Encyclopedia of Literary Modernism

By Paul Poplawski | Go to book overview

C

Canada, English

One of the Grand Old Men of Canadian literature, Charles G. D. Roberts (1860–1945), declared “to Canada, modernism has come more slowly and less violently than elsewhere” (298). The question of belatedness has continued to beleaguer critical discussions of Canadian modernism with charges of colonial prejudice being variously bandied about. Nonetheless, most recently Brian Treherne has submitted that “although Victoria had died in 1901, Victorian Canada lived on, a fact upon which memoirists, historians, and literary critics are in essential agreement” (315). Indeed, literary critics continue to sift through the wealth of material from the early decades of the twentieth century indicating the varied dialogue which Canadian poets maintained with nineteenth-century literary movements (e.g., late romanticism, symbolism, decadence, and aestheticism). The models exploited by these poets were most frequently emanating from Old Europe. Remembering this period, the poet Leon Edel confided: “We lived among belated Victorians; we were touched with Victorianism ourselves” (“When McGill Modernized” 113).

There is a critical willingness to locate the Canadian modernist moment in the 1930s: W. J. Keith, for example, contends that “until the 1930s Canada saw little of the artistic challenge and achievement of the modernist movement that had transformed literary attitudes in other parts of the English-speaking world” (58). Nonetheless, it is becoming increasingly apparent that the genealogy of modernist thinking can be traced in earlier decades through some isolated productions by individuals and groups of writers. Most frequently, these productions focused upon the need for technical experimentation. In their ground-breaking study published in the 1960s, Louis Dudek and Michael Gnarowski drew particular attention to Arthur Stringer’s poetry collection Open Water (1914) declaring it to be “a turning point in Canadian writing if only for the importance of the ideas advanced by Stringer in his preface” (3). Stringer’s preface stressed most importantly the significance of free verse and the abandonment of literary proprieties for the development of a modern poetic in Canada: “No necrophiliac regard for its established conventions must blind the lover of beautiful verse to the fact that the primary function of poetry is both to intellectualize sensation and to elucidate emotional experience. If man must worship beauty only as he has known it in the past, man must be satisfied with worshipping that which has lived and now is dead” (see in Dudek and Gnarowski 8–9). Such a call to arms would take over two decades to be fully heard in Canada. In these early years, however, the most significant achievement in terms of modernist influence would be focused on the theorizing

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