Gwendolyn MacEwen Essay - Critical Essays

MacEwen, Gwendolyn


MacEwen, Gwendolyn 1941–

MacEwen is a Canadian poet, novelist, playwright, and short story writer. Exploring the ambiguous nature of time and reality, she seeks to uncover the patterns of myth that survive in contemporary culture. Irony and paradox are frequently among MacEwen's poetic tools, and all of her work is imbued with a sense of the magical and the mysterious. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

Elliott Gose

The setting of [Julian the Magician] is vaguely post-Renaissance, but the language is poetic and ironic, slangy modern and analytic. The ingredients do not mix smoothly. There remains the story: Julian is imitating Christ, as indicated not only by chapter titles but by long italicized passages paraphrased from appropriate sections of the New Testament. Consequently, the reader who knows what happened to Christ knows what happens to Julian the Magician. (pp. 36-7)

The parallels with the life of Christ are there mainly because Julian forces them on himself and others. By the time we reach the end of the novel, we are even ready to believe that they are the natural manifestation of an archetypal pattern. I mention this possibility to indicate that Miss MacEwen is also self-conscious. Undigested references to little-read religious figures help attest to this: we are given quotations from Celsus, in his anti-Christian work; Origen, the early church father who answered him; Boehme and Paracelsus; the Zohar, the Kabalah and the Pistis Sophia…. (p. 37)

Miss MacEwen needs a greater mastery of the genre to make the image patterns work for her as naturally as they do in the [fairy] tale (where the impersonal form of repeated tellings is presumably substituted for the conscious form that a single individual must give)…. [Yet] a great deal of effective patterning does exist in Julian the Magician. (pp. 40-1)

[By] allowing "the dead and disappeared life" to awaken in Julian and through him in other characters in the novel, Miss MacEwen has created patterns which may awaken her readers also. The only thing she lacks is enough control of the novel as a form, and by the time she gets into the diary, she has begun to develop that too. For the reader who can suspend his disbelief, Julian the Magician has a lot to offer. (p. 44)

Elliott Gose, "They Shall Have Arcana," in Canadian Literature, Summer, 1964, pp. 36-45.

George Bowering

Gwendolyn MacEwen's poems are filled with the things the wants. And the language of the poems is a language of ambition, of wanting. It stands outside the mainstream of current Canadian poetry, which seems generally to belong to the post-Williams age. That is, Miss MacEwen's language is opposite to the language of … Raymond Souster. One is aware of something like poetic diction, not the rhythmic arrangement of a prose line. In a poem like "All The Fine Young Horses", for instance, her "issues" if she claims any, are not of matter and the senses, but of a young, feminine, personal imagination. Anthology-makers or those who teach survey courses might call her a Romantic….

[The Rising Fire] is the first major collection of Miss MacEwen's poetry…. [The] best poems are the later ones, and the book would be more enjoyable if the whole thing were made up of the later poems, like the musical "The Catalogues of Memory". (p. 70)

Miss MacEwen's usual unwillingness to be direct sets a distance at first. She is not an immediate poet in this time of immediacy. One may be put off by certain amateur tricks, such as the use of an adverb in place of an adjective ("like darkly trees"); or impatient with her effort to overcome the inertia of a heavy metaphor, as in the poem, "Eden, Eden". But in other poems such as "The Absolute Dance" and "The Dimensions of a Tiger", the voice responds as well as expressing, and the work becomes true … as well as lovely.

In other words, this is an important book. It contains within it the evidence that a young woman with a marvellous talent is beginning to take charge. (p. 71)

George Bowering, "A Complex Music," in Canadian Literature, Summer, 1964, pp. 70-1.

George Jonas

If Gwendolyn MacEwen's [King of Egypt, King of Dreams] were a landscape it would be a jungle of startling colours and strange sounds, dense vegetation and humid silence. If it were a fruit it would be over-ripe. If it were a dream it would be haunting and vivid and one would try to rouse oneself from it. As a woman it would be dramatic and demanding, with lips too pale and eye shadow too black, a soft voice and razor-sharp fingernails. A very impressive woman, but not everybody's type.

This is not to deny the novel beauty or significance. It is just to say that King of Egypt, King of Dreams is not an easy and comfortable book to read, and it should probably be taken over a period of time and in small doses. A sip could be delicious, a gulp nauseating. Enjoying Gwendolyn MacEwen's style may be an acquired rather than a natural taste. (pp. 37, 40)

Although King of Egypt, King of Dreams is based on historical characters and events, it has very little of the taint of reality. This is not because some licence is taken with facts or because where facts are not known they are replaced by invention. The exact manner in which Akhenaton met his death, or whether Ay was or was not the father of Nefertiti and the brother of Queen Tiy would not seem to affect much the essential reality of the novel. But when the young prince falls "flat on his face in sight of ten visiting ambassadors from Karaduniash" we...

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Douglas Barbour

[Gwen MacEwen] is a wonder, a phenomenological mythicist, a poet of legendary process—how everyday becomes supernatural reality. Magic Animals: Selected Poems Old and New provides a welcome chance to become reacquainted with the best poems of her earlier books—for a change, I agree with almost all the selections—and to discover a group of new poems in which the poet explores the animal and vegetable kingdoms, and the somewhat ambiguous glory of god, providing, by the by, some witty and acute visions of man in the middle….

[She] has a powerful command of tone, an ability to create mesmerizing patterns of sound and rhythm which make her best poems truly enchanting. What is not always mentioned, however, is her sly, feline sense of humour. Much of MacEwen's work is celebration, and celebration of her universe is a matter of cosmic laughter as often as not. (p. 757)

If you're missing any one of A Breakfast for Barbarians, The Shadow Maker or The Armies of the Moon, you should get this book. If you've somehow missed Gwen MacEwen's poems entirely, you have to get this book. If you can enjoy a poetry both sensual and sly, erotic and mythological, witty and occasionally savage in its assaults upon the human heart and mind, you'll want to get this book. Magic Animals is a rich and energetic testament to a career in full stride. We can look to read much more from MacEwen in the future. (p. 758)

Douglas Barbour, in Dalhousie Review, Winter, 1975–76.

Tom Marshall

Gwendolyn MacEwan has always been a singer, one who sings forcefully of things exotic and mysterious. Readers and reviewers of [the 60's] responded immediately to her urgent and exuberant utterance even when—in some of the early poems—it approached incoherency. Indeed, a love of sheer sound, encouraged by her poetic idols Hart Crane and Dylan Thomas, sometimes ran away with the poem. But a myth was being unfolded in brief, sharp bursts of sound and imagery. One finds, for instance, from the beginning a desire for escape to other times and worlds (as in the poems of Michael Ondaatje) but also a passionate longing for the integration of opposites or pairs—light and dark, male and female, Canada and the arcane mysteries, past and future. Hers is the alchemical search for the divine in the mundane; magic and myth abound but are expressed in terms of human emotion and an attractively colloquial and flexible voice. (pp. 100-01)

For MacEwen the individual discovery of the universe is also the creation of the universe. The swimmer, the astronaut, the dancer, the magician recur as images of the poet whose activity is mythmaking, the construction from experience of meaningful patterns, and thus of the larger self, the larger consciousness (a process that assumes overtly nationalist and feminist significances in the work of Margaret Atwood). In A Breakfast For Barbarians, MacEwen's first mature collection, the poet is by turns...

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Gwendolyn MacEwen has set a high standard against which her impressions of Greece must be measured: "Greece presents a very real challenge to whoever goes there—a challenge to do more, to be more, to better the present moment in whatever way is possible, to improvise, to expand. To get things off the ground."

Unhappily, Mermaids and Ikons remains earthbound. The poet's ear, so dependable in her craft, plays her false when she turns to prose. This work suffers from a discordant flatness, frequent and abrupt descents into jargon that jolt and disturb. Mycenae "really cuts you down to size", its golden masks are "all flattened and funny", a notable poet she hoped to meet "… had died on...

(The entire section is 261 words.)