The Lampman-Thomson Correspondence

An Annotated Edition of the Correspondence Between Archibald Lampman and Edward William Thomson (1890-1898).  Edited, and with an Introduction, by Helen Lynn.  Ottawa: Tecumseh Press, 1980, 252 pp

The correspondence between Lampman and Thomson has until now been generally available mainly in the selective and unreliable editions of Arthur Bourinot: Archibald Lampmans Letters to Edward William Thomson (1890-1898) and The Letters of Edward William Thomson to Archibald Lampman (1891-1897), which were published in 1956 and 1957.  Helen Lynn’s Annotated Edition of the Correspondence, which meticulously reproduces transcriptions of all 129 available letters between the two men, together with copious annotations, a lengthy and intelligent Introduction, various Appendices (including facsimiles of several letters), an Index, and a Bibliography, is a most welcome addition to Canadian poetry studies.  Although modestly produced, and occasionally annotated with an insouciant lack of sophistication (“John Milton [1608-1674], English poet.  Among his great poetic works are ‘L’Allegro’ and ‘Il Penseroso’.  .  .”), Ms.Lynn’s edition has an appealingly modest and workman-like quality.  At a time when the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council is funding editions of early Canadian prose works that will effectively cost about $100,000 each (and retail for prices that, without subsidy, will be beyond the reach of all but the most Chaucerian “clerkes”), it is rewarding to see a volume such as Ms.Lynn’s Annotated . . . Correspondence which has, to judge by its acknowledgments pages, been created and published through the painstaking efforts of one enthusiastic individual and a relatively small grant from the Ontario Arts Council.

     It is also gratifying to see a Canadian edition with a substantial and detailed introduction.  All too often editions of Canadian texts are prefaced by half a dozen pages of peremptory comment.  Ms. Lynn’s “Preface” (a reassuringly explicit statement of her research and methodology) and “Introduction” run to over fifty pages.  Rightly observing that “the Lampman-Thomson correspondence represents the only extensive exchange between Lampman and a trusted literary friend which covers the entire span of Lampman’s mature creative life” (p. xx), Ms. Lynn shows how the letters bear both on the poet’s literary career and on his private life at a time (1890-1898) of great poetic activity and personal foment.  As anyone who has read the Lampman-Thomson correspondence in manuscript knows, the letters offer detailed insights to the pre-publication history of Lyrics of Earth, to Lampman’s family life, to his increasing ill health, to his attitudes to Ottawa politics, fellow poets, and so on.  A valuable aspect of Ms. Lynn’s “Introduction” is its discussion of the different uses made of the Lampman-Thomson correspondence by critics and biographers from Carl Y. Connor to Munro Beattie and beyond.  It is a discussion which, from a particular (and necessarily limited) perspective, offers an overview of a criticism which has to a peculiar and limiting way been dominated by poets of the modern movement (Gustafson, Dudek, and others) — limiting because it was part of the modernist programme to call into question the achievements of their Romantic-Victorian predecessors.  As Lynn’s discussion indicates, the modernist response to Lampman (which deserves study in and for itself) has frequently been stereotypical and biased.  The “Introduction” to the Lampman-Thomson correspondence is also valuable for the information that it provides on Thomson (based mainly on Hammond’s account in the Queens Quarterly for 1931) and for its attempts to clarify certain vexed issues, such as the supposed mutilation of Lampman’s letters: “all excisions, with the exception of one, are the work of a careless philatelist,” Lynn writes in response to Margaret Whitridge’s notion that the Lampman letters have been “snipped . . . at critical points,” “and all occur in Thomson’s letters, not Lampman’s” (p. l. v).  In Lynn’s scholarly and sensible view, which the evidence of the extant Lampman-Thomson correspondence bears out (conjectures based on lacunae can lead to critical madness and the Mythos of Summer), “Lampman’s relationship with Katherine Waddell . . . may well have added to the heavy strain” which the poet experienced in the 1890’s, but more evident sources of that strain were “his sensitivity, his dedication to poetry, his ill health, and the death of his infant son in 1894.”

     The letters themselves furnish a remarkably readable sequence.  Both Lampman and Thomson come alive in their pages, the more so because Ms. Lynn’s biographical annotations supply many small details of their literary and personal lives — where individual poems were published, what mutual acquaintances did for a living, and so on.  It is interesting to observe how Lynn has chronicled the lives of her subjects through such documents as The Civil Service Lists, The Ottawa City Directories, the letters of D.C. Scott and others, and, of course, existing memoirs.  Full biographies of Lampman and Thomson have yet to be written, but the details of their lives can be recovered in considerable detail through patient and imaginative research.  Ms. Lynn tells us which Canadian governments were in power, when various Canadian and American periodicals were founded (and, more importantly, what their orientations were), why Lampman had financial cause to rejoice at being appointed to a second class clerkship, and supplies much information which was important to the Confederation writers and, hence, is important to a full understanding of them.

     Students of the Confederation period must be grateful to Helen Lynn for the annotated Lampman-Thomson correspondence.  Her “Introduction” and annotations are worth having, and the letters themselves provide a record of a significant friendship between two important writers.  It would have been useful if headnotes to each letter, or an appendix, had been provided giving details of prior publication.  And it is a pity-though probably inevitable — that the occasional error (such as “discriminating” for discriminating on p. xxxix of the “Introduction”) has slipped through the proofreading.  But these shortcomings do not seriously affect the usefulness or integrity of a volume which, for all its modesty in scope, appearance, and price, can be counted a worthy predecessor to the long-awaited editions of the letters of Carman, Roberts, and Scott / Brown which are in preparation by various senior Canadian Scholars.

D. M. R.  Bentley