"Charles G. D. Roberts" [Charles George Douglas Roberts] (1860-1943) by John Garvin, (1872-1934)
Garvin, John William, ed. Canadian Poets. Toronto, Canada: McClelland, Goodchild & Stewart, Publishers, 1916. pp. 47-60.
Mr. Roberts has tried a great variety of tones and themes in the course of his poetic career; no poet so many, that I know of. But the deepest thing in his poetic passion and experience is his poetry of nature description. Its basis is, in general, a pure æstheticism, for though it may occasionally be mingled with some fanciful train of thought or have appended to it a Wordsworthian moral, its value lies wholly in the gleaming and glancing surface which it brings before the reader's eye. This impressionistic nature poetry is the best part of his old Keatsian heritage for one thing, and it is part perhaps of his best days also, the days he describes in 'Tantramar Revisited,' long youthful days spent on the coast or amongst the farmsteads of New Brunswick, when he strove hardest to catch and to shape into some new line the vague, evasive, elemental beauty of nature. The power which he acquired then has never deserted him amongst all the transformations of spirit and literary ideals which he has experienced.–PROF. JAMES CAPPON, M.A.
THE Roberts family of Fredericton, New Brunswick, is Canada's most distinguished literary family. They are the sons, the daughter, and the grandsons of the late Rev. George Goodridge Roberts, M.A., LL.D., Rector of Fredericton and Canon of Christ Church Cathedral, and Emma Wetmore Bliss, daughter of the late Hon. G. P. Bliss, Attorney-General of New Brunswick.
Charles George Douglas Roberts, the eldest son, was born at Douglas, York County, N.B., January 10th, 1860. He was educated at the Fredericton Collegiate School, and at the University of New Brunswick (B.A., 1879, with honours in Mental and Moral Science, and Political Economy; M.A. in 1881; LL.D., honorary, in 1906).
In his twenty-first year, he married Miss Mary I. Fenety, daughter of the late George E. Fenety, Queen's Printer of N.B.
In 1883-4, Roberts was editor of The Week, Toronto, Ontario; in 1885-8, Professor of English and French Literature in King's College, Windsor, Nova Scotia; in 1888-95, Professor of English and Economics in the same College; in 1897-8, associate editor of The Illustrated American, New York. Since then, untrammelled by academic or editorial duties, he has devoted himself to the writing and publishing of many books, his fame steadily extending.
Before the close of the 19th century, he had written and published seven books of verse of notable quality; but in 1901 he issued a volume of poems selected from these, containing all that he wished to preserve, and of which the first poem is his imperishable threnody, 'Ave!'
No other writer known to me has more intimately associated his mind and spirit with every object and phase of nature. His poetic descriptions are vividly real, and exquisite in beauty of expression, whilst his animal stories in felicitous literary English, in accuracy of particulars, in intensity of dramatic interest, are beyond criticism.
Dr. Roberts enlisted in September, 1914, as a trooper in the Legion of Frontiersmen. Since then he has been promoted to a Captaincy in the King's Liverpool Regiment. For some months he has been training cadets, etc., in England and Wales. Captain Roberts' family,–wife, daughter and sons–are living in Ottawa, Canada.
IN the original copy, the following poems were included in full in the next twelve pages, in this order: 'The Solitary Woodsman,' 'Kinship,' 'The Succour of Gluscâp,' 'Two Spheres,' 'Earth's Complines,' 'Introductory,' 'The Flight of the Geese,' 'The Furrow,' 'The Sower,' 'The Mowing,' 'Where the Cattle Come to Drink,' 'The Pumpkins in the Corn' and 'A Nocturne of Consecration.'
Captain Roberts cabled from England his consent, but we have been unable to procure from his Boston publisher, who claims ownership of copyright, permission for their inclusion. However, we are fortunate in being able to give the reader a number of this popular author's more recent poems, and copious extracts from the scholarly, comprehensive and thorough critique on Roberts and the Influences of His Time which was published in 1905, by James Cappon, M.A., Professor of English Language and Literature, Queen's University.
Since the biographical data on the preceding page were printed, the Editor has secured this interesting extract from a letter written by Roberts, in May, 1907:
For the first fourteen years of my life–a formative period which influenced my future more than any other–I lived in the village of Westcock, below Sackville, in Westmoreland county at the mouth of the Tantramar river. There my home was the old Westcock Parsonage, of which I have given a very minute and precise description in chapter III of my latest novel, The Heart That Knows. The opening chapter describes the local scenery and those wonderful Tantramar marshes in particular. My father and mother are studied in the characters of the Rev. G. G Goodridge and Mrs. Goodridge.
In February, 1904, The National Monthly published a special article by Arthur Stringer on Charles G. D. Roberts, "The Father of Canadian Poetry." This title has been frequently accorded him since and it is deserved, if it be understood to mean that Roberts influenced more than any other writer the remarkable group of poets who were born in the years, 61-2, of last century, and many of their successors. But the evidence is conclusive that Charles Mair and Isabella Valancy Crawford preceded him in the writing and publishing of great verse, whether in the interpretation and description of nature or of human life.
BEFORE our trenches at Cambrai
We saw their columns cringe away.
We saw their masses melt and reel
Before our line of leaping steel.
A handful to their storming hordes,
We scourged them with the scourge of swords,
And still, the more we slew, the more
Came up for every slain a score.
Between the hedges and the town
The cursing squadrons we rode down;
To stay them we outpoured our blood
Between the beetfields and the wood.
In that red hell of shrieking shell
Unfaltering our gunners fell;
They fell, or ere that day was done,
Beside the last unshattered gun.
But still we held them, like a wall
On which the breakers vainly fall–
Till came the word, and we obeyed,
Reluctant, bleeding, undismayed.
Our feet, astonished, learned retreat;
Our souls rejected still defeat;
Unbroken still, a lion at bay,
We drew back grimly from Cambrai.
In blood and sweat, with slaughter spent,
They thought us beaten as we went,
Till suddenly we turned, and smote
The shout of triumph in their throat.
At last, at last we turned and stood–
And Marne's fair water ran with blood;
We stood by trench and steel and gun,
For now the indignant flight was done.
We ploughed their shaken ranks with fire,
We trod their masses into mire;
Our sabres drove through their retreat
As drives the whirlwind through young wheat.
At last, at last we drove them back
Along their drenched and smoking track;
We hurled them back, in blood and flame,
The reeking ways by which they came.
By cumbered road and desperate ford
How fled their shamed and harassed horde!
Shout, Sons of Freemen, for the day
When Marne so well avenged Cambrai!
UP, heart of mine,
Thou wayfarer of Earth!
Of seed divine,
Be mindful of thy birth.
Though the flesh faint
Through long-endured constraint
Of nights and days,
Lift up thy praise
To Life, that set thee in such strenuous ways,
And left thee not
To drowse and rot
In some thick-perfumed and luxurious plot.
Strong, strong is Earth,
With vigour for thy feet,
To make thy wayfaring
Tireless and fleet.
And good is Earth–
But Earth not all thy good,
O thou with seed of suns
And star-fire in thy blood.
And though thou feel
The slow clog of the hours
Leaden upon thy heel,
Put forth thy powers.
Thine the deep sky,
The unpreëmpted blue,
The haste of storm,
The hush of dew.
Thine, thine the free
Exalt of star and tree,
The reinless run
Of wind and sun,
The vagrance of the sea!
A FAINT wind, blowing from World's End,
Made strange the city street,
A strange sound mingled in the fall
Of the familiar feet.
Something unseen whirled with the leaves
To tap on door and sill.
Something unknown went whispering by
Even when the wind was still.
And men looked up with startled eyes,
And hurried on their way,
As if they had been called, and told
How brief their day.
WITH April here,
And first thin green on the awakening bough,
What wonderful things and dear,
My tired heart to cheer,
At last appear!
Colours of dream afloat on cloud and tree,
So far, so clear,
A spell, a mystery;
And joys that thrill and sing,
New come on mating wing,
The wistfulness and ardour of the spring–
–The Smart Set.
ALL night the lone cicada
Kept shrilling through the rain–
A voice of joy undaunted
By unforgotten pain.
Down from the wind-blown branches
Rang out the high refrain,
By tumult undisheartened,
By storm assailed in vain.
To looming vasts of mountain
And shadowy deeps of plain,
The ephemeral, brave defiance
Adventured not in vain.
Till to the faltering spirit
And to the weary brain,
From loss and fear and failure,
My joy returned again.
WHEN the lights come out in the cottages
Along the shores at eve,
And across the darkening water
The last pale colours leave;
And up from the rock-ridged pasture slopes
The sheep-bell tinklings steal,
And the folds are shut, and the shepherds
Turn to their quiet meal;
And even here, on the unfenced height,
No journeying wind goes by,
But the earth-sweet smells and the home-sweet sounds
Mount, like prayer, to the sky;
Then from the door of my opened heart
Old blindness and pride are driven,
Till I know how high is the humble,
The dear earth how close to heaven.
O EARTH, sufficing all our needs, O you
With room for body and for spirit, too,
How patient while your children vex their souls
Devising alien heavens beyond your blue!
Dear dwelling of the immortal and unseen,
How obstinate in my blindness have I been,
Not comprehending what your tender calls,
Veiled promises and reassurance, mean!
Not far and cold the way that they have gone,
Who thro' your sundering darkness have withdrawn:
Almost within our hand-reach they remain
Who pass beyond the sequence of the dawn.
Not far and strange the heavens, but very near,
Your children's hearts unknowingly hold dear.
At times we almost catch the door swung wide–
An unforgotten voice almost we hear.
I am the heir of heaven–and you are just.
You, you alone I know, and you I trust.
Tho' I seek God beyond the farthest star,
Here shall I find Him, in your deathless dust.
It is natural for a young poet to begin by following some established tradition in his art, and Roberts started with one of the highest. The direct influence of Keats had almost ceased to be felt in English poetry when the Canadian poet revived it in its purest form for his countrymen. His early poems hardly disguise the fact that they are imitations of Keats, and belong to that new world of Arcadia which the English poet had created. That poetic world which Crabbe and Wordsworth, with their naturalism, thought they had banished; that land where the departed gods and heroes of Hellas still live, where the steps of Pan are still heard in the forest, and Thetis glides with silvery feet over the waves, had been revived for us by the poet of [Page 55] Endymion, and its green bowers had allured a good many poetic aspirants into them, amongst whom Roberts may be counted as the latest, perhaps the last. For the poetry of to-day is looking for its material in another region where the forms of life are more robust and actual and the atmosphere more electrical than they are in the old legendary world of Arcadia.
From a philosophic point of view, there was nothing very complete in Keats' reconstruction of the Greek mythology. But he gave it all that poetry needs to make a new world of, a new sky, a new earth and new seas enchanting as those of fairyland; he filled its landscape with green wealth and aerial minstrelsy and every harmonious form of beauty in shape or sound or colour. But, more than all, he created the language in which alone this new world could be fitly described, a new language of idyllic description, a language of the subtlest, impressionistic power which could render the shapes of things seen in this dreamland with a visionary distinctness altogether unique. Its movement and cadence, too, were unique, natural as those of a man talking to himself, yet quaint and captivating as voices from the cave of the Sibyl:
'Twas a lay
More subtle-cadenced, more forest wild
Than Dryope's lone lulling of her child;
And nothing since has floated on the air
So mournful strange.
If Southey had been able to discover a similar language for his Domdaniels and Padalons his grandiose epics would not be where they now are, but that would be saying that Southey had a poetic genius which he had not. The line of Keats was a marvellous creation, and made him the indispensable master for all the idyllic poets who came after him. He had the master's secret of making everything which he touched new. His Apollos and Naiads had nothing to do with the fossilized mythology of the eighteenth century poets; you never thought of comparing them; you never thought of his "leaden-eyed despairs" in connection with the deliberate personifications of Collins or Gray, no more than you thought of the stiff framework of the eighteenth century couplet in reading his fluent verse.
Of course there was something in his style which remains inimitable and his own. The imaginative felicity of his phrase, the passionate simplicity of his cry, the entire naturalness of his movement, no one could repeat these. But there was also something which could be more or less easily imitated, and this became the possession of a whole school and even part of the universal language of poetry. That large, elusive epithet, that new reach of synecdoche, those novel compounds that richly blazoned phrase in general, with delicate luxury and efflorescence, were readily appropriated by the æsthetic schools of poetry. Phrases like "argent revelry," "warm-cloistered hours," "tall oaks branch-charmed by the earnest stars," set the mould for a new [Page 56] and finely sensuous impressionism in descriptive poetry. The critics of Blackwood and the Quarterly might sniff at first at the new poesy as the sickly affectation of the Cockney School, but it could not long be neglected by young poets seeking to learn the secrets of colour and rhythm in their art. The youthful Tennyson quietly drew some of his finest threads for his own loom, and Rossetti, with the whole æsthetic school, shows everywhere the influence of Keats' line. To most of them he was more even than Shelley, for he taught them more, though the other, with the star-domed grandeur of his universe, and his Titanic passion and conflict, might be the greater inspiration to them. William Rossetti says of his famous brother that he "truly preferred" Keats to Shelley, "though not without some compunctious visitings now and then."
As to Wordsworth's influence, it is not surprising that there is little or no trace of it in the early work of Roberts, though it was just the time when the reputation of the sage and singer of Rydal Mount was in its second bloom with the public, owing mainly to the fine and discriminating criticism of Arnold. But the young poets of the æsthetic school disliked Wordsworth. They hated the plain texture of his style and its want of colour. It might, however, have been well for Roberts if he had come under the influence of Wordsworth's simplicity and candour at this formative period of his life.
But, for better or worse, the school of Keats was that in which Mr. Roberts received his training. He simply lives at this period in that green world of neo-classical idyllism which Keats had created. The style of the master, his colour, his rhythmical movement, his manner of treating his subject, are reproduced with the interesting but somewhat deceptive similitude which a copy always gives of a great original . . . in the stanzas of the Ariadne almost every epithet and every verb recall something which is familiar to us in the manner of the master:
[Part of the "Ode to Drowsihood" is here quoted.]
That poetry is steeped in the rich Tyrian dye of Keats' fancy, and the luxury of sense impression which is so marked in the work of the master is the too exclusive quality of the disciple's. For after all there is an ethical element in the poetry of Keats which Roberts does not reproduce so well, an insistence on the spirituality and the healthfulness of beauty which runs through all the work of the English poet and gives its special flavour to many of his finest passages. It is the ascetic element needed to complete the chord in Keats, without which his poetry would be rather overpowering in its sensuous richness. Every one knows the opening lines of Endymion, and the fine outburst in The Ode to a Grecian Urn:
Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endeared,
Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone.
. . . . . .
The training which Roberts received in the school of Keats was mainly that of a nature poet. The underlying reality in the neo-classical idyll was its beautiful, if rather fanciful, treatment of nature, which was based, just as that of the ancient idyll had been, on a free selection of all fine pastoral images untrammeled by conditions of climate or locality. The poet might revel in any combination of scenery which his imagination suggested as long as he could give the whole the harmony which here took the place of reality. The oceans might be as serene and the Arcadian hunting ranges as wild as he liked:
With muffled roarings through the clouded night,
And heavy splashings through the misty pools.
Of course he had chosen the school because it gave a splendid form to his own natural instincts as a poet. His real power, his original impulse towards poetry, lies nearly altogether in the region of nature description, and it was a short and natural step for him to take from the fanciful delineations of Nature in Orion and Actæon to the description of actual Canadian scenes. But it involved in his case a decided change in the forms of poetic composition. The grand framework of epic and idyllic narrative which he could use when he had that shadowy Arcadian mythology to fill it with the shapes of life, was laid aside . . . It was a change which had already taken place very generally in the poetry of our time, as part of that return to nature and simplicity of form which had begun with Wordsworth. Our new singers seem no longer willing to support the weight of those grand forms of stanzaic verse which the great poets of the Italian Renaissance and all those who followed their traditions loved so well. The sonnet, with its well-established paces, is about the only great traditional form in use now.
It is a kind of light lyrical and descriptive verse which is the most characteristic form of Roberts' productivity at this period:
[Quotations from "Birch and Paddle" and from "Aylesford Lake" follow.]
The Solitary Woodsman, a little idyll of Canadian life which haunts the mind after you have read it, as true poetry will, may be noticed here, although it was published at a later time in The Book of the Native (1897). The Woodsman represents nearly all that Roberts has given us in the way of human portraiture, and even his personality, it must be admitted, is of the faintest. But there is a beautiful simplicity and naturalness about the poem:
[Four stanzas quoted here.]
It needed only a touch more to make that solitary woodsman as universal and popular a portrait as Longfellow's Village Blacksmith, a touch more of personal detail and moral characterization. A contemplative delicacy of feeling for nature is the chief characteristic of the poems of this class and they are best when they remain simply descriptive. . . . [Page 58]
Amongst all these varieties of the Canadian idyll, the one which leaves the strongest impression on the mind of originality in tone and treatment is Tantramar Revisited. Here Roberts' classical taste in style again asserted itself, though in the not very pure form of the modern hexameter. Longfellow had given the measure popular currency on this continent in his Evangeline, and Mathew Arnold had lately been directing the attention of literary circles to its possibilities. Both he and the poet Clough had done something to rescue it from the monotonous softness of Longfellow's movement and give it more strength and variety. Roberts, who has never quite lost his first love for the grand style, was quick to profit by the lesson, and uses this high but somewhat artificial form as a mould in which to pour his tenderest memories of the scenes familiar to his youth on the coast of New Brunswick. There is no direct picture of life in the poem, not a single human figure, but the landscape is powerfully painted in large, distant, softened traits, the true colour of elegiac reminiscence. Of direct elegiac reflection the poet has been sparing, perhaps wisely, but what there is has a sincerity which shows how deeply he felt his subject.
[Twenty-eight lines of quotation follow.]
In spite of the exotic character of the verse, which after all is a bar to the highest qualities of expression, something of the visionary eye and depth of feeling with which the poet looks on those scenes of his boyhood gets into every line. The poem is a true whole also and speaks in a subtle way to the heart. Perhaps he has lavished the resources of his style a little too freely on that description of the empty net reels. Its luxuriance is rather overpowering. . . .
. . . It was a happy inspiration which made him think of putting his poetic impressions of Canadian pastoral life and scenery together in the form of a sonnet sequence. . . .
The Sonnet Sequence is a poetic form which unites a certain harmony of effect with entire independence in the treatment of each member of the series. It is a succession of short efforts with a continuity of aim which is capable of producing in the end something of the effect of a great whole. It has the authority of great literary traditions from Petrarch to Wordsworth and it seems to be nearly the only grand form of composition which the poetry of to-day can attempt with success. In this form then Mr. Roberts describes for us the general aspects of life and nature as one might see them at some Canadian farmstead, near the coast of New Brunswick, I suppose,–spring pastures and summer pools, burnt lands and clearings, fir forests and the winter stillness of the woods, mingled with descriptions of the common occupations of farm life, milking time and mowing, the potato harvest, bringing home the cattle and the like, all in a kind of sequence from spring sowing to midwinter thaw. [Page 59]
The poet, I need hardly say, finds a splendid field here for the impressionistic glance and vision. Look at this description of a September afternoon:
[Quotation from "In September."]
Or at this, from the sonnet Where the Cattle Come to Drink:
[Second quatrain of the octave quoted.]
If these passages were found in Wordsworth, say in the series of sonnets on the Duddon, they would be quoted by everyone as fine and subtle renderings of the moods of nature Another striking example of Roberts' gift in this direction is to be found in the last sonnet of the series, The Flight of the Geese. I shall quote it in full:
. . . . . .
The purest might find fault with the strong lyrism of that sonnet and with inelegances like that thrice repeated overflow from two final words of the same structure, but it is a splendid piece of imaginative impressionism and a fine example of Roberts' power of style in this field.
Many of these sonnets have a luxuriance of style and fancy, particularly in the direction of what Ruskin has called the Pathetic Fallacy, which is perhaps excessive for this poetic form with its small compass; but some of them also show a new plainness of style and treatment indicating that realistic influences from Wordsworth are beginning to work on Roberts. Sometimes there is even a kind of roughness in the manner of giving details, as in the following from The Potato Harvest:
[The sestet quoted in full.]
The Furrow and In an Old Barn are also, in part at least, examples of this closer, more realistic treatment. Here, too, I may notice The Sower, the poet's popular masterpiece, which hits the golden mean between austerity and luxuriance of style:
[The Sower is given in full.]
The selection and treatment of materials in that sonnet are perfect. It is equally free from unleavened realism of detail and from impressionistic finery, from those overfeathered shafts of phrase which hang so heavy on the thought in sonnets like The Summer Pool and A Vesper Sonnet. The traits are select, harmonious and firmly drawn, with a wise economy of stroke. The manner in which the eye is conducted from the solitary field to the distant horizon, where lies that world of men for whom the sower works, and then concentrated again on the scene of the sower's labour and his movements, is a good illustration of the simplicity and naturalness of a perfect piece of art. The closing thought is noble and true to the subject, reflecting itself powerfully back on the previous details in a way which gives them new significance.
Technically Mr. Roberts' sonnets generally show something of the structural freedom and something also of the looseness of conception which are characteristic of American sonnets. The rhyme system as [Page 60] a rule is the pure Petrarchan, but as often as not he entirely disregards the division of thought in the two quatrains of the octave. Sometimes the poise and counterpoise of thought between the octave and sestet is strongly marked, the first containing the descriptive part and the second the moral which the poet appends to it. At other times the division is but faintly felt, though it often exists in a form which is virtually a new type of sonnet structure. In this type the octave gives the general outline of a landscape and is followed by a sestet which gives a more particular description of some characteristic or significant object in it. This is the structural character of The Herring Weir, The Oat Threshing, The Sower, The Flight of the Geese, and other sonnets. In this way the old function of the sestet in summing up or pointing the significance of the octave is revived in a new form, and when the object thus selected for particular treatment is significant enough, and its connection with the description in the octave evident and inevitable, this arrangement makes an excellent type of sonnet. It is part of the perfection of The Sower that the connection between the landscape described in the octave and the object described in the sestet is of this natural, inevitable kind. But The Sower perhaps, owes something of the selectness and harmony of its details to the fact that the subject is one which has been worked over by more than one great mind in the sister arts of painting and engraving. It is a curious example of the relation which may occasionally exist between poetry and the other fine arts, and Roberts may be counted fortunate in having furnished a perfect literary expression for a conception on which Dürer and Millet had laboured.
On the whole this sonnet sequence may be considered as the most important poetic work Mr. Roberts has so far produced. It represents in its highest form what is most original in him, that in which his experience is deeper than that of other men. It gives the fairest scope, too, for that impressionistic painting of nature in which he is a master. The general tone of these sonnets is that of a pensive melancholy such as arises naturally enough from the contemplation of quiet pastoral morns and eves. Grey Corot-like pictures they mostly are, often a little huddled and indistinct or indeterminate in their outlines but delicately tinted and suffused with a true Canadian atmosphere of light and space and wide, pale, clear horizons. It is an atmosphere which keeps the colour tone of the landscape low, or at least cool, with nothing of tropical luxuriance about it, the bloom of the goldenrod, of the clover, the buttercups and the great purple patches of fireweed in the woods being tempered by the cold clear lustre of a northern sky and the pale verdure of the marshes. The general features of nature in eastern Canada are faithfully reflected in these sonnets, sometimes in exquisite bits of verse. . . .