A. J. M. Smith's Revisions to His Poems

By Michael Darling

It has become a cliché to describe A.J.M. Smith as a craftsman, but his revisions to published poems give ample evidence of the care with which he corrected and polished his works.  Though he claimed to value the "finished work rather than the work of finishing,"1 he did write two articles that deal in some detail with the process of composition and revision.2   Because very little serious study of this aspect of Smith's poetic career has been attempted, I would like to discuss in some detail the craftsmanship of Smith as reflected in his revisions.  I shall concentrate on revisions made subsequent to initial publication, referring occasionally to manuscript materials where they are relevant and available.3

     It is difficult to generalize about Smith's habits in revising his work, but we can say with some assurance that about twenty per cent of his canon — comprising mainly the poems for which he is best-known — has undergone major changes at some time.  Another thirty per cent may be shown to have had minor revisions, and in fact, few of the poems that he has chosen to reprint have no textual variants whatsoever.4

     Like many poets, Smith revised considerably when collecting his poems for book publication, but he also reworked them between periodical publications.  In fact, the extent of Smith's publication in little magazines is considerable.  It is not unusual to find a poem of his in several different versions in Canadian, American, and British magazines.   "Epitaph," with which he concluded three of his collections, was first published in the McGill Fortnightly Review (9 January, 1926), then in the American magazine Voices later in the same year (June, 1926), in the Canadian Forum (August, 1928), in the British periodical Bermondsey Book (March-April-May, 1929), anthologized in New Provinces (1936), and finally collected in Smith's first book of poetry, News of the Phoenix (1943).  The original version of "Ballade un peu banale" was first published as "Pastorale" in the McGill Fortnightly Review (22 March 1926), slightly revised as "Chanson Un Peu Banale" in Voices (February-March, 1927), reprinted lacking one line by Raymond Knister in The New Outlook (15 June, 1927), revised and expanded with its present title in New Verse (June, 1934), reprinted without change in Bozart-Westminster (SpringSummer, 1935), revised again for Smith's anthology of light verse, The Worldly Muse (1951), and reached its final version in Collected Poems (1962).

     Revisions to any single work may constitute complete rewriting, as in "The Mermaid"5 or "Like an Old Proud King in a Parable."6  Or they may fall into any number of categories, such as title changes, of which Smith made thirty two.   Many of the early poems from the McGill Fortnightly Review underwent title changes as well as substantive revision in the course of preparation for book publication.   "Something Apart," for instance, became "The Two Birds" 36 years after its first publication.  "Universe Into Stone," "Bird and Flower," and "Choros" were all originally titled simply "Poem."

     Borrowing from his own works is not an uncommon aspect of Smith's revisions.  He took the phrase "staggers and falls" from "Something Apart" and used it, slightly altered, in a revised version of "The Lonely Land." In writing "They Say," he cannibalized a Fortnightly poem, "The Woman in the Samovar," for eight lines.

     Expansion is a normal result of much of this revision, as in "Three Phases of Punch" (24 lines to 72), "Universe Into Stone" (12 lines to 36), and "Ballade un peu banale" (12 lines to 36).  But other poems, like "Hellenica" and "In Memoriam: E.J.P.," were severely pruned in their final versions.  Some poems have been expanded ("Beside One Dead") or contracted ("Field of Long Grass") without much substantive alteration, simply by re-ordering the line lengths.  Frank Scott has joked that Smith split the lines of "The Lonely Land" in two when he found that The Dial paid by the line, but the aesthetic reasons for this change seem more convincing.7

     The trend in his verbal revisions is nearly always toward the elimination of hackneyed romantic diction and the substitution of vivid images or imaginative phrasing.  "Testament"8 is typical in this respect as the romantic overstatement is dropped in favour of visual images and increased Eliotesque or metaphysical speculation in the later Canadian Forum version.  Amongst other changes in "Like an Old Proud King in a Parable," Smith eliminated his over-used phrase "blood and bone" and his weakness for apostrophe — "O kingly One!" — and created the memorable "difficult, lonely music" which has become a catch-phrase for his poetry.9   In "Ode: On the Death of William Butler Yeats" he altered the banal line "The bird has sought the mountain top" to the more complex "The white swan plummets the mountain top," which is not only more in keeping with the Yeatsian imagery of the poem, but notable as well for its rare and imaginative usage of the word "plummet" as a verb.  "Far West" reveals a progressive alteration in the penultimate line, from "girl-smooth horses" to "girl-sleek horses" to the more satisfyingly alliterative "skintight stallions."10

     As we might expect, the bulk of this revision was undertaken between 1925 and 1954, when Smith was at the peak of his creative powers.  Let us now take a closer look at a few of the poems that were written and revised during this thirty-year period.

     "To Hold in a Poem" has often been judged one of Smith's best works.  It is usually grouped with "The Lonely Land," "The Creek," "Swift Current," and half a dozen other poems as representative of Smith's interest in the Canadian landscape and his adoption of an imagery that is sharp, vivid and austere.  In both "The Lonely Land" and "To Hold in a Poem," Smith tried to capture the essence of the north in words, but evidently he felt that neither poem represented him as he wished to be known, for he never reprinted them in his own anthologies.11  We know from studies by Desmond Pacey, Sandra Djwa, and John Ferns12 that in its original form, "The Lonely Land" was characterized by "romantic archaism"13 and "flat nationalist assertion."14   This is even more true of "To Hold in a Poem," as we can see from its first appearance, under the title of "Prayer," in the Literary Supplement to the McGill Daily (11 March, 1925):

I would take words
as strong as a jack pine;
as white as our snow;
as clear and as cold
as our ice;
as our birds
in our sunshine,
sweet as the winds that blow
in the spring to entice
our young lovers again
to the sun and the rain:
and I would make a song, — 
one song only,
O God,
only one! — 
to catch and keep for ever
the subtle, sweet, strong;
beautiful, lonely,
spirit of this land of river
and mountain and prairie and sun.

What this version of the poem clearly lacks is the crispness and austerity celebrated in its final form.  When Smith revised the poem for its next appearance, in the Supplement to the McGill News (March, 1927), he pruned the references to spring, lovers, and God.  Of more significance was his decision to give a more regular structure to his verse by rearranging the lines into quatrains with a conventional abab rhyme scheme.  The result is a very different poem, titled "For a Canadian Anthology":

I would take words
   As crisp and as white
As our snow; as our birds
  Swift and sure in their flight;

As clear and as cold
  As our ice; as strong as a jack pine;
As young as a trillium; as old
  As the Rockies' irregular line;

Sweet-smelling and bright
  As new rain; as hard
And as smooth and as white
  As a brook pebble clean and unmarred;

To hold in a poem of words,
  Like water in colourless glass,
The spirit of mountains like birds,
  Of forests as pointed as grass,

Snow drifting thin out of blue,
  Dark waters swirled into white.
Dark cedar, dark fir, and the blue
  Cold night and the blue cold light.

The lonely and austere
  Spirit of river and prairie,
Lonely, untouchable, clear
  As the eagle's high, loneliest eyrie.

Only the first and the fifth lines are unchanged.   The sunshine has disappeared, as have the winds, whose sweet quality has been transferred to the smell of the rain.  Of the five adjectives modifying the brook pebble, only "white" has been carried over from "Prayer." Similarly, the spirit of the land has retained only one of the six qualities originally attributed to it — loneliness.

     Further changes were made to the poem when it was published under its present title in Smith's second collection, A Sort of Ecstasy (1954).  The "Rockies' irregular line" became "Laurentia's long undulant line," keeping the same rhythm but altering and intensifying the basic alliterative pattern, while specifying the location of the poem as the Laurentian Shield, also the setting for "The Lonely Land."   The repetitious fifth stanza was excised, and the final stanza completely rewritten, as follows:

To hold in a verse as austere
As the spirit of prairie and river,
Lonely, unbuyable, dear,
The North, as a deed, and forever.

The first line of this stanza now echoes the first line of the fourth stanza.  This revision not only signals the conclusion of the poem, but also does away with an intrusive line of regular iambic feet, the only such line in the poem.  The shift in setting from Rockies to Laurentia has made the eagle rather more rare than typical.  Moreover, his eyrie seems to have existed mainly to rhyme with prairie, and its removal also eliminates a redundant adjective in "loneliest."  The reversed order of "river" and "prairie" makes "forever" a logical rhyming word, but the introduction of a noun — "The North" — in sequence with the three adjectives that seem to modify "spirit," and a new simile — "as a deed" — complicates the syntax of the entire stanza.  Smith's purpose is not unclear, however.  Substituting "unbuyable, dear" for "untouchable, clear" introduces an element of economic nationalism into the poem.  This land is not for sale, he says; like a "deed," legally binding, its heritage is forever.   But "deed," in the sense of act or performance, may also be linked syntactically with "To hold in a verse," playing on the notion of the immortality of poetry.  Thus, Smith has coupled the spirit of his Muse with that of the North: both are to remain "Lonely, unbuyable, dear."

     The process of revision, then, falls into two stages: in the first stage, Smith gave a formless poem a recognizable structure and rhyme scheme, substituting precise diction and vivid images for vague, emotionally charged concepts; in the second stage, he eliminated needless repetition, and specified his setting without unduly limiting his theme.  Although he did not choose to reprint it in the last selection he made of his poems, The Classic Shade (1978), it is clear that careful revision changed "To Hold in a Poem" from forgettable undergraduate verse to memorable poetry.

     When Desmond Pacey suggested in Ten Canadian Poets that the "surface gaiety and undercurrent of bitterness" in Smith's "Pagan," published in the Canadian Forum in 1924, is reproduced in his "most recently published poem,"15 "The Sorcerer" (Queen's Quarterly, 1954), he picked a rather poor example to demonstrate such a continuity of theme.  In fact, "The Sorcerer," far from being a recent poem in 1954, had been published, under a different title and lacking the first verse, in the first issue of the McGill Fortnightly Review (21 November, 1925).  It was then called "Not of The Dust" and ran as follows:

Let us imagine ourselves goldfish:
We would swim in a crystal bowl;
The cold water would go swish
Over our naked bodies; we would have no soul.

In the morning the syrupy sunshine
Would sparkle on our tails and fins;
We would have to stop talking of "Mine"
And "Thine"; we would have no more sins.

Come, then, let us dream of goldfish,
Let us put away intellect and lust,
Be but a red gleam in a crystal dish,
But kin of the cold sea, not of the dust.

In revising the poem for its next appearance, in 1954, Smith changed the title and placed the following stanza at the beginning:

There is a sorcerer in Lachine
Who for a small fee will put a spell
On my beloved, who has sea-green
Eyes, and on my doting self as well.

The effect of the addition is to shift the responsibility for this metamorphosis from the imagination of the poet to the action of the sorcerer.  Rather than the active initiator of transmutation, the poet becomes the passive recipient of the change.  The sorcerer assumes the role of poet, and Smith, like the modernist we expect him to be, wriggles out of the traditional myth-making role of the Romantic creator.

     Significant changes are also made to the other stanzas of the poem.  The new line 5 is not the imperative "Let us imagine ourselves goldfish" but "He will transform us, if we like, to goldfish."  The original lines 7 and 8 contained an ambiguity in that what is "Mine" and "Thine" is never specified — it might just as well be property as love.  Smith wanted to keep one of the pronouns for the rhyme with "sunshine" and the next line demanded the retention of "sins" as a rhyme for "fins" as well as a thematic hint at the consequences of having "no soul."  Here are the revised lines:

I shall have her then all for mine,
And Father Lebeau will hear no more of her sins.

The last line seems to be awkwardly long, but in fact it has the same number of syllables as the final lines in the two surrounding stanzas.  Thematically, the line suggests not that sins will cease, but that they will no longer be confessed; as fish, the lovers will be free from the constraints of human guilt.

     The last stanza simply reinforces the intention of the revisions already made.  Instead of invoking a dream of goldfish, the poet appeals to the sorcerer: "Come along, good sir, change us into goldfish."  The last line of the poem, like the final lines of verses 2 and 3, is dodecasyllabic in its revised form: "But kin of the trembling ocean, not of the dust."  In substituting two disyllabic words for two monosyllables, Smith also sacrifices the alliteration of "kin" and "cold," "sea" and "dust."  But the phrase "cold sea," which might be appropriate in the context of "To Hold in a Poem," is clearly alien to the "syrupy sunshine" of "The Sorcerer."  It is the animate and sensual quality of the fish and their surroundings that Smith seeks to convey, and therefore "trembling ocean" is a superior phrase.  Evidently pleased with the result of this rewriting, Smith reprinted the poem in every one of his collections since A Sort of Ecstasy.

     Smith continued depersonalization of his early verse in the revision of "Journey," which was first published in the McGill Daily (17 March, 1926):

One and by one
Under the drooping sun
My footsteps fall.

With unbowed head
And heavy tread
I go alone, —

The end unknown,
On either hand a wall.

In the cold wind
One comes behind
With overtaking tread.

I ask my heart
To bear a braver part
When he draws nigh.

Heart whispers, "Aye".
No other word is said.

The second version of the poem was published in The Dial (May, 1928).  I give this version in full to show the full range of alterations:

One and by one
Under a drooping sun
His footsteps fall.

With heavy tread
And unbowed head
He goes alone,

The end unknown,
On either hand a wall.

Death walks behind
With pace designed — 
An overtaking tread.

He asks of heart
To bear a braver part
When Death draws nigh:

And for reply —
Heart moveth not.  And all is said.

Where Death was a possible meaning for "One" in line 10 of the first version, here it is made specific, but the most significant change involves the elimination of the first person pronoun and the substitution of the generalized "He."  It is in line 12 that this revision is most acutely felt, where the possessive pronoun is omitted altogether in the Dial printing.   The rhythmic requirements of the line would, of course, remove the pronoun between "of" and "heart," but even were that not the case, the absence of the pronoun serves another purpose — it increases the objectivity of the experience by placing the heart outside the control of the man.  In the first version, "Heart" accedes to the speaker's request "To bear a braver part / When he draws nigh."  But the revised stanza is far more profound in its acceptance of death.  When "He asks of heart" the same thing in the revised poem, "for reply — / Heart moveth not.  And all is said."  Because Smith has eliminated the possessive pronoun to let the heart stand on its own, he is, in effect, underlining the inability of man to control his own destiny.  The imagery elsewhere supports this pessimistic conclusion.  The sun is "drooping," there is a wall on either side, Death is overtaking him.  With his head unbowed, the man asks, presumably with some selfassurance, that the heart show what it can do for him at the critical moment.  But the heart has nothing to say.  Indeed, "all is said."

     The problem of human mortality was raised again by Smith in "Good Friday," which has a fascinating history of textual transmission.  When the poem was first published in the Canadian Mercury (March, 1929), and reprinted in Poetry (May, 1935), it bore the dedication "To M.M." The dedication was dropped when the poem was published in News of the Phoenix, but Smith's debt to Marianne Moore needs to be acknowledged.   First of all, here is the text of "Good Friday" as it appears in Collected Poems:

This day upon the bitter tree
Died one who had he willed
Could have dried up the wide sea
    And the wind stilled,

And when at the ninth hour
He surrenderéd the ghost
His face was a faded flower,
    Drooping and lost.

Who then was not afraid?
Targeted, heart and eye,
Struck, as with darts, by godhead
    In human agony.

For him, who with a cry
Could shatter if he willed
The sea and earth and sky
    And them re-build,

Who chose amid the tumult
Of the darkening sky
A chivalry more difficult —
    As man to die,

What answering meed of love
Can this frail flesh return
That is not all unworthy of
    The god I mourn?

But the text of the poem, as submitted to The Dial, probably in 1927, was quite different.  Here is the original version of "Good Friday," from the typescript in the Smith Papers at the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, University of Toronto:16

This day upon the bitter tree
Died One who had he willed
Could have dried up the wide sea
And the sweet wind stilled,
Yet his great heart with a deep pity
   Only was filled.

And when at the ninth hour
He surrendered the weary ghost
His face like a faded flower
Drooped and its light was lost,
And darkness began to lower
   Over the host.

Who then was not afraid,
Turning large stony eyes
Away from the face of the dead,
Away from the face of the wise,
Though no blood, as some have said,
   Fell from the skies?

Indeed there was no one
Who watched and waited there
But felt in his soul a stone
Grow colder and grayer,
Yet waited — staring on — and on —
   In icy air,

While he who with a little cry
Could shatter if he willed
The sea and earth and sky
And them again re-build,
Chose rather what was difficult: to die — 
   The Word fulfilled.

     The weaknesses of the poem in this early version are quite apparent, and best illustrated in the fourth verse with its imprecise rhymes, faulty rhythm, and repetitious diction.  But included with this typescript is the following version with Smith's pencilled comment: "Marianne Moore's version of original 6 line stanza version of Good Friday submitted to Dial 1929 (?)":17

This day upon the bitter tree
Died one who had he willed
Could have dried up the wide sea
And the wind stilled

And when at the ninth hour
He surrenderéd the ghost
And darkness began to lower
Over the host,

Who then was not afraid,
Who turned not stony eyes
Away from the face of the dead,
Of the wise?

Of him who with a little cry
Could shatter if he willed
The sea and earth and sky
And them re-build.

Here is the rhythm and structure of the final version, as one can see by glancing back at the text already quoted from Collected Poems.  The tightening up of the stanzas from six lines to four is such an obvious improvement that one wonders why Smith had not thought of it himself.  The lines omitted — the last two in verses 1, 3 and 5, the middle two in verse 2, and all of verse 4 — are flabby and sentimental.  The excision of "weary" in the eighth line of the original version required the expansion of "surrendered" to four syllables, but that involved only the addition of an accent.  Though clearly better poetry, the Moore version still lacks the resolution that Smith had presented in his final stanza.

     The poem never was published in The Dial, but when it appeared, with its dedication, in the Canadian Mercury, it looked very much like the version written by Moore, but with some significant changes.  The first stanza remained the same, except that "one" was capitalized.  In stanza 2, Smith rejected the last two lines that Moore had kept, and re-introduced his "faded flower" image:

His face was a faded flower
Drooping and lost.

It seems likely that Smith wanted to retain the human and pitiable quality of Christ's physical appearance, as it contrasts with the vast potential of His powers.  He may also have intended an allusion to Isaiah 40.6: "The grass withereth, the flower fadeth; because the spirit of the Lord bloweth upon it: surely the people is grass." This statement is recalled by Christ in 1 Peter 1.24: "For all flesh is as grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of grass.  The grass withereth, and the flower thereof falleth away."

     Stanzas 3 and 4 were virtually identical to Moore's but Smith regularized the meter of stanza 4 by cancelling the word "little" in the initial line.  The addition of a fifth stanza overrode Moore's conception, as Smith returned to the difficult choice as a balance to the miracle not performed:

Who chose amid the tumult
Of the fading sky
A miracle more difficult:
As man to die.

     The next appearance of "Good Friday" was in Poetry six years later.  Except for the addition of some commas, this version was essentially the same as its predecessor in its first two stanzas.  But the third stanza was considerably altered:

Who then was not afraid?
Targeted, heart and eye
Struck, as with darts, by godhead
In human agony.

It is interesting to note the introduction of images from "The Archer" ("Targeted," "darts"), which Smith was working on at this time.  His description of the audience here emphasizes their vulnerability rather than the impassivity suggested by "stony eyes."  The last prepositional phrase is syntactically ambiguous, and rightly so, for the people are not only struck by the paradox of a god in human agony, but are themselves in agony at the sight.

     The fourth stanza is no longer in apposition to the third, but begins a sentence whose main verb is deferred to the new sixth stanza.  A slight change from "Of" to "For" is enough to indicate the new direction of the verse, forward rather than back, so that the structure of the poem is now marked by a division into two sections of three stanzas each, with a question concluding each section.

     The fifth verse has been revised to eliminate the unnecessary echo of line 7 in "fading sky," which becomes "darkening sky," while "miracle" is altered to "chivalry," removing the harsh alliteration of "miracle" and "difficult."  As well, "chivalry" places the actions of Christ on a different level: chivalry is the act of a man; a miracle the work of a god.  It is the human aspect of the situation that Smith chooses to stress, prompting the poet's question in the concluding stanza:

What answering meed of love
Can this frail flesh return
That is not all unworthy of
The friend I mourn?

The word "friend" places the "godhead" on the same level as the poet.  This association of Christ with the speaker is reinforced by the alliteration of "frail flesh" and "friend," echoing line 7 — "His face was a faded flower."   Thus, Christ's action has personal meaning for the poet because the sacrifice has been made by his "friend."

     Smith was not content to leave the poem there.  He continued to tinker with it, and indeed made several key changes in the text that was printed in News of the Phoenix First of all, he capitalized all the third person pronouns, emphasizing the godlike rather than human aspect of Christ.  He also capitalized "man" in line 20, which seems to generalize the whole conception of the "chivalry" of Christ; he does not die as a man, but as all mankind.  And, in the last line, he altered "friend" to "God."  Clearly, these changes shift the conception of the poem.  We can much less easily identify man with God than with a friend.  Furthermore, Smith changed "this frail flesh" to "finite flesh," diminishing the phonetic echo of line 7, and reducing still more the identification of speaker and Christ.   The reasons for the revision are difficult to determine.  It is possible that the Methodist orientation of Ryerson Press made a capitalized deity a doctrinally safer subject for a poem on Good Friday than a humanized friend.  But it is unlikely that Smith would have agreed to such a change unless he himself was comfortable with it.

     In any case, when Smith came to reprint "Good Friday" in his Collected Poems, he reverted to the Poetry text for some readings — one of the few instances in which he ever cancelled any of his revisions to restore earlier variants.  In the final version, all the capitalized pronouns are restored to lower case, "Man" reverts to "man," and "God" becomes "god."  In line 22, "this frail flesh" is restored.  In effect, Smith returned to the conception of the poem as published in 1935, but not without a struggle.  The galley proofs of Collected Poems18 show that Smith altered the lower-case h in "him" and "he" in lines 13 and 14 to upper case, and then changed his mind and wrote "stet."   This may have been only a momentary slip, of course, but in retaining his earlier readings, Smith preserves the unity of the poem in its conception of the nature of Christian sacrifice.  At the same time, we should be aware that the revision of "friend" to "God" to "god" somewhat detracts from this unity, giving the experience described a more universal, less Christian, orientation.  The slight reservation implied in this final line belies the confidence of one critic of the poem, John Ferns, who sees in the last stanza "the full force of Smith's Christian belief."19   In fact, to study the revisions to this poem, spanning some thirty-five years, is to recognize that its development is marked by a definite oscillation between competing views of the Christian passion.  Before making any judgment on Smith's final intentions, one needs to take into consideration all previous versions of the text.

     Let us turn now to one of the most complex poems in the Smith canon.  "Ode: The Eumenides" has been justly praised as one of Smith's most successful efforts, but this success was not won without hard labour.  Here is the poem as first published in the Canadian Poetry Magazine (August, 1941):

If we could go again
To the innocent wood
Where the crisp floor
Muffles the tread,

And the classic shade
Of cedar and pine
Soothes the depraved head
In the children's glen,

It might be
That the casual dead
In their stained shrouds
Would not find us there.

These times indeed
Breed anguish!
Is it foolish to seek
The faraway parish

In the naive forest
Where Holiness
Kissed us goodbye
And Honour lost us?

Betrayed by the bold
Front and the bright line
We have grown old
Alone, too soon. . .

But say that we return
To the sacred wood
Of piety and fear
And the significant dark?

It is there the Furies are!
The unravelled implacable host
With accurate eyes levelled
Wait in the enchanted shade.

Where we spilled
Our blood-begotten seed
They wait, each patient ghost
My Self, my ruined son!

     The poem was published in almost the same form, as "The Eumenides," in an American magazine, Vice Versa, in January, 1942.  The only textual variant of any significance is the alteration of "Alone" in line 24 to "The wrong way and."  A more heavily revised version appeared in News of the Phoenix and in Canadian Forum (October, 1943).  I quote the text of the former:

If we could go again to the innocent wood
Where the crisp floor muffles the tread
And the classic shade of cedar and pine
Soothes the depraved head
In the children's glen,
It might be that the casual dead
In their stained shrouds
Would not find us there.

  These times indeed
   Breed anguish.

Betrayed by the bold front and the bright line
How shall we return to the significant dark
Of piety and fear
Where Holiness smoothed our hair
And Honour kissed us goodbye?

  Where foreheads bleed
  The cry is blood!

We have a date in another wood,
In the stifling dark, where the Furies are:
The unravelled implacable host
With accurate eyes levelled
Wait in the enchanted shade;
Where we spilled our bloodshot seed
They wait, each patient ghost
My ruined son.

   The Furies lift the veil —
   I know that face!

     Here Smith has done almost the opposite of what he did in revising "The Lonely Land."  Instead of splitting one line into two, he has combined two lines into one, and reduced the first three stanzas of four lines each to a single stanza of eight lines, retaining the original lines 7, 8,11, and 12, and italicizing the first two lines of the fourth stanza as a kind of chorus.  The new second stanza begins with lines 21 and 22 combined into one, a revised version of lines 25 and 28 combined ("How shall we return to the significant dark"), followed by line 27, and a revised version of lines 18-20.  The total effect of the change is the same as that produced in lines 1-12.  Smith has taken three stanzas and made them into one, and in doing so has discarded the weak or ambiguous phrases ("the naive forest," "Honour lost us"), and made the personification more vivid and the irony more telling.  "Holiness smoothed our hair" reinforces the image of the speakers as naive children being patted on the head and sent off to play in the woods.  The new chorus then provides a more distinct contrast to Honour's deceptive kisses:

Where foreheads bleed
The cry is blood!

Finally, the last two stanzas have been joined into one.  The first line and a half are new, but otherwise Smith has kept fairly closely to the diction of the original.  The substitution of "bloodshot seed" for "blood-begotten seed" introduces a more suggestive pun.  The implications of "My Self, my ruined son!" are drawn out in a new chorus in which the poet recognizes the face behind the veil — presumably his own.

     The next publication of "Ode: The Eumenides" is in the second edition of The Book of Canadian Poetry (1948), but it is printed there with twenty-five additional lines.  It is extremely unusual for a poet to revise for an anthology, but this was, of course, Smith's own book, and he evidently wanted to be represented by the most recent version of his poem.  Where the twenty-five new lines came from is intriguing.  They were first printed as a separate poem entitled "On Seeing Pictures of the War Dead" in Canadian Forum (December, 1944), just over a year after the Forum had published "Ode: The Eumenides." These are the lines which became section II of the "Ode":

How shall we ask
For what we need whose need
Is less, not more?
Now that the dragon seed

Grows tall and red, we
Harvest in the field
Sharp sheaves, and see
The reaper felled

By what we took such care
To sow so straight.
Our secular prayer,
Sincere and passionate,

Created its own
Power and instrument
And will.  There is none,
However innocent

In heart or head,
That shall escape
The stench of the dead
Emptied and butchered hope

In these lives made
Meaningless froth
By us who were afraid
Of life, but not of death.

The poem is structurally and thematically very similar to the first version of "Ode: The Eumenides."  Even some of the same words are present in both works — "innocent," "seed," "dead" — which leads me to suspect that "On Seeing Pictures of the War Dead" was composed at about the same time as "Ode: The Eumenides" and was originally part of the same poem.  "Pictures" was reprinted with only the position of a single word altered in Contemporary Poetry (Autumn, 1946).

     The Book of Canadian Poetry text, slightly modified in A Sort of Ecstasy and again in Collected Poems, is essentially the final version of the poem, and curiously, Smith returned in it to his original short line.  He re-divided lines that he had previously combined and speeded up the movement of the verse.  The short stanzas of "Pictures" were brought together, preceded by a three-line chorus, with virtually no substantive changes, as section II.  Later, the chorus made from the first three lines of "Pictures" was repeated at the end of Section II, and the final two lines of that poem were dropped.  Thus, a poem of thirty-six lines grew, with the addition of another poem of twenty-four lines, to sixty lines and then was pruned back to fifty-eight

     To conclude the textual history of this poem on an odd note, it is surprising to find that when ellipse published a number of Smith's poems with translations in 1978, the editors used the text of "Ode: The Eumenides" found in A Sort of Ecstasy (or The Book of Canadian Poetry, third edition), with its extra lines, so that the translator worked with the sixty-line version of the poem, and not the final text as Smith revised it for Collected Poems.

     I would like to conclude by looking at "The Archer," which is one of Smith's best-known poems, and which must have been one of his favourites.  He printed it in every one of his collections, in the third edition of The Book of Canadian Poetry (1957), and in The Oxford Book of Canadian Verse (1960).  He also discussed its composition in "The Poetic Process: On the Making of Poems." In the article, Smith recalls his attempts to begin a poem on death with echoes of Shelley and Longfellow in his mind, and the mental image of an arrow in the sky.  Here is the text of the poem that he discusses:

Bend back thy bow, O Archer, till the string
Is level with thine ear, thy body taut,
Its nature art, thyself thy statue wrought
Of marble blood, thy weapon the poised wing
Of coiled and aquiline Fate.  Then, loosening, fling
The hissing arrow like a burning thought
Into the empty sky that smokes as the hot
Shaft plunges to the bullseye's quenching ring.

So for a moment, motionless, serene,
Fixed between time and time, I aim and wait;
Nothing remains for breath now but to waive
His prior claim and let the barb fly clean
Into the heart of what I know and hate — 
That central black, the ringed and targeted grave.

By a laborious process, involving, he says, twenty or more drafts, he completed the first four and a half lines as quoted above.   The next three and a half, the sentence beginning "Then, loosening, fling . . ." came a good deal more easily:

The "inspiration" of the final phrase the bullseye's quenching ring was made easy, if not inevitable, by the necessity for a rhyme — indeed, after string, wing, fling, what is there but ring?  But it is the word quenching that is best of all — the final anticlimactic word to follow hissing, burning, and smokes and to prepare for the identification at the very end of the poem of the bullseye with the grave, the "earthen lake" of Anglo-Saxon poetry.20

     Smith then goes on to describe the composition of the sestet of his sonnet, but nowhere does he indicate that the poem was ever revised after its first publication.  In fact, it is clear from the way in which he presents his argument that the version of "The Archer" that he is discussing is the original version.  He speaks of its conception, the beginning of composition, the drafts and labours of revision, all as part of a continuous process, ending in the finished product whose text is given above as it has appeared in all of Smith's books.  It is the only version known to Smith's critics, and from his account, it would seem to be the only published version in existence.  But, in fact, this is not true.  What follows is "The Archer" as it first appeared, in the Canadian Forum (January 1937):

Bend back thy bow, O archer, till the string
Is level with thin ear, thy body taut,
It's nature art, thyself thy statue wrought
Of marble blood, and the great bow black wing,
Of cold Necessity; then, loosening, fling
The coiled potential into sightless speed,
Shrouding the dreadful passage of the deed
As the sharp barb plunges to the central ring.

So, for a moment, motionless, serene,
Fixed between time and time, I aim and wait.
Nothing remains for breath now but to waive
His prior claim and let the shaft fly clean
Into the heart of what I know and hate,
That central black, the ringed and targeted grave.21

     The second quatrain of this version is very different from what Smith tells us he wrote in the passage quoted above.  We can sympathize with the author's belief that "quenching" is indeed the right word to follow the sequence of "hissing" and "burning," and that "Shrouding the dreadful passage of the deed" is clearly inferior to what eventually became line 7.  But it is strange that he makes no mention of this version of "The Archer" in his article.  I cannot say whether Smith forgot or chose to ignore the Canadian Forum text of the poem when he wrote his account of its composition in 1964.  I do suggest that this version antedates the one discussed by Smith, and yet it is by no means the earliest version in existence.  Among the Smith Papers at Trent University is a typescript of News of the Phoenix submitted to the University of Chicago Press early in 1943, before Smith had concluded arrangements with Coward-McCann for co-publication of his book with Ryerson Press.  But the typescript was probably prepared much earlier than 1943.  The Table of Contents lists the date of periodical publication for some of the poems, but not for "The Archer."  The last date given is April 1934, but "To a Young Poet" and "A Soldier's Ghost" are noted as having appeared in Poetry, though no date is given.  These poems were first published in Poetry in July 1934.  They may have been forthcoming at the time Smith dated the other poems, which would make the earliest date for the typescript no later than July 1934, while the inclusion of "The Archer" without any indication of previous publication would make the terminal date for the typescript no later than the date of its first publication~January 1937.  If we incline to an earlier date, then the version of "The Archer" included there is likely closer to the original manuscript.  Because the sestet is almost identical to that printed in the Canadian Forum text, I give only the octave:

Bend back thy bow, O archer, till the string
Is level with thine ear, each muscle taut
Each sinew braced; thyself thy statue, wrought
Of marble blood; the great bow like the spread wing
Of an antique god: then, loosening, fling
The coiled potential into the cloudy nought
That veils the tremor of the sharp barb caught
Quivering in the core of the central ring.22

Because the Forum text agrees against that of News of the Phoenix to a greater degree than does the above, it is apparent that this typescript version is the earlier.  A glance at line 8, for instance, shows clearly that the Forum text is the intermediate version, as "Quivering in the core of the central ring" developed into "As the sharp barb plunges to the central ring," which then became "Shaft plunges to the bullseye's quenching ring."

     Other manuscripts may become available which will shed more light on the textual transmission of the poem.  Until such time, students of Smith's text should be cautious about any discussion of the making of his canon.  What is offered here is no more than an introduction to serious textual criticism.  Far more work remains to be done when manuscript material is taken into consideration.  We have barely begun to see what the craftsmanship of A.J.M. Smith really involves.


  1. A.J.M. Smith, "The Poetic Process: On the Making of Poems," Towards a View of Canadian Letters: Selected Critical Essays 1928-1971 (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1973), p. 217.  The essay was originally delivered as the Fifth Annual Centennial Review Lecture at Michigan State University, and first published in The Centennial Review of Arts & Science, 8 (1964), 353-370.[back]

  2. As well as the article cited above, see "A Self-Review," Canadian Literature, No. 15 (Winter, 1963), 20-26, reprinted in Towards a View of Canadian Letters, pp. 211-216.[back]

  3. There are some manuscripts in the Smith Papers at the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, University of Toronto, and a great many more in the Smith Papers at Trent University.[back]

  4. The evidence for these conclusions may be found in my dissertation, "A Variorum Edition of the Poems of A.J.M. Smith with a Descriptive Bibliography and Reference Guide," York University, 1979.[back]

  5. First published as "Legend" in the McGill Fortnightly Review (6 March, 1926), and much revised in Poetry (April, 1941) under its present title.[back]

  6. First published as "Proud Parable" in Canadian Mercury, (December, 1928), and much revised in Hound & Horn (January-March, 1932) under its present title.[back]

  7. See "The Fortnightly's Forthright Four," McGill News, 44 (Autumn, 1963), 18.[back]

  8. First published in the McGill Fortnightly Review (10 March, 1927), reprinted by Raymond Knister in The New Outlook (20 July, 1927), and revised by Smith in the Canadian Forum (August, 1930).  The poem was never collected by Smith, but it has been reprinted elsewhere.[back]

  9. This phrase was first introduced in the version printed in Hound & Horn (see note 6), rather than in New Provinces, as suggested by I.S. MacLaren in "The Yeatsian Presence in A.J.M. Smith's 'Like an Old, Proud King in a Parable,' " Canadian Poetry, No. 4 (Spring/Summer, 1979), 61.  The poem entitled "Proud Parable" in the McGill Fortnightly Review (6 March, 1926) bears little resemblance to the Canadian Mercury version cited above, and should be regarded as a separate poem.[back]

  10. The revision has been discussed by Smith, without mentioning the intermediate variant, in "A Self-Review," Towards a View of Canadian Letters, p. 212.[back]

  11. Smith considered "The Lonely Land" to be too romantic.  See Michael Darling, "An Interview with A.J.M. Smith," Essays on Canadian Writing, No. 9 (Winter, 1977-78), 59.[back]

  12. Revisions to "The Lonely Land" are discussed by Desmond Pacey in "A.J.M. Smith," Ten Canadian Poets (Toronto: Ryerson Press, 1958), pp. 212-214, by Sandra Djwa in " 'A New Soil and a Sharp Sun': The Landscape of a Modern Canadian Poetry," Modernist Studies, 2 (1977), 12; and by John Ferns in "The Poetry and Criticism of A.J.M. Smith," Bulletin of Canadian Studies, 2 (April, 1978), 19-22.[back]

  13. Pacey, p. 212.[back]

  14. Djwa, p. 12.[back]

  15. Pacey, pp. 198-199.[back]

  16. Ms. Collection 15, Box 3.  Quoted by permission of the estate of A.J.M. Smith, and the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library.[back]

  17. As I have suggested above, I believe the poem was submitted to The Dial earlier than 1929, probably in 1927.  See the letter of Marianne Moore to A.J.M. Smith, 14 December, 1927, in the Smith Papers at the Trent University Archives, B-78-007/1(2).[back]

  18. Smith Papers, Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, map case.[back]

  19. A.J.M. Smith (Boston: Twayne, 1979), p. 73.[back]

  20. "The Poetic Process," Towards a View of Canadian Letters, p. 225.[back]

  21. I did not want to intrude a sic into the text but it should be noted that "thin" in line 2 and "It's" in line 3 are printed thus in the Forum text.  Both are evidently misprints.[back]

  22. Smith Papers, Trent University Archives, B-78-007/5(1).  Quoted by permission of the estate of A.J.M. Smith, and Trent University.[back]