Richard Vallance.


May 2002 Vallance Review:

Frederick George Scott
Another Rugged Canadian Sonnet:
The Laurentians




FREDERICK GEORGE SCOTT'S BIOGRAPHY:

Frederick George Scott was born April 7th., 1861, in Montreal. A graduate of Bishop's College, Lennoxville, Quebec, he was rector of St. Matthew's Anglican Church in Quebec City from 1889 to 1934, except for the First World War, when he served as senior chaplain for the First Canadian Division. Subsequent to the War, he wrote his memoirs of it, The Great War As I Saw It (1922). A repertoire of his poetry was published under the title, "Collected Poems", in 1934. On January 19th., 1944, just shy of his 83rd. Birthday, he died in Quebec City.



SONNET TRADITIONS IN EUROPE AND IN NORTH AMERICA:

This review is the second in an intermittent series, which will focus on Canadian sonneteers, and serves as a sequel and supplement to my review of: Archibald Lampman’s, "Winter Uplands" [Canadian] (February, 2002). It also complements my review the American sonnet, "White Water" (October, 2001), which Robert Lyle Temple so recently wrote about his own experience as a boy of 12, running rapids in a canoe.

It is my intention, for the remainder of this year, to compare and contrast natural themes, and the treatment of Nature per se in English and Irish sonnets, on the one hand, with Canadian and American on the other. I have already spotlighted some of the characteristics of the European Romantic, Victorian and Post-Victorian concepts of the natural world, as opposed to the often quite dissimilar notions of Nature, as envisioned by North American sonneteers of the same periods.

The review of Robert Lyle Temple’s, "White Water", details a contemporary North American’s unforgettable visceral encounter with nature. His own unavoidable confrontation with a mindless, hostile natural world only serves to reinforce and revitalize the similar vivid encounters Lampman and Scott experienced, while they were alive. What is a visceral natural encounter now was also then. But the treatment, the spectrum of subjective to objective approaches, and the poets’ personal emotional and spiritual responses to the theme vary considerably. Of the three sonnets mentioned here, Robert Lyle Temple’s is the most subjective and immediate, Archibald Lampman’s more contemplative and introverted, and Frederick George Scott’s the most objective and remote.

Yet, they all share one thing in common: they are all steeped in the North American tradition of the poetic encounter with a hostile natural world. And this is the overriding concern.

In an upcoming review, I shall turn my attention to a latter day English sonneteer’s treatment of the natural world. Eventually, this series of reviews should help shed more light on the often diverse and even conflicting world views and socio-cultural attitudes of European and North American (i.e. American and Canadian) sonneteers vis-à-vis the Natural World. By this I mean the natural environment, an environment which has been recast many times over in evolving and oftentimes entirely fresh human perspectives on both sides of the Atlantic since the Romantic era.

The Romantic poets, such as William Wordsworth, John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley, through their somewhat idealistic, though often humanist and compassionate concern for the world, idealized Nature as a beauteous realm that could ethically or morally prove instructive to man. This perspective stood, and still stands, in stark contrast to the harsh frontier nature depicted so often by American sonneteers, and to the even sterner, colder and inhospitable wilderness environment, which our Canadian sonneteers so rightfully feared.

As an adjunct to the frontier and wilderness mentality so prevalent in North American poetry, yet largely absent from European poetry (where, for all intents and purposes, all frontiers, whether natural, imagined or psychological, have long since vanished), we find ourselves confronted with yet another American poetic movement, that of the Transcendentalists, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and David Henry Thoreau. The point here, quite simply put, is this: American Transcendentalism [1] can be viewed as a sustained philosophical effort, not to escape, but perforce to transcend that very frontier and wilderness mentality, which is otherwise all too prevalent and indeed inescapable in both American and Canadian poetry, sonnets included, more notably those of the Nineteenth Century.

Even a first, cursory reading of this month’s sonnet, "The Laurentians", as we absorb its thematic core, atmosphere and perspective on the natural wold, reveals, once again, the almost obsessive concern so many Canadian poets and sonneteers historically have held and even to this day still harbour in the face of the enormous, harsh and indomitable environment that is Canada [2].

Archibald Lampman’s, "Winter Uplands" held an uncannily similar outlook on Nature, with all its fickle moods, hazards and outright perils. It is a real eye-opener to read these two sonnets side by side. It is an even more enlightening experience to read, even at random, other sonnets by many other Canadian and American poets. A picture, an overall impression, dare I say, an impressionistic painting of a North American natural world, distinct from that of England, Ireland or continental Western Europe, soon emerges. And this natural world is not ethically instructive; it is a harsh, impersonal enemy.

In another of his poems, not a sonnet, "The Unnamed Lake", Scott neatly and succinctly summarizes this world-view, where he concludes:

    Among the cloud-capt solitudes,
    No sound the silence broke,
    Save when, in whispers down the woods,
    The guardian mountains spoke.

    Through tangled bush and dewy brake,
    Returning whence we came,
    We passed in silence, and the lake
    We left without a name [3].

... without a name, nameless, unknown, unknowable, untamable, wild, remote; in a word, not even Frontier, just Wilderness: and there lies the difference between the American and Canadian poetic mentalities. The former is a frontier mentality, the latter a wilderness. Where there is wilderness, there cannot even be a frontier, only endless, remote, and forbidding lonely space. Humanitas in absentia — where no human presence could be traced, until very, very recently in the Earth’s immense geological timeline.

Of course, neither mentality even remotely (pardon the pun!) resembles any general conceptualization of Nature held in English poetry, from the time of Thomas Wyatt and Edmund Spenser, to the present day. There are, of course, always particular exceptions. One can readily unearth some English or Irish (especially Irish) sonnet, where the environment is pre-eminently hostile. But such exceptions tend to reinforce distinctly European socio-cultural and literary norms.

This will become even clearer in subsequent reviews. Now, on to our sonnet, the second in a series uniquely Canadian.



THE SONNET:

    The Laurentians

    These mountains reign alone, they do not share
    The transitory life of woods and streams;
    Wrapt in the deep solemnity of dreams,
    They drain the sunshine of the upper air.
    Beneath their peaks, the huge clouds, here and there,
    Take counsel of the wind, which all night screams
    Through grey, burnt forests where the moonlight beams
    On hidden lakes, and rocks worn smooth and bare.
    These mountains once, throned in some primal sea,
    Shook half the world with thunder, and the sun
    Pierced not the gloom that clung about their crest;
    Now with sealed lips, toilers from toil set free,
    Unvexed by fate, the part they played being done,
    They watch and wait in venerable rest.

    Frederick George Scott (1861-1944) Canadian



THE REVIEW:

Now, I ask you (and this is no rhetorical question!), "Would you like to be camped out here, on the summit of one of these mountains, let’s say, for a week?" Even assuming you were of a hardy and adventurous nature, such a prospect would be daunting. Make no bones about it. This sonnet is a pin-point description of the nature of the Laurentians, even from a geological and physical perspective [1 bis], let alone poetic.

Indeed, what is so very remarkable about it is that it succeeds so admirably in being poetical at all, while all the while maintaining a coldly remote, impersonal tonality. This sonnet is in fact considerably less personal and personable than Lampman’s, "Winter Uplands", where the poet’s sense of awe-inspired amazement at the cold, wintry firmament evinces a real sense of human participation in the poem’s natural world, however harsh it be.

Scott’s sonnet is rarefied, like the thin air of its mountains, which shrouds the sun in tides of dun fog. He does describe "These mountains", but right from the outset, he point-blank declares, in no uncertain terms, they "reign alone". Period. And the rest of the sonnet merely serves to amplify this all but intolerable, impersonal loneliness to the point it almost fairly shouts at us. The images just keep on piling up, like heaps of cold boulders, one on the other:

    They drain the sunshine of the upper air.

While over them ponderously move "the huge clouds, here and there," as the wind "all night screams" (and believe me, it does just that), while "moonlight beams/Through hidden forests"... . Hidden from whom? Who hears that awesome wind screaming? — hawks, owls, loons, wolves, martens and eagles, yes — Humans scarcely ever. Ever since when? Since a time, an Epoch, the Precambrian Era, millions of years removed, so long ago these mountains have been worn right down from lofty peaks to antediluvian furrowed crests, their "rocks worn smooth and bare" [3]. How long have humans been present in all that time? — no more than a mere split second.

Our poet grudgingly makes one sole concession to this cold, primeval world, where he notes (almost as an aside):

          " they do not share
    The transitory life of woods and streams;

Even here, no mention whatsoever is made of man, neither of the continent’s ancient aboriginals, who have subsisted here for at least 15 millennia, nor of its European invaders, who may just as well not have existed at all, in the optic lens of of this sonnet’s timeline! The natural world he touches upon, and then only in passing, is that "of woods and streams." Make no mistake. He does not mean pretty woods or babbling brooks. Those remote, primeval forests are off limits, bound in with snows for almost five months, their streams frozen over. And even these ancient forests, cold, remote, hollow spaces, perilous at best, more often than not fatal to humans, the poet brushes aside in one decisive stroke, referring to them as merely "transitory". This begs the question. If they are transitory, then what are we? What is the poet - what the poem? — nothing more than a passing wail in the ceaseless mountain winds!

The sonnet is remarkably laconic. Here we find ourselves reading a poem by a Christian poet, who does everything in his power, and succeeds admirably in so doing, to surgically remove the human element from the body of the poem. It really makes for the oddest read; it leaves you with the strange feeling that no-one ever wrote the sonnet: that it practically composed itself, and then gradually, inexorably, over millennia, wore itself down. This is more than reductio ad absurdum; this is reductio ad nihilum. There is no question here of European Existentialism. The poem has nothing to do with that. In fact, any notion of human philosophy is entirely absent. The sonnet has nothing to do with anything, except, well, mountains, and specifically, the Laurentians, and no other mountains. Nothing else exists outside the scope of this poem.

What stands out like a sore thumb about these mountains? Here again, Scott deliberately leaves himself and his Christianity out of the equation and entirely out of the question. But what is the question; and what the answer? The answer is in the question.

Scott’s knowledge of the geology of Canada’s Precambrian Shield is thoroughgoing and very convincing. That is why his sonnet is so striking, so realistic. This is, yet again, not a question of any literary "Realism", but of a bald statement of a hard, cold reality: the question is, "How can such a chillingly remote and empty space exist?" The answer is in the place itself. It is seemingly almost as old as the Earth itself. These are its primordial mountains, some of the oldest indeed on the entire face of the planet. And Scott, being Canadian, and having learnt this perhaps even as early as in Elementary School, knew this all too well, absorbed it in every fibre of his being, and then put it all down in poetry.

He has, in a word, invested his whole human spirit in describing and exalting something that is totally, utterly non-human, having nothing to do with humanity, let alone with the animal kingdom or even most of the plant kingdom, as it pre-existed them all by thousands of millennia. These, the once mighty, now dormant Sleeping Giants, the Laurentians, are their own monument. No-one has erected them. Their monumentalism is the polar opposite of the great Roman lyricist, Horace’s boast, in Ode XXX, Book III:

    Exegi monumentum aere perennius
    Regalique situ pyramidum altius,...

    I have raised a monument more lasting than bronze,
    Taller even than the Pyramids, burial sites of the Pharaohs,...

    (translation mine)

- where, notably, even in the Ancient Roman Empire, all roads led to Rome, not from it, and frontiers were very, very far away... so remote they never even crossed Horace’s mind. He was concerned only about his fame as a poet in the civilized world of Rome, which he obviously considered superior to that of the Egyptians, whom the Romans had, after all, conquered. Note too, that this European poem is an ancient one. Even then, the Roman Empire was so vast that any concern over frontiers, physical or otherwise, was the last thing to enter the mind of an exalted poet of the Augustan Age.

Such a self-aggrandizing notion is entirely absent from Scott’s equally monumental, historically very recent, North American sonnet. There is no "poet" present in the picture; he is entirely out of it. There are no humans present. There is not even "civilization". The only presence is the immutable Laurentian Mountains,and, as the sestet makes resoundingly clear:

    Now with sealed lips, toilers from toil set free,
    Unvexed by fate, the part they played being done,
    They watch and wait in venerable rest.

They were created, even before Jovian Olympus,

      ... throned in some primal sea,

- some indistinct sea so primeval that no-one can even guess what it was, where it was, what was its vast extent: there are no answers to the questions!

But, make no mistake about it, however far-flung in the most shadowy past they may have been exalted, as high as the Canadian Rockies today, or even conceivably, the very Himalayas, these were some mean mountains, they were volcanoes, and they,

    Shook half the world with thunder, and the sun
    Pierced not the gloom that clung about their crest;

Today, today, and tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow, creeps on the diurnally dragging pace. But they wait. Ah yes,

    "They also serve who only stand and wait.’"

    FROM: John Milton.
    "When I consider how my light is spent,..."

Compare this with Scott’s conclusion, in an entirely different context and vein:

    Unvexed by fate, the part they played being done,
    They watch and wait in venerable rest.

Again, the question begs. For what do they wait? The end of mankind? Their own ignominious end as flattened hills? For another ice-age? For another terrestrial flood? For the end of the Earth itself? For the end of Time? For what? Who knows? Do they care? Scarcely.

All this goes far beyond the scope and end-quest or teleology any human religion or spirituality may ever hope to aspire after. It is quite beyond us, beyond even the Christian faith of the poet. And in this, he has indeed transcended himself, his own poetry, immersing it in that impersonal natural world, into which he unwittingly was born, and in which he lived, and moved and had his human life.

It was as a human he saw and experienced, first hand, awe-struck, the expressionless, wind-lashed stark beauty of those immutable mountains. The sonnet is replete with his wonder. Yet always, Socratic like, he keeps it all at hand’s length, just out of reach. If these mountains are just out of reach, they may just as well be forever out of reach.

Though we visit them, and we do, though we hike there, camp there, going canoeing, sightseeing there, we must return, and they are, yet again, left alone, ever watchful, yet not watching (for) us. They could care less about us, or about anyone, any creature, anything. They just steadfastly, seemingly forever, exist. Period. The sonnet makes that perfectly clear.

© by Richard Vallance, 2002

April 22nd., 2002

NOTES:

[1] For the continuing, pervasive influence of Nineteenth Century American Transcendentalism on North American poetry, see the current issue of the international E-Zine, Poetry in Emotion - la poésie à s’émouvoir (volume 1, no. 3/ Spring, le printemps, 2002), where the poetry of Ryan Baier, a Canadian currently residing in Edmonton, Alberta, clearly reflects Transcendentalist tendencies. His poems may be found here:

Poetry in Emotion - la poésie à s’émouvoir

The maiden issue of the sonnet Canadian inernational E-Zine, Sonnetto Poesia, also delves at some length into the issues surrounding transcendentalism. You may read about it here:

Sonnetto Poesia (Spring, 2002] Voici le sonnet: American Transcendentalism

[2] The linguistic derivation of the very word, "Canada" is fascinating, to say the very least. Canada, being the second largest nation in the world, is absurdly huge. But its name denotes quite the opposite. Canada is apparently derived from the Huron Iroquoian word, "kanata" (which, by the way, is a suburb of Ottawa, Canada’s capital city), is of humble origin. It simply means, "village". When the French explorer Jacques Cartier, landed near the Huron village of Stadacona near Quebec City in 1535, he asked two aboriginal guides where he was, and they replied, "kanata", pointing him to the village.

[3] The Laurentian Mountains are part of the Canadian or Precambrian Shield, formed some 500 million years ago during a sustained geological period when two tectonic plates converged, causing the surface rock to be forced down into the earth’s interior, melt down and gradually resurface. Its ancient rocks are igneous and metamorphic, containing vast stores of granite. Glaciation in the most recent ice age about two and half million years ago flattened the ancient shield, leaving the soil very thin, with abundant rocky outcrops. This has resulted in a terrain consisting primarily of undulating hills, with countless lakes interspersed, many of them so remote and inaccessible they remained until recently nameless [4].

For more information on its geology, you may consult:

Canadian Shield, Precambrian Shield or Laurentian Plateau

- and other similar Web Sites, under the search phrase, "Precambrian Shield"




My Carousel Home Page is: Poesie’s laissez-faire Faire Foire

Our new international, bilingual Canadian Sonnet E-Zine is: Sonnetto Poesia (Vol. 1, no. 1, Spring/ le printemps, 2002 )


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