Confessional Humanism


  1. Background and Context
  2. What to Expect in the Literature
  3. Featured Authors
  4. Further Reading
  5. How to Cite

Background and Context

July 12, 1960 was an historic day in New Brunswick: for the first time in the province’s history, an Acadian, Louis Robichaud, was elected as premier of the province. During his time in office, a period that spanned a decade, Robichaud would oversee the most sweeping social and cultural reforms ever enacted in the province. A politician who believed in the people’s agenda, Robichaud legislated programs that were both controversial and progressive. The resulting changes would define the political and social climate of the province throughout the 1960s, prefiguring and contributing to the sense of optimism that swept across Canada in the years preceding and following the 1967 Canadian Centennial. Moreover, the radical sociopolitical changes effected by Robichaud’s government created a social milieu that fostered a new poetic mode in the province, one that sought to provide honest, personal, and intensely emotional portraits of the human condition of New Brunswickers.

Prior to the reforms enacted by Robichaud’s Liberal government, New Brunswick was characterized by an uneven distribution of wealth that created a severe disjunction between the poor northern part of the province and the much richer southern cities of Moncton, Fredericton, and Saint John. The divide was not only north and south, but also rural and urban, and French and English. Tar-paper shacks, unpaved roads, and a lack of access to sufficient healthcare and social services meant that northern New Brunswickers in the 1950s were severely disadvantaged when compared to their neighbours in the south of the province. The existence of 1300 county tax councils, which were responsible for governing and funding the province’s educational and health care systems, ensured that cities and wealthier counties had access to superior healthcare and education than did more rural and less affluent counties.

Having come from the poor, rural community of Saint-Antoine, New Brunswick, Robichaud was well aware of regional disparity in the province and set out to overhaul the province’s economic and social organization. Robichaud legislated the New Brunswick Official Languages Act, which made French an official language; he built Université de Moncton, the heart of Francophone pride; he modernized the province’s liquor laws; he paved roads in northern New Brunswick; and he standardized regional and economic development so that it was centralized in a provincial government bureaucracy and not arbitrarily spread across municipalities, where it was at the whim of political pressures. Robichaud’s most significant achievement as premier, however, was the Equal Opportunity Program. The program expanded the role of the provincial government by abolishing county governments, placing healthcare, education, welfare, and justice under the control of the provincial government. This centralization of control, combined with the introduction of equalization grants to municipalities unable to provide adequate services, ensured that all New Brunswickers, including those from the province’s most economically depressed areas, would have equal access to government services. The logic was simple: if everyone was paying the same amount of tax, then everyone, within reason, should receive equivalent services. The English overlords, however, were incensed, claiming in the largest provincial dailies in the south that Robichaud was “robbing Peter to pay Pierre,” a clear strike at the premier's Acadian roots and at the disadvantaged populations he was trying to assist.

In 1967, the same year that Robichaud was elected for his third term on a platform that included the Equal Opportunity Program, Alden Nowlan won the Governor General’s Award for his collection Bread, Wine and Salt. The appearance of Nowlan’s collection alongside Robichaud’s Equal Opportunity Program was not coincidence; both drew on and expressed a deeply humanistic ethos. Just as Robichaud had sought to put the people’s agenda before all else, so too did Nowlan seek to articulate the lives and experiences of ordinary New Brunswickers: “Poetry is all about people,” remarked Nowlan, “and to hell with literature” (qtd. in Cogswell 40).

As his comment suggests, Nowlan rejected the high modernism that had characterized New Brunswick poetry of the 1940s and 50s, opting instead for a poetry that was “confessional.” Confessional poetry, which is verse that incorporates the author’s personal feelings and elements of his or her own life, rejects impersonality (a tenet of T.S. Eliot’s modernism) and reduces the distance between the author and the speaker of the poem. By adopting a more personal voice, confessional poetry also allows the poet to use more colloquial and idiomatic language, making the poetry more immediately relevant and more accessible to the average reader. These qualities allowed Nowlan to give expression to the humanism that was at the core of his poetic vision.

Nowlan was not alone in pioneering a poetry of confessional humanism. Two years after the publication of Bread, Wine and Salt, Elizabeth Brewster published her collection Passage of Summer: Selected Poems (1969). An early member of the Bliss Carman Society, Brewster had begun publishing in The Fiddlehead, where her verse reflected the influence of high modernists, including her mentors, P.K. Page and Alfred G. Bailey. However, during the late-1950s and 60s, around the time she met and befriended Nowlan, her verse began to explore personal issues more explicitly. Often relating private experiences (“Twenty-four years ago / I tried to kill myself” writes Brewster in “In Favour of Being Alive”), Brewster uses personal reflection and memory to create a verse that is conversational and comprehensible, but which also communicates with subtlety and nuance the basic decency and fundamental dignity of all people. It is this dignity that years of have-not status had denied to New Brunswickers.

Though Nowlan’s poetry is formally and thematically different from Brewster’s, the two poets initiated a poetry in New Brunswick that was confessional and humanist. Moreover, their shared commitment to communicating the lived experiences of ordinary people in clear language and accessible verse was born out of the same humanist ethos that underscored the socio-cultural transformation of the province under Robichaud’s Liberal government. As such, their verse heralded both a new movement in New Brunswick poetry and the social, political, and cultural modernization of the province itself. Their impact on the poetry of New Brunswick and Canada more broadly was immense, and, as such, Brewster and Nowlan are often considered the greatest New Brunswick poets of the twentieth century.

Work Cited

Cogswell, Fred. “Alden Nowlan as Regional Atavist.” Encounters and Explorations: Canadian Writers and European Critics. Ed. Franz K. Stanzel and Waldemar Zacharasiewicz. Germany: Königshausen & Newmann, 1986. 37-55.

What to Expect in the Literature

Where the Confederation poets focussed on the intersections of landscape and psyche, musing about environment as a total field (that which was both inside and outside the individual), the confessional poets focus on how the social environment shapes the individual. For the latter group, environment includes class, age, faith, family, gender, and other social determinants. Anticipating and coincident with the reforms of New Brunswick social renovator Louis Robichaud, the province’s first elected Acadian premier, the confessional poets write about the vulnerable, the forgotten, and the disadvantaged. Whether the teenaged mother in Alden Nowlan’s “Beginning” and “It’s Good to be Here,” the bag lady in his “Daughter of Zion,” or the footnoted economic migrants in Elizabeth Brewster’s “River Song,” the subjects at the centre of this module’s poetry are what earlier critics might have called “the unpoetic” – that is, they are not beautiful, powerful, learned, or rich. What makes them apt subjects for poetry, however, and thus poetic, is that they are human. The great advance of Nowlan and Brewster, then, is their exploration of both the “how” and the “why” of personal disenfranchisement in the province.

While Nowlan and Brewster’s themes appeared in some of the work of their predecessors – Charles G.D. Roberts’ treatment of leaving and return, for example, or Francis Sherman’s preoccupation with ennui (see Confederation Poets) – there was always a measure of intellectual or emotional distance between those earlier writers and the suffering they portrayed. By contrast, Nowlan and Brewster’s intensely personal portrayals offer poignant, sympathetic treatments that have no trace of artifice and, as significantly, few equivalents in Canadian literature.

Readers should note the situational aspects of the work of the confessional poets, and ponder the appropriateness of such work in a “have-not” province. Again, linkages to the earlier notions of the environment as total field, an idea pioneered in the work of New Brunswick’s Confederation poets, is useful for understanding contemporary literary humanism in a provincial context.

Featured Authors

  1. Elizabeth Brewster
  2. Alden Nowlan

Further Reading

Belliveau, Joel. “Acadian New Brunswick’s Ambivalent Leap into the Canadian Liberal Order.” Creating Postwar Canada: Community, Diversity, and Dissent, 1945-75. Ed. Robert Rutherdale and Magda Fahrni. Vancouver: U of British Columbia P, 2008. 61-88.

Cormier, Michel. Louis J. Robichaud: A Not So Quiet Revolution. Moncton: Saye, 2002.

The Robichaud Era, 1960-70: Colloquium Proceedings. Maritime Series, Monographs 10. Moncton, NB: The Canadian Institute for Research on Regional Development, 2001.

How to Cite

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 Elizabeth Brewster:

Tremblay, Tony, James William Johnson, and Alexandra Cogswell. “Elizabeth Brewster.” 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 Confessional Humanism, the module within which Brewster appears:

Tremblay, Tony, James William Johnson, and Alexandra Cogswell. “Confessional Humanism: Background and Context.” New Brunswick Literature Curriculum in English. Fredericton: UNB Libraries, 2020.