Poet and Professor of English,
Michigan State University



Ralph Gustafson

University Poet in Residence

for the degree of D.C.L. (Honoris Causa)

at the Special Convocation
on the opening of the Bishop's University
Centennial Theatre,
January 14, 1967.



Mr. Chancellor,

May I, on this occasion, present to you a man very distinguished indeed in the field of the Arts in Canada. He stands with native modesty before us primarily as a representative of Canadian poetry. But so manifold are his accomplishments that he overlaps in a very immodest manner into the whole topography of Canadian Letters. His birthright is poetry and Quebeca difficult territory. But since the day he tumbled into the map of Canada, he has critically moved into so many provinces that he literally belongs everywhere. If I were forced to designate his place on the map with a coloured pin, I would put it in the Northwest Passage. That route to fabulous riches has now been pretty well sounded. I would still put him there. This ancient mariner is still busy charting the perilous seas. Like the father of Tristram Shandy, he believes


that there is a Northwest passage to the intellectual world.

I have no doubt that at times he feels lost. This is very comic. This navigator is himself the map. Unlike Gaul, I would divide him into four parts: poet, critic, editor and educator. It seems hardly necessary to name him: Arthur James Marshall Smith; in print, known as A.J.M. Smith. In fact, for recognition, A.J.M. is enough.

I first looked upon him as A.J.M. Smithwith awe and somewhat in trepidation (I have since come to learn that he isn't awful). We are much of the same vintage but that did not mollify my first attitude much. At the time I first read his poems, I was trying to bethe ambition kept very much to myself but showing, like the stuffing out of a Victorian sofaI was trying to be another John Keats. A.J.M. Smith, I discovered to my great disturbance, was pulling the stuffing out of Victorian furniture. This left me nowhere to sit on: I respected him. He was already on his navigations: to the Galway of Yeats; the Waste Land of Eliot. I was in Sherbrooke. I soon leftmetaphorically following A.J.M. Smith.

Poets in Canada owe him an historic debt. As much as any single figure, AJ.M. Smith brought the poetic climate of Canada up to date. Instead of the purple afterglow of the Romantic sunset, because of him we found ourselves in a climate


as cold

And passionate as the dawn.

In an early poem he says:


I would take words...

As clear and as cold

As our ice; as strong as a jack pine;

As young as a trillium, and old

As Laurentia's long undulant line...


To hold in a verse as austere

As the spirit of prairie and river,
Lonely, unbuyable, dear,
The North, as a deed, and forever.

In prose, he wrote:


Not such easy things as vagueness and 'niceness', but difficult things

precision and intensityare the marks of the genuine in poetry.


These are not only the right precepts, they are the only possible Canadian precepts. Smith's directives were up to date; they were also, whether he knew it or not, essentially Canadian. This was the climate that distinguishes us.

Smith moved strongly. In 1925, as an undergraduate, he helped found the McGill Fortnightly Review which showed the way into contemporary, and therefore, vital poetic communication. In 1928, he publicly declared: Sensibility is no longer enough, intelligence is also required. Even in Canada. In Protean fashion, he had taken his Bachelor's degree in Science. He went on to an M.A. in English, his thesis: a study of the poetry of Yeats; then on to the University of Edinburgh for a Doctorate in 17th century poetry. He was in tune with the times.

The academic engagements were also prophetic. They define the temper of A.J.M. Smith's poetry: the conceit, the wit, the intellectual passion of Donne; the classicism, the daily engagement, the passionate intellectualism of Yeats; the fastidious craftsmanship of both. Allocation of his poetry to these areas is praise he himself would discountenance. It nevertheless defines his dedication. I venture to assert that A.J.M. Smith has written the best hundred poems from a single hand in Canada. I direct doubts to his Collected Poems, published in 1962.

By his poems, by his criticism, by his activities as an editor, Arthur Smith established the right poetic directions. He brought Canada up to date; he set the canon of taste. So much so, that we can now take ourselves poetically for granted. Let us not forget the effort: Smith's various editions since 1943 of The Book of Canadian Poetry; his essays and papers and critical articles; his continuing volumes of The Book ofCanadian Prose; his co-editing of The Blasted Pine, taking Canada down a peg or two lest we become swell-headed because of him; his Oxford Book of Canadian Verse; and his Oxford Book of Modern Canadian Verse. As an educator, as a professor at Michigan State University and elsewherehe established a graduate school in Canadian Literature at Dalhousie Universityhe has broken down ignorance of and engaged interest in Canadian writing, at home and abroad.

Above all, he has given us his own poetry.

And so, Mr. Chancellor, for this gift of his poetry, the aristocracy of his imagination, for his contribution toward the establishment of a canon for testing and correcting our literary estate, for his unshakable and irreverent humanism, I present to you, for the highest award that Bishop's University has to bestow, Arthur James Marshall Smith.