The Composition and Text of Joseph Howe's Acadia

by M.G. Parks


Among the long poems, variously narrative, meditative, and descriptive, in which nineteenth-century Canadian poets examined the settlement and progress of the British North American colonies, Howe's Acadia seems at first glance to be an anomaly. The date of publication, 1874, places it very late among these poems which were the most ambitious poetic efforts of the period, for Goldsmith's The Rising Village first appeared in 1825, Peter Fisher's The Lay of the Wilderness in 1833, O'Grady's The Emigrant in 1842, and McLachlan's The Emigrant in 1861. Moreover, Howe's eighteenth-century style is certainly an anachronism in the post-Confederation period. The truth, of course, is that Acadia was written long before it was published, like almost all of the poems in Poems and Essays, the volume which Howe's executors saw through the press after his death in 1873.

     Yet Acadia remains an anomaly in one sense. Almost all of Howe's poems which are undated in his Poems and Essays can be readily assigned dates of composition, either by reference to manuscript copies, to Howe's letters, or to newspaper and periodical publication, but Acadia is an exception. It presents more of a challenge. It is a curious exception because not only is it Howe's most ambitious poem but, in spite of its heavy weight of rhetoric, what he must have regarded as his major work in verse. Nevertheless, no dates are appended to the manuscript copies of the poem, and the missing information does not appear to be supplied elsewhere. We are left with the task of establishing the approximate date on the basis of unobtrusive and indirect evidence.

     The first clue comes from manuscript copies of the poem in the Howe papers now in the Houghton Library at Harvard University. This collection includes two copies of the poem, both in Howe's handwriting. The first, which for ease of identification may be called Harvard Copy I (hereafter HC I), is written in a neat and tidy hand that is characteristic of Howe's letters in the late 1820's and early 1830's. The second, which we may call Harvard Copy II (HC II), is in a similar hand but with one recognizable difference — the letters with long descenders are often elongated below the line in an exaggerated fashion. This was a characteristic of Howe's handwriting which developed in the 1830's and became quite marked by the late 1830's — in, for example, many of his letters from Europe in 1838. Both early styles differ radically from the bolder, coarser, and more expansive script of Howe's letters from the late 1840's throughout the rest of his life. It is reasonable to conclude, then, on the basis of handwriting alone, that HC I was made no later than the mid-1830's, and that HC II dates from only a slightly later time, perhaps from 1835 to 1840. As HC I is clearly the earlier version, not only on the evidence of the style of script but for reasons which will become clear when the text is discussed, it follows that a likely terminus ad quem for Acadia is the mid-1830's.

     The second piece of evidence is much more definite. It appears in a letter Howe wrote to his wife when he was travelling through the province on one of his annual excursions as owner and editor of The Novascotian. Writing from Kentville on July 3, 1832, he relates how he had set out to walk the twenty-five miles from Windsor to Kentville on the previous day but had been forced by heavy rain to take refuge at an inn and to spend the night there. Then comes the crucial sentence: "I amused myself as well as I could reading a number of the Atheneum which I had in my pocket, and in the evening made a commencement, and wrote about twenty lines of my poem, and should opportunity occur I think I see my way clear through a hundred." As Howe wrote only a few poems of over a hundred lines, most of which are dated, it is not difficult to eliminate most of the possibilities. Five of them either bear dates or are easily dated by references in his letters: "Fame" (1826), "Melville Island" (1826), "Sable Island" (1831), "The Stewiacke" (1835), and "To the Town Clock" (1836). It might naturally be assumed that the sixth poem, "To My Wife", which Howe dates "July, 1832", is the one referred to in his letter of July 3, but it too is eliminated by a subsequent letter. Writing from Pictou on August 9, 1832, Howe tells his wife:

I have been intending to write you some lines for a long, long time — but could never get leisure enough or sufficient abstraction from business to do them justice. Having some spare time on the passage to the Island, and a few leisure hours there, I began and completed these I enclose. They are not perhaps worthy of the subject — but some of the ideas are poetical — and some of the poetry as good as any I have ever written or can write. They are full of truth, at all events, and some inaccuracies may be corrected at a future time . . . .

This poem, then, was begun on Howe's passage to Prince Edward Island on August 3 and 4 (he says in a previous letter that it had taken him two days and two nights to cross to the Island in a schooner because of calms and head winds) and completed on August 5 in Charlottetown, where he arrived on a Sunday morning and had time on his hands until he could transact business the next day. As the poem mentioned in the letter of July 3 had been begun on July 2, it cannot be the same one which Howe began on the schooner and completed at Charlottetown. Howe's remarks identify the later poem as almost certainly "To My Wife", especially the phrase "to write you some lines" and his doubt that what he has written is "worthy of the subject". It is also significant that no poem by Howe except "The Talbots" (1827) was printed in The Novascotian in 1832. As it was Howe's custom after 1828 to place his "public" poems in his newspaper soon after he had composed them, the poem finished at Charlottetown should have appeared in that year if it had been for public gaze. "To My Wife", however, would have been considered too personal for publication in his own newspaper. As for Howe dating it "July, 1832", one can only conclude that the error of one month was a slip of memory, as his own on-the-spot evidence denies it. It follows, then, that "my poem" begun on July 2, 1832, was not "To My Wife" or any of Howe's other long poems; only Acadia remains unaccounted for and is therefore almost certainly the work to which he refers.

     Final and equally definite evidence appears in Howe's references to Lochaber Lake in the thirteenth instalment of his "Eastern Rambles".1 His letters establish that his first visit to this lake in eastern Nova Scotia occurred in June, 1830, and that his description in the "Rambles" is based upon that visit. His emphasis is on the untouched beauty of the area: "The Lochaber Lake owes nothing to the labors of industry and art; its beauties are its own; the scene is essentially the same that it was a hundred, or perhaps a thousand years ago. . . ." His ride along the lake convinced him that man had not intruded upon this particular spot, except for "a few straggling settlers" who were so widely separated from each other that "some views of great extent may be had, in which not a tree has been felled, or the least sign of cultivation is visible." He ends his reflections on the scene by ruefully predicting that "in a very few years the forest will have fallen beneath the axe, and the shores of the lake will be changed into a flourishing farming district." When, three years later (in September, 1833), he visited the lake again, he found that his prediction was coming true. In a letter to his wife, he remarks "You may remember that I was in love with the sylvan appearance of the Lochaber or College Lake when in this country last. Then the ancient woods were scarcely broken upon on either margin, and the whole scene was as beautifully wild as it had been a thousand years before. Now every lot has been taken up — clearings are making and log houses are building in every direction — and in a few years more there will scarcely be a tree to be seen."

    It is therefore evident that the lines in Acadia on Lochaber Lake (Part II, 479-512) which present it as one of those "spots by Art still unprofaned / Where Nature reigns as ages since she reigned" (11. 477-478) were written before he found such marked changes in 1833. It was true in 1830, but not in 1833, that "No axe profane has touched a single bough, / No sod has yet been broken by the plough" (11. 497-498). Moreover, in this part of the poem he is not describing what had been but is no more: no axe "has touched a single bough", "no sod has yet been broken". On this evidence alone, it turns out that at least over three-quarters of Acadia had been written before 1833, for the Lochaber section is followed only by the story of the fisherman (11. 513-690). The remaining section may indeed have been added somewhat later, but the existence of the complete text in HC I suggests that no great lapse of time was involved, and that Acadia was as complete as Howe ever made it by 1833 or 1834. The poem is entirely a product of Howe's early years before he became a politician — a fact that commentators on the poem must bear in mind in relating the social and political ideas found in Acadia to Howe's other writings and to his career.


It has often been observed that Acadia as a whole is not a well-integrated poem. A study of HC I bears out that judgment and throws some light on Howe's process of composition.

    HC I, though a complete copy of the poem, is broken up into isolated sections and is on various sizes and types of paper. It shows evidence of intermittent composition, as some parts of the poem are by themselves on separate and only partly filled sheets; it also shows evidence of changes in plan, one long section in particular being inserted later, in HC II, in the middle of what had been a completed portion in HC I. A likely conclusion is that much or all of HC I was written while Howe was travelling in 1832 and often found himself in country inns with considerable time on his hands.

    The first manuscript unit in HC I consists of 11. 1-218 of Part I. Originally Howe had intended to proceed directly from the Othello simile (11. 213-218) to the part beginning "For ages thus, the Micmac trod our soil" (1. 311), as 11. 1-218 and 311-340 are continuous in HC I. He must have decided, however, that a much fuller and more concrete picture of Micmac life before the coming of Europeans would improve the poem, and so later inserted ninety-one lines relating the hunter's return to his camp and describing the encampment, the activities of the people, and their evening dance.2   His Part I was then complete, ending effectively with the Micmacs' wonder and eventual hostility at the coming of the white man.

     Part II of the poem in HC I proceeds on continuous pages from the beginning up to 1. 392, "And seek the hearth where erst they loved to play". Apparently Howe knew where he was going in this part of the poem. His first purpose is to extol British imperial enterprise and to give a detailed account of a British pioneer family in the wilderness — their toil, their hardwon contentment, their nostalgic memories of the Old Country, their courageous defence against marauding Micmacs, and their gory deaths at the hands of the "shrieking fiends". Then quite naturally he continues his review of the Acadian past with the struggle between France and Britain, singling out Madame La Tour and d'Anville as examples of fortitude and tragedy, and ends with a sympathetic, indeed sentimental, account of the expulsion of the Acadians. From this point, however, Part II of the poem seems to have presented Howe with serious difficulties. He proceeded in spurts, and with no firm principle of integration. He writes on separate sheets a prayer for the future of the province (11. 393-414), an idyllic statement of the present peace and happiness of Acadia under the British flag (11. 415-462), and another few lines (463-468) on Acadia's "cottage homes". Then his thoughts go to the idea of settlement defacing "Acadia's wild and simple charms", the subject of the next separate unit (11. 469-512), which includes the section on Lochaber Lake as the epitome of the unspoiled nature which Acadia still offers in abundance. The next section (11. 513-600), which depicts a supposedly typical fisherman narrowly escaping from a watery grave when a sudden storm capsizes his boat, bears no clear relation to the theme of unspoiled nature which precedes it. It appears too that Howe may have originally intended to carry the story of the fisherman no further than his providential landing on the beach, as 11. 593-600 generalize on the hardiness of Acadian fishermen and are followed in the manuscript by a row of x's to indicate a pause or end of a section. However, another separate but internally continuous section of three pages (11. 601-690) proves that he changed his mind and decided to depict the fisherman in his cottage with his family and, incidentally, to give some semblance of a conclusion to the poem by returning to the theme of exile from home which he had introduced at the beginning of Part I. Thus the poem ends on the note with which it began, the love of home and native land. It is not really unfinished, as Sydenham Howe believed it was when, in his brief introduction to the 1874 edition, he referred to Acadia as "some portions of an unfinished poem". Although Howe was probably aware of and dissatisfied with the poor structure of Part II, he wrote no other "portions" that have survived, and HC II is a complete and uninterrupted copy of the poem much as we know it.


The two manuscript copies of Acadia differ somewhat from the published version, but most of the differences are of relatively minor variants in diction. Variants between the first published version of 1874 and HC I are more numerous than between the former and HC II, as one would expect, HC I being clearly a first or at least a very early draft, on textual evidence as well as handwriting. Leaving aside inconsequential variants such as different spellings of the same word ("blest" and "bless'd"), the capitalization of common nouns, and the whole matter of punctuation, to which Howe gave only perfunctory attention in the manuscripts, one finds about eighty variants between HC I and the published poem, but only about thirty between the latter and HC II. Although a complete list of all such variants would serve little purpose, a few of them are sufficiently interesting to deserve comment.

     Two changes are corrections of errors of fact which Howe committed in HC I. The line "And as the Hebrew, by Euphrates side" (I, 20) appeared originally as "And as the Hebrew sat by Jordan's side". The reference is, of course, to the Babylonian Captivity of the Jews, which Howe is using as an example of exile from a beloved homeland. His careless locating of the exiles at home "by Jordan's side" is later corrected by substituting the Euphrates, the great river flowing through Babylonia. The second error occurred in 1. 224, "The bark which bears him to the pressure bends", which had originally read "The thatch which bears him to the pressure bends". In HC I, Howe had allowed the pervasive influence of eighteenth-century English poetry to betray him into placing a thatched cabin in the wilds of early Nova Scotia, but fortunately realized later (though not when he made HC II) that his settler would have used a more readily available roofing material.

     Howe was usually sensitive to shades of meaning and connotation, at least within the confines of his stereotyped poetic diction, as an example will illustrate. In Part I, he had originally written 1. 126 as "The laurel spreads its lovely flowers of death". As this image occurs in the midst of a catalogue of native trees and flowers depicting "Nature's charms", the false note of loveliness being associated with deadly poison is disturbing. Howe soon noticed the flaw, and in both HC II and the 1874 edition the image is at least better integrated by the substitution of "seductive" for "lovely". Not always, however, was he so alert. One image in particular is rightly seen as verging on the ludicrous — "the gay moose in jocund gambol springs" (I, 1. 175). Strangely enough, Howe's original intention was considerably less inept, in effect if not in accuracy. In HC I we read "the grey moose in jocund gambol springs". "Grey" becomes "gay", however, in both HC II and the 1874 edition — perhaps because Howe realized that the moose is actually of a brownish colour. Why he missed seeing that his substitution of "gay" for "grey" avoided an error of fact only to introduce a more obtrusive blunder remains a mystery, as does his apparent satisfaction with the equally incongruous "jocund gambol". Another line which was more effective in its original form first appears as "And tempests shake my winter hills no more". Not content with that, Howe writes "And tempests shake our forest groves no more", and finally the line emerges in 1874 as "And north winds bend our forest groves no more". Here nothing ludicrous replaces the first simple but effective image, yet the change to a stock pastoralism that was all too typical of Howe is regrettable.

    At other times Howe improves upon his first draft. An example would be the lines (II, 28-30) on "Lapland's rude, untutored child", which originally read "Would sigh to leave his cold and dreary wild / And long to press his native lichen bed / Though the grey wolf should howl around his head". Howe perceived the flatness of 11. 28-29 in particular, and made his picture more striking and colourful by substituting "With icy pinnacles around him piled, / Slumbers in peace upon his lichens grey, / Though the gaunt wolf howls round him for his prey."

     The edition of 1874, though generally satisfactory, is not without a few blemishes. Either the persons who prepared Howe's manuscript poems for publication (probably Sydenham Howe and Howe's widow) or a careless editor in Lovell's publishing house in Montreal allowed errors to creep into print. One obvious example is "dim of arms" for "din of arms" in 1. 469 of Part II. Most of the errors are inconsequential, but a few do change Howe's meaning. One such occurs in I, 1. 222, as the Micmac hunter returns to his camp through "many an alder copse, and leafy shade." Howe had continued with "And well known path, by former rambles made", but the published version alters "rambles" to "ramble" and so implies the absurdity of a "well-known" forest path having been beaten down by a single passage of the hunter. Another change which introduces an error could be Howe's or an editor's, but it does not appear in HC II, only in the published version, in a passage on the deep solitude the nature lover may find by Lochaber Lake, where one "might . . . stand" and "Nor ought of man or of his doings dream" (II, 508). Originally Howe had written "Nor aught of man or of his doings deem". The notion of duty or moral obligation suggested by "ought" seems unwarranted in the context of the passage, and "dream" is no improvement on "deem". One is tempted to think that Howe would have preferred the wording that occurs in both manuscripts, and that the revisions are not his.

     One general conclusion which emerges from a study of the manuscript copies of the poem concerns its structure. As was indicated above, HC I in particular demonstrates that even the most sympathetic critic must fail to absolve Howe of ineptness in the second part of the poem. After 1. 392 of Part II, Howe struggled to find a satisfactory plan for the remainder of the poem, leaving an unmistakable hiatus after 1. 392 and another after 1. 512, failing to integrate adequately the final section on the fisherman, and grasping at a dubious means of bringing the poem to a conclusion by bestowing a "wandering boy", a self-made exile, upon the fisherman who had originally been introduced simply as a type of the poor but worthy yeoman of contemporary Acadia. The poem is not incomplete in a literal sense, but it does become fragmented and finally plods to a lame and awkwardly contrived finale. That is not to say that Howe was blind to the structural flaws of Part II. On the contrary, the lines of x's standing for asterisks after lines 392, 414, 462, 468, and 512 in HC II reveal his awareness of breaks in thought and perhaps a half-formed intention to revise the poem at some later time. Even the last line of the poem is followed by another line of x's in the manuscript, as though Howe were uneasy about his forced ending. These also appear, as asterisks, in the 1874 edition, probably because Sydenham Howe regarded Acadia as truly unfinished. One might think of Howe as being in much the same dilemma as James De Mille, who was never satisfied with the plausible but shaky conclusion to A Strange Manuscript. In both cases death intervened before the problem was solved, and publication was posthumous.


  1. See Western and Eastern Rambles, ed. M.G. Parks (Univ. of Toronto Press, 1973), pp. 187-192.[back]

  2. The added section is complete in HC I except for three lines (307-310) comparing the Micmac dance to the movement of river water. These lines appear in HC II.[back]