An Unfinished Monument for Sir Charles G.D. Roberts

The Collected Poems of Sir Charles G.D. Roberts: A Critical Edition. Ed. Desmond Pacey. Wolfville: Wombat Press, 1985. xxxii + 672 pp.

In its effort to present a difficult subject thoroughly and systematically, this book not only evades crucial problems, but adds unnecessary difficulties to a reading of Roberts' poetry.   Apparently, Desmond Pacey, before his death, had put a great deal of effort into completing a worthwhile and necessary project, one that might have acted as a model for future Canadian critical editions of poetry.  With his death, however, the project ended, and the posthumous publication of The Collected Poems of Sir Charles G.D. Roberts is, at best, an unfinished monument.  Nevertheless, its existence, despite its numerous flaws, represents a tribute to Desmond Pacey's determined effort to produce scholarly Canadian texts, and one should thank Fred Cogswell and Graham Adams for doing what they could to complete the project.

     The flaws of this book, however, cannot be ignored, and they are probably simply the inevitable result of the loss of the figure who envisioned the whole.  Everyone is familiar with the problem of two chefs and one broth, so an elaboration of the cliché is unnecessary.  In the case of the Collected Roberts, it seems clear that the editors could not consult, and so no single sense of editorial policy controls the book.   The problems which result from this state of affairs are most evident in the decision to bury the explanations of the editorial policies in "A Note on the Bibliographical Procedures" (pp. 357-360) in the body of the book.  Any compilation which hopes to establish itself as a "critical" edition should begin with a clear, lucid, extended and justified account of the theories, assumptions and values which controlled the processes of ordering and selecting the material.  No such effort is made in The Collected Poems of Sir Charles G.D. Roberts, at least not in any extended manner.  All the reader is offered is a four-page explanation of general methods, and only two of these pages actually summarize the methods influencing the choice of poems within the volume (the other two explain the codes used in the Notes).

     The explanation of how and why "copy-texts" were chosen is thus contained in a rather naïve explanation of texts.  The reader is simply told that because Roberts was involved in editing his own works, "The copy-text was chosen on the established principle that the last publication . . . should represent his final intention" (p. 357).  Have the editors forgotten Francess G. Halpenny?  Let me quote her for those who only vaguely remember her important warning: ". . .  the publishing of Canadian authors has always had special aspects, because of the frequent participation of American or British publishers simultaneously or at differing times with Canadian firms, and the facts of any such collaboration would have to be ascertained before it would be possible to settle upon an 'author's text' of any work" (Editing Canadian Texts, pp. 7-8).  Regrettably, the editors of The Collected Poems of Sir Charles G.D. Roberts never bother to clarify if, on the basis of manuscript versions of the poems, Roberts, as an editor, had full control of his material.  Moreover, a detailed argument for why the last publication should be considered the best may seem irrelevant to some, but not to all.  The issue is important because this text does not always clearly mark which book version was the final "copy-text."

     In any case, the decision to choose the "last publication" as the copy text controls the selection of material in The Collected Poems of Charles G.D. Roberts.   This means that the last published versions of each poem is in the body of the text, although, strangely enough, the editors decide to put the poems, whenever possible, into a chronological order of first publication.  Why choose the last version and give it the earliest date possible?  Since the poem properly represents the last stage of composition, the last date and book title should at least follow each poem, and the earlier date should be left to the notes.  If the hope was to give the reader a glimpse into the development of Roberts' craft, the odd mixture of last version and first date seems incongruous.  The chronological method, moreover, is awkward for two additional reasons.  The first is that each poem now stands alone and is usually ripped from its context/s.  That Roberts often tried to link certain poems, and that he tried to remind readers of this in later editions by using appropriate subtitles, is utterly ignored.  The sense of composition of a poem, in this book, is reduced to the view that a poem never shares its presence with surrounding material.  Yet, as in the poems of Songs of the Common Day, the order in context may be an important aspect of the poem — admittedly, a pretty common idea, but an important one.  The second problem with the chronological method is that only one hundred and three of the three hundred and eighty four poems in The Collected Poems of Sir Charles G.D. Roberts can properly be dated.  Two-thirds of the material, therefore — and in blunt terms — may be wildly out of place.

     Another disturbing editorial choice evident in The Collected Poems of Sir Charles G.D. Roberts is the decision to place the Notes at the back of the book.  In my view, "Critical Editions" are a "genre" of their own, a genre'' which attempts to stress the nature of the scholarly effort of "reconstructing" an author's work.   Placing the critical apparatus at the back, a place where it can easily be overlooked and ignored, avoids the hard facts about the enterprise of "recreating" involved.  To my mind, such information (and I hope the slang phrase is used correctly here) should be up front."  Readers who are interested in a scholarly edition will spend most of their time reading the small print — that, after all, is the main purpose of such a text.  Since they have decided to violate the integrity of Roberts' individual books anyway, his editors should have been forthright in making The Collected Poems of Sir Charles G.D. Roberts one of prominent notes, dates and details.  What should also be "up front" is an outright avowal that this book represents the effort to "imagine" the textual history of Roberts' poems.  The effort to create a comprehensible history of the texts is the main aim of Pacey or Adams, and their book should not disguise itself as an edition which can be read as a replacement for Roberts' own books.  Critical texts are secondary materials; they should never be used to replace primary texts.

     I can now comment on the final issue that is left cloudy and vague in "A Note On Biographical Procedures."  The specific Notes about the poems and their development are often, though not always, thorough, worth while, penetrating, skilful and insightful.  If this section of the book were published independently, I would rate it as an excellent work of scholarship; however, such is not the case, and, given all the other problems of this particular edition, even the understandable flaws of this section begin to annoy and irritate me.  Is the observation that James Cappon felt "Actaeon" to be Roberts' "most successful achievement in the region of classical idyll" (pp. 397-398) essential to notes which should describe the history of the poem itself?  Does a reader actually require an eleven-word explanation of "Drake" in "A Ballad of Manilla Bay" (p. 517) while the word "glebe" (p. 411) in "The Sower" is explained only in two words?   The imbalance of this section would probably be less distracting if it were independently published.

     Finally, I must comment on two other portions of this book so far unmentioned.  The first of these is Fred Cogswell's Introduction, the second is the Bibliography at the end of the book.  As my earlier comments might indicate, Cogswell does not concern himself in this Introduction with the nature of this kind of book.  He appends to its beginning a series of "individual impressions" (p. xix) loosely strung together with the notion that Roberts' poems can be discussed as "genre" (p. xix) pieces.   Although he acknowledges that the poems are in a chronological sequence, he merely mentions the fact, and then groups the poems in a fashion which utterly ignores the central principle of order used in the very book that he is introducing.  From Cogswell's practice, one is led to presume that the arbitrary order in The Collected Poems of Sir Charles G.D. Roberts does not inspire a fuller sense of Roberts' accomplishment.  It is to be hoped that this elaborate work in its present form will generate not more "general impressions" (p. xix) about Roberts and his work, but detailed discussion in the form of close analysis or scholarly research.  The Bibliography which ends the book is as disappointing and puzzling as the Introduction.   Imprecision is the key fault here.  The right title should be something like — "With the exception of three works listed in this bibliography, not an item published after 1975 is included (and even the selection of material from before 1975 is spotty)."  The editorial policy of choosing to list some articles rather than others is never discussed, and the arbitrary dismissal of nearly everything after 1975 is never justified.  A reader unfamiliar with scholarship on Roberts might be misled into believing that no one has written about the man during the last ten years.  More puzzling still is the introduction of the three works published after 1975.  One of them is a work written by Fred Cogswell, the critic called in to complete the monumental task begun by Desmond Pacey; the other two are works edited by Glenn Clever and Carrie Macmillan, whose names have, somehow, become subsumed under Fred Cogswell's.  Given that almost everything in scholarship after 1975 is left out of the bibliography (readers of Canadian Poetry especially will wonder at the omission of articles by L.R. Early, David Jackel, and William Strong) and that everything left in is very limited, one can only wonder how much research of possible importance to textual scholarship was overlooked, omitted or forgotten when putting the final touches to The Collected Poems of Sir Charles G.D. Roberts.  One can applaud the efforts of Pacey or Adams in attempting to put Roberts' poetry together into an intelligible form, but one can still feel regret, profound regret, that the mind behind this commendable project could not give the necessary final shape and form to the work as a whole.

Ed Jewinski