The Rising Village, the Emigrant and Malcolm's Katie:
The Vanity of Progress

by K.P. Stich

The sentiments and facts surrounding the War of 1812 led to a marked rise in British North American self-consciousness.  By the 1830's the colonists' pride in their agricultural achievements and industrial potential had grown rapidly and was soon extended to expectations of analogous progress in literature.  The resultant positivism which perceptive English writers like Moodie and Traill saw and encouraged in the Colonies was of course conventional at a time when the inevitability of progress was synonymous with life on this continent.  In the light of Britain's grandeur and America's "Manifest Destiny," British North America's vision of progress appears solidly prefabricated.  Despite the awesome Anglo-American strength of that vision its accompanying cultural vanity did not, however, automatically turn poets into vain "national bards." In the following study I will show how the ironic views of progress in Oliver Goldsmith's The Rising Village (1825), Alexander McLachlan's The Emigrant (1861) and Isabella Valancy Crawford's Malcolm's Katie (1884) disturb the comfort of regarding cultural ambition as actual achievement.

     In a recent article, K.J. Hughes considers Goldsmith's poem not only "a success story from the point of view of the ruling oligarchy in Halifax" but also a symbolic portrayal of Nova Scotian independence. 1  W.J. Keith, in turn, questions Hughes' reductions and sheds new light on The Rising Village as a response to The Deserted Village.  Above all, Keith points out that "a reader sensitive to the political 'message of the earlier poem cannot help wondering whether commerce and luxury will not have the same baleful effect on the Nova Scotian village as they had on Auburn."2  While I share some of Keith's uneasiness about the extent to which Goldsmith was aware of his use of such irony in The Rising Village,3 I do feel that the poem itself not only forces the reader to reject its traditional interpretation as a eulogy of the United Empire Loyalists,4 but also encourages rigorous attention to the ironic conflicts within Narrative structure.

     The poem does not deal with American Loyalists; it is explicitly about British emigrants who "Have sought a home beyond the Western main; / And braved the perils of the stormy seas, / In search of wealth, of freedom, and of ease!"5 Continued references to limitless wealth, even though "not fifty Summers yet have blessed Nova Scotia's clime" (RV, p. 13), imply that the ordering of "wealth" before "freedom" and "ease" is no accident.   The pursuit of wealth is reinforced in the final apostrophe to "the land, luxuriant, rich and gay":

These are thy blessings, Scotia, and for these,
For wealth, for freedom, happiness, and ease,
Thy grateful thanks to Britain's care are due.
Her power protects, her smiles past hopes renew.
                                              (RV, p. 13)

Such prominence given to materialism in this quasi-declaration of maturity is at odds not only with the conspicuous absence of materialism in the American Declaration of Independence — an event which would help explain Goldsmith's 1825 reference to not quite fifty years of Rising Village history — but also with the need to have "past hopes renewed". 

     The appeal for such a renewal coincides with the transition from individual pioneer farmers to a village full of the "arts of culture" (RV, p. 13) The ambiguity of "culture" allows Goldsmith to satirize the definition of social progress seen in terms of a tavern, a church, a store, a doctor, and a school.  The tavern ferments "ceaseless, idle curiosity" (RV, p. 5) which leads to vanity and self-glorification; the church is hardly more than a token to sanctify success, and the "well amorted country store" (RV, p. 6), with its secular comforts superseding the comforts of the church, belongs to a pedlar who has gained "a merchant's higher title" (RV, p. 6).

     "The half-bred Doctor next then settles down, / And hopes the village soon will prove a town" (RV, p. 7).  Because of his medical ignorance, the greedy quack blames any malpractice on death's "envenomed dart / That strikes the suffering mortal to the heart.  (RV, p. 7).  When, right after the "envenomed dart," "the country school-house next erects its head" (RV, p. 7), the implicit allusions to a snake in this pseudo-Edenic world accentuate the cultural desolation which is threatening the spiritual life of the village.  The threat becomes acute through the semi-literate school master and his erosion of law and order among the young: "The rugged urchins spurn at all control, / Which cramps the movement of the free-born soul, / Till, in their own conceit so wise they've grown, / They think their knowledge far exceeds his own" (RV, p. 7).  They may well know more than he, as if to add a paradoxical twist to master-pupil relationships.   Yet there is little doubt that, in British American Tory minds, they are "rugged individuals" bent on an irresponsible "pursuit of Liberty."   Thus they crown the self-glorification and conceit begun in the tavern.

     To round out the dubious village idyll, Goldsmith gives the reader a Now Scotian version of Massachusetts Bay's legendary Merry Mount where,

Beneath some spreading tree's expanded shade
. . .  many a manly youth and gentle maid,
With festive dances or with sprightly song
The summer's evening hours in joy prolong,
And as the young their simple sports renew
The aged witness, and approve them too.  (RV, p. 7)

     Though Goldsmith's language lacks double-entendre, the ensuing digression of Albert's jilting of Flora on the eve of their wedding confirms that, "repressed by no control" and "by no laws confined" (RV, p. 8), vice has entered the Village in the shadow of affluence, ignorance, and the concomitant pursuit of pleasure.  What began as a courageous conquest of "a wilderness of trees" (RV, p. 3) ends in a conflict between enterprising vigor, as exemplified in Albert who "was foremost in the village train" (RV, p. 8), and carefree exploitation of a new land whose symbolic representation is Flora and her "unstudied grace" (RV, p. 8). 

     The ominous rift between artificiality on one side and naturalness on the other side establishes an ironic complexity which, I feel, substantiates Goldsmith's indebtedness to his great-uncle's world of neo-classical and pre-romantic tensions concerning nature and culture.  The strength of the poem lies precisely in Goldsmith's not preaching for or against the impact of so called progress on the New World.  Even the conduding apostrophes to Nova Scotia and Britain complement the ironic narrative progression.   The pompous ending follows upon the juxtaposing of the village's affluence with its cemetery "where crude cut stones or painted tables tell, / In laboured verse, how youth and beauty fell; / How worth and hope were hurried to the grave" (RV, p. 12), and with "sweet" walks in the country to listen to "the hopeless sorrows of [the whip-poor-will's] mournful tale" (RV, p. 12).

     Furthermore, the apostrophe to Nova Scotia lacks force:

How full of joy appear
The expectations of each future year!
Not fifty Summers yet have blessed thy clime,
How short a period in the page of time! (RV, pp. 12-13)

The word "appear" seriously disturbs the future of the villagers' capitalist pastoralism, as the "fifty Summers" of their history suggest to the literary reader archetypal parallels between the warrior-like pioneers of the New World and such ancient warrior-kings as Hrothgar and Beowulf whose seasoned Kingdoms of fifty-year duration ended because of ill-used wealth, freedom and ease.  (Even the monsters are present in the form of wild beasts and Indians who, quite similar to their medieval counterparts, attack only after the desolation of nature has begun.  It would be presumptuous, though, to speak of possible literary influences here.) Although the Canadian Goldsmith was a literary dilettante, he nevertheless succeeded in giving us not a eulogy of British North America's "rising villages" but a somewhat unpolished Nova Scotian version of the sort of place Hawthorne recreated a few years later in his tale of Merry Mount.  Materialism and hedonism overshadow his deceptive "sunshine sketches of a little town" and hold but vain promises of future "Arcadian adventures with the idle rich" in Acadia.  

     As in The Rising Village, the ironic conflicts between social ideals and reality in The Emigrant rest largely on the authorial manipulation of thematic contrasts.  Yet McLachlan's decided advantage over Goldsmith lies in his use of an emigrant's fifty years of reminiscences to dramatize the actuality of hope and disillusionment in the experiences of common people.  K.J. Hughes has already shown the central irony of the narrator's awareness that the emigrants brought "the history of the new land through a complete cycle by creating the problems in the new land that they sought to escape from in the old."6   It remains for me to show here that the narrator's attitudes toward the emigrant's social ideals are equivocal and need closer scrutiny than Hughes gives them. 

     Chapter I introduces the poem's leitmotif of "strange mutations,"7 of social change without necessarily progress.  At a time when Darwin's discoveries first gained wide attention, this motif drew on the topicality of evolution only to question the moral, social evolution of mankind.  The notion of "strange mutations" clearly conflicts with the facile optimism of the New World in Chapter II, an optimism triggered by relief from poverty and political corruption in the Old World.  In Chapter III, solidarity among the emigrants as "Pioneers of civilization, / Founders of a mighty nation" (TE, p. 126) is apparent in their joint singing of:

"O come to the greenwood shade,
     Away from the city's din.
From the heartless strife of trade,
     And the fumes of beer and gin;
Where Commerce spreads her fleets,
     Where bloated luxury lies,
And Want as she prowls the streets,
     Looks on with her wolfish eyes"
                            (TE, p. 127)

Yet in the last three stanzas of their song the cliches of the free life of an Indian and of freedom on the frontier already throw doubt on their future.  The doubt increases in the lines immediately following their song, "Singing thus we circled round; / All beyond was gloom profound, / And the flame upon us threw / Something of a spectral hue," and in the narrator's awareness of be ing the last of the pioneers to "chronicle the past" of a land of liberty turned "busy mart" (TE, p. 130) with little room for the communal and the individual integrity which the newcomers had envisioned. 

     Their initial "consciousness of might" (TE, p. 132), as symbolized in the name of Chapter IV - "Cutting the First Tree" - brings into focus the two related visions of their future.  John, the so-called orator among them, sees their frontier labours in images of "invaders" who "are God-commissioned here / That howling wilderness to clear" (TE, p. 133); theirs is an old-fashioned heroism with nineteenth-century adaptations stressing self-help and cooperation:

He who'd be a patriot now,
Sweat, not blood, must bathe his brow;
Like a patriotic band
Let us all join heart and hand,
Joying in each other's success,
Winking at each other's weakness.  (TE, p. 134, italics mine)

Although Orator John preaches success, Hughes — as my italics indicate — overstates John's dedication to "the capitalist work ethic and the doctrine of individual success."8  Orator John, McLachlan's disciple of Franklin's Poor Richard, tempers his exhortation to "common sense", "industry" and "temperance" (TE, p. 134) with an appeal to solidarity in spirit and deed.  Doubting Jolta, of course, warns of the competition and selfishness lurking in the Orator's vision.  Yet his own appeal to revert to a Brook Farm-like commune and "to redeem the world from gold" (TE, p. 136) lacks practicality.  It also threatens the common belief in self-reliance and social progress which the North American frontier has traditionally generated. 

     Feeling reassured as masters of their own the emigrants' choice is clear.  As if to add symbolic stature to his victory speech they put the Orator on the stump of their first tree, that "tyrant laid low" (TE, p. 132).  Doubting John'a call for a communitarian lubberland goes unheeded.  Indeed, it abruptly gives way at the outset of Chapter V to the opposite ideal of "the little log cabin far in the woods" amidst "the great solitudes, / Where the deer love to roam, and the wolf makes his lair" (TE, p. 136).

     It is this frontier idyll which makes Little Mac sing: " 'I ask not for for tune, / I ask not for wealth, / but give me the cabin with freedom and health; / With someone to love me — / Joy's roses to wreathe' " (TE, p. 139).  It is in dividualism and romance rather than ideological schemes which rouse the emigrants to "cheer him loud and long / For the jolly hunter's song, / Who, while roving in the shade, / Wooed and won the Indian maid" (TE, p. 140).

     The narrator's seasoned responses to such dreams come in Chapter VI, when he refutes Indian life as an anachronism, and in Chapter VII, when he foresees the end of common man's New World dreams as exemplified by Donald Ban's heroic struggle for survival.  Yet Ban's appearance in the final chapter of this poem gives him a much more climactic purpose as a man who,

. . .  had gazed on nature's face
       Until his spirit caught
Some strange mysterious whispers from
       The inner world of thought;
He loved the things far deepest which
       He could not understand,
And had a strange wild worship of
       The gloomy and the grand.  (TE, p. 149)

These echoes of Joseph Warton's The Enthusiast, eighteenth-century melancholy and Byronic solitude intensify the narrator's initial apostrophe to this "land of the mighty lake and forest" (TE, p. 116) and his own transcendental musings about "A strange mysterious sympathy, / Between us and material things" (TE, pp. 118-19).  His musings-turned-night-thoughts initiate his misgivings about the land's future as a country.  It is precisely the failure of the emigrants to acknowledge their tochthonous needs for a kind of "communion" (TE, p. l19) with the spirit of their new land which now reveals that the primeval "desolation round" (TE, p. 155) on the frontier had been only the overture to the growing cultural desolation:

Much remains yet to be told
Of those men and times of old,
Of the changes in our days
From their simple, honest ways,
Of the quacks on spoil intent,
That flocked to our settlement,
Of the swarms of public robbers,
Speculators and land jobbers,
Of the sorry set of teachers,
Of the bogus tribe of preachers,
Of the host of herb physicians,
And of cunning politicians.
But the sun has hid his face,
And the night draws on apace;
Shadows gather in the west,
Beast and bird are gone to rest,
With tomorrow we'll not fail
To resume our humble tale.  (TE, p. l56)

The fact that the poem ends with such, almost literal, allusions to the vanity of progress in The Rising Village is, I feel, no accident.  (There is no need to ponder McLachlan's alleged plans for a sequel.)   As in Goldsmith's poem, a fifty-year reign of pioneer "kings" is over; the envisioned capitalist pastoralism for the common man has led only to "mutations" of Old World materialism.  Despite McLachlan's one-time Chartist sympathies, it is misleading when Hughes singles out the communitarian values in The Emigrant in order to make McLachlan perhaps attractive as a quasi-socialist.   The poem, as I have shown, rather affirms a nostalgic preference for responsible North American individualism; a preference which "The Man Who Rose from Nothing" and similar poems by McLachlan underline. 

     Nostalgia for the pioneer past and disillusionment with the present dim the hope for the future that the open ending ("Much remains yet to be told") holds.  The implied death of the narrator — last of the pioneers — precludes even such spurious apostrophes as in The Rising Village.  Goldsmith's perfunctory appeal to British guidance for Colonial greatness has given way to a far more disturbing vanity of progress: the impossibility of building a homeland without the help of organic growth and spiritual roots.

     A renewal of past hopes of which Goldsmith speaks and a new look at the "simple, hardy race" (TE, p. 117) that had died in The Emigrant let Crawford explore the vanity of progress in Malcolm's Katie.  Like Goldsmith and McLachlan, she portrays pioneers as New World versions of heroes of old, "thew'd warriors of the Axe,"9 whose paramount example is Max.  When Max slays the "king of Desolation" and sees himself as the new "king" (MK, p. 165), he has paradoxically become a destroyer as much as a builder.  This paradox is foreshadowed in the allegorical battle between, on the one side, the "White Moon of the Falling Leaves" of autumn and the "Pale Face" moon or "Moon of Evil Witches" of winter and, on the other side, the dying sun of the "mystic Indian Summer" (MK, p. 164).   Ultimately Max's "bright axe" cleaving "moon like thro' the airs" (MK, p. 165) represents culture's violation of the harmony of nature: " . . .  and the sun / Walked pale behind the resinous black smoke" (MK, p. 165) of Max's brush fire, "And Max cared little for the blotted sun" (MK, p. 165).

     While Max's love for Katie sanctions his deeds and while environmental concern for the "axe-stirr'd waste" (MK, p. 166) ought not to stop "the quick rush of panting human waves / Upheav'd by throbs of angry poverty, / And driven by keen blasts of hunger from / Their native strands" (MK, p. 166), Crawford nevertheless forewarns of social change.  She describes the growing exploitation of physical and human nature in aggressive metonymies:

Then came smooth-coated men with eager
And talk'd of steamers on the cliff-bound lakes,
And iron tracks across the prairie lands,
And mills to crush the quartz of wealthy hills,
And mills to saw the great wide-arm'd trees,
And mills to grind the singing stream of grain;
And with such busy clamour mingled still
The throbbing music of the bold, bright Axe —
The steel tongue of the present . . . . (MK, p. 167)

Even Max falls prey to "smooth-coated self-glorification when his axe promises him that "a nation strong shall lift his head! / His crown the very heav'ns shall smite, / Aeons shall build him in his might!" The hubris of Max is doubly evident: the axe song occurs immediately after God, the "Great Worker" (MK, p. 175), is planning the rebirth of nature, and during Max's attempted murder of Alfred. 

     Despite its taste of 'soap', the ensuing interlude about Alfred's lust and greed effectively dramatizes the threats of the "steel tongue of the present" to Max's and Katie's dreams and to the larger vision of a new nation.  Even the sentimental conclusion fails to be reassuring about the future.  In fact, the ending seems to encourage a status quo for frontier idylls, a world which Max regards as Edenic.  Katie, who rejects his analogy as too self-centered and who appears to be a social-minded Mother Earth figure, is really afraid of the future: "I would not change these wild and rocking woods, / Dotted by little homes of unbark'd trees, / . . .  / For the smooth sward of selfish Eden Bowers, / Nor-Max for Adam, if I knew my mind!" (MK, p. 190).   The conclusion of the poem with her qualifying "if" and her subjunctive "knew" implies that she likes to speak not from her head but from her heart.  Hers is the tochthonous voice that Flora so vainly personifies in The Rising Village and that remains blurred behind transcendental musing in The Emigrant.  It is ultimately the cautiously creative voice of a mother country as opposed to the aggressive voice of that father land which, in the song of the axe, "shall lift his head" (MK, p. 175), italics mine).  Katie's wariness of progress amounts to fear of the archetypal "smooth-coated men with eager eyes" who ended the frost tier idyll in The Emigrant.  Max's own love of power — as seen particularly in his image as a warrior-king in battle with nature — concedes a pending imbalance between male and female forces.  Indeed, Katie's cautious "if I knew my mind" has a further connotation: she may be tempted to follow her father and Max in their capitalist pastoralism which can so easily turn into lust and greed.

     While I accept Robin Mathews's perceptive argument that the story of Max and Katie encompasses love of work, wealth, fellow man and nation, I find it difficult to accept his emphasis on the poem's social optimisms.10  The conflict between mother country and fatherland in Malcolm's Katie plainly complements the disillusioned visions of Canada's future as a homeland in The Rising Village and The Emigrant. Crawford's manipulation of structure, theme and diction ultimately inverts the poem's optimism.  She, too, gives the reader "strange mutations" concerning progress by individual man and by society in nineteenth-century Canada.  Neither the relative order of the Canadian frontier within its North American context nor prefabricated domestic and national dreams can cultivate the "bush garden" turned under by wild forces of rapid commercialization and industrialization.  Despite the political and economic changes from 1825 to 1884, all three poems reveal a surprising uniformity in the poets' approaches to the vanity of progress.  Caught between love of the new land and uncomfortable misgivings, Goldsmith, McLachlan and Crawford soften their disillusionments with backward glances to the good old pioneer days.  Their sincerity and ironic detachment, even at times their satire, redeem them from being banal propagandists of the good life in Canada and encourage the modern reader to heed their complexities as makers of a national literature


  1. K.J. Hughes, "Oliver Goldsmith's 'The Rising Village'," Canadian Poetry, 1 (Fall/Winter 1977), 27, 41.[back]

  2. W.J. Keith. " 'The Rising Village' Again," Canadien Poetry, 3 (Fall/Winter, 1978), 11.[back]
  3. Keith, 5, 1-13 passim.[back]
  4. Lorne Pierce, "Foreword," Oliver Goldsmith, Autobiography, ed.  by W.E. Myatt (Toronto: Ryerson. 1943).   p. viii; and Douglas Fetherling.  "The Canadian Goldsmith," Canadian Literature, 68-69 (Spring/Summer 1976), 121.[back]
  5. "The Rising Village," in Nineteenth-Century Narrative Poems, ed.  by David Sinclair (Toronto: New Canadian Library, 1972), p. 3.  Hereafter abbrev. to RV in quotation references.[back]
  6. K.J. Hughes, "The Completeness of McLachlan's 'The Emigrant'," English Studies in Canada, 1 (Spring, 1975), 181.[back]
  7. "The Emigrant," in Nineteenth-Century Narrative Poems, p. 117.  Hereafter abbrev. to TE in quotation references.[back]
  8. Hughes, "The Completeness," 179.[back]
  9. "Malcolm's Katie," in Nineteenth-Century Narrative Poemsip. 160.  Hereafter abbrev. to MK in quotation references.[back]
  10. Robin Mathews, " 'Malcolm's Katie': Love, Wealth and Nation Building," Studies in Canadian Literature, 2 (Winter, 1977), 60, 49-60 passim.[back]