Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
William Wood (1864–1947)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by James Cobourg Hodgins (1866–1953)
WILLIAM WOOD may be described as an historian with the soul of a poet. He combines two gifts rarely found in combination—power of exact scientific statement and imaginative vision. The tremendous duel which took place between France and England in the eighteenth century for the possession of a continent takes on an almost cosmic significance in his pages. He has, indeed, lifted the whole moving drama out of the local and transient into the realm of the permanent and universal, where it truly belongs. The actors seem at times to be but the puppets of fate—seem but are not; for at the back of the stage one mighty personality, who completely embodied and expressed the imperial instincts of the Anglo-Saxon race, stands all the time, sure and firm, directing from the wings, now the trained legions of Britain, now her mighty flotillas of ships. In Wood’s pages Pitt is not only the creative and imaginative statesman: he is a veritable thunderbolt of power.  1
  William Wood is best known by his largest work, ‘The Fight for Canada’ (1904). But he has been an indefatigable worker in his chosen field and has a goodly list of books to his credit. He has written no less than six of the Chronicles of Canada series (Toronto: Glasgow, Brook & Company). In addition to these he has written: ‘In the Heart of Old Canada,’ ‘Folksongs of New France,’ ‘The Epic of the Ursulines,’ ‘Elizabethan Sea-Dogs’ (Chronicles of America series), and various other works. He has edited for the Champlain Society, ‘The Logs of the Conquest of Canada’ and ‘Select British Documents of the Canadian War of 1812’; and he has contributed to magazines and historical societies many articles and monographs.  2
  In Wood’s narrative we find the clarity of sunlight, the glamor of mist and moonlight, the crepitation of snow under crunching moccasins, the silken swish of water; but we see these effects only as we glimpse the phosphorescence of light on the crest of a breaker. His narrative generally moves as swiftly and joyously as the bubbles on a torrent, though there are times when his images stand out clear-cut and crystalline.  3
  In every great writer there is always something of the poet. All truly great prose is, and must be, poetic. We need not be surprised then to find in Wood’s writings passages of poetic description. In ‘Laurenciana’ he writes thus:
          “The Magdelenes are a long and brilliant crescent of yellow sandhills, bright green grass, dark green clumps of spruce, and red cliffs of weathered sandstone. But Dead Man’s Island stands gloomily apart, its whole bulk forming a single monstrous corpse, draped to the water’s edge.
  “Here, in a single panorama, from the Tadousac Hills or the crags of Cacouna Island, you can see a hundred seascapes come to birth, live and die in glory, all in one day and night. How often have I watched them shift and change, like floating opals! I have watched the literal ‘meeting of the waters,’ where the last of the river ebb meets the first of the estuary flood, and have seen the league-long snake writhing in foam between them. And, here again, in calm, unclouded weather, I have seen blade after blade of light flash along the surface, as if the sun had damascened them.”
  Wood’s power of making complete little pictures, his mastery of the drop-scene, the power of producing the effect of the cameo or intaglio in words, is illustrated by the following extract from ‘The Great Fortress’:
          “On the night of June 1 the French lookouts in Gabarus Bay saw more lights than usual to the southward. Next morning Louisbourg was early astir, anxiously eager to catch the first glimpse of this great destroying armada, which for several expectant hours lay invisible and dread behind a curtain of dense fog. Then a light sea breeze came in from the Atlantic. The curtain drew back at its touch. And there, in one white, enormous crescent, all round the deep-blue offing, stood the mighty fleet, closing in for the final death grip on its prey.”
  Such sentences as the following linger in the ear:

          “The fortress of Louisbourg arose not from victory but from defeat; not from military strength but from naval weakness; not from a new, adventurous spirit of attack, but from a half-despairing hope of keeping one last foothold by the sea.
  “… Rome would not rest till she had ruined Carthage. Britain would not rest till she had seen Dunkirk demolished. New England would not rest till she had taken Louisbourg.
  “… Nevertheless, Pitt wielded the amphibious might of Britain with a master hand.”
  As an example of Wood’s art in ending a chapter take these closing lines on Drake’s funeral from ‘Elizabethan Sea-Dogs’:
          “His funeral rites befitted his renown. The great new Spanish fort of Puerto Bello was given to the flames, as were nearly all the Spanish prizes, and even two of his own English ships; for there were now no sailors left to man them. Thus, amid the thunder of the guns whose voice he knew so well, and surrounded by consuming pyres afloat and on the shore, his body was committed to the deep, while muffled drums rolled out their last salute and trumpets wailed his requiem.”
  Wood is not only an historian, but a literary artist who is able to work with words in any department of thought that happens to interest him.  8
  He has, for example, written one book which is almost unique of its kind in literature; such a book as only a born lover of the sea could write. ‘All Afloat’ is the epic of the ship. Beginning with the rude log dug-out he carries us forward through all the stages of craft and shipping. His mastery of technical nomenclature is amazing; and we have the feeling that Colonel Wood has identified his very soul with the ship. From keel to top-gallant mast he appears to know every part. The book is a perfect marvel of technical condensation, and yet it gives a strange wild sense of freedom. The chapter on Canoes must surely appeal to the aboriginal in every healthy normal man. To read the chapter “Fit to Go Foreign” is the next best thing to an actual voyage round the Horn. The following is an extract:
          “The wind pipes up: a regular gale is evidently brewing; and most of the canvas must come off her now or else she’ll soon be stripped of it. ‘Stand by your royal halliards!’ yells the second mate. ‘Let go your royal halliards!’ The royals are down for good. The skysails have been taken in before. Another tremendous blast lays her far over, and the sea is a lather of foam to windward. The skipper comes on deck, takes a quick look round, and shouts at the full pitch of his lungs: ‘All hands shorten sail!’ Up come the other watch in their oilskins, which they have carefully lashed round their wrists and above their knees to keep the water out. Taking in sail is no easy matter now. Every one tails on, puts his back into it, and joins the chorus of the hard-breathed chanty. The human voices sound like the fitful screams of seabirds, heard in wild snatches between the volleying gusts; while overhead the sails are booming like artillery, as the spilling lines strain to get the grip. ‘Now then, starboard watch, up with your sail and give the larboard watch a dressing down!’ Yo-ho! Yo-hay! Yo-ho-oh! Up she goes! A hiss, a crash, a deafening thud, and a gigantic wave curls overhead and batters down the toiling men, who hang on for their lives and struggle for a foothold. ‘Up with you!’ yells the mate, directly the tangled coil of yellow-clad humanity emerges like a half-drowned rat, ‘Up with you, boys, and give her hell!’ Yo-ho! Yo-hay! Yo-ho-harrah! ‘Turn that!’ ‘All fast, sir!’ ‘Aloft and roll her up! Now then, starbowlines, show your spunk!’ Away they go, the mate dashing ahead; while the furious seas shoot up vindictive tongues at them and nearly wash two men clean off the rigging on a level with the lower topsails. Out on the swaying yard, standing on the footrope that is strung underneath, they grasp at the hard, wet, struggling canvas till they can pass the gaskets round the parts still bellying between the buntlines. ‘One hand for the ship and one for yourself’ is the rule aloft. But exceptions are more plentiful than rules on a day like this. Both hands must be used, though the sail and footropes rack your body and try their best to shake you off. If they succeed, a sickening thud on deck, or a smothered scream and a half-heard plopp! overside would be the end of you.”
  While Wood is in the strictest sense a scientific historian and, of course, an evolutionist, he has his master passions, and these vividly color all his literary performances. His commanding height is empire. All begins with this; all ends. He hovers like an eagle over the topographical units of that sprawling congeries of young nationalities now known as the Dominions beyond the Seas, and foresees the day when the prophetic dream of Pitt will be fulfilled. But his passion for Imperial Unity has a deep spiritual basis; back of it and beneath it is the consciousness that in the process of evolution nature has brought forth a stock fitted, through its possession of enterprise and daring, combined with magnanimity and justice, to help on the cause of a truly noble civilization. Hence his intense interest in the great personalities of empire. They fascinate him because, as in the case of Wolfe and Pitt and Carleton, they seem to embody the sterling Anglo-Saxon qualities of modesty, thoroughness, truthfulness, honor, and chivalry. His passion for an undivided empire is not the wind-borne spume of a frothy rhetorical imperialism, but has deep spiritual roots. It rests on an unshakable belief that certain ideals, necessary to the well-being of the whole human family, are more clearly apprehended by those of the Anglo-Saxon breed, both in England and in America, than by any other ethnic stock. In his view Canada is not only on the political horizon of trade; she is a link in a mighty empire of the spirit; the Lord Warden of the Marches; the Keeper of the Keys between the East and the West.  10

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