From Stardust. Published by New Star Books in 2007. Bruce Serafin won the Edna Staebler Award for Creative Non-Fiction for Stardust. He was a founding editor of the original Vancouver Review in the 1990s. He died in 2007.
One afternoon about ten years ago I was talking to the five-ton driver at Postal Station D in Vancouver. We started talking about writing. Roy asked me if I was working on anything. I said I was thinking about William Henry Drummond’s “Habitant” poems, which were written around the turn of the century. I had recently started reading them, I said, and I’d been amazed at how entire sections of my childhood were preserved in their lines.
But Roy couldn’t get the reference.
Finally I said, “You know. Leetle Bateese.”
“Oh, right! Right! Leetle Bateese! ‘Leetle Bateese, you bad leetle boy.’ I remember that. I read that when I was a kid.”
In the next two months I talked to maybe a dozen people about Drummond. I found that about half remembered reading him in school; three or four people hadn’t heard of him at all, and one person confused him with the inventor of Paul Bunyan and his blue ox Babe. But in general I received enthusiastic responses. Like popular songs and advertising jingles, it seemed that Drummond’s poetry stuck in one’s brain.
But while Drummond was the only turn-of-the-century Canadian poet I knew of who was remembered like this, his writing had disappeared from the curriculum. He wasn’t discussed even as part of Canadian literary history. B.W. Powe spoke for most when he wrote: “Add further complications: a place without a flag to identify as its own, whose ‘Literature’ (it cannot be called writing yet) is either imported or institutionalized, where someone can poeticize
Dere’s somet’ing stirrin’ my blood tonight, On de night of de young new year, W’ile de camp is warm an’ de fire is bright, An’ de bottle is close at han’ ...
and it could be considered a part of the national treasury.” Powe here quotes Drummond’s “The Voyager,” and it’s plain that he is using Drummond to epitomize everything parochial, old-fashioned and corny about Canadian writing.
Which is fair enough. Drummond is corny. If you were to compile a Canuck Bumper Book (its cover wreathed in toques and moose antlers, say), his poems would probably fill about a third of it. No other Canadian poet before or since has been so vulgar. But since he is spectacularly out of date, why not discuss him? After all, every other Canadian writer who might have even the faintest claim on our attention has been resuscitated in the past two decades. (I know: I’ve attended classes on Canadian writers who to all extents and purposes were unreadable.) What does Drummond have wrong that these writers don’t?
Well, he was a bigot. Open any collection of Drummond’s poems and a concentrated blast of stereotypes hits you in the face. It starts with the lines of dialect themselves, whose vowel-consonant combinations are saturated with the pure dumb nasal ho ho of the Jean Chrétien character on Air Farce (“‘Yass-yass,’ I say, ‘mebbe you t’ink I’m wan beeg loup garou”’), and it goes on from there to build up a world as swollen with popular mythology as the world of The Beverly Hillbillies. Like Vachel Lindsay’s The Congo, Drummond’s writing embarrasses. Read his poems, and you are back in the world of “The Happy Nigger” and “The Pigtail of Wu Fu Li.”
Yet what most embarrasses me about his verse is how familiar it is. I have just reread all the “Habitant” poems; and I don’t think I exaggerate when I say that the mental image most English Canadians have of Quebeckers is still largely the one propagated by Drummond.
No wonder so many Quebecois hate us! Everything Drummond ladles onto the plate—the playfulness, the toques, the Saturday soirees with their fiddle music, the enormous families, the sheepishness, the bad education—the dumbness, really—all this remains part of the mythology of French Canada so far as the English are concerned. Read Drummond’s poems—right away you feel as if the anti-French prejudice that gets bleached out of the Anglo in our cultural washing machines is reappearing before your eyes. If you’re like me, you’ll settle into the writing with the same bemused emotions one might feel listening to a seventy-year-old uncle talk about getting Jewed down by the Chink grocers in Edmonton.
Not that Drummond preaches hate. His verse is sweet. But he was saturated in the prejudices of his day. As a result, his poems now seem almost grotesquely sentimental. Nor is this sentimentality confined to their “leetle guy” attitude, all those gran-pères who’d rather be poor and ’appy than rich and corrupt like the Yank. It goes deeper.
In the best of our own popular art—in movies and rap songs—the deprived Other is at least seen as tough. In Drummond’s verse, though, the illiterate farmers and loggers are completely stripped of their virility. They become children—so much so that when you’re reading the poems in their original format and come across one of Frederick Coburn’s illustrations of rawboned, serious men, you feel a shock: you expect little round fellows with apple cheeks. In the following, for example, I grimaced not just at the horrific size of the family (which helped me understand why Quebec women now have almost the lowest birthrates in the world); I also grimaced at the smarmy, placating, Norman Rockwell chuckle:
Ma fader an’ moder too, got nice, nice familee, Dat’s ten garcon an’ t’orteen girl, was mak’ it twenty t’ree But fonny t’ing de Gouvernement don’t geev de firs’ prize den Lak w’at dey say dey geev it now, for only wan douzaine De English peep dat only got wan familee small size Mus’ be feel glad dat tam dere is no honder acre prize For fader of twelve chil’ren-dey know dat mus’ be so, De Canayens would boss Kebeck—mebbe Ontario. But dat is not de story dat I was gone tole you About de fun we use to have w’en we leev a chez nous
Drummond’s master was Kipling. But I can’t imagine Kipling’s soldiers saying those last two lines. His Cockneys with their stunted legs might have bowed to the social order, but Kipling never presented them as ass lickers. He accepted his subjects for what they were in a way that Drummond did not.
So why has Drummond endured? He was a bigot and a sentimentalist; he turned the unblinking anger of the Quebecois into treacle. So why does he—like Pauline Johnson and Robert Service—still last in some way, while other writers who are far more favoured by the academy go unread? Why does Roy Bernard, a literate five-ton driver at Canada Post, still remember lines from his work? And why does Leetle Bateese, a tough square-shaped figure with the manic energy of the Katzenjammer Kids, haunt my dreams, almost like a member of my extended family?
The answer is complicated. But right away one thing has to be noticed: exactly where Drummond is at his most embarrassing he becomes most vital. In his use of Habitant patois Drummond tapped into a current which I want to argue is now much more important than the Tennysonian-Romantic flow found in the poetry of his peers—a current that remains alive, and in fact is the chief source of energy in modern poetry, in all the various places that modern poetry can be found. I have in mind what might roughly be described as the replacement of the voice of the individual with the voice of the crowd, the mass public; and maybe the best way to evoke this aspect of Drummond’s verse is through quotation.
Below I’ve listed four pieces of writing: three by the “Confederation poets” who were Drummond’s peers—Bliss Carman, D.C. Scott and Archibald Lampman. All of them deal with nature (which is one of the bigger themes of the Habitant poems, and probably the theme of the more artistic, “Canadian” poetry that the Confederation poets were trying to write). Bliss Carman first:
Was it a year or lives ago We took the grasses in our hands And caught the summer flying low Over the waving meadow lands, And held it here between our hands?
D.C. Scott: A storm butt was marching Vast on the prairie, Scored with livid ropes of hail, Quick with nervous vines of lightning— Archibald Lampman: Where the far elm-tree shadows flood Dark patches in the burning grass, The cows, each with her peaceful cud, Lie waiting for the heat to pass. From somewhere on the slope nearby Into the pale depth of the noon A wandering thrush slides leisurely His thin revolving tune. And finally Drummond: An’ down on de reever de wil’ duck is quackin’ Along by de shore leetle san’ piper ronne— De bullfrog he’s gr—rompin’ an’ dore is jumpin’— Dey all got der own way for mak’ it de fonne.
To drive the difference home, I quote part of a ballad by Carman:
On the long, slow heave of a lazy sea, To the flap of an idle sail, The Nancy’s Pride went out on the tide; And the skipper stood by the rail…
And part of one by Drummond:
On wan dark night on Lac St. Pierre, De win’ she blow, blow, blow, An de crew of de wood scow ‘Julie Plante? Got scar’t an’ run below— For de win’ she blow lak hurricane Bimeby she blow some more, An de’ scow bus’ up on Lac St. Pierre Wan arpent from de shore.
I could go on, but these passages ought to show the vigour that Drummond got into his work. Drummond discovered the power of spoken language, the fact that it carries with it all the atmosphere of the situations in which it is used. He discovered that once you let bits of common speech into your verse—“grromping,” say, or “bus’ up on Lac St. Pierre”—the writing immediately gains bite and tactility. And he discovered that the use of such speech lightens the verse’s Poetic Solemnity: you hear a man speaking, not an intoning artificer.
This gives the verse life. But even more, it puts the writer on the side of his audience. Common, everyday speech is what we use to touch others, after all, the kind of speech that goes along with arm gestures and warm tone of voice. So that by using an intensely colloquial language, Drummond immediately gains a sense of vivacity and ease.
By contrast, look at what his peers were doing. The painful fact is that the harder Lampman and the rest strained to write in a “pure” language not stained with the dirt of common use, the more their poetry was emptied of any sense of a natural voice, of that idiosyncratic yet instantly recognizable syntax that you find in Tennyson or Whitman, for instance.