Margaret Atwood’s “The Journals of Susanna Moodie"

by R. P. Bilan

     The Journals of Susanna Moodie is possibly Margaret Atwood’s finest collection of poetry; it unquestionably is her most tightly organized book of poems. For all the virtues of the individual poems, much of the strength of the book derives from its cumulative effect, from the close inter-connection and inter-weaving of poems as Atwood presents her modernized version of Susanna Moodie’s experience. The book derives its shape and cohesiveness, of course, from the persona of Moodie herself as Atwood traces the change — the growth and development — in Moodie’s response to the land. She moves from her initial alienation to her attitude at the end where, as Atwood explains in the Afterword, “Susanne Moodie has finally turned herself inside out, and has become the spirit of the land she once hated.”1 My claim, however, that this book is tightly organized, and that to understand it properly one must take full account of the structure, seems to be denied by Atwood herself. In her interview with Graeme Gibson in Eleven Canadian Novelists Atwood explains how she wrote this series of poems:

They came as separate poems and I had no idea when I began that I was going to end up with a book of that size. It wasn’t planned that way. I wrote twelve at first and stopped and thought, you know, this is just sort of a long short poem, twelve short poems, that’s it. And then I started writing more of them but I didn’t know where it was going. I don’t write books of poetry as books. I don’t write them like novels.2

While this work may not have been written like a novel, it does focus on a central character and is tied to a chronological sequence showing her growth. Moreover, even assuming this is an accurate account of the way Atwood wrote the poems, once she had written them she obviously made a very careful arrangement. And despite what she says in the interview, her comments in the Afterword suggest a clear enough pattern and organization in the book.

     The poems are tied together not only by the persona, but also by a number of key images: trees, fire, light and darkness. It is especially in terms of the reversal of Moodie’s attitude towards light and darkness that Atwood charts her growth and transforms her from a typical early Victorian to a person with a distinctly modern sensibility. The use of this imagery begins, in fact, with the collage that precedes the first journal. A collage is of its very nature artificial: it involves sticking, imposing, one figure on another. The opening collage reveals this to be Mrs. Moodie’s state in the new land — she is artificially stuck into the wilderness, and lacks any true connection with the land. The sharp border of light surrounding Moodie reveals the cause of her separation from the land. Her initial commitment is to all those things associated with light: civilization, reason, order. Only as she comes to accept the darker side of herself, and of nature, will she be able to change and grow. In The Journals of Susanne Moodie, as in much of Atwood’s poetry (“Journey Into The Interior” is the clearest example), the exploration of a new land is also a psychological exploration of the self.

     Journal I, covering Mrs. Moodie’s years in the bush (1832-1840) takes us through the beginnings of her transformation. “Disembarking At Quebec”, the opening poem, portrays her total alienation from the land. She sees only “the glare / of sun”, “the moon alien” and that: “The rocks ignore.” She regards herself as “a word / in a foreign language.” But the poem also establishes, through the questioning tone of Moodie’s voice, the possibility that her disharmony with the land is of her own making: “or is it my own lack / of conviction which makes / these vistas of desolation, / . . .omens of winter.” By at least recognizing that her alienation may be caused by her foreign habits of mind, Atwood’s Moodie is able, in the following poems, to make her first tentative steps towards coming to terms with the new land, and towards greater self-understanding.

     In “Further Arrivals” the land is seen as “a large darkness”, but she realizes: “It was our own / ignorance we entered.” She does manage to make her initial gesture towards reaching out to, understanding, the darkness, but her dominant response to the land, and to her unknown inner self, is one of fear: “My brain gropes nervous / tentacles in the night, sends out/ fears haing as bears, / demands lamps.” The use of “tentacles”, the animal’s organs for sensing its way, suggests that her transformation has begun. In this poem it clearly is her own lack of conviction that creates, “sends out”, fears. She still “demands lamps”, the artificial light of society, to see her way, but knows that eventually she will need “wolf’s eyes to see / the truth”. She will have to come to terms with the darkness, see with the eyes of the wilderness, and that means the ability to see, as the narrator in Surfacing comes to realize, beyond the realm of logic, reason, and civilized order.

     By the conclusion of “The Planters” Mrs. Moodie is well on her way to this kind of perception. The image of “planting” is a key one throughout the book, and as Moodie watches her husband and the other man attempting to plant the garden, attempting to tame and humanize the wilderness, she realizes that if they

open their eyes even for a moment
to these trees, to this particular sun
they would be surrounded, stormed, broken

in upon by branches, roots, tendrils, the dark
side of light
as I am.

These stanzas bring together the central images of trees, and darkness and light. She feels assaulted by the bush and regard it as threatening but another view seems implicit in her remarks. The image of “the dark” comes somewhat as a surprise at the end of the line above, for “branches, roots, tendrils” are, after all, simply the living forms of the natural world. Although at this point Moodie perceives the natural, the wild, as “dark”, she is on the verge of a different and more complex perception. The line break produces another surprise; it conveys her realization that it is “the dark / side of light”. The oxymoron indicates that Moodie’s original, Victorian categories, which make a sharp separation of darkness and light, are beginning to break down.

     Moodie’s experiences and her increased feelings of alienation cause her to become more introspective and she begins to question who she is — and who her husband is. “The Wereman” shows her new awareness of her separation from her husband: “my husband walks in the frosted field / an X, a concept / defined against a blank, / he swerves, enters the forest / and is blotted out.” “Blotted out” suggests that she still sees the forest as something that simply threatens, obliterates one’s identity. In the following stanza, however, the opposite possibility is suggested: “Upheld by my sight / what does he change into / what other shape / blends with the under- / growth.” Here he “blends” with the “undergrowth” and his identity is seemingly transformed positively by his achieving a new harmony with the land. The general theme of this poem — that of lovers fixing an image of each other in their minds — is, it is true, a common one in Atwood’s work, but it takes on a new dimension here as she explores the impact of the land on identity, and the poem itself has a wider significance because of its context in the book.

     As we see in “Paths And Thingscape” Mrs. Moodie makes her own attempt to “blend in”, to find meaning in her new world, but she is not yet ready. The opening sections of the poem suggest a growth in positive perception: “Those who went ahead / of us in the forest / bent the early trees / so that they grew to signals: / the trail was not / among the trees but / the trees.” It is not entirely clear whether “those who went ahead” refers to earlier pioneers, or to the Indians; more probably it is the latter, but in any case the important fact is that the trails are not something man-made imposed on nature, but are made in harmony with nature. Certainly there is a suggestion that Mrs. Moodie is beginning to come to terms with the land, and beginning to recognize that the trees are her guide in her journey to self understanding.

     The following two paragraphs carry further the idea of finding meaning, an order, in nature:

and there are some who have dreams
of birds flying in the shapes
of letters, the sky’s
        and dream also
the significance of numbers (count
petals of certain flowers)

The first part, of course, refers to a form of augury. Both are seen as different kinds of “signals”; different ways of unlocking the order in nature, of discovering a natural pattern that exists apart from the meanings that man imposes.

     But at this point in Mrs. Moodie’s experience the possibility of there being a meaning in nature is raised only to be discounted. The next lines in the poem show a shift in her attitude:

In the morning I advance
through the doorway: the sun
on the bark, the inter-
twisted branches, here
a blue movement in the leaves, dispersed
calls/ no trails; rocks
and grey tufts of moss

The petals of the fire —
weed fall where they fall

Moodie fails to see any meaning in the things around her, but there is a suggestion that it is there, that the sun, branches, blue movement could be seen in a unified way. Atwood deliberately juxtaposes “calls / trails”. The “calls” are there, but Moodie can’t understand them as she’s still looking for the wrong kind of order. She perceives only the meaningless cycle of nature, but the poem points to the possibility that even in the fall of the petals there may be some undiscerned pattern.

     The poem concludes with Moodie longing for union with the world around her, longing for a vision of the world moving harmoniously “each / thing . . . into its place.” Because of her old assumptions, however, Moodie is not ready for such a vision, and the union can’t come until she undergoes a further transformation. The following poem “The Two Fires” portrays the experience that makes that transformation possible.

     “The Two Fires” is one of the most brilliant examples of how Atwood uses Susanna Moodie’s Roughing It In The Bush for her own purposes. In the poem Atwood brings together the experiences depicted in two separate chapters in Moodie’s book, chapter fourteen “The Burning Fallow” and chapter twenty “The Fire”.3 By condensing the two experiences Atwood is able, in a single poem, to enact the destruction of Moodie’s old values. The change shown in this poem makes possible Moodie’s new relation to the land, and to herself. Atwood creates a symbolic difference between the two fires in order to portray Moodie’s growth. The summer fire traps her in the house and against the “shapeless raging” of the wilderness fire, she attempts to raise up a charm: “concentrate on / form, geometry, the human / architecture of the house, square / closed doors, proved roof-beams, / the logic of windows.” In the face of the fire she turns to her belief, faith, in rationality — implicitly in the whole cast of mind she brought with her from the old world. As Atwood’s line-break — “the human / architecture” — suggests, however, she mistakenly identifies the “human” with excessive rationality and abstraction, with “form, geometry”. In the winter fire her situation is reversed and the house, along with her faith in reason and the old order, is destroyed:

       all those corners
and straight lines flaming, the carefully-
made structure
prisoning us in a cage of blazing

Here the structure, metaphorically of rational thought, is seen as a prison and cage that must be broken out of. The fire thus forces her outside into the wilderness she has so far resisted, and the dream of imposing the old order is “scorched”, lost and given up.

     Atwood’s discussion of settlers in Survival provides, in effect, a gloss on this poem. She contends that settlers

attempted to change Nature’s order (which may look to man like chaos) into the shape of human civilization . . .The order of Nature is labyrinth, complex, curved; the order of Western European Man tends to squares, straight lines, oblongs, and similar shapes . . . So the Canadian pioneer is a square man in a round whole; he faces the problem of trying to fit a straight line into a curved space. Of course, the necessity for the straight lines is not in Nature but in his own head, he might have had a happier time if he tried to fit himself into Nature, not the other way around.4

As Atwood goes on to observe, she herself is on the side of the curve, and after the fires, so too is the Mrs. Moodie of her poems.

     By the conclusion of “The Two Fires” Mrs. Moodie recognizes “each danger / becomes a haven”. The danger has forced her to come to terms with the wilderness and the fires “have left charred marks / now around which I / try to grow.” Purged by the fire of her false notions of order she is now, like the fire-weed of the previous poem which grows out of burnt soil, able to be come part of the land. Her growth is presented partly through the use of tree imagery, and certainly in the following poem we see signs of her change.

     In “Looking In A Mirror” Mrs. Moodie realizes that her civilized self has been destroyed by the land: “religious / black rotted / off by earth”. The loss, in fact, the discarding of the values of the old world is further implied in the lines: “the china plate shattered / on the forest road, the shawl / from India decayed.” Her metamorphosis has begun as she perceives her “skin thickened / with bark and the white hair of roots.” and her “fingers / brittle as twigs”. She is not, it is true, yet accepting the change: “the sun here had stained / me its barbarous colour”. The values of the old world speak in the verb “stained” and in the adjective “barbarous”, but she is on the verge of perception; her eyes are “almost / blind / buds”—about to open, to flower. And by the end of the poem she has attained the recognition that she has never fully known herself: “you find only / the shape you already are / but what / if you have forgotten that / or discover you / have never known.

     This recognition is, however, as far as she gets at this point, and her transformation is not completed before she leaves the bush. While the final poem of Journal I opens positively — “I, who had been erased / by fire, was crept in / upon by green” — she is aware her change is partial. She has not lost her fear of the land and of the animals: “I was frightened / by their eyes (green or / amber) glowing out from inside me.” Nor has she come to terms with the darkness: “I was not completed; at night / I could not see without lanterns.

     Journal II purportedly covers the years 1840-1871, Moodie’s years in Belleville; in fact, most of the poems return to her experience in the bush. While the arrangement of Journal I is perfectly clear — the poems follow Moodie’s changing, increasingly positive, response to the land — the nature of the organization of this second journal, the reason why Atwood circles back, is not quite as apparent. What is obvious is that the arrangement of the poems prevents any simple reading of the book claiming that Moodie’s attitude to the land becomes consistently more positive; rather, the poems show that she is in a continuing struggle to accommodate her new insights about the land. The journal begins with Moodie achieving a new relation to the land, but in the poems of the middle section, her old fears are revived.

     In the opening poem “Death Of A Young Son By Drowning” Atwood turns Moodie’s own note, in Life In The Clearings, about the death of her son in the Moira river, into a key incident in Moodie’s coming to accept her new land. At the beginning of the poem Moodie refers to “the land I floated only not touch to claim”. But the death of her son finally establishes her link with the land. When he drowns he is “hung in the river like a heart”; he becomes the centre of her new feelings towards nature. At his death, she realizes:

My foot hit rock. The dreamed sails
collapsed, ragged.
        I planted him in this country
        like a flag.

Like a flag”, of course, used in the discovery and claiming of a new land. The epigrammatic ending, so characteristic of Atwood’s poetry, summarizes the change in Moodie. The dream of returning to England is ended, and her son’s death gives her new roots.

     That Atwood opens the second journal with this poem is obviously of considerable importance, and the following poem “The Immigrants” portrays a further growth in Moodie’s understanding. She now realizes not only that the dream of return to England has collapsed, but also that the immigrants falsify, idealize, their memories of the old country: “the old countries rod, become / perfect, thumbnail castles preserved / like gallstones in a glass bottle.” The actual details of life in the old country, the real pain and suffering — implied by “gallstones” — are forgotten. All that remains in memory is the idyllic pastoral world shown “in a light paperweight-clear.” But Moodie now realizes that if they do go back, their idealized versions of the old country will be shattered by the reality: “their ears / are filled with the sound of breaking glass.” Moodie further understands that the old order cannot be re-created in the new land. Having come to the recognition that there is no going back, Moodie’s mind, in the last two stanzas of the poem, turns to the land, for it is here that she must now find her identity.

     These opening two poems follow quite naturally from the first journal, showing Mrs. Moodie’s response progressing in a straightforward line. But in the following series of poems we see that, at a deeper level, Moodie is still torn in her feelings about the land. In the Afterword Atwood provides a note on the construction of this journal: “At the beginning of this section Mrs. Moodie finally accepts the reality of the country she is in, and at its end she accepts also the inescapable doubleness of her vision” (63). The poems may show Moodie’s recognizing the reality of her new country, but it is not at all clear that she accepts it. In many ways her years in the bush have left her with feelings of revulsion and terror towards her new land, and she is still struggling to come to terms with it. This may be what Atwood means by the “inescapable doubleness of her vision”; that is, she is consciously committed to the new land, but she is also horrified by it. The following series of poems portray this divided attitude.

     The first dream poem, “The Bush Garden”, reflects what is, at best, the ambivalence in Moodie’s attitude. In her dream the vegetables in the garden are seen as pulsing with life: “the radishes thrusting down / their fleshy snouts, the beets / pulsing like slow amphibian hearts.” This surrealistic image of vegetables turning into animals is grotesque, yet is also positive as the land is coming alive. The succeeding image is entirely positive: “Around my feet/ the strawberries were surging, huge / and shining.” This apparently represents the vital energy in the land that attracts Mrs. Moodie. But the concluding stanza of the poem reveals a very different attitude: “In the dream I said / I should have known / anything planted there / would come up blood.” The reference to “blood” is a shocking ending to the poem, and it reveals the great distance that still exists between Moodie and Nature. Within this single poem then we see Moodie’s divided response, “the inescapable doubleness of her own vision”. And, while the first two poems of this journal portray a conscious change in her attitude, the dream poem shows that in her unconscious, to some extent, her fear and revulsion remain.

     The next three poems also deal with the spilling of blood and with Mrs. Moodie’s attempt to confront the violence in the new land. The violence of the past, of the 1837 war, remains in the present, recorded in a child’s drawing. The killings by Brian The Still Hunter are given a distinctly Atwood twist as he identifies with the animals he has slain. In “Charivari” Atwood brings a particularly violent experience from our past front and centre, and, under the guise of Moodie, makes a direct, didactic appeal to us to change: “Resist those cracked / drumbeats. Stop this. Become human.” But these three poems are less important in trying to understand Moodie’s attitude to the new land and society than the third dream poem, “Night Bear Which Frightened Cattle.” This dream poem picks up from “The Bush Garden” and reveals the terror that the wilderness still evokes in Moodie. Susanna Moodie’s rather comic description, at the end of the chapter “The Fire”, of the cattle being frightened by the bear, is transformed by Atwood into a probing exploration of what the wilderness now means to Moodie. At the beginning of the poem Moodie remarks that the night the cows were frightened, “the surface of my mind keeps / only as anecdote”. This particular scene remains in Moodie’s conscious mind only as a memory to be laughed at, but the poem examines what lies beneath her conscious memory, and, moreover, what lies beneath the whole romantic conception of nature she brought with her:

though beneath stories

where forgotten birds
tremble through memory, ripples across water
and a moon hovers in the lake
orange and prehistoric

This is one of the most overtly “poetical” passages in the book: the birds “tremble”, the moon “hovers”, and with the orange lake these images evoke a romanticized nature. But “beneath stories”, beneath this false peaceful natural setting, and beneath her conscious mind, lurks a sense of nightmare and terror.

     In the dream — “I lean with my feet grown intangible / because I am not there” — she comes to accept the reality of the wilderness. Although she does not actually see the bear, she realizes

but it is real, heavier
than real           I know
even by daylight here
in this visible kitchen

it absorbs all terror.

The stanza takes us back to the early poem “Further Arrivals” which concludes “Whether the wilderness is / real or not / depends on who lives there”. Now — and “this visible kitchen” apparently refers to Moodie in Belleville, thinking back — he wilderness is real to her.

     The penultimate stanza of the poem is of particular interest because it shows Moodie, in the dream, caught, or poised, between the world of the bear and that of the lighted cabin. In the actual scene in Roughing It In The Bush Moodie is with her family in the lighted cabin at night. In the dream Atwood changes the situation; Moodie is separated from her family:

it moves toward the lighted cabin
below us on the slope
where my family gathers.

There is a certain ambiguity in the stanza, but “us”, in the second line appears to refer to Moodie and the bear. She has now grown apart from the world of “the lighted cabin” — civilization — and has moved out into the wilderness.

     “The Deaths Of The Other Children” takes us back to the experience of the opening poem of this section, “Death Of A Young Son By Drowning”. The two poems, portraying Mrs. Moodie’s new roots in the land, provide a frame for the poems which come in between. She recognizes that the buried body “joins itself / to the loosened mind, to the black- / berries and thistles”. As it will be for Mrs. Moodie herself, the union with the land takes place only in death. The conclusion of the poem makes it clear that these deaths have strengthened her ties to the land:

My arms, my eyes, my grieving
words, my disintegrated children

everywhere I walk, along
the overgrowing paths, my skirt
tugged at by the spreading briers

they catch at my heels with their fingers.

They” refers both to the children and the briers. The children have in fact become part of nature, and the land reaches out to claim Mrs. Moodie.

     In the third journal Moodie’s transformation finally occurs. The opening poem simply shows her out of place in the civilized world; the next three poems reveal her preference for the land over society, and her new preference for “the dark side of light”. “Daguerreotype Taken In Old Age” shows the complete change from the early Moodie, who arrived in Canada as an emissary of light. Now Moodie associates herself with “the granular moon” — she is a figure of the night. The analogy of Moodie as the moon is sustained throughout the poem: “I revolve among the vegetables”, “I orbit”, and the apple trees are seen as “white white spinning / stars around me.” The concluding lines bring the poem, and Moodie’s change, to a focus: “I am being / eaten away by light.” Literally, Moodie as moon is being eaten away by the light of the sun — as the daguerreotype is destroyed by light. Metaphorically light is no longer positive to Moodie. The values of the real Susanna Moodie, with her pious Christianity, have been reversed completely by Atwood. In Life In The Clearings Susanna Moodie remarked: “ ‘Light! give me more light!’ were the dying words of Goethe; and this should be the constant prayer of all rational souls to the Father of light.”5 Atwood has none of Moodie’s commitment to rationality and to Christianity — to light. Rather, Atwood wants the irrational, the dark side of nature and of the self, given its place.

     That there should be a full recognition and acceptance of the darkness is the point of Mrs. Moodie’s wish in the poem “Wish: Metamorphosis To Heraldic Emblem”. In her old age Moodie is already seeing her transformation: “On my skin the wrinkles branch / out, overlapping like hair or feathers.” As the line break at “branch” indicates, Moodie is being metamorphosized into all aspects of nature, a tree as well as an animal (a bear, no doubt), and a bird. And she imagines the kind of emblematic forerunner she would like to become:

I will prowl and slink
in crystal darkness
among the stalactite roots, with new
formed plumage
                            gold and
Fiery green, my fingers
curving and scaled, my

       eyes glowing

She will “prowl and slink” in opposition to the civilization — committed to light — that has excluded the land and darkness. For Moodie, the darkness is now “crystal darkness”; it is understood, and no longer feared. The bird that she imagines herself to be is “uncorroded” by society and its colour, “fiery green”, symbolizes the energy and passion she now admires. Atwood has separated the last words of the poem so the reader will enact Mrs. Moodie’s own recognition. At first she thinks that she is seeing her opal, which is gold, green, red, but then realizes that it is not the opal she sees — “no” — rather it is her own “eyes glowing.” At the end of the first journal she was frightened by “eyes (green or / amber) glowing out from inside me.” The fear is gone and she is almost computed; she now desires that the land speak through her.

     As Mrs. Moodie turns to the land she becomes increasingly distanced from the society around her. By the end of “Visit To Toronto, With Companions”, the separation is total. For the first three stanzas of the poem Atwood draws on the chapter “Lunatic Asylum” in Life In The Clearing; from then on the poem is entirely, and distinctively, her own. Moody herself is now apparently “mad”; there is certainly a suggestion of controlled madness in her seemingly inappropriate gesture: “I sat down and smoothed my gloves.” But this is “madness” as close to a breakthrough as to a breakdown, and is analagous to the madness of the narrator in Surfacing when she returns to a primitive state and identifies herself with the land: “I lean against a tree, I am a tree leaning . . . I am not an animal or a tree, I am the thing in which the trees and animals move and grow, I am a place.”6 Moodie never gets this far, but in the fourth stanza of the poem, as she steps into “a different kind of room” she encounters, or rather, imagines she encounters, the land, the wilderness now excluded by the city. Moodie is still not fully in harmony with the land: “The landscape was saying something / but I couldn’t hear.” But whereas in “Disembarking At Quebec” she felt “The rocks ignore”, here “One of the rocks / sighed and rolled over.” There is some response, at least. Moodie rejects the appeal to return to the city for she prefers to attend to her visions:

I shook my head. There were no clouds, the flowers
deep red and feathered, shot from among
the dry stones,
             the air
was about to tell me
all kinds of answers.

In the earlier poem “Paths And Thingscape” Moodie saw only the cycle of nature in the fireweeds; here the same flowers seem to shoot forth with significance. But the air is only “about” to tell her answer Moodie’s change is not total and it is only in death that she can become one with the land.

     Moodie’s final word, just as she dies is “toro NTO”; Atwood may be playing on the Indian meaning of the word — “meeting place”. In any case, in “Alternate Thoughts From Underground”, as Mrs. Moodie, after dying, speaks out against the new order, “the inheritors, the raisers / of glib superstructures”, she is identified with the land. She sets herself with Nature and totally against modern civilization; her heart prays: “O topple this glass pride, tireless / rivetted Babylon, prays / through subsoil / to my wooden fossil God.” The key adjective “tireless” captures the reason for her revulsion from modern society, and also indicates the complete reversal from her original attitude. That she now prays to a “wooden fossil God” — Nature that has no place in present society — prepares us for the transformation in “Resurrection”. The theme of the concluding part of “Alternate Thoughts” is strikingly similar to that of Al Purdy’s “Lament for the Dorsets”. The giant reptiles, like the Dorset giants are “done under” by something they don’t understand, in the same way Mrs. Moodie is done under by modern civilization, for which she feels “scorn but also pity”; scorn because of the shallowness of the present, pity because she knows it too will pass away.

     The final transformation of Mrs. Moodie’s attitudes occurs in “Resurrection”. The first part of the poem shows traces of a Christian attitude towards resurrection, but there is also a perception of a resurrection of a different kind:

I hear now
                  the rustle of the snow
the angels listening above me
                  thistles bright with sleet

Atwood makes superb use of her line-spacing to present two different perceptions; on the one hand Mrs. Moodie hears the angels, on the other hand she is aware of Nature. As Mrs. Moodie waits for the time to reach her “up to the pillared / sun, the final city”, she still seems to have a Christian idea of resurrection in mind, but in the concluding lines her attitude shifts:

but the land shifts with frost
and those who have become the stone
voices of the land
shift also and say

god is not
the voice in the whirlwind

god is the whirlwind

at the last
judgment we will all be trees

She rejects the notion of god as the Logos, or Word existing outside of, apart from nature; moreover, what she accepts is not what we ordinarily think of as pantheism: to say “god is the whirlwind” implies an acceptance of all the chaotic energy of nature. The concluding line, of course, brings all the tree imagery of the book to a focus.

     In the final poem, “A Bus Along St. Clair: December”, the pattern of reversal is completed, and the tightly-structured The Journals of Susanna Moodie is brought to a fitting conclusion. Now it is not nature which is seen as threatening, but the city — “an unexplored / wilderness of wires.” And Mrs. Moodie now is committed to “destroying. the walls, the ceiling”, the boundaries and order she once supported. She has at last, as Atwood remarks, “become the spirit of the land she once hated.


  1. Margaret Atwood, The Journals of Susanna Moodie (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1970), p. 164. All subsequent references are to this edition.[back]

  2. Margaret Atwood, in Graeme Gibson, Eleven Canadian Novelists (Toronto: Anansi, 1972), p.6.[back]

  3. This is also one of the places where the undervoice in Moodie’s book is clearest and where the continuity between her perceptions and Atwood’s is most obvious. The chapter “Burning The Fallow” ends: “For a long time after the burning of that fallow, it haunted me in my dreams. I would awake with a start, imagining myself fighting with the flames, and endeavouring to carry my little children through them to the top of the clearing, when invariably their garment and my own took fire just as I was within reach of a place of safety.” Susanna Moodie, Roughing It In The Bush (1852; rpt. Toronto: Coles Publishing Co., 1974), p. 337. Atwood obviously had read the compute version of Moodie’s book, not just the New Canadian Library abridged version.[back]

  4. Margaret Atwood, Survival (Toronto: Anansi, 1972), p. 120.[back]

  5. Susanna Moodie, Life In The Clearings, ed. Robert L. McDougall (Toronto: Macmillan of Canada, 1976), p. 60.[back]

  6. Margaret Atwood, Surfacing (1972; rpt. Toronto: Paperjacks, 1973), p. 181.[back]