In Divers Tones

by Charles G.D. Roberts

Edited by Tracy Ware



Most readers are familiar with Archibald Lampman’s response to Charles G.D. Roberts’ Orion, and Other Poems (1880): “It seemed to me a wonderful thing that such work could be done by a Canadian, by a young man, one of ourselves. It was like a voice from some new paradise of art calling to us to be up and doing” (94). In the same lecture, Lampman notes that Roberts made progress with In Divers Tones (1886), his second volume: “In this the promise of the first was strengthened and in part fulfilled” (96). Because Roberts was so influential on his Canadian peers, his development has often been seen in nationalist terms, though not by Lampman: for Archibald MacMechan in 1924, In Divers Tones “registers a distinct advance on his first volume, especially in the range of themes. Unlike Lampman, Roberts took an interest in the young, growing nation” (119); for Pelham Edgar in 1943, it “marked the close of his apprenticeship, his weaning from classical themes, and the beginning of that faithful rendering of the Canadian scene which with few intermissions has characterized his poetry throughout his long career” (103); for W.J. Keith in 1974, “whereas Orion qualified as Canadian almost solely by virtue of its being written in Canada, In Divers Tones communicates a distinct national feeling and recreates the essence of the Maritime landscape. Nothing quite like it had been published in Canada before” (Introduction xxii). In fifty-eight poems, Roberts deals with both “national feeling” and the “Maritime landscape,” but he also includes love lyrics, Classical and indigenous myths, light verse, dramatic monologues, a translation from the French of Louis Fréchette, philosophical meditations, serious and ironic pastorals, and poems dedicated to friends, other writers, and various causes. The forms include twelve sonnets of various kinds, three ballades, two odes, a roundeau, quatrains, blank verse, tetrameter and trimeter couplets, triplets, and, most memorably, three poems in what Roberts called “rigid Ovidian elegiac metre” (Selected Poetry and Critical Prose 302). In form as in content, the most striking quality of the book is its diversity.

     Nationalism was important to Roberts, but it was only one of his diverse interests. Lampman thought that the three patriotic poems “are clever, but heavy, pompous, and more of the tongue [than] the heart. The time has not come for the production of any genuine national song” (107). Two of these poems, “Collect for Dominion Day” and “Canada,” open the book. The latter begins with unusual vehemence:

O Child of Nations, giant-limbed,
   Who stand’st among the nations now
Unheeded, unadored, unhymned,
   With unanointed brow,--

How long the ignoble sloth, how long
   The trust in greatness not thine own?
Surely the lion’s brood is strong
   To front the world alone!

As Roberts explains in a letter “To Charles Leonard Moore” of June 16, 1885, “Canada” is “a lyric with a purpose (I am a devoted Canadian Independent)” (Letters 48). But not only was Roberts devoted to other issues as well as nationalism, he also soon reconceived his politics. As John Coldwell Adams notes, “Ironically, the poem was close to being his swan song as a ‘Canadian Republican,’ for within a year he became convinced that [his friend Edmund] Collins’ proposals for independence would lead to annexation with the United States, and that Canada’s destiny lay within the Empire” (“Roberts” 11). So Roberts’ move from Independence to Imperial Federation followed his move from Toronto back to Fredericton, after he quit his position as editor of The Week in frustration with founder Goldwin Smith’s support for a North American political union. Given Roberts’ Anglican Maritime background, the change is less surprising than the decision to reprint “Canada.” And all three of the patriotic poems are odd company with “The Poet is Bidden to Manhattan Island,” the penultimate poem in the book:

Your heart, dear Poet, surely yields;
   And soon you’ll leave your uplands flowery,
Forsaking fresh and bowery fields,
   For “pastures new”--upon the Bowery!
You’ve piped at home, where none could pay,
   Till now, I trust, your wits are riper.
Make no delay, but come this way,
   And pipe for them that pay the piper! (41-48)

Whether or not these lines foreshadow Roberts’ own move to New York in 1897 (Pacey, Ten 40), they certainly reveal his interest in American journals, publishers, and readers. Ten of the poems in In Divers Tones, including “Collect for Dominion Day” and “Canada,” had previously appeared in American journals, and the book itself was published in Boston. As E.K. Brown notes, “In the last twenty years of the nineteenth century the best of the Canadian poets appeared regularly in the best of the American magazines” (“To the North” 79; see also Rogers and Doyle), and it was Roberts who blazed the trail.

     While they are less dominant after Orion, classical themes and metres remain important to Roberts throughout his career. When in 1927 Lorne Pierce asked him what he got from his study of the classics, Roberts responded: “Everything that I am. It was my most formative period. I was moulded on the classics, and Greek especially was a great passion with me” (Whalen 67). In her review of In Divers Tones, Sara Jeannette Duncan found that “Actæon” and “The Pipes of Pan” make “the strongest intellectual claim of the volume” (280). In the latter, Roberts associates himself with Pan, whose music survives in the fragments of pipes that are scattered to “secret spots” (34), where they inspire “a charm-struck / Passion for woods and wild life, the solitude of the hills” (41-42). The former is at 209 lines the longest poem in the book by far, and it was long ago singled out by James Cappon as “Roberts’ most successful achievement in the region of classical idyll” (11). Lampman went further: for him “Actæon” is “certainly the best poem of that kind that has been written in America, and as regards workmanship I think it will stand comparison favourably with Tennyson’s ‘Oenone’” (98). The poem focusses on the psychology of the speaker, a woman of Platæa:

I have lived long, and served the gods, and drawn
Small joy and liberal sorrow,--scorned the gods,
And drawn no less my little meed of good. (4-6).

She is now “well sick of watching” (94) because she saw Actæon, “thewed and sinewed like a god, / Godlike for sweet speech and great deeds” (60-61), turned into a stag and devoured by his own hounds because he gazed on Artemis bathing. She is certain of the power of the gods but not of their justice, and, as Fred Cogswell notes, “her account of early devotion, her loss of faith, and her return to worship on the ground that providence, however amoral, does exist and does wield terrifying power could be taken as a paradigm of an analogous development in Roberts’ own view of existence at the time of composition” (“Classical” 33).

But In Diverse Tones also includes “The Quelling of the Moose” and “The Departing of Clote Scarp,” two poems based on the mythology of the Malecite, one of New Brunswick’s native peoples. As D.M.R. Bentley suggests, both poems may have been written specially for In Divers Tones, since they extend its representation of “Canadian and Native subject-matter” while adding to its diversity (“Roberts’s Use” 18-19, 34 n1). In “The Departing of Clote Scarp,” Roberts tells the story of the loss of primal “gladness” (2) when “All the works / And words and ways of men and beast became / Evil” (5-7). Clote Scarp calls all the animals, but not the humans, to a final feast, at which he explains that “he must depart from them, / And they should look upon his face no more” (20-21). As the poem ends, Clote Scarp’s song of departure fades, causing the animals to lift “their voices in their grief”:

Lo! on the mouth of every beast a strange
New tongue! Then rose they all and fled apart,
Nor met again in council from that day. (39-42)

As Bentley writes, “the diction of the King James Bible proclaims the analogue between the linguistic and societal consequences of [Clote Scarp’s] departure and the ‘confusion of tongues’ at the building of Babel in Genesis 11” (“Roberts’s Use” 23). Roberts is interested in comparing rather than dismissing mythologies, and he suggests in “The Marvellous Work” that it is a time of

                         strange discordant motley.
But O rare motley,—starred with thirst of truth,
Patched with desire of wisdom, zoned about
With passion for fresh knowledge, and the quest
Of right! Such motley may be made at last,
Through grave sincerity, a dawn-clear garment! (17-22).

“The Isles—an Ode” concludes with a mixed collection of the writers that Roberts includes among the immortals: Homer, Milton, Omar Khayám, Shakespeare, the author of the Song of Songs, and Percy Bysshe Shelley.

     If at times Roberts’ diversity seems excessive, it is well to remember that his title comes from Tennyson’s In Memoriam:

I held it truth, with him who sings
To one clear harp in divers tones,
That men may rise on stepping-stones
Of their dead selves to higher things. (1.1-4)

Roberts’ equivalent of a “clear harp” is his native region of New Brunswick, the Tantramar. As Pacey argues, “the really remarkable development evident in [In Divers Tones] is not that Roberts has discovered Canadian nationalism nor improved his technique in the classical narrative, but that he has begun to recognize the poetic possibilities in his own environment” (Ten 47). For Roberts, “nature-poetry is not mere description of landscape in metrical form, but the expression of one or another of many vital relationships between external nature and ‘the deep heart of man’” (“The Poetry of Nature,” Selected Poetry and Critical Prose 281). This kind of poetry had to fuse the lyrical self and the setting:

Nature becomes significant to man when she is passed through the alembic of his heart. Irrelevant and confusing details having been purged away, what remains is single and vital. It acts either by interpreting, recalling, suggesting, or symbolizing some phase of human feeling. Out of the fusing heat born of this contact comes the perfect line, luminous, unforgettable, with something of mystery in its beauty that eludes analysis. (Selected Poetry and Critical Prose 277-78)

At first Roberts kept the setting distinct from the theme. Thus an early sonnet “To Fredericton in May-Time” (1881) concludes that the beauty of the area is not enough to satisfy the speaker: “The whole air pulses with its weight of sweet; / Yet not quite satisfied is my desire!” (13-14). Then “In the Afternoon,” an 1882 poem in which, as Pacey notes, “for the first time we see the distinctive land- and seascape of the Tantramar country” (Ten 47), contrasts the speaker and his younger self and introduces the Wordsworthian theme of memory:

Blown back to olden days, I fain
Would quaff the olden joys again;

But all the olden sweetness not
The old unmindful peace hath brought. (43-46)

Here Roberts starts to chart his distinctive territory, but the tetrameter couplets are not his ideal form. In “A Breathing Time,” also from 1882, Roberts uses the longer lines of the elegiac meter as he seeks to return to what Wordsworth called “the hour / Of thoughtless youth” (“Tintern Abbey” 89-90):

Lo, out of failure triumph! Renewed the wavering courage,
Tense the unstrung nerves, steadfast the faltering knees!
Weary no more, nor faint, nor grieved at heart, nor despairing,
Hushed in the earth’s green lap, lulled to slumber and dreams! (9-12)

The regressive overtones of that “slumber” are at best partially balanced by the speaker’s sense that this landscape can provide rest only “for a little season” (1).

     Roberts returned to the problem and the form of “A Breathing Time” in 1883 in “The Tantramar Revisited.” Part of the greatness of that poem is its recognition that it is not possible to return to an “unmindful” state. Since the poem’s elegiac meter alternates hexameter and pentameter lines in a kind of ebb and flow, it is uniquely suited to both the setting and to the speaker’s mood. As Lampman observes, “There is a certain passionate stress in it, which makes it specially applicable to descriptive writing of an emotionally meditative and reminiscent character” (99-100). The poem opens with the hope that the remembered landscape will have escaped the “Hands of chance and change” (5,8), but every detail in the poem suggests that the hope will not be fulfilled. The very houses are “Stained with time,” the slopes are constantly “Wind-swept,” the shores are vexed by the “Surge and flow of the tides” (12, 14,18; see Jackel 49), and so on. As Bentley notes, “The Tantramar region with its blowing grasses, its flowing rivers, its proximate sea and, of course, its ‘tremendous Fundy tide’ could be said to constitute a visible image of flux, a working model of time” (“Poetics” 19; the internal quotation is from Roberts, “New Brunswick” 756-57). As the poem ends, the speaker recognizes that the relief that he seeks, and that Roberts sought in the earlier Tantramar poems, is an illusion:

Ah the old-time stir, how once it stung me with rapture,—
Old-time sweetness, the winds freighted with honey and salt!
Yet will I stay my steps and not go down to the marsh-land,—
Muse and recall far off, rather remember than see,—
Lest on too close sight I miss the darling illusion,
Spy at their task even here the hands of chance and change. (59-64)

The poem has been the most extensively discussed of all Roberts’ poems, and its possible sources and analogues include Tibullus and Ovid (Lampman 99), Longfellow (Cappon 18; Pacey, Ten 47; Strong 27), Swinburne (Keith, “Roberts” 58; Bentley, “Poetics” 25-26), Clough (Cappon 18; Keith, “Roberts,” 59), Wordsworth (Marshall 9; Bentley, “Poetics” 25-27; Ware), and Sidney Lanier (Bentley, “Tantramar”). In no way is “The Tantramar Revisited” diminished by our awareness of these other poems. So far from being derivative, the poem is so profoundly original that Pauline Johnson could write that “For another to sing of Tantramar would be almost plagiarism; its very name is so wedded with Roberts, that to sever them would be an arrant literary divorce. The great Maritime marsh is not only his lyrical possession, it is himself, for as you view, and study, and absorb a great picture painted by a great artist . . . so with passing through Tantramar you learn of the man who identified himself with it ere he could glorify it in song and story” (17-18). Johnson writes in 1896, and she quotes extensively from Roberts’ recent verse, but “The Tantramar Revisited” is clearly a key poem for her.

     Johnson’s comparison of poetry and painting is especially apt for Roberts’ sonnets, especially for the eight Petrarchan sonnets set in New Brunswick. One of these, “The Sower,” which Cappon calls “the poet’s popular masterpiece” (24), was inspired by Jean François Millet’s painting of the same name (Pomeroy 52), and so the poem moves towards a monumental assertion: “This plodding churl grows great in his employ;—/ God-like, he makes provision for mankind” (13-14). Later readers are more likely to prefer “The Potato Harvest,” which frames a landscape that is picturesque in every sense, as both the octave and sestet move carefully from background to foreground (see Pacey, “Sir” 194). Here is the sestet:

Black on the ridge, against that lonely flush,
  A cart, and stoop-necked oxen; ranged beside,
    Some barrels; and the day-worn harvest-folk,
Here emptying their baskets, jar the hush
  With hollow thunders; down the dusk hillside
    Lumbers the wain; and day fades out like smoke. (9-14)

Although these lines are striking for their restraint, and for the accuracy that Roberts was inclined to regard as a lesser virtue of nature poetry, the last words remind us that the poem is the expression of a mood as well as a description of a scene, and so it fulfills Roberts’ aesthetic. Or as Bliss Carman might argue, “In passages like these poetry is at its best; it is doing for us what nothing else can; it is interpreting for us the beauty of the outward world and the inward mysterious craving of the human mind” (169). In Divers Tones also includes five other sonnets on the various themes indicated by their titles: “To Fredericton in May-Time,” “The Slave Woman,” “Reckoning,” “Khartoum,” and “Collect for Dominion Day,” the only Shakespearean sonnet in the volume. So even with the sonnet Roberts experiments with diverse tones and finds his voice in the poems set in his native region.

     With the publication of Songs of the Common Day and Ave: An Ode for the Shelley Centenary in 1893, the main current of Roberts’ work was plainly visible. We can see that achievement foreshadowed in In Divers Tones, which includes seven sonnets that were later included in the Songs of the Common Day sequence, and which starts to conceive of the Tantramar region as it is depicted in the autobiographical opening stanzas of Ave:

                                        But most availed
     Your strange unquiet waters to engage
  My kindred heart’s companionship; nor failed
     To grant this heritage,—
  That in my veins forever must abide
  The urge and fluctuation of the tide. (Collected 45-50)

More that that, however, In Divers Tones enables us to recover something of the excitement that accompanied the early productions of the Confederation poets. Roberts was surely referring to his own work when he said, in his review of Lampman’s Among the Millet in 1889, “With us in Canada, though we may appear to trifle a little with ballades and villanelles and triolets, there is a strenuous undercurrent almost always to be detected” (41). Nowhere is that undercurrent stronger than in In Divers Tones, and so it was one of the “manifestations, unmistakable enough to the heedful observer, of an approaching harvest for these acres which so long we have been tilling almost in vain” (Roberts, “Review” 41). Since E.K. Brown published On Canadian Poetry in 1943, Canadian critics have often focussed on Lampman and Duncan Campbell Scott at the expense of Roberts and Carman. Pacey’s response is still convincing:

There was no rivalry between them: in all the letters and critical articles of the four that I have read I have never found the slightest evidence of jealousy among them. They all agreed that Roberts was their leader, in the sense that he first published his poems in the great magazines of North America and in book form, but he was the first among equals. (“Sir” 187-88)

Orion showed Roberts’ promise, but In Divers Tones is one of the key achievements for Roberts and the Confederation poets in general.