Duncan Campbell Scott was famous as poet in his day and infamous in ours for overseeing Canada’s “Indian” policy, including the Residential Schools, for a quarter of a century. Whether it is possible — or permissible — to admire the art of someone who’s attitudes and actions are objectionable is a question long discussed. I feel that, in the end, we should be able to admire the art while objecting to the artist. Almost every day I use Edmonton’s bridges, consider them vital to the life of my city, and am grateful that previous generations expended the effort to build and maintain them. I am certain that these bridges, particularly the two oldest, were built by men who held views on a large number of subjects, including what to do about Canada’s “Indian Problem”, perfectly in line with those of Scott. I expect they held similarly objectionable views about many “races” and nationalities.
But I’ll not tear down the bridges.
Just so, I feel quite comfortable reading Duncan Campbell Scott’s poetry, and feel no guilt about enjoying it, despite the tragic evil he supervised. I do, of course, keep the evils in my mind as I read, but, if we insist on perfection in our artists, we will enjoy no art.
By the way, I highly recommend Mark Abley’s fascinating novel/history Conversations with a Dead Man, through which we may come to see Scott as a complicated, very flawed, quite real human being. I found I could understand Scott through Abley’s book. But, importantly, understanding a person’s motivations, attitudes and actions is not approving, defending or condoning them. Nor is condemning the evils they did a dismissal of their good deeds. It is quite possible, for example, to praise Sir John A. MacDonald for his desire to enfranchise women while condemning his “Indian” and immigration policies. Some say we cannot judge historical figures by today’s standards. I say, if we cannot judge, we can neither praise nor condemn, and history is meaningless.
The past is populated by giants whose shoulders we sit upon, but whom we would not tolerate as neighbours. Byron was a vile, arrogant libertine. Coleridge an out of control addict. Milton a regicide, a traitor, and an abuser of his own daughters. For all we know, Virgil or Homer supported infanticide. Surely Scott’s friend, the poet Archibald Lampman had ideas and attitudes similar to Scott’s. But Lampman is now remembered as a poet who died tragically young, perhaps before he could establish any darker reputation. I doubt I would want to spend much time with any of them. But, I refuse to turn my back on Don Juan, Kubla Khan, Lycidas, The Aeneid, The Iliad or The City of the End of Things. And, despite the genocidal policies of Canada’s Government which were overseen so long by Duncan Campbell Scott, I will not turn my back on his great elegy “Lines in Memory of Edmund Morris”.
Scott begins his elegy in unlikely short, three beat (for the most part) lines, alternately rhymed (also, for the most part). This sing song opening almost threatens the dignity of the thing, but Scott handles it with a gentle, clever wit. We can feel the love Scott feels for Morris as he holds an unanswered letter from his dead friend.
In the second stanza, Scott places Morris’ letter before us, conjuring the illegibility. The “cuneiform or Chaldaic” made by Morris’ “cryptic fist” most immediately presents the lost future, doubly lost because of Morris’ death and because of the mystery of what was written clearly on the mind while cryptic on the page.
Scott’s question to Morris is very felicitous:
How can you read the writing
In the vacancy of dreams?
And his anticipation of the future in:
I would have you look over my shoulder
Ere the long, dark year is colder,
And mark that as memory grows older,
The brighter it pulses and gleams.
And if I should try to render
The tissues of fugitive splendour
That fled down the wind of living,
Will they read it some day in the future,
And be conscious of an awareness
In our old lives, and the bareness
Of theirs, with the newest passions
In the last fad of the fashions?
Here Scott is marvellously prophetic in the sense Sir Maurice Bowra meant in a lecture I mention elsewhere.
And then the verse changes. Looser, more alliterative. Sometimes four beats, sometimes five, now and then three.
An image of pre-dawn. A beautiful evocation of the pre-waking world, with hints of the prehistoric. And then “the tendril-like images” of the pre-dawn light are transformed into the first stirrings of love.
And then the new moon brings us back to the almost sing song rhythm.
And memories of Crowfoot’s grave near Blackfoot Crossing on the Siksika reserve east of Calgary. Did Morris truly mark the site of Crowfoot’s last tipi with a ring of stones? Morris visited the area with Scott in 1907, seventeen years after the great Chief’s death. I start to wonder if Morris is the only subject of this elegy.
A sensitive retelling of stories heard, melancholy, as though the tales and the tellers are now only memories, like Morris.
And Scott’s memory of Nepahpenais in his traditional dress, “A Man!” seemingly followed by the unspoken “not a savage.”
And, in contrast, Morris’ sings English pastoral doggerel as he draws the Saulteaux Elder (Morris’ chalk drawing is now in the Art Gallery of Ontario). Scott calls the song “Foolish”. But then
the song has a change
Into something wistful and strange.
What became of the youth?
And so, Scott composes the full tale of Eliza and her youth.
The fading echo of the horn, the falling light of sunset, dusk and night. The tiny hopeful flicker of the distant chalet light. The meaning of the scene is hidden
So deep that none might know
A shift to blank verse.
Tears are the crushed essence of this world,
The wine of life, and he who treads the press
Is lofty with imperious disregard
Of the burst grapes, the red tears and the murk.
We of the sunrise . . .
A sort of pantheistic cycle of life thing gets happening here and then:
Catch up the sands of the sea and count and count
The failures hidden in our sum of conquest.
Persistence is the master of this life;
The master of these little lives of ours;
To the end–effort–even beyond the end.
And then the Akoose scene.
Old Akoose, sunrise image of youth, dies at sunset, sleeps like the dinosaurs. Scott seems to see only extinction for the “Indians”. They will abandon their culture or die.
But there is something challenging about the final stanza. What is this “something of soul or essence” which escapes the “old world” at death, this “gold kernel”, this “lovely wraith of spirit” which “shall flame with presage, not of tears, but joy”?
Certainly this may just be Scott’s Christian affirmation that something of Morris has carried on after death and will rise in other “latitudes”. But the death he’s just described is that of Akoose, an archetype of the “Indian”. Could it be that Scott had his own premonition of the First Nations resurgence we’ve witnessed, first in the sixties and most recently with #IdleNoMore and #HonourTheTreaties? Could this be “a meaning so deep that none might know” in Scott’s time? “Persistence is the master of this life” Scott writes, and what has shown persistence – and patience – more than the aboriginal peoples of Canada?
I’m not concluding that Scott had any conscious idea that the “Indians” would persist and successfully resist assimilation. But the implication is in the words of his elegy for his friend Edmund Morris. And I’m certainly not in any way trying to defend Scott’s handling of Indian Affairs for a quarter of a century. What I am doing is arguing that Scott was a fine poet and that, in his elegy his poetry surpassed the grave flaws of both his character and his time.
I’m glad that I look back at his old life from what he termed the bareness of mine, with those newest passions and fads of fashion which tempt us all for unlike Scott, I am conscious of the small seed, that gold kernel planted in his time — in his mind perhaps — which is blossoming now, at last, in ours.
Duncan Campbell Scott’s “Lines in Memory of Edmund Morris is available online at Poem Hunter, among other places.