Charles G.D. Roberts
- Why Should We Read and Study Roberts?
- Literature & Analysis
- “The Tantramar Revisited”
- Analysis of “The Tantramar Revisited”
- “The Sower”
- “The Mowing”
- “In an Old Barn”
- “The Cow Pasture”
- Analysis of “The Sower,” “The Mowing,” “In an Old Barn,” and “The Cow Pasture”
- Questions and Considerations for Reflection
- Strategies for Teachers
- Further Reading
Considered to be the most influential poet in Canada in the nineteenth century, Charles G.D. Roberts was born in Douglas, New Brunswick on 10 January 1860. The leading figure among the Confederation Poets, he is thought of as one of the fathers of Canadian literature. His poetic explorations of the Canadian landscape and how that landscape seeps into the national psyche predate the visual explorations of the Group of Seven painters by more than two decades. Roberts’ first collection of poetry, Orion And Other Poems (1880), is considered a landmark in nationalist expression, as is his controversial historical study A History of Canada (1897). The latter was sharply criticized because it espoused the idea of Canadian independence at a time of deeply embedded British attachment. When he died in 1943, Roberts was eulogized as a writer considerably ahead of his time.
For a much more detailed biography of Roberts, see his New Brunswick Literary Encyclopedia entry.
- Roberts is a wonderful example of a New Brunswick writer who attained a world reputation. He is also a writer who had tremendous influence shaping the “idea” of Canada and the direction of our literature. He put New Brunswick on the world’s literary map.
- Roberts also popularized a number of the foundational myths by which New Brunswickers live: the myth of outmigration, of our connections to the land and sea, of our complicated relationship with home, and of the effects of change on our sense of place. Each is clearly evident in his flagship poem “The Tantramar Revisited,” which is analyzed below. The ways that his own landscape shaped his formation parallel our experience of the same landscape today. The message of his poetry is therefore as contemporary today as it was one hundred years ago.
“The Tantramar Revisited”
SUMMERS and summers have come, and gone with the flight of the swallow;
Sunshine and thunder have been, storm, and winter, and frost;
Many and many a sorrow has all but died from remembrance,
Many a dream of joy fall’n in the shadow of pain.
Hands of chance and change have marred, or moulded, or broken,
Busy with spirit or flesh, all I most have adored;
Even the bosom of Earth is strewn with heavier shadows,—
Only in these green hills, aslant to the sea, no change!
Here where the road that has climbed from the inland valleys and woodlands,
Dips from the hill-tops down, straight to the base of the hills,—
Here, from my vantage-ground, I can see the scattering houses,
Stained with time, set warm in orchards, meadows, and wheat,
Dotting the broad bright slopes outspread to southward and eastward,
Wind-swept all day long, blown by the south-east wind.
Skirting the sunbright uplands stretches a riband of meadow,
Shorn of the laboring grass, bulwarked well from the sea,
Fenced on its seaward border with long clay dikes from the turbid
Surge and flow of the tides vexing the Westmoreland shores.
Yonder, toward the left, lie broad the Westmoreland marshes,—
Miles on miles they extend, level, and grassy, and dim,
Clear from the long red sweep of flats to the sky in the distance,
Save for the outlying heights, green-rampired Cumberland Point;
Miles on miles outrolled, and river-channels divide them,—
Miles on miles of green, barred by the hurtling gusts.
Miles on miles beyond the tawny bay is Minudie.
There are the low blue hills; villages gleam at their feet.
Nearer a white sail shines across the water, and nearer
Still are the slim, gray masts of fishing boats dry on the flats.
Ah, how well I remember those wide red flats, above tide-mark
Pale with scurf of the salt, seamed and baked in the sun!
Well I remember the piles of blocks and ropes, and the net-reels
Wound with the beaded nets, dripping and dark from the sea!
Now at this season the nets are unwound; they hang from the rafters
Over the fresh-stowed hay in upland barns, and the wind
Blows all day through the chinks, with the streaks of sunlight, and sways them
Softly at will; or they lie heaped in the gloom of a loft.
Now at this season the reels are empty and idle; I see them
Over the lines of the dikes, over the gossiping grass.
Now at this season they swing in the long strong wind, thro’ the lonesome
Golden afternoon, shunned by the foraging gulls.
Near about sunset the crane will journey homeward above them;
Round them, under the moon, all the calm night long,
Winnowing soft gray wings of marsh-owls wander and wander,
Now to the broad, lit marsh, now to the dusk of the dike.
Soon, thro’ their dew-wet frames, in the live keen freshness of morning,
Out of the teeth of the dawn blows back the awakening wind.
Then, as the blue day mounts, and the low-shot shafts of the sunlight
Glance from the tide to the shore, gossamers jewelled with dew
Sparkle and wave, where late sea-spoiling fathoms of drift-net
Myriad-meshed, uploomed sombrely over the land.
Well I remember it all. The salt raw scent of the margin;
While, with men at the windlass, groaned each reel, and the net,
Surging in ponderous lengths, uprose and coiled in its station;
Then each man to his home,— well I remember it all!
Yet, as I sit and watch, this present peace of the landscape,—
Stranded boats, these reels empty and idle, the hush,
One gray hawk slow-wheeling above yon cluster of haystacks,—
More than the old-time stir this stillness welcomes me home.
Ah the old-time stir, how once it stung me with rapture,—
Old-time sweetness, the winds freighted with honey and salt!
Yet will I stay my steps and not go down to the marsh-land,—
Muse and recall far off, rather remember than see,—
Lest on too close sight I miss the darling illusion,
Spy at their task even here the hands of chance and change.
Analysis of “The Tantramar Revisited”
First published in 1883, “The Tantramar Revisited” is often considered Roberts’ poetic masterpiece. At sixty-four lines, it is also one of his longest poems. In it, Roberts provides a striking description of the Tantramar Marshes and the region surrounding his childhood home in Westcock, New Brunswick. Many first-time readers of “The Tantramar Revisited” are struck by the picturesque quality of the landscape. Rolling green hills give way to wind-swept meadows and wheat fields protected from the sea by clay dykes. To the left of the poem’s observing eye, the Tantramar Marshes stretch for as far as the eye can see. Overhead are seagulls, cranes, and a “slow-wheeling hawk.” The language Roberts uses to describe this scene is fanciful and, to many readers today, old-fashioned or sentimental: “net-reels / Wound with beaded nets” swing “thro’ the lonesome / Golden afternoon” above “gossiping grass.” Such elevated diction, along with Roberts’ adaptation of a conventional classical form, show the influence of the British Romantic poets, and the poem is often referred to as an example of the “Canadian idyll.” Nevertheless, “The Tantramar Revisited” presents the reader with more than a serene and idealized picture of rural New Brunswick life in the nineteenth century.
Readers will notice, for example, that in spite of several signs of human habitation and activity (houses, barns, boats, nets, and net-reels), not a single human appears in the scene the speaker witnesses, but only in his memory. The speaker’s interaction with the landscape – and with nature generally – is therefore central to the poem’s meaning, and the concepts of memory and change are treated with a high degree of emotional complexity. The poem begins with ten lines that evoke the passage of time and the transformations that result from “the hands of chance and change.” In contrast to the effects that the passage of time has had on the speaker’s own life, the landscape he describes has seen “no change.” As the poem progresses, however, the reader might begin to question whether or not this landscape remains, as the speaker suggests, unaffected by time. We are told repeatedly that the speaker is both viewing and “remembering” this scene, but the line between remembering and observing is often blurred, pointing us to the poem’s real intention.
Toward the end of the poem, the speaker begins to realize that even this place has not escaped the effects of time. “Stranded boats” now replace the “men at the windlass,” while “reels empty and idle” take the place of “net-reels / Wound with the beaded nets.” Afraid that the changes in the scene before him will begin to erase the memory he cherishes, the speaker opts not to go down to the marshes for a closer view, “Lest on too close sight I miss the darling illusion, / Spy at their task even here the hands of chance and change.” What was abstracted in memory suddenly becomes personal and immediate, the first person “I” carrying the poem’s emotional weight.
In New Brunswick, where slow economic collapse has resulted in a long history of outmigration, “The Tantramar Revisited” remains absolutely contemporary. Offering a profound reflection on the experience of return, whether from work- or study-based exile, Roberts’ poem is as relevant today as it was in 1883.
A BROWN sad-coloured hillside, where the soil,
Fresh from the frequent harrow, deep and fine,
Lies bare; no break in the remote sky-line,
Save where a flock of pigeons streams aloft,
Startled from feed in some low-lying croft,
Or far-off spires with yellow of sunset shine;
And here the Sower, unwittingly divine,
Exerts the silent forethought of his toil.
Alone he treads the glebe, his measured stride
Dumb in the yielding soil; and tho’ small joy
Dwell in his heavy face, as spreads the blind
Pale grain from his dispensing palm aside,
This plodding churl grows great in his employ;—
Godlike, he makes provision for mankind.
THIS is the voice of high midsummer’s heat.
The rasping vibrant clamour soars and shrills
O’er all the meadowy range of shadeless hills,
As if a host of giant cicadae beat
The cymbals of their wings with tireless feet,
Or brazen grasshoppers with triumphing note
From the long swath proclaimed the fate that smote
The clover and timothy-tops and meadowsweet.
The crying knives glide on; the green swath lies.
And all noon long the sun, with chemic ray,
Seals up each cordial essence in its cell,
That in the dusky stalls, some winter’s day,
The spirit of June, here prisoned by his spell,
May cheer the herds with pasture memories.
“In an Old Barn”
TONS upon tons the brown-green fragrant hay
O’erbrims the mows beyond the time-warped eaves,
Up to the rafters where the spider weaves,
Though few flies wander his secluded way.
Through a high chink one lonely golden ray,
Wherein the dust is dancing, slants unstirred.
In the dry hush some rustlings light are heard,
Of winter-hidden mice at furtive play.
Far down, the cattle in their shadowed stalls,
Nose-deep in clover fodder’s meadowy scent,
Forget the snows that whelm their pasture streams,
The frost that bites the world beyond their walls.
Warm housed, they dream of summer, well content
In day-long contemplation of their dreams.
“The Cow Pasture”
I SEE the harsh, wind-ridden, eastward hill,
By the red cattle pastured, blanched with dew;
The small, mossed hillocks where the clay gets through;
The grey webs woven on milkweed tops at will.
The sparse, pale grasses flicker, and are still.
The empty flats yearn seaward. All the view
Is naked to the horizon’s utmost blue;
And the bleak spaces stir me with strange thrill.
Not in perfection dwells the subtler power
To pierce our mean content, but rather works
Through incompletion, and the need that irks,—
Not in the flower, but effort toward the flower.
When the want stirs, when the soul’s cravings urge,
The strong earth strengthens, and the clean heavens purge.
Analysis of “The Sower,” “The Mowing,” “In an Old Barn,” and “The Cow Pasture”
From In Divers Tones (1886) and Songs of the Common Day (1893), these early sonnets display the mastery of control, technical precision, and rich sensuality for which Roberts is known. And though his language and Romantic sentiment may seem overwrought to modern readers (“The Sower” is a good example), his descriptions are so finely crafted that they are familiar. To read a Roberts poem is therefore to recognize immediately the world or moment or perspective he is capturing.
He does this expertly in “The Sower” by conveying the loneliness and the toil of the farmer, who sows his crop in the cold earth of spring with little but the promise of harvest. With only slight inference – the mention of “far-off spires,” an unwitting divinity, and slow toil – Roberts communicates to the reader the long history of such work, and its corresponding intimacy with the land. Like a “plodding churl” (a medieval term for peasant), Roberts’ simple sower becomes provider, God-like in making “provision for mankind.” As a result, the small field he works goes from “low-lying croft” to “globe,” growing in proportion to both his task as provider and his own perspective as lord of his domain. To the idle passer-by he may look small or backward, but he (like each of us) is rendered mighty in his employ.
“The Mowing” works equally well to capture a moment that all northern peoples long for: the all-enveloping and stultifying week of high summer that is so precious and so fleeting. Roberts’ sonnet reminds us, however, of how conflicted we are about summer, revelling in its abundance as we revile its often-inescapable and oppressive heat. The sound of that moment is shrill (“giant cicadae beat[ing] / The cymbals of their wings”) and its dominant action is an intense animation that, like preserving, seals the essence of summer in its cells. Only a people who have lived through cold can understand the welcome oppressiveness of such heat and how it cycles through our lives to sustain us.
As “In an Old Barn” further illustrates, it is that promise of a return to summer that carries all living things through winter, the season of stillness and muted anticipation. “Warm housed,” we all “dream of summer,” understanding the necessity of patience and deferral that that dream entails. As Roberts presents it, winter is the season of waiting and abeyance. What is especially significant about this and other early sonnets is that the deepest forms of human understanding come from a close intimacy with local surroundings. Roberts’ work, then, shows that a Canadian poet (a New Brunswick poet!) has finally realized the poetic power of his own landscape. He has turned that landscape from external reserve to internal resource, declaring it an important aspect and shaper of identity.
Time and seasonal processes figure prominently in Roberts’ early poems, as does the notion of cycling, which he suggests is the deep grammar that underscores our lives. His subjects experience unending ebb and flow, excitement and abandonment, and those cycles become repeated in human patterns of exile, restlessness, and return. Habits of mind, he suggests, are shaped by natural patterns external to us that become the essential grammars (or deep structures) of who we are.
Roberts does not, however, believe in a naturalism that reduces people to the conditions of their environments. Rather, as his sonnets illustrate, his subjects find freedom in dreams and creativity, and in the sensuous joys of a bounteous landscape. “The Cow Pasture” is clear about the dominance of free will:
Not in perfection dwells the subtler power
To pierce our mean content, but rather works
Through incompletion, and the need that irks,—
Not in the flower, but effort toward the flower.
Though the lines are at first difficult to understand, Roberts is explaining where human potential lies. It is not in perfection or even aspiring to perfection, but in simply aspiring. Roberts thus raises human will to lofty status, impelling us to strive, to live searchingly, and to open ourselves to the fullness of what surrounds us. This orientation was vitally important for Roberts’ post-Confederation Canada, and is important for New Brunswickers today, for it discards the idea that salvation is elsewhere, either in a better place (the heart of some remote empire) or a more perfect sensibility. Saying that humans are responsible for their own success and happiness, the idea restores dignity to people wherever they are.
► Later New Brunswick poet Fred Cogswell would be especially indebted to Roberts’ early work. Cogswell’s portraits of New Brunswickers in The Stunted Strong (1954) display a similar desire to examine provincial subjects as an amalgam of their work, place, and environmental conditions. Cogswell also pursues Roberts’ explorations of human creativity as a mark of divinity. Readers interested in this idea of the twinning of the creative and the divine will want to read the analysis of Bliss Carman’s poem “Vestigia” (next author) for an understanding of the influence of New England Transcendentalism on Confederation-era poetry in New Brunswick.
► Roberts’ work intersects with and informs Canadian Confederation and the powerful nationalist feelings it engendered. This connection provides an opportunity to think about the merits and pitfalls of nationalism, as well as the fate of nationalism today. Is globalism, as many people now suggest, a better alternative to nationalism? Why is nationalism so disparaged today? Who benefits most from propping up globalism at the expense of nationalism? And how does the definition and purpose of nationalism today differ from the definition and purpose of nationalism in Roberts’ time?
Strategy 1: Poets’ Corner (All poems)
Visit the tribute to Roberts and other Confederation poets by linking to the Poets’ Corner of Canada website. The Poets’ Corner monument in front of the University of New Brunswick library commemorates the work of the Fredericton School of the Confederation Poets. Engage students in a discussion of why such monuments are important. This could include speaking of people who are monumentalized in your community. Which contributions to society tend to be memorialized on monuments, and which overlooked? Ask students to discuss, with reference to the Poets’ Corner monument, the significance of: 1) choosing to build a monument; 2) the design of the monument; 3) the placement of the monument; 4) the words on the plaque.
Perhaps students can think of a local figure who is not memorialized but deserves to be. Ask them, singly or in small groups, to design a monument for that individual. What would they write on the plaque to clarify who that person was, and how that person changed society? Where would they place the monument, and why?
Key Stage Curriculum Outcomes:
- Reading and Viewing: Use the electronic network and other sources of information in ways characterized by complexity of purpose, procedure or subject matter
- Writing and Representing: Make critical choices of form, style, and content to address increasingly complex demands of different purposes and audiences
Strategy 2: The Maritime Condition (“The Tantramar Revisited”)
Students will benefit from considering “The Tantramar Revisited” next to Alden Nowlan’s poem “They Go Off to Seek Their Fortunes” (see Confessional Humanism) and Alfred Bailey’s poem “Here in the East” (see Modernism and the Fredericton Ferment). What do each of the poems reveal about “the Maritime condition”? Similarly, what do the poems say about outmigration and the price it exacts on young people from the East? Teachers may want to use the opportunity to discuss the long history of the problem of outmigration in our region. Is outmigration a reflection of our deficits, as it is often portrayed – “deficits” such as laziness, lack of entrepreneurial spirit, rural embedment, etc. – or a structural consequence of the way Canada has been developed since Confederation? (The obvious answer, and the teachable opportunity, is the latter, and so teachers should take the occasion to not only deconstruct one of the powerful stereotypes of the region, but also explain to students why such stereotypes exist. Where do those stereotypes originate and what is their real purpose? To help students understand the stereotype and, as importantly, “structural” conditions, ask them to think about the important role that a mobile, eager workforce played in building urban Canada and the West. Could urban Canada and the West have been built as rapidly with full employment and contentedness in the East?)
Key Stage Curriculum Outcomes:
- Reading and Viewing: Examine how texts work to reveal and produce ideologies, identities, and positions
Strategy 3: Group of Seven (Sonnets)
In the poem “Canada,” Roberts writes of the need for Canadians to understand and celebrate their country as a distinct and independent nation, a nation with greatness of its own:
How long the ignoble sloth, how long
The trust in greatness not thine own?
Surely the lion’s brood is strong
To front the world alone! (7)
Years later, art critic Frederick Housser declared that “The message that the Group of Seven art movement gives to this age is the message that here in the North has arisen a young nation with faith in its own creative genius” (215). Clearly, then, other artists in the country took up Roberts’ nationalist passion and determination to sidestep European and American models for a made-in-Canada alternative. The most famous to do so were the Group of Seven painters.
After reading and discussing one or more of Roberts’ sonnets, ask students to compare the poem(s) with the ways the Group of Seven painters represent their own landscapes (Their works can be seen on many public websites). Although there are distinctions between the geography of New Brunswick and that of the northern Canadian Shield, students should be able to find similarities in, perhaps, the choice of subject matter or the quality of observation.
Extension 1: Challenge students to debate whether artists, writers, or politicians are the most persuasive when it comes to shaping our national identity. Which group most strongly influences what Canadians understand Canada to be? Which group most strongly influences what non-Canadians understand Canada to be?
Extension 2: Randomly select a few different countries, perhaps by spinning a globe, and ask students to describe the landscapes of those countries. Ask each student to briefly investigate one of those countries, reporting back to the class about the accuracy and completeness of previous descriptions. Discuss: How does a particular landscape come to be understood as the defining landscape of a nation? If students had to predict how people who have never been to Canada would picture this country, what would they assume, and why?
Key Stage Curriculum Outcomes:
- Reading and Viewing: Note the relationship of specific elements of a particular text to elements of other texts
- Speaking and Listening: Articulate, advocate, and justify positions on an issue or text in a convincing manner, showing an understanding of a range of viewpoints
Adams, John Coldwell. Sir Charles God Damn: The Life of Sir Charles G.D. Roberts. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1986.
Bentley, D.M.R. The Confederation Group of Poets, 1880-1897. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2004.
Cogswell, Fred. Charles G.D. Roberts and His Works. Toronto: ECW Press, 1983.
Housser, Frederick B. A Canadian Art Movement: The Story of the Group of Seven. Toronto: Macmillan, 1926.
MacMillan, Carrie, ed. The Proceedings of the Sir Charles G.D. Roberts Symposium. Sackville, NB and Halifax: Centre for Canadian Studies, Mount Allison University and Nimbus Publishing, 1984.
Pacey, Desmond. “Sir Charles G.D. Roberts.” Ten Canadian Poets. Toronto: Ryerson, 1958. 34-58.
Roberts, Charles G.D. “Canada.” Selected Poems of Charles G.D. Roberts. Ed. and Intro. Desmond Pacey. Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1974. 7-8.
Ware, Tracy. “Remembering It All Well: ‘The Tantramar Revisited.’” Studies in Canadian Literature 8.2 (1983): 221-37.
Whalen, Terry. Charles G.D. Roberts and His Works. Toronto: ECW Press, 1989.
---, ed. and intro. “Lorne Pierce’s 1927 Interview with Charles G.D. Roberts (As Reported by Margaret Lawrence).” Canadian Poetry: Studies, Documents, Reviews 21 (Fall/Winter 1987).
For much more detailed primary and secondary source bibliographies of Roberts, see his New Brunswick Literary Encyclopedia entry.
The works above have been in the Canadian public domain for 50 years after publication and 50 years after the author’s death. As such, they are no longer protected by copyright in Canada. However, they may still be under copyright in some countries. Readers outside Canada must comply with the respective copyright laws of the country in which they live.
“The Tantramar Revisited” (with slightly different lineation) and “The Sower” appear in In Divers Tones. Boston: D. Lothrop and Company, 1886. 53-58, 71. A digital microform copy of this text can be found by following the link on the previous page.
“The Mowing,” “In an Old Barn,” and “The Cow Pasture” appear in Songs of the Common Day and Ave!: An Ode for the Shelley Centenary. London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1893. 11, 25, 5. A digital facsimile of this text can be found by following the link on the previous page.
All contents except for poetry and fiction copyright © Tony Tremblay, James W. Johnson, and Alexandra Cogswell.