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Songs of the Makers of Canada
Introductory Essay: The Genius and Distinction of Canadian Poetry

SOME tell us that Canada has no "national" literature. I take these critics at their word, and I remark that, in the sense in which they apply the epithet, no other country has, or has had, a "national" literature.

The question, "Has Canada a national literature?" meaning' by that, "Has this country a definitive quantity of imaginative prose and poetry which in substance and form differs wholly from any other literature?" is a nonsense question! One might as well ask, "Do Canadians differ in body and mind wholly from other races on earth?" Just so a literature which were so "national" as to be like no other, would not be human and would therefore not be literature at all; it would be something else and would have to be categorized as a new species of artistic expression.

What these critics are attempting to ask is a quite proper and important question, with a definitive answer, namely, "Has Canada distinctive literary traditions, methods, achievements and ideals?" Assuredly our country has, and in this article I wish briefly to accomplish two ends: First, 1 would point out the necessity of someone, properly equipped, writing a literary history of Canada, and how it should be written. Secondly, I would signalize the genius and distinction of Canadian poetry. For the first I shall simply quote from an editorial which, under the caption "Wanted—A Literary History of Canada" 1 contributed to The Toronto Sunday World shortly after the Quebec Tercentenary. In this editorial I said:


"Our title may not be philologically felicitous, being open to the fame objection that purists raise against naming a college for women a female college. But this is the form of caption under which Messrs. Charles Scribnsrs Sons are issuing a series of treatises on the history of the literatures of the nations—but Canada is not included in the prospectus.

"We shall not wait to argue why there should be a literary history of Canada, but presuming what is really the case, that the material for such a history exists, we shall point out how it should be written.

"Dr. Archibald MacMurchy has published, through William Briggs, a readable and sensible handbook of Canadian literature. It serves well the purposes of reference, especially for teachers who wish to give their pupils complementary notes along with their studies of literary texts; and for the general reader, the book is a desirable library volume.

"But this is as far as its value goes; as a compendium, it naturally does not give insight into the evolution and status of Canadian literature. And what we want is a philosophical history of Canadian literature.

"It is not apposite to object that the extant writings of Canadian authors have not enough intrinsic literary worth to make a philosophical history of Canadian literature possible.

"The first question is, 'Does any kind of Canadian literature, which has imagination in it, exist at all?' The answer is in the affirmative. Then the second question must be, 'Is this literature an expression on mind existing under political, social and industrial conditions which are not paralleled in any other nation; how did these conditions come about; how are they to be correlated with t/he experiences of other English-speaking peoples, and to what future possibilities does this literature point?'

"Grant, for the moment, that Canadian literature is so called only by courtesy (or discourtesy!), then thus to appraise it is to do so by retrovision, and not by the promise it gives of future accomplishment in letters.

"Now, the first condition of writing a philosophical history of literature is the necessity of the writer's evaluating existing works of prose and poetry from two points of view. The philosophical historian must look backward to see how a particular literature came into being, under what conditions it was produced, and he must look forward to see whither it is tending,, to what ideal it gives promise of attaining in the process of time.

"We do not value a youth as insignificant and worthless simply because lie is a youth. On the contrary, we value him rightly as a significant creature, by looking back to his physical or natural origin and forward to his perfected manhood in body and mind.

"Just so must we also regard any piece of prose or poetry. When compared with literature which has come to be what it is only after a long process of evolution, Canadian literature may appear insignificant; but, philosophically viewed, the literary child or youth of Canada will be the father of the literary manhood of the Dominion, when, as inevitably must happen, our country shall have grown to its greatest estate.

"A Literary History of Canada, then, can be properly written only by one who first takes this genetico-philosophical point of view about the extant literature of the country.

"But just as the literary history of the United States was not written without considering the social conditions obtaining within the country itself, but also their connections with the social and the literary conditions in England of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, so the writer of a Literary History of Canada must imaginatively realize how the literature of the Dominion is not a special and isolated product, but the outcome of definitive conditions within the country as well as of others brought about by racial affinities with the people of the United States and of the United ( ?) Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.

"The scale to which a Literary history of Canada should measure may not be here determined. Certainly it need not be so elaborate as that magnificent and truly historical series, "The Makers of Canada,' which Messrs. Morang & Company have made a worthy record of the Dominion's great men. But it should be conceived on relatively as grand a scale, and be wrought out with the same philosophical insight and perfected with the same literary truth and beauty."


I turn now from this general matter to the special question of the genius and distinction of Canadian poetry (British-Canadian, for I regret that I have bat an indifferent acquaintance with French-Canadian verse). First, as to the date of the beginnings of Canadian poetry. Before me lies a most curious little volume (5y2 in. x 3y2 in.), yellow with age, which I opine Dr. MacMurchy has never heard of and which, it is likely, has not a place in our university libraries. The title page of this volume of verse (in Gaelic;) reads, "Dain A Chomhnailh Crabhuidh, Le Seumas Mac-griogair, Searmonaich an t-Soisgeil An America. With a memoir of the author, by Rev'd D. B. Blair. Pietou: printed by J. D. MacDonald, 1861." That is, roughly translated, "Poems of Spiritual Conflict, by James MaeGregor, minister of the Gospel in America" (Nova Scotia). The cover of the volume contains the imprint of three different publishing firms, one at Glasgow, Scotland, one at Edinburgh, and one at London, Eng., and is dated MDCCCXXXII. (1832). The Pictou (Nova Scotia) printer and publisher was the late John Dunc-an MacDonald, father of E. M. MacDonald, M.P., and of Bev. P. M. MacDonald, M.A., Pastor of Cowan Ave. Presbyterian Church, Toronto. I am quite at loss, at the present writing, to explain the existence of the two dates. But from Blair's memoir it appears that all the poems in the volume were written "n Nova Scotia, and that, since the author had the degree of D.D. conferred on him by the University of Glasgow, in 1822, "in recognition of his character and claims," and died in 1830, the poems must have been published in Scotland before 1822 and in several editions afterwards up till 1832. Judging by the data to hand, the. first edition printed (?) in Canada, was the Nova Scotia edition, dated at Pictou, 1861.*

This James MaeGregor, grandfather of James D. MaeGregor, present Lieut.-Governor of Nova Scotia, and of James Gordon MaeGregor, F.R.S., Professor of Physics, University of Edinburgh, great-grandfather of

Mr Justice George Patterson, of New Glasgow. N.S., a great-grandson of tlie poet, writes me: "I have made use of every opportunity to clear up the discrepancy in dates, hut without success. The copy of Dr. MacGregor's poems that I have is dated 1832, published by John Reid & Co., Glasgow, 1 think there was an earlier edition, published about 1818. He died in 1830, and I am sure there was a volume o^ his poems published in his lifetime. 1 haven't seen the edition with preface by Rev. Mr. Blair, but it has occurred to me that it is just the edition of 1832, which was in paper covers, with this preface added,—a sort of Nova Scotian edition of the Scottish one." But this explanation fails. For Mr, Blair's ''Preface" is dated at Barney's River, Nova Scotia, 1861, and while described on the title-page as a "Memoir," and dated 1861, the cover-page reads, "With an intioduction by I). B. Blair," and still is dated 1832. Now, Mr. Patterson writes that his 1832 edition has no memoir or introduction or preface by Mr. Blair. The discrepancy is not only in the dates, but also in the tiffc-reui wording on the cover and the title-page.

Robert M. MacGregor, M.P.P. (N.S.) and the great-great-grandfather of Donald Gordon Ross, son of W.' D. Ross, general manager of the Metropolitan Bank (Toronto), has the honor and distinction of having been the first significant Canadian poet of pre-Confederation days. True, he was born in Scotland, but he arrived in Nova Scotia, on July 11, 1786, and died at Pictou, N.S., March 1, 1830. So that he lived forty-four years in Canada, and not only wrote hie poems in Nova Scotia, but conceived them there and published them for the express purpose both of putting religious history and truth in a delectable garb and of teaching his people in Nova Scotia to appreciate "musical numbers " or poetry. Dr. Blair testifies that MacGregor's verses have demonstrated the powers of the Gaelic as the language of descriptive and religious poetry. . . . The poems on 'The Gospel', 'The Complaint,' 'The Righteousness of Christ' and 'The Eulogy of Grace,' are worthy of particular notice as superior

Some might Incline to give this distinction to Oliver Goldsmith (a relative of the author of "The Deserted Village"), who -was burn in Annapolis County, N.S., in 1787 (a year after the arrival of MacGregor). Hut Goldsmith's poem, "The Rising Village," was not published till 1825, whereas the first edition of MacGregor's "Dain" was not, in all probability, published earlier than 1818 or later than 1822. Cp. Mrs. C. M. White-Edgar's "A Wreath of Canadian Song,'' pp. 3 ff., in which, however, MacGregor's name is not mentioned. The literary problem, it must be remembered, i3 not one of precise priority and nativity, but of significance. From that viewpoint, MacGregor takes first place.

Pieces of poetry, having some passages which are truly beautiful and sublime. (See also MacKenzie's "Beauties of Gaelic Poetry.")

The diction and form of MacGregor's poems are somewhat derivative, being modeled after the verses of Duncan Ban MacIntyre (Donnaoha Ban Nan Oran, Fairhaired Duncan of the Songs"), who undoubtedly excels all other British poets," Gaelic and English, m descriptive power, inimitably so in the presence of nature. The third edition of Macintyre's poems was published in 1804, and the fourth, three years after MacGregor's death. So that since it was the third edition which MaeGregor must have read and studied, and since he did not have the volume in hand till some years after 1804, this is an additional proof that MacGregor mast have written his poems sometime before 1822, the year in which his missionary and literary work was recognized by the University of Glasgow. (See footnote page 22 for the year 1818 as the probable date of the first edition.)

Dr. MacMurchy is, therefore, mistaken, altho through no fault of his own—in describing Evan MacColl (1808-1898) as "The Gaelic Bard of Canada". MacColl's "Poems and Songs" ("Chiefly written in Canada") wore not published till 1833. James MaeGregor was the first pre-Confederation British-Canadian poet, so far as date and place are concerned, and the first Gaelic Bard of Canada. But the first " all-Canadian" poet was Charles Sangster, who was born at Kingston, Ont., 1822, and whose volume, "The St. Lawrence and The Saguenay," 1856, was the first book of poems, by a native, to get its inspiration from the homeland.


Mr. Arnold Haultain does not put the point quite aptly when, in a recent essay, he distinguishes Nova Scotia as having contributed "more than its share to Canadian literature." Mvself" a Nova Scotian, I ought to know what I am talking about when I say that the province by the sea may have contributed relatively more than its share in prose, but I have yet to hear of any Nova Scotian poet who at all begins to rank with Carman or Roberts, and they arc natives of the sister province, New Brunswick.

What Mr. Haultain should have said was that the formative force in Canadian literature, as in Canadian civilization, is the Gaelic (Highland and Irish) genius. Dr. MacMurchy will have to agree to this, for by actual count of the men and women treated in his "Handbook of Canadian literature" I find that out of the 136 poets, poetesses and prose writers at least half either were born m Scotland or Ireland, or are of Keltic descent. The others are English, U. E. Loyalists, naturalized .Americans, French and Indian, and so far as racial affinity is concerned the French, too, are Keltic in temperament and psychological genius.

Now, as I have said in the "Epistle in Criticism" introductory to my "Preludes" (a volume of verse), the mind of the Gael or Kelt is distinguished by a peculiar method of apprehending the world. The Gael's perceptions, as the Germans put it, are anschaulich,—pictorial, his imaginative processes always poetic. The result is that nature is to him no dead, alien thing, but spiritual presences are felt to be everywhere,—in the hills, the streams, the mists, the clouds, the sunsets and even in the daisies and the dews. This, then, is the essential formula of the Keltic genius, namely, a natural and lively sense of divinity in the universe.


It is this sense which, as you have noted in your own experience, makes a Highlander and an Irishman "superstitious." I give this Keltic characteristic a much more appropriate name, the Wordsworthian name, "natural piety." The Englishman or Sassenach (Saxon), as the Gael calls him, feels divinity present only when he is in church, but nature and the whole universe is the Gael's church, he feels divinity—spiritual presences—all about him and always. It is because nature is thus a living thing to Lim, as it were a person with whom he can commune, that nature is also enthrallinglv beautiful to him.

I will show how this is so by quoting an incident which Fiona JIacleod relates in "The Winged Destiny." This Anglo-Keltic impressionist says that once in a remote island off the North of Scotland a lad came, at sunrise, upon a very old Highlander standing looking seaward, with his bonnet removed from his long white locks, and upon his speaking to the old man was answered thus (in Gaelic), "Every morning like this 1 take my hat off to the beauty of the world."

That. Keltic attitude is what is meant; by natural piety. If you will examine the best of our Canadian poetry, you will find it inspired considerably by the Gaelic sense of divinity in the universe. But alas, save 'u Lampman's and some of Carman's and Roberts' nature poetry, you will find in it the absence of the more delieate qualities of the Gael's poetic vision of nature. There is an element of hard, brittle, abstract thought in it; that is, a substitution of wnat the poet thinks he ought to say for what under hia temperamental attitudes to nature and life he feels impelled to say.

If you wonder why this is so, let me tell you the reason: it is all due to the bane of Calvinism; that is to say, the system of theology which teaches the doctrine of an absentee God, who sits throned in heaven, and is only in the heart of man "on occasion" and never in Nature, except as having created the world. The opposite view, as you know, is described as paganism, superstition. So be it, then, to the devotees of a creed and metaphysic long ago outworn. To the Gael, God- -or spirit—is everywhere, or as Tennyson put it:

"Closer is he than breathing,
Nearer than hands and feet."

The genius of our poetry is Keltic, and this means that in inspiration it has the finest essence of poetry, whether the craftsmanship of its poets and poetesses it superlative or not. From James MacGregor (who wrote in Gaelic) to Carman, Roberts, 1). C. Scott, Wilfrid W. Campbell and Jean Blewett (a descendant of Duncan Ban Macintyre, the great Gaelic Nature Poet), who write in English, there has been but one chief inspirational power in Canadian poetry, namely, the imaginative vision of the Kelt, and had this been unhampered by a noxious and effete system of theological dogma, Canadian poetry would have been much nearer to-day the upper slopes of Parnassus.


Canadian poetry is such definitively, not because its authors or its material (subject, theme) or even its form, color and music, are Canadian. It is such only by virtue of some distinctive "note" in it. That note is not Imperialism, as some allege; it is not Individual Nationhood, as others submit; it is not even Confederate Unity, as others say. It is this and tlii? alone,—an inexpugnable Faith in ourselves.

The very conditions of Canadian life before and after the uate of the Confederacy created this Faith. It is not enough in explanation of this distinctive spirit to say, as Mr. Lighthall does, that the "virility of fighting races" is in our blood and therefore Courage is in oar poetry. James MacGregor in the frozen and unfriendly wilds of Nova Scotia, more than a half-centurv before the Confederacy, was not fighting anything except nature and himself. It was not courage that he had so much as the sense that God was with him in a great work, -not so much virility and courage as a supreme faith in himself and the outcome of his task.

And so if you will examine the best Canadian poetry, whether it be hymns, nature songs, or war lyrics, you will find an undertone of a consciousness of self-controlled destiny, which passes from Cheerful Faith (before Confederation) to Triumphant Exultation (since Confederation). It was this Faith that stayed our pioneer forefathers amidst a thousand hardships in the wilds. It was this Faith that kept our minds sane in days of political turmoil and civil insurrection. And it is this Faith which now guides us, with undoubted energy and serenity, onward to a humane and happy federation of many races in a land still unsullied and free. Our poetry may not be great 'u finished perfection of form, m subtle nuances of thought and emotion; but it is of high rank in these social qualities, —sane and cheerful Faith in our ideals, restrained but inexpugnable Self-confidence in our power eventually to effect, undirected and unassisted by others, a genuinely mundane, human, and practical Democracy, and Courage to undertake the accomplishment of our predestined task.

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