Rediscovering Lampman

by Laurie Miller

Archibald Lampman (1861-1899)

photo courtesy of
National Archives of Canada

Annual TPS PoetryTALK

February 12, 2005


When told it was Archibald Lampman whose work I would be expected to explicate, I was dismayed. I know practically nothing about the man's work. Lampman is a significant Canadian poet of the end of the 19th century; I knew that, but little else. I am not entirely alone in my ignorance.

It took a while to get into his poetry. I kept recollecting the TV show "Seinfeld": these are poems about nothing! And all that self-consciously "poetic" diction. All that "thine," and "thou wert here," stuff. So 19th century!

Well, Lampman is 19th century. Maybe that's a barrier to appreciating him now. He writes so precisely that, to us, those "poetic" notes seem jarring at first. But give him a fair chance: I think he's worth the effort. His poetry is like, apparently, he was. Attentive, hard to get to know, somewhat austere, controlled, but capable of a few firm, close and long-lasting friendships.

He wasn't writing for everybody, though of course he looked for recognition — why else would he or would any of us write? In fact, he once said, "I do not care a hang for anything but poetry." Anybody who says that gets my attention. Especially when he also can characterize life, as he once did, as "spectral and wonderful and strangely sad." Hmm. Could be interesting. Perhaps a bit disturbing.

Born in Morpeth, Ontario, near Chatham, where his father was a clergyman. There is a cairn in the churchyard on Highway 3 to his memory. Said cairn is largely the result of the efforts of his long-time friend Duncan Campbell Scott. Scott led the drive to collect funds to build the monument, and dryly professed himself unsurprised that Lampman's own family contributed but modestly. Because Lampman was born in 1861, he and his contemporaries are sometimes referred to as "the Confederation poets." In Lampman's case, at least, this has little to do with his major themes. He is never jingoistic or tub-thumpingly "patriotic," but his poetry could have been written nowhere else. The Canadian landscape simply permeates his work.

The family moved to Rice Lake as Lampman père was called to another church. Lampman had a bout of rheumatic fever there that "left him with a weakened heart," as they said in those days. It was that, evidently, that eventually killed him in 1899. Over-did it on a canoe trip and never quite recovered, dying after several months of decline.

Education at Trinity College School, then the University of Toronto and a degree in Classics. Two years' teaching high school in Orangeville, Ont. (hated it), then a job in Ottawa as a minor bureaucrat in the Post Office, which he held for the rest of his life. Never made a great salary, but sufficient upon which to live respectably, to marry, and to support a wife and a son and a daughter. Another child, a boy, died in infancy.

Quiet, respectable, but don't think of him as some culture-starved, unappreciated artiste manqué. His first book of poems was very well reviewed, even by the then-sonorous William Dean Howells in Harper's Magazine (April, 1889). Though his subsequent books didn't do quite as well he was eventually named "a prominent Canadian," and elected to the Royal Society of Canada in 1895. With fellow "Confederation poets" D. C. Scott and Wilfred Campbell he wrote a regular column of essays on diverse subjects for the Toronto Globe from 1892-93.

First, to get tuned to his wavelength, let's note some things that he is not. Compare Lampman's "To a Millionaire" with Stephen Crane's "The Impact of a Dollar upon the Heart." The Crane is dramatic, fairly free form, and informed with the most delightful monolithic passion. Crane absolutely hates this hat-manufacturer or whatever he is. Crane detests the guy. Lampman is no less passionate, but look how much more controlled. The very poetic form he uses bespeaks control: it's a sonnet — how much more controlled can you get? And, for me, his passion is only heightened by the hint of compassion he feels for the "creature of that old distorted dream" to which any of us might be attracted to the detriment of our fellows. It's the "dream," he understands, that "makes the sound of life an evil cry," not any innate evil that would safely mark millionaires as coming from some race other than our own. Lampman was a socialist, in the sense that any thinking man might well have been in the last, the rampantly-capitalistic years of the Canadian 19th century.


The world in gloom and splendour passes by,
And thou in the midst of it with brows that gleam,
A creature of that old distorted dream
That makes the sound of life an evil cry.
Good men perform just deeds, and brave men die,
And win not honour such as gold can give,
While the vain multitudes plod on, and live,
And serve the curse that pins them down: But I
Think only of the unnumbered broken hearts,
The hunger and the mortal strife for bread,
Old age and youth alike mistaught, misfed,
By want and rags and homelessness made vile,
The griefs and hates, and all the meaner parts
That balance thy one grim misgotten pile.


When Winter scourged the meadow and the hill
And in the withered leafage worked his will,
The water shrank, and shuddered, and stood still—
Then built himself a magic house of glass,
Irised with memories of flowers and grass,
Wherein to sit and watch the fury pass.

                         —Charles G. D. Roberts

There’s another thing that he typically is not. Compare that lovely "Ice" by Sir Charles G. D. Roberts with Lampman's "After Mist." The Roberts is a little gem. Brilliant use of triplets to both unify and divide the poem, and a brilliantly iridescent image "irised" in the ice itself. A stunningly clever piece of poetic craftsmanship. The Lampman has no such flamboyance. Again, a sonnet. (Lampman was a master sonnet-maker.) The opening half-line is almost conversational but because it is only a half-line in what we immediately recognise from its shape on the page is a sonnet, we know there is more of it to come. It is a complete sentence, yet incomplete.


Last night there was a mist. Pallid and chill
The yellow moon blue-clove the thickening sky,
And all night long a gradual wind crept by,
And froze the fog, and with minutest skill
Fringed it and forked it, adding bead to bead,
In spears, and feathery tufts, and delicate hems
Round windward trunks, and all the topmost stems,
And every bush, and every golden weed;
And now upon the meadows silvered through
And forests frosted to their farthest pines—
A last faint gleam upon the misty blue—
The magic of the morning falls and shines
A creamy splendour on the dim white world,
Broidered with violet, crystalled and impearled.

Lampman's sonnets often start with just such an elegant tension created by seemingly off-hand introductory broken lines. And notice throughout how the sense follows the sonnet form. In a Lampman poem you're always conscious of exactly where you're looking. The picture here is drawn in silver (the frost in the moonlight) through the octave, then something more golden in the sestet. He intensifies your concentration on the formation of the delicate frost shapes, practically down to the molecular level, "bead to bead," by pulling you in ever-tighter concentration right past what would have been the break after the first quatrain to the end of the fifth line before he lets you step back just a bit to look at the spears, tufts and hems on the local flora. At the volta he lets you go back another step and raise your view to the meadows, all silvered with frost, then farther off to the forests where the silver is only a faint gleam on the distant blue (at the end of the first triad of the sestet). Finally the sun comes up (precisely at the beginning of the final triad of the sestet) and the "magic of the morning" changes all that silver to embroidery of violet, of crystal and of pearl. Sounds like a painting, doesn't it? "Sounds" like a painting?! Indeed. This is Lampman all over.

I think the Roberts is a lovely poem. I like it a lot. Wish I'd written it. But in it I'm immediately conscious of the poet showing off. I don't feel that in the Lampman. In fact, I nearly passed over "After Mist" after first reading. Nearly, but not quite. Something caught me, and led me to read it again. And again. And each time I heard more clearly what he was doing, to the point that I was astounded by what he has accomplished. He doesn't beat me over the head with his brilliance, he leaves me to find it for myself if I care to. How Canadian.

Lampman doesn't shout. He paints. He doesn't (typically) moralize or argue deep philosophical questions. By precise observation and subtle but vigorous and confident use of poetic form, (the sonnet form, especially), he conveys the impression whatever he's looking at makes upon him.

And Impressionism was exactly what was coming on in European painting at the time. Interestingly, there's no evidence that Lampman was aware of that movement. He seems to have reached into a similar artistic space quite spontaneously. I wonder if Impressionism was all some sort of natural response by sensitive, creative persons to the socio-economic environment just at that time.

Lampman typically tells us what is evoking sensations in him at a certain moment. Then he seems to leave it to us to decide what it all means if, indeed, it "means" anything at all.

(I'll defend myself here against anyone who might notice that Lampman's "Hepaticas" is rather closer in cleverness to Roberts' "Ice" than is "After Mist." Have I picked a non-representative pairing to support a weak point about Lampman? I don't think so. I may or may not be doing an injustice to Roberts but "After Mist" is a fair example of "typical" Lampman.)

Three things about Lampman: (1) he is (rightly) most admired for his impressionistic poems about the Canadian physical environment; (2) to overlook his poems about personal relationships would be to miss some very fine stuff, and (3) he has a remarkable technique for toning and strengthening his poetic muscles.

The latter is something I don't think I've seen in anybody else, and yet it's such a good idea.

Exactly as serious students of painting may try to hone their skills by painting in the manner of the masters, so does our painterly Lampman instruct himself by writing in the manner of great forebears.


The old gray year is near his term in sooth,
And now with backward eye and soft-laid palm
Awakens to a golden dream of youth,
A second childhood lovely and most calm,
And the smooth hour about his misty head
An awning of enchanted splendour weaves,
Of maples, amber, purple, and rose-red,
And droop-limbed elms down-dropping golden leaves.
With still half-fallen lids he sits and dreams
Far in a hollow of the sunlit wood,
Lulled by the murmur of thin-threading streams,
Nor sees the polar armies overflood
The darkening barriers of the hills, nor hears
The north-wind ringing with a thousand spears.

If "Indian Summer" isn't a deliberate attempt to understand Keat's "To Autumn" by reproducing the "feel" of it I'll eat my hat. "Winter Hues Recalled" sounds to me a whole lot more like Wordsworth than like typical Lampman, "To Chaucer" sounds like Arnold ("Dover Beach"), and I think I hear a lot of "The Lady of Shallot" and other Tennyson in those triplets of "April in the Hills." Is Lampman just being derivative? I think not: he shows no lack of a strong, personal and distinctive voice in the great bulk of his work. I think he's just allowing us to have a look at his workbook, and I think he's suggesting a learning tool we all might use to our advantage.

Lampman's poems about personal relationships aren't as well known as his nature stuff, but they can be quite good.

I'm no great fan of hauling biography into a discussion of a poet's work unless the poet explicitly invites us to, but for some Lampman it's sure tempting. We know he and his wife had a son that died in infancy, and surely "We Too Shall Sleep" is one of the most mature, consoling and convincing in the all-too-extensive genre of infant mortality poems written by bereaved parents.


Not, Not for thee,
Belovèd child, the burning grasp of life
Shall bruise the tender soul. The noise, and strife,
And clamour of midday thou shalt not see;
But wrapped forever in thy quiet grave,
Too little to have known the earthly lot,
Time’s clashing hosts above thyne innocent head,
Wave upon wave,
Shall break, or pass as with an army’s tread,
And harm thee not.

A few short years
We of the living flesh and restless brain
Shall plumb the depths of life and know the strain,
The fleeting gleams of joy, the fruitless tears;
And then at last when all is touched and tried,
Our own immutable night shall fall, and deep
In the same silent plot, O little friend,
Side by thy side,
In peace that changeth not, nor knoweth end,
We too shall sleep.

What a beautiful treatment! By the time he's through, Lampman has made us the immature ones, touching and trying and fussing with all the toys that fascinate humans, while the "little friend" simply waits for the parent (and for all of us) to join him eventually.

Less obviously, Lampman may also be allowing us a glimpse into his life with some of the love poems. He lived as an entirely respectable minor civil servant in Ottawa, so far as I know, albeit one with literary ability. But he closets some skeletons.

He married Maud Playter in 1887, had a son and a daughter who lived, the son who died ("We Too Shall Sleep"), and a respectable house where they lived their lives to the end. We get some appreciation of his wife in the six-part sonnet cycle "The Growth of Love" (1884-5). "My Lady is not learned in many books..." etc. "I love my Lady for her lovely face ... More still I love her for her laughing grace....” Then, a decade later, comes another six-part cycle, "A Portrait in Six Sonnets" (1895-9). "Tall is my friend, for Nature would have marred / Her breadth of vision with a meaner height..." "Grey-eyed, for grey is wisdom..." "A noble grace, a conscious dignity." How nice. They've matured together over the years of marriage. Well, no. Though they stayed together as man and wife and as a family, two years after getting married Lampman fell in love with a fellow worker and she's the lady in the "Portrait in Six Sonnets." Was she his mistress? Was there any slap-and-tickle behind the mailbags? Does that affair or friendship, an open secret at the time, matter now, a hundred years later? I don't know. Probably not. But knowing about the situation may bring a dreadful poignancy to "Estrangement."


Two noble trees together stand
Silent in an autumn land,
	One is dead and bare;
But the winds have stripped the other
Brooding by its sapless brother,
	In a grey despair.

Two hearts that once were bound together
Sit apart with broken tether,
	Thoughts that blindly grope,
Between the two no word is said;
Love in the one is dead
	And in the other hope.

The great bulk of his work, though, is the impressionistic stuff where he paints with words.

And like Degas, Cézanne or Monet he has a store of subjects to which he often returns to paint in different ways. In the late 19th century Ottawa's skyline was dominated by the church steeples and the (old) parliament buildings, by far the tallest structures around. So he often writes about "the city's towers on a luminous pale-grey sky," "a city with its sun-touched towers, / A bunch of amethysts," or "The far-off city towered and roofed in blue / A tender line upon the western red." Ottawa has never looked so good again. (And notice all those explicit and precise references to colour absolutely typical of him.)

This being Canada, his world is often frozen cold. But "Winter Solitude," though uncompromisingly harsh ("the hard snow ran in little ripples and peaks / Like the fretted flow of a white and petrified sea") and "deathly silent," is "mystically fair" and, paradoxically, the source of "a strange peace." In both "Winter Evening" and "A January Morning" chimney smoke columns show man can live here and keep warm. In both of them, too, the vivid steam from horses' breath in the cold of urban carriage horses in the one ("the very horses springing by / Toss gold from whitened nostrils"), of bucolic draft horses "with frost-fringed flanks and nostrils jetting steam" in the other show that horses (and their owners) can cope with the conditions.


To-night the very horses springing by
Toss gold from whitened nostrils. In a dream
The streets that narrow to the westward gleam
Like rows of golden palaces; and high
From all the crowded chimneys tower and die
A thousand aureoles. Down in the west
The brimming plains beneath the sunset rest,
One burning sea of gold. Soon, soon shall fly
The glorious vision, and the hours shall feel
A mightier master; soon from height to height,
With silence and the sharp unpitying stars,
Stern creeping frosts, and winds that touch like steel,
Out of the depth beyond the eastern bars,
Glittering and still shall come the awful night.

But the land is not always frozen. In fact, Lampman is as precise about the temperature as he is about the colours when he paints a scene.

"The Passing of Spring" is set just at the time the title implies. "Across the Pea-Fields" must be on a hot day in June (strawberry season). "Heat" is about, well, heat on a sun-drenched day in July or August.

The shorter "In November", a sonnet, describes one of those moments just when the first snow comes ("thin fading stubbles, half concealed / Now golden-gray, sowed softly through with snow, / Where the last ploughman follows still his row, / Turning black furrows through the whitening field”) but the longer poem also titled "In November" takes place in "chill air," in a "bleak and sandy spot" when the snow has not yet arrived.

Notice that in both "In Novembers," as very often in Lampman, the moment he describes leads to an intense moment of epiphany, of Zen understanding or of whatever it is that we suddenly feel at one of those still points of the turning world. In the shorter poem, in those "naked uplands," he, though solitary, is ultimately very "content to watch and dream." In the longer one, in communing with the weird congress of mullein stalks he finds, oddly, "A nameless and unnatural cheer / A pleasure secret and austere."

This happens repeatedly in Lampman. He tries to get us to experience the flash of intense bardic peace that a particular moment makes upon him. Vividly he paints precise details, and he does it with really admirable command of his chosen medium, which is English-language poetry.

There are many examples, but let's finish with a note on the structure of, say, "A Sunset at Les Éboulements."


Broad shadows fall. On all the mountain side
The scythe-swept fields are silent. Slowly home
By the long beach the high-piled hay-carts come,
Splashing the pale salt shallows. Over wide
Fawn-coloured wastes of mud the slipping tide,
Round the dun rocks and wattled fisheries,
Creeps murmuring in. And now by twos and threes,
O’er the slow spreading pools with clamorous chide,
Belated crows from strip to strip take flight.
Soon will the first star shine; yet ere the night
Reach onward to the pale-green distances,
The sun’s last shaft beyond the gray sea-floor
Still dreams upon the Kamouraska shore,
And the long line of golden villages.

I've said that I agree Lampman is a master of the sonnet form, and by that I mean he is entirely capable both of writing precisely compliant sonnets (either Petrarchan or Shakespearean, whichever you want) and of violating the rules to deliberate effect.

In "A Sunset" I'll swear the form is turning liquid before our eyes, the lines melting into each other, the structure dissolving like landforms being submerged as the tide comes in. "Broad shadows fall" is a strong, complete sentence, but its monolithic force is immediately compromised by the rhyming "all." "On all the mountain side the scythe-swept fields are silent" would be a perfectly good line by itself were it not for the sixth foot and the fact that it is, in fact, broken in two by the end of line one. We positively have to search for the subject of the next sentence, past the adverbial "slowly home" and then "by the long beach" before we get to the "hay-carts;" and then the main verb ("come") is so weak as to be almost inconsequential, especially when the sound pattern of s's and a's so strongly reaches over it ("hay carts come, / Splashing the pale salt shallows".) And, characteristically for this poem, the closely-linked sounds of "pale salt shallows," though they end a sentence, do not end a line: "over wide" introduces a new sound entirely, which soon links by alliteration to "wastes" and by rhyming to "tide." It also, of course, links by rhyme to "side" in line one, but by now we're so engrossed in following the grammatical structure that we've all but forgotten that.

The rhyme scheme is solid Petrarchan, but the sentence structure runs in counterpoint to the line structure.

The volta would normally arrive at the end of line eight, but this one doesn't arrive till the end of line nine.

The sixth line of the sestet (line fourteen) should rhyme with the third line (line eleven), but it does not. Or does it? Does "distances" rhyme with "villages?" As Jeff Seffinga noted after this talk was given, the sequence of all three vowel sounds in the words “distances” and “villages” certainly match.

One reason the poem is so effective, I think, is that in reading it we feel and to some extent resist the power of dissolution that threatens to subsume the structural patterns that we know a sonnet must have. As this tide comes in, familiar shapes are being lost. That, I would suggest, is one reason the end is so satisfactory. The scene described is peaceful and maybe a bit triumphant, but doesn't that resonate off the aesthetic resolution we feel for having felt this poem? The night will come soon enough, but Lampman felt just a moment of hard-won peace, and has tried to convey the impression of it to us.

As I said, we could discuss many, many other examples, but this will have to do. Perhaps it will be enough to spark some (renewed?) interest in a century-old body of work and, perhaps, in well-crafted sonnets.

I think he's a good poet. Few things one might say about a person are greater praise.

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