A(rthur) J(ames) M(arshall) Smith Northrop Frye - Essay

Northrop Frye

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Mr. Smith has the reputation of being a metaphysical poet in the tradition of Donne…. Certainly Mr. Smith is scholarly: [in A Sort of Ecstasy] we meet such phrases as "proud Romanticism" and "Apollonian energy," and part of the point about a poem on the H-bomb turns on the ironic application to it of a phrase from Shakespeare about mercy and from Hopkins about the Holy Spirit. Every poet demands his own kind of erudition; we need some knowledge of the Odyssey to understand "The Plot against Proteus," but we need much more classical background than that to follow Carman's Sappho lyrics, and in both cases whatever obscurity there is is due to the reader's ignorance and not to the poet's wilfulness. Still, Mr. Smith's learning perhaps does interfere with his spontaneity. Too many of the poems seem to me to lack drive: the words do not develop rhythm but are fitted into a containing pattern. The poetry is intensely visual and conceptual; it slowly clarifies, but it does not dance. Sometimes, however, this slow clarification contains great emotional power, as in "The Bridegroom," in which the social and sexual anxieties of modern man come into a nightmarish focus…. (pp. 36-7)

Looking at the new poems, one is surprised by the number of them that are romantic landscape poems in the Carman tradition: "To Hold in a Poem" is a summary of Canadian romantic themes. One wonders if the intellectualized irony of "Resurrection of Arp," even of the remarkable "Universe into Stone," is negative in direction, attacking the political and religious obstacles that prevent the poet from following a naturally romantic bent. That would account for a lack of exuberance in the difficult lonely music, if I am right in finding the lack there…. (p. 37)

Northrop Frye, "Letters in Canada," in his The Bush Garden: Essays on the Canadian Imagination (copyright © Northrop Frye, 1971), Toronto: House of Anansi Press, 1971, pp. 1-128.∗