The Legacy(ies) of the Confederation Group of Poets

Reviewed by Thomas Hodd

In recent years little attention has been paid to dead white male Canadian writers. Instead, the bulk of literary scholarship in this country has been driven by a critical interest in such areas as post-colonialism, women writers, and transnationalism. While this focus has yielded a much richer understanding of historically marginalized literary figures and cultural groups it has also, at times, been to the detriment of historically important writers who helped shape Canada’s cultural flowering, particularly the Confederation group of poets. The recent appearance of two lengthy treatments on Duncan Campbell Scott and Archibald Lampman is therefore a publishing event worth noting.

Having said that, the critical shift in the treatment of our country’s earlier writers is in some ways exemplified in the two publications under consideration, since one of the writers focuses almost entirely on the poet’s art whereas the other fixes his gaze almost exclusively on the politics of the man.

Mark Abley, a writer and columnist for the Montreal Gazette, has penned an accessible portrayal of Duncan Campbell Scott’s legacy. Rather than offering a straightforward biography he creates a series of imagined conversations between himself and the ghost of Scott in order to engage with the writer’s art, life, and especially his attitude towards First Nations and his role as Deputy Superintendent of Indian Affairs. Structurally speaking, this book is neither fact nor fiction, biography nor essay. It is a form of creative non-fiction that attempts to convey ideas through the lens of superficially constructed characters.

To his credit, Abley appears to have spent considerable time on research. He also attempts, with limited success, to acknowledge Scott’s artistic ability and to praise his poetry. But make no mistake: Conversationsis not a scholarly book in the traditional sense, nor is it meant for the literary critical community. Instead, this book explains to the general reader why Scott was named “one of Canada’s worst Canadian of all time.” What is troubling about this approach is that Abley has constructed a narrative that ensures condemnation of Scott while salvaging little of his life or art. His portrayal of Scott, for instance, is one of convenient stereotype; presenting him as an elitist Victorian Canadian in a way that makes it easy for the reader to dislike him. Equally frustrating is Abley’s uneven use of historical materials: by and large he minimizes the context of Scott’s generation while drawing on a myriad of contemporary scholars, testaments, and initiatives to make clear to the reader that he, not Scott, is on the right side of history. Even the “conversations” he has with Scott are less than convincing: by and large they are stifled and artificial, ideological positions superficially couched as dialogue. Put another way, Abley has written from the privileged position of historical hindsight and presumes that Scott will speak with a view of wilful ignorance.

Eric Ball, a professor at Langara College in Vancouver, has taken a long critical gaze at Archibald Lampman. As the back cover notes, Ball`s study “is the first book on this foundational figure in Canadian literature to appear in over twenty-five years and the first thematically focused study.” Beginning with a solid overview of the history of Lampman studies, Ball offers readers a largely formalist reading of Lampman’s oeuvre, grouped broadly under three main elements: memory, nature, and progress. Chapters are then subdivided into clearly delineated readings of individual poems, making them feel initially like separate scholarly critiques that, when taken together, are meant to produce an overall intellectual effect. That is not to say Ball’s structure is disjointed, but the grouping and presentation of his findings is uncommon in most book-length scholarly treatments of a writer’s work. Also worth noting is that Ball shows thematic links between the major works and lesser-known publications. Generally speaking, Ball’s close readings of individual poems, including extended discussions of prosody is a welcome change to the heavily theoretical readings in many scholarly books.

Of the three themes, it is Ball’s treatment of “Progress,” that is, his examination of Lampman’s links to the Fabian Society and his poems about social issues, that is perhaps most rewarding. Comparatively, his chapters on “Memory,” while clearly argued and convincing, are critically less engaging; likewise, his discussion of “Nature” feels longer than warranted, given the extensive treatment of Nature by previous Lampman scholars Still, Ball`s illustration of Lampman’s use of irony in the nature poems is a provocative idea worth further study. Truth be told, if there is any real criticism of this book it is that it feels too long, that its ideas could have been conveyed more succinctly and that Ball’s extensive close readings of technique sometimes overshadowed rather than helped illuminate the Lampman’s idea. In contrast, Ball’s conclusion is much too short, an abrupt denouement that ultimately weakens the book’s accomplishment rather than serving as a thoughtful summary of Lampman’s achievements and signpost for future studies.

Students and scholars will no doubt benefit from Ball’s focused examination of Lampman, which will hopefully generate renewed critical interest in this significant early Canadian literary figure. The same, however, cannot be said of Conversations. The Canadian critical community is well-aware of the duality of Scott`s position as a polarizing figure in the country’s literary history, and so Conversations brings little if anything new to the research. Moreover, the ideological positioning of the writer-narrator makes this book an uneven treatment of Scott that will only find favour with those who share a similar opinion of Scott the bureaucrat, rather than Scott the poet. While perhaps not Abley’s intent, his rendering of Scott has oversimplified and trivialized Scott’s legacy.

This review “The Legacy(ies) of the Confederation Group of Poets” originally appeared in Recursive Time. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 222 (Autumn 2014): 113-14.

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