Looking at the title of Duncan Campbell Scott’s
sixth collection of poems, one might be forgiven an
initial presumption that the collection eulogizes a
bygone literary era. The name Beauty and Life (1921), given to this work
by a poet whose career began in the previous century,
seems instantly to confirm the most commonplace of assumptions
about writers and the First World War—namely, that the
Great War marked the sunset of old ways of writing poetry
(especially late Victorian ones) and the fiery dawn
of the new in poetic diction, form, and concerns—an
apocalyptic new day from which no return to the past
Generations of students have been raised on the
narrative of the aesthetic break that the war made between
late nineteenth-century and Edwardian writing on one
hand and the new writing movements that would become
known as Modernism on the other.
Such a cleavage between the old and the new,
it is often assumed, cut the literary ground from under
the poetic “old guard” (the established poets who were
hitting their middle or late careers when the war broke
out), redefining this older generation as the relic
of a bygone aesthetic era from which the present and
the future had decisively turned.
Whereas the new poetry was a poetry of violence,
rupture, and imagistic sparseness, this “outdated” poetry,
like the title of Scott’s post-war collection, appears
to turn away from the grim realities of the death-ridden
world that British soldier-poets such as Wilfred Owen
and Siegfried Sassoon had rendered inseparable from
the horror of conflict.
Given the historical moment at which Scott’s
collection appeared, one may well wonder what possible
role abstractions such as beauty could have in exposing
the world for the immense European theatre of war that
these younger poets, who spoke for their generation,
believed it to be.
One might also conclude that the focus on such
abstractions only betrays a clinging to old certainties
that, by 1921, were permanently sunk beneath the mud
of the Somme.
This understanding of how twentieth-century Modernism
was born accepts a major premise about abstractions
like beauty—that celebrating them betrays a secret and
impossible desire for transcendence, for something stable
beyond the disappointing physical and spiritual ugliness
of the world in which we live.
Beauty is perhaps the vaguest of all abstractions.
Whereas “life” at least names something roughly
explicable as animate being, “beauty” eludes even a
grasp as tentative as this.
The Greek etymology of “beautiful” (kalón)
allies beauty with perfection, as Hugh Bredin and Liberato
Santoro-Brienza inform us in Philosophies of Art
and Beauty: Introducing Aesthetics (5).
But beauty’s association with perfection offers
nothing more specific to those who would like to know
how to recognize beauty, particularly how to recognize
it in the “real” world, and how to see it as part of
the “life” that forms the other half of Scott’s title.
As James Kirwan writes in Beauty, the
paradoxical nature of beauty, which is subjectively
determined yet also held to be an objective ideal, can
make it seem insubstantial, a dream that is preferable
to a less attractive, though tangible, reality (2).
And so, in the aftermath of the “war to end all
wars,” Scott’s choice of title appears to mark him as
a man retreating from life as it actually is in his
world, a man seeking solace in ideals that are no more.
Another response to this title, however, might
rejoin that beauty and life are not superficially connected
but rather intrinsically so—that beauty can never
be split from life, least of all after a war. Bredin and Santoro-Brienza make exactly this case, arguing
that beauty is “inseparable” from artistic pursuits,
which are in turn inseparable from human life and the
surroundings that human beings create for themselves
is a quality attached first, and most memorably, to
the material objects that the physical senses apprehend
One has only to imagine a world where “[e]verything
ingenuity or skill might awaken in people the shock
of the sensuous” has disappeared to realize that this
is true (1). Without
some notion of and desire for beauty, the fine arts,
performance, and crafts—and with them, the world as
we know it—would not exist (1). As difficult
as it is to define, beauty is as inescapable a part
of life as any war, a central feature of human-made
No doubt the case for an incontrovertible tie
between beauty and life was hard to make in 1921, despite
a great deal of verse that insisted that the First World
War had gloriously defended transcendent ideals.1
But Scott did not accept, as did some other early
twentieth-century poets, that the war had so thoroughly
changed the world that pre-war ideals or the arts that
were concerned with them had retreated before the advance
of a totally reinvented aesthetic.
Scott observed in his 1922 essay “Poetry and
Progress” that if the “tremendous activity of verse-writing
during the war” by the new breed of young British poets
had elicited the “hope that there was to be a renaissance
of poetry,” this literary activity did not sustain itself
beyond the war’s end (310).
While voicing the implicit belief that the war
altered poetry, he expresses the equally strong view
that the fundamental purposes of art—to respond to the
imagination and to express the age “nobly”—remain unchanged
across space and time, including wartime.
In making Beauty part of his title, Scott
reveals something of his aims for the book.
The collection unabashedly celebrates beauty’s
sensuousness in poems such as “Portrait of Mrs. Clarence
Gagnon” and “The Water Lily.”
But beauty for Scott is no mere matter of subjective
taste or sensual pleasure.
“Created,” he argues in “Poetry and Progress,”
“beauty persists; it has the eternal element in its
composition, and seems to tell us more of the secret
of the universe than philosophy or logic” (301).
While subjects’ immediate, empirical experience
always has a role in their sense of the beautiful, only
something eternal and essential in beauty could compel
human beings to seek it out as consistently as they
have. Scott is certain that this search continues unabated after
the war. No
single event, he suggests, could fully disrupt “age-old
methods of artistic expression” (301), methods that
do not merely embody the conventions of representation,
which face a constant pressure to change, but values
and priorities that take centuries to evolve.
Scott opens his collection by celebrating a fellow
poet’s contribution to the history of beauty as an aesthetic
idea in the “Ode for the Keats Centenary.”
The famous opening lines from Keats’s Endymion—“A
thing of beauty is a joy forever: / Its loveliness increases;
it will never / Pass into nothingness”—are the obvious
ancestors of Scott’s assertion that “Created, beauty
persists,” and in the “Ode,” beauty is represented as
the one thing that cannot be annihilated, no matter
how obscured it may sometimes be.
Scott’s speaker suggests that Beauty (capital
Scott’s) has “withdraw[n]” from the world—not vanished
entirely, but gone into hiding somewhere “beyond the
bitter strife” from “our life / That grew too loud and
wounding.” In the world as the speaker
describes it, people can only apprehend beauty when
secluded in tranquillity away from “the distracted world
A sense of the place where beauty has hidden
itself emerges in this first poem, and it is a place
that often resembles an English idyll as felicitously
as it does a Canadian landscape.
The following passage, for instance, makes a
word-picture from elements common to many a Canadian
is gone,” declares the speaker,
To live on roots of fern and tips of fern,
On tender berries flushed with the earth’s blood.
Beauty shall stain her feet with moss
And dye her cheek with deep nut juices,
Laving her hands in the pure sluices
Where rainbows are dissolved.
Still, sympathy with nature should not be confused
with the representation of an exclusively Canadian nature,
as the “chill orchids” elsewhere in the scene seem to
fine detail of the picture, and yet the absence of any
unmistakable geographical location for it, illustrates
a point that Malcolm Ross makes in “Poets of the Confederation.”
Because the “leap from colony to nation was accomplished
[in Canada] without revolution, without a sharp cultural
and ideological break from Europe, without the fission
and fusion of civil war” (89), Ross argues, there is
a corresponding cosmopolitanism in Confederation writing
that resists the notion that a national literature must
always find and celebrate objects that are peculiar
to the homeland. In “The Poetry of
Duncan Campbell Scott” (1948), A.J.M. Smith puts forward
the related argument that it is a mistake to assume
that Confederation poets such as Scott were maple-painting
Criticism that does so “has mistaken for national
what is local or universal, and it has overemphasized
the value of what it has chosen to see as national”
(48), such as descriptions of natural scenery.
The imagery deployed in this poem is placed in
the service of subjects, such as beauty, that are both
local and international in scope, as is the literary
tradition into which Scott deliberately places himself
in this tribute to Keats.2
If, as Scott believes, the war did not produce
a total break in aesthetics between the past and the
present, then what, if any, aesthetic change did it
the exception of the final poems, the rare references
specifically to the war in this collection are usually
brief and unelaborated.
Otherwise, the war is only elliptically present
in the occasional appearances of cacophony and fragmentation
in the text, both of which are features of the rhetoric
that many writers used then and use now to describe
the West’s postwar identity. As “The Tree,
the Birds, and the Child” tells the story of birds that
lose their old nesting tree, its description of them
“[d]isquieted with foreign winds and shadows / Banished
and dispossessed” encourages readers to reflect on a
recent, larger kind of disquiet and dispossession.
Yet such references still have to share space
with the poems’ equally continuous Keatsian overtones,
overtones that offer a place in the text for literary
tradition and continuity, as well as the sense of beauty
aligned with both.
The primroses of the epigraph to the book’s second
piece, “Variations on a Seventeenth-Century Theme,”
belong to Henry Vaughan, but their reappearances in
this series of lyrics owe as much to Keats’s “The Eve
of St. Mark” and “I stood tip-toe on a little hill”
as they do to any Jacobean or Restoration writer.
Whatever the war means to aesthetics, such a
combination of references suggests that it has, at the
very least, a dialogical relationship with the tradition
that it supposedly supplants.
Another treatment of this relationship between
the war and art is found in the musical imagery that
fills the collection, imagery that sometimes illuminates
the literary tradition and sometimes helps articulate
the several crises that the war brought with it.
Musical references permeate much of Scott’s work,
not only Beauty and Life, undoubtedly because
Scott himself loved music and played the piano well.
In this particular collection, however, music
is an especially apt trope for the world that Scott
attempts to represent, a world in which the war reverberates,
yet also a world that the conflict has not thoroughly
beauty, music has an important sensual component.
It immerses the subject in a “flow of sonorous
events” that elicits intense feelings (Bredin and Santoro-Brienza
the patterns that organize music address themselves
to the intellect as well as the senses, appealing to
the listener’s intuitions of order, proportion, and
exploration of the tension between the feelings that
music evokes and the sense of order to which it also
speaks helps organize the poems, and it is worth examining
in some detail.
that the poems often appear to distinguish between the
past of tradition and a present marked by strife, one
might expect that the references to the past and those
to the present postwar context will receive different
On the contrary, both are characterized in terms
of the same central musical component, melody.
Melody is one of the words that, in the “Variations,”
gives a hopeful inflection to the possibilities of human
life on earth as the speaker envisions its future dying
days. Later, by contrast, the bells in the poem of the same name,
which sound their notes “in leisured sequence,” evoke
the memory of lives lost during the war.
“Bells” belongs to a cluster of five poems just
at the halfway mark of the collection.
Beginning with “Last Year” and ending with “Reverie,”
all five of these pieces use a combination of musical
tropes and rhythm to explore what it means to live with
upheaval and the loss of life. That the
war is a point of rupture between the past and the present
is suggested initially in the silence of bells that
tolled “last year” in the first of these poems, the
appropriately-entitled “Last Year.”
In the immediate context of 1921, their silence
might signal the end of the deaths for which such bells
had tolled for so long.
Here, however, they signal no such renewal.
Reversing the usual meaning of the springtime
motif, the cold spring described in this lyric calls
to mind not rebirth but the “chill night[s]” of the
past year. It
seems that the sequence of notes that once repeatedly
announced losses still hang in the air.
The next poem, “On the Death of Claude Debussy,”
subtitled “March 26, 1918,” begins with a cacophonous
“confusion of light and sound.”
The dissonance is only temporarily resolved by
an “enharmonic change of vision” that sees a personified
Death entwined with the figure of the composer Debussy.
However, the fused form of Death and Debussy,
which has metamorphosed into the fused form of “France
and her heroes,” “loses outline” almost at once, returning
readers once more to the disharmonious light and sound
with which the poem began.
The bell chimes that ring out once more in the
succeeding poem, “Bells,” seem to confirm that the momentary
transcendent vision of “On the Death of Claude Debussy”
provides no lasting comfort.
The “broken melodies” that they lead the speaker
to recall emphasize evanescence over stability, the
“tones ... born
in air” only “throb[bing]” and “d[ying],” “[l]eaving
no traces anywhere.”
In these three poems, melody signals despair
more than hope.
The next poem, “Reverie,” is thematically connected
to this melancholy cluster, its introductory “then”
syntactically joining it to the preceding pieces.
Conceivably, “Reverie” responds to the rhetorical
question that the speaker poses to the bells in the
previous poem, “What know ye of life?,” a question that
asks not only about knowledge but about the meaning
of life in such an uncertain world. “Reverie” indicates that there is no answer; death, arguably
the “double of the thought” of life that the speaker
described first in “Bells,” cannot be avoided or overcome.
In fact, one thought is the essence of the other.
But if death and life come together here, they
do not blend into a single entity.
The poem possesses many polyphonic elements,
elements most noticeable in the aural patterns created
by assonance, consonance, alliteration, and para-rhyme
to mimic polyphony’s “interaction of several melodies,
organized in accordance with principles of selection
and variation” (Bredin and Santoro-Brienza 171).
The opening lines demonstrate:
something moves in the unquiet mind,
impalpable and hard to bind,
double of the thought or the thought’s essence:
annunciation of its subtle presence
a slight perfume, or a fragile shading,
perceived ere it is frayed and fading….
The repetitions of sounds, not to mention words
like “something” and “thought,” echo in the ear the
idea of the “doubled thought,” of a state of mind in
which two distinct and possibly contradictory ideas
preoccupy the subject simultaneously. The
generally iambic pattern of the feet is constantly counterpointed
by a rhythm that would make several feet pyrrhic (“in
the unquiet mind,” “double of the thought”), creating
the aural impression of sound that fades in and out.
There is, on occasion, a haunting tetrameter
double to the iambic pentameter; “Is a slight perfume,
or a fragile shading,” for instance, scans as
x x / x / x x / x / x.
The inversion of the iambs into trochees at the
ends of lines three through ten and thirteen through
sixteen reinforces this fading effect, which is especially
noticeable in the enjambed lines.
Sound and sense converge as Scott makes sophisticated
use of the technical aspects of poetic form and language
to bolster the speaker’s description of life and death
as two distinct phenomena that somehow occupy the same
space and time without fusing into one another.
Here and elsewhere, Scott manipulates the dimension
of sound to reinforce a vision of a multidimensional
contrapuntal diction and imagery of “Reverie”—its simultaneous
“presence” and “shadow,” death and deathlessness, apparitions
and immortality—indicates that the concepts polyphonically
doubled in this poem are those of death and life.
As a response to questions about life in uncertain
times, the proposition that life and death coexist in
permanent tension has further Keatsian overtones. It may be taken to describe an instance of negative capability,
where the speaker accepts “being in uncertainties, mysteries,
doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and
The epiphany that his or her “unquiet mind” holds
together two different, even contradictory phenomena
like life and death, which cannot be resolved into a
single entity, leads the speaker to question the notion
that death is really only reincarnation, an idea that
not only denies that death is a real state but trivializes
present life by turning it into “a spectral show / Of
something real that perished long ago.”
Rather, this speaker rejoins, life and death
are opposites that are always tied together.
Furthermore, their conjoint identity epitomizes
the ideal of beauty, an ideal that may be not singular
(“Beauty”) but twinned (“Beauty” and “Beauty’s afterthought”).
In other words, beauty is not only a part of
life but a part of the mind’s ability to avoid excessively
rationalizing either life or death by celebrating one
at the expense of the other.
Musical imagery and references also weave through
the remaining half of the collection, where the second
of the title’s abstractions, life, comes into the foreground.
True to the conclusion of “Reverie,” this new
attention to life never detaches it from death, as the
poem “Threnody” illustrates by its title (a threnody
being, of course, a type of dirge) and by its antiphonal
presentation of two very different notions of what life
this series of linked poems, Scott explores a theme
that his friend and fellow Confederation poet Archibald
Lampman also investigated in his narrative poem The
Story of an Affinity (first published in 1900)—that
of a female desire to embrace the “alluring” mysteries
of life, a desire thwarted by, among other things, the
limitations that a well-intentioned but uncomprehending
lover places upon her.4
“Reverie” and the “Ode for the Keats Centenary”
are two, but far from the only two, poems in Beauty
and Life that host Scott’s explorations of the effects
of combining rhymed and unrhymed lines with different
configurations of repetition and internal rhyme.
Those effects are, again, primarily aural.
They place in print what Philip Hobsbaum (discussing
Keats) calls “the nuances of the speaking voice” (41),
giving readers sound images of the complexity of the
subjects that the speaker explores.
Thus it is no surprise that the poem that focuses
most clearly on the question of what life is, “A Road
Song,” should also constitute another achievement of
rhyme and rhythm, its aural effects enhancing the speaker’s
communication of a central idea.
Readers will detect in “A Road Song” echoes of
the ballad and long metres, an impression that comes
from an irregular combination of dimeter, trimeter,
and tetrameter lines.
The feet are predominantly trochaic, creating
a forward momentum that overpowers occasional turns
to the iamb and signals a turn away from the reflective
tone that many of the poems’ ruminations on beauty have.
If beauty calls for contemplation, the quicker
beat here affirms that the meaning of life lies somehow
in movement, as the speaker asserts in the final lines:
“Life is not the goal, / It is the road.” The
sentiment expressed here is familiar, too, from other
Confederation poetry, most notably the work found in
Songs from Vagabondia (1894) by Bliss Carman
and Richard Hovey.
At the same time, though, the lighthearted forward
momentum in this poem is slowed down by the lines’ many
paused endings, and by the long vowel sounds in those
presence of end-rhymes and half-rhymes draws readers’
attention backwards rather than forwards, further checking
the movement in the poem.
Thus the poem’s sound component balances the
strong tendency to motion with a slower, more deliberative
piece registers two contrasting impulses, much as “Reverie”
holds two contradictory concepts together without collapsing
them into one, and it does so once more by managing
the sound of the poem to convey a sense of tension between
Elsewhere in Beauty and Life, the ballad
metre is echoed (“Lilacs and Hummingbirds,” “Afterwards”)
or reproduced (“The Enigma,” “In the Selkirks”), emphasizing
again the musical affinities of the poetry that Scott
This musical aspect provides a certain continuity
as the poems shift, in the final pages, more specifically
toward the idea of war in poems such as “Lines on a
Monument” and “After Battle.”
The subject matter of these pieces appears, at
first, to set them quite apart from most of the earlier
poems, which nearly all avoid explicit references to
similarities of theme and tone quickly emerge between
later poems such as “The Eagle Speaks” and the penultimate
poem, “To A Canadian Aviator Who Died for his Country
in France.” Moreover,
“Aviator” and the final poem, “To the Canadian Mothers,”
bring beauty and life together in a final configuration
that advocates the end of mourning both for the war
and vanished beauty in a manner that reminds readers
of the introductory “Ode.”
The speaker’s lament in the “Ode” was a lament
for beauty vanished from a world grown “too loud and
wounding”; it also suggested that even in times of violence
and instability, beauty was only in hiding. The
burial ground of the war dead alluded to in “To the
Canadian Mothers” might well be one of the quiet places
to which beauty has withdrawn.
Compare the following description of beauty in
the “Ode” to the soldiers’ graves as depicted in “Canadian
[Beauty] hangs her garlands in the by-ways;
her head to hearken and learn
shadowed with melody,
than shadows of sea-fern,
the green-shadowed sea.
(“Ode for the Keats Centenary”)
in the dim rock-chambers, garlanded
sea-roses perfumed by the sea
That murmurs of renown, and murmuring,
Scatters the cool light won by the ripple
From the stormless moon, cloistered with memory,
Whose dim caves front the immortal vistas
Plangent with renown….
(“To the Canadian Mothers”)
Even if the “Ode” did not also describe Keats’
spirit’s voice “[b]reaking like surge in some enchanted
cave,” locating the first scene like the second in a
seaside cavern, the reverberating sound and word repetitions
in both passages convey the sense that the second complements
the meaning of the first.
Like the war that they fought, the soldiers have
not ushered in a strange new world where beauty
is dead, lost, or irrelevant.
On one level, the meaning is obvious: These men
are the defenders of the elusive ideal that other
aspects of the world have forced into hiding, the
heroes who have made possible beauty’s re-emergence
from the cave back into the world.
The speaker also claims that the soldiers made
a fusion of life and beauty possible, for their deaths
signify not only the supreme sacrifice for the country
but the supreme sacrifice for global humanity.
Their deaths have transformed them into “the
index of the time, / The stay and nurture of the world’s
best hope, / The peerless seed of valour and victory.”
The final war poems, then, expand on the collection’s
dominant motifs of withdrawal from a chaotic world and
the discovery of hidden, tranquil spaces where beauty
In spite of the contiguities between the first
and last poems in this collection, however, it is impossible
to regard Beauty and Life as a poetic narrative
that moves from loss to the successful mourning of that
loss, or from the withdrawal of beauty followed to its
triumphant re-emergence on the world stage through the
soldiers’ heroic actions.
The sense of completion that one might experience
in the last poem is counterpointed by the speaker’s
direct address to Canadian mothers, which attests that
there is no neat closure awaiting readers in this finale.
By advising the mothers to “Be comforted, nay
sob, if sob thou must,” the speaker admits that the
vision of the soldiers as beauty’s standard-bearers
can give solace to many, but not to all.
Indeed, the collection as a whole may be described
in rhetorical terms more accurately than in narratological
or even poetic ones.
They do not tell a single story, nor do they
present themselves as a miscellaneous treatment of diverse
they do is make inventories—of kinds of loss, of places
where beauty may be found, and of conjoined visible
and invisible realities.
Thus the poems offer a kind of argument about
their two foregrounded abstractions, even as they affirm
that neither beauty nor life is explicable in any final
sense. Both belong to a truth that demands that readers notice more
than what is most immediately obvious to them.
Whatever beauty is, this collection’s inquiry
into it does not express a concern about the existence
of a transcendent realm of ideals so much as affirm
that the real consists of at least two interwoven parts,
one of which is sometimes only interstitially perceptible.
This is why Beauty and Life is no outdated
tale of sadness and hope. On the contrary,
it is the case, put forward at a crucial historical
moment, that no matter where or when it is undertaken,
aesthetic work endeavours to do justice to the complexity
and incomprehensibility of this world.