John Glassco Critical Essays

Glassco, John

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Glassco, John 1909–

A Canadian poet, novelist, and short story writer, Glassco won the Governor General's Award for Poetry in 1971. Although the subject of his verse varies from psychological insight to praises of rural life, his novels basically center on eroticism and fetishism. He has also written under the names George Colman, Jean de Saint-Luc, Miles Underwood, and Sylvia Bayer. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-16, rev. ed.)

Thomas Hardy is the poet we are most apt to cite as combining a traditional poetics with a skeptical temperament. If there is a dominant influence to be found in Glassco's work it is that of Hardy; and it is to Glassco's credit that he more than once succeeds in achieving effects as powerful as the master's own. (p. 51)

The knowledge most of us in the United States have of Canadian poetry is unfortunately sketchy. Readers wishing to remedy this lack of acquaintance could begin to do so very pleasurably with Glassco's Selected Poems. (p. 53)

Robert B. Shaw, "A Voice from Canada," in Poetry (© 1975 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), April, 1975, pp. 50-3.

Seeking to pinpoint the "essential Glassco" and attempting to systematize his work is a frustrating task. Over a writing career of forty years he appears in numerous different guises. At one moment he's "Nijinsky's faun, fresh from some sylvan adventure" [as Leon Edel characterized him in his introduction to Glassco's Memoirs of Montparnasse] and the next he's the bearded old man on the mountain hurling down his tablets of doom. There's the profligate youth chronicling the escapades of the lost generation and the reclusive poet wrestling with death and consciousness in the Eastern Townships, the mischievous master of erotica and the elder statesman of Canadian letters. (p. 28)

Both Glassco's prose and poetry are enhanced by his great power to recall totally a situation and reconstruct its mood. In the Memoirs this is accomplished by the use of a dramatization of dialogue which does not even pretend to be a verbatim account of the actual conversation. The author simply withdraws and lets the characters reveal themselves. It is Glassco's greatest ability and the one which gives his scenes such economy and freshness. (p. 29)

The John Glassco of the Memoirs was not a mature artist. He had an admirable style, complete technical command of the language, lots of anecdotes to relate, but could only speak with authority on youth. John Glassco the poet was a long time in developing, and when he does emerge, he reveals a sensibility and a wisdom of age, a vision of life that no young man could have. It is a poetry of the end of life, inspired by the imminence of death. All his best poems are written from the vantage point of a hilltop, where the "future is abolished" and where for a prolonged moment a man can turn and survey the past laid out before him. The experiences and the emotions, the goals and the motivations are sifted through in the light of the harsh, newly-realized truth of death.

The intolerable loss of consciousness must somehow be made tolerable. The place of the individual's ego must be rethought so that death can be seen as a culmination of life rather than a contradiction. It is this process of sifting and rethinking that is the inspiration and which provides the raw material for John Glassco's later career as a poet.

The poems which spring from this special sensibility are of two main types. There are the long meditative poems which deal with consciousness and the workings of the mind. They recreate and analyse at length a mood or emotion. The psyche is isolated and we see it again and again assaulted by love, ambition, sensuality, or the awareness of approaching death.

The other category consists of shorter, tightly-wrought poems built around symbols in the external world. Included here is most of the townships poetry. The images, concrete, familiar and prosaic, are brilliantly manipulated by the poet. Old houses, crumbling barns, and deserted homesteads are perceived through an eye which alternately sees in them horror and tranquility, corruption and beauty. (pp. 31-2)

Success in Glassco's poems lies in finding a permanence, not in cheating death but in finding values which will make a whole life complete unto itself within the brackets of birth and death. The conventional, socially approved goals and dreams don't work. Many of the poems, like the first, are tragedies, but tragedies are the result of mistakes, and a mistake implies the failure to perceive and follow the correct course. (p. 33)

Some of the poetry tends to be a bit didactic, and the poet is always at his best when least visible. His themes are best revealed by his characters in … poems such as "The Death of Don Quixote" and "The Web" who can speak with more conviction and more freedom than the poet can permit himself. (p. 34)

The older poet has attained the overview which was denied to the youth. The experience of living and dying is encircled, organized, and reduced to its essential facts.

First there is man's place in nature, where the race may survive, but each individual is doomed. Then there comes the problem of making a meaning between birth and death, that brief period of consciousness. And consciousness itself, that unique gift, is a two-edged sword which permits man to see and learn, but also creates the ego and gives birth to dreams and visions that are unattainable and doomed to frustration. The only commitment that is worth-while is to another human being. Self-sufficiency is abandoned; the individual ceases to be isolated and becomes part of the chain which is immortal. (p. 39)

The prose works do not reveal the complete Glassco, but then neither does the poetry. It has been argued that the verse is the more serious, and so it is if by serious one means grave and humourless. Glassco's reverence for the form excludes all amusement and makes the poetry more earnest than the man. There is another side to Glassco which delights in the absurdities of life and has the will and the ability to make us laugh. The comic vision revealed in the simple, elegant prose of the Memoirs and Erotica is no less of an accomplishment and of no less artistic value than the very different vision presented in the poetry. (pp. 40-1)

Charles Murdoch, "Essential Glassco," in Canadian Literature, Summer, 1975, pp. 28-41.

Glassco … is a superb writer, probably the subtlest prose stylist in Canada today….

The limitation of the genre [of the novella; Scobie is reviewing The Fatal Woman, a collection of three novellas] is the limitation of the concept of the Fatal Woman itself. The Fatal Woman is a sexual fantasy of long, even of archetypal standing, but like all such fantasies it is limiting and ultimately dehumanizing. Glassco links its modern forms with the sensibility of Romanticism, which he describes—in the most fascinating piece of intellectual speculation in the book—as "a kind of disease," which results in a "sick" art. In this sense, the obsession with the Fatal Woman is a sickness, a deformity of normal human experience. (p. 108)

"The Fulfilled Destiny of Electra" and "The Black Helmet" are much more successful [than the third novella, "Lust in Action"]. Both set up a hermetic environment within which Glassco can explore the equally enclosed mental landscape of obsession. Even when the external world intrudes, at the end of "Electra", in the shape of two bewildered police officers, the intrusion is effortlessly assimilated into the myth, becoming the instrument by which the self-destructive destiny of the central male character is fulfilled.

The limits of the closed world set up a complete dramatic situation, which should be, in Glassco's view "static" or "motionless". The tension should then vibrate between the fixed points of the characters' hieratic roles, rather than derive from any forward thrust of narrative action. The preface tells us that Glassco considered he had come closest to achieving this in "The Black Helmet"; even so, "it was clearly a failure."

It is clearly nothing of the kind. It is a complex and subtle narrative structure, in which Glassco contrives to provide an ironic context for his presentation of obsession while at the same time preserving a sense of that obsession's intensity. This is achieved by alternating the narrative between the hero's diary, in which he both records and analyses his devotion, and the ironic overviews provided, at one remove, by the goddess Artemis and the structural myth of Endymion, and, at the second remove, by the implicit presence of the author himself, John Glassco, in all his superbly delicate indelicacy.

These different layers of awareness are continually producing subtle effects…. (p. 109)

Stephen Scobie, "Glassco's Muse," in Canadian Literature, Summer, 1975, pp. 108-10.