“The Poetry of Lucy Maud Montgomery” and the Critical Virtue and Vice of Editors

The Poetry of Lucy Maud Montgomery by John Ferns and Kevin McCabe 2One of the earlier biographers of C.S. Lewis, Chad Walsh once said that although Lewis was not a poet of greatness, he was (and remains) an interesting poet.

This observation is relevant for many of the early-to-mid-20th century authors I like to read, many of whom wrote poetry that is now nearly forgotten. Even outside the academic literary worlds of Lewis and his friends (like Tolkien, whose poetry is worth a reconsideration), in a rural farming village in Canada’s smallest province, Lucy Maud Montgomery has left a stunning poetic legacy. Beyond five hundred short stories and twenty novels, Montgomery published more than five hundred poems. For lovers of Montgomery’s fiction, for those interested in early Canadian writing, and for students of the period, Montgomery’s poetry does–as Walsh claims of Lewis–provide interest even when it is not always of the highest literary quality.

In the male-centred, academic, anti-traditionalist and modernist literary world of the period, Montgomery’s public profile was neglected or suppressed for the triple indignities of being a woman, a popular author, and a children’s writer. As a result, Montgomery’s poetic legacy took decades to recover. Though parts of Montgomery’s last literary work were published as The Road to Yesterday in 1974, her poems were scrubbed from the manuscript. Thus, it in not until 45 years after her death that The Poetry of Lucy Maud Montgomery is published.

LM Montgomery short stories road to yesterdayI acknowledge gratefulness to the editors, John Ferns and Kevin McCabe, as well as the Montgomery family, for bringing this collection to print in the 1980s. As a first major step in Montgomery’s poetic recovery, it is an essential volume–particularly in the pre-internet age.

Considering the quality of the project as a whole, however, it is a bit mixed.

Within the collection there are some very striking poems by Montgomery, though there are a few weaker ones (particularly among the more moralistic poems of the early 1900s). When a poem fails, as in the hilarious “I Feel (Vers Libre)”–that this critique was written as T.S. Eliot‘s “The Waste Land” is being published shows a contrast of literary possibility in their respective works–there can still be an experiment of thought or lyricism or moral that works. There are also metrical experiments that fail for me, like “When Autumn Comes,” that still have strong imagery and rhyme. The Romanticism in the background is revealing, including a sense of place and a play at the margins of the real world. Much of the “Religious Verse” and “Ethical Verse” shows skill, and is always provocative in another way. Although I am not sure that Montgomery succeeds fully in her title poem, I still think “The Watchman” is close to a great historical poem.

In terms of writing, the last poem in this collection is “Night,” and followers of Montgomery’s life would love for that to have been her last word to the world.

montgomery Lefebvre World of SongsThere are few poems that simply are not good and none that lack value. The arrangement of the poems by the editors is fair, but does not show the skill of the recent Benjamin Lefebvre World of Songs collection. Reading in the collected order, I found a repetitiveness in the first half of the book: seasons, water, land, wood, sunrise, sunset, night, etc. Reading chronologically–which, by the way, was a great deal of work because the editors did not date the poems, but Rea Wilmshurst and Carolyn Strom Collins have created bibliographies in concert with a whole host of contributors working collectively–I found an exciting and engaging collection with a sense of the seasons of Montgomery’s poetic life. Oddly, there is no index and no list of where the poems were published or discovered. While being grateful to Ferns & McCabe for this publication, I eagerly await a critical edition of Montgomery’s poetry.

What is particularly of interest to me when thinking about how we consider authors of other times and places and worldviews is the introductory essay by editor Kevin McCabe. Though quite compelling in some ways, this essays is, frankly, frustrating to read.

McCabe puts Montgomery in the context of Confederation poets, which is brilliant and helpful as we see the significance of Montgomery’s poetic output, the themes and interests of her age, and the kinds of markets where she published her first collection, The Watchman and Other Poems. McCabe includes thoughtful contextual observations about Montgomery’s work, such as “Wounds are no less painful for being self-inflicted” (15), “For Montgomery writing poetry was more than a literary activity…” (5), and “Because poetry is more demanding than prose certain weaknesses show up in Montgomery’s verse which are not very noticeable in her fiction” (6).

Lucy Maud Montgomery watchman 1sThis last observation, however, shows a critical weakness in this introduction. Too often McCabe provides no examples–or only brief sketches of the scene–in making what are pretty sweeping and important claims.

For example, McCabe suggests that Montgomery’s work in the newspaper industry may have decreased the freshness and individuality of her verse. I would like to see what led McCabe to make this claim. Indeed, his core argument–“Montgomery wrote verse in large quantity and in varying quality” (2), that large quantities of writing decreases quality, that Montgomery changed her focus to prose in the early 1900s, and that she wrote for a popular audience–is repeated frequently without anything like reasons for the reader to agree with him. I want to know what is garish, self-indulgent, fresh, or individual in Montgomery’s verse–or what demonstrates his observation that Montgomery “developed an unhealthy preoccupation with the disadvantages of her childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood” (14). He has told us that he is right about his observations, but McCabe not terribly interested in showing us where he sees these vices and virtues in Montgomery’s work.

There are times when McCabe makes an assertion and provides evidence, such as his comment that “Montgomery was not the most judicious editor of her own work” (12). He also brings to mind some of strengths in the volume he is providing for Montgomery readers–which McCabe thinks is largely her earlier work, before story-writing took most of her time.

The Poetry of Lucy Maud Montgomery by John Ferns and Kevin McCabeThese strong points, however, are counter-balanced by missing links in his work as an editor. For example, the weakness of McCabe’s sketch of Montgomery as driven by her own sense of orphan-hood is, perhaps, forgiven when we think about the lack of biographies in near the time of publication. However, that McCabe seems to be unaware of the dozens and dozens of stories Montgomery published in her early years of writing–i.e., with regards to his suggestion of a turn from poetry to prose–makes me wonder if McCabe could have been more invested in what was known of Montgomery’s biography at the time. Ultimately, this is an introduction with a thesis that the editor asserts rather than argues. His writing is often breathtaking, as broad landscapes are. I am not sure that he has understood the contours of shape and colour, shadow and light in Montgomery’s poetry.

Frankly, to make the assertions he makes, McCabe should have been stronger in literary examples and biographical criticism.

There is another approach, though. An editor can bring together a collection without being a textual expert in the author’s entire corpus. That editor should then approach the material itself more tentatively, staying close to the available texts, and work to make tangible links between the reader, the poet, and the texts and contexts the editor thinks are essential. A more humble and less grand approach–or the editorial rule of providing evidence when making a claim–would keep McCabe from making the four linked errors that sometimes happens when considering Montgomery’s religious life:

  1. A false division of religious focus (e.g., “interior” vs. “form”); and/or
  2. A false division between religious feelings (e.g., “pantheism” vs. “orthodoxy”); which is/are then considered in
  3. An often unrecognized bias in the critic for one over the other (i.e., that internal experience  is more authentic than religious ritual, or a preference for spiritual experimentation over traditional beliefs); and is then sometimes combined with
  4. A temptation to reduce Montgomery’s religious life–all of her ideas, dreams, doubts, desire, duties, habits, instincts, wounds, structures, and experimentations–to a single, two-dimensional picture rather than a living, moving thing.

McCabe not only makes errors #1 and #2, but makes these divisions key to his vision of Montgomery, arguing that Montgomery lived two different lives, carefully segregated and maintained (see pp. 4-5, 13-15). And in doing so, consistently commits himself to error #3 and #4, selecting out themes for as negative or creative, and then freezing Montgomery’s biography in that particular moment.

l m montgomery selected journalsIt isn’t that I completely disagree with McCabe. I think his divided-self argument is deeply problematic–not because Montgomery did not have a voluble and divided self but because he is unable to explain what is integrative about her perspectives. Because Montgomery created a public self and a private self, it does not mean that there is no single self. Self-consciousness about segmentation is evidence itself of holistic thinking. Moreover, Montgomery’s journals should be evidence enough to show how stunningly complex making generalities about her “interior” life can be. McCabe’s sketch of Montgomery’s growth as a poet has some truth in it–though some of my favourite Montgomery poems are after Anne of Green Gables, and some of her ethical and religious verse is surprisingly good as popular poetry. But what about her growth as a religious person?

If McCabe had not transgressed upon the material with these four sins of religious reductionism, I would have forgiven him for his generalities. Indeed, the lyrical quality of his own writing is exciting to read. He is a smart writer and when I am reading for enjoyment I want to go along with him. However, this introductory essay is at times more helpful for showing us literary sensibilities in 1980s CanLit and academic circles than in inviting us to read Montgomery’s almost-forgotten poetry well.

Yet, not all the time. As I have noted, there are some strong points in the essay. Moreover, with or without arguments and speculations, this collection provides 86 of Montgomery’s poems for those who want to see what is of greatest interest in her popular poetry.

About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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6 Responses to “The Poetry of Lucy Maud Montgomery” and the Critical Virtue and Vice of Editors

  1. Thanks very much for mentioning my volume of Montgomery’s poems, Brenton! A critical edition of Montgomery’s complete poems is well under way.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Very interesting – thanks! One wonders what Ferns & McCabe’s interactions with their publisher were, such that “the editors did not date the poems” and ” there is no index and no list of where the poems were published or discovered.”

    I see that there are scans in the Internet Archive of the Canadian, U.S., and English editions of The Watchman – as well as a fadedpage transcription of the Canadian edition, for those of us who have not even started, to begin to catch up. (I also find a curious 2013 “The Complete Poetry: The Watchman and Other Poems + Uncollected Poems Kindle Edition” at Amazon…!)

    Like

    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      Internet Archive also tells of a 2017 Ana Sokolovic art song setting of ‘A Winter Dawn’ as part of ‘dawn always begins n the bones’, but YouTubes does not reveal (to me, at least) any recording of the whole or LMM’s part.

      Like

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