A Few Pages in the History of Canadian Literature

By W. E.  Collin

One day, forty or more years ago, in 1930, in the Public Library of London, Ontario, I picked up the current issue of The Canadian Forum, an organ of the new social and political thought that was emerging in this country, and sat down to peruse its contents.  When I turned to the literary page, a welcome feature of the Forum, my eyes opened wide in response to a sudden revelation.   In the poems that I found there the desert imagery was identical with what was already familiar to me in T.S. Eliot's Waste Land.  I was excited.  I said to myself: "I must go to Toronto at once and have a word with the editor." So off I went.

     I found him — a Mr. White, if I remember correctly — at his desk.  I said to him, "Where does this poet, Kennedy, live?", pointing to a poem in the Forum I had with me.  "Do you know? I would like to meet him."  He pulled out the bottom drawer of his huge desk and drew out a sheaf of papers.  "Montreal," he said.  "Could I have his address?" "Yes, of course," he answered, and looked up at me, wondering what I was up to.  And he went on, "I have some more of his poems which I intend to use.  And I have a number of poems by other poets too, I'm going to use."

     Mr. White was kind enough to provide me with the names of his poets, their addresses, even their telephone numbers.  He scribbled them all out and when he handed me the paper, I exclaimed, "They all live in Montreal.  Kennedy, Smith, Scott, Klein.  They all live in Montreal."  "Yes," Mr. White agreed, "They all live in Montreal."

     I don't know how long I stayed in that editor's office poring over those poems.  But, as I left it, I felt charged with an urgency to get to Montreal and find those poets who, I was sure, were Canadians with a different cast of countenance from those I had read of in the history books.

     It was the summer holiday season of 1931 when, accompanied by my wife and our two small boys, we settled for a few days in a motor camp in a suburb of Montreal.  And, as soon as we were settled, I got to a telephone booth and called up the first number on Mr. White's list.  It happened to be Leo Kennedy's and Kennedy happened to answer.  After a short explanation or identification — who I was and what my mission was — he kindly invited us to come to his apartment.

     In the Kennedy apartment we met the poet Leo, his wife Miriam, and their little boy Stephen.  A brother-in-law, too, a psychiatrist who practised his art in New York.

     Of the excitement of that first meeting my wife has a better memory than I have.  She recalls seeing a volume entitled King Jesus (by Robert Graves) lying on the table in the apartment and still recites some of the chatter that ensued between herself and Miriam on the subject of Graves.  With her, that visit is a delightful memory of restaurants and strolls in La Fontaine Park where she can still see Leon Edel pick up young Stephen and tuck him under his arm.

     During our stay I made the acquaintance of the other three poets and read the poems they had published in The McGill Fortnightly Review and The Canadian Mercury.  I also met some young scholars — Leon Edel, for instance, back from Paris with his thesis on Henry James which, since those days, has swollen to enormous proportions.

     My own cherished memories of that meeting are conversations with Kennedy concerning his family life and his early adventures in the West Indies and the reading matter that had gone into his poetry, particularly The Golden Bough.

     Of his life in the U.S.A. I know practically nothing.  He was engaged in some advertising enterprise, I believe.  He did send me, on occasion, some pieces he had written, but I did not care to use them in my own work.  A few years ago he invited me to meet him at the Ford Hotel in Toronto but, for some absurd reason, we missed each other.  The last contact I have had with Kennedy comes via a lady who is engaged on a biography of him, a Dr. P. Morley of Concordia University, Montreal.

     It is to Leo Kennedy, then, that I owe my introduction to the other three Montreal poets.  Of those three, Abraham Moses Klein is dead.  I envied him and stood in awe of his priceless Rabbinical and mystical heritage.  Today it grieves me to think of such a genial companion, such a literary genius, sinking into an unutterable silence.  It may comfort us to think that it is the silence of that "truest life of all" that Samuel Butler had in mind as the life that is lived after death "on the lips of living men."

     And now another of that group has gone out of the pain and anguish of his later years leaving a trail of austere eloquence on the lips of living men.

     As I link Kennedy with The Golden Bough and its vegetation myths, so I link Smith with religious poets such as Donne and Eliot.  His poetry is essentially religious and his technique is metaphysical; it takes a symbol from life and fills it with religious asceticism.  He integrated Eliot's Waste Land into his Canadian consciousness.  As Eliot used "desert" imagery —  dry sand, dry stone, drought, sterile land, land without living water — to express the war-weariness, the sense of futility, the spiritual drought that depressed the English people after the First World War, so 'desert' became the symbol, or hypothesis, if you like, in Smith's poetry of contemporary Canadian life.  What hope was there of any spiritual revival in a land of dry sand, dry rock, and dry bones?

     Taking this desert imagery into his Christian consciousness, he wrote:

I'm for the desert and the desolation.
I have kissed my hands to distant trees
And to the girls with pitchers
Waiting at the well,
And I am set upon a pilgrimage
Seeking a more difficult beauty
Unheartened by even the most faint mirage.

I am not I, but a generation
Communicant with trickling sand
And grey and yellow desert stone-
The blood and body of our unknown god.

Does it not rival that true, perfect, divine Platonic beauty,

            . . . permanent and free
From frayle corruption, that doth flesh ensew.

of Spenser's sonnet?  All of which is not out of countenance with the "unknown God" that St. Paul presented to the Athenians.

     And he composed the "parable" of "an old proud king":

A bitter king in anger to be gone. . . . .
From fawning courtier and doting queen
Flung hollow sceptre and gilt crown away,
And breaking bound of all his countries green
He made a meadow in the northern stone
And breathed a palace of inviolable air
To cage a heart that carolled like a swan,
And slept alone, immaculate and gay,
With only his Pride for a paramour.

In this "lonely land" of "northern stone," far from the "green" pastures of a royal life, this "bitter king," "immaculate and gay" sings the "difficult, lonely music" of his lonely heart.  In such creations Smith plays the role of an early Christian ascetic simply because ascesis is in his blood.

     In "Prothalamium" he celebrates the "consummation" of a marriage with his "sister" the earth.  It takes place in a lightless room, while a "dead tree sings against the window pane" and "sand shifts a little" and "the wall responds a little, inch-meal, slowly down," and the consummation is evidenced by a "bitter root that stirs within her."  And Smith's mind goes back to the early practitioners of the ritual:

This holy sacrament was solemnized
In harsh poetics a good while ago — 
At Malfi and the Danish battlements,
And by that preacher from a cloud in Paul's.

and he identifies himself with them in this matter of metaphysical marriage:

Now these are me, whose thought is mine, and hers,
Who are alone here in this narrow room-
Tree fumbling pane, bell tolling,
Ceiling dripping and the plaster falling,
And death, the voluptuous, calling.

A "Danse Macabre" dressed in the cold participles of the Eliot period.

     To bring out another feature of Smith's poetic art I will quote a very brief construction, something of an epitaph.  He is standing "beside one dead" and writes:

This is the sheath, the sword drawn;
  These are the lips, the Word spoken;
This is Calvary toward dawn;
  And this is the third day token-
The opened tomb and the Lord gone:
  Something Whole that was broken.

It is a matter of restoring a "wholeness" that has been "broken."  After a sojourn in a "broken" world the Lord of Heaven leaves his "Word," for our guide and consolation, to return to his own kingdom and assume his majesty as "Lord of all Being," as Oliver Wendell Holmes sees him.  This restoration of a "wholeness" that life in our human bodies has "broken" is a drama that belongs to the tradition that originates in the "great treatise" of Parmenides who said "All is one."

     We are prepared for this hypothesis in other poems.  For instance, the title of a poem, "For Ever and Ever Amen," integrates an ancient metaphysics into Christian experience: the eternity of Being.

The Is is the same as the Will Be
And both the same as before . . .

In a dream poem:

Where eternity and time
Are the two sides of a drum. . .

the two sides beat as one, as timeless Being.   Now in the figure of Christ we have Being as a wholeness that had been broken and restored.

     I say that this intuition of wholeness takes us back to Parmenides who seems to be winning disciples in the modern world, perhaps because "all is one" sounds totalitarian.

     In The Listener report of an interview, Professor William Barrett of New York University evokes the ghost of Parmenides in his talk on the existentialism of the later Heidegger:

"Heidegger would say he is a follower of Parmenides, the Greek sage who had this electrifying idea of 'the all is one' — for the first time in human history the notion of totality of being as one thing, to which we have to relate ourselves in our thinking.  Heidegger feels that what has happened with modern culture is that we have lost those cosmic roots, that we have been detached from the sense of our connection with the whole."
                                                           (The Listener, February 16, 1978)

Ontology, the science of Being, has captured the imagination of recent American philosophers, especially J.K. Feibleman.  It postulates a primordial unity of Being which, by some historical quirk suffered a fracture, or fissure, or breakage, or fall which has made human life into a grand reunion of total Being.  This is the truth that I divine in the last line of Smith's "epitaph": "Something Whole that was broken."  As Christians, of course, we do our best by imitating the divine ideal we have in Christ.  As Smith and Eliot know, it is a hard way, the song in our heart is a lonely song, its blessings hard to catch.  It is a noble way, the way of the Knight of Faith.

     On his metaphysical, on his ontological ground even, I feel that we cannot take Smith as an infallible guide in the domain of poetic art.  Poetry, like the wind, bloweth where it listeth, and that is not always where it is born.  Nationalism is not sovereign in the realm of the spirit.

     It was Smith himself, in A Book of Canadian Poetry (1942), who divided his poets into two groups, the "cosmopolitan" and the "native" and in his anthology included the first group only.  It was Smith who, in The Oxford Book of Canadian Verse (1960), included poets of both groups.  Again, it was Smith who, in his Modern Canadian Verse (1967), rejected "the distinction that was once valid between a native and a cosmopolitan tradition" which had "grown rapidly less significant" since "modern Canadian poetry has developed a sensibility and a language that are international but not rootless — it joined Canada to the world."  Such statements reflect Smith's progress out of a fractured world into a world of unified sensibility such as T.S. Eliot would endorse.

     Standing beside him, at this last moment, we behold a Knight with his sword drawn, seasoned in war between flesh and spirit, fortified in the faith that he is the absolute, ideal figure of Christian man.