Eidolatry: Criticism and Colonial Canadian Literature

Idolatry in whatever form (orthographical or otherwise) should not of course either be counselled or countenanced in any critical endeavour.  And I do not so counsel or countenance.  Nor, though I do believe that we are insufficiently attentive to our literary avatars — those eidolons whose sweeping disregard I lamented in an earlier volume of this journal (No. 2, Spring/Summer, 1978, pp. 106-110) — do I recommend an uncritical celebration of those ghostly presences emanating from the literature of pre-Confederation Canada.  Uncritical attention is precisely what I do not want, and uncritical inattention is what I believe we already have in too many respects.

     I do not mean simply the kind of inattention that can be statistically detailed: the comparative lack of primary texts; of critical books, articles, notes; of works on intellectual, social and cultural backgrounds and contexts.  Though there have been over the last five years significant achievements in each of these areas, comparative statistics of the sort which I provided in my earlier article would indicate only marginal abatement of the Canadian literary scholar's evident carelessness of the earlier stages of his country's literary history.  I hasten to excuse from these excoriations, to congratulate in fact, those few scholars who do continue to labour in these publicly unrewarding, difficult, yet privately satisfying areas.  I applaud those scholars who, under the aegis of Mary Jane Edwards and her Carleton University confrères, have satisfied what would otherwise have been more immediately remunerative academic pursuits to provide us with indispensable primary texts: critical editions of nineteenth century Canadian prose works.  The first published products of this undertaking are still anxiously awaited.  On a smaller, regional scale, but no less praiseworthy, have been the efforts of Douglas Lochhead, Gwendolyn Davies, and their colleagues at Mount Allison's Centre for Canadian Studies to produce texts for teaching purposes of otherwise inaccessible early Maritime works such as Samuel Douglas Smith Huyghue's 1840's novel ArgimouA Legend of the Micmac (reprinted 1977, 1979).  Michael Gnarowski's Early Canadian Poetry Series at Golden Dog Press continues though some of his contributors (I mean myself) are not producing as expeditiously as they should.  At his Loyal Colonies Press in Kingston, and at the Royal Military College there, Thomas B. Vincent almost single-handedly sustains an eighteenth-century Canadian literature industry through reprints, contents reports and indexes, critical introductions, anthologies and annotated chronologies.  And finally, one should not overlook the occasional contributions made to the provision of pre-Confederation texts in the "Documents" section of this journal.


In the field of critical study, commentary on fiction still vastly outweighs that on poetry, though in the activity of the writers themselves, and in the hierarchy of literary genres of Colonial Canada, as in that of Romantic and early Victorian Britain, poetry certainly took precedence over fiction.   By unconsciously and undeliberately allowing our critical commentary to suggest otherwise (by, in short, indulging the values of our own fiction-dominated age), we misrepresent that period of our literary history.  It might be claimed, I suppose, that the fiction is more accomplished than the poetry, or that it is of more socio-historical or of more cultural interest and significance.  I am not at all certain by what criteria the questions of the relative socio-historical or cultural values of different genres might be conclusively or convincingly resolved, but I am confident that resolution would depend upon an equal confrontation with all the available evidence and there is certainly no indication that we are as yet close to approaching such a stage of investigation.  But if critical attention were a trustworthy guide we should be closer to this stage in the criticism of our fiction than in that of our poetry.  The greater activity is represented, not only in the editing efforts mentioned above, to which might be added, albeit very modestly, Douglas Daymond and Leslie Monkman's Canadian Novelists and the Novel (Ottawa: Borealis Press, 1981) which provides in the historical sweep of its contents a selection of critical and theoretical comments by one early critic (David Chisholme) and five Colonial writers of prose fiction (Hart, Galt, Richardson, Haliburton, Moodie).  It is also represented in the scholarly inconsequential, literature-digested-for-the-masses Reader's Guide to the Canadian Novel (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1981) by John Moss — which contains pocket-size analyses of thirteen pre-Confederation prose works.  Of slightly greater moment are one or two of the contributions (especially Germaine Warkentin's on David Thompson — of which more later) in Jeffrey M. Heath's Profiles in Canadian Literature (Toronto: Dundern Press, 1980: vols. 1 and 2; 1982: vols. 3 and 4) — though these are designed as introductions for high school and university students rather than as original contributions to critical knowledge (neither, of course, are Moss's, but the fact that collections such as these merit notice in a discussion such as the present one is indicative of the lack of criticism on Colonial Canadian literature).

     Of greater substance are the essays by various hands on individual works and authors, both in critical anthologies such as Moss's The Canadian Novel, Volume II: BeginningsA Critical Anthology.  (Toronto: NC Press, 1980), and in our established critical journals.  Even here, the critics tend to be unadventurous, turning again and again to the same handful of writers, and indeed, the same handful of texts: Brooke's Emily Montague, Richardson's Wacousta, Haliburton's Clockmaker and Old Judge, Moodie's Roughing It In the Bush, and, much less frequently, McCulloch's Stepsure Letters.  These authors and texts are approached from different perspectives, of course, and the results vary substantially in quality.  We are given in Moss's Beginnings, for example, on the one hand the totally unhelpful effusions of Thomas Raddall and Northrop Frye on Haliburton, a weak unfocussed essay on the "misdirected perspicacity" of Brooke's Emily Montague, and a piece on Moodie's Roughing It In the Bush which contends on the basis of a series of assertions and a catalogue of superficial similarities that Moodie's book belongs substantially within the tradition of the sentimental novel as practised by Ann Radcliffe.  The contention is intriguing, if not convincingly presented, and Marion Fowler is also to be congratulated for attempting to see Moodie's writing in context.   But Moss's volume does present more creditable work.  Mary Jane Edwards' discussion of the conjunction of party and petticoat politics in Emily Montague is a useful example of the virtues of combining biographical and socio-historical research with textual analysis.  And Robert Lecker's study of the "Patterns of Deception in Wacousta" demonstrates some of the structural complexities and consequent aesthetic power which reside in Richardson's novel, making it as Michael Hurley not too extravagantly claims in his companion essay "Wacousta: The Borders of Nightmare" ". . . an ancestral totem no contemporary writer or artist can afford to ignore."  But Hurley's essay is more helpful for reminding us that our analyses are as yet all too often flawed by our reliance upon corrupt texts.  In another critical venue, Studies in Canadian Literature, we have Beverly Rasporich's partially feminist, and partially successful, attempt (7, 2 [1982], 227-240) to delineate in McCulloch, Haliburton, and Leacock not only a "paternal voice of conservative morality and intellectual idealism" but also a predominantly masculine tradition of Canadian humour.  We have as well (7, 1 [1982], 127-138) the always energetic Robin Mathews bringing the perspectives of comparative literature to bear upon McCulloch's Stepsure Letters to suggest a Maritime Puritan anticipation of the later French-Catholic tradition of le roman de la terre.  This is certainly not unadventurous.  Nor is David Jackel's attempt to reverse the standard comparative evaluation of the work of the Moodie-Traill sisters.  He argues in The Compass (No. 6 [Spring 1979], 1-22) that

. . . Moodie's reputation as a significant Canadian prose writer is largely undeserved, particularly insofar as it has been gained at Traill's expense.  Mrs. Traill's Backwoods in Canada is a work of intellectual substance written in a commendable style; Roughing It In the Bush has some reasonable passages, but it is in general a pretentious, sentimental, self-indulgent, unstructured and derivative book.

Jackel does convincingly counter some of the claims of Traill's unfeelingness, but however intriguing some of his other claims on behalf of Mrs. Traill — such as that she belongs to the Jane Austen tradition — his spirited approach suffers from the same fault of which he indicts others: he tears down one sister in order to build up the other.

     Almost the only commentator to have hitherto ventured beyond what seems to be congealing into the canon of Colonial Canadian fiction has been Gwendolyn Davies whose address "Belles and Backwoods: A Study of Fiction in Nineteenth Century Maritime Periodicals", printed in The Marco Polo PapersOneAtlantic Provinces Literature (Saint John: Atlantic Canada Institute, 1977), provides us with the salutary reminders that there was "a significant body of periodical readers in the Maritimes in the mid-nineteenth century," that the periodicals provided this readership with a body of literature significant to it, and that we ignore this body of literature at our peril.  The study of periodical literature should not at this point in time, with much of the material long made accessible through the microfilming activities of the CLA, be a relatively new field of critical activity, and yet for our fiction scholars it apparently is.  Scholars of Canadian poetry, as Tom Vincent among others proves, have made greater progress in this particular area.

     Scholars of prose are opening up some new areas of investigation, however. T.D. MacLulich, in several essays in various Canadian critical journals, has been examining the writings of our early explorers: Mackenzie, Hearne, Thompson, Fraser et al, for elements of fictional narrative strategy and structure.  His results are mildly interesting but the enterprise is as yet barely beyond the descriptive stage.  The same might be said of I. S. Maclaren's "Alexander Mackenzie and the Landscapes of Commerce," (Studies in Canadian Literature 7, 2 [1982]).  Of much greater interest and value is Germaine Warkentin's brief essay on David Thompson in the Profiles in Canadian Literature Series, volume 1.  Warkentin carefully and convincingly locates Thompson's work within the late eighteenth century-through-Victorian period traditions of travel and of 'naturalist' literature.  (That the latter is a tradition of great consequence to Canadian literature is well documented by Carl Berger in his excellent 1982 Joanne Goodman Lectures printed as Science, God, and Nature in Victorian Canada by the University of Toronto Press in 1983, and, with his own The Sense of Power, and A.B. McKillop's A Disciplined Intelligence, and A Critical Spirit: The Thought of William Dawson Le Sueur, one of the all-too-few undertakings to date into the field of Canadian intellectual history.) Thompson, Warkentin claims, was "one of the representative imaginations of early English-Canadian literature," whose "greatest imaginative gift" was "to understand man and nature not only in themselves, but in their relationships with each other." A daunting accomplishment indeed, but despite this hyperbole, Warkentin does detail more fully and more soundly the depth of "Thompson's vision and the metaphorical and structural power of his literary expression.

     Book length studies in Canadian literature still tend to be thematic surveys rather than generic studies, literary histories, textual analyses, or any of the number of other critical approaches that could and should be adopted in a healthy and vital critical community.  Of late biographical and biocritical studies are becoming more popular and Lorraine McMullen provides a good and useful such study in her critical biography of Frances Brooke, An Odd Attempt in a Woman (University of British Columbia Press, 1983).  The same, unfortunately, cannot be claimed for Marian Fowler's lively but limited portraits of "Five Gentlewomen in Early Canada," The Embroidered Tent (Toronto: Anansi, 1982).  Our understanding and appreciation of these five ladies, including Moodie, Traill, and Jameson, is not extended or enriched in any important way.  There are better things to be said for Dennis Duffy's Gardens, Covenants, Exiles (Toronto, 1982).  He does attempt to trace the development of a socio-historical, cultural, and literary vision in a substantial and important body of Canadian literature from its Colonial origins to its contemporary manifestations.  The undertaking is considerable and worthy, but it falls afoul through faulty research and questionable structure to rob Duffy's conclusions of the cogency they might have had — that is, of the cogency they might have had if Duffy had expanded his research into the original Loyalist literature, and depended less upon assumptions and assertions.  It is difficult to be cogent about the subsequent literary transformations of Loyalism in Upper Canada/Ontario if you have insufficiently proven and developed its initial definitions and implications.   Duffy's study needs to be fuller, more carefully and extensively researched, and given greater structural continuity.  Robin Mathews Canadian Literature.   Surrender or Revolution (Toronto: Steel Rail, 1982) is pervaded as always, and unashamedly, by his passionate political convictions.  His tone is sometimes strident, his manner insistent, and his conclusions consistent.  Mathews works assiduously, some might say (probably do say) too assiduously, at the elaboration of a revisionist Canadian literary history.  He is easy to dismiss if you ignore the fact that he does engage his texts closely and ingeniously.  There is just enough analytical substance in his discussions of John Richardson's socio-political ambivalence and Susanna Moodie's "pink Toryism" to render his suggestions of the presence of a communitarian tradition in Canadian literature difficult of easy, rational dismissal.


Full-length critical studies which include significant and substantial reference to Colonial poetry are almost non-existent in Canadian criticism.  That is another of the virtues of Duffy's Gardens, Couenants, Exiles; the discussion of Colonial poetry is minimal, summary mention of several poems in one chapter and a bit more extensive analysis of William Kirby's U. E. L.  in another, but Colonial poetry is discussed.  Tom Marshall too, in his Harsh and Lovely Land (UBC Press, 1979) takes at least grudging notice of Colonial poetry in a chapter tellingly entitled "Dear Bad Poets" which conventionally, and rather condescendingly, dismisses these writers as

. . . competent drudges who prepared the way for the more accomplished, more genuinely native poets who followed.  If they are of note, it is less for the quality of their work than for their brave pioneering and their exemplification of the colonial poet's problems.  Their failures and moderate successes were instructive to their successors.

Leslie Monkman's A Native Heritage (University of Toronto Press, 1981) treats Colonial poetry more seriously and in many respects more fully, more analytically, even though his study of the native in Canadian literature does not restrict itself to the consideration of any one genre.

     The critical essays in Colonial poetry that have appeared in our journals over the last five years or so have been more varied in subject than those on the prose of the period, and at least as varied in critical approach.  Kenneth Hughes ("McLachlan's Style", Journal of Canadian Poetry 1, 2 [Autumn 1978], 1-4) provides an example of pure "close reading" analysis in his attempt to demonstrate through detailed examination of the first twenty-four lines of "The Emigrant" that McLachlan was a careful and complex poetic technician.  D.M.R. Bentley subjects the famous "Lone Shieling" stanza to similar close formal scrutiny in his effort (Essays on Canadian Writing, 23 [Spring 1982], 163-167) to account for its memorability.   Susan Gingell-Beckmann's subject is larger in her study of Joseph Howe's Acadia as a "document of a divided sensibility" (Canadian Poetry, 10 [Spring/Summer] 1982, 18-31), but textual analysis is still her primary critical medium, as is S.G. Zenchuk's in her "Reading of Joseph Howe's Acadia" (Canadian Poetry, 9 [Fall/Winter, 1981], 50-71).  Gingell-Beckmann has some interesting things to say about Howe's obvious stylistic and ideological inconsistencies, but has apparently not entirely avoided their influence upon her own writing.  Tracy Ware widens the critical lens still further and with greater success in an essay detailing George Longmore's acknowledged use of Byron's Beppo in The Charivari.   Ware convincingly argues in this clear-headed study of literary influence that Longmore moved beyond "mere indebtedness" to "full assimilation" of the Byronic model.  Ware's is one form of the comparative critical perspective; Cyril Byrne's "Notes on Some Early Newfoundland Poems" (The Marco Polo Papers, 24-39) is another.  Byrne's comparisons, however, are more general and implicit than specific and explicit as he concentrates primarily on the verse of Gaelic poets to remind us that our Colonial experience, too, was multi-lingual and multi-cultural.  And Jamie S. Scott's essay on Henry Alline's Life and Journal (Journal of Canadian Studies 18, 2 [Summer, 19831, 70-90) reminds us that there are prose documents essential to our understanding of our verse-writers.  His excursions in this essay into recent critical theory on hermeneutics and on autobiographical poetics remind us as well that there continue to be new, other, potentially fruitful critical perspectives to be employed—and perhaps, even to be invented—though Scott's particular use of his theory in this particular instance is rendered less effective by his failure to interrelate fully the theoretical and analytical sections of his essay.   Finally, it would be remiss of me to conclude this not-at-all comprehensive, but I hope representative, survey of journal articles on Canadian Colonial poetry without some reference to more of the critical essays published in several periodicals over the last few years by D.M.R. Bentley.  (In Canadian Poetry, CVII, Essays on Canadian Writing, Studies in Canadian Literature.)  I mention these, not because he is the editor of this journal, but because the essays to which I refer, taken together, constitute a substantial portion of the critical work published in this area (especially when page numbers or words are counted — Bentley errs in the direction of comprehensiveness), and constitutes as well the most considerable attempt of late to render Canadian poetry susceptible to the potencies of a new critical perspective and critical terminology (or, at least new to the criticism of Canadian poetry).   Whether or not Bentley's "ecology of Canadian poetry", or his spatio-cultural orientation of poetry along a baseland-hinterland axis (shades of Frederick Jackson Turner's now infamous frontier-metropolitan distinction) will eventually enjoy currency beyond its present personal critical province is too soon to say.  I would not myself advocate its general use.  But, to its credit, it has already been the occasion, in Bentley's hands, of a good deal of serious critical analysis and discussion of Colonial poets and poems which continue to be overlooked by other critics with more conventional critical perspectives.

     Outside of journal publication, the most extensive body of critical commentary published on any area of Colonial poetry has been that offered by way of preface and introduction in the several volumes produced by Thomas B. Vincent at his Loyal Colonies Press in Kingston, Ontario.   Vincent's commentary has addressed itself almost exclusively to eighteenth-century poetry and consequently, though not necessarily, to Maritime poetry.  In a different venue (The Marco Polo Papers), Vincent has declared that "the 18th-century period saw the establishment [in Maritime Canada] of a strong and vital literary culture with poetry playing a central if not dominant role."  He goes on to address here and in the afore-mentioned introductions (especially to his Narrative Verse Satire in Maritime Canada 1779-1814, Ottawa: Tecumseh Press, 1978, and his Eighteenth-Century Canadian PoetryAn Anthology, Kingston: Loyal Colonies Press, 1981), the problems of an age (the present) which scorns the very notion of literary imitation, attempting to appreciate the literature of an age (the eighteenth-century) in which "artistic creativity was viewed as being fundamentally a mimetic process in both form and idea," an age in which

Established forms were important . . . as universal structures, developed and refined in the course of the cultural history of Western civilization, structures through which they projected individual perception and brought order to personal experience.  Poetry was not an instrument of exploration but of articulation, not a private perception but a public affirmation of recognized universal values.

For the colonial poet, all this meant

. . . that his art was not isolative but functional to link his world culturally and ideologically with the cultivated world of all civilized men.  At the same time, it meant that individual experience was placed in its proper perspective against the universal context (social, cultural, moral and religious) of all human life.  His art moved not to exploit the particularities of his colonial experience, but to show the points at which it entered the common experience of mankind and embodied the values of Western civilization.   ("Introduction," Eighteenth-Century Canadian Poetry)

Vincent needs to develop these ideas and their implications at much greater length and with much greater proof and specificity than is permitted by anthology introductions, but his emphasis on the fundamentally social/universal character of an initial Colonial vision, if it could be reconciled with Mathews' claims about basic and pervasive Canadian communitarianism, and even with Duffy's depiction of the narrower but still social Loyalist vision, might contribute to an awareness of a consistently developing Canadian tradition, character and vision in the formation of which Canada's Colonial culture, experience, and literature were seminal and positive.  We might thereby begin more seriously, more eagerly, to appropriate our own past, to give new form and new flesh to our eidolons, no longer to be the "colonial readers" whom John Moss describes as persisting "in measuring all things from the alien perspective of a dislocated Englishman or disassociated American" ("Introduction", Beginnings).  We might succeed, in fact, as critics, in laying aside that pervasive and eidolatrous pejorative, "colonial", in favour of the more value-neutral "Colonial," to recognize, again with John Moss, but perhaps even more positively than he intended, "when we were a colonial nation . . . that is not our shame but our history . . . (Reader's Guide to the Canadian Novel).

Charles R. Steele