A Well-Wrought Clay: Francis Sherman’s “In Memorabilia Mortis”

D.M.R. Bentley




For then I had not learned all things must die
Under the sky,—
That everywhere (a flaw in the design!)
Decay crept in, unquickening the mass,—
Creed, empire, man-at-arms, or stone, or flower.
In my unwisdom then, I had not read
The message writ across Earth’s face, alas,
But scanned the sun instead.

—Francis Sherman, “To Autumn” in A Canadian Calendar          


To every thing there is a season, and a time

to every purpose under heaven.

—Ecclesiastes 3.1                                                  

 

I



A Nineteenth-Century Canadian poet whose work deserves to be better known is Francis Sherman (1871-1926). Described by A. J. M. Smith a little over forty years ago as the writer of the second generation of Confederation poets “who came most strongly under the domination of the Pre-Raphaelites” and “produced a small body of carefully wrought poems,”1 Sherman has received little critical attention beyond the usual, cursory discussion in the Literary History of Canada2 and the inevitable, Scott-enhancing mention in E. K. Brown’s On Canadian Poetry.3 This critical neglect of the poet who was called by one of his mentors, Charles G. D. Roberts, “a Canadian poet of the first rank”4 (the sonnets in “In Memorabilia Mortis” and The Deserted City, Roberts felt, place Sherman “in the same rank with Lampman, our master sonnetteer”5) probably derives from two principal sources: from the Canadian manifestation of the modernism which leads Smith (and others) to see the influence of the so-called last romantics6 (the Pre-Raphaelites and their successors) as producing a deleterious effect in Canada, and from the blinkered nationalism of the sixties (and later) which sees all influence from outside the country as reprehensible unless, perhaps, submerged in depictions of recognizably Canadian subject-mater. A combination of these assumptions is operative in Roy Daniells’ negative but charitable assessment of Sherman in the Literary History. “Francis Sherman (1871-1926) brought out four books of verse at the turn of the century,” writes Daniells, “and [he] aptly illustrates the plight of the Canadian poet at the time”:

he was induced by the taste of his generation to follow masters and models too far removed from the primal source of Romanticism, and he was at the same time too early for post-war developments in poetry to be of any use. His feeling for   landscape and his sense of personal tragedy in life are embodied in the verse conventions of William Morris;…all these poems of love and death in a context of natural beauty lead simply to the regret that so admirable a man should have been so badly supplied with the tools of the poetic craft. On the rare occasions that he fuses his excellent sense of verse rhythm with the New Brunswick landscape and   his own inner emotional struggle, we get a sense of what he might have become had he lived in another poetic environment.7  

Like Daniells, Laurence R. Wilson in his 1957 thesis “The Life and Poetry of Francis Sherman (1871-1926)” fails to appreciate the achievement of Sherman’s poetry. Wilson does, however, add considerably to the body of information about Sherman’s life that is contained in the forward (by Roberts), the memoir, and the bibliography of Lorne Pierce’s The Complete Poems of Francis Sherman. Pierce’s Complete Poems is likely to remain the standard edition of Sherman’s work for the foreseeable future, and it is to Pierce that credit must of course go for at once making the corpus of Sherman’s work easily accessible and for permitting the achievement of that poetry to be readily discernible.   
    In “In Memorabilia Mortis” we have what is probably Sherman’s masterpiece: the full realization of the potential that is clearly evident in his Matins volume of 1896 and that will subsequently find expression in such later works as The Deserted City (1899) and A Canadian Calendar: XII Lyrics (1900). Occasioned by the death of William Morris on 3 October 1896,8 “In Memorabilia Mortis” not only testifies amply to Sherman’s consummate skill as a poet in the Pre-Raphaelite manner but also offers convincing evidence of the complexity of thought in his work that has gone unremarked.

 

II

 

“In Memorabilia Mortis” is a pastoral elegy, a poem lamenting the death of a poet which moves from a statement of loss, through universal mourning and “autobiographic”9 praise, to a consolation. In his essay on Shelly’s “Adonais”, Roberts writes of the pastoral elegy that “for the expression of a grief which is personal but not too passionately so, and which is permitted to utter itself in panegyric, it has proved exactly fitted.”10 In addition to Shelly’s “Adonais”, there are famous antecedents for “In Memorabilia Mortis” which are certain to come to mind when examining it: Milton’s “Lycidas,” Arnold’s “Thyrsis,” Swinburne’s “Ave Atque Vale” and, in the Canadian context, Roberts’ own “Ave.” While Sherman’s poem may not be of the same stature of these, it is arguably one of the finest elegies written in Canada and certainly the equal of poems in the elegiac mode by such writers as Smith, Livesay, Layton, D. C and F. R. Scott. While the “species of verse” (to use Roberts’ phrase) to which “In Memorabilia Mortis” belongs is the pastoral elegy, in form the poem is a sonnet sequence—a series of six sonnets—whose primary antecedents are probably the sonnet sequences of Donne (whom Sherman addresses in “To Doctor John Donne [CP, pp.147-49] and, perhaps, remembers in his “well-wrought clay”), Elizabeth Barrett Browning,11 and, of course, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, whose The House of Life furnished Sherman with the model for The Deserted City. The presence in “In Memorabilia Mortis” of Rossetti, the poet whose literary ballad “The Staff and Scrip” provided Sherman with the very title of the Matins volume (CP, pp. 161-62), will be examined later in detail and in depth. The point to be made now is that Sherman, as for Rossetti (and, indeed, for sonneteers from Shakespeare to the Lampman of “The Frogs”) the sequence or cycle of sonnets is at once a model of repetition in which similar but separate units regularly follow one another in a mimesis of the rhythmical movements of linear time and an artifice of eternity, a house of enduring life, in which each of the sonnets—Rossetti’s monuments to eternal moments12—represents a possible triumph of art (or Love or Beauty) over the ravages of linear time. When conceived in this manner, the sonnet sequence can be seen as an entirely fitting form for the meditation on the passage of life and the permanence of art that constitutes Sherman’s pastoral elegy.
    That the mellifluous and aureate style of “In Memorabilia Mortis” reinforces the poem’s overall concerns and characteristics in being at once both smoothly flowing and, in Smith’s phrase, “carefully wrought,” can be confirmed by a rereading of its opening octave. Notice how the poet employs a combination of long vowel sounds (particularly the long a and o sounds) and end-stopped lines (lines 1, 3, and 5 and, of course, 8) to convey the elegiac sense of a gradual movement of time and a sudden cessation of vitality:

I marked the slow withdrawal of the year.
Out on the hills the scarlet maples shone—
The glad, first herald of triumphant dawn.
A robin’s song fell through the silence—clear
As long ago it rang when June was here.
Then, suddenly, a few gray clouds were drawn
Across the sky; and all the song was gone,
And all the gold was quick to disappear.

In the final three lines of this passage, the languorous mood attendant upon the speaker’s pleasant memories of a pastoral summer and his happy anticipation of a sunny day is “suddenly” shattered by the arrival of the “few gray clouds” which eclipse the sun (for Sherman, as the epigraph to this essay shows, an image of the eternal), ensure that no birds sing, and—as the “Gray dawn, gray noon,” and “gray” “hours” of the second sonnet reveal—transform the landscape’s vivid scarlets and golds into the dismal grays of an elegiac grisaille. In sympathy with the blotting out of the sun, colour, and bird-song brought on (it is implied though never stated) by the death of Morris, the relatively smooth and regular movement of the octave’s iambic pentameter is replaced with the halting progress, syncopated rhythm, hastening enjambment, and emphatic spondees of “Then, suddenly, a few gray clouds were drawn / Across the sky; and all the song was gone…” The impression here, as throughout “In Memorabilia Mortis,” is of a poet who is thoroughly in command of his form and technique and who has, moreover, chosen to honour Morris in a style both fluid and burnished like his own, and in a form—the sonnet—which both Morris and Rossetti (particularly the latter) had employed with distinction. To borrow a phrase from Roberts’ account of the pastoral elegy in the essay on “Adonais”: Sherman “has scrupled to appropriate the gold of his predecessors”13 as a setting for his tribute to the abiding achievement of their art and its continuing presence in his world.
    As in Morris’ canon and in The House of Life, the sonnets in “In Memorabilia Mortis” and The Deserted City consist primarily of variations on the Petrarchan form. While adopting, probably for the purpose of unity and repetition, a consistent rhyme scheme of abba abba in the octave of his six sonnets, Sherman employs some noticeable variations of rhyme in his sestets; for instance, the rhyme scheme in the sestet of the opening sonnet (cceffe) sets the extrusive rhymes of two couplets against the halting movement of the passage to suggest, perhaps, a gathering of the forces of order (rhyme) in the poetic realm in response to an apparent frustration of expectations (design) by the external world:

That day the sun seemed loth to come again;
And all day long the low wind spoke of rain,
Far off, beyond the hills; and moaned, like one
Wounded, among the pines: as though the Earth,
Knowing some giant grief had come to birth,
Had wearied of the Summer and the Sun.

By closing the sestet of the sonnet with lines containing emphatic alliteration and capitalized nouns (“giant grief,” Summer and…Sun”) Sherman focuses attention both on a sorrow whose effect is apparently universal14 and on a pattern of imagery—that of sun and light—which, as we shall see, has a central role to play in the poem. Three times later in “In Memorabilia Mortis,” twice in sonnet 3 and once in sonnet 4, the couplet effect is employed in the sestet, each time (“close” / “rose,” / “space” / “face,” “sentinel” / “citadel”) possibly to reinforce the sense that the speaker has entered in his imagination the ordered and eternal garden of William Morris’ poetry.
    As will already have been noticed, the overall movement of Sherman’s sonnet sequence to a from the “pageant” of Morris’ artistic world adheres to the pattern of excursion and return which the Confederation poets inherited from the great romantics. Linked by the parallel and repetitive structures of “I marked the slow withdrawal of the year” and “I watched the slow oncoming of the Fall,” the first two sonnets in the sequence, together with the last, focus on an external nature that is not only recognizably Canadian in its references to “maples,” “elms,” and (later) “birches,” but also precisely employed as an index of the irrevocable movement of linear time from early Fall (when the leaves are “scarlet” on the distant maples), though mid-Fall (when the leaves drop “Slowly” from the elms), to the beginning of Winter (when the only leaves remaining are those of the birches—birches being amongst the last trees to drop their leaves). A particularly accurate and vivid image of the movement in external nature and liner time from Fall to Winter occurs in the second sonnet where “The crimson vines…along the wall” are described as growing “thin as snow that lives on into May.” The memory and promise of Spring that is present in the reference to May indicates that, despite his sense that memory and desire have ceased to exist in his world (“And so it seemed the year sank to its rest, / Remembering naught, desiring naught”), the speaker retains, by virtue of his own ability to remember forward the events of Spring and Summer, a realistic perspective on the cyclical—and therefore temporary as well as temporal—events of Fall and Winter. Indeed, the speaker’s knowledge that his misgivings about the very existence of life in the past, present, and future are no more than delusions engendered by his own grief finds insistent expression in the many conditional verbs and qualifying phrases that occur in the two sestets of the opening sonnets: “That day the sun seemed loth to come again…as though the Earth…Had wearied of the Summer….The day passed out as if it had not been: / And so it seemed the year sank to its rest…as though / Early in Spring its young leaves were not green.” One of the speaker’s imaginative journeys in “In Memorabilia Mortis” is towards the correct and consolatory view of Fall that emerges, as will be seen, in the final sonnet of the sequence when he returns from his imaginative excursion into the perennially sunny realm of Morris’ art to confront once again the wintry realm of fallen leaves and “Dead things.”
    Between the sonnets of waking life that open and close “In Memorabilia Mortis” lie the three stanzas in which the speaker leaves behind him the external world of decay and death and enters by means of a dream vision (a characteristically Morrissian genre) into the living and eternal “pageant” of Morris’ poetic world. The induction of the speaker into this dream vision occurs in the following manner:

A little while before the Fall was done
A day came when the frail year paused and said:
“Behold! a little while and I am dead;
Wilt thou not choose, of all the old dreams, one?”
Then dwelt I in a garden, where the sun
Shone always, and the roses all were red;
Far off the great sea slept, and overhead,
Among the robins, matins had begun.

Notable in this passage is the fact that, with the onset of the dream vision, the “robin” whose “song” was stilled during the “triumphant dawn” and of the opening sonnet of the sequence finds here an echo in the “robins” among whom “matins [has] begun.” These and other carry-overs from the natural world to the dream vision (it is Fall in both realms, though aptly the more English word “autumn” is used in the latter connection) force the realization that, initially at least, the speaker’s immediate surroundings are not so much displayed as transfigured—enveloped by what Lampman calls the “halo of the imagination”15—so that what in cold reality might merely be a bird “song” becomes a sort of “matins” service of praise. (Here it should be recalled not only that Sherman entitled his first volume Matins but also that he was a believing Christian of the Anglican faith.) With the application of the word “matins” to the robin’s song there becomes quite evident the collapse of any firm distinction between art and worship, belief and beauty, nature and grace that is already implicit in the allusion at the beginning of the induction to John 16.16: “A little while, and ye shall not see me: and again, a little while, and ye shall see me, because I go to the Father.” Ostensibly, the old “frail year” appropriates Christ’s words to His disciples prior to the Crucifixion to refer to the proximity of death; however, Christ’s words, together with his own gloss of them (John 16.20: “your sorrow shall be turned into joy”) refer also to the proximity of consolation—the consolation not so much of a Christian afterlife for Morris (though the religious notes stuck in the passage certainly do not exclude this implication) but more of a growing awareness in the speaker that the “garden” of Morris’ art has not died with the man but remains alive and accessible to those like himself who chose to suspend their disbelief and enter a realm of “dream” that exists both in and out of time.
    The fact that in its early stages the dream vision of “In Memorabilia Mortis” is described in the past tense points to the existence of a gap between the grieving speaker and the “old dreams,” a gap which is affirmed rather than denied by the adverbial and verbal qualifications of “I knew not at all it was a dream /Only” and “in this garden sloping to the sea / I dwelt (it seemed) to watch a pageant pass.” Despite the persistence of the past tense throughout sonnets 3 and 4, there is a marked shift between the sonnets from the generalized pastoral (“Garden and sunshine, robin-song and rose”) and evocative vagueness (“as mist above the Autumn’s face”) of the former to the paradigmatically Morrissian detail (“Great Kings, their armour strong with iron and brass”) and typically Morrissian diction (young Queens, with yellow hair bound wonderfully”) of the latter. This shift, coupled with the very persistence of the dream vision, imitates and encourages a strengthening of the speaker’s growing realization that, despite his misgivings and self-doubts, Morris’ artistic world remains palpably real and permanently accessible to those who come to it in the true Pre-Raphaelite spirit as followers in the retinue of Love and worshippers at the throne of Beauty. There is an unobtrusive progression, a grammar of confirmation, in the following passage from the speaker’s early passivity to his later activity, from his initial “I knew” to his subsequent “I knew well,” from his preliminary characterization of himself as an observing “I” who is separate from the passing pageant to his final inclusion of himself amongst the privileged “we” who “should reach [Beauty’s] mercy-seat”:

For love’s sake, and because of love’s decree,
Most went, I knew; and so the flowers and grass
Knew my steps also: yet I wept, Alas,
Deeming the garden surely lost to me.
But as the days went over, and still our feet
Trod the warm, even places, I knew well
(For I, as they, followed the close-heard beat
Of Love’s wide wings who was her sentinel)
That here had Beauty built her citadel
And only we should reach her mercy-seat.

The decision to follow closely the way of a Love who is both a guide and a guard in the garden of Morris’ art (and who possesses, it may be noted, the very Rossettian attribute of “wide wings”) “should” permit the speaker to reach the throne of the garden’s merciful ruler, the goddess of Beauty. That “only” a select (or, it may be elect) few “should” (as opposed to “would”) attain Beauty’s “mercy seat” is one indication of the operation in Sherman’s poem of an exclusive moral aesthetic whereby all those who are not motivated by Love and dedicated to Beauty shall be denied entry into the inner sanctum of Morris’ eternal green garden of art.
    The fifth sonnet in the sequence begins with a question—“And Ye, are ye not with me now always?”—that is addressed to several, soon-to-be-named characters in Morris’ poetic world. More important than the fact that these characters are initially addressed in the upper case as “Ye,” perhaps to suggest their godlike status for the devoted speaker, are two other aspects of the sonnet’s opening question: its rhetorical nature and its present tense, both of which indicate the speaker’s realization—to be confirmed with his “Yea, ye are mine!” near the end of the octave—that Morris’ artistic creations shall indeed remain his ever-present companions and possessions. In approaching the fifth sonnet it must be remembered that at the start of the sequence great emphasis was placed through imagery, repetition, and capitalization on the departure of light, fire, summer, and, above all, sun from the speaker’s world: “the sun,” it may be recalled, “seemed loth to come again,” “the Earth” seemed to have “wearied of the Summer and the Sun,” and “no sunset flamed across the west.” When this constellation of absent light, fire, summer, and sun from sonnets 1 and 2 is borne in mind, then it becomes abundantly clear that the references in the octave of sonnet 5 to various characters in The Earthly Paradise (Glauce, Alcestis),16 in The Story of Sigurd the Volsung and the Fall of the Niblungs (Brynhild), and in The House of the Wolfings (Wood Sun) have been selected to affirm what, in essence, is the first elegiac consolation of “In Memorabilia Mortis”—the consolation that in Morris’ art there exists always for the reader who is able to accept as real its inhabitants and to enter imaginatively its life, a realm that transcends the mundane world of decline, decay, and death. That the speaker of “In Memorabilia Mortis” is such a reader is, of course, made amply evident in the octave of the fifth sonnet by his direct addresses to Morris’ Glauce, Alcestis, Brynhild, and Wood Sun, figures into whose world he projects himself so completely and passionately (there are no fewer than seven exclamation marks in the eight lines) that they become presences as real to him as himself—living inhabitants of the eternal and transcendent world of Morris’ art.
    Since it was the early Morris, the Morris of The Defence of Guenevere and Other Poems, whose influence on Sherman was most profound and enduring17 (even in later life, according to Pierce, the Canadian poet “loved to quote to his friends The Defence of Guenevere18), it is hardly surprising that the sestet of the sonnet under examination is given over entirely to that most provocative and articulate of Morris’ “Young Queens.” So utter is the speaker’s imaginative translation of himself as Guenevere’s protector, servant, and lover—as the Lancelot who comes to save her at the end of her “Defence.” For him, Guenevere is an allumeuse whose intense and enduring radiance (the word “glory” suggests a holy and unearthly light, a lumen gloriae) negates seasonal cycles and eclipses the zodiacal sun in a manner that is paradigmatic of the transcendence in art of linear time and external nature:

                                   Yet there remaineth one
Who maketh Summer-time of all the year,
Whose glory darkeneth the very sun.
For thee my sword was sharpened and my spear,
For thee my least poor deed was dreamed and done
O Love, O Queen, O Golden Guenevere!

In the passionate intensity of his final apostrophe, the speaker/Launcelot not only links Guenevere with Love and Beauty (like them she is a ruler in the realm of Morris’ art), but also finds in her the “gold” that had seemed in the opening sonnet of the sequence to have disappeared with the summer sun and robin song. In his use of both past and present tenses in his presentation of Guenevere, the speaker reflects the coalescence of dreaming and doing, remembering and re-remembering, that has occurred in the final, consoling stages of his excursion into the old but abiding pageant of Morris’ art.
    “Then, suddenly, I was awake.” Not only do these the opening words of the sixth sonnet of “In Memorabilia Mortis” announce the termination of the speaker’s dream vision and his return to his waking life, but they also echo the “Then, suddenly,…” of the sequence’s opening sonnet, thus serving notice of immanent closure. In linear time and external nature the year in now “dead” and silent. While the absence of the “sound of song or wings” in the landscape may be presumed to derive at the most literal level from the migration in the late Fall of the robins, the references to “song” and “wings” may also allude to the robin’s “matins” of the third sonnet and to “Love’s wide wings” of the fourth—elements of the dream vision which had, in part, been created through the speaker’s imaginative transformation of his physical surroundings. That the speaker has indeed been throwing the halo of a Morrissian imagination over his actual surroundings is confirmed by the remainder of the octave:

The fields I deemed were graves of worshipped Kings
Had lost their bloom: no honey-bee now fed
Therein, and no white daisy bowed its head
To harken to the wind’s love-murmurings.

Of these lines it must be noted that, while no flowers are present to hear the sounds of the wind, the speaker not only hears these sounds but conceives of them as “love-murmurings,” as distant and diminished echoes, perhaps, of the “close-heard beat / Of Love’s wide wings” which he had followed in his dream vision. It is to the residual effects on him of the dream vision that the unforgettable speaker turns in the final sestet of the sequence:

Yet, by my dream, I know henceforth for me
This time of year shall hold some unknown grace
When the leaves fall, and shall be sanctified:
As April only comes for memory
Of him who kissed the veil from Beauty’s face
That we might see, and passed at Easter-tide.

Whereas the speaker had earlier derived consolation from confirming that, despite the death of their creator, he could retain permanent and passionate possession of Morris’ artistic creations (Yea, ye are mine!”), here in the poem’s final consolation he finds comfort, not in a transcendent dream-vision, but in the recognition that in the recurrences of the seasonal cycle there can be found a sense of permanence. To an extant, the dedication of all future Octobers as sacred to the memory of William Morris resolves the tension in the poem between process (decay, death) and endurance (art, memory), the tension which, it was argued, made the regularly and predictably recurring form of the sonnet sequence an entirely fitting vehicle for Sherman’s elegiac concerns.
    A cursory reading of the final lines of “In Memorabilia Mortis” might give the impression that the speaker is likening his association of October with Morris’ death to his already existing association of April with Christ’s crucifixion. A deeper reading of the passage, however, discloses some curiosities—the lower case “him” of the penultimate line and oddly un-Christ-like activity of kissing “the veil of Beauty’s face”—details which, though they may not entirely displace the Christian interpretation of the poem’s conclusion, suggest the possibility of a greater density of allusion in the lines. That density resides in Sherman’s concluding, and hitherto unremarked, reference to Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who died “at Easter-tide” in April 1882 (actually on 9 April, Easter Sunday) and who could, without difficulty, have been conceived by one of the heirs of Pre-Raphaelitism as having “kissed the veil of Beauty’s face / That we might see.”19 Although Sherman may merely be using Christian allusions and resonances (the rending of the veil at the crucifixion, Christ’s dying that we might live) as a rhetoric of magnificence to bestow dignity on Morris and Rossetti, it could also be that, as a believing Christian, he intended tactfully to surround the deaths of his two agnostic mentors with suggestions of redemption and resurrection, thus pointing in his final consolation to the ultimate transcendence of linear time and external nature made possible by Christ’s sacrifice. Be this possibility as it may, it seems plain that the primary consolation of “In Memorabilia Mortis” is temporal and earthly: Morris’ death, like that of Rossetti, finds a place in Sherman’s Canadian calendar, forever altering his perception of the month in which it occurred. When Sherman later refers to “Autumn in A Canadian Calendar as a season once for him of “sunset-visions” (CP, p.120), perhaps he had somewhere in mind the dream vision of “In Memorabilia Mortis,” his sad but finally consoling treatment of the preachment that every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven.

 

III

 

The reader whose interests either in Confederation poetry or in the Pre-Raphaelite movement have brought him thus far may well have been wondering about some of the wider contexts of “In Memorabilia Mortis.” Those familiar with Roberts’ “Ave,” for instance, would recognize a parallel between Roberts’ sense of a kinship between Shelly and the Tantramar seascape and Sherman’s sense of an association between Morris and the New Brunswick Fall: for both poets a Canadian place or time becomes privileged because it seems somehow (through imaginative projection, of course) to embody the spirit of the dead and admired English poet. Such a parallel (which also extends, it may be noted, to D.C. Scott’s “Ode for the Keats Centenary”) may be indicative of a characteristically “Confederation” conception of the presence of the enduring dead. It may also have affinities with the tendency in pre-Confederation poetry to humanize Canadian landscapes and seasons through the use of imported conventions and necessary fictions; specifically, Sherman’s dedication of the bleak and wintry month of October to William Morris may recall the tendency of Thomas Cary, Joseph Howe, and other early poets to stress the health-giving properties of the Canadian winter and cold so that, in Susan Zenchuk’s words, an “element of life in the new world” could be “regarded as beneficial rather than detrimental.”20 Such possibilities can be mentioned but not explored here so that what space remains can be given over to a brief examination of another intriguing issue: the convergence of Sherman in fin-de-siècle Fredericton of the aesthetic and religious forces that are so evident in “In Memorabilia Mortis.”
    Sherman’s sense of a connection between art and worship, his “sense of a kinship of beauty of holiness,”21 probably cam to him, as Malcolm Ross and Laurence Wilson have intimated, through personal contact in Fredericton with several men who were directly or indirectly involved with same High Church movement that had influenced the Pre-Raphaelites. In the shadow of the Neo-Gothic cathedral built by Bishop Medley, an Oxford man who was “not only a friend of Pusey, and Keble…[but] also an ecclesiologist, the author of…Elementary Remarks on Church Architecture (1841),”22 Sherman may have Medley’s friend George Parkin recite and discuss Rossetti’s “The Blessed Damozel,” a poem which Parkin “loved so passionately” that, according to Roberts, Carman “suspected him of sometimes saying it instead of his prayers.”23 (Perhaps the High Anglican sensibility of Parkin and Sherman would have found congenial the view, expressed in 1883 by Alfred Gurney, the incumbent of the prominent Anglo-Catholic church of St, Barnabas, Pimlico in London, that “The Blessed Damozel” is “an exposition of the spiritual significance of Mary” and that the Damozel herself signifies the “Beauty…[which] is one with Purity…[and] one with Charity.”24) Whatever the validity of this parenthetical speculation, it seems certain that the influence of two other men, Medley’s apostolic successor, Bishop Kingdon, and Sherman’s university instructor, Professor Stockley, would have reinforced any connection in his mind between “beauty and holiness.”
    Before coming to Fredericton in 1881, Kingdon had, amongst other things, served as curate of St. Andrew’s, Wells Street, London, a renowned Anglo-Catholic church which had in the 1850s numbered among its congregation some of the original Pre-Raphaelites and their associates—Millais, Charles Collins, and Christina Rossetti—as well as Gounod, who is reputed to have “proclaimed with delight” after hearing one of his own masses sung there.25 Whereas Kingdon simply lived “next door” to Sherman and gave the poet access to his extensive library,26 Stockley was his teacher at the University of Brunswick and, very likely, communicated to the poet something of his devout Roman Catholicism and his interest in Cardinal Newman (the interest that would result in Stockley’s 1923 edition of The Dream of Gerontius). It would thus appear from circumstantial evidence that Sherman derived his evident sense of a connection between art and worship at least in part from a sustained contact with various facets of the same nexus of theological and aesthetic ideas that had influenced Rossetti and Millais, Burne-Jones and Morris in mid-century London and Oxford. That these had in the Fredericton of the eighties and nineties a lengthy tradition, a critical presence, and a local habitation must surely give us pause to question the easy assumption that in drawing upon them (as indeed upon the Pre-Raphaelite style) to express his admiration for William Morris, Sherman was being any less Canadian than, say F.R. Scott in his presentation of socialist ideas in a modernist idiom or Robert Kroetsch in his treatment of deconstructive ideas in a postmodern mode. Sherman may be minor by comparison with Scott, Kroetsch, and numerous other Canadian writers, but his short comings cannot be wholly attributed either to the circumstances of his “poetic environment” or to his choice of poetic models; on the contrary, it is arguable that part of the achievement of “In Memorabilia Mortis” derives from the intelligence and creativity with which its form, its subject matter, and its underlying religious and aesthetic assumptions are fused into a fine and distinctive unity that possesses both decorum and originality. A more sympathetic approach to late nineteenth-century Canadian poetry and its concerns that the biases of modernism and nationalism have permitted might find more to admire in the Sherman not only of “In Memorabilia Mortis” but also of Matins, The Deserted City, A Canadian Calendar, and such “Last Poems” as “So, After All, When All is Said and Done” where the poet’s characteristic preoccupation with philosophies of life and death finds expression in poems which, though the work of a minor writer, will sustain close reading and serious consideration.

 


Notes

 

An earlier version of this Foreword was published in Essays on Canadian Writing 30 (Winter): 1984-95. 320-338.

 

1

A.J.M. Smith, “Introduction,” in The Book of Canadian Poetry: A Critical and Historical Anthology, ed. A.J.M. Smith (Toronto: Gage, 1943), p.25.  [back]

2

See Roy Daniells, “Minor Poets 1880-1920,” in Literary History of Canada: Canadian Literature in English, ed. Carl F. Klinck, 2nd ed. (Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press, 1976), 1, 442-43. [back]

3

E.K. Brown, On Canadian Poetry, rev. ed. (Toronto: Ryerson, 1944), pp.57-58. [back]

4

Charles G.D. Roberts, “Francis Sherman,” The Dalhousie Review, 14 (Jan. 1935), 419. [back]

5

Roberts, “Francis Sherman,” p. 424. [back]

6

See Graham Hough, The Last Romantics (London: Gerald Duckworth, 1949). [back]

7

Daniells, pp. 442-43. [back]

8

This information from the colophon of the first edition of “In Memorabilia Mortis” can be found, like the poems epigraph, In Pierce’s “A Bibliography,” in The Complete Poems of Francis Sherman, ed. with a memoir by Lorne Pierce, forward by Sir Charles G.D. Roberts (Toronto: Ryerson, 1935), p 164 ff. All further references to this work (CP) appear in the text. [back]

9

Charles G.D Roberts, Shelly’s Adonais,” in Selected Poetry and Critical Prose, ed. W.J. Keith, Literature of Canada: Poetry and Prose Reprint )Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press, 1974), p.286. [back]

10

Roberts, Shelley’s “Adonais,” p. 283. [back]

11

See The Collected Poems of Francis Sherman, p. 167, for Copeland and Day’s use in their brochure of “In Memorabilia Mortis” of designs from their edition of Sonnets from the Portuguese. [back]

12

See the sonnet on the sonnet which opens the final version of The House of Life, in The Works of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ed. William M. Rossetti (London: Ellis, 1911), p. 74. [back]

13

Roberts, “Shelly’s Adonais,” pp. 288-89. [back]

14

These lines may allude to Paradise Lost, ix, 1001. [back]

15

Archibald Lampman: Selected Prose, ed. Barrie Davies (Ottawa: Tecumseh, 1975), p. 93. [back]

16

The third piece in part 3 of The Earthly Paradise, “The Land East of the Sun and West of the Moon” is technically modeled on another dream vision, Chaucer’s The Book of the Duchess. Also in part 3 is “The Love of Alcestis.” [back]

17

See Roberts, “A Forward,” p. 24. [back]

18

Pierce, “A Memoir,” p.11. [back]

19

There may well be an echo in Sherman’s closing lines of the following lines from “The One Hope,” the concluding sonnet of The House of Life: “Ah! when the wan soul in that garden air / Between the scriptured petals…/ Peers breathless for the gift of grace unknown” (Rossetti, Works, p. 108). [back]

20

S.G. Zenchuk, “A Reading of Joseph Howe’s Acadia,” Canadian Poetry: Studies, Documents, Reviews, No. 9 (Fall-Winter 1976), p. 17. [back]

21

Malcolm Ross, “‘A Strange Aesthetic Ferment,’” Canadian Literature, Nos. 68-69 (Spring-Summer 1976), p. 17. [back]

22

Ross, p. 17. [back]

23

Charles G.D. Roberts, “Bliss Carman,” The Dalhousie Review, 9 (Jan. 1930), 413. [back]

24

Alfred Gurney, A Dream of Fair Women (London: Kegan Paul, 1883), p. 51. [back]

25

See S.L. Ollard, The Anglo-Catholic Revival: Some Persons and Principles (London: A.R. Mowbray, 1925), p. 52. [back]

26
For this and other biographical information, I am indebted to Laurence R.Wilson, “The Life and Poetry of Francis Sherman (1871-1926),” M.A. Thesis. New Brunswick 1957, especially pp.16-18. [back]