F. R. Scott

by Sandra Djwa


    For more than forty years F.R. Scott — poet, lawyer and social philosopher — has helped to form the Canada we know today. His views on poetry and politics, developing in response to an emerging national culture, have helped to shape modern Canadian poetry and to mould, along socialist principles, Canadian political theory and practice. Scott is best known as a constitutional lawyer and political theoretician, but it is the poet that he himself considers most important. When asked in the early ’seventies how he would rank his long list of achievement is:

— poet, lawyer, teacher, formerly Dean of Law at McGill University, constitutional lawyer, fighter for civil liberties over many years, political activist for almost forty years, former national chairman of the CCF party, Royal Commissioner, member of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism —

Scott promptly replied, “Poetry first, and the poetic element all the way through.”1

    In F.R. Scott the poet and the lawyer live harmoniously together because each speaks with the same humanist voice. In the late ’fifties Scott remarked that the law is “crystallized politics” and he added that a “good constitution is like a good poem, both are concerned with the spirit of man.”2  This remark was elaborated a few years later when he published the gnomic “Creed”:

The world is my country
The human race is my race
The spirit of man is my God
The future of man is my heaven.

Although Scott is substituting the modern ‘spirit of man’ for the older ‘spirit of God,’ it is clear that he considers both terms analogous. “Creed” is a humanist statement of faith. This new faith emerged when the Anglicanism of Scott’s childhood training united with the radical Christian socialism of the ’twenties. From his father, Archdeacon F.G. Scott, Anglican priest, poet and war hero (a man who was returned by army orders to Montreal in 1919 because of his support of the Winnipeg strike), Scott acquired a strong sense of social justice. By the mid ’twenties when the religious basis for social reform had been replaced by a moral imperative, Scott retained a basically Christian sense of the dignity and worth of the individual. It is this Christian humanism which shaped his socialism and gave impetus to his defence of civil liberties.3

    During his four decades and more of public life, Scott has taught law and practiced it on significant occasions before the Supreme Court. At the same time, he has published verse — eight volumes — distilling in his poetry a found and moving vision of the world and his place in it. As we read through the early periodical verse, the subsequent books of poetry and the Selected Poems, it becomes increasingly clear that Scott’s subject is man in the generic sense and human relationships. Although many of the poems begin with the individual experience, the movement is always from the personal to the universal. Characteristic is the last book of poetry, The Dance is One and the simple human act of the hand talon in “Yours”:

It lay unfolded upward on my knee
Armed five wise ways like Shiva for the day
cross-lined for life, for love, for coming fate,
Warm, as I matched it with my own right hand.

    Scott is a strongly visual poet whose shaping “I” is closely associated with the “eye” that perceives.4  And because he sees poetry as a communication, as a signalling from one isolation to another, he writes of the “Signal” that penetrates “the screen of me / and the screen of you / the inside and outside / of a window.

I scratch the frosted pane
with nails of love and faith
and the crystalled white opens
a tiny eye
the wide, the shining country.

Fingers scratching on the dividing pane, like a pen on paper, suddenly open up an “eye.” And because scratching at a window is a metaphor for the creative process, the “eye” becomes the vision of the poem that plays on the “I” of the persona: the image is that of a poem opening up a world, of a microcosm generating a macrocosm.

    His characteristic metaphors develop from the exploration of man’s relationships to nature and society: they involve time and infinity, world and universe, love and spirit, terms that emerge as twentieth-century humanist substitutes for the Christian vocabularly. A typical Scott poem moves from specific image (the great Asian moth of “A Grain of Rice” for example) or from the natural landscape (“Hidden in wonder and snow, or sudden with summer, / This land stares at the sun in a huge silence”) to a consideration of the significance of the image in the larger pattern of human life. And the human journey, in turn, is seen as a moment in time, a part of the larger cosmic flux in which matter, striving to realize itself, is thrown up briefly in waves — ripples on Henri Bergson’s flowing stream of time. Scott perceives that man as a physical being comes and goes; yet he maintains that there is continuity in the human spirit and in the shared human experience.

    His poetry reflects the wide diversity of such experience, ranging in style the reportorial and satiric “Summer Camp” to the fine lyric “Departure.” Yet underlying both lyric and satire is a common vision of the poetic ideals. He has remarked that satire is “inverted positive statement” and certainly the obverse of Scott the lyrical idealist is Scott the satirist. From the empirical inversions of poems such as “W.LM.K.” and “The Canadian Authors Meet” —

O Canada, O Canada, Oh can
A day go by without new authors springing
To paint the native maple, and to plan
More ways to set the selfsame welkin ringing?

— we can infer the political and the poetic ideals for which Scott stands. Such poems, which at first glance might appear to offer a discontinuity of subject and style, have, in fact, a fundamental unity derived from a central vision and from the strength of an engaging poetic personality. The poems are also united by an enormously flexible speaking voice which can move from the satiric (“Did you ever see such asses / As the educated masses?”) to the Burly reflective. In “Windfall” he speaks of a leaf:

This small complete and perfect thing
Cut off from wholeness is my heart’s suffering.
This separate part of something grown and tom
Is my heart’s image that now rests on stone.

This is a leaf I talk to as a lover
And lay down gently now my poem is over.

As a poet and a man of law, Scott is most concerned with the kind of social order or ‘writing’ that man chomps to shape his world. His fear, expressed in “Laurentian Shield” (1945-46), is that language of a developing Canada, “pre-words, / Cabin syllables, / Nouns of settlement,” might be reduced to the syntax of rapacious technology, “the long sentence of its exploitation.

    The basis of this socialist and humanist thought was set out in the ’twenties. Like many of his contemporaries, Scott was absorbed by the attempt to define the ‘Canadian’ — to find a new order adequate for a developing post-war society. By 1926 he had written “New Paths,” a poem which shows that he was already part of the prevailing political and artistic mainstream. Politically, he was a nationalist: “Child of the North / Yearn no more after old playthings . . . all the burdensome inheritance, the binding legacies, / Of the Old World and the East.” Artistically, as did the Group of Seven, he turned to the northern land for inspiration:

Here is a new soil and a sharp sun

Turn from the past
Walk with me among these indigent firs
Climb these rough crags . . .

His interest in the new Canadian art was deepened by Marian Dale, a painter, who became his wife in 1928. And, as the hint of Imagism suggests, Scott had begun to read the new poetry.

    While studying law at McGill in 1925 he had been introduced to The Waste Land and to the Imagists by the poet and critic A.J.M. Smith, then a graduate student in English. Together they established the McGill Fortnightly Review (1925-27), the little magazine associated with the introduction of modern poetry in Canada. Since 1926, Scott has been one of our most important Literary catalysts. He helped found with Leo Kennedy the avant-garde little magazine, The Canadian Mercury (1928-29), and by 1929 he was the Montreal representative on the editorial board of The Canadian Forum. With Smith, he co-edited New Provinces (1936), the first anthology of modern Canadian verse. He helped establish the little magazine Preview (1942-45) with a group of Montreal poets in the early forties and fostered its amalgamation with the rival publication First Statement (1942-45) to form the joint publication, Northern Review (1945-55). In 1955 he presided at the Canadian Writers’ Conference at Queen’s University and in 1964 helped organize a conference for Quebec poets. His published poetic works range from the mid-’forties to the ’seventies: Overture (1945), Events and Signals (1954), The Eye of the Needle (1957), Signature (1964), Selected Poems (1966), Trouvailles (1967), and The Dance is One (1972). Just recently he published his collected translations Poems of French Canada (1977).

    In his career as a lawyer and social philosopher, Scott was most concerned with the new economic and constitutional structures that must be developed to meet the needs of an emerging Canadian society. A Rhodes scholar, he studied history at Oxford between 1920 and 1923. There his social Anglicanism was widened by participation in a student Christian study group on “Christianity and the Industrial Order.” There also he met R.H. Tawney and was greatly impressed by Tawney’s book, The Acquisitive Society, a forerunner of Religion and the Rise of Capitalism. Scott absorbed from Tawney the belief that a man ought not to be ruled by an authority over which he has no control and the conviction that social rights, especially wealth, ought to be commensurate with an individual’s contribution to society.

    Scott’s Christian socialism was to be given a nationalist framework when he returned to Montreal. In 1924 he studied law at McGill where one of his teachers, H.A. Smith, lectured on constitutional and other branches of the law. Smith had made a study of federalism in the Canadian context and his lectures convinced Scott that the then current interpretations of the Canadian constitution by the British Privy Council, which tended to favour provincial rights, were directly opposed to the intentions of the Fathers of Confederation. Smith’s teaching laid the foundation for Scott’s federalism, a basis which was to be strengthened in 1928 when Scott was invited by Dean Percy Corbett to teach Law at McGill. There, for almost half a century, first as Professor and finally as Dean of Law, Scott’s chief concern was Canadian constitutional law: the fruit of these years, Scott’s Essay on the Constitution received a Governor General’s Award for 1978.

    There were additional factors encouraging the young Scott towards nationalism and federalism. After 1925 he met with a gathering of bright young men including Brooke Claxton, John Farthing, G.R. McCall, T.W.L. MacDermott, Raleigh Parkin, Arthur Terroux, and V. C. Wansborough. They called themselves “The Group” and met regularly in Montreal. Many of these men were war veterans, had been to Oxford, and all were concerned with the question of Canada’s future. The Group debated current literary topics, Fabianism, the new art of the Group of Seven, and Canada’s colonial position in the Empire. On colonialism “there was no lack of opinions expressed,” Scott wrote tersely in his diary. Dissatisfied with the thinness of cultural life in Montreal, The Group founded a Leonardo Society and opened a little shop to sell art reproductions. Not surprisingly, the shop was a failure — despite an encouraging visit from Vincent Massey and the exhilaration of a first Balm prints by Andrea del Sarto and Leonardo da Vinci. “Nice to think,” Scott jotted, “of two such civilizing influences let loose in Montreal” During these years he was to change from a young Anglophile with aesthetic leanings to a staunchly Canadian socialist and nationalist.

    A shaping component in Scott’s nationalism was the land itself. After his three years abroad immersed in the cultural past of Europe, he found Canadian culture superficial; Montreal, with its mercantilism, its foot-high curbs and false facades, seemed tawdry and ugly. Canada had nothing in the way of an historical past to match that of Europe — nothing that is, except the vast, open stretches of the Pre-Cambrian Shield.

    But the Laurentian country was wonderful, open, empty, vast, and speaking a kind of eternal language in its mountains, rivers, and lakes. I knew that these were the oldest mountains in the world. Geologic time made ancient civilization seem but yesterday’s picnic.5

For Scott the enormous age of the land seems to have been transmuted into a substitution for an historical past. But at the same time, because of its associations with the new nationalism and because it was open, unexplored, unpeopled, the land presented itself as an open page or clean canvas for the artist’s impression. He soon realized that it was on the basis of this natural landscape that Canada’s new literature must be built:

Who would read old myths
By this lake
Where the wild duck paddle forth
At daybreak?

Nonetheless this early nature verse required the humanizing influx of social concern before Scott could develop a poetry of more general relevance.


    This new social concern, a reaction to the Depression, first appeared in The Forum in 1932 in a collection of verse satirically entitled “An Up-to-Date Anthology of Canadian Poetry.” Prefaced with a few lines from “O Canada,” Scott’s anthology ends with an excerpt from “My Creed,” a 1931 New Year’s message from the Honourable H.H. Stevens, then Minister of Trade and Commerce. In the midst of the depression Stevens was pledging unqualified support of Canada’s “producers.” In Scott’s parodied version, Stevens’ ‘creed’ becomes the equivalent of a found poem. It is used to frame declamatory verses on the pressing social issues of the day — hunger, unemployment — and what Scott saw as government irresponsibility:

Come and see the vast natural wealth of this mine
In the short space of ten years
It has produced six American millionaires
And two thousand pauperized Canadian families.

In this opening squib, “Natural Resources,” Scott identifies the problem that has characterized the development of Canada’s resources. Was she to remain “colonial,” a hewer of wood and drawer of water for her richer and more powerful neighbours, first Britain and then America? Or was she to develop a just society for Canadian based on a new social order? Throughout the thirties and forties the problem of Canada’s lingering colonialism and the desire for a new social order was to encompass legal and political issues such as Canada’s lack of constitutional sovereignty, the question of federal provincial relations and the special problems of Quebec.

    For Scott, the answers to many of these problems could only be found in a programme of practical politics. In 1931, after meeting Frank Underhill, he helped to organize a research group on Fabian lines to develop a thorough analysis of the capitalist system in Canada. Scott recalls Underhill as an attractive man, rather shy in his manner but with a sharp mind: he “wouldn’t stand for any nonsense.” Both men recognized that the depression would very likely result in the formation of a new Canadian progressive party; should this occur a basis for a new programme of political action was required. This new research group became the League for Social Reconstruction and J.S. Woodsworth was invited to become honorary president with a national executive of Underhill, J.F. Parkinson, and E.A. Havelock from Toronto, and Scott and J. King Gordon from Montreal. Eugene Forsey, not a member of the executive, was one of the group. In the LSR Manifesto, members described themselves in Tawneyesque terms as an association “working for the establishment in Canada of a social order in which the basic principle regulating production, distribution and service will be the common good rather than private profit.”

    The new party which Scott and Underhill anticipated was to come much sooner than expected. In 1932 in Calgary, J.S. Woodsworth founded the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation and members of the LSR offered to assist with the drafting of a party programme for the first convention of the CCF in Regina in 1933. The theoretical socialism of the LSR consequently found its way into the Regina Manifesto, and through the CCF as a pressure group, some of it seeped into the official policies of the Liberal government. Many of these principles, such as the establishment of a central bank, economic planning, medicare, and the recurrent issue of the repatriation of the constitution strongly influenced the character of Canada today. As a member of the LSR Committee and closely associated with the CCF in the thirties, Scott helped prepare Social Planning for Canada (1935), a plan of action for Canadian socialism. In the forties, he co-edited with David Lewis, later National Chairman of the CCF, the influential handbook Make This Your Canada (1943). From 1942 to 1950 Scott was himself National Chairman of the CFF.

    In his legal career Scott was most concerned with the role of the federal government in relation to constitutional matters. As a socialist, he strongly supported the concept of federal social legislation to counteract some of the effects of the depression and he was incensed when the British Privy Council disallowed R.B. Bennett’s “New Deal” legislation. In the Canadian Bar Review of June 1937 Scott wrote prophetically:

That which the builders rejected has indeed become the corner stone. A well-balanced distribution of sovereignty between Dominion and provinces, giving to each residuary as well as specified powers, which was carefully planned by Canadian statesmen knowing the needs of the country, has been scrapped for an alternative theory of a severely limited Dominion but an unlimited provincial residue. None but foreign judges ignorant of the Canadian environment and none too well versed in Canadian constitutional law could have caused this constitutional revolution.

Scott foresaw the problem that Canada faces today: the rulings of the British Privy Council upset the Canadian constitutional balance and paved the way for secession by individual provinces.

    In the late ’thirties, however, the most important question in Canadian constitutional sovereignty was whether or not Canadians had the right to determine if and when they went to war. In Canada Today (1938) Scott wrote:

An increasing number of Canadians of all racial origins are coming to the belief that Canada must have the constitutional right to complete neutrality in future British wars, so that whatever course will best preserve the unity of the country may be fully taken.

Scott’s insistence on Canada’s right to neutrality has sometimes been interpreted as isolationist. But although Scott distrusted British policies at the time he was not, like Woodsworth, a confirmed pacifist. What he wanted for Canada was the right to determine her own destiny — whether peace or war. Mackenzie King’s “Parliament will decide” was no answer for once England entered the war, Canada would, inevitably be dragged along. Then, given our colonial position in international policy-making bodies, Scott foresaw that Canadians would again become, as he wrote in the Forum of August 1938, the “cannon fodder of imperialism.” With the death of his brother Harry at the Somme in 1916 still fresh in his mind, he wrote “Lest We Forget”:

The British troops at the Dardanelles
Were blown to bits by British shells
     Sold to the Turks by Vickers.
And many a brave Canadian youth
Will shed his blood on foreign shores,
And die for Democracy, Freedom, Truth,
With his body full of Canadian ores,
Canadian nickel, lead and scrap,
Sold to the German, sold to the Jap,
    With Capital watching the tickers.

    For those radicals who were politically powerless in the years between the wars, satire was the most telling weapon in the battle to change overly conservative thinking. Scott in his poem “W.L.M.K.” satirizes Mackenzie King’s stand on conscription by pointing out that King, Prime Minister of Canada for most of the period from 1921 to 1948, “never let his on the one hand / Know what his on the other hand was doing.” As the enjambment of the lines suggests, Scott sees King as both the cause and symbol of a Canada without direction: It was “ ‘Conscription if necessary / But not necessarily conscription.’” Here it is the unerring accuracy of the portrait, the witty parody of political rhetoric (“Truly he will be remembered / Wherever men honour ingenuity, / Amity, inactivity, and political longevity.”) and the flexibility of the speaking voice, alternately angry and rueful, which we savour.

    It is clear that Scott’s primary objection to participation in a new European war was that conscription would be inevitable. This would further exacerbate relations between French and English and further divide the country. Then too, Scott was not convinced, at the outset, that the “phoney war” as it was called, threatened the cause of world democracy. The Maginot Line in France still seemed intact and the real fighting had not started. Many intellectuals still viewed the new war as similar to World War I — as a primarily European struggle for power. However, after 1940 the phoney war began to accelerate into a real struggle for democracy in Europe: France collapsed, the bombs began to fall on Britain and the British Labour Party joined the National Government under Churchill. Scott with the CCF was facing a new situation. In July 1942, as a member of the CCF executive, Scott helped to draft policy of support for the democratic war effort.


    It was also during the early war years when Scott was studying at Harvard on a Guggenheim fellowship that his interest in a more inward poetry was revived. The Canadian scholar and critic, E.K. Brown, invited to be a guest editor of Poetry (Chicago), asked Scott to submit some poetry. The two poems which Scott sent, “Cornice” and “Armageddon” reveal a developing awareness of the complexity of human psychology: “This foe we fight is half our own self. / He aims our gunsight as we shoot him down.” The social concerns of the ’thirties, the debacle of the Spanish Civil War and the new psychology of the ’forties had deepened Scott’s poetry. He had come to realize, as he admitted in “Mural” that the socialist planners had not included in their neat blueprints the irrational drives and urges which are equally a part of human nature. The question, then, is no longer the classic struggle between Right and Left, between monopoly capitalism and private ownership, “but the kind of new order which shall arise on the ruins of the old.” In reviewing Arthur Koestler’s The Yogi and the Commissar in the first issue of Northern Review (December 1945/January 1946) Scott states the problem: “Can democracy and humanism not only survive the revolution but be in fact its active cause and pre-eminent spirit?” Koestler, who rejects both the saintly yogi and the Communist commissar is commended by Scott for his synthesis of “revolutionary humanism.

    In the same issue of Northern Review Scott provides his personal answer to this social problem in the lyrical “Laurentian Shield.” He begins with colloquial ease, describing the land with affection:

Hidden in wonder and snow, or sudden with summer
This land stares at the sun in a huge silence
Endlessly repeating something we cannot hear.
Inarticulate, arctic,
Not written on by history, empty as paper.

Canada is “inarticulate” because “arctic” or barren, yet in the depth of her lakes she has developing “songs” of her own. In Scott’s metaphor the land is a woman to be awakened through love into language and growth. The process of giving voice to the land is dependent on man’s co-operation with it, a co-operation expressed by his “technic,” a pun which fuses technological development with artistic technique. What the poet desires for Canada is the highest in the civilizing process, the language of poetry which Scott characterizes (borrowing a line from Stephen Spender) as “A language of flesh and of roses.

    At present there are rudimentary “pre-words, / Cabin syllables, / Nouns of settlement” but, ominously, the language is moving through “steel syntax” towards the “long sentence of its exploitation.” Here, the punning “sentence” carries a secondary meaning of legal sentence imprisonment. There is a danger that a technology of exploitation or rape is replacing the ideal of love and nurture. The “first cry” of the land was that of hunter and gold-digger; then came the “bold commands of monopoly, big with machines, / Carving its kingdoms out of the public wealth;” presumably the Canadian Pacific Railway. But now “the drone of the plane . . . links our future over the vanished pole.”6  What Scott advocates is a socialist brotherhood which will fill “all the emptiness with neighbourhood.” This “language of life” is the voice of millions of Canadians working together in the mines and forests; it is their united endeavour which, in the ringing words of the poem’s conclusion can “turn this rock into children.

    The themes which emerge from “Laurentian Shield” — of land as myth and property, of land as evolutionary process and history, of land in relation to human love and politics — are integral parts of Scott’s poetic vision. We also find in this poem his most effective use of metaphor, that of vivifying the inorganic, and his characteristic use of language, the twinning, often punning extension (“Inarticulate, arctic”) in which meaning is drawn out from one syllable or word to another.

     Scott characteristically uses the pun, a bringing together instantaneously in the mind of the unexpected similarities and relationships. Examples of this technique range from the simple pun of the ballad depicting his defence of D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterleys Lover, “A Lass in Wonderland” (which amalgamates Alice with a rueful “Alas!”) to variations such as the portmanteau “L’ange avantgardien.” The pun as a poetic device is characterized by wit and humour and certainly this tendency is evident in the zestful opening line of the love poem “Return” (“Bolder than brass, and brazen in our bed”). Yet as the second line demonstrates (“We mine the stripped veins of our own sub-ground”). Scott is able to develop emotional resonance from pun in much the same way as did the Metaphysicals, by transforming an initially audacious comparison into a structural conceit. He can do this because he shares with the Metaphysicals an agility of mind which delights in witty comparison and a structured vision of the human as a microcosm within the macrocosm of the universe. Because Scott sees man and human experience silhouetted against the larger movements of the universe this relation is reflected in the form as well as the language of his poetry:

Nothing human

or small,
too small

Each verse
a universe.

    For, as the title of this “Poem for Living” reminds us, Scott’s art is essentially an art of process: of life as living and of poetry as experience. In “A l’ange avantgardien,” he wryly embraces his own muse, the “rebellious angel,” who is half guardian angel and half the insurgent spirit of the avant garde.

But it is you, rebellious angel, you we trust.
Astride the cultures, feet planted in heaven and hell,
You guard the making, never what’s made and paid.

The emphasis is on the process of making, not on the artifact. Similarly, in “Passerby,” the poet listening to the sound of footsteps passing reflects on the relation of life and art in “The linking together of time and our temporal nature.” Basically a consideration of lachrimae rerum, a product of Scott’s later years, this is very much a time poem, in which the passing footsteps carry overtones not only of people and events passing but of the ebbing of life itself. The traditional answer to this dilemma, life passes but art endures, is ironically dismissed: “We worship Beauty, goddess of reaction, / Freezing our vision into her hardened moulds.” Like Bergson, Scott perceives that the flow of experience cannot be contained by the stasis of art. Because life can not be held, the human choice is that of fleeing the terror or of facing and transcending it:

But always the footsteps recede, the stone crumbles,
The tide flows out and does not return,
And from this terror we find no safety in flight
But only in faces turned to the flood of arrival.

The poem builds to the steady but muted lyricism of this last stanza with its enormously powerful conclusion; affective because although encompassing the fact of death it nonetheless chooses to affirm. In the final image of the flood is incorporated the duality of the life-giving but also life-dissolving sea. It is this finely balanced vision that distinguishes Scott (like Margaret Avison) as a Canadian poet whose poems offer most in the traditional Arnoldian sense of helping us to live our lives.

    Scott, like E.J. Pratt, is also one of our first recognizably Canadian poets in that his poetry expresses Canadian identity, an identity first associated with the new social vision of the ’thirties. In the poems of the ’forties, this early political stance is humanized by the recognition that political action must be informed by vision, and by intelligent choice. The necessity for vision is articulated in the poem “On the Death of Ghandi” and a concern with the “knowledge of how to use knowledge” is apparent in the tart but bemused tone of “To Certain Friends”:

Above all they fear the positive formation of opinion,
The essential choice that acts as a mental compass,
The clear perception of the road to the receding horizon.

Such knowledge, as described in “Examiner,” is the opposite of “the ashen garden” where the young are shaped by the “acid subsoil” of the old. However, the poem in which this choice is given ends ironically. Gathering from his students “the inadequate paper evidence,” the examiner hears “A cross the neat campus lawn / The professional [professorial?] mowers drone, clipping the inch-high green.” There is no question of the examiner’s sympathies: the tension of the poem springs from a recognition of the difference between his own beliefs and the system he is obliged to uphold:

In the tight silence
Standing by a green grass window
Watching the fertile earth graduate its sons
With more compassion — not commanding the shape
Of stem and stamen, bringing the trees to pass
By shift of sunlight and increase of rain,
For each seed the whole soil, for the inner life
The environment receptive and contributory—
I shudder at the narrow frames of our text-book schools
In which we plant our so various seedlings.

The compassion and lyrical wholeness that Scott finds in nature, “not commanding the shape / Of stem and stamen,” a view that incorporates the older religious spirit — “bringing the trees to pass” — is the antithesis of the inhumanity of the narrow “text-book schools.” “Examiner” prefigures much of the later poetry where Scott turns increasingly to nature in an almost Wordsworthian or Arnoldian sense to find assurance of the higher human values which man lacks.

    The poetic perspective which sees man and human life as microcosms set against a greater whole is also to be found in “A Hill for Leopardi,” a late and interesting poem from Signature. The Leopardi of the title is Giacomo Lanpardi whose poem “The Infinite” provides the point of departure for Scott’s own flight into space:

The traffic and all the trivial sounds
Fade far away. I mount
Swiftly, for time is short, flight beckons
Out where the world becomes worlds, suns pass, distance
Curves into light, time bends, and motion,
A sweep of laws,
Rolls up all my strength and all
Into one marvel.

The last punning allusion directs us to Marvell’s poem “To His Coy Mistress” and the familiar carpe diem motif. But the experience is transformed. Like Leopardi (or for that matter, the Marvell of “The Garden”), Scott has escaped from time into the vast freedom of infinite space, where “the world becomes worlds, suns pass . . . time bends.” His marvelling is a form of awe arising from the contemplation of the glories of the universe and his “shipwreck,” unlike Leopardi’s, which occurs in space, is occasioned by the return to earth.7

Yet it is always the same.
A loved voice, a touch,
A phone ringing, and the thrust dies.
Another journey ends where it began
Shipwrecked on ground we tread a little while.

     Scott’s awe, a recognition of “so great a glory in life-thrust and mind range,” also pervades his most characteristic poem, “A Grain of Rice.” Here we find the framing evolutionary structure of the macrocosm/microcosm introduced with the opening line, “Such majestic rhythms, such tiny disturbances”.  The larger rhythms are the great movements of the universe, “the rise of continents, / Invasion of deserts, erosion of hills, / The capping of ice,” the “turn of the wind” that brings the monsoon, and by implication, the tiny disturbance that is life, the grain of rice. In one sense, these tiny disturbances are events such as the delicate emergence of a great Asian moth from its chrysalis “radiant, fragile, / Incapable of not being born, and trembling / To live its brief moment.” In another sense, the tiny disturbance is man — located midway between cell and galaxy but unnatural in his cruelty to his fellows:

Today, while Europe tilted, drying the Baltic,
I read of a battle between brothers in anguish,
            A flag moved a mile.

The concluding stanza is a summation of the deep structure of Scott’s poetic with reflections on religion, love and science, a belief in the order of the universe as opposed to human order and a reaching out to the frontiers of life and knowledge:

Religion build walls round our love, and science
Is equal of error and truth. Yet always we find
Such ordered purpose in cell and in galaxy
So great a glory in life-thrust and mind-range,
Such widening frontier draw out our longings,
            We grow to one world
             Through enlargement of wonder.

In effect, Scott is stating his developed poetic creed, an attitude of mind summarized in “Poem for Living” “In all ways / praise.


    Scott’s humanist belief in the cooperative commonwealth of man is manifested in the Canadian constitutional sphere as a strong belief in a Canadian federalism in which Quebec’s special needs are recognized. This federalism stems from the recognition that only a strong central government can successfully cope with the problems faced by today’s nation state. Both the depression and World War II had confirmed Scott in this opinion: during the depression Ottawa did not enact national legislation on the grounds that it had no legal power to do so. Yet when World War II was declared, Ottawa took full federal authority under the War Measures Act, thus providing for industrial development. This about-face convinced Scott that the federal policy-making powers required for the socialist state were not only practicable; they were essential for a country as balkanized as Canada. Yet despite the success of this ‘socialist’ experiment, when the war years ended, Prime Minister Mackenzie King handed back control of industry to the industrialists. Scott’s moral outrage then exploded in “Orderly Decontrol”:

Fast we must give away all the assets of war:
Stores, trucks, equipment, goods of every kind,
And all the factories built with public money.
These must be channeled toward monopolies,
Which will most surely exploit them.
This we shall call
Restoring free enterprise.

     Although a strong federalist, a position which superficially might appear to be incompatible with his stand on individual rights, Scott has long been a defender of civil liberties and minority rights in Quebec. In the mid-’twenties, he had recognized that Quebecers were exploited by manufacturers and industrialists shielded by church and government; and he shared with few francophone Quebecers the political, economic, and cultural struggles of the years between the wars. As early as 1931 he was protesting against a lack of freedom of speech in Quebec. Throughout the years, Scott has consistently fought for the rights of Quebecers against those who suppressed them whether they were to be found in the English speaking industrial-financial establishment of St. James Street, or the Catholic hierarchy in the days of Cardinal Villeneuve, or the Quebec government of Taschereau in the ’thirties, or Duplessis in the ’forties and ’fifties. Through funds left from the estate of Alan Plaunt, Scott organized publication of the important study of the asbestos strike in Quebec, La Greve de lamiante (1956), which brought him into active collaboration with young intellectual, Pierre Elliott Trudeau.

    With his growing fluency in French, his belief in the law as a force for social change, the social concerns of the LSR and the CCF and, last but not least, with his own poetry, Scott often succeeded in bridging the two cultures. He entered actively into the literary culture of Quebec, meeting regularly in the ’fifties with a small group of Quebecois poets. As a translator, he was one of the first to make the poetry of Quebec available in English translation publishing St. Denys Garneau, Anne Hebert: Translations (1962) and Dialogue sur la traduction: Anne Hebert et Frank Scott (1970). The introduction to his recent Canada Council Award winning Poems of French Canada (1977) is a personal account of his own attempt to bridge the two solitudes through politics and art. As he explains in the introduction, much of his work on minority rights in the early constitutional essays concerned the problems of Quebecers:

How to build a Canada that would allow the two principal cultures to flourish freely became an intellectual and emotional challenge, and in this endeavour literature would obviously play an important role. I heard the voice of the new Quebec in the poets and in such novels as Jean-Charles Harvey’s Les demicivilises and Lemelin’s Au pied de la pente douce before ever the quiet revolution had arrived.

Appropriately, the first of the modern poems translated in Scott’s Poems of French Canada is Jean-Charles Harvey’s “The Forerunner.

His probing thought cut lanes through custom and cant.
Always he followed the line of his farthest flight.
So they rose in a rage and tied his hands to his side.

     Although a professor rather than a practitioner of law, Scott successfully pleaded leading cases before the Supreme Court of Canada in Quebec including Roncarelli v. Duplessis the first successful legal action for minority religious rights against the repressive Duplessis regime. Scott’s personal courage in taking on Duplessis was quickly recognized by his law students who prepared a victory banner: “Knight F.R. Scott Vanquishes Night Duplessis.” A few years later, Scott successfully defended D.H. Lawrence’s novel, Lady Chatterleys Lover, against charges of obscenity in the Supreme Court of Canada, and then versified his experience in the Quebec Court of Appeal with characteristic wit: “I went to bat for my lady Chatte / Dressed in my bib and gown.

     In the ’sixties Scott served as a member of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, which recommended a large extension of French language rights throughout Canada:

We have tried to to work out an enmity of the two languages and the two cultures and tried to make that mean something in a country where the cultures and the populations are unevenly distributed. It was not an easy thing to do but I had thought that we worked it out pretty well.

But the work of the B&B Commission ran counter to the political evolution of Quebec from the quiet revolution to the present demand for complete Quebec autonomy. In his stand on the War Measures Act and in a different context on Quebec’s Bills 22 and 101, Scott has been pictured by some anglophone and francophone liberals as a typical Westmount anglais. Yet in both instances Scott based his stand on a firm belief in equal human rights within the rule of law.

     Scott’s support of the use of the War Measures Act in Quebec is consistent with his belief in civil liberties. For Scott, individual freedoms can only be protected by a nation’s laws: simply put, if the laws are wrong the citizen has a democratic right to attempt change but he has no right to bomb and kidnap to speed reform. The invocation of the War Measures Act “gave back to me my civil liberties which were being steadily eroded by the F.L.Q. terrorists:” Scott approved of federal government intervention because it was a response to the attempt by an illegal minority to control Quebec.

     Scott’s objections to Quebec’s Bills 22 and 101 which deny language freedoms previously enjoyed by the English-speaking minority in that province correspond with his support of the B&B proposals for an extension of French language rights to other parts of Canada where the size of the francophone minorities make it practicable. So in 1974 when the Bourassa government introduced in the Quebec National Assembly Bill 22, The Official Language Act, making French the sole official language of the province and severely limiting the existing rights of English schools, businesses and universities, he saw that the concept of equal status for the two cultureal communities was at stake. In July of that year he was one of a group of seven McGill Law professors who issued a public statement criticizing, not the entire purpose, but some of the harsher provisions of Bill 22.

    I personally found it inconceivable that a supposedly democratic government should claim the right to limit the growth of the English minority in Quebec by denying access to its schools to any Protestants it chose to exclude by provincial law. The idea of equal partnership between the two principal cultures, and fair treatment of other ethnic groups, which the B&B Commission sought to achieve, was utterly repudiated. Bill 22 would obviously have the effect of driving out the anglophones, and thus would achieve a form of genocide by erosion.

    Cut the roots of a minority culture — use of the language, access to schools — and it will soon wither away. For a regime of rights is substituted a regime of uncertain toleration.

As Quebec’s Bill 101 is even harsher in some respects than Bill 22, Scott is equally opposed to it. In this stand he has judicial support in the recent ruling in the Quebec Superior Court and Court of Appeals that the language rights entrenched in Section 133 of the B.N.A. Act cannot be unilaterally amended by the Quebec government.


     Scott’s vision has always been of a Canada of limitless potential. In many ways this is the ideal “true north” of our national anthem, a Canada which the social, economic and political conditions of life are evolved to meet the needs of Canadians. This vision is the product of a strong social conscience, a disciplined mind and a warm humanity. Because Scott, the social critic, can be quite sharp with his adversaries, those outside his circle tend to misjudge him as a somewhat forbidding intellectual: but to his friends he is a man of immense warmth whose ready hand of greeting is joined with a witty sally and an infectious laugh. On Scott’s seventieth birthday, his long-time friend and fellow poet, A.J.M. Smith, described the whole man:

A voice, not a voice alone, a hand,
a hand to grasp a hand, a leg to stand,
on, nerves to feel, and in supreme command,

the shaping mind that shapes the poem
as it shapes the man, four-square, and needle-eyed,
and Frank.

These qualities still characterize the man today. In August 1, 1979, Scott will celebrate his eightieth birthday with family and poet friends at his summer cottage in North Hatley, Quebec. There with his wife Marian, a distinguished painter and a Fellow of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts, and visited by his son Peter, also a poet and a professor of English at Berkeley, Scott continues to battle for constitutional rights in Quebec while still drawing inspiration from the Appalachian lakes and mountains around him. As a poet, as a lawyer and as a social philosopher, F.R. Scott is a towering figure in Canadian intellectual history—one of the very few in Canada’s first century who can be justly called a great Canadian.

1976, 1979


  1. Interview with F.R. Scott by Vincent Tovel, 1971, F.R. Scott papers. This interview was recently published in Canadian Poetry 2, Spring/Summer 1978 under the title “The World for a Country: An Edited Interview with Frank Scott.”[back]

  2. MacLeans Magazine, April, 1959.[back]

  3. I am indebted to Marlene Gay Shore’s unpublished paper prepared at the University of British Cohnnbia in 1976, for some of the ideas here expressed relating cultural nationalism and social protesting in the writing of F.R. Scott.[back]

  4. A.J.M. Smith and Elizabeth Brewster have both remarked on the close relationship between Scott’s persona and the perceiving eye.[back]

  5. Peter Stevens, The McGill Movement, Ryerson, 1969, p. 51.[back]

  6. Scott’s socialism is here amusingly overt in his positive description of the plane (Trans-Canada Airlines and therefore owned by the Canadian people) as contrasted with the earlier negative description of the train (presumably Canadian Pacific Railway and thus representative of monopoloy capitalism).[back]

  7. Elizabeth Brewster has also noted this distinction.[back]