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 another’s 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 UEL’s 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. Vincent’s big clues for attribution to Henry’s 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 printer’s 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