Thomas Humphry Ward, ed. The English Poets. 18801918. Vol. V. Browning to Rupert Brooke
Critical Introduction by Pelham Edgar
IN writing of Canadian poetry one can be more enthusiastic in anticipation than in retrospect. We were slow in making a beginning. Until the eighties of the last century everything with us had been weakly imitative, and Howe, Heavysege, Sangster, and MacLachlan, the poets of the earlier time, are mere names in a meaningless enumeration. The poets of Lampmans generation gave us our real start, and since then we have accumulated a body of verse that is sufficiently distinguished to merit attention beyond the limits of our local boundaries.
It is mistaken kindness to expect of the transatlantic poet something naïvely crude and aboriginal. In any event our poets have never responded to any tacit invitation to eccentricity, and we can point to no abnormal developments born of the desire to be at all costs and hazards Canadian. In French Canada, indeed, since the passing of that eminently national poet Fréchette, the tendency has been quite in the other direction, and in the interesting work of Nelligan and Jean Morin the divorce from local influence is absolute. Our English Canadian poets of the recent time have submitted themselves to a dual control, leaving their minds open alike to the suggestions that flow in from their immediate surroundings and to the impressions inspired by contact with the worlds best thought. If the imputation of provinciality still clings to us it is for the reason that we are not even yet in the main current of ideas, and our intellectual life has not yet reached the pitch of intensity that demands artistic utterance. Our early writers suffered the inevitable penalties of isolation, and not knowing where to turn for inspiration they became timid copyists of indifferent models. Their successors, with a surer sense of poetic values, have written in a spirit of free and ideal imitation, and have been wisely content to let their originality take care of itself, knowing instinctively that a distinguishing quality would inevitably communicate itself to their work either from the special conditions of their environment, or, if they were themselves not highly sensitive to local suggestion, at least from the special complexion of their own minds.
Miss Valancy Crawford is the earliest writer of whose work specimens are reproduced in the these selections. When we read her verse we realize how wide is the distance to be traversed from the servile copy to the work which, though it may originate in a fertile hint of method or suggestion of thought in some foreign source, is still the authentic utterance of a single mind. Until Miss Valancy Crawford began to write, this arduous intellectual journey had not been attempted, and were it not for the fact that her worth was so long unsuspected by the public she might fittingly be acclaimed the Mother of Canadian poetry.
Who the father may be is a question of late much and idly disputed. It is safest to accept the multiple parentage suggested in the first paragraph, which derives our lineage from the middle eighties of the last century. Much fresh, inspired, and inspiring work came then from the Eastern Provinces, where Mr. C. G. D. Roberts and Mr. Bliss Carman were young men together with no thought of a career outside of poetry; from Ottowa, where Lampman and Mr. D. C. Scott had formed one of those friendships which sweeten the records of literature; and from Toronto, where Mr. Wilfred Campbell, a more solitary figure, had began to produce his lyrics descriptive of the Great Lake region. A score of names might be added to make the tale of our Canadian poetry complete; but these men pointed the way, and their significance as orginators, no less than the inherent merits of their work, will ensure them a perpetuity at least of local fame.
Viewing their poetry attentively one is impressed by the fact that they are not novices in the art of verse. They have perfected themselves in so far as their genius permitted by a deliberate study of the masters of the craft, and it is a sufficiently simple thing to note, especially in their early work, reflections of the manner, and sometimes of the thought, of Keats, Arnold, Tennyson, Poe, Swinburne, or Browning. Their verse, then, is civilized enough, and, to a European reader curious of novelties and solicitous of the barbaric yawp of young democracy, it may seem at first unduly tentative and tame. But it will soon be evident to such a reader that their work is something more than a mere imitative exercise. Each of these men has his own characteristic and individual note, and into the work of all enters the breath of the wind-washed spaces of our new continent.
Mr. Carman and Mr. Roberts have for many years past ceased to live in Canada, yet their influence notably persists in the work of many of our younger writers. They have founded no school of poetry, yet it counts much for inspiration that they have established a standard of artistic excellence in a new land. Each has his special votaries among us, but many of us seem to find an ampler development of power in the work of Mr. D. C. Scott, whose poetry by an unusual process of growth has increasing freshness and vitality as the years go by. Mr. William Archer once noted the magically luminous phrases in which his verse abounds. These felicities he has never lost, and he gives us now a poetry in which emotion and thought, the sensation and the idea, are glowly fused. He would be an interesting poet in any country.