That Far River:
Selected Poems of
Theodore Goodridge Roberts

Edited by Martin Ware


In a prose poem, Theodore Goodridge Roberts writes of the river of his dreams:

Do you know the scent of a river beach on a summer dawn?  There is no wind, but there is a stir, as of faintest breathing, in the shadowy tangles of wood and foliage behind you, and on the glassy surface before you the air moves with the deep, slow glide of the river. The eastern edge of night has been washed up by a tide of silver fire. You smell the river—the stilly sliding water—faint, cool, and alive like breath; and the wet sand at the margins of the gravel bars; and the stranded clots of white foam whipt from little waves yesterday by a wind that went down with yesterday’s sun; and penny royal, wet willows, black mud at the alder roots, waterlogged wood and the honey of wild cucumber blossom. Of such is the smell of my river in a summer dawn.

(Leather Bottle, 3-4)         

Theodore’s imagination was flooded with innumerable impressions of the broad river (the Saint John) which was a central source of his poetic life. His style reflects the extraordinary alertness of a poet very much alive in his senses, but this alertness is heightened by his preference for writing about moments of change: dawn, sunset, a change of wind, a bird about to fly. He has a gift for not only capturing the moment, but through his evocation of atmosphere, for capturing something beyond the moment.  He evolved a style admirably attuned to capturing the “flash and whisper and broken dream of beauty,” but in his work this is connected with the chivalric quest for some elusive essence or fulfilling dream. Reflecting this, his language sometimes blazes with heraldic colour, but almost always in his most intriguing poetry, these are intimations of unexplored dimensions beyond the plane of the immediate. In this aspect of his work, he has much in common with his cousin, Bliss Carman. [Page xv]
     What makes Theodore’s poetry unusual for a romantic nurtured in the dissolving splendours of Pre-Raphaelite dream is his humorous, quizzical sense of human fallibility and frailty. He is possessed by the spirit of high chivalric idealism, but this is tempered by a wry note of questioning—an ironic sense that some concealed imp or unrecognized foible is ultimately governing the situation. In the “preface” to the Leather Bottle, he wrote “I believe the idea of waiting and riding is common to thousands of romantic souls, and who shall say for what it is one waits and rides?: but I suspect that the best of horses goes lame, the most faithful of riders falls off, the strongest of leather bottles springs a leak before the high quest is ended.” This perspective reaches a wrenching pathos in his numbed poems of the Great War, where the heroic quest sometimes seems to assume the shape of a demonic illusion. In these poems, he has more in common with the modernist poets of the inter-war years than he does with the romantic poets of his brother Charles’ generation. In several respects, Theodore, like E.J. Pratt, is a transitional poet in the Canadian tradition, but he is one with his own voice and with preoccupations that are again of central importance now that we recognize that nature is by no means neutralized, and our collective survival is dependent on our learning to become its loving stewards.
     Who was Theodore Goodridge Roberts (known to his friends as Theed)? A gifted poet? Author of two or three notable prose romances? Writer of nearly forty other books?  A gentle riverside rambler? A New Brunswick back-country farmer? An adventurous “supercargo” riding the pitching jib boom of a Portuguese square rigger bound for Brazil? A war correspondent in Cuba? A soldier who knew the horrors of trench warfare? An aide-de-camp of the Canadian commander involved in planning the bitter victory at Passchendaele? He was all of these things.
     The family details of his life are that he was born on the 7th July, 1877, that he was the son of Canon George Roberts (Rector of St. Anne’s Parish, Fredericton) and his wife Emma (née Bliss), that he was the younger brother of the writer Sir Charles G.D. Roberts and a junior cousin of the poet, Bliss Carman, that he married Frances Seymour Allen in 1903, and he was the father of Goodridge (the painter), Dorothy (the poet), Theodora and Loveday—in short a member of one of the most creative families to have contributed to the making of a Canadian tradition of art and literature. In an appendix at the end of the volume, I have given a biographical synopsis which gives a fuller idea of the colour and variety of Theodore’s life. A quick glance at this will indicate the kaleidoscopic variety of place and [Page xvi] experience which fed Theodore’s imagination in the years 1898-1910. Florida, Cuba, New York, Newfoundland, the West Indies, the Spanish Main, Brazil, Barbados, England and Provence all figure in his peregrinations.
     Like the migrating geese, which were an important emblem of his imagination, Theodore felt an intense wanderlust, but the Saint John River always remained a point of departure and return. He had been nurtured in the environs of Fredericton, the river’s city. As a poet, he owed a great deal to the culture of the Saint John Valley and particularly to that of Fredericton. A.J.M. Smith has described it in idyllic terms as “an enchanted city with its elm-shaded streets, its generously proportioned houses, its college on the hill, with the broad river winding through the town and the wooded slopes bringing the forest and the sea almost to the people’s very door.”1 And here, rather than in the more powerful and populated centres of Upper Canada, a Canadian poetry worthy of the name first took root and flourished. A.G. Bailey has remarked that “the poetry of Fredericton represented the flowering of a tradition that had been four generations in the making on the banks of the Saint John.2 In the Roberts family, it was not Charles (a child of the Tantramar country), but Theodore who was the Fredericton boy.
     There can be no doubt that Theodore drew strength from the city of his birth. The small and closely knit community of what was not much more than a small town (Fredericton’s population was little more than 6000 in 1880) preserved the sense of style and independence of the Cavalier loyalists, and valued the master craftsmen who had brought their skills from New England, New York, and the South.3 Irish immigrants like William Fenety added a spirit of mischief and a leavening to the solid virtues of the first settlers. Theodore’s brother Charles has written of Fredericton that “instead of expecting all the people to be cut of one pattern, she seemed to prefer them to be a little queer… conformity, that tyrant god of small town life, got scant tribute from her.”4 This affectionate preference for qualities which make individuals a little unusual, and even a little comical, makes itself strongly felt in a number of Theodore’s poems, particularly his poems of Newfoundland.

     Theodore also benefited from the various traditions in Fredericton which contributed to making the city “a good place for a poet to be,” and which had done so much to foster the poetic careers of his brother Charles, and his cousins Bliss Carman and Francis Sherman.5 He grew up in the [Page xvii] manse of Bishop Medley’s beautifully proportioned Cathedral of Christ Church—the Cathedral in which his father served as a Canon. With its tall spire and the arches of its nave towering like the arches of an ancient forest, it served as the central focus of the Bishop’s dream of opening up “spiritual religion” to the freshening influx of external beauty, to “the delight of eye and ear.”6 In a moment of later anguish, Theodore was to write “Does the god of my fathers slumber where the fall church windows glow?”, but Bishop Medley’s dream of beauty never ceased to be a shaping force in his life.7
     If Theodore benefited from Bishop Medley’s profound influence in transforming a climate of opinion in New Brunswick, he was also the beneficiary of the artistic and intellectual vitality of the university on the hill. Baron D’Avray, James Robb, William Brydone-Jack, George E. Foster and others of the university’s professors had contributed much to shaping the minds of a generation of New Brunswickers, in particular of Theodore’s father, George Roberts, and of George Parkin, who were the decisive nurturing influences in the creative lives of Charles G.D. Roberts and Bliss Carman.8 Perhaps it was not the springs of Hippocrene which flowed from the college on the hill, but there was a potent spirit of inspiration which invigorated the poets of the Roberts’ connection. Theodore in his turn received such inspiration from his family circle, that in 1888, not long after his eleventh birthday, he was publishing verses in a major American magazine.9 In due course, though his urge to embark post haste on the career of writer and journalist meant that he would never graduate, he attended the university, and many of his early poems were published in The University Magazine.
     Theodore thus got a good start as a poet. As a young man, he published widely in magazines and periodicals and was quite well known as a poet. Then in his maturity, particularly in the years 1925-36, he achieved a modest fame as a poet across Canada.10 However, in some ways his close ties with the first wave of the Fredericton poets were a liability. His brother Charles and his cousin Bliss were leaders of a generation of national poets and their names in the first thirty years of the twentieth century were internationally identified with Canadian poetry. Being seventeen years junior to them, Theodore was too young to share in their success and in many ways his voice and his preoccupations were different than theirs. A.G. Bailey has written of the way in which his work has been overlooked: “There has been too general a tendency to regard him simply as a younger brother of [Page xviii] Sir Charles G.D. Roberts rather than in his own right as a poet, but, although his output has not been great by contrast with other members of the Fredericton school, he has achieved distinction for a kind of poetry that was not typical of Sir Charles Roberts, Bliss Carman, or Francis Sherman.”11 The fullest collection of Theodore’s poetry, The Leather Bottle (1934) happened to appear at just the time that the gifted young modernists were kicking over the traces and influences of the Roberts generation, and a side effect of this was that Theodore was never given the attention that the distinctiveness of his work might have merited. Over the years he has tended to become “the unknown soldier” of Canadian poetry, but those who know his work might well be inclined to apply to him a phrase from one of his poems: “Unknown yet known to us, known and proved.” Desmond Pacey, who played such a significant role in nurturing the serious study of Canadian Literature, has written that Theodore’s “The Blue Heron” is “the most brilliantly precise and atmospheric poem in Canadian verse” and remarked on one occasion that “the publishing of an adequate edition of Theed’s poems is long overdue.”12
     It cannot be said that the available published volumes contain a very adequate representation of his verse. There are only two books where one can find fairly substantial gatherings of his poems, The Leather Bottle (1934) and the joint collection, published much earlier, Northland Lyrics (1899), which was a collaboration with his brother William and his sister Jane Elizabeth. Both are comparatively rare books, increasingly confined to special collections in the university libraries of Canada. The Leather Bottle is the most notable of the two but the sixty-nine poems it contains do not adequately reflect his achievement as a poet. It is true that it contains almost all the poems from his two chapbooks, Seven Poems (1925) and The Lost Shipmate (1927), and poems from almost every phase of his career. However, Theodore himself describes it on the title page as “a sadly shot collection”: there cannot be much doubt that he was not allowed to include all the poems he wanted in the edition. Furthermore, as his nephew Goodridge has told us, at the time of the preparation of the book, he couldn’t find many of the poems that he might have wanted to include.13 Part of the reason for this, MacDonald added, was that “although Theodore valued his poems, he kept no record of them.” Theodore’s problem, though, was not just temperamental antipathy to the habits of the book keeper. Many of his papers, including drafts of his poems, appear to have been lost in the spring of 1919, when the flooding Saint John washed out the basement of Dr. [Page xix] A.G. Wainwright’s house, where they had been stored while Theodore was absent on active service.

     The river was not to have the last word. Fortunately, during the pre-War years, Theodore had published a great many of his poems in a wide range of Canadian, American, and British magazines, periodicals and newspapers. He seems himself to have had some vague idea of bringing them together because he speaks in “the preface” of Seven Poems of his intention to publish poems as he recovers them from “old magazines, old anthologies—the bottom of old trunks.”14 However, by the time he came to work on The Leather Bottle, it seems that he had managed to gather less than half the poems that he had written. This means that The Leather Bottle, which is the only book to which the interested reader can turn to get a sense of the range of his poetry, does not adequately represent the poems written before 1934. Obviously, too, it could not include the work of the last phase of his career (1934-52), and while these poems are not numerous, some (“My House,” for example) are powerfully effective.
     Since his death in 1952, Theodore’s friends have urged would-be editors to produce a selection of his poetry based on a reasonably complete assembly of his poems. In this context, the words of Goodridge MacDonald’s memorial article have been particularly galvanizing. He wrote of Theodore: “If his fugitive verses could be brought together, they would, I believe, place his among the foremost lyric poets of his time.”15 Spurred by words of this kind and the blessing of Theodore’s friends and family, Frances Heaney prepared an M.A. thesis on Theodore’s work, in which she included a bibliography of some 160 of his poems.16 Subsequently, with the encouragement of Malcolm Ross and Desmond Pacey, I set about pursuing the researches which Frances Heaney had begun. These researches took me to the Library of Congress, the special collections of various Atlantic Canadian universities (notably the University of New Brunswick), the National Library, the Detroit Archives, and various other libraries across Canada. The researchers turned up about a hundred poems to be added to the inventory of Theodore’s poems. They also showed that Theodore was a painstaking craftsman, for many of the poems appeared in three or four clearly revised versions. I should add that it is very unlikely that the inventory is complete. In all, I had a file of about two hundred and sixty poems as a basis of selection for the present edition, though this number would be considerably larger if significantly different versions of individual poems were counted. [Page xx]
     What seems to be obviously of first importance was to prepare an edition which would help keep the best of Theodore’s work alive and current. Accordingly the main purpose of this new edition is to make a selection of the best and most representative of Theodore’s poems available in as manageable a form as possible. In working out the shape and pattern of the book, I am much indebted to the influence of Theodore’s daughter, Dorothy Roberts Leisner. From Dorothy, I received a powerful impression that what was important was to preserve Theodore’s best work, and to arrange the poems in a pattern which would highlight individual poems, so as to show how they give and receive energy from poems to which they are closely related in theme or tone. These considerations have meant that I have had to do some fairly drastic sifting, and to omit from the selection a number of poems that might well have been included. The resulting volume is rather longer (ninety-one poems) than The Leather Bottle (sixty-nine poems), and contains a fairly even balance of Leather Bottle poems (fifty-two) and “forgotten” poems (thirty-nine).
     I should say a few words about the sequencing of the poems. In what order is one to arrange the poems? To what extent should one follow Theodore’s example in the matter of arrangement as this is reflected in The Leather Bottle which was, within certain limitations, his selection of a life’s work in poetry. The Leather Bottle is a strongly patterned book. Theodore has grouped his poems in four sharply contrasting sections—“Vintages of My Own Country” (poems of the Saint John River country), “Stuff of Neptune’s Brewing” (sea poems), “From Acadian Vats” (poems of romance and chivalry) and “His Majesty’s Run Jar” (war poems). To further demarcate the sections, he wrote ‘prose poem’ introductions to the first two; and he conveys the unmistakable impression that he thinks of each of the groupings as belonging to separate regions of his imagination, each with its distinctive tones and subject matter.
     The current wisdom respecting posthumous editions of poetry is that, where possible, one should set aside a poet’s probable preferences in the matter, and follow an objective scholarly strategy by arranging poems in a strictly chronological order. The main aim of this is to enable the reader to form his or her idea of a poet’s developing style. On balance in Theodore’s case, the arguments in favour of this approach, while strong, are not conclusive, and the difficulties are considerable. For one thing, the dating of his poems is an uncertain business. For many of his poems, we have the date of the last probable appearance in various periodicals and magazines, [Page xxi] but many were published more than once, sometimes in significantly variant forms, so we cannot be sure that a poem’s initial publication of which we have record is necessarily the first. Then, except in a few cases where we have the testimony of Theodore’s notebooks, there is no way of knowing for sure whether the dates of magazine or periodical publication coincide approximately with the dates of composition. Furthermore, for several of his poems in The Leather Bottle, no evidence has yet appeared that they had been previously published in earlier versions, though, from what we know of Theodore’s practice, it is highly likely that the most had. What is more, any arrangement on exclusively chronological lines fails to provide for aesthetic effect in the sequencing, and will inevitably involve the grouping together of incompatible poems, thereby entailing unnecessary shifts of mood and focus.

     In the light of these and other considerations, I have adopted a modified thematic arrangement which is consistent with the patterning of The Leather Bottle. To give Theodore’s own tone as much as possible to the selection, I have headed each of the sections with the title of one of his poems. Four of this new book’s sections coincide very approximately with comparable ones in The Leather Bottle: these are entitled respectively “The Far River,” “The Lost Shipmate,” “Expectans Equito,” and “A Billet in Flanders.” A new section “Song of a Lost Heart” brings together some of the most characteristic of his love poems, though a few of his more interesting poems of this kind naturally belong with and have been included among the poems of “The Lost Shipmate” and “A Billet in Flanders” sections. What most markedly distinguishes the new arrangement from that of The Leather Bottle is the concluding section “The Blue Heron: Poems of Retrospection and Rediscovery.” The poems here were almost all written after the Great War, and the best of them were marked by economy, simplicity, intensity, which must have grown from Theodore’s new outlook, as this had been shaped by his experience of the follies, waste, and horror of trench warfare.
     This selection does offer something to those readers who like an edition to provide them with an opportunity to form for themselves a sense of a poet’s developing style. While the book’s organization is not primarily chronological, each of the sections coincides with a phase of Theodore’s career. Most of the poems of “That Far River” are associated with the years of his young manhood (especially 1894-98), while the poems in the “Song of a Lost Heart” section are poems of first love, mostly, though not exclusively [Page xxii] from the years 1898-1903. “The Lost Shipmate” poems spring from his Atlantic voyaging and his years in Newfoundland and Barbados (1899-1905), though some were probably written a few years later, and one or two perhaps much later. The richly coloured chivalric and Arcadian poems of the “Expectans Equito” section belong to his youthful dreams and to the years of courting and newly married happiness (1901-09), while many of the poems of “The Billet in Flanders” section, as the title poem suggests, are written from the vantage point of a Canadian serving on the Western Front in France and Belgium (1914-18). Finally the “Blue Heron” poems almost all belong to the last and longest phase of his career (1918-52), following his return to Canada, and are more or less profoundly affected by his post war reorientation. While there is bound to be some overlapping, the sequence of sections follows the unfolding of his career in general outline; furthermore, within each of the sections, I have followed, as far as the evidence allows, a rough chronological arrangement to allow the reader to explore his stylistic development more closely. [Page xxiii]

Notes to the Introduction

A.J.M. Smith, Towards a View of Canadian Letters (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1973), p. 69. [back]
A.G. Bailey, Culture and Nationality (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1972), p.56. [back]
See Malcolm Ross, The Impossible Sum of Our Traditions (Toronto: McClelland and Steward, 1985), pp. 31-32. [back]
See Charles G.D. Roberts, “Bliss Carman,” Dalhousie Review, 9 (January, 1930), pp. 409-417. [back]
Ibid., p. 409. [back]
Ross, p.34. [back]
This line is quoted from Theodore’s “The Master of Fate.” [back]
See Bailey, particularly p. 56. [back]
Mentioned by Smith, p. 67. [back]
Dorothy Roberts Leisner mentions the fact in a letter to the editor of this volume, dated June 1, 1984. [back]
A.G. Bailey, “Theodore Goodridge Roberts,” Leading Canadian Poets, ed. W.P. Percival (Toronto: Ryerson Press, 1948), p. 199. [back]
Conversations with the editor in the Spring of 1973. See also Pacey’s Introduction to the New Canadian Library edition of Theodore Goodridge Roberts, The Harbour Master (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1958). [back]
Goodridge MacDonald, “Theodore Goodridge Roberts: Poet and Novelist,” Canadian Author and Bookman, 29 (Spring, 1953), p. 10. [back]
Theodore Goodridge Roberts, “Preface,” Seven Poems (Fredericton: The Author, 1925), n.p.. [back]
MacDonald, p. 11. [back]
F.G. Heaney, “Theodore Goodridge Roberts,” M.A., University of New Brunswick, 1960. [Page xxiv] [back]