Charles G.D. Roberts and the Uses of Biography

John Coidwell Adams, Sir Charles God Damn: The Life of Sir Charles G.D. Roberts.  Toronto, Buffalo, and London: University of Toronto Press, 1984. x + 236 pages, photographs.

It has long been an "open secret" that there was much more to Charles G.D. Roberts' life than Elsie May Pomeroy told in her 1943 authorized biography.  In a contemporary review, A.J.M. Smith noted that Pomeroy's book "has the bulky appearance and the idolatrous deference of an official biography," and added that "discretion is not a major virtue of a biographer" (On Poetry and Poets, pp. 45-46).  But Pomeroy could hardly have written otherwise: she was selected by Roberts partially because of his fear of the kind of unauthorized biography that his son Lloyd might write; she apparently hoped to become Roberts' second wife; and Roberts exerted such control over her book that he could refer to it as "almost a sort of camouflaged autobiography" (Adams, p. 195).  One of the most admirable qualities of Sir Charles God Damn resides in John CoIdwell Adams' refusal to denigrate his predecessor.  In his preface, Adams writes of his meetings with Pomeroy from 1960 to 1968: "as I listened to her reminiscences about Sir Charles, I was struck by all the things that she had left unsaid in the biography" (p. ix).  Adams says some of those things, but his book is a work of gentle revisionism, not of the kind of iconoclasm implied in its title and press release.

     The crucial question that Pomeroy left unanswered concerns Roberts' first marriage, to May Fenety.  Pomeroy passes over their 1897 separation in silence, noting much later that "they were not compatible."  Adams reveals that the relationship was shaky from the beginning, and that the various rumours of Roberts' philanderings are not much exaggerated.  Before their marriage, Roberts gave May a specially bound edition of Shelley for her birthday, but "when she opened it, she burst into tears and threw it to the floor.  She had been expecting some jewellery, she cried, and he had given her 'a horrid book' " (p. 20).  When Roberts married her in 1880, it was against his father's objections and at the expense of his dream of going to Oxford.  As early as 1884, Roberts had the first of a long series of extramarital affairs, which continued through the ten years (1885-95) that he spent teaching at King's College.  In his letters to Bliss Carman, "Roberts confessed his philanderings with the frankness of one who is sure of a sympathetic ear" (p. 42).  In 1895 came what Adams calls "the turning point": Roberts quit King's and moved to Fredericton, ostensibly in order to devote himself to his writing, but actually "embarking upon a course that would nearly end his career as a poet" (p. 65).  Until his last years, Roberts was increasingly occupied with prose, simply because it was more lucrative.  When he left for New York in 1897, he intended to have his family follow as soon as his earnings improved, but the plan was never fulfilled: Roberts and May were still separated when she died in 1930.  "Of course I don't live with my wife — nobody could, God bless her," Roberts said (p. 161), but Adams persuasively argues that the separation was a constant source of embarrassment and guilt.

     On the matter of Roberts' first marriage as on other matters, Adams has an interesting story to tell, and he tells it well.  For the most part, he demonstrates the truth of his qualification of Pomeroy: "it never occurred to her that, in the long run, the full story of [Roberts'] struggles, failures, and triumphs might do him greater justice than an obviously laundered account that allowed too much latitude for rumour and conjecture" (p. 203).  Adams is at his best in showing the overwhelming financial difficulties that Roberts faced throughout his career, despite his prolific energy and international popularity.  The depiction of Roberts at the time of his knighthood is especially impressive: too poor to attend the Investiture or pay for his own Letters Patent, Roberts was also strikingly modest, regarding himself as "no better poet than Duncan Campbell Scott, — nor as good a one as Carman . . ." (p. 181).  If Adams errs, it is in allowing too little latitude for rumour and conjecture.  Those familiar with some of the more outrageous rumours will find that they are not all here.  Moreover, Adams is often sceptical of the stories he does repeat.  Thus we are told that although Roberts did ask some Saskatchewan professors for "a woman for the night," he was "probably in jest, but in questionable taste" (p. 133).  Like Ruth Brotman, who forgave Roberts his sexual advances because "he was probably a lonely old man" (p. 153), Adams sees through the ostentatious antics of the older Roberts to the underlying pathos.

     Although Adams' book is more candid and readable than Pomeroy's, Pelham Edgar's review of the latter is applicable to both: "It would be possible to cavil at its lack of critical discrimination, its failure to relate Roberts in any large way with the movements of his time, its episodic fullness and its dearth of general conclusions.  Yet these negative features in the book do not seem greatly to matter . . ." (cited by Adams, p. 196).  Adams' attempts at literary criticism are few and uncertain.  Notice the diffidence of this remark on the early poetry: "It would be unfair to say that he always had a tin ear, but rhyme was often too obtrusive in his poetry and it sometimes forced his thoughts into imprecise wording" (p. 17).  And notice the hesitancy of the book's concluding sentence: "His total achievements, according to current assessments, would appear therefore to be considerable" (p. 213).  Adams' comments on Roberts' prose are more assured, but they are also rather conventional.   Adams is most indebted to W.J. Keith, as in describing a passage from Orion as an anticipation of the animal story (p. 19), in preferring the descriptive passages in the stories to "much of [Roberts'] landscape poetry" (p. 84), and in calling "The Iceberg" "almost an animal story in free verse" (p. 171).   His accounts of the reception of Roberts' works are often very informative, but Adams says nothing about the reception of the two most important volumes of poetry: In Divers Tones (1886) and Songs of the Common Day (1893).  There is still work to be done in the areas of Roberts' reception and milieu, and those who do it will have to consult Pomeroy as well as Adams.

     Since he did not attempt to write a "critical biography," Adams should not be severely faulted for his critical shortcomings.  His carefully-written and well-illustrated book is bound to have considerable influence on subsequent criticism of Roberts.  As David Bromwich has recently argued ("The Uses of Biography," The Yale Review, 73, No. 2 [Winter 1984], 162), biographies "define the range of plausible interpretations of an author."  Prior to the publication of Sir Charles God Damn, Roberts' critics were sometimes forced tacitly to correct Pomeroy's biography.  Such critics as Desmond Pacey, Fred Cogswell, and D.M.R. Bentley, who emphasize the restlessness and the duality of Roberts (as in "Two Rivers") and thus exceed the range established by Pomeroy, assumed that what she left unsaid could nonetheless be inferred from Roberts' works.  Thanks to Adams, such interpretations now have a firmer basis, and the opportunity is available for the kind of "mingling" of biography and criticism that Bromwich calls for.  Other opportunities are available for critics interested in Roberts, and such critics will have the benefit of the recent publications of a Collected Poems and two volumes of symposia proceedings in addition to Adams' biography and the forthcoming edition of Roberts' letters.  Yet some basic questions remain to be asked.  Is enough of Roberts' literary criticism now available?  Is Pacey's argument that Roberts' decline begins with The Book of the Native (1896) still persuasive?  If the sonnets in Songs of the Common Day indeed constitute Roberts' best work, why has so little valuable criticism been written on them?  Why has no one studied these sonnets as a sequence, despite their obvious arrangement in the 1893 edition?  What about the very possibilities of sequential ordering in Roberts' poetry?  This last issue is crucial to Bentley's reading of the New York Nocturnes and to Keith's response (see Canadian Poetry, 16).  What is at stake is nothing less than our sense of Roberts' importance.  However these and other questions are answered, Sir Charles God Damn will be required reading for anyone interested in Roberts.

Tracy Ware