Archibald Lampman: Fish out of Water?

April and National Poetry Month and it seems appropriate to talk about one of our major Confederation poets, one who, with the possible exception of university English students, no one reads or even knows about today. In my elementary school years, we were taught that Lampman was a Canadian and a nature poet. In those days we had to memorize:

The wind-swayed daisies that on every side

Throng the wide fields in whispering companies,

Serene and gently smiling like the eyes

Of tender children long beatified, . . .

A poor man’s Wordsworth, you might think. After his death, a journalist in the Ottawa Journal wrote that it was Lampman’s fate “to be born in the suburbs of civilization,” a raw, rough, materialistic society with little culture. This suggests that Lampman’s poetry was second-rate due to him being born in the wrong place at the wrong time. Another, less tragic, perspective is that he was born at exactly the right place at the right time to allow him to become “the finest of Canada’s late 19th century poets in English” (Canadian Encyclopedia).

Born 17 November 1861, died 10 February 1899, his short life was classic in circumstances that nurtured sensibilities crucial to his artistic development. He even died young, if not of consumption (the fate of many English poets), of a malady nearly as commendable, a heart problem instigated by a bout of rheumatic fever at the age of seven which, by the way, left him lame for some years. Son of a clergyman in small-town Ontario, his parents were intelligent and well-educated, his father had an extensive library, his mother taught him to play the piano. As a child, he had a huge countryside to roam around in, rolling fertile fields and a lake with reed-lined banks and scattered wooded islands,* which environment certainly would have nurtured his love of nature if not his romantic impulse. He was a good student and attained the high academic standing necessary to attend Trinity College at the University of Toronto, where he met fellow poets and started publishing his poetry in journals. Apparently these were the happiest years of his life.

So far so good. Maybe too good. Maybe he had to sabotage things to fulfill his destiny.  Whatever… he failed to get a first at College because of his extracurricular literary activities resulting in his having to take a position teaching high school. After a few months of that,  finding the boys resistant to learning and discipline, he resigned, applied for and was appointed temporary third-class clerk in the post office department in Ottawa. He stayed at the post office  for the rest of his life.

Some accounts take the view that he was severely restricted and limited by his Ottawa existence and its lack of stimulation. Goldwin Smith speaks of Lampman as “a civil servant in a sub-Arctic lumber village converted into a political cockpit.” (Don’t you love it?) However, Desmond Pacey in an extensive essay on the subject says that Lampman had the friendship and support of several poets who have since attained eminent stature, some of them were colleagues in the post office. (Seems to have been the go-to profession for writers of the time, much like academia is now.) Duncan Campbell Scott who did so much to promote Lampman’s poetry after his death worked at Indian Affairs, eventually becoming its head.

Lampman, in a letter to a friend, discredits this view, saying that the monotonous and easy life gave him time to himself. A spurt in his literary activity at this time supports his statement. In 1887, he married and started a family.

Lampman had a sensitive nature both physically and psychologically and in his later years a series of events  – the death of one of his children in 1894, the death of his father in 1897, the worsening of his own health – seems to have plunged this precarious nature into gloom and melancholy. Another source of anxiety was his affair with Katherine Waddell (Lampman’s Kate), fellow worker at the post office.

Reading about Lampman’s sensibilities and struggles and reading his poetry, it’s tempting to say he should have been born a century earlier into English society where he might have roamed the countryside with Wordsworth or romped on the Italian shore with Shelley. But then he would have been just another romantic poet. This way he is immortalized as Canada’s foremost romantic poet. Yes, girls and boys, he’s one of ours. We must claim him. He wrote about nature and the weather, two topics dear to our hearts. He felt constrained in the strait jacket of colonialism. He felt his spirit to be held down by circumstance. (He has a poem about trees, their spirits imprisoned in their roots and by the earth.) He had difficulty getting his poems published. He felt restrictions on his poetry in the place where he was.

Lampman’s yearning for freedom is a modern predicament as is his articulation of the problems of modern man. He defines us to ourselves. We know what he’s talking about when he describes winter snowstorms and summer heat, solitude and the vastness of the Canadian landscape.His expression of his art is our expression as Canadians. His expression of isolation, alienation, soul-weariness is our expression as human beings. We feel his constraints, his struggles, the tension in his poetry. His writing about his small life in a marginal place takes on a larger universal meaning.

In return, Canada gave him his poetry. In content certainly, but also in tone, mood, and theme – seasonal melancholy, gloom of the north, frustration of circumstances, claustrophobia of spirit.

This is what he had to say about poets:

Half god, half brute, within the self-same shell,

Changers with every hour from dawn till even,

Who dream with angels in the gate of heaven,

And skirt with curious eyes the brinks of hell,

Children of Pan, whom some, the few, love well,

But most draw back, and know not what to say,

Poor shining angels, whom the hoofs betray, . . .

 

There it is, poets amongst us. You know who you are.

 

 

*Pacey, D. Ten Canadian Poets. Toronto, 1966. To whom this blog is indebted for much material.

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