Margaret Atwoods The Journals of Susanna Moodie"
by R. P. Bilan
The Journals of Susanna Moodie is possibly Margaret Atwoods finest collection of poetry; it unquestionably is her most tightly organized book of poems. For all the virtues of the individual poems, much of the strength of the book derives from its cumulative effect, from the close inter-connection and inter-weaving of poems as Atwood presents her modernized version of Susanna Moodies experience. The book derives its shape and cohesiveness, of course, from the persona of Moodie herself as Atwood traces the change the growth and development in Moodies response to the land. She moves from her initial alienation to her attitude at the end where, as Atwood explains in the Afterword, Susanne Moodie has finally turned herself inside out, and has become the spirit of the land she once hated.1 My claim, however, that this book is tightly organized, and that to understand it properly one must take full account of the structure, seems to be denied by Atwood herself. In her interview with Graeme Gibson in Eleven Canadian Novelists Atwood explains how she wrote this series of poems:
While this work may not have been written like a novel, it does focus on a central character and is tied to a chronological sequence showing her growth. Moreover, even assuming this is an accurate account of the way Atwood wrote the poems, once she had written them she obviously made a very careful arrangement. And despite what she says in the interview, her comments in the Afterword suggest a clear enough pattern and organization in the book.
The poems are tied together not only by the persona, but also by a number of key images: trees, fire, light and darkness. It is especially in terms of the reversal of Moodies attitude towards light and darkness that Atwood charts her growth and transforms her from a typical early Victorian to a person with a distinctly modern sensibility. The use of this imagery begins, in fact, with the collage that precedes the first journal. A collage is of its very nature artificial: it involves sticking, imposing, one figure on another. The opening collage reveals this to be Mrs. Moodies state in the new land she is artificially stuck into the wilderness, and lacks any true connection with the land. The sharp border of light surrounding Moodie reveals the cause of her separation from the land. Her initial commitment is to all those things associated with light: civilization, reason, order. Only as she comes to accept the darker side of herself, and of nature, will she be able to change and grow. In The Journals of Susanne Moodie, as in much of Atwoods poetry (Journey Into The Interior is the clearest example), the exploration of a new land is also a psychological exploration of the self.
Journal I, covering Mrs. Moodies years in the bush (1832-1840) takes us through the beginnings of her transformation. Disembarking At Quebec, the opening poem, portrays her total alienation from the land. She sees only the glare / of sun, the moon alien and that: The rocks ignore. She regards herself as a word / in a foreign language. But the poem also establishes, through the questioning tone of Moodies voice, the possibility that her disharmony with the land is of her own making: or is it my own lack / of conviction which makes / these vistas of desolation, / . . .omens of winter. By at least recognizing that her alienation may be caused by her foreign habits of mind, Atwoods Moodie is able, in the following poems, to make her first tentative steps towards coming to terms with the new land, and towards greater self-understanding.
In Further Arrivals the land is seen as a large darkness, but she realizes: It was our own / ignorance we entered. She does manage to make her initial gesture towards reaching out to, understanding, the darkness, but her dominant response to the land, and to her unknown inner self, is one of fear: My brain gropes nervous / tentacles in the night, sends out/ fears haing as bears, / demands lamps. The use of tentacles, the animals organs for sensing its way, suggests that her transformation has begun. In this poem it clearly is her own lack of conviction that creates, sends out, fears. She still demands lamps, the artificial light of society, to see her way, but knows that eventually she will need wolfs eyes to see / the truth. She will have to come to terms with the darkness, see with the eyes of the wilderness, and that means the ability to see, as the narrator in Surfacing comes to realize, beyond the realm of logic, reason, and civilized order.
By the conclusion of The Planters Mrs. Moodie is well on her way to this kind of perception. The image of planting is a key one throughout the book, and as Moodie watches her husband and the other man attempting to plant the garden, attempting to tame and humanize the wilderness, she realizes that if they
These stanzas bring together the central images of trees, and darkness and light. She feels assaulted by the bush and regard it as threatening but another view seems implicit in her remarks. The image of the dark comes somewhat as a surprise at the end of the line above, for branches, roots, tendrils are, after all, simply the living forms of the natural world. Although at this point Moodie perceives the natural, the wild, as dark, she is on the verge of a different and more complex perception. The line break produces another surprise; it conveys her realization that it is the dark / side of light. The oxymoron indicates that Moodies original, Victorian categories, which make a sharp separation of darkness and light, are beginning to break down.
Moodies experiences and her increased feelings of alienation cause her to become more introspective and she begins to question who she is and who her husband is. The Wereman shows her new awareness of her separation from her husband: my husband walks in the frosted field / an X, a concept / defined against a blank, / he swerves, enters the forest / and is blotted out. Blotted out suggests that she still sees the forest as something that simply threatens, obliterates ones identity. In the following stanza, however, the opposite possibility is suggested: Upheld by my sight / what does he change into / what other shape / blends with the under- / growth. Here he blends with the undergrowth and his identity is seemingly transformed positively by his achieving a new harmony with the land. The general theme of this poem that of lovers fixing an image of each other in their minds is, it is true, a common one in Atwoods work, but it takes on a new dimension here as she explores the impact of the land on identity, and the poem itself has a wider significance because of its context in the book.
As we see in Paths And Thingscape Mrs. Moodie makes her own attempt to blend in, to find meaning in her new world, but she is not yet ready. The opening sections of the poem suggest a growth in positive perception: Those who went ahead / of us in the forest / bent the early trees / so that they grew to signals: / the trail was not / among the trees but / the trees. It is not entirely clear whether those who went ahead refers to earlier pioneers, or to the Indians; more probably it is the latter, but in any case the important fact is that the trails are not something man-made imposed on nature, but are made in harmony with nature. Certainly there is a suggestion that Mrs. Moodie is beginning to come to terms with the land, and beginning to recognize that the trees are her guide in her journey to self understanding.
The following two paragraphs carry further the idea of finding meaning, an order, in nature:
The first part, of course, refers to a form of augury. Both are seen as different kinds of signals; different ways of unlocking the order in nature, of discovering a natural pattern that exists apart from the meanings that man imposes.
But at this point in Mrs. Moodies experience the possibility of there being a meaning in nature is raised only to be discounted. The next lines in the poem show a shift in her attitude:
Moodie fails to see any meaning in the things around her, but there is a suggestion that it is there, that the sun, branches, blue movement could be seen in a unified way. Atwood deliberately juxtaposes calls / trails. The calls are there, but Moodie cant understand them as shes still looking for the wrong kind of order. She perceives only the meaningless cycle of nature, but the poem points to the possibility that even in the fall of the petals there may be some undiscerned pattern.
The poem concludes with Moodie longing for union with the world around her, longing for a vision of the world moving harmoniously each / thing . . . into its place. Because of her old assumptions, however, Moodie is not ready for such a vision, and the union cant come until she undergoes a further transformation. The following poem The Two Fires portrays the experience that makes that transformation possible.
The Two Fires is one of the most brilliant examples of how Atwood uses Susanna Moodies Roughing It In The Bush for her own purposes. In the poem Atwood brings together the experiences depicted in two separate chapters in Moodies book, chapter fourteen The Burning Fallow and chapter twenty The Fire.3 By condensing the two experiences Atwood is able, in a single poem, to enact the destruction of Moodies old values. The change shown in this poem makes possible Moodies new relation to the land, and to herself. Atwood creates a symbolic difference between the two fires in order to portray Moodies growth. The summer fire traps her in the house and against the shapeless raging of the wilderness fire, she attempts to raise up a charm: concentrate on / form, geometry, the human / architecture of the house, square / closed doors, proved roof-beams, / the logic of windows. In the face of the fire she turns to her belief, faith, in rationality implicitly in the whole cast of mind she brought with her from the old world. As Atwoods line-break the human / architecture suggests, however, she mistakenly identifies the human with excessive rationality and abstraction, with form, geometry. In the winter fire her situation is reversed and the house, along with her faith in reason and the old order, is destroyed:
Here the structure, metaphorically of rational thought, is seen as a prison and cage that must be broken out of. The fire thus forces her outside into the wilderness she has so far resisted, and the dream of imposing the old order is scorched, lost and given up.
Atwoods discussion of settlers in Survival provides, in effect, a gloss on this poem. She contends that settlers
As Atwood goes on to observe, she herself is on the side of the curve, and after the fires, so too is the Mrs. Moodie of her poems.
By the conclusion of The Two Fires Mrs. Moodie recognizes each danger / becomes a haven. The danger has forced her to come to terms with the wilderness and the fires have left charred marks / now around which I / try to grow. Purged by the fire of her false notions of order she is now, like the fire-weed of the previous poem which grows out of burnt soil, able to be come part of the land. Her growth is presented partly through the use of tree imagery, and certainly in the following poem we see signs of her change.
In Looking In A Mirror Mrs. Moodie realizes that her civilized self has been destroyed by the land: religious / black rotted / off by earth. The loss, in fact, the discarding of the values of the old world is further implied in the lines: the china plate shattered / on the forest road, the shawl / from India decayed. Her metamorphosis has begun as she perceives her skin thickened / with bark and the white hair of roots. and her fingers / brittle as twigs. She is not, it is true, yet accepting the change: the sun here had stained / me its barbarous colour. The values of the old world speak in the verb stained and in the adjective barbarous, but she is on the verge of perception; her eyes are almost / blind / budsabout to open, to flower. And by the end of the poem she has attained the recognition that she has never fully known herself: you find only / the shape you already are / but what / if you have forgotten that / or discover you / have never known.
This recognition is, however, as far as she gets at this point, and her transformation is not completed before she leaves the bush. While the final poem of Journal I opens positively I, who had been erased / by fire, was crept in / upon by green she is aware her change is partial. She has not lost her fear of the land and of the animals: I was frightened / by their eyes (green or / amber) glowing out from inside me. Nor has she come to terms with the darkness: I was not completed; at night / I could not see without lanterns.
Journal II purportedly covers the years 1840-1871, Moodies years in Belleville; in fact, most of the poems return to her experience in the bush. While the arrangement of Journal I is perfectly clear the poems follow Moodies changing, increasingly positive, response to the land the nature of the organization of this second journal, the reason why Atwood circles back, is not quite as apparent. What is obvious is that the arrangement of the poems prevents any simple reading of the book claiming that Moodies attitude to the land becomes consistently more positive; rather, the poems show that she is in a continuing struggle to accommodate her new insights about the land. The journal begins with Moodie achieving a new relation to the land, but in the poems of the middle section, her old fears are revived.
In the opening poem Death Of A Young Son By Drowning Atwood turns Moodies own note, in Life In The Clearings, about the death of her son in the Moira river, into a key incident in Moodies coming to accept her new land. At the beginning of the poem Moodie refers to the land I floated only not touch to claim. But the death of her son finally establishes her link with the land. When he drowns he is hung in the river like a heart; he becomes the centre of her new feelings towards nature. At his death, she realizes:
Like a flag, of course, used in the discovery and claiming of a new land. The epigrammatic ending, so characteristic of Atwoods poetry, summarizes the change in Moodie. The dream of returning to England is ended, and her sons death gives her new roots.
That Atwood opens the second journal with this poem is obviously of considerable importance, and the following poem The Immigrants portrays a further growth in Moodies understanding. She now realizes not only that the dream of return to England has collapsed, but also that the immigrants falsify, idealize, their memories of the old country: the old countries rod, become / perfect, thumbnail castles preserved / like gallstones in a glass bottle. The actual details of life in the old country, the real pain and suffering implied by gallstones are forgotten. All that remains in memory is the idyllic pastoral world shown in a light paperweight-clear. But Moodie now realizes that if they do go back, their idealized versions of the old country will be shattered by the reality: their ears / are filled with the sound of breaking glass. Moodie further understands that the old order cannot be re-created in the new land. Having come to the recognition that there is no going back, Moodies mind, in the last two stanzas of the poem, turns to the land, for it is here that she must now find her identity.
These opening two poems follow quite naturally from the first journal, showing Mrs. Moodies response progressing in a straightforward line. But in the following series of poems we see that, at a deeper level, Moodie is still torn in her feelings about the land. In the Afterword Atwood provides a note on the construction of this journal: At the beginning of this section Mrs. Moodie finally accepts the reality of the country she is in, and at its end she accepts also the inescapable doubleness of her vision (63). The poems may show Moodies recognizing the reality of her new country, but it is not at all clear that she accepts it. In many ways her years in the bush have left her with feelings of revulsion and terror towards her new land, and she is still struggling to come to terms with it. This may be what Atwood means by the inescapable doubleness of her vision; that is, she is consciously committed to the new land, but she is also horrified by it. The following series of poems portray this divided attitude.
The first dream poem, The Bush Garden, reflects what is, at best, the ambivalence in Moodies attitude. In her dream the vegetables in the garden are seen as pulsing with life: the radishes thrusting down / their fleshy snouts, the beets / pulsing like slow amphibian hearts. This surrealistic image of vegetables turning into animals is grotesque, yet is also positive as the land is coming alive. The succeeding image is entirely positive: Around my feet/ the strawberries were surging, huge / and shining. This apparently represents the vital energy in the land that attracts Mrs. Moodie. But the concluding stanza of the poem reveals a very different attitude: In the dream I said / I should have known / anything planted there / would come up blood. The reference to blood is a shocking ending to the poem, and it reveals the great distance that still exists between Moodie and Nature. Within this single poem then we see Moodies divided response, the inescapable doubleness of her own vision. And, while the first two poems of this journal portray a conscious change in her attitude, the dream poem shows that in her unconscious, to some extent, her fear and revulsion remain.
The next three poems also deal with the spilling of blood and with Mrs. Moodies attempt to confront the violence in the new land. The violence of the past, of the 1837 war, remains in the present, recorded in a childs drawing. The killings by Brian The Still Hunter are given a distinctly Atwood twist as he identifies with the animals he has slain. In Charivari Atwood brings a particularly violent experience from our past front and centre, and, under the guise of Moodie, makes a direct, didactic appeal to us to change: Resist those cracked / drumbeats. Stop this. Become human. But these three poems are less important in trying to understand Moodies attitude to the new land and society than the third dream poem, Night Bear Which Frightened Cattle. This dream poem picks up from The Bush Garden and reveals the terror that the wilderness still evokes in Moodie. Susanna Moodies rather comic description, at the end of the chapter The Fire, of the cattle being frightened by the bear, is transformed by Atwood into a probing exploration of what the wilderness now means to Moodie. At the beginning of the poem Moodie remarks that the night the cows were frightened, the surface of my mind keeps / only as anecdote. This particular scene remains in Moodies conscious mind only as a memory to be laughed at, but the poem examines what lies beneath her conscious memory, and, moreover, what lies beneath the whole romantic conception of nature she brought with her:
This is one of the most overtly poetical passages in the book: the birds tremble, the moon hovers, and with the orange lake these images evoke a romanticized nature. But beneath stories, beneath this false peaceful natural setting, and beneath her conscious mind, lurks a sense of nightmare and terror.
In the dream I lean with my feet grown intangible / because I am not there she comes to accept the reality of the wilderness. Although she does not actually see the bear, she realizes
The stanza takes us back to the early poem Further Arrivals which concludes Whether the wilderness is / real or not / depends on who lives there. Now and this visible kitchen apparently refers to Moodie in Belleville, thinking back he wilderness is real to her.
The penultimate stanza of the poem is of particular interest because it shows Moodie, in the dream, caught, or poised, between the world of the bear and that of the lighted cabin. In the actual scene in Roughing It In The Bush Moodie is with her family in the lighted cabin at night. In the dream Atwood changes the situation; Moodie is separated from her family:
There is a certain ambiguity in the stanza, but us, in the second line appears to refer to Moodie and the bear. She has now grown apart from the world of the lighted cabin civilization and has moved out into the wilderness.
The Deaths Of The Other Children takes us back to the experience of the opening poem of this section, Death Of A Young Son By Drowning. The two poems, portraying Mrs. Moodies new roots in the land, provide a frame for the poems which come in between. She recognizes that the buried body joins itself / to the loosened mind, to the black- / berries and thistles. As it will be for Mrs. Moodie herself, the union with the land takes place only in death. The conclusion of the poem makes it clear that these deaths have strengthened her ties to the land:
They refers both to the children and the briers. The children have in fact become part of nature, and the land reaches out to claim Mrs. Moodie.
In the third journal Moodies transformation finally occurs. The opening poem simply shows her out of place in the civilized world; the next three poems reveal her preference for the land over society, and her new preference for the dark side of light. Daguerreotype Taken In Old Age shows the complete change from the early Moodie, who arrived in Canada as an emissary of light. Now Moodie associates herself with the granular moon she is a figure of the night. The analogy of Moodie as the moon is sustained throughout the poem: I revolve among the vegetables, I orbit, and the apple trees are seen as white white spinning / stars around me. The concluding lines bring the poem, and Moodies change, to a focus: I am being / eaten away by light. Literally, Moodie as moon is being eaten away by the light of the sun as the daguerreotype is destroyed by light. Metaphorically light is no longer positive to Moodie. The values of the real Susanna Moodie, with her pious Christianity, have been reversed completely by Atwood. In Life In The Clearings Susanna Moodie remarked: Light! give me more light! were the dying words of Goethe; and this should be the constant prayer of all rational souls to the Father of light.5 Atwood has none of Moodies commitment to rationality and to Christianity to light. Rather, Atwood wants the irrational, the dark side of nature and of the self, given its place.
That there should be a full recognition and acceptance of the darkness is the point of Mrs. Moodies wish in the poem Wish: Metamorphosis To Heraldic Emblem. In her old age Moodie is already seeing her transformation: On my skin the wrinkles branch / out, overlapping like hair or feathers. As the line break at branch indicates, Moodie is being metamorphosized into all aspects of nature, a tree as well as an animal (a bear, no doubt), and a bird. And she imagines the kind of emblematic forerunner she would like to become:
She will prowl and slink in opposition to the civilization committed to light that has excluded the land and darkness. For Moodie, the darkness is now crystal darkness; it is understood, and no longer feared. The bird that she imagines herself to be is uncorroded by society and its colour, fiery green, symbolizes the energy and passion she now admires. Atwood has separated the last words of the poem so the reader will enact Mrs. Moodies own recognition. At first she thinks that she is seeing her opal, which is gold, green, red, but then realizes that it is not the opal she sees no rather it is her own eyes glowing. At the end of the first journal she was frightened by eyes (green or / amber) glowing out from inside me. The fear is gone and she is almost computed; she now desires that the land speak through her.
As Mrs. Moodie turns to the land she becomes increasingly distanced from the society around her. By the end of Visit To Toronto, With Companions, the separation is total. For the first three stanzas of the poem Atwood draws on the chapter Lunatic Asylum in Life In The Clearing; from then on the poem is entirely, and distinctively, her own. Moody herself is now apparently mad; there is certainly a suggestion of controlled madness in her seemingly inappropriate gesture: I sat down and smoothed my gloves. But this is madness as close to a breakthrough as to a breakdown, and is analagous to the madness of the narrator in Surfacing when she returns to a primitive state and identifies herself with the land: I lean against a tree, I am a tree leaning . . . I am not an animal or a tree, I am the thing in which the trees and animals move and grow, I am a place.6 Moodie never gets this far, but in the fourth stanza of the poem, as she steps into a different kind of room she encounters, or rather, imagines she encounters, the land, the wilderness now excluded by the city. Moodie is still not fully in harmony with the land: The landscape was saying something / but I couldnt hear. But whereas in Disembarking At Quebec she felt The rocks ignore, here One of the rocks / sighed and rolled over. There is some response, at least. Moodie rejects the appeal to return to the city for she prefers to attend to her visions:
In the earlier poem Paths And Thingscape Moodie saw only the cycle of nature in the fireweeds; here the same flowers seem to shoot forth with significance. But the air is only about to tell her answer Moodies change is not total and it is only in death that she can become one with the land.
Moodies final word, just as she dies is toro NTO; Atwood may be playing on the Indian meaning of the word meeting place. In any case, in Alternate Thoughts From Underground, as Mrs. Moodie, after dying, speaks out against the new order, the inheritors, the raisers / of glib superstructures, she is identified with the land. She sets herself with Nature and totally against modern civilization; her heart prays: O topple this glass pride, tireless / rivetted Babylon, prays / through subsoil / to my wooden fossil God. The key adjective tireless captures the reason for her revulsion from modern society, and also indicates the complete reversal from her original attitude. That she now prays to a wooden fossil God Nature that has no place in present society prepares us for the transformation in Resurrection. The theme of the concluding part of Alternate Thoughts is strikingly similar to that of Al Purdys Lament for the Dorsets. The giant reptiles, like the Dorset giants are done under by something they dont understand, in the same way Mrs. Moodie is done under by modern civilization, for which she feels scorn but also pity; scorn because of the shallowness of the present, pity because she knows it too will pass away.
The final transformation of Mrs. Moodies attitudes occurs in Resurrection. The first part of the poem shows traces of a Christian attitude towards resurrection, but there is also a perception of a resurrection of a different kind:
Atwood makes superb use of her line-spacing to present two different perceptions; on the one hand Mrs. Moodie hears the angels, on the other hand she is aware of Nature. As Mrs. Moodie waits for the time to reach her up to the pillared / sun, the final city, she still seems to have a Christian idea of resurrection in mind, but in the concluding lines her attitude shifts:
She rejects the notion of god as the Logos, or Word existing outside of, apart from nature; moreover, what she accepts is not what we ordinarily think of as pantheism: to say god is the whirlwind implies an acceptance of all the chaotic energy of nature. The concluding line, of course, brings all the tree imagery of the book to a focus.
In the final poem, A Bus Along St. Clair: December, the pattern of reversal is completed, and the tightly-structured The Journals of Susanna Moodie is brought to a fitting conclusion. Now it is not nature which is seen as threatening, but the city an unexplored / wilderness of wires. And Mrs. Moodie now is committed to destroying. the walls, the ceiling, the boundaries and order she once supported. She has at last, as Atwood remarks, become the spirit of the land she once hated.