Non-Fictional Prose

by Charles G.D. Roberts

Edited by D.M.R. Bentley and Laurel Boone


The Beginnings of a Canadian Literature*


Though I may have departed slightly from the general scope and character of encænial addresses, in selecting for my subject to-day "The beginnings of a Canadian Literature," nevertheless for this I suppose I need hardly apologize. To this, a Canadian University— to us and all others the children of such universities, in whose hands chiefly lie the intellectual and moral greatness of the nation, and of whose hands may Canada justly demand her chief aids to the development of the higher life, what question can there be of more moment, more fitted to this time and this place, than the question of our mental growth and the progress of our thought. To observe these we must look at our literature, because in its widest sense is literature the fruition of thought, and contains not only nourishment for present mental wants, but also the perfected seed whence new thought shall spring in the future. It is true that thought develops in other directions than that of literature; but these other fruitages of thought are not, as a rule, reproduction. They are called forth in response to a present demand, serve a present purpose, and are so entangled with empiricism as not to afford us reliable measures of our attainment. But the thought that bears fruit in literature, this enables us readily to estimate our rate of advance toward culture, and liberality, and ripeness.

No other product is so sensitive to the varying conditions of the nation as is its literature. Like the tell-tale eye in the face it responds to and proclaims every charge. If the national existence is torpid, this eye is inert and dull. Let the nation’s life awake, and flow vigorously, and reach out to new domains, and the eye flashes up with bright alertness. You hardly notice it before, now it seems the most prominent feature, lighting all the face with its vivifying intelligence. Whatever splendid aspirations, whatever heroic effort, whatever patriotism, and whatever power may be stirring to action in the heart, will not the eye declare it? So, in this respect, the literature of a nation is rather its eye than its mouth, for through it we discern the nation’s inmost heart. The mouth will speak often to disguise the truth; the eye is less skilled to dissemble. Here, however, the analogy ceases. Literature is not only the revelation of present mood and character, but it also has in its moulding of future character. The exponent of the present, it is also the architect of the future. It is an argument never ended, that concerning great men and their times. One says this man moulded his time; another, that he was the product of his time and his circumstances. In truth the man and his time act and reach upon each other; but the time and the circumstances get rather the best of it, probably. These unmistakably speak through the man. But he makes the times and circumstances which shall mould his successors. It is with reference to literature I say this; but it is not less true with regard to science and art, statesmanship and generalship.

I have said that literature is the exponent of the nation’s intellectual life;—surely we should concern ourselves with the progress of this life! I have said that the literature of to-day fathers the thought of to-morrow; surely, then, it behooves a Canadian university to concern itself deeply with every present product of the nation’s thought; to concern itself very deeply with every influence that is to mould that thought in the future! If Canadian universities suffer our literature to develop apart from their sympathy and guidance, will they not appear to despise their birthright? Should not the nation’s intellectual life centre in her universities? And should not these, by virtue of matured powers, trained to their most effective use, make themselves felt in every department of thought and enlightened action? There will be, now and then, achievements outside of their immediate correction. Then it is not only gracious, in a university, but politic to draw these achievements to herself and adopt into her family the doers. It is our universities we should see ever in the forefront of intellectual and literary progress. It is to our universities we should look to be our leaders always when we go to storm the strongholds of prejudice and sloth and superstition. It is to them we should turn for promptest recognition of intellectual work well done.

We should be able to call our universities nerve-centres, whence flow the currents of our mental activity. Then must they be keenly alive to every influence that is abroad, to every change of temperature in the fields wherein their currents make their circuit. They will of necessity identify themselves with the higher motions and energies of the people, that these energies may not be wasted through lack of governed and co-operative effort. Wisely has spoken Sackville’s Alumni orator for this year, saying that now is a pressing need for the educated reformer everywhere. The spirit of reform is in the air. Long-established rights are being called to proof. Long-established and venerable abuses are being inexorably cast out. But there is danger. Reform is demanded; there are many workers ready, but too few of these are qualified for the work. Without training the reformer is apt to be a destructionist, a physician deadly to the society he would heal. Those men are needed for the task of reform who by education, and discipline, and study of past events with their causes and their results, have acquired mental balance; who are striving to attain clear vision and calm judgment; who will know and preserve the good growth while strenuously eradicating the evil. This brings to mind a paragraph by Mr. W. H. Mallock, concerning Liberalism and Conservatism. He compares society to a place whose roof is upheld by many pillars. Some of these are of vital importance to the stability of the structure, while others are of no use whatever, but constitute a serious hindrance to advance and free motion. The office of Liberalism is to attack these crowding obstructions, which it does at the risk of destroying indispensable columns, so hard are these to distinguish from the rest. The part played by Conservatism is that of vigilantly guarding the pillars, obstructive and preservative alike, lest some of the latter should fall. Is it utterly vain to hope for a union of these attributes and offices? May we not accept liberalism with its enthusiastic energy unabated, while tempering its rashness with some of that enlightened conservatism to which study has taught that every blind extremist creates his own Nemesis, in the reaction which will overwhelm his efforts? Reform is of doubtful desirability from the hands of narrow demagogues. Our leaders in literature, in science, in politics, are wanted now from our universities, wherein they are expected to have received a comprehensive training in the thought, not of the past only, but of the present. There is a tendency too often visible in our intellectual movements and knowledge to be a day late. This gives that effect of provincialism which, not always unjustly, is so often laid to the charge of the products of Canadian thought. It is incumbent on our universities to see that their instruction is such as will keep the student abreast of the front tide of mental conquest, instead of leaving him to gyrate indefinitely in the rearward shoals and eddies. That good characteristics which has been called modernity is desirable in our college courses. We must hear not only what has been done in the past, but what is being done in the all important present. It is not desirable that men should come out into the world and find the world has pressed on far ahead of them; find their tone of thought, their mental habit, two decades out of date. Perhaps it will include all the rest to say that the University training should turn men’s eyes not backward but forward. To the front should be the impulse given and the start from the foremost vantage gained.

Not in this respect only, but also in that of vital connexion with the soil, our universities might well emulate those of some other countries. We have what are too much universities in Canada rather than Canadian universities. We want more of the forward-looking spirit, and we want more of the national spirit, if we are to play our proper part in moulding the development of the nation. In other countries, what members of the social organism are most acutely sensitive, most promptly responsive to every waking need and aspiration of the people? The universities. In other countries, where the exhaustless sources of national life, the perennial currents of national feeling, that gather, and concentrate, and direct with irresistible force the vague but noble aims that spring in the heart of a people struggling upward from ignorance and insignificance? In the universities. In other countries where do we look for, and find, the most devoted zeal, the boldness that fights ever in the front, the promptest, the most burning patriotism? In the universities. In Canada, where do we want a more vivid realization of the fact that we have a country, and are making a nation; that we have a history, and are making a literature; that we have a heroic past, and are making ready for a future that shall not be inglorious? In our universities, if they would not lose their birthright. Therefore, let me seek to contribute something, in a small degree and brief way, toward this more vivid realization. Let me show that foundations are being laid for the temple of Canadian literature; and let me endeavor to prove that in this we have made such beginnings as may serve for a centre to large hopes.

In Canadian literature it is now apparent that there must long continue to be two parallel streams; and I can see no reason for imagining that either of these will ever absorb the other. In the midst of this Anglo-Saxon Canada there is an off-shoot of another race, which displays the most persistent vitality and the most enduring individualism. It does not seem possible to believe what so many prophets tell us, namely, that we are destined to absorb or blot out our French-Canadian brothers. They will rather continue to flourish side by side with us, a factor, not indeed large, as compared with the English speaking millions who are peopling our limitless territories, but potent in its influence upon our national development. They are as truly Canadians as we are; rather, I should say, more truly and ardently Canadian. They have attained a richer energy of national feeling and patriotic devotion than has yet quickened in our more sluggish veins. More closely have they identified themselves with the soil that bears them.

While remembering with reverence and with loving interest that France, fair and remote, which was the birth-place of their race, their loyalty is unswervingly directed upon this Canada which is now their fatherland—our fatherland. That their patriotism is no lipservice, no matter of cool-blooded expediency, let Chateauguay and Chrysler’s Farm attest! The awakening of the intense national spirit of this section of our countrymen has called forth a brilliant fruitage of creative vigor. Of song and romance and history their soil became suddenly productive. French Canada, just since yesterday, we may say, has brought forth to itself a literature—one in a high degree polished and artistic, imbued with unmistakable Canadian flavor, yet not servilely provincial in its themes; a literature, moreover, which has already drown upon itself the eyes of the outside world. Would that this were a matter of greater interest and pride to us of English Canada! It were well if we would concern ourselves more warmly with the achievements of this brother people, strive to lessen our ignorance of their doings and their characteristics, and in all ways render more apparent the ties of a national brotherhood and fellowcitizenship which bind them to us. Most of us, perhaps, have never heard of the Abbe Casgrain, one of the chief of French-Canadian prose writers. Yet by men of letters in the great Republic beside us his name is known and honored; in France, and even in England, he does not lack his circle. His writings are most fascinating for their subject-matter. Rich in incident, effective in presentation, vivid and full in coloring, they deal with that which cannot but hold the reader—the ancient Canadian traditions, and history, and legends. Critics more competent than I am to speak of the subtle graces and finer beauties of that exquisite vehicle of thought, French prose, accord his style the warmest praise for excellence and power. To the weight of the laborious investigator, the magnetism of the born raconteur, he writes in no small degree the perfecting impulse of the literary artist. Having spoken thus at length of the Abbe Casgrain, as the representative prose-writer of the French-Canadian circle, it is not necessary here to enlarge upon other names, such as those of Ferland, Garneau, Le Moine, Faucher de Saint Maurice, etc., prominent historians, essayists and general writers whose abilities are known to me by reputation only.

Of poets the names that stand out most clearly are those of Frechette, Cremazie and Le May. The first of these I must do more than mention. It is probably an old story to most of us present, how nearly three years ago, Louis Honore Frechette won for Canada the year’s laurels from the illustrious Academy of France. This was a matter for national congratulation: an intellectual triumph, in which we should take as much pride, perhaps, as in the physical prowess of our world-renowned oarsmen. I am afraid it must be confessed that we were but moderately moved over M. Frechette’s achievement, while over Hanlan’s we were certainly excited. By all means let us glory in our physical, as well as in our mental triumphs; but surely the latter should be of supremer interest and the source of higher pride. It was for his poems—"Les Oiseaux de Neige" and "Les Fleurs Boreales"—that M. Frechette was crowned by the French Academy. There are thoroughly Canadian poems, in inspiration as well as tone, and possess in the fullest degree their author’s characteristics of limpid ease of language and balanced harmony of structure. But it is elsewhere, I think, that M. Frechette has reached his loftiest heights of lyric exaltation; has attained his most commanding sweep of imaginative vision. A poem of his well exemplifying these powers is that entitled "La Liberté," of which I will quote a stanza. The same excellences which make it a suitable specimen of the poet’s genius have led me also to attempt a translation of it; and this translation I may be permitted to quote in part, for the benefit of those to whose ears the original is not easy. If I seem to take a liberty in repeating before you a verse in part my own, forgive me, for the lines are in no way really mine. They are simply the outcome of a reverent and diligent striving to find some faint equivalent in English for the poet’s lyric utterance

"De saints espoirs ma pauvre ame s’inonde,
Et mon regard monte vers le ciel blue,
Quand j’apercois dans les fastes du monde,
Comme un eclair, briller le doigt de Dieu.
Mais quelquefois, incliné sur le gouffre
Ou l’nomme rampe a l’immortalité,
En contemplant l’humunité qui souffre,
Si je prie en pleurant, c’est pour la Liberté!"

"I drench my spirit in ecstacy, consoled,
And my gaze trembles toward the azure are,
When in the wide world-records I behold
Flame like a meteor, God‘s finger thro’ the dark.
But if, at times, bowed over the abyss
Wherein man crawls toward immortality,
Beholding here how sore his suffering is,
I make my prayer with tears, it is for Liberty."

It will interest some of us to know that M. Frechette is a lawyer, and has been eminently successful in his profession. Themis and Calliope may not seem to have much in common; nevertheless in more than one notable instance have they been soon fast friends.

Of English Canadian writers who have won or who deserves to win, fame, we have a fair proportion. In verse, as well as in other departments of literature, we have produced mighty array of volumes, works which have been thrust into the light only to fall back promptly into the darkness of most complete oblivion. A few of these, perhaps, have deserved to live—have perished through untoward circumstances; but in all probability most of them have found the fate they were fitted for. Of many I know not even the names, having learned of their brief excursion into the common light of day only through publishers’ statistics. But there are works on the other hand that have proved themselves possessed of the vigor which is necessary for existence in this strenuous new land. Charles Heavysege is a strong and unique personality in our literature. With an intellect penetrative and alert, but too little under the discipline of culture, with a distinct rhythmical faculty and an ear for full verbal effects; he nevertheless wrote sonnets and short poems which fail to give unmixed pleasure. He wrote also "Jephtha’s Daughter," a narrative poem which I do not know well enough to characterize. But his title to a permanent place upon our roll is securely founded upon his great drama of "Saul." This work, in itself remarkable for magnitude of conception and rough-hewn strength of execution, will impress us still more forcibly when we consider its author, at first a mechanic—a cabinet maker, I believe—then reporter on the busy staff of a Montreal journal; self-educated with few opportunities, in continual poverty, toiling incessantly, till he died almost unrecognized among his fellow-countrymen. Such considerations as these can add nothing to our estimate of his work, but must add to our respect for his great ability and his dauntless determination. Instead of offering you my own detailed criticism of "Saul," let me quote from the North British Review of August, 1858. It was through Hawthorne’s admiration for the work that the attention of the great review was turned to it. The reviewer says: "Of ‘Saul‘ a drama in three parts, published anonymously at Montreal, we have before us perhaps the only copy which has crossed the Atlantic. At all events we have heard of none, as probable we should have done through some public or private notice, seeing that the work is indubitably one of the most remarkable English poems ever written out of Great Britain. It is the greatest subject in the whole range of history for a drama, and has been treated with a poetical power and a depth of psychological insight which are often quite startling." And again:— "The author proves that he knows the Bible and human nature. Shakespeare also he knows far better than most men know him; for he has discerned and adopted his method as no other dramatist has done. There are hundreds of passages for the existence of which we cannot account until the moral clue is found, and it never would be found by the careless and unreflecting reader; yet the work is exceedingly artistic, and there are few things in modern poetry so praiseworthy as the quiet and unobstrusive way in which the theme is treated." And yet again: "As we have said of Shakespeare, the meaning is too full to be stated more briefly than by the whole poem." All this is very strong and very unqualified commendation; and it is in the main just. Though to say the Heavysege "has discerned and adopted Shakespeare’s method as no other dramatist has done" goes, I think, rather too far. But we need not concern ourselves here with comparative estimates. It is enough to claim that Heavysege had genius. He had also, I believe, some of those harmless eccentricities which once were supposed inseparable from genius, but which in these days have grown unfashionable. I have been told by one who called himself his friend that Heavysege rather resented comparison with anyone less than Shakespeare; but let this go for what it’s worth.

Having spoken at such length of Heavysege, I cannot do more than mention the thoughtfulness and chastened style of Reade, whose best work lacks not the true fire, while his weakest efforts command respect by their air of scholarly dignity. Mere mention also for Hunter-Duvar, whose drama, "The Enamorado," charms us with its rare romance flavor, a breath from the days of trouvére and ‘ringing lists." Mr. Duvar’s work is uneven, but finely poetical at its best; and two or three of his lyrics are admirable. Then there is Mrs. MacLean, a singer, whose impulse is genuine, whose note is high and strong. Her range of subject is not large, and she has seemed at times to want restraint, and show need of the "labor of the file;" but in artistic conception and in knowledge of technique she displays a constant growth. Her method is almost exclusively subjecture. Let me quote from her very beautiful poem, entitled "In the Shadow of the Mountains:"—

Ye are so fair, my Mountains! I would lie,
   When this long day of toil is over and done,
Looking with you into the silent sky,
   And visited of rain and wind and sun;
And I shall sleep full sweet in my low bed,
Forgotten of all grief and comforted.

*          *          *

White mist that veil your high majestic faces
   Shall stoop sometimes and bless me where I lie;
And I shall hear from out your wan waste places
   The long susurrus of the pines drift by,
When I rest lightly in my strait low bed,
Forgotten of all grief and comforted.

And I shall watch the stars that seem to reach
    Bright hands to you when nights are still and fair;
And I shall know the secret of their speech,
   Because my soul hath dropped its load of care;
Resting full sweetly in my mountain bed,
Forgotten of all grief and comforted.

Another fine stanza follows then, addressing the world left behind—

   I have no tears for you,—The mountain passes
   Climbed by the wild goat are more dear to me,
   And the cliff eagle screaming from the sea;
   I shall return to them, and I shall be
A portion of their blooms and grasses.
   A solitary, not ungentle soul, set free;
And so I shall lie still in my low bed,
After long years of wandering comforted.

Then we have C.P. Mulvany, at the head of Canadian lyrists, far too seldom doing his great gifts justice, but at his best our best; intense, dramatic, passionate, rapid, in a degree which not one other Canadian poet has attained to. Among the host of writers of fugitive verse we must name Messrs. L’Esperance and Dole; while two ladies, under the noms de plume respectively of "Seranus" and "Fidelis," compel our respectful attention—the former for originality and richness of suggestion, the latter for unstrained contemplative sweetness, and both for mental force. In this connexion let me say one word, from a literary point of view, of the work of our venerable Metropolitan in translating the Book of Job. After Isaiah, whose measureless sublimity no other poet, or of age or clime, has reached, this Book contains some of the loftiest passages in the range of Hebrew poetry. The language of the authorized translation is apparently a perfect vehicle for the conveyance of the fire and elusive poetic quality of the original; but unfortunately it now and then fails to convey any clear meaning. The Metropolitan’s rendering adheres to that of the Authorized Version where ever this is adequate; but elsewhere, with true poetic sensibility, the tone and cadence of the old version are so infused into every alteration that the general effect is unmarred, while what was hopelessly obscure to the reader has the light let in upon it.

Now, coming to our prose writers, I dare not take time to do more than give you a catalogue of them. First of all there is one who has identified himself with Canada to Canada’s incalculable benefit—Professor Goldwin Smith, one of the most eminent of living essayists and historical writers. Haliburton, whose "Sam Slick" has become an English classic alongside of Tristram Shandy, and Hudibras, was one of the most racy of the racy new world humorists. Principals Dawson, of McGill, Grant of Queen’s and Wilson of Toronto University, have a well earned reputation far beyond the borders of Canada. Of historians we have a number, the most important being Messrs. Todd, Hannay, Archer, and probably Withrow. The names of George Stewart, Jr., and Nicholas Flood Davin, are widely known for important works of a semi-historical character, and for essays on various literary and popular subjects.

Semi-historical also are Mr. Rattary’s very able work on "The Scot in British North America," and also Mr. Dent’s "The Last Forty Years;" while the writings of Drs. Scadding and Canniff, of Messrs. Bourinot and Murdoch, are difficult to classify hastily, though easy to commend for their value and their interest. In the matter of pure literary criticism, Mr. S. E. Dawson, in his "Study of ‘The Princess,’" has stepped at once into the front rank. In fiction we have many names, though few of them are prominent. We have all heard though probably few of us have read of Kirby’s "In Chim d’Or;" and Professor DeMille’s novels have had a wide circulation. With these exceptions, I am unable to speak from knowledge on this department of Canadian letters. In political biography we have, among the rest, the "Life of Wm. Lyon McKenzie," by Charles Lindsay; the "Life of the Hon. George Brown," by Alexander Mackenzie; and the "Life of Sir John A. Macdonald," by J. E. Collins. Of this latter work, from its great intrinsic importance, and from the fact that it is the latest, and in its department the most brilliant production of our prose literature, I might naturally be expected to speak somewhat at length. But on account of my intimate personal friendship for Mr. Collins, and for other reasons affecting myself, it would be difficult, if not embarrassing, for me to discuss his work particularly.

Besides all these authors and some others worthy of mention whom, through inadvertency or lack of space, I may have overlooked, there are many occasional writers of ability whose names will at once occur to you, but who have not committed themselves to book form. These I need not specify here. But before closing these fragmentary remarks let me say a word concerning that perpetual injunction to our verse-writers to choose Canadian themes only. Now it must be remembered that the whole heritage of English Song is ours and that it is not ours to found a new literature. The Americans have not done so nor will they. They have simply joined in raising the splendid structure, English literature, to the building of which may come workmen from every region of earth where speaks the English tongue. The domain of English letters knows no boundaries of Canadian Dominion, of American Commonwealth, nor yet of British Empire. All the greatest subject matter is free to the world’s writers. Of course the tone of a work, the quality of the handling, must be influenced by the surroundings and local sympathies of the workman, in so far as he is a truly original and creative workman and not a mere copyist. To the assimilativeness and flexibility of genius it is as impossible that its works should lack the special flavor of race and clime, as that honey from Himettus should fail to smell of the thyme slopes. By all means let our singers preserve to the sweetness which they gather a fragrance distinctive of its origin. It is true we have much poetical wealth unappropriated in our broad and magnificent landscapes, in our seasons that alternate so swiftly between gorgeousness and gloom, in the stirring episodes scattered so abundantly through parts of our early history; but let us not therefore think we are prohibited from drawing a portion of our material from lands where now the very dust is man. When our own land as thickly as these has been sown with human pleasures, and passions, and pains, has been as many times and as long watered with human tears and blood, she will be mother, I doubt not, to as many songs as any land has borne.


"The Beginnings of a Canadian Literature," University Monthly 2:4 (June 1883), 59-64 [back]