Discovering Canada's early poets

Archibald Lampman in Man: A Canadian Home Magazine

by D.M.R. Bentley

D.M.R. Bentley is a Professor of English at the University of Western Ontario and the editor of Canadian Poetry: Studies, Documents, Reviews. A specialist on Canadian and Victorian literature, he has published extensively in both fields. Among his recent publications are Mimic Fires: Accounts of Early Long Poems on Canada (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1995), an edition of Archibald Lampman’s Essays and Reviews (Canadian Poetry Press, 1996) and a study of The Confederation Group of Canadian Poets, 1880-1897 (University of Toronto Press, 2004). An earlier version of this article appeared in Facsimile no. 28 (Summer 2010).

Archibald Lampman (1861-1899)
Archibald Lampman, 1861-1899

Anyone familiar with Canada's finest nineteenth-century poet, Archibald Lampman, well knows that Lampman's father-in-law, Edward Playter, was a Toronto doctor who initiated a series of health journals entitled Man (1885), The Dominion Sanitary Journal (1883-85), and The Canada Health Journal (1870). Until it was filmed by Canadiana, Man was known to most Lampman scholars merely as the periodical that hosted a poem and a story by the Ottawa poet a few years before the appearance of Among the Millet in 1888. As such, it was a “must-see” periodical for my own research on Lampman and his fellow Confederation poets that came to its ultimate fruition in 2004 with the publication of The Confederation Group of Canadian Poets, 1880-1897.1

A mere glance at the title page of the first number, dated November 1885, was enough to convince me that what I was about to read was more than merely a “health journal.” Beneath the full title of the periodical – Man: A Canadian Home Magazine – and a statement of its subject-interests – “Literature and Popular Science, Public and Individual Hygiene, Social and Domestic Economy” – sits a list of contributors that reads like a veritable “Who’s Who” of post-Confederation literature and culture. Among those named are the prominent literary and cultural commentators Henry Scadding of Toronto, J.G. Bourinot of Ottawa, and George Stewart of Montreal. Also on the list are the satirical cartoonist J.W. Bengough, the novelist J. Macdonald Oxley, and the poets John Reade, “Fidelis” (Agnes Maule Machar), and “Seranus” (Susie Frances Harrison).

Most interesting for my preliminary purposes was the presence not only of Lampman, but also of Charles G.D. Roberts and the impresario of the Confederation group, Joseph Edmund Collins. Thanks to Canadiana, I had a screen in front of me in the D.B. Weldon Library at the University of Western Ontario that almost literally opened a window onto a periodical that promised to be of very great interest and significance for my study of the Confederation group, especially – for this was part of my motivation for going to Man in the first place – in relation to the mind-cure movements that proliferated in the United States after the end of the Civil War and, as I knew from my work on Bliss Carman,2 were to have a major impact on Canadian writing.

Since Lampman’s contributions to Man were already well known, they provided the least of the surprises to come as I called up page after page of the periodical. More interesting, albeit in a narrowly textual sense, was the discovery in the first number (November, 1885) of a version of Roberts’s “Out of Pompeii” that occupies an intermediate position between its first publication in Later Poems (1881) and its subsequent appearance in In Divers Tones (1886) and Poems (1901, 1907). The text of the poem in Man is not radically different from the others, but it contains enough variations to be notable. For instance, “sullen swells” in its fourth line anticipates In Divers Tones and Poems (Later Poems has “sudden swells”) but “without flaw” is carried forward from Later Poems (In Divers Tones and Poems have “pure from”). In one substantial instance, the Man text differs from all others: in line thirteen it has “Weird figures, groping” where Later Poems has “Weird fingers groping” and In Divers Tones and Poems have “Weird fingers, groping”. The strong likelihood that “figures” is a printer’s error reduces but does not negate the interest of the Man text of “Out of Pompeii” as a reflection of Roberts’s conservative but by no means rigid editorial attitude to his own published work.3

The pages of Man contain numerous other pieces that proved to be of interest from my perspective, none more so than an essay entitled “Busy People” that appeared in the December 1885 number. Written by Oxley (who lived in Ottawa and would almost certainly have been known personally to Lampman), the essay is a meditation on the psychophysical consequence of urban modernity that reflects ideas popularized by such mind-cure theorists as the S. Weir Mitchell of Wear and Tear; or, Hints for the Overworked (1871) and the George Miller Beard of A Practical Treatise on Nervous Exhaustion (Neurasthenia) (1890) but rightly suggests that “there is a vast deal of nonsense said and written about overworked brains now-a-days.”4 With this caveat, Oxley enters a warning and a “protest against work … being made the grand controlling motive of our lives.” “The man that is over-busy, – unnecessarily busy,” he writes,

By no means makes the best of life, even though substantial success may crown his eager efforts. He is always engrossed in his work, – carries it about with him everywhere, – cannot fix his thoughts upon anything else, and consequently can never take any proper relaxation or enjoyment. His brain is always brimming with plans and projects, dollars and cents. In the street he hardly finds time to exchange friendly nods with his acquaintances; at home, his burdensome business blinds him to its simple joys and comforts; abroad, his mind is too occupied with dry-goods or discounts, lumber or grain to appreciate the beauties of nature or art.

Both the phrasing and the gist of this passage raise echoes in Lampman’s “Heat,” “Among the Timothy,” “Comfort of the Fields,” and other poems in which an exhausted and overwrought speaker turns to the natural world for psychological and physical regeneration. Such echoes become louder when Oxley articulates his commonsensical view of the relationship between “labour” and “inaction”5

It is the happy blending of hard work with wise idleness that constitutes the golden mean. By wise idleness I mean something of which the majority of men and women do not seem to have the faintest conception. It is not “thinking of nothing,” … neither is it seeking amusement after the intense feverish wearisome fashion of the present day. Rather it is quietly absorbing something through the eye or ear that for the time at least drowns the petty businesses and worries of life as the incoming tide silently engulfs the pebbles of the beach.6

Was this passage part of the inspiration for "Heat," written two years later in July 1887?7 Certainly, the final stanza of Lampman's poem appears to echo Oxley's remarks:

And yet to me not this or that

Is always sharp or always sweet;

In the sloped shadow of my hat

I lean at rest, and drain the heat;

Nay more, I think some blessed power

Hath brought me wandering idly here:

In the full furnace of this hour

My thoughts grow keen and clear.8

The possible relationship between “Busy People” and “Heat” that the Canadiana periodicals project helped to bring into view is but one of many examples that I could cite from my work on pre- and post-Confederation poetry. No doubt other scholars in every field of Canadian studies could describe similar and more-or-less significant experiences, for the fact is that the many titles which are now available digitally on ECO contain the stuff of countless research discoveries that individually and cumulatively will continue to change the way we think about Canada and Canadian culture, past, present, and future.

Notes

1. D.M.R. Bentley, The Confederation Group of Canadian Poets, 1880-1897, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004.

2. See my "Carman and Mind-Cure: Theory and Technique," in Bliss Carman: a Reappraisal, ed. Gerald Lynch, Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 1990, p. 85-110.

3. Quotations from texts “Out of Pompeii” other than the one in Man are taken from Roberts’s Collected Poems, ed. Desmond Pacey, Wolfville: Wombat Press, 1985, p. 59-61 and 392-393.

4. “Busy People,” in Man, 1.2 (December 1885), p. 56.

5. Ibid., p. 55.

6. Ibid., p. 56.

7. L.R. Early, “A Chronology of Lampman's Poems,” Canadian Poetry: Studies, Documents, Reviews, 14 (Spring/Summer 1984), p. 79.

8. Among the Millet and Other Poems, Ottawa: J. Durie and Son, 1888, p. 13.