Archibald Lampman. Winter Uplands [Canadian]
"It seemed like a good idea at the time". And it still does. It's February. So let's have a close look at a Sonnet all about Winter. Oh, I know, I could have chosen a Love Sonnet, but I'd rather leave that theme until next year, same time, same station.
Our featured sonneteer is one of Canada’s most illustrious 19th. Century poets, Archibald Lampman.
Historical Background to the Evolution of 19th. Century Canadian Poetry and Sonnets:
One of the earliest noteworthy historical characteristics of Canadian literature was its marked obsession with Nature's stark, cold indifference to human existence and human concerns. This is one of the hallmarks of practically all major Canadian literary works since and even before Lampan’s day, as it continues to assert itself in the novels and poetry of such contemporary authors as Margaret Atwood and Michael Ondaatje, and of more recent poets, such as this reviewer.
With this in mind, it is clearly a misnomer to attribute the label, "Romantic" to Nineteenth Century Canadian poets such as William Wilfred Campbell (1858-1918), composer of the Sonnet, "Winter" (see link below), Alexander McLachlan, Bliss Carman and, of course, Archibald Lampman.
Any attempt to transfer the literary norms of one society or Nation to another is bound to flop. Those values and ethics, which informed English Industrial society in the early Nineteenth Century and into the Victorian Era, simply could not make much sense in the seemingly endless, unforgiving landscape of the much colder climate of Canada, whose industrial progress in the same period lagged significantly behind that of the Motherland, and whose interlocked English-French cultural heritage created a tensor of cross-currents totally foreign to European cultural norms.
If anything, Canada's identity as an emerging North American Nation of an even vaster area than that of the United States, was bound to drift gradually, inexorably, away from its shattered French and English roots, to develop an ethos uniquely its own.
And this is why today, in the early Twenty First Century, Canadian Literature stands alone in World Literature as a paragon of a richly bilingual, bicultural English-French heritage, not experienced anywhere else in the world, even in France. In other words, Canadian English Literature is not merely English Literature, nor is Canadian French Literature simply French Literature. They are both uniquely, Canadian Literature, Two Solitudes, les deux Solitudes, period, "point final". These very Solitudes underscore every aspect of Canadian Literary achievement, including our poetry.
All one need do is compare the main thrust of the imagery cast and the concerns raised by the poetry, say, of Anne Hébert, in French, with those of Lampman, for instance, in English, and one is made immediately aware of the fact that their concerns, their focus on the harsh Canadian Landscape, and their sense of isolation in the face of a heartless Natural World is, for all intents and purposes, quintessentially familiar in almost every respect.
To this sense of personal isolation in a harsh environment such as Canada’s, Lampman was and is no exception. Though many 19th. Century "Canadian" poets were English, Scottish or Irish immigrants, the natural impact of Canada's vast open, hyper-cool, unpredictable and even foreboding landscapes made an indelible impression on all our writers, in spite of themselves, regardless of their National origins or socio-cultural backgrounds.
This phenomenon parallels very closely the profound impact America has had on her immigrants and immigrant writers. One need only read the works of any naturalized American or Canadian poet to quickly come to the realization that these are not European writers at all, nor are their words European, except perhaps vestigially. This by and large accounts for the great admiration Nathaniel Hawthorne and Longfellow held for Lampman's poetry.
Archibald Lampman (1861-1899), was born in Morpeth, Lower Canada (Ontario). In his youth, the family moved to Rice Lake in Northern Ontario, where Lampman found intimacy with the wilderness and its seemingly endless maze of lakes and swift rivers, and with "the comfort of the fields". In the works of his forbear, Catherine Parr Trail, authoress of, The Backwoods of Canada (1836), he discovered a kindred spirit. Here also, in the vast, harsh, unforgiving climate of Northern Ontario, he contracted rheumatic fever, the eventual cause of his premature death.
After studying Classics at Trinity College, Toronto, he tried teaching, he failed at it, and ended up living a disillusioned life as a clerk in the Ottawa Post Office. Living in poverty for most of his life, he suffered profound sorrow at the breakdown of his marriage, and the loss of his father and infant son.
Moreover, his poetry, although of high merit, was not acclaimed in his lifetime (a fate which seems to be the lot of so many poets). Of all his poems, only two books were published in his lifetime: "Among the Millet", published in 1898 at his own expense, and, "Lyrics of Earth", published by a little-known Boston Press, Copeland and Day, in 1895.
Lampman died at 37 of acute pneumonia and rheumatic fever. A close friend of the poet, Bliss Carman, he used to love taking canoe trips around the Ottawa Valley with him.
Lampman’s early poetry owed much of its surface inspiration to the Romantic Tradition: John Keats, William Wordsworth, Alfred Tennyson and Matthew Arnold, with whom he shared, in his own inimitably introverted way, visions of "ideal beauty", the restorative power of nature, Romantic dejection and individual renewal through the power of the Imagination.
Yet critics have noted, more often than not, that Lampman's Nature poems, where he compellingly delineates the uniquely Canadian experience of his homeland’s rigorous, wild landscape, mark his truest contribution to Canadian literature. And it is his sonnets which stand out as the quintessential core of his poetic artistry at its most refined and most « puissant » (powerful). For it is in his Sonnets that we find ourselves forcibly face to face with the intense visual imagery, so finely wrought, which 19th. Century Canadian poets alone, the likes of Lampman, Bliss Carman and Charles Sangster, could possibly hope to evince. The bald fact of the uncompromising vastness and emptiness of the rugged Canadian landscape, the Wilderness, Canadian poets and writers only too well grasped at the visceral level of the human spirit. Briefly, Canadian "landscape" Nature or Romantic Poetry is not English Romantic Poetry. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Winter UplandsEven the most cursory reading of "Winter Uplands", his last Sonnet, written only eleven days before his death, reveals a strongly determined, individualistic persona, starkly at odds with the natural World, or with -
The loneliness of this forsaken ground,…
- which he inhabits. The very ground, through which he slogs forwards, crunching down on it on snowshoes, does not merely seem to be, but is
"forsaken", not only by humans, but even by wild animals, many of whom have long since sought the safety of months of hibernation.
Yet this same individual remains always, to his last living breath, in profound awe and reverence and the fearsome power that our Natural World then evinced (and still does):
The stars that singly then in flocks appear,Remark closely how Lampman astutely sandwiches the keenness and bitterness of experiencing this frightful cold (in verse 13) between his profound sense of awe and respect at the equally cold and remote "silence" and "beauty everywhere". That beauty is EVERYWHERE; it is also inescapable,and poised to freeze you to death in just a few minutes.
The Ojibwa and Algonquin Nations used to refer to Winter’s pale-bluish, ghostlike forest trickster as the "Weendigo" (or alternatively spelled, "Windigo"), the "Great Ice Man", who would entrap, lull to sleep, and freeze to death unwitting hunters. It is Nature who is the huntress in the Canadian landscape and indeed in our mentality, not man the hunter.
And yet, and yet, this same remarkable, awesome and mighty Natural beauty is simultaneously almost as infinitely far off as the stars,
though they seem
So wonderful, so many and so near,…
How remarkably well this lovely verse meshes with Arnold’s
…for the world, which seemsin Dover Beach! Still, though the language and the wording is strikingly similar, the spirit and intent of Lampman’s phrase, properly situated in the context of his stark, yet compellingly beautiful Sonnet, strays far from the mood and bleak underlying pathos Matthew Arnold evokes in Dover Beach. How is this so?
Well, anyone at all who has dared venture out into the Canadian wilderness at night in the dead of Winter, especially when the moon is full, highlighting the vast empty spaces even more sharply, has surely stood stock witness to that vast flock of stars, galaxies and constellations so dense and so numerous they seem to number, not in the thousands or tens of thousands, but in the hundreds of thousands.
And the Milky Way appears to be just precisely that: pure, gently glowing, shimmering milk pouring like some strange manna out of an almost fiercely black, icy-cold sky. Add to this painting the recurring phenomenon of the Northern Lights, and the spectator, no, let’s rather say, the participant finds him– or herself all but "bound" (meaning, frozen) in an ecstasy beyond the wildest imagining.
That is just what this Sonnet so masterfully evinces, a scene of stark, immovable Wintry wonder. The English Romantic poets could not have imagined the rigours of a Vision as harshly remote as this, although of course, something resembling this might be found in the poetry of certain 19th. and early 20th. Century American poets, most notably, Robert Frost’s brilliant, "I have been acquainted with the night".
Note also that, in his Sonnet, Lampman relies heavily on the almost shattering tension between what appear to be polar (pardon the pun!) opposites. This tension is rigorously maintained throughout, and informs, not only this Sonnet in particular, but so much of his finest poetry. In a chipmunk’s nutshell, one of the hallmarks of Lampman’s genius as a Natural Poet is his uncanny talent for unifying or coalescing these naturally occurring opposing forces, which are not apparent at all, but painfully real.
It is almost as though there exists some sort of schizoid "relationship" (or more aptly, lack thereof) between the poet, his inner psyche, and the external landscape, in which he finds himself immersed, with no recourse for escape, not even to the city! For, even though he can vaguely perceive the bluish hues of the city’s roofs in the "red" distance (implying some vague threat), there is little reassurance to be gained in that. Why so? – because he is here, in the frozen wilderness, and he is not there, in that far-off place of comfort, his home, which now only appears as a thin "tender line". In absentia, the heart indeed grows ever fonder. Here, the midst of the forest darkness, his heart aches for the "tenderness" of Home. Such angst is almost primeval.
Examples of this aching, biting tension abound in these verses. We have, for instance:
The frost that stings like fire….(Believe me, at – 25 or 30 degrees celsius, it does burn like fire!)
And then, in the next two verses:
The long white drift upon whose powdered peakOr yet again,
The rippled sheet of snow where the wind blewHere he is reliving his own terrified sense of human helplessness in the face of Nature’s unmmoving, unmoved and unmovable immensity. Note again how Lampman so vividly piles one image on the next, just as the wind has blown the snow drifts ever higher and higher on one another.
And yet, in spite of the bitter cold, which cuts him to the core, he is still able to pause and observe that the wind "blew" – simple past tense. Here he is, for the twinkling of an instant, immersed in a seemingly infinite moment of great, muffled, intense Silence (like that of the stars), before what? – the next vicious gust right in his face!
Last, but far from least, his eyes rivet on the "rippled sheet of snow", an image which unflinchingly calls to mind a desert, in this case, a tundra, everywhere frozen, in amongst the thick stands of black, snow invested trees, in the moon-washed clearings, and on the wide-open, wind lashed stretches of ice locked lakes. How do I know this? I’ve seen exactly what Lampman has seen, experienced the same cold, felt the same fear, and been strangely soothed by that same sense of coolly detached awe, as though I did not wish to "get involved", although I was.
Finally, I would draw your attention to the whole Imagery of the Sestet, whose resolution is not bound in tension, but released in wonder. The last six verses, beginning with this stunning living portrait of the Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis):
– imbue the entire poem with a serenity born of humanity’s almost ludicrous insignificance in the seemingly endless void of Nature. Yet the poet, who is the individual’s and the individual Canadian spirit, standing alone in the midst of nowhere, rises above this Wilderness, not aspiring to conquer it in the name of Darwinian progress, but rather to transcend it in his own personal Realm of pure Solitude.
If this reminds you of the American Transcendalist tradition, it is no mere accident. Lampman was strongly influenced by that literary current, while some of his American colleagues, including Emerson and Longfellow, likewise deeply admired the Canadian’s unique contribution to the North American poetic landscape psyche. Lampman’s poetry was indeed also popular in the United States, especially in the North Eastern seabord, and the New England States.
Thus, by the final rhyming couplet, Lampman has somehow managed to brilliantly, as it were, nip the frost in the bud, take a bitter and despairing opening verse:
The frost that stings like fire upon my cheek,…– and flip it on its head, to conclude the Sonnet with a masterful resolution, standing courageously in the face of that same cold landscape, and admiring it (one might be misled to believe, almost Tao-like) with:
And silence, frost and beauty everywhere.Such a "conclusion", open-ended as it is, infers that the poet has experienced this cold, not once, but many times over in his lifetime, and even does now willingly so, in spite of the ever-present dangers implicit in the action (notice that the phrase, "the stinging air" hammers home this theme yet again!) Our lone individual is even quite ready to return to the scene again in future Winters, and do so all by himself, at his dire risk and peril.
Ironically, this Sonnet was to be his last before his premature death from the very cold and the austere unconcern of this Natural World towards any human affairs or concerns. The land he so loved, and which could not return that love, because it was by Nature indifferent to humankind, was to be, in the end, "the death of him".
Thus, it stands alone as his own eulogy, and a fitting one at that, as it might well serve for any Canadian poet.
That same remote, even savage beauty, which informs the Canadian Wilderness, still haunts us Canadians today, at the turn of the 21st. Century. I would call your attention to one of my own Sonnets, "Listeners" (published in this issue of Poetry Life and Times), written nearly a full Century after Lampman’s. The tone and feel of each of these poems is all to strikingly similar. Both of us are Canadian poets to the core.
To understand what I mean by all this, all you need do is go canoeing anywhere in Canada just a few hundred kilometres north of any major populated area, and you’ll find yourself, quite literally, not figuratively at all, "in the middle of nowhere". And it is this same tough environment, which causes wear and tear enough on canoe trippers even in summer, that becomes downright hostile, in point of fact, deadly, in winter.
Anyone who accidently "gets lost" in the Canadian wilderness in Winter is almost certain NOT to survive the ordeal, and if he or she does, you may rest assured the experience is to be indelibly etched in the person’s assaulted psyche for the rest of his or her livelong days.
Herein lies the awesome majesty of Canada’s Natural Spaces.
Many critics have hailed Lampman as one of the most gifted of the so-called "Confederation" or "Maple Leaf" Poets (labels which are essentially meaningless). In retrospect, just as the World owes so much to the great Romantic poets of England: Wordsworth, Keats, Shelley, Coleridge, Byron and the like; to the outstanding Transcendentalists of American Poetry: Ralph Waldo Emerson, David Henry Thoreau and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, we ought also acclaim the truly visionary, uniquely Canadian, intimate artistry of a poet as highly imaginative and as cautiously intimate with the indifferent world of Nature as Archibald Lampman.
Should you wish to read a few more Canadian Winter poems in the same vein, please feel free to check these ones online:
or the equally stark and visceral poems,
McLeod, Les. "Canadian Post-Romanticism: the Context of Late Nineteenth-Century Canadian Poetry." 29 pp. Essay pp. 1-25. Notes pp. 25-29, in The Canadian Poetry Journal. Vol. 14 (Spring/Summer, 1984) - which is to be found at this URL:
© by Richard Vallance, 2002,
January 27th., 2002
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