D.C. Scott: The Dating of the Poems

by Robert L. McDougall

     E.K. Brown’s friendship with Duncan Campbell Scott began in 1940 and was kept up through a lively correspondence until the poet’s death in 1947. From time to time, Brown was to ask Scott for information which he thought Scott alone, or Scott best, could supply. Often the subject was Lampman, or the Lampman notebooks in which Brown was happily foraging during these years. But sometimes it was the old man himself, who would not after all be around forever.

     In the summer of 1943, Brown was at Cornell University, where he had recently taken up an appointment as chairman of the Department of English. On the 21st of July, he wrote to Scott about final arrangements for the publication of a posthumous collection of poems by Archibald Lampman to be called At the Long Sault. It was a task in which they had both been involved for almost two years. Towards the end of his letter, Brown turned to another matter. He wrote:

Yesterday my secretary dropped in the mail to you a copy of The Green Cloister, and I meant to write to you at the time. I suddenly remembered that I had not sent it as I planned to do long ago, so that you might pencil your recollections of dates, as you did in my copy of the Collected Poems last year. I shall greatly value your notations. “The Mad Girl’s Song” for in stance will always be linked for me with the sleepless night in Montreal to which you refer in a note.1

Two weeks later, acknowledging congratulations from the Browns on the occasion of his eighty-first birthday, Scott replied: he would be sending back The Green Cloister “very soon.” He added wryly: “On the 2nd of August I put my name on it, which will add immensely to its interest and value.” On the 12th of August, the volume was returned to Brown. In his covering letter, Scott wrote:

I am mailing The Green Cloister today and have pencilled in dates when I have them. So often lately lyrics were scribbled on bits of paper that were destroyed that I cannot date them. You won’t find any notes such as I put for “The Mad Girl’s Song” — the poems all have associations, but there is no use making a record of them.

He nevertheless went on to write at some length about the setting for “The Nightwatchman,” the long poem which concludes The Green Cloister.

     It has not been difficult to locate the two volumes referred to above: both remain in the possession of Brown’s widow, Mrs. Margaret Brown of Rochester, New York, and I am grateful to her for allowing me to examine them. The Green Cloister is, as we have been led to expect, an autographed copy, signed on August 2,1943, and 41 of the 50 poems contained in it are dated in Scott’s hand.2 The copy of the Collected Poems, a rare bird now, has John W. Garvin’s signature on a blank page inside the front cover and shows Scott’s pencilled dates for 91 of its 192 poems. In both books, dates are exact as to month as well as year, and in many cases they are exact as to day-of-month as well (e.g., June 4,1914).

     The question then arises: what to do with this new-found information, and is it really new, and is it important enough to be made more widely accessible than it is in its present form? The tables looming at the end of this piece make the question seem rhetorical. What I can do here is state briefly the case for publishing them.

     Though the tables assume that dating is important, I know very well that the assumption can be questioned. Scott questioned it, a matter of some concern to me, and his Collected Poems of 1926, to which I shall return in a moment, is testimony to his mature decision to present his work outside the framework of chronology. Poets, we may venture to say, are so inclined. Car rying a chronology sufficient to their needs in their heads, they are likely in a collection of their work to see dates as less important than the organic arrangement of poems in such a way as to reflect similarities or contrasts in subject matter, theme, form or mood. By these means they underscore the universal aspect of their art, and who can fail to be in favour of that? Critics sometimes feel the same way. The New Critics did when they isolated the poem from its context. Northrop Frye’s approach, when it is archetypal, hints at a chronology but in the end denies it: writers are seen to sit around a table where together they create a “verbal universe” outside time. But other critics, or even poets, or perhaps the same critics or poets at other times, are of a temporal mind. Their interests turn to the genesis, birth and development of techniques and forms, themes and sensibilities, in a particular poet. The early Yeats is not the late Yeats, and the dichotomy invites at tention. Or, turning another way, they may wish to follow carefully the shifting relation between the poet and the society in which he lives and writes from year to year; the Idylls of the King cannot be otherwise under stood. E.K. Brown, deft in the criticism of poetry outside as well as inside time, considered dates important and went after them. That is why he asked Scott for dates; and was later to make good use of what he learned in the fine Memoir which he wrote for the Selected Poems of 1951. With Brown, then, I assume a general utility for precise dates for the composition of poems, where one is lucky enough to find them. What is the particular util ity of the present set?

     The crux of the matter here is bibliographical. For the serious student, the path to a chronology of Scott’s poems is not an easy one. The Collected Poems of 1926 might seem a good place to begin since this is the most complete presentation we have of Scott’s oeuvre from the poet’s own hand. But the student will get no help from this quarter. Though the design apparent in the ordering of the poems in this volume is ingenious and deserves close attention, the principle at work is assuredly not one of chronology. A poem from the Lundys Lane volume (1916) is preceded by one from Beauty and Life (1921) and followed by one from Labor and the Angel (1898); and poems never before published in volume form (i.e., written between 1921 and 1926) are placed for the most part in a single large cluster between groups of poems already published and of a much earlier date.

     The path then leads logically to the discrete collections, of which there were six between The Magic House volume of 1893 and The Green Cloister of l935.3From these sources, approximate datings for the poems have always been available — as they were to Brown when he asked for more information from the poet. With very few exceptions, Scott published in the small collections only poems which had not been published in volume form before. It was not his practice, moreover, to allow a manuscript poem to sleep through one publication and be resurrected in the next. The student can therefore safely assume that all poems appearing in Beauty and Life, for example, were written between 1916 and 1922. But no further refinements are possible at this level. Individual poems in the small collections are not as a rule dated; theoretically, all of the poems in Beauty and Life could have been written in 1921, or in 1916, or whatever.

     Where else to turn? If the student is ready for some hard work, he will begin a search for poems by Scott in one or other of the serial publications to which Scott submitted them during his lifetime: Harpers, Scribners, Canadian Magazine, Saturday Night, London Mercury, Canadian Forum, etc. Some of these sources have already been pin-pointed. More are sure to come to light. Yet the placing of a given poem by date of serial publication will still leave uncertain the size of the gap between the serial date and the date of composition.

     One obvious source remains. It will in fact have been under the student’s nose from the beginning, and if he has done his homework well he will soon discover what it is. When Scott answered to Brown’s requests for specific datings of the poems, he must have had beside him his precious Notebooks. Five in number by 1943, they contain the drafts, reworkings, occasionally the fair copies of most though by no means all of the poems Scott had written over nearly fifty years. How else, at this late time in life, could he have recalled exact dates? For what reason other than the fact that the Note books do not begin until 1898 would he have failed, as the tables make clear he failed, to give Brown any information about poems written before that date? After Scott’s death in 1947, the Notebooks were presented by Elise Aylen Scott, his second wife, to the Library at the University of Toronto. Today they are housed in the Thomas Fisher Rare Books and Special Collections Department of the Robarts Library. And there they can be seen and studied.

     The tables which follow, then, reflect the Notebooks. Yet as sources they go beyond the Notebooks in some respects. Not everyone can drop down or up to Toronto for a look. Those who might would need to have some weeks to spare, for the Notebooks are chaotic in layout and written in a scrawling hand, and they require much patience and practice to decipher. Scott himself, in his later years, could hardly decipher them.4 But who better than Scott to cope with these difficulties? I conclude that we are fortunate indeed to have datings for such a large portion of the poems by way of a careful intervention on the part of the poet himself. That in itself seems sufficient justification for publishing the results here. It is also a way of acknowledging E.K. Brown’s foresight in asking the right questions of the right person at the right time.

     As a writer, Scott produced good work for nearly half a century. He did not, though the changes were never radical, repeat himself. He was at the same time no recluse. He had a public life of considerable importance in the affairs of the nation. He lived also in the realm of the imagination through decades of the development of Canadian literature and became a kind of tally to the evolving order. I see no reason to take his rebuff to chronology in the 1926 volume as final; and I am sure Brown would agree.

      The tables are self-explanatory, but not entirely so. The points of departure are of course the Collected Poems of 1926 and The Green Cloister of 1935. In both volumes, Scott’s table of contents reflects the design which each book is intended to exhibit. There is no alphabetical index in either of them. Brown liked the alphabetical index which Scott had supplied for the Lampman Lyrics of Earth of 1925; and he urged Scott to include one in the shortened Ryerson collection of 1947. I agree in principle. I have therefore set the contents of both the Collected Poems and The Green Cloister in alphabetical order. The date of publication given in the second column excludes serial publication, which I have not adequately researched. A key to the symbols for discrete volumes is provided at the end of the tables. In “Other Notes” I have included Brown’s comments, where these are substantive and can be identified.

See The Poems


  1. This quotation and other quotations and references which follow are drawn from the texts of the complete Scott-Brown correspondence which I am currently editing for publication. Main sources are the Public Archives of Canada, the Aylen papers (working files of D.C.S.) and manuscripts in the hands of Mrs. E.K. Brown.[back]

  2. I have counted parts of sequences (such as go to make up “In the Rocky Mountains” and “A Group of Lyrics”) as separate poems. More often than not, as the tables show, the parts have different dates of composition. I have followed the same practice in dealing with the Collected Poems.[back]

  3. I exclude The Circle of Affection, the volume of prose and poetry which Scott published in 1947. Although virtually all the poetry in it was “new” in the sense of not having been published in volume form before, it is deliberately retrospective and has a distinctive though very generalized chronology of its own.[back]

  4. When a Buffalo library, in the Fall of 1944, asked Scott for copies of his books and manuscript poems, he asked Brown’s advice. “It would be quite useless,” he wrote, “for me to send any of my drafts for I can hardly decipher them myself and Elise would not let the notebooks go.” Brown thought that Scott should turn down the request, and nothing was sent. (Scott to Brown, October 12, 1944.)[back]