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Reviewed by:
  • The Confederation Group of Canadian Poets, 1880-1897
  • Janice Fiamengo (bio)
D.M.R. Bentley . The Confederation Group of Canadian Poets, 1880-1897 University of Toronto Press. xiv, 412. $65.00

Modernist detractors - the most famous being F.R. Scott in 'The Canadian Authors Meet' - and respectful scholars from W.D. Lighthall to Malcolm [End Page 342] Ross have helped to create an entity known to scholars of Canadian literature as the Confederation poets; but ideas about that group have, D.M.R. Bentley argues, usually been 'assumed' rather than fully investigated. Therefore, Bentley begins at the beginning in this authoritative volume, seeking to establish whether there was a clearly defined group of poets in 1880-97, whether and how they understood their collective identity, and how best to characterize their points of affiliation and divergence. The result is what will surely prove the definitive work of scholarship on these poets and their times.

In three hundred pages of dense, rigorously researched, and meticulously presented detail, Bentley argues that six writers (Charles G.D. Roberts, Archibald Lampman, Bliss Carman, William Wilfred Campbell, Duncan Campbell Scott, and Frederick George Scott) formed a distinct group linked not only by birth in the early 1860s and subsequent literary stature but also by common 'concerns, themes, and techniques.' He considers and rejects other candidates for membership, including Pauline Johnson, demonstrating that these writers, with Roberts as their unofficial leader, shared a coherent identity based on an interest in Canadian nationhood, local landscapes, mythological themes, and spiritual questing as well as a late Victorian appreciation for the Romantic poets and a commitment to a high degree of technical and formal sophistication. They found international recognition and a 'shared energy, purpose and achievement' for well over a decade, until long-standing tensions between Campbell and the others led to the group's acrimonious and public disintegration. Drawing together much of his own previous scholarship as well as others,' and deepening it with a staggeringly extensive investigation of archival material, correspondence, and obscure periodicals, Bentley demonstrates the connections between group members and their active participation in the literary and cultural debates of their day.

This is an outstanding scholarly achievement, the culmination of an immense amount of primary research and an intimate knowledge of the subject. An undertaking of such magnitude will invariably invite some queries and criticisms, in this case rather minor ones. Disparities in the attention paid each poet are probably inevitable but nevertheless disappointing. Bentley focuses primarily on Roberts, Lampman, and Carman (in that order of emphasis) and has less to say about Campbell, outside of his role in the 'War among the Poets,' surprisingly little about D.C. Scott, and almost nothing about F.G. Scott, whose greater religious orthodoxy - he was the only member of the group not to reject his Christian faith - might have formed an instructive contrast to his better-known contemporaries.

Bentley states that he aims to 'cast fresh light on the Confederation poets' and, by implication, to rebut 'Modernists' self-serving stereotypes,' but his achievement is something different, if equally worthy. The lengthy sections on the Romantic nationalism of the Young Canada movement, on [End Page 343] therapeutic nature as solace for the over-taxed soul, and on the poets' various searches for solutions to religious crises are unlikely to prove F.R. Scott's caricature entirely wrong. Instead, Bentley gives flesh to both the modernist stereotype and the serious observations of earlier scholars, demonstrating the complexity with which the group, collectively and as individuals, navigated the cultural and aesthetic currents of the day; to that end, discussions of Roberts's poetic theories, Carman's unitrinian philosophy, Lampman's adventures in theosophy, D.C. Scott's symbolisme, Campbell's charges of puffery, and peripheral but relevant cultural and biographical matters such as the rage for mind-cure, 'meteorological determinism,' the nature movement, occultism, political disagreements, press controversies, illicit affairs, Bohemianism, opportunism, rivalries, loyalties, and personal failings, to take only a few examples, make for fascinating reading. Sometimes the detail is overwhelming and Bentley's prose rather clotted, making for a difficult, diffuse argument - but the sheer richness and quality of the material override any such criticism...


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