Robert Choquette's Metropolitan Museum and the Problematization of History
Talbot, Emile J., Quebec Studies
In the history of Quebec poetry, the publication of Robert Choquette's Metropolitan Museum in 1931 marks a notable event whose significance has rarely been assessed. Issued in a limited luxury edition with woodcuts by Edwin Holgate (an edition that sold for $46,000 at an auction in April 2008), it was greeted with enthusiasm in France and in both French and English Canada. The French reaction is expressed by Pierre Dupuy who affirmed in his review in Mercure de France that Choquette was "un lyrique qui peut etre classe parmi les meilleurs de la poesie francaise" and that this volume was "le meilleur poeme de la litterature canadienne" (227). Choquette, he further asserted, "enrichit a la fois les lettres canadiennes et les lettres francaises" (231). Louis Dantin, then the leading French-Canadian critic, awarded the poem an eleven-page review, calling it "une oeuvre d'art mur" (87), while Albert Pelletier considered that it was richer in thought and image than "toute la poesie canadienne" (7). Claude-Henri Grignon, writing under the pseudonym of Des Esseintes, called it "un poeme lyrique d'une etonnante magnificence" meriting its author "une des premieres places dans la poesie francaise au Canada" (24). It was, added Henri Girard, "une oeuvre de premiere valeur, un poeme unique dans la langue francaise d'aujourd'hui" (17). Writing in The Canadian Forum, Leo Cox hailed its "ambitious scope" and "its great import to Canadian letters" (105). For Cox, Metropolitan Museum "is a distinctly original piece of work" and "one of the finest poems in the annals of Canadian letters," placing Choquette "definitely first among French-Canadian poets" (105). Yet, with the exception of Jeanne Paul-Crouzet's discussion in 1946, Gerard Bessette's brief, disappointing, presentation of its tropes in 1967, and a solid entry by Renee Legris in the Dictionnaire des oeuvres litteraires du Quebec (1980), subsequent criticism has tended to marginalize the work. The highly and justly acclaimed Histoire de la litterature quebecoise (2007) awards it but one (misleading) sentence (Biron et al. 225).
Prior to Metropolitan Museum, Choquette had self-published a volume of poetry, A travers les vents (1925), containing verse he had written as a student at Loyola College in Montreal. Choquette was but twenty when he issued this volume, which was well received by the critical establishment in Quebec to the extent of meriting a second edition in 1927, accompanied by a preface by Henri d'Arles, then a critic of note. As Marcel Dugas, writing in 1929 observed, however, Choquette's collection looks backward to Romanticism and breaks no new poetic ground, as had, for example, Jean-Aubert Loranger earlier in the decade (Dugas 187). While demonstrating a broad metric range, Choquette displays his great reverence for the poetic tradition as renewed by the French Romantics whose practice he attempts to replicate while retaining a private signature through occasional original images. Drawing on the resources of Romantic rhetoric, this is poetry endowed with considerable verve, mastering a rich vocabulary, and unashamed of expressing emotions, which range from the amorous to the spiritual. Its conservative poetics notwithstanding, the paucity of allusions to the history, topography, flora, and fauna of Canada aligns this poet with the modernists in the struggle, still not over at this time, between the regionalists and the exotiques, (1) in spite of his curious, ill-considered preface (not included in the second edition) in which he calls for a "Canadian" poetry at variance with the verse in his collection. He reconnects with the regionalist aesthetic, however, in his lack of interest in the distant, ancient cultures that fascinated the exotiques.
Metropolitan Museum's more expertly metered and crafted verse avoids the easy sentimentalism of early Romanticism and takes a radically different direction from that of A travers les vents in its willingness to engage large thoughts about human destiny through a long inquiry into space and time. …