Columns and Controversies Among the Confederation of Poets

At the Mermaid lnn: Wilfred Campbell, Archibald Lampman, Duncan Campbell Scott in The Globe 1892-93.  Edited, and with an Introduction, by Barrie Davies.  University of Toronto Press, 1979. xxiii + 353 pp.

The complete At the Mermaid Inn column, selections (and often confusing excerpts) of which were published in 1958 by Arthur Bourinot, makes easily accessible at last what is collectively one of the most sustained and controversial forays into prose by the Confederation poets or, more strictly speaking, by the Ottawa group of Lampman, Scott, and Campbell.

     Quantitatively, the volume is impressive.   The columns number well over two hundred, and some of them cover several sides of the long pages of the University of Toronto's Literature of CanadaPoetry and Prose in Reprint volume.  Professor Davies, and, with him, Patricia Kennedy must be thanked for undertaking the herculean and blinding task of transcribing the text from microfilms of The Globe.  Their errors are few, though as W.J. Keith has pointed out ("Letters in Canada," University of Toronto Quarterly, 1980), one or two of them are significant and misleading.  For the most part, however, the text presented by Davies is reliable; certainly it inspires more confidence than Bourinot's Selections or, indeed, than Davies' own Archibald Lampman Selected Prose (Tecumseh, 1975).

     Before turning to some of the issues raised by the At the Mermaid Inn column now that it can easily be seen steadily and seen whole, some attention must be given to the volume's Index.  No compiler for the Index is listed in the Acknowledgements, so responsibility for its shortcomings must be taken as residing, in a general way, with the University of Toronto Press.  These short comings are serious enough to render the Index a frustrating and unreliable means of access to the At the Mermaid Inn column, particularly to the many references by Lampman, Scott, and Campbell to various authors, artists, and composers.  For instance, Dante Gabriel Rossetti is mentioned and quoted several times by the Canadian poets, but only one page reference appears in the Index.  And while Pater, Mozart, and the painter Millet are mentioned in the text, they are not entered in the Index.   There are other eccentricities too:  Sidney Lanier the American poet appears as Sydney Lamer; Henrik Ibsen is not given a Christian name; and we are told that Arthur Hugh Clough is an "English Poet" but not that The Youth's Companion is a Boston journal.  As this sampling of omissions, inaccuracies, and inconsistencies shows, the Index to the At the Mermaid Inn volume functions less as a means of access to its contents than as a means of ensuring that the volume will be read in its entirety by anyone interested in any of its facets.  That may be a worthwhile end, by the means of achieving it are of course unjustifiable.

     In his lengthy and detailed "Introduction" to At the Mermaid Inn Professor Davies, himself one of Lampman's most skilled and sensitive critics, does a fine job of placing the column in a context that illuminates its genesis and demise, the central concerns and relative merits of its authors, and its importance as a window on the literary and intellectual world of Canada in the 'nineties.  No one would dispute Davies' claim that "At the Mermaid Inn is important because it reflects many of the issues, conflicts, and general temper of the age."  But some might wonder whether in the squabbles between Campbell on the one hand and Lampman and Scott on the other which brought the column to a rancorous conclusion in July, 1893 there really is present "in microcosm, the symptoms of national fragmentation which are a major concern of these writers in the column as a whole."  By his own admission Davies makes "no attempt to exhaust the rich diversity of the material" in At the Mermaid Inn; he does, however, offer a great many insights regarding the issues discussed in the column by Lampman, Scott, and Campbell and, moreover, offers provocative speculations regarding the relationship among the three poets and between them and their late-Victorian society.

     Each reader of At the Mermaid Inn will find items in the column that are of particular and special interest.  As Davies says:  "now that At the Mermaid Inn is finally available, much more will be written about it."  Of course, the column has always been accessible to those interested enough in Confederation poetry to read it in the original or on microfilm.  Now that it is accessible in one volume, the issues, specific and general, that it raises come flooding forward.  On March 5, 1892 Lampman, in meditating on the appeal and limitations of Shelley, mentions Roberts and Carman as being "of this poet's cult" while making no mention of his own earlier essay on The Revolt of Islam. "In Shelley,'' writes Campbell on August 20, 1892, "we have . . . the greatest lyric poet in the language."  It would be interesting to see Shelley's influence on the Confederation writers examined in detail.  Several of Lampman's columns — for instance those of February 20, 1892, April 30, 1892, May 14, 1892, and July 9, 1892 — seem to indicate an emblematic tendency in his reading of the Book of Canadian Nature, a possibility which has not, to my knowledge, been explored with reference to his poetry.  On April 29, 1893, Scott calls attention to Archibald Geikie's article on "Scenery and the Imagination" in that month's issue of The Fortnightly Review (vol. 53, pp. 547-573).  Geikie's argument for the influence of "conditions of climate and variations of topography" on the imaginative response to landscape has resonances which wait to be explored, not only in Scott's poetry, but also in the work of other Canadian poets, notably Lampman.  And surely the following, from Scott's column for February 4, 1893, has ramifications for "The Piper of Arll":

All art, as Walter Pater points out, is constantly striving towards the condition of music, and perhaps Flaubert was born with a musician's idea of form and was constantly searching for the absolute fusion of form and context [sic] which is found in no other art.  This implies that he might have been challenging the impossible. . . . And so Flaubert. . . takes his place as a type of the artist who will not be distracted by the intractableness of his material, but who works at his God-given task without despair.

While there is a good deal of 'filter' in At the Mermaid Inn, there is also much — very much more than can be even mentioned here — that illuminates the three contributing poets and suggests lines of investigation for the scholar and critic.

     One such line of investigation is that which links the demise of At the Mermaid Inn, after a series of what Davies calls "embittered entries" by Campbell, with the eruption, a little less than two years later, in the Summer of 1895, of what was variously called "The Battle of the Poets," "The Poets' Controversy," and "The War Among the Poets."  Angered by the fact that he had been given shorter shrift than Carman, Lampman, Roberts, Scott and others in an article entitled "The Singers of Canada" by an American journalist, Joseph Dana Miller, in the May, 1895 issue of Munsey's Magazine, Campbell published a lengthy and anonymous article in the Toronto Sunday World accusing Carman of being "the most fragrant imitator" — i.e. plagiarist — "on this continent."  In attempting to justify his charge by juxtaposing excerpts from Carman's poems with excerpts from poems by Rossetti (upon whom he "evidently made his first levies") and, amongst others, Whitman, Stevenson, Kipling, Lampman and himself, Campbell succeeds in shedding light on both his own paranoia and Carman's poetic practice.   In his various responses, Carman, in addition to coining the word "Campbelligerent" and satirizing its referent as "little Willie" in The Chap Book, allowed that the reappearance of the line "With small innumerable sound" from Lampman's "Heat" in his own "The Eavesdropper" Are "due . . . to . . . unconscious (or, better, subconscious) appropriation."   He also noted that the line had been excised and replaced in the second edition of Low Tide on Grand Pré.  "The War Among the Poets" raged for several weeks in the correspondence, editorial, and gossip columns of newspapers in Toronto (including The Globe and The Week) and elsewhere; moreover, it found poetic expression, not just in Carman's lampoons in The Chap Book, but also in the Byronic stanzas of C.G. Rogers' "Bards of the Boiler-Plate" (1895), the Popean couplets of A.C. Stewart's The Poetical Review (1896), and in numerous other satirical verses by Campbell and others.  When Campbell resumed the attack in an open letter to the Toronto Globe printed over his own name it was to accuse Carman and Roberts of literary log-rolling, of enhancing their own reputations at the expense of Scott's and his own.  Needless to say, this salvo from Ottawa at the Fredericton cousins in New York was also the occasion for Public controversy and satirical verse.   In his study of Wilfred Campbell, Carl Klinck characterizes "The War Among the Poets" as "a tempest in the Canadian teapot."  And so it was.

     Yet it is an episode which, like the 'Fleshly-School' controversy and the Wilde trial, is curiously revelatory of a social and cultural milieu.  For surely it is significant that "The War of the Poets" was occasioned, not by the issues of fleshliness and viciousness (manifestations of the aesthetic-decadent movement which Glassco would subsequently import), but by a piqued Canadian poet taking exception to an American critic's characterization of his colleagues as "not mere echoes" but authors of "strong unfettered verse . . . of no transplanted origin."  The nature of originality, the place of imitation, the integrity of pastiche (Campbell's word is "mosaic"), the relation between 'subconscious appropriation' and imaginative invention — these are issues which, willy-nilly, must continue to surface in discussions of a poetry which, like Canada itself, has drawn so much from outside itself.  The ease of the transition from Campbell's embittered columns in At the Mermaid Inn (and Davies is certainly right when he says that Campbell "came to feel that literary prominence in Canada had more to do with politics and cliques than talent") to the broad considerations raised here is surely one indication of the place of the Globe column, not just in the literary and intellectual history of its period, but also in the continuity of Canadian poetic and critical concerns.  Professor Davies is correct:  much more will be written about At the Mermaid Inn near is available, 'filler,' squabbles, warts and all, in its entirety.

D.M.R. Bentley