- Why Should We Read and Study Després?
- Literature & Analysis
- “Hymn to Spring”
- Analysis of “Hymn to Spring”
- “My Acadie”
- “Poetry Night in Acadie”
- Analysis of “My Acadie” and “Poetry Night in Acadie”
- Questions and Considerations for Reflection
- Strategies for Teachers
- Further Reading
Born in Moncton, NB in 1935, Ronald Després is one of the two writers in Acadie who sparked the Acadian Literary Renaissance of the early 1970s. The other writer is Antonine Maillet, and the important year they share is 1958, the year that saw the publication of Després’ first collection of poems, Silences à nourrir de sang, and Maillet’s first novel, Pointe-aux-Coques. After attending Moncton-area colleges, Després studied music and philosophy at the University of Paris, returning to work as a literary journalist for the Acadian newspaper L’Évangéline and then as a government translator in Ottawa. His startlingly original poetry and fiction is characterized by a dark, raw apocalyptic imagery that has received mixed reviews in Acadie. Critics have questioned how representational his work is, his influences and address seeming to touch Europe and Quebec more than Acadie. On the other hand, adherents have drawn connections between his dominant tones and motifs (cynicism, fatigue, fantasy, and love) and the similar tones and motifs of the Éditions d’Acadie poets of the early 1970s. It is generally agreed that his early work laid a foundation for what followed and, as significantly, anticipated the avant-garde post-modernism (impressionistic and otherwise) of contemporary writing in Acadie.
For a much more detailed biography of Ronald Després, see his New Brunswick Literary Encyclopedia entry.
- As critic Matthew Cormier argues, Després’ writing career, although brief, was very important for having “pushed the boundaries of Acadian literature from the traditional to a more daring realm that suited the tastes and intentions of a new generation of writers.” We thus read his work – especially his early work – to locate the raw materials of the revolutionary impulse. The poems below are especially reflective of that surging energy.
- We also read Després for the extent to which his assured poetic voice inspired other poets from his community. His work was evidence that a world-class poetry and fiction could be written in Acadie, the appearance of which in 1958 ignited the confidence of an entire generation of writers. Careful readers will also note the parallels between Després’ poetic treatment of place and the poetic treatment of place undertaken by the Tantramar poets. In poems such as “Hymn to Spring,” Després takes Acadie as his subject, unvarnished and raw, that rawness captured expertly and without romance in his work. Where else but in a modernist poetry that seeks fidelity to lived experience is the “kind filthiness of streets” celebrated? This poetics of the local, if it can be termed that, shifted literary attention from elsewhere to the towns, streets, and gutters of southeastern New Brunswick. For that, Acadie’s writers and readers owe Després their gratitude.
“Hymn to Spring”
After deliberating in long whiteness
The fields decided not to wait for Easter
To have a resurrection.
A whip of fever lashes the forces of life
The thickets hurry to burst through their fallow
The little rivers to sacrifice their ice-sharks
On the greedy altars of the sun.
O kind filthiness of streets
You join in the same watercolour
The bourgeois paws of poodles
And the little faces of the slums!
Rooftops, gables, façades
Restore the alphabet of forbidden odours
The eaves have not finished
Letting the Arctic sift through
The song of gutters and thrushes drips
Into the ears of passers-by
Parted from their woollen layers.
The heart unmoved, at the crossing of seasons
The heart crushed beneath a false shell of joy
Tries again to find the miracle of petals
And the grace of the crocus that, already,
Is piercing the skin of the earth.
Analysis of “Hymn to Spring”
This magnificent poem is an example of Després’ capacity to array “the local” in poetic language. Every word, image, and metaphor employed in the poem is familiar – we recognize the burgeoning of spring in New Brunswick – but is used in such a way as to make the familiar strange, which is the real accomplishment of the poem. This process of “making strange” or “defamiliarization” is a literary technique that was the focus of critical theory in Eastern Europe in the early decades of the twentieth century. One of the theory’s main proponents, Viktor Shklovsky, wrote that defamiliarization is a technique that calls attention to the differences between literary and ordinary language. He and fellow Russian Formalist critics thus focused their attentions on what makes a text “literary.” They discovered that it was often found in destabilizing the familiar – not to make the familiar abstract or erudite, but to make it strange. That strangeness, Shklovsky argued in “Art as Technique,” is an affront to habitual ways of perceiving and so reinvigorates readers’ experiences of the everyday. Accordingly, the writer’s job should be to jolt readers out of complacency by making the everyday “unusual” so the world can be experienced anew. Després has done so in “Hymn to Spring,” taking spring out of the realm of its usual clichés while also keeping it both familiar and in a recognizable setting.
Fittingly, his poem opens to Easter and a season of resurrection, the metaphoric choice deliberate in a predominantly Catholic Acadie. The earth, like Christ, has been cloaked – not only dormant but also, we can infer, tortured and humiliated. Conflating the Easter Vigil and “the crossing of seasons” works perfectly in context, the word “crossing” resonant with inference and symbolism. Without warning, a sudden thaw or “fever” takes hold, loosening winter’s grip (the old despot) and releasing waters in rivulets and drips (tears, too, in the wider symbolism). What follows is a season of mud, foul smells, and unveilings, revealing the detritus of the earth. Amid the change, we devotees of hope (both Christian and winter-weary) long for “the miracle of petals” and “the grace of the crocus that, already, / Is piercing the skin of the earth” (italics added).
As Shklovsky theorized, Després’ technique of making the familiar strange – in this case, defamiliarizing spring by seeing it through an ecclesiastical lens – invigorates how we perceive the season. The poem refreshes, which, of course, is what literature should do. “Literariness” must not only instruct but also elevate and delight. The freshness of Després’ language does just that, enabling us to see spring anew and to become elevated by the change of seasons.
“My Acadie”a poem in historical vignettes
a fragile vehicle for love
An Albatross of perfidious Sun-Kings
Belly stained by Abenakis
Looking glasses for hides, feathers
A mild messianic peasantry
Bras d’Or embracing
The Atlantis of our dreams
The rich silt of Minas Basin
At the porticos
Of the theatre of Neptune.
A shabby toy encased in seaweed
Gloomy majesty in deep mourning
Moving against the colonial dream
Between aimed guns in their emplacements.
Faithful tablecloth doubly secular
Under the alien soup tureen
Nourished by repeated mirages
Of dense and credulous stillness
Like an age lulled to sleep.
Évangéline with velvet tread
With eyes repressing exile
Takes off her cowls of myth
And extends her arms to the newborn.
And cries out
— A strange likeness, lace torn —
AGAINST THE SALT TASTE OF BLOOD.
“Poetry Night in Acadie”
A borrowed land
Hung on memory’s hanger
A fine showy cloak
Unravelled from the inside
By the ultimate betrayal
Of mute sleeves
And bowed shoulders.
A frozen land that fears the cold
Like a hotel bound by fog
That is loved and remembered
With gestures as sweeping as its shores
And with the names of heroes engulfed in it.
A land that is ours without being so
Made up of timid faces
And impossible returnings.
A land like a parcelled-out mistress
Sharing even the beds of the mightiest
Even the repeated deceits
And the taste of hate upon awakening.
A land consumed
By a long held-in fire
Of singing guitars
And crowded elbows in the dream’s
A land with warm curves
A land with its cloak of fog
Broken like bones
Beaten too long.
Naked without one shiver
A land of proud eyes
And clenched hands held out
Toward the light.
You are, my Acadie
— and this time without pain —
A land outward bound.
Analysis of “My Acadie” and “Poetry Night in Acadie”
Both poems above can be classed as “identity” poems. Unlike (or perhaps more deliberately than) “Hymn to Spring,” they seek to present images and instances of a people’s history, thereby seeking to establish a collective identity for Acadians.
Studied consideration of the poems’ images and references will reward the diligent reader. In the first stanza of “My Acadie,” for example, the reference to Acadie as an albatross around the neck of “perfidious Sun-Kings” recalls the deceit and treachery of France’s Louis the XIV, known as le Roi-Soleil (the Sun-King), whose long reign was witness to the glory and demise of Acadie with the Treaty of Utrecht (1713), that treaty ceding Acadie to Britain and opening the door to the 1755 Expulsion.
Left alone to barter with the New World’s indigenous peoples (the “Abenakis” of the northeast), the Acadians were abandoned to the vicissitudes of colonial history, their nation, like that of the Wabanaki Confederacy to which the Abenaki belong, a “shabby toy encased in seaweed” that was of more strategic than national (fidèle) importance (“My Acadie”). That history, Després contends, shaped the character of Acadians, turning them from “[a] mild messianic peasantry” to a people of “[g]loomy majesty in deep mourning,” a people silenced by the pressures of exile who were forced to strain toward the future. Like their folk hero Évangéline, however, they have been untiring in their search for completion – in Évangéline’s case, defined as a reunion with her beloved – and expert in resilient survival. Not yet complete, they “extend arms to the newborn,” putting their faith in the future “against the salt taste of blood” (“My Acadie”). Today’s refugees do the same.
Living in exile in a “borrowed land” that is both “loved and remembered” (and haunted by the glorious dead), even the “repeated deceits” and the “taste of hate upon awakening” cannot deter them, for, in the second of the two poems, Després’ Acadians have had their patience rewarded (“Poetry Night in Acadie”). As suddenly as spring releases winter, something tumultuous happens in New Brunswick in the late 1960s, sending Acadians into song, music, and dreams. (In a 22 March 1972 article in L’Évangéline, Després trumpets the student uprisings in Moncton as “a sudden awareness carrying with it the promise of a glorious new day” [qtd. in Boudreau, Maillet 697].)
Naked but not shivering, Acadians become a people of “proud eyes” and “clenched hands held out / [t]oward the light” (“Poetry Night in Acadie”). Suddenly, the first poem above, “Hymn to Spring,” takes on allegorical meaning. The rebirth is not only of a season but also of a people.
Després’ final poem captures the very real sense of determined hope and euphoria that characterized the early days of the Acadian Renaissance. A people of “timid faces / [u]nacknowledged smiles / [a]nd impossible returnings” were suddenly “outward bound,” their dreams and destiny within reach.
► The vigour of the criticism that has contrasted Antonine Maillet’s representation of Acadie with Ronald Després’ representation of Acadie warrants further examination. Both writers were instrumental in precipitating the cultural excitation that followed their 1958 publications, but each provoked differently, Maillet drawing on folkloric origins and Després using modernist techniques to stir the spirit. Both were successful in mapping aspects of a cultural landscape, yet their approaches (and the territory they mapped) diverged. In considering their differences, more advanced readers and scholars will want to consult Euclide Daigle’s editorial in L’Évangéline (14 January 1963), which takes Després to task for rendering Acadie indecipherable. What clearly preoccupied Daigle, and should also form the basis of consideration here, was Després’ responsibility as a pioneering writer. Do writers at the start of cultural revolutions, then, have certain responsibilities that later writers do not? Also, is it unusual that critics and writers encamp around different visions of history and place?
► Després’ sophisticated and dextrous use of language is reminiscent of a similar fluency in the work of A.G. Bailey (see Modernism and the Fredericton Ferment), that insight making clear a commonality among pioneering modernists in English and French New Brunswick. Bailey and Després broke tradition by adopting the modernist movement’s most vital tenet, “make it new,” each revivifying aspects of New Brunswick accordingly. Examining Bailey’s “Miramichi Lightning” and Després’ “Hymn to Spring” as examples of modernist technique reveals similarities that both poets share, and important allowances that modernist technique makes possible.
► The first occasion of reading an Acadian writer provides the opportunity to consider a new pantheon of influences. Most of the literary precursors and models that we have encountered in our examination of Anglophone literature in New Brunswick have been British and American. Those influences do not hold the same sway in Acadie, as Després’ work reveals. His work shows the influence of European French writers, notably Paul Verlaine and Paul Éluard, experimental poets of the Symbolist and Surrealist movements respectively. That European heritage is key to understanding writers in Acadie (and Quebec), especially Herménégilde Chiasson and Rose Després. In each, a torridness of emotion often extends into the realm of the dream-like, where expressions of dislocation, anguish, and loss dominate. The closest and only sustained equivalent in Canadian literature is to be found in Quebec.
Strategy 1: Winter/Hiver-Spring/Printemps (“Hymn to Spring”)
For another Acadian perspective on Spring, also highlighting hope, see Antonine Maillet’s La Sagouine, specifically the lines “It’s not having a thing that makes a person happy, it’s knowing you’re going to get it. That’s why I say spring is the best season” (109-10); “People who have to suffer through the winter, that’s who spring was made for, which is why I say spring is for old folks and the poor” (112). After reading and discussing Després’ poem, helping students to identify the links with a re-awakening Acadie, ask students to compare the Acadian take on winter/spring with Francis Sherman’s “A Hearth-Song,” Charles G.D. Roberts’ “In an Old Barn” (see Confederation Poets), Robert Gibbs’ “A Kind of Wakefulness,” and/or Elizabeth Brewster’s “Thirty Below” (see Modernism and the Fredericton Ferment, and Confessional Humanism). How are the seasons perceived differently in English and French? Suggest that students, rather than reading only language, consider the images and metaphors, since we all think in images and metaphors that are culturally and historically inherited. The world is seen and experienced differently in different languages, and thus reading poetry in translation is a way to expand our mental landscape.
Key Stage Curriculum Outcomes:
- Reading and Viewing: Describe, discuss, and evaluate the language, ideas, and other significant characteristics of a variety of texts and genres
Strategy 2: Defamiliarization (“Hymn to Spring”)
To introduce students to the literary and theoretical concept of defamiliarization, begin with an example, such as Craig Raine’s unusual poem “A Martian Sends a Postcard Home.” Discuss how the technique of making the familiar strange by looking at it from an unusual perspective and with unconventional language is both invigorating and delightful. Instead of overlooking the absurdities and wonders of everyday life, poets often throw those wonders into sharp relief. After this discussion, ask students to return to Després’ “Hymn to Spring.” Although Després does not write from an alien perspective, he nevertheless uses the techniques of defamiliarization to refresh our perspective on the season. Challenge students to discuss how the poem actually does that. What lines, for example, strike students as simultaneously odd but true to their experience?
Key Stage Curriculum Outcomes:
- Reading and Viewing: Show the relationships among language, topic, purpose, context and audience
Strategy 3: Extended Exploration of Allusions (“My Acadie”)
“My Acadie” is dense with allusions, many of which students may not recognize (“perfidious Sun-Kings”) or be able to link to Acadie (“Atlantis”). Rather than lecturing on this poem as the “sage on the stage,” treat the poem’s dense allusions as an opportunity for an extended, student-led exploration. Read the poem initially and ask students to circle the words and references they do not recognize or understand. Then ask students to choose a word/phrase/line from the first verse to research, reporting back the following week. Research may involve consulting a dictionary or a history book, or speaking about the word/phrase with others. Facilitate the discussion that follows each week, asking probing questions that prompt students to connect their ideas to each other and to Acadie. For example, if one student looked up “perfidious,” and another “Sun-King,” ask the Sun-King researcher why Acadians might perceive Louis XIV as treacherous. Note that many of the poem’s phrases are not easily researched, but will become clear as students explore. For instance, once students clarify some of the later lines, it will be more understandable why Acadie is a “fragile vehicle for love.”
By setting aside ten minutes per week over an extended period, this strategy will demonstrate how rewarding it is to return to a piece of literature repeatedly, and feel one’s comprehension growing through sustained collaborative endeavor. Ask students to track the main insights they reach each week, perhaps composing an analysis at the end of the exercise that could be used as a summative assessment. Upon completion, students could be asked to select a poem of their own to repeat the process, tracking their understanding informally or through a more structured method such as a process portfolio.
Key Stage Curriculum Outcomes:
- Reading and Viewing: Access, select, and research, in systematic ways, specific information to meet personal and learning needs
Boudreau, Raoul, and Marguerite Maillet. “Acadian Literature.” Acadia of the Maritimes: Thematic Studies from the Beginnings to the Present. Ed. Jean Daigle. Moncton, NB: Chaire d’études acadiennes, 1995. 679-719.
Cormier, Matthew. “Ronald Després.” New Brunswick Literary Encyclopedia. Ed. Tony Tremblay. Fredericton: New Brunswick Studies Centre, 2015. 20 July 2020
Daigle, Euclide. “Une critique littéraire.” L’Évangéline [Moncton, NB] 14 Jan. 1963: 5.
Després, Ronald. À force de mystère: œuvre poétique, 1958-1974. Moncton: Les Éditions Perce-Neige, 2009.
---. Le Scalpel ininterrompu. Journal du docteur Jan von Fries. Montreal: Éditions À la page, 1962. [Rpt. 2nd ed. Moncton: Les Éditions Perce-Neige, 2002.]
---. Silences à nourrir de sang. Montreal: Éditions d’Orphée, 1958.
Després, Ronald, and Laurent Lavoie. Paysages en contrebande... à la frontière du songe. Choix de poèmes (1956-1972). Moncton: Éditions d’Acadie, 1974.
Lonergan, David, ed. Paroles d’Acadie : Anthologie de la littérature acadienne (1958-2009). Sudbury: Prise de parole, 2010. 61-68.
Maillet, Antonine. La Sagouine. 1971. Trans. Wayne Grady. Fredericton: Goose Lane, 2007.
Raymond, Maurice. “Abréaction et littérature: le ‘cas’ de Ronald Després.” Port Acadie 20-21 (2012): 141-148.
---. “Pour un exposé pragmatique du refoulement textuel : L’impossible et ses représentations chez l’écrivain acadien Ronald Després.” Diss. Université de Moncton, 2003.
Shklovsky, Viktor. “Art as Technique.” Literary Theory: An Anthology. 2nd ed. Ed. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2004. 15-21.
For much more detailed primary and secondary source bibliographies of Ronald Després, see his New Brunswick Literary Encyclopedia entry.
We gratefully acknowledge the generosity of Goose Lane Editions for allowing us to use the poems above for this curriculum. Further use or distribution of these poems and essay, however, is a violation of Canadian copyright law and is strictly prohibited. Under no circumstance may literary material used in the curriculum be reproduced, distributed, or stored without the permission of the copyright holder.
All poems above appear in Unfinished Dreams: Contemporary Poetry of Acadie. Ed. and Trans. Fred Cogswell and Jo-Anne Elder. Fredericton: Goose Lane, 1990.
All contents except for poetry and fiction copyright © Tony Tremblay, James W. Johnson, and Alexandra Cogswell.