Verse in the Bush
- Tracy Ware (Editor) and Levi Adams (Author)
Jean Baptiste: A Poetic Olio, in II Cantos. Canadian Poetry Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- John Strachan (Author) and Wanda Campbell (Editor)
Poetry by John Strachan. Canadian Poetry Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Warren Stevenson
Of these two books in the Canadian Poetry Series put out by the University of Western Ontario, Levi Adams’ Jean Baptiste, a Byronic imitation written in pseudo ottava rima and originally published in 1825, is the easier to read as well as the more lightweight, physically and intellectually. In his useful introduction Tracy Ware focuses on the poem’s "bilingual diction and carnivalesque aesthetic," while also observing the inferiority of Adams’ slippery "olio" to George Longmore’s Beppo-esque "The Charivari," which had appeared a year earlier. Adams’ verse lacks the saltiness of Byron’s and (occasionally) Longmore’s, and his frequent recourse to asterisks, whatever the reason, appears less suggestive than apathetic. Also, Adams’ mock parody of a parody (Byron’s Don Juan) lacks polish: many of the lines do not scan properly, being either too long or too short; and while some of this may be intentional, Adams’ irregular use of the Alexandrine results in a hybrid "Spenserian ottava rima," which creates an effect of defying gravity but not really going anywhere, something like backing up the Magnetic Hill in neutral:
I must allow, to me there is no charm
In seeing every day new fashion, or
Push’d in the face of common sense—a starch’d coquette!
Adams’ most memorable passages are the ones where he forgets to Byronize and expresses his own poetic feeling for the Canadian landscape, as at the beginning of Canto II.
Variously described as "the most dangerous and spiteful man in Canada" (Lord Durham) and "the dominant personality" there, a measure of John Strachan’s influence may be gleaned from William Kilbourn’s remarks (quoted by Campbell in her Introduction)that he "badgered the British into granting him charters for two universities in Toronto and persuaded his brother-in-law, James McGill, to found one in Montreal. . . . He [also] became the first advocate of Confederation [and the] first Bishop of Toronto."
What, then, of his poetry? Much of it falls into the category of ceremonial or occasional verse. There is an elegy to Strachan’s younger brother who died in Jamaica after taking part in an attempt to put down the "fierce Maroons," and there are poems for Strachan’s students (he taught school before becoming a bishop). A refreshing clerical humour peeps out toward the end of one such poem or some 300 lines entitled "The Day":
By dealing out some mental food,
I think I’ve done some little good;
And to sin, I lack’d the occasion.
Who does ill without temptation?
Most of these pleasant clunkers are written in ho-hum couplets or quatrains, often with an eye on Strachan’s native Scotland ("our land"), and betraying more than a hint of bitterness that he was unable to find advancement there. Apart from a few poems written in jaw-breaking Scots showing the influence of Burns, and a few Byronic echoes in some of the later poems, what one misses most in this collection is more awareness of the contemporaneous English Romantic Movement. The partial catalyst appears to have been the publication of Scottish poet Thomas Campbell’s Gertrude of Wyoming (1809), whose poetics Strachan admired, but whose politics he strongly opposed. Whereas Campbell glorifies the rebel Americans and vilifies the Loyalists and the Natives who fought alongside them, Strachan—a staunch monarchist convinced that the policy of the United States was "to exterminate the natives"— sought to set the record straight by writing his own poetical version of the matter.
The tragic protagonist of Strachan’s major poem "The Missionary" is a half-breed named Logan, who (Wanda Campbell argues) is an amalgam of the historical John Logan and Joseph Brant, both of whom had suffered at the hands of the whites. The poem’s antagonist, "Crafty Rankins," appears to be another amalgam, comprising two Detroit fur-traders named, respectively, "Rankins" and "Rankin," as well as (Campbell argues) a Congregationalist missionary named Samuel Kirkland. Strachan, whose own motives were complicated by the fact that he was a royalist connected by marriage with wealthy Montreal fur-traders, is evidently attacking what he sees as the United States’ duplicity towards the First Nations; but he leaves the geographical frame of reference sufficiently vague—[Lake] "Ontario’s shore" could refer either to Upper Canada or upstate New York—that the poem may be said to attain a kind of backhanded universality. As Wanda Campbell observes, "in contrast to [Thomas] Campbell and others, who relied mainly on travel narratives . . . [Strachan] gathered information from his own experience and the testimonials of his friends.... Strachan believed in the human family."
Judging "The Missionary" as a poem, one cannot help but be impressed by the revisionist anger it shows over injustices inflicted by whites on the First Nations. Moreover, what Northrop Frye referred to as the romantic sense of God welling up from below can be seen in Strachan’s empathetic portrayal of fur-bearing animals as victims, likewise striking a new note in his poetry:
In blankets chang’d for beaver robes they dress,
And Rankins urges to begin the chase.
Impell’d by him, the warriors quickly fly
In quest of fame, and numerous martyrs die.
The skilful beaver in his dam they watch,
And in their gyves the cunning foxes catch. . . .
Rankins next gets the Indians so drunk that they begin killing one another, thus victimizing them as they have the animals. The Great Chain of Being is implicitly stood on its head.
Since Rankins is portrayed as a fur-trader rather than a missionary, it is arguable that the poem’s title, which Wanda Campbell concedes is problematic, could refer to both the protagonist, Logan, and, by a sort of self-reflexive irony, to Strachan himself, in his belated attempt to honour Joseph Brant’s dying words: "Have pity on the poor Indians;... endeavour to do them all the good you can" (xxiv). Such an interpretation of "The Missionary"’s title finds support in the following passage:
The surly warriors Logan sends to spy
What foes advance while they in ambush lie.
To Logan oft the dang’rous mission [emphasis added] falls.
Where prudence keen a steady courage calls. . . .
Like his real-life namesake, Logan has had some of his relatives massacred by whites, whom Strachan empathetically calls his "barb’rous foes." However one interprets this impressive poem, it is a hard-hitting indictment of the excesses of the fur-trade and the exploitation of the First Nations by white governments.
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MLA: Stevenson, Warren. Verse in the Bush. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 20 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #156 (Spring 1998). (pg. 108 - 110)
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