- An English-Canadian Poetics. Vol. 1, The Confederation Poets
Robert Hogg had a great idea: to collect 'as completely as possible every article on poetics by a published Canadian poet,' and then to publish them in several volumes. There is much to admire about this first volume, which brings together important essays by the Confederation poets with a brilliant introduction by D.M.R. Bentley. Unfortunately, there are also many flaws.
Bentley demonstrates that the Confederation poets came together in the wake of Roberts's Orion, and Other Poems (1880) then started to lose coherence around 1894. He finds in the combination of an 'insistence on workmanship as the overriding criterion for Canadian poetry,' with a sense of national purpose the key to Roberts's success. Their 'cosmopolitan nationalism' meant that these poets shared a keen interest in the international trends of the day, and such figures as Wordsworth, Keats, Poe, Tennyson, Arnold, and Whitman receive much attention here, as do contemporary sonnets in England, the United States, and Canada. The great exception is William Wilfred Campbell, whose 'hostility to fixed forms and technical polish was in part a reflection' of a wider reaction against artifice, in part a 'preference for the sublime over the picturesque,' and in part sheer cantankerousness. Campbell was a difficult colleague, but his spirited parodies of nature sonnets in his Mermaid Inn columns are amusing, and his belief that 'all that is great in literature will always be connected with the tragedy of human sin and human despair as long as the humanity we are walks this earth' contrasts with the tendency in Roberts and Lampman to stress the wholesome and uplifting qualities of poetry. Campbell is so contrary-minded that he disagrees with himself on Wordsworth, whom he calls 'too self-centred to be a great [End Page 315] human poet' in February 1893, then four months later writes, 'The true greatness of Wordsworth lies in his simple, grand emotion.' Campbell notwithstanding, Lampman speaks for the core values of the group when he writes, 'The main current of the human spirit through many changes, and many falls[,] is setting eternally toward a condition of order and divine beauty and peace.'
The problems start with Hogg's preface, which moves quickly from the Confederation poets to such later writers as A.J.M. Smith and Daphne Marlatt. Hogg's enthusiasm is contagious, but it should have been directed to the writers at hand. Both the choice of essays and the amount devoted to particular writers raise questions: Bliss Carman is represented by no fewer than nine essays, none of them memorable, over fifty-two pages, while Charles G.D. Roberts, probably the best and certainly the most influential essayist of the group, is represented by seven essays over forty pages. The concept of 'poetics' is so loosely used that Hogg includes Lampman's 'Happiness' but not his 'Two Canadian Poets: A Lecture,' in which Bentley locates the 'most famous Eureka moment in Canadian literature.' Hogg names Roberts's 'The Poetry of Nature' as one of many essays not included in 'any anthologies of Canadian poetry,' perhaps unaware of its presence in both Daymond and Monkman's Literature in Canada (1978) and Sugars and Moss's Canadian Literature in English (2008). He includes the helpful footnotes provided by such previous editors as Bentley, Laurel Boone, and W.J. Keith, but adds none of his own, and so quotations are sometimes identified and sometimes not. His author bibliographies are erratic: with Duncan Campbell Scott, for instance, he notes Stan Dragland's doctoral thesis but not his Floating Voice, and he omits In the Village of Viger for obvious reasons, then lists two articles on it.
Although most of these essays are available at the Canadian Poetry Press website, it is good to have them in book form. Hogg's next volume will be on 'the early modernists.' If he can correct the flaws that mar this book, his series might yet achieve its goal.
Tracy Ware, Department of English, Queen's University