|Canadian Poetry in the 'Twenties:
Dialectics and Prophecy inW W E. Ross's Laconics and Sonnets
In the early decades of the twentieth century, the reading habits of the Canadian public were dominated by American and British tastes. Even so, writers' organizations in several cities and the regional chapters of the Canadian Authors' Association, working together with the book trade, encouraged readers to "buy Canadian" through conventions, "Book Weeks" and reviews in which the advertising element was often more significant than the critical. What this meant to poets such as W.W.E. Ross and, later, Leo Kennedy, A.J.M. Smith, Ralph Gustafson and others was that they had to choose between being a career-poet or a poets' poet. Eclecticism or popularity, that was the question. During and after World War II, however, the First Statement poets regretted this division among their contemporaries. At a writer's conference in 1955, Desmond Pacey summarized the position of Irving Layton and Louis Dudek when he rejected Smith's contention "that the writer should not expect or care to reach a large audience."1 Roy Daniells agreed with Pacey that Smith's gadfly" concept was "inadequate to describe the poet's full function" and deplored the inevitable and widening separation of poet and public. By mid-century, writers felt that publishers did not push their books vigorously enough, and that their audience was too much "localized in academic circles."
Eustace Ross (1894-1966) was one of the first to completely reject the attitudes of the career-poets in early twentieth-century poetry in Canada. In "A Note on Poetic Style," written in 1957, Ross stoically accepted that an inevitable "smothering flood-tide of time" would overwhelm any division between "serious" and "popular" writing. Yet he wondered which was better for a poet, to acquiesce in anonymity or to go "Down lashing out frantically/ waving flags, similes, metaphors."2 If an absence of change or self-development marks the oeuvres of Ross's more popular contemporaries (such as Wilson MacDonald or Marjorie Pickthall), changes, readjustments of commitment and personal growth are the keynotes of more serious poets like A.M. Stephen, A.G. Bailey and Dorothy Livesay. Though never widely read outside academic circles (and for this reason, some might say, a serious writer), Ross had clearly thought out his attitudes toward poetry early on and diverged little from his initial position. His poetry has received little serious attention, however, and his 1932 volume, Sonnets, has been virtually ignored by critics of poetry in Canada. This essay proposes that the Sonnets and the earlier, better-known book of free-verse, Laconics, form a coherent and highly structured statement of Ross's poetic. Indeed, once this poetic is understood, the two books appear to be two sides of the same coin.
The Great War probably delayed Ross's first appearance as a poet. He was twenty-nine when he began to publish in The Dial and Poetry (Chicago), six years after returning from England in 1917.3 Ross wrote most of the poetry published in his life-time in the next ten years, though he contributed sporadically to literary periodicals and anthologies until his death in 1966. Throughout the 'forties and 'fifties, Ross revised and polished poems begun much earlier and experimented with some new poetry. Little of his later work has been printed aside from the 1968 selection in Shapes & Sounds, edited by Raymond Souster and John Robert Colombo. Many of Ross's poetic sequences, "hypnogogisms," literary parodies and translations have yet to be culled from his letters and papers. Laconics (1930) and Sonnets (1932) were privately printed, by "E.R.," and received little critical attention. Ross mailed his own review copies to periodicals that he respected. Bruce Whiteman, who has edited Ross's correspondence with Ralph Gustafson, remarks that Ross's inclusion in Gustafson's 1942 Penguin anthology brought him before a large public for the first time. But despite the fact that "Ross's work is generally acknowledged by poets and critics as having an important place in the early development of modernism in Canada . . . little study of the poetry has been made and even less is known about Ross's life."4
Ross is remembered today for a small number of often anthologized poems, "The Fish," "The Diver," "The Dawn; the Birds'," "The Snake Trying," Gum," "The Creek," "The Walk" and a few others. In an early draft for his "Introduction" to The Penguin Book of Canadian Verse (1958), Ralph Gustafson explained what these poems meant to him:
What Gustafson meant by technical experimentation and "the quality of Canada" can be found in a letter he wrote to Ross in 1945. Gustafson had "puzzled long" for a definition of Canadian verse and said to Ross: "I really cannot think of your work without 'northness' in it and I may add that that has been a pivot of my definition of Cdn poetry." Disapproving of the poetry then appearing in the Northern Review, successor to First Statement, Gustafson felt that a "Chiselled lyricism seems incapable of sprouting in Cdn soil." Ross's conception of what form and content should be proper to a modern poetic excellence, however, went beyond Gustafson's notion of a well-wrought snow-shoe. In his later years, Ross wondered why the early "northern" poems were always sought whenever he was asked to submit for periodicals and anthologies, "Was my best 'work' really nearly my earliest? Seems so!"6
One of these northern poems is "If Ice."7 A careful reading of the poem reveals that technical experimentation and northness are merely contin gent in terms of the values the poem aspires to express. Here, the finality of death confronts the life of the mind, and life itself is subjugated to Heraclitean temporal flow. The mind controlling technical experimenta tion and choice of subject excerpts itself from time:
The order of things that may be objectively observed in the present has become the only order that there is. Contraries are expressed by Ross as merely observable elements in the order of nature. Freezing and melting, the rigidity of ice and the flow of water, life and death are the measure of all we know, but this is not a static measure. The poem insists on temporal process in order to suggest that as ice becomes water and as the fundament may be likened to a field of stars, perhaps death and life, too, are merely poles in a natural continuum governed by the flow of time. In contrast to this natural condition, however, and inserted into it, Ross posits a non-natural set of intellectual alternatives: either that life returns after death or that life continues after death, in which latter case life must belong to a different order from death. Ross has contrasted two alternative views on immortality re-incarnation or the immutability of the soul and made this uncertainty regarding a continuity between life and death the physical centre of his poem.
The full "if," "death" and "may" rhymes underline the poem's preoccupation with the questions of uncertainty and life after death. It is the nature of the afterlife as a cyclical continuum, or a higher order and not its possibility that is in question. The resolution to this problem cannot be found in time perceived as duration or as a linear progression, and because this problem determines the poem's form, the poem's organization can owe nothing to the hands of chance and change. Ross's attitudes toward time contribute directly to the poem's completeness, which brackets metaphysical questionings regarding observation in the here and now with "facts."Logically, "If Ice" is a simple implication and the statement if ice melts, then spring is coming serves as the framework over which natural description is stretched and into which a meditative quandary is inserted. In terms of content, the poem is concerned with a poetic vision that does not open a portal through which trascendent truth and order may be glimpsed; on the contrary, the transcendent, like the stars, is brought down to earth. Physics and metaphysics are relegated to the same level of verbal play. Yet at the same time Ross requires some assurance that God does not play dice with the universe and inserts the secondary implication "if life return / after death, / or depart not at death" into his poem as a sort of Kierkegaardean either / or, illogically, by right of coercive force alone. Ross's trust in the rhetorical power of language to extract higher meaning from reality is a departure from the reliance on convention that dominated the popular verse of his time, yet it is no less divorced from an extra-literary reality than the Dryads and Nereids of Pickthall or MacDonald.
Ross's scientific training had armed him with a method for expressing his vision in a poetry made up of small, aesthetically pleasing artifacts that engage dialectically with the natural contrariness that poets such as Pickthall strove to eliminate through fantasies based upon Classical and Biblical legend. Gaston Bachelard has dealt with this confrontation between the empirical and the imaginative and suggested that a truly modern science must function within a dialectic of rational and surrational organizations, which would set in motion "a sort of logical kaleidoscope which suddenly upsets relationships, yet still preserves forms." Thus, for Bachelard modern scientific truth results from the superposition and juxtaposition of divergent theories, a process in which contradiction is irrelevant since the relative truth of opposing explanations is accepted like an inclusive disjunction, an either/ or whose middle term is the human imagination. In this phenomenological view the "shifting character" and "synthetic value" of the scientific imagination negates the possibility of unifying systems of knowledge, which gives rise to a philosophy of negation in which language becomes the arena of a "semantic revolution." "An awareness of multiple meanings," as opposed to thinking of words as pointing to things, "bids one acquire this consciousness of variable structures," a "schizophrenic" process of translation necessary to the "shifting character" of the imagination.8 In Ross's poem, the language of natural cycles translates into the language of surrational perceptions of metaphysical truths, and vice versa. Ross's dialectical poetic contains at its core the belief that if either fact or faith in a poetic statement is true, then the statement includes a third possibility.
The rhetorical device of the either/ or in "If Ice" diverts the reader's attention from uncertainty toward speculation on the nature of the afterlife. Nonetheless, the poem interprets the data of Ross's observations as an analogical proof that the possibility of life after death exists. The manner of expression generates the simile that closes the poem, the stars as a kind of evidence of the beyond translated back into natural imagery. Ross's argument by analogy fuses reasoning with a series of imagistic snapshots ice, melting, stream, buds, leafing, bloom and blossom-fall which creates a simulacrum of temporal flow. Human mental processes and the processes of renewal in nature are fashioned into an intuitive coherence derived from a superimposition of intuition on the immediate present. The temporal continuity of the poem's framework is interrupted by the uncertainty at its core, but the value of beauty in the poem is thereby enriched by the sense of purpose, method and determination to make language reveal the unknown. Nature interpreted after the fact as distinctly Canadian and technical inventiveness are merely tools that lay conveniently to hand in the fashioning of an aesthetically pleasing though internally uncertain proof. In short, Ross's trust in rhetorical coersion to reveal the truth lies at the centre of most of Ross's work. Whether he is writing sonnets or in an apparently loose structure like "If Ice," his confidence as one who knows the truth is manifestly present.
In 1950, Ross wrote to his friend A.J.M. Smith that "spiritualism etc. are naturally prominent in all my work" because of "fundamental beliefs and experience."9 Ross had decided early in his career
Ross went on to explain that he had been studying Freud and other psychologists' works on the subject of dreams, and that these studied had been useful to him in his poetic attempts to "reflect or echo real experience, not so literally, but by a sort of verbal transposition which goes somewhat beyond parallelism in feeling." Ross's experience of nature, the city and the spiritual combines with his feeling toward language in such a way that beauty in his art emerges as a process of translation not unlike that described by Bachelard.
Ross's poetry brings a new sense of purpose to the values by which poems were judged in early twentieth-century poetry in Canada. Yet in a sense it returns to a concern for assurances of a transcendent order and purpose in the universe that may be found in the previous generation of poets. Among Ross's contemporaries, the notion that a poem must be beautiful was becoming less important as a vehicle for transcendent truths, and more important as a good in and for itself. In Pickthall's poetic, for example, a beautiful literary resonance, in the context of the English aesthetes and decadents, substituted its immediate value for any good that transcendent beliefs might have as a form of resistance to a modern world suffering rapid and pervasive change. In Ross's work, the poetic value of beauty assumes the role of a resistance in this sense. Ross departs from the aesthete attitudes of some of his contemporaries (such as Pickthall or Tom MacInnes), however, not only on the side of an empirical objectivity, as one might expect since he was a geophysicist, but also in his attitudes toward the past. Ross's poetry subjects the literary conventions of the Yellow Book school to a dialectic with the present and a feeling for language's rhetorical powers as somehow beyond time and change.Ross was never fully accepted into the company of the "moderns" Livesay, Smith, Gustafson and so forth because unlike them he was not interested in propagating the future any more than he was interested in perpetuating the past. Promises of social justice or "chiselled lyricism" and the clarity of a modern lapidary prosody are, despite Gustafson's faith, not to be found in Ross's work. His detachment as a poet from the forces at work on poetry in early twentieth-century Canada was complete. Ross was well-read in Canadian, European and American poetry, yet he cut his own work free from any direction that this reading might have suggested for his verse. His poetry is unique in its timelessness. Its sense of purpose and direction, its confidence, separated him from the poets who presented themselves in the New Provinces anthology of 1936 as writers whose ''search for new content'' had been less successful than their ''search for new techniques," an uncertainty that reflected the aimlessness of their social environment.10 Due to Ross's own indifference toward publication and the subsequent neglect of his work, however, his self-confidence altered dramatically after he published Sonnets in 1932. Ross decided, it would seem, that his successful recovery of a timeless truth from the here and now, through rhetorically coercive techniques, simply did not fit in with the progress of poetry in Canada. In his letters, he became a writer of satirical verse-parodies.
After Sonnets, a work that he considered a failed book, Ross's disdain for publication increased. He wrote to Smith that Sonnets was an exercise, "a reactionary one, after my new departure in Laconics, 1925." Ross was a compulsive revisor, and though Laconics appeared in 1930, he dates it from an earlier draft. He told Smith that Laconics was based on a study of ancient prosody and his reading of contemporary American poets.11 The first book ratified Ross's claim as an innovative poetic craftsman by establishing an aesthetic bridgehead on the modern world, and the conditions under which poetry could be written in order to be reconciled with the modern world. Exhilarated by the knowledge that he had succeeded a knowledge that came to him from inner self-realization rather than popular success he turned his new-found strength, in Sonnets, to the conditions under which poetry had been written in the past. His purpose was not to emulate past poetic triumphs but to reduce tradition to the structures of the method that had tested out in Laconics. The single-mindedness and originality of the poetic expressed in these books deserves more attention than has been forthcoming in the criticism of poetry in Canada.12
Sonnets was meant to be more overtly philosophical than Laconics, but Ross was disappointed with it on technical grounds:
Ross's failure with this quixotic enterprise led eventually to an intense preoccupation with verse as object on the one hand, and private, humourous verse on the other. Ross had been interested in "the surrealist manifesto" in the late 'twenties, and his later work along these lines represents a practice of compulsive revision of poems begun as a young man.14 Between 1944 and 1962, he wrote long letters to Smith concerning the typography of his anthologized poems, apologizing at one point that "This is an unfortunate business but I take poetry rather seriously." Ross confined his often brilliant verse-parodies to his letters and with the exception of Margaret Avison generally disliked the younger poets beginning to publish in the 'fifties. Ross was disapprovingly detached from what was happening in Canadian poetry in general and disliked Pratt's "pretty expert word-juggling and rhyming" in particular. He believed that "displaying inferior stuff for any reason at all, however worthy," was detrimental to the future of poetry in Canada. He felt more enthusiastic about poems by Pickthall, Knister and Patrick Anderson than Pratt, and Tom MacInnes "quite hypnotized" him.15
Unlike his contemporaries, Ross understood poetic excellence solely in terms of the time in which he wrote. In his later years, he expressed this view in the poem "First Snow," where he asks the reader to consider the snowfall as "a / time" covering the dust and clutter of autumn, and "hiding old / traces; / making all / new, for a time."16 Ross's ideas on poetry were drawn from French and American sources, and he was critical of Canadian poetry for not following along the track blazed by European and North American innovators in poetic content and technique such as Max Jacob, André Salmon, Guillaume Apollinaire, Marianne Moore, e.e. cummings, A.J.M. Smith, Raymond Knister, Patrick Anderson and himself. (Ross later changed his mind about cummings and Anderson.)17 Ross's variation on Imagism was so enclosed by his rejection of any notions of poetic worth not strictly relevant to his own method that it is difficult to define the image as employed in his work.
Yet Ross's Imagism is not entirely without historical precedent. There is little difference, after all, between Pater's gemlike flame, so important to the English aesthetes, and T.E. Hulme's image-analogies that enable one to "dwell and linger upon a point excited."18 In Hulme, Pater's rejection of time-bound reality remains intact, but Hulme differs in his material determination of values. Where Pater sees beauty beneath the surface of things, Hulme is concerned about its emergence onto that surface. For Hulme the moon becomes a friendly rural face in the urban sky, presaging nothing but a touch of cold and a nodding acknowledgement of the ruddy farmer's greater endurance. For Ross the moon is seen reflected characteristically in lake water, "making there / a double world, / the moon above, / the moon below."19 Ross accepted Hulme's Imagist idea of time, but insists that an image can be employed in a critical programme for re-instating transcendence as a power in one's perceptions of reality. Rather than hoping for a fusion of thought and feeling, abstract and concrete, Ross enfolds metaphysical questioning within the image so that experience becomes a translation of reason and vice versa, "not so literally, but by a sort of verbal transposition which goes somewhat beyond parallelism in feeling."
There are four stages to the programme that contributes to the overall thrust of Laconics and Sonnets, which, taken together, amount to a critique of the situation of poetry as Ross saw it in the 'twenties. The treatise begins with the mythical constructs internalized as a "Dream-Way." Fastening onto the substance of myth, Ross works his way into a fantastic poetic world that carries within it an analytic attitude toward dream. For Ross, experience becomes complete once it is informed by a rare combination of spiritualism and a scientific frame of mind. The dialectic aspires to achieve a material experience or proof of the transcendent: a beautiful poetic translation of a real experience of the beyond. At this point in the programme, Ross turns his poetic guns on the reality of the modern city in Laconics, and in Sonnets, on the natural world. In his first book, poems on the Canadian landscape are placed at the start of the cycle. These are the northern poems that were based on Ross's recollections of two summers' employment as a surveyor north of Lake Superior in 1912 and 1913, written one night in 1928 after a discussion on Canadian nationalism among friends.20 The programme is ultimately directed toward an idea of reality in which a poetry of beauty is achieved and then dispersed into language as a power stronger than reality. In the final pages of Sonnets, however, Ross pursues a degree of artistic self-development in which his work would attain to the power of poetic prophecy.
But Ross felt that, technically at least, that he had missed his mark in Sonnets. Another poet discovering that the status of a poet-prophet was beyond him might have chosen to fashion a prophetic persona to speak for him from the world of his poetry. Ross did not, nor did he attempt a second time to reach that supreme function of a poet in his community to alter for the better the perceptions of his audience. Ross realized his limitations as a "Watcher" through the experience of writing Sonnets and chose to go underground. Much later, in 1956, Souster's Contact Press printed a slim typescript of Ross's work, Experiment 1923-1929, but Souster's purpose was not so much to reintroduce Ross to the public as to "get any American influence working again in the blood-stream of Canadian poetry."21 The politics of Souster and the anthologists obscured the true nature of Ross's work by over-emphasizing his Imagism and his Lake Superior poems.
In the third section of Laconics entitled "Myth," Ross works with the stock mythical subjects of the decadent era, but differently from the way MacInnes, MacDonald or Pickthall might have done. He writes of Aurora, Dyrads, Nereids, Pan and Lethe not for the sake of literary reverie but as a test for the strength of his methodological attitudes toward truth in poetry. Marianne Moore described the form as a discipline in "the art of exactitude." Aside from stressing Ross's studious search for explicitness, brevity and simplicity, Moore's review reminds us that for those poets who acceded to Hulme's point excited, the pleasing as an element in the reader's response to pre-modernist verse was still an essential presupposition of poetic value and beauty in Ross's and Moore's time. As Moore says, "science's method of attaining originality by way of veracity is pleasing," and Ross's book "gives pleasure, besides suggesting a method."22
In "Dryad," Ross indicates that he is concerned with uncovering the reality behind mythical figures that had become clichéd by the turn of the century. The Dryad's oak dies "in the spring," and "no more the Dryad / felt and heard / for with the tree / her life was gone." Ross's combination of conventional mythic settings and precise observation of nature can produce images of startling brilliance, as in "Nereids":
These figures are clean and explicit, suggestiveness is reduced to a minimum, the images are easily visualized and the banal subject-matter invigorated.23 When the subjects are aetiological explanations of familiar natural phenomena, the images open into a world one recognizes as the one in which we live. When the subjects are the exploits of men and women in a legendary setting, as in "Ariadne," "Argo," "Laestrygones," "Andromeda" or "Hercules," the sense of present experience having been fused with the ancient figures is more often lacking. The overall movement of this section, however, is from stationary image toward narrative.
Ross's "Death of Orpheus," with which "Myth" concludes, is a narrative lyric of twenty-three "stanzas" of eight double-stressed lines apiece. This narrative and dramatic poem lacks the ability to create a meaningful experience by enabling the reader to visualize imagery intensely, yet it is not designed as a catalyst for the reader's reveries. The brevity of the lines, the emphasis on the stresses lead naturally to a senseof drama. A similar technique would be exploited by Livesay a few years later in "Day and Night."
In Ross's poem, the verse-form a variation on the common (or ballad) measure creates an abrupt, telegraphic presentation of a subject that was one of the favorite themes of the aesthete imagination in the decades surrounding the turn of the century:
Ross's treatment of the motif excises the obscurity and vagueness that Valery, for instance, believed essential to the ambiguity and suggestive ness of a poetic beauty that could not be paraphrased. In Ross's poem, Orpheus returns to "Kindly Thrace" where Apollo had first given him the lyre, "that he might sing." His song is so masterly "that trees, rocks, / wild beasts, rivers, / all were moved! in spirit to hear him." Loyal to the memory of Eurydice, he spurns the Bacchanals, which angers them. Ross uses repetition of key words beat, drum, clash, cymbal and orgy to express the drama of the bacchanalia. The women tear Orpheus into pieces and throw the head and the lyre into Hebrus, which carries them to Lesbos where "ages later" they bear the "rich fruit" of Lesbian poetry. Repetition of apostrophe is used finally to represent the lamentations of the muses and their condemnation of Dionysus, leader of the Bacchanalia, "the ivy-crowned, / the enemy / or poetry, / of the clear song." Here, the Dionysian and Apollonian function dialectically.
In terms of content "Death of Orpheus" is not much more than a conventional treatment of legendary material, yet Ross's short, staccato rhythms and line-lengths are in effect a commentary on the manner in which someone like Pickthall, for instance, might have handled the same material. In terms of form, the poem turns language into a destructive weapon to be used against the clichés prevalent in the poetry of his time. Souster's Experiment edition of Ross's poems contains the poem "Narcis sus," which engages the beauty of legendary themes and his feeling for language in an even more violent dialectic.25 Narcissus symbolized the aesthete imagination "in its flight from the coarse world of reality, and from the vulgar contact of women, in order to delight in its own subjectivity and its purely internal world."26 Ross's poem transforms the cliched disregard of conventional morality into an exercise in Imagism-qua-analysis in which fierce prosodic dissection disrupts the narcissistic vision. "Narcissus" expresses the aesthete idea of beauty as an epis temological void, a kind of seizure that immobilizes one in rapture. Yet this violence also elevates the ordering power of Ross's feeling for language to the status of a certainty and authority sufficient in itself. The original image of Narcissus's face in the pool breaks up even as the presentation of the image is shattered by the typography. Disconnectedness between the image and the language used to represent it are placed in the foreground, in the effort to negate the cliché, but the cliché is still very much present. If the image grew in pure mind because complete, in Yeats's phrase, it is here dismantled analytically in order to show that the meaning may remain intact even when the language that has contained it is destroyed.
Where Laconics begins with a dismemberment of the legendary past, Sonnets begins with a set of three poems "On the Cessation of the Oracles," only the first of which retains that reverberation of experience for which Ross's best work is noted:
Recalling Eliot's response to the Grail legend (yet another aesthete cliché), Jesse Weston and Frazer, these sonnets lament the impotence of the "sacrificial altar." The mantle of prophecy and the "nurse" of faith are denied and the "The land deserted." The second and third sonnets fall into prosaic exposition of the theme: "The present extends its arms towards the past / Which holds forth arms reciprocal in vain." The modern world has desolated antiquity and driven the sacred irrevocably from the "smokeless plain." One is forced in consequence to think that there is "some lack of basic equity" in life as we know it in the present.27 History has corrupted the language of antique truth, yet this truth remains intact, eminently recoverable to one who knows how to reconstitute that language.
In Sonnets Ross pursues the theme of prophecy in "Prometheus 1 ," and in "Prometheus 2" we learn that there are two spiritual forces in play, one in league with prophecy and nature, one allied to "the strong hand of deity," Zeus, "that tyrant of an hour." In this first section of the book, Ross develops the notion that divine speech has been lost to the world, yet prophetic speech in the form of song and music remains, though in bondage as represented by Prometheus, Andromeda, a statue of Venus and the sonnet-form itself. In "Sappho," the blame for the loss of divine speech is placed squarely on the part of man's complacency. Ross records his personal response to the natural supernatural that preserves the prophetic function in "The Pipes of Pan." The section ends, however, with an affirmation of "Golden Apollo" whom "all the watchers marvel at."28
In Laconics, Ross moved from "Myth" to the section called "By Woods and Water" in which the first poem sounds the key-note. In "Woods, I Remember" Ross explains that he believes there must be something in nature "eternal, almost, / as the sun." The landscapes, lakescapes and starscapes of this section are safe and pleasant enclaves within the dominion of time. But in "All still would die," Ross subtly develops the notion that one's perception of beauty is capable of maintaining a momentary release from change and death, "the landscape making / a pause unbroken" within perception so that seer and seen are indivisible. "Time would cease," he believes, should an image of the landscape become so perfect that perception froze. Yet to achieve this condition is for Ross too much reality to bear. The pause in time that his poem marks is broken in the last verse by clouds "that do not cease" and "point to time / and time's rotation."29 In Laconics' "Death of Orpheus" the Apollonian and Dionysian function dialectically; in Sonnets' "Golden Apollo" Ross is about to take sides. The second book is a more reader-oriented book in that here it is not enough to render the truth in aesthetically pleasing artifacts. Ross means to engage "time's rotation" itself in order to communicate his self-confident knowledge to his audience.
In Sonnets, Ross passes from mythical subjects to the proposition in "Dream-Way" that an understanding of dreams may be a way "that surely leads beneath / To solving of these lasting mysteries." In "On the Supernatural," Ross plants a signpost for those who would follow him in his argument:
In "The Call," Ross seems to speak of psychological analysis as a variety of the prophetic voice for which he is searching. This voice asserts "There's no finality in a funeral" and promises that answers culled from dreams are "Not sinister, but comforting." It is only necessary for one to perform the search and answer the call of a watcher either in ritual, faith or analysis.30
In Sonnets, Ross leaves the dream-way to contemplate values in the section entitled "On Beauty, Etc." In Laconics, the logic of Ross's method indicates that in "By Wood and Water," the fourth section of Laconics, he had returned to his starting-point in nature. "North," the first section, begins with "Plunging into" the cold northern lake water; the fourth part ends with a waterfall contemplated from the safe distance of its aetiological spirit. The difference between the beginning and ending sections is that a spiritual reality beyond the images is overtly suggested in the close. In "Pine Gum," from the fourth part, the "ghostly glimmering" of the white gum is an image of hope a light that "ever appears / through the darkness." This is the second to last poem in "By Woods and Water." The second to first poem in "North" is "The Dawn; the Birds'," in which Ross plunges into the "the beautiful water! invitingly lying." Here, the water is frigid, "but what does it matter?" It matters. This highly structured book is designed to produce an answer to this question. Stated bluntly, Ross's lesson is that there are natural spirits in reality that will warm to you if you call them, and his chief metaphor for this call is the wind, in Laconics.
As the power of the wind symbolizes Ross's aesthetic attitudes and weaves throughout the book as a governing motif, images of descending water in falls and streams seem to carry the poems forward toward affirmation. Laconics' fourth section ends with "Rolling Streams" in which the northern water has become "winged water, / sprite-like, aerial," responsive to the wind in Homeric tones. Near the close of the section, in "The Ripples Ran," Ross and another have enjoyed a mild breeze, the moving water, flowers and "were happy."31
In Sonnets, the phase in which Ross confronts reality with his trust in language is more fully developed than in Laconics. In "On Mythical Beauty," with which "On Beauty, Etc." begins, he insists that the ancient beauty contained in myth must reveal itself again in the present, its "form regained / Becoming ever clearer." History has nearly destroyed this beauty, but it will shine into the present and nurse new ways and newer energies from the "illimitable soil, / Fecund, of the human spirit." In "Islands of Song," Ross speaks of a place where speech has never been but "melodius from minds / Attuned to beauty that was never lost." Beauty is continually crossed by stupidity, yet those who would delve into forgetfulness, he suggests, may be able to find such archipelagoes of song. This location is referred to in "To the English Language 2" as a "zone of difficulty in the mind," an "inner cell of recollection plain." When one writes carefully, Ross believes that language shakes off the bondage of man's wayward indolence to reveal its origin in spiritual beauty that is sweet, strong and euphonious. In "On Flowers," this inner cell of recollection is capable of releasing what Ross calls the "sting of inner secret powers."32
At this point a marked note of self-mockery intrudes, to introduce an internal division in Ross's confidence as uncertainty was introduced to the metaphysical claims of "If Ice." The wind re-appears in contexts of shrillness and vanity. The wind's power, the power of poetry and art to galvanize an age's intellectual presuppositions is mocked in terms of "an empty monument." Water-imagery is confined to still water and to plunge into it is to be "chilled and dead in water beautiful," or to be fooled by the illusory image of another world "in the water's heart," between the "upper and the low," where the surface shines "Without a flaw."33 The section ends with three sonnets that deal with human love. Between childhood attachments, love of women and what Jung called the anima, the fantasy-beloved clearly wins out over more mundane loves in the poem "Recognition."34
In the brief fourth section of Sonnets, "Somewhat 'Wordsworthian'," Ross turns to the natural world for evidence of a prophetic speech more enduring than the divine speech of the gods or man's monuments. The section begins with "Renewal," a poem that refers back to the nature poems in Laconics. Ross recalls the freshness and delight of those "new impressions" he had "previously told / In verse" of the Ontario forest "whose scent is more than gold." Having returned to the wilderness, he wonders that his senses can be revived "as if never chilled / By city brick." The value of these revivified impressions is not their former novelty nor any material success his verse might have won, but rather the fact that they endure. "Summer Day" continues the struggle to attain a sense of timelessness through tranquil remembrance and specifies its significance to the book Ross is writing:
Subsequent poems focus intensely on individual trees, a robin and a landscape. "The Tree" clarifies Ross's attitude toward nature as a form of religious contemplation comparable to tree-worshippers in Africa whose entranced attention to a tree as a sign or spell of sacred and secret energy is a way of knowledge. The section actually amounts to a negation of the Wordsworthian theme in favour of a more precise analysis of Ross's inner responses to the forest, impressions inseparably linked to his childhood. Such impressions would be akin to Pater's intellectually sensual subjectivity, yet Ross focuses his will to perceive beauty and truth by means of an objective, psychological analysis.35
Before concluding with my discussion of Ross's attempt to achieve prophetic speech as a "watcher," it is necessary to look at the corollary of this phase in Laconics. In the earlier book, the miraculous emerges as belonging to the province of nature, the source of mythological repre sentations that may be made by virtue of the rhetorical power of language to respond to man's desire for the beautiful. Ross employs the precision and patience of an empirical method in his quest for the wonder and magic of the poetic medium, but he does not dispose of metaphysics entirely. The poem "Reality," published only in Shapes & Sounds but dated 1928, is probably the closest he came to an entirely substantialist or positivist theory of meaning in the observable world:
In "The City Enforces," in the section of Laconics entitled "City," Ross spoke of the beauty of geometry as "energy, made manifest." The city binds men and things to the "spell" of its geometric orderliness and like poems participates in the dialectic between enduring sense and transient form. Hence Ross cannot reject the city nor objects nor geometry as poetic subjects, yet under their spell he wonders whether such orders are designed for men, or men for the design in which they participate.36
Ross's city poems in Laconics are not simply descriptive panoramas of streetlights, skyscrapers, traffic and close-up observations of factory machinery. These poems attempt to meet the modern world on its own terms, to draw the city into an alliance with poetry. The power of art to force reality to surrender evidence of that which transcends it, symbolized by wind elsewhere in the book, is expressed here in imagery of the city's noise in "The saws were shrieking" and "Machinery." In "Skyscrapers," fire darts from geometric eyes of glass, an image meant to convey the power of the will to order. The descending water motif a sign pointing toward a more spiritual reality is perhaps taken up by the plunging, crazy tangles'' of city traffic in ''Factory at night.''
In "Laboratory," scientific researchers are said to seek above all else exactness of proportion in "the mystery / of measured matter." These researchers are emblematic of the poet at work in Laconics. In "Various," a group of poems on enchanted gardens and distant lands gathered miscellaneously at the end of Laconics, "Art" describes art as a "consistency / among incommensurables" paradoxically "equal / to itself." If one thinks of a featureless snowscape and the geometry of snowflakes, the concept is clear. The "Various" section suggests that this consistency is magical and miraculous, while exactness and proportion of expression, either poetic or scientific, are the gradients by which the recalcitrant meaningfulness of modern reality can be measured, tested and proven. Ross believed that "success in verse is due largely to getting the right form for the right content, fitting them together to produce something with a new dimension." This "trick" is more complicated and seldom successful in free verse, and a modern verse-form, "to be any good, requires the same sort of fusion."37 A poem is good if and only if it is equal to itself, and the wholeness resulting from the "process" of this fusion of form and content amounts to Ross's definition of poetic excellence.38 Such internal consistency is the measure of the transcendent above and beyond the orders and disorder of man's understanding of life. Ross's verse-forms are the same in Laconics whether the vehicle is a mythical figure, a landscape or the city because his subject is the same: the truth that must lie beyond saying no in the face of any given datum of evidence.
Essentially, Ross strives to achieve a fusion of testability and transcendence in the Laconics verse-form. In Sonnets, however, he is concerned with the erosion this fusion has suffered at the hands of time and human history. The sonnet is his vehicle for fitting the shards and broken pillars of the past around an ideal poetic content that is recoverable from Heraclitean time. "Barbizon, France" shows the exacting craftsman ship of Ross's method of achieving a consistency equal to itself that would open a rupture in time through which prophetic speech can be drawn into the present. In this sonnet, the octet describes a Visigothic ruin, "massive stones, uncouth and inchoate," that await their eventual destruction by time. The sestet neatly turns the reader's attention toward another "shattered ruins." the slender white columns of an older Roman fort upon which the Visgothic stones lie, superimposed. The rhetorical strategy of juxtaposing two historical moments constitutes a perceptual pause in history's intransigent onward flow, a pause in which a "new dimension" may be glimpsed. In terms of modernism, one may note here that Eliot uses a similarly rhetorical superimposition in the Unreal City of "The Waste Land." Ross's "Alexandria" presents the city as a futile monument to the power of man to maintain a transitory freehold in time's dominion. The poems "Egypt" and "Gold" continue this theme, maintaining that ancient Egyptian priests were cognizant of "the greater mystery," and that beauty will always be prey to the corruption of human greed. At this juncture the sonnets aspire toward prophetic speech.39
Ross had taken pains to prepare himself for an effort of prophetic speech throughout the volume. The fourth section on the meaning of beauty in nature and memory ends with an image of the sea and the bereft loneliness of an empty ship. The motif of descending water in Laconics has arrived in Sonnets at the estuary of its significance. The final section entitled "Sometimes Quite Imitative," the longest section in the book, begins with "The End of Play," in which the playfulness of waves on the sea ebbs at night into the "mother of dreams" who draws darkness into herself. Ross readies the reader for an assessment of his qualifications as a poet-prophet in direct contact with the sacred, which contact makes him a man apart. Cut adrift by loneliness on an internal ocean of impressions, Ross's next cautious step, in "The Treasure," is to meet death as a shaman in a sea-cave where a buried "secret store / Of jewels" lies. Then follows "The Nimble Fish" in which the landing of a strong, "full-grown pike" symbolizes without an excess of emotion the shattering of the surface of things and the prophet's rite of passage from everyday reality into an eternal realm. One last criterion must be satisfied, however.
Will the formal properties of the sonnet-series be fitted exactly enough to be new and yet filled with "a content true," so that "High Beauty" may stand forth "with no intervening screen?" The sonnet "On Art" declares that poets seek a mystery that lies somewhere between or above execution and "the impulse new / The starting, and the exact method too." A naïve dependence on novelty is a vain and wasted dream. Only a form that "retains the old" methodologically and dialectically within the new can be efficient enough to bear the secret into the present.40
The power of prophetic speech is suggested in the next poems "The River Speaks" and "The Indian Speaks." The river says that its course ever wandering yet always reaching the sea must not be altered lest a great calamity befall the state, "And woe to him unknowing who forgets / The lasting rights of earlier sovereignties." The Indian also speaks of his primordial rights. The sonnets that follow emphasize Ross's separation from the world of man, for it is in the absence of human relationships that the sacred may be written down by a prophet. In "Hypocrisy The Vision," the earlier note of self-mockery returns. A voice cries out "in accents stern and loud" to devastate the vanity of "Some holy man" who had hoped to erect a monument to be remembered by. Awareness of vanity self-deconstructs Ross's prophetic quest, and in the three sonnets that conclude the book, the watcher speaks to us in indirect quotation. First, the whispered voice of Hope creeps into the watcher's "waiting mind"; then the watcher proclaims the arrival in man's darkness of the spirit of beauty; finally, he breaks into a song of praise.41
Ross was one of the first Canadian poets to write in a modernist vein, and modernism offered Ross a programme with which to re-instate the enduring rights of earlier sovereignties. His method was to engage cliché and experiment in a dialectic not unlike that described by Bachelard in The Philosophy of the No. Neither the scientific method, however, nor the technical virtuosity shown in Ross's "translations," guaranteed a resolution to his confident but internally conflicting observations on nature and life. To pass from an imaginative language such as Imagism to a rational language such as science or philosophical speculation is not, as Bachelard says, "liberation at all; one simply strengthens the behaviorism involved."42 In Sonnets Ross attempted to break free of this bondage in what he called, in a letter to A.J.M. Smith, "la poèsie connaissance."43
Life passes into "simpler and more elementary forces," as Pater said in the "Conclusion" to The Renaissance, forces which extend beyond human experience into the province of scientific observation. Like a patient etherized upon a table, in Eliot's phrase, human life and experience are overwhelmed by a flood of external objects that only "a trick of magic" and an appreciation of beauty can dissipate. Passion in Pater is both a response to the inward world of the spirit and an agent acting upon objective reality in such a way as to open it to "unstable, flickering, inconsistent" impressions that "burn and are extinguished with our consciousness of them."44 This passion is transmuted into the cold precision of a method in Ross's assimilation of modernism. His imagism never amounted to the intensification of life's forces that Pound's image-vortexes were meant to be. His images are never direct treatments of things, but rather the crucibles and balances of a poetic laboratory in which the sense of loss and fragmentariness that characterizes much modernist writing is separated from an elixir of prophetic or visionary truth. The method may be religious, finally, as John Sutherland suggested (just before his death in the mid-'fifties) when he remarked that "The work of this poet is based on the conventional belief until recently considered quite outmoded that poetic inspiration is of supernatural origin. . . . In the materialistic world of the twentieth century, 'we must affirm the supernatural' if we are to save ourselves from the wasteland of 'rational explanation thin and void.' "45
"A Note on Style," Shapes & Sounds, p. 139. The texts I have used for Ross's poems are as follows: Laconics [by "E.R."] (Ottawa: Overbrook Press, 1930). Sonnets [by "E.R."] (Toronto: Heaton Publishing Co., 1932). Experiment 1923-29 (Toronto: Contact Press [19561). Raymond Souster and John Robert Colombo, eds. Shapes & Sounds: Poems of W.W.E. Ross (Toronto: Longmans, 1968).[back]
Aside from Laconics and Sonnets, Ross's early published work comprises: "Two Poems," The Dial, 84 (April 1928), 289-90; "Seven Poems," The Dial, 85 (Aug. 1928), 107-10; "Example" and "Hypno II," Fifth Floor Window, 1, No. 4 (May 1932), [unpaginated]; "Irrealistic Verses," Poetry [Chicago], 44, No. 4 (July 1934), 179-84; "Distillates," New Directions in Poetry and Prose 1937, ed. James Laughlin IV (Norfolk: New Directions Press, 1937), pp. 125-29. For other magazine publications, see Bruce Whiteman, "Bibliography," A Literary Friendship: The Correspondence of Ralph Gustafson and W.W.E. Ross (Toronto: ECW Press, 1984), [unpaginated].[back]
Bruce Whiteman, "Introduction," The Correspondence [unpaginated]. Another selection of Ross's letters has been edited by Michael E. Darling, "On Poetry and Poets: The Letters of W.W.E. Ross to A.J.M. Smith," Essays on Canadian Writing, No. 16 (Fall-Win. 1979-80), 78-125. Peter Steven's article, "On W.W.E. Ross," Canadian Literature, No. 39 (Win. 1969), 43-61, deals with the influence of American poets such as Marianne Moore and W.C. Williams on Ross's work, discusses the sources and precedents of Ross's surrealism and summarizes Moore's reviews of Laconics and Sonnets. Stevens's article is useful mainly for bibliographical inf"rmation, although he makes the point that Ross's later surrealism and prose poetry manifest a preoccupation with strange states of mind, an effort to perceive reality through the spirit. In Steven's view, there is more to Ross's work than merely an early instance of Canadian Imagism. Ross's poetry is further discussed in Stevens's "The Development of Canadian Poetry Between the Wars and Its Reflection of Social Awareness (Ph.D. Diss: Univ. of Saskatchewan, 1969). Marianne Moore's reviews attempted to elucidate Ross's Imagist techniques: "Experimental Simplicity," Poetry [Chicago], 38, No. 3 (Aug. 1931), 280-81; and "Modern Thoughts in Disguise," 42, No. 2 (May 1933), 114. John Sutherland's "An Unpublished Introduction to the Poetry of W.W.E. Ross," is the most perceptive critical appraisal of Ross's poetic purpose. It has been collected by Miriam Waddington's edition of his writings: John Sutherland: Essays, Controversies and Poems (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1972), pp. 162-64. Philip Gerber's "The Surface and the Terror: The Poetry of Eustace Ross," Far Point, 5 (Win. 1970), 46-54, is a valuable negative appraisal of Ross's work, dissenting from the favourable views of Moore, Sutherland and Stevens. Gerber like Stevens traces Ross's sources and precedents and repeats Moore's assessment of Ross's technical originality and strength. Gerber sees no depth to Ross's work and believes that Ross's career as a scientist destroyed him as a poet. He contends that Ross's later experiments with surrealism were essentially "abortive."[back]
Whiteman, The Correspondence, letter 47.[back]
Whiteman, The Correspondence, letters 23 and 58.[back]
"If Ice," Shapes & Sounds, p. 47.[back]
Gaston Bachelard, The Philosophy of the No: A Philosophy of the New Scientific Mind (New York: Orion Press, 1968), pp. 117 (Kaleidoscope) and 113 (semantic revolution).[back]
Darling, "The Letters," 95.[back]
New Provinces: Poems of Several Authors (Toronto: Macmillan, 1936; rept., ed. Michael Gnarowski, Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press, 1976), p. v.[back]
Darling, "The Letters," 94-5. Whiteman, The Correspondence, letter 22. Ross was attracted to the techniques of Marianne Moore and e.e. cummings. The metaphysical verve of Moore's treatment of the-past-in-the-present (her reduction of quotable matter to transitory statement of feeling) and cummings's playfulness naturally attracted Ross. W.C. Williams's insistence on the material fact (plums and wheelbarrows) displeased him. Williams, in Ross's view, left out one half of the dialectic in translating ideas into things, by neglecting the translation of things into ideas. Ross's statement that the verse-form of Laconics derived from a study of Greek prosody probably applies more to the mythological poetry collected in Laconics than to the "northern" poems for which Ross is remembered today. The Classical influence is clear in Ross's only narrative poem, "Death of Orpheus" (Laconics, pp. 62-69). Ross told Gustafson that his study of Classical prosody stemmed from a need "to arrive at a fresh form suitable for pieces of some length" (Whiteman, The Correspondence, letter 13).[back]
Ross's poetic is obliquely described in Whiteman, The Correspondence, letters 9, 10, 13, 15, 40, 42, 44 and 46. Here Ross intimates that his poetic presupposes brevity in terms of lines (a maximum of 100), craftsmanship "squared" by precise emotion, an aesthetic freshness and cleanness, clairvoyance, an "'outer consciousness' etc." "pleating," an absence of"that 'Canadian' would-be feeling," unambiguous clarity (contra Empson), and an "ability of technical skill to fix the elusive poetic."[back]
Darling, "The Letters," 95-96.[back]
The date Ross gives is 1928-1929: Whiteman, The Correspondence, letter 17. Ross's interest in what he called the "fantaisistes, André Salmon for example," stems from the "verbal elasticity" and the "search through the subconscious" that he saw in surrealism (Whiteman, The Correspondence, letter 7). That Ross's later pieces are in fact revisions of a young man's poems is suggested in letters 20,28,42,44, 58, 60 and 62. Ross's inspiration became "intermittent" early, changed to a matter of "finishing up," and cumulated in the "squibs" and epigrams of his letters.[back]
Darling, "The Letters," 119 (apologizing), 96 (Avison), 110 (however worthy), 81 (MacInnes). Whiteman, The Correspondence, letters 22, 26, 38 and 51 (dislike of Pratt). Ross's disdain for modern poetry in general and in Canada: Whiteman, letters 13, 17, 28, 42, 44, 46, 48 and 51.[back]
"First Snow," Shapes & Sounds, p. 142.[back]
Whiteman, The Correspondence, letters 7 (Jacob et al), 22, 30 (Moore), 22, 62 (cummings), 46 (Smith), 1, 2, 4, 26, (Knister), 7 and 26 (Anderson, 22 and 287 (changed his mind).[back]
As quoted from The Criterion (July 1925) by W.E. Collin, The White Savanahs (Toronto: Macmillan, 1936; rept. Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press, 1975), p. 150. Collin's sense is: "Hulme's analogies all have a constant purpose: to produce surprise, to create power, 'to enable us to dwell and linger upon a point excited'."[back]
"From the hill," Laconics, p. 80. Ross's letter to Smith (20 Mar. 1950) in Darling, "Letters," p. 95 ("verbal transposition").[back]
Whiteman, The Correspondence, letter 36 and 13, 23, 35, 47, 48 and 60.[back]
Souster, "About the Author," Experiment 1923-29 p. 23. Ross maintained that Souster was only interested in his nature poems or that aspect of his work Smith called "Native." See Peter Stevens, "On W.W.E. Ross," 43. Ross told Gustafson that he wished Souster had mentioned him together with Knister, Livesay, Charles Bruce and Arthur Bourinot in his remarks "About the Author" (Whiteman, The Correspondence, letter 42).[back]
Marianne Moore's review of Laconics appeared in Poetry (Chicago) (Aug. 1931), 280-81.[back]
"Dryad," and "Nereids," Laconics, pp. 45 and 46.[back]
Jean Pierrot, The Decadent Imagination 1880-1900 (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1981), p. 201. "Death of Orpheus," Laconics, pp. 62-69.[back]
"Narcissus," Experiment 1923-29, p. 6-7.[back]
Pierrot, The Decadent Imagination p. 201. Pierrot regards Narcissus as one of the three chief mythical figures most favoured by the decadents he studies, the other two being Orpheus and the legend of Oedipus and the sphinx.[back]
"On the CESSASTION of the ORACLES," Sonnets, pp. 1-3.[back]
"Prometheus" 1 and 2, "Golden Apollo," "Sappho," "The Pipes of Pan," Sonnets, pp. 4-5, 11, 7 and 6.[back]
"Woods, I Remember," "All still would die," Laconics, pp. 73 and 81.[back]
"Dream-Way," "On the Supernatural," "The Call," Sonnets, pp. 15, 18 and 20. In "The Wise Men," Ross combines Christian attitudes toward miracle with the science of astrology (p. 25).[back]
"Plunging into," "Waterfall," "Pine Gum," "Rolling Streams," "The Ripples Ran," Laconics, p. 11, p. 86, p. 85, p. 23, p. 75. See also: "Wind Conquest," Experiment, p. 17.[back]
"On Mythical Beauty," "Islands of Song," "On Flowers," Sonnets, pp. 29-3 1.[back]
The two sonnets with the wind motif are "Islands of Song" (p. 30) and "Blindness" (p. 34). The two poems of water-imagery are "The Lake" (p. 35) and "By the River" (p. 36).[back]
"Recognition," Laconics, p. 38.[back]
"Renewal," "Summer Day," "The Tree," Sonnets, p. 43, 44 and 46. Walter Pater, "Conclusion," The Renaissance" (Cleveland and New York: World, 1961) regards experience as the focus "where the greatest number of vital forces untie in their purest energy" and not "the fruit of experience, but experience itself, is the end" (p. 222). Darling, "Letters," 95: Ross regarded the psychological study of dreams as part of his method for communicating "real experience" in poetry.[back]
"Reality," Shapes & Sounds, p. 56. "The City Enforces," Laconics, p. 34.[back]
"Laboratory," "Art," Laconics, pp. 32 and 89. Darling, "Letters," 83.[back]
Darling, "Letters," 117.[back]
Barbizon France Alexandria '"Egypt," "Gold," Sonnets, pp. 59, 63, 64 and 65[back]
"Solitude," "The End of Play," "The Treasure," "On Art," Sonnets, pp. 49, 53, 54 and 56.[back]
"The River Speaks," "The Indian Speaks," "Hypocrisy The Vision," "The Watcher Speaks," 1, 2, and 3, Sonnets, pp. 57, 58, 66 and 67-69.[back]
Bachelard, The Philosophy of the No, p. 113.[back]
Darling, "Letters," 97.[back]
Pater, "Conclusion," p. 221.[back]
See Darling, "Letters," 80, 97, 100, 111 and 115. Sutherland, "An Unpublished Introduction," p. 163.[back]