Non-Fictional Prose

by Charles G.D. Roberts

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




In making my selections for this volume of wild-life poems, I have taken no thought for completeness. The scope of such a collection might naturally be regarded as embracing the field of earlier folk song—the verse produced by peoples just emerging from barbarism; but for immediateness of interest I have concerned myself in the main with that characteristically modern verse which is kindled where the outposts of an elaborate and highly self-conscious civilization come in contact with crude humanity and primitive nature. The element of self-consciousness, I think, is an essential one to this species of verse, which delights us largely as affording a measure of escape from the artificial to the natural. Such escape is not to be achieved unless the gulf between be bridged for us. This the poet effects by depicting wild existence and untrammeled action in the light of a continual consciousness of the difference between such existence and our own. To have any articulate message of enticement for our imaginations, the life of the wilds must be brought into relation with what we have experienced or conceived. We must be able to imagine ourselves as thrown into like situations, as confronted with like emergencies. The action or the situation comes home to us through the personality of such a one as ourselves, who is thoroughly in touch with the life he is describing, yet consciously belongs to a wider sphere. By such medium the most remote phases of human existence, the most unfamiliar aspects of the natural world, are drawn easily within range of our sympathies.

Such wild-life verse as this is essentially a product of later days. The first waves of civilization which, within the last century or two, washed into the wilderness of the east and west, consisted mainly of the pioneer element. These pioneers were men wholly engrossed in action. After them came some who fled from the weariness of the artificial and the conventional, and who were able to give imaginative expression to their delight in the change. By a natural reaction, it is to the most highly-developed society that such writings as they produced make strongest appeal, restoring confidence in the reality of the universal and original impulses, and re-emphasizing the distinction between the essentials and the accessories of life. In the struggling civilizations which give birth to them, however, these writings are apt to be regarded with distaste. It is to the voice from the drawing-room, rather, that the wilderness hearkens, so the better to keep itself reminded of the ideal toward which it works.

From American writers, taking all in all, comes our most abundant and distinctive wild-life verse—and it is from English readers that this verse wins its most cordial appreciation. The prince of all wild-life poets is the "Poet of the Sierras," Joaquin Miller, an American of the Americans, to whom the Old World hearkens with delight, but whom the New World eyes askance. English critics place Miller in the front rank of American singers. American critics, on the other hand, though granting him, not over willingly, a measure of genius, will allow him no such standing as an equality with Longfellow or with Lowell. The case illustrates what I have suggested in a preceding paragraph. Our civilization on this side the Atlantic has not quite outgrown the remembrance of its early struggles. The riper portions of America and Canada have attained a degree of culture not distinguishable, at its best, from that of the Old World; but we are not yet satisfied that the Old World appreciates this fact. We are so few generations from the pioneer that his hard experiences have not yet, to our eyes, put on the enchanting purples of remoteness. We have a tendency to accentuate our regard for culture, for smoothness, for conventionality; and we sometimes betray a nervous apprehension lest writings descriptive of the life on our frontiers should be mistaken as descriptive of our own life. Miller’s work, almost in its very defects, answered to an Old World need. There, consequently, it found fitting recognition. To New World life it had less to give, outside of its purely poetic qualities; and its faults were just such as the New World civilization had been at such pains to outgrow. Moreover, and worst of all, this work was taken by the Old World as a typical New World product, in which capacity, of course, it had to be emphatically repudiated. In very truth, the bizarre experiences which inspire such verse as Miller’s, such prose as that of Bret Harte, are as foreign to the typical American as to the typical Englishman,—and much less to the former’s liking.

The genius of Miller is peculiarly fitted to bring this kind of verse to perfection. By nature, by temperament, he belongs to a self-conscious and long-established society. He is continually analyzing himself in others. He is always holding himself sufficiently apart from his surroundings to be able to analyze their savour to the full. At the same time, his intense human sympathy keeps him in touch with the subject of his observation; and a childhood spent in his wild Oregon home, the associations of his youth and early manhood among the turbulent pioneers and miners of the Pacific coast, have so indelibly impressed his genius, that the master-passions alone, and those social problems only that are of universal import, concern him when his singing robes are on. There is thus a primitive sincerity in his expression, and in his situations a perennial interest. His passion is manly, fervent, wholesome; and the frankness of it particularly refreshing in these indifferent days. He is a lover of sonorous rhythms, and betrays here and there in his lines the enthralling cadences of Swinburne. But in spite of such surface resemblances, he is fundamentally as original as fresh inspiration, novel material, and a strongly individualized genius might be expected to make him. My excuse for singling out the work of Joaquin Miller for special comment is the fact that such poems as "With Walker in Nicaragua," "Kit Carson’s Ride," "Arizonian," and many others for which I would fain have found space, appear to me the most characteristic work of their kind. They are just such poems as our dilettante-ridden society is in need of.

The active romantic element present in all this wild-life verse,— pre-eminently in the verse of Joaquin Miller,—makes it of special significance to us in these days, when poetry has become too much a matter of technique, too little a matter of inspiration. The saving grace we moderns are apt to lack is that of a frank enthusiasm. We are for ever lauding the virtue of restraint, and expounding the profound significance of repose. There has been so much talk of the repose of conscious strength, that one is apt to forget about the repose of conscious weakness

"Calm’s not life’s crown, though calm is well"

He is but a little poet who dares not show himself moved. The great ones, both of earlier and later days, have been ready enough to throw off their repose when they would exert their utmost strength. A familiarity with the work of our wild-life singers may bring question upon the modern poetic dogma of justification by restraint. It may also assist, not inappreciably, in that renascence of a true romantic spirit, toward which some of our best spirits look for the rejuvenation of our song. Out of what is called Romanticism has arisen the most stimulative poetry, the poetry for poets, the poetry of Shakespeare and the Elizabethans, of Chatterton, of Coleridge, of Keats. And the quality of stimulation is that which the true poet should desire above all else, even if at the expense of the conservation of his verse. The torch that conveys the light to a score of waiting beacons, though its flame smoulder thereafter, is not less worthy than the brightest and most enduring of those signal-fires of whose incandescence it was the parent. The elements of romance lie thick in the life about us, but the tendency is to ignore them lest we should seem to wear our heart on our sleeve. An example of greater frankness and sincerity may not be lost upon us.

Let me not be misunderstood, however, as joining in the present too common cry of critics, that our poetry is in process of decadence. This age has still singing for it rather more than its share of master-poets, to whom it were the height of folly to imagine that my talk of "the minds of the day," and "dilettantism," in any degree applied. My words are of the young men from among whom must come the masters of the future generation. Among the young poets, with all their admirable dexterity, there is a too general lack of romance, of broad human impulse, of candid delight in life. To them such verse as that of Miller and his fellows contains a message of power.

The reader will doubtless miss from this collection many poems which he would have considered appropriate to it. For some of these omissions it is quite possible either my judgment or my knowledge may be at fault. In certain cases, again, I have had no choice. There are poems by Bayard Taylor, Bret Harte, and others, which I greatly wished to include; but the veto of the single firm of publishers concerned intervened. Many fine poems, moreover, I have thought well to omit as being already household words. There is a large section of wild-life verse which lies open to the charge of having been written rather from reading than from experience. This is but scantily represented. The literature of America, about a generation back, was blossoming most exuberantly with poems on the American Indian. As a rule this work was not effective and the little of it that was genuinely fine and strong has become so hackneyed as to lie without any purpose. The field of Australian song, whence I thought to have gathered for my collection many of its choicest and most distinctive ornaments, has been pre-empted by Mr. Sladen in his Australian Ballads and Rhymes, a late predecessor of the present volume in the series to which both belong. I am indebted to Mr. Sladen, however, for having left to me the picturesque and virile work of Mr. John Boyle O’Reilly. To the living authors represented in this collection I owe grateful acknowledgment for the courteous and liberal assistance which they have rendered me. To certain other poets, not heroin represented, I make the opportunity of expressing my thanks for a goodwill which is none the less appreciated because the firm of publishers already alluded to refused to second it. I have also gratefully to record my obligations to the following publishers, who were most generous in granting me permission to select from their copyright works:—

Messrs. Charles Scribner & Sons, D. Appleton & Co., Tricknor & Co., S.C. Griggs & Co.


"Introduction," Poems of Wild Life, ed. Charles G.D. Roberts (London: Walter Scott; Toronto: Gage, 1888), ix-xviii [back]