the short-lived imperial renaissance in Canada that
was ushered in by the Conservative government of R.
B. Bennett (1930-1935), a small number of Canadian citizens
were honoured by King George V with the title of Knight
Bachelor. They included Sir Frederick Banting, Sir Ernest
MacMillan, and Sir Charles G. D. Roberts, as the representatives
of Medicine, Music, and Literature in Canada. At the
time of his knighthood, Roberts had published some twenty
volumes of poetry (which was also widely anthologized),
forty novels and nature stories, four history and travel
books, and many articles, addresses and book introductions.
Gordon Douglas Roberts (1860-1943) was a native of New
Brunswick, born January 10, 1860 in the town of Douglas
to the Reverend G. Goodridge Roberts and his wife Emma
Wetmore Bliss Roberts. Like his younger cousin Bliss
Carman after him, he attended the Fredericton Collegiate
School and the University of New Brunswick (1875-1878),
where he later earned an M.A., the first of his many
literary achievements and honours (to be followed in
1906 by an honorary LL.D.). Many more were to come,
culminating in his knighthood in 1935. While still a
professor of English at King’s College, Windsor N.S.,
he was elected in 1890 to the Royal Society of Canada.
In 1926 he received the Lorne Pierce Gold Medal of the
Royal Society, and was elected president of the Canadian
Authors Association for a two-year term, visiting its
branches from coast to coast, and founding one in his
home province. In 1942, Mount Allison University would
confer upon him the degree of Doctor of Letters Honoris
Causa. Nor was Roberts a man of letters only.
During a twenty-year residency in England (1907-1925)
he had enlisted for active service in the British Army—ten
years over age—transferring to the Canadian Army in
1916 as a major in the Records Office, and serving in
France for most of 1916 and 1917 as a Special Press
Correspondent. His final duty in uniform was to produce
the third and last volume of Lord Beaverbrook’s war-time
history, Canada in Flanders (1916-1918).
his return to Canada in 1925, Roberts found he was not
forgotten by his countrymen, as an article by William
Arthur Deacon in Saturday Night Magazine makes
Roberts is without question the greatest literary
figure Canada has produced. As poet, as scholar, as
prose stylist, as nature student and short story writer,
as novelist and as historian—he is in the first rank
in each capacity. He is also peculiarly the artistic
embodiment of a pronounced national tendency. (qtd.
in Pomeroy 275)
lively revival of interest in Roberts that greeted his
return to Canada in 1925 was soon soured, however, by
an apparent growing distaste among young avant-garde
intellectuals for "the Maple Leaf brand of Victorianism
that had dominated Canadian literature much too long"
(Adams, Sir Charles 185). As Patricia Morley
observes, the mere appearance of
G. D. Roberts, then in his mid sixties, goes far to
explain their opposition to the poetic ideals he embraced.
Picture a dark, three-piece suit, a monocle complete
with black ribbon, a haughty expression, and an establishment
air. Any young intellectual would hate his guts on
outbreak in 1939 of the Second World War gave Roberts
one final poetic cause. Having already condemned passionately
the 1938 Munich agreement in a poem entitled "Peace
With Dishonour," he responded with an anthology
of patriotic verse, Flying Colours (1942), that
included some of his own pieces. A year later, and less
than three weeks after his marriage to Joan Montgomery,
he died in Toronto on November 26, 1943 at the age of
eighty-three. (His first wife, Mary Isabel Fenety Roberts,
whom he married in 1880, had died in 1930; they had
lived apart for thirty-three years.) Since his death,
Roberts and his writings have gradually faded from the
collective Canadian consciousness, in spite of two biographies,
Sir Charles G.D. Roberts (1943) by Elsie Pomeroy
and Sir Charles God Damn (1986) by John Coldwell
Adams, several selections of his poetry and prose, and
monumental editions of his Collected Poems (1985)
and Collected Letters (1989).
the poet needs to be re-evaluated and re-appreciated
for the twenty-first century. The logical place for
such a process to begin is with his first published
book, Orion, and Other Poems, which appeared
in November 1880, when he was only nineteen. It has
never been reissued, although all its poems appear individually
in the Collected Poems of 1985 in a jumbled chronological
arrangement that destroys the shape and resulting meaning
of the original volume. Both Roberts’ arrangement and
the individual poems of Orion, and Other Poems need
to be considered afresh, free from the outset from artificially-imposed
disjunctures and critical baggage that now freight Roberts’
might begin with the much-quoted youthful reaction of
another Canadian poet of Roberts’ own generation, whose
reputation seems to have weathered the storms of literary
fashion somewhat better, Archibald Lampman. Addressing
the Ottawa Literary and Scientific Society in February
1891, Lampman recalled a seminal event in his life that
occurred in May 1881 when he was an undergraduate student
at Trinity College Toronto:
sat up all night reading and re-reading Orion
in a state of the wildest excitement and when I went
to bed I could not sleep. It seemed to me a wonderful
thing that such a work could be done by a Canadian,
by a young man, by one of ourselves. It was like a
voice from some new paradise of art calling us to
be up and doing. (410)
reaction from the Trinity College campus is recorded
in an anonymous review (probably by Joseph Edmund Collins)1
in the College’s student magazine, Rouge et Noir,
for February 1883. Among the individual poems singled
out for praise there were "Orion"—"It
is surely not too much to say that we have not in the
whole scope of English song any greater lines than these
[65-68]," and the "Ode to Drowsihood"—"a
poem of poetry’s dreamland, and certainly unrivalled
even by Tennyson’s ‘Lotos Eaters’." These paeans
also reflected a long-standing nationalistic grievance:
verily believe that had Matthew Arnold, or Tennyson,
been born in Toronto, or the city of Fredericton,
they might have sung their souls away, and not a corporal’s
guard of the public have heard of them through the
Canadian press. (Collins, Orion 12)
official approval came in his 1883 biography, Life
and Times of the Right Honourable Sir John A. Macdonald:
Mr. Roberts’ surpassing gift of song, he is one of
the most accomplished of our native scholars, and
the master of a marrowy delightful prose that is not
surpassed by that of any other Canadian writer…. Of
this volume, says a discriminating critic, in a lengthy
and almost rapturous review, in the New York Independent,
"the author has not rushed before the public
with a great bundle of all kinds in his hands, but
he has given us a little book of choice things, with
the indifferent things well weeded out." (465)
selected "Ballad of the Poet’s Thought," "Ballad
to a Kingfisher," and "Orion" for special
praise, concluding that:
should be sorry to see the transcendent genius of
Mr. Roberts cage itself within the bounds even of
this ample dominion; and though he may find in our
wondrous forests, and our rushing rivers, as he has
found, inspiration, and harmony as high as has as
yet been wakened by human hand, yet if he wish to
go beyond, and sing to all quarters of the world a
note that posterity will not let die,…then we shall
gladly let him go, bidding him God speed. (471)
later declared his debt to Collins in a letter to Lampman
of September 23, 1897, declaring him to be a man who
not just liked, but loved poetry—one of those "rarae
Collins has that deep and subtle sympathy, that intuitive
perception, and vividness of imagination, which convince
me that he must have the capacity for creative work
of the highest class; though he has not yet found
time [to] exert his powers on a suitable theme, being
always engaged in a loose, random work. (29)
reviews of Orion, and Other Poems were to appear
also in The Montreal Gazette, The Mirimachi Advance,
and Rose-Belford’s Canadian Monthly and National
Review (see Pomeroy 38-39). The last of these is
also reminiscent of Collins:
is thoroughly Greek, and saturated with the spirit
of the glorious Greek religious art. Surely it is
like what Keats wrote and Shelley; that is to say,
it is true poetry, unmarked by mannerism any more
than Shelley is marked by it…. [Does] not the publication
of such a book as this by Mr. Roberts, of New Brunswick,
justify us in auguring good things of the spread of
a genuine literary spirit in Canada? (qtd. in
1889, one of Roberts’ numerous anthologists (and a poet
himself), William Douw Lighthall, introducing his Songs
of the Great Dominion, had nothing but praise and
hope to offer the young poet:
foremost name in Canadian song at the present day
is that of Charles George Douglas Roberts, poet, canoeist,2
and Professor of Literature…. His claim to supremacy
lies, for the rest, chiefly in the quality of the
two volumes, Orion, and Other Poems, which
he published in 1880 at the age of twenty-one, and
In Divers Tones, which appeared in 1887…. The
personal quality in his poetry is distinguished, next
to richness of colour and artistic freedom of emotion
and expression, by manliness… This manliness and dignity
renders him particularly fitted for the great work
which Canada at present offers her sons, and as he
is only twenty-nine we hope to see his future a great
1891, however, Lampman distanced himself from such laudatory
views of Roberts in his description of Orion, and
Other Poems and In Divers Tones (1886) in
"Two Canadian Poets [:] a Lecture":
am now able to discren Mr. Roberts’ deficiencies.
I know that he lacks tenderness, variety, elasticity
and that he never approached the nobler attitudes
of feeling; yet that early work of his has a special
and mysterious charm for me—and it is indeed excellent,
of an astonishing gift in workmanship, with passages
here and there which in their way are almost unsurpassable. (Essays
Lampman endorses the view that Orion, and Other Poems
was a rubicon in the development of Canadian poetry:
all the verse-writing published in Canada before the
appearance of Orion was of a more or less barbarous
character. The drama of Saul by Charles Heavysege
and some of Heavysege’s sonnets are about the only
exceptions, which can be made to this statement. Mr.
Roberts was the first Canadian writer in Verse who
united a strong original genius with a high degree
of culture, and an acute literary judgement. He was
the first to produce a style, strongly individual
in tone, and founded on the study of the best writers.…
The first volume was of course immature, but it was
a immaturity full of promise, and full of exhilaration
for the poet’s younger contemporaries. Some of the
work in it is astonishing work for a Canadian schoolboy
of eighteen or nineteen. (Essays 95)
years later, in 1897, J.A. Cooper, the editor of The
Canadian Magazine, in a review of one of Roberts’
early novels, would hesitate:
excellence does not lie in his creative faculty, although
he can create. His poetry has shown his limitations
in this respect. His merit, whatever its degree, lies
rather in his careful artistic training. He has studied
poetry and prose, with their attendant arts. He chooses
always the right word, the best phrase, the proper
construction; not a detail of his work but receives
the closest scrutiny. He polishes every sentence with
the utmost care, and every piece of work is thus as
finished and as smooth as a good workman can make
it. But to my mind, he lacks the power which marks
out an epoch-making writer. (64-65)
his later book, Charles G.D. Roberts (1923),
James Cappon found somewhat less to approve of in Orion,
and Other Poems:
imitates the style of the master with a skill which
is full of promise in a poet who was not yet twenty.
The rich colouring of Keats, his luxurious phrase,
his delicate impressionism, his favourite lyrical
cries and manner of embellishing his theme have at
times the full flavour of his model;… But those early
poems—written before 1880—are too much like mere copies
of the master’s work. (82-83)
1924 J. D. Logan had already looked back on Orion,
and Other Poems as the catalyst in a cultural
reaction that he called the "First Renaissance
in Canadian Literature":
is meant by the First Renaissance in Canadian Literature?
In 1880 a young native-born Canadian, Charles G.D.
Roberts, published a book of poems. The critics of
England and the United States thought well of the
verse. There was in it a quality that had not been
in previous books of verse by native-born Canadians.
The poems were marked by a certain noteworthy artistic
finish in the craftsmanship. This was significant.
Hitherto native-born Canadian poets had not been adroit
in technique; they had been very careless about it,
and some had no respect or feeling for it at all.
Poetry was poetry, they thought, whether it was well
dressed or not. With the publication of his Orion,
Roberts sounded the death knell of slovenly or indifferent
technique in Canadian poetry. Working with him, and
largely under the influence of his ideal of technical
finish in verse, were Lampman, Carman, Pauline Johnson,
Duncan Campbell Scott, Frederick George Scott, and
others. They all cared supremely for fine technique
in poetry. (107)
the same time, however, Logan felt compelled to conclude
from Roberts’ "English neo-classical idyllism and
sensuous impressionism" that "his genius lacked…original
imagination or imaginative power.… Roberts appears as
an unoriginal or unimaginative nature-and-figure-painter
and verbal melodist" (117). In subsequent years,
as Modernism and New Criticism made increasing inroads
into Canada, Orion, and Other Poems, like the
work of the Confederation poets generally, came to be
seen less as groundbreaking than derivative—a colonial
offshoot of the Romantic-Victorian tradition that belonged
to Canadian literary adolescence rather than its assured
maturity. Indeed, in F.R. Scott’s famous "Canadian
Authors Meet" (1927), Roberts, Lampman, Carman
and Duncan Campbell Scott are made the cultural icons
of mediocrity, and in E.K. Brown’s On Canadian Poetry
(1943) Roberts is cited as a superficial writer who
nevertheless manages in Orion, and Other Poems
to give a fresh start to Canadian poetry. By 1957 James
Reaney would write almost contemptuously of Roberts’
enduring prominence in A.J.M. Smith’s The Book of
Charles G.D. Roberts’ poems take up a commanding situation
in the centre of the book [166-74] and are called
sophisticated. To my mind he barely gets beyond photography;
the views of nature he presents are written by a nice
melancholy pebble simply lying there on the beach
looking at things. (285)
the following year, R.E. Rashley returned to those earlier
remarks by Lampman on Orion, and Other Poems:
is not vivifying ideas nor an electrifying new manner
that he notices, but that the verse is so good, and
that it was written by an Canadian.… There is no searching
into the meaning of life in the Canadian environment
in this first volume; one or two hints, but no more….
Roberts was more a literary person than a person with
a conviction, not himself a centre of development,
though he did much to encourage other poets to develop. (64-65)
Frye wrote little about Roberts, but the following assessment
might perhaps be applied in part to Orion, and Other
is a subjective and descriptive poet, not a mythical
one, and the organizing formal principles which give
both intellectual and emotional unity to his work
come out of his personal life. The formal basis of
his poetry is chiefly in the recollections and associations
of his Maritime childhood. Being a late Romantic,
this means that his central emotional quality is nostalgia. (292)
Pacey, later to be editor of Roberts’ Collected Poetry,
concluded in 1958 that:
Orion, and Other Poems today, it is difficult
for us to see why the book received such extravagant
critical acclaim. Only when we remind ourselves that
it was published when the poet was twenty, and that
most of its contents were written when he was an undergraduate,
do we realize that it is a remarkable performance.
It is imitative, naively romantic, defective in diction,
the poetry of books rather that life itself, but it
is facile, clever, and occasionally distinctly beautiful.…
What we hear above all is Roberts tuning his instrument—practising
the sonnet, the ode, the ballade, the rondeau, the
epistle, the elegy, and the narrative. The verse is
always competent—smooth in rhythm, rich and suggestive
in language, apt in imagery—but it is seldom very
distinctive. It is the work of an apprentice, who
is quite frankly serving under a sequence of masters
from whom he hopes to learn his art. (Sir Charles
perhaps it was Roy Daniells who set the tone for current
attitudes towards Roberts’ poetry in his chapter on
"Lampman and Roberts" in the Literary History
of Canada (2nd ed. 1976):
and less, as time goes on, do we recover aesthetic
satisfaction or imaginative stimulus from Robert’s
poems. But his symbolic stature increases. (421)
there is a summary statement of these dismissive attitudes
to Orion, and Other Poems, perhaps it is W.J.
Keith’s remark in Charles G.D. Roberts (1969)
that the book "might well have been produced by
a bright young undergraduate at Oxford or Cambridge"
major attempt to recuperate Orion, and Other Poems,
at least for an academic audience, is undeniably L.
R. Early’s "‘An Old-World Radiance’: Roberts’ Orion,
and Other Poems," in the Spring/Summer 1981
number of Canadian Poetry: Studies, Documents, Reviews.
Early notes with justification the passing without notice
just the previous year of the centenary of Roberts’
first collection of poems. Such a non-event still seems
strange, especially in view of what Early calls the
"almost mythical significance" of Orion,
and Other Poems in Canadian "literary history."
The book is
accompanied by more than cursory remarks on its contents.
In part this is because twentieth-century critics
depreciated Orion in favour of Roberts’ later
work; largely it is because few poems from the volume
were printed in the selections made by Roberts and
his later editors. Today Orion is probably
the most famous unread work in Canadian literature.
The publication of the first complete edition of Roberts’
poetry may stimulate interest in many of his lesser-known
pieces, including his early work. In any case, his
first volume deserves closer attention than it has
had, as much for its unexamined merits as for its
ambiguous reputation. (8)
also points out that even "Roberts became similarly
ambiguous about his youthful work" (9) for he reprinted
only about half of the Orion book in Poems
1901 and 1907, and even fewer in his Selected
Poems of 1936, deprecating his "earliest derivative
stuff" such as the "Ode to Drowsihood"
and some extracts from Orion.
is imperative that this poetry book receive
the thorough critical and historical re-appraisal it
deserves. A number of questions about Orion, and
Other Poems come to mind. How do the collection
and its constituent poems measure up against contemporary
work in Canada and abroad? What were the young Roberts’
literary models and influences, and personal experiences,
and what did he create from them? What were his principles
of organization in selecting, assembling and shaping
those early poems into a book? How did Orion, and
Other Poems and its success affect Roberts’ own
development as a poet and writer, and that of contemporary
and subsequent Canadian poets?
fact remains that up to the present such questions would
have been difficult to answer. The publication of
the Collected Poems in 1985 did not create
the impetus Early hoped to see for a renaissance of
critical work on Orion, and Other Poems. There
is one obvious reason for that failure: Pacey’s controlling
scheme of printing all of Roberts’ poems in a rigidly
chronological order (see Bentley, "Review"
134-135 and Jewinski 106). The poems of Orion, and
Other Poems, like those of his other collections,
thus appear as mere disiecta membra poetae, and
Roberts’ own original organization by mood, length,
theme, meter, form and genre is lost. In Pacey’s edition
the following jumbled order of poems results: 19, 26-27,
10, 17, 3, 1, 29, 2, 20, 11, 26, 5, 21, 8, 6-7,
25, 30, 14, 4, 9, 23-24, 18, 15, 13, 12,
22, 16. Only the three italicized pairs are left in
their intended sequence. To appreciate just how grave
a disservice this does, it is necessary to place the
book both formalistically and thematically in its classical
Orion, and Other Poems owed a great deal to Roberts’
reading of the classics was noted by the anonymous reviewer
for Rose-Belford’s Canadian Monthly and National
Review in 1880:
the other lyric poems—all good, not one feeble or
wanting in verve, and or originality—we specially
commend those which revive classical forms, those
in Sapphics and Choriambics.… [Does] not the publication
of such a book by Mr. Roberts, of New Brunswick, justify
us in auguring good things of the spread of a genuine
literary spirit in Canada? Here is a writer whose
power and originality it is impossible to deny—here
is a book of which any literature might be proud.
(qtd. in Hall 312)
century later, Early is still appreciative of that achievement:
showcases its mythological narratives, five of them
if we count Roberts’ long poem on Sir Launcelot,…[which]
occupy roughly half the pages of the book.… Although
uneven in quality, "Orion" and the other
mythological poems reflect a remarkable understanding
by Roberts of his major precursors in the genre, as
well as an ability to use both classical and nineteenth-century
sources effectively. (11)
also acknowledges, however, that
twentieth-century critics…have seen little substantial
value in it. Some of the earlier ones regarded Roberts’
mythological poems categorically as exercises in escapism—surely
an inadequate understanding of myth from a modern
viewpoint.… In short, the various and scattered criticism
of Orion leaves much room for analysis of the
key poems and their arrangement, and for remarks on
their significance in Roberts’ oeuvre and the
poetry of his time. (9)
seems likely, in fact, that Roberts’ chief model for
his arrangement of the poems in Orion was the
Odes of Horace, which he had come to know intimately
from his Latin studies with his father at home, under
George Parkin at the Collegiate School, and from his
studies in the classics at the University of New Brunswick,
under George E. Foster. To point to the most obvious
link: like Orion, and Other Poems, Book 3 of
Horace’s Odes also contains 30 poems, and concludes
with the poet’s personal sphragis, or ‘seal-poem’:
Exegi monumentum aere perennius (3.30). That
ode parallels Roberts’ concluding poem "Dedication,"
defining Horace’s achievement as a Roman lyric poet—the
first and only one of his kind. The book as a whole
reveals Horatian groupings and patterns of poems by
form, theme, and meter, sometimes combining with poems
and groups in the other two books to present even wider
schemes of arrangement. The Horatian parallel for the
opening group, "Epigraph," the lapidary
"Dedication" to his Father,
and "To the Spirit of Song" is Ode
1.1, the programmatic proem to the whole
collection, "Maecenas atavis edite regibus."
Unanimity even about Horace’s schemes of organization
will not likely be reached, but a good impression of
Horace’s intentions and achievement can be found in
Santirocco’s survey, Unity and Design in Horace’s
Odes (1986) and in Anderson ("Theory").
Two examples of Horace’s grander arrangement are the
so-called introductory "Parade Odes" (1.1-9)
which showcase nine different lyric meters and themes,
and the "Roman Odes" (3. 1-6), which
present in a single meter (Alcaic) and an extended manner
Horace’s own ethical, philosophical and socio-political
views, and even venture to counsel Augustus himself.
content-analysis of Orion, and Other Poems reveals
some fascinating relationships among Roberts’ themes,
forms, meters, lengths and words:
the Spirit of Song"
poet’s craft, patron
myth, narrative, love
myth, narrative, love
and the Four Queens"
myth, narrative, love
of the Poet’s Thought"
of Three Mistresses"
poet’s calling, love
to a Kingfisher"
myth, personal reflection
of a Bride"
and marriage, hopes fulfilled
and marriage, hopes deferred
myth, despair, mother-son
to A.W. Straton"
classical visions, inspiration
(echoes of Keats)
(Shirley’s view denied)
despair, Greek myth,
world, geology, future doubts
Sappho, poetry, love
separation, Greek myth (Ovid)
deafness to beauty
Shannon and the Chesapeake"
to Bliss Carman"
poet’s craft, home
love for father (patron)
is, for instance, a simple counterpoint in poems 1-5
between lyric and narrative, varied further by length,
form, and meter: lyric-trochaics (1), narrative iambic
pentameter blank verse (2), lyrical-narrative iambic
pentameter stanzas (3), narrative trochaic stanza (4),
and ballad(e) (5). Poems 6-8 continue a four-poem ballad(e)
movement, exploring the poet’s burden (5-6), myth (7),
and longing for his wedding-day (8). Poems 9-10 are
both in iambic stanzas (lyric, and narrative), followed
by a movement of three rondeaus on love and friendship
(11-13). Two Gothic tales follow (14-15), each in a
different meter (anapests, iambics). "A Song of
Morning" (16) dispels that darkness and Angst,
and introduces three more love-lyrics (17-19). Poems
20-21 are sonnets on quite different classical themes.
The underlying theme of unrequited love of Sappho and
Phaon (20) anticipates "Sappho" (22), and
"Miriam.—I" (23, in Sapphics). "Miriam—II"
(24) is also in an Aeolic meter (Choriambics). The two
"Miriam" poems seem to allude to his rocky
love-affair with his young fiancee, Mary (May) Fenety.
The run of love-lyrics (16-24) is closed by "A
Blue Blossom" (25). The last five of the thirty
poems are devoted variously to patriotic narrative (26),
nature (27-28), and friendship and poetry (29-30), the
latter a blank verse epistle, followed by an Alcaic
lyric to his father. The last metrically recapitulates
the "Sappho" poems (20, 22). Poem lengths
range between the sonnets and rondeaus to the long narratives
towards the beginning of the book: "Orion"
(460 lines) and "Launcelot" (290 lines). Two
other long poems are placed in the second half—22 (126
lines), and at the end—29 (106 lines). Such patterns
reveal an able and thoughtful craftsmanship on the young
poet’s part, and would repay closer analysis. It is
unfortunate that Pacey’s Collected Poems obliterates
those patterns so completely.
his 1927 interview with Lorne Pearce, Roberts confessed
to that profound debt to the classics for shaping his
poetic sensibilities and his craft, especially Horace
and Vergil, while at the same time he was becoming familiar
at college with Keats’ and Shelley’s treatment of the
ancients through Palgrave’s Golden Treasury,
and with the principles of literary history
and theory in Stopford Brooke’s Primer of English
Literature. That he used Lemprière’s Classical
Dictionary as well is confirmed by his 1906 novel
The Heart that Knows, in which he mentions "an
old copy of Lemprière’s Classical Dictionary
in the rector’s library" (303). Asked on the occasion
what he had brought out of his study of the classics,
he replied "Everything that I am. It was my formative
period. I was moulded on the classics, and Greek especially
was a great passion with me" (Whalen 7).
father (another Horatian theme, perhaps) also had a
strong influence on the development of his poetic tastes
and his craft. Even before beginning Charles’ formal
lessons at home, "his father would read aloud to
him favourite passages from Milton, Tennyson and Longfellow
[he also liked Byron], inspiring him in his earliest
days with the love of poetry. When he was eight years
old, lessons became a trifle more formal. His father
then started him in Latin, Algebra and Arithmetic. Geometry
and French were introduced a couple of years later"
(Pomeroy 8-9). Roberts later recalled that there was
actually no literary tradition in the New Brunswick
of his boyhood at all, "other than that which I
felt in my own home. My Father himself could turn out
a finished piece of verse, and wrote a beautiful essay"
(Whalen 3). Pomeroy records Roberts’ first attempt at
a poem on the Tantramar Marshes near the rectory in
Westcock, and his first published prose efforts on agriculture.
In all his writing his father’s influence was felt in
learning that fundamental lesson required of all artists
(Horace had devoted much of his Ars Poetica to
it): self-criticism: "This needs improvement.
Think it out for yourself" (Pomeroy 13). At fourteen
he began the poem "Out Of Pompeii," published
in 1881 (Later Poems), under the inspiration
of Bulwer Lytton’s The Last Days of Pompeii (1834)
(see Kilpatrick, "Missed"). At Fredericton
Collegiate School he was taught Latin and Greek (having
begun the former with his father) first by H.S. Bridges
(later of UNB) and George Parkin (see "Epistle
to Bliss Carman"). Parkin taught both English and
the classics, and in an extraverted style, reading Homer,
Vergil, and Horace aloud to the class (in and out of
school), along with Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Swinburne,
Tennyson, Browning and Arnold (Pomeroy 22-23). Roberts
used this approach to great advantage himself in his
own teaching. By the time he arrived at UNB to work
under George Foster he had already composed—and blotted—many
lines of verse, and even published two pieces in The
Canadian Illustrated News: "Spring"
(a lyric) and "On the Dying Year" (a sonnet).
He left the Fredericton Collegiate School with the medal
in classics (Pomeroy 22).
his Latin and English professors he later recalled:
"Foster did not like teaching. I was a favourite
and I liked him, but most of the students did not. He
was what I might describe as lazily sarcastic to stupid
people." Nor did the classes in English at The
University of New Brunswick of the 1870s reach the level
of high criticism: "Neither of us [he and Carman]
paid much attention to English at the University. We
did not specialize in English courses. We did not regard
English as a subject. It was an element. We liked the
professor who taught English, Dr. Harrison. He had a
true appreciation of good literature, but he had to
teach it to a big class and to follow a certain outline.
The outline was a flea-bite to us" (Whalen 5).
Harrison would "read the poems and commend them
to his students, telling them to live with them, associate
with them and draw them into themselves. He gave no
biographical details and no analyses" (Whalen 6).
his first year at the University of New Brunswick (1876-1877)
he began writing poems that would eventually be included
in Orion, and Other Poems: "An Ode
to Winter," "The Maple," and "Amoris
Vincula" (Pomeroy 26). Others were written in his
third year at the rear of his classrooms, hiding behind
the dark glasses he wore because of eye trouble (Pomeroy
29). "At Pozzuoli" was apparently written
during a third-year class in Dynamical Geology, his
textbook open to the page containing an illustration
of the Serapis Temple in that Roman city’s market area.
Reflections on his own militia training at college,
which qualified him for a commission as captain (Pomeroy
29), may have contributed to the anti-cavalier poetic
sentiments in "Amoris Vincula." Pomeroy reports
that, with the exception of "a few short poems,"
all of the Orion poems were written while he
was at The University of New Brunswick. "The Shannon
and the Chesapeake" (first published in The
Canadian Illustrated News for 1879) was an early
one, and "Orion" itself was influenced by
Swinburne and the Shelley of "Alastor" and
"Prometheus" (30)—and one should certainly
add Keats’s "Endymion" and Tennyson’s "Oenone").
But he was also aware of what Canadian poets were publishing:
"Amoris Vincula" was "partly inspired"
by a poem of Charles Mulvany (Pomeroy 26). Pomeroy herself
regretted that "A Blue Blossom" and "To
the Spirit of Song" (written when Roberts was seventeen)
had not been reprinted in Selected Poems (1936)
(30). "An Epistle to Bliss Carman" was written
(as it states) in September of 1878, Carman’s first
year at college, welcoming Roberts’ younger cousin to
the college, and offering a heart-felt tribute to Parkin,
who had inspired both of them as their teacher back
at the Fredericton Collegiate School.
Roberts arrived at Chatham Grammar School as Head Master
in September 1879, already a published poet, he found
his pupils in a state of eager anticipation, but the
duties onerous (see Pomeroy 35-36 and Adams, Life
22). Still, he managed to find time to complete the
remaining poems for his book, and prepare the manuscript
for publication. Among those last poems were: "Iterumne?",
a sonnet that Cappon took as a lament over his own world-weariness
or failing powers (see Influences 18-19); it
is better read, in fact, as a dramatic monologue by
the Greek poet Sappho, placed here in the collection
to foreshadow the dramatic lyric "Sappho."
the end of the school year 1879-1880, the manuscript
of Orion, and Other Poems was on its way from
Fredericton to J. P. Lippincott and Co. in Philadelphia.
Part of the cost of publication, three hundred dollars,
had been underwritten by Roberts’ future father-in-law,
George E. Fenety, the Queen’s Printer in Fredericton.
(Roberts later commented "That was, of course,
necessary for the first book of an unknown writer….
Publishers are not philanthropists" [Whalen 11]).
When his book arrived from the printers in the fall
of 1880, copies sold for one dollar (Adams, Life
22). Roberts immediately sent off copies to Tennyson,
Swinburne, and Arnold in England, and to Longfellow,
Whitman, and Oliver Wendell Holmes in the United States.
(This last volume is now in Special Collections at Queen’s
University. Roberts’ inscription runs: "Oliver
W. Holmes / with the humble respect / and admiration
of the Author / Chatham N.B. / Nov. 29th 1880.")
Of all these, only the first two did not reply at all,
and Arnold and Holmes sent long letters of comment and
encouragement. Neither letter survives, apparently.
By 1885 Roberts had but two left himself, and Lippincott’s
were sold out (Collected Letters 19 Sept. 1885);
six months later no copies remained at all (Collected
Letters 22 Apr. 1886).
the many personal influences that shaped Orion, and
Other Poems, one other deserves mention: Mary (May)
Isabel Fenety, sister of his boyhood friend Will, daughter
of his literary patron, and the future Mrs. Roberts
(Adams, "Post" 78). He was smitten with May’s
charms (Adams wondered whether she was the "sexiest
girl in Fredericton" [Adams, "Post" 78])
when they met during his days at the Collegiate School,
and in all likelihood their separation during the first
two terms at Chatham lay behind such clearly erotic
poems as "Miriam.—I" and "Miriam.—II"
and "Love Days," "Ode to Night,"
and "Ballad to a Bride." A powerful and pervasive
youthful eroticism reveals itself also in the narratives
of "Orion," "Ariadne," and "Launcelot
and the Four Queens" that probably reflects his
own feelings. (The erotic vein in Roberts’ verse continued
to exercise his critics throughout his career.) Their
sometimes stormy courtship emerges in two recorded events:
the one that inspired "Without One Kiss" and
another when May angrily hurled to the floor his gift
of a specially-bound volume of Shelley, expecting
jewellery, not a "horrid book." That same
streak of character also showed when she learned of
plans for him to go off to Oxford. After a stormy scene
he put those plans on hold, and the wedding took place.
That decision would haunt his life and career.
future mother-in-law warned Charles that her daughter
was hard to live with (Adams, Sir Charles 23),
and the young poet apparently found that out for himself.
After living together in Chatham, Fredericton, Toronto,
and Windsor, NS, by 1897, when Roberts moved to New
York City, they were de facto separated for good.
He later commented flippantly: "Of course I don’t
live with my wife—nobody could, God bless her!"
May appears to have continued hoping for a reconciliation
that never came. She died on May 1, 1930 (Adams, Sir
Charles 161). Still, the pretty young May, that
"one great love of his life" (Adams, Life
162), clearly had much to do with the themes and
moods—and perhaps the very existence and success— of
Orion. It cannot be coincidental that the most
openly erotic lyrics which "bared his innermost
heart" were never reprinted. They would later have
been painfully embarrassing to him, in the light of
his more mature outlook and greatly changed feelings
about his wife.4
declared to his father in the final "Dedication"
that his themes were "Of alien matters in distant
regions / Wrought in the youth of the centuries"
(11-12). The claim that follows, "Yet of some worth
in thine eyes be they, / For bare mine innermost heart
they lay" (13-14) is equally true. His reading
of poetry and history, his deep love of the classics,
his feelings for college life, his friendships with
the Stratons and his cousin Bliss Carman, and his love
for May and anticipation of their marriage are together
the stuff and the spirit of Orion, and Other Poems.
deserves the last word. Here is what he had to say in
1933 to the Elson Club in Toronto, reflecting fifty-three
years later on the significance and influence his first
book of verse may have had:5
English Canadian poetry may be divided, very loosely…into
two periods,—the pre-war and the post-war. The pre-war
period may be considered as beginning in the 80’s,
with the publication of Crawford’s Old Spookses’
Pass, and Lampman’s Among the Millet, 1888.
At this point, if you will forgive me, I am compelled
to become personal for a moment. In the course of
this survey, I am going to disregard entirely my own
various books of verse and their influence, if any,
on the development of Canadian poetry. But it is necessary,
to avoid misunderstanding, that I should refer to
my little volume of juvenilia, Orion, and Other Poems,
which appeared in 1880. This book, which obtained
in Canada and abroad a recognition out of all proportion
to its merits, has been accepted as a sort of landmark.
All the verses it contains were written between the
ages of sixteen and nineteen—most of them before I
was eighteen. They are the work of practically a schoolboy,
drunk with the music of Keats, Shelley, Tennyson and
Swinburne. They are distinctly’prentice work, distinctly
derivative, and without significance except for their
careful craftsmanship and for the fact that they dared
deliberately to steer their frail craft out upon world
waters,—certain of these youthful efforts appearing
in the pages of the chief English and American magazines.
But the only importance attaching to the little book
lay in the fact that it started Lampman writing poetry
and was the decisive factor in determining Carman
to make poetry his career. ("Canadian" 80-81)
to the Introduction
author thanks D.M.R. Bentley for the attribution
of this review to Collins. Collins, whom Roberts
had known in Chatham N.B. as the editor of the Chatham
North Star, was dedicated to "fostering
the literary culture of the nation to give the inert
political body of confederation a heart and soul
of its own…. Around campfire and sitting room Collins
pushed Roberts to greater effort as a poet and greater
commitment as a nationalist, and he saw the publication
of Roberts’ Orion, and Other Poems in the
autumn of 1880 as the break-through necessary to
the creation of a Canadian literature. When Collins
moved to Toronto that winter to become an editor
at the Globe, he carried both his message
and Roberts’ example. It was probably Collins who,
in May 1881, provided the copy of Orion that
so inspired another young poet, Trinity College
student Archibald Lampman…. In short, Collins stimulated,
promoted, and drew together the two central members
of the group which would subsequently be labelled
the ‘Confederation Poets’" (Taylor 204-205;
and see Adams, "Roberts, Lampman"). [back]
A.C. Stewart’s 1896 satiric lines on the "canoe"
school of Canadian poets, see Bentley, "A Brief
Notice" 88. [back]
assessment elicited a strong reaction from Robin
Mathews, who protested that there simply were no
such productions to judge by—nor would it make any
difference if there were:
[Roberts] is called Father of
Canadian Poetry because he united in himself a number
of major themes, the major concerns, the major uncertainties,
the major philosophical complexities that have marked
serious Canadian writing. Lampman reacted with excitement
to see Roberts’ Orion, and
Other Poems, because he saw the possibility
of serious poetic work for his generation (52).
May’s liabilities as an academic hostess, and Charles’
frequent philanderings, see Adams, Life 50-51.
details of this occasion, especially the performance
of a seating of one of his poems by Healy Willan,
see Clarke and Kilpatrick, "Charles G.D. Roberts."
Cited in the Introduction
John Coldwell. "Roberts, Lampman and Edmund Collins."
The Sir Charles G.D. Roberts Symposium. Ed. Glenn
Cleaver. Reappraisals: Canadian Writers, Ottawa: U of
Ottawa P, 1984. 4-13.
"Sir Charles G.D. Roberts: Post Biography."
Canadian Poetry: Studies, Documents, Reviews
21 (Fall/Winter, 1987): 177-180.
Sir Charles God Damn: the Life of Sir Charles G.D.
Roberts. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1986.
W.S. "The Theory and Practice of Poetic Arrangement
from Virgil to Ovid." Poems in Their Place.
Ed. Neil Fraistat. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina
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D.M.R. "A New Brunswick Roberts." Rev. of
The Collected Poems of Sir Charles G.D. Roberts:
a Critical Edition. Ed. Desmond Pacey. Canadian
Literature 112 (1987): 133-36.
"Bibliocritical Afterword." Early Long
Poems on Canada. Ed. D.M.R. Bentley. London: Canadian
Poetry Press, 1993. 617-55.
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Canadian Poetry: Studies, Documents, Reviews 21