Moving inexorably through the celebrated scenery
When the celebrated English poet Rupert Brooke came to Canada on the train from New York in 1913, he had been warned that he would find “a country without a soul.” The gloomy streets of Montreal, overshadowed by churches and banks and heavy telephone wires, reminded him of the equally gloomy streets of Glasgow and Birmingham. He was invigorated as many visitors are by the spectacle of Niagara Falls, to which he devoted several enthusiastic paragraphs in the Westminster Gazette, the London newspaper that sponsored his journey. Twenty miles north of Ottawa he was “given ‘a thrill’” to learn that “only a few villages stood between me and the North Pole.”
In Toronto he was feted by members of the Arts and Letters Club (home of the nascent Group of Seven), whom he found to be “really a quite up-to-date lot, and very cheery and pleasant.” Toronto, he wrote, was “a clean-shaven, pink-faced, respectably dressed, fairly energetic, unintellectual, passably sociable, well-to-do, public school and varsity sort of city.” His spirits were lifted again by a side trip to Lake George, seventy miles from Winnipeg, where he spent his twenty-sixth birthday (as he wrote to his mother) “with a gun & fishing tackle & a canoe, without any clothes on, by a lake, in a wood infested by bears, in country where there aren’t ten people within five miles.” By the time he got to Lake Louise in the Rocky Mountains, he was filled with ideas of wilderness, of “lakes and rivers waiting to be given souls,” under night skies filled with stars “remote and virginal.”
Rupert Brooke was a charismatic figure in the literary world. His poetry had been anthologized along with the work of D.H. Lawrence and Siegfried Sassoon. W.B. Yeats said he was the handsomest man in England. Henry James idolized him. He knew Winston Churchill and he was a friend of the Earl of Asquith (the British prime minister) and several members of the Bloomsbury Group. Edmund Gosse, the literary scholar and poet, was one of his correspondents during his sojourn in Canada, and he carried a letter of introduction from John Masefield to Duncan Campbell Scott, a major Canadian poet of the time, and deputy superintendent general of the Department of Indian Affairs in Ottawa. Brooke’s movements were reported in the pages of the Globe and Mail, Saskatoon Sentinel, Edmonton Daily Bulletin, Calgary News-Telegram and Victoria Daily Times as he traversed the country by passenger train, a mode of travel that he recommended for the pleasure of travelling by night in a lower berth, with the blinds raised a few inches so that one might gaze out at the “wild starlit landscape” streaming past. He wrote a dozen lengthy dispatches for the Westminster Gazette, all of them energetic, witty and entertaining, but one searches them in vain for more than a glimpse of the “Canada” of that time.
By the end of his journey, Rupert Brooke had consorted with the prime minister and with poets, loggers and farmers, journalists, real estate touts and at least one trapper, and he had visited the Stoney Reserve in the foothills of the Rockies; but of these encounters he has little to say and no summary to make. His attention turns instead to the landscape, in particular to the Rocky Mountains and Lake Louise, which body of water, he reported in the Westminster Gazette, embodied “Beauty itself.” In the end, in a meditation on “unpeopled woods,” lakes and hills “that no one is thinking of,” that have “no tradition, no names even,” he is more or less silenced, abandoned by philosophy, literature and art, in the face of “a godless place” where “the maple and the birch conceal no dryads, and Pan has never been heard . . . Look as long as you like upon a cataract of the New World, you shall not see a white arm in the foam . . . The flowers are less conscious than English flowers, the breezes have nothing to remember and everything to promise. There walk, as yet, no ghosts of lovers in Canadian lanes . . . it is possible, at a pinch, to do without gods. But one misses the dead.”
Eighty years after Rupert Brooke’s visit, in 1993, Nancy Huston, the celebrated novelist who had been living in France for twenty-five years, “came home” for the first time to Calgary, where she had lived until she was fifteen years old. She experienced a similar intellectual bewilderment as she strove to contemplate the country of her origin, which she confesses to seeing only as “a place deprived of stories and of History.” Huston had been an avid student of Roland Barthes, the great French cultural theorist, but none of her Barthesian training seemed to help her in Canada. In the middle of the day in downtown Calgary, when her five-year-old son says, “There’s nothing to see here” (a not unfamiliar experience for visitors in that city), she is moved to philosophize. “Let me try to examine the constituent elements of this ‘nothing’,” she writes, but she is unable to take her inquiry any further than a few cursory observations on architecture ( “no respect for history”), iconography ( “ubiquitous image of cowboys and bucking broncos”) and language (a sign in a public park: “for passive recreation only”). In the end, she too is abandoned by philosophy and art, and confesses to being reduced during a few days in the Rocky Mountains “to the threadbare clichés of the tourist brochures—the ‘sheer turquoise’ of the lakes, the ‘thick carpet of pine needles, etc.’” Rupert Brooke had written of the “strangeness of an empty land: to love the country here is like embracing a wraith . . . the air is too thin to breathe”; Huston finds the landscape equally intractable. The countryside around Drumheller, she writes, “is outlandishly beautiful—but it doesn’t give itself up to you the way the French countryside does; its beauty is unrestrained and distant.” Elsewhere she asks: “is it possible to be attached to such a landscape?” And: “nothing had actually happened in Alberta,” save for “a few little massacres.”
Both Huston and Brooke made it a point to visit First Nations reserves (Huston spent an afternoon at the Siksika Reserve east of Calgary), and both perceive uneasily that the culture of reserves and the culture of reservations pose difficulties as intractable as the landscape. Neither can peer very far into the dilemma. Brooke makes a passing reference to Pauline Johnson (the Mohawk poet who died in 1908) as “the tragic figure of that poetess who died recently”; she was “fated to be at odds with the world,” but he cannot see her as one who struggled against the structures of the world. He is not aware that the residential school system invented and vigorously enforced by his Ottawa host, the poet Duncan Campbell Scott, will form the fierce shadow-myth of the “colourless” nation that Huston rediscovers eighty years later, on her return to Calgary.
The first intellectual I got to know well when I was young was D.M. Fraser, a writer of great brilliance who died at thirty-eight. He was an exile from Nova Scotia whose work inspired a generation of writers and critics in the late 1970s. In the summer of 1972, he accompanied my brother and me on a weekend journey into the interior of B.C. in a borrowed car. We stopped the car at several “viewpoints” along the highway so that Fraser, at my brother’s request, could make his way a short distance into the landscape and be photographed standing there, perfectly still, holding a garden hoe that happened to be in the car. There are twelve photographs in the set. None of us at the time could say what we were doing in making those pictures, but we took great pleasure in the journey of that day and the next: my brother and I regarding our intellectual friend standing in the landscape; and Fraser looking back at his audience, we who cannot see what he sees. His image reminds us that the intellectual must look away from the object of wonder, “from the landmarks dim and fuzzy in the background,” as he once noted on the back of a cigarette package, in order to comprehend those who are moving (as he is) “inexorably, through the celebrated scenery.”