CHARLES G. D. ROBERTS

MR. CHARLES G. D. ROBERTS presents so marked an example of evolution
in the style of his work and the sources of his inspiration, that he
has from volume to volume, like the nautilus, “changed his last year’s
dwelling for the new,” and having entered the “more stately mansion”
has “known the old no more.”

The first chamber which he fashioned for himself in the House of Art
could not long contain him, as its walls were built of myths and
traditions, incapable of further expansion. This was the period of
_Orion and Other Poems_, such as “Ariadne,” “Memnon,” and “Launcelot
And The Four Queens,” work done prior to 1880 and creditable to the
initial effort of a young collegian.

The second lodging was scarcely more permanent; though structured less
in myth, and showing a gain in workmanship, it was still too narrow a
dwelling for an expanding spirit, and did little more than give
foretokens of that which should succeed it. The volume contained,
however, one admirable composition, one that remains as vital and
apposite as when it was written,—the stirring stanzas to Canada.
Indeed, the fine courage, the higher loyalty that distinguishes this
appeal, lifts it from the mere grandiloquent utterance of a young man
with over-hasty convictions, to a noble arraignment, and leads one to
wonder why other poets of her domain do not turn their pens to
revealing her to herself as does this fine utterance.

Mr. Roberts’ third volume, _Songs of the Common Day_, bore almost no
relation to its predecessors, and might have been the work of a
different hand, as regards both subject and style. Legend and myth had
wholly disappeared, and experience had begun to furnish the raw
material, the flax, for the poet’s spindle and distaff which earlier
effort had been making ready. Not yet, however, had the work the
virility and tang that smack in the very first line of its successor,
_The Book of the Native_. It was graceful, artistic singing, but
lacking, except in a few instances, the large free note that sounds in
the later work. Among its lyrics is one of exquisite tenderness, as
sad and sweet as Tennyson’s “Break, break, break,” and in the sifting
of the volume, this remains, perhaps, the sand of gold:

Grey rocks and greyer sea,
And surf along the shore—
And in my heart a name
My lips shall speak no more.

The high and lonely hills
Endure the darkening year—
And in my heart endure
A memory and a tear.

Across the tide a sail
That tosses and is gone—
And in my heart the kiss
That longing dreams upon.

Grey rocks and greyer sea,
And surf along the shore—
And in my heart the face
That I shall see no more.

The simplicity and pathos of this lyric render it unforgettable.

[Illustration: Charles G. D. Roberts]

“The Tide on Tantramar,” from the third volume, a ballad of the sea
and the salt marshes, transfers to the page the keen pungence of the
brine, as do the descriptive stanzas of Tantramar used illustratively
in the “Ave” to Shelley. There is noble work in this elegy, and while
it wanders over a good deal of Canadian territory, making inspired
observations of nature before it discloses their relation to the
subject—when the comparison is reached it is apposite, and the poem
shows an insight into the character of Shelley that is gratifying, in
view of the vagueness usually associated with his name.

Other _Songs of the Common Day_, forelooking to the later poet, are
“The Silver Thaw,” “Canadian Streams,” and “The Wood Frolic,” having
the first-hand, magnetic touch distinguishing every line of Mr.
Roberts’ out-of-door verse in that volume which first truly reveals
him,—_The Book of the Native_. So conscious is one of a new force in
this book that it would seem to represent another personality. Its
opening poem, “Kinship,” turns for inspiration,

Back to the bewildering vision
And the border-land of birth;
Back into the looming wonder,
The Companionship of Earth,

and puts the query to nature:

Tell me how some sightless impulse,
Working out a hidden plan,
God for kin and clay for fellow,
Wakes to find itself a man.

Tell me how the life of mortal,
Wavering from breath to breath,
Like a web of scarlet pattern
Hurtles from the loom of death.

How the caged bright bird, Desire,
Which the hands of God deliver,
Beats aloft to drop unheeded
At the confines of forever.

Faints unheeded for a season,
Then outwings the farthest star,
To the wisdom and the stillness
Where thy consummations are.

This sounds the keynote to _The Book of the Native_, which is equally
concerned with the enigmas of the soul and the mysteries of nature.
The questing spirit is abroad in it; the unquenched faith, the
vitality, the hidden import of life is in it; and while its
metaphysics do not go to the point of developing a definite
philosophy, they set one to thinking for himself, which is a better
service. “Origins,” a speculation as to our coming from “the enigmatic
Will,” and the “Unsleeping,” a vision of the Force brooding over
life,—are among the strongest poems of this motive. To cite the second:

I soothe to unimagined sleep
The sunless bases of the deep,
And then I stir the aching tide
That gropes in its reluctant side.

I heave aloft the smoking hill:
To silent peace its throes I still.
But ever at its heart of fire
I lurk, an unassuaged desire.

I wrap me in the sightless germ
An instant or an endless term;
And still its atoms are my care,
Dispersed in ashes or in air.

I hush the comets one by one
To sleep for ages in the sun;
The sun resumes before my face
His circuit of the shores of space.

The mount, the star, the germ, the deep,
They all shall wake, they all shall sleep.
Time, like a flurry of wild rain,
Shall drift across the darkened pane.

Space, in the dim predestined hour,
Shall crumble like a ruined tower.
I only, with unfaltering eye,
Shall watch the dreams of God go by.

What a fine touch in the lines declaring that

Time, like a flurry of wild rain,
Shall drift across the darkened pane!

Mr. Roberts has the rare pictorial gift of flashing a scene before one
without employing an excess of imagery, and never that which is
confused or cumbrous. His style is nervous, magnetic, direct, and has,
in his later work, very little superfluous tissue. This statement,
has, of course, its exceptions, but is sufficiently accurate to be
made a generalization, and in no case is it better shown than in the
descriptive poems of the Canadian country in _The Book of the Native_.
What is there about Canada that sets the blood of her poets a-tingle
and lends magic to their fingers when writing of her? What is there in
Grand Pré’s “barren reaches by the tide,” or in the marshes of
Tantramar, that such a spell should wait upon them, calling the roamer

“Back into the looming wonder,
The Companionship of Earth”?

With the American poets of the present day, despite their feeling for
nature, it is rather her beauty in the abstract than any particular
locality with which they chance to be associated, that inspires
them,—though Mr. Cawein, in his allegiance to Kentucky, furnishes a
marked exception to this statement,—but the Canadian poets, with a
passion like that of a lover, sing of the haunts that knew their first
devotion: now with a buoyant infectious note, now with a reminiscent
sadness; in short, the Canadian poets seem to have a sympathetic
identity with their country, an interchange of personality by which
they reciprocally express each other.

Particularly is this true of Bliss Carman, Duncan Campbell Scott, and
Charles G. D. Roberts; and it was equally true of Archibald Lampman,
whose untimely passing lost to Canada one of her anointed singers, to
whose high promise justice has hardly yet been done. To illustrate Mr.
Roberts’ nature-sympathy, and susceptibility to the mood of the year,
let me put in contrast parts of two poems from _The Book of the
Native_. The first belongs to the racy note pervading a good deal of
the nature-verse of to-day, of which the Vagabondia books set the
fashion: it is called “Afoot,” but might with equal aptness be named
the “Processional,” since the second is the “Recessional”:

Comes the lure of green things growing,
Comes the call of waters flowing,—
And the wayfarer desire
Moves and wakes and would be going.

Hark the migrant hosts of June
Marching nearer noon by noon!
Hark the gossip of the grasses
Bivouacked beneath the moon!

Hark the leaves their mirth averring;
Hark the buds to blossom stirring;
Hark the hushed, exultant haste
Of the wind and world conferring!

Hark the sharp, insistent cry
Where the hawk patrols the sky!
Hark the flapping, as of banners,
Where the heron triumphs by!

Note the picturesque phrase and the compulsive, quickstep note in the
lines above, as of the advancing cohorts of spring, and in contrast
the slow movement, the sadness of the retreating year, in these
beautiful “Recessional” stanzas:

Now along the solemn heights
Fade the Autumn’s altar-lights;
Down the great earth’s glimmering chancel
Glide the days and nights.

Little kindred of the grass,
Like a shadow on a glass
Falls the dark and falls the stillness;
We must rise and pass.

We must rise and follow, wending
Where the nights and days have ending,—
Pass in order pale and slow,
Unto sleep extending.

Little brothers of the clod,
Soul of fire and seed of sod,
We must fare into the silence
At the knees of God.

Little comrades of the sky,
Wing to wing we wander by,
Going, going, going, going,
Softly as a sigh.

And to make the season-cycle complete, and also to show the delicacy
of imagination with which Mr. Roberts invests every changing aspect of
his well-loved outer world, here are two stanzas on “The Frosted Pane”:

One night came Winter noiselessly, and leaned
Against my window-pane.
In the deep stillness of his heart convened
The ghosts of all his slain.

Leaves, and ephemera, and stars of earth,
And fugitives of grass,—
White spirits loosed from bonds of mortal birth,
He drew them on the glass.

Fancies as exquisite as this bespeak the true poet. “The Trout Brook”
and “The Solitary Woodsman” are other inspirations as individual.

Mr. Roberts’ fifth volume, _New York Nocturnes_, as its name implies,
was a decided departure from his former work, showing his versatility,
but what is more to the purpose, his recognition of the dramatic
element, the human, vital poetry in the babel of the streets. One
could wish that the _Nocturnes_ penetrated more profoundly into the
varied phases of life in the great seething city, that, in short, they
sounded other deeps than those of love; but Mr. Roberts has succeeded
in conveying that sense of isolation in a throng, that heavy
loneliness and reaction, throwing one back upon his own spiritual
personality, which belongs to the bewildering city night, and from
which the finer companionships of love arise as a refuge and need.

The _Nocturnes_ have the city’s over-soul incarnate in them; for in
the last analysis, the commerce, the art, the ambition, the strife,
the defeat, that one may term the city’s life, are but as hands and
feet to minister to the spirit of love. The first of the _Nocturnes_
suggests this:

I walk the city square with thee,
The night is loud; the pavements roar.
Their eddying mirth and misery
Encircle thee and me.

The street is full of lights and cries:
The crowd but brings thee close to me,
I only hear thy low replies;
I only see thine eyes.

The “Nocturne of Consecration” is impassioned and full of
spirituality; it is, however, too long to quote, which is
unfortunately the case with the “Nocturne of the Honeysuckle,” another
of the finer poems. “At the Station” is instinct with movement,
reproducing the picture of the swiftly changing throngs, and conveying
the eager expectancy of the hour of meeting. The _Nocturnes_ have also
a group of miscellaneous poems, and the volume as a whole, while less
virile than _The Book of the Native_, owing to the difference in
theme, is distinguished by refinement of feeling and artistry.

In _The Book of the Rose_ Mr. Roberts has done some excellent work,
and some, alas, that strikes a decided note of artificiality. The
least real and convincing of the poems is that called “On the Upper
Deck,” which opens the volume. The first stanza is subtly phrased, and
also the lyric which occurs midway of the poem; but the dialogue
between the lovers is honeyed poetizing rather than genuine emotion. I
find few heart-throbs in it, but rather a melodramatic sentimentality
from whose flights one is now and again let down to the common day
with summary despatch, as in the parenthetical clause of the stanza
which follows:

Let us not talk of roses. Don’t you think
The engine’s pulse throbs louder now the light
Has gone? The hiss of waters past our hull
Is more mysterious, with a menace in it?
And that pale streak above the unseen land,
How ominous! a sword has just such pallor!
(Yes, you may put the scarf around my shoulders.)
Never has life shown me the face of beauty
But near it I have seen the face of fear.

It may be that an obtuse man upon the deck of a steamer would
interrupt his sweetheart’s flight of poesy to envelop her in a shawl,
but the details of the matter may well be left to the imagination. It
is doubtless one of those passages which seem to a writer to give
reality to a picture, but afterward smile at him sardonically from the
printed page. Mr. Roberts inclines elsewhere in the same poem to be
too explicit; after a most exalted declaration, he says:

No, do not move! Alone although we be
I dare not touch your hand; your gown’s dear hem
I will not touch lest I should break my dream
And just an empty deck-chair mock my longing.

Here again it was scarcely necessary to qualify the chair, and indeed
the whole passage savors of melodrama. These are, however, only such
lines as show that to the one relating a matter the least incident may
appear to lend reality to the setting, whereas to the reader the
detail may violate taste.

The opening stanza, mentioned as one of the truly subtle bits of the
poem in question, has these fine lines:

As the will of last year’s wind,
As the drift of the morrow’s rain,
As the goal of the falling star,
As the treason sinned in vain,
As the bow that shines and is gone,
As the night cry heard no more,—
Is the way of the woman’s meaning
Beyond man’s eldest lore.

This stanza and the lyric below, which is sung as an interlude to the
dialogue, go far toward redeeming the over-ripe sentiment of the poem:

O Rose, blossom of mystery, holding within your deeps
The hurt of a thousand vigils, the heal of a thousand sleeps,
There breathes upon your petals a power from the ends of the earth,
Your beauty is heavy with knowledge of life and death and birth.

O Rose, blossom of longing—the faint suspense, and the fire,
The wistfulness of time, and the unassuaged desire,
The pity of tears on the pillow, the pang of tears unshed,—
With these your spirit is weary, with these your beauty is fed.

The remaining poems of the volume are much more artistic than the
first, with the exception of the passages last quoted. “The Rose of
Life” is artistically wrought as to form and metre, and subtle in
analysis; but, because of its length and that it voices somewhat the
same thought as the lyric above, the former must serve to show with
what delicacy of interpretation he approaches a theme so well worn,
but ever new, as that of the rose. It is chiefly on the symbolistic
side that Mr. Roberts considers the subject; and while one may feel
that the sentiment cloys at times when a group of poems using the rose
as an image are bracketed together, this is the chief criticism of the
volume, as the lyrics following the opening poem, “On the Upper Deck,”
have both charm and art, and one hesitates between such an one as, “O
Little Rose, O Dark Rose,” and the one immediately following it, “The
Rose of My Desire.” This, perhaps, has a more compelling mood, though
no greater charm of touch than the other:

O wild, dark flower of woman,
Deep rose of my desire,
An Eastern wizard made you
Of earth and stars and fire.

When the orange moon swung low
Over the camphor-trees,
By the silver shaft of the fountain
He wrought his mysteries.

The hot, sweet mould of the garden
He took from a secret place
To become your glimmering body
And the lure of your strange face.

From the swoon of the tropic heaven
He drew down star on star,
And breathed them into your soul
That your soul might wander far—

On earth forever homeless,
But intimate of the spheres,
A pang in your mystic laughter,
A portent in your tears.

From the night’s heat, hushed, electric,
He summoned a shifting flame,
And cherished it, and blew on it
Till it burned into your name.

And he set the name in my heart
For an unextinguished fire,
O wild, dark flower of woman,
Deep rose of my desire!

Metrically the poem jars in the line,

And breathed them into your soul,

departing as it does from the general scheme of the third lines, and
rendering it necessary to make “soul” bisyllabic in order to carry the
metre smoothly, and in accord with its companion verses. “Spirit”
would have fitted the metrical exigency better, leaving the final
unaccented syllable as in the majority of the lines, but would not
have lent itself to repetition in the succeeding line as does
“soul,”—so “who shall arbitrate”? Mr. Roberts rarely offends the ear
in his metres, but instead his cadences are notably true.

Aside from the poems upon love, filling the first division of _The
Book of the Rose_ it has a miscellaneous group, of which the two that
best represent it, to my fancy, are so widely diverse that their mere
mention in juxtaposition is amusing; nevertheless they are the lines
“To An Omar Punch Bowl,” and the reverent Nativity Song, “When Mary,
the Mother, Kissed the Child.” The haunting couplets of the former are
by no means of the convivial sort, but the essence of memory and
desire, the pathos of this dust that is but “wind that hurries by,”—is
in them. However, to be quoted, they need their full context, as does
the Nativity Song mentioned.

Mr. Roberts has a rare sympathy with childhood, and a gift of reaching
the hearts of the little ones; the “Sleepy Man” and “Wake-up Song”
could scarcely be improved; note the picturing in the former and the
drowsihood in its falling cadences:

When the Sleepy Man comes with the dust on his eyes
(Oh, weary, my Dearie, so weary!)
He shuts up the earth, and he opens the skies.
(So hush-a-by, weary my Dearie!)

He smiles through his fingers, and shuts up the sun;
(Oh, weary, my Dearie, so weary!)
The stars that he loves he lets out one by one.
(So hush-a-by, weary my Dearie!)

He comes from the castles of Drowsy-boy Town;
(Oh, weary, my Dearie, so weary!)
At the touch of his hand the tired eyelids fall down.
(So hush-a-by, weary my Dearie!)

* * * * *

Then the top is a burden, the bugle a bane,
(Oh, weary, my Dearie, so weary!)
When one would be faring down Dream-a-way Lane.
(So hush-a-by, weary my Dearie!)

When one would be wending in Lullaby Wherry
(Oh, weary, my Dearie, so weary!)
To Sleepy Man’s Castle by Comforting Ferry.
(So hush-a-by, weary my Dearie!)

Mr. Roberts has collected his several volumes, exclusive of _The Book
of the Rose_, into one, eliminating such of the earlier work as falls
short of his standard of criticism, and adding new matter showing
growth and constantly broadening affinity with life. He manifests more
and more the potentialities of his nature, and while all of his later
work does not ring equally true, the majority of it is instinct with
sincerity and high idealism, and one may go to it for unforced,
unconventional song, having art without trammels, for a breath of the
ozone of nature, and for suggestive thoughts upon life and the things
of the spirit. Its creed is epitomized in the following lines,
pregnant with suggestion to the votary of Art, the creed of the
idealist, and yet the truer realist:

Said Life to Art: I love thee best
Not when I find in thee
My very face and form, expressed
With dull fidelity.

But when in thee my longing eyes
Behold continually
The mystery of my memories
And all I crave to be.