A Northern Pantheism: Notes on the Confederation Poets and Contemporary Mythographers

by Maia Bhojwani

Precisely when the Confederation poets as a group adopted the rural Pan as the presiding genius of their religion of nature remains a matter of conjecture.  “The Reed Player,” Carman’s tribute to Lampman, written on receiving Among the Millet and published in The Week on March 1, 1889, develops Lampman’s notion of the poet as child of Pan (see his sonnet “The Poets”) and it may well be the first enunciation of the Arcadian theme in a Canadian context.  Roberts’ “The Pipes of Pan” is an earlier instance, but the poem is essentially an Emersonian answer to Arnoldian questions, composed after a reading of Maurice de Guerin’s “The Centaur” in Arnold’s Essays in Criticism (Series I),1 and as such the poem has its proper place among Roberts’ classical exercises.  By the time Campbell’s The Dread Voyage and Other Poems (1893) and Lampman’s Lyrics of Earth (1895) appeared, the cult of Pan had acquired a local habitation and a name (“kinship”).

     Despite the nostalgia evident in this recreation of an archaic, Arcadian and mythic past,2 the Confederation poets were conscious of their distance from primitive thought.   “Without superstition of any sort, he is yet imbued with the ancient worship of Nature; the quiet of a northern pantheism pervades all his deeper work,” wrote Carman of Roberts, and found a similar note in the poetry of Lampman and Scott, “the note of a worship of Nature from which modern knowledge has cast out fear, the note of a religion that was on the earth before Paganism had a name.”3 A rationalistic approach to nature tempers their treatment of mythological subjects and differentiates them from writers as committed to the use of myth as Isabella Valancy Crawford. Yet the major influences upon their work, which include the Romantics and the American Transcendentalists, were often understood in the conventional terms of nineteenth-century interpretations of mythology and the poets led to experiment with indigenous forms of myth-making in keeping with the theories of contemporary mythographers.4  The implications of these ideas for the Canadian poets vary, from their obvious application to a poetic sort of nature-worship, to a more serious consideration of the direction the literature of a relatively new nation should take. I shall consider these ideas as a possible background for the patterns of imagery which occur in their studies of landscape, with special reference to Carman, Roberts, Lampman and Campbell, who matured under similar influences during the formative years, in the 1880s.  Scott started writing almost a decade later (just as Crawford began a decade earlier) and the mythographers have little direct bearing upon his Indian experience.

     Like George Eliot’s Casaubon, mythologists of the period were in search of the “Key to all Mythologies.” Casaubon’s research was anachronistic and had been superseded by the recent findings of German Orientalists. While one cannot argue for the Confederation poets’ expert knowledge of German scholarship, it can be said that the controversy between the Germanic school of philologists, led by Max Müller (who held a chair at Oxford and impressed Ruskin, besides George Eliot, and won honourable mention in At The Mermaid Inn), and the new anthropologists, among whom E.B. Tylor, Andrew Lang and Sir James G. Frazer were notable names, certainly reflects itself in their poetry.

     Myths were being classified as solar, stellar and vegetative, and the debate centred on the priority of one kind over another.  Müller expounded the solar theory in his famous essay of 1856 entitled Comparative Mythology. He maintained that the early Aryans were sun-worshippers and that all of their myths consistently describe the passage of the sun across the heavens.  He was arguing for nothing less than the noble savage, just as Jacob Grimm before him had assumed in his Teutonic Mythology that the heathen tribes of Europe possessed an idea of godhead, expressed in the several gods of their mythology.5  In subsequent studies, Müller would be concerned specifically with the development of this concept, arising out of primitive man’s initial perception of the Infinite (the sky, in fact), as it takes form in language and myth. On the other hand, Andrew Lang contended in 1873, on the basis of the evolutionary development of mankind and the evidence of barbaric survivals to be found in the Märchen, that no people worshipped supersensual ideas before they had bowed down to sticks and stones, the trees and animals that met their senses, proceeding only by gradual means from fetichism and magic to the higher personifications of the universal aspects of nature, such as Zeus.6 Solar myths could no longer be considered primary, and Frazer’s The Golden Bough reflects this decisive change of opinion.  In its early stages the study turns on the Teutonic derivation of the word “temple” from grove and tree which, as Grimm observed, resolves itself at its origin into:

a holy place untouched by human hand, embowered and shut in by self-grown trees.  There dwells the deity, veiling his form in rustling foliage of the boughs; there is the spot where the hunter has to present to him the game he has killed, and the herdsman his horses and oxen and rams.

(TM, I, 69)

Frazer shapes his material to the pattern of human sacrifices at the grove of Nemi and speculates that the earliest myths of the European peoples describe tree-cults, growing out of their encounters with the immense primeval forests that had at one time covered the continent, when “the scattered clearings must have appeared like islets in oceans of green.”7

     The Canadian Pan, who is the god of the spring and the rising sap, of wild and woody places, is clearly one of Frazer’s vegetation spirits. Carman and Roberts can be seen depriving the sky-gods of the Greeks (and the Aryans, of whom Müller writes) of their primary importance, to draw their imagery from the earthy aboriginal myths, no less Greek for all that, then being discovered by the anthropologists.  Lampman has a tendency to coordinate the two systems in his seasonal poems, and Campbell arrives at a peculiar conflation of two images:  his sun is a flower and the sky a garden. It is interesting for us to speculate in our turn whether this cult of Pan is not a reversion to the idea of the unbroken forest met by the earliest inhabitants of Canada, analagous to the sacred forest which Frazer suggests made such a profound impression upon the original settlers of Europe.

     The poets had arrived independently at the conviction that a new nation like theirs was entitled to a mythopoeic phase, from which a distinctive literature might emerge. They were generally reluctant to use native Indian mythology without translating it into more universal terms (like Lampman), or foresaw difficulties in the way (like Carman and Roberts), or (like Campbell) sporadically collected lore and legend;8 the Greek, the Celtic, and the Norse systems offered more developed literary traditions and possible models for their own poetry. It was difficult, however, for them to eradicate a deep-rooted feeling that Christian sentiment was an improvement over the primitive, even if there was some continuity between them, or that scientific truths were preferable to superstitions, as the residual notions and customs from a pre-literate past were called by Canadian writers.9 The poets do not abandon themselves to primitivism, nor do they take as idealised a view of the mythopoeic imagination as the mythographers (excepting John Fiske in America), although they would have agreed that poetic metaphor, like myth, develops out of analogies between the life of man and the life of nature.  In fact, the Canadian religion of nature tends to de-mythologise natural phenomena, but this practice is by no means consistent. Grimm observes that the four elements, the simple phenomena of nature, are usually attached to the gods (“supersensual ideas”), but they will dissociate themselves in the course of time and still receive homage when faith in the gods has declined:

Yet faith will tolerate in its train a veneration of elements, and mix it up with itself; and it may even chance, that when faith has perished or is corrupted, this veneration shall keep its hold of the people longer. The multitude will give up its great divinities, yet persist for a time in the more private worship of household gods; even these it will renounce, and retain its reverence for elements. The history of the heathen and Christian religions shews, that long after the one was fallen and the other established, there lived on, nay there live still, a number of superstitious customs connected with the worship of elements. It is the last, the all but indestructible remnant of heathenism; when gods collapse, these naked substances come to the front again, with which the being of those had mysteriously linked itself. (TM, II, 582-83)

Ruskin best exemplifies this dissociation of sensibility; the elements return in his writings as natural powers possessing a symbolic force and value, shorn of the anthropomorphic representations of formal mythological systems. Essentially compositions in the four elements, the landscapes of the Confederation poets also lend support to Grimm’s theory. Contrasting a celebratory faith with one based upon rites of purification, Grimm continues, “All the elements are cleansing, healing, atoning, and the proof by ordeal rests mainly upon them.” The Canadian religion of nature may be called a remnant of heathenism in this sense; as Roberts puts it, “The strong earth strengthens, and the clean heavens purge.”

     When Roberts presents Shelley’s myth-making as a paradigm for the modern poet who wishes to write of nature, finding in it some of the qualities of ancient Celtic poetry and “the oldest verse of time,” and differentiates it from the anthropomorphic outlook of the Greeks, suggesting that it is still distinct from the poetry of Byron, Wordsworth and Keats,10 he expresses an opinion more fully explained by Henry Sweet (of Sweet’s Anglo Saxon Primer). Sweet discerned a Greek note in Keats and a Celtic note in Shelley, who

instinctively creates nature-myths of a strangely primitive type, unhinge any thing in Greek or the more fully developed mythologies, but showing remarkable similarity to the personifications of the Veda.11

Sweet quotes Stopford Brooke, who thought that the lyrics in Prometheus Unbound “might have been conceived by a primitive Aryan,” and whose primer of English Literature was used by Roberts to teach his university courses. This conception of Vedic literature originates with Müller who had shown that it consists of direct addresses to natural phenomena, the names of which had grown obscure with time to become the personified gods of the Greeks when they had lost their meanings. A systematic mythology is created when nouns no longer have any reference to language as it is spoken, and as such is in Müller’s phrase a “disease of language” — a term questioned by anthropologists, who found pre-verbal notions as important as the ones that secure themselves in language. Believing that all languages attain their dialect forms through phonetic corruptions and mistaken analogies, the philologist wished to study the original forms of thought in their uncorrupted state, in the roots of words, and therefore applied the comparative method to mythology (which the Brothers Grimm had previously brought to bear upon the European languages), extending its scope to include Sanskrit, the “eldest sister” of the Indo-European group of languages. He hoped to trace Aryan myths to their beginnings in a hypothetical mythopoeic age, before language had become literature (the poetry and religion of early times), when the Aryan race was as yet undivided by nations and dialects. Interestingly enough, Müller chose Wordsworth and not Shelley to demonstrate the vibrant speech of an imaginative people who could call upon the Winds, the Sky, the Sun, and the Ocean as though they could hear them, and asked:

why should we wonder at the ancients, with their language throbbing with life and revelling in colour, if instead of the grey outlines of our modern thought, they threw out those living forms of nature, endowed with human powers, nay, with powers more than human, inasmuch as the light of the Sun was brighter than the light of a human eye, and the roaring of the Storms louder than the shouts of the human voice. 12

Sweet (and Roberts) admired Shelley for exactly the opposite reason; he is a truer poet of nature than Wordsworth because he writes of her with scientific detachment, without confusing his descriptions with human feelings:

In such a poem as “The Cloud,” there is not only no trace of Wordsworthian egotism, but the whole description of the cloud is as remote from human feeling as it could well be, consistently with the poetic necessity for personification.

(“Shelley’s Nature-Poetry,” p. 292)

The net result of Müller’s examination of a few recurring etymological roots was that all myths of gods and heroes began to appear as exactly the same figure in the carpet, of the sun’s journey across the sky, and the dramatic wresting of light from the forces of darkness. Daphne, for instance, was originally the word for the dawn in the Rig-Veda, chased by Apollo, the sun god. Müller arrived at a resounding conclusion, which for some time seemed to be the magic Key to all mythologies:

The dawn is really one of the richest sources of Aryan mythology; and another class of legends, embodying the strife between winter and summer, the return of spring, the revival of nature, is in most languages but a reflection and amplification of the more ancient stories telling of the strife be twoen night and day, the return of the morn, and the revival of the whole world.

(CM, p. 121)

The idea caught on and it was assiduously, often indiscriminately, applied to folk-tales, myths and Celtic poetry, in particular the legends of Arthur, which were receiving new attention in scholarly circles. These popular traditions make their way into Canadian poetry, as one might expect.

     The solar theory was modified by rival factions in favour of other meteorological phenomena such as lightning and rain (Roberts’ In the Morning of Time offers a telling illustration), but Müller invariably retreated to his etymological tower. Ruskin’s interpretation of the Greek myths is a comparable instance of displacement:  Mist and Cloud occur for him wherever the Dawn had been discovered. Daphne’s metamorphosis into a laurel tree was ascribed by Müller to the changed meaning of her name, but Ruskin argues that Daphne is actually the river mist rising from the ground, born of the union of an Arcadian river-god with the earth, her mother; Apollo is not merely chasing his own light and is in fact adverse to her. Frightened, she calls to her mother for help, when the earth opens and a laurel springs up in her place. Ruskin draws a moral from the naturalistic interpretation of the story:

wherever the rocks protect the mist from the sunbeam, and suffer it to water the earth, there the laurel and other richest vegetation fill the hollows, giving a better glory to the sun itself. For sunshine, on the torrent spray, on the grass of its valley, and entangled among the laurel stems, or glancing from their leaves, becomes a thousandfold lovelier and more sacred than the same sunbeams, burning on the leafless mountain-side.13

Ruskin still describes a form of sun-worship, but inseparable from his rationalisations of the Greek myths is the feeling, not accounted for by the mythographers, of being “taken” with beauty. Kenneth Clark explains myths of metamorphosis by the urgent personal emotion certain isolated natural objects inspire in us, to go into the moments of vision that make the individual history of every artist. The Greeks could account for the emotion only by supposing that these objects had once been human:

They recognised (and we may remember it from our youth) that the moments in which these objects reveal themselves to us arouse a feeling of ecstasy almost akin to physical passion; and for this reason it is at the crises of amorous pursuit that almost all the metamorphoses take place.14

Similarly, Pater suggests that legends growing out of modes of tree-worship, relying upon the instinctive belief that trees and plants are inhabited by living spirits, are graceful enough, as if “the delicate beauty of the object of worship had effectually taken hold on the fancy of the worshipper.”15 Ruskin, Clark and Pater belong to the Wordsworth tradition,16 although Ruskin’s perception of natural beauty grows out of his ideas of noble versus noxious forms. The Confederation poets would not have accepted his discrimination between the bush form of vegetation, expressive of distress, and stately trees in sacred dance (an image drawn from Milton), expressing gladness and felicity (Proserpina, p. 145). Metamorphoses are common occurrences in their poetry, but the beauty of natural objects does not descend upon them in moments of vision, like the “momentary gods” described by Cassirer that are essential to mythical thinking, “when external reality is not merely viewed and contemplated, but overcomes a man in sheer immediacy, with emotions of fear or hope, terror or wish-fulfilment.”17 It is a contemplative ideal to be found among familiar scenes, and the poets derive their aesthetic from the light, colour and shape they see in landscape.

     E.B. Tylor, the “father of anthropology,” warns students of mythology against the danger of letting a single theory eclipse the many-sided correspondences between day and night, summer and winter, storm and calm. Proof by some argument more valid than analogy is necessary, he thinks, and recommends etymology as the mythographer’s best defence, for otherwise even “The Song of Sixpence” can be explained as a solar myth.  The warning is directed not at Müller but at the excesses of his disciples; the differences between Tylor and Müller were actually of a gentle sort, with Tylor assigning

myth formation by animistic analogies to the “lower races” and through the flowering of verbal metaphor to the “higher races.” But both processes fully accept the primacy of the sun, along with the moon and the stars, in kindling man’s mythopoeic imagination. In effect, Tylor broadened the territory of solar mythology to include savages.18

Mythology had expanded in scope to include researches among tribes in the remote parts of the world — in America, Africa, New Zealand, and Australia — when Tylor’s Primitive Culture appeared in 1870. Tylor emphasised the psychological basis of savage mythology. The mind of the savage is the equivalent of the mind of a child, and deserving of study because myths of the more civilised races can be observed here in their most distinct and rudimentary forms. Unlike Müller, who treats myth primarily as a figure of speech, Tylor finds in it a consistent philosophy, however crude, which he calls Animism, or the primitive belief in the animation of nature, that rises to its highest level in personification.  In the last analysis, the distinction between the higher and lower races proves to be a fine one as the modern poet has much in common with the uncultivated tribesman:  both share in the reality of ideas and express abstract thoughts in concrete, sensuous terms, a process which “fortunately or unfortunately modern education has proved so powerful to destroy.”19 There is less difference ultimately between Christianity and savage belief than there is between Animism, essentially a doctrine of souls, and Materialism. Tree-worship, the basis of Frazer’s entire thesis, is only one of these instances of animistic belief:  "an individual tree is regarded as a conscious being, and as such receives adoration and sacrifice” (PC, II, 215). Whether the tree possessed an inherent or embodied soul could not always be determined, and Tylor cites the conclusion to “The Sensitive Plant” as an example of this uncertainty. Pater will refer to the same poem to show how primitive thought might still float in the modern mind, draped in “mists of poetical reverie” (GS, p. 3). But Frazer will find all the difference between animism and polytheism in this question.

     The Golden Boughwas originally designed as a repository for facts, apart from its two major speculations (refuting the solar theory, and devel oping the notion of sacrifice or the “dying god” at the heart of ritual), which at first were offered tentatively. Superstitions and beliefs connected with trees and cultivated plants, surviving at the time among the rural peasantry of Europe (and in more distant places), were collected in impressive detail to show the importance of tree-worship, the “religion of the woodman and farmer,” in the history of the European families of Aryan stock. Through these beliefs Frazer examines the evolution of the concept of the god from its first shape as a tree-spirit to its successive transformations into a forest-god and anthropomorphic deity, and finally its incarnation in men. The vegetation spirit in its human form was ritually slain at the beginning of the annual cycle every spring (or autumn) to ensure the fertility of the crops. The cry in Plutarch “Great Pan is Dead!” refers in fact to Adonis and Tammuz, “dying gods” sacrificed every year with both lamentation and rejoicing. This concept of the mortality of the gods was not unassailable, as we see from Lang’s abstruse discussion of the point in his Magic and Religion. The awful implications of human sacrifice seem to have reached neither Carman in Sappho, nor Roberts, who writes of Bion’s “Lament for Adonis”:

The Greeks made their anthropomorphic gods of the forces of nature which compelled their adoration. Of these personifications they sang, as of men of like passions with themselves; but in truth it was of external nature that they made their songs.  Bion’s wailing “Lament for Adonis,” human as it is throughout, is in its final analysis a poem of nature.

(SP, p. 278)

Frazer grows increasingly aware of the explosive force of his research as he realises that savage notions underlying modern thought create a highly volatile substratum. This substratum, without having the same potential for violence, is present in Müller’s analysis of language as well, where myth is embedded in its dead metaphors and commonest forms of expression, such as “the sun rises, the sun sets,” “rain-bows,” “thunder-bolts,” and even “Good Morning.” Because he was dealing with a language composed entirely of substantives and adjectives, he accepted the older definition of mythic expression, that it “changes all beings into persons, all relations into actions.” (CM, p. 21). Abstract nouns and auxiliary verbs did not come into existence until the language had grown old and withered and in any case were derived from roots which by their nature denote objects of sense. Müller does not mean by this that myth represents reality or the nature that meets our senses; words for the phenomena of nature are actually the result of a metaphoric habit of mind that selects certain qualities, detects other resemblances, and by synonyms and homonyms enlarges the vocabulary. A mythology is created only when language finally personifies the ideas — Locke’s “ideas” — of which it speaks. Applied as a critical standard, personification leads Ruskin to make a distinction between the modern poetic way of looking at nature and the ancient mythic way.

     Ruskin refused to consider the myths of a “simple and ignorant race.” Classical mythology alone attracted him for its large nobility of conception and meaning.  Had he been aware of the findings of the anthropologists, his formulation of the “pathetic fallacy” would have been directed as much at their idealistic, animistic theories as it is at those modern poets who express human feelings which they as sentient creatures only imagine existing in a lifeless landscape. Homer, on the other hand, was content to describe a purely physical nature. Nor was he devoid of all feeling for nature; it was more advanced (more religious, it would appear) than the emotions with which the poets of the century tinged their perceptions:

Homer had some feeling about the sea; a faith in the animation of it much stronger than Keats’s.  But all this sense of something living in it, he separates in his mind into a great abstract image of a Sea Power. He never says the waves rage, or the waves are idle. But he says there is somewhat in, and greater than, the waves, which rages, and is idle, and that he calls a god.20

Ruskin did eventually admit that Homeric personifications were as pathetic as the intuitions of modern poetry. In the meantime, he separates man from nature to emphasise the material integrity of nature and will try to reconcile the facts of science with the truths of poetry, where both depend upon accuracy, of observation.

     In his essay “The Poetry of Nature,” Roberts discriminates according to the pathetic fallacy between the anthropomorphic gods of the Greeks, the pathetic or subjective attitude to nature exemplified by the poetry of Byron (“When this Titan of modern song apostrophises the storm thundering over Jura, he speaks to the tumult in the deeps of his own soul,” (SP, p. 279)), and finally Shelley, who is unlike either Byron or the Greeks, but resembles ancient Celtic verse and the “oldest verse of time.” The pathetic and the pantheistic are evidently the criteria for Roberts’ major categories, but it would be too simple to define them as “objective” and “subjective,” the terms used by Sweet in his discussion of Shelley and Wordsworth. Roberts eliminates poetry of a descriptive kind from his discussion in order to consider the kind that “treats of nature in some one of its relations with humanity.” The pathetic and the pantheistic are two of these possible relations for, in any event, the language of poetry will be tinged with emotion. Yet Roberts does not assume that the mental processes of the poet will be the same as those of the naive primitive, who lives in an undifferentiated unity of man and nature. Without making the sophisticated separation of subject from object, his myth-making (like that of Lampman and Campbell) will include the apperception noted by Emerson, that the delight we experience in landscape and the occult relation we feel between ourselves and a vegetative nature (“They nod to me and I to them”) do not reside in nature but rather in man, or the harmony of both, for Nature “always wears the colours of the spirit.”21

     Emerson arrives at some of the same conclusions as the mythographers, but by a vastly different route; the relation between man and nature or mind and matter is ultimately a Platonic one for him, which pre-exists in the necessary ideals within a divine mind and will. Things are emblematic for this reason, fact being the last issue of spirit, and a mental idea can only be communicated by presenting a natural appearance as its picture — a speaking picture, one might say. Savages speak this picturesque language, and man is generally an analogist. A life lived in harmony with Nature may once again come to know the primitive sense of the permanent objects of nature (see Nature, p. 26). The influence of Emerson upon Confederation poets is of course unquestionable (enriched as it may be by mythological contexts); when their landscapes are not employing animistic devices, they are generally attempting correspondences between images of nature and ideas in the mind of the poet. The results, however, are less emblematic than loosely impressionistic.

     One must pause to enquire exactly what the poets understood by the various mythological contexts available to them. Carman makes an important comment on the poetry of nature being written in Canada by Lampman, Scott and Roberts which, he feels, by combining Keats and Emerson, will circumvent the ennui of the Decadent movement and the corruption rampant in plutocratic societies (see The Chap Book, January 1, 1895). His elegy on Shelley, first published in the Literary World (Boston) on January 8, 1887, replaces the decadent European context of Shelley’s poetry with the Utopian idea of Canada as the New World, as yet untainted by history:

More soft, I deem, from spring to spring,
Thy sleep would be,
Where this far western headland lies
Beneath these matchless azure skies,
Under thee hearing beat and swing
The eternal sea.

A bay so beauteous islanded —
A sea so stilled —
You well might dream the world were new;
And some fair day’s Italian blue,
Unsoiled of all the ages dead,
Should be fulfilled.

Clearly the Confederation poets did not wish to confront the age in which they lived (a common criticism of their writing), and Carman’s hope that the future of Canada might mirror the past of Greece, while it significantly utilises only the idyllic potential of the landscape, again preserves nature at the expense of civilization:

If I had one wish for Canada, it would be that she might become to the twentieth century what Greece was to the world so long ago. The poetry of Canada will be full of the religion of nature, because the North is full of it, and as yet it has not passed into art. Do you not see it in Mr. Lampman’s lively work, in Duncan Campbell Scott’s, in Roberts’? The marvellous Autumn colours, the red Auroras, the entrancing Spring nights — the whole great wondrous looming circle of the year is full full full of splendour and revelation and uplift for the heart of man. Remember some snowshoe tramp through the fir woods on a full white moonlight night, when the stars snapped, or some voyage down a woodland stream; and then think of the terrible life in the slums of great cities, and you will know what I mean. We must avoid if we can the faults of the old nations. If we can!22

Roberts is remembered in Hovey’s elegy “Seaward” (in his volume To the End of the Trail), written at the same time as “Ave”, as the “Greek revealer of Canadian skies,” and Lampman’s laboured attempts to discover mythological shapes of beauty around him attest to his devotion to a similar ideal. The Canadian religion of nature coincides with the neo-Classical revival in the United States in the last decades of the century but it is in dependent of that movement, and the Greek analogy by no means exhausts the poets’ search for an identity.

     As early as 1869, R.G. Haliburton — one of the founders of the Canada First movement, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Northern Antiquities (of Copenhagen), and an ethnologist — gave a lecture with the title “The Men of the North and their Place in History” to inform the young men of the new Dominion that they were the true descendants of a Northern, Teutonic and dominant race, and advised them to shrug off the enervating southern cultural inheritance of pagan Greece and Rome, “that polished brilliant slavish degraded past,” comparing Classical myth and poetry unfavourably with the ruder strains of Northern bards.23  Haliburton was in fact making a plea for an educational programme based upon the practical needs of a new society and at the same time reflecting Carlyle’s admiration for the robustness and masculine vigour to be found in Scandinavian literature. The interest in Norse literature increased in the 1880s when it became a subject of academic study in the American universities. Haliburton’s suggestion that Canada change her name to the more auspicious name of “Norland” (taken from Old Norse, because “We are the Northmen of the New World”) was adopted by Carman after his sojourn at Harvard, while he was exploring the stoic ethic. Poems with storm-kings in them were written in Canada (from Sangster to Pratt) and the early poetry of Lampman and Campbell abounds with elves and giants who never quite detach themselves from the effects of weather they animate to become personalities in their own right, in the manner of Roberts’ Eos and Aurora. Lampman would pursue the Nordic analogy in his North country sonnets of rock, forest and water after it had been suggested by The Week (see “Art Notes,” August 2, 1889) that a Canadian school of painting might do well to emulate the example of landscape artists in Norway, given the similarity of geography and climate. But it is not surprising that Norse mythology did not take deeper hold of the Canadian imagination; Carlyle was particularly aware that the Scandinavian countries were the last to be converted to Christianity, and Carman, Lampman and Campbell appear to have been more impressed by the arrival of the new dispensation than the pagan past it replaced.24

     The Celtic influence is harder to define. Carman distinguished the Celtic strain in English literature from the Teutonic, which had been dominant since the Elizabethans, seeing in Romantic poetry (chiefly Wordsworth and Keats) a return to the close awareness of nature characteristic of early Scottish verse.25 However, the Celtic note admired by Roberts for it’s “transparent naturalism” — the phrase is Renan’s in his essay The Poetry of the Celtic Races — was pursued by Carman for exactly the opposite reason in his ballads, for the Celtic love of the invisible, an effect more Ossianic than Arthurian, or Gothic, as Carman might have said, contrasting it with his Classical phase, to suggest its appropriateness to a Northern people. The literary symbolism of these poems is quite foreign to the narrative directness of the Child ballads at their best (which Carman studied with Francis Child, the ballad expert, at Harvard), that draw upon early Scottish and English popular traditions. Lampman was quick to realise that Carman’s true originality lay here, in the large, shadowy forms of his supernatural ballads and sea-poems, where he invents the vague looming shapes proper to a Northern imagination.26  Carman’s vague shapes perhaps bring to a fruitful conclusion the many discussions of folklore and mythology that had been part of Canadian table-talk for some time, and may be our best guide to what was recognised as the need of the moment.

     Campbell is something of an anomaly. He was an expert in ethnology and his view of the growth of primitive religion is well in advance of the animistic theories of the day, though these too find expression in his nature poetry. The “exquisite superstition” of “Ode to a Roman Altar” is “Some primal effort to appease the dark,/And lay that ghost of fear which haunts us yet.” He also objected vigorously to the cult of neo-paganism, alluding perhaps to Carman and Roberts in “The Lyre Degenerate:”

For now in the shrunken pages
Of helot dreamers of song
The idiot children of primal earth,
Brute and insect, throng.

And this the end of beauty,
The ultimate dreaming of man,
To shrink to this hideous, meaningless cult.
Alas, for the great God Pan!
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Sunk to the law of the jungle and fen
From the dream of the godlike man,
To learn in the lore of reptile and brute
The cunning of Caliban!27

The dichotomy of god and beast or flesh and spirit is present in Campbell’s treatment of mythological types, both pagan and Christian; man is either falling, fallen or worse and at his best struggles against his baser nature. Or as John Fiske writes, grafting a similar Pauline vision upon the evolutionary tree:

When did St. Paul’s conception of the two men within him that warred against each other, the appetites of our brute nature and the god-given yearning for a higher life, — when did this grand conception ever have so much significance as now?28

Fortunately, for the time being, one is concerned not with Cambell’s  total vision but rather his poetry of nature, where his differences from Carman, Roberts and Lampman are not as marked. 

     The Confederation poets’ interest in folklore and myth is partly the widespread movement towards national self-definition, but it cannot be said that they solved the problem once for all and produced a full-fledged, systematic mythology which could be compared with their models. They thought of themselves as a new and Northern nation, that had racial affiliations with the Old World, and were quite satisfied with analogies expressing a sense of their own history and geography.

     Personification is the crux for the poet writing of nature in the nineteenth century. Frye’s comment on Carman is germane to the issue:

Carman’s poetic sense told him, as it told Isabella Crawford before him and Pratt after him, that the most obvious development of a romantic landscape poet is towards the mythological, towards making his emotional impressions into a dramatic personae of forces at once human and natural.29

It is striking that Lampman, Campbell and Roberts who, unlike Carman, begin with an obvious and orthodox mythological apparatus, resist peopling the landscape to quite this extent (after strange gods). The solar and vegetative imagery in their poetry deconstructs these very mythological systems to render them in naturalistic terms, in agreement with the explanations given by the leading philologists and anthropologists of the day. There can be no doubt that Carman, Roberts, Lampman and Campbell were aware of the enormously popular solar theory:  it pervades their writings of the 1880s. How they arrived at the vegetation cults of the 1890s remains something of a mystery. Carman received Pater’s Greek Studies in 1895 with a shock of recognition:  he had reached similar conclusions on his own.30 Roberts was studying the Greek elegists as early as 1887, when he first mentions “pantheism,”31and indeed Lang and Frazer would soon cite the same sources in support of their ideas. If Lampman and Campbell knew of The Golden Bough, first published in 1890, they give no indication of this,32 and ultimately — at this stage — the mythographers may not have been necessary to the Canadian poets. Their earliest poems suggest that the plant analogy may have been derived from their reading in the English poets, Romantic and Victorian.

     There is every reason to suppose that the image of the tree (or flower), apart from such bookish sources, could have emerged directly out of the poets’ experience of the Canadian environment. Kinship merely legitimizes the primitive intuition that there exists a sympathetic relation between the forest, the tree, the flower, and the Canadian who makes his home among them. It was commonly said that the Canadian settler hates the sight of a tree and those who cleared the land certainly had no compunctions about razing vast forests to the ground; English visitors often marvelled at their lack of sentiment.33  Lighthall’s ballad “The Pioneers” commemorates their achievement; it is a song of pride:

Remember those who fought the trees
And every hardship braved,
And so for us of all degrees
All from the forest saved. 34

“Burnt Lands” and “The Clearing” are Roberts’ memorials to these historic battles with the trees, but instead of remembering the harsh realities of early settlement life, he perceives the wounds and scars left by fire and axe sympathetically, with pity for vegetable sensibility. Lampman and Campbell write of the destruction of the pine forests and the maples of Central Ontario with regret (see At the Mermaid Inn, pp. 108, 329, 339) while Isabella Valancy Crawford’s earlier address to England from the new halls of Commerce and Art, despite its proper civic pride, contains an elegiac note, lamenting the time when “Nature was a Samson yet unshorn” (see “Canada to England”).  The country was evidently moving forward to meet the centuries, as Crawford says of Toronto in the poem of that name, but its past was slipping from the memory, and the tree, paradoxically, was sometimes the only reminder of pioneer history.

     Like these tragic forests of the past, the tree in winter when the sun is low enters the poetry as the symbol of both transience and endurance. Carman, for instance, watches maple leaves fall with the frost and thinks of his own end:

Let maple leaves come one by one and fall
Soft in the grass to cover me,
                            In Acadie.35

He will ask for the same kind of tree to mark his grave in “The Grave Tree”:

Let me have a scarlet maple
For the grave-tree at my head,
With the quiet sun behind it,
In years when I am dead.36

The dual nature of the tree that dies and at the same time endures is brought out beautifully in his “Golden Rowan,” where a play on words turns the name of a girl into the “signal-tree” we remember her by. The metamorphosis is less completely effected in the analogies with plant life to be found in Lampman, Campbell and Roberts, but they are no less aware of its two aspects.

     While much remains to be done towards a full understanding of the relationship between the Confederation poets and the contemporary mythographers, it is hoped that the background and suggestions offered here provide some insight into a potentially very fertile and important area of enquiry.


  1. Carman mentions reading “The Centaur” with Roberts on February 5, 1885, in his Diary (1880-1886). Mr. H.P. Gundy has kindly given me permission to quote from the Bliss Carman manuscripts now in the Lorne Pierce Collection (hereafter LPC), Queen’s University.[back]

  2. See D.M.R. Bentley, “Pan and the Confederation Poets,” Canadian Literature, 81 (Summer, 1979), 59-71, and Patricia Merivale, Pan the Goat-God:  His Myth in Modern Times (Harvard Univ. Press, 1969) for further discussion.  Suggestive clues to the ambivalence that colours the Confederation poets’ handling of man as Pan and the Arcadian ideal are to be found in Hawthorne’s The Marble Faun and Thoreau’s remarks on the “animal man” in Walden (New York:  Twayne, 1962), pp. 132 and 184.[back]

  3. Carman, “Charles G.D. Roberts,” The Chap Book, II (January 1,1895), 165, 170.[back]

  4. I have consulted E.B. Hungerford, Shores of Darkness (New York:  Columbia Univ. Press, 1941) for an account of interpretative traditions influencing the Romantics.  James Kissane, “Victorian Mythology,” Victorian Studies, VI (1962), 5-28, and Janet Burstein, “Victorian Mythography and the Progress of the Intellect,” Victorian Studies, XVIII (1975) 309-324, offer useful summaries of the growing complexity of the subject in our period.  Although there was a “general awareness that myth spoke not one but many languages, and by her ’gift of tongues’ articulated truths proper to poetry, history, natural science, moral philosophy, and religion” (Burstein, p. 313), the Confederation poets confine themselves to natural and religious significances.[back]

  5. Jacob Grimm, Teutonic Mythology, trans. J.S. Stallybrass (1883; New York:  Dover, 1966), I, 167.  Hereafter cited as TM.[back]

  6. Andrew Lang, “Mythology and Fairy Tales,” Fortnightly Review, XIII (1873),618-31.[back]

  7. James G. Frazer, The Golden Bough (London:  Macmillan, 1900), I, 166-67.[back]

  8. Carl F. Klinck lists some of Campbell’s early uncollected mytholigical verse in Wilfred Campbell (Toronto:  Ryerson, 1942), pp. 34-35.[back]

  9. “Before the age of the printing press, the wildernesses of Canada and of all the world were full of spirits” wrote J.E. Collins, in Canada Under the Administration of Lord Lorne (Toronto:  Rose Publishing, 1884), p. 41. The early settlers were “Excluded from the world of literature, and secluded in a forest of eternal silence, except the tones uttered by the voice of nature, sometimes whispering in the gentle murmurs of the sighing wind and sometimes thundering forth in the loudest voice, — shut up with nature they listened to her words, and not educated to understand her meaning, they took to interpret her speech and oftentimes superstition of the deepest kind took possession of their minds.”  William Cannily, History of the Settlement of Upper Canada (1869; facsimile rpt. Belleville, Ont.:  Mika Silk Screening, 1971), pp. 364-65. See also p. 626.   Roberts similarly explains the rise of a belief in the supernatural in an isolated Maritime community in Around the Camp Fire (New York:  Crowell, 1896), pp. 144-45.[back]

  10. Selected Poetry and Critical Prose:  Charles G.D. Roberts, ed. W.J. Keith (Toronto:  Univ. of Toronto Press, 1974) pp. 278-80. Hereafter cited as SP.[back]

  11. Henry Sweet, “Shelley’s Nature-Poetry,” in The Shelley Society’s Publications (1888), I, 299. Hereafter cited in the text.[back]

  12. F. Max Müller, Comparative Mythology (London:  George Routleges, n.d.), p. 77.  Hereafter cited as CM.[back]

  13. John Ruskin, Proserpina (New York:  Merrill and Baker, n.d.), p. 45. Hereafter cited in the text.[back]

  14. Sir Kenneth Clark, Moments of Vision (Oxford:  Clarendon Press, 1954), p.22.[back]

  15. Walter Pater, “A Study of Dionysus,” in Greek Studies (New York:  Macmillan, 1895), p. 3.  Hereafter cited as GS.[back]

  16. Wordsworth’s passage in The Excursion, IV, 846-87, on the Greek shepherd who imagines he sees Pan in a gnarled and hoary tree suggests some of the differences between the Romantic poet’s idea of the origins of mythology and Pater’s. Pater explains tree-spirits by an inner organic process, “what is to us but the secret chemistry of nature being to them the mediation of living spirits” (GS, p. 7).[back]

  17. Ernst Cassirer, Language and Myth, trans. Suzanne Langer (London:  Harper, 1946), p. 33.[back]

  18. Richard M. Dorson, The British Folklorists:  A History (London:  Routledge and Kegan, 1968), p.191.[back]

  19. E.B. Tylor, Primitive Culture, 3rd ed., rev. (London:  John Murray, 1891), I, 315. Hereafter cited as PC.[back]

  20. Ruskin, Modern Painters (New York:  Merrill and Baker, n.d.), III, 220.[back]

  21. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature and Other Essays (New York, John B. Alden, 1886), p. 9.  Hereafter cited as Nature.[back]

  22. Letter to Will J. Green of Toronto, March 11, 1895 (LPC).[back]

  23. R.G. Haliburton, The Men of the North and their Place in History (Montreal:  J. Lovell, 1869).  See Carl Berger, The Sense of Power (Toronto:  Univ. of Toronto Press, 1970), pp. 128-33, for a description of the reputed influence of the north upon the Canadian character.[back]

  24. See Lampman’s sonnet “The King’s Sabbath,” Carman’s “The Tidings to Olaft” in From the Book of Myths, and Campbell’s “Sir Lancelot,” where contrary to tradition Campbell invents a Berserker madness for his hero, who dies fighting to resolve (if not absolve) him of his Christian guilt; his reversion to a pagan code leaves him as if overrun by a wolfish pack.  The mixture of Stoic and Christian in Lampman’s king is an unstable thing.[back]

  25. Carman, “English Literature from the Days of Chaucer to the Time of Elizabeth,” Scrap-book, Prose, 1884-1885, (LPC).[back]

  26. At the Mermaid Inn, ed., and with an Introduction, by Barry Davies, (Toronto:  Univ. of Toronto Press, 1979), pp. 159-60; 262, “The imagery of this poem, [“In Via Mortis” by Rev. F.G. Scott] the picturing of the dead and their hidden land, and the emotions stirred within the poet’s soul by the voices and shadows of the after world are given to us in the large and vague shapes suggestive of all indigenous northern poetry.”[back]

  27. The Poetical Works of Wilfred Campbell, ed., and with a Memoir, by W.J. Sykes (London:  Hodder and Stoughton, 1922), pp. 148-51.[back]

  28. John Fiske, Studies in Religion (New York:  Houghton Mifflin, 1902), p. 73.[back]

  29. Northrop Frye, The Bush Garden (Toronto:  Anansi, 1971), p. 34.[back]

  30. Letter to Louise Imogen Guiney, March 10,1895 (LPC).[back]

  31. Roberts was at work on his edition of Adonais at this time; the essay that prefaces the poem appeared as “Pastoral Elegies” in the Spring issue of The New Princeton Review, V (1888), 360-70, and is reprinted with minor changes as “Shelley’s Adonais” in SP, pp.282-95.[back]

  32. A lengthy review of The Golden Bough may be found in Athenaeum (August 2, 1890), 155-58, but I am not convinced that the poets were influenced by the magazines in this instance. Lampman’s “Estrangement” (in At the Long Sault), for example, is dated 1887-1888. The plant metaphor has much to do with seasonal observations, which also lie behind Frazer’s myths, although the influence of Romantic and Victorian imagery should not be discounted.[back]

  33. See Anna B. Jameson, Winter Studies and Summer Rambles in Canada (Toronto:  McClelland and Stewart, 1923), p. 122, for one eloquent testimonial.[back]

  34. Songs of the Great Dominion, ed. William Douw Lighthall (London: Walter Scott, 1899), pp. 134-5.[back]

  35. “When Frosts are Come,” Bliss Carman’s Scrap-book, 1883-1918 (LPC).[back]

  36. Poets of the Confederation, ed., and with an introduction, by Malcolm Ross (Toronto:  McClelland and Stewart, 1960), p. 39.[back]