Of Two Minds: Roberts at Mount Allison

The Proceedings of the Sir Charles G.D. Roberts Symposium. Edited and with Introduction by Carrie MacMillan. Anchorage Series, Centre for Canadian Studies, Mount Allison University. Halifax: Nimbus, 1984. 129 pp.

Judging from the published proceedings of Mount Allison's Roberts Symposium, we must regret that the series has ended with the Joseph Howe Symposium. Although The Proceedings does not fulfill its editor's, Carrie MacMillan's, understandably bombastic claim that "all the papers broke new ground, providing fresh insights into Roberts, . . . opening new areas of critical inquiry" (p. 2), there are enough informative and provocative essays here to entertain any critical admirer of Roberts' writings. And though the best of the essays brought together in The Proceedings would still have been written and published elsewhere, they would not then have enjoyed the bibliographic, biographical, historical, and critical context created here by their companions (and by the editor). With the demise of Mount Allison's "series of symposia on topics of Canadian and Maritime interest" (p. 1), we are culturally much the poorer.

     Donald Conway, Graham Adams, and James Doyle contribute bibliog raphical and literary-historical studies respectively, with Conway remarking on the short stories, Adams focusing on the poetry, and Doyle discussing the American critical reaction to Roberts' writings. Conway notes the deletions and additions that Roberts made to a few of the collections of his animal stories, arguing for the thematic integrity of the collections and Roberts' "authorial control" (p. 7). He bases his argument on the presence in discrete collections of such themes as "the hidden forces which govern nature" (p.10), "the order of generative nature" (p. 10), and - what would seem to be an indictable offense - '`the intimate connections between human and animal nature" (p. 11). Conway himself best summarizes the reservations that I have with regard to such criticism when he writes, "I have considered only a few of Roberts' volumes, and in broad terms" (p. 13). And there might be justification for asserting that an alternately limited and general approach is all that can be expected of a symposium paper if we did not also have in The Proceedings the example of Graham Adams' succinct study of the process of editing Wombat Press's forthcoming "The Collected Poems of Sir Charles G.D. Roberts." A literary legacy of Desmond Pacey, the projected "Collected Poems" will, as Adams shows, provide readers with insights into Roberts' "creative process" (p. 75). At one point illustrating his general remarks with a fairly detailed presentation of the revisions that Roberts made to "Twilight Over Shaugamauk," Adams demonstrates, among other things, that much of the poetry of Roberts late period was actually drafted early in the twentieth century. That is news to those of us who have been overly emphasizing the extent of Roberts' late-career revival, or to those who have viewed the composition of poems and stories as somehow necessarily occupying demarcated stages of Roberts' career. Like Adams, James Doyle presents the intriguing results of what was obviously much persevering bibliographical work. In an engaging paper he sketches the outline of Roberts' literary fortunes in the U.S.A., employing the American popular and critical reaction to Roberts to suggest much about the "American literary scene of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries" (p. 100). Doyle suggests that, along with the "waning American enthusiasm for [Roberts'] writing" (p. 110) and the changes in the New York literary scene, Theodore Roosevelt's entry into the "nature-fakir" fray of the early twentieth century helped convince the poet to bid farewell to the United States. Finally, there is Doyle's concluding view of a dinosaurian Roberts- rejected by Scribner's in 1926 and by Poetry (Chicago) in 1928-overtaken by Modernism. If Roberts' reputation was to suffer unfairly in the reaction of such Canadian modernists as F.R. Scott to his nineteenth-century poet-predecessors, it is worth knowing, for the sake of Scott's reputation, that the rejection was continental in scale.

     W.J. Keith, who has often praised the work of Canada's plentiful poet-critics, contributes to The Proceedings both a prefatory poem and a paper intent upon tracing "the signs of an emerging Canadian reference and viewpoint in Roberts' early poetry" (p. 53). Keith ascribes a (perhaps intentionally humorous) symbolic momentousness to the mention of "four blue eggs" in Orion's "Lancelot and the Four Queens": "This is indisputably a North American robin. Roberts must have seen those four blue eggs with his own eyes; the English robin lays six or seven eggs, which are reddish-white in colour" (p. 55). And whether or not Roberb' novum ovum represents "a symbolic moment when we can see the English poetic tradition in the very process of being adapted to Canadian experience" (p. 55), Keith's categorizing form of analysis yet contains interesting results in its discussion of Roberts' accomplishments in the "descriptive sonnet," especially in its handling of the octave of 'The Winter Fields" (pp. 60-61).

     If readers are willing to go three-quarters of the way to meet Joseph Gold in his therapeutic approach to Roberts' animal stories, they may find (as I did on a third reading) that his view of himself as an "archaeologist of psychic history . . . sifting through layers of reluctant confessions" (p. 85) is not so off-putting as the rhetoric initially threatens. Gold speculates that the animal stories had a cathartic affect on their first readers, and that, similar to dream and wit in the Freudian scheme, the stories "provided Roberts with the means to be speculative and subversive" (p. 78). Interestingly, Gold's conclusion that the stories reveal humans who are "characterized by duality and ambivalence" (p. 78) becomes, in the hands of Fred Cogswell and D.M.R. Bentley, a thesis that is explicated with regard to Roberb and his poetry alike. Cogswell hits upon what is emerging as the most potentially rewarding area of Roberts criticism: "the sharply contrasting environments of Roberts' childhood and his young manhood must have developed in him the duality that he states explicitly as being part of his being in the poem, 'Two Rivers' (1937)" (p. 119). But after arguing clearly in an over-simplification that Roberts had "wanted a life as timeless and free as that of any animal he had observed as a boy," Cogswell contends that Roberts then made what could only have been a death-defying "leap to a pantheistic, existential transcendentalism" (p. 126).

     In a detailed analysis of three of Roberts' "Tantramar Poems"- "Tantramar Revisited " "The Pea Fields," and "Ave"-Bentley surveys a "border-land between those two useful fictions, the external world and the individual mind, the Tantramar landscape and Roberts' 'inmost self' " (pp. 18-19). This "border-land" is of course itself a useful fiction- a purely critical construct that is finally as illusively verbal as the terms of the binary opposition that it vainly separates- but it serves well in allowing Bentley to apply to Roberts' poems what Charles R. Steele has termed Bentley's "spatio-cultural" critical apparatus.1 "It is," writes Bentley, "the contrast and tension in certain of the Tantramar poems between near and far, pastoral and open, baseland and hinterland which will be explored here as the possible reflection of a dichotomy in Roberts' 'inmost self,' as the reflection of the contrast and tension between the Roberts who sometimes wanted to rest content within the domestic circle of his ancestral home and the Roberts who sometimes yearned to range outwards into open landscapes and adventurous experience" (p. 23).  Although Bentley convincingly anatomizes the ways in which Roberts' mind was "fitted" to the Tantramar marshland, he does not, with the exception of a brief assertion embedded in his discussion of "Ave" (p. 36), essay that more questionable half of Wordsworth's stated theme in "The Prospectus"-the way in which the "external world is fitted to the Mind" (epigraph, p. 17). "Theme this but little heard of among men," indeed. But if internal/subject and external/object can be reduced to the status of "useful fictions," then I suppose my criticism betrays me as the sort of investigator whom Hawthorne called a "vile empiric." Suffice it to add what should surprise no reader of Canadian criticism, that Bentley's "The Poetics of Roberts' Tantramar Space" is, to use MacMillan's expression, a "ground-breaking" close reading of three of Roberts' most important poems.

     The Proceedings of the Sir Charles G.D. Roberts Symposium presents Roberts' critics with much that is new, most notably its mini-consensus view that dualism characterizes Roberts and his writings (arrived at by Bentley, Gold, and Cogswell). It remains for those of us who value Roberts' writings to explore further the nature of that dualism, to test the thesis, or to challenge it. Do Roberts' writings support Cogswell's view of a confused (Rousseauistic-Platonic) seeking after a transcendentalist ideal? Or is the dualism of the writings, as Bentley implies realistically, a tension of the domestic versus wanderlust (with the emphasis on -lust)? Do Roberts' writings project a writer who protested overmuch the ambivalence of his yearnings for and returnings from vagabondage?


  1. Steele, "Eidolatry: Criticism and Colonial Canadian Literature," Canadian Poetry: Studies, Documents, Reviews, no. 15 (Fall/Winter 1984), p. 82.[back]

    Gerald Lynch