on lines (five of fourteen) is less than in the second section, and there are strong mid-line pauses in half the lines. The sense of order and permanence thus reasserted does not last, however; the third section ends as the second does, with run-on lines and increasing emotion as the recollection of morning leads the speaker back to the net-reels:
The parallel structuring of the conclusions of sections two and three stresses the importance, for the speaker, of the nets and the reels, and the two come together in the fourth section, which is the crucial one.
The fourth section stands out from the rest of the poem for several reasons. It is significantly shorter; it contains the poems shortest sentence (Well I remember it all); it has both mid-line and end-line punctuation; its movement is further slowed by additional punctuation and by awkward consonant clusters. In addition, the importance of this section is stressed by the repetition of the short opening sentence as the concluding phrase of the fourth line. Roberts speaker is shown here at his most deliberate and emphatic and yet the poem does not end here, despite the return, with greater force, of characteristics prominent in the opening section.
The ten-line fifth section which does conclude the poem contains no run-on lines, and so in this respect is more controlled than sections two and three. It resembles section three, however, in its infrequent use of mid-line pauses (only three in ten lines), the absence of which prevent Roberts from balancing half-lines against each other as he does in the first and fourth sections. This slight relaxation of control is appropriate to the speakers hesitant conclusion, his unwillingness to test his earlier assertion that there is no change in the landscape before him. The arrangement of the three sentences in this section is also appropriate. Two four-line sentences in which the speaker attempts to justify his inactivity surround a two-line exclamation in which he recalls once again the old-time stir celebrated in section four. If this concluding section does not resolve the speakers difficulties, it does at least show that he has achieved some awareness that his earlier confidence was not soundly based. The structure of the poem, and the character of each of its parts contribute as much as his direct statements to our understanding of the speakers mind. Roberts has given as much attention to the larger shape and movement of Tantramar Revisited as he has to the rhythms of its individual lines.
The imagery of Tantramar Revisited has not, like the structure, been neglected; nor has it, like the verse-form, been productive of critical confusion. Cappon, J.D. Logan, Pomeroy and A.J.M. Smith have all praised Roberts (although in rather general terms) for his ability to present a landscape effectively in language. Desmond Pacey made the same point, at greater length and with judiciously-chosen examples. For these critics, what we see in Tantramar Revisited is noteworthy for its accuracy, its concreteness, and its vividness. Later writers have not disagreed with this view, but they have focused their attention as well on other aspects of Roberts imagery. W.J. Keith notes the emphasis placed on the daily, seasonal and yearly cycles, and he notes, too, the way in which the imagery is used to good purpose: Phrases and images within the poem themselves recur and repeat, like the pattern of grass and dykes on the marshes.17 D.G. Jones draws attention to the way in which images drawn from the landscape mirror the movement of the speakers mind between childhood memories of a sustaining activity and the hushed inactivity of the present; he also suggests that we should note the contrast between the ordered life of the villagers and the potentially destructive power of the sea. For Jones, this contrast (observed but not commented on by the speaker) suggests Roberts increasing inability to affirm the immediate moment by taking account of the mutability and irrationality of life.18 John Owers comments on the imagery are in part an extension of the point made by Keith and in part a denial of Jones claim that Roberts is withdrawing from life: ;
Ower seems right to stress the cyclical elements in the imagery which culminate in the fourth section of the poem; Roberts handling of rhythm and structure (earlier discussed in this essay) emphasize the importance of this section. One might note as well that the winding of the nets makes a connection between land and sea which brings together the contrasting images seen by Jones.
In concentrating their attention on Roberts painting of the landscape and, more recently, on the landscape as reflective of the speakers own attitudes, these critics have neglected to notice that there are contradictions between what the speaker says about the landscape and the imagery in which that landscape is presented. Strongs discussion of the poems imagery brings out this point very well. He shows that what we are given in Tantramar Revisited is not a natural scene but rather one resulting from the interaction of man and nature through many years. We might also note that the speaker in the poem presents this process ambivalently: the houses are stained with time, and yet it is human activity through time which has set them warm in their surroundings. This inability on the speakers part to recognize that a good deal of what gives the landscape its charm derives from that same process he deplores raises two possibilities not considered by Strong: that Roberts intends some irony at his speakers expense, and that the speakers refusal to test his assertion should be seen by the reader as issuing from a failure of perception of which the poet is conscious.
That there is ironic distance between the poet and the speaker in the poem becomes more than a possibility when we consider an additional set of contradictions, which in this case undercut the speakers claim (accepted by D.G. Jones) that there is a clear contrast between childhood memories of a sustaining activity and the hushed inactivity of the present. It is true that the only overt activity we see in the poem comes with the memory of men at the windlass, and that the speaker contrasts the old-time stir with the present peace of the landscape. Yet the imagery associated by the speaker with the landscape shows that he is unable either to present a static portrait or to avoid seeing the landscape, past and present, as intimately bound up with human activity and human feeling. In the first section we have (I use italics for emphasis) the labouring grass and the hurtling gusts, and the tides vexing the Westmoreland shores. In the second section the flats are seamed and baked in the sun. In the third we have the gossiping grass, the lonesome / Golden afternoon, the crane which journeys homeward, the winnowing soft grey wings of the marsh owls, the live keen freshness of morning, the teeth of the dawn, the awakening wind, and the shafts of sunlight which glance from the tide to the shore. It might be argued that Roberts is simply making rather casual use of the pathetic fallacy, but this argument can be countered. Given Roberts deliberateness elsewhere in the poem, a relaxation of control over the imagery would be unlikely. And, in fact, the increasing insistence on human feeling in the imagery leads us, like the rhythm and the structure, to see the crucial importance of the fourth section. Here we not only have men at work, we have men who, when their work is done, can return home: the human feelings which permeate the landscape reflect the relationship between the marsh country and the people who inhabit it.
Understanding this, we can appreciate what is involved in the speakers refusal, in the fifth section, to go down to the marshland. The refusal is made because the speaker knows he is no longer at home in the landscape; he is an alien (this is reinforced by the word spy) who can participate in the life of the region only through memory. His illusion that life on the marshes is unaffected by change is not merely (as Jones suggests) the product of distance, nor (as Strong argues) a demonstration of mans psychic need for illusion as well as reality (p. 34). It is truly a darling illusion, the offspring, as the speaker recognises, of his own wishful imagination. The Tantramar community perpetuates itself through time, but the speaker chooses to separate himself from that community and to perpetuate its existence for himself by generating an illusion which can live only in his mind protected (like a helpless child) from contact with the community.
In my discussion of Tantramar Revisited I have tried to suggest that we must necessarily distinguish between the poet and the speaker. Roberts is in control of the poems various elements its rhythms, its structure, its imagery and this control seems intended to show us the speakers difficulties in making a proper adjustment between his response to the scene and the essential quality of what he is observing. If this suggestion is acceptable, then we must argue that the poem is something more than accurate observation of the Canadian landscape colored by nostalgia or elegiac remembrance. To make such a claim is not to debase the poems value but to raise it. Roberts has invited us to think about his speakers attitudes, not simply to indulge in a sentimental sharing of them, and poetry that tries to engage both our intelligence and our emotions is poetry that deserves our attention and respect. Yet we can praise the poem and, at the same time, note that Roberts has failed to deal completely with the intellectual issues he has raised. As W.J. Keith has said, the poem ends somewhat defensively,20 and D.G. Jones terms the speakers final position precarious as if he were poised for action or affirmation but unable to move without losing his balance.21 We might extend these views, and say that the poem simply does not end satisfactorily: Roberts has led us up to a significant question and then turned away from it; the poem is incomplete. We cannot agree with Robin Mathews, therefore, that Tantramar Revisited is flawless.22 We can, however, attempt to understand why the poem is flawed. The reasons are to be found, in part, in Robertst own uncertainty about the relationship between thought and emotion in poetry; his difficulties in this area would have worked against any attempt to resolve the issues raised in the course of Tantramar Revisited. The reasons are also to be found elsewhere, in what we might term Roberts regional and Canadian circumstances; he could not resolve his difficulties because he did not quite understand what they were, but his poem seen in its proper context is an important contribution to a definition of those questions about the relationship between the Canadian writer and his society which still properly concern us three generations later.
In his important essay, The Poetry of Nature (1897), Roberts provides us with a clear statement of what he understands poetry to be:
In theory, at least, Roberts grants thought a place in poetry; and he makes the significant additional point that thought and emotion must have some connection, and not simply coexist in a poem as separately discussable elements. Yet later, in the same essay, Roberts deals with poetry exclusively in terms of its affective power. His remarks show his concern for assessing the quality or intensity of the emotion evoked by a poem, but the quality of the thought involved is not discussed.
As the italicized passages show, feeling is of central importance; thought is being left to take care of itself. Given this reluctance on Roberts part to take up the question of how poetry affects our intelligence, and his failure to explain how thought becomes fused in emotion, we can conclude that his theory of poetry would not encourage a rigorous attention to the intellectual issues raised by a poem such as Tantramar Revisited. Although we can apprehend the feelings of the speaker, we do not fully understand what motivates those feelings, and Roberts takes us only to the point of wanting to understand and then leaves us there.
But it is not, I think, Robertstheoretical difficulties which contribute most to the irresolution at the end of Tantramar Revisited. D.G. Jones has suggested correctly, in my view that it is to Roberts personal life we should look for an explanation, and he refers to the poets personal disillusionment and to the gradual withdrawal evident in In Divers Tones (1886), the volume in which Tantramar Revisited was first collected. Although John Ower does try to offer a counter-argument, his claims are questionable:
Owers use of seems and may give his argument a tentative quality, and many readers will probably insist that there is an important distinction to be made between an artifice of eternity and a darling illusion. Furthermore, if the demons of alienation and change can only be mollified while the poet is in the act of writing about them then the finished poem is of little value to the reader. William Strong does argue that the darling illusion can sustain the reader as well as the poet (pp. 34-35), yet his claim does not account for the defensiveness that Keith finds in the conclusion. Professor Jones suggestion that we look to Roberts personal life seems to remain our most useful starting point.26
I would argue, however, that Roberts own circumstances, while important, have not been thoroughly considered. Disillusionment is not the word appropriate to the sentiments expressed in his Alumni Oration, The Beginnings of a Canadian Literature (1883), delivered in the same year which saw the first publication of Tantramar Revisited:
If Roberts is not here naively optimistic about the possibility of human action undetermined by circumstances, neither is he pessimistic about the possibility of influential human achievement through literature. And the passage is interesting not merely because it invites us to question Jones assessment of Roberts state of mind; it is also significant because it shows Roberts capable of speaking firmly on the very questions of time and change hesitantly treated at the conclusion of Tantramar Revisited. This does not mean that Roberts was confused in his attitude to these questions; the poem, like most good poems, deals more seriously with human experience than do most alumni orations. In addition, the poem bears directly on the poets own experience in a way that the oration does not. In 1883 Roberts had resigned his position as a teacher in Fredericton in order to move to Toronto and assume the editorship of Goldwin Smiths new publication, The Week. It was in that periodical, on December 20, 1883, that Tantramar Revisited was first published, and I think it can be argued that the hesitancy at the conclusion of the poem reflects Roberts personal sense of dislocation, his uncertainty over whether he could, far off, continue to participate in the life of his region.
The move to Toronto, seen as a context for the poem, perhaps helps to explain Roberts repeated reference to chance and change. Change is a prominent theme in the poem, and the critics have given it due attention. Chance is mentioned, but not illustrated by specific examples, and so the poets insistence on its importance has gone unregarded. The immediate context of the poem provides an explanation for this insistence, and yet one might still wish that Roberts had taken the matter up directly. To do so, however, would have required him to define, clearly and perhaps for the first time, some of what we now recognize as principal Canadian intellectual issues.
An elegiac sense of the losses inflicted by time is not, of course, an exclusively Canadian feeling. But there is an importantly Canadian attitude to the process of change which reflects the essentially conservative nature of the country in the nineteenth century. This attitude is not widely shared today, when change is more often equated with progress than with loss. So Elizabeth Waterston can say, of the conclusion of Tantramar Revisited: This is an ominous note of escapism in a young poet, still only twenty-five, in a young country very much in the process of change.28 This criticism would have puzzled Roberts, and many of his contemporaries; the glorification of change was much more characteristic of the United States than of Canada, and Emerson was its most influential spokesman:
This leads us to Whitman, but not to Roberts, who argued (as part of the tradition so fully documented by Carl Berger in The Sense of Power) for a balancing of progressive and conservative impulses:
Roberts hesitancy at the conclusion of his poem, his reluctance to affirm the immediate moment, is partly explainable then in terms of his Canadian circumstances. His intellectual tradition allows him to accept change as process (the diurnal or seasonal cycles) but not necessarily as progress. He may already have become uneasy about his ability to harmonize his own views with those of Goldwin Smith, a liberal and a continentalist.
Roberts sense of dislocation would have been exacerbated, as well, by his strong sense of a regional identity. From a centralist perspective his move to Toronto might possibly be viewed as beneficial; Arthur Lower speaks of the sterile soil of New Brunswick which bred the Roberts family and of the half-light of provincialism which blighted creative expression.31 An equally distinguished historian, A.G. Bailey, makes a somewhat different point about the cultural environment of his province:
In leaving Fredericton for Toronto, Roberts would not be exchanging rusticity for cosmopolitanism, and his hesitancy is, once again, understandable if we take his personal circumstances more fully into account than previous commentators on the poem have done. That increasingly centralist view of Canada which dominated the period after Confederation, and achieved its greatest triumphs through Macdonalds National Policy and the colonization of the west, had the effect as well of devaluing regional interests and identities. To see the metropolis Toronto as the cultural centre became increasingly natural, and such an attitude was to be later reinforced by the influence of those American writers who led the revolt from the village in the period 1885-1925. But Roberts vantage-ground offered him a different perspective, an intensely personal one, from which the loss of immediate contact with a regional culture could be seen as dislocation rather than progress.
If we must say, then, that Tantramar Revisited falters at its conclusion, we should say so sympathetically. Roberts was confronted by two problems which have, since 1883, continued to confront Canadians and Canadian writers: how to be Canadian to be North American without being continentalist; how to be national to be at home in a nation without denying the value of regional cultures. Roberts did not resolve his difficulties, and he had no literary models to which he might have turned for guidance. Yet his admission of doubt is more admirable than the dismissive insouciance he would later display in The Poet is Bidden to Manhattan Island:
Roberts was not the last Canadian writer to see such a move, whether physically or in spirit, as the best way of avoiding the problems of being a Canadian. But Tantramar Revisited was one of the first Canadian poems to set those problems seriously before us, and it deserves its place in our literary tradition.