- Background and Context
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In 1880, Charles G.D. Roberts, a young poet and student at the University of New Brunswick, published his first collection of poetry, Orion and Other Poems. Energetic, technically mature, and expressive of a budding Canadian nationalism, Orion and Other Poems inspired a generation of poets who would establish Canada’s first national literary movement. The poet Archibald Lampman, then a student at Trinity College in Toronto, wrote with great enthusiasm about encountering Roberts’ poetry for the first time in 1881:
I sat up most of the night reading and re-reading “Orion” in a state of the wildest excitement and when I went to bed I could not sleep. It seemed to me a wonderful thing that such work could be done by a Canadian, by a young man, one of ourselves. It was like a voice from some new paradise of art, calling to us to be up and doing. (94)
The call to young writers Lampman identified in Roberts’ first collection did not go unheeded – Orion and Other Poems inspired Lampman to begin his own writing career – and in the years that followed, during the 1880s and 1890s, a new group of poets came to dominate Canadian literature. Born during the 1860s, the decade of Canada’s Confederation, this new group of poets came to be known as the “Confederation Poets.”
Among the Confederation Group of poets were three prominent New Brunswickers: Roberts, Bliss Carman, and Francis Sherman. Although Sherman was ten years younger than Roberts and Carman, all of them were born in and around Fredericton, all of them attended the Fredericton Collegiate School, and each spent their formative years as poets in Fredericton. As a result, they are often referred to collectively as “the Fredericton School of the Confederation Poets.”
With a population of little more than 6,000, Fredericton in the nineteenth century was a small community and a seemingly unlikely host to the beginning of a national literary movement. Far more dynamic was the nearby port-city of Saint John, which boasted a population of nearly 30,000 by 1871. Nevertheless, in the late-nineteenth century, a unique combination of societal elements coalesced in Fredericton to create the ideal conditions for the flowering of a small but energetic literary community.
In contrast with the industrial and predominantly blue-collar Saint John, Fredericton was home to a wealthy and well-educated community of lawyers, professors, judges, and clergymen – many the descendants of United Empire Loyalists who arrived in New Brunswick in 1783. At the heart of the community were the Fredericton Collegiate School and the University of New Brunswick, both of which contributed to an intellectual environment in the city conducive to creative endeavour. It was this favourable environment that fostered the talents of Roberts, Carman, and Sherman, thereby vaulting Fredericton to the forefront of literary activity in Canada. Together, these poets pioneered the distinctively Canadian style of verse that would soon characterize the poetry of the Confederation Group.
The Confederation Poets were the first significant group of writers to have emerged in the newly formed Dominion of Canada. Their poetry, influenced by late-Victorian romanticism and pre-Raphaelite poetry in Britain, often reflected the national sentiment that swept the country in the decades following Confederation. Their poetry was marked by regular meter, conventional verse forms, elevated diction, and a high-moral tone.
More important than the formal features of their poetry, however, was their unique treatment of the Canadian landscape. The Confederation Poets sought to give poetic expression to the distinctive qualities of the Canadian environment in which they found themselves. However, unlike their British forbears, they did not see the external environment as the terminal subject of their poetry. Rather, the landscape becomes in their poetry a means of exploring the internal self, or the psyche of the poet. Roberts articulated this crucial quality of his verse in an 1897 issue of the New York literary magazine The Forum: “Nature-poetry, is not mere description of landscape in metrical form, but an expression of one or another of many vital relationships between external nausea afoul ‘the deep heart of man’” (281).
While the Confederation Poets drew heavily on the poetic tradition of British romanticism, the emotional depth and intellectual complexity with which they treated the natural world – and their unique Canadian environment in particular – set them apart from earlier Romantic poets elsewhere and marked the most significant poetic movement in nineteenth-century Canada. Lying at the heart of this movement was Fredericton, which, in 1947, in honour of the immense poetic contributions made by Roberts, Carman, and Sherman, was officially designated “The Poets’ Corner of Canada.”
Lampman, Archibald. “Two Canadian Poets[:] A Lecture.” The Essays and Reviews of Archibald Lampman. Ed. D.M.R Bentley. London: Canadian Poetry Press, 1996. 91-114.
Roberts, Charles G.D. “The Poetry of Nature.” Selected Poetry and Critical Prose. Ed. W.J. Keith. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1974. 276-281.
A distinct New Brunswick literature emerges in the work of the Confederation poets. Possessing, finally, the rootedness and loyalty to place, the familiarity with landscape, and the leisure to create imaginative worlds, this group of Fredericton poets become not just the first school of New Brunswick writers but also the first distinctly nationalist group in a fledgling Canada.
A major theme in New Brunswick literature makes its first appearance in Roberts’ “The Tantramar Revisited.” That theme is outmigration, which strikes a sharp contrast to Oliver Goldsmith’s depiction of growth and prosperity in The Rising Village (see Pre-Confederation Writers and Poets). While outmigration and economic disadvantage will be explored in greater depth by later poets such as A.G. Bailey (see Modernism and the Fredericton Ferment), Alden Nowlan, and Elizabeth Brewster (see Confessional Humanism), that this dominant theme of New Brunswick appears here, just after Confederation, is not coincidental.
One of the most significant departures from earlier writers is how the Confederation poets treat landscape. Unlike pre-Confederation writers such as Adam Allan and William Leggett, who treat landscape solely through description, the Confederation poets explore the effect of landscape on the human psyche, examining the ways that environment seeps into consciousness.
Bailey, Alfred G. “The Basis and Persistence of Opposition to Confederation in New Brunswick.” Canadian Historical Review 23.4 (1942): 374-97.
---. “Creative Moments in the Culture of the Maritime Provinces.” Culture and Nationality: Essays. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1972. 44-57.
---. “Literature and Nationalism in the Aftermath of Confederation.” University of Toronto Quarterly 25 (July 1956): 409-24.
Baker, Ray Palmer. A History of English-Canadian Literature to the Confederation. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1920.
Bentley, D.M.R. The Confederation Group of Poets, 1880-1897. Toronto, ON: U of Toronto P, 2004.
Daniells, Roy. “Confederation to the First World War.” Literary History of Canada. 2nd ed. Vol. 1. Ed. Carl F. Klinck, et al. Toronto, ON: U of Toronto P, 1965. 205-221.
Hodd, Thomas. “The Fredericton Confederation Awakening, 1843-1900.” New Brunswick at the Crossroads: Literary Ferment and Social Change in the East. Ed. Tony Tremblay. Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier UP, 2017. 73-100.
Ross, Malcolm. “Poets of the Confederation.” The Impossible Sum of Our Traditions. Intro. David Staines. Toronto, ON: McClelland & Stewart, 1986. 87-92.
---. “A Strange Aesthetic Ferment.” Canadian Literature 68-69 (1976): 13-25.
Use of material in the New Brunswick Literature Curriculum in English is restricted to scholarly, research, or educational purposes only. Use should include appropriate citations. The following citation is an example of how a researcher should cite the author pages for Francis Sherman:
Tremblay, Tony, James William Johnson, and Alexandra Cogswell. “Francis Sherman.” New Brunswick Literature Curriculum in English. Fredericton: UNB Libraries, 2020.
The following citation is an example of how a researcher should cite the module pages for the Confederation Poets, the module within which Sherman appears:
Tremblay, Tony, James William Johnson, and Alexandra Cogswell. “Confederation Poets: Background and Context.” New Brunswick Literature Curriculum in English. Fredericton: UNB Libraries, 2020.