Non-Fictional Prose

by Charles G.D. Roberts

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


A Pretty Good Canadian*


In Canadian literary circles the editor of THE MAPLE LEAF has heard frequently expressed the fervent wish that a stenographic report of one or more of Dr. C. G. D. Roberts’ addresses, given on his recent Canadian tour, should be published in full in some periodical which is preserved in bound volumes in public libraries and elsewhere. THE MAPLE LEAF, being in this class, accepts with great pleasure the privilege of placing on permanent record what must be regarded from a literary point of view as probably the most valuable of all this great Canadian’s talks, dealing as it does with the development of all forms of his own work and breathing his deep feeling of recognition to Canada for having endowed him with those qualities of genius which have made him one of the world’s great literary figures.


Before introducing Doctor Roberts at the meeting of the women’s Canadian Club of Montreal on March 13 at which this address was given, Mrs. Basil Williams, president of this club, had a few nice things to say of THE MAPLE LEAF. She is reported:

"I wanted to let any of our friends know that there are sample copies of THE MAPLE LEAF to be had at the door, and you can get the magazine regularly by sending in a subscription to the publishers. THE MAPLE LEAF is interesting to us, as it follows the policy of publishing many of the addresses of the speakers before this Club. It is interesting, sometimes, to members to read these speeches and to keep informed as to the activities of other Canadian Clubs.

In introducing the speaker, Mrs. Williams said:

"We have today with us Doctor Roberts, a distinguished Canadian author. I do not know that I will say just Canadian, but I will call him distinguished author, because it does seem to me that there cannot be any barrier in the things of the spirit. Canadian literature is part of all great literature. Doctor Roberts tells me that I am not to dwell unduly on his animal stories, and yet, if he will write such stories as Red Fox, what am I to do? I have only lately been introduced to Doctor Robert’s works of this kind, and I can tell you I am going to read more of them. I will now call upon Doctor Roberts to speak to you.

DOCTOR ROBERTS: Madame, Ladies and Gentlemen: Your chairman’s remarks have put me rather in a quandary. I do not know whether it is best to go on as I intended and talk to you about poetry and read my own poetry in order to try and convince my hearers that I am not only a writer of animal stories but of poetry, but in order to merit the approval of your chairman, I will talk to you of my animal stories. However, I will try to compromise, and perhaps between the two stools I will succeed in getting through.

First of all, I would like to say that what I meant by asking Mrs. Williams, your chairman, not to dwell unduly on my animal stories, is this: that they are such a small portion of my work. I had done what little I may have done toward breaking the way for Canadian literature in the outside world, toward stimulating my contemporaries and friends into putting their work in competition with that of other poets in England and America. I had done all that, and got any standing that I may have now, before I ever thought of writing one of those animal stories. I never wrote anything but poetry, or published anything until I was far beyond youth, naturally I am jealous for my poetry, and when my friends only know me by my nature stories, you can forgive my begging them to read something else besides. That is not to say that I love Ceasar less because I love my Animal stories; I do love Rome the more.

Apropos of these stories, I had written them as I wrote my poems, with the same loving carefulness, and just as slowly. When I am writing these animal stories I do not write any poetry, because the same impulse takes form in the story as seems to take form in the poems. First of all I take care that I shall be a careful and conscientious naturalist. That is one’s duty, first to have your facts right, but my concern in these animal stories is not so much with the facts, with the action of the wild creatures that I write about, as with the motives behind the action. I am concerned primarily and always have been with the motives, and because of that concern, I am interested in the psychology of the wild creatures. I have known them since small boyhood, ever since I could toddle about the pastures— down in New Brunswick—I have loved the wild creatures and studied them to the best of my ability, and although I have hunted at times, I have lost all desire for that kind of sport I am not a crank on this subject; if I were in the woods and needed the wild creatures for food I would not hesitate to kill one, but I do not like the idea of sportsmen getting their pleasure out of the killing. I do not like any sport in which the hunter gets his pleasure out of the pain of the animal. (Applause.)

Secondly, in all my work, while absolutely faithful, I do not think any of you will find anything in the stories which was sentimental or made any direct appeal to sympathetic tears. I am aiming, by inciting understanding in my readers to make them realize that the lower orders are our kin, and deserving, in a degree, of the same consideration, tenderness and thought.

So my stories, I will say frankly, are just as good as I can make them, and are written sentence by sentence, every sentence rolled under my tongue, before being put on paper. But I want to say, however, that I do not think they are as important as the best of my work in verse; and while I do want you to love my stories, I do not want you to slight my poetry; therefore I am going to read some of my poems this afternoon. I might say, however, while on the subject of the animal stories (I am sure I am beginning to talk enough about them to justify me in the eyes of Mrs. Williams), the animal story is my own invention. This kind of animal story does not exist in any literature that I know of. There were great works of literature that dealt with the animals from very far back and in our own day, there are those wonderful and inspiring masterpieces that I have read and re-read. Kipling does not profess for a moment to know all about the beast that he is writing about. He portrayed certain things about them; he portrayed the spirit of the jungle and the life in which they were involved. He was concerned with the actions and reactions of wild life upon human beings. He gives his animals human speech and complex human emotions. That is not a nature story. It is a masterpiece of literature.

Well, I am getting incoherent again, but I hope you will put up with me. I love to talk about animal stories such as Black Beauty. They are very important works. They have done an immense work in opening up human hearts towards feelings for this that or the other animal. They have done an immense amount of good, and I enjoy them immensely. But they do not set themselves to deal with the complex question of how far animal psychology agrees with human psychology. They frankly give sentiments and emotions that are frankly human to their animal heroes in their books, but that does not make them any less important, but they put them in a separate class to the stories that are written today.

Now speaking historically, and continuing to talk with that presumptuous personal note. The story was my first attempt in this form and when I wrote it I was pretty well established with the editors on both sides of the water and they were ready to purchase what I sold them, but I couldn’t sell that story. My best friend in the publishing business wouldn’t have anything to do with it. I told him I was trying to do something a little "fresh" and a little different from the general run and that I had done it well.

He said: "Yes, you have; but what are you trying to get at?"

I said: "Well, if you do not like it, there is no use in my offering it to you."

I then tried two or three other editors. At last my first editor relented. He said: "I do not see what you are after. However, I will take the risk of printing, and give you so much for it (which was about half of what he usually gave me). It is nicely written, anyway; I rather like it myself."

This was before Ernest Thompson Seton had thought of writing anything at all—he was a naturalist and an artist who had studied in Paris for the purpose of doing animal painting and drawing. After my first story appeared he came running to me waving his magazine, rushed in, and in his own hearty way, said:

"This is what I have been wanting."

"Well, now that you have got it," I said, "what are you going to do about it?"

"I have sold a set of my animal pictures to Scribner’s Magazine, and they are jolly good too, and now, Scribner’s do not want to publish it, unless I get some letter-press copy to go with it, and this is certainly what I want. Now, here is a great opening for us. I will do these pictures, and you know all about animals with which I am dealing, you write the stories."

I said: "Write them yourself."

"But," he said, "I cannot."

I said: "You tell animal stories wonderfully well; write exactly as if you were talking out loud. If they are rough, the editor will smooth them out."

The result was, that we have "Wild Animals I have Known." That book established the vogue of the present day stories.

I might say that I have never found any sentiment in animals at all. I have found many emotions but no sentiment.

Seton’s book was amazingly popular, and after that Seton couldn’t write all they wanted of animal stories, and they were glad to get some of mine.

The genius of the modern animal story, our Canadian, W. J. Long, is not properly a story-writer of animals. Burrows is not an animal story writer at all; he is a master of English, who puts his subtle and sympathetic observations of animals into the form of perfect essays. Long rather applies to that category, but does not aim to make each story a rounded work of art, but aims to put down his own observations gathered in the wilderness (especially in New Brunswick) in the form of stories. Others have sprung up and copied Seton and myself, so that it is now an accepted form of literature.

Apropos of Red Fox itself—well, I am wandering shamefully again—I may tell you what Jack London said and it was a clever compliment from him. He was in my den one day, and I laughingly reproached him for a gentle little steal, where he had lifted certain passages from the body of Red Fox.

"Well," he said, "the real fact is this. I had read the chapters of Red Fox before I wrote my story and they were so correct that I found I couldn’t write anything without making it wrong, so what could I do?"

So, naturally, I forgave him. I am afraid I have been roaming in a most thoughtless manner. I would like to say a few words about Canadian poetry, but I would rather read some of it.

I have been so long away from Canada that I feel some apology is necessary. I may say that it gives me much pleasure and interest to talk to the Woman’s Canadian Club here in Montreal. This is the city where the two great races which make Canada what she is come together and work together, and by their contact stimulate what I believe to be the greatness of Canada in the future. This idea of the two races working to make Canada a great nation has always ever since boyhood away down in New Brunswick, been one of my pet themes and thoughts, and it seems to me that if we could build up here in Canada a race with the characteristics of these two that we sprung from, we could surely hope for the greatest that any country could hope for or attain to, and I have never lost an opportunity of talking about that to the best of my ability. I have rarely written a Canadian patriotic poem in which I did not bring in the fact of the two sources of our greatness. So it rather thrills me to think that I am speaking to more or less the two branches of our race at the same time.

Speaking of our French source,—it was partly responsible for the fact that I stayed away from Canada longer than I intended. I went away in 1907 to stay for three months, and got back on the 5th February, 1925. While on the other side, I went, with some friends, motoring in the district of Loire. I had some very dear friends among them. I wanted to be near them, and on this trip I saw a rose garden which I liked. Here I want to make an explanation. A certain good paper in Toronto printed a picture of me, which was, nevertheless, recognizable, and under it said: "Dr. C. G. D. Roberts, who went abroad to stay three months, and was shown by a charming French Lady through a rose-garden, and he stayed 18 years." Now I feel I should take this opportunity of correcting this statement and any conception which might arise, so hasten to say, on my word of honor, that it was the rose garden and not the lady that was so specially charming. However, she was a very dear old lady, fat, approaching eighty years, and none of my friends who knew her, knew that it was the rose garden that had attracted me.

Still, remember, that it was France that was responsible—it was a French rose garden that kept me there, and after staying away two years, I decided to stay longer, and know the rest of the world, for "What do they know of Canada who only Canada know." So in order to know my Canada, I studied other countries, but this did not make me any less Canadian, but more so. I am a pretty good Canadian, but you should hear me when I am in England, Why, I even "rub" it into them. Now this appreciation of my own Canandianism you will acknowledge at once—my Canadian accent—my Bluenose branch of the Canadian accent, and I am informed that it is a much better accent than any they can work up in London, and it is no use whatever their trying to change me to their way of accentuating their words.

Would you believe it, our new school of poets in London lately not only say it, but actually print "morn" to rhyme with "dawn," without a spasm. I said to them: "When you write you spell it ‘Connah’?"

‘Corner.’ Why say ‘Connah’?"

they will tell you.

They do not realize that they are killing the good old English letter "r." However, there is no use doing anything about it until they correct their ears, because I have labored hard and long to get them to say "corner" and not "connah" but they persist in the latter pronounciation.

I am bound to say they are a most gracious people—perhaps the most gracious in the world—next to my own Canadians, of course, but something has crept into the London ear. The only thing I dread is that it may come over here, so stick to your Canadian accent.

Now I want to read one of my Canadian poems: I do not think it is necessary in this audience to read any of my patriotic poems, because everybody knows the patriotism of this part of Canada. I intend wherever I find the West any audience which seems to lack it, I shall read my Canadian patriotic poems. But here it would be like pressing on an open door, so I would rather read one or two of these songs which aim to describe the simple scenes of Canadian country life. They are called "Songs of the Common Day." Here I want to apologize for calling them "Songs." I am guilty and wish to put a sack cloth and ashes. They should be called "Sonnets" and not "Songs," and I never see them without a spasm of penitence. However, they aim to be bits of landscape painting in words, but if they are not more than that they have no business to be called poems at all, as mere descriptive writing can never be a strong kind of poetry. To merely describe a scene faithfully and accurately in more or less musical words and correct form is not poetry. I have tried in this to put something of my own personality into it, in indicating the way such a scene has reacted upon myself. I have either done that, or I have endeavoured to put some interpretation of what I feel to be, or thought to be, because it is much more important how things strike your feelings, than how it strikes your thought. In this case the split of the influence of the landscape upon you, is not to be interpreted in intellectual terms—it must be interpreted in moral terms. Poetry, you must remember, is, I was going to say, rhythmical (that bars out some prose) but you cannot get any complete definition of poetry, but we will see pretty soon that poetry must rhythmetically express in words, the thoughts, views and impressions, and unless that is infused, you cannot get pure poetry.

After this description I am at last trying to get at one of the poems themselves. Now that the spring begins to promise, I would like to read "The Flight of the Geese." I have heard that some flocks have already been seen in other parts over the lakes, over Lake Erie. I heard that Jack Miner had reported several flights of geese already—on their way north.


I hear the low wind wash the soften-
        ing snow,
The low tide loiter down the shore.
       The night;
Fulfilled with April forecast, hath
       no light,
The salt wave on the ledge flat pulses

Through the hid furrow lisp in mur-
      murous flow
The thaw’s shy ministers; and hark!
      The height
Of heaven grows weird and loud with
      unseen flight
Of strong hosts prophesying as they

High through the drenched and hollow
      night their wings
Beat northward hard on winter’s trail.
      The sound
Of their confused and solemn voices,
Athwart the dark to their long Arctic
Comes with a sanction and an awe
A boding of unknown, foreshadowed
      things. (Applause.)

This of the "Burnt Lands" is a familiar one—many of you are familiar with burnt lands:

On other fields and other scenes the
Laughs from her blue,—but not such
      fields are these,
Where comes no cheer of summer
      leaves sheer,
And no shade mitigates the day’s
      white morn.

These serious acres vast no groves
But giant trunks, black shapes that
      once were trees,
Tower naked, unassuaged of rain or
Their stern, grey isolation grimly

The months roll over them, and work
      no change,
But when spring stirs, or autumn
      stills the year,
Perchance some phantom leafage rust-
      les faint
Through their parched dreams, some
      old-time notes ring strange.
When in his slender treble, far and
Reiterates the rain-bird her compli-
      ment. (Applause.)

I would like to read you, apropos of the spring season, a poem written long ago, on the Frogs.

"I long to hear the voice of the frogs piping in the wet April even. We laughingly call them in New Brunswick, "The New Brunswick Nightingale," but to my mind there is no music of nature so poignant as the music of the frogs in the April evenings.

Reads (reported in part only):

Pipers of the chilly pools
   Pipe the April in.
Summon all the singing hosts,
   All the wilding kin.

Pipe the mating songs of Earth
   And the fecund fire.—
Love and laughter, pang and dream,
   Desire, desire, desire.

And delight comes into whisper—
   "Soon, soon, soon."
Earth shall be but one wild blossom
   Breathing to the moon. (Applause.)

Doctor Roberts continued to read as illustrative of his poetry a patriotic selection which he called "Canadian," "The Summons" and "Dream" Poem.

He concluded:

"I must not get myself misunderstood: I will now read you a love poem: I have not written many. They bulk in very small portion. No one can possibly be a poet unless he occasionally writes a love poem."

Reads his love poem, "The House."

My heart is a house, deep-walled and
To cover you from the night of
O little wild feet, too softly white
To roam the world’s tempestuous
The tears like sleet on my windows
Come in and be cherished, O little wild
     My heart is a house, deep-walled
            and warm,
     To cover you from the night of

Down from the naked heights of cloud
Bare and despair cry low, cry loud,
The dark woods mutter with throng-
          ing fears;
The rocks are drenched with the rain
          of tears.
       My heart is a house, deep-walled
          and warm,
       To cover you from the night of

O, little dark head, too dear and fair,
For the buffeting skies and the bitter
Time sweeps the world with his wings
       of dread,—
Come in and be comforted, little dark
     My heart is a house, deep-walled
            and warm,
      To cover you from the night of

I thank you so much for the amount of delightful attention you have given me. I must confess most honestly I do not want to stop at all." Applause.

The Chairman: We all want to thank Doctor Roberts very much for his delightful speech. I must take issue with him about "Corner." I feel I could match it with some others. I will say here that I will get some of these poems and read them. I cannot help thinking that to any Canadian homesick far away, that one about "Burnt Lands" would be particularly appealing. I think it has such an appeal to the country in it. I am sure we all want to thank Doctor Roberts and wish that he could remain longer with us, but he cannot as his train is waiting. Applause.



Robert Sees Boyish Ideals of Canada’s
Destiny Fulfilled.


The true Canadianism of Charles G. D. Roberts was further expressed in a whimsical address given to The Canadian Club of Ottawa March 14, in which for a few minutes only he dealt with serious things. In this part of his address he said:

"I feel so very keenly moved at being able to speak to a Canadian Club, a club of my fellow-countrymen, at the point where meet the two great races to which, in their working together, in my doctrine, we owe all that Canada has achieved and is likely to achieve in distinction from the achievement of other great countries. I feel that particularly keenly because from boyhood I have been an enthusiast over the idea that we would make here in a Canada a nation which should combine the forces of the English-speaking race and the French-speaking race. (Applause.)

"That, when I was a mere boy, was an enthusiastic sentiment. It has never faltered. I have been one of that school which held that for the best development of Canada we needed both races, working in the closest possible harmony and sympathy and at the same time maintaining in their purity each its own characteristics. I am not one who ever hesitates to express his own special views on important subjects. I have never been a fusionist. I am a fusionist heartily as far as the spirit is concerned, just as I am an Imperialist heart and soul; but I believe that the best development of our Empire will come through each component part of it—Great Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa—developing particularly on its own line and all working together with such understanding that each can give its best without fear and without favour. I am an uncompromising Imperialist; at the same time I am an uncompromising Canadian.

In early boyhood, before I was out of my teens, I was talking and singing with all the seriousness of youth, which I have so long long shed. Alas, labuntur anni, labuntur anni. Pardon the old, boyish Latin pronounciation, which we know to be wrong. I stick to it because I know it is wrong, but I think you moderns, who have adopted the modern pronounciation, have not the satisfaction of knowing whether it is right or wrong. (Laughter.)

"I like to know I am wrong if there is any chance of my being wrong, which of course is seldom. Well, I am getting frivolous. I want to say that while I am an Imperialist heart and soul, I believe that the strength of this Empire will lie in the perfect autonomy of its parts. I used to preach that we in Canada and the other parts of the Empire, when they attained their growth and development and were able for it, should be free to do everything that an independent nation can do, short of making war on each other. Now I see representatives going, independently of Downing Street, to the centres of government of other peoples: which is just what I preached as a boy, nearly, and it thrills me with satisfaction.

"I may say, in proof of my feeling for the oneness and the diversity of the two races which make Canada, that of my novels only two out of seven deal with the purely English part of Canadian life; the rest deal with the French (the ancient Acadian), part of Canadian life. And I remember how in the early days I was thrilled as a Canadian by the triumph of Frechette with his books, "Les Fleurs Boreales" and "Les Oiseaux de Neige" were crowned by the French Academy, and one of my earliest boyish poems—alas, utterly unworthy of its subject—was a poem to Frechette on account of that event.



How Roberts Made Hit on First
Appearance in London.


"The Spirit Underlying our Canadian Literature" was the subject duly recorded on the announcement card of The Canadian Club of Ottawa which brought a large gathering to hear Dr. Chas. G. D. Roberts on March 14. But, in beginning Doctor Roberts professed to have forgotten the subject on which "in rash moment" he had consented to speak and he upbraided the chairman for not having given him a clue. He proceeded to talk in a charming way of experiences in London and of his recent tour of Ontario and told one exceptionally good story. This was his first appearance before a London audience at a dinner of the new Vagabonds’ Club, presided over by Max O’Rell. Being young at that time, he took himself seriously, he said, and was fearful of following such exponents of graceful wit as the chairman and G. W. Steevens, the great war correspondent and writer of that day. But as Max O’Rell entered upon his speech his opinions began to change.

The report takes up the story in Doctor Roberts’ own words:

I listened with dismay and saw the strained efforts of the guests down below to keep awake. They all loved and admired Max O’Rell, but they could not hear what he was saying. They knew it was good, and faith is good, but not just after dinner. There is a time for everything. Everything in its proper time!

G. W. Steevens got up. Then we all sat up cheerfully. He read in his speech. Max O’Rell, at least had his typed and could read it. G. W. who was full of wit and wrote exquisite English, had not had his typed, and he could not read his own writing. And sometimes he got so balled up with it that some of us from the audience would cheerfully suggest a word to him. Still G. W. stuck to it and read from manuscript, very inarticulately, an address which turned out, when printed, to be an exquisite piece of pure English and delightful wit, thoroughly worthy of him.

By that Time I had said, "Oh dear me! I wouldn’t dare to say anything serious to this audience."

I was thinking of the things O’Rell had said, and thinking of the things G. W. Steevens had said, and was going to have a little fun with myself, in the hope that the audience would sympathize and enjoy it. Then the toast of "Our Guests" was proposed, and Percy White got up—an admirable writer, who, I must think, had never tried to make a speech before. He did it on faith. As I have said; it is sometimes misplaced faith. He did not say very much, but when he had forgotten what he had started to say, he undertook to introduce me.

He said: "Of course you all know Dr. Roberts"—and then he forgot the named of my books.

He started again: "Of course you are all very familiar with Dr. Roberts"—then he stopped; he looked for the piece of paper on which he had evidently had the names of my books written down. He could not find it. At last he remembered. There is one little book which I know none of you remember. I had forgotten it myself. Years ago, I did not even write it myself, but I wrote the introduction, and made the selections. It was called "Poems of Wild Life."

With a desperate effort White said: "Of course you all know Dr. Roberts’ Wild Life."

It was horribly informal, but I could not resist the opening. I sprang to my feet with an earnest protest to the Chairman and to the audience not to be misled by these remarks of Mr. Percy White; "because I had not had any wild life so far, and at the age which I had attained even then it did not look as if I ever would have, though I had come to London in hopes. I would hasten to say very earnestly, however, gentlemen, that those hopes had not yet been fulfilled—and now it was rather late." (Laughter.)

However, that started me, and the audience was so eager to laugh at the feeblest witticism that it laughed and laughed and laughed, and kept going with its mirth so often and so long that I did not have to say anything else that was in the least clever or interesting, because as soon as I started a sentence they concluded it was going to be amusing and began to laugh. So I just mumbled the termination and let it go at that, and thought up something else that might be equally suggestive.


"A Pretty Good Canadian," Maple Leaf 4:2, April 1925, 4-8 [back]