Unclouded by Sophistries

Selected Poetry of Archibald Lampman, ed. Michael Gnarowski, Ottawa: Tecumseh, 1990, 119 pp.

One day this past fall, Michael Gnarowski, his wife Diana, my wife Susan, and I drove from London to Morpeth, the birth-place of Archibald Lampman. It was a radiant day, but cold, with a wind off Lake Erie that made us all draw our coats closer as we emerged from the car at the Lampman memorial cairn, an austere and strangely northern heap of stone in the grounds of St. John's Anglican Church, Morpeth. I cannot confirm that Michael contemplated kissing the ground. But I can't deny it either. Such things occur when pilgrims reach their goal. In any event, we read the inscriptions on the cairn with reverence and searched the nearby graveyard for names associated with Lampman. Afterwards we had lunch in Morpeth, where Suzie and I gave Michael for his birthday a history of the village by the local historical society. This had Lampman born in two different rectories, and claimed that his remains were buried under the memorial cairn in a copper cylinder. The inevitable joke about a strange poet was made. We then drove back along the Talbot Road, remarking as we approached the cairn again the coincidence that Lampman was probably born beside the road celebrated in the first long poem by a native-born poet, Adam Hood Burwell.

     I have begun my review of Michael Gnarowski's Selected Poetry of Archibald Lampman in this way for two reasons: first, to indicate in no uncertain terms that the review is not detached or dispassionate; and second, to suggest that the book under review is no academic exercise, no careeristic pot-boiler for the CV, but a deeply felt and long-pondered contribution to our understanding of Lampman by a man who has wrestled with the poet and his work for over twenty years. In his "Acknowledgements," Gnarowski speaks of his "debt to Lampman scholars . . . who went before and broke the trail" (vii), and he mentions in this regard Helen Lynn, Margaret Whitridge, and myself. But, in truth, the debt is at the very least reciprocal; the theses of Lynn and Whitridge were supervised by Gnarowski, as was the work upon which I based my own edition of Lampman's Lyrics of Earth. For Lampman scholars working in Ottawa, and, no doubt, elsewhere in the country, Michael Gnarowski has been an inspiration and a guide, a provider of enabling information (see his Archibald Lampman in the Critical Views of Canadian Writers series) and an epitome of unwavering and, at times, angry commitment (see his contribution to the Lampman Symposium volume). If we do not yet have the "Collected Poems" that Lampman so obviously merits and needs, it is not due to any lack of will or effort on Gnarowski's part.

     What we do have in Selected Poems is a working text that will serve very well indeed to introduce readers, not only to the best of Lampman's poems, but also to the man who wrote them and the scholarship that they have generated. All the well-known and much-anthologised Lampman classics are here, as are a few less obvious choices — "An Ode to the Hills," "Indian Summer," "Good Speech," and "We Too Shall Sleep" — which add a personal coda to the anthology and hint of sparks flying across the gap between the poet and his anthologist. As well as being meticulously edited, the poems are presented in a large and attractive typeface. For ease of reading and to prevent clutter, they have been allowed to stretch into the right-hand margin where necessary (as in "The Land of Pallas"), and thus to preclude the possibility of lineation in a book of this size. Asterisks key the reader to the existence of a modest number of "Notes and References" which are grouped together in six pages following the poems so that they are at once unobtrusive and easily accessible. For each poem, "[d]ifficult and obscure words" (25) are explained, and the reader is referred to a selection of pertinent criticism. Thus, the entry for "The City" reads "Collin, 25-30; Pacey, 135; Early, 98-101./elysian] pertaining to Elysium, the dwelling place assigned in Greek mythology to the blessed after death." By an oversight, full references for some of the critics cited (for example, W.E. Collin) are not given either in the notes or in the Bibliography that follows them, a lack that could easily be rectified in a second edition of the Selected Poems, especially since the book has been generated by computer.

     In his substantial "Introduction" to the Selected Poems, Gnarowski reveals his deep sympathy for Lampman in a way that enlarges our understanding of him. By quoting extensively from the poet's letters, Gnarowski allows Lampman to speak for himself about such important and tendentious matters as his job in the Post Office and the visit of Matthew Arnold to Ottawa. But lengthy quotations are surrounded by carefully nuanced assessments and statements of context. Lampman was "generally satisfied" with the "undemanding routine" of work in the Post Office, yet he also "expresses boredom with his job and a querulous lack of confidence in his own writing ability" (2-3). Arnold was Lampman's "idol" but the Canadian poet was "curiously subdued and circumspect" about the great man's visit to Ottawa in February, 1884 (3-4), a visit that comes alive under Gnarowski's pen with details of the lecture that Arnold gave, the report of it in the Ottawa Daily Citizen, and the response to it in Montreal (where, in Lampman's words, "Mr. Louis Frechette . . . [took] offense at some of [Arnold's] stingless words" [4]). The Lampman that emerges from Gnarowski's "Introduction" is a man beleaguered by "indifferent health . . . emotional turmoil," and family tragedy, but sustained by a "network" of such friends as E.W. Thomson and Duncan Campbell Scott (8-9) — the Lampman in other words, of "We Too Shall Sleep" (which treats of the death in 1894 of his infant son) as well as of "Heat," "Among the Timothy" and the other classics.

     "There are two major bodies of Lampman letters that shed invaluable light on his life and the workings of his mind" (29). With this statement in a note to his "Introduction," Gnarowski reveals as much about his own assumptions as about the letters concerned. No more the inhabitants of a self-contained verbal universe than are their authors, Lampman's letters and Gnarowski's "Introduction" "shed light" on physical and psychological realities into which the reader must enter empathetically if he or she is to understand the poems to which they gave rise. "Someday we shall come again to the poem" reads the quotation from Louis Dudek that serves as a "Dedication" in Selected Poetry of Archibald Lampman, and it is clear that, for Gnarowski, the route to rearrival at the poem lies through personal and historical contexts.  Nor are these contexts lacking in Gnarowski's "Introduction" and his "Endnotes to the Introduction," the latter frequently being small and stimulating essays on topics as diverse as Lampman's father (31, n. 11) and T.H. Huxley (36 n. 25). The locations of the houses in which Lampman lived in Ottawa reveal the limits of his socialist sympathies (33-34, n. 15). Lampman's practical streak may have contributed to his decision to stay in Ottawa rather than move to Boston, "'a frightfully expensive place to live in . . .'" (34-35, n. 16). Especially illuminating from my perspective is the attention that Gnarowski draws to Lampman's father-in-law, Dr. Edward Playter, not just as an "eminent physician," but also as a "public health pioneer and sometime editor and publisher of several journals, including Sanitary Journal, Canadian Health Journal and Man" (5). Everyone knows, of course, that Lampman published "Hans Fingerhut's Frog Lesson" and "In October" in Man, but the context of "public health" provided by Gnarowski for this periodical highlights the therapeutic dimension of Lampman's work of the mid-'eighties. "I confess that my design for instance in writing 'Among the Timothy' [in 1885] was not in the first place to describe a landscape," Lampman told Hamlin Garland in 1889, "but to describe the effect of a few hours spent among the summer fields on a mind in a troubled and despondent condition."1 Is the famous "Heat" (1887) not a further instance of a poetic reenactment of a mind cure, and could the programme for the poem have been provided by an article entitled "Busy People" in the December, 1885 issue of Man in which J. MacDonald Oxley councils "wise idleness" — "quietly absorbing something through the eye or ear that for the time at least drowns the petty business and worries of life. . . ." — as a cure for minds disturbed by the horrid grind of modern life.

     Seeing Lampman as he does as "a creature of his . . . times" (23), Gnarowski places great emphasis on the social and intellectual currents that eddied around the poet. The year in which Lampman visited Thomson in Boston — 1893 — was marked by such things as "financial recession, political turmoil, heated debate about trade reciprocity with the United States, [and] fears of annexation. . ." (10). It was also "the year of the Chicago Columbian Exposition, an event.., that Lampman would have dearly liked to attend" but, instead, merely commemorated in a poem ("To Chicago") and in a photograph of himself "embossed" with "the Exposition symbol" (11). "The electrification of cities, the expansion of railway travel and traffic, the motor car, advances in photography, the cinema and the phonograph were some of the major technological and scientific developments of Lampman's time" (36, n. 24). "What may be relevant for an understanding of 'The City of the End of Things' is that it was generally believed by physicists that the earth was gradually cooling, and that all forms of life would die out except for certain low species capable of survival in arctic or antarctic conditions. Could this be Lampman's surviving 'idiot' facing the 'lightless north'?" (36, n. 25). Gnarowski's Lampman is a late Victorian grappling with the physical and mental problems of modernity, and finding two routes out: reverie ("a dreamer's island around which public events could swirl leaving the dreamer untouched" [21]) and Nature ("the counter energizer ... to beat off the homogenizing and collectivizing forces of a world from which he found himself to be increasingly alienated" [23]). If I disagree a little with some of this, it is only because I think that it underestimates the importance of the pattern of excursion and return in Lampman's work — the excursion into reverie and Nature for therapeutic and, certainly, energizing purposes, followed by a necessary and humanitarian return to the present and to the city. This could be argued in detail in regard, say, to "The Land of Pallas," where the paths leading to and from the "grey storehouse" (93) and "'the hill of Pallas'"(94) are as circular or spiral as the poet's route in and out of the "happy land" itself. As the alternative ending to "The Land of Pallas" reveals, Lampman had escapist tendencies which he chose not to exercise. But these are questions of emphasis, and the details can be spared, particularly since they offer no radical departure from Gnarowski's conception of Lampman as a man who "knew exactly what the true cycle of birth, life, and ultimate, unavoidable decay really meant," a poet for whom the "metaphysics of existence were never out of mind or out of sight . . ." (20-21). As Duncan Campbell Scott said of Lampman in a letter quoted by Gnarowski: "He was interested in both life and nature and there was no 'confusion' or 'contradiction' in this" (18-19).

     By my count, the word "friend" and its cognates are used over twenty times in the "Introduction" to the Selected Poetry of Archibald Lampman. This is inevitable in a book that emphasizes the role of friendships in Lampman's life, but it is also consistent with Gnarowski's "Dedication," with his "Acknowledgements," with the friendliness of his editing practices, and, I am happy to say, with the basis of this review.


  1. Quoted in James Doyle "Archibald Lampman and Hamlin Garland," Canadian Poetry: Studies, Documents, Reviews, 16 (Spring/Summer, 1985), p. 42. For "A Chronology of Lampman's Poems," Canadian Poetry: Studies, Documents, Reviews, 14 (Spring/Summer, 1984), pp. 75-87. For further discussion of the therapeutic uses of poetry among the poets of the Confederation see my "Carman and Mind Cure: Theory and Technique" in the proceedings of the Bliss Carman Symposium, ed. Gerald Lynch, Reappraisals: Canadian Writers (Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 1990), forthcoming.[back]

D.M.R. Bentley