A(rthur) J(ames) M(arshall) Smith

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Certainly the one hundred pieces [in Poems New and Collected] show Smith to be a chameleon—he can viciously dismiss the vacuity of 'popular poetry', he can articulate his committment to sing the "lonely music" or to encounter "voluptuous" death, and yet he can delight his reader with such flippant remarks as:

        McLuhan put his telescope to his ear;
        What a lovely smell, he said, we have here.

The question raised by the bewildering variety of Poems New and Collected is whether to assess the poems individually in their own terms or to attempt to discover whatever unity lies at the core of the collection. Neither of these approaches has proved wholly fruitful…. It would thus appear desirable to approach each poem in its own terms and then, having estimated its unique value, to ascertain where it fits into the tenor of the collection. With this in mind, [it is interesting to examine the] Yeatsian presence in Smith's work through a close reading of the poem most often placed in the "later Yeats" category, "Like an Old, Proud King in a Parable".

The early poems, and here it is essential to look beyond what Smith chose to collect, to "Leda" and the embarrassingly reverential "For Ever and Ever, Amen", demonstrate what the poet has recently called "too much" of an "obviously Yeatsian" quality. As poems they do no more than express in lyrical form what Smith the graduate student wrote of Yeats in his Master's thesis. (pp. 59-60)

[He made an analogy in his thesis] between poet/king and poetry/queen. The importance of the analogy resides in the fact that it immediately recalls the characters and the act of divestment or abdication in "Like an Old, Proud King in a Parable." The fact that the thesis simile draws the Yeats/king and the poetry/queen parallels, the "bitter king in anger to be gone" phrase invites a biographical reading of the poem in terms of Yeats' unhappy abdication of his public roles at the Abbey Theatre and elsewhere. Divesting himself of the props of the stage role ("the hollow sceptre and gilt crown"), he "broke bound" of the "counties Green" and retreated to the north, to the rocky Galway coast. There, with his "bride", Georgie Hyde-Lees, he purchased Thoor Ballylee in 1917 and proceeded to make the old stone castle habitable: "he made a meadow in the northern stone". From there, until his death in 1939, Yeats sang "the difficult, lonely music" of his later poetry. (p. 61)

The invocation of the "Father" in [the last stanza of "Like an Old, Proud King in a Parable"] though reverential in tone, need not be confined to a strictly religious reading; indeed, other than the obvious connotations of the parable form, the religious reading does not especially suit the matter of this poem. Smith is invoking the "Father" Yeats as his master craftsman and perhaps even as his muse. The poet pledges himself:

           And I will sing to the barren rock
           Your difficult, lonely music, heart;
           Like an old proud king in a parable.

The separation of the personal adjective "Your" from its noun, "heart" leaves the reader the length of the line to imagine that the difficult, lonely music belongs to the "Father" who is still being addressed. The grammatical connection with "heart" at the line's end does not wholly negate the previously made association; in fact, the spiritual bond formed in the poem would suggest that the distance between the "Father" Yeats and Smith's "heart" is not great. Further, the spiritual tie instigated and confirmed by the generical nature of "Parable" permits the...

(This entire section contains 1145 words.)

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last line to signify that the poet, Smith, will sing his heart's song in the manner of the old, proud king, Yeats. (pp. 61-2)

There is, however, a less specifically Yeatsian reading of the poem, stemming still from the simile in the thesis on Yeats. The "bitter king", bitter because deluded by the trappings of poetical convention being imposed upon him (i.e. Smith's delineation of the demands made on the Canadian poet to talk romantically of snowshoes etc.), must divest himself of the gilt crown, the hollow sceptre, the doting but ultimately tyrannical queen (oppressively emotional poetry). Rather than stalk about in another's apparel, the poet must start afresh, must renounce the comforts of the "fat royal life", the easily made poetry "embroidered" by luxuriant but vacuous emotions. His act of "breaking bound" is an act of defiance, an abdication of his public role in order to answer the "heart that carolled like a swan." This stripping away of foreign adornments is how Smith characterized the development of Yeats' poetry in the thesis passage. It is integrated into the poem as an expression of the poet's hope to die out of the public mask and into the naked, "proud and lonely" (thesis) self. The dialogue will no longer be conducted between king and court, but between self and soul, bridegroom and bride, intellect and emotion. (p. 62)

"Like an Old, Proud King in a Parable" is undoubtedly one of Smith's most important poems: its placement at the head of his collections advises us that the poet still accepts its credo and its poetical theory. It is even possible to discern a relationship between Smith's understanding of the development of Yeats' poetry from pure emotion to 'Intellectual Beauty' and his famous critical classification of Canadian poets into "native" and "cosmopolitan" traditions. Of the "native" tradition, for example, he argues that "the concentration upon personal emotion and upon nature, while it made for an easier success, meant a serious narrowing of range and sometimes a thinning of substance." Like Yeats, he criticizes such poetry for its "lack of complete relevancy", and he traces its demise in the light of this shortcoming: "the tradition of romantic nature poetry became brittle and glazed, and its imagery, which in the older poets had been genuinely local, tended to harden into convention." What was needed, Smith saw, was for poets to adopt a cosmopolitan, intelligent regard of the world around them: this would produce "the poetry of ideas, of social criticism, of wit and satire" whose "unassuming" and undeceived outlook would pare the "fat royal life" and emotionally romantic poetry of their "overloaded diction".

What clearly sets "Like an Old, Proud King in a Parable" apart from other too "obviously Yeatsian" early poems is that it transcends its sources to become a sincere, almost private, statement and a successful, self-contained poem. It is not a pastiche or a mere exercise in another's style. It echoes and shares Yeats' ideas but never does it need to rely on an identification with them: the poem has, does and will thrive without it. (p. 63)

I. S. MacLaren, "The Yeatsian Presence in A.J.M. Smith's 'Like an Old, Proud King in a Parable'," in Canadian Poetry: Studies, Documents, Reviews, No. 4, Spring-Summer, 1979, pp. 59-64.


Munro Beattie