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The Poets' Memorial Address

By The Right Honourable Vincent Massey

The Right Honourable Vincent Massey reading the address - UAPC11no11(13)

To visit Fredericton on this occasion gives my wife and myself very peculiar pleasure and we are grateful for the invitation which brought us. To my wife this visit, I need hardly say, is an event which revives many treasured memories.

It is a privilege to take part in a gathering in honour of these three famous sons of Fredericton. This monument represents not only the homage of their native province and city: it is a national tribute erected by a national body and every citizen of Canada can claim some share in the stones which have been reverently placed here in memory of these men to whom we Canadians shall for all time be in debt.

This memorial has no life. It commemorates the lives of three persons, all of whom were born in this city; all of United Empire Loyalist stock; were educated in the same collegiate school and in this University, and were close friends throughout their lives, and colleagues in the craft of poetry. Charles Roberts and Bliss Carman and Francis Sherman had thus much in common: three people could hardly have had more.

These men were poets. They practiced their art at a time when Canada, newly created, was a pioneer community preoccupied with those pursuits which men call practical. Poetry in those days was not exactly an over-crowded profession—nor indeed is it today. The Poet Laureate, Mr. John Masefield a few weeks ago defined poets as “men of an unaccustomed turn”. It is a modest description. What then lay behind the progress of these three in such untrodden paths? What forces gave them shape? Whence came their impulse to explore and depict beauty? No enquiry could be more interesting or indeed more profitable. No one—not even with the wisdom of the psychologist—can assess such things, but even the layman can try. Roberts and Carman and Sherman grew up enriched by both the community in which they lived and by the countryside in which they moved. Nature played no small part in their education. The St. John River was their kindly nurse; the excursions in birch-bark canoes along its reaches and up its tributaries; the long walks—before the word ‘hike’ was imposed upon us—over its hills in all seasons and weathers awoke their sense of nature.

But there was something more that the influence of nature in their making—the society of wise men. In this quiet, old, university and cathedral town, the three young men found a community well equipped to fashion their minds and mould their tastes; one which loved literature, respected ideas and made its own recreation, and was spared the thrust of modern mechanized entertainment. It was a community which read books and discussed them; lived an unhurried life; was modest in its material resources but rich in the things that matter.

One person played no small part in the education of these men. I cannot allow a cherished personal relationship to keep me from mentioning him. In the memoirs of all three of them—in their own records and what is written about them—the name of George Parkin plays an essential role as guide and mentor in their formative years. Dr. Parkin was not only their teacher in a formal sense. He was an elder brother as well. As they walked with him over the hills and valleys of this lovely region, he carried them still further into the country of the English poets and the romantic landscape bequeathed us by the literature of Greece and Rome. But a teacher must do more than tell a story. He must have fire within him which can ignite sparks in the pupil that stay alight. That was what this teacher did. “It was outside school hours,” Roberts writes, “that Parkin did most for us…that he gave us most inspiringly of himself, of his high enthusiasms…would take us as comrades, not as pupils, and his talk would weave magic for us…” I think the farmers of the St. John valley must occasionally have wondered when they heard Parkin’s rich voice booming out “The Blessed Damozel” on the far side of a snake-fence. Carman says he loved it so passionately that he suspected him of sometimes reciting it instead of saying his prayers. In their education the three boys were denied the elaborate equipment of our modern schools. They had no access to that surcharged curriculum in which the modern pupil finds his mental calories, but they had what matters most as an instrument of education—richly endowed personality.

The back-cloth against which these three poets moved was the same, but the parts they played on the stage were very different. They were very different men, and that might be expected from an education which rejected regimentation and respected individuality. Charles Roberts, in his long life, played a poet’s part in the development of his country. It has been said of him that he was “the first to announce that voices in the new Dominion could sing songs in a new way”. Roberts believed passionately in Canada. In the years when we hardly dared use the word ‘nation’ he became an apostle of Canadian nationality. His poem, “O Child of Nations” was almost a national anthem. We often talk in easy terms about the effect of poetry on national life. Roberts’ career gives substance to our generalizations. We are told, for instance, by a Canadian artist that a group of our painters in the 80’s and 90’s struggling as a native movement in the arts, looked to Roberts for inspiration and found it. “Canadian am I in blood and bone,” he said, and throughout his life, in what he wrote and in his influence on others, Roberts lived in honest conformity with this creed. In his great “Collect for Dominion Day” there is the moving line, “Father of unity, make this people one”. We still can find guidance from this poet’s teachings. He was essentially versatile. As a writer he found himself at home in nearly every department of letters—not only as poet but as journalist, as novelist, as historian and as interpreter of nature as well. Sir Charles Roberts was given over sixty years of active, creative life. He used them well and Canada is the richer for them.

This is no occasion to attempt a discussion of the work of our three poets. Happily the verse of two of them has become woven into our national legend. Roberts and Carman have won a place of honour not only in our speeches but in our hearts. Carman of course was the poet, pure and simple. For several years after his graduation, you will remember, he tried to find a congenial profession—law, journalism and civil engineering he rejected in turn—not surprisingly—and then his vocation found him. His real kinship was with trees and flowers and the wild things of the woods. But he was more than a nature poet. Throughout his life he pursued his personal vision and gave us his expression of it in poems which have a proud place in the national heritage. Although he lived away from Canada for most of his life, Carman remained at heart a Canadian. The landscape of his nature poetry is often that of his youth, painted with nostalgic feeling. This is true of his best-known poem. We can see it too in such lines as

“Make us over, Mother April,
When the sap begins to stir!”

There is a tough of pathos in the lines which recall Carman’s Canadian scenery—for “the tender, dear, dark land of the snow” as he called Canada in “The Wanderer”. It is fitting that Carman’s ashes should have been brought home to rest as do those of the others here in his native soil.

If the two elder members of this group are now well-known, that cannot yet be said of Francis Sherman. As one reads the poems in the slender volume of his collected works, one wonders why he has not yet come into his own. Sherman of course, unlike the other two, was not only a poet; he was a banker as well. He was not only a good poet but he was a good banker too—at the end of his career the Assistant General Manager of a great Canadian bank. Perhaps it is hard for us to believe that a man can deal equally well with prosody and credits. But is there a bridge between them? It has been pointed out that some of the qualities called for by banking and poetry are the same,--insight into character, integrity, sound judgment. Perhaps self-control is another. As a writer, Sherman was so reticent that we are told his wife did not know he wrote poetry until after their marriage. The public seems to have shared her ignorance. It is time it was dispelled. Like his older colleagues, Sherman was a true Canadian. “He loved his country with a devotion that was passionate,” wrote a friend. His life was an expression of this feeling and one finds it in his poetry, in such lines as this from the poem “In Exile”, written while Sherman was serving his bank in Cuba:

“For we are Northern children;
And when our souls have birth
The strength of the North wind comes to them—
The whiteness of the Earth.”

Let us accept him in our hall of fame as the fine craftsman and gallant and lovable human being he was: as a friend described him—“handsome, swarthy, quickly strong, taking the world by the horns”.

In a letter which Rudyard Kipling wrote to Sherman he said: “It must be a gorgeous thing to be one of the band of her singers. You don’t know how much Canada lies in your hands—and Canada doesn’t either.” Those remain challenging words. The men we honour commenced to write poetry as Canadians over half a century ago. What about poetry today? What place do we give it in our national life? We cannot say it has “high priority”. When asked about such things, we have some standard answers—that we are still a young country; that we are a pioneering people and that our task is to conquer the wilderness with little time left for poetry. Such replies are no longer convincing. We cannot excuse ourselves on the ground of youth, for we are no longer as youthful as we think, and if we still have pioneering tasks these will be better done with the fire which the poet can give us. Material enterprise has often marched alongside achievements in the field of letters. The Elizabethans were very practical people, but theirs was an age of poetry too. We build fine dams and bridges in Canada, and we have many more to construct, but we should understand the deeper meaning of these undertakings and see them in the wider context of life. In this the poet can help us. He played an important role in the age of Queen Victoria when our three poets did much of their work. Literary culture now means less to the contemporary world than it did to the Victorians, and I believe it is not to our advantage that it does. There are, of course, many reasons for this, but there is no time today to explore them. As far as my own country is concerned—and that must be our main preoccupation—those who follow letters do not tread an easy path. We have let too many of them slip away beyond our borders only to be remembered when others have recognized their merit. Our reading too has often excluded distinguished works from our own community. Sometimes it seems we have imported our poetry and exported our poets. Not that we should cease to welcome good literature whatever its source, at home or abroad, but in Canada there is scant danger of undue nationalism in such matters. Our fault is otherwise—too little concern for literary achievement in our midst. Perhaps the answer to this, as to so much else, will be a stronger national spirit—a deeper faith in ourselves. As that grows, our poets will receive honour in proportion, for whatever poetry may mean to us as individuals, we must look on the poet as a symbol, a symbol of the things without which no nation can be great. Painters, musicians, writers in many spheres can give us beauty, but the poet is the philosopher of beauty in all its forms, and in the deepest sense its interpreter. The tribute we pay him will be the measure of our concern for fine things. Why, after all, do poets write? If I may quote the Poet Laureate once more, they write “from some overwhelming sense of the beauty and the mystery and the glory of life”. That is a truth we have been taught by the men whom we honour today.