Preface: Minor Poets of a Superior Order

At the library yesterday, I skipped through a half-dozen little volumes of poetry by Bliss Carman. I felt the need for poetry — of hearing again about April and frogs and marsh-noises and the “honey-colored moon” of seeing — “oleanders/Glimmer in the moonlight.” You remember the fragments of Sappho. Carman has taken taken fragments and imagined the whole of the poem of which each was a part. The result, in some instances, is immensely pleasant — although distinctly not Sapphic. Sappho’s passion came from her heart. Carman’s from a sense of warm beauty.1

It may surprise even some of the most committed students of Confederation poetry to learn that this is an excerpt from a letter, not by Nathaniel son or a Miss Crotchet, but by the young Wallace Stevens, a poet not usually considered to be indebted to Bliss Carman or to any other Canadian writer. Yet a week earlier, in a letter of January 24, 1909, Stevens wrote:

Think of me scribbling . . . for a whole evening . . . to the accompaniment of a line of Bliss Carman’s: “June comes, and the moon comes.” I hummed that for a day — and then scribbled.2

Apparently Steve “scribbled” poems, one of them called “From a Vagabond,” on the the flyleaves of the three Vagabondia volumes that Carman co-authored with Richard Hovey.3

     Nor was Wallace Stevens the only American poet at the turn of the century who found material to admire and use in Carman’s poetry, particularly the Sappho and Vagabondia volumes. In introducing a selection of William Carlos Williams’ The October, 1912 issue of the London Poetry Review, Ezra Pound noted that he had “greatly enjoyed The Songs of Vagabondia by Mr. Bliss Carman and the late Richard Hovey.”4 As Noel Stock has pointed out, there is an echo of Carman’s Sappho in Pound’s Ripostes and an illusion to the Canadian poet in Canto LXXX.5 Other American poets who, in one way or another, felt the influence of Carman were the Edwin Arlington Robinson who found “an unquestionable touch of greatness”6 in a Carman poem in the Chap-Book and, quite likely, the Robert Frost of “After-Apple Picking.”7 The fact is that Carman was very much a presence in American poetry and criticism in the pre-modern period. Not only did the “reality and zest’’8 of the Vagabondia volumes assist in the opening-up of ideas and poetics that led to Modernism but the brief, crisp lyrics of the Sappho volume almost certainly contributed to the aesthetic and practice of Imagism.9 In conservative circles Carman’s presence in American letters remained strong into the ’twenties, when he was asked to edit The Oxford Book of American Verse (1927).10

     Largely because of the well-known account of the influence of “The Piper of Arll” on John Masefield, Duncan Campbell Scott has achieved a pre-eminence in many minds as the Confederation poet whose influence negotiated the Atlantic to England. This may well be the case,11 but it is worth recalling that, like Scott, both Roberts and Barman published poems in prominent periodicals and anthologies in England (Carmen had a poem in The Savoy, for example) and that the latter was especially well-known in English literary circles. In Francis Thompson’s reviews of Songs from Vagabondia and The Kinship of Nature Carman is not only credited with being better known than Hovey but also described as a “Canadian poet of deserved repute this side of the water.’’12 Of course, the Fredericton poets had personal contact with several late-nineteenth-century English writera, including Swinburne, Wilde, Richard Le Gallienne and William Sharp. It seems more than likely that P.G. Wodehouse had Carman in mind (and perhaps Robert Service and Wilson MacDonald as well) when he created the Ralston McTodd of Leave It to Psmith (1924); the author of “Songs Squalor” and other volumes, McTodd is a “powerful young singer of Saskatoon,” a “gloomy looking young man with long and disordered hair,”13 whose “wonderful poems . . . are, of course, known the whole world over” (so at least says one of his admirers). The Stephen Leacock of such works as Moonbeams from the Larger Lunacy was not the only writer in the period around the First World War to perceive in “the Canadian poet” a figure large and recognizable enough for humorous treatment.

     At least as noteworthy as the impact of the Confederation poets on their contemporaries in America, England and, of course, Canada is their presence in later Canadian poetry. Although several features of Canadian Modernism, including its cosmopolitan bias and its myth of discontinuity ended in the period around the Second World War to encourage the devaluation or ignorance of the Confederation poets, the influence of Carman found its way to various modern poets, including the Smith of ch poems as “Pagan” (“Were I the Great God Pan.”14) and “To Hold in a Poem”15 and the Purdy of The Enchanted Echo (which includes a “Summons to Vagabonds”) and Pressed on Sand. Probably because of changing tastes and temperamental disaffinities that were reflected in Canadian criticism — for example in E.K. Brown’s (puritanical) hostility to the Fredericton poets in general and to Carman in particular16 — interest in the Ottawa Group, especially in Lampman and Scott, began to increase after the Second War. Like Avison (“The Iconoclasts”) and Souster (“A Letter to Archibald Lampman”), Purdy has written a poem in conscious, and at least partly admiring, response to Lampman (“Lampman in Heat”), and Douglas Lochhead — though a poet of the Tantramar like Roberts — has taken the title of his Collected Poems from Lampman’s “Heat” (The Full Furnace). Also quite recently D.G. Jones has used Lampman as a point of departure in his “Kate, These Flowers . . . (The Lampman Poems)” and John Flood has used Scott’s poems of the Indians and the North as his pretext in The Land They Occupied. Despite such formidable forces as the hostility of Modernism to Romanticism and that of Postmodernism to all tradition (not to mention the agonizingly repetitive assertions of George Woodcock and others that Canadian literature began with Canadian Modernism), the Confederation poets have continued to be a presence in Canadian poetry. The responses of Canadian poets to them are numerous (too numerous to be calculated here) and varied, as are the responses of Canadian critics.  Could it be that the agreements and arguments between contemporary Canadian writers and their Canadian predecessors are a sign that Canada is not, after all, doomed to hearing in perpetuity belated announcements of its own literary birth or coming-of-age by the latest amnesiac importers of a new ‘ism’?

     No one would wish to claim from the examples, instances and quotations assembled here that the Confederation poets were either individually or collectively seminal thinkers who dominated and determined the course of poetry in their own times or ours.  Yet through personal contacts, through periodical publications, and, above all, through those “little volumes of poetry” of which Stevens wrote, the Confederation poets achieved more of a presence in American, English and Canadian literature than is often realized.  Like their best successors in the Canadian continuity, they are minor poets of a superior order.  As such, they attracted the attention of both stronger and weaker writers among their contemporaries and successors.   As such they will continue to attract the attention of Canadian criticism, probobly with increasing intensity and discernment.  What James Reaney has recently written of Crawford, Lampman and Roberts can be extended to Carman, Scott, Campbell, Sherman, Pickthall and others: they “wrote well and were of note.”17  In this issue of Canadian Poetry is again embodied the hope with which Malcolm Ross concluded the “Introduction” to his influential anthology of Poets of the Confederation — the hope that the materials “here presented will remind us that we possess a poetic tradition of considerable merit and of recognizable character — a tradition which endures. . . .”18


I am grateful to Stan Dragland, Murray MacArthur and Tracey Ware for calling my attention to materials cited in this Preface.

  1. Letters of Wallace Stevens, sel. and ed. by Holly Stevens (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1966), I, 130.[back]

  2. Ibid., p. 129.[back]

  3. See Holly Stevens, Souvenirs and Prophecies: The Young Wallace Stevens (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1977), pp. 186-187.[back]

  4. Quoted in Noel Stock, Ezra Pound’s Pennsylvania (Toledo, Ohio: The Friends of the University of Toledo Libraries, 1976), p. 85.[back]

  5. See Noel Stock, Poet in Exile: Ezra Pound (Manchester University Press, 1964), p .9.[back]

  6. Untriangulated Stars: Letters of Edwin Arlington Robinson to Harry de Forest Smith, 1890-1905, ed. Denham Sutcliffe (Harvard University Press, 1947), p. 222. See also p. 164 for Robinson’s comment, in June 1894, that he is “anxious to get to Cambridge and find out more about Chap-Book. . . . I take Bliss Carman to be the guiding spirit of the undertaking” and p. 276 for his quotation of a Roberts’ comment on his work. In “Bliss Carman and Edwin Arlington Robinson,” Douglas Library Notes, 15 (Winter, 1967), pp. 2-7, H. Pearson Gundy dicusses the relationship between the two poets and in The Chap-Book: A Journal of American Intellectual Life in the 1890’s (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1982), p.81 and p.138n., Wendy Clauson Schleseth assesses and enumerates Carman’s contributions to that journal.[back]

  7. See note no.35 and above in Tracy Ware’s essay in this issue of Canadian Poetry and also Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant, Robert Frost: The Trial by Existence (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1960), pp.43-45.[back]

  8. David Perkins, A History of Modern Poetry: From the 1890s to the High Modernist Mode (Harvard University Press, 1976), p. 101.[back]

  9. Compare, for instance, Carman’s lyric XII in the Sappho volume (“Once you lay upon my bosom . . .”) with Pound’s “Thy soul/Grown delicate/Atthis . . .” in The Collected Shorter Poems (London: Faber and Faber, 1924), p. 123. See also my “Carman’s Unelusive Glories” [Rev. Letters of Bliss Carman, ed. H. Pearson Gundy], Canadian Poetry, 10 (Spring/Summer, 1982), pp.112-113 for a brief discussion of Carman’s aesthetic.[back]

  10. See Perkins, p. 114.[back]

  11. See also The Poet and the Critic: A Literary Correspondence between D.C. Scott and E.K. Brown, ed., with and Introduction and Notes, by Robert L. MacDougall (Carleton University Press, 1983), pp. 163 (and Letter 148 n.3) and 168 for Scott’s relationship with Alfred Noyes.[back]

  12. See “A Partnership in Song”  (1894) and “The Kinship of Nature” (1904) in Literary Criticisms, ed., and with an Introduction, by Rev. Terence L. Connolly (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1948), pp. 292-295 and 296-298.[back]

  13. Leave It to Psmith, ed., and with and Introduction by Wilfred Sheed (1924; Rpt. New York: Random House, 1975), pp. 67-68, 93, 126, and passim.[back]

  14. See A.J.M. Smith: Poems New and Collected (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1967), p.55.[back]

  15. See The Bush Garden: Essays on the Canadian Imagination (Toronto: Anasi, 1971), p. 37 for Frye’s location of this poem in “the Carman tradition.”[back]

  16. See The Poet and the Critic, p. 97 and E.K. Brown, On Canadian Poetry (Toronto: Ryerson, 1943), pp. 45-46 where Brown briefly discusses Roberts and Carman and concludes (p.56) that the “two most powerful and satisfying poets of the period [are] Lampman and Scott,” to whom he will allot “special chapters.”[back]

  17. “Triads II,” Descant, 42 (Fall, 1983), p. 28. Reaney’s poem owes a debt to “The Iconoclasts.”[back]

  18. Poets of the Confederation (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1960), p. xii.[back]