An Early Canadian Reprint
Roger Viets, Annapolis Royal, a Poem, 1788, Introduction
by Thomas B. Vincent. Kingston: Loyal Colonies Press, 1979, pp. viii, 8.
The reprinting of Roger Viets Annapolis Royal in 1979 is
almost as uninteresting an event as the first printing in 1788. It was then the
first booklet of poetry to be published in what is now Canada; it is now apparently
the first of a series of reprints from the Loyal Colonies Press, aptly located at
Kingston. God save nationalism and save us from the Yankees, but there is little to be
said in favour of either.
First there is the sheer dreadfulness of the
poem, sentimental pastoral of the worst kind. Dr. Vincent affirms defensively that it is
easy to write it off as a simple topographical poem which greatly exaggerates the
pleasures of life in late eighteenth-century rural Nova Scotia. You bet it is. Its
picture of an idealized rising village, with swains, maidens, elders, choirs, and all, is
simplistic and derivatory; it develops no significant theme and has no originality of
style or language. The shifts from natural harmony to social harmony to
spiritual harmony expressed through choral harmony, which Dr. Vincent apparently admires,
are made abruptly and mostly through lack of matter to be going on with. In short, the
poem is as bad as it is insignificant.
The editing is not much better. There are no
notes to assist the reader to relate the images of the poem to the reality of Annapolis
Royal at the time. People growing old and dying, the young in one anothers arms
all very well in 1788, if there had been a note on when the village was built.
The King of Rivers is nice, but what river is it, for those of us far from
Digby? What of the Spire majestic? Was there a big church, and when was it
built? Was there an active choir, or did the UELs have a tendency to congregational
singing? Such questions do arise; four pages of notes could have answered them and, while
not adding anything much to the poem, assured it a modest niche in CanLit.
And finally, if this act of piety towards the
Loyalists is to be of any value, I suggest the Loyal Colonies Press learn some basic
bibliography. The text of this poem is reproduced lithographically; it is not edited. The
attribution to Viets and to the year 1788 is based on relatively circumstantial evidence,
which is neither closely examined nor footnoted. By way of proof about the printer of the
book, indeed what Dr. Vincent calls literary detective work, the reader is
told that in 1788 Halifax and Saint John, the two most likely places of publication, had
each two printers. There is no mention of the fact that the two in Saint John were skilled
tradesmen who could never have printed so badly; there is no mention either of the main
evidence to connect the booklet with the alleged culprit Anthony Henry, which is his
well-attested reputation as a shoddy and incompetent workman, using worn-out types and an
old press that he scarcely knew how to handle. He had never learned the trade anyway,
being a drummer with a German regiment rather than a decent prentice. But no, Dr.
Vincents big clues for attribution to Henrys press are the head-pieces at the
top of each page and the tail-piece on page seven, which must have been
a single block, and was used elsewhere by Henry. In fact all of these are
combinations of standard printers flowers, to be found in the Caslon Type Specimen
well before 1788, in the James Foundry before that, and in the inventories of virtually
all colonial printers. Not only was the tail-piece not a single block, it could not
possibly have been so, unless Henry interrupted his accustomed indolence to invent
stereotype casting, which does seem unlikely.
In summation, if the Loyal Colonies Press
intends to go further, I can only suggest that it edit its texts according to some
principles, provide introductions and notes enabling readers to evaluate the works
properly, and that future editors, being concerned with early printed texts, devote an
hour or two to the study of bibliography.
E. J. Devereux