Non-Fictional Prose

by Charles G.D. Roberts

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


The Outlook for Literature: Acadia’s Field for Poetry, History and Romance.*


WINDSOR, Dec. 14.—Having been asked for a brief forecast as to the future of literature in Nova Scotia, let me in the first place declare my faith that that future must be the future of literature in Canada. We must forget to ask of a work whether it is Nova Scotian or British Columbian, of Ontario or New Brunswick, until we have inquired if it be broadly and truly Canadian. It is the future of Canadian nationality with which every son of Canada is most concerned; and our literature will be false to its trust, will fail of that very service for which young nations have ever relied upon their literature, if it does not show itself the nurse of all patriotic enthusiasms, and the base of provincial jealousies. This being promised, my subject becomes a consideration of the part likely to be played by Nova Scotian talent in the making of our national literature. But the subject is one on which it would be hard to speak with much definiteness or confidence. The utmost to be looked for here is perhaps a little suggestiveness. It is fair to expect that our contribution will be to the higher and more imaginative claims of literature, seeing that, to a greater degree than any other province save Quebec,


variety of surrounding, and a soil well tempered by human influences,—a soil that has been cradle and grave to a now fair number of generations. This last means much, for a raw soil seems rarely to flower into fine imaginative work. As we have inspiring material in our past, and in our hopes for the future, so we have also picturesque and striking material in some aspects of the present, in the lives of our fishing populations, for instance, and in our lumber camps and drives. In our landscape, earth and sea and sky conspire to make an imaginative people. These stern coasts, now thundered against by Atlantic storms, now wrapped in noiseless fogs, these overwhelming tides, these vast channels emptied of their streams, these weird reaches of flat and marsh and dyke, should create a habit of openness to nature, and by contrast put a reproach upon the commonplace and the gross. Our climate with its swift extremes is eager and waking, and we should expect a sort of dry sparkle in our page, with a transparent and tonic quality in our thought. If environment is anything, our work can hardly prove tame. Referring to our material in


perhaps the source from which most is commonly expected is our store of Indian legend. There is continual demand for the working of this field, and continual surprise that it should be so long unharvested. Both the demand and surprise are as old as literature in North America, and are likely to grow much older before being satisfied. The legends are, some of them, wildly poetic, and vigorous in conception; and they are easily attainable, both from the lips of their hereditary possessors and from such books as Leland’s admirable ‘Legends of the Algonquin Indians.’ But the stuff seems almost unavailable for purposes of pure literature. The Indian has left a curse in his bequest, and the prize turns worthless in our grasp. The host of America poems and romances with the Indian as inspiration, or form, ‘Hiawatha,’ being excepted, a museum of lamentable failures. They are


Even ‘Hiawatha,’ in spite of easy story-telling and bright description, can hardly be called quite worthy of its author’s genius. It is bizarre and fanciful rather than imaginative; and it lacks the grave beauty and the air of reality essential to great verse. Only indirectly, by association and suggestion, is Indian legend likely, I think to exert marked influence upon our creative literature. But there is room to do invaluable work in the collection and comparative study of Indian folklore and kindred matter, for the results of which there is now a ready appreciation. Leland has left behind him some very good gleaning, owing to the wideness of the field which he has occupied. With the story of the French in Nova Scotia, which reads less like history than romance, the case is far otherwise. The eager searchings, the bold exploits, the strange adventures, the hardships and the triumphs interwoven in the old Acadian annals, together with the deep pathos of the end, these are matters so near us that we can feel their warmth, and at the same time remote enough to admit of full poetic treatment. They are in that distance which catches—

"The light that never was on sea or land,
  The consecration and the poet’s dream"

This material, too, has already proved itself adapted to exquisite treatment. The fact of Longfellow having come to it for one of his chief inspirations, though this might seem to make it presumptuous for another to dip into the same source, in reality only makes that source so much the more available. Most of


and of all literatures, have been wrought upon subjects familarized by previous handling. Nearly all great themes show a certain inexhaustibility, and admit of being, more then once or twice splendidly treated. It is he has the hardest task who breaks a new field; but his successors as a rule reap the richest harvests. Longfellow’s handling of Acadian story has simply glorified the theme for later singers. Every dyke and ancient rampart, and surviving Acadian name, and little rock rimmed haven, from the wind rippled shifting sepulchre of Sable Island to the sunny levels of Chignecto, should be breeding ground for poem, and history, and romance. It is hard to imagine a region more fascinating to the thought, mor suffused with the glamor of a splendid imperishable past half veiled in mystery, than is the Island of Cape Breton. The ear is greedy for the faintest echo of the trumpets and the stir that once were Louisburg; and an anscient spell is in the silence, broken only by tinkle of sheep-bells, that has come down upon the place of the vanished city. But not only in the past of another people should our pens find motion; for our own ancestors have left us noble themes. In the coming of the loyalists there is


hardly inferior to that which New England has found so rich in the deeds of her Puritan fathers. Perhaps these are matters scarcely yet remote enough to take the highest treatment; but surely now is the time for doing, in this connection, the work which will make purely creative work a possibility in the future. Those minute and loving records of the past of particular localities, those accurate studies of this or that county, town, or village, such as count no detail too petty, and grudge no labor of research, are needed now to preserve traditions, which year by year are dying out, and of which the ultimate value is as yet hardly to be realized. For work of this sort well done, not prostituted to the requirements of the subscription book advertisement scheme, there is always a standfast welcome, and a position honorable if not among the highest. Great literary skill is not essential to the production of such works, but it is a secure investment in the future to have written a book, upon which after workers in the field shall find themselves of necessity dependant. If it is nothing very definite which I have dared to prophesy, I trust that this brief note may at least serve to indicate a probable and suitable direction for our literary effort. It may serve also to ground a reasonable confidence that the Nova Scotian element in that Canadian literature which our hearts are set upon building will not fail of being important and of rare quality.


"The Outlook for Literature: Acadia Field for Poetry, History and Romance," Halifax Morning Herald 12:1, New Year's supplement (Halifax, N.S.), 1 Jan. 1886, [7] [back]