A(rthur) J(ames) M(arshall) Smith Milton Wilson - Essay

Milton Wilson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Certainly you don't have to talk to Smith for long to realize that he relishes the thought of being odd classical man out in a society of romantics, and, from the jacket blurb of his Collected Poems, we once again learn, presumably with the author's sanction, that he knows how to be "austerely classic" in his own graceful way. It's something of a let-down to discover how merely Parnassian or decadent or imagistic his classicism can be. (pp. 11-12)

More obtrusive and far less legendary in the Smith terminology is "metaphysical" and all the phrases that Eliot … has taught us to trail along behind it: the "disparate experience", "passion and thought" or "sense and intellect", "fused" into a "unified sensibility". (p. 12)

Do unskilful classification and a perfunctory terminology really stand in the way of Smith's critical achievement? Not, I think, if we recognize where his real and remarkable virtues as a critic lie and refuse to demand what he has no intention of giving in the first place. Smith's key terms and classifications are useful only because, having provided something of the sort, he can then feel free to exercise his best talents elsewhere…. He is lucky to have discovered, and been encouraged to take on, the rôle for which his critical skills best suit him. He seems born to be an anthologizer, not of familiar, well-stocked and well-combed fields, but of virgin territory; he is happily doomed to exercise his finely perceptive and carefully developed faculty of choice on the dubious, the unpromising, the untried and the provincial, and by his example to show his readers that such choice is both possible and necessary…. In the successive editions of [A Book of Canadian Poetry] and in the more recent Oxford Book of Canadian Verse, he has given us a model of discrimination and scrupulous choice, which is salutary even for those whose preferences are very different from his. Smith offers no hard-won aesthetic principles, no freshly cleaned critical concepts, no brilliant arguments to inevitable conclusions; but one cannot read his Canadian anthologies (introduction and critical apparatus included) without responding to the firm, delicately sharpened, continuous pressures of a mind exercising its powers on materials which he finds half-alien and grudging in their Victorian beginnings, and perhaps equally alien, if a good deal richer, in their post-war ends, but which he manages somehow to coerce into satisfying the personal demands...

(The entire section is 1026 words.)