The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIV. The Victorian Age, Part Two.

XI. English-Canadian Literature

§ 3. Archibald Lampman

If we cannot designate any single writer as the founder of a Canadian school of poetry, we can still point to Archibald Lampman as the poet who, under the necessary conditions of imitation, was as Canadian as circumstances would allow. With Wordsworth, Keats and Arnold on one’s shelves, one does not draw inspiration from Sangster and Heavysege; but what sets Lampman in a different category from his predecessors is the fact that the poets of the younger Canadian generation have frankly admitted their debt to him. Lampman’s work exhibits what a carefully trained poetic sense can achieve in an environment which he must himself have felt to be hostile to the free expansion of his talent, and his poetry is significant by what he sought to do no less than by what he accomplished.

His friend and fellow-poet, D. C. Scott, has told the story of his life in the brief memoir prefixed to his collected poems. Archibald Lampman was born in 1861 at Morpeth, Ontario, and was descended from a family of Pennsylvania Dutch loyalists, who migrated to Canada at the time of the revolution. After graduating at Trinity college, Toronto, he had a brief but severe experience as a schoolmaster, from which he made his escape into the civil service. The rest of his life, until his death in 1899, was spent in the post office department at Ottawa.

Not much has been preserved from the work of his undergraduate days. His first volume Among the Millet was the product, chiefly, of the four years between 1884 and 1888. It was, in part, a period of imitation and experimentation. The Monk, a narrative poem, is diluted Keats, and the more ambitious An Athenian Reverie is a skilful, if somewhat dull, literary exercise into which he poured the results of his classical reading. Of neither piece need any young poet have been ashamed; but, obviously, there was no development possible in either of these directions. His supreme passion was nature, and he was quick to recognise that his best work was done in response to this dominant impulse. His nature sympathies are readily explained. Ottawa is beautifully situated between three rushing rivers whose valleys tempted his feet when the day’s routine was done, and it is one of the advantages of the civil service that it does not monopolise all the hours of daylight. His masters in poetry, too, fostered this out-of-doors enthusiasm, for, though they owed much, indeed, to other influences than nature, still, in Wordsworth, Keats and Arnold, the descriptive vein was strong, and it was certainly the most communicable part of their work. There is evidence, in later years, that the general problems of society had begun to press in upon Lampman’s mind; but these problems he was able to apprehend only through his imagination and his sympathies. Nature was everywhere about him in her ample beauty and variety; but the unaccented life of Ottawa afforded him no contact with the disastrous extremes that are generated in the intenser conditions of a large city.

Nature poetry is of many kinds and degrees. A rough summary of its varieties may serve the purpose of testing the range of Lampman’s work in this direction. It should include the faithful reproduction of a scene under the necessary conditions of artistic selection and arrangement; the same, but with more particular reference to the emotional and intellectual reaction from the scene; an attempt to interpret the hidden significance of phenomena; and, finally, the use of nature as a pictorial background for human action, or as a setting for a mood.

The least interesting portion of Lampman’s poetry lies in the second of the above heads. One thinks of the powerful philosophical reaction that Tintern Abbey gives us, or The Prelude, of the impetuous personal recoil of the Ode to the West Wind, or of the rich emotional reflex of the Ode to the Nightingale; and, thinking of these superlative examples, one is compelled to recognise the insipidity and monotony of Lampman’s reactions. Many of his poems that promise a fine result, such as April, April in the Hills, The Meadow, Comfort of the Fields, are carefully observed and exquisitely phrased, but are marred by a trite conclusion. Ardent lover as he is, he can enumerate the beauties of his mistress; but his tongue fails him to tell her more than that he loves her dearly, and that he is glad to escape into her presence from the dullness and vexations of his ordinary surroundings. Morning on the Lièvre is wholly free from this weakness, and reproduces with vigour and cunningly contrived detail a characteristic Canadian scene:

  • Far above us where a jay
  • Screams his matins to the day,
  • Capped with gold and amethyst,
  • Like a vapour from the forge
  • Of a giant somewhere hid,
  • Out of hearing of the clang
  • Of his hammer, skirts of mist
  • Slowly up the woody gorge
  • Lift and hang.
  • Softly as a cloud we go,
  • Sky above and sky below,
  • Down the river; and the dip
  • Of the paddles scarcely breaks,
  • With the little silvery drip
  • Of the water as it shakes
  • From the blades, the crystal deep
  • Of the silence of the morn,
  • Of the forest yet asleep;
  • And the river reaches borne
  • In a mirror, purple gray,
  • Sheer away
  • To the misty line of light,
  • Where the forest and the stream
  • In the shadow meet and plight,
  • Like a dream.
  • From amid a stretch of reeds,
  • Where the lazy river sucks
  • All the water as it bleeds
  • From a little curling creek,
  • And the musk rats peer and sneak
  • In around the sunken wrecks
  • Of a tree that swept the skies
  • Long ago,
  • On a sudden seven ducks
  • With a splashy rustle rise,
  • Stretching out their seven necks,
  • One before, and two behind,
  • And the others all arow,
  • And as steady as the wind
  • With a swivelling whistle go,
  • Through the purple shadow led,
  • Till we only hear their whir
  • In behind a rocky spur,
  • Just ahead.
  • The Frogs, Heat, Solitude, June, September, By an Autumn Stream, and Snow reveal Lampman’s rare gift of observation, selection and phrasing; and they, too, have a significant value that transcends the mere terms of the description. By their representative qualities, these poems are symbolic, and Lampman attains this result not by the way of vagueness or mystical allusion, but by the sure strokes of his poetic detail. Two stanzas from Heat may serve to illustrate his skill in producing what we vaguely designate as atmosphere:

  • From plains that reel to southward, dim,
  • The road runs by me white and bare;
  • Up the steep hill it seems to swim
  • Beyond, and melt into the glare.
  • Upward half-way, or it may be
  • Nearer the summit, slowly steals
  • A hay-cart, moving dustily
  • With idly clacking wheels.
  • By his cart’s side the wagoner
  • Is slouching slowly at his ease,
  • Half-hidden in the windless blur
  • Of white dust puffing to his knees.
  • This wagon on the height above,
  • From sky to sky on either hand,
  • Is the sole thing that seems to move
  • In all the heat-held land.
  • Nature is not commonly employed by Lampman as a background of human action. There is little in him of the spirit of romance if we make exception of his love for wild remote places. One poem Between the Rapids, from his first volume, is, however, quite romantic in its conception and illustrates, with much freshness, the ubi sunt theme that has tempted many poetic experimenters.

    The title of his second volume, Lyrics of Earth, betokens his continued preoccupation with his favourite theme. He was preparing Alcyone for the press during his last illness, but did not live to see it published. It contains two poems, at least, that point in a new direction and show the current of his social sympathies. Of these one, The Land of Pallas, is ambitious but laboured; the other poem, The City of the End of Things, is Lampman’s highest imaginative achievement. It is a grim allegory of human life largely conceived and forcibly wrought. There is nothing else like it in his work.

    The narrative pieces scattered through the volumes call for no particular mention. Lampman’s constructive and dramatic sense was weak, and he had not the faculty of seizing upon some vivid incident and developing its possibilities. He gives us life at many removes from actuality. In the sonnet, he was notably more successful, and he felt himself that his best work was achieved in that form. His sonnets are thoroughly well organised, and he found them a convenient medium for conveying his philosophy of life upon the purely human side. They go far, therefore, towards saving his work from the monotony that otherwise would attach to it. They contain many shrewd remarks upon life and give us many fine records of imaginative moods.

    So greatly have poetic methods altered since Lampman’s death that already his poetry may seem to be old-fashioned. He has nothing either of the characteristic modern realism or mysticism, and his technique, by newer standards, seems cramped and unduly studied. He lacks subtlety and lyric fire, but he has merits that will survive many fluctuations of taste, and, without being distinctively Canadian, he is still our representative Canadian poet.