"Back to the Woods Ye Muse of Canada": Conservative Response to the Beginnings of Modernism

by Don Precosky

Large changes in literature are usually evolutionary rather than revolutionary. Periods overlap and melt into each other. The post-World War I era was an exception. Lines were drawn. New and old stood clearly delineated. In the 1920's in Canada younger writers, for the first time in the nation's history questioned the assumptions of their elders and vigorously rebelled against accepted literary standards. There was a generation gap. One sign of this gap was the way in which old liners and young Turks differed in their response to two key questions: "Is there a Canadian literature?" and "Is modernism a good thing?" This essay focuses principally upon what conservative critics had to say about these two questions. Their answers constitute the attempts of a dying tradition to preserve itself in the face if inevitable change.

     Those who claimed there was a Canadian literature based their claim upon the achievements of poets such as Roberts, Carman, Lampman, and D.C. Scott and fiction writers like Leacock, Connor and Parker. These same critics also abhorred modern fiction and poetry for abandoning the styles and subjects of those they acknowledged as Canadian greats. Those who supported modernism (they were usually young poets who also wrote criticism) and who judged literature by its standards, found the Canadian tradition wanting. By their lights no Canadian had written anything worthy of being called literature. Moderation was a rare commodity, although some can be found. John Murray Gibbon in The Canadian Bookman (1919)1 gave a fair and objective analysis of modernism that showed him to be a well read in the new poetry of London and Chicago. Raymond Knister, influenced by the Georgians and the imagists, sought a union of modernism and nationalism. For example, in "Canadian Letter" he called for a little magazine "devoted to creative work . . . which should give a voice to what is actually being lived among us".2  They were the exceptions. In the main, the intransigence and extremism of the two sides is surprising, even more than five decades later.

     Although Lorne Pierce claimed that "we have happily left behind the days when . . . the proper attitude toward our new school of native letters was one of sheer rhapsody, as noisy as it was uncritical,"3 there is ample evidence of excessive praise and of doublethink among critics who claimed that there was a reputable Canadian literature. W.E. MacLellan, writing in The Dalhousie Review, assessed Maria Chapdelaine and Wild Geese as superior to any American novel.4  A.M. Stephen in "The Major Note in Canadian Poetry" (1929) ranked Roberts' turgid "In the Wide Awe and Wisdom of the Night" with "Ozymandias," "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer," and "Upon Westminster Bridge" and said that "The White Gull" by Carman was the equal of "Lycidas" and "In Memoriam".5

     On the other side there was the extremism of Leo Kennedy who claimed that "practically all Canadian writing in English is negligible as literature".6   Kennedy complained that writers of his generation had "as yet no worthwhile tradition of their own" and that "they do not talk of Lampman, Campbell, Robert W. Service or Charles G.D. Roberts" for "they are distrustful of the dignified cultural stupidities of their elders" (100).

     For a decade after the War there was a run on nationalistic articles with titles like "Where is Canadian Literature?", "Manifesto for a National Literature", and "Attributes of a National Literature".7  All agreed that the depiction of nature was the central feature of writing by Canadians. Georges Bugnet was giving voice to a widely held belief when he wrote that

in Canada, more than anywhere else on earth . . . the land is more than man, nature is greater than man. Man can fight against her, transform the southern fringe into a human, civilized dominion, but the great northern forests and barren lands will always stand, masterful, smile or frown on him, push him back — and we know it, we feel it.8

According to one anonymous critic, nature gave not only a subject to Canadian writers: it also set the nation's moral tone, "the spirit peculiar to Canadianism," giving it an "integrity" and "pioneer freshness" which were lacking in the older European nations.9

     Lawrence Burpee went so far in the Canadian Bookman as to compile a list of books and writers "that seem to me to teach . . . national selfrespect". The list was as follows:

1. The Clockmaker
2. De Mille's BOWC series
3. poems by Roberts and Carman "particularly those memorable ballads by Carman that have in them the very sound and atmosphere of the sea"
4. De Gaspe's Canadians of Old
5. Rivard's Our Old Quebec Home
6. Frechette's Christmas in French Canada
7. Drummond's verse
8. Mrs. Traill, Mrs. Moodie, Major Richardson, Crawford's poetry
9. Leacock's Sunshine Sketches
10. Westerners: Charles Mair, Gilbert Parker, Ralph Connor, Marjorie Pickthall Stead, Mrs. Reeve, Mrs. Salverson, Douglas Durkin10

Burpee's national pantheon is top-heavy with writers whose major subject is nature or the pioneer life in which nature plays an important role. The majority are nineteenth-century figures, some of who lived into the twentieth. None can be described as experimenters.

     Most of these same critics were passionately opposed to modernism. It was described as "intellectual Bolshevism", "lunacy", and "the foetid breath of decadence''.11 Ramsay Traquair, observing in the Canadian Bookman that "Ezra Pound does not care for the beat of the metronome" added, with ill-concealed hope, "let him listen to the beating of his own heart and he will find that he is a human metronome. A very slight variation in his own rhythm and he would write poetry no more''.12  H. Glynn-Ward in "A Plea for Purity" railed against "the German monomaniac Freud" whose works "besmirched the minds of school-girls and boys" and against D.H. Lawrence who devotes whole pages to minute descriptions of the most bestial vices''.13  Her words smack more of Puritanism than of purity.

     Free verse was the most angrily attacked facet of the new writing. The crusade against it gave rise to most of the all too few examples of wit in the criticism of the decade (aside from Deacon's hilarious The Four Jameses). Crawford Irving produced the following parody of a free verse manifesto:

Our thoughts are too magnificent, too dynamic to be confined in rhyme and meter any longer. For over three thousand years the poets have slavishly followed the poetic laws. Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, Tennyson, laws that Homer followed. We, my brothers, must have freedom.14

E.K. Broadus in the Canadian Forum related how

I knew a man once who went mad. He had been meticulously careful in manners and dress. The first symptom of his mental disintegration was a progressive slouchiness. His dress grew unseemly. Then it became disgusting. Then he was incarcerated, and I lost track of him; but I am persuaded that if he is still alive he is a writer and publisher of free verse. (242)

These same boisterous attacks also led to some howlers which exposed the critics' obvious lack of knowledge of their targets. John Hurley, for example, railed against "T.G. Elliott's 'Wasteland' "15 while J.A. Roy provided as an example of the "rubbish of Mr. Ezra Pound" six lines of "The Love-song of J. Alfred Prufrock''.16

     When their tempers were in check a few critics were able to register some reasoned objections to free verse. The general feeling was that free verse poetry was not art because it did not make strict enough demands upon the poet. They argued that it was in fact a kind of verbal anarchy that "tempts the poet to slouchiness, to the idea that he can blurt out anything, and if he but disarrange it sufficiently, make it pass for free verse" (Broadus, 242). Mark McElhinney contended that "rhythm is the very essence of poetry" and that an abandonment of regular rhythm is "the evidence of mental fatigue''.17 E.K. Broadus complained that the new poetry, like "the mechanical eye of the camera sees, [but] it has no vision" (245). He also feared that "with all these old sanctions thrown overboard, with all these traditional restraints removed, nine out of ten would-be poets, who might have been discouraged into silence by the old regimen come skipping and somersaulting blithely into print" (245). These fears were largely ill-founded. The poet who will "blurt out anything" in free verse is simply a bad poet and will not fare any better with the sonnet or heroic couplet. The fact that free verse requires just as much art as more traditional forms is evident in poems like Pratt's "Newfoundland" and "The Shark" or Smith's "The Lonely Land".

     The assumption held by many conservative nationalist critics was that Canada would avoid the contagion of modernism. Lionel Stevenson predicted that

it is improbable that any sudden shift will occur in the proportion of natural and artificial elements in Canadian life. So one may venture to predict that, for some time to come, Canadian literature will provide a refreshing haven of genuine romanticism to which the reader may retreat when he seeks an antidote to the intellectual tension imposed by the future progeny of "The Wasteland" and "Spoon River".18

     The deepest wish of this older generation of critics was expressed by N. de Bertrand Ludgrain, who likened the post-War world to the situation in Peter Pan. Writers, he claimed, had lost their faith in mankind "just as children in Peter Pan had lost their belief in fairies".19  Someone must act the part of Peter Pan to restore this faith and

we venture to suggest that Canada should take upon herself the responsibility of being this sort of Peter Pan. That the novelists, poets and every sort of writer in Canada endeavour to bring back to the world faith in the old ideals. We do believe that there is no other country in the world better fitted to a task of inspiring this sort of literature than is Canada. And surely there could not be a task more honourable and glorious. (117)

Ludgrain's reference to Peter Pan is sadly appropriate because he and others of his persuasion were living in a fairyland.

     A few Canadians in the late 'teens and early 'twenties showed some modernist influence, particularly from the imagists. Such poets include Arthur Stringer in Open Water20 (1914), the first Canadian book entirely in modern free verse, Lawren Harris in Contrasts21 (1922), Louise Morey in Dream Tapestries22 (1924), and F.O. Call in Acanthus and Wild Grape23 (1920). The critical response these books received in Canada was generally negative. Reviewers based their attacks on matters of form. An anonymous reviewer in Saturday Night advised Stringer "not to turn his back definitely on the resources of rhyme as he does in this book".24   Florence Deacon Black in Canadian Magazine aimed this same advice at Harris25 while Barker Fairley complained in the Canadian Forum that "Mr. Harris has been betrayed by the appalling laxity of the vers-libre habit now rife on this continent".26  Bowman and Call were also called to task for writing so-called undisciplined free verse. Most Canadian critics were opposed, in principle, to the idea of free verse.

     The members of the McGill group knew that Canadian writers could not lead the world back to the past, because that world was no more. In "Contemporary Poetry" A.J.M. Smith wrote that

our universe is a different one from that of our grandfathers, nor can our religious beliefs be the same. The whole movement away from the erroneous but comfortable stability towards a more truthful and sincere but certainly less comfortable state of flux. Ideas are changing and therefore manners and morals are changing. It is not surprising, then, to find that the arts, which are an intensification of life and thought, are likewise in a state of flux.27

Smith knew that there was in his generation a small corps of poets and novelists who could not, in good conscience, follow slavishly in the footsteps of older Canadian writers. In order to write of life as they saw it they had to turn to foreign models such as Yeats whose "symbolism is a definite repudiation of . . . the scientific materialism, the bleak morality, and the easy objectivity of much of literature of the late nineteenthcentury"28 and Eliot who can "portray disintegration . . . by splintered images and broken sequences".29  Implicit in his statements is the conclusion that there is no Canadian tradition upon which to build.

     We can see how the two questions of modernism and a national tradition were closely related. Those who claimed that there was a Canadian literature tended to argue for a static tradition. Those who sought to introduce the new methods of modernism justified the changes they proposed on the grounds that traditional Canadian writing was worthless. The conservative nationalists won the battle in that public opinion sided with them, but they lost the war. They remind one of Tiresias in Dante's Inferno who walks ahead with his head on backwards. The nineteenth and early twentieth centuries had given Canada writers of some stature. Most critics wanted younger poets and novelists to carry on in their tradition with their rhyme schemes and their nature description. They did not want something new and disturbing dragged into the picture. After the interruption of the War, they wanted Canadian literature to return, as B.K. Sandwell put it, "Back to the woods, ye Muse of Canada — back to the woods!"30


  1. John Murray Gibbon, "Rhymes With and Without Reason," The Canadian Bookman, 1 (1919), 26-34.[back]

  2. Raymond Knister, "Canadian Letter," in The First Day of Spring (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1976), p. 379.[back]

  3. Lorne Pierce, "Canadian Literature and the National Ideal," Canadian Bookman, 7 (1925), 143.[back]

  4. W.E. MacLellan, "Real 'Canadian Literature'," Dalhousie Review, 6 (1926/7), 23.[back]

  5. A.M. Stephen, "The Major Note in Canadian Poetry," Dalhousie Review, 9 (1929/30), 61.[back]

  6. Leo Kennedy, "The Future of Canadian Literature," Canadian Mercury, 1 (1929), 99.[back]

  7. J.M. Gibbon, "Where is Canadian Literature?" Canadian Magazine, 50 (1918), 333-340 Lionel Stevenson, "Manifesto for a National Literature," Canadian Bookman, 6 (1924) 35-36, 46; Anonymous, "Attributes of a National Literature," Canadian Bookman, 6 (1924), 61-63.[back]

  8. Georges Bugnet, "An Answer to Lionel Stevenson's Manifesto," Canadian Bookman, 6 (1924), 85-86.[back]

  9. Anonymous, see note 7.[back]

  10. Lawrence Burpee, "The National Note in Canadian Literature," Canadian Boohman, 7 (1925), 34.[back]

  11. Crawford Irving, "Bolshevism in Modern Poetry," Canadian Bookman, 7 (1925), 64; E.K. Broadus, "The Lunatic, the Lover, and the Poet," Canadian Forum, 3 (1923), 242, H. Glynn-Ward, "A Plea for Purity," Canadian Bookman, 6 (1924), 64.[back]

  12. Ramsay Traquair, "Free Verse and the Parthenon," Canadian Bookman, 1 (1919), 26.[back]

  13. Glynn-Ward, see note 11.[back]

  14. Crawford Irving, 67. See note 11.[back]

  15. John Hurley, "Mr. Elliott's Wasteland," Canadian Bookman, 5 (1923), 126.[back]

  16. J.A. Roy, "Realism in Modern Poetry," Queen's Quarterly, 30 (1922/23), 388.[back]

  17. Mark G. McElhinney, "Letter to Canadian Bookman," Canadian Bookman, 7 (1925), 15.[back]

  18. Lionel Stevenson, Appraisals of Canadian Literature (Toronto: Macmillan, 1926), p. 62.[back]

  19. N. deBertrand Ludgrain, "A Peter Pan of Literature,"Canadian Bookman, 8 (1926),117.[back]

  20. Arthur Stringer, Open Water (Toronto: Bell and Cockburn, 1914).[back]

  21. Lawren Harris, Contrasts, A Book of Verse (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1922).[back]

  22. Louise Morey Bowman, Dream Tapestries (Toronto: Macmillan, 1924).[back]

  23. F.O. Call, Acanthus and Wild Grape (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1920).[back]

  24. Anonymous, Review of Open Water by Arthur Stringer, Saturday Night, February 19, 1915, p. 8.[back]

  25. Florence Deacon Black, Review of Contrasts by Lawren Harris, Canadian Magazine, 60 (1923), 273-274.[back]

  26. Barker Fairley, Review of Contrasts by Lawren Harris, Canadian Forum, 3 (1923), 120.[back]

  27. A.J.M. Smith, "Contemporary Poetry," The McGill Fortnightly Review, 2 (1926), 31.[back]

  28. Smith, "Symbolism in Poetry," The McGill Fortnightly Review, 1 (1925/26), 11.
  29. Smith, "Hamlet in Modern Dress," The McGill Fortnightly Review, 2 (1926), 2.[back]

  30. B.K. Sandwell, "The Deforestation of Canadian Poetry," in The Privacy Agent (London: Dent, 1928), p. 101.[back]