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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction by James Cobourg Hodgins (1866–1953)

By Archibald Lampman (1861–1899)

ARCHIBALD LAMPMAN, by common consent one of the greatest of Canadian poets, was born at Morpeth, Ontario, in the year 1861. His forbears were numbered of those who at the time of the American Revolution preferred exile and the unknown northern wilderness of Canada to comfort and security under the ægis of the new-born republic. The best account of his career is to be found in the fourth edition of his collected works (Toronto: William Briggs, 1915). This slight but sufficient memoir stands quite apart from and above ordinary biographies. It is the work of Lampman’s friend, Mr. Duncan Campbell Scott, himself a poet of unusual power and charm.

In reviewing Lampman’s poetry we are impressed at the very outset with the evenness of the work. It is difficult to decide what portions should be singled out and cited as representative of the author’s best. Most poets print too much. The relation of a poet to his creations is generally like that of a parent to a child—there is love even of the ugly duckling. Having undergone the pangs of literary parturition, the poet is loth to let his offspring die or cast it off. He sees it in the light of his own fond adoration, and sends it forth tricked out in the clean bib and tucker of print for the world’s admiration.

Now it is characteristic of Lampman, a part of his character as a man, that he ruthlessly revised his own work, printed sparingly and at his own charges, and allowed nothing to appear that had not first passed through the purgatorial fires of stern self-criticism. The standard he set himself was indeed an exacting one. From his earliest years he looked upon himself as one called and set apart to the service of the muses. To his high calling he brought not only an imagination tremblingly sensitive to beauty in every form but the austere conscience of the true artist. “He touched nothing that he did not adorn.”

Lampman is, in a peculiar sense, the poet of that part of Canada which borders the Great Lakes. The prairies and the mountains of the West are absent from his verse, and there is but casual reference to the sea, save as it thunders in The Homeriad. Nor is there any direct reference to the history or art or architecture of older lands. Tied to his desk in the civil service at Ottawa, as he was through all his maturer years, his brief holidays were spent, with a few trivial exceptions, camping and exploring in the vast Laurentian wilderness, which stretches in an unbroken sweep from Labrador to the northwest angle of the Lake of the Woods and northward to Hudson Bay. One might almost divide his poetry, as Goldsmith divided the epochs in the good vicar’s placid household, to migrations from the office to the camp and from the camp to the office. It is quite possible to pick out those poems that were written in the utter wilderness, while the spell of an awful solitude was upon his soul, from those written while wandering in the cultivated fields within a few miles of the city of his habitation—the city whose “sun-touched towers” appeared to him over the frozen snow like “a bunch of amethysts.” Never was a poet more purely local. The flowers described in his verse are neither maritime nor alpine: they are the flowers peculiar to the inland north temperate zone; and this holds true of the fauna, the seasons, and the stars.

And yet Lampman had his universal side. He had in his possession, as all true poets have, the magic carpet of the old legend, and could transport himself in imagination to other lands and times. His poems of a purely imaginary character, such as ‘An Athenian Reverie,’ ‘The Monk,’ ‘Vivia Perpetua,’ ‘King Oswald’s Feast,’ ‘Ingvi and Alt’ cannot by any stretch of imagination be called great, but they are always impeccable in form, dignified in thought, and with a solid content of human interest. The ‘Athenian Reverie,’ especially, makes good reading. The incident is trivial enough—a journey to a wedding and a pedestrian tour with a friend. It is, in fact, a golden dream of certain delicious experiences set forth in highly melodious verse. A brief extract will make this clear. The poet and his friend Euktemon are tramping afoot, “From gray Mycenæ by the pass to Corinth.” They while away the hours by vivid conversation on all sorts of subjects, human and divine. The poet says:—

  • “Such hours, I think, are better than long years
  • Of brooding loneliness, mind touching mind
  • To leaping life, and thought sustaining thought
  • Till even the darkest chambers of gray time,
  • His ancient seats and bolted mysteries
  • Open their hoary doors, and at a look
  • Lay all their treasures bare.”
  • As the two friends proceed on their journey the world intrudes its charm.
  • “The voices of the passers-by, the change
  • Of garb and feature, and the various tongues
  • Absorbed us….
  • I remember too
  • The gray-haired merchant with his bold black eyes
  • And brace of slaves, the old ship captain tanned
  • With sweeping sea-winds and the pitiless sun,
  • But best of all that dainty amorous pair,
  • Whose youthful spirit neither heat nor toil
  • Could conquer. What a charming group they made!
  • The creaking litter and the long brown poles,
  • The sinewy bearers with their cat-like stride,
  • Dripping with sweat, that merry dark-eyed girl,
  • Whose sudden beauty shook us from our dreams,
  • And chained our eyes. How beautiful she was!
  • Half-hid among the gay Miletian cushions,
  • The lovely laughing face, the gracious form,
  • The fragrant, lightly-knotted hair, and eyes
  • Full of the dancing fire of wanton Corinth.
  • That happy stripling, whose delighted feet
  • Swung at her side, whose tongue ran on so gaily,
  • Is it for him alone she wreathes those smiles,
  • And tunes so musically that flexile voice,
  • Soft as the Lydian flute?”
  • Pass we now to the philosophical and religious side of Lampman’s genius. It has been charged by certain shallow critics that Lampman was altogether too detached and self-centered in his art; that, in fact, he is and must remain the poet of the exclusive few. But this criticism results from a complete misapprehension. It is the race not the individual that attracts the poet. There are no passionate love-lyrics to be found in his verse; no “working-up” of contemporary events; no references to friends. The fact is that his married and family life was so full and rich as to exclude all subjects of purely romantic or erotic interest. He might almost be described as a Puritan in this respect. Such poems as ‘The Child’s Music Lesson,’ ‘To My Mother,’ ‘Personality,’ ‘To My Daughter,’ ‘White Pansies,’ ‘We Too Shall Sleep,’ reveal a heart of gold. No man ever lived who possessed a deeper, one might almost say a more terrible interest, in the tragedies of our human lot. The burden of the daily struggle was always with him. The mystery of life and death literally haunted him. He was an advanced and radical socialist, and one of the few bitter outpourings he allowed himself is his truly awful sonnet, ‘To a Millionaire.’ All his life he was a seeker after light; and if he was able to formulate no smug belief it was because he resolutely refused to allow his soul to be cheated by mere words and phrases. Perhaps in the whole range of English literature there is no poem more poignant than ‘Peccavi, Domine.’ It is of the very essence of religion.

    As a poet of the open fields and the wild unexplored places Lampman stands alone. There is no brag or bluster about his verse. The cult of the aboriginal is lacking. He is too sure of his art to depend for his effects upon what are called “strong” words. With a precision of phrase which, at times, is almost uncanny he succeeds in begetting in his readers an actual participation in the scene or the emotion portrayed. The poem entitled ‘Heat,’ which will be found subjoined, shows the almost miraculous power of the poet to reproduce by a series of happy images a common experience.

    Mr. Duncan Campbell Scott says that if Lampman modeled upon anyone it was upon Keats. True there are certain lines in Lampman that recall Keats; but then there are certain lines in Keats that recall Milton. The floral catalogue in ‘The Ode to a Nightingale’ calls instantly to mind the lovely cadences in Lycidas. The truth is that Lampman is absolutely sui generis. He has a touch all his own. Take the following lines from ‘Winter-Store’ as an illustration of his power to conjure up in imagination a vanished experience, and note the happy qualifying clauses:—

  • “Shall I not remember these,
  • Deep in winter reveries?
  • Berried briar and thistle-bloom,
  • And milk-weed with its dense perfume;
  • Slender vervain towering up
  • In a many-branchèd cup,
  • Like a candlestick each spire
  • Kindled with a violet fire;
  • Matted creepers and wild cherries,
  • Purple-bunchèd elderberries,
  • And on scanty plots of sod
  • Groves of branchy goldenrod.”
  • Lampman excels in the art of vivid word-painting “in the small.” His miniature effects are as perfect as a genre painting by Mieris. He abounds in happy little pictures of passing phases of nature caught, so to speak, “on the fly.”

  • “In far-off russet cornfields, where the dry
  • Gray shocks stand peaked and withering, half concealed
  • In the rough earth, the orange pumpkins lie,
  • Full-ribbed; and in the windless pasture-field
  • The sleek red horses o’er the sun-warmed ground
  • Stand pensively about in companies,
  • While all around them from the motionless trees
  • The long clean shadows sleep without a sound.”

  • “Along the waste, a great way off, the pines
  • Like tall slim priests of storm, stand up and bar
  • The low long strip of dolorous red that lines
  • The under west, where wet winds moan afar.”

  • “I saw them in their silence and their beauty,
  • Swept by the sunset’s rapid hand of fire,
  • Sudden, mysterious, every moment deepening
  • To some new majesty of rose or flame.
  • The whole broad west was like a molten sea
  • Of crimson….”
  • Music had an overpowering attraction for Lampman. He possessed an ear of delicate susceptibility to sound. The sweetness and clarity of pure naked tone and the majesty of ordered processional harmony alike are reproduced in his verse. It is not to be wondered at that he should have written the classical sonnet on music. Certain of his purely nature poems are literally riotous with the songs of our North American birds.

  • “The robin and the sparrow awing in silver-throated accord;
  • The low soft breath of a flute, and the deep short pick of a chord,
  • A golden chord and a flute, where the throat of the oriole swells
  • Fieldward, and out of the blue the passing of bob-o-link bells.”

  • … “Sometimes I hear
  • The dreamy white-throat from some far-off tree
  • Pipe slowly on the listening solitude,
  • His five pure notes succeeding pensively.”

  • “O, take the lute this brooding hour for me—
  • The golden lute, the hollow crying lute—
  • Nor call me even with thine eyes; be mute,
  • And touch the strings; yea, touch them tenderly;
  • Touch them and dream, till all thine heart in thee
  • Grow great and passionate and sad and wild.
  • Then on me, too, as on thine heart, O child,
  • The marvellous light, the stress divine shall be,
  • And I shall see, as with enchanted eyes,
  • The unveiled vision of this world flame by,
  • Battles and griefs, and storms and phantasies,
  • The gleaming joy, the ever-seething fire,
  • The hero’s triumph and the martyr’s cry,
  • The pain, the madness, the unsearched desire.”
  • It was Lampman’s own profound conviction that his best work was to be found in his sonnets. The best critics of his work have agreed with this conclusion. We subjoin several further examples of his perfect mastery of this most difficult form. ‘Winter Uplands’ was his final effort. A pathetic interest attaches to it because it received its finished revision while the hand of death was visibly upon him. A few days afterwards he died.