The Narrative Tradition in English-Canadian Poetry

     The Canadian poet cannot write in a distinctively Canadian language; he is compelled to take the language he was brought up to speak, whether French, English, or Icelandic, and attempt to adjust that language to an environment which is foreign to it, if not foreign to himself. Once he accepts a language, however, he joins the line of poets in the tradition of that language, at the point nearest to his immediate predecessors. A nineteenth-century Canadian poet writing in English will be emulating Keats and Tennyson; writing in French, he will be emulating Victor Hugo or Baudelaire. It may be thought that it would be a pure advantage to the Canadian poet to put an old tongue into a new face; that the mere fact of his being a Canadian would give him something distinctive to say, and enable him to be original without effort. But it is not as simple as that.

     His poetry cannot be "young," for it is written in a European language with a thousand years of disciplined utterance behind it, and any attempt to ignore that tradition can only lead to disaster. Nor is Canada a "young" country in the sense that its industrial conditions, its political issues, or the general level of its civilization, are significantly different from contemporary Europe. Nevertheless, to the imaginative eye of the creative artist, whether painter or poet, certain aspects [145] of Canada must, for a long time yet, make it appear young.

     Its landscape does not have, as that of Europe has, that indefinable quality which shows that it has been lived in by civilized human beings for millennia. Its villages do not "nestle"; they sprawl awkwardly into rectangular lines along roads and railways. Its buildings do not melt into their backgrounds; they stand out with a garish and tasteless defiance. It is full of human and natural ruins, of abandoned buildings and despoiled countrysides, such as are found only with the vigorous wastefulness of young countries. And, above all, it is a country in which nature makes a direct impression on the artist's mind, an impression of its primeval lawlessness and moral nihilism, its indifference to the supreme value placed on life within human society, its faceless, mindless unconsciousness, which fosters life without benevolence and destroys it without malice. There is, of course, much more to be said about nature than this, even by the Canadian artist, but this is an aspect of nature which the sensitive Canadian finds it impossible to avoid. It is all very well for a European poet to see nature in terms of a settled order which the mind can interpret, like Wordsworth, or even in terms of oracular hints and suggestions, like Baudelaire in "Correspondances"; but the Canadian poet receives all his initial impressions in the environment of Rimbaud's Bateau Ivre.

     What the poet sees in Canada, therefore, is very different from what the politician or businessman sees, and different again from what his European contemporaries see. He may be a younger man than Yeats or Eliot, but he has to deal with a poetic and imaginative environment for which, to find any parallel in England, we should have to go back to a period earlier than Chaucer. In certain Old English poems, notably "The Wanderer" and "The Seafarer," there is a feeling which seems to a modern reader more Canadian than English: a feeling of the melancholy of a thinly-settled country under a bleak northern sky, of the terrible isolation of the creative mind in such a country, of resigning oneself to hard-ship and loneliness as the only means of attaining, if not serenity, at least a kind of rigid calm. It is a feeling which in later [146] centuries becomes very rare, though there is something of it in some romantic poems, such as Keats's "La Belle Dame Sans Merci."

     Now of course modern Canadian life is far less simple and homogeneous than Old English life. The Canadian poet, though he must try to express something of what the Old English poet felt, cannot afford to forget either that a h. hl sophisticated civilization is as much a part of C deep snow and barren spaces. If we can imagine a con-temporary of the Beowulf poet, with equal genius and an equally strong urge to write an archaic epic of the defeat of a monster of darkness by a hero of immense strength and endurance -- a theme which should appeal powerfully to a Canadian -- yet writing for the same public as Ovid and Catullus, and forced to adapt their sophisticated witticisms and emotional refinements to his own work, we shall begin to get some idea of what the Canadian poet is up against.

     This is why nearly all good Canadian poets have much less simple poetic natures than they appear to have at first glance. The "framework" of Lampman, for instance, is that of a placid romantic nature poet beating the track of Wordsworth and Keats. But there are also in Lampman many very different characteristics. He has, for instance, a spiritual loneliness, a repugnance to organized social life, which goes far beyond mere discontent with his provincial environment. This is a quality in Lampman which links him to the great Canadian explorers, the solitary adventurers among solitudes, and to the explorer-painters like Thomson and Emily Carr who followed them, with their eyes continually straining into the depths of nature. And in the terrible clairvoyance of "The City of the End of Things," a vision of the Machine Age slowly freezing into idiocy and despair, something lives again of the spirit of the Old English Wanderer, who, trudging from castle to castle in the hope of finding food and shelter in exchange for his songs, turned to the great Roman ruins, the "eald enta geweorc" (the ancient work of giants), to brood over a greater oppression of man by nature than his own.

     Similarly, the "framework" of Isabella Crawford is that of an intelligent and industrious female songbird of the kind [147] who filled so many anthologies in the last century. Yet the "South Wind" passage from Malcolm's Katie is only the most famous example of the most remarkable mythopoeic imagination in Canadian poetry. She puts her myth in an Indian form, which reminds us of the resemblance between white and Indian legendary heroes in the New World, between Paul Bunyan and Davy Crockett on the one hand and Glooscap on the other. The white myths are not necessarily imitated from the Indian ones, but they may have sprung from an unconscious feeling that the primitive myth expressed the imaginative impact of the country as more artificial literature could never do.

     Some of the same affinities appear in those aspects of our literature that a poet would naturally be most interested in, though very few of them have received adequate poetic treatment. The martyrdom of the Jesuit missionaries, the holding of the Long Sault against the Iroquois, the victories over incredible odds in the War of 1812, the desperate courage of the Indians who died with Tecumseh and Riel, the 1837 outbreak, the fight without gasmasks against gas at St. Julien, the spear-heading of the plunge into Amiens, the forlorn hope at Dieppe -- there is a certain family re-semblance among all these events which makes each one somehow typical of Canadian history. Is there not something in the character of such themes that recalls the earliest poetry of our mother countries, of the lost battle of Maldon where courage grew greater as the strength ebbed away, or of the reckless heroism at Roncesvalles which laid the cornerstone of French literature? It is perhaps not an accident that the best known of all Canadian poems, "In Flanders' Fields," should express, in a tight, compressed, grim little rondeau, the same spirit of an inexorable ferocity which even death cannot relax, like the old Norse warrior whose head continued to gnash and bite the dust long after it had been severed from his body.

     Hence it is at least possible that some of the poetic forms employed in the earlier centuries of English literature would have been more appropriate for the expression of Canadian themes and moods than the nineteenth-century [148] romantic lyric or its twentieth-century metaphysical successor. It is inevitable that Canadian poetry should have been cast in the conventional forms of our own day; but though the bulk of it is lyrical in form, a great deal of it is not lyrical in spirit, and when a Canadian poem has failed to achieve adequate expression, this may often be the reason. It has been remarked, for instance, that sexual passion is a theme that our poets have not treated very convincingly. This emotion is also lacking in Old English poetry, and perhaps for some of the same reasons. But sexual passion is one of the essential themes of the lyric: Canadian poetry is lyrical in form and Old English poetry is not, hence the failure to deal with sexual passion is felt as a lack in Canadian poetry but is not missed in Old English. On the other hand, it occasionally happens that a successful Canadian poem has owed its success to its coincidence, deliberate or otherwise, with one of the forms of pre-Chaucerian literature. Thus Drummond's best poem, "The Wreck of the Julie Plante," is not merely a modern imitation of the ballad; it has the tough humour and syncopated narrative of the authentic ballad at its best. Consider too the subjects of many of D. C. Scott's finest poems, the lovers destroyed in a log jam, the lonely Indian murdered in the forest for his furs, the squaw who baits a fish hook with her own flesh to feed her children. These are ballad themes; and his longest poem Dominique de Gourges, a narrative filled with the sombre exultation of revenge, is curiously archaic in spirit for the author of a poem on Debussy. Something medieval has also crept in to the religious emotions of A.J.M. Smith and to Leo Kennedy's exercises in the macabre.

     All this may help to explain a phenomenon of our poetry which must have puzzled many of its students. In looking over the best poems of our best poets, while of course the great majority are lyrical, we are surprised to find how often the narrative poem has been attempted, and attempted with uneven but frequently remarkable success. I say surprised, because good narratives are exceedingly rare in English poetry -- except in the period that ended with the death of Chaucer. And this unusual prominence of the [149] narrative is one of the things that makes Canadian poetry so hard to criticize with the right combination of sympathy and judgement. We tend to form our canons of criticism on carefully polished poetry, but such standards do not always apply to the narrative, for the test of the great narrative is its ability to give the flat prose statement a poetic value. And as there has been no connected tradition of narrative in English literature since 1400, the Canadian poet who attempts the form has to depend largely on his own originality, and no one except Pratt has worked hard enough and long enough at the form to discover its inherent genius. Hence among Canadian narratives there are many failures and many errors of taste and stretches of bad writing, but to anyone who cares about poetry there may be something more interesting in the failure than in a less ambitious success.

     At the outset of Canadian literature we find many long poems, Goldsmith's Rising Village, O'Grady's brilliant but unfinished Emigrant, Howe's Acadia, also unfinished, and two dramatic poems by Duvar, The Enamorado and De Roberval, the last of which illustrate the fact that the Canadian narrative is frequently cast in the form of dialogue or literary drama. All of these follow well established European conventions, and so do the first two productions of the clumsy but powerfully built genius of Heavysege. Saul belongs to the tradition of the Victorian leviathan, the discursive poem combining a Biblical subject with middle-class morality, respresented by the better known Bailey's Festus. Count Filippo, too, is in the manner of nineteenth-century reactions to Jacobean drama and the Italian Renaissance, and might almost have served as the model for Max Beerbohm's Savonarola Brown. But Jephthah's Daughter, his third effort, strikes its roots deeply into Canada, and is the real commencement of a distinctively Canadian form of the narrative poem.

     Heavysege begins by saying that the story of Jephthah's daughter is very similar to the story of Iphigenia, and that he has chosen the Hebrew legend because there is a spiritual loneliness about it which attracts him more [150] profoundly. Iphigenia was sacrificed in the midst of great bustle and excitement, and was, as Samuel Johnson said of the victim at a public hanging, sustained by her audience: Jephthah's daughter is destroyed by the mute anguish of uncomprehending superstition. To Heavysege, a man who, like Jephthah, worships a God who demands fulfilment of a rash vow of sacrifice even it if involves his own daughter, is really a man in the state of nature: he has identified his God, if not with nature, at any rate with a mindless force of inscrutable mystery like nature, and all Jephthah's questionings and searchings of spirit are the looks of intelligence directed at blankness, the attempts of a religious pioneer to find a spiritual portage through the heart of darkness. The passage in which Heavysege described this most clearly cannot be beaten in James Thomson for the sheer starkness of its mood, a grimness that is far deeper than any ghost-haunted horrors. Jephthah prays to be delivered from the blood of his daughter, and asks for a sign of divine mercy. There is a slight pause, then Jephthah hears:

          The hill-wolf howling on the neighbouring height,
          And bittern booming in the pool below.

That is all the answer he gets.

     In this poem Heavysege has put together certain essential ideas: the contrast of human and civilized values with nature's disregard of them in a primitive country, the tendency in the religion of such a country for God to disappear behind the mask of nature, and the symbolic significance, when that happens, of human sacrifice and the mutilation of the body (a theme already elaborated by Heavysege in the episode in Saul about the hewing of Agag in pieces). Once one has carefully read this narrative, the essential meaning of many fine Canadian poems leaps out of its derivative and conventional context. Thus in Isabella Crawford's Malcolm's katie there is a superbly ironic scene in which the hero sings of the irresistible advance of capitalist civilization and its conquest of nature, symbolized by the axe, and links his exuberant belief in the enduring power of [151] the nation he is building with his belief in the enduring power of his love for the heroine. He is answered by the villain, in a passage of far greater eloquence, who points out the cyclic progress of all empires from rise to decline and the instability of woman's love. As the hero turns indignantly to refute his slanders, the tree which he has not quite chopped down falls on him and crushes him. True, he recovers and marries the heroine and forgives the villain and lives happily ever after and love conquers all and nature is grand, but somehow the poem reaches an imaginative concentration in that scene which it never afterwards recaptures. In the same poem the heroine is caught in a log jam, and, though of course she is rescued, the sudden glimpse of the trap of nature, the endless resources it has for suddenly and unconsciously destroying a fragile and beautiful human life, is far more effective without the rescue, and is so developed in D. C. Scott's "At the Cedars."

     Mair's Tecumseh and Lampman's "At the Long Sault" apply the same pattern to Canadian history. The former has been charged with lack of unity, but the theme of the drama is the sacrifice of Tecumseh, to which everything else leads up, the various conflicts between his own fierce loyalties and the vacillations of his friends and enemies being merely the struggles of a doomed victim who now arouses and now disappoints our hopes for his escape. Lampman, too, seems most deeply impressed, not only by the sacrificial nature of what the Long Sault heroes did, which is obvious enough, but by its symbolic connection with, again, a state of nature in which the higher forms of life are so often destroyed by the lower. That is why he introduces the beautiful picture of the moose pulled down by wolves, the symbol of the exceptional and unblemished hero who falls a victim to the agents of a careless fate.

     Pratt has studied the technique and resources of the narrative form more carefully than his predecessors, and so it is not surprising to find the themes we have been tracing much more explicitly set forth in his work. He delights in describing big and even monstrous things, and whenever he can he shows them exulting in their strength. In the antics of [152] Tom the Cat from Zanzibar in The Witches' Brew, in the almost equally feline sense of relaxed power in "The 6000," in the ferocious but somehow exuberant massacres in The Great Feud, there is more enthusiasm than in his other works, for naturally he greatly prefers the Othellos of this world to the Iagos, and hates to see the latter victorious. But the Canadian narrative demands a tragic resolution. The Cachalot is not perhaps a tragic poem, but is there really so much moral difference between the whale caught by men and the moose in Lampman pulled down by wolves? In The Titanic the mindlessness of the agent of destruction is the imaginative centre of the poem: the tragic theme of hubris, the punishment of man by fate for his presumption in defying it, is, though a very obvious and in fact ready-made aspect of the theme, deliberately played down. If Dunkirk seems less wholly convincing than some of his other narratives, it may well be because the absence of the theme of wasted life gives it a resolutely optimistic quality which seems rather forced, more the glossed and edited reporter's story than the poet's complete and tragic vision.

     Brébeuf is not only the greatest but the most complete Canadian narrative, and brings together into a single pattern all the themes we have been tracing. Here the mutilation and destruction of the gigantic Brébeuf and the other missionaries is a sacrificial rite in which the Indians represent humanity, in the state of nature and are agents of its unconscious barbarity. It is curious that, just as the poet minimizes the theme of hubris in The Titanic, so in Brébeuf he minimizes the awareness of the Indians, their feeling that they are disposing of a real enemy, a black-coated emissary of an unknown God and an unknown race that may soon wipe them out. In any case, Indians, even Iroquois, are not merely wolves; and while the conflict of mental and physical values is certainly present, there is a greater range of suggestiveness.

     In the first place, the scene is related to its universal archetype: Brébeuf is given the courage to endure the breaking of his body because the body of God was in a very similar way broken for him. Thus the essential tragedy of Jephthah's daughter, as a pointless and useless waste of life, [153] ceases to exist. In the second place, the Indians represent the fact that the unconscious cruelty of nature is recreated by the partly conscious cruelties of ignorant and frightened men. This point is already implicit in Jephthah's Daughter; we have seen that Jephthah is really sacrificing his daughter to nature. But it is clearer here, and it is clear too that the monsters of The Great Feud, who are animated only by an impulse to mutual destruction, prefigure the stampeding and maniacal fury of Nazism as much as their descendants in The Fable of the Goats do.

     In Brébeuf the poet makes a comment which may well be prophetic for the future of Canadian poetry:

          The wheel had come full circle with the visions
          In France of Brébeuf poured through the mould of St. Ignace.

For a wheel does come full circle here: a narrative tradition begotten in the nineteenth century, and heir to all the philosophical pessimism and moral nihilism of that century, reaches its culmination in Brébeuf and is hardly capable of much future development. True, Birney's David is a fine example of the same sort of tragedy that is in "At the Cedars" or even The Titanic, and in the phrase "the last of my youth" with which the poem ends there is even a faint suggestion of a sacrificial symbolism. And in Anne Marriott's The Wind Our Enemy, it is significant that the enemy is still the wind rather than the forces of economic breakdown that helped to create the wind. But neither of these poets seem likely to go on with this theme, and in such poems as "The Truant," where man confronts the order of nature undismayed, it is evident that Pratt is abandoning it too. The poet's vision of Canada as a pioneer country in which man stands face to face with nature is bound to be superseded by a vision of Canada as a settled and civilized country, part of an international order, in which men confront the social and spiritual problems of men. That this development is now taking place and will greatly increase in future needs no detailed proof: but it is to be hoped that the poets who do deal with it will maintain an interest in the traditional [154] narrative form. For the lyric, if cultivated too exclusively, tends to become too entangled with the printed page: in an age when new contacts between a poet and his public are opening up through radio, the narrative, as a form peculiarly well adapted for public reading, may play an important role in reawakening a public respect for and response to poetry. There are values in both tradition and experiment, and in both the narrative has important claims as Canadian poetry hesitates on the threshold of a new era.


1 comment:

  1. what are some rhetorical devices and methods of developments that help develop the thesis?