The Challenge of
Duncan Campbell Scott

The Duncan Campbell Scott Symposium.  Edited by K.P. Stich. University of Ottawa Press, 1980.  xiv + 157 pp.

Of all the so-called "Poets of Confederation," Duncan Campbell Scott has quietly (the word in this context is hackneyed but inevitable) established himself as the most congenial to contemporary taste — at least in judicious selections.   For all his 'old-fashioned' attributes he gives evidence of a decidely 'modern' sensibility.  As a poet he can at his best be traditional without becoming merely derivative ("In the Country Churchyard," for example), yet another side of him seems, if not innovative, at least independent.  As a writer of fiction, though less prolific — and ultimately, I think, less substantial — than Charles G.D. Roberts, he is more consistent in standard and brings to his short stories the same meditative detachment that is so prominent a quality in much of his verse.

     He is, then, a highly appropriate subject for one of the University of Ottawa's "Reappraisals" conferences, but he poses a distinct literary-critical challenge.  Although his effects are often modest, the methods by which he achieves them are correspondingly subtle.  Appropriate commentary needs to make precise and delicate distinctions, appreciate slight nuances, be open to inconspicuous changes of tone and voice.  And there should be firm but respectful scrutiny as well, leading to judgments on the man (the "Indian question" becomes pressing here), on his intellectual rigour, on his poetic technique.  Scott himself was clearly both shrewd and sensitive; his commentators need to display similar qualities.  How do the Symposium critics measure up?  Well, let me say at once that I consider this book one of the better volumes in the series.  There is much here that is new and important, that furthers the cause of sound scholarship and intelligent criticism.  At the same time — inevitably, I suppose, given the collaborative nature of the exercise — some contributors are decidedly more satisfactory than others.  Since the differences in standard are revealing in ways that go beyond the immediate area of concern, they are worth discussing in some detail.

     Commentators on Scott are fortunate in that, years ago, A.J.M. Smith wrote two important essays on him that laid a firm foundation for subsequent literary-critical consideration and argument.  The first, immediately after the poet's death, was originally published in the Dalhousie Review in 1948, while the second appeared a decade later in Our Living Tradition, edited by Robert L. McDougall, and in slightly different form in the first issue of Canadian Literature; both are available in S.L. Dragland's collection of Scott criticism (Tecumseh, 1974).  Taken together, they represent a seminal critique recalling Matthew Arnold's essay on Wordsworth — pioneering work brilliantly discriminating in its identification of important poems but in need of qualification and refinement.  Their significance lies in the attempt to isolate Scott's major work and to offer a concise and cogent description of the kind of poet he is.  Of the three essays that open the Symposium by presenting general accounts of Scott's poetry, only one — Gordon Johnston's — usefully extends the discussion that Smith initiated.

     John P. Matthews and Kathy Mezei are both concerned with that favourite Canadian literary-critical procedure, the erection of a neat intellectual pattern into which the poetry can fit.  Matthews isolates "two dominant concepts throughout Scott's poetry which mesh as an informing principle to his concept of synthesis" (I quote to illustrate the dry abstraction involved here).  One is "sea change," the other "the moment of becoming," and as Milton Wilson has already treated the former Matthews concentrates on the latter.  Certainly these are subjects about which Scott likes to write, and Matthews discusses them quite intelligently.  My dissatisfaction arises from the fact that he quotes Scott for the content only.  I find myself retorting:  yes, yes, all right, sea-change and becoming are important to Scott, but is he a good poet?  does he make poems well?  does he use words excitingly, creatively?  Matthews has little to say explicitly on such questions — which are surely the questions.

     Mezei (whose essay was not, incidentally, delivered at the conference itself) is preoccupied with planes, circles and what she ominously calls "spatial archetypes."  She tends, I fear, towards the simplistic:  "for Scott, the height of land is an ideal image because elevated places inspire elevated thoughts."  She wants to schematize Scott's imagery and structures, and rests content when she has done so.   Her central pattern is established as follows:  "In Scott, the vertical motion assumes the form of an ascent to the ideal — mountain top or air and light — or a descent to the depths of the earth, pool or ocean."  Now it so happens that Gordon Johnston beautifully undercuts this sort of approach in his essay entitled (not, I think, very happily) "The Significance of Scott's Minor Poems."  He is, of course, well aware of the patterns; he tells us on his first page that "Scott's mind was dominated by the doubleness of rational thought, by the process of thinking in terms of twinned opposites," but unlike Mezei he does not assume that this is a good thing just because he has noticed it.  On the contrary, he finds it a weakness rather than a strength:  it can lead to a facile formula because a pat, balanced resolution is always available.  Let me quote some isolated sentences:

Scott's easy poems, the ones in danger of being bad, are usually generated by this rational perception of relations, or by a sentimental submission to the "idealized" form of a conflict, its ideality so apparent in the pale personifications of his mental dramas:  Pain and Passion, Wonder and Expectance, Grief and Pity, Love and Service.

. . .  his interest in perfect poems leads him to write some of his worst poems, those which clear away obscurities and contradictions too easily, and those which settle for formal perfection at the expense of the thought.

The powerful poems by Scott are the ones which go beyond or above these distinctions, the simplifications of polar thinking.

The point to be made here is that Mezei stops thinking at the very point where Johnston (properly) begins.

     But there is more to be said than that.  Johnston's thought is directed to Scott as a maker of poems, not just as a creator of patterns.  He continues:  "When Scott has sufficient control over the language, its meaning and sound levels, then even poems which are dominated in their thinking by the rational polarities can be successful; they can express genuine reactions to credible situations in a schematic but not the less powerful way."   Precisely.  Johnston, a true critic, now begins to show how the success (or otherwise) of the poetry depends not on the patterns but on how they are treated, on the quality of mind and language that manipulates them.  This essay, I believe, is as seminal as Smith's.  It is full of new insights, and raises Scott criticism to a new level.  Naturally, it too can be qualified.  His classification into "major," "minor" and "bad" is somewhat crude, but it represents the necessary kind of initiating process that can be refined later.  Here is a critic who thinks about poetry in poetic terms; why are such critics so rare?

     Johnston also contributes a short poem, a poetic "epilogue" to Scott at the end of the volume, and is so doing suggests a possible answer to this last question.  Can it be accidental that the other successful paper on Scott's poetry is Fred Cogswell's "Symbol and Decoration: 'The Piper of Arll' "?  This is a useful and original interpretation of an elusive but haunting multi-layered poem; he does not explain all the mystifying details (I cannot fit the three pines that turn into plundering warriors into his reading, and, although he comments helpfully on the legend of the Narrenschiff, he neglects to show how it blends into that of the demon-lover), but "The Piper of Arll" is larger than any single reading of it, and Cogswell offers an explication that is both sensitive and imaginative.   He is, of course, an established poet himself, and this fact lends force to my suspicion that the most satisfactory critics of poetry are generally those who have some first-hand experience of the craft.

     This points towards what I consider a missed opportunity in the Symposium:  its failure to provide a paper centred upon Scott's poetic technique.  Surely this is an inescapable topic if Scott (any poet, of course, but especially Scott) is to be discussed adequately.  Anyone who has responded to the rhythms of his verse at all must have been on the one hand impressed by the satisfying quality of many of Scott's cadences but on the other puzzled by individual lines which either read lamely or tend to stumble — which I find myself calling his metrical stutter.  One example must suffice.  What are we to do in "Lines in Memory of Edmund Morris" when, after a series of short accentual rhyming lines, and a few that already vary uncertainly between irregular pentameter and a hint of anapests and dactyls, we suddenly encounter the line:

When you steal upon a land that man has not sullied with his intrusion

— which sounds to my ear like a particularly fumbling, bumpy, unsatisfactory prose?  There are many, many similar examples in his work from single lines that seem for no apparent reason to break the flow of regular stanzas to puzzling shifts of metrical convention from one line to another.  As literary critics we cannot just ignore the difficulties involved.

     This is a problem complicated by the well-known fact that Scott was highly musical.  Robert L. McDougall, indeed, describes him as "a musician whose love for music surpasses even his love for poetry."  Johnston refers in his poem-tribute to "Your excellent ear" and goes on to observe:

The sounds we hear in the strings and hammers
of your words are beautiful, and hint
at the way you breathed and phrased
when you entered time . . .

One can only assume that a poet with this kind of musical expertise knew what he was doing — but how to account for it?

     Personally, I have a poor musical ear and can make no useful contribution to this subject; on the contrary, I am desperately in need of help.   But what troubles me is that most of the commentators here do not seem to recognize either that there is a problem or that it is one that must be faced.  For instance, Stan Dragland, in a useful discussion of "Spring on Mattagami," correctly distinguishes between Scott's verse-form and his model in George Meredith's "Love in the Valley" by noting that "Scott allows himself more metrical latitude than Meredith."  True enough, but one of the results is that Scott's poem is much more difficult to read.   Without the urgent and insistent beat of the Meredith (which for me tends towards vulgarity) Scott's lines can often be read metrically in a number of different ways and this becomes a barrier to a continuing reading.  Dragland skirts the edge of the problem but never addresses himself to it.

     A more extreme case is provided by Catherine E. Kelly, who offers a detailed paper on "Lines in Memory of Edmund Morris" but confines herself to a rather pedestrian section-by-section discussion of the poem's structure.  She never even mentions the way in which the line-lengths vary from section to section, never discusses the significance of the metrical variations, never seems to consider that Scott might suit his metric to his material and that this might therefore be an aspect of the poem not only worth considering but essential to a full discussion.  She possibly made a conscious decision to devote herself to other matters, but in view of a revealing reference to metre in the course of her paper, I suspect an inadequacy here.  I quote the relevant passage:

. . .  this moon independently ventures out within the pattern given, uncertain, but with the unreachable ideal firmly there, the star, not to direct overtly, but, as the metre indicates, to be with her:

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I am not sure that I understand the logic of the prose ("out within" is clumsy, and I lose track of the syntactical flow of the rest) but I am mainly concerned with the way in which "the metre indicates."  What good does this crude scansion achieve?  And how can metre indicate anything?  No one in his senses reads the lines according to this rigid and primitive system of scansion, and any rhythmic substitution can alter not only the emphasis but the meaning.  Personally, though I could understand someone retaining a beat on "be," I find in my own reading that I instinctively lay the emphasis on "with."  There is room for disagreement about the rhythm, but Sister Kelly's argument collapses because the metrical norm proves nothing (what would she do with Lear's five never's?).

     I stress the matter because I find it disturbing that a teacher of English, a literary critic, can display such vagueness about rhythm and metre, that she can give a paper at a well-attended conference, submit it to an editor and have it published — and in the whole process no one apparently points out the elementary objection.  Criticism of Scott is not going to get very far unless his commentators can demonstrate a greater sensitivity to the basic mechanics of verse.

     Apart from the questions arising directly out of details of rhythm and metre, however, there are a number of other aspects of poetic technique in Scott that seem crying out for attention.  There are the effects in poems that lie intriguingly half-way between traditional blank verse and vers 1ibre, and what may well be a related effect of vocabulary in which emotionally charged "poetic" words appear side by side with prosaic matter-of-fact ones ("Golden and inappellable" is the best-known instance, but many others are to be found in Scott).  Then there is the embarrassing prevalence of stale clichés ("Ode for the Keats Centenary" is full of them), which might be merely acknowledged as Scott's characteristic form of badness were it not for the fact that a number of his successful poems (I think "Compline" fits here) gain an effectiveness from the way in which they tremble on the verge of cliché yet manage to revivify the old forms and phrases.  An effect that I can only describe as impressive monotony, a seemingly willed flatness, lies at the heart of Scott's poetry and is part, I suspect, of what we find congenial in him.  These matters remain undiscussed and unresolved in the Symposium, which is a pity.  But they involve approaches to literature that Canadian criticism in general has not yet recognized as important to sophisticated literary discussion.  It should.

     Because of the dominant interest of this journal I have devoted most of my space to the poetic contributions, but the other papers must not be ignored.  Criticism of Scott's fiction is apparently even less advanced than that of his poetry.  This may be because, though readable, his short stories (the Untitled Novel is now available, but Glenn Clever's discussion failed to arouse my interest in it) are rarely ambitious or distinguished enough to encourage probing critical comment.  And I had better state bluntly at this point that John Flood's "Native People in Scott's Short Fiction" should never have been accepted for publication.  First of all, it is badly written — sometimes to the point of incoherence.  Two samples:

What complicates the stories is that the business of trade takes precedent [sic] over the desire to be where the trade must, for the sake of profit, take place.

The reduction of characters to nameplates impinges on their potential to actualize the essence of their being.

A fog of sloppy word-usage settles over the whole essay; often I found it impossible to extract a comprehensible argument out of a paragraph.  Small wonder that the writer can say nothing that is likely to interest a serious reader of fiction.  Scott seems (one can never be absolutely sure on account of the poor prose-style) to be criticized for portraying Indians as stereotypes in stories where the emphasis is on white traders, and Indians only appear as supernumerary servants and customers.  That the white protagonists themselves are often also stereotypes is not discussed, but when a trader is made to describe Indians as "fools," Scott is interpreted as displaying prejudice.

     I am not denying that a case might be made against Scott on the basis of certain stories.  Some of the narrator's remarks in "Clute Boulay," for instance, certainly grate on modern ears sensitive in such matters.  But as Flood makes no distinction between this story and "Charcoal" where, as several commentators have noted, Scott goes out of his way (even to the extent of altering his source) to make the Indian protagonist sympathetic, he is not in a position to put the case cogently.  Moreover, the problem in "Clute Boulay" may be primarily a literary one:  Scott wants to evoke a scene of savagery (Stan Dragland notes in his introduction to his New Canadian Library collection of stories that the climax "is as northern as a Norse saga"), and words like "savage" and "primitive" may be introduced to strengthen the suggestion of harsh barbarity.  If so, Scott's literary skills rather than his racial attitudes are at stake; but, judging by this performance, such necessary distinctions are beyond Flood's powers.

     In startling (and reassuring) contrast stands Robert L. McDougall's polished and mature account of his forays into Scott biography and the location of manuscript material.  He succeeds in pinpointing the places where E.K. Brown's portrait in his "Memoir" introducing the Selected Poems needs to be expanded and to some extent revised, and a fuller and convincing picture of Scott — especially the older Scott — emerges in the process.  Along with Johnston's essay, McDougall's marks the high point in the volume, and his projected full-scale biography is awaited with all the more expectation.  His paper is proof (if proof were needed) that quality of writing — choice of word and image, control of rhythm, etc. — can make all the difference between an adequate essay and an excellent one.

     For the rest, the critical dialogue between Stan Dragland and Martin Ware over "Spring on Mattagami" was an experiment well worth making, though I found it rather too long.  Glenn Clever's essay on the fiction is in formative but unexciting.  Otherwise Sandra Campbell contributes a well-written and soundly-researched report on the friendship between Scott and Pelham Edgar, James Doyle a harmless but inevitably low-key essay on the impact of American literature, and C.M. Armitage a very brief and not particularly helpful note on Scott's letters to Lionel Stevenson.  Finally, Sister Kelly provides a selective but none the less ample bibliography which, so far as I know, is the best to date.

     A few concluding words on editing and production.  While reviewing some of the earlier volumes in this series, I have had occasion to complain of poor (I suspect, non-existent) proofreading.  This resulted in a rash of typographical errors, spelling mistakes and faulty punctuation that was irritating to encounter and provoked dark thoughts about the competence of those in charge.  While there is still a larger number of misprints here than one would expect to see in ideal conditions, this volume shows a considerable improvement.   K P. Stich, as editor, can be faulted for not insisting that Flood resubmit his paper in decent English, but otherwise this is an attractive book, well arranged and carefully balanced.  The series has now established itself as an important on-going contribution to Canadian literary studies.  Until now, however, it has tended to reflect the average level of critical commentary in the area, and the time has surely come for it to make a stand in the interests of higher standards.  There is no point in reproducing mediocre papers just because they were delivered at a particular moment in time.  The editors responsible for these "Symposium" volumes should take the lead and insist on a judicious selection-process to eliminate expendable dross.  What we need are volumes that are full of essays as good as Johnston's and McDougall's; this would result in literary criticism of which we could all be proud.

W.  J.  Keith