Early Canadian poetry can be better understood by studying the traditional theories of Canadian literature and exploring how these theories are reflected in many poems that discuss the trials of the settlers of Canada. By doing this, one can see the mistakes and successes of these people and learn from them.
The stranger in the poem A Country Without a Mythology is on a journey into the unknown Canadian wilderness and must deal with the harsh and foreign elements of his environment in order to survive. He feels lost with "no monuments or landmarks" to guide him (line1). Without the familiar signs to lead him, he has no way of knowing where he is. This man is facing the question "where is here?". As Frye suggests, this is the appropriate question to ask in Canada where the environment is so apparent that it "may threaten to overwhelm the individual (17, Atwood). In this case, the traveler is confused and disturbed by what he sees around him. The language of the natives sounds like "alien jargon" to him, and the skies are "barbaric" and moody" (3-4). To survive in this unsettling place, the stranger must use the resources available to him. He eats berries and fish like an Indian would, forgetting the manners he has learned in the country of his birth. He is learning to adjust to the unknown instead of becoming overwhelmed by it. Margaret Atwood states that it is important for an individual to "adapt to what he can't change, and keep from going crazy" (17). This is exactly what the man in Lepan's poem does, though he never adapts completely. He is governed by time and schedules which are non-existent in his new setting. Clocks, calendars and festivals are "worth nothing" in this land, so the man is always rushing, but getting nowhere. He is confronted with "frontier exile" as discussed in Moss' book, Patterns of Isolation. The stranger's established reality of structured time is conflicting with his immediate reality in the wilderness, where time has no structure. Moss explains that an individual who is experiencing frontier exile is like a fugitive trying to escape from the prison of his society to search for "either a private alternative or personal redemption" (36). The man is passionately searching for personal spiritual fulfillment. He believes that he will find the "sanctities of childhood" (23) and "a golden-haired Archangel" (28). He is hoping for a divine experience in the wilderness, but he only sees only chaos and hysteria. The stranger is so blinded by his European ideals of religion that he does not recognize the sign that is brought before him. It is the "lust-red manitou" (36) that is the revelation that the man has been waiting for, but which he does not choose to see as anything more than a clumsy, teetering carving by savages. Atwood suggests that "[t]he real point of the maintou may be that, whatever it is, it is here" (54). If the stranger had only opened his eyes to the world around him, he would have been able to answer the question that plagues him: "where is here?".
The man in the poem Progressive Insanities of a Pioneer by Margaret Atwood is also struggling with the same question as the stranger, but instead of trying to adapt to his environment, the pioneer attempts to separate himself from it. He can not stand the un-enclosed space around him, so he builds borders and constructs a house to establish the structure that he craves and to keep nature out. This endeavor to maintain one's own societal principles in a strange land is known as the "garrison exile" (16, Moss). An individual creates a "garrison" that is "devoted as much to resisting assimilation as to maintaining an external authority" (16). The pioneer asserts his authority in the wilderness and "[proclaims} himself the centre" in a world that has no centre to him. He is trying to find out where he is, and so he must create his own sense of what "here" is. This is when he starts to dig lines in the soil to combat the randomness that he feels in nature. He builds a house and fences, but his confusion and uncertainty is growing and he begins to feel that his attempts to keep nature out are useless. He says that "everything / is getting in" (III.12-13). He sees nature as "alive and actively hostile" which Atwood says is "a common image in Canadian literature" (54, Atwood). The rocks have "outbursts" and the forest seems to argue with him without speaking (IV.3-9). As the futility of his struggle becomes more apparent, the speaker notes that if the pioneer had not fought so hard to maintain his garrison walls and simply accepted nature, he might have been more successful. Unfortunately, the man can not see this. He did not let the wolves in, and now they hunt outside, waiting for him. The pioneer is utterly overwhelmed by the aweful power of nature and becomes terrified of its awful presence. Like the stranger in A Country Without Mythology, he is too wrapped up in his own structured society to see that nature is governed by different rules. It is not completely random, but has order in a way that the pioneer does not understand.
Death of a Young Son by Drowning is a poem told by a parent who has lost a son to the Canadian waters. According to Atwood, drowning is often used as a method of death by Canadian poets because water is abundant in Canada, so it is a plausible murder weapon for nature (55). Ironically, this poem of death by nature is actually more about rebirth rather than mortality. In the first stanza, the birth of the boy is mentioned as a "dangerous river" which he successfully navigates (1-3). Once again, he embarks on a voyage into Canada, a land into which his parent was not able to integrate. Canada is the water which the parent describes, and the boy becomes immersed in this water. He adventurously plunges into its depths and quickly adapts to his environment. His eyes are described as having "thin glass bubbles" so that he may see in the waters what his parent could not. All of the plans that the parent made for the child are characterized as a "swamped body" (18). The future hopes for the boy have perished now that he has chosen a different path in a world that the parent does not understand. This parent is trapped in a garrison, but the son has escaped and accepted Canada as his home. The boy has found a new life like the "spring" and the "new grass" that the speaker describes (22). The parent is not able to follow the son in his new life, and so the parent leaves the unstable waves of Canada and returns to the solid rock of England. What is even more disturbing to the parent is the fact that the loss of the son was the parent's own doing. It was the speaker who "planted him in this country like a flag", and now the son has embraced the country in which he was planted (28-29). If the parent had only been brave enough to exit the garrison, he or she could have followed the son into a new life.
Each of the main characters in the poems that have been discussed has faced problems in attempting to settle in Canada, and each has dealt with these dilemmas in a different fashion, though they all fail. The son in the poem Death of a Young Son By Drowning is the only person who is successful in beginning a happy new life in Canada because he is not afraid of assimilating everything that the country has to offer. He proves that the key to truly adapting to the Canadian environment is in welcoming the land instead of fearing it.
Written by Megan Thomas
Atwood, Margaret Eleanor. Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature. Toronto: Anansi, 1972.
Geddes, Gary, Ed. 15 Canadian Poets X 2. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1988.
Atwood, Margaret. "Progressive Insanities of a Pioneer." Geddes 399-402.
Atwood, Margaret. "Death of a Young Son by Drowning." Geddes 402-403.
Moss, John George. Patterns
of Isolation in English Canadian Fiction. Toronto:
McClelland and Stewart, 1974.