The Achievements of F.R. Scott

On F.R. Scott: Essays on His Contributions to Law, Literature, and Politics. Ed.  Sandra Djwa and R. St. J. Macdonald. Introd. Djwa. Kingston and Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1983. xxii + 203 pp.

On F.R. Scott, as the introduction states, is "largely the revised proceedings of a conference, 'The Achievement of F.R. Scott,' organized by the Centre for Canadian Studies at Simon Fraser University, 20 and 21 February 1981" (p. ix).  Few conferences have been so timely.  The recent publications of the Essays on the Constitution (1977) and The Collected Poems (later in 1981) — each the deserved winner of a Governor-General's award — bring Scott's canon towards completion, as Scott himself recognized when, with characteristic wit, he referred to the conference as a "pre-mortem."  For Canadian literature, the conference and the volume are timely because there has been surprisingly little criticism on Scott.  Much of the existing criticism is of a fairly high quality, but because of its insufficient quantity, many of Scott's poems and ideas have received almost no criticism.  Of this situation the attractive and well-edited On F.R. Scott, the first book on Scott, is at least a partial remedy.   Two particularly welcome aspects of the volume are the lively memoirs by Therese Casgrain, Leon Edel, J. King Gordon, and David Lewis, and the inclusion of sixteen contributors from many different disciplines and interests.  As Sandra Djwa writes, "Any summary of F.R. Scott's achievements reads as an index to Canadian culture and society over five decades" (p. ix); On F.R. Scott is the best summary we have of those achievements.

     Scott offers the literary critic an interesting case of the confluence of literary and political concerns.   Over twenty-five years ago, Desmond Pacey called attention to the "visionary centre for all of Scott's activities," a unified "set of convictions and principles" rejecting ugliness and yearning for "the intricate order of beauty" (Ten Canadian Poets, pp. 240-41).  Scott has confirmed that these are the standards by which he should be judged, most notably in the Vincent Tovell interview (Canadian Poetry 2) and in the preface to the Essays on the Constitution, in a passage quoted at length in William R.  Lederman's essay in On F.R. Scott: "If human rights and harmonious relations between cultures are forms of the beautiful, then the state is a work of art that is never finished" (Constitution, p. ix). Our sense of Scott's integrity is in turn confirmed by a reading of The Collected Poems and On F.R. Scott.  The contributors to the latter demonstrate repeatedly the similarities between the implicit values of Scott's poetry and the explicit values of his prose.  No one has yet disspelled this sense of integrity, although George Woodcock has argued that some one should.  Unlike the ideals of the anarchist or the liberal, Scott's ideals, in law, literature, and politics, involve the search for a better order, and for peace and good government; the second epigraph to the Essays on the Constitution is from Traherne, "Order the beauty even of beauty is . . . ." "The truth," wrote the young Scott, "is that the modernist poet, like the socialist, has thought through present forms to a new and more suitable order" ("New Poems For Old — II.  The Revival of Poetry," The Canadian Forum, XI, No. 129 [June 1931], 338).  That may now be an odd definition of modernism, but it is nonetheless one to which our literary historians must attend.  Because of the format of the conference, and because the demands of a conference paper work against the demands of academic scholarship, the three contributors to the section on Scott's poetry tend to discuss it in isolation.  The footnotes tell the story: collectively there are fourteen of them in this section, a total that is exceeded by the individual contributions of Kenneth McNaught, Gerald Le Dain, Douglas Sanders, Walter Tarnopolsky, and Paul A. Crepeau.  Well-written and intelligent as they are, the literary contributions to this volume might have been improved by the addition of informed references to Scott's prose and to the work of Scott's previous critics.

     McNaught's "Socialism and the Canadian Political Tradition" is a very impressive work of scholarship. Instead of examining Scott's political achievements, a topic admirably treated by Lewis and Michael Horn, McNaught discusses the tradition of Canadian socialism — "democratic socialism" — in which Scott belongs.  In so doing McNaught provides an historical and theoretical context for the other essays in this volume.  He argues that Scott's kind of socialism has frequently been attacked from the far left, the liberal centre, and the right, but it has nonetheless survived as an important political force, giving Canada that un-American institution, a major third political party.  Democratic socialists work for reforms from within the Canadian political system, relying on legislative influence rather than on violent action.   Herein lies the major difference between democratic socialism and the far left; as McNaught writes, the CCF leaders were often asked to join the communists, "on the specious reasoning that a common enemy meant a common goal.  The goals never were the same, and the goals themselves dictated the means by which they might be reached" (p. 93).  McNaught's three reasons for "the survival and steady growth" of Canadian socialism, "humanism, legitimacy, and realism" (p. 94), point to salient aspects of Scott's thought.  Scott is a political realist whose concern for legitimacy is everywhere apparent in the Essays on the Constitution and in a long legal career, as the essays of Sanders and Tarnopolsky emphasize.  Scott is also, and perhaps above all, a thorough humanist, as sceptical of Marxist as of Christian dogma.   McNaught aptly describes this socialist-humanism as "a fiery condemnation of social injustice allied to a deep belief, not in human perfectibility, but in the need to strive for a society as just, as egalitarian, as it is possible for mankind to achieve." "It is a humanism," he adds, "which cherishes the principle that the means determine the end" (p. 94).  Such humanism pervades The Collected Poems, from the "fiery condemnation" in such poems as "Ode to a Politician" and "W.L.M.K.," to the constant imperative to strive and to choose, as in "Resurrection" and "To Certain Friends," to the deep faith expressed in "Creed" and "Laurentian Shield."

     Scott's poetry has also been attacked from the far left and the right, if not from the liberal centre.  As Robin Mathews has argued in the Canadian Forum, however, most of the papers in On F.R. Scott are written "from the centre of 'liberal' conventional wisdom in our time."  This is particularly true of the section on Scott's poetry, despite Scott's criticism of some features of liberalism.  (Scott's note for "To Certain Friends," in The Eye of the Needle, states that "A man with an open mind, says D.H. Lawrence, is like a pipe open at both ends."  Scott rejected the idea of the impartiality of the conventional; as Le Dain tells us, "There was no pretense of neutrality in his teaching and writing" [p. 103].)  The three contributions, by Louis Dudek, D.G. Jones, and F.W. Watt, are basically instances of the New Criticism, despite Jones' citation of Todorov.  Dudek begins and ends in Coleridgean / New Critical fashion, arguing that often, and particularly with such a poet as Scott, the critic "should not ask what an author believes or thinks but rather what opposite beliefs and attitudes he is pulled by — there we will discover a whole field of force" (p. 31); he ends by praising Scott's reconciliation of "discordant elements" (p. 42).  Jones studies "the tension between two voices and two movements," the "centrifugal movement" of "the public man," and the "centripetal movement" of "the private man" (p. 47).  Watt assumes that "There is always a degree of ambivalence in the relation of an artist . . . and the society in which he or she works" (p. 55); in Scott's case, there is a "central paradox": "The poet of the Laurentian vision is also the poet of the socialist vision" (p. 57).  Each of the three critics pursues these "tensions" and "paradoxes" (note the New Critical diction) with rare skill, but the similarities among them point to an unhealthy uniformity in Canadian criticism.  None of these critics seems to be interested in the opinions of previous critics.  Jones is only a partial exception, with one reference to Elizabeth Brewster's 1978 article.  Where are the references to W.E. Collin, Pacey, A.J.M. Smith, Djwa, Stephen Scobie?  Such seminal criticism should have fared better.   There is little point in writing criticism, or for that matter bibliographies, if Canadian critics do not respect the ideal of critical discussion.  To adapt Scott's words in "Freedom of Speech in Canada," discussion is necessary to reveal truth, to destroy error, and to enable one to separate the two (Constitution, pp. 61-62).

     These reservations aside, all three critics explore the poetry in a worthwhile manner.  Dudek's "Polar Opposites in F.R. Scott's Poetry" is outstanding.  Dudek's methodology is conventional, but his wit and extensive learning make him an uncommonly good essayist.  His essay possesses an added interest for those familiar with his 1951 article, "F.R. Scott and the Modern Poets."  Then Dudek regarded Scott as an instance of Canadian "simplification," argued that Scott's poetry "stands in striking antithesis" to the poetry of F.G. Scott, and judged Scott to be "our first representative modern poet." Now Dudek argues that Scott's contradictions are due to his ethical sincerity (p. 35), admits that Scott's "priestly cast of mind" reflects the influence of his father (p. 36), and concludes, Scott "is the Canadian poet whom I would place at the top as the clearest poetic voice of this century in Canada" (p. 43).  The contradictions identified include those between Scott's different activities (p. 32), particularly between politics and poetry (p. 33), those internal to Scott's own politics (p. 34), and the "ultimate conflict . . . between science and religion" (p. 35).  Dudek is mainly concerned with this latter conflict, and with its importance in the whole modernist movement.   We may disagree with some of the details of his argument, such as the assertion that "socialism has much in common with a scientific mentality" (p. 36), but we will be indebted to his attentive readings of many individual poems, especially "Mural," "Creed," "Resurrection," and "A Grain of Rice."

     Jones and Watt have the hard task of following Dudek, a task rendered more difficult by their resemblances to him.   In "Private Space and Public Space," Jones studies the tension indicated by his title, arguing that "The emphasis in Scott's poetry shifts from the centrifugal to the centripetal, towards a greater recognition of the particular and the private" (p. 52), and that Scott achieves a balance between his contrary inclinations (p. 53).  Jones' suggestions that Scott has similarities to the nineteenth-century Canadian poets (p. 46), that he is "an eighteenth-century man" and "a good Taoist" (p. 53, both citations from the same paragraph) are a bit dizzying, and the refusal to investigate Scott's debt to Spender is unfortunate (p. 48), but the close readings are valuable.  The discussion of Scott's rejection of the "liberal technological" ideal of progress (p. 47) is particularly good, and the attempt to place Scott in the tradition of Canadian literature is provocative.  Jones also contributes a fine essay on "F.R. Scott as Translator."  In his conclusion to "The Poetry of Social Protest," Watt confirms Dudek's recognition of Scott's reconciliation of opposites: "Although . . . Scott can write powerfully out of either way of seeing, the Laurentian or the socialist, the eyes of Priest or Nurse, his most rich and durable poems rise out of the most intense fusion of the two visions . . ." (p. 66).  Watt comments on a great number of poems, and puts some of Scott's comments on his poetry to good use.  He stresses the importance of the Laurentian poems, and makes some fine discriminations among the rhetorical techniques used by Scott in various poems of social protest.

     On F.R. Scott adds much to our knowledge of the achievements of Scott, more than this review has implied.   All of the contributions are learned and readable, while none is fulsome in its praise.  As Mathews' and Woodcock's reviews of this volume demonstrate, Scott, unlike such earlier writers as Carman and Roberts, and unlike such subsequent writers as Davies and Atwood, will not have to pass through a period of adulation before he can be discussed in a truly critical manner.  Thomas Berger remarks in "F.R. Scott and the Idea of Canada," the fine concluding essay to On F.R. Scott, "We are not cursed with a triumphant ideology; we are not given to mindless patriotism" (p. 181).   As Berger adds, however, there is no harm in an intelligent patriotism, in celebrating the achievements of such exemplary figures as Scott.  His centralism and his pleas for freedom for dissenters may be currently unfashionable, notably in the province in which this conference was held, but Scott's own dissenting voice will remain central to Canadian studies, and, one hopes, to any future formulation of the Canadian identity.

Tracy Ware