Orion, and Other Poems

by Charles G.D. Roberts




During 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.

Charles 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).

On 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 clear:

Major 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)

The 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

Charles 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 sight.  (67)

The 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).

Roberts 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’ early work.


One 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:

I 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)

Another 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:

We 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)

Collins’ official approval came in his 1883 biography, Life and Times of the Right Honourable Sir John A. Macdonald:

Besides 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)

Collins selected "Ballad of the Poet’s Thought," "Ballad to a Kingfisher," and "Orion" for special praise, concluding that:

[W]e 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)

Roberts 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 aves":

Thus 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)

Positive 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:

"Orion" 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 Hall 313)

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:

The 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 one. (xxiv-xxv)

In 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":

I 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 95)

Nevertheless, Lampman endorses the view that Orion, and Other Poems was a rubicon in the development of Canadian poetry:

Almost 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)

Six years later, in 1897, J.A. Cooper, the editor of The Canadian Magazine, in a review of one of Roberts’ early novels, would hesitate:

[Roberts’] 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)

In his later book, Charles G.D. Roberts (1923), James Cappon found somewhat less to approve of in Orion, and Other Poems:

Roberts 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)

In 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":

What 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)

At 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 Canadian Poetry:

Sir 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)

In the following year, R.E. Rashley returned to those earlier remarks by Lampman on Orion, and Other Poems:

[I]t 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)

Northrop Frye wrote little about Roberts, but the following assessment might perhaps be applied in part to Orion, and Other Poems:

Roberts 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)

Desmond Pacey, later to be editor of Roberts’ Collected Poetry, concluded in 1958 that:

Reading 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 43-45)

But 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):

Less and less, as time goes on, do we recover aesthetic satisfaction or imaginative stimulus from Robert’s poems. But his symbolic stature increases. (421)

If 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" (26).3

The 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

seldom 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)

Early 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.


It 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?

The 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 context.

That 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:

Among 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)

A century later, Early is still appreciative of that achievement:

Orion 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)

Early also acknowledges, however, that

[m]ost 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)

It 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.

A content-analysis of Orion, and Other Poems reveals some fascinating relationships among Roberts’ themes, forms, meters, lengths and words:

1 "To the Spirit of Song"
inspiration, poet’s craft, patron
2 "Orion"
Greek myth, narrative, love
3 "Ariadne"
Greek myth, narrative, love
4 "Launcelot and the Four Queens"
Arthurian myth, narrative, love
5 "Ballad of the Poet’s Thought"
inspiration, poet’s calling
6 "Ballad of Three Mistresses"
inspiration, poet’s calling, love
7 "Ballad to a Kingfisher"
Greek myth, personal reflection
8 "Ballad of a Bride"
love and marriage, hopes fulfilled
9 "Love Days"
love and marriage, hopes deferred
10 "Memnon"
dramatic monologue
Greek myth, despair, mother-son
11 "Hesper Appears" 
love fulfilled
12 "Without One Kiss"
love rejected, misunderstanding
13 "Rondeau to A.W. Straton"
friendship, poetry
14 "The Flight"
Gothic horror-tale
15 "One Night"
16 "Song of Morning" 
relief, joy
17 "Ode to Drowsihood"
dreams, classical visions, inspiration
18 "Ode to Night"
love (echoes of Keats)
19 "Amoris Vincula" 
love, soldier’s honour
(Shirley’s view denied)
20 "Iterumne?"
love, despair, Greek myth,
Sappho, poetry
21 "At Pozzuoli"
classical world, geology, future doubts
22 "Sappho"
Greek myth, Sappho, poetry, love
23 "Miriam.—I"
love, separation, Greek myth (Ovid)
24 "Miriam.—II"
love, separation, despair
25 "A Blue Blossom" 
memory, spiritual blindness,
deafness to beauty
26 "The Shannon and the Chesapeake"
navy, patriotism, seasons
27 "The Maple"
landscape, memory, seasons
28 "To Winter"
landscape, seasons
29 "Epistle to Bliss Carman"
blank verse
friendship, college, poetry,
future doubts
30 "Dedication"   
alcaics (Sappho-Horace)    
inspiration, poet’s craft, home
love for father (patron)

There 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.

In 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).

Roberts’ 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).

Of 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).

During 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.

When 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."

By 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).

Among 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.

His 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

Roberts 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.

Roberts 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

Our 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)

Notes to the Introduction

  1. The 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]

  2. For A.C. Stewart’s 1896 satiric lines on the "canoe" school of Canadian poets, see Bentley, "A Brief Notice" 88. [back]

  3. Keith’s 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). [back]

  4. On May’s liabilities as an academic hostess, and Charles’ frequent philanderings, see Adams, Life 50-51. [back]

  5. For 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." [back]

Works Cited in the Introduction

Adams, 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.

Anderson, 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 P, 1986. 44-64.

Bentley, 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.

——. ed. and intro. "The Poetical Review: a Brief Notice of Canadian Poets and Poetry." Canadian Poetry: Studies, Documents, Reviews 1 (Fall/Winter 1977): 66-88.

Brooke, Stopford A. Primer of English Literature. 1876. 3rd ed. Toronto: James Campbell and Son, 1877.

Cappon, James. Charles G.D. Roberts. Toronto: Ryerson, 1923.

——. Roberts and the Influences of His Time. Toronto: Briggs, 1905.

Clarke, F.R.C. and Kilpatrick, Ross S. "Charles G.D. Roberts and Healey Willan: a Collaboration." Canadian Poetry: Studies, Documents, Reviews 43 (Fall/Winter 1998): 126-31.

Collins, Joseph Edmund. Life and Times of the Right Honourable Sir John A. Macdonald, K.C.B., D.C.L., &c, Premier of the Dominion of Canada. Toronto: Rose, 1883.

——. "Orion, and Other Poems." Rev. of Orion, and Other Poems by Charles G.D. Roberts. Rouge et Noir 5 (November, 1880): 552-553.

Cooper, J.A. "Books and Authors." Canadian Magazine 8 (1897): 549-50.

Daniells, Roy. "Lampman and Roberts." In Literary History of Canada, Ed. Carl F. Klinck. 2nd ed. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1976. 405-421.

Early, L.R. "‘An Old-World Radiance’: Roberts’ Orion, and Other Poems." Canadian Poetry: Studies, Documents, Reviews 8 (Spring/ Summer, 1981): 8-32.

Fraistat, Neil. "The Place of the Book and the Book as Place." In Poems in their Place. Ed. Neil. Fraistat. Chapel Hill and London: U of North Carolina P, 1986. 3-17.

Frye, Northrop. "Poetry." In "Letters in Canada, 1955." Ed. Douglas Grant. University of Toronto Quarterly 25 (1956): 290-304.

Hall, S.K. "[Sir] Charles G[eorge] D[ouglas] Roberts 1860-1943." In Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism. Ed. S.K. Hall. Vol. 8. Detroit: Gale Research Co., 1982. 312-30.

Jewinski, E. "An Unfinished Monument for Sir Charles G.D. Roberts." Rev. of Collected Poems of Sir Charles G.D. Roberts: a Critical Edition. Ed. Desmond Pacey. Canadian Poetry: Studies, Documents, Reviews 19 (Fall/Winter, 1986): 105-08.

Keith, W.J. Charles G.D. Roberts. Toronto: Copp Clark, 1969.

Kilpatrick, Ross S. "D.C. Scott’s ‘Night Hymns on Lake Nipigon’: ‘Matins’ in the Northern Midnight." Canadian Poetry: Studies, Documents, Reviews 14 (Spring/Summer 1984): 64-8.

——. "A Missed Literary Source for Sir Charles G.D. Roberts’ ‘Out of Pompeii’ (1881)." Canadian Poetry: Studies, Documents, Reviews 14 (Spring/Summer, 1984): 88-96.

Lampman, Archibald. Essays and Reviews of Archibald Lampman. Ed. D.M.R. Bentley. London: Canadian Poetry Press, 1996.

Lemprière, J.A. Classical Dictionary Containing a Copious Amount of All the Proper Names Mentioned in Ancient Authors: with the Value of Coins, Weights, and Measures Used Among the Greeks and Romans and a Chronological Table. London: T. Cadell, 1834.

Lighthall, W.D. Introduction. In Songs of the Great Dominion: Voices from the Forests and Waters, the Settlements and Cities of Canada. Ed. W.D. Lighthall. London: Scott, 1889. xxi-xxxvii.

Logan, J.D. and D.G. French. Highways of Canadian Literature. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1924.

Mathews, Robin. "Charles G.D. Roberts and the Destruction of the Canadian Imagination." Journal of Canadian Fiction 1 (1972): 47-56.

Morley, Patricia. "The Young Turks: a Biographer’s Comment." Canadian Poetry: Studies, Documents, Reviews 11 (Fall/Winter, 1982): 67-72.

Pacey, Desmond. "Sir Charles G.D. Roberts." In Ten Canadian Poets: a Group of Biographical and Critical Essays. Toronto: Ryerson, 1958. 34-58.

Palgrave, Francis Turner, ed. The Golden Treasury of the Best Songs and Lyrical Poems in the English Language. London: George Routledge and Sons, 1872.

Pomeroy, E.M. Sir Charles G.D. Roberts: a Biography. Toronto: Ryerson, 1943.

Rashley, R.E. Poetry in Canada: the First Three Steps. Toronto: Ryerson, 1958.

Reaney, James. "The Canadian Poet’s Predicament." University of Toronto Quarterly 26 (1957): 284-95.

Rev. of Orion, and Other Poems, by Charles G.D. Roberts. Canadian Monthly and National Review 5, No. 5 (November, 1880): 552-53.

Roberts, Charles G.D. Canada in Flanders. Vol. 3 of Beaverbrook, Lord (Sir Max Aitken, M.P.). Canada in Flanders: the Official Story of the Canadian Expeditionary Force. 3 Vols. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1916-1918.

——. "Canadian Poetry in its Relation to the Poetry of England and America." Ed. D.M.R. Bentley. Canadian Poetry: Studies, Documents, Reviews 3 (Fall/Winter, 1978): 76-86.

——. Collected Letters of Charles G.D. Roberts. Ed. Laurel Boone. Fredericton: Goose Lane, 1989.

——. Collected Poems of Sir Charles G.D. Roberts. Ed. Desmond Pacey. Wolfville NS: Wombat, 1985.

——. Flying Colours. Toronto and Halifax: Ryerson, 1942.

——. Selected Poems of Sir Charles G.D. Roberts. Ed. Desmond Pacey. Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1955.

Santirocco, Matthew S. Unity and Design in Horace’s Odes. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1986.

Sladen, Douglas, ed. Younger American Poets. 1830-1890. New York: Griffith, Farran, Okeden and Welsh, 1891.

Smith, A.J.M. The Book of Canadian Poetry: a Critical and Historical Anthology. 1953. 3rd ed. Toronto: W. J. Gage, 1957.

——, ed. Masks of Poetry: Canadian Critics on Canadian Verse. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1962.

Stewart, A.C. "The Poetical Review: a Brief Notice of Canadian Poets and Poetry." Introduction by D.M.R. Bentley. Canadian Poetry: Studies, Documents, Reviews 1 (Fall/Winter 1977): 66-88.

Taylor, M. Brook, "Collins, Joseph Edmund." Dictionary of Canadian Biography. Vol. 12: 204-205.

Whalen, Terry, ed. "Lorne Pierce’s 1927 Interview with Charles G.D. Roberts (as reported by Margaret Lawrence)." Canadian Poetry: Studies, Documents, Reviews 21 (Fall/Winter,1987): 59-76.