A Barnyard Romance
Reviewed by Robert Stacey
There are very few examples of conventional pastoral in Canadian literature. In poetry, other than the odd lyric here and there, we can find only a handful of longer works that are informed by a genuine engagement with or participation in the pastoral tradition and its associated tropes, topoi, and forms. A Virgilian model undeniably operates—though with varying degrees of authority—in texts such as George Elliott Clarke’s Whylah Falls, Lisa Robertson’s XECLOGUE, Erin Mouré’s Sheep’s Vigil by a Fervent Person, Steve McCaffery’s
Some Versions of Pastoral, and Dionne Brand’s Thirsty. But the relationship between text and the informing, or at least cited, tradition is here mostly insincere, ironic, if not fully adversarial. It is also a highly mediated one, based as much on contemporary pastoral criticism as on actual pastoral poems. To read these texts alongside James Reaney’s recently re-issued A Suit of Nettles—a more (unconventionally) conventional book, but one no less skewed by Reaney’s own reading of Spenser, Yeats, Marvell, and importantly Northrop Frye—is to realize two things: (1) that, because an author’s writing is only ever the trace of his reading, any conscious attempt to write within or with respect to an established genre is always going to be contingent, partial, and potentially incommensurate with others’ attempts to do the same, and (2) there may well be no such thing as the pastoral, only disputes about its meaning. (For this reason, it is one of the few genres that has generated more interesting criticism than it has primary texts, even as we recognize that pastoral writing, so often
academic in nature, itself tends to collapse that very distinction.
So we are very fortunate indeed that The Porcupine’s Quill has put out this fresh (and I must say handsome) edition of James Reaney’s A Suit of Nettles, which is simultaneously a powerful, albeit uneven, book of poems and a powerful argument about the meaning and function of literary pastoral. First published by Macmillan in 1958, when it won the Governor General’s award for poetry that year, it bears more of a resemblance to Jay Macpherson’s The Boatman, with its own cycle of pastoral lyrics,
The Sleepers, than to any of the pastorals mentioned above—though, being a collection of eclogues, it shares with these a more dialogic and contrastive form. What it does share with The Boatman, arguably the better book in terms of technique, is what both Reaney and Macpherson derived from their mentor Northrop Frye: namely, a utopian view of the literary aesthetic as a transformative and redemptive space set against the fallen world of reality and a concomitant romantic/Christian understanding of pastoral as the image of this ideal, an Eden of peace, plenitude, innocence, unity, and immanent meaning.
Personally, this is not a view of the pastoral I much like, but it is a view, and likely still the most powerful one in Canadian literary culture, having drifted into the criticism via Frye (Anatomy and The Secular Scripture as well as the
Conclusion to A Literary History of Canada), Renato Poggioli (The Oaten Flute), and Leo Marx’s reading of nineteenth-century American literature (The Machine in the Garden). While Paul Alpers, for one, has written passionately, and I’d say persuasively, against Frye’s romantic understanding of the pastoral on the basis of its basic incommensurability with the bulk of pastoral writing which, following Virgil, tends rather to explore inadequacy, weakness, dispossession, and relative—as opposed to ultimate—states of being, this other tradition must nevertheless be given its due, not only because it underlies a great deal of our modern poetry in Canada (and not only that which advertises itself as pastoral or, in this particular sense, romantic) but also because such a view can enable and condition the creation of art as interesting and sometimes beautiful as Reaney’s A Suit of Nettles, whether or not we want to call it
Loosely based on Edmund Spenser’s Shepherd’s Calendar, A Suit of Nettles presents a series of dialogues between not shepherds but barnyard geese, organized by month, from January to December. The new edition has further emphasized this connection by adding some fine woodcut engravings by Jim Westergard. Here, as with Spenser and a great deal of English pastoral verse after him, an allegorical bias tends to open the way to satire. Reaney’s book begins with the following invocation:
Speak, muse of Satire, to this broken pen
And from its blots and dribbling letter-strings
Unloose upon our farm and barnyard—medicine. (11)
Yet despite a few scatological thrills and some arresting violence of the Swiftian variety (much of it limited to the invocation itself) the satiric eclogues are the least compelling of the book, full of tepid and somewhat mechanical references to Canadian politics, literary critics, and classical philosophers—though there’s a bit more energy in Reaney’s attacks on planned parenthood and Quebec’s reactionary church politics in the May and September eclogues, respectively.
If the text provides any
medicine, it is not by way of its satire but by way of its more general appeal to an imagination that transcends and steps outside the very historical world that is the focus of the satire. As suggested by the calendar form itself, the book is chiefly concerned with time—not calendar time but mortal time, the linearity and finitude of human life set against the endless natural cycle of birth, decay, and death. This cycle and other paralyzing circles are figured everywhere in the book. At the Mome fair (after Momus, god of Satire) to which the geese flock in the September Eclogue, there is the Ferris wheel, the merry-go-round and the
caterpillar ride. This last
[g]oes round and opens up its dusty top: infants look out hardening and changing into old men & women; the brown hood closes down; goes round, opens up, young children looking out and so on (63). To be trapped in this cycle (which, it must be said, you can only experience the one time around) is to forever remain a caterpillar. What is needed, Reaney makes plain, is some sort of metamorphosis, something that catapults one outside the fixed circle.
All the various constraints and losses featured in the text derive their energy from and gain their ultimate significance in relation to the existential theme. In December, when the birth of Jesus is celebrated with the death of geese, some geese are spared from the general slaughter so as to repopulate the barnyard: those set aside are banded with a ring. When the ring of Branwell, the melancholic main protagonist who wears a suit of nettles as a sign that he has been crossed in love, is stolen by his adversary, the oafish George, the long-suffering but always hopeful Effie (whose name suggests both effervescence the ephemerality of human life) gives away her own ring so that she might accompany him and ease his passage into the next world. Proclaiming,
Who knows, at the very least we become men / When we die. Take off the suit of nettles / Of our selves, she invites Branwell to
listen to the ring / You think might save your life. What does it sound like? (76).
Branwell: It’s the merry-go-round at the fair
Or the Ferris wheel far far far away.
Effie: Life inside of that is a crazed prison
Of despair. You can’t possibly want it.
Branwell: I can’t help it, I’m afraid, I want the ring.
I can’t see a path that leads between one’s
Head and one’s body.
Effie: When you are changed then
One arm may always remain a goose wing.
The feeling here is rather more Ovidian than Virgillian, just as the caterpillar ride is meant to recall the final stanza of Reaney’s
Invocation to the Muse of Satire which promises a new vision, that of
astonished moths / Bursting from their unusual, foul, and dark cocoons (12). True to its underlying romantic paradigm, A Suit of Nettles is finally a quest narrative, a search for spiritual and mental transcendence, for the transforming vision that might redeem mortal life from futility.
Needless to say, such a view is consistent with a Christian understanding of sacrifice and heavenly reward. Accordingly,
November dramatizes the cynic Mopsus’s
deathbed conversion (well, it seemed rather precipitous to me) from platonic rationality to Christian belief:
A sun, a moon, a crowd of stars,
A calendar nor clock is he
By whom I start my year.
He is most like a sun for he
Makes his beholders into suns,
Shadowless and timeless.
At the winter sunstill some say
He dared be born; on darkest day
A babe of seven hours
He crushed the four proud and great directions
Into the four corners of his small cradle.
He made it what time of year he pleased, changed
Snow into grass and gave to all such powers.
Here again, natural time is crushed, but more obviously by an act faith that is no less an act of the imagination.
The reader had been warned to expect some change in Mopsus in the Argument to
March, the effect of Effie’s statements in that eclogue. Whereas Spenser’s
Aprill eclogue, an allegorical tribute to Elizabeth, is often cited as the centerpiece of his calendar poem, in a Suit of Nettles it is surely the early spring poem
March. It is here that Reaney’s pastoral vision is most clearly articulated, and in the same poem that establishes Effie, not Branwell, as the true hero of the book and the closest thing to a spokesperson for Reaney. Branwell opens the eclogue by voicing incredulity at the midwife Effie’s implacable joyfulness despite being
the drudge and scullion of the place. She responds:
I dreamt I saw a white walled garden once
Where a child sat playing on a panpipe
Made, it seemed, of twinkling golden straw.
He stopped and asked me how I liked its shape;
I said its like for grace I never saw;
He said its straws were cut from a farm
In which our universe of stars is but a stone
Sulking in fields of dew it cannot see.
Branwell, I took my heart and opened it
To better hear this strange glad minstrelsy.
The shortest straw did to that place flit;
It’s everlasting music makes me fit
To live through all ingratitude and dread,
Rage, boredom and soul-starving deficit.
If I prevent these eggs from being addled
You must not sneer; this egg may hatch a heart
That will not close itself against a golden dart.
This is tremendous poetry, skillfully composed and informed by a consistent and still-powerful belief in literature’s transforming power, a power symbolized by the pipe-playing child in the garden. And despite Effie’s willing acceptance of death in the final poem, it is finally a power geared to—that is to say it is on behalf of—life and the fragile physical hearts on which the vision depends.
This pastoral has none of the strengths of the other more terrestrial and pragmatic tradition, whose concerns are more immediate and its sought-for justice less cosmic, but it has its own rewards. On the whole, it is increasingly difficult to be open to such
strange glad minstrelsy and to the salvational aesthetic that underpins it, but it is good that a text like this should be back to make us try.
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MLA: Stacey, Robert. A Barnyard Romance. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 7 Dec. 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #212 (Spring 2012), General Issue. (pg. 174 - 177)
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