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\ "OUR POETS" A SK ETCH OF CA NA DIAN POETRY IN THE NINETEENTH CENTURY A. J. M. SMITH C ANADIAN poetry, in the: most general terms, is the: record of life in Canada as it takes on significance when all th e resources of sensi bili ty, intelligence and spirit are employed in experi enci ng it or .;n understandi ng it , Some of our poets have concentrated on what is individual and unique in Canadian lire, and o thers u pon what it has in common with life everywhere. The one group has attempted to describe and interpret whatever is essentially and distinctively Canadian and thus come to terms with what is only now ceasing to be a colonial environment. The other, from the very begi nningJ has made an heroic effort to tra nscend colonialism by entering into the uni versal, civilizing-culture of ideas. T o trace this twofold purpose to the beginning of our literature would involve us in an examin ation of the rather mediocre verse produced in thc variolls British North American colonies in the last two or three decades of the eighteenth centur y and the first two or three of the nineteenth. \Vhat might he called t he " extra~ Canadian" tradition arose first. It could be illustra ted in the hymns of H enry Alline and the rather angular poetry of Puritan piety, whi ch was brought in to Nova Scotia hy schoolmasters, m inisters and j udges educated at H arvard College. Under the impact of the Revolutionary 'Nar and the influx of t he United Empire Loyalists, the poetry of religious ejaculation gave way to political satire "levelled at republica.n "tre a~on ." Rllt neither the P uritans nor the Tories saw in the challenge that the new land presented "to the sanguine aHd hardy exiles fro m Europe any compelling subject of poetry. It was this compulsion that moved the earliest poets of the native trad ition, though the lateness of their appearance is rather surprisi ng. It testifies, perhaps, to the hard ness of the conditions . The first poet who a.ttempted a genuinely native theme on an am bitious scale was Oliver Goldsmith, grand-nephew and namesake of the famous poet, who was born at Annapolis) Nova Scotia, in 1781. In 1825 he published The Riling Village. a kind of sequel to 75 76 THE UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO ~UARTERLY his grand-uncle's finest poem, in which he sketches the rise of a happy c01TImunit)' of Loyalist settlers in the Acadian wilderness. There are some touches of genuine realism and some instances of sincere feeling, but for the most part the work is a rather conventional essay in late eighteenth-century sentimen talism. The diction is familiar without being memorable, the heroic couplets aTe smooth and monotonous, and the native element in the poem is largely in the author's intention and in his choice of subject. No poet of outstanding ability) indeed, was to appear unci1 after the nineteenth century had reached the half-way mark. The task of subduing the wilderness absorbed all the energies of a young people, and as the new century began British North America consisted of a ntimber of thriving communities-Loyalist, French, and Scottish-in the Maritimes, Lower Canada, and Upper Canada, . but they had little to do with one another and liad, in the words of Profes~or Baker, "nothing in common but a sense of isolation." It took events like the War of 1812 and the Rebellions of 1837 to awaken a lively sense of the need for unity, and it was not until the fifties and sixties that the national ideal began to take shape in reality or to nod expression in genui ne poetry. Then, if not in the old-fashioned, high-spiri ted verses of Joseph Howe, at least in the sincerely-felt lyrics of Sangster and the descriptive poems oCMaiT, native Canadian poetry began little by little to individualize itself. II The poems of Joseph Howe represented an advance along the lines that had been laid down by the younger Goldsmith, but no important change. Howe, indeed, was an elegant amateur...


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