The Tantramar Revisited


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

Background and Context

The pun on the title of this module is both intentional and apt: intentional because sites of literary ferment do actually move – and did move to the Tantramar region as a result of a confluence of events at Mount Allison University in the 1960s – and apt because of the powerful influence of Charles G.D. Roberts (and his famous poem, “The Tantramar Revisited”) in New Brunswick literature. It is therefore apt that a short-lived but intense moment in New Brunswick literature would assert itself on the marshes that Roberts’ poem and residency had made famous.

Moments of this sort, of course, are not neatly defined or demarcated in literary history. And so is the case with the Tantramar moment. In the mid 1960s in New Brunswick, high modernist technique was still being refined among UNB’s Fiddlehead poets, and the confessional work of Elizabeth Brewster and Alden Nowlan was still maturing. In addition, distinct rumblings from Moncton were sounding the imminent arrival of an Acadian literary renaissance. However, it was in the sleepy university town of Sackville that a group of writers emerged in the 1960s and 70s that lent another distinct element to the literature of this province.

Critic Ann Munton suggests a parallel between the rise of literary regionalism in Canada and the rise of a similar regionalism in New Brunswick’s Tantramar area. Such a rise, she asserts, echoing the dominant Canadian critics of the post-war period, was natural for a country of Canada’s size and geographic diversity. We are a country of regions held together by an always-tenuous federalism that is political and legislative before it is cultural. Canadians therefore do not self identify as “Canadians” but rather as Maritimers, Newfoundlanders, Quebecois, Franco Ontarians, etc. Our country is too big and too diverse for mono-culturalism. We are the mosaic, not the melting pot, and we take pride in the patchwork quilt that is the Canada of many colours and styles. What do we have in common? Universal health care, hockey, a national anthem, and a shared history of negotiation for compromise. How do we differ? The answer is too lengthy to even contemplate.

Ironically, Canada’s centennial in 1967 legitimized that sense of our diversity. It was the first time many Canadians actually saw and contemplated the Canada of difference. That Canada was on full display at Expo ’67 and at many other celebrations of our first 100 years. It was also on display in July 1969 when the Apollo 11 mission landed on the moon, the significance of the event reverberating in ways few people could have imagined. The lasting importance of that event had nothing to do with technological advance or American supremacy but in providing us with the first bird’s-eye view of ourselves. It was a “mirror-stage” moment as psychoanalysts define it: it destroyed the ingrown “parish” or flat-earth view we had of ourselves and replaced that with a sense of the richness and immensity of our global world. Just as infancy ends when the child first sees itself “externally” in the mirror (as differentiated from the mother, and whole, therefore a “self”) so did our national infancy end when we saw, reflected in NASA’s images, our country in broad relief. We saw a country stretched laterally between two oceans – a country as large as a continent. We are a country of constituent parts, those images said, with each part dependent on the other. So developed the sense of Canada as a constellation of interdependent regions.

Louis Robichaud’s intense focus on New Brunswick since taking office in 1960 meant that the province, too, had undergone a number of actual and perceptual changes. In as much as New Brunswick had a singularity as an Anglophone, Loyalist, Tory bastion of gentleman statesmen and farmers – and it did have some of that – that singularity was largely quashed by Robichaud’s reforms. Though he did centralize the province’s bureaucracy in the capital, his policies on language and governance called attention to the diversity of New Brunswick: the fact that it was English and French, urban and rural, industrial and agricultural, coastal and wooded, rich and poor, etc. Like Canada, it was a quilt of many colours – and just as Saskatchewan or Manitoba, for Maritimers, may as well have been another country, so were Bathurst and Edmundston foreign to residents of Fredericton and Woodstock.

The mix of global breadth, difference, and dependency had a curious effect in Canada and New Brunswick in the 1960s: it reinforced the sense of place, turning the idea of place from parochial possession (that experience which individuals held uniquely) to universal inheritance (that experience which all citizens, living in diverse geographies, shared). In a rapidly expanding and increasingly global world, “place” became a common currency, a fact that licensed artists to treat their places aesthetically. When that aesthetic treatment was done well, even the most exotic of places was recognizable, for all people, regardless of origin, were members of a human family, and each had the experience of roots. In New Brunswick, where the aesthetic practice of universalizing the particular had been ongoing since the Confederation Poets, and where the practice had actually lent itself to national definition, there was a thorough understanding of how place-based regional expression signaled national maturity. It is not surprising, then, that a small group of writers around Sackville took up the challenge to remake the place that Roberts had already put on the world’s literary map.

Where Roberts’ speaker in “The Tantramar Revisited” telescoped the Tantramar of his youth at a safe distance, choosing, in the end, not to examine first hand all that the winds of chance and change had marred, the Sackville poets were scientists of place, examining one slide after another to discover what their strange and unique place was. As Ann Munton writes, “While Roberts used ‘his telescope,’” the Sackville poets, and certainly Douglas Lochhead, “like[d] to get under the earth . . . the deeper the mud the better” (qtd. in Munton 256).

The question that remains is “why Sackville for this development?” There are three main reasons: first, because of its storied and geographically unique location. Sackville sits at the entrance to the Bay of Fundy’s Tantramar marshlands, one of the unique ecosystems in Canada. The grasslands and bays of the Tantramar constitute a New Brunswick place unlike any other, a place where landscape insists itself on the psyche. The Tantramar area is thus “entrance” both literally and figuratively.

Second, Sackville is home to a university, always an incubator for intellectuals and artists. In the case of Mount Allison, there had been a long history of accommodating pictorial representations of place. Since 1895, the Owens Art Gallery had been a central focus of the campus, not only housing the work of many of the country’s finest visual artists but also being the anchor for fine arts instruction at the Mount Allison Ladies’ College. In 1965, the Gardiner Fine Arts Building was constructed next door to the Owens Gallery to house the Department of Fine Arts, which generated considerable momentum on campus. From the mid 1940s to 1973, renowned Canadian artist Alex Colville and his family lived on the edge of campus, Colville having graduated from Mount Allison’s Fine Arts program in 1942. He was later employed as a professor in the Fine Arts Department from 1946 to 1963. Many of his important works were painted during this period. Sackville, then, had a history of artists working close to its remarkable landscapes.

Finally, in 1966, British-born, American-educated poet John Thompson, newly minted with a PhD in Comparative Literature, arrived at Mount Allison to teach in the English Department. In short order, he took up residence in Wood Point, a small community close to Charles G.D. Roberts’ childhood home of Westcock. Seven kilometers southwest of Sackville, his home overlooked the Bay of Fundy’s Cumberland Basin. At Wood Point Thompson began his intense poetic preoccupation with the Tantramar landscape.

Thompson was a central and influential figure in what became a Tantramar movement of writers and artists. Brilliant, driven, controversial, and irascible, he attracted devotees and enemies who, in equal measure, and sometimes despite themselves, advanced his aesthetic. And while it cannot be said that his energies sustained a long-lived movement, they did certainly influence an ecological approach to the literature of New Brunswick.

Work Cited

Munton, Ann. “Return, Toronto to the Tantramar: Regional Poetics, the Long Poem, and Douglas Lochhead.” The Atlantic Anthology: Volume 3, Critical Essays. Ed. Terry Whalen. Charlottetown, PE: Ragweed/ECW Press, 1985. 251-261.

What to Expect in the Literature

New Brunswick’s Tantramar poets literally “revisited” and advanced the environment-as-total-field perspective of the earlier Confederation poets. Whereas the confessional poets (Alden Nowlan and Elizabeth Brewster) placed human vulnerabilities at the centre of that total field, the Tantramar group redoubled interest in landscape-as-landscape, thus re-mythologizing New Brunswick space in ways similar to how Tantramar painter Alex Colville did – and as later photographer Thaddeus Holownia would do.

Their work seeks to enter landscape; that is, to enter into dialogue with an environment that is not just dominant but, because of its configuration (long sloping grasslands that go down to the sea), envelopes humans in its contours. Perhaps it is no coincidence that Charles G.D. Roberts pioneered his own period’s embrace of landscape in the same locale (the Parish of Westcock).

Beginning with John Thompson, the Tantramar writers entered landscape by literally going into the marsh to meet wilderness on wilderness’ terms. Attempting to articulate what they found, they brought language to its crisis point, either exhausting its potential or coming up against its limitations. Their work, as a result, is often characterized by gaps and silences, the interval or lacuna becoming the space across which humans cannot reach. In their forays into wilderness, the Tantramar writers should be read as some of the earliest pioneers of eco-poetics in Canada.

Featured Authors

  1. John Thompson
  2. Douglas Lochhead
  3. Allan Cooper

Further Reading

Creelman, David. Introduction. Weathers: Poems New and Selected. By Douglas Lochhead. Ed. David Creelman. Fredericton: Goose Lane, 2002. 11-17.

Gibson, S.M. “Tantramar Poems.” Tamarack Review 80 (Spring 1980): 72-82.

Munton, Ann. “Return, Toronto to the Tantramar: Regional Poetics, the Long Poem, and Douglas Lochhead.” The Atlantic Anthology: Volume 3, Critical Essays. Ed. Terry Whalen. Charlottetown, PE: Ragweed/ECW Press, 1985. 251-261.

Sanger, Peter. “The Real Round of the Saying: An Introduction to the Poetry of Douglas Lochhead.” The Antigonish Review 76 (Winter 1989): 129-50.

---, ed. John Thompson: Collected Poems and Translations. Fredericton: Goose Lane, 1995.

Tremblay, Tony. “‘People are made of places’: Perspectives on Region in Atlantic-Canadian Literature.” The Oxford Handbook of Canadian Literature. Ed. Cynthia Sugars. New York: Oxford UP, 2015. 657-75.

Whelan, Terry. “Atlantic Possibilities.” Essays on Canadian Writing 20 (Winter 1980-81): 32-60.

Woodcock, George. The Meeting of Time and Space: Regionalism in Canadian Literature. Edmonton, AB: NeWest Institute for Western Canadian Studies, 1981.

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 Douglas Lochhead:

Tremblay, Tony, James William Johnson, and Alexandra Cogswell. “Douglas Lochhead.” 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 Tantramar Revisited, the module within which Lochhead appears:

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