Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Canada, Whitman's Reception in
Author:
Cederstrom, Lorelei
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Walt Whitman left America only once, and that was to visit Canada from 3 June to 29 September 1880. Dr. Richard Maurice Bucke, devotee of Whitman's poetry and philosophical perspectives, accompanied Whitman from his home in Camden, New Jersey, to Bucke's home near London, Ontario, where Bucke was the director of the London Asylum for the Insane. They spent most of the summer quietly on the "ample and charming garden and lawns of the asylum" (Prose Works 1:237) while Bucke gathered information for the biography of Whitman he was writing.

Later that summer, Bucke and Whitman took an extensive trip through southern Ontario and Quebec, traveling by railroad to Toronto, where they boarded a steamship on Lake Ontario. The two toured the Thousand Islands on the St. Lawrence, with overnight stops at Kingston, Montreal, and Quebec (City). They eventually left the St. Lawrence, heading north on the Saguenay River to Chicoutimi, Quebec.

Although Whitman kept a diary of his visit, wrote several brief letters to friends during his stay, and composed a piece about his travels that was sent to several newspapers in hope of publication, Canada did not seem to inspire his creative imagination to any great degree. His writings about Canada are for the most part details of the landscape and weather, with a few generalizations about the cities he visited and people he met. He notes, for example, the "amplitude and primal naturalness" of the Thousand Islands, which present a "sane, calm, eternal picture, to eyes, senses, and the soul" (Diary 23–24). The French signs on the streets and stores of Montreal captured Whitman's attention, but he found the principal character of the city in the display of steamships along the wharves. He was as impressed with the trees and "grand rocky escarpments" of Mount Royal Park as with the "handsome shops" of St. James street or the church of Notre Dame de Lourdes. He found the city of Quebec, its rocky banks littered with "rafts, rafts of logs everywhere," to be "as picturesque an appearing city as there is on earth" (Diary 30). Whitman described the Saguenay as less appealing, referring to the "dark-water'd river" and its environs as "a dash of the grimmest, wildest, savagest scenery on the planet" (Diary 30).

In notes at the end of the Canadian diary headed "?For lecture—for conclusion?" Whitman attempted to bring his impressions of Canada together more coherently and formulate his ideas about the Canadian national character. He praises Canada as "a grand, sane, temperate land...the home of an improved grand race of men and women; not of some select class only, but of larger, saner, better masses" (Diary 40–41). This concurs with his comments in Specimen Days, where he describes Canadians as "hardy, democratic, intelligent, radically sound, and just as American, good-natured and individualistic [a] race, as the average range of the best specimens among us." Whitman tempers these superlatives a bit by adding that the "element" he just described, "though it may not be the majority, promises to be the leaven which must eventually leaven the whole lump" (Prose Works 1:240). He emphasizes that the elements of the Canadian environment, "the best air and drink and sky and scenery of the globe," are the "sure foundation-nutriment of heroic men and women" (Diary 42).

Whitman also assesses the quality of Canadian social values. He was greatly impressed with the humane treatment of the inmates at the London Asylum under Dr. Bucke's care, and further study of Canadian institutions led him to praise Canadian benevolence as a mark of an exceptional civilization (Diary 43). He admired the Canadian school system, as well as the "advanced and ample provision" for the "maimed, insane, idiotic, blind, deaf and dumb, needy, sick and old, minor criminals, fallen women" and "foundlings" (Diary 43).

The most controversial of Whitman's comments about Canada are his suggestions for open trade between the United States and Canada and his prediction of a political union between the two countries. In an article published in 1880 in the London [Ontario] Advertiser, Whitman urges a "zollverein" between the two nations "for commercial purposes." He reminds Canadians of the practical considerations of such an agreement, noting that they might "abolish the frontier tariff line, with its double sets of custom house officials now existing between the two countries," and "agree upon one tariff for both, the proceeds of this tariff to be divided between the two governments on the basis of population" (Prose Works 1:240). Whitman sees Canada's reluctance to enter such a partnership to be based upon the fear of "loosen[ing] the bonds between Canada and England" and dismisses this as a sentiment which rather foolishly "overrides the desire for commercial prosperity" (1:241). In a parenthetical comment Whitman adds: "It seems to me a certainty of time, sooner or later, that Canada shall form two or three grand States, equal and independent, with the rest of the American Union" (1:241). This united statehood would make the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence, whose length he had just traveled, not a "frontier line, but a grand interior or mid-channel" (1:241). There is no indication of the response of the London readers to these suggestions, but heated arguments over the free-trade agreement a century later and the line of customs houses still guarding the border attest to the optimism of Whitman's suggestions.

Canada inspired only a few lines in Leaves of Grass, and in these Whitman relies upon rather stereotyped views of "Kanada" (which he always spells thus) as a place of ice and snow. In "Starting from Paumanok" he writes of the "Kanadian cheerily braving the winter, the snow and ice welcome to me" (section 14). Similarly in "Song of Myself" he finds himself "At home on Kanadian snow-shoes or up in the bush, or with fishermen off Newfoundland" (section 16). Even when he stands "By Blue Ontario's Shore," his perspective is cosmic rather than particular, envisioning a phantom demanding bards rather than noting details of the Ontario landscape. A particular reference to the "black stream" of the Saguenay, which echoes the color emphasis in the diary (32), appears in "Thou Mother with Thy Equal Brood" (section 2). The inclusion of a detail from Canada here suggests, once more, his vision of a United States of North America.

If Canada failed to inspire Whitman's poetry, the reverse is also true. In spite of the vital role the landscape plays in Canadian literature and the need for a cosmic vision capable of uniting a continental culture, very few poets have been influenced by Whitman in their depiction of the physical or spiritual dimensions of Canada. This is not to say that Canadians lacked an interest in Whitman, for he has inspired a coterie of devoted followers, beginning with Dr. Bucke. Perhaps the most memorable achievement of one of the numerous Whitman fellowships and clubs is the dedication to the poet in 1919 of a mile-long granite rock face in what is now Bon Echo Provincial Park in Ontario, where Whitman's name remains inscribed today.

An overview of Canadian poetry, however, reveals only peripheral attention to Whitman, consisting of an occasional passing reference to Whitman's "barbaric yawp," the striking of a fleeting cosmic perspective when addressing the vast Canadian landscape, a salute to Whitman in depictions of the vagabond rebel on the road, or an outright denunciation of Whitman's gauche American expansiveness among university poets.

Perhaps most puzzling is the fact that the daunting Canadian landscape, which seems to cry out for the bravado and all-encompassing sweep of a voice like Whitman's, has instead inspired very ordinary versifying. In an early study of Canadian literature, Desmond Pacey posed the question that may be fundamental to the problem of Whitman's influence. Referring to the landscape poet Bliss Carman, Pacey asks: "When there was a...Whitman to be listened to, how should...a Carman make his voice heard?" (5). Another of the best-known Canadian nature poets, Wilson MacDonald, whose works at times aspire to Whitman's cosmic vision, has also suffered from the comparison. The "too obvious echoes of Whitman" (Pacey 117) which color his philosophic perspectives are uneasily caught within the regular rhyme and metrical patterns he prefers. Even poets like Tom MacInness and Robert Service, who are devoted to depictions of Whitman-like individualists confronting the frontier, confine the slangy speech of their bohemian characters to strict rhythms, thereby inhibiting their verse.

There has also been a deliberate resistance to Whitman on the part of poets trained in the university, who tend to align themselves with the cool condescension of the British literary tradition rather than with Whitman's expansive cosmic consciousness. Phyllis Webb, for example, in a prose-verse declaration of her poetics, decries Whitman's bold posture as "assertive...open mouth, big-mouthed Whitman, yawp, yawp...howling. Male" (668). Toronto poet Raymond Souster, however, forges a conciliation with Whitman which typifies the reaction of many twentieth-century poets. His free-verse lines echo Whitman's voice as he tells the reader to "Get the poem outdoors" and urges the Canadian poet to yawp "loud and then louder so it / brings the whole neighbourhood out" (122–123). But Souster's Whitmanesque vision is often darkened by contemporary cynicism. In "The Lilac Poem," with its many obvious references to Whitman, Souster notes that he wants to write about the flower's "beauty" and "star-shining" but is hampered by knowing that "tomorrow [it] lies forgotten" (113). Canadian poetry is just beginning to come into its own as a cultural expression and, in many of the younger poets, seems to be developing a voice which blends rural and urban perspectives and incorporates both British and American traditions. On the whole, however, Canadian poets still have much to learn from Whitman's assured voice and his all-embracing sense of selfhood in their quest to express the Canadian identity.

It may be that Whitman's most significant influence upon Canadian culture is to be found not in poetry but in art. In particular, the mystical landscapes of Canada's "Group of Seven" artists provide Whitman's cosmic perspectives with another medium of expression. Whitman's influence is especially apparent in the paintings of Lawren Harris, prime mover of the group, whose work reveals the spiritual qualities of the northern landscape. Harris was an early convert to the Bucke/Whitman version of cosmic consciousness and holds the "distinction of being the sole Canadian ever" to review Bucke's book on Whitman (Greenland and Colombo 227). In the final phase of his career, Harris gave up representational art, as he tried to re-create a cosmic perspective in flowing natural shapes that suggest rock, wave, snow, and earth. In these paintings and in the lines from "Song of Myself" carved on the granite rock face at Bon Echo, Whitman has achieved a visible presence uniting him for all time with the Canadian landscape he admired.

Bibliography

Greenland, Cyril, and John Robert Colombo, eds. Walt Whitman's Canada. Willowdale, Ontario: Hounslow, 1992.

Pacey, Desmond. Creative Writing in Canada. Toronto: Ryerson, 1952.

Souster, Raymond. "The Lilac Poem" and "Get the Poem Outdoors." 15 Canadian Poets Plus 5. Ed. Gary Geddes and Phyllis Bruce. Toronto: Oxford UP, 1978. 113, 122.

Webb, Phyllis. "On the Line." 20th Century Poetry & Poetics. Ed Gary Geddes. 3rd ed. Toronto: Oxford UP, 1985. 666–672.

Whitman, Walt. Prose Works 1892. Ed. Floyd Stovall. 2 vols. New York: New York UP, 1963–1964.

____. Walt Whitman's Diary in Canada. Ed. William Sloane Kennedy. Boston: Small, Maynard, 1904.


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