The Beginnings Of A National Literary Tradition

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The Beginnings Of A National Literary Tradition

The Beginnings of a National Literary Tradition


Canadians throughout their history have been concerned over the status
of their national literature. One of the major problems facing early Canadian
writers was that the language and poetic conventions that they had inherited
from the Old World were inadequate for the new scenery and conditions in which
they now found themselves. Writers such as Susanna Moodie, Samuel Hearne, and
Oliver Goldsmith were what I would consider "Immigrant" authors. Even though
they were writing in Canada about Canada their style and their audiences were
primarily England and Europe. These authors wrote from an Old World perspective
and therefore were not truly Canadian authors. It took a group of homespun
young writers in the later part of the 19thCentury to begin to build a genuine
"discipline" of Canadian literary thought. This group, affectionately known as ‘
The Confederation Poets', consisted of four main authors: Charles G.D. Roberts,
Bliss Carman, Duncan Campbell Scott, and Archibald Lampman. The Poets
ofConfederation "established what can legitimately be called the first distinct
"school" of Canadian poetry"(17, Keith). The term ‘The Poets of Confederation'
is a misnomer since not one of these poets/authors was more than ten years old
when the Dominion of Canada was formed in 1867. However, all of these writers
were aware of the lack of a distinctive Canadian literary tradition and they
made efforts to create one for their successors. While each of these men had
their own distinctive writing style they all sought to contribute and create a ‘
national' literature. According to R.E.Rashley in Poetry in Canada: The First
Three Steps " there is no Canadian poetry before [The Confederation Poets]
time"(98). These men were the first in a long line of authors and artists to
conceive of the need for a discernible national literature. The Confederation
Poets function was to "explore the new knowledge that they had acquired of
themselves that had been created by the interaction of environment and people
and the concept of evolutionary growth"(Rashley 98). Archibald Lampman was a
key note in the beginnings of a national literary movement. Before Lampman and
the other Confederation poets there seemed to be a mere repetition of European
ideas in literature in Canada. Even though Lampman was influenced by the great
Romanticists in Britain, such as Keats and Wordsworth, he is still one of the
most integral writers in Canadian poetry and literature in general. Lampman
signaled the move from the ‘Immigrant' authors like Moodie and her counterparts
toward a true and distinct Canadian literary movement. It is important to note
that in order to appreciate the quality of 19th Century Canadian literature, an
effort of sympathy and a leap of imagination are both needed because it is here
in the 19th Century that our nations true poetic history begins.
In early Canadian poetry the most influential and universal poet is
undoubtedly Archibald Lampman. While his career, like his life, were short-
lived his poetry remains as a reminder to the origins of Canadian literary
thought. Lampman was one of our first major literary figures to try and
identify a "national" literature. He realized the importance of having a
specifically Canadian literary tradition. An important stepping point in
Lampman's career came after he read the work Orion by Charles G.D. Roberts.
Lampman describes his over powering emotion when as a youth he came across this
published work(in the quote on the title page). The importance of having this
distinct literary "school" was a driving inspiration in his art. Lampman is
regarded "as the most talented of The Confederation Poets"( W.J. Keith 18). It
is amazing that this unspectacular man could have such a profound effect on the
evolution of Canadian literary tradition. His upbringing was in a very
conservative environment as Lampman descended from Loyalists on both sides of
his family and his father was an Anglican clergyman. It seemed that "every
element in Lampman's upbringing told against the development of Canadianism in
[him], but Canadianism did develop very early"(E.K. Brown 97). As a child
growing up around Ontario he had the pleasure of holding acquaintance with both
Susanna Moodie and Catherine Parr Trail at Rice Lake. Both of these writers
were in their 70's when Lampman met them but perhaps they were an influence on
his desire to explore the Nature of Canada. As a young adult Lampman was
educated first at Trinity College and then he pursued his studies at the
University of Toronto. After he had graduated, he taught High School for a few
unhappy months before he chose a career as a clerk in the Post Office Department
in Ottawa where he remained for the rest of his life. This position allowed for
him to have a generous amount of free time which coincidently allowed him to
write poetry at his leisure. The mobilizing point in Lampman's career was
during his explorations of the countryside around Ottawa, sometimes by canoe
but most often on foot. During these times he was often alone to contemplate
his thoughts; there was occasion when he would be accompanied by close friends
such as Duncan Campbell Scott. These intimate walks through the wilds of
Ontario provided Lampman with the subject matter and inspiration for his verse.
It is no surprise that Archibald Lampman published two major volumes of verse in
his lifetime. The first being Among the Millet in 1888, which consisted of
mainly sonnets and poetry of natural description, and the second being Lyrics of
the Earth in 1895, which was "not as interesting as the first [volume] but
contained more perfect poetry"(115, Guthrie). When Lampman died in 1899 at the
age of 37, his third volume of poetry Alcyon was in the process of being
published. In the years that followed his death there were poems that were
found and published by friends and family specifically Duncan Campbell Scott who
seemed particularly interested in discovering and publishing Lampman's work.
Scott must have seen the influence and potential of Lampman's work. Lampman's
career cannot be described in terms of development from apprenticeship to
maturity as his career was influential but short- lived.
Although there is an absence of human elements to Lampman's poetry he
makes us aware of our human relation and tie to nature. Lampman makes us feel
as though it was nature that makes us human. In Among the Millet, Lampman's
first published work displayed him as "an Apostle of beauty, feeling, and
meaning of the Canadian scene, a title which he will always be best and most
widely known"(Connor 102). This first volume contains thirty sonnets of which
Lampman uses to ‘Landscape' the nation. Lampman is a pictorial artist. He uses
images to allow the reader to see what he sees. Connor describes this first
volume of poetry as the "exponent of a great soul, a gentle heart, a refined
taste, and a pure life"(97). Among the Millet is a delicate record of the
surface of nature. To Lampman nature was the surest of subjects. He once said
that "for the poet the beauty of external nature and the aspects of the most
primitive life are always a sufficient inspiration"(Brown 89). This first
volume of published poetry held thirty sonnets while his second published work
held none. It is thought that the sonnet was Lampman's favored vehicle for
disclosing what was going on within himself. Lampman's poetry is that of
Reflection, rather than of Inspiration. The Poet "does not unveil for us the
hidden workings of his own heart and life"(Crawford 29). Objectiveness rather
than Subjectiveness is characteristic of his poetry. Lampman's poems are
"chiefly the result of long and lonely contemplations, and in consequence
uniformly serious, meditative, [and] austere"(Barry 17). The circumstances of
Lampman's life allowed him plenty of leisure time to explore his surroundings
and at the same time explore his literary work. It has been said of Lampman's
work that "such strong imagery produces a powerful effect on the mind of the
reader. It peoples woods and meadows for [them] with a life that is almost
human, and interests [them] to fascination. It compels [the reader] to habits of
close observation and awakens within him something of the ardor which stimulates
the poet in his constant quest of beauty"(Barry 13). Lampman's poetry directs
the readers to what he is seeing. His imagery can conjure the scene like a
dream in our minds. Lampman's poetry has a preoccupation with dreams and
reverie. Landscaping for him was a way of exploring consciousness: the aesthetic,
moral, mythical, and religious aspects of human existence, of Canadian existence.

Nature poetry had been one of the dominant genres for nearly a century
and a half, and by the 1890's many critics were tired of it. Therefore while
Lampman was alive, his popularity as a poet had not yet reached its full
potential. However, Lampman's skill as a naturistic poet allows us to
experience his poetry not just to read it. His poems are of a "natural
description and those in which he communicated and recreates his own response to
countryside, have stood the test of time"(Keith 22). Lampman's poetry is
fundamentally emotional and retrospective on one hand, and on the other it is
intellectual and progressive. His intellectual position tended to be idealistic
and austere. While Lampman's poetry can be accused of being limited in range,
it is notable for its descriptive precision and emotional restraint. Lampman
wanted very much to affirm the sweetness of life and the virtue of hope
unfortunately his circumstances often made that difficult. Poor health,
financial worries, the death of a son, and an especially painful extramarital
attachment to fellow postal worker Kate, as we find out in the 1940's after the
publication of a book of poems about her, took their toll on him. However, the
poet's own personal attitude toward his art can be best summed up in his poem
"The Poet's Possession" from The Poems of Archibald Lampman:

Think not, O master of the well-tilled field,
This earth is only thine: for after thee
When all is sown and gathered and put by,
Comes the grave poet with creative eye,
And from these silent acres and clean plots,
Bids with his wand the fancied after-yield
A second tilth and second harvest be,
The crop of images and curious thoughts.

This poem depicts Lampman's method of creating his poems. He looks at the scene
and then tries to give it a second life through poetry. Lampman's poetry is an
introspective study of the individual in relation to nature. Lampman states "I
feel and hear and with quiet eyes behold"(qtd. in Rashley 77). Lampman can feel
Nature as it exists. The Canadian wilds hold a type of magic for him. He was
drawn to nature because "in the energies of his own soul he is aware of a
kinship to the forces of nature and feels with an eternal joy as if it were part
of himself, the eternal movement of life"(Connor 128). To Lampman, man is part
of Nature and Nature is an expression of the spirit. The conflict of science
and religion has been replaced with a new concept of man and Nature. To be "in
contact with Nature there is a heightening of sensitivity, a feeling of
limitations having been lifted"(Rashley 91). This idea that we are somehow
linked with Nature is an integral part of Lampman's poetry. It is here that a
parallel can be drawn from Lampman's poetry to that of the Romantics.
Although Lampman has been criticized for ‘copying' the style and
content of the English Romanticists movement, it is evident that while he is
influenced by this movement he is by no means duplicating it. Lampman and his
contemporaries shared a respect for tradition. He sought from the English
Romantics "instruction not in what to see or how to feel, but in how to express
what he saw and how he felt"(Brown 90). He used their skill and knowledge to
better his expression of himself. Lampman admired much about the Romanticists
because he saw the post-Romanticists movement of his own time as "dreary and
monotonous realism and [a] morbid unhealthiness of [the] soul"(Early 142). This
admiration of Nature and its relationship with man was as much moral as it was
aesthetic. Truly great poetry strengthens the understanding and the spirit.
The poetry of the English Romanticist movement served to remove the ‘gloom' of
human existence. Lampman had many qualities within himself that attracted him
to the English Romanticists. Lampman, like most of the Romanticists, saw
science and poetry as cooperative modes of knowledge. He shared the
Romanticists "concern for salvaging spiritual values from what he believed to be
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