The Alchemy of Day Critical Overview
by Anne Hebert

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Critical Overview

(Poetry for Students)

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Although she is widely regarded in Canada as one of her country’s greatest twentieth-century writers, Hébert has received very little critical attention in the United States or elsewhere. There are many reasons for this. First, most of her poems were published in French. Even though some have been translated into English, they were not widely available until the late 1990s, when collections such as Day Has No Equal But Night: Poems were published. Also, as Lorraine Weir notes in her entry on Hébert for Dictionary of Literary Biography, Hébert’s “refusal to be bound by the concerns of the moment,” instead writing a collection of diverse, experimental works, “constitutes a challenge which has not yet been fully taken up by Quebec critics and a work hardly begun by those in English- speaking Canada.”

Weir also notes that many English-speaking audiences had never heard of the poet until the film adaptation of one of her novels, Kamouraska. As Weir notes, this film “has, more than any of her other works, made Hébert known to an English-speaking audience.” Readers who like the novel and decide to investigate Hébert’s other works can be surprised, as Weir notes that “the isolation of this novel from the body of Hebert’s work as a whole has perhaps cast it in a curious light for some readers.”

Other critics, such as F. M. Macri, in his article on Hébert in Canadian Literature, note the poet’s views on life, which suffuse her poetry: “From her earliest poems, we observe the author’s nascent vision of life and existence as a closed space containing no time but the past.” Macri also discusses the late period of the author’s career, noting that her “late poetry is an affirmation of freedom and new life.” This was also the period during which the author published “The Alchemy of Day” in a collection titled Mystere de la Parole (Miracle of the Word), a work that Macri says turns away from the themes of isolation and solitude that had characterized the author’s earlier works. Instead, Macri notes that “All the closed spaces of the Self are opened up by the destruction of the symbols of isolation and solitude.” Macri is also one of the few critics who discuss “The Alchemy of Day,” which he notes is one of many titles in the book that “convey the feeling of transformation.”

Other critics have noted the transformational nature of Miracle of the Word. For example, in Jean-Cleo Godin’s 1970 article in Yale French Studies, the critic notes that this volume was for Hébert “the sign of a completely renewed poetics, based essentially on a restoration of the poetic word as the poet consciously accepts a mission of redemption.” This mission, which Godin discusses, and which Hébert addresses in her preface to Miracle of the Word is to define and specify the language of her native Quebec. As Godin notes, the indefinite, imprecise quality of this language “prevents the people of Quebec from asserting itself and possessing its own land.”

In her 1999 essay in Traditionalism, Nationalism, and Feminism: Women Writers of Quebec, Susan L. Rosenstreich notes that in Hébert’s collection she is following the path of other female poets, who “Rather than abjectly accept received ideas . . . actively seeks and makes audible a voice from the earth we consider mute.” This quote seems to apply to poems such as “The Alchemy of Day,” in which the earth is, ultimately, given a voice.

Reviewers of Hébert’s 1994 collection, which included poems from Miracle of the Word, tended to focus more on the overall quality of the poems. As Sarah Lawall notes in her review of the book for World Literature Today, “one is struck again by the precision, clarity, and fine attention to emotional tone in Hébert’s work.” Likewise, the Publishers Weekly reviewer says that the poems are “expansive—rich in vocabulary, ecstatic and imperative in tone.” So, even though Hébert has not found a wide audience outside of her native Canada, the response she has received has been overwhelmingly positive.