The Alchemy of Day Analysis
by Anne Hebert

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Historical Context

(Poetry for Students)

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When Hébert wrote “The Alchemy of Day,” a poem about transformation and new life, Canada was going through its own transformation, much of which centered around Hébert’s home territory of Quebec. To understand the tension in 1960, however, it helps to examine Canada’s history over the last two centuries. For much of the nineteenth century, during its frontier days, Canada was still referred to as British North America—a collection of colonial provinces that was under British sovereignty.

It was not until the 1860s, and the Confederation movement, that Canada became one, united political region. In 1867, Britain, wishing to rid itself of its expensive colonies, passed the British North American Act, which officially severed the country’s control of British North America and created the Dominion of Canada, a political entity that was only loosely affiliated with Britain. Still, while Canada was united in theory, in practice it was a different story, especially in the newly named province of Quebec (formerly Canada East), which paid homage to both its English and French heritage. Quebec made both English and French its official languages, and, through the Canadian government, established a dual school system that included separate schools for English-speaking and French-speaking students. In the twentieth century, Quebec began to grow economically, in part due to a conversion from a mainly agrarian to an increasingly industrial society. The province experienced the greatest industrial growth during the second industrial revolution, which took place between 1920 and 1940. As with the United States and other countries in the late 1920s and 1930s that were affected by the Great Depression, Canada’s economy declined. In Quebec, Maurice Duplessis came to power during the 1930s, and his government promoted a return to an agrarian society. Although the movement was unsuccessful, the government made agriculture and the rural life its economic focus.

Even in the later 1940s, after World War II, when Canada as a whole embraced urbanization, Duplessis’s government continued to emphasize the rural life, and turned away from urbanization. In the 1950s, the tide began to turn, as farms were urbanized, and industries began to grow again. In 1959, Duplessis died, and the following year, 1960, when Hébert wrote her poem, Quebec entered a period of change referred to as the Quiet Revolution. This revolution witnessed enormous economic growth, as well as a call by the predominantly French-speaking residents of Quebec to define their culture. This focus on preserving cultural heritage, coupled with the strong economy, helped to fuel a separatist movement that sought to have Quebec secede from Canada and become its own, self-governing territory.

Literary Style

(Poetry for Students)

Symbolism A symbol is a physical object, action, or gesture that also represents an abstract concept, without losing its original identity. Symbols appear in literature in one of two ways. They can be local symbols, meaning that their symbolism is only relevant within a specific literary work. They can also be universal symbols, meaning that their symbolism is based on traditional associations that are widely recognized, regardless of context. In Hébert’s poem, she relies on universal symbols, such as birth, death, and the seasons. At the beginning of the poem, the day is born, and Nature starts out as a “bloody beast.” While blood is used as the symbol for many different concepts, in this case, Hébert is depicting the painful birth of Nature at the beginning of the day. This contrasts with night, which is traditionally associated with death: “Soon she’ll place her hands tightly over your eyes like a living / oyster where death meditates, centuries of perfect dreams, the / white blood of a hard pearl.” A pearl is a universal symbol for beauty and perfection, which ties into the next stanza that discusses “the beauty of your face.” This stanza also discusses the seasons: “Oh you trembling in the wind, the beauty of your face hoisted on / the mast of the four seasons.” The invocation of the seasons also implies the idea of transformation, since the daily cycle (morning to night) and the annual cycle (spring to winter) are often equated, in a symbolic sense.

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Poetry for Students)

Sources
Godin, Jean-Cleo, “Anne Hébert: Rebirth in the Word,” in Yale French Studies, Vol. 45, 1970, pp. 137–53.

Hébert, Anne, “The Alchemy of Day,” in A Book of Women Poets from Antiquity to Now, edited by Aliki Barnstone and Willis Barnstone, 1992, pp. 235–37.

Lawall, Sarah, Review of Day Has No Equal But Night, in World Literature Today, Vol. 68, No. 4, Autumn 1994, p. 781.

Macri, F. M., “Ann Hébert: Story and Poem,” in Canadian Literature, No. 58, Autumn 1973, pp. 9–18.

Review of Day Has No Equal But Night: Poems by Anne Hebert, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 241, No. 13, March 28, 1994, p. 91.

Rosenstreich, Susan L., “Counter-Traditions: The Marginal Poetics of Anne Hébert,” in Traditionalism, Nationalism, and Feminism: Women Writers of Quebec, edited by Paula Gilbert Lewis, Greenwood Press, 1985, pp. 63–70.

Weir, Lorraine, “Anne Hebert,” in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 68: Canadian Writers, 1920–1959, First Series, edited by W. H. New, Gale Research, 1988, pp. 166–73.

Further Reading
Benson, Eugene and William Toye, eds., The Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature, Oxford University Press, Second Edition, 1997. This helpful reference book includes entries on all major aspects of Canadian literature. It also has sections that specifically focus on works by writers in Quebec, including Francophone writers.

Bickerton, James, ed., Canadian Politics, Broadview Press, Third Edition, 1999. Collectively, this book of essays examines all of the pertinent issues in Canadian politics, including social movements, institutions, specific political regions, and Canada’s global relations.

Joseph, John, Language and Identity: National, Cultural, Personal, Palgrave McMillan, 2003. This textbook offers an overview of the role of language in identity. The book includes specific cases from around the world.

Lecker, Robert and Jack David, eds., Annotated Bibliography of Canada’s Major Authors: Marian Engel, Anne Hebert, Robert Kroetsch, and Thomas Raddall, G. K. Hall, 1988. This useful resource can help students to identify available sources on Hébert, as well as other major Canadian authors.

Pallister, Janis L., ed., The Art and Genius of Anne Hebert: Essays on Her Works, Night and the Day Are One, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2001. Pallister’s book is a rare collection of Hébert criticism in print. Half of the book’s essays appear in French. The book focuses mainly on Hébert’s prose works, but it also discusses general aspects of her writing.

Compare and Contrast

(Poetry for Students)

1960s: Separatists groups who wish to form an independent Quebec gain attention for their efforts.

Today: Several Canadian laws passed in the late 1990s make it difficult for Quebec to secede from Canada. In addition, polls show that support for secession has dropped to below half of Quebec voters.

1960s: French and English are both the official languages of Quebec.

Today: As of 1974, French is the only official language of Quebec, and the majority of citizens speak French.

1960s: Although most of Canada operates solely under the provisions of the nation’s 1867 constitution, Quebec observes special constitutional considerations designed to preserve its language and heritage.

Today: Although most of Canada operates solely under the provisions of the nation’s 1982 constitution, Quebec has refused to sign the document, claiming that it does not address the province’s specific cultural needs. Quebec retains several distinct aspects that are influenced by its French-speaking heritage, including a different civil code and separate schools for Frenchspeaking and English-speaking students.