“Canadian writers have long tried to understand the nature of nature – the constitution and character of wilderness and countryside – as well as to represent its effects, harmful or otherwise, on people.” (Soper/ Bradley 2013: 16)
The citation above is in various ways linked to the topic of ‘Nature poetry in Confederation and Contemporary Canada’.
Moreover, after a further research on this topic, the following questions have emerged: Is there a transformation in the depiction of nature in Canadian poetry? Is there a change in the relationship between human and the Canadian natural environment? How has the view on the Canadian nature changed? How was nature approached in early Canadian poetry and how is it approached today?
Therefore, the main objective of this essay is to have an understanding of the phases of Canadian poetic culture and of the transformation in the response of Canadian poets toward nature. Thus, I will focus on the external nature, meaning the natural environment of humans. In order to achieve that, I will analyze and compare the depiction of the Canadian landscape in Confederation poetry and in contemporary poetry.
2. Phases of Canadian poetry
There are roughly four main phases which have emerged in Canadian poetry over the last two centuries: the pre-confederation period, the confederation period, the modernist period, and the contemporary period. This chapter will therefore deal with the characteristics of these poetic phases and the role of nature in each phase.
The “Pre-Confederation Period” had experienced the first waves of a poetic culture before Canada became a nation. Thus, Canadian poetry started to take off, stretching from the later years of the eighteenth century to the Confederation of 1867. During this period Canadian poetry was “lively and loyal” reflecting the lifestyle of the early Canadian settlers, who were torn between two feelings. On the one hand, there is the feeling of loss and the expulsion of an immigrant haunting the poet. On the other hand, there is the excitement of the discovery of a new landscape. They reflected the plights and struggles of the early settlers and pictured a chart of how a new land would develop progress.
2.2. Confederation period
The movement to write Canadian landscape and to establish a Canadian literal identity in contrast to the US had been developing around 1880. This time, called the Confederation period can be seen as the second phase of Canadian Literature. Poets who were born near the Confederation of 1867, such as Charles G. D. Roberts, his cousin Bliss Carman, Archibald Lampman, and D. C. Scott started composing national poetry.
Confederation poetry-A Comparison
When reading Canadian poetry of the Confederation period, one may criticize that Confederation poetry is a “pale imitation” of the European Romantic poetry. Thus, it loses its qualification as national poetry since it is limited to ideas of the European Romantic Period which lasted from 1785 until 1830. Indeed, the Confederation poets were inspired by the Romantic and Victorian traditions of Great Britain and America which had great influence on their works. For instance, “the evil power in city life” and “the blessed power in nature”. However, the question which now arises is: what is romantic about Confederation poetry?
Therefore, this chapter is an attempt to relate the two to each other and to think of some of the dimensions and implications of influence. There are two perspectives involved. First, the perspective of how some of the ideas and methods of Romanticism were carried over into the heyday of Canadian nature poetry. Second, the perspective of the description of nature.
So, I will begin with two representative examples from major writers of the English Romantic period and then focus on a comparison of Wordsworth and Lampman, before providing some concluding thoughts on the citation above.
The first is from “Kubla Khan” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, a prime example of Romantic poetry. I will analyze three major characteristics of Romantic nature poetry as reflected in this poem: senses and emotions, awe of nature, and the importance of imagination.
Such exclamations as in the following line:
- “But oh! that deep romantic chasm which slanted
- Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover!” (12-13)
or line 47-49:
- “hat sunny dome! those caves of ice!
- And all who heard should see them there,
- And all should cry, Beware! Beware!”
- are examples of strong emotions.
Furthermore, reverence for nature is revealed by the description of the ‘gardens bright with sinuous rills’ (8), the many ‘incense-bearing trees’ (9), and the „sacred river which ‘meanders with a mazy motion (25). The ‘deep romantic chasm’ (12) that goes down the green cedar-covered hill indicates as well awe of the natural landscape as it is described.
Lastly, ‘Kubla Khan’ is very imaginative. He establishes a kingdom that appears magical and fairylike. The pleasure dome is described as a miracle of a rare device’ containing both sun and ice caves (cf. 31-36). ‘The virgin with a dulcimer’ (37), who was seen in a vision, and the speaker’s description as an enchanter “with flashing eyes and floating hair’ (50) who has drunk ‘the milk of paradise’ is also extremely fantastical.
By blending together strong senses and emotions, reverence for nature, and imagination in this poem, Coleridge composed a piece that reveals a romantic approach to poetry.
The second instance is from William Wordsworth “I wandered lonely as a cloud”. My analysis of this poem will focus on the major approaches toward nature: the transcendent and transformational power of nature and the reverence for nature.
As someone who was considered the great nature poet of the Romantic period because his poetry is more exclusively focused on the theme of nature than that of others, Wordsworth cherished nature. Thus, Wordsworth reviews his love of nature in “I wandered lonely as a cloud”. The lyrical “I” realizes that even the memory of a beautiful moment in nature can be inspiring. In the beginning of the poem, when the “lyrical I” first registers the scene of the ‘sprightly dance’ (l. 12) of “a host, of golden daffodils” (4) its reaction is merely a ”gaze”:
- “I gazed—and gazed—but little thought
- What wealth the show to me had brought” (17-18)
But the lyrical “I” soon appreciates the joy the daffodils have brought into his heart and mind. Even later the memory of the daffodils flattering in the wind returns to him and makes him rejoice. Therefore, one can state that Wordsworth believed in the transformational and transcendent power of nature.
Furthermore, in Wordsworth’s poem, nature is presented in a reverential light. In the relationship between nature and the lyrical I the divine is envisioned. The lyrical “I” acknowledges how fortunate it is to have had such an adventure in nature. It is one in which the poet understands the joy of being part of the miracles of nature. Wordsworth uses languages like ‘gay’ (15) and ‘jocund company’ (16) to express this state. Nature has provided Wordsworth with a ‘wealth’ through mere experience. This relationship, created by the encounter with daffodils, intensified over time. This is indicated by the last verse:
- For oft, when on my couch I lie
- In vacant or in pensive mood,
- They flash upon that inward eye
- Which is the bliss of solitude;
The ‘bliss of solitude (22) serves to highlight the spiritual relationship between Wordsworth and nature. It has helped him to develop ‘that inward eye’ (21). Such indications help to communicate the reverence in the relationship Wordsworth has with nature.
For my comparison of Confederation poetry and Romantic poetry, I have chosen a poem by the Canadian poet Archibald Lampman called “Heat”. As mentioned, I will analyze this poem from two perspectives: the perspective of how some of the ideas and features of Romanticism were carried over into the heyday of Canadian nature poetry and the perspective of the description of nature.
To start with the first perspective, similar to Coleridge and Wordsworth the theme of Lampman’s poem is the spirituality of and the reverence for nature and nature’s power to trigger strong feelings in humans and give them a sense of spirituality. Indeed, the poet refers to ‘a blessed power’ (45) which brings him to the field described in the poem. In the poem, the lyrical “I” observes his natural environment, and is amazed by what he sees, hears, and feels.
Considering the heat Lampman depicts, which is the title of the poem, we can assume that it is sometime around midday or early after midday when the sun is at its highest peak. The heat is absorbed by the earth on the street. Lampman says that the road ‘goes up the steep hill’ (3) and beyond, where it ‘seems to melt into the glare” (4). In the early afternoon, the sun throws a bright light on the hill.
Taking another significant theme of the poem, resting in the middle of the landscape, as he says: “In the sloped shadow of my hat/ I lean at rest” (43-44) , while in a meditative state listening to the sounds of crickets and locusts, or ‘In intervals of dreams’ (33). The heat, the poet notes, can be intense and perhaps overwhelming for someone who is unbalanced in nature. However, similar to Wordsworth’s speaker, the Lampman’s lyrical “I” soon learns that there is a joy in being connected with nature.
This poem ‘Heat’ illustrates the importance the lyrical “I” attaches to his relationship with nature. It shows that through intense perception of the natural world, it is possible to gain a deeper understanding of the human condition, enjoy a greater experience of the outer world, and even attain spiritual illumination (cf. 48).
Indeed, there are many common features of Lampman and the Romantic poets which I think this chapter has illustrated. For both poets, nature becomes something that disturbs the mind and sets it in motion. Since we have seen that similarly to Romantic poetry, Lampman’s nature poetry can be understood in such a way that everything is all about senses and emotions, solitary and the awe-revealing relationship of man and nature, in which time and place are equally important, we could conclude that perhaps we do not need to look any further to classify Lampman as a romantic poet.
Although we have found many features that have clearly proven the similarities between Lampman’s poetry and Romantic poetry, yet there is a second perspective that I have not yet looked into the description of nature. What kind of nature is been described in Lampman’s poetry? I the nature in both Romantic poetry and Lampman’s poetry comparable?
Having grown up in Ontario, where he was born in 1861, Lampman’s nature poetry Lampman’s poetry consists mostly of descriptions of the extremes of nature that reflect the prevailing climatic conditions in Ontario. Also, “Heat” is a iof a Canadian landscape noticeable that though his nature is recognizably Canadian, and his tensions and contradictions are also reflected in his mind. His feelings for nature are a mixture of love and horror, a belief in the healing powers of nature, and a rejection.