F(rancis) R(eginald) Scott

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Stephen A. C. Scobie

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F. R. Scott is best known, as a poet, for his social and literary satire…. The virtues of Scott's light verse are immediately obvious: clarity, wit, economy, lightness of touch, and brilliant wordplay. It has also been widely recognized that many of these qualities have been carried over into his more serious poetry…. [But] Scott's outlook, in some of his most serious poems, is a profoundly ambiguous one. His clarity is often used to define an ambivalence, and his wordplay (especially the punning) to embody contrasting meanings in their most concise forms.

This ambiguity is concerned with what such critics as D. G. Jones see as a central Canadian theme: a doubt about the nature and validity of the human civilizing or technologizing process as it impinges upon human relationships and upon the natural environment…. That Scott's attitudes towards such a theme might indeed be ambiguous could perhaps be deduced from certain aspects of his public career. Scott has devoted the greater part of his life to the cause of social reform, and to the belief that the institutions of civilization—law, politics, and poetry—can be made to work for the betterment of the world. On the other hand, much of his support has been given to losing causes; he has not seen Canadian society develop politically in the directions he has urged, and the predominance of social satire in his writings indicates his dissatisfaction with the workings of the civilizing process. (pp. 314-15)

[His] view of civilization is supported by "Eden". This is an amusing account, in finely turned quatrains, of the Genesis story…. Scott's tone leaves no doubt that he espouses the doctrine of the Fortunate Fall; indeed, he sees the event as "no Fall, but Creation". Adam and Eve, whatever they had lost, had made one inestimable gain: "They had conquered the power of choice." So Eden, with all its whimsically attractive sleeping lions, has to be abandoned…. The statement [in the poem] is clear enough: Eden can be regained, and knowledge is the means by which this will be achieved. The only qualification the poem places on this ideal view is the all-too-human nature of its protagonists, even before their "fall". (Adam's main reason for eating the fruit is jealousy: "She could not have all the wisdom.") But despite this, and the consistently whimsical tone, these last lines emerge as one of Scott's firmest statements on the capability and the ultimate goal of human knowledge, technology, and civilization.

We are still, however, a long way from Eden. Scott's satirical poems, as well as much of his public career, have been directed towards the manifest imperfections of a society which has "kept on using this knowledge" for several thousand years since Eve. In particular, he has been concerned with the abuse of that particular branch of knowledge which concerns him … most directly: language. Many of Scott's "found poems" are concerned with the sheer insensitivity of politicians, capitalists, and journalists to the actual meaning of words….

"Saturday Sundae" is a most interesting poem in this connection…. Scott's major target in the poem is the debasement of language, and his method of attack is to work from within, using the jargon he detests, but arranging it in ways which point up its absurdity: "The latex tintex kotex cutex land". The techniques of Scott's verbal wit—the puns, the parodies of poetic diction ("him I sing")—are being used for a serious purpose. If … the poem comes to appear "imperceptive and heartless" towards the plight of its characters, then it is because these qualities are inherent in the kind of...

(This entire section contains 1462 words.)

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language which Scott is both using and attacking. Perceptive human feeling can only be expressed in precise, perceptive language; "Life Pic Look Click" impose by their very names a non-humanistic, anti-individual view of people. This is most apparent in the final stanza, in which it becomes the function of the most trivial products of this non-culture (candy, cellophane) to deal with the profoundest human challenges of the heretic. The idea that cellophanecan control heresy, that the end result of the civilizing process will be to extinguish humanity, is completely opposite to the optimistic conclusion of "Eden"…. ["Mural"] is placed in the Selected Poems directly after "Eden", so that its reference to "the Eden air" may now be read as an ironic comment on the previous (but chronologically later) poem. "Mural" is a portrait of a society where technology has taken over absolutely, at the expense of all human values…. As such, it is a fairly standard dystopia…. But again, the verbal form which Scott employs has inherent in it qualities which make the poem rather more ambiguous and complex than appears at first sight. For the form is irony, in which the poet has to rely on his tone to convey to the reader a meaning which is the exact opposite of what the words actually say…. Scott's ironical linguistic method is leading us toward the question of whether his "Mural" is not, in fact, the only possible human realization of his "Eden". Has Eve, in fact, got back? But the ambiguity of the irony persists, for "Mural" is also an evil society which has extinguished such concepts as human dignity and freedom. Scott is coming up against the problem which is also at the heart of [Aldous Huxley's] Brave New World, namely, that the two concepts—human dignity and freedom on the one hand, humanity's material well-being on the other—appear to be mutually exclusive…. (pp. 316-18)

Thus, the contrasting views of "Eden" and "Saturday Sundae" are here compressed into one more complex and ambiguous poem; and Scott's means of doing this is the double-edged nature of his verbal wit, in irony and puns.

The ultimate problem, hinted at [in "Mural"] …, is death. The reason why the benefits of a technological Utopia cannot be shared by all men without robbing them of their freedom is the limited lifespan of mortal man. He has not time to wait; all experience must be jammed into three score years and ten, and that can only be done at someone else's expense. Hence the need for a few "enlightened" minds to deprive men of their selfish individualities, and force them into a system which will work for the good of all…. In "Last Rites", a poem which he considered significant enough to be given the penultimate place in Selected Poems, Scott at last tackles the problem head on. If we keep on using this knowledge of Eve's, we may in fact get back to Eden and stand again, whatever God may say, in front of the Tree of Life itself.

"Last Rites" presents a man dying, attended by a nurse and a priest, who become representative of two "warring creeds" in their attitudes towards death. The priest accepts it…. The nurse, while accepting each individual defeat, does not accept the inevitability of death itself, but commits herself to a continuing struggle against it. (pp. 318-19)

The poem's initial impression, then, is of a conflict between these two "warring creeds", which may be seen again as the "lifeless processes" of nature, and technological civilization's attempt to find "an argument that will prevail". (There is also a possible cross-reference from this poem's "ether air" to the "Eden air" of "Mural".) However, the poem also reflects a profound ambiguity of outlook, and again it is the forms of verbal wit which most clearly reflect this…. The ambiguity of Scott's own position is reflected in the line "I who watch this rightness and these rites". Here the pun between "right" and "rite" may reflect either an identity or a conflict between the two. Are the "rites" also a "rightness", or does the line rather suggest that the "rites" are merely empty forms contrasted to the "rightness"? And in either case, which is which? The word "rites" is normally used in connection with priests, but in the poem up to this line it has been used only in reference to the nurse; and both nurse and priest have, from their own point of view, a "rightness". (pp. 319-20)

However one reads the poem, it is clear that "Last Rites" is pushing even further the ambiguities of "Mural", and that the confident positions of the satirist of "Saturday Sundae" and the idealist of "Eden" have been left far behind. The further Scott explores this theme of the technological impact on nature, the further he is driven into an ambiguous position where all the key words in his poems become ambivalent, and the puns … become loaded with all the weight of his doubts and questions. (p. 320)

Stephen A. C. Scobie, "The Road Back to Eden: The Poetry of F. R. Scott," in Queen's Quarterly, Vol. LXXIX, No, 3, Autumn, 1972, pp. 314-23.


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Michael Hornyansky