Thomas Cary’s Abram’s Plains (1789) and Its “Preface"

by D.M.R. Bentley

     Abram’s Plains by Thomas Cary (1751-1823) is certainly one of the most anthologised and arguably one of the most important of the few poems which were written or published in late eighteenth-century Canada.  In 1957 Lawrence M. Lande included several fairly lengthy excerpts from Abram’s Plains, which was originally printed at Quebec “for the author”1 in 1789, in Old Lamps Aglow, his loving Appreciation of Early Canadian Poetry.  Since then the complete text of Abram’s Plains has appeared, together with its short “Preface” dated “Quebec, 24th Jan. 1789,”2 in Three Early Poems from Lower Canada (1969), edited by Michael Gnarowski, and, without its “Preface,” in the first volume of The Evolution of Canadian Literature in English: Beginnings to 1867 (1973), edited by Mary Jane Edwards.

     Yet despite their availability Abram’s Plains and its “Preface” have received scant critical attention.  In the Literary History of Canada (1965, 1976) James J. and Ruth Talman offer only a brief biographical sketch of Cary, a few excerpts from his “Preface,” and the following descriptive paragraph:

     Abram’s Plains, although derivative in style, is truly Canadian in content.  Beginning with an invocation to the Plains “Where . . . I sit and court the Muse,” Cary goes on to a description of the whole St. Lawrence system: “cold Superior”; Huron, “distinguish’d by its thund’ring bay”; Michigan; Erie; “thy dread fall, Niagara”, Montreal, with a reference to the fur trade; Quebec, with a description of its surrounding forest and mention of the shipbuilding industry; and so on, through the Gulf to the coasts of Labrador.  In passing, Cary describes the settlers, with their fields and villages; Indians, Eskimos; buffalo, carriboo [sic], wolf, otter; fish, with a neatly sketched picture of the fishing through the ice of the St. Lawrence.  In short, an epitome of the Canadian scene as it appeared in his time, though it is doubtful if Cary could actually have seen Eskimos.3

Gnarowski’s “Note” on Abram’s Plains in Three Early Poems from Lower Canada provides no critical commentary either on the poem or on its “Preface” but does give a useful account of Cary’s life based, like that of the Talmans, on the entries in Henry J. Morgan and Marie Tremaine:

Cary . . . was born near Bristol, England, became a journalist, and, entered the service of the East India company.  [He] then went to Canada where he became secretary of Governor Prescott in 1797. . . . Tremaine states that Cary came to Quebec before 1787, and that he was working as a government clerk when he published his poem.  Cary’s commitment to Canada was unmistakable.  He opened a subscription library in Quebec [in 1797], and in 1805 founded the Quebec Mercury, an important outlet for English conservative opinion, and in which Cary wrote extensively on literary and political topics.4

Mary Jane Edwards, in her valuable introduction to Abram’s Plains in The Evolution of Canadian Literature covers much the same ground as Gnarowski and the Talmans, but provides additional information concerning Cary’s life and opinions, particularly his strongly pro-British political opinions (of which more will be said in the course of the present discussion) as expressed and embodied in the Quebec Mercury between its foundation in 1805 and Cary’s death in 1823.  To date, the only writers who have discussed Abram’s Plains and its “Preface” in a critical context are Sandra Djwa and J.M. Zezulka, the former seeing in the poem “a colonial reflection of the English tradition”5 which persists in Canadian poetry until Pratt, and the latter arguing that it partakes of a “pastoral vision” of Canada which is shared by “a substantial number of Canadian poets”6, to Klein and beyond.  These approaches to Abram’s Plains are salutary in that they integrate Cary’s poem and “Preface” into the literary history and thematic development of writing in Canada.  It will be the aim of the present undertaking to consolidate that integration and, in addition, to examine Abram’s Plains and Cary’s “Preface” in their own terms with a view to establishing their connection, not only tenth the English and Canadian literary traditions, but also with the historical, political, and social milieu of Quebec in the late eighteenth century.


     Abram’s Plains is a topographical poem, a poem in which to quote Dr. Johnson’s famous definition of “local party,” “the fundamental subject is some particular landscape . . . poetically described, with the addition of such embellishment as may be described by historical retrospection and in cidental meditation.”7  Each of the three elements of this definition are amply represented in Cary’s poem: the “particular landscape . . . poetically described” is, of course, that of Quebec, particularly the St. Lawrence river system and its environs; “historical retrospection” is present and directed primarily towards the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, though there are also references to the English-French conflict over the Ohio River basin, to Sir William Johnson’s defeat of Dieskau at Lake George and to his victory at Fort Niagara, and to the attempts by American forces under Generals Richard Montgomery and Benedict Arnold to capture the ‘fourteenth colony’ at the time of the American Revolution; and “incidental meditation” is present in a variety of forms, occasioned mostly by Cary’s efforts to survey the scenery, inhabitants, wealth, and politics of Britain’s Canadian colony.  The three elements of Cary’s topographical poem, as well as the various subspecies (picturesque tableaux, descriptive catalogues.  and the like) contained within it, are held together formalistically by the heroic couplet, a form which facilitates the integration of “digressive matter,”8 and structurally by two physical entities: (1) the Plains of Abraham themselves, where the poem begins and ends and where the central event of Lower Canadian history and of the poem, is located; and (2) the St. Lawrence river system, which Cary uses as, so to say, a thread along which to string the various descriptive, historical, and meditative embellishments of the poem.

     It is Cary’s use of the river, more, perhaps, than any other feature of Abram’s Plains, which endows the poem with the Janus-like quality of facing in two directions.  It looks backwards, through the topographical tradition, to the Thames and Loddon of Pope’s Windsor Forest (a poem which Cary mentions as one of his models in his “Preface” and which R.A. Aubin argues may be “regarded as a topographical poem”9) to the Nile of Claudian, to the Moselle of Ausonius (not to mention the numerous rivers of Drayton’s Poly-Olbion), and, indeed, to the classical underpinnings of the eighteenth century.  And it looks forward, by an extraordinary, intuitive understanding on Cary’s part of the shape and significance of the St. Lawrence river system, to the Laurentian hypothesis of Donald Creighton who has argued in the (Commercial) Empire of the St. Lawrence that the St. Lawrence was not only the determining factor in Canadian history, but also the shaping force in Canadian society and in the Canadian soul.  In its use of the St. Lawrence and as, in part, a “river poem,”10 Abram’s Plains also echoes forward in the Canadian literary tradition to Sangster’s The St. Lawrence and the Saguenay and to Lampman’s “Between the Rapids” and, beyond these, to a poem such as F.R. Scott’s “On the Terrace, Quebec” and to the pertinent sections of MacLennan’s Rivers of Canada.

     “Here, in life’s vigour, Wolfe resign’d his breath, / And, conqu’ring sunk to the dark shades of death . . . (11. 282-283).  With this couplet Cary begins his account of the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, proceeding first to set it against the historical backdrop of the Seven Years’ War, the conflict over the Ohio River basin and the exploits of Sir William Johnson, and then going on to describe in some detail the Battle itself.  To Cary the defeat of the French on the Plains of Abraham was the outcome of gallic aggression and “presumption” (1. 300) in North America; and “great Wolfe” was the patriotic leader of “dauntless” veterans who won victory at Quebec over a “num’rous foe” (11. 302-306).  His description of how Wolfe led his troops, not as a “chief,” but “on foot”, of the General’s courageous indifference to his “wounds,” and of his famous last words (“Anxious, he hears the shout — ‘they fly, they fly,’ /  ‘Who fly?’ ‘The foe’ — ‘contented then I die’”) is a set piece, based, no doubt, on written and, perhaps, oral accounts of Cary’s day.  Over half a century later, in the “Death of Wolfe” and “The Plains of Abraham,” Sangster would tell the same tale using many of the same words as the earlier poet; indeed, Sangster would draw much the same moral as Cary concerning the “rare, divinest life / Of peace, compared with Strife.”11  It is, in fact, Cary’s moral response to the Plains of Abraham, rather than his description of the Battle itself, which is of most interest to the present discussion and to which we may now turn.

     As is the case with most topographical poems, the “historical retrospection and incidental meditation” which are occasioned by Cary’s survey of the Plains of Abraham and of the St. Lawrence river system, are subordinated in Abram’s Plains to a “controlling moral vision”12 based, in this instance, on a perceived need for peace, harmony, freedom and moderation.  A recognition of the presence of this “moral vision” in Abram’s Plains, as well as of the historical events which occasioned it, is essential to an understanding of Cary’s reason for giving his poem the title he did, for employing the Plains of Abraham as a central, unifying locale, and, indeed, for writing and publishing the piece at all.  By insisting at the end of his “Preface” on the place and date of his poem as “Quebec . . .1789,” and in entitling it Abram’s Plains, Cary demands that it be read as, in part, a commemorative tribute to Wolfe’s victory on the Plains of Abraham precisely thirty years earlier, in 1759.  While this explains the prominence given to Wolfe’s victory and death in the central section of the poem (11. 282-361) it also raises the question of why Cary chose to begin the poem as he did, by having his poet/speaker describe in detail the Plains as they are in 1789:

       Thy Plains, O Abram! and thy pleasing views,
Where, hid in shades, I sit and court the muse,
Grateful I sing.  For there, from care and noise,
Oft have I fled to taste thy silent joys:
There, lost in thought, my musing passion fed,
Or held blest converse with the learned dead,
Else, like a steed, unbroke to bit or rein,
Courting fair health, I drive across the plain;
The balmy breeze of Zephyrus inhale,
Or bare my breast to the bleak northern gale.
Oft, on the green sod lolling as I lay,
Heedless, the grazing herds around me stray;
Close by my side shy songsters fearless hop,
And shyer squirrels the young verdure crop:
All take me for some native of the wood,
Or else some senseless block thrown from the flood.

The answer to the question of why Cary chose to begin his poem with this apostrophe to and description of the Plains of Abraham is that he intended the Plains, once, in 1759, the scene of conflict, discord, and death, now, in 1789, the embodiment of peace, harmony, and health, as a metaphorical microcosm of a Quebec enjoying the benefits of the British civilization which, he says later in a key couplet, has “In Circe’s glass bid moderation reign / And moral virtues humanize the plain” (11. 62-63).  It is worth emphasizing, too, that Abram’s Plains was written in the aftermath, not only of the Seven Years’ War, but also of the American War of Independence.  This fact leads Cary, after paying tribute to Wolfe, to render praise to the “prudence” and “saving wisdom” of those who defended Quebec against American invaders in the winter of 1775/76.  It also lends a double emphasis to his obloquies against “wild-wasting war / Destructive War” and to his fervent hope that “never more may hostile arms distain, / With human gore, the verdure of the plain” (11. 51-52, 340-341).  In effect, Cary’s hope for lasting peace makes explicit what is implicit in the beginning of the poem: the topographical poet’s characteristic “salutation to a stable present . . . his attempt to project that stability into the future.”13   The argument, then, is that Cary’s “moral vision” of the British presence in postconquest Quebec is deeply present in the opening lines of the poem and that, like the description of the forest at the beginning of Windsor Forest (also written, note, in the aftermath of conflict, in Pope’s case a Civil and a European war14), Cary’s description of the Plains is to be taken both literally and metaphorically.  With this in mind, it is worth looking closely and in detail at the opening lines of Abram’s Plains.

     What is most obviously remarkable about the opening of Cary’s poem is the way in which the description brings together and fuses the old — world, neo-classical conventions with the new — world, Canadian environment.  We notice immediately that the muse is an inspirational presence on the plain and are not surprised to discover, when Cary uses the classical muse machinery at one of several points later in the poem, that she is a muse of peace, possessing as “Her only weapon . . . a grey goose quill” with which “she draws peaceful parallels” (11. 459-460) and which she will use to fight only in the cause of liberty against tyranny.  Present, too, are the “learned dead,” no doubt the “blest dead” — the classical, heroes, philosophers, politicians, and poets who “humanized the world” in James Thomson’s The Seasons (another poem mentioned admiringly in the “Preface” to Abram’s Plains) — with whom the Canadian poet, like his English predecessor, holds “converse.”15  But juxtaposed with the “balmy breeze” of the classical Zephyrus (the West Wind, traditionally associated with health and renewal) is the “bleak northern” — and Canadian — “gale”.  These two very different winds are sought out by a Cary who, now markedly less sedentary than the reposeful figure who had earlier courted his peace-loving muse and conversed with the “learned dead,” likens himself to an unbroken “steed” — an image surely of the vital and healthy exercise of (British) liberty or freedom.  The implication of Cary’s opening lines is that peace and freedom, together with the accoutrements of classical civilization and the invigorating qualities of Canadian nature, are to be found on the Plains of Abraham, and to be enjoyed under circumstances of utter and complete harmony:

Oft, on the green sod lolling as I lay,
Heedless, the grazing herds around me stray;
Close by my side shy songsters fearless hop,
And shyer squirrels the young verdure crop:
All take me for some native of the wood,
Or else some senseless block thrown from the flood.                                                               (11. 11-16)

Here Cary is at pains to demonstrate the harmonious life that exists on the plains.  His tranquil landscape contains no hint of conflict or antipathy; indeed the poet / speaker (which is to say European man) is in a state of concord with the creatures of Britain’s Canadian colony: he is accepted alike by the domesticated “grazing herds” and by the “shy” and “shyer” animals of the forest who perceive him, he speculates, either as an animate “native of the wood” or as an inanimate “block” cast ashore from the St. Lawrence.  It is more than possible that Cary’s use of the word “block” brings with it to this context a double valancy and two meanings, one deriving from its traditional (Shakespearian, Popian) usage as an image of inertia and senselessness, the other deriving from the implication that his Canadian “block” is a piece of flotsam from Quebec’s burgeoning timber industry, described by Cary in some detail later in the poem.  If this possibility is granted, then it would appear that Cary’s doubly suggestive “block” serves to reconcile old world concepts with new world realities and, beyond that, to show, like the entire context in which it appears, that on the Plains of Abraham there is to be found in 1789 a peaceful and harmonious relationship between man (even man with commercial connections) and nature (even wild nature).  Although, as we shall see, Cary at several points later in the poem betrays a typical conqueror’s sense of contempt for the defeated French Canadians and a typical colonist’s sense of superiority over the indigenous Indian culture, these attitudes, regrettable as they may seem today, must be understood as aspects of a moral vision based on a belief in the civilizing power of the British presence in Quebec.

     If the opening lines of Abram’s Plains were apparently intended to body forth the peace, harmony, health, and freedom which have humanized the Plain since the fall of Quebec, then the penultimate paragraph of the poem must certainly be seen as a statement of the moderation, the uia media and the beatus vir that stem also from the British presence in Quebec:

      But see, far down the west, the God of day
Behind yon mountain’s brow, low sinks his ray:
The fleecy clouds, deep-fring’d with blushing red,
Calm on the soul, mild as their lustre, shed.
True emblem of life’s happy middle scene,
Where neither glare nor gloom once intervene:
Beneath the blaze of mad ambition’s fire,
Yet above want, where all our joys expire.
There easy labour keeps the soul serene,
Nor rais’d by vanity nor sunk by spleen;
Life’s clear smooth stream unruffled gently flows,
Nor one rude breeze to hurt it’s quiet blows.
                                                          (11. 568-579)

It is now possible to recognize that, like the Plains of Abraham, the waters of the St. Lawrence river system provide, not merely a unifying device for Abram’s Plains, but a metaphor for the moderate good life bestowed by British rule in Quebec and, beyond that, for an eighteenth-century civilization in the colony that is rooted in the classics, founded on Christianity and dedicated to the maintenance of peace, harmony, and moderation.  Near the beginning of the poem Cary had invested the St. Lawrence first with classical overtones, by making it the home of “Naiades” (11. 18, 43, 252), and then with Christian overtones, by referring to its “canoniz’d name” (1. 84).  Later, he had used the slow-moving, fertilizing waters of the St. Charles River as an emblem of “wise caution” which “slow, yet sure . . . influence widely spreads” (11. 400-405) and offered as a contrast “rushing floods” which, in his view, “deprive” the “meadows of their needful dews” and, hence, are emblematic of a “headstrong, thoughtless,” “useless,” and easily “cheated” mentality.  By the time we get to the penultimate paragraph of the poem, quoted above, the St. Lawrence has taken up a central position in Cary’s moral vision, lying at the very heart of his view of the good and, in the fullest sense, civilized life that exists in the British colony of Quebec thirty years after the conquest.

     Always within his controlling vision of the benefits of British civilization for Quebec, Cary has much to say in Abram’s Plains about the commercial wealth and potential of the empire of the St. Lawrence.  This aspect of the poem becomes its central focus after the opening descriptions of the Plains of Abraham and of the St. Lawrence river system.   But it is already implicit in Cary’s decision to give shape to Abram’s Plains, not by following the river upstream in the direction of exploration, but, rather, from West to East — which is to say in the direction of the flow of water and staples from the hinterland to the metropolitan centres of Montreal and Quebec City and, thence, down the St. Lawrence estuary and, by extension, across the Atlantic ocean to England.  This structuring, commercial movement provides implicit evidence of Cary’s endorsement of the mercantile system whereby fur, fish, lumber, and grains were exported to Britain, yielding in return “income,” “man-power,” and “capital” to exploit the colony’s natural resources.16  Crucial to a flourishing mercantile system were plentiful such natural resources, coupled with a stable peace in which profitably to exploit them.   Thus it is that Cary, perhaps remembering the personified figures of “Peace and Plenty” in Pope’s Windsor Forest, initiates his “comprehensive view” (1. 497), his detailed survey, of the commercial empire of the St. Lawrence by arranging for the river’s “Naiades” to render praise to Ceres, the “bounteous” goddess of agriculture who later in the poem will pour “her grain in golden showers” on “craving realms” (11. 216217) and then himself, consistent, as ever, with the overall vision of the poem, proclaiming the civilizing virtues of the pax Britannica:

             . . . the Naiades . . .
. . . in full chorus, vocal, join their lays
To chant, in chearful carols, Ceres’ praise:
Whose yellow harvests, nodding, glad the shore,
Where Dryades, midst wild deserts, reign’d before.
Where prowl’d the wolf, the bear and fox obscene
Now grateful kine, loud lowing, graze the green.
Such are thy blessings peace!
                                                                    (11. 43-50)

(It is incidentally worth noticing that more than the shadows of Pope’s “Peace and Plenty” are discernable in this description — that Ceres also puts in an appearance in Windsor Forest, as do a vanished “Desart” and a “Fox obscene”17).   Cary’s praise for the accomplishments of the pioneers in the description is, of course, typical of Pre-Confederation poetry, as is his endorsement, a few lines later, of pioneering as an activity at once physical and moral, as well as sanctioned by God: “How blest the task, to tame the savage soil, / And, from the waters, bid the woods recoil!” (11. 54-55).  It must always be remembered, however, that whether Cary is praising the pioneer or, as later in the poem, the “Tenant and lord, noble and peasant,” his larger praise is reserved for the humanizing virtues of British civilization and for the British institutions from which stem “smiling peace and laughing plenty. . . / And gay content . . . [to] delight . . . the plain” (11. 448-449).

     Cary continues his survey of the commercial empire of the St. Lawrence with several lines of pious lucubration on the agricultural and moral advantages of a peaceful and fertile, Christian and British, Quebec for the Indian, whose “tomahawks” and “skalping knives” are being beaten into “ploughshares” and “pruning hooks,” for the Loyalist, who “shelter’d from the storm of civil broils”, “Again, from the unclog’d responsive earth, / Calls a new patrimony into birth,” and even for the French Canadian, the beneficiary of “British magnanimity,” who is so “Pleas’d with the now” that he “no more” regrets “the past” (11. 60-71).  “Thus mariners wreck’d on some distant shore,” he imagines, in an extended and appropriately commercial simile, regret the loss of their ship only until “with sad step, they inland bend their way / Where mines of gold their loss amply repay” (11. 74-75).  Little wonder that, later in Abram’s Plains, Cary exorts the French-Canadian “peasants” to be “Grateful” for their “mended state, / And bless, beneath a GEORGE18 [their] better state” (11. 450-451).

     The mercantile poet’s first port-of-call in the British Eldorado of Quebec is the “city of Montreal” which he apostrophizes as a “Great mart!” and characterizes as the centre of “all the forest’s spoils, / The furry treasures of the hunter’s toils” (11. 79-80).  Although Cary’s notion that the Indians themselves brought their furs to Montreal for sale — “Within thy walls,” he says, “the painted nations pour, / And smiling wealth on thy blest traders show’r” (11. 82-83) — seems to rest on a slight misunderstanding of the mechanism of the fur-trade (generally speaking the Indians sold furs to coureurs de bois, who then brought them to Montreal), he is, of course, quite correct in seeing Montreal, where the North West Company had been operating since the 1770’s, as the metropolitan centre of the fur-trade in 1789 — that is to say two years after the “blest traders” Simon McTavish and Joseph Frobisher had established their famous partnership there.19   Montreal, Cary also notes, stands at the confluence of the St. Lawrence and Ottawa rivers, a fact which also contributed to the city’s importance as a geographical and commercial focal point for the fur-trade.

     From Montreal Cary continues his comprehensive survey of the St. Lawrence river system “downward” (1. 85) towards Quebec City.  En route he notices two additions to the St. Lawrence: “waters [of Lake] Champlain,” entering the system by the Richelieu river (whose name, perhaps because of its French, political connotations, he omits) and the Maskinonge river flowing into the north-west end of Lac St. Pierre.   The former provides Cary the mercantilist with an opportunity to allude, somewhat quaintly, to the pine or tall mast trade which, though relatively insignificant in his day (in 1787, for instance, only sixteen masts were shipped to England from Quebec20), would rise to prominence in the Napoleonic Wars:

Champlain, renown’d for high aspiring woods — 
Down thy wide stream the naked sylvans glide,
And, in tall masts, of navies swell the pride:
Thy navies Britain, who bid discord cease,
And awe ambitious monarchs into peace.
                                                            (11. 87-91)

By contrast, the latter river, the Maskinonge, merely gives Cary the opportunity to mention the first of many fish inhabiting the St. Lawrence system—the “tyrant pike . . .  / To please the haut-gout of the high-fed town” (11. 92-93).  It is worth noticing that, unimportant as it may first appear, Cary’s reference to pike as a delicacy contains the message that the “high-fed town” has moved well beyond the level of mere survival and subsistence to that of refined taste and superabundance.  There will be more to say about this message and its cognates later in the present discussion.

     For Cary, Quebec City, which had been the centre of the French commercial and military activity in North America, is first and foremost a “strong base” for the British garrison and a “secure” harbour for “Brittania’s navy” (1. 138).  It is also the recipient of inspired, British engineering expertise which, presumably drawing on the same divine sources as Moses, is able to command the sea to go back:

. . . thy strong base, Quebec [the waters] rapid lave,
Where British spirits, bold, oppose the wave:
For here the swelling far-projected quay,
Gains daily on the wave’s extended way:
Such is the ardour of the British breast,
If of that liberty it loves possessed,
At their command floods back their billows heave,
And a bold shore their oozy bottom leave:
High flinty rocks descend to level plains,
Whence, on both sides, commerce a footing gains.
                                                               (11. 98-107)

In addition to its strategic and commercial importance for the St. Lawrence valley, Cary’s Quebec City has the beginnings of the shipbuilding industry which would become of major importance to the city in the nineteenth century.  To describe the launching of a ship in 1789 Cary alludes to the legend of Venus’ birth out of the sea on a half-shell; his Venus-ship, however, is destined to be the mistress, not, as legend has it, of Mars, the god of War, but, characteristically for Cary, of the “god of trade”:

The plowing keel the builder artist lays,
Her ribs of oak the rising ship displays;
Now, grown mature, she glides with forward pace,
And eager rushes to the saint’s embrace.
Then rising, Venus-like, with gay parade,
Straight turns kept-mistress to the god of trade.
                                                         (11. 110-115)

For Cary, apparently, not even the classical deities could avoid the long arm of British mercantilism.

     The remainder of the first part of Abram’s Plains, which is to say the part leading up to the description of Wolfe’s victory and death in the middle of the poem, is an elaboration, with small, but interesting, variations, of the themes just discussed.   One such variation occurs when Cary, in what may well be a deliberate echo of and answer to Goldsmith’s very negative description of North American nature in The Deserted Village (another poem which he mentions as a model in the “Preface” to Abram’s Plains), turns to describe the Canadian wilderness.  After echoing Goldsmith’s “matted woods” with his own, more emphatic, “Thick-matted woods” (it would take over a century, the Group of Seven, and Emily Carr to realize the aesthetic potential of what Goldsmith and Cary call the “rank luxuriance”21 of the dense forest), and after noticing the “flies, in myriads . . . with tumifying stings” (to date only Francis Bond-Head has succeeded in casting Canada’s flies in a positive role22), Cary counters Goldsmith on the “terrors” of the rattle snake by observing that, even in the Canadian wilds, a providential nature “good and wise” is at work, providing an antidote to the venom of the “dark adder” in the form of a local herb (11. 120-127).  (It almost goes without saying that Cary’s repeated descriptions of the civilized state of Canadian nature and society, like those in the Canadian Goldsmith’s Rising Village, can be read as responses to the gloomy prognostications in The Deserted Village.)  A further variation on Cary’s familiar themes occurs in his description of the immediate surroundings of Quebec City where he likens “commerce” to a queen ant, an apt figure for the process of diligent, fertilizing colonization.  And another is to be found in his description of the logging “mill” at “Malbay” (La Malbaie) when he draws upon an Indian legend, albeit one that would have been accessible with minimal difficulty to a European familiar, as Cary very likely would have been, with Ovid’s Metamorphoses:

. . . from Malbay, the mill’s remoreless sound,
And piteous groans of rending fires, resound;
Within whose rind, I shudder while I tell,
Spirits of warriors close imprison’d dwell,
Who in cold blood, butcher’d a valiant foe,
For which, transform’d to weeping firrs, they grow:
Down their tall trunks trickling the tears distill,
’Till last the ax and saw groaning they feel.

Affected as Cary is by the Indian legend, he allows his peace-loving nature and theme to emerge when he refers to the dead “warriors” as the cold hlooded butchers of a “valiant foe.

     But the most interesting variation on Cary’s survey of the plentiful resources of Quebec in the first part of Abram’s Plains is his use of a “stock-in-trade”23 of topographical poetry: the catalogue.  If additional and conclusive proof of Cary’s mercantilism were required, it would be furnished by a comparison between, for instance, the catalogues of flowers, birds, and domestic animals in Thomson’s Spring and the commercially-oriented catalogues of wild animals, trees, and fish in Abram’s Plains.  All these items are catalogued by Cary, not for their natural beauty, but as natural resources for exploitation by colonial traders and for exportation to British markets.  Thus the only species of trees worth itemizing are “The sturdy oak” (in itself an emblem of England) and “the lofty mountain-pine” (1. 214), the first a main-stay of the ship-building industry, the second of the tall mast trade.  Indeed, W.T. Easterbrook and Hugh G.T. Aiken could almost be glossing Cary when they write in their Canadian Economic History that “no European nation could hope to retain the status of a first-class power without an assured supply of oak timber and pine masts.”24  Wild animals are more extensively and explicitly catalogued as a source of furs for “craving realms” (1. 217) across the Atlantic:

The beaver’s silken fur to grace the head,
And, on the soldier’s front, assurance spread;
The martin’s sables to adorn the fair,
And aid the silk-worm to set off her hair.
Gems of Golconda or Potosi’s mines,
Than these not more assist her eyes designs.
The jetty fox to majesty adds grace,
And of grave justice dignifies the place;
The bulky buffalo, tall elk, the shaggy bear,
Huge carriboo, fleet moose, the swift-foot deer,
Gaunt wolf, amphibious otter, have their use
And to thy worth, O first of floods! conduce.
                                                    (11. 200-211)

Cary’s none-too-subtle point is that furs from Quebec, as much, if not more than items such as silk and gems from elsewhere in Britain’s mercantile empire, have a useful contribution to make to the military, social, legal, and monarchical institutions of the Mother Country.  Moreover, Cary’s catalogue of furs and their uses not only contains an unmistakeble echo of a rhetorical question in Thomson’s Summer — “Ah! what avail their fatal treasures, hid / Deep in the bowels of the pitying earth, / Golconda’s gems, and sad Potosi’s mines . . .”25 — but it could almost be a response, couched in terms of Quebec’s natural resources, to Thomson’s question.  Just as Cary begins his business-like itemization of fur-bearing animals with the most commercially important of these, the beaver, so he initiates his catalogue of the “finny brood” of the sea with “salmon [and] cod,” a superabundance of which “on far worlds plenty redundant show’rs” (11. 250-270), and goes on to enumerate “various” other varieties of fish — “bass”, “trout”, “eel”, “sturgeon”, “smelt”, and so on — which are “Next” most important for “home supply.”  Traceable to Ausonius’ Mosella, reminiscent of the catalogue of ships in Homer and troops in Virgil, and present, not surprisingly, in Windsor Forest, the catalogue of fish has numerous august and Augustan precedents, all of which serve merely to emphasize the commercial turn given to it by our mercantilist poet.  Although Cary’s catalogue of the other “Resources” of the St. Lawrence estuary, “The heavy porpus and the silly seal” (1. 224), the “whale” (1. 228), the “grampus” (1. 246), and the “sea-cow” (1. 248), and his references to Quebec’s “bounteous . . .   gran’ries,” with their “golden showers” of “grain” for “craving realms,” (11. 216 217) attest to his balance-sheet or export mentality, he is able to step outside the counting house for a few moments in two descriptions, of ice fishing (11. 266-271) and a whale-hunt (11. 228-245), both of which are surely well-known and justly-renowned enough to escape rehearsal here.  Nevertheless, the controlling purpose manifested in the catalogues in Abram’s Plains is not aesthetic but commercial; Cary’s aim is to depict Quebec as rich in exportable staples, as a non-subsistence-level economy with enormous future potential within the British mercantile system.  “Our infant world asks but time’s fost’ring hand, / It’s faculties must by degrees expand” (11. 220-221), he says, embodying in one succinct metaphor the dependent, but mutually rewarding, relationship between the colony child and the Mother Country.

     One further passage in the opening section of Abram’s Plains, a Thomsonian digression on culinary taste, may detain us for a moment.  The thirty odd lines (11. 162-195) of “incidental meditation” on food begin after Cary has followed the St. Lawrence out, past the mouths of the Saguenay and Taddusac to its “wide-spread Gulph” and the “distant main,” the Atlantic ocean.  The “butchery of seals” in “bleak Labrador” makes Cary think of the “Esquimaux, with small pig’s eyes,” who “At cook’ry sick, raw seal and rank oil prize,” and this unlovely thought prompts a jocular consideration of the relativity of taste.  “Judgement in eating!, where’s the standard placed?,” asks Cary, leavening his answer — that it is located “in each man’s fickle froward taste” — by comparing the gourmet offerings of various chefs26 with the “seal and oil, of [the] Esquimaux”.   All this could be taken with a pinch of salt, or simply dismissed as in Cary’s words, “at best . . . a joke,” if it were not for the fact that the poet widens the compass of his meditative digression on food into a moderate’s plea for a tolerant acceptance of individual taste and, more important, of differing religious beliefs.   “Habit forms all,” he argues:

             . . .taste, gesture, action, thought,
The man ripe rises as the stripling’s taught
Ductile as soften’d wax the human soul,
Twig-like, insensibly stoops to control:
By rules, but more by great example, led,
He rises Jew, Turk, Christian, as he’s bred.
Since then, we own, man is but moulded clay,
Life’s journey let each travel his own way.
And since heaven’s roofs beyond all limits rise,
And a free passage opens through the skies;
Why not suppose there’s ample room for all,
Be life resign’d with or without a call?

In this passage Cary moves beyond comic relief to make a serious point that bears directly on English-French, Protestant-Catholic, relations in post-conquest Quebec, while also reinforcing some of the major themes of Abram’s Plains.  For his argument that all religious roads lead to the same capacious heaven is, at base, an argument for tolerance between Protestant and Catholic which is consistent with his emphasis on peace and harmony.  And his argument that religious belief is merely a matter of social conditioning contains within it the concealed possibility that, when exposed to the “rules” and “great example” of Protestant, British society, the French-Canadians will abandon their Catholicism — and, perhaps, much else besides.  Cary, it appears, would have had his cake and eaten it too, would have tolerated the French Canadians, at least until they were “moulded” by British religious, social, and cultural institutions.   Needless to say, history has proved Cary wrong.  But it is hardly surprising to learn that the Quebec Mercury, which, as we know, Cary founded in 1805 and edited until his death in 1823, espoused under his editorship “the idea that the English conquest was a blessing for New France and that the Canadiens should forget their language, customs, and religion and become English-speaking, commercially-oriented British North Americans.”27

     Nor is it surprising to discover in the latter part of Abram’s Plains several attacks on the Catholic Church and on the seigneurial system.  Cary’s description of the Church as a “less’ner of the little of the poor” (1. 365) is, of course, aimed at the tithe system, which was retained under the Quebec Act of 1774.  His more elaborate depiction of a wayside crucifix is directed at the idolatry encouraged by such displays:

The cross, erected by the highway side
With all the passion’s implements supply’d;
The cock, the sponge, the crown of thorns, the spear,
The hammer, pincers, nails and other geer.
Here, hat in hand, the peasant humbly bows,
Persuaded wood and marble hear his vows.
                                                               (11. 366-371)

The dismissive note struck by the phrase “and other geer,” together with the emphasis thrown on the word “Persuaded” by its initial position in the final line and by the fact that it is the only three syllable word in the latter part of the passage, indicates that, for Cary, the accoutrements of Catholicism are delusive; it may also be that by his emphatically alliterative depiction of the French-Canadian peasant bowing “humbly” with “hat in hand” he means also to comment on the repressiveness of the Catholic Church.  Be this as it may, Cary was not alone in his condemnation of Catholicism in post-conquest Quebec; his opinions were shared, to a greater of lesser extent, by Frances Brooke, Cornwall Bayley, and J. MacKay — not to mention the authors of the ‘Quiet Revolution’ nearly two centuries later.

     The General Hospital, which, as readers of Frances Brooke will recall, was founded by Jean de Saint-Vallier, the second bishop of Quebec, situated on “the border of the river St. Charles,”28 and run by an order of nuns, is subjected to an unequal mixture of praise and blame by Cary.  After describing the Hospital as a “kind shelter of disease” and as a source of “cordial comfort” for the afflicted (11. 372-375), Cary delivers himself of a lengthy diatribe against the “Sequester’d vestals’” vows of chastity which, in his view, constitute an offense against “great nature’s law” equally as serious as the taking of life (11. 376-397).  Given Cary’s almost choric endorsements of fertility and plenty in Abram’s Plains it is consistent that he should both condemn “laws / To bar fruition” (11. 386-387) and praise the impetus given by God “To all that live, to propagate their kind” (1. 395).  Similarly, it is consistent with Cary’s repeated references to the freedom and liberty conferred on Quebec by British rule that he should condemn what he sees as the tyranny of the seigneurial system:

Be thankful swains, Britannia’s conq’ring sword,
Releas’d you from your ancient sov’reign lord,
Beneath whose sway small tyrants held the rod,
Each, in conceit, swell’d to some little god.
Then the poor pittance of the scanty soil,
Hard earn’d, became the prowling tyrant’s spoil.
The tawdry lord lawless the lash proud wields,
Lowly his back the peasant patient yields:
Such scenes no more disgrace the yielding soil,
Safe is the product of the peasant’s toil—
Protecting laws alike to all extend,
Not less the poor-man’s than the rich-man’s friend. . . .
                                                               (11. 434-445)

Although Cary ignores the fact that under the terms of the Quebec Act the seigneurial land-tenure system, far from being abolished, was actually retained and consolidated for the benefit of colonial entrepreneurs, there is no doubting the sincerity of his championship of liberty over tyranny and of equality under the law.  A dimension not of his own making is lent to Cary’s treatment of liberty and equality in Abram’s Plains by the events which began in Paris in June/July, 1789, only months after the appearance of his poem.  But while Abram’s Plains was published before the French Revolution it was published well after the American one, a fact which throws into relief the limitations of the British freedom which Cary, with what looks on occasion suspiciously like a double standard, so fervently endorses.


     To this point only passing references have been made to Cary’s brief “Preface” to Abram’s Plains.  Despite its brevity, Cary’s “Preface” raises several issues that are of considerable importance to an understanding, not only of Abram’s Plains, but also of the milieu from which it sprang and of its position near the beginning of Canadian writing.  Since the “Preface” is so brief, as well as, relative to the poem itself, fairly inaccessible, it is worth quoting here in full to initiate a discussion of its salient features:

     At a time when literature seems to be emerging from the closet to illuminate our horizon, I venture to usher into day the following little poem, the offspring of a few leisure hours; which I hope will not be unpleasing to the lovers of polite learning.

     If I may be allowed to judge from experience, I must pronounce descriptive poetry, that exhibits a picture of the real scenes of nature, to be most difficult to excel in.  To vary, harmonize, soften and add the necessary graces to description to make it palatable to a judicious and poetical reader require no small genius and skill.  I think far more than are requisite to anything of the fabulous kind, whose fabric is the sole work of imagination and where the fancy has full play.

     Convinced of this difficulty, I cannot enough admire those writers who have excelled in this kind of writing.  At the head of whom, amongst the moderns, Thompson, the harmonious Thompson stands unrivalled.  Much as I admire that great refiner of English verse Pope, I cannot help feeling a preference for Thompson, so strikingly unparalleled and inimitable are the beauties of his numbers.  It must be observed that it is only Pope’s descriptive poetry, such as his Windsor-Forest, that I here bring into comparison, Thompson having wrote nothing of the nature of his ethics or satires.  It may be said that their comparative merits, even in description, cannot but with difficulty be ascertained, the one having wrote in blank verse the other in rime.  It is true that Thompson has the advantage of not being fettered by rime, but to excel in blank verse, in my opinion, requires a far more poetical fancy as well as greater strength of imagination than are requisite to please in rime, where correctness of numbers often passes on the generality of readers for every thing.  I cannot avoid making this avowal however it may operate against myself.

     Before I began this Poem I read Pope’s Windsor-Forest and Dr. Golsmith’s Deserted Village, with the view of endeavouring, in some degree, to catch their manner of writing; as singers in country-churches in England, to use a simple musical comparison, modulate their tones by the prelusive sound of a pitch-pipe.  How far I have succeeded I must leave to my readers to determine; trusting, however, for a favourable decision more to their good-nature than to my defects.

     One of the issues raised in the opening paragraph of Cary’s “Preface” concerns the connection between leisure and literature, a connection which has been investigated by thinkers as diverse as Jacob Bronowski and Joseph Pieper who have pointed out that, to quote the latter “culture depends for its very existence on leisure.”29  Towards the end of the nineteenth century in Canada the connection between leisure time and literary production was expounded by, amongst others, J.G. Bourinot and G.M. Adam and, more recently, it has been discussed by such critics as Ray Palmer Baker, R.L. McDougall, and S.M. Beckow,30 albeit without reference to Cary.  Yet Cary’s modest description of his “little poem [as] the offspring of a few leisure hours” is resonant with implications in the direction of the ’leisure theory’ of Canadian literature.  It is incidentally worth noting that the ‘leisure theory’ provides one explanation of why so few novels (novels requiring considerable leisure time to write as well as to read) and so many poems (particularly poems of less than a thousand lines) were written at the pioneer and settler stages of Canadian literature.  In the light of this, Cary’s description of Abram’s Plains as a “little poem” written in “a few leisure hours” could even be read as an oblique apologia for his choice of form.

     One of the most important issues raised in Cary’s “Preface” concerns the question of audience: to whom is Abram’s Plains addressed, or, to put the question differently, what is the readership and community implied by the “our” in “our horizon”?  Sandra Djwa has suggested that implicit in Cary’s “Preface” is “the assumption that the Canadian poet is addressing himself to an English audience, a pervasive view of the poet’s function which would not encourage the development of an indigenous Canadian tradition.”31  It is, of course, possible that Cary was writing with one eye on “an English audience,” that his fulsome descriptions of the peaceful environment and abundant wealth of Quebec were at least partly intended to encourage the flow of British investment and emigration to the new colony.  If granted, this possibility would lend Abram’s Plains a propagandist quality and place it at the opposite pole from a work such as Susanna Moodie’s Roughing It in The Bush (1852) which, as everyone knows, was written to discourage potential settlers from coming to Canada.

     But against the assertion that Abram’s Plains was addressed solely or even primarily to “an English audience” to the exclusion of a colonial one there stands a crucially important fact, namely that Cary arranged to have his poem “published by subscription” and sold32 not in England, but in Quebec.  This fact alone argues strongly that Abram’s Plains was directed mainly towards the literate, English-speaking inhabitants of Quebec.33  While it is true that some of these people were in the colony on fairly brief tours of duty, it is equally true that others, such as Cary himself, who had come “from England before 1787,” William Brown, the poem’s printer, who had moved to Quebec from Philadelphia in 1764,34 and others like McTavish, McGill, and the Frobisher brothers who had arrived in the early 1760’s,35 were permanent residents of Quebec.  The body of the poem, moreover, provides evidence that Abram’s Plains was directed towards three specific groups in Quebec — the first being the merchants of the metropolitan centres of the colony, particularly Montreal with its McTavishes, Frobishers, McGills, and their like, of whom Cary speaks as “blest traders” (1. 83) and for whom he includes what must have been, to them, satisfying catalogues of the colony’s potential wealth and future prospects; the second being the members of the British garrison and its entourage for whom are included, as we know, numerous paeans to the benefits of British peace and to the power of the British armed forces; and the third being Quebec’s colonial administrators, particularly Lord Dorchester (Carleton), to whom Cary, “a clerk in one of the government offices” in 1789 (and later secretary to Governor Prescott), delivers a flattering panegyric:

There, stretching to the right, with oblique eye,
The villa of fair Dorchester I spy
Where, from parade and crowds, [the muse] chearful flies,
The false, by royalty, taught to despise:
There, tranquil, tastes the tender sweets of life
That in the mother center and the wife:
There simple treads the breeze-inviting plains,
And all the glare of equipage disdains.
                                                           (11. 484-491)

Since Lord Dorchester was not only wounded in the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, but also one of the saviors of Quebec in 1775/76 and, as Governor-in-Chief of British North America from 1786 to 1796, one of the most enthusiastic proponents of the colony’s commercial potential,36 it is hardly surprising that he and his family should be the almost iconic subjects of Cary’s praise.  Towards the end of Abram’s Plains, however, Cary directs at the colonial administration, as well as at the other two main components of his colonial audience, the garrison and the traders, a traditional moralist’s warning against the dangers of pride and power.  “The soldier, statesman, merchant, where’s the state / Exempt from the vicissitudes of fate?”, he asks, cautioning:

Ye great, ye rich, by heart this lesson learn,
Nor, in the pride of pow’r, the wretched spurn:
Blind fortune’s fickle wheel perpetual whirls,
Those under lifts, those from the top low hurls.
                                                     (11. 532-535)

Cary, it would appear, was quite capable of mixing moralistic advice with fulsome flattery in addressing the powerful élites of his colonial society.

     There are additional insights into the relationship between the poet and audience of Abram’s Plains to be gained from Cary’s “Preface.”  In explaining that he has written a poem which, he hopes, “will not be unpleasing to the lovers of polite learning” and that he is addressing a “judicious and poetical reader” who will be impressed more easily and readily by “correct numbers” than by “poetical fancy and imaginative strength” Cary achieves two ends: he succeeds in modestly under-playing his own poetic abilities while, at the same time, flattering his audience (albeit in a somewhat left-handed manner) and implying that he is speaking to and for a cultured, balanced, and rational community.  Moreover, Cary’s preference for an Aristotelian, “descriptive poetry that exhibits a picture of the real scenes of nature” over poetry of a “fabulous” and fancifully imaginative kind not only establishes his credentials as a realist but also seems calculated to accord with the preferences of his realistic, no-nonsense readership. It is even tempting to see a correspondence between the mentality of Cary’s audience of “soldier, statesman, [and] merchant” and his decision, despite his avowed preference for the blank verse of The Seasons, to write Abram’s Plains in the more conventional, structured, and socially-oriented form of the heroic couplet.  Be this as it may, the ability of the heroic couplet to create the “impression of . . . a public voice and, beyond this, of a significant public milieu”37 makes it eminently suitable for Cary’s purposes.  And the point may also be made that in the eighteenth century the heroic couplet was considered to be the “proper” form for a “descriptive” poem with “classical echoes”38 such as Abram’s Plains.  For any one or all of several reasons, then, it would seem that Cary’s choice of the heroic couplet form for Abram’s Plains was appropriate to his audience, to his subject matter, and to the overall public and social nature of his poem.

     Although there will be occasion to turn again before very long to the important issues raised by Cary’s “Preface” it is worth taking a few moments now to look in detail at his handling of the heroic couplet in Abram’s Plains itself.  Of particular interest in this respect is Cary’s use of one device: the period-stopped, or blocked, couplet (and the series of such) set against a background of relatively enjambed or run-on couplets.   Cary’s handling of this device in response to individual features of his landscape and subject matter is apposite and mimetic enough to indicate the presence of a crude poetic of the Canadian landscape in Abram’s Plains.

     Taken as a whole, Abram’s Plains does not employ period stopped, blocked couplets on an extended scale, a fact which makes Cary’s use of them in many (though not all) instances of special interest.   One such instance occurs near the beginning of the poem; the poet is addressing Lake Superior, “one quality of whose waters,” he informs the reader in a note, “is to be remarkably cold under the surface”:

Thee, first of lakes ! as Asia’s Caspian great,
Where congregated streams hold icy state.
Huron, distinguish’d by its thund’ring bay,
Where full-charg’d clouds heav’ns ord’nance ceaseless play.
Thee Michigan, where learned beavers lave,
And two great tribes divided hold thy wave.
Erie for serpents fam’d, whose noisome breath,
By man inhal’d, conveys the venom’d death.
                                                                  (11. 21-28)

The effect of this system of four blocked couplets, which follows, it is worth noting, a metaphorical and Popian description of the Great Lakes as “urns” (1. 19), is to mirror a series of circumscribed geographical forms (urn-lakes) in a series of circumscribing poetic forms (period-stopped couplets); Cary’s sharply individuated couplets are mimetic of the shapes described and, moreover, the additive effect of his series of such couplets reinforces the sense that the Great Lakes are all part of the cumulative water system feeding into the St. Lawrence.   The overall effect of the blocked couplet series is one of abstract patterning which, it may be, Cary is only able to achieve because he cannot actually see the Great Lakes from his vantage point on the St. Lawrence.  It is arguable that Cary’s use of blocked couplets in this instance stems as much from the effort of a rational, eighteenth-century mind attempting to discover order in and exercise control over external nature as from a desire to mirror the Canadian landscape in poetic form.  That Cary was using the couplet form and its variations to accomplish both these ends seems to be confirmed by the passage which follows immediately upon and contrasts markedly to the one quoted above.  Since Cary is now describing the Niagara River and Niagara Falls, it is to be expected that he will use, not blocked, but relatively enjambed couplets

The streams thence rushing with tremendous roar,
Down thy dread fall, Niagara, prone pour;
Back foaming, in thick hoary mists, they bound,
The thund’ring noise deafens the country round,
Whilst echo, from her caves, redoubling sends the sound.
’Twixt awe and pleasure, rapt in wild suspense,
Giddy, the gazer yields up ev’ry sense.
So have I felt when Handel’s heavenly strains,
Choral, announce the great Messiah reigns:
Caught up by sound, I leave my earthly part,
And into something more than mortal start.
                                                              (11. 29-39)

In the first five lines of this passage Cary skilfully employs several techniques—couplet enjambement (run-on couplets seems the more apt term in this context), terminal verbs (“pour,” “bound”), trochaic substitution (“Dówn thy. . .”), spondee and alliteration (“próne póur”), and even an extra rhyme (“bound,” “round,” “sound,” the only triple rhyme in the poem) — to convey a sense of the movement, plangency, and sheer power of Niagara Falls.  Of course, Niagara Falls were, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the sublime spectacle par excellence in North America.  Although, Cary, like countless others before and after him (with the notable exceptions of Anna Jameson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Oscar Wilde), responds to the sublimity of the Falls with the appropriate “awe,” the dictates of eighteenth-century rationalism prompt him to control and contain his emotive responses by enclosing it within a blocked couplet.  (Similarly, his reference to the Hallelujah chorus of Handel’s Messiah, a work which, as Christopher Hussey observes, was “generally acknowledged sublime”39 in the eighteenth century, while consistent with the religious overtones of the sublime experience itself, may be taken as an attempt by Cary to channel his emotive response to Niagara Falls in the direction of the known and safe).  On the evidence presented so far, then, it would seem that Cary was in command of his heroic couplet form to the extent that he could use it both to reflect the Canadian landscape and to control his responses to it.

     A detailed discussion of further instances of Cary’s judicious use of the couplet form, particularly of blocked couplets and relatively run-on couplets, in Abram’s Plains would be tedious and repetitious.  Some of the pertinent passages may be quoted, however, beginning with Cary’s use of two blocked couplets towards the end of the poem to reflect — or, better, ‘fence’ or ‘frame,’ as the case may be — fields, cottages, and a church:

There, on thy banks, Saint Charles rich meadows vie,
In vivid green, to ease the dazzled eye.
                                                             (11. 398-399)

South of the flood, lo! lonely cots arise
Where unkind soils, thrifty, hard yield supplies.
The church, just peeping o’er the pointed shore,
Great less’ner of the little of the poor.
                                                               (11. 362-365)

There is probity, too, in Cary’s use of static, period-stopped couplets to describe the arresting effects of ice and frost:

Then noisy Chaudiere, thy foaming fall
Midway arrested, forms a chrystal wall.

E’re from the lungs, in air, the breath is lost
’Tis firmly fix’d a palpable hoar frost.

and in his use of a period-stopped couplet to achieve the effect of closure in the final paragraph of the poem:

Now shade o’er shade steals gradual on the sight,
Darkness shuts up the scene and all is night.

A dying whale, a harpooned grampus, and a trapped sea-cow also demand the stasis conferred by the period-stopped couplet:

E’en while the waves he [the whale] lashes into storm,
A monstrous mass floats motionless his form.
The grampus, of less bulk, stays his swift course,
Arrested on his way by iron force.
The fierce sea-cow, tho’cloth’d in stoutest mail,
Finds, ’gainst man’s arts, his strength of small avail.
                                                                (11. 244-249)

And to describe the Battle of the Plains of Abraham Cary marshalls his couplets into an appropriately choppy series of soldierly squares:

A chief no more [Wolfe] leads on foot the line —
Thus, with his soldiers’ fate, his hopes combine.
The deaf’ning drums the charge loud rattling sound,
The charge th’ opposing cliffs thund’ring rebound.
The battle rages, bullets charg’d with fate,
The hungry soil, with human victims, sate.
Attending fate, grim death, with hasty stride,
Triumphs a victor over either side.
Too sure, alas! the leaden vengeance flies,
And on the chief its force repeated tries.

As might be expected, rivers and falls call forth relatively run-on and open couplets, as in the following example, one from amongst several that could be quoted:

Here sleepy Saint Charles, scarcely seen to flow,
His mazy current solemn yields and slow;
Whilst, a strong contrast strikingly to form,
His stream Montmorenci sends down in storm:
From the dread precipice foaming it pours
High smoking round in clouds of silver show’rs.

Instances such as these (and others which the interested reader will be able to discover for himself) provide additional proof that Cary, though clearly no Pope in his handling of the heroic couplet, is a competent and, at times, surprisingly interesting versifier.

     What is particularly interesting about Cary’s handling of the heroic couplet form in Abram’s Plains is its bearing on what was earlier called a poetic of the Canadian landscape.  It is now possible to recognize that in Cary’s poem there exists a relationship between poetic form and Canadian content which is potentially more subtle and complex than W.L. Morton’s provocative contention, in The Canadian Identity, that the “art of the baseland is the lyric,” while in the “art of the hinterland” there is a tendency to the heroic and the epic. . . .”40  Clearly, a discussion of the various relationships between, on the one hand, poetic forms and kinds and, on the other, varieties of landscape and subject-matter at the different stages in the history of Canadian poetry is beyond the scope of the present undertaking.  Yet the preceding discussion of Abram’s Plains, together with Morton’s baseland / lyric, hinterland / epic hypothesis, raises questions, a sampling of which may be validly asked here.  Did Oliver Goldsmith, for instance, choose to write The Rising Village in heroic couplets merely to model his poem on his namesake’s Deserted Village, or did he sense as well in the additive nature of the couplet poem, in which each couplet is, so to say, placed on top of its predecessor like the boards of a wooden house, a formalistic equivalent for the building of his archetypal Acadian village?  Was the Petrarchan sonnet, a lyric form which, like the couplet, is highly societal in its traditional associations and which, like the blocked couplet, can function as a ‘fencing’ or ‘framing’ structure, intuitively perceived by Lampman and Roberts to be the appropriate form for descriptions of the New Brunswick and Ottawa Valley baselandscapes?  Does Cary’s use of blocked couplets to describe the northern Great Lakes help us towards a fuller understanding of Campbell’s choice of forms for his Lake Lyrics?  What do the titles, let alone the contents, of such volumes as Arthur Stringer’s Open Water and F.O. Call’s Acanthus and Wild Grape tell us about the relationship between free verse and the Canadian landscape in twentieth-century Canadian poetry, and, indeed, anterior to that, about the uses of blank and free verse in relation to landscape in the nineteenth century? Such questions and the speculative answers which they invite in the asking serve to show, if nothing else, that the poetics of Abram’s Plains, crude yet interesting as they are, have wide-ranging ramifications for the history of poetry in Canada.

     It is time now to pick up again the main thread of the present discussion, to return to Cary’s “Preface” to Abram’s Plains and the issues raised there.  In the same article alluded to earlier, Sandra Djwa accuses Cary of providing an “attractive,” but perniciously colonial, “rationale for the general practice of literary imitation”41 when he tells us that “before [he] began [his] Poem [he] read Pope’s Windsor-Forrest and Dr.   Goldsmith’s Deserted Village, with a view of endeavouring, in some degree, to catch their manner of writing; as singers in country-churches in England, to use a simple musical comparison, modulate their tones by the prelusive sound of a pitch-pipe.” While it is true that Cary here provides an explanation and exemplification of the process of “literary imitation,” it is difficult to see why he should be faulted for so doing.  The history of Canadian poetry to the present day is in large measure a history of the adaptation (often by means of literary imitation) of inherited poetics and aesthetics, forms and styles, to ‘Canadian content,’ and vice versa; the study of Canadian poetry must, therefore, be to a great extent ecological—a study of the interrelations, and the pattern of relations, between transplanted organisms and their new environments.  One of Cary’s virtues is that in his references to Pope, Goldsmith, and Thomson in his “Preface” he admits to a literary descent, asks explicitly to be judged in relation to his models, and by implication and extension provides a literary context for the dynamic of inheritance and adaptation in his own poem, as well as in others such as Mackay’s Quebec Hill (1797), with its debt to Thomson, or Burwell’s Talbot Road (1820) and Goldsmith’s Rising Village (1825), with their debts to Goldsmith, which draw upon the same models.  What is interesting about Cary’s poem, then, is not its derivativeness per se but the way in which its inherited form and style are adapted to and modified by the Canadian environment.  Of course Abram’s Plains manifests a “typical eighteenth century cluster of peace, prosperity, patriotism, and plenty.”42   How could it be otherwise? The real question, which, it is hoped, the first part of the present essay has at least partially answered, is one of how Cary uses such ‘clusters’ and to what ends.  The preceding discussion of Cary’s handling of variations on the heroic couplet form provides one instance of how potentially productive an ecological study of inheritance and adaptation can prove to be.  Another, which we are now in a position to explore is Cary’s deployment of the eighteenth-century aesthetic and conventions of the picturesque in the “picture[s] of the real scenes of nature” that comprise a sizeable portion of Abram’s Plains.

     The picturesque may be simply defined as the capacity among certain writers, particularly of the century from 1730 to 1830 (called by Christopher Hussey the “picturesque phase”43) to perceive landscape “with a painter’s eye”44 and to describe it in a painterly manner; characteristic of the picturesque is an “attempt at ’composing’”45 landscape scenery in pictorial terms.  No doubt the picturesque aesthetic and conventions, pervasive as they were in the latter part of the eighteenth century, were a part of the mental luggage which Cary brought with him to Lower Canada in c. 1787.  It is worth noticing, however, that both Windsor Forest and The Seasons contain the characteristics of the picturesque; Morris R. Brownell in his recent study of Pope traces the introduction to England of the picturesque as a “significant aesthetic” to Windsor Forest46 and Christopher Hussey, in what is still the “most valuable”47 study of The Picturesque, numbers Thomson amongst “the Picturesque poets,” stating that for him “the reality of nature was a picture.”48  It is also worth noticing in passing that of the three most important categories in eighteenth-century aesthetics, the sublime, the beautiful, and the picturesque, the beautiful, which is characterized by “smoothness” and “gentleness,” would have been the least applicable to the Canadian landscape in Cary’s day, while the sublime, characterized by “vastness” and “obscurity,” and the picturesque, characterized by “roughness,” “sudden variation,” and “irregularity,”49 would have been easily discoverable in Canada by an eye accustomed to seeking out these aesthetic categories.  Thus it is hardly surprising that, as we have already seen, Cary describes Niagara Falls in terms of the sublime or that, as we shall now see, Abram’s Plains is redolent with picturesque scenes.

     For an instance of the way in which the aesthetic and conventions of the picturesque inform Cary’s depiction of the Canadian landscape, we may look at his description of the Plains themselves near the middle of the poem:

Here hill and dale diversify the scene,
There pensile woods cloth’d with eternal green;
The russet plain with thorny brambles spread,
Where clus’tring haws deep blush a ruddy red;
The distant wood, wide-waving to the breeze,
Where shining villas peep through crowded trees;
Here babbling brooks gurgle adown the glade,
There rise mementos of the soldier’s spade;
Where on the green-sward oft incamp’d they lay,
Seen by the rising and the setting ray.
                                                        (11. 272-281)

In this passage Cary creates a vivid sense of the pictorial, locating the reader at the same vantage point as the speaker, and, by means of repeated adverbs of locale such as “Here” and “There” (a device ‘caught’, in all likelihood, from Pope’s Windsor Forest50), succeeds in composing the landscape as a painter would a picture space.  More specifically, Cary adheres to the picturesque convention, as articulated, for instance, by William Gilpin in his Northern Tour of the Lakes. . . (1786), of dividing the scene into “three distances,”51 the foreground (“hill and dale”), the middleground (“woods” and “plain”), and the background (the “distant wood”), and of using the “Here” / “There” direction to lead the reader’s eye from background to foreground and to convey the illusion of three-dimensional space.  Cary also adheres to the picturesque convention in remarking the pleasing diversity of the scene, its irregularities of form and texture, and its varieties of colour and lighting.  Moreover, it is worth suggesting that Cary’s use of conventional poetic diction, especially undiscriminating and familiar adjective and noun combinations such as “pensile woods,” “eternal green,” “russet plain,” and “babbling brooks,” might almost have been calculated to convey the sense that the Canadian landscape contains features which are recognizable, namable, and classifiable, and, therefore, known, comforting, and unthreatening.  The reference to the “mementos” left by Wolfe’s soldiers, which bridges the gap between Cary’s description of the Plains and his ensuing account of the Battle, serves further to humanize the landscape by investing it with historical resonance rooted in his awareness of Quebec’s heroic past.  In effect, then, Cary uses picturesque conventions, stock diction, and historical reference to confer order, familiarity and significance on the landscape of Quebec.

     When Cary surveys the communities up and down river from the town of Quebec he again employs the technique and vocabulary of picturesque analysis:

       Here milch-kine lowing leave the grazing field,
And glad to man their milky homage yield;
The feather’d game oft feel the leaden death,
And in the spaniels jaws resign their breath.
Thence, further left, as I incline my eyes,
The cottages, Lorette, to view arise;
Here, of the copper-tribes, and half tam’d race,
As villagers take up their resting place;
Here fix’d, their household gods lay peaceful down,
To learn the manners of the polish’d town.
Next Charlebourg, blest in a bounteous soil,
Where plenteous harvest pay the lab’ror’s toil.
Thy beauties, Beauport, open on mine eyes,
There fertile fields and breezy lawns arise;
Far as Montmorenci thy pleasing stream,
Romantic as a love-sick virgin’s dream.
Beyond the vales, still stretching on my view,
Hills, behind hills, my aching eyes pursue.
’Till, in surrounding skies, I lose my way,
Where the long landscape fading dies away.
                                                              (11. 408-427)

In 1847, over twenty years after Cary’s death, Hugh Miller would observe in his First Impressions of England that, in a country with a clear atmosphere, picturesque descriptions will tend to become panoramic catalogues52 — a factor which does much to explain the panoramic scope of this passage.  Again words such as, “Here,” “There,” “Where,” “left,” “Thence,” “Next,” “Beyond” and “behind” lend design to the panorama and direct the reader’s eye from the foreground scene, through the catalogue of communities, to the background, culminating in a loss of focus and control in the “surrounding skies,” the sublimity of which Cary characteristically contains within a period-stopped couplet.  Not only does Cary employ the conventions of picturesque seeing in the passage but he also includes in his landscape animals and scenes which in themselves were held to be picturesque, as well as appropriate to topographical poetry.  Cows, Cary’s “milchkine,” were considered, because of their shape and colour, to be the most picturesque of animals.53  Dairy cattle also require “grazing field[s]” and human protection while representing, as well, Nature’s plenitude (like the “bounteous soil,” “plenteous harvests,” and “fertile fields” later in the passage) and her beneficence to man (“to man their milky homage [they] yield”).  They are thus admirably suited to Cary’s intention to delineate the picturesque beauty, domestication, humanization, and plenitude of the Quebec landscape.  The same may be said of Cary’s non-specific reference to “feather’d game.”  The objects here of a gentlemanly pastime complete with “spaniels,” of a picturesque genre scene (what Atwood might call a “tapestry of manners,”54), the gamebirds are emblematic of a landscape and a lifestyle in which leisure and sport have supplanted mere survival.  Also emblematic of the state of civilization in Quebec are the peaceful Indians of Lorette, the picturesque “copper-tribes,” who, though as yet only “half tam’d,” have abandoned their pagan “household gods” and begun to “learn the manners of the polish’d town.” So consistently does Cary point his moral, not least in the picturesque passages of Abram’s Plains, that it is tempting to suggest that, like Pope in Windsor Forest,55 he uses the picturesque convention itself as a framing device to showcase the plentiful benefits of the peace, harmony, and order conferred by British rule.

     It must not be thought that Cary’s pictorialism is entirely derived from Pope.  Towards the end of the poem, after he has surveyed the hamlets south of Quebec City, Cary’s “picture[s] of . . . nature” take on a decidedly Thomsonian colouring.  A vignette of a “sleepy pool” and its resident frogs, creatures of special significance to later Canadian poets such as Mair, Roberts and, of course, Lampman, is introduced by the emphatic command to “See,” a device reminiscent of The Seasons, as, in fact, is the vignette itself, with its closely observed, naturalistic details (the “green mantle,” and “green scum” of the pool and its “spumy spawn”), its periphrasis (frogs are the “croaking race”) and its astronomical-meteorological references ("the blaze of Sirius’ scorching ray”).  But it is Cary’s concluding description of the Canadian winter, a season from whose “endless snows” the “verdant world” of spring provides a “Delightful” — and picturesque — “change,” that his debt to Thomson is most evident.  Like Thomson, Cary sees the salubrious aspect of the invigorating winds and clear skies of winter, the former sensing “through the blue serene, / . . . ethereal nitre, / Killing infectious damps . . .”56 and the latter, after referring to the “virgin nitre” in the Atlantic wind and noticing the completely cloudless sky, ordering the “children of disease” to “Fly, fly far south. . .” (toward the United States, note) when the St. Lawrence freezes over (11. 505-511).  Cary follows Thomson, too, in depicting the “blithesome frolics”57 — carriole rides and ice skating — which the frozen river makes possible.  But the most interesting feature of Cary’s winter is also the least Thomsonian.  It is his description of the breakup of the ice on the St. Lawrence and of man’s triumph over the awesome conditions of winter:

. . . unhing’d, broad floating fields of glass,
In contest join’d, stubborn dispute the pass;
From the collision soar, with rattling crash,
Fragments that back the solar beams bright flash:
O’er the ploug’d plain rough ridges rudely rise,—
Vanish’d the skater’s scene of action flies.
                          *       *       *
Fearless, amidst the fragments, as they flow,
The skilful peasant guides his long canoe.
The trav’ller dauntless the snows depths disdains,
He stalks secure o’er hills, o’er vales and plains;
On the spread racket, whilst he safely strides,
Tales of Europeans lost in snow derides.
Here, (blush ye London fops embox’d in chair,
Who fear, tho’ mild your clime, to face the air)
Scorning to shrink at every breeze that blows,
Unaw’d, the fair brave frosts and driving snows.
                                                     (11. 548-553, 558-567)

     Nowhere else in Abram’s Plains does Cary pay higher tribute to the fortitude and adaptability of the inhabitants of his adopted colony than here, where he offers his readers for contemplation two images of a culture superbly adapted to the Canadian environment: the canoe and the snowshoe, two devices which, to use Harold Innis’ word, had been “elaborated”58 from aboriginal and European models to meet the stern needs of a Northern climate and a Northern economy.

     If the foregoing discussion has been at all successful, it will have shown that Abram’s Plains deserves a place in any anthology of early writing in Canada.  No one would wish to claim that Thomas Cary is a great poet or that Abram’s Plains is a great poem.  But even a poet who would be judged minor in global terms may be a cultural pioneer in the Canadian context and even a poem such as Abram’s Plains, with all its deficiencies and shortcomings, may be a significant document in the history of Canadian literature and society.  It may be thought that, in some places, Cary’s topographical poem is merely versified history and geography, that in others, Abram’s Plains, veers too much in the direction of the chamber of commerce brochure, or that, on occasion, Cary allows inherited conventions and aesthetics to come between himself and his landscape.  Yet in the very documentary nature of Abram’s Plains, as much as in the businesslike, mercantile, and colonial mentality of its author, there is, as we have seen, much to learn about life and attitudes in late-eighteenth-century Quebec.  And in Cary’s adaptation of the European poetic and aesthetic forms and conventions of his day to the Canadian environment there are hints in the direction of what remains to be discovered about the patriation and ecology of different forms and conventions throughout history of Canadian poetry.  There could be no better way to end the present discussion of Abram’s Plains than with the final paragraph of the poem itself where Cary, echoing a European model as so often in the poem (in this instance he has ‘caught’ the phrase “shuts the scene” from the conclusion of Thomson’s Winter), seems to see in the image of Canadian “fire-flies” a metaphor for his small but bright colony on the St. Lawrence river, as well as, perhaps, for his own “lucid” yet “mimic” poetic efforts:

Now shade o’er shade steals gradual on the sight,
Darkness shuts up the scene and all is night.
Except, where darting cross the swampy marsh,
From shining fire-flies lucid lightnings flash.
When, from black sultry skies, long silver streams
Send through the atmosphere their forked beams;
With brighter glow then shoot the mimic fires,
Each insect, Caesar like, to rival Jove aspires.


I should like to thank Professors Donald Creighton, Malcolm Ross, Carl Klinck and W.J. Keith who read and commented upon earlier versions of this paper.

  1. See Old Lamps Aglow: An Appreciation of Early Canadian Poetry (Montreal, 1957), pp. 97-102.[back]

  2. Michael Gnarowski, ed. Three Early Poems from Lower Canada (Montreal: The Lawrence M. Lande Foundation, 1969), p. 18.   All subsequent quotations from Abram’s Plains and its “Preface” will be from this edition.[back]

  3. Literary History of Canada, ed. Carl F.  Klinck (University of Toronto Press, 1965), p. 85.[back]

  4. Gnarowski, p. 13.  See also the Cary entries in Henry J. Morgan, Bibliotheca Canadensis: or A Manual of Canadian Literature (Ottawa: G. E.  Desbarats, 1867) and Marie Tremaine, A Bibliography of Canadian lmprints, 1751-1800 (University of Toronto Press, 1952).[back]

  5. The Great Tradition,” Canadian Literature, No. 65 (Summer, 1975), 45.[back]

  6. The Pastoral Vision in Nineteenth-Century,” Dalhousie Review, 57, no. 2 (Summer, 1977), 224-241.[back]

  7. Lives of the English Poets, ed. George Birkbeck Hill (Rep. Hildesheim, 1968), I, 77.[back]

  8. William Bowman Piper, The Heroic Couplet (Case Western Reserve University Press 1969), p. 13.[back]

  9. Topographical Poetry in XVIII Century England (New York: The Modern Language Association of America, 1936), p. 122.[back]

  10. Ibid., p. 224.[back]

  11. Charles Sangster, Hesperus, and Other Poems and Lyrics (Montreal: John Creighton, 1860), p. 82.[back]

  12. John Wilson Foster, “A Redefinition of Topographical Poetry,” Journal of English and Germanic Philology, LXIX, no. 3 (July, 1970), 403.[back]

  13. Ibid., p. 402.[back]

  14. See Earl R. Wasserman, The Subtler Language. Critical Readings of Neoclassical and Romantic Poems (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press 1959), pp. 101-168.[back]

  15. The Complete Poetical Works of James Thomson, ed. J. Logie Robertson (Oxford University Press, 1951), p. 202.  Subsequent quotations from The Seasons will be from this text, hereafter cited as James Thomson.[back]

  16. W.T. Easterbrook and Hugh G.J. Aitken, Canadian Economic History (Toronto: MacMillan,1975), pp. 21-22.[back]

  17. See The Poems of Alexander Pope, ed. John Butt (London: Methuen,1965), pp. 196, 198.[back]

  18. Cary’s use of capital letters for the King’s name is reminiscent of Windsor Forest; see Ibid., pp. 196, 206.[back]

  19. See Easterbrook and Aitken, p. 166.[back]

  20. Ibid., p. 191.[back]

  21. Oliver Goldsmith; Poems and Plays, ed. Tom Davis (London: A.M. Dent,1975), p. 190.[back]

  22. In The Emigrant (London: John Murray, 1846), as scornfully reported in “The Editor’s Table” of Barker’s Canadian Monthly Magazine, I, no. 9 (January, 1847), 493-4, Bond-Head credits flies with “‘materially altering the climate of North America’” to the benefit of European settlement and under “‘the dispensation of the Almighty.’”[back]

  23. Aubin, p. 5.[back]

  24. Easterbrook and Aiken, p. 187.[back]

  25. James Thomson, p. 84.[back]

  26. An extensive search through bibliographies and studies of cooking and haut cuisine has failed to yield information on Dillon, Horton, and Le Moine, indicating perhaps that the three were chefs, not of international renown, but of late-eighteenth-century Quebec.[back]

  27. Mary Jane Edwards in The Evolution of Canadian Literature in English: Beginnings to 1867 (Toronto: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1973), pp. 35-36.[back]

  28. The History of Emily Montague (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1969), pp. 25-26.[back]

  29. Leisure: the Basis for Culture, trans. Alexander Dru (New York: Pantheon Books, 1952), p. 19.  See also J. Bronowski, The Ascent of Man (London: British Broadcasting Corporation,1973), pp. 59-64.[back]

  30. See S.M. Beckow, “From the Watch-Towers of Patriotism: Theories of Literary Growth in English Canada, 1864-1914,” Journal of Canadian Studies, IX, no. 3 (August, 1974), 9-10.[back]

  31. The Great Tradition,” 45.[back]

  32. See Tremaine, No. 585.[back]

  33. It is doubtful, however, that Cary’s intent is “nationalistic” (J.M. Zezulka, p. 224); rather Abram’s Plains manifests the “local pride theme” (R.A. Aubin, p. 5) of topographical poetry within a mercantilist framework.[back]

  34. See Tremaine, p. 663.[back]

  35. See Donald Creighton, The Empire of the St. Lawrence (Toronto: MacMillan, 1970), p. 23.[back]

  36. See Ibid., p. 102.[back]

  37. Piper, p. 24.[back]

  38. Aubin, p. 67.[back]

  39. The Picturesque; Studies in a Point of View (London and New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1927, p. 14.[back]

  40. The Relevance of Canadian History,” in Contexts of Canadian Criticism, ed. Eli Mandel (University of Chicago Press, 1971), p. 66.[back]

  41. The Great Tradition,” p. 45.[back]

  42. Ralph Cohen, The Unfolding of The Seasons (The Johns Hopkins Press,1970), p. 7.[back]

  43. The Picturesque, p. 4.[back]

  44. Ibid., p. 64.[back]

  45. Ibid., p. 22.[back]

  46. Alexander Pope and the Arts of Georgian England (Oxford: Clarendon, 1978), p. 101.[back]

  47. Walter John Hipple, Jr., The Beautiful, The Sublime, and the Picturesque in Eighteenth Century British Aesthetic Theory (Southern Illinois University Press,1957), p. 190.[back]

  48. The Picturesque, p. 18.[back]

  49. Ibid., p. 14.[back]

  50. See The Poems of Alexander Pope, pp. 195-196.[back]

  51. The Picturesque, p. 117.[back]

  52. See Ibid., p. 43.[back]

  53. See Ibid., p. 119.[back]

  54. The Animals in That Country (Oxford University Press,1968), p. 2.[back]

  55. See Foster, “A Redefinition of Topographical Poetry,” p. 398.[back]

  56. James Thomson, p. 211.[back]

  57. Ibid., p. 213.[back]

  58. H.A. Innis, “The Fur Trade,” in Approaches to Canadian Economic History, ed. W.T. Easterbrook and M.H. Watkins (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart,1978), p. 22.[back]

  59. James Thomson, p. 223.[back]