F(rancis) R(eginald) Scott

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Desmond Pacey

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As [F. R.] Scott pointed out in the preface to New Provinces, the onset of the economic depression of 1929–1936 provided the young experimental writers of the twenties with a subject matter. This was certainly true in Scott's own case. He quickly arrived at the conclusion that the depression marked the breakdown of the capitalist system and that capitalism must be replaced by socialism. (p. 230)

It was not long before these socialist convictions began to appear in Scott's poetry. For the first few years they appeared negatively, in the form of satire at the expense of the waste, inhumanity, and humbug of a decadent capitalist society…. [The] full force of Scott's satiric attack on capitalism vented itself in a group of sixteen poems published in the Forum of May, 1932, under the joint title "An Anthology of Up-to-date Canadian Poetry."… Sympathy for the unemployed, the poor, and the sick had led Scott to repudiate the respectable tradition out of which he himself had sprung…. (pp. 231-32)

[In his article "The Revival of Poetry," Scott gives his version of the literary revolution against predominant poetic practices and pays] his tribute to its leaders. The revolution involved the following changes: the assertion of poetry's inherent value, of the fact that it is mistress in its own house rather than the handmaiden of patriotism and morality; the extension of the range of poetry's interests beyond the traditionally poetical; preference for the concrete rather than the abstract, for the precise rather than the pompous, for the vulgar rather than the precious, for the gay rather than the solemn; and the liberation of form and structure by the use of free verse, imperfect rhymes and other experimental devices. (p. 236)

The close connection between Scott's social and political activity, on the one hand, and his poetry, on the other, is very apparent in Overture. Of the sixty-one poems in the book, no less than thirty-three are "public" poems, concerned with the depression, the war or other social issues…. The remaining poems are mainly lyrics of either nature or love, though a few of them … are reflective or philosophical pieces. All the poems are short, "dry," and intelligent, and they embody almost all the virtues which he had expounded as those of the new poetry…. Additional influences apparent, however, especially in the serious poems of social idealism, are those of Stephen Spender and W. H. Auden. The social satires are the most distinctive and original poems in the book, and on the whole the most successful. (p. 237)

[Events and Signals] does not mark a sharp change from its predecessor, but a development is clearly discernible. Its poems are generally more mellow, less acidulous, less "dry." This more relaxed quality appears in both style and thought. The bare style of Overture, made up almost exclusively of nouns and verbs, is here clothed with adjectives and adverbs. The rhythms are less staccato, the phrases and lines generally longer. There is a similar development in the imagery. The images of Overture were largely drawn from violent struggle or conflict, from warfare or mechanics; in Events and Signals they are drawn from peaceful and constructive pursuits, such as gardening and house-building. The development in thought is indicated by the relative paucity of satirical poems…. There are even fewer poems with an explicit social message, and here the message is not that of doctrinaire socialism but of tempered humanism. Affirmation and compassion have largely replaced the destructive criticism and bitterness of Overture . The approach to life is altogether more positive, even indeed...

(This entire section contains 1907 words.)

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religious. (pp. 237-38)

[The Eye of a Needle] brings together all of [Scott's] best satires, dating from 1925 to the present…. On the whole, the old poems are better than the new, although a few of the new poems, and notably "The Founding of Montreal," "W.L.M.K.," and "The Call of the Wild" make valuable additions to the Scott canon. In these Scott again demonstrates his deadly accuracy of aim at the soft underbelly of Canadian complacency. (pp. 238-39)

[Even] the most extreme of his activities on the literary and the non-literary sides of the pattern—his "pure" landscape poems on the one hand and his erudite scholarly articles on subtle constitutional questions on the other—can be shown to be closely related. In the landscapes he depicts the Laurentian scenery of Canada as having a cold formal beauty and clean purity of its own but no interest in human life, which is a mere trifling excrescence on its eternal processes. In the subtle constitutional analyses he gives the human reply to this indifference: man must, by the very intensity of his intellectual and imaginative activity, make his society as intricately lovely, as viable and serene as these northern hills and streams. The late E. K. Brown and others have rightly stressed the role of the mind in Scott's poetry; but I do not think that they have adequately stressed the role of passionate conviction and of a sense of beauty which is stirred equally by the spectacle of non-human or human splendour. It may have seemed that the young Oxford aesthete who turned to social criticism and political action had sacrificed idealism to pragmatism, but the fact is that the visionary centre for all of Scott's activities is still an aesthetic one. In society as in literature it is the intricate order of beauty that he yearns for, the sprawling mass of ugliness that he rejects. (pp. 240-41)

Scott's poems may be divided into four main groups: poems in which nature description, love, social idealism, or social satire predominates….

His descriptive poems belong mainly to his early work … and are in the imagist tradition. They present images drawn from the Laurentian landscape of Quebec in simple words, short lines, and the smallest possible compass; and the images are presented objectively, with little explicit commentary on the part of the author and often only the barest of implicit "meanings." (p. 241)

The view of Nature expressed is the typical view of the twentieth century, and the style has close affinities with both the Georgians and the Imagists. The use of Canadian northland scenery gives the poems a certain distinctiveness…. Scott's descriptive poems are clear, exact and disciplined, but they might have been written by any of a dozen poets, and if he had written nothing else he would scarcely be remembered at all.

More successful than the purely descriptive poems are those in which Scott uses Nature as a setting for love or as the starting-point for a discussion of the human condition. "Autumnal" … has strong echoes of Thomas Hardy, but is still a genuinely moving lament. "Laurentian," in which the fir trees thrusting into the night sky are seen as symbols of the poet's desire, has something of Bliss Carman's capacity to find appropriate symbols in his native habitat and to cast a magical spell by linked and haunting melodies, though it has none of Carman's diffuseness. (pp. 242-43)

The majority of Scott's love poems employ nature as a symbolic setting, but in Events and Signals there are a few love lyrics of a more exuberant and witty sort, and these on the whole seem to engage Scott's varied talents more completely. "Will to Win," though it never quite fulfills the promise of its magnificent opening line, brilliantly sustains both a mood and a metaphor, and conveys the exuberant energy which is one of Scott's finest qualities…. Less complex and vigorous, but still intense and passionate analyses of the emotion of love, are "Hardest It Is" and "Caring." The latter poem in particular is a very fine evocation of the love of fulfilled desire, of sustained fidelity, of the love which exists between the ideally matched couple after years of union…. These "private" poems of Scott, then, are far from negligible, and a few of them … deserve a place in any Canadian anthology. But it is when we examine Scott's "public" poems, his meditations on the human condition in our time, his idealistic vision of the good society, and especially his satirical thrusts at the decadence of our present social order, that we come in contact with a mind that is distinctive and an imagination which is authentic and impassioned. (pp. 243-44)

"Armageddon," with its mixture of travel, mechanical and military imagery, is … very much in the Auden manner, while "Recovery," with its frequent exclamatory "O"'s and its note of almost hysterical hopefulness, is heavily indebted to Spender. But in "Spring, 1941" there is the first sign of a more distinctive note, of an exuberant imagination which is Scott's own; and in "War" and "Conflict," though the debt to Auden is still visible, the language has achieved such precision and power that we are willing to ignore the influence and admire the controlled and packed expression. (p. 245)

In these programme poems … Scott's socialism is expressed in clear, forceful, colloquial language. The poetry is seldom in the music, for that resource of words he seldom draws upon in poems of this type, but in the sheer compression of statement, the fact that a whole political philosophy is being expressed in quintessential terms. This is indeed a poetry of wit, the product of a fine and disciplined intelligence. But Scott writes another type of reflective or philosophical verse, found chiefly in Events and Signals, in which his humanism finds expression…. Poems such as "Lakeshore," "Picnic," "Last Rites," "Laurentian Shield" and "Eden" have much of the wit of the programme poems, and more wisdom; and in addition they frequently have a melodic beauty, an intricate loveliness of sound and structure that most of the programme poems lack. (p. 246)

It seems to me that in poems of this sort Scott has passed beyond his influences to express a view of life which is thoroughly his own.

But this is even more apparent in the best of Scott's social satires, which I believe to be the most enduring part of his production. Poems such as "The Canadian Authors Meet,"… and "The Canadian Social Register" have at once a thoroughly native and a thoroughly individual flavour. (p. 247)

It is its very economy, its richness of suggestion and complexity of reference, that makes ["The Canadian Authors Meet"] a good poem, that enables it to fulfill the traditional requirement of a poem that it say in short space what could only be expressed in a prose paraphrase of several times its length. "The Canadian Authors Meet" is far more than an occasional satire directed at a meeting of writers, it is a complex condemnation of a whole set of values, of a whole way of life. (p. 251)

This poem is a brilliant satire. It may owe something to the earlier poems of T. S. Eliot, but it is so saturated with Scott's own wit and the circumstances of his own time and place that it impresses us as being thoroughly autochthonous. Analysis of the best of Scott's other social satires would reveal similar success.

Scott, then, will be remembered as a poet primarily for his social satire, because there his best qualities—his knowledge of Canadian society, his passion for honesty and justice, his keen legal intelligence, his wit, his exuberant fancy, and his love of the intricate order of beauty—find an intense and burning focus. (p. 253)

Desmond Pacey, "F. R. Scott," in his Ten Canadian Poets: A Group of Biographical and Critical Essays (copyright © McGraw-Hill Ryerson Limited, 1958; reprinted by permission), Ryerson Press, 1958, pp. 223-53.




Ian Sowton