Sunday, 31 July 2016
By W. Lacey Amy
From Collier’s magazine, January 20 1912.
Down on the Battery, Where Cod Flakes, Goats, and Children Make the Cliff Sides Picturesque
The Battery is that quaint suburb of St. John’s, in that oldest colony of the Empire, a scene of cod flakes and children and goats and rugged climbs, of intricate traceries, of flake-covered paths and stairways in the rock, of an undecided roadway, belligerently obstructed by houses in all degrees of whiteness, of odors and flies.
Newfoundland is synonymous with cod; and to advertise this fact its leading city has leased its front yard to the cod fishermen. To be sure, nothing but a fisherman and a goat could make use of a mountainside of rock that seemed to give no foothold, but under the conditions that developed after the former had established himself, the evidences of wall-like rock are hidden under marvelously constructed flakes that push back into the mountain and totter precariously at the front on poles that appear to be kept up by faith and a tradition that they cannot fall.
The Real City
You enter St. John’s by what is modestly called the Narrows; and the first thing—and the second and the third, and so on—you see is not a city-crowned hill and a steeple-broken sky line, but a rugged mountain of rock with its foot hidden behind a wonderful, disjointed, unreasoning tangle of poles, up and down and across, with perhaps the peep of a house corner or gable window. At first glance it is ugly in its malformation and untidiness. At second glance it reveals enough to be interesting; and when you cut out one of the stereotyped trips of St. John’s and struggle through the entrance to the Battery road you begin to feel that at last you have come to the real city.
Fishermen have always had an attraction for me, and when I inquired where I could get in touch with them, I was invariably directed to Quidi Vidi, Newfoundland’s show fishing village. Nobody in St. John’s thought of the Battery. Probably some artist or litterateur has dilated learnedly upon the quaintness and beauty of Quidi Vidi, and it is more inconvenient to reach; and no one with a name has found the obscure street entrance to the Battery. But I had dutifully climbed Signal Hill, had “done” Quidi Vidi, Topsail, the dry-dock, the golf links, etc., in recognition of what was demanded of the tourist; and still no one had steered me into the Battery.
So one morning—the day after the Regatta—I started off by myself with nothing in view but the Battery. And I found it—of which fact I have reason to be proud, for the entrance to the only street it possesses is at the end of a dirty fish wharf, close to the water. It has no pointing finger or signboard; rather everything, including the police-court records, tends to direct one elsewhere. A weather-browned house standing at an angle that must have been haphazard forms one side of the entrance. About five feet away is the corner of an equally unsightly fence, streaking off at a slant that is as irresponsible as the house wall. It looks like the accidental provision for an entrance to the only door in that house, but a wheeled vehicle of some sort had squeezed through and I took chances and dived apologetically between the corners. Had I been hailed I would have retreated precipitately; but beyond the first turn there were indubitable evidences of a general passage of human feet and I felt less lone-some in my trespass.
Up a slight slope, down another, and up again, and I was in the midst of the flakes, beside, and overhead. Every available nook was flake covered, and the houses had to be satisfied with second choice. Children swarmed around me—also flies, both characteristic of the Battery.
Much of the roadway ran beneath the flakes, and from the side ran more flakes out over the water. A group of children burst up seemingly out of the flakes themselves, and then, upon closer investigation, I discovered that down there was a network of paths, with steps cut in the rock, assisted here and there by a crude bit of woodwork. Gates swung in the center of steep stairways, either to keep the babies out of the water or to designate the limits of a squatter’s domain. And down there was the real life of the place. Fishermen half-heartedly climbed down the stagings and cleaned their boats a hundred feet below where I stood gazing through a network of poles and drying fish.
Women and children dodged backward and forward across the narrow openings through which I looked, calling to each other of the stranger that had broken into their seclusion. Two little girls came toiling up the countless stairs to where I stood, opening and closing the gates as they grew larger and larger in approach, I stepped back and placed my camera, calling to them to stay where they were so that the picture would catch them.
“Does it cost nothing?” asked the larger of the girls.
I laughed in sympathy with the mild joke, as I thought it.
“There was an Eyetalian at the races yesterday charged twenty cents to take yer picture.” she explained, gratified with the abundance of my philanthropy in doing it for nothing. Then I remembered to have seen a foreigner at the Regatta races with one of those cannonlike affairs by which he supplied a tintype for twenty cents.
Of a Sudden the road came to an end and I was forced to struggle up a steep path that disappeared around the face of the cliff over the water’s edge. I had remembered that beyond, nearer the mouth of the Narrows, was another stretch of fishing town, and this was the only path that could lead to it. A man from the city sauntered out on one of the highest stages and proceeded to undress, and I climbed down with some awe of him who would leap from that height into the icy water of the deep harbor. He leaped calmly enough, and again, and then hustled into his warm clothes. Feeling cooler in sympathy, I reached the path again, only to find that it ended abruptly in a sheer cliff edge. The closest investigation failed to reveal any way of reaching the village beyond, and I climbed downward to look under the stages and cod flakes to see the life more intimately.
It was dark down there, and cool and damp, and fishy and mysterious. The fishermen stood out at the edges of the stages in sunlight, working at their boats, or cleaning out their fish houses; and out of the darkness children and women would come to draw water and to exchange a word of banter with the men. Clothing was drying wherever the sun could reach, trousers and smocks and sweaters and mitts that had been soaked with the spray of the fishing boats; the house washing flaunted up above in the streaming sunlight. At each staging a boat lay tied, or a sculling fisherman would push the nose of a boat into an empty place, and after tying it clamber up the ten feet of poles to the level above.
Again in the upper path I passed back, looking for a way up the cliff to reach the village beyond. Two girls lay outstretched near a spring that bubbled from the rock, waiting for their pitchers to fill, while I took my life in my hands and plowed up a field of loose rock that needed only a glance to roll on to the water below. A hundred feet up I reached a path, and, walking around, came in full view of the scene I was after. But still another dangerous climb to a higher level was necessary to place me on the path that led down to the flakes just within the Narrows.
The Fisherman’s Request
Down in the roadway a fisherman besought a picture of his cod flakes and wife (the order is his), and to get it I was forced to pass through a fish house that still retained many evidences of the last catch. Across a rickety pole staging I stumbled, and down the irregular ladder of poles to a boat waiting below. And the woman, with a baby in her arms, came out on the flakes twenty-five feet above the staging, and stood on its very edge, with a straight drop of thirty-five feet to the water below.
“I can’t get anyone to come over here to take the picture,” he remarked. “I’ve never had a picture of them before.” And he waved his arm at the flakes rather than at the family above.
He rowed me around the harbor, slouching in the stern of the boat and sculling, as is the custom of the fishermen, but putting up a small sail whenever our direction made the use of the slight breeze possible. And he talked of the fishing, and the ambition that lived with him always of owning a gasoline engine to put in his fishing boat so that he would not be dependent upon the uncertain wind for reaching and leaving the fishing grounds.
“You don’t know of anything in your country, do you?" he asked somewhat pitifully, as if every traveler must carry a few loose positions in his pocket suitable for a man whose life for generations had opened each year with the preparation of the net or tackle, and ended with the delivery of the last quintal of cod.
Later I met the rest of the dissatisfied returning at noon from their work in the city. Already there was a change in their faces from the new contact with life, and to me it was not very pleasant. Dreamy desire had given place to frank discontent. The scanty, unconcerned attire of the fisherman was replaced by the mixture that denotes a pocket unable to keep up with the ambitions. The slow, loose saunter of the lifelong fisherman was gone and had come the definite, peevish step of commerce. My last impression of the Battery, as I brushed through between the corner of the drab house and the corner of the untidy fence, was less agreeable than the first. But before I left I turned to the utmost plank of the near-by wharf and looked again into the life under the flakes, and saw the children playing up and down the half-hidden paths, flashing in and out through the streaks of sunlight.
From The Canadian Magazine XLV1II, No. 1, Toronto, November, 1916
Editor’s Note—The present essay and those to follow it will form the second series of historico-critical articles contributed to The Canadian Magazine by Dr. Logan The essays are based on his special series of lectures on the Literary History and the Literature of Canada, delivered in December, 1915, at Acadia University, Wolfville, N.S. The lectures had the distinction of being the first of the kind to be delivered at any university in the Dominion. They are in preparation for publication in book form. In the meantime, the material selected from them for publication in The Canadian Magazine presents re-views, that is, new and revised views, of some unrecognized salients in the literary history and the literature of Canada. The essays to follow the present article are entitled: Canadian Fictionists and Other Creative Prose Writers; The Second Renaissance of Canadian Nativistic Poetry; Canadian Poets and Poetesses as Lyrists of Romantic Love; and Canadian Poets as Verbal Colourists and Musicians. Either in theme, point of view, or treatment, or all three, the essays are novel and original.
IN historico-critical reviews or appreciations of literature, as distinguished from essays in belles-lettres, what excites intellectual interest and engages the fancy is not so much the persons and the times considered by a literary historian or critic as the novelty in his point of view, originality in his angle of vision in treating the poets and the prose-writers of a given country and period or periods. Until the publication of Mr. T. G. Marquis’s illuminating and genuinely constructive monograph, “English-Canadian Literature”, (Toronto, 1913), no systematic critical treatment of the origins, evolution, and æsthetic status of Canadian letters had been attempted. To be sure, Sir John Bourinot and Dr. Archibald MacMurchy had published excellent appreciative surveys of Canadian literature. But these surveys, as also the many magazine essays on the same theme by other critics, were annalistic, compendial, and quite without any philosophical, systematic, or even distinctive method of treatment. Moreover, the principal Canadian anthologists, Dr. Dewart, Mr. W. D. Lighthall, and Dr. Rand, have kept almost wholly to the annalistic method of reviewing the salient persons and themes in the poetic literature of the Dominion, as if these compilers and editors had not critically observed an evolution in it from bad or indifferent to good, from good to better, and from better to excellent and fine in imaginitive conception and in technical artistry. The magazine essayists, on the other hand, considered only individual Canadian men and women of letters, or discrete groups of them, without having any regard to their æsthetic origins, evolution, place and status in the corpus of Canadian literature or of literature in general. What the essayists wrote about the poets and prose writers of the Dominion was, for the most part, uncritical knocks or boosts, based largely on the critics’ personal antipathies or preferences. Until, then, the publication of Mr. Marquis’s monograph, indigenous literary criticism of Canadian poetry and prose was unoriginal in point of view, and unphilosophical and unsystematic in method. The present essay and those to follow it have nothing specially to recommend them, save that their point of view is original, their method philosophical and strictly critical, and that, incidentally, they attempt to remove certain stubborn superstitions which still persist, even in Mr. Marquis’s mind, regarding the literary origins, genius, place, status and distinction of notable Canadian men and women of letters.
Turning now to my theme in this essay, The Significance of Nova Scotia in the Literary History of Canada, I remark that Nova Scotia has always taken a leading—in some respects, the leading—part in promoting and developing the spiritual, including the literary, culture of the people of the Dominion. Somewhat from priority of colonization and propinquity to Great Britain and the United States, but more from the moral energy of her immigrant population and the loyalty of their descendants to the intellectual interests and traditions of their forebears, especially the Highland Scots and Irish, though the descendants of the English settlers and of the immigrants from New England, New York and Pennsylvania who came to the Province in the latter half of the eighteenth century also played their important role, Nova Scotia was the first of the English speaking Provinces which were eventually confederated into the Dominion of Canada to initiate and advance popular and university education. Also, in religious education, and in conceiving and carrying out big constructive movements in church organization and missionary enterprise, Nova Scotia took the initiative and has always been in the van of progress. Again, to her enduring glory, Nova Scotia has the distinction of being the home and inspiration of the first strictly nativistic literature produced in any of the four English-speaking Provinces that at Confederation formed the original Dominion of Canada; of being, secondly, the æsthetic, habitat and the inspiration of the leader of the First Renaissance of Canadian nativistic and national literature, chiefly poetry; and of being, finally, the homeland, if not always also the inspiration of the initiators, or the most gifted and conspicuous leaders, of the Second Renaissance of Canadian nativistic and national poetry—a literary movement, however, that has engaged at the same time the genius of the younger men and women of letters in all the English-speaking Provinces of the Dominion.
It will be observed that I have applied the epithets “nativistic” and “national” to different periods and phases of the literary history of Canada. I have employed this distinction for good reasons. In the pioneer and the colonial periods, in all stages up to, and even for a decade or more subsequent to, Confederation, there were in Canada many verse-makers and prose writers who were not born in any of the Provinces of what is now the Dominion of Canada, though some of them were bred and educated in one or other of these Provinces. Their poetry and prose, whether inspired by Canadian life and scenes or not, are rightly to be distinguished as colonial or British rather than as Canadian. On the other hand, while, prior to Confederation and for a decade or more after that event, there were writers who were born and bred in Upper Canada and the Maritime Provinces, and who now solely by virtue of historic retrospect in which the Canada that was once merely possible is seen made actual in the Canada of to-day, may be denoted Canadians, these writers got their literary themes and inspiration almost wholly from experience or phenomenon other than that which was (provincially) Canadian. So that to-day it is at least inept to categorize such poetry and prose as were produced in the Provinces of Canada, prior to Confederation, as Canadian in the authentic connotation of the term; and it is certainly absurd to apply to them, or to even post-Confederation Canadian literature, until the rise of the Robertsian group of poets and prose writers in the Dominion, the epithet national. This literature, produced in the nineteenth century from 1830 to 1887 (the year of the publication of Roberts’s “In Divers Tones”) by writers born and bred and schooled in the Provinces is strictly to be denoted as only nativistic provincial literature of Canada. It is nativistic, but not national, because the writers were natives of the as yet unconfederated Provinces, because either their subjects or themes, or their inspiration, or both, were chiefly indigenous to the writers’ respective homelands, and because what they wrote was really literature. On the other hand, the poetry and prose produced by the Robertsian group of native-born authors from 1887 to 1903, and from 1903 to the present, are both nativistic and national literature, and are to be categorized as strictly and genuinely Canadian in the inclusive connotation of the term.
Now, take a pen and on the geographical map of Nova Scotia draw an ellipse, beginning at Windsor, passing the line through Grand Pré and Wolfville, then across the western end of the Basin of Minas, next up to the Tantramar marshes, and back again to Windsor. That elliptical line and that ellipse of country embracing idyllic town, romantic village, valley-land, storied bluff and mount, haunted waters, misty marsh, and glamorous fields and skies, is the original Literary Map of Nova Scotia, and, by implication, of Canada. It all conscribes the pristine home, scenes, and inspiration of the first nativistic literature of Nova Scotia and the first national literature of the Dominion of Canada.
The first native Nova Scotian author of consequence and the first to make the beginnings of what, had he but inspired others or had followers, would have become an original and genuine nativistic literature in Nova Scotia, and thus in Canada, was Thomas Chandler Haliburton, born at Windsor, N.S., 1796. Now in that year, it happens, in the Niagara district there was born another creative man of letters whose writings are included in the corpus of Canadian literature, namely, Major John Richardson. Haliburton and Richardson were active in creative letters (prose-fiction) during the same period. Richardson published his romance, “Wacousta; or The Prophecy”, in 1832, and its sequel, “The Canadian Brothers; or The Prophecy Fulfilled”, in 1840. He is, therefore, to be regarded as “the father” of nativistic romantic fiction in Canada. On the other hand, Haliburton published his chief and most popular work of fiction, “the Clockmaker; or The Sayings and Doings of Sam Slick of Slickville”, serially in 1835-36, and in book form at Halifax and London in 1837, 1838, and 1840. Haliburton is, therefore, to be regarded as “the father” of the nativistic fiction of characterization and the criticism of society and manners, and also of nativistic humour in Canada. As Alfred Russell and Charles Darwin, working independently and apart, simultaneously formulated the law or principle of organic evolution, so Haliburton and Richardson, writing independently and a thousand miles apart, created at the same time the first nativistic fiction produced in Canada, but with this difference that Haliburton is the first and only creator of a unique and distinct species of fictional characterization and speech or humour.
To those who would, therefore, regard Richardson as entitled to the distinction of being, as it were, the contemporaneous co-creator of nativistic fiction in Canada, and to an equal place beside Haliburton, I must submit two counts that give Haliburton the chief position of honour in producing the first nativistic literature in Canada. Without question Haliburton was the more versatile and original genius. But aside from that fact, there is another important truth, the significance of which Canadian literary historians and critics seem to have missed, or not to have divined. Though synchronously, as noted, Haliburton and Richardson created, so far as Canada is concerned, two distinct species of fictional prose, Haliburton takes precedence over Richardson in time and in literary origination, by being the first systematic writer born in any of the old unfederated Provinces of Canada to see, with poetic vision, the romance in Nova Scotian ,that is, Canadian, history, and to tell, with the interest, colour and emotional appeal almost of a work of pure fiction, the pathetic story of the expulsion of the Acadians, as he did, in his “Historical and Statistical Account of Nova Scotia”, published in 1829, or three years before Richardson’s “Wacousta”. At once real history and winning romance, though, of course, not an historical romance of fiction, this work by Haliburton was the essential beginning of what, had he had imitators and followers, might have proved to be a permanent and genuine nativistic literature of romantic history in Canada. As it is, it is the beginning of nativistic creative literature in Canada.
How abortive in laying the foundations of a nativistic creative literature—a literature in the three species of history, fiction and humour—Haliburton’s genius and writings proved to be is one of the “curiosities” of the literary history of Canada, and a phenomenon by itself in general literary history. Haliburton was one born out of his time, or born too soon, to have his gifts perpetuated by influencing creatively other Nova Scotian, or, later, Canadian men of letters. So far as creative literature in Canada is concerned, Haliburton simply happened.
It has been held, however, that by a trick of fate which has created a most astounding literary anomaly, Haliburton had considerable influence on American letters. He has been called “the founder of the American school of humour”, “the father of American humour”. That is a very uncritical belief and a superstition. For the present let the belief stand as sound. Now, if it be true, as some allege, that Longfellow and Parkman read Haliburton’s “Historical and Statistical Account of Nova Scotia”, and that their reading of the work inspired the one to write in immortal verse the story of the winsome Acadian maid, Evangeline, and furnished the other with his singularly engaging method of writing history, then Haliburton may be called also “the father” of American romantic poetry and of American romantic history. Has any scholarly and reputable critic yet been found who has maintained such a thesis as that Haliburton influenced the creative genius and the methods of Longfellow and Packman? I can discover no such critic. Moreover, if Haliburton had really in anywise influenced American men of letters, poets, historians or humourists, we surely should expect to see the fact published in Professor Barrett Wendell’s supposedly inclusive and accurate “Literary History of America”. So interesting and significant a fact, if there were such a literary fact, would not have escaped the notice and acknowledgment of Professor Wendell. Yet not only does he not record any influence of Haliburton on American letters, but also he does not even mention the name of the Nova Scotian historian and humourist. But on this whole question, and particularly on the superstition that Haliburton is “the father of American humour”, I shall write more fully and critically in my later essay on “Canadian Fictionists and Other Creative Prose Writers”.
While indeed Haliburton’s genius, as expressed in “The Clockmaker”, was fitted to originate in Canada a nativistic literature of humour, the odd fact is that, virtually, there is no such literary species in the Dominion, that is, no published works of humour by native-born Canadian authors which have the quality of genuine literature. George T. Lanigan, had he lived, might have created a Canadian humour as such. Mr. Stephen Leacock is brilliantly striving—and for his part is succeeding in his endeavours—to create a Canadian literature of humour, but he is not Canadian-born, or is only, as Mr. Marquis puts it, “a graft on the Canadian literary tree”; and, besides, Mr. Leacock writes his humour considerably after the American manner—satiric burlesque, deliberate commingling of serious conduct and character with extravagant nonsense.
All, then, that can be said to give Haliburton his rightful place and distinction in the literary history of Canada is that, had the times and the culture of his homeland, Nova Scotia, been ripe to receive and to be inspired by his genius and literary works, he would have been “the father” or founder of a nativistie literature in the three species of romantic history, character fiction, and humour in Canada; and that, secondly, in spite of fate’s refusal to give his literary genius, labours, and vogue this glory, he has the greater glory of having been a creative writer sui generis—the first native son of any of the Provinces which now form the Dominion of Canada to produce original literary works that have enduring quality and a unique place not only in the corpus of Canadian literature, but also in that of English literature.
The first native-born Canadian constructively to make real and permanent a nativistie and national literature strictly as such was Charles G. D. Roberts. If, as a matter of fact, he was born in New Brunswick seven years before Confederation, and educated at the provincial university, it is much more, or altogether, significant that Roberts was spiritually reborn, æsthetically re-educated, and became imaginatively creative at Windsor. Nova Scotia. For ten years, beginning in 1885, or two years before the publication of his epoch-making volume of verse, “In Divers Tones”, while professor of literature at King’s College, he dwelt and communed with nature intimately, visited the haunts of earthly beauty, fed his senses with the pure delights of field and stream, lake and marsh, woodland and sky, tuned his heart to hear, with peculiar meaning and joy, the cries of the denizens of the wild-land, the murmurings, dronings, and shrillings of insects, and the myriad sweet songs of the birds, and lived over again in fancy and peaceful revery all the rare moments of choice sensation and spiritual ecstasy experienced in the gardens of happy existence. From and in Nova Scotia, then—from that lovely area of country conscribing Windsor, the Land of Evangeline, the Gaspereau Valley, the Basin of Minas, the Tantramar marshes, and the district round again to Windsor, Roberts produced the first and considerable of the best of his nativistic and national poetry, and began the systematic fluctuation of his genius in lyrism, romantic tale-telling, novel writing, and animal fiction which have given him international fame and vogue, and which have established for him a world-wide reputation as the most original, versatile and artistic—the very foremost—of living Canadian men of letters.
Besides being the first and most eminent of the systematic “makers” of a genuine Canadian nativistic literature, with national “notes” in it, Roberts is, in several other ways, to be regarded as “the father” of the post-Confederation, that is, the strictly Canadian, literature of the Dominion. As in Roberts’s own case, so, wholly through Roberts, Nova Scotia became the inspiration of Bliss Carman, the second most versatile and artistic of living Canadian men of letters. This happened because at the Roberts home in Windsor, Carman spent several of his growing, most impressionable, and most receptive years, coming directly under the pervasive influence—the aesthetic culture and the tutorship in poetic technique of the elder poet, and in company with him making from Windsor as a centre excursions over the lovely and glamorous scenes and haunts of beauty near and beyond the Roberts home. There young Carman’s senses and imagination began to discover the beauty and glory of land and sea; and eventually he was inspired to emulate the elder poet, and thus to begin the writing of the winning lyrism for which Carman has become noted as a poet sui generis. Roberts, then, is the literary father of Bliss Carman. Further, having been the first Canadian of consequence to recognize, in a practical way, the poetic genius of Lampman, by publishing in The Week, Toronto, the shy, young poet” first respectable verses, Roberts is to be distinguished as the literary sponsor of Lampman, and as having made the latter’s career in letters possible, just as he had, in another way, made Carman’s literary career possible. Finally, if Roberts had no formative influence on the genius of the other members of the post-Confederatian group of Canadian poets and prose writers whom I denote as the Robertsian group, he at least caused Wilfred Campbell, Frederick George Scott, Duncan Campbell Scott, and, possibly, Pauline Johnson and Miss Marshall Saunders, to care exceedingly, as he did himself, for fine craftsmanship, exquisite technical artistry, in what they wrote, whether poetry or imaginative prose. By his own fine artistry and by the influence of his example on his contemporaries, Roberts raised nativistic poetry and prose to a degree of technical finish that was never before reached, nor even attempted, by native-born Canadian men and women of letters.
Through Charles G. D. Roberts, then, and those of his contemporaries or confreres to whom, in one way or another, he was “the master”, a strictly Canadian literature—nativistic and national—began systematically to be developed in quantity and in aesthetic and artistic quality, until at length authoritative critics in England (Matthew Arnold, for instance) and in the United States (Clarence Stedman, for instance) were compelled to acknowledge that Canada possessed a really worthy corpus of original poetry and imaginative prose, beautiful or noble in spiritual substance and finely or exquisitely wrought in technique and form. As the inspirer, sponsor and leader of the first native-born group of systematic poets and prose writers of the Dominion, Roberts inaugurated the First Renaissance of Canadian letters, and is indubitably “the father” of Canadian nativistic and national literature strictly as such.
To Nova Scotia, therefore, directly through Charles G. D. Roberts and his poetry and imaginative prose, into much of which he has put the natural beauty and the romance of Acadian land, wild-life, legend, history and society, and indirectly through his formative and constructive influences on his contemporaries, belongs the unique distinction of being the original home and the inspiration of the First Renaissance of Canadian poetry and prose, and of the first genuine corpus of authentic Canadian literature. nativistic in origin and national in note.
To Nova Scotia, as I shall show in a subsequent essay, also belongs the distinction of having inaugurated the Second Renaissance of Canadian poetry. For a decade or more a school, or at least a group, of poets, unconscionable in moral and aesthetic taste and inartistic in technique, whom I have elsewhere called “The Vaudeville School of Canadian Poetry”, has had astonishing vogue in the Dominion. Their day has at length passed, and a renaissance, in the spirit of the elder Robertsian group, is now active and in the ascendant. The initiators and the most noteworthy leaders of the Second Renaissance of Canadian poetry are natives of Nova Scotia. Here, however, I may merely remark the fact, postponing the treatment of their work to a subsequent essay.
Meanwhile, to conclude: The significance of Nova Scotia in the Literary history of Canada may be signalized in a single sentence. Nova Scotia is the home and the inspiration of the first attempts to found a nativistic provincial literature in English-speaking Canada, and also of two movements which will leave to the Dominion the inestimable legacy of a genuine nativistic and national literature, aesthetically winning, artistically fine, and spiritually satisfying and elevating.
A British Eskimo
From The Veteran Magazine,
IT came to me only yesterday—the hardest blow of the war. A “returned postal packet,” and inside a letter of my own sent him several weeks ago. On its face was the soulless stamp “Deceased.”
Six years ago we met, John Shiwak and I, in the most detached part of the Empire—the hyperborean places where icebergs are born, where seal grunt along the shore, where cod run blindly into the nets of adventurous fishermen gone north in a midsummer eight weeks of perilous, comfortless, uncertain industry.
Far “down” the desolate coast of Labrador, a thousand miles north of my Newfoundland starting point, I came on him in a trifling settlement that hugged, shivering and unsteady, about a long white building, a trading post of the Hudson’s Bay Company—the merest collection of windowless boards that housed human beings only in the less harrowing summertime.
For John Shiwak was an Eskimo.
Just one week 1 knew him, and then we separated never to meet again. But in that week I came to know him, better than from a year’s acquaintance with less simple souls, and his record to his glorious end proves how well I did know him.
There, where the bitterness of ten months of the year drives the two straggling thousand human beings of half as many miles of coastline to the less grim, less bleak interior, John Shiwak had awakened to the bigness of life. He had taught himself to read and write. Every winter he trailed the hunter’s lonely round back within sound of the Grand Falls, which only a score have seen—often alone for months in weather that never emerged from zero.
And every summer, when the ice broke in June, there came out to me in Canada his winter’s diary, written wearily by the light of candle hemmed in by a hundred miles of fathomless, manless snow. And no fiction or fact of skilled writer spoke so from the heart. He was a natural poet, a natural artist, a natural narrator. In a thumb-nail dash of words he carried one straight into the clutch of the soundless Arctic.
And then came war. And even to that newless, comfortless coast it carried its message of Empire. John wrote me that he would be a “soljer.” I dismissed it as one of his many vain ambitions against which his race would raise an impossible barrier. And months later came his note from Scotland, where he was in training.
I followed him to England, but before we could meet he was in France. When, last summer, he obtained sudden leave, I was in Devon. His simple note of regret rests now like a tear on my heart.
But I have heard from him every week. He was never at home in his new career; something about it he did not quite understand. Latterly the loneliness of the life breathed from his lines. For he made no friends, in his silent, waiting way. His hunting companion was killed, and the great bereavement of it was like a strong tornado. He was cold out there, even he, the Labrador hunter. But the heavy cardigan and gloves I sent did not reach him in time. . . .
In his last letter was a great longing for home—his Eskimo father whom he had left at ten years to carve his own fortune, his two dusky sisters who were to him like creatures from an angel world, the doctor for whom he worked in Labrador in the summer time, his old hunter friends. “There will be no more letters from them until the ice breaks again,” he moaned. But the ice of a new world has broken for John.
He had earned his long rest. Out there in lonesome Snipers’ Land he lay, day after day; and the cunning that made him a hunter of fox, and marten, and otter, and bear, and wolf brought to him better game.
And all he ever asked was, “When will the war be over?” Only then would he return to his huskies and traps where few men dare a life of ice for a living almost as cold.
London Daily Mail, Jan. 11, 1918.
[John Shiwak, as is well known, was a member of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment, and was killed at Cambrai, November 21st, 1917.—Eds.]
Saturday, 30 July 2016
Part III.—‘With Canadians at the Front’
By Lacey Amy
From The Canadian Magazine, XLVIII, No. 1, Toronto, November, 1916.
Digitized by Doug Frizzle, July 2016.
IT was in the early days of the war when trench warfare was in its experimental stages. Bombing was so imperfectly organized that but forty bombers were attached to each battalion. An order came to bomb out a certain troublesome section of German trench and volunteers were called for. Captain C., a hard-drinking, hard-fighting, reckless, but very popular officer, was given charge of the operation. To the fall-in he addressed himself as follows: “Now, boys, I want twenty of you. I don’t want one that’s married; I don’t want one who doesn’t booze; I don’t want one who expects to return.” It is not an essential part of the story for my purpose that they all volunteered. What is essential is that he wanted only those who would not be missed.
“The Suicide Club” is the soldiers’ title for the bombers, and it is succinctly descriptive. There is no more dangerous work at the front. Also there is none more exciting, stimulating, satisfying. As one bomber, lying in hospital with bandaged head and a pair of useless arms and legs, put it with a chuckle: “I tell you the new No. 5 Mills makes the Fritzes squeal; you can hear ’em yelling for miles when we begin.”
That is why there is such a rush for the bombing section. The ambition of most of the Canadian soldiers is to get in with the boys who do the destruction out at the front of things; and they practise throwing with an energy that might be supposed to be fitting them rather for the safe jobs in the rear than for the post where anything from a return bomb to a machine bomb may blow them to pieces before they have had the satisfaction of hearing a single German “squeal”. The lad with the brass bomb ablaze as an insignia on his cap or tunic is happy and envied by his less fortunate companions.
Bombing is one of the many developments of this war. It is in reality a reversion to mediaeval warfare, with the addition of improvements in bombs and in the manner of handling them. Which includes the additional dangers of these improvements. Starting with but forty bombers to a battalion, the number quickly grew to two hundred and sixty. In each platoon of about fifty-four men eleven are bombers. In addition there is a battalion section of sixty and another lot of brigade bombers. In actual practice there is little distinction between the sections, save that usually the battalion group is kept in reserve.
Since the beginning of the war several varieties of bombs have been tried. The most primitive was the “hair-brush”. It was a stick the shape of a hair-brush, about the end of which was tied gun-cotton. With a lighted fuse attached, it was thrown into the enemy’s trench. The main trouble with it was that the fuse was of such uncertain duration that it was frequently returned by the Germans to explode in our trenches. Sometimes, indeed, it passed back again; and one of the specialties of the quicker witted was to grab a sputtering “hairbrush” and hurl it back before it exploded, more as a matter of personal safety than for its destructive powers among the enemy.
Another style was struck across the knee before being thrown. It was known as the “Newton Pippen”, why I do not know. The main defect in it was that it made a spark when struck over the knee and thereby located the thrower. The “fish-tail” possessed a long stick as a tail to guide its course through the air. It was a concussion bomb, and at best had the virtue of being unreturnable. Then there is the rifle grenade, which is nothing different except in delivery from the other bombs. It, too, was on the end of a stick, which was inserted in the rifle and fired. It has a range of about six hundred yards and explodes upon striking.
But the many types have narrowed down to the No. 5 Mills, a compact, convenient, destructive little affair in shape and size resembling a large goose egg. It is thrown like a baseball, and with all the gusto of a part of a great game. Its principle of operation is simple. Protruding from one end are two small flanges with holes, through which a pin keeps in place a strong spring. To explode, all the bomber has to do is to remove the pin. This releases the spring and in a few seconds the bomb explodes by means of a detonator inside. In many ways it presents its dangers, but its effectiveness and simplicity place it easily at the front. A bomber about to utilize the weapon removes the pin and holds the spring in place with his thumb until it leaves his hand. Fatalities and narrow escapes have occurred by the accidental dropping or imperfect delivery of a bomb from which the pin has been removed, but equal dangers are presented by any of the other types.
The sphere of the bomber is wherever there is an enemy. Day and night, in attack and defence, in surprise raids or general offence, singly or in groups, bombs have been doing work that could be done in no other way. Their effectiveness consists in the thoroughness and wholesale nature of their results. For cleaning out a German trench nothing can take their place, save the artillery, and the limitations of the artillery come where the bomber starts. In attack two bayonet men go ahead to protect the bombers, who immediately follow. After them come the infantry. In crude language, the bayonet men and the bombers are the sacrifice, although, if successful, the bombers may suffer little. In night-work the bomber has the time of his life. Creeping up to the German trenches—through the wire entanglements, if possible—with face blackened to prevent exposure from the flares the Germans use so prodigiously, he hears what he can and then, simply as a token of his visit or for more serious purpose, drops a bomb or two into the trench. Seldom is he troubled by that section throughout his return, for the German who is not disabled is hugging his dugout.
Following up successful attack, the bomb fulfils an equally important purpose. The dugouts that have become such a feature of trench warfare often escape the full blast of the big shells, and within their protection the enemy hides. It has sometimes happened, early in the war before their danger was fully realized, that the Germans thus passed over in a drive have emerged in the rear of the successful attackers and done serious damage, amounting even in one or two cases to the turning of defeat into victory and the capture of the troops that have rushed on to the next trenches.
Later it became the duty of every advancing force to clear out the dug-outs as it advanced. For this purpose there was nothing so quick and complete as the bomb. In the earlier stages of the July drive the more humane method of demanding surrender before bombing the occupied dug-out was general, but when it was found that the Germans took advantage of that either to remain silent or to entice in a few soldiers, whose lives were the sacrifice, the only way was to bomb first and demand surrender afterwards. The German has profited little from his fiendish methods of warfare.
In the work of the Canadians bombs have played perhaps a more important part than anywhere else along the front. At the great battle of Hooge, in June, when the Canadians, driven out of their front lines by the terrific bombardment, made the attack that put them back where they had started from, every man carried two bombs to clear his way, the company bombers eight, and the battalion bombers twenty-four; this in addition to their full equipment. And the wounded who were able kept up the supply of bombs from the rear. The losses of the Germans fully justified this elaborate preparation.
At the crater fighting about St. Eloi bombs were almost the only weapons. In that long-drawn-out struggle for the five craters made by German and Canadian lines nothing else was of much service. Of course, a man showing himself was the target of a hundred rifles, but the struggle was not between visible men. Every crater held its group of indomitable fighters, some German, some Canadian. The artillery was, of course, useless in such cramped quarters, where the combatants were but a few yards from each other through all that bloody stretch of what had once been No Man’s Land. It remained to the bombs. From crater to crater these were thrown by both sides. First one side would drive out or kill the defenders of a crater and occupy it, only in turn to be driven out. Those who have been through that awful combat say that it was the most trying experience the Canadians have had. Everyone knew that he was within reach of an enemy bomb that might, and probably would, drop near him, and there was at first no chance of relief. Every inch of exposed ground was covered with machine guns and rifles. Towards the last trenches were gouged out from crater to crater and back to the lines, but largely for the purpose of renewing the supply of bombs. In all crater fighting it is the same, the responsibility of holding the holes resting upon the bombers.
Among the dangerous duties of the bombers is the protection of patrol parties. In these expeditions there are strictest orders not to use a rifle save under supreme necessity. In a pinch bombs are used, not only because they afford a wider protection than a rifle bullet, but because their explosion does not localize too intimately the location of the party. Bombers also protect night wiring parties. During a night raid bombers run along the parapet of the enemy trench delivering their burden of death in the full range of the enemy fire, and down in the trench, in progress from bay to bay, the bomb precedes the advance.
For his work the bomber is equipped with an apron of heavy canvas, the capacity of which is usually ten bombs. Of course, he carries his rifle, but on his back. He is relieved from all fatigue duty in the trenches.
There are definitely established classes for the training of the bomber, consisting usually of a three weeks’ course in England and another week in France. Some of the training has been little better than useless. For instance, at East Sandling a series of lectures, without even the sight of a bomb, was the extent of the training of the bombers, but this was probably one of the weird slips that somehow creep into ordinary military matters.
Like everything else in this war, the sniper is a distinct creation of the times. And like most else, the Germans led the way until experience taught us the wisdom of their preparations of these many decades. There were months in 1914 and early 1915 when to put but a hand above the parapet meant a half-dozen German bullets in it. In a desultory sort of way the British tried to retaliate. But not until the sniper was made as definite and as organized a unit as the gunner did we begin to establish that superiority that began to be felt about the middle of 1916. In fact, we have never passed the Germans so completely in sniping as in the other details of war.
There are now sixteen snipers to a battalion, under the charge of a sergeant. Their personnel passed from a voluntary system to a careful selection on merit. Men with much rifle practice and reputation were given the chance to demonstrate their ability behind the lines, and if they cared to undertake the peculiar work of the sniper were assigned to duty. Like the stretcher-bearers and bombers, they undergo no fatigue duty, the principal requirements for their business being a steady nerve and confidence. For eight days they are up in the front lines, then a rest for the same time. But they are never allowed to fall out of practice; special ranges are provided for them in the rear.
They usually work in pairs, one as observer, the other as marksman, the duty of the observer being almost as important as his mate’s. For the sniper depends as much upon the keen eyes of his observer as upon his own accuracy, since the value of his work and his future safety rest upon his knowledge of the billet of his bullet. The rifle, of course, is fitted with a telescope sight that makes accurate shooting less a matter of light and wind and good fortune than of clearness of eye and steadiness of hand. Marks that would elude the eye as a target are brought within range, and the observer, through his glasses, is able to detect the success of the shot and to correct its error.
When up at the front, snipers are given a free hand. They select their own locations and construct,—or have constructed—their own blinds and protections. Exposed as they are, their safety depends upon the cleverness of their concealment. Sometimes they work in the trenches with the infantry, at which times they operate from an emplacement specially constructed and prepared, no sign of its location being visible to the enemy. Behind the sandbag parapet they make their disposals, with every sort of contrivance to conceal their whereabouts. As many of these have been in successful use every day their description in detail would not be wise at the time of writing; but each sniper develops a few touches of his own to add to the more common ruses. Shooting through tiny spaces in the sandbags, that open and close at the will of the sniper, is the basis of this kind of sniping, the marksman being protected from stray bullets by a steel shield. The back of the hide must be closed in so that the opening of the hole will not be revealed by the sky behind.
But the distinctive work of the sniper is done away from the trenches. Often he selects a spot a couple of hundred yards behind the front lines. There he is far enough distant from the enemy to be protected by the coverings he is able to construct by the means available. He may be lying behind a sandbag parapet of his own, a low, seemingly casual wall that is apt to escape notice in the general chaos of shell-holes and broken trenches. From behind his steel plate, which has a hole in it large enough for the barrel of his rifle and observation, he watches, waiting by the hour, sometimes without results. In more exposed spots he may be protected by a double sheet of steel. But more often his hide is a bit of ruin or a tree. There no rescue is possible should he be discovered, and he is usually open to artillery fire that seeks him out almost as eagerly as the opposing guns. For the sniper is the bane of the ordinary trench-life of the enemy. He may even lie flat on the ground, practically without protection, his face covered with a cloth mask the colour of the surrounding earth or grass, and shoot through a rum jar.
The work of the sniper is not pleasant, either from the danger point of view or from the results. He is not now required to make reports, and seldom will one speak of his successes in detail. One does not like to talk much about the men one has killed in what may savour to some of cold blood; and the officers have recognized that. Some snipers have the greatest contempt for the fellow who will describe the course of his bullet. And yet their work is legitimate and most necessary in the peculiar conditions roused by this war. In attack or counter-attack by the enemy they must pick off the officers. In the ordinary way their duty is more to end the activities of enemy snipers than to disable the rank and file, for the soldier to-day is careful not to expose himself to the sniper’s bullet. When the sniper locates an enemy sniper he waits his chance, and the situation of a dozen snipers watching for each other is one to try the nerve of any but the most seasoned campaigner or marksman. If a sniper is especially annoying, the enemy sniper who discovers his whereabout but cannot get him himself directs his artillery to the spot.
He is expected to keep an eye on every enemy movement, a working party, a new parapet, a gun emplacement, and the location of these he passes back to his artillery. Thus a good sniper is a real factor in the war, apart from his less agreeable duties of killing men by deliberate aim. The Germans utilized this branch of the service from the first to an extent that was most difficult to cope with. Not only were their front line snipers well trained and numerous, but their wonderful spy system enabled them to place snipers back through the British and French lines, and hundreds of officers and gunners, whose work is more out of sight of the enemy, lost their lives to them. Any tree or house or ruin was a possible hiding-place, and part of the most serious tasks of the men behind the lines was to keep a watch for this form of menace. As I have said in a previous article, entire gun crews have been cleaned out in this way. One crew had been disabled to its last man without the location of the sniper being discovered. Then a company of soldiers returning to the rear caught a glimpse of a figure in a tree. They did not wait for explanation, for there could be but one.
One of the well-known snipers of the 5th C. M. B. was brought into hospital with shell-shock. From the nature of his duties it might be supposed that his nerves would be above shell-shock, but to be buried far from the trenches, with but one companion and no seeming prospect of escape, is apt to do anything with nerves. By the merest chance he was discovered. He returned to his work, but sniping was beyond him for a time.
He was the ideal man for the job, except physically. Before the war he had been a policeman in an Indian reserve in an eastern province. But he was marked for life with deformities that might have justified him in dropping any work connected with weapons; it was a wonder that he passed inspection for the army. Two fingers of one hand were gone, and an ugly scar across the wrist of the other hand was the mark left by a drunken Indian he was arresting. It had slashed through the cords of four fingers. Yet, from what I could gather of his work, he had proved that a sniper need not be a model of physical perfection. From the first he had been assigned to sniping and had worked with various observers—a couple of big Indians, an Ottawa clerk, who had developed into a grand shot, and a westerner who had the habit of climbing to the parapet to get a better view; he finally paid the bill for his recklessness. J. refused to talk of his successes, but one incident that seemed to have clung to him with a strange vividness was the end of an enemy sniper who was demanding a big toll from the shelter of a tree. After J. had failed for hours to put an end to his sniping he sent word back to the artillery. In a few minutes a “dud”—(a small shell often sent over first to get the range) burst above the tree. Then came a “whizz-bang”. That was all. The entire tree disappeared. The calculating deliberateness and calmness of it had burnt itself into J.’s brain for all time.
The next article of this series is entitled “The Weapon of Defence” and will be in the December number. It deals with the changes in fighting methods that have taken place since the great war began.
- The Amphibious Suburb of St. John’s
- Literary History of Nova Scotia
- A British Eskimo
- The Bombers and Snipers
- The Life Savers
- Hell at Hooge
- Dumb Talkies
- Introduction to The Fourth Dagger
- Salvage—A Canadian Idea
- The Women of The Magdalens
- The Credit System in the West
- The Perfect Ending
- Education and the War
- The Timber Wolf at Home
- Treating That Chilly Feeling
- Earmarks of Genius
- The Farmer and the War
- Labour and the War
- The Non-Combatants
- Woman and the War
- After Three Years
- My New Gardening Gloves
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- As an armed forces brat, we lived in Rockcliff (Ottawa), Namao (Edmonton), Southport (Portage La Prairie), Manitoba, and Dad retired to St. Margaret's Bay, NS.
Working with the Federal Govenment for 25 years, Canadian Hydrographic Service, mostly. Now married to Gail Kelly, with two grown children, Luke and Denyse. Retired to my woodlot at Stillwater Lake, NS, on the rainy days I study the life and work of A. Hyatt Verrill 1871-1954.