William Wilfred Campbell, comp. The Oxford Book of Canadian Verse. 1913.
By William Wilfred Campbell (18611918)
IN making this Anthology, I have endeavoured to cover the field of Canadian verse from the earliest colonial days down to the present time. It should be stated at the outset that the making of a collection of Canadian verse is no easy matter. It is extremely difficult to determine what, in the true sense of the word, may be called Canadian verse as distinguished from other verse of the same period.
Canada is not an old country covering centuries of development of one people and one language, like England or Scotland. It is a new region in the western world, where large numbers of the British peoples have, during the last century and a half, come and settled, transplanting their British ideals, traditions, religion, history, and heredity; and their numbers, small at first, have been so often augmented or depleted from time to time, that it is very difficult to decide where to draw the line between what some might call the purely Canadian writer, and the writer who is a mere resident in Canada or born in Canada but living and writing elsewhere.
Another way in which to illustrate this peculiar difficulty which faces the conscientious editor is to point out that our so-called Canadian literature (as claimed by many of our Anthologists and writers upon the subject) has been very inconsistently supposed to include the productions of the following four classes of writers:
Second, those who, though born in Canada, have lived in the United States and in other countries, and have there written the great bulk of their work and have identified themselves with the life of those countries, losing touch with Canada and its development.
Fourth, those who, coming to Canada in maturity, have written, while in the country, verse which has no relationship to the life of the country, and which might have been inspired by any other surroundings.
If this be a fair inclusion, a fifth class might more consistently be added, namely, those who, like Longfellow, Whittier, Goldsmith, and Moore, though never having lived in Canada, have written famous and distinctive poems like Evangeline, Hiawatha, and the Death of Wolfe, connected with the life, history, mythology, and natural environment of the country.
Here, at the outset, is a problem to be solved by the editor who aims at dealing in a proper manner with our verse; and a question for the sincere reader to face in his study of what is considered Canadian poetry.
It will be seen that former writers in their over-zealous efforts to claim as Canadian all versifiers who have been in any way at all connected with the country have been decidedly inconsistent, to say the least, in scooping all these classes of writers into their drag-net of colonial poetry.
Without doubt it must be acknowledged that the first class of writers mentioned, namely, those who, being born and having always lived in Canada, have written the large bulk of their work in the country, are the most decidedly Canadian, and have the first claim to such distinction. Only he who has been closely associated with a country from early childhood, and has spent all the years of his youth and maturity within its borders, can fitly interpret its life and dramatize its problems.
But this does not settle the question of the other classes referred to, which include many instances like that of Heavysege, an English dramatic writer, who came from England to Montreal when already in middle life, and soon after his arrival wrote some fine poetry and dramas, which have no more to do with Canada than they have to do with England, Scotland, or Ireland, save that they were written in Montreal.
The mere merit of Heavyseges work does not warrant us in considering him a Canadian writer. But even if it did, what of several of our Canadian-born writers of verse, who have spent the greater part of their lives during the last quarter of a century in New York, Boston, and other American cities? We certainly cannot claim both classes; and yet this is just what has been attempted in a manner which is not only decidedly inconsistent, but is scarcely honest to Canadian and outside readers.
After all, the true British-Canadian verse, if it has any real root and lasting influence, must necessarily be but an offshoot of the great tree of British literature, as the American school also is, though less obviously. It might be said that all verse written in the English language, by persons of British heredity, must be of kin to the great continuity of verse from Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton down to the end of the eighteenth century.
What is purely Canadian in this offshoot of the parent stock must be decided, after all, by those canons which would constitute anything distinctly Canadian. But stronger even than the so-called Canadian spirit is the voice of the Vaster Britain, which finds its utterance in the works of her poets.
It is this consideration which has led me to include a number of poems by the Duke of Argyll, Governor-General of Canada from 1878 to 1883. To claim him as a Canadian poet would clearly be an exaggeration; but his verse is so inspired by the country, which was his home for five years, and his position lends it such a peculiar interest, that I have ventured, in this instance, to break the stricter canons.
The spirit of true poetry will always rise beyond what is merely local, and one of its greatest influences on mankind is its constant demand for that wider horizon, that larger outlook, which would recall man, dwarfed by materialism, to the greater, vaster, and more universal environment which he inherits in this wide domain of nature, as spiritual lord and trustee of the planet on which he dwells.
As for this collection, it does not pretend to do justice to the work of the poets of Canada, a thing which it would be impossible to accomplish in any single volume. A poet who has devoted years to his vocation can only be appreciated through a perusal of the whole of his work; and no anthology can claim either to do justice to the literature of a country or the work of a single writer. This volume is rather a collection of short poems culled from the verse of Canadian writers, and covering in its range the century and a half of time between the capture of Quebec and the present day. The editor has striven to do justice to the earlier periods of the life of the country, with the result that there are selections of verse in this volume which now appear for the first time in the pages of any Canadian anthology.
This is not only necessary in order to do justice to our earlier verse-writers, but to give a proper view of the gradual development of our verse. Too much in the past has been made of the work of our later, more brilliant groups of versifiers who distinguished the last decade of the nineteenth century, with the result that our earlier writers have been sadly neglecteda result which Professor Horning, one of our ablest critics, was the first to deplore. A proper study of the work done prior to and immediately following Confederation, will show that verse worthy of any anthology was to be found in the pages of the Literary Garland in 1840, and reveal the fine poetic excellence of such writers as Sangster and Mair, the latter of whom was the real founder of the Canadian classical-nature school of verse.
The verse of French Canada has no proper place in this collection. It is written in the French language, and is as much an offshoot of French literature as the literature of British Canada is of that of Britain. Its poets naturally look altogether to Paris for their ideals, recognition, and encouragement. Several of them have been honoured by decorations from the French Government, and recognition by the French Academy, though Frechette, the most distinguished during the nineteenth century, was granted the Companionship of the Order of St. Michael and St. George by the British Government.
Whatever may be the readers opinion regarding the value of such a collection as this, the editor at least hopes that it may give English readers throughout the world a renewed interest in what has been called Canadian poetry.