Reconstructing The Victorian House:   Philip Child’s Hermeneutic

by Elizabeth Bieman

For a few years after Philip Child’s long narrative poem The Victorian House appeared  1951, in a slim volume with a few added lyrics, it enjoyed a modest degree of acceptance. Northrop Frye described this “narrative developed in reverie, rather than dramatically” with favour and understanding in his annual review of “Letters in Canada” in 1952: “the narrator has to sell his family home, and in throwing it open to a purchaser memories come back to him and build up a picture of his early life.” He achieves, in the process, “a fleeting sense of an eternal home life in a single body of love.” Frye regretted, however, “a rather self-deprecating melancholy,” a tentative “gentleness,” and “a mannerism of quoting too many tags from Shakespeare.”1

     It may well have been the overt literary traditionalism of the work that led Ontario educators to prescribe it on the common curriculum for Grade 13 in the academic years 1952-3 and 1964-5, when graduating high school students faced province-wide university entrance “departmentals.” Whatever the intent in assigning a very sophisticated poem to a young readership, they assured a certain proportion of educated Ontarians of some familiarity with it. The teachers at the time may have been influenced by the dust jacket and dedication of the first edition to introduce it as “the poet’s in memoriam to an age that is past and gone,”2 and thus to reinforce the impressions of melancholy and mannerism that Frye recorded. It is not probable that many, in those earlier years, were prompted to notice the poem as a mimesis of the process by which networks of meaningful language grow by accretion and adjust themselves in the face of change, in the evolving cosmos of literature. This essay will argue, among other matters, that the literary echoes in the poem function primarily to draw attention to such a process.

     In 1965, William H. Magee announced that “strong though the competition may be, the most neglected of good Canadian authors is probably Philip Child”: his “reappraisal” sought to promote interest in the novels by drawing attention to their “modernism,” and the “cosmopolitanism” which he suspected of hindering their acceptance by Canadian readers. The Victorian House he judged adversely, as different from prose — as “melancholy and static” in contrast to the “optimistic and energetic” fiction. Magee’s brief description of the poem missed the interconnectedness that should be seen between a man’s “longing for the security of the last generation” as he sells his home and the “secondary theme” which “examines abstract love” in a world that produces Judases in every generation.3

     The critical neglect deplored in 1965 has been at least interrupted recently by Dennis Duffy. In “MEMORY= PAIN” The Haunted World of Philip Child’s Fiction,” Duffy concerns himself with dimensions of the novels that are anything but “optimistic and energetic.” Disclaiming “revisionist” or Rehabilitative” purpose, he agrees readily with Desmond Pacey’s influential dismissal of the Child Fiction as “too didactic” and unhappily “unwilling to rely upon implication and indirection.”4 Duffy chooses “to point out the presence and significance of certain themes” (his title identifies them) to demonstrate “an entire aspect . . . of considerable interest to students of the affective and psychological aspects of Canadian literature.” From his chosen perspective he is led to observe that “Child’s ideology” — for which he accepts Pacey’s label “Christian humanism” — fails in the novels to confer the secure and rational optimism both seem to expect of such a “belief.”

     This present essay will be avowedly “revisionary,” and if not “rehabilitative” it will be “reconstructionist” in the sense I find demanded by The Victorian House. I wish to counter the prevailing tendency to settle upon the dimensions of melancholy and suffering that are most certainly to be found in the poem (as in the novels). In so doing, I shall find those darker dimensions expressed primarily through the semi-transparent persona that Child reluctantly assumes to narrate the poem in the first person.5 I shall find them modified and balanced, and potentially overcome, by other voices and factors that fill out a far from melancholy pattern when the narration is complete. I shall concern myself with a network of symbolic language that offers interconnections so intricate and shifting that the shape the poem takes must be for each reader new, and far from final. Reverie, as phenomenologists like Bachelard have been leading us to see, may be dynamically and open-endedly creative:6 this poem, as Frye has rightly seen, is far more reverie than conventional narration. As the symbolic network shapes and reshapes itself for the narrator, so it does in all probability for the author, whose personal involvement has been admitted, and so it should for the reader.

     The term I apply to the reading I propose — “reconstructionist” — is meant to indicate the rebuilding by the narrator through daydream of an alternate for the world that is being torn apart. It may also serve to acknowledge an inservile debt to the deconstructionist critics who contribute to our realization that literature, and the interpretation of literature, represent a dynamic process of change. It will signal a refusal to use negative language forms, or to rest in a meaning-denying view, of the processes by which symbolic language operates. Such language can be made to cast its network back to recover the past, can confer shape upon that past in crucial acts of remembering, and can open the one who remembers (narrator, poet, and imaginatively assenting reader) to a future radically new because it is rooted deep, by the roots of the language chosen, in the past.7 Such a process is creatively positive. It neither denies change and the consequent pain, mimesis of which has evoked negative reactions from Child’s readers, nor exorcises change and pain in an agon of opposition: it accepts and redeems them by incorporating them into the patterned flux of the inner life. In the symbolic structure of the poem, Judas represents the precipitator of the change that brings pain. The narrator’s father yearns for his redemption; the son’s memories as shaped by Child do much to accomplish it — for the reader, and eventually for the narrator himself.

     Something of Child’s own poetic, set forth in his review of Sheila Watson’s The Double Hook, may be introduced here, in order to be turned back upon his poem.

The most important thing in literature . . . is not the crude events in themselves, but rather what people think and feel about what they do and what happens to them.

Symbols, of course, must convey the matters that are more important than “crude event,” and they

often change their meaning as things and words and people do in life. . . . But to say that symbols may change their face is not to say that they lack underlying meaning. By art they are woven in their context into a total ef fect that leads the reader into himself and then outward toward that which is other than himself . . . .
     What pattern . . . when the dance of symbols has ended? Symbols can transfigure concepts and bring them into a world of light. This reviewer does not wish to change them back to concepts lest they should cease to dance . . . . [But] one thing we may venture to promise the sensitive reader. He will have a quickened sense of what a German mystic called “creature-consciousness” and also of the mysterium tremendum that stands oppoed to that.8

It will be seen that Child could share with modern critics a central concern with the process by which a structure of symbolic language generates new apprehensions in each new reader. But unlike those who are unconcerned with the potentiality of signifiers and signifieds to shape themselves into patterns of valid, if never final, significance, or those who would deny that any significance can be postulated beyond the momentary chimaeras that appear to the individual mind,9 Child points in The Victorian House to a mode of apprehension compatible with the older forms of “belief” suggested in the term “Christian humanism.” His achievement is to reaffirm the values of loving and hoping in symbols drawn from the Bible and humane literature, even as he painfully comes to terms in his poem with the demolition of the older structures of thinking signified by the outmoded and doomed housed.10

     Against the fictional setting of the old house, Child unfolds a web of relationships of many sorts, between persons, between times and events, between ways of looking at the world. To attempt as I must in this argument to indicate the dominant patterns that they make is to risk arresting the “dance” of the symbols. Some safeguards have already been mustered in the emphasis that has been laid upon the hermeneutical process. But Child himself provides many safeguards against too rigid or too certain a reading — his symbols connect, disconnect, regroup, and quite refuse to stand firm and still.

     Child’s broader structuring principles are graspable enough. The direct narration of the poem is given in flexible, unrhymed pentameter lines, primarily iambic, their flow oscillating from the narrative present (the ongoing encounter with the developer) to the past of memory and to the atemporal dimensions of meditation. The shifts are at first occasioned “logically,” as a specific location in the house calls up associated memories, as memory leads to elaborating meditation, or as the physical presence of Mr. Hammer reimposes itself. As the poem unfolds, the doors to new areas of the imagination are unlocked more often by something in the world of developing inner significance than by a movement in the outer narrative: eventually, the presence of Mr. Hammer is countenanced within the reverie.11 The direct speech of many voices is marked off clearly by quotation marks, whether it be that of the narrator himself to Mr. Hammer, Hammer’s to him, or the words of a voice recalled in reverie. Because voices past and present are given, structurally, in the same way, we are prompted to read them ultimately as in conversation with each other and to find them of balancing significance in the emerging pattern. At intervals, several brief poems in italics interrupt the flow of direct narration: some are ascribed to a specific voice from the past, and some seem to come without identification from another dimension of the narrator’s consciousness. Literary, mythic, and historical voices, too, sound everywhere through evocative echo: the Shakespearean speakers of the “too many tags” are joined by at least as powerful presences from the Bible to lead a company that includes Plato and Aristotle, St. Bernard, St. Francis and other medieval mystics, Dante, Cranmer and Latimer, Milton, Traherne, Bunyan, Blake, Wordsworth, Lewis Carroll, Freud, Eliot, and Karel Cape.12

     The flux of all these voices, echoes, events and meditative responses — cumulative evidences of individual experience played out in an inner world shaped by the humane and Christian past — is marshalled by Child into eight sections, quite uneven in length, set off by Roman numerals. The divisions seem at first simply appropriate to the “Victorianism” of the enterprise. Eventually they emerge as numerological gestures appropriate to the older humane Christian milieu that the literary echoes evoke.

     We may begin tracing some of the specific symbolic patterns by noting two intersecting axes of relationship established very early in the poem, that between the narrator and his interlocutor, Mr. Hammer, and (far more vivid at first) that between the narrator and the father he recalls:

       I said, “My father built it
In ’eighty-eight; we’ve always lived in it —
Nobody else but us. . . .
And I’ve lived here ever since my parents died.”
He wrote it down, then snapped the coffin lid
Upon our little story, and buried it
In his pocket.13

The language here has established Mr. Hammer as a figure of death and destruction. He has earlier been marked as “mathematical” — before the hint of death, the calculating. He has asked for a count of the rooms in the father’s house; the narrator has never thought of counting them “before today.”14 Having recorded the number (there are nineteen) and a capsule history of the house, the threatening agent proceeds to find every possible fault with the exterior:

       “The brickwork’s cracked
I see, beside the door. A slated roof
With iron railing — there’s a section missing.
Are there rats? There always are in these old houses.
That wood below the eaves. Rotting, I’d say.
Yes, sir! I’d say this house has seen its prime
. . . .”
       “Shall we go in?” I said.
                                           (I, 3)

The father’s figure emerges clearly in Section II. As Hammer is measuring, memories are flooding in upon the narrator “in the upper rooms":

He held his tape to the mirror-door that led
To my father’s study. (My father used to call
Us through the mirror-door with a time-worn joke;
“Come through the looking-glass,” he liked to say.)

The talk of measure in the outer world is counterpoised to the recollection of an alter-world behind the mirror-door:

“Three and a quarter by eight. I could use that door.”
I see my father reading by the fire,
. . . . . . . . . .
He sometimes had a slantwise way of joking
To make us think — a trifle grim at times,
. . . . . . . . . .
“Death,” he would say with a twinkle, “is for man
His greatest experience — if he lives through it.”
When I was older he said one day, not jesting,
“Christ did all things by God, but even he,
The Fisher of Men, had many failures.
He failed At Nazareth and he could not throw his net
Round Judas and draw him into the Kingdom of Heaven.”
Why did he tell me that — and I remember?
                                            (II, 4)

The father inhabits a dimension totally different from that of Mr. Hammer: their simultaneous presence to the narrator establishes another axis of relationship, this one symbolic, between these two. The father inhabits a world of the art that orders memory behind the mirroring door whose obverse has reflected the everyday world of the developer with his measure. The difference between them is as extreme as that between Christ and the Judas he “could not . . . draw . . . into the Kingdom of Heaven.”

     Later, in Section IV, the narrator remembers a poem, written by his father, concerned with the fate of Judas under Judgment. As he responds to this memory the opposition that we see in the father and Mr. Hammer between art and everyday is spelled out in terms of “poetry” and “prose":

When Mary wept for Jesus on God’s rood
Who wept for Judas, on God’s gallows too
. . . . . . . . . . .
Who prayed in that dark hour before he died:
Forgive them, for they know not what they do"?

          But the prose we live is not the poetry
We write in what we think are times of insight
When the rhythm of thought is fluctuant and swift,
And the merging of arrested glance with love,
Of spark with fire, can come to pass between
The falling of two motes of dust to the floor,
Or between two beats of the heart — so swift it is.
The daily prose is coarser, tougher; its bricks
Are glazed with indifference and mortared with boredom;
We built its walls to surround the Debate in the Soul
And resist the remorseless probing of the rats;
We would not open the door to every knock
Of a stranger.
                       It is not true that every breath
I breathe is breathed in prayer for those I love: . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . .
I am, in prose, “man middling earthy,” and —
I am not overfond of Brother Hammer.
                                (IV, 14)

Associated with poetry we note the figure of the father; the impulse to forgiveness in the father brought to realization in the quoting of Christ’s words (Judas is included in the prayer — the father’s query is answered in the act of its posing); and the act of writing under atemporal flashes of insight. There is also an oblique analogy or equation, when we recall the first reference to Judas in a conversation behind the mirrored door, of poetry to the Kingdom of Heaven, to which Judas may, or may not, be admitted, according to the symbolic category that prevails. Associated with prose we note Mr. Hammer, and the narrator when he is not under the impulses that evoke forgiveness and the writing of poetry. It is not a simple opposition of bad and good: the “walls” of prose go up “to surround the Debate in the Soul,” a debate that must come to terms with “the remorseless probing of the rats” — like love and forgiveness, rats insist upon inhabiting this world of “poetry,” and require the deepest attention. The prosaic man, like Hammer, may content himself ordinarily with seeing the flaws in the outer world — the structural defects in the house, and the rats in its material walls. The poetic man, like the narrator in communion with memory and dream, must confront evidences of decay and danger that are infinitely more painful, evidences involving the human lives that have unfolded within and beyond the prosaic walls.

     The axis that links poetry and prose has to do with modes of feeling and seeing and knowing, rather than with categories of practical or moralistic judgment. It has to do with many other axes that intersect with it, at many differing angles: with the lines between time and eternity, appearance and reality, acorn and oak, child and man.15 Poetic man may seem safer in some of these terms than prosaic man, but he is in much graver danger, when he confronts that which he sees as evil, of suffering, and judging himself as harshly as another. Judas was, arguably, as “mathematical” as Mr. Hammer in taking the quasi-political action that yielded him thirty coins,16 but the Judas who hastily hanged himself had glimpsed in partial poetic truth that which he had done as evil. He had not waited to see, in fuller vision, the eternal forgiveness to which Christ’s prayer, repeated in the father’s poem, bears cryptic witness.

     The warning we have heard in Child’s own words about the distance between symbols and concepts must be repeated. It will not do to think of these pairs belonging stably to columns such as this:

Christ Judas
narrator Hammer
father Hammer
past present
poetry prose

Evidence already presented indicates that the narrator is operating on both sides of the chart and that past and present interfuse. Moreover, to the active interpreting imagination Judas may be seen as already redeemed (although father and narrator may not be able to see him so) by the prayerful love of Christ that is mirrored by the father in his poem, and by the narrator himself as reshaper and transmitter of past and reverie in the larger poem by Child. The symbolic axes tangle in mimesis of chaos when we seek to order them conceptually, yet the poem requires of us that we try.

     Mr. Hammer’s schematic relationship to Judas may be documented by setting a brief passage beside the narrator’s admission, “I am, in prose, . . . not overfond of Brother Hammer":

              And thou, St. Francis,
Thou genius of the heart, what thoughtest thou
Of Judas Iscariot? . . .
Didst thou dare to name the lost one, “Brother Judas"?
                                (IV, 19)

Relatively inoffensive and sporadically ludicrous as Mr. Hammer seems, he is the present tense of the narration the Judas in need of redemption by the narrator, the poet, or the reader. In the poetic dimension he is clearly dangerous enough — a bringer of pain of many sorts. He threatens the beloved old house — both the external signifying structure, and the signified structures of memory and thought that it becomes. This Hammer first hints at rats in the decaying walls, launching the narrator into dreams and nightmares that can be contained neither by those outer walls nor by the innocent sense of security that is imaginatively evoked from a past lived within them.

     For a time the nightmare is collective: it shapes itself out of memories of the war, in which the younger self of the narrator was taken far from his home and “taught to clench/My teeth on hate.” But far worse is the more personal nightmare that invades the sanctuary of the remembered house itself.

     The fifth section of the poem begins in an anticipation of torment marked as private by the first person pronouns and universalized by echoes of the agony of Christ:

         My Hammer has come back to nail me down;
He returns like a tangle in a spool of thread.
                                (V, 20)

When, two pages later, the thread image has been established as the tangled line of this narrator’s life, he finds himself resigned to invite the antagonist to the more sacred spaces “upstairs” in the house:

I opened the door and let him enter my room.
I did not tell him why, in a house so large,
We shared a room, my brother Ken and I,
Because we wanted to.
                                 “The baseboard’s scuffed
And splintered under the paint,” said Mr. Hammer.
He cocked his head and clicked his tongue in triumph:
“Listen to that! You have got rats in the house!”
Out came the measuring tape.
                                                . . . . He went away
From the house, my brother Ken, when we were young.
       The room looks queer, stripped bare; it has gone from me:
I see it suddenly as if it lay
Before me dead, and I knew I had killed it.
                                (V, 22)

The hint of remembered guilt in the line just quoted forces the shocked realization that we may be confronted here by something written “in the blood of . . . one [of the] slain reticences” by which Child has been forced in the unfolding poetry “to reveal more of himself than in the prose of life he would ordinarily disclose.” The allusions to the brother’s departure, and to the undisclosed reasons for wanting to share a room, juxtaposed to Mr. Hammer’s disclosure of “flaws” in the “baseboard” that precariously hides the rats, suggest that a repressed tangle of memories involving family relationship has surfaced to menace the narrator, forcing him to strip the room bare of the life he has given it and shoulder the blame for the loss.

     If the narrator, by reticent evasion, has briefly encouraged such suspicion, he soon makes his language dance in more decorous, and more painful, patterns. He shifts back to memories of the war that involved them both and indicates that his “brother Ken . . . did not return to find our house grown old.” In this revisionary process, the guilt now becomes the irrational burden assumed by a surviving brother — the guilt of a relatively innocent Cain, of not having been the one to die.

     At the end of this fifth section the narrator turns his attention outward to “Mr. Hammer . . . drumming his fingers on the sill . . . Brown-studying the last sere leaves that hang/From wet black limbs.” Without open speech he wonders “Does he hear the rats . . . ?” — clearly now rats that witness to spiritual decay, since this antagonist has always had ears for rats in the material walls.

Why does he frown, and why did he clench his fist?
Is Mr. Hammer being fished for?. . .

The narrator’s concern here reflects his father’s concern for Judas; perhaps the reverie-encountered intimations of his own guilt have led him to feel a human bond he could not recognize earlier in the interchange.

     From the outset the sixth section inverts the hint of a bond of positive human concern, confronting instead a nightmare of “all mankind . . . bound together/To rendezvous in Pandemonium.” It takes the shape of further memories of war, and culminates in an agonized, and agonizing, chaos of metaphysical speculation, at once appropriate to this modern fiction and mimetic of the Victorianism the setting evokes:17

                        Is unacommodated man no more
Than this — that flux and nuclear fission void
The soul’s dimension of eternity?
I hear the hollow prayers reverberate
From empty sky. Their mocking echo spins
In dizzy circles in the sickened brain:
What do you seek beyond the firmament —
Some stouter turf to bear your stumbling feet?
Some kinder world? But whose vain ghost are you?
You are the figments of a sleeping god,
Assembled in his dream a fleeting while
To make disordered entity and then
. . . .

          One hand, one foot, one eye and half of heart
And mind and soul once struggled free from the web
Of nature. (Does Judas in the inky fire
Still clutch for light?) But now in darkling horror
The hands are tangled and the feet are snared.
The eyes and heart, the mind and soul fast caught;
We watch the spider’s coming and we think:
Our daily bread the power without glory
And life for never and never
World without end or purpose
. . . .

          Today is a strew of bricks in a gaping pit;
Whose hands will build tomorrow’s house with it?
                                     (VI, 27-8)

In this apocalyptic vision the words of the Lord’s Prayer are garbled and truncated: they entangle and invert, in the chaos, the thought of Aristotelian purposiveness that was incorporated, early on, in the very name that the narrator’s father had given his house:

“The acorn bears the oak within itself,
Old chap, the child is father to the man,
And this house called ’Oakwood,’ which we love, bears us
Within itself; and its unfolding form
Is that it be our home.”
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
I remember how his voice
Grew deeper as if he had forgotten me,
As if he were transfiguring the phrase
In the secret fountain of his spirit.
                                                             He said
“Our soul’s unfolding form is that it grow
Into the Kingdom d Heaven.”
           That is a phrase that means what you want it to mean
According to what you are — ’just words’ for what
Is in the heart . . . .
                                (II, 7)

The words “Thine is the Kingdom,” which could have been a “transfiguring” into Biblical terms of the “entelechy” the family has been joking about in section II,18 are utterly missing from the prayer fragments the narrator has tossed about in this vision of the end of the world created in six days, at the end of the sixth section of Child’s poem. The plea for forgiveness of trespasses which should follow that for daily bread is also missing. Power is now totally without glory in prosaic daily life.

     Yet section VI ends, finally, not with the “strew of bricks in a gaping pit” in the penultimate line but with a pointed question: “Whose hands will build tomorrow’s house with it?”

     After the climactic despair of Section VI, yet still within the section bearing the earthbound number, the shift to a positive tone has been effected through the narrator’s verbal shaping of a question. As in the father’s poetic query about Judas, the question itself may be seen as seed-point for the unfolding process that points itself towards an answer.

     The narrator opens a section, numbered VII, that will speak of a variety of sabbatarian visions. He shows intense awareness of the mystics’ difficulty in finding language commensurate to their needs:

          Mystics like Rolle and St. Bernard say much
About that contra of our being, the soot.
Some speak of the “spark of the soul”. . . .
                                   (VII, 28)

They speak also of the unitive sense that can bring together

The rose, the sunlight and the marriage-bed;
The snake, the cancer, and the scuttling rat;
The self that loves the other, the self that fears it;
The beauty and the horror, the love and the terror —
All burn in one eternal flame of love.
        I read their words as metaphors of vision
That cannot be transmuted into words
Nor rightly understood by him who lacks
That vision.
                                 (VII, 29)

He claims never to have known “the burning mystic’s vision of the Real;” yet he recalls an experience which most modern analysts would classify as mystical.19 “Looking once” from the window now “drummed” upon by the “fingers” of Mr. Hammer (the hint is of the impact of nails),

I knew a sudden quickening, one May.
I saw that a mist of green had settled on
The bare black branches of the maple trees
Whose limbs had borne and shed their drift of leaves
So many times, and my apple tree had moved
With life and thrust its tinted buds to light;
And as I looked a wonder grew in me
And burst its bonds.
                              (VII, 29-30)

He felt moved by the “very-wind” of love to see himself in reciprocal relationship with all Otherness. Though the narrator does not go on to find these words just yet, the reader of Child’s network of symbolic language can begin to see the warring brothers, the separated Judasses and Christs of a prosaic world, coming together in life and love.

     Far more significant to the narrator than the “quickening” vision of the external world is his memory of a human indicator to the end he craves:

                        Once in my life I knew and loved a man
Who had that “whole-ness” that is the quality
Saints’ love possesses....
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . He seemed to think
Of every man as  Mart of life’s great poem,
As living, loving, sinning, dying creatures
Like himself. He seemed to separate
The man from his dross, the sinner from his sin,
And see in every man what he could have been
And might become some day.
                                  (VII, 30-31)

Seeing the man in the child, the oak in the acorn, the shaping of a soul as it grows in and towards the Kingdom of Heaven, this Christlike figure is ambiguously close to, but never fully identified with, the father who built the house. (He seems to be summoned from a later period of the narrator’s life: there are indications of an academic milieu.) The narrator has spoken before this of those who have died in the Victorian house, and he now recalls this man’s deathbed, localizing it neither in the house nor elsewhere. What he recalls is beyond need of specific location.

     The intellect that has been dulled for a time is restored to clarity near the end, with the added dimension of a heightened intuition:

When we spoke a single word or phrase
The heart would leap to the rest and understand.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
                                  The moments spent themselves . . . .
“Now I must sleep,” he said at last; “I think
There will not be another time like this.
You must not let this dying make you suffer;
We must die to be reborn.”
                                  I summoned courage
To ask my question then. I aksed in search
Of that for which there are no proven words
To give us certain answer. I sought from him
Some surety from the secret of his spirit
That would redeem the words that he might say
To Very-Truth, because he uttered them.
                                  (VII, 32-3}

At this point the reader may be almost surprised to find that “he” is not printed “He": the authority conferred is of knowledge beyond this world. Yet the poem is in the modern business of transposing the Logocentricity of the “Victorian House” to a word-centredness more answerable to the self-consciousness of a world struggling from within to reshape “the strew of bricks” left in the wake of Hiroshima, and the strew of thoughts testified to by all the verbal tags echoing through the poem.

     The narrator’s sceptical longing was quite timeless:

I breathed the whispered words, “Shall we meet again?”
       He smiled and answered me with a quiet silence:
“I think we shall; but it will not be the same
As the meeting eve imagine.”
       The simple words were nothing by themselves.
                               (VII, 33)

They were trite, worn in the utterance of “a thousand million men.” What mattered was the “unspoken grief” both felt because no meeting could be foreseen in the “sense-bound flesh” both valued; and the answer to that grief, the sudden smile that transformed it. Once again under the compulsion of love the attempt must be made to express the ineffable:

                                         How can one tell in words
The many depths of import that may lie
Beneath a smile? (If we could see but once
The smile that Christ gave to that disciple he loved.
I think of the word transfiguration in
The Book of St. John.) It spoke with its own words:
I go from my separate self to you in love.
I made this love for you. It is created.
I pour it into you and give myself
To you to keep always.

                                         It made me feel
That by some strange transpiercing of the walls
Of our fleshly prison he was I — I he.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
                                         A smile may be
A force, like the wind that fills the leaves with motion.
                                   (VII, 34)

“A force, like the wind”: once again we may see more than the narrator, in the particularity of circumstantial memory, can be realizing. The mystic vision he has claimed himself incapable of knowing is shown to be upon him — the same vision of wholeness, whether it is expressed in the language forms of the New Testament, in the words found to meet the call of a remembered human encounter, or in words evocative of his Edenic memories of a quickening wind in the maple and apple leaves.

     Given Child’s recurrent direct allusions to language and poetry in the symbolic network he is casting upon us, it will be no frivolity to find a suggestion in the “leaves in motion”20 that points beyond the narrator’s consciousness to the pages of a poem unfolding in the widening process of human self-realization through language. Child’s own voice, thus, will be heard behind the narrator’s limited affirmation:

        Shall we ever meet again? . . . How could I know?
I can only say that once I had the love
Of a oneness-knowing soul poured into me
And that I keep it inwardly and give
From it as best I can.
                                 (VII, 34-5)

Since the making of a poem for publication is a more deliberate language-act than the expression of his reveries by the narrator, we find the affirmation much fuller if we notice the wordplay.

     The narrator turns back to Biblical forms renewed for him by the life of his dying friend:

          Though foxes had their holes and even rats
Had walls to scurry in, there was no place
For Mary’s son to lay his head.
                                                     I like
To think of the wind of love, to think how he took
The lily of the field and the mustard seed
And the nails that crucify . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
And by his Father’s love transmuted them,
And built a home which in those days of kingdoms
He called the Kingdom of Heaven.
He summoned Peter and John to enter it
And summoned Judas, and showed transfigured palms
To Thomas Didymus; and bade us all
Whose homes must be a strew of bricks some day
To come from this our otherness to it.
                                 (VII, 35-6)

It may be some reticence surviving that has prevented more direct allusion here to the fourth gospel, “The Book of St. John,” especially to the fourteenth chapter in which we find the metaphor of “my Father’s house” of “many mansions.” Immediately following that promise by Jesus, and an assurance to Thomas that in the Son he may know the way to the Father, we read of this encounter between Christ and another beloved disciple, neither Peter,or Thomas, nor John:

Philip saith unto him, Lord, shew us the Father, and it sufficeth us. Jesus saith unto him, Have I been so long time with you, and yet hast thou not known me Philip? He that hath seen me hath seen the Father. . . . the words that I speak I speak not of myself: but the Father that dwelleth in me, he doeth the works.
                             (John 14. 8-10)

The symbolic wordplay I find suggested by this passage defies conceptual precision, but invites our participation in the sort of associative reverie that occupies the narrator throughout the poem. Jesus, speaking words of comfort to his beloved disciples, Peter, Thomas — and Philip — in the book of John, knows that he is at one with the Father and that the way to the Father’s ultimate Kingdom, and the present verbal expression of His Kingship, are to be realized through the Son.

     The narrator, voicing in poetic reverie the words of comfort and hope that have been spoken to him by his father, and the father-like, Christ-like friend, comes to know his double obligation to “keep it inwardly and give /from it as best [he] can.” Another son, Philip, Child-son of another Child of Christ (and Aristotle), accepts his own obligation to “dip his pen in the blood of at least one or two slain reticences” as he voices, in response to remembered pain, a hope in the power and the glory of transmitted language to lead yet another generation to the sanctuary of the inner kingdom.

     Child was sceptic enough to anchor his strongest poetic affirmations in something as insubstantial as the image of a remembered loving smile; scholar enough to know that neither the Biblical nor the classical strands of his “Christian humanism” offered, or required, an end to scepticism;21 mystic enough to know that particular times and places may be seen, but never conceptually proved, to manifest the unified and unifying “Very-Truth,” and, that the experience of such a vision, communicated through love, commands response in language. The conceptually precise tools of daily prose are bound, in time, to change and fail. For generation after generation they shift upon their non-conceptual foundations and fall in a strew of fragments. But a “dance of symbols” has more staying power. Poetry may suggest, and when reverie is sufficiently creative (whether in fictional character, poet or reader), may make manifest a vision by which sons, fathers, and brothers22 come to know their oneness with all Otherness. They may even come to understand that the Father’s kingdom may prevail in the world of daily prose as well as in poetry and vision.

     This last seems to be the import of section VIII,23 for the poem does not end in mystic vision. The section is prosaic in tone yet full of significance, and brief enough to quote in full:

         I closed the door and turned the key in the lock.
While Mr. Hammer lit a cigarette
I looked at the bare limbs of the apple tree,
Stripped for its winter sleep.
                                             “I always know
At once,” he said, “what a house is worth to me.”
“Well, what is this one worth — to you?” I asked.
And Mr. Hammer (on his way, like me,
To the Kingdom of Heaven) made reply:
                                                          I’ll give
You Fifteen Thousand for the house and grounds.
The house has got too old; I’ll have to tear
It down, of course. But I can use some bricks
And some of the trim, perhaps, to build a new one.”

In this final movement of the dance we should note that the tree is stripped bare for sleep not death; that the narrator, on the point of accepting Mr. Hammer’s mathematical figure for the house, hints that it has quite another value for him; but that he can see now that his prosaic antagonist is his com panion “on his way, like me/To the Kingdom.”

     The last evidence of outward acceptance and inward confidence testifies to the unifying force of ongoing reverie, to the positive advance achieved in the bringing together of inherited and personal symbols. But we should not judge Philip Child to be a “didactic Christian humanist” voicing an outward structure of inherited meaning too attenuated to shelter him from pain and melancholy. His triumph has been to work through mimetically to an inner resting-place24 that will satisfy his narrator and his reader for a time. As the narrator has faced chaos more than once, he will, presumably, again. And, as he, so we. The poem has shown us a process of building a new significance with the strewn bricks of inherited language. When this new structure tumbles, further verbal structures may be formed to realize, for a time, potential answers in the very act of confronting their questions. In those Structures, “Brother Judas” may be redeemed once more, but he will be given quite another name than Hammer. His brother-redeemer may not even name the Name of Christ. What may be hoped, this poem tells us, is that a “quickened sense of . . . ’creature-consciousness’” may open those who learn to love another to the Otherness that has brought them into life; and that poetic words may participate in such a creative process.


  1. “Letters in Canada: 1951, Poetry,” University of Toronto Quarterly, 3 April 1952), p.262., 5.[back]

  2. Philip Child, The Victorian House and Other Poems (Toronto: Ryerson Press, 1951). The dust jacket is buff with brown ink; a photograph of Child with a brief biography appears on the outside back cover; the phrase quoted occurs in descriptive and promotional observations on the inside front flap. The school editions (Longer Poems for Upper School 1952-1953 and Longer Poems for Upper School 1964-1965), published by Ryerson also, omitted both this material and the “Note” mentioned below (see note 5).[back]

  3. “Philip Child, a Re-Appraisal,” Canadian Literature, 24 (Spring 1965), pp. 28-36.[back]

  4. Duffy’s article is in Canadian Literature, 84 (Spring 1980), pp. 41-56. Pacey’s comments occur in a single paragraph in the Literary History of Canada, ed. Carl F. Klinck et. al., (Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press, 1965), p. 686. They are unchanged from the first edition. In Creative Writing in Canada (Toronto: Ryerson Press, 1961) pp. 214-7, Pacey expands such views: “There is no doubt where Child stands. He is frankly and explicitly a Christian humanist who believes that every individual is supremely important in the eyes of God. . . . Indeed Child is rather too insistent in making his attitude clear.” Pacey is insufficiently alert to the possibility, indeed the probability, of an honest scepticism in most products of the “Christian humanist” attitude.[back]

  5. A signed “Note” faces the first page of the 1951 edition: “The characters and episodes of The Victorian House are invented, not reported from recollection. It is true, however, that the convention of poetry requires an author to dip his pen in the blood of at least one or two slain reticences and to reveal more of himself than, in the prose of life, he would ordinarily disclose.”[back]

  6. See Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Reverie, tr. Daniel Russell (Boston: Beacon Press, 1969), for instance, p. 15: “it is essential that an image ring true. Then one can hope that it will take the path of the soul and will not become bogged down in the objections of the critical spirit or become enmeshed in the heavy mechanism of repression. How simple it is to discover one’s soul at the end of reverie! Reverie puts us in the state of a soul being born.”[back]

  7. Of the many critics who might come to mind in this context in addition to Bachelard, I shall mention only two: Stanley Fish, who, in Self-Consuming Artifacts, The Experience of Seventeenth-Century Literature (Berkeley: The Univ. of California Press 1974), argues that certain forms of humane and Christian literature from Plato and Augustine onward undertake to teach their readers by unsettling the preconceptions they seem, at first, to support, thus therapeutically prompting the reader to reach new accommodations to the inevitabilities of temporal experience, and George Steiner, who in Extraterritorial (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1975), pp. 97-8, offers this assertion: “Once it is in a condition of literature, language behaves exponentially. It is at every point more than itself. No mere inventory can exhaust the possible interactions between semantic units in even a ‘simple’ lyric. All language . . . stands in an active, ultimately creative relationship to reality.”[back]

  8. Dalhousie Review 39, 2 (Summer 1959), pp. 233-6.[back]

  9. Harold Bloom, may be taken as representing, in Kabbalah and Criticism (New York: The Seabury Press, 1975), those who judge the apprehensions of a reader of poetry as illusory: “the sad truth is that poems don’t have presence, unity, form, or meaning. Presence is a faith, unity is a mistake or even a lie, form is a metaphor, and meaning is an arbitrary and now repetitious metaphysics” (p. 122). Child’s counterstance, abundantly clear in the quotation from his Watson review, is consistent with the Christian humanist “great tradition” that Ross Woodman argues as normative for the “English Canadian culture, one of whose unacknowledged centres was the Honours English programme largely shaped by [A.S.P.] Woodhouse at the University of Toronto.” In “Building Jerusalem Here,” a review of The Arts in Canada: The Last Fifty Years, ed. W.J. Keith and B.Z. Shek (Canadian Poetry 7, Fall/Winter, 1980, pp. 96-8), Woodman opposes “the enlightened criticism of Woodhouse and Frye produced at the University of Toronto” to “anything as formulated or doctrinaire as the present Yale school of criticism” to which Bloom belongs. “The difference between the Canadian mosaic and the American melting pot makes the phenomenon at Yale an impossibility at Toronto. . . . Toronto stops short of rash commitments that would impose an identity that by its very nature evades some final recognition.” Woodman’s not too tentative “claim” for the intellectual temper Child shared (as Professor of English at Trinity College) seems to me fully supported by The Victorian House — a work to which Woodman was, of course, not addressing himself in the brief review article.[back]

  10. Bachelard, in his “Introduction” to The Poetics of Space, tr. Maria Jolas (Boston: Beacon Press, 1969), p. xxxi-ii, speaks of “images of felicitous space”: his “investigations . . . seek to determine the human value of the sorts of space that may be grasped, that may be defended against adverse forces, the space we love. . . . This is eulogized space. Attached to its protective value, which can be a positive one, are also imagined values, which soon become dominant. Space that has been seized upon by the imagination cannot remain indifferent space subject to the measures and estimates of the surveyor.” The congruence of this passage to the Child poem marks them both as products of the same intellectual period (the French first edition was in 1958), and of the value-oriented phenomenological approach that goes back through Heidegger at least to the early twentieth century. Heidegger’s words on Poetry, which for him “means . . . to attend, singing, to the traces of the fugitive gods,” and on “Building, Dwelling, Thinking” as interrelated and almost interchangeable modes of “Being” in an ever-shifting world, can function effectively as glosses on Child’s poem. See Poetry, Language, Thought, tr. Albert Hofstadter (New York: Harper and Row, 1971), 94 and 145-161.[back]

  11. The Victorian House, pp. 25 and 36.[back]

  12. In the study notes that Child wrote himself for the school editions he frequently draws attention to verbal echoes in contexts where their recognition is not necessary to a discursive understanding, giving evidence that he is deliberately suggesting that language counters from the literary past lend shape to our present reveries.[back]

  13. The Victorian House, II, p. 2. Subsequent quotations will be identified by section number in Roman numeral, and page number in the first edition in arable.[back]

  14. On first reading there is little occasion to bring to mind the unspecific “many” of “In my father’s house are many mansions” from John 14:2. But the detail lies in wait for the retrospective eye after other pressures in the poem accumulate to impose a New Testament frame upon these events.[back]

  15. See, especially, the account in Section II of the banter between the mother and the father when the house was named. “Well, James, I know what makes an acorn grow/ Without the help of dusty old Aristotle.”[back]

  16. Not all of Hammer’s numbers are related to “thirty” but he measures “Thirty feet . . . this way,/And fifteen that” on p. 12 and offers a multiple of thirty, “Fifteen Thousand for the house and grounds,” in the final lines.[back]

  17. “Nuclear fission” is a language tag as new, almost, as the poem itself; but otherwise the lines reverberate with our memories of Arnold (as for instance, in “Dover Beach”), Tennyson (as in the bleaker “mad” lyrics in Maud), and Browning (as in the lines ascribed to “Reason” in “La Saisiaz").[back]

  18. A series of parables in Matt 13:3-32 and Luke 8:4-15 use “seed” as metaphor for the word of God, proclaimed by Jesus, which where properly received will grow into the “kingdom of Heaven,” itself a metaphor never clearly explained.

         Matthew, as a devout Jew avoiding the direct use of the divine name, uses “kingdom of Heaven” as equivalent for the more usual Biblical phrase “kingdom of God.” Philip Child adopts Matthew’s variant, presumably because of the spatial dimensions that fit his own controlling metaphor, with its roots in John.

         In either form, kingdom means “rule” or “kingship”: Jesus’s repeated proclamations of the kingdom are ambiguous as to time. The kingdom is “at hand” (Matt 3:2; 4:17; 10:7): in the words of Hans Kung, the hopeful message “arises from the certainty that God is already the creator and hidden lord of this contradictory world and that in the future he will redeem his word [sic]” (On Being a Christian, Glasgow: Collins, 1974, p. 216). For a primary exposition of kingdom theology see C.H. Dodd, The Parables of the Kingdom, (rev. ed. London: Scribner, 1961).[back]

  19. It would not fit the “higher” stages of mystical development as outlined by Evelyn Underhill in Mysticism (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1911), but it matches certain characteristics of early stages. It matches also some of the characteristics cited as mystical by William James in Varieties of Religious Experience (New York: Longman’s, 1902). It fits the description of “extrovertive mysticism” by W.T. Stace in The Teachings of the Mystics (New York: Mentor, 1960) pp. 15-17, and closely resembles R.M. Bucke’s descriptions of Cosmic Consciousness (Philadelphia: Innes, 1901).  It has its literary counterparts in many other “spots of time,” “infinite moments,” and “epiphanies.”[back]

  20. For similar conventional wordplay in two older Christian humanists, see Sidney, Astrophel and Stella I, and Spenser, Amoretti XXVIII.[back]

  21. It is usually those who do not identify themselves with the continuum of Christian humanism who see scepticism as a contra-indication. A sceptic who, like Child, finds continuing value in its images and language can look for support and justification to the undogmatic dialectical questioning of Socrates in the Platonic dialogues; to the “father of the child” who cried to Jesus, “Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief” (Mark 9:24) or to such a modern work as L.C. Feldstein’s Homo Quaerens: The Seeker and the Sought: Method Become Ontology (New York: Fordham Univ. Press, 1978).

         For an understanding of the hermeneutical undertaking through the ages as the remaking of meaning by the erudite and sensitive questioner, see Barrie A. Wilson, “Interpretation: The One and the Many,” Queen’s Quarterly 87, 1 (Spring 1980), pp. 16-3; or R.M. Grant, A Short History of the Interpretation of the Bible (New York: Macmillan, 1963).[back]

  22. The mother of the narrator is given some prominence in early sections of the poem, but she does not figure in the “dance of symbols” with which this essay is concerned. In this one respect, I find the poem less than contemporary: there is nothing particularly “sexist” in it to provoke a feminist, but the last three decades have brought enough changes in social sensibility that the absence of a female presence in the poem’s more important paradigms might arouse a vague discomfort.[back]

  23. Eight, in tradition, is the goal of the initiate, a place of beginning again. In specifically Christian terms it may signify the resurrection and the Great Sabbath at the end of time, or baptism — or both. For elaboration, see J.C. Cooper, An Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Traditional Symbols (London: Thames and Hudson, 1978), p. 118.[back]

  24. The narrator has “come through the looking glass” to the metaphorically-achieved world of self-understanding, a world given in the process of seeking to understand the past of his several “fathers.”

         I find that Child’s manipulation of fictional, personal, and literary experience to the point where subjective and objective visions merge fits itself very neatly to the hermeneutic principles of Heidegger and Hans-Georg Gadamer as outlined by Wilson (see note 21), and by Fred Lawrence in a review article on the work of Gadamer in Religious Studies Review 3, 1 (January, 1977), pp. 35-44. Building upon the work of Heidegger, Lawrence explains, “Gadamer . . . work[ed] out a phenomenologically grounded ‘ontology of the work of art’ [seeing it] as an encounter with what is most real, ‘as an act of familiarization that includes . . . being surpassed. . . . ’” Moreover, “Gadamer could give a philosophic account of how it is that every ‘encounter with the language of art is an encounter with a still unfinished process and is itself a part of this process’” — thus justifying acts of open-ended critical interpretation, and the critical reading of critical essays.[back]