Charles G.D. Roberts
( Originally Published 1907 )
PROFESSOR Roberts he is still called by his old friends in New Brunswick, and, so far as we know, "Old Man" he is still called by his literary companions. The ' Old Man,' said Richard Hovey a few years ago, he is fondly called by the poets who are his companions, not that he is so much the elder of the group, but perhaps because he had al-ready achieved a certain measure of reputatation and was a full-fledged man of letters when the others were just beginning their callow boy-bows to the Muse. And the name, given at the outset in a comic, mock-filial mood, has stuck to him as a term of endearment."
Hovey — may he rest in peace ! — loved and admired Roberts. He said so in writing ; he said so o' nights in the company of his old friends in Boston. Hovey had a manner that would remind one of the rivers branching off Roberts's familiar Bay of Fundy. At first, a stranger, you found it empty ; in a few moments, if he offered you the right hand of fellowship, it was flooding with a warm tide.
We could readily go on for a page or two speaking of the lamented singer, and of what it meant to know him as a friend — to share his hospitality and his sympathy. But it occurs to us that some reader may be inquiring why the professor from New Brunswick has been brought into a book on American authors. We might answer, with a smile, to incite him to become as loyal an American as General Wallace or Mark Twain. Or we might repeat as an answer a statement made to us not long ago by an observant inhabitant of this part of the literary world—" Professor Roberts is quite as good an American as Henry James." But, using American in its fullest sense, Roberts easily comes in under that head. The shadow of the Stars and Stripes falls near his birthplace. His public is largely a purely American public. His residence for the last four years has been New York City. He is perhaps the most gifted author reared in late decades by our lovely neighbor, the Dominion of Canada, his alma mater —
O child of nations, giant-limbed,
Speaking of Roberts in The Writer once, his friend Hovey said : " All his excursions include a return ticket to the Maritime Provinces, and ' Up and Away in the Morning' is always for the sake of ' Home, Home in the Evening." This statement has been contradicted by Roberts's life during the last few years. He is to be found in New York winter and summer.
At the same time we should be stultifying ourselves to deny his loyalty to his native land. It lives in many of his pages ; it is kept aflame by ties of family and of friendship. The beautiful part of the world northeast of New England has been to him nursery, academy and studio. In-deed, one who knew him well has said: " He is neither Briton nor American, but assertively Canadian ; and, if history ever make his dream a reality, his own poems will not have been an entirely negligible factor in bringing it to pass."
Charles George Douglass Roberts, M.A., F.R.S.C., F.R.S.L., was born in Douglas, at the mouth of the Keswick River, near Fredericton, New Brunswick, on January 10, His father, the Rev. G. Goodridge Roberts, M.A., the son of Professor George Roberts, Ph.D., is the rector of the English church in Fredericton, and also the canon of Christ Church Cathedral. His mother, Emma Wetmore Bliss Roberts, comes of what used to be known as United Empire Loyalist stock — the same stock, by the way, that Emerson's mother came of. Her ancestors left the colonies for the provinces at the outbreak of the American Revolution. There were many influential families among the Loyalists, and, on the whole, their headstrong flight has been beneficial to the land 'way down East. The novelist's mother, it should be said, is a sister of Bliss Carman's mother, which makes the two young writers, Roberts and Carman, cousins by blood as well as brothers by profession. A strong intellectual ancestry has Roberts, it will be seen, an ancestry that fully accounts for the circumstance that his sister and his two younger brothers are skillful at versification.
The first fourteen years of Roberts's life were spent in Woodstock, of which parish his father was then the rector, and up to the end of these fourteen years Charles's education had been personally supervised by his father. Fortunate conditions ! — as they who have missed such supervision can most eloquently testify. Ideal conditions, if we are to accept the well-digested opinion of scholastic as well as of medical experts.
The Robertses moved from Woodstock to Fredericton in 1874. At Fredericton, Charles attended the Collegiate School. Chief among those who fitted the boy for college was Dr. George R. Parkin, who, although now the head of Upper Canada College, Toronto, has perhaps been most prominent as an Imperial Federationist ad-advocate. In 1876 young Roberts was matriculated at the University of New Brunswick. As for his progress there, no more need be said than that he won the Douglas silver medal for Latin and Greek, the alumni gold medal for the Latin essay, and a classical scholarship. In 1879 he was graduated with honors in ethics, meta-physics and political economy. That same year he was appointed head master of the Chatham (N. B.) Grammar School. The next year, 1880, chronicled two notable events — his marriage, and the publication of his first book, " Orion and Other Poems."
In 1881, at the University of New Brunswick, he took his degree of Master of Arts for Greek and higher mathematics. During the next two years he taught school in Fredericton.
Then there came a brief excursion which may have illustrated his doubts about a career. He left off teaching and went to Toronto. There, with the assistance of Gold-win Smith, he established The Week, the most important of the Canadian literary periodicals. He relinquished this work the following year to take the chair of English and French literature in King's College, Windsor, Nova Scotia. In 1887 he abandoned the French department for the department of Economics and International Law. At Windsor he lived in a house in the balmy woods — " Kingscroft," he called it — and there he planned three books — The Forge in the Forest," his first Acadian romance; " The Book of the Native," and " A History of Canada."
These plans compelled the abandonment of teaching, so, in 1895, Roberts left King's College and returned to Fredericton. At the age of thirty-five, therefore, he formally adopted the profession of literature.
Early in 1897 he moved to New York, where for eight months he was associate editor of The Illustrated American. Since then he has directed his efforts wholly to authorship.
And with the utmost justification. In narrative and in descriptive power he shines brilliantly among his contemporaries. Hovey would not answer the question. " Who is the greatest poet born on Canadian soil ? " " but," he writes, " when I say that Roberts is par excellence the ' Poet of Canada,' I have little fear that anyone will contradict me." There is his noble hymn, " Canada," there is " Autochthon," there is " Kinship," there is " Origins " — poems of faultless grace and deep-founded sentiment and what one critic has termed " chiselled, Parnassian calm." For example :
The mount, the star, the germ, the deep,
Hovey, whom we may accept as an accomplished judge of symbolist literature, put " Do Seek their Meat from God" and " The Young Ravens that call upon Him," two sketches in Earth's Enigmas," and Savory Meats," a story published in the Chap-Book, together, and said that they " form an altogether unique and extraordinary triptych. I am inclined to think these three pieces," he says, " Roberts's most notable contribution to literature. The problem of the struggle for existence, of the preying of life on life, is treated with an inexorable fidelity to the fact, a catholic sympathy, a sense of universality and mystery, and a calm acceptance, that reaches the level of 'pathos' in the highest Greek usage of the word. There is a finality in these three prose poems that is known only to the greatest art."
As for Robert's novels, they are full of the perfumed freshness, the vigorous life and the romantic wealth which constituted, and to a small extent still constitute, the salient characteristics of the lands in which he spent his youth. We have noted his narrative and descriptive power. Let us take from " A Sister to Evangeline " one of Paul Grande's visions of Yvonne de Lamourie.
" In one of these I saw her as she stood a certain morning in the orchard, prying with insistent little finger-tips into the heart of a young apple-flower, while I watched and said nothing. I know not to this day whether she were thinking of the apple-flower or wondering at the dumbness of her cavalier; but she feigned, at least, to concern herself with only the blossom's heart. Her wide white lids downcast over her great eyes, her long lashes almost sweeping the rondure of her cheek, she looked a Ma-donna. The broad, low forehead; the finely chiselled nose, not too small for strength of purpose ; the full, firm chin — all added to this sweet dignity, which was of a kind to compel a lover's worship. There was enough breadth to the gracious curve below the ear to make me feel that this girl would be a strong man's mate. But the mouth, a bow of tenderness, with a wilful dimple at either delectable corner always lurking, spoke her all woman, too laughing and loving to spend her days in sainthood. Her hair — very thick and of a purply-bronze, near to black— lay in careless fullness over her little ears. On her head, though in all else she affected the dress of Grand Pré maids, she wore, not the Acadian linen cap, but a fine shawl of black Spanish lace, which became her mightily. Her bodice was of linen homespun, coarse, but bleached to a creamy whiteness ; and her skirt, of the same simple stuff, was short after the Acadian fashion, so that I could see her slim ankles, and feet of that exceeding smallness and daintiness which may somehow tread heavily upon a man's heart."
And there is a strong resemblance to Thomas Hardy in at least one of the paragraphs narrating Paul Grande's race with death toward the Anderson farm —the paragraph dealing with the idle things that then incongruously concerned the hero :
Things idle as these : I see a dew-wet fir-top catch the moonlight for an instant and flash to whiteness, an up-thrust lance of silver; I see the shadow of a dead, gnarled branch cast upon a mossy open in startling semblance to a crucifix — so clear, I cannot but stoop and touch it reverently as I pass ; I see, at the edge of a grassy glade, a company of tall buttercups, their stems invisible, their petals seeming to float toward me, a squadron of small, light wings ; I hear the smooth swish of branches thrust apart ; I hear the protesting, unresonant creak of the green underbrush as we tread it down, and the sharp crackle of dry twigs as we thread the aisles of older forest ;' I hear, from the face of a moonlit bluff upon our left, the long, mournful Whóo-hu-hu Hóo-oo of the brown owl. I smell the savour of juniper, of bruised snakeroot, and of old, slow-rotting wood; with once a fairy breath of unseen linncea; and once at the fringed brink of a rivulet, the pungent fragrance of wild mint. I feel the frequent wet slappings of branches on my face ; I feel the strong prickles of the fir, the cool, flat frondage of the spruce and hemlock, the unresisting, feathery spines of the young hackmatack trees ; I feel, once, a gluey web upon my face, and the abhorrence with which I dash off the fat spider that clings to my chin; I feel the noisome slump of my foot as I tread upon a humped and swollen gathering of toad-stools."
More than one judicious critic has remarked that few men of his years have achieved — and deservedly !— the literary renown which Professor Roberts's published works warrant. These works are as follows: " Orion and Other Poems" (1880), " In Divers Tones " (1887), " The Canadians of Old " (a translation from the French of de Gaspé, 1889), Appleton's "Canadian Guide Book" (1890), "Ave, An Ode for the Shelley Centenary" (1892), " Songs of the Common Day " (1893),
"The Raid of Beausjour" (1894), "Reub Dare's Shad Boat " (1895), " Around the Camp Fire" (1896), " Earth's Enigmas " (1896), " A History of Canada " (1897), " The Forge in the Forest " (1897), " The Book of the Native " (1897), " New York Nocturnes" (1898), " A Sister to Evangeline " (1898), " By the Marshes of Minas " (1900), " The Heart of the Ancient Wood" (1900).
However, notwithstanding this long and excellent literary record, we are assured that Roberts " has a keen fondness for athletics. He is an enthusiastic football and tennis player, canoeist and fisherman, and is equally as skilled in these as he is in the pursuits of literature."
Another novel from his pen, " Barbara Ladd," appears this fall. " I consider it," he writes, " a sort of cross between ' The Heart of the Ancient Wood' and a historical-psychological romance." As for the future, he says : " Next will probably appear a collection of poems, and a collection of animal stories. Then another romance, planned but not yet named; and then, if the Fates are very good to me, I'll take time for a long lyrical drama on which I have been engaged off and on for some years."