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 nd 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 hen 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 hought. 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 s 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 ere 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 uring 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 he 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 aturity 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 ntellectual 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.

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