W.E. Collin, E.K. Brown, and the Writing of Canadian Literary History

by Tracy Ware

Critics of Canadian literature would do well to consider Clifford Siskin's words: "Acknowledging, in fact foregrounding, its own status as a genre, literary history now counts among its objects of inquiry its own prior incarnations — the previous efforts to make other kinds of 'historical' sense" (4).1  On the one hand, the traditional historians have not always been notable for their theoretical self-consciousness; on the other hand, those who have launched theoretical inquiries often regard literary history with disdain.  Robert Lecker, for instance, begins his "inquiry into value" by assuming that "Canadian literature was canonized in fewer than twenty years" (656), thereby consigning more than a century of criticism to oblivion.  Dermot McCarthy responds as follows: "Just as the university as cultural institution in Canada cannot be understood in terms only of the last twenty-five years, so the significance of the literary canon which has issued from it cannot be understood in so narrow a framework" (31).  But McCarthy's framework is hardly wider, and so he argues that Canadian literary history may be "doomed to remain a prisoner of its founding monomania, endlessly repeating the same story to itself, moving the same or similar canonic units like chess pieces in an irresolvable stalemate . . ." (45).  This is a monolithic construction if ever there were one, and it comes at a high price, forcing McCarthy to neglect the two critics who will be the subject of this essay: W.E. Collin and E.K. Brown.  Neither Collin nor Brown is naively nationalistic in McCarthy's sense, and neither repeats the "same story" as do the critics McCarthy discusses.  One can learn as much about the limitations of literary history from Collin and Brown as from contemporary literary theory.

     What is most striking today about Collin's The White Savannahs (1936) and Brown's On Canadian Poetry (1943) is that both are revisionist histories.  As a work of unabashed Modernism, The White Savannahs is "quite legitimately biassed," as Pelham Edgar recognizes: Collin's plan "necessitated that his enthusiasm for younger writers should be balanced by a hostility equally enthusiastic to the work of their predecessors" (127).  McCarthy's statement that Collin "does not aspire to large-scale canonic argument" will not do (43).  As Brown observes, Collin's "purpose is no less than to write the history of Canadian poetry from 1875 to the present . . ." ("Letters 1936" 153).  And as A.J.M. Smith writes, Collin's "contribution to the establishment of a new climate of opinion among readers and publishers of poetry in Canada can hardly be overestimated" (Masks 60).   Brown then faces the double task of responding to Collin as well as to previous critics.  Noticing differences that McCarthy collapses, Desmond Pacey argues that On Canadian Poetry "substituted something of Arnold's detachment for the perfervid patriotism of books such as [J.D. Logan and Donald G. French's] Highways of Canadian Literature."  As Pacey adds, Brown "had a definite point of view which stimulated debate . . ." ("Writer" 491).

     One way to begin is suggested by a comment in Brown's first article on Arnold, which appeared in Sewanee Review when Brown was twenty-five.  Such an approach may indicate my partiality to Brown, but it also points to notable aspects of the self-characterizations of Brown and Collin.  For Brown, "There are two ultimate classes of aestheticians between which truce is possible but not peace": "libertarians" and "authoritarians" ("Critic as Xenophobe" 305).2  When he describes Arnold's criticism as "an alert and liberal left wing" of authoritarian aesthetics (305), he indicates his own values.  When Collin reviews On Canadian Poetry, he shows libertarian qualities:

What guarantee have we that analysis and comparison will yield the truth of poetry?  Is poetry a matter of literary elements, formal beauty, influences, and reputations?  Are these not things imposed from without by the contemplating critic?  Is poetry merely expression?  Is it not rather an inner experience wearing a garment of words?
                                                                                   ("The Stream" 299)

Of course this opposition, like any other, will eventually break down.  As Germaine Warkentin notes, Collin learned from Sainte-Beauve and Gourmont "the method of the causerie, the epidiectic discursive essay that seeks to discover the central experience of a poet's work" (xvii), and Brown was familiar with that method from his education at the University of Paris.  Collin has Arnoldian qualities of his own, and he is often concerned with the very issues that he seems to disparage in his review of Brown.  Nonetheless, Collin is by any measure less orderly and more iconoclastic that Brown.

     Two other points deserve preliminary consideration.  First, both Collin and Brown assume that a history of Canadian literature should focus on poetry.  As Donna Bennett argues, by the 1960s critical attention had shifted to fiction, with one result being a neglect of the early poets ("Conflicted" 136-37).  Second, neither Collin nor Brown has his original authority today, though each offers valuable and influential comments.  As Wayne C. Booth remarks of all literary histories, "Their radical embodiment of grand metaphors is usually hard to see at the time they appear, and too easy to see after a few decades" (366).  That hardly means that The White Savannahs and On Canadian Poetry are no longer of interest; on the contrary, we can now study each work as a "sign system" that points in the two directions described by Hayden White: "first, toward the set of events it purports to describe and, second, toward the generic story form to which it tacitly likens the set in order to disclose its formal coherence considered as either a structure or a process" (106).  Best of all, Brown and Collin raise their theoretical assumptions and rhetorical strategies explicitly in the comments that each makes on the other's work.


Unlike On Canadian Poetry, The White Savannahs does not begin with a chapter of general reflection on "The Problem of a Canadian Literature."  It begins with Lampman, in a chapter that is now of inter est chiefly as an episode in the history of Modernist distaste.3  Collin is not a systematic or even a consistent critic, but there is more art in the arrangement of his book than at first appears.  With every chapter, Collin grows increasingly sympathetic, as he moves to Pickthall, Le Franc, Pratt, Livesay, F.R. Scott, Klein, Smith, and Kennedy.  Apart from the inclusion of a chapter on Le Franc, the only oddity in the organization of the book is the pride of place given to Kennedy, and that is explained by the fact that Kennedy was the only one of the Montreal group to have published a volume of poetry at this time.  Furthermore, it was while visiting Kennedy in 1931 that Collin met the others ("Few Pages" 94).  It would be ludicrous to mock Collin's taste.  Working from recent issues of little magazines (particularly Canadian Forum) and from manuscripts (including some of Klein's that would never be published — see Golfman 130), Collin established the Modernist poetic qualities that would eventually become canonical.  As Edgar writes, "the poets whom we may name the Montreal group have found in Collin their ideal interpreter" (128).

     Bennett describes Collin's method in these terms: "Explicating texts rather than discussing influences and contexts, Collin found a central image in the work of each writer and argued that Canadian literature as a whole was evolving into a literature of redemption" ("Criticism" 152).  Everything in that sentence is true except the introductory phrase: writing before the New Criticism, Collin is rarely concerned to explicate texts, and he is very interested in influ ences and contexts, from Lampman's Ottawa to Livesay's world of proletarian struggle.  The point is important, for it reveals that Collin does not slight the Canadian context as much as we might think: J. Burns Martin could go so far as to argue that Collin "not only places [these poets] in their relations to world poetry . . . but also shows the distinctive Canadian note of each" (535).  It is true that Collin is willing to pursue an analogy without trying to argue for an influence, as when he seeks to elucidate Scott's "Frost in Autumn" by extended reference to Verlaine, Dowson, Yeats, Edith Sitwell, and Eliot (Savannahs 182-89).  And it is true that Collin seeks a "literature of redemption," an ideal based on three sources: T.E. Hulme, T.S. Eliot, and The Golden Bough.  Collin often conflates the latter two, as when he writes that "One of the effects of Eliot's 'The Waste Land' was to convert Sir James Frazer 's The Golden Bough into a manual for young Canadian poets . . ." (194).  From Hulme, Collin derives a sense of "art as the expression of two opposed ideologies, the religious and the humanist" (251).  For both Hulme and Collin, "religious," "abstract," and "austere" are privileged terms set against "humanist," "naturalistic," and "romantic." Writing in the same volume of Sewanee Review that includes Brown's first article on Arnold, Collin describes Hulme's

two periods of history: The Middle Ages, and the period from the Renaissance to us.  The canons of satisfaction in these two periods, Hulme states, are: in the one case, a belief in the imperfection of man, the subordination of man to certain absolute values, the doctrine of Original Sin, immortality; in the second case, a belief in the perfection of man, in personality and "all the bunkum that follows from it."
                                                                                   ("Beyond" 334-35)

Hulme's sympathies are clear from the last phrase, while Collin's appear in his comment that Hulme's "notes are sufficient to indicate that a very interesting history of modern literature could be written with these canons as guides" (335).

     To an extent, The White Savannahs is that history.  Hulme's anti-Romanticism leads Collin to attack Lampman and ignore Romantic influences on contemporary poets.  Warkentin argues that Collin "does not use the term humanism as Hulme would have used it except in his review of E.K. Brown" (xvi), but in fact Collin uses the term in Hulme's sense in his chapter on Smith.  Commenting on (and quoting from) Smith's "The Offices of the First and Second Hour," Collin describes "the real spiritual life": "If we conform to this spiritual rule of life is the main tenet of humanism tenable?   Can the fleshly part of man any longer claim to be godlike or divine? . . .  That humanist vanity is 'drained' away as a result of the spiritual discipline of the first hour" (254-55).  Calling Romanticism and humanism "modern heresies," Collin finds that "Smith has considered two modes of living or two classes of people: those who live by the flesh and those who live by the spirit" (255).  These values are buttressed by two key quotations from Eliot's prose.  In the first, from The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism, Eliot states that "though [Arnold] speaks to us of discipline, it is the discipline of culture, not the discipline of suffering" (qtd. 24).  In the second, from a 1926 essay in The Criterion, Eliot refers to a "generation which is beginning to turn its attention to an athleticism, a training, of the soul as severe and ascetic as the training of the body of a runner (qtd. 252-53, 262).  For Collin, Smith's very revisions (which are meticulously noted) show an "austere method of working over a poem, continually straining it in his need of a potent essence" (259).  All of the younger poets Collin discusses "have undergone a mental and spiritual discipline that will not be lost: the realism is toned by the austerity and bareness which we associate with metaphysical wit" (149).

     Collin's remarks on the Montreal group are well known, but not his chapter on Livesay.  It begins with a long transitional paragraph that sets the younger poets against Lampman and Pickthall, who "are important titles in the Canadian anthology which was their pottage and which turned their stomachs" (147).  Pratt, who is assigned "an intermediate position," is said to restore us to "the plane of the human" (147).  From him, we may learn to "identify our destinies with what is human in us and experience a delightful sensation of renewed vigour as a result of communion with our kind" (148).  Such is one response — there are two other possibilities:

on the other hand, we may feel that humanism cannot satisfy us and turn our backs upon it, strive to purge ourselves of it; and thirdly, we may take up the human cause to the end of making conditions favour able to the flourishing of the spirit and, in our work, interpret the struggle by reference to the eternal problem of human destiny.

The second response, which looks "beyond humanism," is Hulme's.  The third response would logically be Livesay's, and certainly the word "struggle" points to Livesay's kind of politics.  But "spirit" and "the eternal problem of human destiny" are more suggestive of religion than Marxism.  The ambiguity is Collin's as much as Livesay's, and it lingers over the last five chapters of The White Savannahs.  Collin eventually resolves it in favour of Kennedy, who shows that "One way of relieving the agony of life's irony, of cheating death, is to make it give forth life, to fertilize the desert, make flowers grow out of sand and rock" (278).  To such a resolution The Golden Bough has more to offer than the theory of surplus value.  The important point, however, is that Collin does not resolve this ambiguity until his last two chapters, for he could not write so sympathetically of Livesay, Scott, and Klein if he did.

     That is not to imply that the chapter on Livesay is free of contradictions.  One surfaces in this account of Livesay's literary back ground: "Such a sensitive awareness to intellectual stimuli . . . results in a characteristic tone and accent: an aristocratic disdain of the sentimental and dull brain, and a cult of wit, which Mr. Eliot has endeavoured to restore to modern poetry" (150).  "Aristocratic disdain" is hardly compatible with the use of Communist ideology and popular culture in Livesay's longer poems of the thirties, but the contradiction results from Collin's attempt to respond favour ably both to Livesay's early Imagist and metaphysical lyrics and to the very different poems that followed.  If Paul Denham is correct that Livesay rejected Eliot around 1935 (65), that would be too late for Collin to know of it.  In any case, his thesis is that Eliot's influence can lead only so far: "Although the newer poets were brought up under Eliot, he can no longer lead them.  The economic and social realities of life have hounded them, driven them to bay, and they have had to face them" (158).  With all values in dispute, it is no wonder that Collin is occasionally inconsistent.  His contradictory statements are less a sign of his intellectual confusions than of his generous sympathies.  What Brown says of E.M. Forster could also be said of Collin: his "imaginative sympathies have outrun his intellectual commitments . . ." (Rhythm 114).

Collin's changing attitudes to Livesay require comment.  In a 1932 article, Collin makes several points that he would use in The White Savannahs, notably on the influence of Eliot, Dickinson, and Wylie, and on Livesay's Imagist affinities.  The article concludes thus:

Their [the female poets he has discussed] mental experience may have been immense, but they did not have the opportunity for assimilating all kinds of disparate experience; which is a woman's misfortune.   Their thoughts and feelings are exquisite, not general; their art reflects the sensibility of an erudite mind, not (as, for example, T.S. Eliot's poetry) the mood of a generation of men.
                                                                                         ("Livesay" 140)

He expresses similar reservations in his 1933 review of Signpost:

Dorothy Livesay's poetry is poetry of herself, her own mind, and is still romantic in that sense.  It has not enough contact with life.  It is not an expression of life which we would cry aloud as the justification of our own living.  That is another way of saying, perhaps, that is not supremely important.
                                                                                           ("Power" 192)

In The White Savannahs, Collin has no reservations about Livesay's "latest and best" work (151 n5), in which he finds "something not felt before in her work . . . .  She has developed beyond her egocentrism to devote herself to a human cause" (159).  Clearly, Collin demands that a poet respond to the age but not that she conform to a particular ideology.

     Collin glosses Livesay's development with a passage from John Strachey's The Coming Struggle for Power, a work of rather doctri naire Marxist political economy4 with a section on "The Decay of Capitalist Culture."  In the passage quoted by Collin, Strachey argues that Proust, Lawrence, and Huxley "confuse the unavoid able tragedies of human existence in general, with the entirely evitable, but at present growing and deepening, tragedies of a specific system of society in a period of decay" (Strachey 215-16; qtd. in Savannahs 160).  Collin saves his disagreement until the end of the chapter, where he argues that "We have not done away with Dostoievsky, Pascal, Baudelaire and the rest when we have said that they take the tragic view of life" (172).  He has every right to disagree with Marxism — his problem comes when he has to write about its consequences for Livesay's poetry, and here his contradictions are revealing.  He tries to hold that we are free to look upon the recent poetry as "revolt against tyranny or consider solely the self-value of the work, its intrinsic value as art" (169).  In either case, the poetry succeeds: "It is propaganda and it is art" (170).  This uneasy compromise breaks down when Collin admits that "We cannot study this poetry . . . in a detached way, simply as art or as illustrat ing the invasion of industrial realism into poetry, because it speaks out with such resounding purpose" (171).

     If the chapters on Livesay and Smith indicate deep sympathies with various contemporary movements, the chapter on Pratt is much less successful.  Stressing Collin's failure to write a coherent literary history, Brown argues that Collin fails to use Pratt "as a means of taking us from the world of Lampman and Roberts to the world of Kennedy and Smith.  Accordingly the book breaks down in the middle" ("Letters 1936" 153-54).  Even Modernists may have trouble with this chapter.  In an otherwise appreciative review, Martin notes that "The chapter on E.J. Pratt is the least satisfying . . . because of the note of pretentiousness in the comparisons of the last few pages; one feels that Prof. Pratt's head might well be turned by the distinguished company in which he finds himself" (535).  The problems start when Collin uses Eliot's "objective correlative" to "define" Pratt's art (136-37), even though Pratt's longer poems are hardly expressive in this sense.  After comparing Pratt with Roy Campbell, he contrasts Pratt with Donne: "Donne . . . had what we might call a metaphysical imagination; Pratt an epic or heroic imagination" (140).  The comparison reveals little about Pratt but much about Collin, namely that he is sometimes a slave to Modernist values.  His frame of reference becomes ludicrous when he concludes that "Now what Rimbaud miraculously achieved with mysterious emotions and visions Pratt achieves with less complex ones" (144).  Finally, Collin merely notes that "Pratt has rejuvenated our poetry; a Canadian Masefield has enriched its vocabulary" (144).  It will be left to Brown to make finer discriminations.

     In his review of The White Savannahs, J.F. Macdonald complains that "there seem to be almost as many different standards as there are authors judged" (29).  Thus Lampman receives no credit for "an anti-humanistic vision of life" (23), while Smith is admired for rejecting humanism.  Thus Pickthall is faulted for lacking a "social instinct" (79), while Le Franc "tramples upon and transcends the mediocre realities of social life" (115).  Macdonald suggests that Collin's core values come from rejecting Arnold for Eliot: "Whoso believes in the canons enunciated by Arnold is poetically damned, for in these enlightened days T.S. Eliot is our arbiter of all things" (29).  But Arnold and Eliot are not so antithetical, not even for Collin.  Writing on Eliot in Sewanee Review in 1931, Collin states: "If we can overcome our prejudices and overlook the fashions of a past age or look beyond the fashions of our own we may be able to see a piece of literature as it really is and judge it on its intrinsic merits" (419).  In these terms, Arnold's "disinterestedness" and Eliot's "objectiv ity" merge.  And so it is that Collin returns to Arnold to argue that "Dorothy Livesay's latest work, then, is a 'criticism of life'; if we understand life to mean proletarian existence in capitalist society" (169).


Aware of both the affinities and the differences between Arnold and Eliot, Brown called the latter "the poet-critic who in our time occupies a function somewhat like that of Arnold in his" (Arnold 9).5  Brown thought of himself as a humanist in Arnold's — as opposed to Irving Babbitt's — sense ("Forgotten" 390), and he regarded Eliot as "in revolt against humanism" ("Mr. Eliot" 74).  To Duncan Campbell Scott, he described the chapter on Lampman in On Canadian Poetry as particularly "in the Arnoldian manner," adding that "I am always under the influence of Matt" (McDougall 33).  As we have seen, for him Arnoldian humanism means the "alert and liberal left wing" of "authoritarian" aesthetics ("Xenophobe" 305), and hence the three sections of On Canadian Poetry answer three questions: "What are the peculiar difficulties which have weighed upon the Canadian writer?"; "What Canadian poetry remains alive and, in some degree at least, formative?"; "How have the masters of our poetry achieved their success and what are the kinds of success they have achieved?" (vii).6   He pursues these questions in the spirit of disinterested inquiry, though he recognizes that "I cannot hope that all will agree with my conception of the difficulties or with my choice of living poetry, or of pre-eminent masters" (vii).

     Few have disagreed with Brown's answers to his first question, and hence "The Problem of a Canadian Literature" has been fre quently anthologized and deservedly influential.  Collin summarizes it well:

It is a brilliant analysis of the economic and social difficulties writers have to contend with in Canada, a complete and exact picture of the colonial spirit, the disguised frontier standards and the puritanism which prevail in our society and which have crushed some of our writers and led others to court an outside public.
                                                                                    ("Stream" 291-92)

It is also the kind of material analysis that is largely absent from The White Savannahs From Collin, we gain insights into the sensibilities of Canadian Modernism; from Brown, we learn that such sensibili ties are in part the effects of conditions that precede and survive Modernism.  Believing with Arnold that "A great literature is the flowering of a great society, a vital and adequate society" and not of isolated geniuses (26-27).   Brown does not think that the Canadian writer's problems can be solved by The Golden Bough.

     The other great merit of On Canadian Poetry is the long third section — almost half the book — on "The Masters": Lampman, Duncan Campbell Scott, and Pratt.  These discussions have been more influential than any in The White Savannahs.  As L.R. Early remarks, Brown's account of Lampman "established the direction since taken by most critics . . ." (149), and the account of Scott has been even more influential.  Since these chapters are well known, I will focus on the chapter on Pratt as a contrast to Collin's.  Brown also treats Pratt as transitional, but he makes the point without incongruous references: "Pratt . . . is a man apart: his poetry has invigorated and liberated others, but its influence is and must be an impalpable one" (70).  Or as he argued later, "I grow tired of hearing the charge that [Pratt's] writing is not in the main stream of modern verse; of course it is not, but should anyone care?" ("Letters 1949" 285).  For Brown, "To let one's taste in poetry take its limits from the vogue of the moment is to succumb to the provincialism of time" ("Golden Age" 95).  In the chapter on Pratt, Brown gives a fuller and clearer survey of Pratt's life and writings than Collin provides.  As a key point of transition in his narrative as well as in Pratt's career, Brown seizes on A Book of Newfoundland Verse (1923), which he finds similar "in essentials" to the work of the Confederation poets (147).  Quoting a typical stanza, he comments: "That is pure and right and charming; but at least four of the elder poets then alive might have written it" (148).  Obviously Brown's high regard for the Confederation poets did not blind him to the needs of a new age.  He argues that with Pickthall "Naturism could go no farther . . . .  It was time for a change" (67).  He calls Newfoundland Verse "the work of an experimenter who is continuing to clutch at a tradition although that tradition is actually stifling him" (148).  The breakthrough comes in Titans (1926), "the full, happy, exciting expression of an original temperament" (149).  With Brébeuf and His Brethren (1940), Pratt becomes a touchstone: "I do not know what authentic poetry may be . . . if these lines . . . are not authentic" (159).  Collin, who values Pratt more for his influence than for his achievement, concludes his chapter with this comment: "If a newer generation of poets, reared in a tempest, render homage to Pratt while refusing Lampman and Pickthall, it is because of his heroic imagination and his grip on life" (144).

     Other contrasts emerge.   Where Collin called Pratt "a Canadian Masefield" (144), Brown writes:

In ["The Roosevelt and the Antinoe"] he comes closer to Masefield than anywhere else; and it has become the custom with some critics to think of Pratt as a local Masefield.  I do not find the comparison illuminating, and in some respects it seems to me to be dangerously misleading.  Masefield's is essentially a tender nature, lacking in humour . . . .  Tenderness is almost absent from Pratt's poetry . . . .

The advantage is not all Pratt's: Pratt's characters are not as fully individualized as Masefield's (155).  The main point, however, is that Brown pursues the analogy more thoroughly than does Collin, who is surely one of the critics disparaged here.  Brown also has Collin in mind when he explains, with similar disdain, what "critics are trying to express when they call [Pratt] 'epic' or 'heroic' " (150).  It is Collin's Modernists, if not Collin himself, that Brown mocks when he contrasts Pratt with "our tender leftist poets" (157).  And it is Collin who causes this addition to the 1944 revised edition of On Cana dian Poetry: "I have been severely reproved by a critic in the University of Toronto Quarterly because I did not attempt to explain the peculiar popularity of Dunkirk among Pratt's works, and because I did not offer an estimate of the poem" (162-63).  In his review, Collin had accused Brown of "timidity" in refusing to investigate the appeal of Dunkirk ("Stream" 298).  The point may be minor, but not the conflict that it reveals between Brown and Collin.

     The outline of that conflict is familiar: Collin is committed to Modernism, while Brown believes that, as he argues in "The Poetry of Our Golden Age," "the most admirable body of poetry which has yet been written in English-speaking Canada within a short period belongs not to 1935-1945, but to 1885-1900" (88).  Although it is not emphasized, that belief is evident in On Canadian Poetry, as when Brown refers to Roberts "as the beginner of the richest movement our literature has ever known" (53).  He is ironic towards the "sad young men" of the Montreal group, which he characterizes in terms of "a cosmopolitanism, more or less lasting, in which elements of grace, disillusionment and cynicism combined in a fashion new to Canadian culture" (68).  Although conceding that the "long-established prestige" of the Confederation poets "did make it painfully hard for younger poets . . . to get a respectful hearing" (69), he deflates the myth of the Modernist breakthrough: "To read what was said about it in the 'twenties one would suppose that the elders had held primly aloof from any measure more modern than the Spenserian stanza or the rhyme royal.  The truth is more complex" (69).  So Brown wrote his Lampman chapter with Collin in mind, as he explained to Scott: "Without being offensively polemical (I hope) I have tried to meet the indictment Collin made" (McDougall 33).  Brown not only defends Lampman, he also attacks Kennedy: "Born a little earlier, he would doubtless have been an almost pure romantic" (71); "Much of the work in The Shrouding is somewhat careless" (72).  F.R. Scott, Smith, and Livesay are discussed briefly or not at all in the original edition of On Canadian Poetry;7 the latter two receive expanded but cautious treatment in the revised edition.

     There is more to the conflict.  In his survey of poetry for the 1943 "Letters in Canada," Brown responds to Collin's review: "It is not improper to say . . . that to some serious misinterpretations I shall make reply in an appropriate place" (230).   He had previously expressed this commitment in two letters to Scott (McDougall 96, 102).8  The appropriate place turned out to be the second edition of On Canadian Poetry.  At least two revisions pertain to Collin.  One is the passage on Dunkirk.  The other is explained in a letter to Scott of October 11, 1944: "The sheets I enclose are intended for the second edition of O.C.P.  They are a reply to one of Collin's animadversions.  I don't mention C, here or anywhere else that I am replying to him, by name" (McDougall 120).  As Robert L. McDougall notes (247 n2), the revision is in this discussion of Lampman's "At the Long Sault": "One qualified critic finds its epithets often commonplace; another critic whose acerbity makes him less dependable denies that its closing lyric has any great elegiac power" (108).  Collin is the "less dependable" critic.  Laura Groening helps to understand the stakes involved: Brown compares the closing elegy of "At the Long Sault" to another Canadian elegy, D.C. Scott's "The Closed Door" (110); Collin undercuts Brown by comparing the lyric to the great English elegies: " 'Lycidas,' 'Adonais,' Ave atque Vale, and 'Thyrsis' immediately come to our minds when we think of great elegies, and Lampman's poem is not of this order" ("The Stream" 296-97; Groening 149).  For Groening, "one of the primary reasons that On Canadian Poetry will distinguish itself is that the book does not seek to make comparisons between Canadian poets and poets from a different time and place" (59-60).  In any case, it is surely inconsistent for Collin to point to the greatness of poems by Shelley, Arnold, and Swin burne after writing as if all nineteenth-century poetry were regrettable.

     Some of Collin's other criticisms are hard to deny.  Collin quite rightly argues that Brown's prefatory disclaimer ("This is less an historical enquiry than a critical essay" [vii]) is misleading: "The mind that planned this book . . . is an historical as well as a critical mind" ("The Stream" 292).  Recognizing Brown's scholarship, he nonetheless questions the premises of Arnoldian humanism: "There is no room here to discuss a theory which views literature as a product of societal environment.  But it has long been felt that determinist theories of this sort, the favourite tools of literary historians, are inadequate when we come to grips with literary genius" (298).  Given his libertarian Modernism, how could he argue otherwise?   If he is occasionally ungenerous, Collin concludes that On Canadian Poetry "stands as a critical work of a high order ringing the death-knell of impressionistic criticism and shining by virtue of its subtle contemplative art, its closeknit, contemporary, and lucid English" (300).  Nothing in this review requires apology, and yet Collin did apologize to the aggrieved Brown.  In a remarkable letter of February 27, 1944, he states that he has heard that Brown was upset by the review:

That has pained me very very much.  I am very sorry.  I felt I had to be critical of certain things but I ought to have been more kindly & gracious.  Please forgive me.  This is not the first time I have hurt people by my quick feelings & criticism & I have before this resolved never again to write about living Canadians.  But instead of being free of them I seem to be getting more than ever involved with them — & this apparently I'm fated to do.  There should of course be room in Canadian letters for your kind of criticism & Smith's & Sylvestre's & mine.  Perhaps we should let each work out his own & avoid the friction which must come if we meddle with another's.  I don't know what else to do.
                                                                                            ("To Brown")

Without agreeing that Canadian critics should avoid friction, I find the Collin of this letter more sympathetic than the petulant Brown, who continued to carry his grudge despite Collin's apology.

     There is one more problem.  According to Groening, Brown "told Malcolm Ross that he wished he could have found someone younger than sixty to include in his last chapter" (133).  If that remark were made in good faith, it would indicate that he would have included a chapter on a "master" younger than Pratt if he could have found one.  But there is reason to suspect his sincerity.  In 1933, he declares "our greatest living poet" to be A.M. Klein, not Pratt ("Immediate" 44).  Why did he change his mind, and when?  Reviewing The Fable of the Goats in 1937, Brown calls Pratt "the first of Canadian poets" ("First" 322).  Some tastes cannot be disputed, and so perhaps he changed his mind on the basis of a book that Pratt himself would later partially suppress.  But what about Klein?  In On Canadian Poetry, Brown expresses disappointment with Klein's recent work (73-78) but still admires the early poetry.  He first expressed this opinion in a 1936 review of New Provinces: "Of the poetry of Mr. Klein I ventured to say, five [sic] years ago, that it offered the greatest hope for the Canadian poetry of the immediate future; and it is with deep regret that I have observed Mr. Klein's sterility in recent years" ("Canadian Poetry Repudiated" 293).  Klein was not sterile, of course — he was facing the very problems described with such force in the first chapter of On Canadian Poetry.  I believe that it is not fortuitous that Brown changes his mind about Klein in a disgruntled review of an anthology of Canadian Modernism.  And I would suggest that the publication of The White Savannahs in the same year increased Brown's discomfort and caused him to react by preferring a more traditional poet.  In any event, On Canadian Poetry is less sympathetic to contemporary poetry than it might have been, and the loss is underlined by Brown's comment on Eliot's reception: "Nothing so feeds one's despair of a literary education as the incapacity of so many who have studied the process of literature to understand, even to take the first effective steps towards understanding, the literature in the making around them" ("Mr. Eliot" 83-84).


I have opposed Collin and Brown in terms of their various self-characterizations: libertarian vs. authoritarian; Eliotic vs.  Arnoldian; anti-humanist vs. humanist.  Other oppositions are possible, notably Groening's:

Essentially, the argument between Collin and Brown is an argument between the emerging cosmopolitanism that denies the national roots of art and venerates individual genius, and the more conservative "nativism" that values the tradition that gives birth to and nourishes all new works of art.

This opposition also has its limitations.  Brown is cosmopolitan too: his first article on Arnold is entitled "The Critic as Xenophobe: Matthew Arnold and the International Mind" because it defends Arnold against nationalist criticism.  Much as Brown admires the Confederation poets, he also argues that "anyone who believes that our lyric poets are the equals of Shelley, Keats, and Wordsworth will believe anything" ("Immediate" 44).  For his part, Collin is involved with a national context despite himself: if he were not living in Canada, he would be unlikely even to know of the Montreal poets.  Here as elsewhere, as Northrop Frye argued and Smith conceded, the division between native and cosmopolitan is finally an internal one (Masks ix).

     The Collin-Brown conflict raises important problems in critical pluralism and historiography.  Even an "ideal interpreter" of the present necessarily makes all kinds of historical assumptions, which can always be contested.  The point is David Perkins': "My opinion is . . . that we cannot write literary history with intellectual conviction, but we must read it" (17).  "Though the ideal [of objectivity] cannot be achieved, we must pursue it, for without it the oth erness of the past would entirely deliquesce in endless subjective and ideological reappropriations."  As Perkins continues, "If we ask why this is desirable, one answer is that we do not want to be prisoners of the present" (185).  In their own ways, Collin and Brown would agree.  Following a suggestion of Smith's ("Critic" 43), I would regard them as complementary, not in the sense that anyone could synthesize their virtues, but in the sense that different critics are needed both to assess the past and understand the present.  However painful the friction between Collin and Brown may have been on a personal level, such friction is the sign of a healthy culture: as Pacey once wrote, "No one person can or should determine the stature of a poet or novelist" ("Literary" 46).  Fortunately, the Canadian canon has always been contested, and its formation has always involved friction.


  1. An earlier version of this paper was delivered at a panel on "Re-viewing the Canon: English Poetry," at the Northeast Modem Language Association, Phil adelphia.  Pennsylvania.  26 March 1993.  I am grateful to D.M.R. Bentley and Gerald Lynch for their comments. [back]

  2. For bibliographies of Brown and Collin, see Staines (180-89) and Warkentin (xliv-xlviii). [back]

  3. This chapter is more severe than Collin's 1934 article on Lampman, which ends: "Despite the irony of his life when contrasted with his sentiments, he was Greek in his art.  He described nature in 'the faithful way' because he saw things as in themselves they really are" ("Lampman" 142).  The chapter ends by stating that Lampman's humanism was "specious," that "He criticized the barrenness and barbarity and philistinism of Ontario largely by looking away," and that he escaped into dreams and nature (38-40). [back]

  4. Here is Strachey on Lawrence: "Indeed, if you like to read them so, his novels with their recurrent theme of salvation for the lovely woman of the governing class by the worker who at once captures and rescues her, are myths of the young worker revivifying society; as, truly, the workers alone can do" (211). [back]

  5. Brown was not at first appreciative of Eliot's poetry, but he always recognized Eliot's importance as a critic ("Eliot: Poet and Critic" 448).  By 1933, he recognizes Eliot's extensive influence on younger poets ("Immediate" 50).  In 1938, he defends Eliot's poetry against unsympathetic critics ("Mr. Eliot").  Thus both Brown and Collin were among the earliest academic critics to write informed articles on Eliot's poetry, Collin having done so in 1931 ("T.S. Eliot"). [back]

  6. Unless otherwise noted, all quotations will be from the Tecumseh reprint of the 1944 revised edition of On Canadian Poetry. [back]

  7. Livesay receives only a passing reference (67) and Smith's poetry is discussed in nine lines (75). [back]

  8. A passage in the letter to Scott of Feb. 15, 1944 somewhat explains Brown's anger: "Well, I have seen Collin's review of the two books I don't like it.  I don't think it makes sense.  I am at once exalted for courage and reproved for timidity. . .; and I am praised for being a scientific critic . . . and blamed for having prejudices . . . .  I don't see where he comes out, what his over-all view of the book is.  One little point that irritated me:  I don't think Collin has the right to speak of me as 'promising' " (McDougall 96).  Collin begins his review by calling Brown "one of our most promising scholars" ("The Stream" 291).  In Collin's defence, it should be noted that he was Brown's senior by twelve years.

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