Since the publication of Archibald Lampman's poems last year, there has been no truth in the assertion so frequently made that Canada has never produced a great poet.  Minor poets we have with us always.  Their thin volumes, appearing with the regularity and frequency of the seasons, are almost invariably marked with poetic fancy and feeling, expressed with refined taste.  Occasionally, by happy accident, there is a note of pure inspiration that faints and falls to earth in the next page or in the next stanza.   There are much be-praised books of Canadian verse that fall short even of this — that are merely models of mechanical excellence in thought and feeling, as in print and binding.  The ordinary emotions, fears, loves, griefs, desires and regrets of humanity are correctly, even beautifully, expressed, but the hard heart of the reviewer is touched not by what is done well — that is common enough — but by what is done superlatively, unapproachably, miraculously well.  The poem that most men would wish to have written, that only one man could have written, that is the truly great poem; and not all the trumpetings of the press, nor the fervors of admiring friends, nor acceptance by leading periodicals, nor the praise of the great and gifted has ever purchased immortality for a bit of verse, or a book of verses, that had not in itself the spiritual seeds of eternal life.  "I will show you," says Holmes, "that rhyming's as easy as lying,"1 and the proof of this is shown in the repetition, in almost every review of mediocre poetry, of such phrases as "remarkable facility," "very gracefully written," "master of a charmingly easy and fluent style." The aspiring poet, having, in common with the rest of humanity, some capacity for describing beautiful objects, for expressing his feelings, and particularly for setting forth that he is having a harder time of it in this world than the dull clods about him, has but to manifest these capacities in verse when he is spoken of in print as displaying deep poetic feeling, great susceptibility to the beauties of nature, and the soul-sadness that inevitably marks the artistic temperament.  Indeed it is a difficult matter for any one who knows how to read and write and rhyme to produce a volume of verses bad enough to escape praise.   Critics have thrust their rough fingers among the heartstrings of true poets and wrought them incalculable injury in times gone past, but not since the invention of a number of pleasantly-worded, non-committal phrases, which are intended to deceive the innocent rhymer, and which make no impression on a public too long familiar with their meaninglessness.

     It is because readers have grown rightfully incredulous of the value of adjectival admiration that reviewers, who have faith in the author under consideration, are compelled to turn their backs on the crowd of high-pitched and hard-worked superlatives, for such cases made and provided, and set forth their impressions in the plain language of truth and soberness.

     The qualities which make Mr.Lampman not only greatest among Canadian poets, but one whom any nation might be proud to own, are, first of all, sincerity; next, the ability to see infinitude in common things, and then a noble ability to convey his impressions melodiously, clearly and accurately.  Of his sincerity, his utter freedom from affectations, it is only necessary to open his book at any page to find proof. Here, for instance, where "through the long sweetness of an April day," he

Wandered with happy feet, and quite forgot
        The shallow toil, the strife against the grain,
Near souls that hear us call and answer not,
        The loneliness, perplexity and pain,
        And high thoughts cankered with an earthly strain,
And then, the long draught emptied to the lees,
I turn me homeward in slow-pacing ease,

Cleaving the cedar shadows and the thin
       Mist of grey gnats that cloud the river shore,
Sweet, even choruses, that dance and spin
       Soft tangles in the sunset; and once more
       The city smites me with its dissonant roar,
To its hot heart I pass, untroubled, yet
Fed with calm hope, without desire or fret.

So to the year's first altar-step I bring
Gifts of meek song, and make my spirit free
With the blind working of unanxious spring,
Careless with her, whether the days that flee
Pale drouth or golden fruited plenty see;
So that we toil, brothers, without distress,
In calm-eyed peace and god-like blamelessness.

     In another and darker mood of the poet's mind there is the same entire absence of strain, and fever, and exaggeration.  Mark the absolute honesty of the second line: —

Here I will wait a little; I am weary,
           Not torn with pain of any lurid hue,
But only still, and very grey and dreary,
          Sweet, sombre lands, like you.

     The fruits of sincerity are quietness, steadiness, a deliberate choice of ordinary every-day words, as deliberate an avoidance of quaint fancies and far-fetched conceits all expressed as much as possible in compound adjectives and stilted phrases.  Here are lines that wear the unconscious beauty and nobility of a Greek statue: —


Not to be conquered by these headlong days,
  But to stand free; to keep the mind at brood
       On life's deep meaning, nature's altitude
Of loveliness, and time's mysterious ways;
At every thought and deed to clear the haze
  Out of our eyes, considering only this,
       What man, what life, what love, what beauty is,
This is to live, and win the final praise

Though strife, ill fortune and harsh human need
  Beat down the soul, at moments blind and dumb
With agony; yet, patience
there shall come
       Many great voices from life's outer sea,
Hours of strange triumph, and, when few men heed,
  Murmurs and glimpses of eternity. 4

     The same thought is pursued in part of "An Athenian Reverie": —

To most men life is but a common thing,
The hours a sort of coin to barter with,
Whose worth is reckoned by the sum they buy
In gold or power or pleasure; each short day
That brings not these deemed fruitless as dry sand.
Their lives are but a blind activity,
And death to them is but the end of motion —
Grey children who have madly eat and drunk,
Won the high seats or filled their chests with gold;
And yet, for all their years, have never seen
The picture of their lives or how life looks
To him who hath the deep, uneager eye —
How sweet and large and beautiful it was,
How strange the part they played.

     This is not preaching.  It is a simple and noble expression of the grandest spiritual truth that underlies our sordid lives.  Mr. Lampman puts a sensitive conscience into every line of his work.  He is absolutely faithful to what he has seen and felt.   The utmost precision of scientific statement could not make so definite an impression on the mind as the poetic accuracy of these lines: —

The grasshoppers spin into mine ear
A small, innumerable sound.

Or of these:

Not far to fieldward in the central heat,
  Shadowing the clover, a pale poplar stands,
With glimmering leaves that, when the wind comes, beat
  Together like innumerable small hands. 7

     Always with this miracle-working touch of the imagination there is a clean grasp of the facts.  Sometimes there is a succession of clear-cut statements, each one giving indispensable aid to the completion of a picture that receives its finishing touch in the last line.  How admirable is the picture of November thus presented: —

The hills and leafless forests slowly yield
  To the thick, driving snow.   A little while
  And night shall darken down.   In shouting file
The woodmen's carts go by me homeward wheeled,
  Past the thin, fading stubbles, half concealed,
       Now golden-grey, sowed softly through with snow,
       Where the last ploughman follows still his row,
Turning black furrows through the whitening field

Far off the village lamps begin to gleam,
  Fast drives the snow, and no man comes this way;
       The hills grow wintry white, and bleak winds moan
       About the naked uplands.  I alone
  Am neither sad, nor shelterless, nor grey,
Wrapped round with thought, content to watch and dream
. 8

With this must be given a spring picture, very beautiful by sheer force of its ideal truthfulness to fact:

The old year's cloaking of brown leaves, that bind
       The forest floor-ways, plaited close and true —
The last love's labor of the autumn wind —

       Is broken with curled flower buds white and blue,
       In all the matted hollows, and speared through
With thousand serpent-spotted blades up-sprung,
Yet bloomless, of the slender adder tongue.

In the warm noon the south wind creeps and cools,
Where the red-budded stems of maples throw
Still tangled etchings on the amber pools,
Quite silent now, forgetful of the slow
Drip of the taps, the troughs and trampled snow,
The keen March mornings, and the silvering rime
And mirthful labor of the sugar prime.

There is real substance and satisfaction in such poems as these.  They are wholly free from pretence and artificiality.  The thought is invariably finer than the words that clothe it.   The book is charged with reality, and it fails not to teach the poet's indestructible lesson to mankind: —

That change and pain are shadows faint and fleet,
And dreams are real, and life is only sweet.

Not that "Among the Millet" is entirely free from sadness.  That is the disease of the age, and the sensitive mind of the poet must reflect the environment in which he lives.  Any one who is able to "recapture the first fine careless rapture" of life may cast the first stone. 11The rest of us will find between the dull-red covers of this most important volume of Canadian verse food for thought and inspiration in a generation that is distinctly not given to thoughtfulness, and that is not inspiring.   The common sweet realities of life as it is every day, of nature as it is almost everywhere, will be made dearer to us by reason of the services of this most observant, most exact and most sympathetic of interpreters.  Mr. Lampman shall not suffer at our hands the injustice of over-praise.  It was on the tip of the critical pen to say that the uplifting sound caused by the rushing wings of the imagination was not always audible "Among the Millet." But the fancy is immediately contradicted by the far-reaching suggestiveness of "An Impression":

I heard the city time-bells call
       Far off in hollow towers,
And one by one with measured fall
       Count out the old, dead hours

I felt the march, the silent press
       Of time, and held my breath;
I saw the haggard dreadfulness
       Of dim old age and death. 12

And as if this were not enough, the very spirit of the storm is caught and chained in the poem of that name, and the human spirit leaps to meet it in the concluding stanzas: —

You, in your cave of snows, we in our narrow girth
       Of need and sense, forever chafe and pine;
Only in moods of some demonic birth
       Our souls take fire, our flashing wings untwine,
Even like you, mad wind, above our broken prison,
With streaming hair and maddened eyes uprisen,
       We dream ourselves divine;

Mad moods that come and go in some mysterious way,
       That flash and fall, none knoweth how or why,
Oh wind, our brother, they are yours to-day,
       The stormy joy, the sweeping mastery;
Deep in our narrow cells we hear you, we awaken,
With hands afret and bosoms strongly shaken,
       We answer to your cry

I most that love you, wind, when you are fierce and free,
       In these dull fetters cannot long remain;
Lo, I will rise and break my thongs and flee
       Forth to your drift and beating, till by brain
Even for an hour grow wild in your divine embraces,
And then creep back into mine earthly traces,
       And bind me with my chain

Nay, wind, I hear you, desperate brother in your might
       Whistle and howl; I shall not tarry long,
And though the day be blind and fierce, the night
       Be dense and wild, I still am glad and strong
To meet you face to face, through all your gust and drifting,
With brow held high, my joyous hands uplifting,
       I cry you song for song. 13

"Among the Millet," by Archibald Lampman. (J.  Durie & Sons, Ottawa. )

Notes to the Review

All page references given here for the poems or passages from poems quoted by Thomson apply to Among the Millet (Ottawa: J.  Dune and Son, 1888).  Line references are to the numbers of the lines quoted, not their numbers in the complete poems.

  1. This is probably Oliver Wendell Holmes (1809-1894), American essayist, novelist, and poet, but the source of the quotation has not been identified. [back]

  2. "April", stanzas 9, 10 and 11, pp.  4-5.  AM has "but" for "and" (1.  3) and "stain" for "strain" (1.  5). [back]

  3. "In October", stanza 4, p.  24. [back]

  4. "Outlook", p.  128. [back]

  5. "An Athenian Reverie", pp.  112-13. [back]

  6. "Heat", stanza 5, p.  13. [back]

  7. "Among the Timothy", stanza 6, p.  16. [back]

  8. "In November", p.  144.[back]

  9. "April", stanzas 6 and 7, pp.  3-4.[back]

  10. "The Frogs", sonnet 5, p.  9.[back]

  11. Quoted passage is from Browning's "Home Thoughts, from Abroad", 11.   15-16, where a thrush is described as repeating its song

    Lest you should think he never could recapture
    The first fine careless rapture![back]

  12. "An Impression", p. 9.[back]

  13. "Storm", stanzas 8 ,9 ,10, and 11, pp.  36-37.  AM has "strangely" for "strongly" (1. 13).[back]