A New Edition of Sangster

Charles Sangster. The St. Lawrence and the Saguenay and Other Poems: Revised Edition. Ed. and introd. Frank M. Tierney. Ottawa: Tecumseh, 1984. 463 pp.

The St. Lawrence and the Saguenay and Other poems is the last and most important volume in Frank M. Tierney's new edition of the poetry of Charles Sangster, the earlier volumes are Norland Echoes and Other Strains and Lyrics (1976), The Angel Guest and Other Poems and Lyrics (1977), and Hesperus and Other Poems and Lyrics (1979). Because of his editor's hard work- which has not always been characteristic of the editing of early Canadian poetry- Sangster is now more carefully and comprehensively edited than any other pre- Confederation poet. Indeed, Sangster has fared better than the superior poets of the "Confederation" group, none of whose collected poems are in print at the moment, although that situation should change soon. Tierney has been especially painstaking in his handling of this latest volume: he supplies forty-eight pages of notes for the title poem alone, and eighty pages of notes for the other poems; he also provides a valuable introduction, including a chronology of Sangster's life and an explanation of editorial procedures, and ten appendices. As a result, this volume is accessible to the general reader and instructive for the specialist. And if one feels that Tierney errs in the direction of overannotation, his practice can be defended by an appeal to Sangster's early reception, which makes it hard to believe in self-evident truths.

     In his introduction, Tierney admits that "the reader might rightly wonder why such a fuss is being made about a minor poet in the history of Canadian literature" (p. 15). The main reason is that Sangster is a crucial figure in the Colonial period of Canadian literature. That is not a new opinion: Desmond Pacey recognized Sangster's pre-eminence among Colonial poets, but he also felt that "it would be quite fatuous to bring to bear upon Sangster's poetry the heavy guns of either the new or the old criticism" (Ten Canadian Poets, p. 23). Such uncertainty is no longer with us. Recent studies of Sangster by Gordon Johnston and D.M.R. Bentley show that, in this rare care, Pacey is quite mistaken: various forms of criticism, perhaps even the "newer" forms, are very well equipped to deal with Sangster. Accordingly, Tierney's implication is that since Sangster is going to be studied, he should be studied properly; "it is essential," he argues, "to have access to the correct primary materials to understand and teach Canadian literary history and its cultural heritage" (p. 16).

     Until now, critics have used Johnston's 1972 reprint of St. Lawrence and Hesperus in the ill-fated University of Toronto Press Literature in Canada series. Though Johnston's introduction is invaluable, his reprint is superseded by Tierney's revised editions, which fulfill a demand articulated by Pacey:

There is nothing more pathetic in all our literary history than these last letters of Sangster's [Letters of 1888-91 to W.D. Lighthall] in which he records the terrible effort with which he is revising and arranging his poetry- especially when we realize that his efforts have so far been completely in vain.... Some day, surely, someone will edit these manuscripts of Sangster's, and provide us with a volume of his Collected Poems. (Ten Canadian Poets, p. 18)

Sangster dropped 20 poems from the 1856 edition of the St. Lawrence, and made over 2000 alterations to those he retained, all of which are indicated in Tierney's notes. Often these changes are minor, and often these poems show all too clearly why they have failed to please many and please long- only Sangster could write of the soul as having "filched the hymning of the spheres," and describe the heart as "all prone upon its bended knees" (p. 155). Two major changes are of particular interest. The ambitious if uneven final poem, "Bertram and Lorenzo," is much improved by Sangster's revisions, except for the half-hearted addition of ninety lines from "The Changes of a Night." The sonnet "Absence," which Johnston rightly calls "a remarkably good poem," is now the final poem in a sequence of seven sonnets. Part of Sangster's importance in our literary history resides in his role as a precursor of Confederation poetry, and nowhere is he more of a precursor than in his interest in the sonnet and sonnet sequence. Roberts' praise of Sangster as "full of genuine Canadian feeling" ( History of Canada, p. 426) may reflect nothing more than his admiration for Sangster's patriotic poems, but there are nonetheless some interesting continuities between the two poets.

     Ultimately, our interest in Sangster is in the "St. Lawrence and the Saguenay" itself, the poem that Bentley has aptly called "probably the most intriguing third-rate poem yet to be written in Canada" ("Through Endless Landscapes: Notes on Charles Sangster's The St. Lawrence and the Saguenay," Essays on Canadian Writing, 27 [Winter 1983-84], p. 1). According to Tierney, "the title poem was entirely rewritten, with approximately 110 new stanzas added to make it twice the length of the 1856 edition" (p. 16). Although the manuscript has been lost, Tierney has found twenty-nine new and eleven revised stanzas; his chief source is Longfellow's Poems of Places: British Americas, 30 (1879). In general, the additions and revisions serve more to enrich than to alter the structure of the poem. I shall quote one of the new stanzas on the rapids before Lachine as an example of Sangster's skill with the Spenserian stanza and of his use of a moralized landscape:

               The current seeks no rest. Sullen and swift,
               And hounded by the rapid in its fear,
               Like a lost murderer it knows no thrift,
               No peace forever: on his startled ear
               A voice incessant peals; loud footfalls near
               Tell of the dread pursuer. So the stream
               Hears far-off howlings, vengeful, shrill, and drear,
               Till like an arrow, like a sudden beam,
            It strikes the vexed cascades, and ends its fitful dream.

(p. 71)

The effective (and Shelleyan) double simile in the eighth line, the expanding and contracting movement of the long second sentence, the adaptation of the epic simile to a sublime natural context, and the progression from sibilance to cacophony- all combine to give a powerful sense of the stealth and force of nature's demonic aspects.

     Since there are no changes to any of the last fifty-seven stanzas and corresponding interludes, the ending remains as problematic as ever. In his notes, Tierney offers a new interpretation, to be presented more fully in his forthcoming book on Sangster. His interpretation contrasts strikingly with the one recently published by Bentley. For Tierney, "it is clear from the outset that the 'Maiden' is not physically present on the journey" (p. 244)- she is present only to "the speaker's memory and imagination" (p. 24); for Bentley, the ambiguous status of the Maiden is functional and fundamental. Tierney regards the parting in stanza CV as "consistent with the forced separation of the lovers that is lamented throughout the poem" (p. 289); Bentley regards that parting as a metaphor for the transformation of the speaker and his beloved. Stressing that the final movement of the poem is towards an account of its creation, and noting the speaker's subsequent pleas for more adequate powers of expression, Tierney interprets the line "Another earnest being at my side" as referring to Art (p. 290); stressing the "epithalamic movement" of the poem, and noting the erotic overtones of the conclusion, Bentley interprets this line as describing a converted Maiden. For Tierney, the speaker's goal is "spiritual union" (p. 289), and it is achieved in the poem; for Bentley, the speaker's goal is marriage, and it is imminent as the poem ends. Neither critic reconciles all the discordant elements, though Tierney makes the higher claims for the poem's unity. One of the future tasks of Sangster criticism will be to weigh the competing claims of these two irreconcileable interpretations more fully than I have done here. Now that we have two provocative readings and a revised text of "The St. Lawrence and the Saguenay," we can expect to hear more about Charles Sangster.

Tracy Ware