Canadian Post-Romanticism: the Context of Late Nineteenth-Century Canadian Poetry

By Les McLeod


Three categories — Romantic, Victorian and Confederation — have commonly been used to suggest the context within which English-Canadian poetry of the late nineteenth century should be seen. None is satisfactory. “Romantic,” because it implies the importance of nature and the individual, is the most accurate of the three terms. But it posits a beneficent, harmonious and ideal interaction between man and nature. In Canada, when a persona attempts to experience nature in this way, when, so to speak, he or she attempts the pathetic fallacy, the overture is rebuffed, and the persona becomes self-aware in nature. This powerful awareness of self in contradistinction to nature is, I contend, the quintessential experience in late nineteenth-century Canadian poetry. In psychological terms, the characteristic personae of this poetry project their inner selves onto the outer world. But the personae then become aware of their projections and aware, therefore, of their inner selves as primary reality. This poetry, then, might justly be categorized as “pre-existentialist.”1 But this would be anachronistic and misleading. I propose, instead, the term “Post-Romantic.”2

     Canadian Post-Romanticism is, in a broad sense, ironic. Its apparent Romanticism and idealism are undermined by a subtle naturalism and materialism. This surface idealism concealing an essential materialism corresponds with the predominant Canadian philosophical outlook of the time, Objective or Evolutionary Idealism. Thus, while the term “Post-Romantic” acknowledges the historical and theoretical roots of late nineteenth-century Canadian poetry, it allows for and points to an indigenous and contemporary intellectual context.


Any broad literary category, to be useful as such, must indicate a valid relationship between the literature described and its society, and between the literature and thought. In other words, any such category must be valid in both literary-historical and literary-theoretical senses. Validity is established when the category can be justified by extensive reference to the literature itself. As far as I can discover, the general critical acceptance of the term Confederation stems from the fact that it is virtually meaningless and, thus, not subject to challenge. It represents the form, but not the substance, of an attempt to see Canadian poetry in its own context. It refers to the major political pre-occupation of Canadians during the coming-of-age of the writers most often labelled Confederation poets — Charles G.D. Roberts, Bliss Carman, Wilfred Campbell, Archibald Lampman and D.C. Scott — and it therefore implies a connection between their artistic and the nation’s political endeavours. This connection does exist — for some of the poetry of some of the five. But it applies far more aptly, for instance, to Charles Mair, or even to Charles Sangster or William Kirby, than it does, say, to Carman. It takes no account of the fact that four of the five poets wrote well beyond the Confederation period — even if this era is stretched to the 1880s and ’90s. It has never been applied to Isabella Valancy Crawford, whose reputation now equals Carman’s. And it has only the most tenuous connection to what is, in fact, the major poetic subject of the time: nature. As a literary-historical term, then, Confederation poetry fails the test of validity: it does not have sufficient reference to the poetry itself. Its validity as a literary-theoretical term is equally spurious. Confederation might be taken to refer to that complex of conservative, idealist, imperialist and nationalist ideas which was dominant in late nineteenth-century Canada — and these ideas are related to the poetry — but it has seldom been used in so careful a sense. More importantly, the term implies no aesthetic method or credo, and certainly no relationship between the poetry and international artistic or intellectual currents.

     It is likely the felt need for such a relationship which has led critics to employ instead, or as well, the terms Romantic and Victorian. And, as such, these terms have been valuable. Romantic, particularly, has been so consistently applied to the poetry of the last part of Canada’s nineteenth century that a critical consensus may be said to exist on the matter. Such a consensus demands respect, but I am part of it only insofar as I believe it to be a consensus in the right direction. Romanticism is the primary concept on which the theorist of the poetry of Canada’s late nineteenth century must build.

     The relationship between the work of the British Romantic poets and their historical period might best be summed up in the word “revolution.”3 These poets lived and wrote during the industrial revolution, and amidst the upheavals — actual and ideological — of political revolution; more than co-incidentally, their poetic theory and practice represented a revolution against that of their neo-classic predecessors. If, once again, a single word were to describe the connection between these three revolutions, that word might well be “individual.” The coming to power of the middle classes, at the controls of an industrial capitalist economy, was accompanied by the theory of laissez faire, which exalted and justified the role of untrammeled individual aggrandizement in economic affairs. This, in turn, demanded a liberal democratic political theory, and the descent of political power towards the individual began also to be exalted and justified — in no small measure by the Romantic poets themselves. But the poetic revolution proper did not lie in the causes which the poems or the poets espoused. This revolution proclaimed that poetry was the product of the individual imagination, acting alone to shape as well as apprehend the outward forms of nature.4 Like the aristocracy in politics and economics, the classics (and even the deity) were effectively disenfranchised in poetics. Individualism in the economic and political spheres was encouraging — and would continue to encourage throughout the century — social conflict of every degree. In poetry, the same individualist revolution was to lead, in the Victorian age, to alienation, isolation and radical doubt. But these things are inherent in the theory, rather than actual in the poetry of the Romantic movement. “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,”5 said Wordsworth, speaking of himself as a young revolutionary, and this is an essential note also of the Romantic revolution in poetry. Despite his later conservatism in religion and politics, Wordsworth’s poetry celebrates the individual. Byron — for all his aesthetic, philosophical and stylistic differences from the other Romantics — was, in art and life, a fighter for liberty. Shelley and Blake, despite personal despairs, wrote with an eloquence born of faith in the cause of radical reform. What is held in common is the optimistic and revolutionary belief in the potential and dignity of each human being.

     Thus, the Romantic poets were, in several ways, the creators of revolution. They were doers and changers and their poetry reflects the exhilaration which necessarily accompanies the possibility of change and growth. The Victorians, on the other hand, lived when change was not potential and exhilarating, but actual and profoundly disturbing.6 They experienced change without revolution, living in a time when individualism seemed less a cause to be struggled for than a present fact undermining the established order. The now all-embracing industrial revolution, and with it the advance of urban poverty and class politics, the vast increase in scientific knowledge, the co-incident growth of materialism, the application of scientific criticism to the Bible, the skepticism which arose as a result of all of these: these form the essential historical context of Victorian poetry. In sum, the Romantics rode the crest of a wave which was to crash down upon the Victorians.

     But, in Canada, those poets who are the obvious candidates for the label Victorian — Charles Heavysege, Alexander McLachlan and William Kirby, to name the three most prominent — preceded those of the last quarter-century who are commonly called Romantic. This alone suggests the absurdity of transferring literary-historical terms from one society to another. Moreover, if there are Victorian characteristics in the poetry of McLachlan, Kirby and Heavysege, these characteristics cannot be attributed to an industrial, scientific and urban society for that society did not exist in Upper and Lower Canada of the mid-nineteenth century. At least, however, these poets lived during Victoria’s reign. The anachronism involved in speaking of the poets of the final quarter-century — two of whom lived into the 1940s — as Romantic, would seem sufficiently clear. But this has not stopped Canadian critics from postulating or assuming a “colonial culture lag” to explain the glaring time differential. This, of course, begs the question. But a better reason for regarding Romantic as an insufficient literary-historical description of the poetry of Campbell, Lampman, Scott, Carman, Roberts and Crawford is that they are not revolutionary. It is not merely that they were part of what David Arnason has called the “tory tradition”7 in Canada — a tradition which has as its hallmarks loyalty, hierarchy and tradition itself, and which was constructed in conscious opposition to revolution — but also that their poetry largely lacks the Romantic sense of dawns and beginnings, the undertone of faith in the beneficence of growth and change.

     But what of Victorian and Romantic as — as I have suggested — they are usually used in Canada, that is, as literary-theoretical terms? In my opinion, the three mid-century poets whom I have named and who do share beliefs and attitudes with their Victorian contemporaries, might better be categorized as Emigrant poets, a classification which would relate the doubt and division in their verse to neither their Canadian nor British environments exclusively, but rather to their movement from one to the other. Literally, as well as poetically, they lived “between two worlds, one dead,/The other powerless to be born.”8

     Although the Confederation poets and Crawford have not generally been treated as Victorian poets,9 elements of their thought (for instance, their concern with resolving idealism and materialism) and technique might be plausibly so termed. If, however, these same elements can be explained equally well by a category which is both indigenous and more comprehensive of the poetry, then that must be preferred. I propose to demonstrate that Canadian Post-Romanticism is such a category.

     Wordsworthian Romanticism, positing emotion rather than reason as the vehicle of poetic communication, and positing nature’s direct and benevolent influence in forming man’s feelings, inevitably located the essential poetic experience in the relationship between man and nature. But the assumption underlying this Romantic striving for connection with nature is that man and nature have parted. For Wordsworth, poetry could achieve their reunion. For Ruskin, later in the century, such union was a poet’s trick, an illusion created by emotion: the pathetic fallacy. It was reason, not emotion, which could correctly apprehend nature, and so Ruskin pictured man alienated not only without (from nature) but within (divided against himself). For Walter Pater, alienation was not implied but overt. Both nature and man were part of a chaotic elemental flux, having meaning and form only so far as those are created by the individual consciousness, “each mind keeping as a solitary prisoner its own dream of a world.”10

     The major Canadian Post-Romantic poets — Crawford, Campbell, Roberts, Carman, Lampman and Scott — came to maturity precisely when this radically subjective world view — the logical and historical descendent of Romanticism — was implicit and felt and capable of artistic presentation but, as yet, not fully understood or articulated. Simply, then, I contend that these were poets of their time and reflected in their poems its radical inward turning.11 To express this selfward turning, they chose, more or less consciously, a Romantic approach and vocabulary.12 They chose this model in part because the dominant Romantic tradition had not been modified in Canada by a period of Victorian literature, and in part because natural landscape was the compelling fact of their poetic existence. They were aware of their choice not as regression but as advance. 13 They were less conscious, perhaps, of how, and how much, they adapted and modified Romanticism to express their own time and place.

     Lampman’s “April,”14 generically an Ode, nevertheless develops a psychological narrative. It is the story of how the persona gains a sense of identity in nature, not by becoming mystically integrated with it, but by discovering there his separate self. This theme, and the modifications of Romantic language which convey it, make “April” a quintessentially Post-Romantic poem, and one worth examining in detail here.

     The poem begins with an elaborate personification of the month of April — a personification which, we will discover, is the deliberate product of the aware mind of a persona:

Pale season, watcher in unvexed suspense,
Still priestess of the patient middle day,
Betwixt wild March’s humored petulance
And the warm wooing of green kirtled May,
Maid month of sunny peace and sober gray,
Weaver of flowers in sunward glades that ring
With murmur of libation to the spring....

Pale season” sets the tone for the whole poem, whose images, whether of colour, sound or touch, are muted. April is also a “watcher,” that is — given “pale” — one who retires and observes and, moreover, observes in “unvexed suspense.” The latter phrase is paradoxical. The first word suggests an untroubled watching, but the second seems to imply an, albeit pleasant, tension. I think, however, that Lampman is using “suspense” primarily in its radical sense, as the state of being suspended. Thus understood, it reinforces the image of one who observes at a distance (whether actual or psychological), one whose involvement is suspended. (The reader may also recognize in this a formulation of Keats’ negative capability.) The second line introduces another personification: here April becomes a “priestess” leading the worship of the “patient middle day.” Uninvolvement and the state of being in-between are again stressed. The particular suspension meant here is made explicit in the third and fourth lines which introduce a third personification, almost a conceit in its richness of language and boldness of comparison. April is like a girl who is past the sultry rebelliousness of her early teens, but not yet ripe for wholeheartedly choosing a lover. Since a priestess is one who withdraws from the word, in order to “marry” the god she serves, the three personifications are not merely piled one on top of the other but interact to make complex the personality of April.

     Though Lampman makes much use of metaphor, his imagination is characteristically similetic or analogical rather than metaphorical. 15 Vis-ŕ-vis nature, this means that his poems tend to subsume their metaphors — that is to say, their implicit comparisons, which would otherwise imply an interpenetration of man and nature and their unity — in a larger structure of similarity, an assertion of the likeness of man and nature, which implies their separation.16 One of the effects of the opening simile of stanza two is to stress once again, although no “I” has yet been introduced into the poem, the existence of a creating persona:

As memory of pain, all past, is peace,
And joy, dream-tasted, hath the deepest cheer,
So art thou sweetest of all months that lease
The twelve short spaces of the flying year.

The “maid month” of stanza one was, in effect, defined by her past and future, and in the first and second lines of this stanza, this positioning is made explicit. April becomes a season out of time, where experience is “watched” from positions of suspension: in a “dream” or in “memory.” The qualities of experience so tasted are “pale” ones: “peace” and a deep “cheer,” qualities which avoid the excesses of either pain or joy. Thus “sweetest” in the third line (and elsewhere in the poem) is not to be taken in any cloying sense. The third and fourth lines echo Marvell’s famous couplet on the speed of time and the approach of death and the hint is appropriate. To be suspended and merely a watcher, out of time, is a kind of death.

But this is spring, death — winter — is past and to come merely:

The bloomless days are dead, and frozen fear
No more for many moons shall vex the earth
Dreaming of summer and fruit-laden mirth.
                                          (st. 2, 11. 5-7)

The sixth and seventh lines have not merely April “dreaming,” but “the earth,” and thus all of concrete nature takes on the aspect of a watcher. The omnipresence of the word and concept “dream” in Lampman has been much discussed. The evidence of this poem so far is that, for Lampman, a dreamer is not a sleepy-eyed idealist, but quite the opposite: one who observes accurately and calmly, and who thus remains apart from the object of his observation.

     The relative abstraction, and the figurative language of the first two stanzas give way to five stanzas of much more concrete description. Stanza four makes frogs its subject; they are pictured essentially as dreamers — therefore watchers — and singers:

By the slow streams the frogs all day and night
Dream without thought of pain or heed of ill,
Watching the long warm silent hours take flight,
And ever with soft throats that pulse and thrill,
From the pale-weeded shallows trill and trill,
Tremulous sweet voices, flute-like, answering
One to another glorying in the spring.

Because they are beside rather than in the streams, because they dream “all day and night,” because what they watch is time, the frogs, like April, like all of nature, and, as will be seen, like the persona, are out of time.

     The scene shifts once more in stanza five. As in the third stanza, there is a time progression — from “all day,” to evening and sleep. This stanza introduces the idea of labouring as something which occurs in time:

All day across the ever-cloven soil,
Strong horses labour, steaming in the sun,
Down the long furrows with slow straining toil,
Turning the brown clean layers; and one by one
The crows gloom over them till daylight done
Finds them asleep somewhere in dusked lines
Beyond the wheatlands in the northern pines.

All day” implies a specific day but “every-cloven” suggests that there have been many such days and, hence, what may be implied is an eternity of work. Perhaps “cloven” and “gloom” even have a hint of hell about them. This theme will recur. The word “gloom” as a verb describing the low gliding of crows over the furrowed field is evocative. It embodies the crows’ blackness and therefore anticipates the coming of evening. It contains the word “loom” to describe the gliding and hovering crows, but more importantly, to suggest the looming of fate — a small hint once again of time’s passing and of death, of how we labour our lives away. The “loom of fate” also picks up the image of April as a “weaver” from stanza one and precedes a similar implication in stanza six.

     The fifth stanza ended in the forest; stanza six describes a forest scene which, again, is an in-between one. The mementos of winter are still visible, but they are in the process of being destroyed by the “yet bloomless” agents of the spring:

The old year’s cloaking of brown leaves, that blind
The forest floor-ways, plated close and true — 
The last love’s labour of the autumn wind — 
Is broken with curled flower buds white and blue
In all the matted hollows, and speared through
With thousand serpent-spotted blades up-sprung,
Yet bloomless, of the slender adder-tongue.

The language of the stanza is ambiguous and paradoxical. “Cloaking” implies a protective winter coat of leaves, and “bind” suggests that they hold the forest-floor together. It suggests also, however, that the leaves are an imprisonment, a tying-down. “Plated” is also ambiguous. The leaves form a sort of armourplate because they are “plaited,” woven “close and, true.” As fate, then, the leaves are again an imprisoning force, but line three hints that what is woven is actually a love-knot. The weaver is the autumn wind, performing a labour of love. Imprisonment, then, is actually a work of love. These lines are another complex personification, and the presence of the persona is once again telegraphed, particularly in the obvious echo in line three of Shakespeare’s title. If imprisonment can be loving, it is perversely logical that in the last four lines of the stanza the act of attaining freedom is described as violent. The mat of leaves is “broken” by the buds, and “speared through” by the “serpent-spotted” addertongue. In the large sense mentioned above, Lampman’s language in this stanza is ironic, undercutting the surface pastoralism of the description.

     Another forest glade is the subject of stanza seven, but the movement of time is opposite to that of stanza six. Stanza seven begins with an April noon and moves in memory back to a March day. It also begins with stillness and moves back to a scene of noisy activity.

In the warm noon the south wind creeps and cools,
Where the red-budded stems of maples throw
Still tangled etchings on the amber pools,
Quite silent now.

Ironically, the atmosphere of stillness is conveyed largely by words suggesting movement. The wind “creeps,” and (by moving over surfaces) “cools.” The stems “throw” etchings. These shadows are “still,” but also “still tangled,” that is, reflecting an earlier movement toward intermingling. Although the final lines of stanza seven describe the scene as it was two months before, the elements of the April scene are themselves “forgetful” of the earlier time:

Quite silent now, forgetful of the slow
Drip of the taps, the troughs, and trampled snow,
The keen March mornings, and the silvering rime
And mirthful labour of the sugar prime.

If nature “forgets,” that is, exists unconsciously, the presence of a persona who is remembering is again implied.  Likewise, the presence of humans in the sugar bush must also be inferred. The “trampled snow” is described but not the tramplers, the March mornings could only be “keen” if experienced as such; the labour can be mirthful only through the shouts and laughter of the labourers echoing through the wood. Lampman used exactly the same I technique in stanza five, where the horses laboured to plow, but as if undriven. To call nature “forgetful” seems to be an example of pathetic fallacy, but it is actually the pathetic fallacy put to ironic use, since what is implied is nature’s lack of consciousness and its neutrality. The final lines of stanza seven describe man, as it were, from nature’s point of view. He is described by his various effects and qualities, but his individuality, his personality, is thereby lost. Stanza seven, therefore, implicitly recognizes the impersonality of nature and the impossibility and even the danger —   at least to identity — of unity with her.

    So it is logical that now, in stanza eight, the persona first appears explicitly in the poem:

Ah, I have wandered with unwearied feet,
All the long sweetness of an April day,
Lulled with cool murmurs and the drowsy beat
Of partridge wings in secret thickets gray,
The marriage hymns of all the birds at play,
The faces of sweet flowers, and easeful dreams
Beside slow reaches of frog-haunted streams. . . .

Although there have been many links between the preceding stanzas, the links have not been narrative or spatial. The poem has seemed to wander, and it is only with the first line of stanza eight that this apparent aimlessness becomes functional. It has reflected the persona’s day-long wandering through nature. The description of his wanderings in stanza eight, by echoing earlier themes and words, not only confirms the earlier presence of a persona in the poem, but emphasizes that many of the qualities attributed to nature are to be seen as the persona’s. Thus a relationship of similitude between man and nature is suggested, the implication of which is their separation. Putting the matter another way: by making the attribution to nature of human qualities a clear function of the persona, the pathetic fallacy is made conscious, and thus undercut.

     In line two, the persona emphasizes the sweetness of April, and in line three, attributes that sweetness to its “lulling” effect: that is, to its power to stimulate the dreaming state. “Cool murmurs” and a “drowsy beat” suggest music that lulls. That the persona finds “easeful dreams/Beside slow reaches of frog-haunted streams” confirms the analogy between the frogs and humans as watchers-apart. “Easeful” implies that the persona was “eased” by his assumption of the suspended, dreaming, watchful state. What he needed easing from is the subject of stanza nine; he had

Wandered with happy feet, and quite forgot
The shallow toil, the strife against the grain,
Near souls, that hear us call, but answer not,
The loneliness, perplexity and pain,
And high thoughts cankered with an earthly stain;
And then, the long draught emptied to the lees,
I turn me homeward in slow-pacing ease,

Nature has, in some way, helped the persona to forget his troubles. “The strife against the grain” is presumably, in part, a result of his “shallow toil,” but “against the grain” also implies strife within. Division within, then, and this is accompanied by division without: “near souls, that hear us call, but answer not.” The word “near” suggests physical proximity but no actual touching, whether of the physical or emotional variety, and the rest of the line confirms this lack of intercourse. The persona’s complaint is thus that modern, urban one: alienation, whose result is “loneliness, perplexity and pain.” Line five presents another sort of interior division: the conflict between what the persona regards as his higher and lower, spiritual and animal natures. Line six is perhaps the one flaw in Lampman’s construction of the poem. It can be read, carelessly it is true, as the “long draught” of the persona’s troubles. In fact, of course, the meaning of the line is that having drunk his fill of nature, he is content. The image is significant. Whereas, in stanza seven, nature appeared to swallow man, man here has swallowed nature, has internalized it. This is possible only upon the realization of a distinctive, separate self. That such a self has indeed emerged from the day’s wanderings may be seen in the syntax of the last line. The persona says, “I turn me” homeward — there is now direction and control. The rest of the poem is devoted to making more explicit the process of recognition of the self in nature.

     The self is clearly separate from nature as, in stanza ten, the persona returns,

Cleaving the cedar shadows and the thin
Mist of gray gnats that cloud the river shore
Sweet even choruses, that dance and spin
Soft tangles in the sunset.

As a solid, “cleaving” force, he parts the shadows and mists of nature. He sees them as “choruses,” perhaps a Greek chorus, less part of the action than observers and commentators on it, watchers apart. Previously only implied, the urban context of the persona’s difficulties is made explicit in the last half of stanza ten:

                                            and once more
The city smites me with its dissonant roar.
To its hot heart I pass, untroubled yet
Fed with calm hope, without desire or fret.

As he cleaved the tangle of gnats, the persona can now “pass” untouched amidst the city’s dissonance, and by extension, his own. From nature, he has learned how to be a watcher, how to stand apart and therefore see clearly. He has gained “calm” and also “hope,” that is, a belief in the future. But this comes, paradoxically, when anxiety about the future is abandoned, when he can be (as April was pictured in the first two stanzas) “without desire or fret.”

     It is thus appropriate logically as well as formally that the final stanza returns explicitly to some of the metaphors of stanza one. Having become like April, the persona can present her with his address:

So to the year’s first altar step I bring
Gifts of meek song, and make my spirit free
With the blind working of unanxious spring,
Careless with her, whether the days that flee
Pale drouth or golden-fruited plenty see,
So that we toil, brothers, without distress,
In calm-eyed peace and godlike blamelessness.

The action of the poem’s drama is now quite clearly expressed: the persona has attained his individuality by observing the “blind working,” that is, the unconscious processes of nature. His own working, in the city, will now be less troubling. The ability to watch and see, suspended from the life around one, is essential to peace, that is to unity of self. The whole poem is a pun on “eye” and “I”.17


April” is untypical of Lampman in that his persona explicitly returns to his daily life in the city strengthened by experience in nature. More often, Lampman presents the emergence of self in nature as the climax and point of his poems, affrmative simply in and for itself. Northrop Frye suggests why this is so. In the “Conclusion” to the Literary History of Canada, Frye says he has “long been impressed in Canadian poetry by a tone of deep terror in regard to nature,” a terror produced by contemplating “the vast unconsciousness of nature.”18 In other words, the experience of self over against a neutral and unresponsive nature, which I have suggested is quintessentially Post-Romantic, is the source of Frye’s terror. How then is this also affirmative? Here again is Frye:

the nostalgic and elegiac are the inevitable emotional responses of an egocentric consciousness locked into a demythologized environment. Whenever reason is regarded as the distinctively human element in consciousness, the impulse to write poetry remains rhetorical . . . preoccupied with versifying prose statements and talking about emotional attitudes instead of presenting them. Eventually it becomes clear that the focus of such a response, in such conditions, is the moment of death. Death is the one point at which man and nature really become identified.19

An urge toward union with nature in Canada is a death wish. That is why the simply assertion of the fact of self in the face of solitudinous nature is as affrmative as it is terrifying. It is the necessary Canadian prelude to the existential act.

     The presentation of an affrmative terror almost demands irony. John P. Matthews has argued that “Canadian images tended to remain very close to their originals in the parent tradition, but the meanings of the things named, the understanding which the words conjured to the initiated, became almost a secret language.”20 Elsewhere he says, “if a Canadian reads one of these poems quickly, from a basis of familiarity with Wordsworthian nature imagery, he is likely to think of it as a pale imitation of Wordsworth.... our national distinctiveness... is beautifully camouflaged.”21 The “camouflage” was essential. Canadian poets in the later nineteenth century were recording the destruction of Romantic harmony and the radical sense of solitude experienced when that happens It was necessary for them to attempt, in their poems, to use pathetic fallacy, and necessary for that attempt to fail, and be felt to fail, so that the reader and poet might share in the terrifying experience of self. This is, inevitably, to use the language of Wordsworthian Romanticism ironically.22 This irony is nowhere clearer than in Lampman’s “In November.”23

     The persona of “In November” is again the calm watcher wandering in nature:

With loitering step and quiet eye,
Beneath the low November sky
I wandered in the woods,

The graver than usual mood of this poem is telegraphed immediately by, among other things, the word “loitering.” Lampman primarily means to wander purposelessly, open to experience. But “loitering” has negative connotations: it suggests an aimlessness which is unproductive and anti-social. The “low November sky” contributes to a sense of darkness and foreboding. Perhaps there is a pun in the first line: this persona is a particularly “quiet I.” In contrast to “April,” the persona of “In November” does not move after the first three lines, and even his description is of one small area:

I wandered in the woods, and found
A clearing, where the broken ground
Was scattered with black stumps and briers,
And the old wreck of forest fires.

Many lines of this poem echo Wordsworth’s “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” in cadence, many of the same words are used, and both poems are in iambic tetrameter. But Lampman’s echoes can only be ironic. Where Wordsworth found golden, dancing daffodils, Lampman’s persona discovers “broken ground,” thorns, “black stumps,” and “old wreck,” the lifeless remnants of what once lived:

It was a bleak and sandy spot,
And, all about, the vacant plot,
Was peopled and inhabited
By scores of mulleins long since dead.

Sandy,” adds a desert connotation to the wasteland imagery with which the clearing has been described. And “vacant plot” suggests that the clearing was once occupied but has since been vacated. But a “vacant plot” is also an empty grave. And yet the plot is “peopled and inhabited” (implying life) by the mulleins (“long since dead”). Lampman’s language is clearly ironic, and suggests that unity with nature equals death.

     One of Lampman’s finest similes occupies the rest of the first paragraph:

A silent and forsaken brood
In that mute opening of the wood,
So shrivelled and so thin they were,
So gray, so haggard, and austere,
Not plants at all they seemed to me,
But rather some spare company
Of hermit folk, who long ago,
Wandering in bodies to and fro,
Had chanced upon this lonely way,
And rested thus, till death one day
Surprised them at their compline prayer,
And left them standing lifeless there.

Again, the similetic form stresses not the unity of man and nature, but the analogical relationship of the persona and what he describes. The word “silent” is appropriate to the mood of the poem and the characterization of the mullein stalks, but why “brood”? The mood is right, of course: the whole poem broods. But the word suggests a group of young — new life, not death. The key is in the adjective: the mulleins are God’s children “forsaken” by Him, and left to a spot which would be well-described as godforsaken. Hermits retire to the desert or the wilds, usually to be closer to God, but (before as well as after death) this band seems to have been abandoned. That the clearing is a “mute opening” suggests the dumbness of nature. And yet the line also perhaps implies an opening into nature, into its meaning, as does the brief shaft of sunlight later on. The series of adjectives beginning with “shrivelled” is finely descriptive of both the mulleins and the hermit band. And all are summed up in “austere,” with its connotations of distance, asceticism, stoicism and frugality. “Spare” means primarily “sparse,” I think: a company composed of few. But it also conveys gauntness and the hermits’ superfluity. These are left-overs, outcasts. And they are very different from the “jocund company” in which a “poet could not but be gay.”

     And another interesting word: “bodies.” Would it not be more logical for this company to wander in a body? But the line as it stands is richer for this illogicality because, first, hermits in fact tend to live not in community but alone; and second, they are seen to be wandering as if trapped in their bodies and seeking a way out. Thus hermits do wander and deprive the body for the soul. They have taken the “lonely way” and calling the enclosed clearing a “way” implies the religious nature of their quest. However, it is not only their “forsaken” status which leaves unclear whether these pilgrims achieved their salvation. Death “surprised them” apparently, and there is a sense of futility about their bodies “standing lifeless there.” But they were also surprised at their “compline prayers” — that is, the last of the seven canonical hours of prayer — so perhaps they had completed their quest and were ready for death. What is most significant though is that these events happened “long ago.” Once there was life and the hope of life everlasting. Now, there are only lifeless bodies brooding under a low sky in a wild place. That this is also the position of the persona is made clear in the second paragraph:

                                              I stood
Among the mullein-stalks as still
As if myself had grown to be
One of their sombre company,
A body without wish or will.

These lines are at the centre of the poem and of its meaning. Perhaps this is why Lampman uses here, and here only, an abba rhyme rather than couplets. Separating the rhymes of “still” and “will” has a “stilling” effect. The ear, used to hearing each pair of lines rhyme, here must wait four lines for the rhyme and the moment is thus expanded and slowed.

     In this passage, the persona stands “among” the stalks, as if his “self” had become self-less — that is, a body without a soul or informing principle, “without wish or will.” What is most significant is the similetic form. The persona does not feel that he is part of nature; rather he observes, and then performs an intellectual excursion into his surroundings. It is all an “as if.” The persona reveals his attempt to visualize himself as part of nature, not an achieved union. Here, then, is the ultimate withdrawal and detachment from life. To be part of nature would be to join it in death, so the persona resists such a joining. But his very intellectualizing, his “cloak of thought,” is equally a form of isolation so extreme as to be death-like. 24 No wonder his realization of this paradox immobilizes him. And this realization is the only illumination the poem offers. When, right on cue, a light appears, the imagery is clearly ironic:

And as I stood, quite suddenly,
Down from a furrow in the sky
The sun shone out a little space
Across that silent sober place,
Over the sand heaps and brown sod,
The mulleins and dead goldenrod,
And passed beyond the thickets gray,
And lit the fallen leaves that lay,
Level and deep within the wood,
A rustling yellow multitude.

The light comes from the sun shining through a “furrow” in the clouds. This is a prosaic word and, in fact, picks up previous references to farming — “the clearing,” the “broken ground,” the “plot” — and the effect is to make the sky little different from workaday earth. Illumination is traditionally brief and here, therefore, the sun “shone out a little space.” But the word for time here is “space” and so what might be metaphysical is physical. The poem catalogues the things in the sun’s path and the sun shines “across” and “over” them. If “lit” suggests that the sun did enflame the leaves, they are nevertheless “fallen,” more selfless bodies. The “rustling yellow multitude” echoes Wordsworth’s “host of golden daffodils,” but to what different effect!

     The description of the light and of its effect on the persona, in paragraph three, spells out what the poem has previously implied:

And all around me the thin light,
So sere, so melancholy bright,
Fell like the half-reflected gleam
Or shadow of some former dream;
A moment’s golden reverie
Poured out on every plant and tree
A semblance of weird joy, or less,
A sort of spectral happiness.

This illumination is indirect at best. It is “like” a “gleam” (which is equally a “shadow”), which is “half” reflected from a “former dream.” Like the hermits’ salvation, long ago and doubtful, this brightness is melancholy because it seems to place the ideal realm in the past. The light is “a moment’s golden reverie,” a day-dream of the past. Only in the past has nature been a source of inner illumination. But reverie is also the condition of being lost in thought. And this is the condition which prevents the persona’s reaching out to nature. In these circumstances, he can expect only a “spectral happiness.” A cold illumination indeed.

     The poem concludes with the persona again consciously paralleling himself and nature:

And I, too, standing idly there,
With muffled hands in the chill air,
Felt the warm glow about my feet,
And shuddering betwixt cold and heat,
Drew my thoughts closer, like a cloak,
While something in my blood awoke,
A nameless and unnatural cheer,
A pleasure secret and austere.

The persona says he is “shuddering betwixt cold and heat.” But it is really between two kinds of cold, two forms of death, that the persona is caught. Protectively, he wraps himself in a “cloak” of thought, in the mere fact of his individual consciousness, and in this poem the terrifying aloneness of that posture is unmitigated. The resulting cheer is “nameless and unnatural,” the pleasure “secret and austere.” Made aware of his un-naturalness, the persona cannot name the faint satisfaction his awareness gives him. His identity is at its lowest ebb. And yet he does feel a pleasure and so does the reader. Though the persona’s feelings are “secret” even from himself, the poet has expressed them in such a way that the reader may confront the meaning of November, and may come to understand the fact of man’s solitude in nature. This confrontation, Lampman dramatizes over and over.

     Confronting man’s solitude in nature, the Post-Romantic poets necessarily rejected the vision of a new Eden so central to the American Transcendentalists. Although Roberts said that his group of poets “had been profoundly influenced by the transcendentalism of Emerson and the New England school of thought,”25 and Lampman, too, testified to this influence,26 the poetry of the Canadians does not resemble Emerson’s, and no one has seriously suggested the existence of a northern branch-plant of Transcendentalism. I suggest, therefore, that Transcendentalism’s influence in Canada was largely limited to providing an accessible theory of Romanticism. It was, in other words, part of the ironic disguise of Canadian nature poetry rather than part of its essence. 

     Both Transcendentalism and Wordsworthian Romanticism postulate the possibility of Eden: a place or condition of “original innocence,” where there could be, or was, a perfect harmony between man and nature. But, I have suggested, Canadian Post-Romantic poetry is concerned with the experience of solitude which occurs when the pathetic fallacy — that is, the attempt to experience man and nature in harmony — is thwarted. And I have posited that this experience of solitude involves the recognition that a union of man and nature would equal death. In Canada, therefore, Eden is an impossible and dangerous dream.27

     The rejection of Eden is the central theme of Duncan Campbell Scott’s poem “Adagio,”28 which pictures the moment just before innocence inevitably becomes experience. The speaker is presumably male, and older than the girl who is the subject of his meditation.

She is a Grave maid, surrounded by the austere air
Of this delaying spring. . . .

The girl, then, is serious in demeanor. But the reader comes to realize also that she exists in an enclosed and protected state, essentially static, a kind of living death, and therefore a sort of grave. She is, first of all, “surrounded” by air which is “austere.” Partly this echoes the maid’s “grave” bearing, but “austere” also means a stern and forbidding manner, and therefore the air surrounds her restrictively. But this is “spring” air, air of the season symbolic of the release of life and love. This spring, however, is “delaying”: an unnaturally prolonged innocence is pictured here, an innocence impeding rather than introducing the onset of experience. For the analytical reader, therefore, the question in lines two to four has already been answered, at least in a general way:

                                                what gentle grief,
What hovering, mystical melancholy
Hath covered thee with the translucent shadow?

The rhetorical question perhaps suggests the girl’s innocence of her own state. In a broad sense, therefore, the lines are ironic, because they attribute a formal unawareness to the poem’s persona, while in fact it is his awareness which allows him to understand his subject’s innocence. The gap between persona and subject is the gap between innocence and experience.

Lines five to nine say that the summer will come; there is no escape from experience:

The glaucous silver buds upon the tree,
And the light burst of blossom in the bush
Are the new year’s evangel: soon the birch
Will breathe in heaven with her myriad leaves,
And hide the birds’ nests from the tuliped lawn.

Just now, the blossoms are only a “light burst”: a small explosion within boundaries. The full summer must burst all bounds. Then the birch will “breathe in heaven,” live in a “heavenly” or ideal state. This state, however, is not the opposite of experience, but includes it, as the birch leaves will enfold the birds’ nests. The implication is that the heavenly or ideal state includes sexual experience. And the leaves also will serve to hide the nests “from the tuliped lawn.” Thus a distinction is made between a “real” Eden which includes experience, and the “false” Eden of a carefully cultivated nature, a trimmed and bordered lawn.

     The implication of the following lines is that the girl does not wish to become conscious of the inevitability of spring:

But thou, with look askance and dreaming eyes,
Brooding on something subtly sad and sweet,
Art passive, and the world may have her way,
Hide the moraine of immemorial days
With bines and blossoms, so thine unvaried hour
Be not perplexed with the change of growth.

Her look is “askance,” that is, oblique and therefore unseeing, but also it is a look of distrust, presumably of the implications of the spring. The girl is “brooding,” but this word also implies fertility. The girl’s passivity, ironically, is just the state which will allow “the world [to] have her way.” “Moraine” is glacial deposit, and thus line thirteen primarily means that the summer will cover the bare remnants of winter. But as a geological term, and along with the word “immemorial,” “moraine” suggests a time-frame expanded beyond the poem’s literal one. And “immemorial,” meaning “time out of memory,” also hints that spring happens without the aid of memory, of conscious awareness of the past. As the poem goes on to suggest, the girl’s memory is a factor in her desire to prolong her own spring season.

     Some of what has been previously implied in the poem is now made explicit:

Within this sombre circle of the hills,
Thy girlish eyes have seen the winter’s close,
And what may lie beyond, where the sun falls,
When the vale fills with rose, and the first star
Looks liquidly, thy quiet heart knows not.
The permanence of beauty haunts thy dreams,
And only as a land beyond desire,
Where the fixed glow may stain the vivid flower,
Where youth may lose his wings but keep his joy,
Does that far slope in the reluctant light
Lure thee beyond the barrier of the hills.
And often in the morning of the heart,
When memories are like crocus-buds in spring,
Thou hast up-builded in thy crystal soul
Immutable forms of things loved once and lost,
Or loved and never gained.

Line sixteen again stresses that the girl is enclosed, this time by a circle of hills. Enclosure is pervasive in this poem; it is instructive to notice what J.E. Cirlot has to say of the symbolism of the precinct:

All images to do with the precinct — an enclosure, a walled garden, a city, a square, a castle, a patio — correspond to the idea of the temenos, or a sacred and circumscribed space which is guarded and defended because it constitutes a spiritual entity. Such images as this may also symbolize the life of the individual and in particular the inner life of his thoughts. . . . It will be recognized that a square or a circle is the tactical formation commonly adopted as a means of defence in a critical situation against a more powerful adversary. This in itself would suffice to explain the meaning of the mandala, or any one of the innumerable symbols that are based upon the notion of the precinct or the protection of a given space, identified with the self.29

So the symbolism of the girl’s surroundings reinforces the essentially defensive nature of her passivity, and her attempt to live spiritually rather than materially. Lines eighteen and nineteen are clearly sexual in imagery, and represent the as-yet-unknown realm of experience, seen therefore only in terms of spiritual beauty. It is the effort to retain this spiritual beauty unchanged which the girl is engaged in: “the permanence of beauty haunts [her] dreams.” The last lines of the first paragraph suggest the psychological motivation for her fixation. She is old enough already to have experienced loss and it is her memory of these losses which has made her defensive and unwilling to proceed into wider experience. Ironically, then, she is not truly innocent, in the way that nature is, not truly a mere unthinking part of a process. It is exactly her consciousness, her separation from process, which makes her seek a false innocence, seek to be immune from growth and change. In effect, she escapes the present reality (and true innocence must always be in the present) by imagining a future which would compensate for past loss.

     The second half of the poem begins with a lush image of movement, reinforcing the inevitability of change:

                                     Now while the wind
From the reflowering bush gushes with perfume,
Thou hast a vision of a precinct fair,
Daled in the lustrous hills, where the mossed dial
Holds the slow shadow narrowed to a line;
Where a parterre of tulips hoards the light,
Changeless and pure in cups of tranquil gold;
Where bee-hives gray against the poplar shade,
Peopled with bees, hum in perpetual drone;
In a pavilion centred in the close,
Four viols build the perfect cube of sound;
A path beside the rosy barberry hedge,
Leads to the cool of water under spray,
Leads to the fountain-echoing ivied wall. . . .

This is the girl’s vision of her ideal future, the “land beyond desire.” It is her idealization of her current surroundings: as it is even more explicitly a formal walled garden. Of the symbolism of the garden, Cirlot says, “The garden is the place where Nature is subdued, ordered, selected and enclosed. Hence, it is a symbol of consciousness as opposed to the forest, which is the unconscious. . . . At the same time, it is a feminine attribute because of its character as a precinct.” 30 Thus, although the vision seems at first glance Edenic, it is really symbolic of man’s inevitable separation from nature, which is the result of consciousness. Lines thirty-seven and -eight are an image of idealized feminine sexuality. Lines thirty-nine and forty stress not honey, but the “drone” of the bees. And the “drone” bee is (like the girl) idle, but actually a necessary part of the sexual process. Lines forty-one and -two form the poem’s central image. A “cube” of sound, produced by a square of viols, is in the pavilion, which in turn is “centred” in the larger precinct, here called a “close” (with appropriate secondary meanings). This concentric set of enclosures is, in fact, a mandala, an image of intellectualized beauty, of perfection, of a sound complete and self-sufficient.31 But “cube of sound” is an obvious paradox, a centre which cannot hold, and the girl’s vision, in effect, implodes. Beneath her falsely rigid vision of the “permanence of beauty” lies the reality of beauty: it is part of the process of life, as music is in fact a continual sound, a fluid movement.

     It is also perhaps significant that the girl’s visionary “precinct” is “daled in the lustrous hills.” Cirlot says, of the valley:

Within the symbolism of landscapes, the valley, which, because it is low-lying, is considered to lie at the level of the sea, respresents a neutral zone apt for the development of all creation and for all material progress in the world of manifestation. Its characteristic fertility stands in contrast to the nature of the desert . . . the ocean . . . and of the mountain. . . . In short, the valley is symbolic of life itself and is the mystic abode of shepherd and priest.32

The garden then is contained within the valley, inescapably within life. This is the final meaning of all the enclosure images in the poem. They symbolize first the protective walls of false innocence the girl maintains around herself. But finally, they image her real entrapment — in the processes of life. This entrapment the poem’s persona understands and has compassion for. The girl would fix a cold beauty; the persona accepts the beauty of change and growth, while understanding the part played therein by loss. The final image of the poem sums this up. Near the wall,

Pedestaled there, flecked with the linden shadows,
A guardian statue carved in purest stone.
Love and Mnemosyne; Mnemosyne
Mothering the Truant to an all-cherishing breast,
The wells of lore deepening her eyes, would speak — 
But Love hath laid his hand upon her lips.

As a “guardian,” the statue is reminiscent of all the poem’s images of enclosure and protection. Mnemosyne is the Greek goddess of memory and mother of the muses. Memory is, in fact, the painful detritus or the “moraine” of experience, and if memory controls, it may attempt to remove the rememberer from the possibility of further experience; the ultimate such removal, of course, would be death. The Truant is “probably an allusion to Cupid,”33 that is, the “Love” of the poem’s last line. In silencing memory, then, Love allows the girl to be drawn into experience and out of her protected self. The statue, paradoxically, symbolizes removing false barriers to experience, and this is truly the act of a loving guardian. But the speaker of “Adagio” is its real loving guardian, compassionately rejecting the viability of innocence, the possibility of Eden.

     Scott’s speaker in “The November Pansy”34 approaches the same theme in quite another — more playful, more ironic — tone. Stanza one presents the reader with an innocent — a pansy — which has bloomed in a non-innocent world, literally a ruined garden, and which is paying the penalty for innocence — death by nature’s ambush:

This is not June, — by Autumn’s stratagem
    Thou hast been ambushed in the chilly air;
    Upon thy fragile crest virginal fair
The rime has clustered in a diadem;
    The early frost
Has nipped thy roots and tried thy tender stem,
    Seared thy gold petals, all thy charm is lost.

This is a world once pastoral, but no more. “Stratagem,” “ambushed,” and “nipped” create a lightly ironic tone so that there is a distance between speaker and subject and no danger of sentimentalizing the pansy’s demise. In fact, the final three lines of the stanza have, to my ears, a Marvellian tone: the lyricism and lament are gently formalized so that the reader’s response is intellectual rather than emotional, depending largely on his or her knowledge of poetic convention, in this case the carpe diem motif.

     The only summer the pansy finds is within itself:

Thyself the only sunshine: in obeying
    The law that bids thee blossom in the world
    Thy little flag of courage is unfurled;
Inherent pansy-memories are saying
    That there is sun,
That there is dew and colour and warmth repaying
    The rain, and starlight when the light is done.
                                            (St. 2)

The pansy’s innocence lies in its inability to differentiate its dreams of a former paradise from the present bleak fact. These lines also imply that paradisal dreams are inherent in each individual, and “starlight when the light is done” hints that it is really in the evolutionary future that such aspiration may have reality.

     Stanza three is another view of the ruined garden, seen as sexually spent:

These are the gaunt forms of the hollyhocks
    That shower the seeds from out their withered purses;

In fact, the flowers in stanza three are all old and faded women, now alone. Stanza four features their implied counterparts, the “love-’em-and-leave’em “males — a series of flying creatures who came and went in the brief but sensual summer. Predictably, in stanza five, lust has turned to ashes:

Thy sisters of the early summer-time
    Were masquers in this carnival of pleasure;
    Each in her turn unrolled her golden treasure,
And thou hast but the ashes of the prime....

But it is the pansy, and therefore virginity and innocence, which has been dealt this reward. In this sober, tough-minded view of the pastoral world, it is painful, solitary experience which is valued in the poem’s sixth stanza:

Yet for withstanding thus the autumn’s dart
    Some deeper pansy-insight will atone;
    It comes to souls neglected and alone,
Something that prodigals in pleasure’s mart
    Lose in the whirl.

In Lampman, an insight into the value of self often leads to the persona’s emergence, and so it is here, in the seventh stanza:

And far above this tragic world of ours
    There is a world of a diviner fashion,
    A mystic world, a world of dreams and passion
That each aspiring thing creates and dowers
    With its own light;
Where even the frail spirits of trees and flowers
    Pause, and reach out, and pass from height to height.

In this stanza, the pansy and the speaker are made equal and analogous in that they are “aspiring” individuals. Though the world “above” is called “mystic,” it is also apparently created by each individual from his “own light.” In spite of the religious and transcendental language, therefore, it is clear that Scott is not talking about a heaven separate from earth, nor of an oversoul, but of the progress toward a more perfect future state to which each entity aspires by being itself.

     Appropriately, then, when the persona, in stanza eight, abandons the pretence that the pansy could share his thoughts, the separation between the human and pansy worlds is clear:

Here will we claim for thee another fief
    An upland where a glamour haunts the meadows,
    Snow peaks arise enrobed in rosy shadows
Fairer the under slopes with vine and sheaf
    And shimmering lea;
The paradise of a simple old belief,
    That flourished in the Islands of the Sea.

In fact, to envisage paradisal gardens is what only human individuals can do; it is part of our nature, and in obeying the dictates of human nature we must be conscious and therefore separate from nature, conscious and therefore experienced rather than innocent. The separation of persona and subject which has taken place is also the separation of innocence and experience. Yet our consciousness enables us to understand that we are like natural things, and we evolve in the same way. Stanza ten emphasizes that the future which the persona envisages for the pansy is created nowhere else than “here”:

Here muse and brood, moulding thy seed and die
    And re-create thy form a thousand fold,
    Mellowing thy petals to more lucent gold
Till they expand, tissues of amber sky;
    Till the full hour,    
And the full light and the fulfilling eye
    Shall find amid the ferns the perfect flower.

The image of the enskyed pansy is similar to Crawford’s “one great daffodil” in “Malcom’s Katie.”35 But the enskying here is explicitly an act of the persona’s imagination. The fine last lines predict a future fullness, when each being will be its potential, when the pansy’s “own light” will be a “full light” and the human eye (and the human “I”) will also be fully itself and thus able to see the “perfect flower.” Mystical experience is not to be had now, in our declining November world; it is rather the goal to which we travel by remaining ourselves, by living in time and space, like the pansy which finds itself born into a ruined garden in the frosty autumn, “for which some pansy-insight will atone.” This poem is a statement of faith in evolutionary idealism.


The eternal struggle between idealism and materialism assumed, in the latter half of the nineteenth century, the form of a conflict between science and religion. The centrality of this conflict in Canada has been stressed by Claude Bissell: “The great question to which almost every issue of the Week made some contribution was this: how was it possible to bring about a reconciliation between a world view that was shaped by orthodox Christian theology and that alone, it was thought, could give authoritative sanction to a strong morality, and a world view that incorporated the findings of science and that seemed to many to threaten the very basis of morality?” 36 This reconciliation was the subject of contemporary Canadian philosophical endeavors, and these endeavors are the concern of A.B. McKillop’s book, A Disciplined Intelligence. McKillop treats several significant implications of the development of philosophy in nineteenth-century Canada, and in particular the transition from the Scottish Common Sense school — dominant in mid-century — to the idealist philosophy of Edward Caird, represented in Canada from 1872 by John Watson. It is this idealism which took root and grew in Canada during the last quarter-century, and which was dominant by the century’s end.37 This is precisely the period when Canadian Post-Romanticism flourished, and to see the poetry against its indigenous intellectual background is to abandon, finally, the view that Canada’s late nineteenth-century poets can be understood as minor figures on the fringes of someone else’s culture. To see the parallels between this poetry, and Canadian Evolutionary Idealism, as McKillop presents it, is to insist on the Post-Romantics as major figures of their own culture, profoundly reflecting in their art the central ideas of their time and place.

     John Watson’s idealism, says McKillop, was intended specifically to resolve the claims of reason and religion in such a way as to allow full scope to the former, while strengthening the latter:

Watson desired above all to reassert the moral and religious dimension of life which had been undermined by modern skepticism. Yet his method of doing so — Objective Idealism — resulted ultimately in a form of belief that bore a distinct resemblance to the declared enemy, evolutionary naturalism. Both accepted the principle of evolutionary change; both asserted the fundamental unity of nature. This convergence between Hegelian idealism and the new naturalism, John Passmore has argued, was one of the most important and distinctive results of Darwin’s impact on British metaphysics. “It has been said,” Passmore concludes, “that pantheism is a polite form of atheism: to assert that everything is God is certainly to deny that there is a God, as that word is ordinarily understood. And similarly one cannot but be struck with the resemblances between naturalism and the Absolute Idealism of philosophers like Caird and Bosanquet: so concerned are they to insist that there is nowhere a gap between the spiritual and the material, between the human and the natural, that one is often inclined to say — Absolute Idealism is the polite form of naturalism.” (p. 215)

The student of Canadian poetry cannot but be struck by the resemblance of this formulation to the aesthetic position of the Post-Romantic poets. Theirs was also a formal idealism beneath which lay an essential naturalism.

     McKillop speaks of the “profoundly ambiguous legacy” (p. 207) of Watson’s idealism, and demonstrates its radical effect on traditional Protestant religious doctrine and practice, an effect instrumental in the formation of the social gospel movement in Canada, which movement preached an essentially materialist, secular and social religion. The legacy of the Post-Romantic poets was likewise “profoundly ambiguous.” A1though Canadian critics have been concerned to stress the revolt of the poets and critics of the early twentieth century, it would be equally possible and valuable to stress what the modernists owed to their immediate predecessors. A secular, social and materialist outlook had begun with the Post-Romantic poets.38

     Of the direct and indirect influence of Evolutionary Idealism on all the Post-Romantics but Crawford there can be little doubt. 39 And the influence of idealism on Roberts and Carman through George R. Parkin and Josiah Royce is particularly well documented.40 Roberts, writing in later life of his religious convictions, put the greatest stress on what he called “spiritual evolution.”41 And, in his article on Carman’s thought, John Robert Sorfleet says, “Discovering that body as well as soul has a spiritual function, and exemplifying the popular Darwinism of his day, Carman was moved to postulate that an evolutionary relationship might exist between the two, that the seeming division between material and ideal worlds might not actually prevail.”42 Here, for comparative purposes, is McKillop, speaking of a later Canadian idealist, George John Blewett:

To the philosophically astute, Blewett’s conception of a reason that transcended, but did not challenge, faith was distinctly different from one that simply equated faith with irrationality and therefore dismissed faith as a mode of thought. But to someone less initiated into the subtleties and the rhetoric of idealist philosophy, someone who found the argument persuasive but the logic and the jargon difficult at times to follow, such distinctions were perhaps never fully clear. For such a person it may have been sufficient simply to remember that Caird, Watson, and Blewett had said that Christianity was evolving through the secular process of history; that this religious progress was essentially a spiritual one, which nevertheless was everywhere manifested in concrete terms; that in this (admittedly vague) unfolding of the consciousness of the race, religious faith could be better comprehended through rational — even intellectual — understanding; that piety and intellectual activity were not at odds since faith could not be faith if it defied intellectual inquiry; and that, finally, somehow in this ongoing cosmic process the old divisions between the spiritual and the material, the sacred and the secular, God and man, were obliterated. (p. 212)

Officially, then, religion was vindicated. In fact, its spiritual essence was being radically eroded.

     The same double standard existed in Canadian poetry. “Officially,” it spoke in a language Romantic and idealist. Beneath the conventional surface, however, naturalism and a radical individualism were undermining that idealism. Lampman’s persona, in “Night,”43 experiences the cold stars of a distant universe —

       On the great threshold of the night I stand,
    Once more a soul self-cognizant and still,
Among the wheeling multitude of stars —

and, mystical unity with it clearly out of the question, becomes aware of the fact and power of self. Like Roberts’ persona in “The Wide Awe and Wisdom of the Night,”44 he

    compassed time, outstripped the starry speed,
    And in my still soul apprehended space,
Till, weighing laws which these but blindly heed,
    At last I came before Him face to face, —
And knew the Universe of no such span
As the august infinitude of Man.

”The old divisions between the spiritual and the material, the sacred and the secular, God and man” are certainly obliterated here. Evolutionary Idealism is the philosophical background for the Post-Romantic experience of the self in nature.


In speaking of this experience of the self in nature, I have been careful to claim it for poetic personae and not for their creators. It seems clear, in fact, that the Post-Romantic poets were, at best, only dimly aware that their poems expressed the sort of realization I am suggesting they do. On the contrary, whether in prose or verse, the poets tended to speak of their own work, and others’, in terms clearly Romantic, Transcendental or Victorian. They talked of the beauty and mystery of life, and of being “in harmony with the indestructible impulse of the general soul of humanity toward love and knowledge and peace.”45 Carman spoke of “mother April,”46 and Roberts of “the wide awe and wisdom of the night.” In other words, these poets expressed a more or less official and orthodox theory of poetry. Consequently, I must regard them as less than fully aware of what their poems really meant and did.47 I suggest, in fact, that neither the poets in question, nor their contemporary reviewers, nor their critics —  then, or for some time to come — were so aware. This claim is neither so egotistical nor so critically indefensible, as it must seem. Let me put it bluntly: this is not a case of, “I am right where all others have been wrong.” First, in almost all I have said, I have been preceded by someone, somewhere, and my attempt has been rather to synthesize and organize. I am clearly one among many recently attempting, and along broadly similar lines, serious revaluation of nineteenth-century Canadian poetry. Second, and more important, my claim has little to do with the abilities of individual critics, past or present. I contend, rather, that we did not have, until some twenty or thirty years ago, a critical vocabulary capable of expressing the poetry’s essence: in fact, the critical languages, and the ideologies they represented, often obscured the poetry.

     T.D. MacLulich, discussing “Literary Attitudes in English-Canada, 1880-1900,” notes that Canadian critics of the time often used the Romantic art-as-plant metaphor for Canadian literature, calling it an offshoot or a tender plant, and recommending its cultivation, rather than allowing the growth of weeds and thorns.48 But Lampman quite literally made the weeds and thorns of Canadian nature the subject of his poetry. Clearly, this is a critical vocabulary likely to obscure its subject. But what, exactly, was the “blinding” ingredient of the “official” ideology of Canadian poetry? Once again, A.B. McKillop suggests the answer. He asserts “that a central and continuous element of Anglo-Canadian intellectual life — so much so as to constitute a virtual imperative — has been its moral dimension. The term moral . . . is used here in a broad sense” (p. ix). Summarizing the critical approach of the Canadian Monthly, Robert L. McDougall also summarizes the criticial orthodoxy of the times. Poetry, suggests the magazine,

should jump off from a scene or incident, suitably realized in passages of “word painting,” should display some subtlety of thought, lucidly expressed, and above all, should drive home a moral. . . . fiction should be distinguished by realism of setting and . . . character; but [it] further implies that such shows of realism will not in themselves suffice, that to them must be added substantial evidence of the presence of the “ideal” — negatively, an eschewal of the sordid and the mean; positively, a vision of noble aspiration and a pervasive tone of lofty morality. Requirements of this nature, one is made to feel, are met most happily in poetry by Matthew Arnold, and in fiction by George Eliot.49

When they wrote of their own work or of their colleagues’, or of British or American literature, the Post-Romantic poets were at one with their contemporary critics in adopting an Arnoldian moral idealism.

     It is convenient, at this point, to distinguish two empiricist and two idealist positions which may be taken on the relation between poetry and morality. The empiricist positions assume language and content to be distinct and, therefore, that a poet’s language may be excellent and his matter evil, or vice versa. The idealist positions assume language and content to be inseperable, and the power of words is thus accepted. If one trusts this power, as Wordsworth did, poetic utterance is necessarily good. If, on the other hand, one distrusts this power, both manner and matter are seen (potentially, at least) as evil.50 This fourth position is the moral idealist’s. Lampman’s essays on the poetry of Byron and Keats are cases in point. In the former, he says, “not all that is artistic is beautiful . . . that which is beautiful cannot disturb.... however a great deal of the world’s art does disturb, because it is not in accord with the laws which work for the beauty and safety of human nature; because it is rather built upon the instincts of an original, prurient nature.”51 Of Keats’ “beauty is truth” equation, Lampman says:

There is an energy in the spirit of the true poet which realizes what he creates, and if his spirit be in harmony with the indestructible impulse of the general soul of humanity toward love and knowledge and peace, makes it beautiful and true and good, but if he be waywardly out of harmony with that universal impulse, makes it . . . false and unfair and bad. 52 [my italics]

Lampman — in his criticism — accepts but fears the power of the word. Morality is the final judge of beauty. Such a theory is in the final analysis anti-poetic. I must assume Lampman’s professed theory of poetry does not, or does not always, lie behind his poetic practice. “The City of the End of Things” is nothing if not disturbing, and the same might be said of many of his socially-oriented poems. Nor, as I have tried to show, do Lampman’s nature poems operate in the way the “official” ideology suggests they should.

     Even when critics in the late nineteenth century sensed the uniqueness and importance of Canada’s nature poetry, which they often did — such poetry “came more and more to be considered the chief criterion for distinctively Canadian writing” (MacLulich, p. 14) — they were distinctly uncomfortable about it. MacLulich says, “The apparent predominance of nature poetry in Canada was at odds with a desire for the most spiritual and ideal kind of art. In addition, the difficulty in accommodating Canadian nature poetry to current critical categories was part of a wider controversy between theories of ‘realism’ and ‘idealism’ in art. These are conflicts which recur constantly throughout the critical writings of the times” (p. 20). Lampman’s scenes “are more real than ideal,” MacLulich quotes Arthur Stringer as saying, but Stringer adds that Lampman is not a realist: “It is the poet who finds the latent beauty in what the world thoughtlessly passes over as prosaic or repulsive” (p. 23). Stringer, therefore, is aware of Lampman’s approach to nature, and yet finds it necessary to see him as an ennobler of what he sees, in other words, as a moral idealist. Other critics, reading shallowly, took the Post-Romantic poets’ treatment of nature as Wordsworthian. Still others, while sensing their move in the direction of imagistic description, condemned them for excluding man, that is to say, for not dealing with moral issues (MacLulich, p. 68).

     Remarkably, the language of moral idealism persisted, indeed, dominated Canadian criticism, well into the twentieth century. 53 Logan and French, in their infamous Highways of Canadian Literature, applied this standard: “the best Canadian poetry and imaginative prose will compare favourably with the admittedly authentic poetry and prose of many of the significant British and United States authors in the mid-Victorian era.” 54 Highways was published in 1924. That also was the year in which Archibald MacMechan published his — much better — pioneering survey: Headwaters of Canadian Literature. M.G. Parks, in his Introduction to the New Canadian Library reprint, says MacMechan “differs from most of his predecessors in being unimpressed by moral seriousness, piety, patriotic fervour, fine sentiments or elevated thoughts as measures of literary excellence.” But we may doubt this when, two sentences later, he reports that MacMechan’s “sense of decorum and his moral idealism are offended by the vulgarity of Robert Service’s verse,” which “lacks the power to redeem the squalid themes it treats.”55 Janet E. Baker, in a recent study of MacMechan, agrees that his critical attitudes were modelled on Arnold’s: poetry was a criticism of life and a guide to a higher life. “For MacMechan, morals and aesthetics were intimately related. . . . Because of the formative influence of Victorian literature on MacMechan’s literary tastes, then, he was never comfortable with the direction poetry in Canada was taking in the 1920s.”56 But he was too comfortable with a poet like Lampman: “Part of Lampman’s charm lies undoubtedly in his ethic. Though Keatsian, he was no mere hedonist. Sincere, tender, unwordly, contemplative are the terms which describe his character; he lived in and for the ideal.”57 The equation is made so casually: ethic equals ideal. MacMechan can see that Lampman’s contribution is “his subtle interpretation of the land he lived in,”58 but of the sources of that subtlety he has no notion. His critical stance and language did not allow it. Finally, here is G.H. Unwin, writing in 1917:

Mr. Wilfred Campbell, in an aggressive mood, makes it out to be quite a merit in himself that he does not know the names of flowers and birds. . . . It reminds one of the story of a convivial Keats who drank “Confusion to Newton,” because he had destroyed “the poetry of the rainbow.” But Keats was a disciple of the romantic and the unreal. There will always be this conflict in poetry between prosaic reality and ethereal fancy. The task of the modern poet clearly is to lift the prosaic to the divine, to live among realities and to ennoble them.59

Again, the familiar criterion of ennoblement. But I want rather to notice another casual equation: of “the romantic and the unreal.” If some of Unwin’s critical standards are a generation behind, his view of Romanticism is quite in accord with that of the generation to come.

     If it is accepted that critics in the thirty years or so after 1890 were blinded to the essence of Canadian Post-Romanticism by a moralistic critical language, what of those pioneering modern critics of the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s? If Lampman and Scott and Roberts were actually undermining their own Romantic disguise, why were we not told so by A.J.M. Smith and F.R. Scott, by E.K. Brown and Desmond Pacey?

     Just a few years earlier than the appearance of the poets and critics associated with the McGill Fortnightly Review, there was a revival of interest in nineteenth-century Canadian poetry, sparked by such establishment writers as J.W. Garvin and Katherine Hale.60 The same group at the same time was forming the Canadian Authors’Association to promote Canadian writing and writers. Mary Jean Vipond has studied the C.A.A. as a nationalist organization: “Politically, economically and culturally divided, cut adrift from Britain by political evolution, geographical distance and world power shifts, watching industrialization, urbanization and modern communications techniques destroy old ways of life and traditional community structures, Canadians in the 1920s felt a desperate need to form new bonds of unity.”61 Thus, “the dominant attitudes of the C.A.A. members were conservative and romantic” (p. 361), and thus their tendency was toward nostalgia, toward what Vipond calls “their worship of the Canadian poets of the late nineteenth century” (p. 364). “The C.A.A. in the 1920s,” she concludes, “was not simply trying to make Canadians aware of their literary past. It was trying to keep that past alive by adulation and imitation” (pp. 367-68).

     What E.K. Brown called the “vehement reaction”62 by the modernists against the poets of the previous century, I believe is more properly understood as a reaction against the militantly conservative literary establishment of the ’20s and ’30s which idolized those poets. The Post-Romantic poets — or at least their poetry, since Roberts, and perhaps Scott, were by then members of that establishment — became political pawns in a critical chess game; they were seen less for themselves than for what they were thought to represent.63 In short, the modernists in Canada tossed out the nineteenth-century poetic baby with the critical bathwater ringing the early twentieth-century tub. This is certainly so in Leo Kennedy’s 1933 attack on Lampman in The Canadian Forum:

Lampman wrote in the poetic diction laid down by the second generation poets of the Romantic Revival, a diction with which we today are wholly out of touch and sympathy. . . . And the current generation of Canadian poets, of whom I am a hobbling member, has chucked him out, neck, crop and rhyming dictionary. Our quarrel is, perhaps, not so much with Lampman as with his time and poetic tradition. The pot-bellied, serene protestantism of Victorian England which still flourished in Canada during the spruce youth of Edward, and which underlay Lampman’s spiritual makeup, causes us to chafe. We are impatient of reading into the face of nature the conservative policies of an Anglican omnipotence.64

It is clear, then, that the antipathy felt by Kennedy’s generation toward the past — and perhaps toward things British — was far too virulent for understanding to intrude.

     When F.R. Scott spoke of “the milk-and-honey late-Victorian Godand-Maple-Tree romanticism of Bliss Carman,” 65 his intent and effect was satire. But his lumping together of critical categories — as not worth distinguishing or investigating — was typical. The modernist critics were identical to their rivals in the C.A.A., and to their predecessors, in one significant respect. None could see beneath the surface romanticism and idealism of the Post-Romantic poets. And whether that surface was praised or damned, the critical result was equally fruitless.

     F.R. Scott’s colleague, A.J.M. Smith, and later E.K. Brown and Desmond Pacey, are enormously important as pioneering modern, scholarly and systematic critics of Canadian writing. But they had a bias toward realism. Their achievement cannot suffer from a clearer understanding of that bias. Smith said, in 1944,

The romantic spirit, indeed, is encouraged by a colonial sense of inferiority [because the writer turns toward an impossible or ideal place, despising the real] . . . . To consider the realities of the life around him as too modest or too coarse for the attention of poetry is a temptation that faces the poet in a colony, particularly if he thinks of himself as an inheritor of the elaborate tradition of the poetry of the Motherland, and he makes poetry an escape from reality.66

Smith speaks here of pre-Confederation poetry, but nevertheless, that the poets later in the century could use a Romantic vocabulary to convey ironically the impossibility of the ideal did not occur to these critics, perceiving Romanticism, as they did, as an escape from reality. E.K. Brown projects this critical over-simplification onto the poetry when he says of Roberts:

Never a poet of philosophical ideas, he was not intimately affected by the intellectual anxieties that The Origin of Species and The Descent of Man had brought to the nature poets of Europe. God is in nature; and nature is good. Man is part of nature; and has no quarrel with it. These simple, supremely optimistic notions, characteristic of Wordsworth’s generation, and continuing on in the poetry of the American transcendentalists, are all that Roberts requires.67

     In 1957, Desmond Pacey evaluated the “progress” of Canada’s literature. His attempt to measure how far we had come assumed a later and better standard of judgement. And that standard was realism. After disparaging all the novelists in Canada before 1923, Pacey added, “Famous as these novelists were, none of them could be taken seriously by a literary critic with strict standards, and none of them set themselves to analyse profoundly the nature of Canadian individual or social life. Such nascent realism as there was, was to be found intermittently.”68 Clearly, realism equals achievement. Pacey is genuinely illuminating when he says speaking of the “peaceful close” of several of Scott’s poems, that it “is achieved not by the transcendental leap, but by a stoical acceptance of suffering as the inevitable lot of man. . . . calm and stability are finally attained through an inner spiritual discipline not through some magical release.”69 Yet note the equation: Transcendentalism is magic, not, therefore, to be taken seriously. Writing on Carman, in Ten Canadian Poets, Pacey says, “In the light of Babbitt’s and Eliot’s strictures against romanticism, we are apt to leap to the conclusion that any theory of poetry as rapture is a false theory.”70 Because to equate Romanticism with “poetry as rapture” is to use the term very loosely, Pacey’s attempt to be fair succeeds only in being patronizing. And, in the same book, Pacey says of Charles Sangster’s “Marilene,” “It has some very bad lines, but also some quite good ones. The bathos of these lines outdoes the worst parts of The [sic] Idylls of the King” (p. 27). We are to understand that even the best parts of Tennyson’s work are not much.

     The realist bias is clear and how it could hamper criticism is evident in this remark: Pacey says, “It would be quite fatuous to bring to bear upon Sangster’s poetry the heavy guns of either the new or the old criticism. He is simply a very minor Victorian versifier” (p. 23). There is a vicious circle operating here. The critic glances at Sangster and immediately applies the label. But, if Victorian, the poet must be colonial, and his poems derivative and minor. Therefore, why trouble to use the full arsenal? So the critic neither investigates the poet’s alleged ’ism (the old criticism), nor closely analyses the poems (the new criticism). As a result, the original damning label remains affixed and the critic can be content with ferreting out the odd good line — as if it appeared by magic — with stating a few plausible influences, and with a pious homily about how hard it was to write in the colonies.

     Even Pacey’s irreplaceable close-reading of Lampman’s “Heat”71 is flawed by the realist bias. Pacey saw in the poem a multitude of paired opposites, unified by a less obvious circular motif. This represented, suggested Pacey, the persona’s moment of vision, his moment of mystical oneness with nature.72 But I think he underestimated the dominance (and therefore missed the significance) of one of his opposing pairs: wet and dry. Both of these points are demonstrated in the opening lines of stanza three:

Beyond me in the fields the sun
    Soaks in the grass and hath his will;
I count the marguerites one by one;
    Even the buttercups are still.

The “sun/Soaks.” The agent of dryness is described as liquid. Here, and elsewhere in the poem, the effect of this paradox is to suggest an interpenetration of nature by nature. This intrapenetration, the flowing of one part of nature into another, is what the persona observes and describes. But he is not part of the flow. He is busy distinguishing and separating one object from another. While the sun erotically penetrates the earth, the persona is counting the flowers.

     The intrapenetration of nature is indicated several times in “Heat” by the blurred horizons of the scene. These, the persona cannot enumerate and distinguish:

I lift mine eyes sometimes to gaze:
    The burning sky-line blinds my sight:
The woods far off are blue with haze:
    The hills are drenched in light.

He is blinded when he cannot distinguish one thing from another. And it is where light “drenches,” allows a flow, that he cannot. This is one of the things the persona expresses in those enigmatic opening lines of the final stanza:

And yet to me not this or that
    Is always sharp or always sweet. . . .

He cannot always distinguish sharply, though nature is sweetest and he is most himself when he can. “This” and “that,” therefore, also have the implication of “subjective” and “objective”: when the persona is not sharply conscious of the outside world, neither is he clearly aware of self. He must, as Victor Y. Haines says, leave “the primitive’s feeling that nature is imbued with the same spirit he himself is, and become a clear-thinking onlooker.” 73 Thus, the persona realizes, at the end of the poem, his separation from that flowing process which is nature. The persona, in the next two lines, is in shadow, seeking retreat from the heat:

In the sloped shadow of my hat
    I lean at rest, and drain the heat....

Barrie Davies suggests that the speaker is “absorbing the force that has saturated nature, or possessing the meaning of heat, of the essence of life itself.”74 But, if so, there is a contradiction between the physical action described in the poem and the platonic meaning 75 Davies draws from that action. A man who is resting in shadow is draining the heat from him, not into him. It is not total union but separation from the landscape around him which the persona seeks.

     This may be seen also in the poem’s final lines:

In the full furnace of this hour
My thoughts grow keen and clear.

The “furnace” suggests conflagration, an apocalypse of natural unity. But, at rest in the centre of this apocalypse, the persona retains his separate consciousness. Indeed, it is the force of his vision of nature as other, which stimulates the persona’s realization of conscious self. Nowhere does he report an experience of unity with the landscape, and loss of self.76 Neither does he report particular thoughts. Rather it is consciousness itself which becomes isolate and clear.

     Pacey’s conclusion, on the other hand, is what happens when the “heavy guns” of the new criticism are turned on a poem, but not those of the old. His brilliant explication of “Heat” exists in what amounts to a contextual vacuum. Having isolated the subliminal image of the wheel, and believing Lampman to have an essentially Romantic view of nature,77 Pacey can only give the poem a mystical conclusion:

This dominant image of the turning wheel is symbolic of the unity of the poet’s experience, and of the vision of a unified world which this moment of insight has vouchsafed to him. The turning wheel is Lampman’s version of that glimpse of eternity which Vaughan described as a ring of pure and endless light. The wheel slowly turns, and as it turns light succeeds dark, heat cold, dry wet, and so on. These opposites are the spokes of the wheel: they have their place in an endless cycle which gives them each meaning and a final unity.78

The wheel image, however, does not come to the fore at the poem’s conclusion. Its purpose in the preceding stanzas is to stress nature’s intrapenetration, its independent and self-sufficient circularity. The persona feels excluded from the round of nature, and thus can experience the fullness and essence of self, of the seeing ‘I’.


But the vicious circle has been broken and the heavy guns have now been brought on target. I have suggested that Northrop Frye has been a key to this process. But it is not simply a matter of Frye stumbling upon “a tone of deep terror in regard to nature.” Frye’s larger critical stance turns out to be precisely the right one for understanding Canada’s literary heritage, which is also to say, for sweeping away a good deal of Canada’s critical heritage. Frye’s “great achievement,” according to Geoffrey H. Hartman, “is the recovery . . . of the intrinsic role of Romance in the human imagination.”79 Frye sees the quest-myth, which is central in romance, as also the containing form of the three other mythoi — tragedy, comedy and irony.80 As well, Frye’s theory of displacement suggests that the structural elements of realistic literature are the same as those of romance, except that those elements are better disguised in realism; there, they are displaced, in order to give the illusion of plausibility.81 In Frye’s discussion of romance in The Secular Scripture, identity is the central concept. Romance is seen as the continuing human story which begins with the fall from identity into the world of nature, and from thence through a world of increasing bondage and alienation, at whose nadir an upward swing begins toward recreated identity. Romance as a whole is seen as the myth of man’s re-creation of his identity from within himself, in secular counterpoint to “scriptural” myth, in which human identity or meaningful existence is God-given, comes from outside man.82 Frye’s own understanding of how modern man’s separation from God and nature has forced, and enabled, him to create kis own identity is, therefore, in substantial harmony with the experience of the self in Post-Romantic poetry. Another central aspect of Frye’s critical theory is his insistence that criticism is a science, concerned with progressively understanding literature, and not with judging it. All such judgements, Frye suggests, turn out to conceal “some ultra-critical joker,”83 in other words, a particular and therefore limited moral stance.

     I have posited a massive critical failure to understand Canada’s nineteenth-century poets because, for a long time, we could not develop a language of criticism appropriate to them. The chief barriers to that development were, first, the overwhelmingly moralistic attitude to literature which dominated Canadian criticism until the 1920s and, later, the modernist bias against moral and Romantic idealism. Can it be an accident that the critic whose thought demands the removal of each of these barriers has been seminal in the criticism of nineteenth-century Canadian poetry? But perhaps it would be equally accurate and useful to say that Frye himself is part of our literary tradition. Consciously or otherwise, he built on the foundations laid by the Post-Romantic poets, addressing himself to essential problems which their poetry raises. So have many other modern Canadian writers. Canadian Post-Romantic poetry forms, in its turn, an essential — though much-neglected — part of the context of all later Canadian poetry.


  1. Joseph Gold, “The Precious Speck of Life,” Canadian Literature, No. 26 (1965), p. 25. [back]

  2. As far as I am aware this term has been used in this context only once before, by John Ower, in “Portrait of the Landscape as Poet: Canadian Nature as Aesthetic Symbol in Three Confederation Writers,” Journal of Canadian Studies, 6 (Feb. 1971), 27.[back]

  3. M.H. Abrams, “English Romanticism: The Spirit of the Age,” in Romanticism Reconsidered: Selected Papers from the English Institute, ed. Northrop Frye (Columbia Univ. Press, 1963), pp. 28-29.[back]

  4. Basil Willey, The Seventeenth Century Background: Studies in the Thought of the Age in Relation to Poetry and Religion (1934; rpt. Garden City: Doubleday, 1953), pp. 304-05. [back]

  5. William Wordsworth, The Prelude. Bk. XI, 1. 108, in Poetical Works, ed. Thomas Hutchison, rev. ed. Ernest de Selincourt (Oxford Univ. Press, 1936), p. 570. [back]

  6. W.J. Keith, “A Choice of Worlds: God, Man and Nature in Charles G.D. Roberts,” in Colony and Confederation: Early Canadian Poets and Their Background, ed. George Woodcock, Canadian Literature Series (Univ. of B.C. Press, 1974), p. 87. [back]

  7. David Arnason, Editorial, Journal of Canadian Fiction, 2 (Spring 1973), p. 1. [back]

  8. Matthew Arnold, “Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse,” Poems, ed. Kenneth Allott, Longmans Annotated English Poets (London: Longmans, Green, 1965), p. 288. [back]

  9. Except for W.W. Campbell; see Carl F. Klinck, Wildred Campbell: A Study in Late Provincial Victorianism (1924; [rpt. in a slightly revised form] Ottawa: Tecumseh, 1977). [back]

  10. Walter Pater, The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry, introd. Kenneth Clark (London and Glasgow: Fontana/Collins, 1961), p. 221. [back]

  11. Sandra Djwa locates this inward turning a little later, in E.J. Pratt’s poetry. See her “Canadian Poetry and the Computer,” Canadian Literature, No. 46 (1970), pp. 47-48.[back]

  12. Charles G.D. Roberts, “‘Canadian Poetry in its Relation to the Poetry of England and America’ (Introduced by D.M.R. Bentley),” Canadian Poetry, No. 3 (1978), p. 82. [back]

  13. See D.C. Scott, “Poetry and Progress,” Proceedings and Transactions of the Royal Society of Canada, 3rd Ser., 16 (1922), xlvii-lxvii; rpt. in Duncan Campbell Scott: A Book of Criticism, ed. S.L. Dragland (Ottawa: Tecumseh, 1974), p. 23; and see Charles G.D. Roberts, “A Note on Modernism,” in Open House, eds. W.A. Deacon and Wilfred Reeves (Ottawa: Graphic, 1931); rpt. in Roberts, Selected Poetry and Critical Prose, Ed. W.J. Keith, Literature of Canada: Poetry and Prose in Reprint (Univ. of Toronto Press, 1974), pp. 298-99.[back]

  14. The Poems of Archibald Lampman (Including At the Long Sault), Literature of Canada: Poetry and Prose in Reprint (Univ. of Toronto Press, 1974), pp. 4-6.[back]

  15. Charles R. Steele, “The Isolate ‘I’ (Eye): Lampman’s Persona,” Essays on Canadian Writing, No. 16 (1979-80), p. 69. [back]

  16. Carl F. Klinck takes essentially the same view in “‘The Frogs’: An Exercise in Reading Lampman,” in The Lampman Symposium, ed. Lorraine McMullen, Re-appraisals: Canadian Writers (Univ. of Ottawa Press, 1976), pp. 35-36.[back]

  17. Steele, p. 69. [back]

  18. Literary History of Canada: Canadian Literature in English, ed. Carl F. Klinck, 2nd ed. (Univ. of Toronto Press, 1976), II, 342. [back]

  19. Northrop Frye, “Haunted by Lack of Ghosts: Some Patterns in the Imagery of Canadian Poetry,” in The Canadian Imagination: Dimensions of a Literary Culture, ed. David Staines (Harvard Univ. Press, 1977), p. 33. Frye is speaking here of the seventeenth-century heritage of Canada and America. In the nineteenth century, the immediate source of a “demythologized environment” is scientific rationalism, re-inforced in Canada by the natural environment, also de- or at least un-mythologized. See also Sandra Djwa, “Litterae ex Machina,” Humanities Association Review, 25 (1974), 30.[back]

  20. John P. Matthews, “Duncan Campbell Scott and ’The Moment of Becoming,’” in The Duncan Campbell Scott Symposium, ed. K.P. Stich, Reappraisals: Canadian Writers (Univ. of Ottawa Press, 1980), p. 1.[back]

  21. John P. Matthews, “The Use of the Seasons in Canadian Poetry,” English Quarterly, 5 (Fall 1972), 37.[back]

  22. D.G. Jones, “Lampman’s Achievement,” in The Lampman Symposium, p. 118.[back]

  23. Poems, pp. 158-60.[back]

  24. Steele, p. 67. [back]

  25. ”A Note on Modernism,” p. 298.[back]

  26. In At the Mermaid Inn: Wilfred Campbell, Archibald Lampman, Duncan Campbell Scott in The Globe 1892-93, introd. Barrie Davies, Literature of Canada: Poetry and Prose in Reprint (Univ. of Toronto Press, 1979), pp. 297-98.[back]

  27. See J.M. Zezulka, “The Pastoral Vision in Nineteenth-Century Canada,” Dalhousie Review, 57 (1977), esp. pp. 236-38; Robin Mathews, “Malcolm’s Katie: Love, Wealth and Nation Building,” Studies in Canadian Literature, 2 (1977), 59; Robin Mathews, “Susanna Moodie, Pink Toryism, and Nineteenth Century Ideas of Canadian Identity,” Journal of Canadian Studies, 10 (Aug. 1975), 7, 10; R.E. Watters, “Original Relations: A Genographic Approach to the Literature of Canada and Australia,” Canadian Literature, No.7 (1961), p. 9; and L.R. Early, “Myth and Prejudice in Kirby, Richardson, and Parker,” Canadian Literature, No. 81 (1979), p. 31.[back]

  28. The Poems of Duncan Campbell Scott (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1926), pp. 214-15.[back]

  29. J.E. Cirlot, A Dictionary of Symbols, trans. Jack Sage, 2nd ed. (London and Henley: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1971), p. 263. [back]

  30. Cirlot, p. 115. [back]

  31. Cirlot, pp. 119-203. [back]

  32. Cirlot, p. 358.[back]

  33. Leon Slonim, “A Critical Edition of the Poems of Duncan Campbell Scott,” Diss. Univ. of Toronto, 1978, II, 448. [back]

  34. Poems pp. 52-54. [back]

  35. Isabelia Valancy Crawford, The Collected Poems, ed. J.W. Garvin (1905; rpt. Literature of Canada: Poetry and Prose in Reprint, Univ. of Toronto Press, 1972), p. 203. [back]

  36. Claude T. Bissell, “Literary Taste in Central Canada During the Late Nineteenth Century,” Canadian Historical Reuiew, 31 (1950), 244. [back]

  37. A.B. McKillop, A Disciplined Intelligehee: Critical Inquiry and Canadian Thought in the Victorian Era (McGill-Queen’s Univ. Press, 1979), pp. 205-06. Subsequent references in the text. [back]

  38. See Djwa, “Canadian Poetry and the Computer,” pp. 47-48; and W.J. Keith, “How New was New Provinces?” Canadian Poetry, No. 4 (1979), pp. 120-24. [back]

  39. See McKillop, p. 142; McKillop, “John Watson and the Idealist Legacy,” Can. Literature, No. 83 (1979), p. 72; Klinck, Wilfred Campbell, pp. 80-81; and Carl Y. Connor, Archibald Lampman: Canadian Poet of Nature (New York and Montreal: Louis Carrier, 1929), p. 84. [back]

  40. See Terry Cook, “George R. Parkin and the Concept of Britannic Idealism,” Journal of Canadian Studies, 10 (August 1975), pp. 16, 24; Desmond Pacey, Ten Canadian Poets: A Group of Biographical and Critical Essays (Toronto: Ryerson, 1958), p. 73; Charles G.D. Roberts, “Bliss Carman,” Dalhousie Review, 9 (1930), 412-14, 417; Literary History, I, 77, 219; and Lorne Pierce, Three Fredericton Poets: Writers of the Univ. of New Brunswick and the New Dominion (Toronto: Ryerson, 1933), p. 18. Bishop John Medley’s influence would have reinforced Roberts’ and Carman’s idealism: see Malcolm Ross, “ ’A Strange Aesthetic Ferment,’” Canadian Literature, No. 68-69 (1976), p. 17.[back]

  41. Charles G.D. Roberts, “My Religion: A Personal Confession of Religious Experiences and Convictions,” Manitoba Free Press, Winnipeg, 5 June 1926, p. 27.[back]

  42. John Robert Sorfleet, “Transcendentalist, Mystic, Evolutionary Idealist: Bliss Carman 1886-1894,” in Colony and Confederation, p. 202. [back]

  43. Poems, p. 263.[back]

  44. Selected Poetry and Critical Prose, pp. 107-08.[back]

  45. Archibald Lampman, “The Character and Poetry of Keats,” University of Toronto Quarterly, 15 (1946), 357-58. [back]

  46. Bliss Carman, “Spring Song,” Poets of the Confederation, ed. Malcolm Ross, New Canadian Library (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1960), p. 35. [back]

  47. A few critics have suggested the same thing. See, for example, Jean Mallinson, “Kingdom of Absence,” Canadian Literature, No. 67 (1976), p. 31; and Patricia Monk, “The Role of Prosodic and Structural Elements in the Poetry of Duncan Campbell Scott,” Master’s Thesis, Carleton 1971, pp. 147-48. [back]

  48. Thomas Donald MacLulich, “Literary Attitudes in English-Canada, 1880-1900,” Master’s Thesis, Simon Fraser 1971, pp. 65-66. Subsequent references in the text.[back]

  49. Robert L. McDougall, “A Study of Canadian Periodical Literature of the Nineteenth-Century,” Diss. Toronto 1950, pp. 361-62. Claude Bissell also names Arnold and Eliot as the critical touchstones of the time, p. 245. [back]

  50. This way of formulating the relationship between poetry and morality I owe to Helen Molitor, who suggested it as part of a stimulating seminar in literary theory at the University of Calgary. [back]

  51. Archibald Lampman, “‘The Poetry of Byron,’ with a Pref. Note by D.M.R. Bentley,” Queen’s Quarterly, 83 (1976), 623-24.[back]

  52. “The Character and Poetry of Keats,” pp. 357-58. [back]

  53. Hugo McPherson, “The Literary Reputation of Bliss Carman: A Study in the Development of Canadian Taste in Poetry,” Master’s Thesis, Western Ontario 1950, pp. 144, 212-13.[back]

  54. J.D. Logan and Donald G. French, Highways of Canadian Literature: A Synoptic Introduction to the Literary History of Canada (English) from 1760 to 1924 (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1924), p. 16. [back]

  55. M.G. Parks, Introduction, Headwaters of Canadian Literature, by Archibald MacMechan, New Canadian Library (1924; rpt. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1974), p. xi. [back]

  56. Janet E. Baker, “Archibald MacMechan: Canadian Man of Letters,” Diss. Dalhousie 1977, p. 58. [back]

  57. MacMechan, Headwaters, p. 115.[back]

  58. MacMechan, Headwaters, p. 116.[back]

  59. G.H. Unwin, “The Poetry of Archibald Lampman,” University Magazine, 16 (Feb. 1917), 72.[back]

  60. Norman Shrive, “What Happened to Pauline?” Canadian Literature, No. 13 (1962), pp. 35-37.[back]

  61. Mary Jean Vipond, “National Consciousness in English-Speaking Canada in the 1920s: Seven Studies,” Diss. Toronto 1974, p. 353. Subsequent references in the text. [back]

  62. E.K. Brown, “The Development of Poetry in Canada, 1880-1940,” Poetry (Chicago), 58 (April 1941), 39.[back]

  63. See Germaine Warkentin, Introduction, The White Savannahs, by W.E. Collin, Literature of Canada: Poetry and Prose in Reprint (1936; rpt. Univ. of Toronto Press, 1975), p. xxiii, and Michael Gnarowski, Introduction, Archibald Lampman, Critical Views on Canadian Writers (Toronto: Ryerson, 1970), pp. xxi-xxii. [back]

  64. Leo Kennedy, “Archibald Lampman,” Canadian Forum, 13 (May 1933); rpt. Archibald Lampman, pp. 123-25. [back]

  65. F.R. Scott, “New Poems for Old, II: The Revival of Poetry,” Canadian Forum, 11 (1930), 339. [back]

  66. A.J.M. Smith, “Colonialism and Nationalism in Canadian Poetry Before Confederation,” Canadian Historical Association Report (1944), 75. [back]

  67. E.K. Brown, On Canadian Poetry, rev. ed. (Toronto: Ryerson, 1944), p. 50.[back]

  68. Desmond Pacey, “The Canadian Writer and his Public: 1882-1952,” in Studia Varia: Royal Society of Canada Literary and Scientific Papers, ed. E.G.D. Murray (Univ. of Toronto Press, 1957), p. 13. [back]

  69. Desmond Pacey, Creative Writing in Canada: A Short History of English-Canadian Literature (Toronto: Ryerson, 1952), p. 62. [back]

  70. Ten Canadian Poets, p. 88. Subsequent references in the text.[back]

  71. Poems, pp. 12-13. [back]

  72. Desmond Pacey, “A Reading of Lampman’s ’Heat,’ “ Culture, 14 (Sept. 1953), 272-97; rpt. in Archibald Lampman, p. 184. [back]

  73. Victor Yelverton Haines, “Archibald Lampman: This or That,” Revue de l’Université d’Ottawa, 41 (1971), 460.[back]

  74. Barrie Davies, “The Forms of Nature: Some of the Philosophical and Aesthetic Bases of Lampman’s Nature Poetry,” in The Lampman Symposium, p. 95.[back]

  75. Davies, p. 76. [back]

  76. Steele, p. 65.[back]

  77. Creative Writing in Canada, pp. 50-51.[back]

  78. ”A Reading of Lampman’s ’Heat,’” p. 184. [back]

  79. Geoffrey H. Hartman, “Ghostlier Demarcations,” in Northrop Frye in Modern Criticism: Selected Papers from the English Institute, ed. Murray Krieger (Columbia Univ. Press, 1966), pp. 110-11.[back]

  80. Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays Princeton Univ. Press, 1957), p. 192.[back]

  81. Anatomy, pp. 136-37.[back]

  82. Northrop Frye, The Secular Scripture: A Study of the Structure of Romance (Harvard Univ. Press, 1976), passim, but esp. p. 129.[back]

  83. Anatomy, p. 23.[back]