Notes and Criticism


Theodore Goodridge Roberts’ Poetry and Its Context in Canadian Poetry


One of the many appealing aspects of Theodore Goodridge Roberts’ poetry is its family relationship to Canadian poetry written before and after his time.  He is certainly a transitional, and perhaps a pivotal, figure in the emerging tradition.  While always remaining true to himself, his preoccupations connect him to his brother Charles’ generation (whose best work belongs to the 1880s and ’90s) and also to the modernists (whose work began to find a public in the 1930s).  He has strong affinities with Bliss Carman, but there are elements which link him with E.J. Pratt and even with modernists such as A.M. Klein and Dorothy Livesay.  To look closely at his poetry in the light of the work of others will perhaps unveil unexpected parallels.
     A.G. Bailey has written of Theodore that “like Carman, he had a sensitive feeling for the desert places of the New Brunswick wilderness, but he treated them in his own way.”1  His most characteristic poems are charged with an eerie sense of vast stretches of loneliness—“comfortless wide skies,” “low woods black as sorrow,” “slim dead trees like whitened bones,” and these settings have much in common with the “pale borderlands of fate” which provided the silhouetted settings of some of Carman’s lyrics of lonely longing.  One feels that Theodore could well have written Carman’s compelling lines “The heart of the forest grieves / In the drift against my door.”2  He was endowed too with Carman’s inkling “of possible presences beyond all seeing and hearing,” but his sense of this is informed by a personal apprehension of an unfathomed mythological dimension which belongs to a time before the incursion of Europeans into Gluskap’s realm.3  The chilling moods that the country evokes speak to him of memories and ghostly presences, of lost figures like Culloo and Gluskap, of races of people who have retreated to the shadows, of the apparent evanescence of an entire way of being.  Sometimes the foregrounds [Page 121] of his poems seem purely descriptive as in the sharp images from “The Desolate Cabin”:

    Noiseless, the lean hares pass:
Snake-berries gleam in the shadows:
    Shadows glide in the grass.    

Often, though, the silence in his poems is poised, as if waiting to give voice, as in such lines as “The breath of the forest waits. / Westward the naked rampikes / Stand at the crimson gates” (12).
     The “cry” which “breaks out on the stillness” in the poem “Gluskap’s Hound” is strange and blood chilling—a cry of apparently irretrievable loss, parallelling the comfortless tone of other poems such as “The Shooting of the Moose” (6).  The poem is Theodore’s lament for the Micmac culture hero Gluskap, and perhaps also for the eclipsing of a once vital imaginative tradition and way of being.  He bases his poem on a mythic story which can be found in various sources including Silas Rand’s Legends of the Micmacs, to the effect that Gluskap’s hound is a wolf which still haunts the backwoods, howling in lamentation for his lost master.4  In one important respect, Theodore alters the traditional story.  According to the usually accepted version, Gluskap at about the time of the coming of the white man deserted his Nova Scotian homeland to set up his wigwam in the land of the setting sun.  Theodore, by contrast, sees him as having been slain:

They slew a god in a valley
     That faces the wooded west:
They held him down in their anger,
     With a mountain across his breast.

The image of Gluskap crushed beneath a mountain, though it does not derive from the traditional Micmac legend, resembles a pattern very common in Micmac stories.  According to this pattern, Micmac Gods when they are offended hurl mountains at the supposed miscreant (who is often quite innocent).  The image of Gluskap held down with a mountain across his breast conveys both the vastness of the weight bearing down on the mighty champion of a once vital imaginative tradition, but also the formidable [Page 122] nature of the crushed giant who must be almost the equal in strength to his mountain wielding oppressor.  The shadows in Theodore’s poem are alive with the mighty Gluskap’s memory.  His inconsolable hound, the phantom wolf, stalks the backwoods “with his nose in the ground and his eyes / Red lights in the cedar swale.”  The ghostly creature with his black circle of tormenting memory draws closer and closer in the final stanza.


     The shadows are creeping near!
Something runs in the thicket
     The spruces droop to hear!
The black hound running in fierce despair,
     With his grief of a thousand year.

According to Theodore’s version, Gluskap has disappeared since the time of the coming of the Norsemen, since even before the martyrdom of Becket.  Yet the shadows of his memory are so intensely alive in the poem that for Theodore the quest for his traces would seem to be no vain endeavour.
     It is therefore no surprise that Gluskap reappears in several of Theodore’s poems, though always as a mysterious and indistinct figure, to be known principally by his shield, the rising or setting sun.  In “The Red Chief,” he comes on the scene in the guise of an unheralded shaman, much like the suddenly appearing and disappearing Wise-As-A-She-Wolf in Theodore’s engaging romance The Red Feathers (8).  He is a chameleon figure in the poem: it is hard to know if he is a mythic figure in his own right, or a metaphoric embodiment of the landscape.  Perhaps “the crawling smoke” of his “fire upon the hills” is to be taken as the drifting haze of Indian summer.  Perhaps we should make a figurative identification between “the thousand berries of the wood” and “the scarlet of his cloak.”  It may be better, on the other hand, to think of him principally as a kindly shaman, perfectly at one with the landscape, and yet fated to be its sacrificial victim.  Certainly the images associated with him drip with a fatal red (“the sunset mocked his feathered crest / The partridge berries stained his feet”), and his windsong is associated with dreaming “death.”  He is an infinitely appealing figure, wooing us “to his swift desire,” but who can say whether he offers a fatal draft of Lethe or the opportunity for “a going out of our nature and identification of ourselves with the beautiful which exists in thought, action, or person not our own.”5 [Page 123]

     Many of Theodore’s deepest attachments as man and poet were associated with the Saint John River Valley, which he identified with Gluskap’s country.  In his poem “On That Far River” he gives voice to his yearning longing to experience again the cycle of dawn and sunset on the wide and tranquil river of his boyhood.  The poem expresses how it might feel to be restored for an instant to Gluskap’s lost realm (13).  If you like, the containing metaphor of the poem is one of imaginative immersion.  The poem opens on the level of the flood plain of the river with “the sliding shallows” reddening in the dawn sunlight.  The poet’s eye takes in the widening vistas of “lifting mist along the meadow’s rim,” and then reaches to the horizon line of “lifting fire around the valley’s brim.”  The imagination is immersed in interchanging and overflowing images of water, light, and fire, and suddenly the dark things of the night are released and afloat: “dawn releases / Shadow and dew and many a night old thing.”  The inner eye of dream awakens as time bound immediacy dissolves.  The slow motion of dream memory is echoed in the lazy cadences of such phrases as “On that far river…the eddies turn, / Pause and swing wide and sink to amber sleep.”  In this mental state, the dreaming eye focuses sharply on the diminutive “snipe…running in the dewy fern” and “the slim barks, quiv’ring” as they “creep / up the loud rapids.”  The images fade with the coming of night, prefigured by sunset.  “Day and toil are done”; time hangs as still as “Gluskap’s war shield” in the sky.  The cycle of the poem which has been set in motion by the reddening rays of the dawn sunlight closes with “the last flairs” of sunset and the glow of “the crimson campfire.”  Memory gathers round the closing image, one parallelling the vaster images of sunrise and sunset, but perfectly appropriate to the kindling of the secondary imagination or fixing the central point which is also the circumference of the poem.  The campfire is certainly one at which ‘the red chief’ might make an unheralded appearance.
     Gluskap is for the most part an anonymous zero in the poems—a lost presence who is manifest in the empty spaces.  Wild stretches of emptiness—of lonely forest or endless sea—always strongly appealed to Theodore.  He shared Bliss Carman’s feeling for “the lonely, helpless calling / Of the bell buoy on the bar.”6  He evokes the sea’s irresistible and treacherous call in his “Mother Carey’s Chickens” a poem in a tempo perfectly appropriate to the lonely waters of the Canadian Atlantic (36).  The undulating movement of iambs and anapaests reproduces an impression of the irregular rise and fall of the swell, while muted alliteration, consonance, and vowels [Page 124] keyed on “o”, “u”, and “i” suggest the surge of wind and water, and sibilants echo the hiss of the spray:


When the drift spins white, and the winds are high,
And the black clouds race in the sullen sky,
     The Mother Carey, down in the sea,
     Startles her chickens up from her knee.
With shout and laughter she bids them fly.

Mother Carey’s chickens are the low flying storm petrels which, according to traditional lore, are the ominous messengers of the mistress of the underseas, who yearns to possess the souls of sailors.  In his “Titanic,” E.J. Pratt also refers to the ancient superstition when he refers to “the Mother Carey” eyes of the wise old sailors who predict the doom of the proud ship of the poem’s title.
     Beyond their common passion for the sea, Theodore and Pratt had a good deal in common.  Theodore shared Pratt’s sense that man’s marvellous sea technology would extend the sphere of “the fury under the sea,” and transform the war ships of modern man into the equivalent of primeval sea monsters.  A couple of Theodore’s poems, “The Torpedo Boat” (1898) and “The Shark” (1911) anticipate Pratt’s poems on closely comparable subjects (“The Submarine” [1943] and “The Shark” [1923]).7  Theodore’s  “Torpedo Boat,” forged in the devil’s workshop swishes along almost underwater, the “green waves” washing its “rail,” and “slid[es] along in the night” in wait for its prey (71).  Similarly Pratt’s sharklike submarine surreptitiously launches its torpedoes at the helpless liner, “a fat mammalian of the sea,” and makes its escape “under cover away from the light.”  We find analogous metaphoric patterns in the poems each poet wrote on “The Shark.”  Theodore depicts the shark’s “evil eyes” and “sinister dorsal” as it shadows his ship while Pratt focusses on “Its eyes of metallic grey / Hard, narrow, and slit,” and its fin “three cornered and with a knife edge.”
     Neither poet has any illusions about the inexorable cruelty of the sea—which is evident in poems they both wrote about Newfoundland sealing disasters—Pratt in “The Ice Floes” and Theodore in “A Ballad of the Floe” (97).  In his poem, Pratt gives a heart-rending picture of little groups of men isolated on ice pans that drift further and further apart and deeper and deeper into the darkness of sky and sea—echoing with the lonely cries of the lost.8  Theodore’s emphasis is more individual, and centers on the distinctly [Page 125] unheroic deliverance of a hopelessly poor but dearly loved Newfoundlander from the ghastly fate of his fellow swilers.  He is so delirious with anguish that he is unable to sail with Bartlett to make his wife a “bill”, but learns with greater anguish that the sealing ship has returned “log loaded,” not with seals, but with the frozen bodies of his shipmates.  Theodore and Pratt both offer an ironic perspective on the lack of awareness of their swilers: the men in Pratt’s poems are obsessed with the record cull of seals, and are consequently blind to the approach of an engulfing blizzard; and Theodore’s poor Newfoundlander is completely unconscious of the fact that his sickness will be the saving of his life.
     A gently sympathetic humour characterizes a number of Theodore’s poems in which he explores the predicament of individuals whose outlook is in some way limited.  This humour takes on an edge in “The Wrecker’s Prayer” which concerns the fact that in the days “before the building of the lighthouses, the poor noddies of many a Newfoundland outport prayed for wrecks—with easy consciences,” and even engineered them, for “the folk of up-along had the easy end of life: so why shouldn’t they contribute something of their goods and gear to the poor, but honest” (35).  The folk humour of the poem only lightly masks the starving desperation of grey and hungry men, who are compelled to take desperate measures to survive.


Give us a wrack or two, Good Lard,
For winter in Tops’il Tickle bes hard,
Wid grey frost creepin’ like mortal sin
And perishin’ lack of bread in the bin.

One is inclined to suspect more than mere comedy in this earnest prayer framed in the authentic language of the outports to a wrecker God, who is supposed to have devised the “twisty tides” for the pure convenience of his worthy petitioners.  In their struggle for survival, the outport men address themselves to the “Merciful Fadder, O Ancient of Days / Master of Fog an’ tide and reef.”  There is a shadow of the grey palaeolithic face of Pratt’s iceberg (which dooms “the Titanic”) in the God of reefs and tides and skies addressed by the poor but honest.  In their struggles with mortal sin, the men who pray mistake the intended recipient for a personage whom Pratt in “The Truant” names the Great Panjundrum and Theodore calls “The Master of Fate” (“Hope dies at the sound of his gallop—his hands are darkened with hate”).9  Theodore seems to be touching on themes which Pratt [Page 126] followed him in developing—the regressive tendencies of human nature and the potential of misconceived notions of the deity to become menacingly demonic.

     Sometimes the sea of Theodore’s experiences and imaginings showed a different and kindly face.  In reverie, he often turned to thoughts of:

islands, reefs, the glimmer of headsails on heaving horizons, opal landfalls…pale sands edged with spent foam, wave-worn spars a-wash in green caves and seaweed forests grey with blowing fog…I am no shell back…but I have seen a mizzen sail split from boom to gaff in a squall and corpse lights man the yard arms.  I have angled for dolphins from a pitching jib boom….10

The ocean of his poetry was the one known to maritime schooner skippers, to the crews of barque and brig and sloop—the seas of sailors who dreamed of distant landfalls, whose home was the focsle, the hammock and the crows nest, whose business was heaving sheets, climbing ratlines, unfurling topsails.  The ports with which he was most familiar were Saint John and St. John’s (the latter evoked in “City of the Winds”)—in his day ports of the tall ships and the square riggers.
     He could identify with the feelings of the outboard mariner whose eye lingers on the dwindling outline of St. John’s; “The anchored ships are lost.  The climbing town / Fades out.  The narrows close.  The cliffs retire” (46).  He could share the half exhilarated, half apprehensive anticipation of the sailor when the clean spray bursts over his vessel, the wind fills its “pinions of grey sail,” and in its wake a gleam shines on the foam of “the herding seas.”  In the face of lonely miles of dark water and lowering cloud, he could sense and convey the mood of obscure fear and sudden danger; he had a sixth sense of the seaman’s dread when “black rocks heave and dip” and deceiving bell buoys announce the imminence of shipwreck and disaster, where phantom ships and mermaids can appear substantial, and it is natural “to people all the sea room with our fears” (41).
     In the greater number of his sea poems, feelings of zest and pleasure outweigh the dread and apprehension.  The strong and hearty work rhythms of “Squaring the Yards” create a fine sense of the seaman’s shanty (47).  We can almost feel the lines of the sheets in our hands, and move to the sway of the work crew.  And in the song “Sailing North,” we can share the exhilaration of the homebound Newfoundlander as a following wind sends [Page 127] his barquentine racing over the swells while “Windward the long seas leap / Racing us neck and neck” (40).
     A number of Theodore’s most distinctive and characteristic poems conjure up impressions of wonderful havens or paradisal anchorages which offer a distant star of hope to the suffering or doomed sailor.  Examples can be found in “The Dead Fisherman,” “Fiddler’s Green,” “The Blind Sailor,” “In Witless Bay” and in “Pernambuco in May” (32, 41, 49, 25, 39).
     One of the most appealing of his evocations of an island haven is “Christmas in Alurio,” a poem where the shadow of self vanishes in the streaming Caribbean light (44).  The poem celebrates the halcyon season of blessing when, if the kingfisher does not make his nest on the waves, nonetheless an unseen bird pipes its dawn message of annunciation from the Tamarind Tree.  There is no sterile pattern of cyclical repetition here, but rather the sequences of the poem—aubade, forenoon song, lullaby—flow into one another so inconspicuously and yet so variously that it seems as if “all time is eternally present.”  In the stillness of the moment, the menace of “flashing fin” and “the roar of the surf” are turned to marvellous beauty.  There are patterns of opposition in the poem—bird song and seasong, the fixity of tamarind and palm and the movement of the breakers, oppositions which are echoed in the counterpointed rhythms of the poem.  These oppositions are reconciled in the intricate pattern of the poem where one melody answers another, and the fixed images—trees, crooked hill, windmill—are given life by the encircling movement of wind, cloud, and sea.  With the advancing of day, the wind rises, and we find a gathering strength in Theodore’s verbs:


The salty sails flap up and fill;
The men at the wet sheets whistle and shrill;
The glad wind wrinkles the sea, and leaps
To the coconut trees on the crooked hill.

The planter’s windmill, heavy and slow,
Turns its arms in the azure glow,
Waves a hand to the sea, and sweeps
The trampled canes in the yard below.

The strength of treasured memory manifests itself in the force and precision of the words, and also in the subtle gradations of colour in the poem. [Page 128] Note the range of the shades of blue: the “azure glow” of the Caribbean sky, the matching “azure” of the sea, the “tumble of blue of the breakers,” the dark shade of “the flashing fin,” the hue of “the morning smoke wreaths,” the “brighter blue” of the sudden day, the purple of night’s horizons.  In Theodore’s account of the writing of the poem, there is an almost heraldic magnificence of colour:

A pink-walled house between the cane fields and the surf was a good place in which to write verses.  The sea sang in one’s ears all day there, and all night, too.  The shimmer and flash of sunshine on breaking water filled the upper rooms all day; and all night they were filled with the wavering silver of reflected starshine.  The coral rocks in the surf were black with wind and sea; the sand was lilac; and the surf riding in from the blue and green was white as washed wool.                                                                                                     (44)

     There is an imaginative proximity between the paradisal island of this poem and the timeless sphere of the symbolists and the modernists who revered them.  Theodore approaches this circle of light in his chivalric poems.  As he told his auditors on one occasion “I have certain pieces of a flavour which I call knightly.  These are particularly dear to me for their attempted quality of high romance and high dreaming.”11  Such poems reflect his imaginative experience when he rode out on his questing journey “with faith and hope and a dream to save me” (61).  The heraldic focus of his dream is emblazoned in the images of his “To Camelot,” which as in the case of Klein’s “Heirloom,”12 might be said to display a poetic coat of arms:


In quest of Beauty, I rode far,
With dreams for a guide and a falling star,
A leaping stag and a golden bee:
I found you under a wishing tree.

I know the road to Camelot,
By leafy glade and ferny grot:
You know by flash of song and wing,
The silver birds of which I sing.

Perhaps there is a hint of carefully disguised humour here, but the striking, almost bizarre, configuration of the emblem of stag and star and bee is the [Page 129] very expression of an imagination haunted by the strange symbolic order of medieval heraldry, and possessed by the lofty spirit of thoroughgoing idealism.  According to a medieval bestiarist, the bee is the lover of music and is distinguished by his self-sacrificing loyalty to the sovereign, while the stag, sometimes a Christ symbol, is known for his enmity to the serpent, and his love of heavenly pastures, and the elusive silver birds (which the reader almost certainly does not know) are surely the holy Caladrii which flourish at the court of kings and queens, and embody the spirit of Messiah.13

     The setting of these poems is often a strange dream landscape: perhaps it is a heavenly Camelot which echoes with the words: “I am the spirit of Christ, / High and white as a star / I am the crown of Mary, / Outlasting the helmets of war” (64).  Perhaps it is an unearthly wilderness of fantasy where “A round moon washed the forest an indescribable blue— / Blue of the unfound rose” that leads by “aisles of azure and floating ramparts of dream / To a tower of April sunrise set in a silver stream” (63).  In many of these richly textured medieval poems, certain symbols recur: these include the shadowy court and castle of Camelot, the mysterious rose coloured blue, and the immensely distant star (Alcyone?) emblematic of Christ.  These provide, as it were, a background tapestry, against which the action of individual poems is played out.  One of these, “The Maid,” gives us the realistic discordance to which the modernist poets were so drawn.  Here there are images of the reeking confusion and riotous thunder of ancient battle, where death, dust, and emptiness prevail, and ill fated soldiers follow cruel delusions.  Everywhere on the battlefield, there are “Black hearts riding for hire and red hearts riding for fame” (65).  Yet Jeanne d’Arc “the maid with the banner of snow” is forever the focus of the appalling scene—capable of inspiring generations to come with “the flame” of her intense vision and her uncorrupted integrity.  At the same time, the rough energy and swift temp of the verses convey the gusto with which Theodore enters into the spirit of the ancient battle.  Without fully intending it, Theodore, I think, leaves us with an enigma.  How easily can we separate Jeanne’s devotion to the great cause from the bloody consequences which the poem so powerfully outlines?
     While Theodore remains an ostensibly Romantic poet, there is a dark underside to his imagination which links his work to that of such Canadian modernists as Livesay, Klein, and A.J.M. Smith.  Their contemporary, A.G. Bailey, once commented that in Theodore’s poetry “there was usually a [Page 130] stronger human correlative then was to be found in his older contemporaries,” and he elaborated on this saying: “Sometimes [his] imagery is used retrospectively and is given value not for its own sake, but because it serves to illustrate and heighten the intensity of some psychological state.”14
     In this vein, there are parallels between Theodore’s exploration of love and the imagination in his “Mermaids” and that of Livesay in her “Fantasia.”  A characteristic enigmatic playfulness emerges in Theodore’s prefatory note to his poem “Mermaids”:  “Seals, I’ve seen seals—and maybe I’ve seen mermaids.  Nobody but a fool, and certainly not a sailor with three sheets in the wind would mistake a seal for a mermaid” (46).  However, Theodore’s “Silver Mermaids” stealing the “warning bell” from the pitching buoy have much in common with Livesay’s “Undine” figure.15  They are luring the hapless mariner to the “restful and deep” peace of their “coral town” just as Livesay’s Undine tempts “the many, many” down “the watery stair.”  Even her phrasing “And death is here” echoes Theodore’s words “But death is here.”  Theodore may not have learned from the psychological and poetic theorists of the day as Dorothy Livesay did, but his poem explores the same parallels between the imagination, desire, the unconscious and death that hers does.  His mermaids, safe in their coral town, are both the focus of desire and the cause of death, the angels of forgetfulness and the source of “shaking grief.”
     Perhaps Theodore sometimes had a tendency to disguise his serious concerns behind a mask of folk humour.  His ostensibly comic poem “The Mad Sailor” belongs to the same undersea world of the imagination as does “Mermaids,” and brings to mind figures, motifs and preoccupations that find parallels in the work of the Canadian modernists Smith, Klein and Livesay.  The poem is a dramatic monologue spoken in dialogue by a Newfoundland sailor, who has barely survived a harrowing shipwreck.  He is a folk culture figure whose “weeping when others be merry, laughing when others cry” may remind the reader of Smith’s “Old Jelly Roll,” the black jazzman who used to “Cry at the birth/ Rejoice at the death… / Being on whisky, ragtime, chicken and the scriptures fed.”16
     According to the Mad Sailor’s respectable outport neighbours, “the crashing of reef and sea” has robbed him of his right mind.  For his part, he knows that their smug insinuations betray a hopeless ignorance about his wonderful nightly release into the submarine world of the imagination.  He has come to rejoice in the experience of “the self unmoored,” as Livesay phrases it in her poem “Fantasia.”  He has something in common with [Page 131] Klein’s protagonist in “The Portrait of the Poet as Landscape” who “in his secret shines / Like phosphorus at the bottom of the sea.”17  And, like Klein’s anonymous poet, “the shadow’s shadow,” he lives among neighbours who, to borrow Klein’s words, “though they will allow / him a passable fellow, think him eccentric, not solid, / a type that one can forgive, and, for that matter, forego.”18  The Mad Sailor explains his lot, and gives his reaction:


They give me bread and meat; a roof to shelter my head;
Tea for my smoky kettle and blankets enough to my bed.
They leave me sit, or step abroad, at my own wild whim.
“But for the mercy of God,” they say, “we’d be like him.”

But for the mercy of God! I have my laugh at that….
But for the mercy of God, say I, I’d be the same as you!

This brings to mind a passage from one of Theodore’s reflections in which he observes that “ignorance of poetry and indifference to poetry are facts far too humiliating for a person’s confession, rather than matters to proclaim at every opportunity with full chest complacency.”  Theodore’s Mad Sailor, like Klein’s poet, is most truly at home in the submarine world of imaginative immersion:


And when the moon is white and round, I wade into the tide
To sink among the oaring fish and glide where black eels glide;
And silky curtains of purple weed part and let me down
To where the love of my heart waits in a tide spun gown.

Theodore’s Mad Sailor belongs to an imaginative world similar to that of Newfoundland writers nearly contemporary with him like Margaret Duley (in her Eyes of a Gull).  There is the same intense romanticism and the same painful but sometimes funny awareness of a culture which on occasion is fiercely philistine.
     “The Lost Shipmate,” like “The Mad Sailor,” might be said to be an invocation of a drowned self.  It is both a lament for lost youth with its vigour, innocence, rapture, and a talisman to assist in the quest for another of those strangely elusive figures who appear and disappear in Theodore’s poetry.  “The Lost Shipmate” is not, as the previous poem was, about confinement [Page 132] in space, but rather about entrapment in the cycle of time—the cycle of tidal flood and ebb, outbound and inbound voyage, dawn wind and harbour darkness. The plunging echo of the poem’s parallel phrasing speaks eloquently of the aching sense of loss and the omnivorous succession of the waves of time:


Somewhere he left me; somewhere he slipt away—
    Youth, in his ignorant faith and bright array.
The tides go out, the tides come flooding in,
    And still the old years pass and the new begin….

The speaker’s only hope of escaping from the cycle is to rediscover the mysterious lost shipmate, a figure who in some respects parallels the elusive Gluskap of Theodore’s youthful poems.  His image seems almost to be palpable at instants of rapture “Down at the harbourside” “where anchored argosies ride” (argosy, with its echoes of argonaut and odyssey, being the word for a Ragusan merchant vessel).  At the very instant, though, of self-consciousness, his presence dissolves (“I saw his shadow—and ’twas the shadow of me”) (50).  Yet treasured images of memory may still point the way: “It may be he waits for me / Sipping those wines we knew in the draught of a breeze from the sea.”  This thought brings back anguished questions about the moment of his disappearance—“Was it in Bados… / Was it on Spanish Hill where the roses blow?”  In his clinging to the wraith of memory, the speaker comes to see that it is not that “he left me,” but that “somewhere I failed him; somewhere I let him depart.”  Though the speaker can not quite reach out to the figure, the poem is charged with the lost feelings of youth—eager anticipation, ignorant faith, carefree zest, full-bodied self-forgetfulness.  The lost shipmate may have “slipt away;” like Prince Ferdinand in Eliot’s Waste Land he may have dissolved; or we may be “sure only” that like Klein’s unknown poet “from our real society / he has disappeared.”  But the tantalizing question of the poem’s last line remains: “Shall I find you south of the gulf…?”  Perhaps like Eliot’s Phlebas the Phoenician he may reappear in a new guise, or like Klein’s nth Adam shine “like phosphorus / at the bottom of the sea.”19
     “The Lost Shipmate” was published not much more than a year before the outbreak of the Great War in 1914.  With its lament for a vanished self, the poem anticipates the far more overwhelming sense of loss of self which Theodore was to experience as the price of his involvement in one of the [Page 133] grimmest of all wars.  He enlisted in the Twelfth Battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force in August 1914, and within three months, he was on his way to Europe, where he served for four harrowing years.
     In a small way, what happened to Theodore’s sensibility and poetry reflects the fate of the imaginative outlook of a generation.  The vigorously optimistic and high dreaming culture of mainstream romanticism into which Theodore had been born was to be forever eclipsed by the murky and meaningless horrors of life in war torn France.  Theodore is almost the only Canadian poet who had first-hand experience of the horrors of trench warfare to have articulated the hellish nature of the experience.  Unlike the British war poets—Owen, Graves, Sassoon, Rosenberg and others—Canadian poets were inclined to echo in diluted ways the noble sentiments of John McCrae, or to indulge in the exaggerated Maple Leaf heroics contained in many of the poems published in John Garvin’s anthology Canadian Poems of the Great War (1918).  For his part, Theodore in a reflective poem “To the Unknown Soldier” concluded that his generation must forget “the splendid dreams that were” (85).  And, in another poem “Haunted” of a slightly later date, he is troubled by the shadows of a forgotten self, “The ghosts of the dreams of the boy I was, by the man I have been, denied” (100).  His wartime experience caused him to turn his back on his boyhood and his young man’s dreams of martial glory.  The god of martial glory appears in one of his poems as “Jorn the Angry One,” “Who thought to vent his flaming hate / Upon the rising sun,” but now lies dead “on the hills” (66).  In the spirit of this poem, Theodore was to write fierce attacks on international capital and the munitions manufacturers for their role in tricking and maddening the world into war (“Business as usual while Jesus weeps”).20
     The tone of Theodore’s poems which call up his feelings in the months after the outbreak of war in August 1914 suggest that the spectre of the “Master of Fate” had come back to haunt him (“Hope dies at the sound of his gallop—his hands are darkened with hate”).  The bitter sweet cadences of farewell echo through these poems.  The high piping of “The Fifes of Valcartier” might well be associated with the baby girl whom he and his wife had lost in June (77).  One does not soon forget the wrenching effect of such lines as “shrill and thin as a child’s cry the black fifes call to me, / And wring my heart, and turn my face to the red fields over-sea.”  Sound and rhythm combine to create the mood of suspended animation when fife and drum fall silent, and the only sound is the tramp of feet, and a clear and bitter-sweet inner voice echoes the memory of “days of peace and love and [Page 134] ease that are not oversea.”  All too soon, the silence and the gentle memories are cut short by the precise peremptory tones of the fifes, “quick and high and sharp” of the concluding stanza.
     The full pain of parting reappears in “Quebec,” a dream memory of saying good-bye, written many years after his embarkment in the early autumn of 1914 (78).  The poem is a tender first-person account of a precious island of time when fear and love came together in the mental space between the silhouettes of breaking camp and waiting ships.  The description of the “grey city” in “misty Weather” with its “rain swept heart of stone” sets the mood of grief in the face of inexorable reality, but it is also the focus of loving memory, the lamplit citadel which holds this image of “a dear woman” with “eyes tear wet, and white love on her face.”  This is both a very personal poem of parting, and at the same time speaks for the feelings of a generation of men and women separated by what they perceived to be inescapable duty.
     The poems written by Theodore in the year after his departure from Québec show few delusions and nothing of the Rupert Brooke exuberance of the time.  They make it clear that he knew that, in being posted to camps in England and bases in Flanders, he was arriving on the fringes of a dark inferno.  The obscuring pall of dark mist obscures the landscape in some of them, and in “Salisbury Plain,” sun and moon take weird shapes of grey (78).  The bleak landscape of the military camp seems only an extension of the wasteland of the trenches and the ravaged towns of France and Belgium.  The heroic battlegrounds of his youthful dreams have been overtaken by a desolate darkness where a lurid plutonian light leers over an underworld of muddy trenches and bivouacs, drafty billets, steaming cookhouse tents and inviting but squalid bootlegger’s parlours.
     Typical of these numbed survival poems is “A Billet in Flanders” where the only sign of sanity in the frowstiness and gloom is the sudden glimpse of a crucifix, “pitiful, pale and small, / Christ crucified on the mildewed wall” (83).  The sound that echoes through his biovouac is “the grind of wheels” with its overtone of something more than physical, the daily routine of the soldier and “the weary round of keeping alive on the muddy ground.”  The speaker himself, in the mood of indecision “men call fear,” is slowly turning to “the pale regard of the imaged dead.”  The image of Christ “high and white as a star” of his Fredericton boyhood now is far lower in the sky, but, in sinking, it has taken on a truer light. [Page 135]
     This gives his work a simpler and more human focus.  In one poem, he takes for his subject the feelings of a Canadian subaltern, spending his leave in a country hotel, anticipating release and distraction from his fears, only to find his private nightmare reflected in the bearing of his fellow guests and in the too bright eyes of the women.  In another, he turns to the misfortunes of a fat lady bootlegger, accustomed to proferring cognac with a hard smile, who had been driven from her place of business by military edict.  He gives a brief vignette of a Canadian infantryman, Private North:


Hunched in his great coat, there he stands,
Sullen of face and hard of hands;
Ready to fight, unready to drill,
Willing to suffer and ready to kill.

He fills out the picture, and presents his soldier in a sympathetic light, a victim of war who has been uprooted from a warmly domestic home “low set and grey / In black woods thousands of miles away,” and is now willing to offer his life:


A fearless, humble and steadfast thing;
And with it, or chance to spare or take,
A woman’s spirit to wring and break.

Like others caged by destructive experience, Theodore in his lonely moments was inclined “to relive his past” or to travel back to “sensations of childhood.”21  He particularly liked to think of the riverside farm at Crock’s Point where he had spent many summer days as a boy.  The farm was associated in his mind with his childhood hero Archie Douglas, and it was of Archie that he wrote in the darkest year of the war.22  Archie had been “a wizard on running logs in roaring snow fed waters in the spring of the year,” and to the young eyes of Theodore and his friends, had appeared “as we imagined the best of King Charles’ cavaliers must have looked.”  In the poem, Theodore echoes Archie’s words which must have had a special meaning in view of his experience of the terrifying grind of war.


The mills of the gods grind small, no matter if fast or slow:
Bitter winds of the world search the grain from the chaff: [Page 136]
’Tis the man who keeps his own soul who smiles at the gaff.

Perhaps the terrors of war for Theodore were lessened by exhilarating thoughts of Archie’s enchanted but still menacing stories of “Gluskap’s painted wood / And the devilish, hostile cunning of tortured rivers in flood.”
     Through all the bitter years of war, the Saint John must have flowed through his memories like a river of life.  Often he must have returned in his imagination to “the amber stream” where “all the air is like a tide / Quivering cool and green” (89).
     After the Armistice in November 1918, Theodore realized his longing to return to the Saint John country, where, as his daughter tells us, “in reaction to the war,” he turned all his energies to working a farm and writing.23  Dorothy remembers bleakness dominating, but in her memory her father “raised a special / Expanse of radiance over the cold hill.”24  He was engrossed in the simple things of life. In his own words, he was content with “this brief minute’s fame,” or, in the phrase of a contemporary writer who has suffered through five long years of privation, “to live for the day.”25  His concern with simple immediates is also reflected in his poetry.  In this, he had much in common with the post-war modernists.  Smith has written

The modern revival began in the twenties with a simplification of technique following the lead of the “new poets” in the United States and the Georgians in England, Canadian poets turned against rhetoric, sought a sharper more objective imagery, and limited themselves as far as possible to the language of every day and the rhythms of speech.26

In the river poems which Theodore wrote soon after the war, we find many of the qualities referred to by Smith.  The unadorned images of “River Morning” create the mood.


Mist along the river, creeping down
With spinning clots of drift and blinks of foam;
Terns screaming out along the sandbars;
A heron flapping from his reedy home.

Breath of pennyroyal on the gravel;
Breath of wet willows down the shore; [Page 137]
Start of life around the busy islands,
And, at the East’s gold gate, one blue day more.

Without so much as a phrase to suggest the presence of the poet, this beautifully conveys an intoxicated response to the startled tranquility of dawn, with its images of mist and drift, flight and fragrance, and sudden screaming cries.
     In a companion poem “The Sandbar,” the pattern of contrast sets off and heightens the effect of individual images.  The tidewashed sand bar, neither sea nor shore, is a place of opposites—of crowding “black crows” and solitary white “herons,” of “glassy tide” and “sudden squalls,” of “driftwood” softly lodged on the sand which had once been “ripped from bridges and ferries / When the river topped her banks” (92).  Theodore shapes his words to highlight contrast, as in the impressionist rendering of the “slim terns” which “flashed like silver / Against a cobalt sky” (92).
     All his life, Theodore strove to sharpen his eye for images and strongly defined impressions.  He also sought to develop a familiar style (employing “the language of everyday” and “the rhythms of speech”) which would allow him to share his imaginative world with his readers.  He aimed for a personal tone.  Poetically he was a stranger to the rhetoric of his Victorian forbears—to their elaborate stanzas, their elevated diction, their extended hexameter and heptameter rhythms and their metaphorical extravagance.  He wanted simplicity.  The essence of the familiar style is evident in his work, the note of personal address, the willingness to let the reader enter a private, thoroughly known world, and share briefly the poet’s feeling for place or experience.  He wanted the reader to share something of his feeling for his “dear land of high wood and deep river.”  He reveals it as part of his hidden self, “Warp of my heart the slanted field’s ploughed breast; / Web of my heart the golden wing’s quick flight” (99).  The more the reader lingers on the words, the more they resonate in the mind, and he or she comes to share the poet’s homesickness for “Pale mushrooms in wet pastures grey with rain.”
     You might describe some of Theodore’s poems as charms or incantations to summon up long forgotten experience.  An example is his poem “Magic” where the words “burning driftwood” are echoed in ever changing combinations to create a remembered aroma in the most impressionable of the senses (94).  The varying phrases conjure a single principal sensation so that eventually the words merge into the image, and one has [Page 138] moved back in time to a twilit evening “Of darkling skies and plover haunted sands; / Of strong wings beating through a seaward haze” (94).  This is an atmosphere where it is possible to believe that dreams can come true, and one may share the sensation of grasping “dear recovered hands.”
     With Theodore’s poetry, one has the sense that Gluskap’s dream realm surrounds the margins of his poetry of the Saint John River country, and that sometimes motifs from the ancient Algonkian mythology find their way into his poetry without being directly revealed.  This seems to be true of one of Theodore’s best known poems “The Blue Heron,” where the central silhouette is the long necked bird which provides a fleeting glimpse of the faces of life and death (92).  The image reminds one strikingly of a rock etching on the shores of Lake Kejimkujik made perhaps centuries ago by an unknown Micmac artist; it is probably Culloo, the strange bird of Algonkian mythology, whose neck can reach the eternal stars.27  In the poem, the statuesque bird, depicted with sharp imagistic precision, presents a marked contrast with the lush vitality and colour of its habitat.


In a green place lanced through
With amber and gold and blue;
A place of water and weeds
And roses pinker than dawn,
And ranks of lush young weeds.

In strongly defined opposition to this colour and fluidity, we have the seemingly “pulseless” and “breathless” heron, still as “stone or shadow of stone.”  There is something set and crystalline about the heron’s gem-like eyes among the flowers and his outline


Still as an image made
Of wind and smoke half-hid
By windless sunshine and shade,
Save when a yellow lid
Slides and is gone like a breath:
Death-still—and sudden as death!

The soft sibilants and the muted aspirates, the halted and lingering spondees and anapaests which delay the slow iambic rhythm, the linebreak [Page 139] where the verse should flow all contribute to an utter stillness, a strangely living stillness, despite the hinted presence of death.
     In many of Theodore’s late poems there is a strong sense of what could best be described as home sickness—a longing for the kind of brightness and fullness of life he had known as a boy and a young man.  With this, there is sometimes a yearning to escape, to escape not only those places which might figure in a map of modern wastelands, but also a psychological condition. The “Dying Pirate’s Prayer,” largely descriptive of a festering southern port, evokes powerfully the delirious sea dog’s psychological state, his wrestling with haunting memory.  He is awash in guilt, and can not rid himself of images of the careenage, the stretch of shore where the hulls of ships are keeled over for cleansing, scrubbing, sanding, reconditioning.  Employing his two most powerful senses, Theodore evokes “the rottin’ barnacles” and curdled “milky inshore blue” (96) with its harbour stench—suggestive of the old sailor’s feverish state of horror.  The best he can hope for is that he will be propped up so that he can down another swig of rum, but his deep longing is to be carried off to the “jumpin’ deep sea blue” (96).
     Just as the enchanted port of his youth becomes a steamy careenage, so the secluded garden of romance becomes in his late poem “Haunted” the overgrown garden of his youthful dreams run wild and gone to seed.  Moss and grapeless vines choke out new growth and the garden paths are the haunts of ghosts.  Similarly the innumerable spacious chambers of “My House” are chill and empty, neglected and deserted.  Theodore had always responded strongly to desert places, but these late poems reflect his own desert places, and perhaps, too, the longing for a transcendent realm beyond the wasteland.
     This desire pulses out in “The Coral Sea” which expresses the yearning for a marvellous Elysian haven—the magic submarine glass house of the Celtic imagination, where Neptune’s fairest daughter is softly singing


“Sleep well!
“No more to roam
“Under strange stars,
“Far from your hills of home.
“Dream well! And in your dreams,
“(Hearken to me!), [Page 140]
“Soft sing your northland streams,
“Deep in the Coral sea.”

The North remained a lodestar of his imagination, and in the silhouetted fantasmagoria of “Arctic Rifles,” the shadowy ghost shapes move into the sub-polar darkness:


Out from the wood
And away where the drifts curled,
They glimmer and pass
Over the edge of the world.

There is an ambivalent mixture of apprehension and anticipation in these images of the Northern riflemen stepping in the shadows of their own fate.
     The anticipation of a possible dimension “over the edge of the world” is also manifest in “My House.”  The poem, ostensibly a lament for everything that time has stolen, ends with the words


…kneeling, I hear
gables creek in the wind
and crazy chimney’s sway.

One is inclined to append to this a phrase from Carman, “Surely the wind is but the wind,” and then add a question mark.28  A mercurial companion has been at work:


Stilly you stole away—
but not with empty hands.
From every room you filched
treasures dearer than rubies:
gilt of the cups we drank from,
threads of gold from the arras,
cellared sunshine of flagons
and raftered echoes of laughter.
                                   (104-05) [Page 141]

The logic of this poem requires one to ask whether this mercurial shadow, like the Gluskap of Theodore’s youthful poems, may not have his own shining tent beyond the western horizon.
     Poems of every phase of Theodore’s life reflect his preoccupation with the poetic quest.  And in its considerable variety, his poetry is related to the concerns of poets in the mainstream of the Canadian tradition—Bliss Carman, E.J. Pratt, A.M. Klein, Dorothy Livesay.  He had set out in a buoyant mood


Bright was the shield my fathers gave me.
    Light was my heart as I rode along.
With faith and hope and a dream to save me.

In the face of bitter experience, his leather bottle may have sprung a leak, and his horse may have been lamed, but he resolutely strove to ferment new wine, to find wings for his wounded horse.  In this context, the words of his nephew Goodridge MacDonald seem appropriate: “He was always, I think, the seeker: always, I am sure, a romanticist.  That continuous questing had its roots in the Arthurian soil tilled by Malory.  Or was it the eternal search to which every poet is committed?”29



A.G. Bailey, “Theodore Goodridge Roberts,” Fiddlehead 18 (1953), p. 3. [back]
From “A Northern Vigil,” The Poems of Bliss Carman, ed. J.R. Sorfleet (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1976), p. 35. [back]
See Malcolm Ross, The Impossible Sum of Our Traditions (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1985), p. 58. [back]
Silas Tertius Rand, Legends of the Micmacs (1890; rpt: New York: London, Longmans, Green, and Co., 1971), pp. 339-40. [back]
P.B. Shelley, “A Defence of Poetry,” in The Complete Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley, ed. Roger Ingpen and Walter E. Peck (New York: Gordian Press, 1965), VII, 118. [back]
From Bliss Carman, “Pulvis et Umbra,” The Poems of Bliss Carman, p. 23. [back]
Collected Poems of E.J. Pratt, 2nd. ed., Northrop Frye (Toronto: Macmillan of Canada, 1958), pp. 5, 89. [Page 142] [back]
Ibid., p. 22. [back]
“The Truant,” ibid., pp. 100-105. [back]
Prose note, “Sea Magic,” The Leather Bottle, p. 30. [back]
“Introductory Comments,” to a reading given by Theodore, without record of place or date, TS. in the Harriet Irving Library, University of New Brunswick. [back]
See A.M. Klein, “Heirloom,” in A.M. Klein, Complete Poems, ed. Z. Pollock (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1990), I, 298. [back]
T.H. White, ed. and trans., The Book of Beasts: Being a Translation from a Latin Bestiary of the Twelfth Century (London: Cape, 1951), p. 116. [back]
A.G. Bailey, in Leading Canadian Poets (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1958), p. 200. [back]
Undine figures in Livesay’s “Fantasia”; see Dorothy Livesay, The Self-Completing Tree (Victoria: Press Porcépic, 1986), pp. 203-05. [back]
A.J.M. Smith, “Old Jelly Roll,” in The Classic Shade: Selected Poems (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1978), p. 92. [back]
Klein, “Portrait of the Poet as Landscape,” in Complete Poems: Part 2, p. 639. [back]
Ibid., p. 635. [back]
See T.S. Eliot, Selected Poems (London: Faber and Faber, 1959), p. 63, and Klein, Complete Poems, II, 639. [back]
“The Dreams of Glory,” Canadian Bookman, 16 (1934), pp. 1-2. [back]
Terry Waite, Foreword, Taken on Trust (Toronto: McClelland-Bantam, 1994), n.p.. [back]


See Theodore’s prose piece, “Old Archie,” Canadian Magazine, 50 (1917), 519ff.  It is likely that the poem “Old White Water Boy” was written at much the same time as this essay. [back]
See Dorothy Roberts, The Self of Loss: New and Selected Poetry (Fredericton: Fiddlehead Poetry Books, 1976), p. 7. [back]
Dorothy Roberts, “The Farm,” ibid., p. 14. [back]
Waite. [back]
A.J.M. Smith, “Introduction,” The Book of Canadian Poetry, 2nd. ed. (Toronto: W.J. Gage, 1948), p. 29. [back]
A rock etching seen by the editor during a canoe trip in Kejimkujik Park, Nova Scotia in the summer of 1974.  For a tracing of the etched image of Culloo, see Marion Robertson, Rock Drawings of the Micmac Indians (Halifax: Nova Scotia Museum, 1973), fig. 5. [Page 143] [back]
The phrase is from “The Windflower.”  See Bliss Carman’s Poems, (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1922), p. 6. [back]
MacDonald, “Theodore Goodridge Roberts: Poet and Novelist,” Canadian Author and Bookman, 29 (Spring, 1953) p. 12. [Page 144] [back]