Three Recent Editions of Lampman

The Poems of Archibald Lampman (including At the Long Sault), with an introduction by Margaret Coulby Whitridge. Literature of Canada Series 12. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1974. xxxviii + 519 pp. $17.50 cloth, $6.50 paper.

Lampmans Kate: Late Love Poems of Archibald Lampman, 1887-1897, edited and with an introduction by Margaret Coulby Whitridge. Ottawa: Borealis Press, 1975. 52 pp. $3.95 paper.

Lampmans Sonnets, 1884-1899, edited and with an introduction by Margaret Coulby Whitridge. Ottawa: Borealis Press, 1976. xxvi + 194 pp. $14.95 cloth, $9.95 paper.

     Margaret Coulby Whitridge has produced three editions of Lampman’s poetry over the past few years, and is coming to be regarded as a leading authority in Lampman studies. Until the publication of the full-scale critical edition upon which Professor Bruce Nesbitt is currently working, these texts will presumably remain standard. The first consists of a photographic reprint of two earlier publications: Duncan Campbell Scott’s edition of The Poems (1900), and At The Long Sault (originally edited by Scott and E.K. Brown in 1943). My main concentration here will be on her two later volumes, Lampmans Kate and Lampmans Sonnets, both of which contain hitherto unpublished material.

     This review is, I regret to state, both long and condemnatory. It is condemnatory because an editor can reasonably be expected to provide accurate texts, to demonstrate an authoritative and scholarly command of his or her subject, and to display a sensitive response to the poetry as poetry; I believe that Dr. Whitridge falls short in all these areas. It is long because academic responsibility requires that ample evidence should be assembled when an evaluation of this kind turns out to be so uncompromisingly negative.


Dr. Whitridge’s competence as an editor can best be judged by her transcrip tions of Lampman’s sonnets. The first point to be made is that the status of her text is by no means clear. On p. xxii of her introduction she makes the following statement:

This present volume, Lampmans Sonnets, contains one hundred and seventy-seven sonnets taken from Lampman’s manuscripts with the excep tion of two or three [sic] poems for which manuscripts cannot be located. The earliest published version is therefore used.

The last sentence is sloppily written and so, at least on a first reading, confusing. One realises eventually that “published” refers only to the exceptions, but “therefore” makes no logical sense. There is no reason why the first publication of a poem in a newspaper or magazine should be textually superior to its subsequent appearance in volume-form. Moreover, Dr. Whitridge never tells us which poems do not survive in manuscript (and doesn’t she know whether there are two or three?). The final sentence should presumably read: “In these cases the earliest published version is used.

     But as soon as this clarification is made, a new difficulty presents itself. There are so many obvious typographical errors in Lampmans Sonnets that one soon loses faith in any reading that one cannot personally check. I do not make this judgment lightly; my own edition of Charles G.D. Roberts (a companion volume to Dr. Whitridge’s reprint of The Poems) contains several misprints for which I blush. But by my count Dr. Whitridge’s edition of the sonnets appears to contain approximately fifty misprints in two hundred and twenty pages, and this exceeds the most generous bounds of forgivable human error. I write “appears to contain” since so many of the texts of hitherto unpublished poems look suspect, but I am not in a position to check the manuscripts.

     The first poem that Dr. Whitridge prints provides a convenient instance. Two lines from the octet are reproduced as follows:

Where art thou love? Where living are the bright
Mad, mocking flight of dreams that cannot stay?  (p.1)

It seems that Lampman often scanted his punctuation, so the absence of a comma between “thou” and “love” is probably authentic; but Dr. Whitridge’s own punctuation is, on the evidence of her introduction, decidedly shaky, so one cannot be sure. In any case an argument could be made for in cluding such necessary insertions as part of the editor’s responsibilities. And what about the grammatical error in the second question? The only available plural for “are” is “dreams,” but that is syntactically impossible. Did Lampman write (or intend to write) “flights”? This is unlikely in view of the sonnet’s title (“Flight of Dreams”) and the presumably deliberate internal rhyme. Is “are” an error (by Lampman or his editor) for “is”? Because Dr. Whitridge offers no textual apparatus, the reader is left uncertain. Again, the penultimate line of the sonnet is tetrameter rather than pentameter. This may well be intentional, but (given the number of definite misprints) it is difficult to allay an uneasy suspicion that a word may have dropped out.

     Such irritating details take on cumulative force as one proceeds through the volume. “Maytime,” another hitherto unpublished poem, ends as follows:

      but she teach [sic] the fold
That rose-crowned June will offer her between
His flower-wreathed arms, their [sic] fragrances untold.  (p.9)

This is clearly a bad sonnet (the first line, “With throb of throstle and with throat unfrozen,” begins with vulgar alliteration and ends in an unforgivable tongue-twister), but is it illiterate as well? In this instance, since the metre flows regularly, Dr. Whitridge is presumably correct in her transcription, but she might at least have clarified the issue (and stated her reasons for including the poem). My own view is that this is a rough draft for a sonnet never completed or authorized. To reprint it without explanation is surely to render a disservice to Lampman.

     Most of the sonnets, of course, originally appeared in Duncan Campbell Scott’s edition, but when variants are involved we have no means of knowing whether Dr. Whitridge’s readings are more accurate reproductions of the manuscripts or editorial errors. Thus the last line of “To the Warbling Vireo” here reads: “By me at least thou shall be loved and heard” (p. 104). Scott’s edition reads “shalt.” Again, the reader cannot tell whether the grammatical slip is the fault of Lampman, Dr. Whitridge or the compositor. I labour the point because Professor Nesbitt has insisted on more than one occasion (before the publication of Lampmans Sonnets) that the available texts of Lampman’s poems are corrupt and do not reflect Lampman’s final intentions. This is doubtless true, but I hope that an accurate text, when it at last appears, is not going to reproduce the manuscripts “warts and all.” If we assume, for instance, that even a reasonable number of Dr. Whitridge’s punctuation-variants are genuine, Scott’s editorial alterations read for the most part as distinct improvements. The present reviewer claims no compe tence to speak with authority on this subject; it is however his right and, in deed, his responsibility to point out the difficulties that face a careful reader who must rely on the present editions.


I turn now to Dr. Whitridge’s performance as a historical scholar. Her comments on the nature and history of the sonnet-form leave much to be de sired. On p. xiv she writes: “In this collection . . . poems up to sixteen lines in length, which appear [sic!] to fit the sonnet style, have been included on the theory that they were deliberately conceived in extended sonnet form to satisfy Lampman’s particular poetic requirements at the time.” This is, to say the least, vague; “the sonnet style” is never adequately defined (reference is even made a few lines earlier to “prose sonnets,” a mysterious term never explained). And Dr. Whitridge’s practice proves no more helpful than her theory. “To Chicago” is a sixteen-line poem in irregular hexameters, beginning and ending with rhymed couplets and containing some unrhyming lines in the middle; “Man,” also of sixteen lines, is completely unrhymed and so irregular in line-length that only a minority of the lines can be recognized as iambic pentameter (again, I suspect a rough draft, never completed or in tended for publication); “Cloud and Rain” happens to have fourteen lines, but divides into two seven-line lyrical stanzas with a balancing refrain in the first and last lines of each. If the word “sonnet” is extended to include these examples, it can hardly be said to retain any meaning whatever.

     Her history of the sonnet-form is decidedly patchy. Petrarch, Wyatt, Surrey and Spenser are referred to, though Lampman’s direct debt to these may be considered doubtful. Shakespeare, Donne and Milton are mentioned in passing, but their contribution to sonnet-writing or to Lampman’s poetic inheritance is not discussed. Oddly enough, no reference is made to the sonnets of Wordsworth, Keats, Dante Gabriel Rossetti or Elizabeth Barrett Browning (though the last is mentioned — her name misspelled — as the recipient of sonnets from her husband). Yet sonneteers as obscure as George Darley and Charles Tennyson Turner are discussed in relative detail. Of North American writers, only Poe is considered (briefly). One is particularly surprised to find no comparison between Lampman’s sonnets and those of Charles G.D. Roberts or other Canadian poets such as Sangster and Duncan Campbell Scott himself.

     Instead of offering a spotty and (to be frank) inadequate history of the sonnet-form, Dr. Whitridge would have done better if she had examined Lampman’s own comments on his poetry more closely. In particular, I find it extraordinary that she did not provide the context for Lampman’s “Reality,” which appeared in the Globe’s “At the Mermain Inn” column (4 June 1892) within the frame of a prose account in which Lampman attributes the sonnet to a “friend” who is clearly an alter ego. This double is made to insist that “the best way to impress your subject on the reader is to cast it in a totally unsuitable form.” This remark throws more light on the sonnet in question (as well as on others such as “The Dog”) than anything we find in Dr. Whitridge’s introduction.

     Her remarks on Lampman’s nineteenth-century context are also questionable. Here, for instance, is a comment from her introduction to the reprint of The Poems: “It is scarcely surprising to find Lampman moving away from the influences of Keats and Arnold, Wordsworth and Tennyson, to which he and most other Victorian poets originally succumbed. Lotus-land was left far behind . . .” (p. xxiv). Lotus-land in Wordsworth? And does Dr. Whitridge believe that Tennyson held up the behaviour of his lotus-eaters for emulation? This is a simplified travesty of a very complex matter. Similarly, in her introduction to Lampmans Sonnets, she writes of his frustrated love for Katherine Waddell: “Victorian convention deprived Lampman of his love and the possibility of lasting happiness” (p. xvii). I am at a loss to understand Dr. Whitridge’s meaning here. If she is thinking in terms of divorce, in most countries even today Lampman’s presumed desire to marry Katherine would not in itself be considered sufficient grounds, and even if it were he could hardly have been in a position to provide for his wife and children on a separate basis; if she is thinking of an extra-marital liaison, “thou shalt not commit adultery” was hardly an invention of the Victorians. Such statements make me skeptical about Dr. Whitridge’s grasp of the historical background to her subject.


But I find myself most dissatisfied with these editions when specifically literary-critical matters are involved. Here Lampmans Kate needs to be considered. Her introduction to this volume concentrates on documenting, so far as is possible, Lampman’s relationship with Katherine Waddell. Dr. Whitridge’s handling of the historical evidence is not altogether satisfactory, but this has been discussed elsewhere (see, for example, Barrie Davies’s review in the Summer 1977 issue of Canadian Literature). I am concerned with the literary implications. For the most part the poems are highly conventional in thought, language and technique; without any evidence for personal application, readers might well interpret these poems as no more than poetic exercises. Dr. Whitridge is therefore hard pressed to make her biographical reading sound convincing, and she does not help her case by wilfully misreading one of the poems. The argument of “The Faithful Lover” may be fairly summarized as follows: just as a lover may see “women lovelier than his own” yet will remain faithful to her, so the poet may encounter muses more powerful than his yet will “incline / With stronger love and sweeter faith to her.” The subject of this poem is quite clearly the poetic muse, though it is true that she may manifest herself in a specific person. But Dr. Whitridge forces the poem into her biographical pattern in the following sentence: “Within a couple of months [of his marriage] he was penning poems like ‘The Faithful Lover’ (page 26), trying to reassure himself and affirm that he would incline ‘with stronger love and sweeter faith’ to his new wife although, admittedly, there were fairer women near at hand” (p. 14). This not only blatantly misrepresents the poem but proves crassly reductive in its narrowing application; Dr. Whitridge is using the poem in stead of reading it.

     There is in fact only one sentence in the whole introduction that refers directly to literary-critical issues. It appears in a paragraph worth quoting in its entirety as a specimen of Dr. Whitridge’s standard of commentary:

A great deal of interest has developed recently in Lampman’s writing and his life, perhaps primarily because he was the first poet in Canada to express that sense of alienation and isolation which is typical of twentieth century thought. The split lines and internal rhythms of his late poetry, as well as the very interesting blank verse he started writing during the last two years of his life, also express the advanced direction of his thought and poetic technique. In his political beliefs he was equally advanced, speaking out loudly on behalf of socialism, the rights of labour and the need for equal rights for women. Lampman’s thought is, therefore, more relevant than that of any other nineteenth century Canadian poet to our age.  (p. 23)

As literary criticism, the second sentence just will not do. What is implied by “split lines and internal rhythms” is never clarified. Only one of the twenty-eight poems here is in blank verse, and “very interesting” is a hopelessly in adequate critical description. Moreover, she never explains what is “advanced” about the poetic technique which to the present reviewer appears decidedly traditional, if not “old-fashioned,” for the late nineteenth century.

     The rest of the paragraph reveals Dr. Whitridge’s main criteria. Lampman expresses “alienation and isolation”; he has (in her view) the proper political attitudes; he is (that give-away word of the late 1960s) “relevant.” She is concerned not with the quality of his poetry but with the nature of his opinions. Yet, as any hymn-book will show, admirable sentiments can be expressed in verse without ever qualifying as poetry. I am not denying Lampman’s achievement as a poet; I merely protest that Dr. Whitridge fails to substantiate her claims. In fact, her position is full of contradictions. If Lampman’s socialism is a guarantee of his literary modernism, for instance, then Yeats, Eliot and Pound fail to qualify.

      Above all, the modernity of Lampman’s socio-political attitudes seems to me highly questionable. Socialism may or may not be “modern,” but what relation does Lampman’s brand bear to the twentieth-century versions? Dr. Whitridge had put forward similar claims in her introduction to The Poems: “Lampman’s social ideas were obviously in advance of his age. More than any other poet writing in Canada before 1910, he belongs to the twentieth century” (pp. xxii-xxiii). But a few pages earlier she had written:

Man, he thought, had developed a safety valve after the horrors of the French Revolution. Never again would the streets run with blood in a civi lized country. The feudal chains had been broken and liberty won long ago in the streets of Paris. The change to socialism would, he concluded, ‘work itself out gradually and intelligently from possibility to possibility.’ This commitment to the ideals of socialism . . . was typical of Lampman’s modernism.   (pp. xix-xx)

One can only retort that if Lampman had lived another twenty years into the period of the First World War and the Russian Revolution he would have been compelled either to abandon his ideals or to renounce his modernism. By his own statement, Lampman would seem to have been far less equipped than Duncan Campbell Scott to cope with the political realities of the twentieth century.

      In the introduction to Lampmans Sonnets, more attention is paid to literary-critical comment, but the results are, to speak bluntly, deplorable. An early danger-signal is a passing reference to the “pretty love lyrics” of Wyatt and Surrey (p. xxii). And one’s suspicions are increased when Browning’s sonnet “Eyes calm beside thee (Lady, could’st thou know!)” is compared to Lampman’s “Would You Care?” (not, by the way, a sonnet even by Dr. Whitridge’s open definition) because one of Lampman’s stanzas begins “Ah, couldst thou know”! And a few lines later we find the following:

Compare the opening lines of [George] Darley’s sonnet, “To Poets”:
           “You the choice minions of the proud-lipped Nine
           Who warble at the great Apollo’s knee . . .”
with several [sic] lines from Lampman’s sonnet, “The Poets”:
           Half god, half brute, within the self-same shell..
           Whose pinions frighten with their goatish smell.
These sonnets re-echo not only the same theme, but the same unforgettable internal rhyme. (pp. xv-xvi, ellipses in original)

Apart from the obvious fact that both sonnets are addressed to poets, I can find nothing similar in the two sets of quoted lines. Moreover, if I understand her last point correctly, Dr. Whitridge finds something significant in the fact that Darley uses the word “minions” in the middle of a line in a sonnet of the 1840s and Lampman “rhymes” it with “pinions” in a sonnet written almost half a century later. This may deserve full marks for ingenuity but none for serious literary criticism.

     A page or so later, Dr. Whitridge quotes what I suspect to be an extraordinarily garbled text of part of Wyatt’s poem, “Whoso list to hunt” (she does not identify her text, and I have not found one that reproduces the wording she offers). She then claims that Lampman’s “A Summer Dream” expresses “the same futile passion” (p. xvii). In my view, the poems express very different kinds of passion, but in any case the tones and associations are so totally at variance with each other that I cannot understand how anyone with an ear for poetic rhythms and the subtleties of language could possibly find connections between the two.

     Throughout these introductions Dr. Whitridge continually asserts Lampman’s poetic quality but never demonstrates it. He is, we are told, “Canada’s most outstanding lyrical poet” (Sonnets, p. x); he is possessed of an “original, wide-ranging thought and deeply personal creative spirit” (p. xvi); moreover, “the originality and independence of his creative genius enabled him to break free . . . from the unreal and cloying Victorian sentimentality” (p. xviii; note once more the bogey-man use of “Victorian” to elicit an unthinking stock response). The final paragraph pays tribute to “the consistently high quality of his art” (p. xxiv). Personally, I find all these statements somewhat exaggerated — the last, certainly, is not generally accepted, as the most cursory examination of critical discussions of Lampman will prove—but I am perfectly prepared to be convinced if adequate arguments are provided. Such arguments are sadly lacking here.

     I have reserved the most obvious example of critical fatuity to the last. In Lampmans Kate we are told that Lampman turned down a job at Cornell University because (quoting his own words), “to tell the truth I am too deeply embedded here.” Dr. Whitridge, in a desperate bid to strengthen her romantic thesis, comments: “Perhaps the choice of the word ‘embedded’ has Freudian connotations itself” (p. 23). That, I suppose, is Dr. Whitridge’s version of close reading. On its own it would serve as a parody of the worst excesses of psychological pseudo-criticism. One is uncertain whether to laugh or cry.

     I must end as I began. No one takes pleasure in writing a review that is so oppressively negative. Whatever one’s considered opinion of Lampman’s achievement as a poet may be, he is clearly one of the most substantial and important of our nineteenth-century writers, and no student of Canadian literature can afford to ignore him. The republication of The Poems is therefore to be welcomed, and Dr. Whitridge deserves commendation for making his later love poems available for the first time in Lampmans Kate (since so few of the sonnets are new and these poor in quality, Lampmans Sonnets is difficult to justify). But both Lampman and the modern reader deserve reliable texts of his work accompanied by introductions that are both scholarly in providing factual background and sensitive in their literary assessments. These have not yet been provided for Lampman, and it is therefore the responsible critic’s painful duty to say so. At the present time, interest in Canadian literature is at an all-time high; more and more students in schools and universities are eager to study their own culture, and even in the present unfavourable economic climate governments are prepared to subsidize the publication of Canadian texts and Canadian criticism (two of the volumes under review are supported by the Ontario Arts Council, the third by the Canada Council). Surely we all have a right to expect higher standards of scholarship and literary commentary than are provided here?

W.J. Keith