CHARLES G.D. ROBERTS (1860-1943)
by Sara Jamieson

The acknowledged leader of the Confederation Poets, Sir Charles G.D. (George Douglas) Roberts spent his childhood on a farm near Sackville, NB, where he developed an intense love of the outdoors and spent much of his time roaming amongst the surrounding woods, fields, and rivers. In 1879 he graduated from the University of New Brunswick with a degree in philosophy and political economy, but his great passion was for Greek, Latin, and English poetry. His first collection, Orion and Other Poems (1880) had a galvanizing effect on other young Canadian poets. Archibald Lampman describes how, as a student at Trinity College, he “sat up all night reading and re-reading Orion in a state of the wildest excitement.” Like other aspiring artists in the fledgling nation of Canada, Lampman was troubled by “the depressing conviction that we were situated hopelessly on the outskirts of civilization, where no art and no literature could be.” Orion provided inspiring evidence that significant poetry could indeed by produced by “a Canadian, a young man, one of ourselves.”

After working as a schoolteacher and editor, Roberts became a professor of English, economics, and French at King’s College in Windsor, NS from 1885-95. This was his most productive period as a poet. His collection In Divers Tones (1886) contains what is perhaps his best-known poem, “The Tantramar Revisited.” In a manner reminiscent of Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey,” the speaker returns after many years’ absence to a beloved landscape (the Tantramar marshes of New Brunswick) that in his youth “stung” him with “rapture,” and he longs to re-experience the “old-time sweetness” that he once felt there. Roberts ultimately does not share Wordsworth’s optimistic view that a familiar landscape can provide recompense for the losses of the intervening years; in the end, he can only bring himself to look on this place from a distance, fearful that if he gets too close he will see “even here the hands of chance and change.” Roberts’ next collection, which appeared in 1893, contains (and is named for) the accomplished sonnet sequence Songs of the Common Day, which describes the seasonal cycles of Maritime rural life in a way that demonstrates his commitment to a Romantic sensibility focused on the relationship between humanity and the natural world. 

For years after his death in 1943, Roberts was remembered chiefly as a regional poet of Romantic nature lyrics, but he was in fact a well-traveled and cosmopolitan figure with diverse literary interests. In 1897, he left New Brunswick (and his wife and their four children) and moved to New York City. There he produced New York Nocturnes (1898), a sequence of poems dealing with erotic desire and contemporary urban life. Roberts continued to move about the globe, residing in France, Germany, and, finally, England, where he was living when the First World War broke out. Claiming to be ten years younger than his actual age of 54, Roberts joined the British Army and trained cavalry until 1916, when he was transferred to the Canadian Army and was attached to the Canadian War Records Office in London. In this capacity, he toured the battlefields of the Western Front and wrote about the carnage of the war, producing journalistic pieces as well as the haunting poem “Going Over,” in which the violence of the barrage is juxtaposed against a soldier’s dreamlike hallucination of a girl’s voice. During his lifetime, Roberts was best known for the 250 short stories about animals that he produced between 1892 and 1935. Written from the point of view of voles, ravens, deer, bears, and numerous other creatures, these stories generate great sympathy for animals that struggle heroically to survive in a harsh, Darwinian nature that, more often than not, destroys them.

After the war, Roberts returned to Canada where he was received as a literary celebrity. Despite his fame, he struggled financially, and tried to increase his income with translating, travel writing, historical writing, reviews, and literary criticism. In 1943, Roberts married his longtime companion Joan Montgomery, 50 years his junior. He died three weeks later in Toronto. While his reputation had begun to fall into disfavour even before his death with the rise of Modernism in Canada, Roberts was nonetheless celebrated as the Father of Canadian Literature, not just for his remarkable output, but also for his commitment to fostering a national literature and his generous encouragement of young Canadian writers.


Sir Charles G.D. Roberts

Summers and summers have come, and gone with the flight of the swallow;
Sunshine and thunder have been, storm, and winter, and frost;
Many and many a sorrow has all but died from remembrance,
Many a dream of joy fall'n in the shadow of pain.
Hands of chance and change have marred, or molded, or broken,
Busy with spirit or flesh, all I most have adored;
Even the bosom of Earth is strewn with heavier shadows, --
Only in these green hills, aslant to the sea, no change!
Here where the road that has climbed from the inland valleys and woodlands,
Dips from the hill-tops down, straight to the base of the hills, --
Here, from my vantage-ground, I can see the scattering houses,
Stained with time, set warm in orchards, meadows, and wheat,
Dotting the broad bright slopes outspread to southward and eastward,
Wind-swept all day long, blown by the south-east wind

Skirting the sunbright uplands stretches a riband of meadow,
Shorn of the labouring grass, bulwarked well from the sea,
Fenced on its seaward border with long clay dykes from the turbid
Surge and flow of the tides vexing the Westmoreland shores.
Yonder, toward the left, lie broad the Westmoreland marshes, --
Miles on miles they extend, level, and grassy, and dim,
Clear from the long red sweep of flats to the sky in the distance,
Save for the outlying heights, green-rampired Cumberland Point;
Miles on miles outrolled, and the river-channels divide them, --
Miles on miles of green, barred by the hurtling gusts

Miles on miles beyond the tawny bay is Minudie.
There are the low blue hills; villages gleam at their feet.
Nearer a white sail shines across the water, and nearer
Still are the slim, grey masts of fishing boats dry on the flats.
Ah, how well I remember those wide red flats, above tide-mark
Pale with scurf of the salt, seamed and baked in the sun!
Well I remember the piles of blocks and ropes, and the net-reels
Wound with the beaded nets, dripping and dark from the sea!
Now at this season the nets are unwound; they hang from the rafters
Over the fresh-stowed hay in upland barns, and the wind
Blows all day through the chinks, with the streaks of sunlight, and sways them
Softly at will; or they lie heaped in the gloom of a loft

Now at this season the reels are empty and idle; I see them
Over the lines of the dykes, over the gossiping grass.
Now at this season they swing in the long strong wind, thro' the lonesome
Golden afternoon, shunned by the foraging gulls.
Near about sunset the crane will journey homeward above them;
Round them, under the moon, all the calm night long,
Winnowing soft grey wings of marsh-owls wander and wander,

Now to the broad, lit marsh, now to the dusk of the dike.
Soon, thro' their dew-wet frames, in the live keen freshness of morning,
Out of the teeth of the dawn blows back the awakening wind.
Then, as the blue day mounts, and the low-shot shafts of the sunlight
Glance from the tide to the shore, gossamers jewelled with dew
Sparkle and wave, where late sea-spoiling fathoms of drift-net
Myriad-meshed, uploomed sombrely over the land.

Well I remember it all. The salt, raw scent of the margin;
While, with men at the windlass, groaned each reel, and the net,
Surging in ponderous lengths, uprose and coiled in its station;
Then each man to his home, -- well I remember it all!

Yet, as I sit and watch, this present peace of the landscape, --
Stranded boats, these reels empty and idle, the hush,
One grey hawk slow-wheeling above yon cluster of haystacks, --
More than the old-time stir this stillness welcomes me home.
Ah, the old-time stir, how once it stung me with rapture, --
Old-time sweetness, the winds freighted with honey and salt!
Yet will I stay my steps and not go down to the marshland, --
Muse and recall far off, rather remember than see, --
Lest on too close sight I miss the darling illusion,
Spy at their task even here the hands of chance and change


Links: Poetry and More

Canadian Poetry Archive Collections Canada

Canadian Poetry Press

William Strong on "The Trantamar Revsited"

A Letter From Sir Charles G.D. Roberts  (A Personal Memoir)