[Vancouver, BC: 1931?]






“We ask Thee not for quietness and rest,
But for the ecstacy of endless quest.”


The Future of Our Poetry

Written for the Author’s Convention,
Toronto; June 22-26, 1931



     Some years ago, half-way between beautiful Banff and lovely Lake Louise, I saw a strange and cone-shaped mountain.  I said, “Is it possible that any artist could go away from this place with out first striving to possess some likeness of this miracle of mountains?”
     The following year I saw my mountain again, and this time in a picture gallery in Vancouver, or, rather I saw its spirit exquisitely painted and gloriously presented.  I shall not soon forget that amazing moment.  It was not the intimate revelation of beauty alone while moved me so; it was as though I saw before me, the very soul of a new and tremendous poetry. [page 1]*
     To me, as a poet, the “Mountain Form” of Lawren Harris, is a sacred symbol “implicitly symbolising objects which lie beyond.”
     There is nothing in its aloofness and tranquility to suggest the terror and confusion of creation; the birth of an icefall, landfall and waterfall; of mountains thrust up from the sea, glacier-ground, polished, etherealized, fanned by the winds of heaven; of vast sea-floors lifted, to become arid steppe or fruitful prairie; and yet it does suggest them all.
     It holds the spirit of the land in which its body was made, and its soul was conceived, and standing before this shrine of pure genius, one is filled with wonder and reverence. 
     Its purity, strength, and remoteness, are so suffused with the quality of holiness, that is does not seem to me to be extravagant to say, as I do say, that the only fitting home for such “ineffable radiance,” mystery and magic, is the chancel of a noble Cathedral built and dedicated to the Eternal Spirit of Poetry.  [page 2]
     It appears to me that our modern art of painting, as exemplified in the “Mountain Form,” must have a great and lasting influence upon the art of poetry.
     There are other artists in the “Group of Seven” with whose work I hope, shortly, to become more familiar, but in the space of time at my disposal, I may well be content with the “Mountain Form” as the supreme example for my argument.
     Perhaps it is a vain thing to attempt a prophecy of the future of our poetry, or even to hint that there will be any definite change in it at all beyond increase of excellence; but it is equally idle to think that poetry alone among the fine arts will, or can remain unchanged.
     The soaring lines of our architecture, dim lines which melt into the sky, form one instance only of the new factors in our lives, which have enlarged our vision or transformed our ideals of beauty. [page 3]
     George Rylands in his book, “Words and Poetry,” says that “poets invite us to see the world, now through one, now through the other end of the telescope; painfully close at hand, or infinitely remote and beautiful.”  Perhaps this may be said of any artist, no matter what the medium of his art may be, but there is no question as to which end of the telescope we are invited by the creator of the “Mountain Form”; invited not only to see his world, but also to use what the Chinese call our sixth sense of understanding.
     If our painters are the first to achieve that much-debated thing, a national originality in art, the poets with no loss of prestige, may very well follow in their footsteps.  They also may recognize that age-long truth which Stendhal re-discovered for France, the truth that “one should feel rather than analyze a work of art, and that perfection lies not in the absence of defect, but in the presence of vitality and strength.” [page 4]
     Wells thinks that we have only to look carefully into the past to be able to trace at least some outline of the future there; and Shelley says that “Always to be in love with something or other is the true secret of poetry.”  So, it would seem, all we have to do now in order to be able to read the future, is to peer into the past and discover what our poet-lovers were truly in love with.
     I have not attempted to do this, because I believe that we should learn little or nothing by such research.  I can only prophesy as a poet prophesies, and without giving any reason for my beliefs, other than the fact that all my intuitions are simply epitomized in the vision of the “Mountain Form.”
     All the virtues which I find therein, are those which I hope and believe will soon be the strongest characteristics of our poetry: the refreshment of originality, its restraint and freedom, its gifts of spiritual illumination and expression; the extraordinary depth and quality [page 5] of its feeling; its symbolism; and its wonderful suggestion of light.
     There lives a Professor in the West, who lays the cause of our poetry very closely to his hear, and in his fatherly concern does not scruple to tell us many unpalatable truths.  He complains that our poetry is beautiful but not great, that it lacks “the rich current of ideas” which Matthew Arnold called the fundamental basis of a great literature; and that it does not inspire one with momentous thoughts.
     That is a hard saying.  Are we then so far behind the rest of the world in this? I do not think so.  The poet is not, primarily, a thinker.  He is one who feels more intensely than other men; he knows things intuitively; as some one said a short time ago, “he deals with things that are not answerable to reason.”
     Does not the greatness of the “Mountain Form” apart from its colour and composition, consist in the total absence of concrete ideas, and in the subtle suggestion where by every [page 6] man may pour his ideas into the picture and make it his own.
     Nor are the poets alone in the paucity or poverty of their ideas. The chronicles of our days are splendid with heroic action, but so far as heroic ideas are concerned, where is the man into whose hands we would fearlessly deliver our souls?  Generally, but not specifically, our Professor is entitled to his lament.
     To-day we are surrounded by new standards for everything but poetry, for the vagaries of our modern experimentalists in the art of words, have no permanence in them.  Yet, as I said before, it is unthinkable that the poets alone should not move with the times.
     A friend has dared me to hazard a guess as to the technical form the new poetry may take.  But I think the difference will lie not so much in a change of technique as in a change of heart; in self-discipline.  There will be less concern with prettiness of phrase, perhaps less humanity, less patience with sentiment, but [page 7] certainly there will be more strength as befitting the heroic age.
     Because our country is young politically, it is often said that we are not yet grown up, and that the impulse of our poets has been to look outward and not inward; in short, that our scenery has overshadowed the landscape of the soul.  It is invigorating to reflect that no Canadian, however long he has lived in the land, has yet seen the scenery of Canada, nor will, without the aid of his telescope of imagination.  Perhaps our critics are misled by the mass-production of verse which has almost swamped the two countries of this Northern Continent.
     But, even from this humble meadowland of song, where bees hum and crickets sing beside murmuring streams, and the roving wind has its own fine harmony, sometimes there rises a pure lyric note, which startles us from our indifference and thrills us with astonishment.
     A famous painting by a famous artist and [page 8] a tragic poem by an unknown school girl, are two very different proofs of the path to which our art is trending.  Yet pure genius and depth of feeling are inseparable, and it is for the sake of its deep feeling alone, that I give to you the following poem on Charles Lamb and his sister Mary, which was written by Margaret Snodgrass, who is twelve years old and lives with her parents at De Roche, a tiny settlement in the Fraser Valley of British Columbia. 
     The poem was published last March as an incidental contribution to the Children’s Page of the Vancouver Province.  It seems incredible that one little more than a child could have written so; could have dealt with one of the deepest tragedies of all time with such simple poignancy of expression and almost uncanny intuition.  The poem, however, is well authenticated.



             LAMB AND HIS SISTER


Across the English meadows sweet,
     Across the smiling sunset land,
I see them walk with faltering feet—
     Brother and sister—hand in hand. [page 9]

They know the hour of parting nigh,
     They pass into the dying day,
And—lo! against the sunset sky
     Looms up the madhouse gaunt and grey

                *         *        *        *        *

He keeps the lonely lamp aglow,
     While old loves whisper in the air
Of unforgotten long ago
      Before his heart had learned despair.

He waits till she may come once more
     From out the darkness to his side,
To share the changeless love of yore,
     When all the old old loves have died.

Between me and this gentle book
     Shining and lambent, rich and quaint,
The sad scene rises and I look
     Upon a jester or a saint.

I lift my eyes still brimming o’er
     With love and laughter and there falls
Across the page for evermore
     The shadow of the madhouse walls.

     Myers said that “childhood is genius without capacity,” but I think you will agree with me that it would be a captious critic indeed, who could find fault with such sincerity and loveliness as this.  [page 10]
     It is well know saying that “you can never give imagination to those who have it not,” and it is well to remember, too, in these democratic days, that there is no such things as the democracy of art.  The general will  towards perfection, the general “levelling up” of minor talent, will never create the genius who is a born aristocrat and a law unto himself.  From the sublime urge of the imagination alone, come the wonderful light which transfigures the work of Lawren Harris and of the best of his contemporaries.
     Let us then be grateful for our rebels, whether they sing their songs with line and colour or with words.  For too often it is said that we, in common with the Sister Dominions are “too comfortable,” and that we have never known great suffering; that is, we have never been faced with real peril on our own soil, and until that happens no literary work of the first rank can be expected from us.
     Long ago, before the war, I expressed that [page 11] opinion myself to Stopford Brooke, who was deeply interested in our poetry; but the literary result of the war has not come up to expectations in any of the countries engaged in that great conflict—certainly not in Canada, which is just as well.
     Nationalism, implying war—the only kind of Nationalism that the world so far has known, is almost everywhere officially frowned upon, and poets are not expected, nor do they desire to glorify with their songs that which, theoretically, is damned.
     Our future poets will, probably, be much more concerned with the Universal than with National or even International themes, and honestly, I think that of all civilized countries, Canada is the finest jumping-off place for the Spirit.
     Biologically, as well as spiritually, man is still so far from being perfect, that the anticipation of approaching godship is the only thing which makes life tolerable for him as a spiritual being. [page 12]
     The days of godship will not be far away, when our poets, having gradually attained to “the meaning and drift of the Universe,” rejoice and regret with Dante to find “their vision greater than their speech.”
     Then they will sigh to achieve the impossible in their art, even as our painters have sighed, achieved, and caught in their vision “the light that never was on land or sea.”
     Perhaps even now some hidden poet has found in mystical quietude beyond the reach of a scoffing world, The Beatific Vision, and out of “the charity of great art,” will pour his gnomic wisdom upon the world.
     Perhaps we shall again have a Group of Seven—poets, who, like their predecessors, the painters, will go out “with pack and tent into the untouched solitudes”; and the impetuosity of our rivers, the crash of rockfall, the sonorous music of our infinite forests, the mighty and triple crescendo of our seas, the roaring winds of our steppes, our ranges and prairies, will all [page 13] be gathered up  and woven into their poetry, into one “strange and enormous harmony.”  To paraphrase Michael Drayton, they will habitually realize the seen, even as our poet-painter has realized his “Mountain Form.”
     An age of faith has ever been upheld as absolutely necessary for the flowering of poetic genius, but we are living in an age of doubt and uncertainty, and many are the flickering stars by which we must steer.
     We smiles at the saying of Aristophanes, “Whirl is King, having driven out Zeus,” and ponder on our own kaleideoscopic existence in which gods and men and machines are inartistically and inextricably mixed.
     Unceasingly whirled about as we are, spiritually, mentally, and physically, it is for the poets to come to our rescue and to define for us the Eternal; for the poet alone has a certainty in his heart that the fall of creeds and kingdoms cannot shake.

[page 14]


* The original text is unpaginated; page numbers have been added for the convenience of our readers. [back]