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Helmut Markus (Göttingen)

Settlement and Survival: Henry Beissel's 'Cantos North'

The lyric poet, dramatist, translator and critic Henry Beissel, is generally regarded as a major representative of modern Canadian literature (Groß 1981: 61). This study of his cycle of poems called 'Cantos North', which were written between 1977 and 1987, is the first academic analysis of the work. This cycle comprises twelve fairly long, single poems - in total about 1700 lines - which, despite their individuality, are quite clearly recognisable as part of a total composition tending towards the classical epic structure and unity retained by a series of basic themes pervading the whole work, which are modulated, to a certain extent, according to musical principles. The subject is Canada - as a land, as a state and as an idea (Staiger 1968: 87f.). A monograph would be necessary for a detailed analysis of a work of this nature which was composed in a stringently exact and conscious fashion. For this reason, the study will be a compromise solution in that I shall deal with the first canto as an 'explication du texte' of a lyrical poem as a basis for a general synoptic discussion of the whole work.

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The initial facts concerning this poem can be gleaned without undergoing any detailed analysis. The poem consists of ten textual units differentiated graphically from each other and can in future be referred to as stanzas although the term is by no means unproblematic on account of the poem's rejection of rhyme and regular metre in favour of free rhythms; in addition, there is a regular alternating of long-lined stanzas consisting of eleven lines (twelve in verse 1) with eight-line stanzas consisting of shorter lines. These stanzas are very closely linked by the recurrent variations of the line "North my love north" and by their consistent diction throughout the poem. With the regular alternating of strophe and anti-strophe, it is tempting to interpret the poem as a kind of Pindaric ode at least as far as its external form is concerned.

At first sight, the main theme of the poem is the land referred to in line 1, the land whose vastness and emptiness in the direct address at the beginning forms the psychological subject of the poem. In the case of a land where the sky stretches from Newfoundland to the Rocky Mountains, it can only be Canada, but it is not the Canada of the big cities, of the Great Lakes and the endless cornfields covering the earth of the former prairies; instead it is northern Canada of the ancient forests, of the tundras and eternal ice infinitely larger than the comparatively tiny inhabited area along the southern border - "along a single latitude" (3)

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In this article I shall avoid giving explicit treatment to areas which obviously do not require any explanation - the extreme living conditions, the snow, hail, sleet, storms, forest fires, the law of having to kill in order to live which is vividly expressed in line 55ff. when the wolves scent blood in their nostrils, the short summers and long winter nights - all this is generally known or is associated with the prevalent perceptions of the sub-Arctic and Arctic zone of the American continent. It is, however, only in the strophic stanzas that the physical reality of this wild, unspoilt land is described (cf. ll. 78-86) whereas the anti-strophes (which address the subject in a direct and intimate way) display a more symbolic, visionary character with a correspondingly formal or even, at times, solemn tone. This distinction is, however, only tentative as the total effect including both the diction and mood of the poem is homogenous.

The poem is not constructed on a solid, metric framework, but instead displays a distinctly flexible rhythmic use of language varying frome line to line which is not merely adapted to the micro-contextual semantics of the text as an "echo to the sense", but the rhythm is in fact fully integrated with the sense and works as a whole. In line 1, for example, the visual effect of the block-like nature of the Canadian continent as is shown in an atlas or globe is vividly portrayed in a sequence of equally stressed, heavy monosyllables (spondees in classical prosody), the narrowing of the view on the rugged northern coast is effectively

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conveyed by the hectic, broken rhythms almost to the point of being a tongue-twister in "hung tattered at the top" whereas when the straight, inhabited southern border of the country is referred to in line 3, the corresponding form is expressed in regular iambic metre. The effect of this switch of rhythm is enhanced by the shift from assonance in the first line ("vast"; "blank"; "canvas"; "land") to the dissonance in the second ("hung"; "tattered"; "top"; "fixed") but even more, however, by the alliteration - plosives and affricates in the second and liquids in the third line.

In addition to rhythmic techniques with a semantic dimension and the deliberate use of effects in sound and tone, numerous literary devices attract the reader's attention in the poem such as for example personification ("time", 26), etymological play ("passage"; "to pass"; "passion", 32, 39, 59), apokoinu ("Perhaps there was no hand to make signs or give/directions... before stone-age nomads, even before Cain this was Baikalia", 46-49), anagram ("landspace"/"landscape"), metonymy ("geography", 23), synekdoche ("the eye", 21). As rhetorical devices are by no means essential features of lyrical poetry, they reveal an important aspect: unlike a large part of modern lyric poetry which is usually self-referential i.e. pure expression, the text in hand has the intention of influencing its reader, achieving certain effects which make a statement, communicate a message or an appeal.

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Perhaps this is shown most clarly in Beisell's typical word-play involving semantic ambiguities such as "pole" (the North Pole and a flag pole from which the map hangs, 2), "fault" (defect as in the collocation to find fault and a geological fault, 22), "wanting" (desire and to be lacking, 27), "passage" (journey, death and the North-west passage, 22), "relief" (as in map relief and sigh of relief, 39), "unparalleled" (unique and without latitudinal reference, 27) etc.

The delayed perceptions of the reader are also often taken into consideration as is shown in the following example: "The seasons try their colour schemes here/always springing summer on us in passing/falling forever into winter sleep" (5-7): corresponding to the climatic conditions of the far North, there is in fact only the summers with their abrupt, aggressive outburst which 'spring on' us and the long winter sleep when nature also falls asleep, but of course, 'spring' and 'fall' as verbs belonging to summer and winter are at least absorbed by the ear thus managing nevertheless to complete the full cycle of seasons contrary to all expectation. With regard to the rhetorical aspects of the poem, the most outstanding examples seem to me to be Beissel's use of enjambement which often does not really allow two possible interpretations of the same lines, but even forces the reader to become aware of ambiguity. Two examples will suffice to illustrate this point. The first is to be found in the transition from ll. 11 and 12: "What artist dare raise his vision from the dead/centre of creation." At first, the line can be read as a complete sentence and so, taking an appropriate mythological

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model, it can be understood as play on the journey to Hades in the Aeneid; as the sentence, however, spills over the end of the line into the next, "dead" changes from a noun into an adjective thus creating an oxymoron with "centre of creation". A similar use of enjambement occurs in ll. 24 and 25. "In the beginning emptiness was moved to form/A point here a line there..." The awareness of the reader is also manipulated here so that one is led to believe that an allusion to Genesis, the divine act of creation ex nihilo can be recognised here: on further reading, however, 'form' changes its grammatical category and becomes a verb so that the meaning of the continuing sentence is altered to refer to the artistic process. This ambiguous effect of enjambement obviously serves to dislocate perception and is exploited in a deliberate and subtle way. If, at this juncture, the interpretation of the whole work may be anticipated, then it can be seen that this ambiguity of expression which is a major feature of Beissel's poetry accords with a view of the world in which everything is at the same time what it is and yet symbolises something else - a certain similarity to Goethe's philosophy of symbolism is not to be totally rejected in this case (Kurz 1982: 69ff.). The main ambiguity which is not to be solved at this stage of the analysis, however seems to be the expression "North may love north" with its variations repeated four times. It is not immediately obvious whether "my love" stands in apposition to "north" or whether it is a case of apostrophe with regard to a lover/beloved which would force us to read it as an imperative.

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The latter interpretation seems to be more plausible as it is supported by the phrase "look north". This, however, only becomes clear in this context if it refers to the supposed addressee using apostrophe. I shall return to this problem.

From the few observations made so far, there is quite clearly still no starting point for an interpretation. They do show, however, that despite what Gottfried Benn, in his essay "Probleme der Lyrik", says concerning the declamatory aspects of modern lyric poetry, this poem at least should not be merely read: on the contrary, part of its graphic quality can paradoxically only be visualised when hearing it read aloud - the text only comes completely to life, when it is read aloud or at least read to oneself (1980: 352). I should like to stay, for the moment, with this theme of the poetic qualities of the work which are by no means exhausted by the brilliant use of rhetorical devices but are mainly demonstrated in the density of the language texture which works more by subtle implication than by a functional use of language. So, it can be seen how one image generates another although they may not be connected in a concrete way as far as the sense is concerned: "skeletons of elms and maples" (8) - a description which can still be called a metaphor - leads on two lines below to the genuine metaphor "bone of stillness". A reverse instance is the phrase "Cartier's curse" as it works in anticipation of the reference to the character of Cain in the following line; "madman" (26) finally produces the second interpretation of "North my love northwest" (32), a play on Hamlet's madness ("I am but mad northnorthwest", II.ii) etc.

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It can be conjectured that, as an overriding stylistic principle, all these features aim, on the one hand, to make the text denser and on the other hand, richer in ambiguity. This seems to be an essential character of lyrical language in itself and yet the fundamental ambiguity of this text works mainly towards dislocating the reader´s view of the central object. This is concretely manifested in the anagram "landspace" formed from "landscape" which replaces the view of scenery (landscape) with something that cannot be seen, but only experienced - "space".

With regard to this principle we have now recognised, if we redivert our attention to the text itself, to the title and striking introductory picture and its effect on the rest of the work, it is evident that Canada is seen at the same time as a land and as a map ("canvas of land hung [...] from fixed pole and stretched [...] unto the framework"), also as land and as a country (59) as a continent with a natural, rugged northern border and as a political unit with a straight southern border arbitrarily drawn by men (cf. also "... if such wilderness is map", 42f.). Thus it is clear that the poem basically allows at least two readings which echo each other in an irritating fashion. The reader is thus forced to deal simultaneously with the different impressions of the same object from which a third picture emerges which does not, however, belong to the real world of facts, but to the world of possibilities or ideas.

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Like the country itself, history also takes place within the constantly shifting focus of the text: with its natural history of the land lasting through the ages and at the same time the short period of man who comes either as an immigrant or a conqueror; there is metonymy in the name of Cartier, the first coloniser, here standing for the white master race to be understood as the curse of the land because they did not subject themselves to ist conditions but on the contrary tried to force the land to their own will (as symbolised at this point by their system of co-ordinates - "latitude", "parallel") and are mainly interested in exploiting the land's resources; from this, the image of the wolves "striking blood" (58) has a sinister connotation which can only be explained as a metaphor taken presumably from the prospector's language in the phrase 'to strike oil'. In this way, the land is gradually moved away from the central focus and the emphasis is on settlement or the taking of the land by the white invaders coming across the sea, an image anticipated by the amphibious lobe-fin which left their original habitat towards the end of the tertiary period and crept onto the land.

The detail interacts with the whole. Viewing the vocabulary, the first instance that strikes the reader's attention here is an infrastructure of words which can be subsumed under the general heading of art or painting: "canvas","framework", "colour" (as an antonym possibly also the word "blank"), "artist", "vision", "form", "point", "line", "shading", "perspective", "charcoal sketches", "relief", and at one level removed also "doodles", "to

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scrawl" and by connotation possibly even the word "puzzling". This infrastructure is completely withheld in the second half of the poem until it is reasserted with the word "pattern" in the last anti-strophe. A second major word infrastructure could be categorized under the heading geography or cartography: "land", "earth", "geographic", "to map" (several times), "perspective", "measure", "direction", "country", "continent", "horizon", "passage" (in the collocation with northwest). The importance of this structure is supported by the fact that there also appears in the final lines of the poem in the words "unparalleld" and "fault" the geographical theme which can be heard at least by way of connotation and is connected to the first structure (such as in "fault" and "relief", cf. relief map) via these ambiguities. With "fault" (Cf. San Andreas Fault), "continental drift", "Baikalia", "Devonian" as well as "lobefin", "dinosaur" and "mammoth", a geological or evolutionary theme is added which refers back to the earth's geological eras, particularly the Tertiary Period as the prehistory of man, even back to the mythological origin of man: "before Cartier, before the viking sword, before the stoneage nomads, before Cain" (47f.). It can be clearly seen that this theme is linked to another infrastructure with a temporal aspect: there are some words which refer back to the origin of the world and some display Biblical connotations ("creation", "in the beginning", "to build a world". These, however, imply the future as a germ or seed, as entelechy in Goethe's sense of the word. Thus the word "chrysalis" (19) is

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particularly important and is perhaps the key-word of the poem. This would also be the case with "scheme" in conjunction with "canvas" and no doubt with "blank" so that a theme is sequential pictorial formation of the philosophical idea of the tabula rasa so typical of the poem.

As the guiding principle, it can be suggested that the North as in its primordial state, is conceived of as a world not formed by man but by time, which in its emptiness - as an empty canvas and as a tabula rasa - is open to future possibilities to give it shape. At this point, it is still not yet clear who - apart from nature - the artist is who should, or who will carry out his plans on this canvas. There is, however, an implication that man's attempt to approach the world with any attitude other than "awe" (69), to measure and map the land, to have the land at his disposal on account of co-ordinates, of an arbitrary grid ("latitude", "parallel"), are all aspects of hybris: a covert mythological allusion to the Prometheus myth ("chains of mountains lakes plains and forests/ forged to confine even a race of titans", ll. 30 f.) and this motif with its negative connotations ("vain", 62; "pride", 64; "ambition", 79; "to dare", 11; "to rebel". 74) all imply that man must not approach this land as "pioneer adventurer explorer" (87) but certainly not as a "conqueror": this is no country for a "master race" (59). The North has set a natural limit to the proverbial tree that wants to grow up into the sky: "North my love/the lines are drawn/so that no tree/may grow into the sky" (70ff.). This fits in totally with the

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physical conditions in the north: "lines" has come from "timber line"; line 78, however, shows how clearly the facts have become allegory: "The weight of snow cripples, breaks trees here/tall as ambition" so that "into the sky" must be understood as an allusion to the building of the tower of Babel, the classical Biblical symbol for human pride; there will be more discussion of this point. Suffice it to note here that it is the curse of the white races themselves ("Cartier", "the Vikings") who overstep the limit set by nature.

We have dealt with one of the main aspects of the poem: on the one hand, the poem concerns primordial, wild nature which is either hostile or at least indifferent to the individual and on the other hand, it is about the challenge its primordial emptiness sets for [the mentality of the white race for whom the "horror vacui" produces a natural border]. Obviously, there is another and possibly correct way of approaching the land and its possibilities - not as a pioneer, not as an adventurer, but as a lover as indicated by the end of the poem without using any particular stylistic devices: "It is our love/creates the patterns in this northern light/and maps the unknown/land between." It is perhaps at this point the apparently mysterious question resolves itself as to who is the artist the unpainted canvas at the beginning of the poem is waiting for. This vast empty land will never be understood by the conqueror, nor even by the natural historian, the geologer and the cartographer. The "landscape" in its essence, as a whole, a Gestalt, as a physical ever-present reality though

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not separated from its history, can only be comprehended by way of empathy, of a corresponding landspace of the mind i.e. as a myth, as a non-empirical entity consisting of the present, the past and the possible. This mythical "Canada" can only be expressed in poetry. In Beissel's specific form of the myth, it becomes clear, however, that his poem is not only about Canada, but is more about the Canadian wilderness being a symbol of primordial nature (even the use of the words "taiga" and "Baikalia" contribute to the impression of Canada being seen as a synekdoche for the whole northern zone; when, however, the north is called the "centre of creation" it can only mean that it concerns the creation in itself, the earth, the mother of us all and our relationship to her.

The evolutionary and geological structure of the poem places man as an historical entity into the whole process of life on earth: he still remains bound to the earth, to its history and to its fate - a fact modern man no longer sees or no longer wants to be aware of because he has lost all his connections ("binding": Lat. religio) in the history of his social alienation. Modern western man is no longer a part of nature - he has a dialectical relationship to nature, to which he stands in opposition, from which he fell away when he conquered her: "the heart rebels/and in a euphoria of conquest/marches northward/to the coyote's call" (74ff.). Just like the wolf, the coyote is a predatory animal, and, in Indian mythology, the trickster god, symbol of (self-) deception. The fact that this is quoted in the context of "conquest" suggests the motivation which urges man to the conquest

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of nature. But we can also see that the elation produced by conquest, is, in fact euphoria - the last endogenously activated blissful moments before death which in the end will result from man's destruction of nature. This destruction in the wake of the history of the settlers taking over the land is in fact expressed in the poem by the appeal to the mammoth and to the herds of bison (which were, of course, in reality sacrificed to the destructive frenzy of the white hunters). The solution can only be that man should think back to his roots and to appreciate once again that he too comes from nature to which his fate is also bound; he needs to rediscover "awe" (69) perhaps by having a direct experience of the primeval nature which might only be granted in reality by experiencing the North: "the sky is master of us all/and in a mockery of pioneer adventurer explorer/shakes the heart down to its primordial roots" (88).

Even if addressed to "my love", the poem is certainly not a love poem. We must approach the second person in the text as clearly becoming the "I" or "alter ego" speaker and also see the relationship between both of them. Though with great reservation, we will be able to say that this speaker largely corresponds to the classical topos of the 'poeta vates', the 'seeing', inter- preting and guiding poet. The whole pictorial imagery in the poem from the opening image of the tabula rasa to the individual word structures ("colours", "stars", "fire", "darkness", "candles" etc.) seems to have a pronounced visual character. It could be expressed with perhaps a little exaggeration that the 'artistic

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vision' analysed in the introductory lines is, in fact, the poem. The beloved counterpart to whom the whole poem is probably addressed is shown the vision in clear imperatives: "Look north for the future/in a chrysalis of snow" (18f.). Man's future as a seed, as a possibility lies in rediscovering himself in nature. If "chrysalis" is interpreted in the sense of an insect pupa, then the poem acquires an appeal to renewal or to awakening typical of the didactic aspect of moralist poetry as in, for example, Eliot's Waste Land; the rigid, apparently lifeless pupa shall unfold to become a new, more beautiful life form (even the snow and water symbolism of the Waste Land has been adopted though in a concealed way). It is now becoming increasingly clear that the perspective from which the whole poem is written is not in nature but, on the contrary, in civilisation, in the human world and in the symbolic south from which vantage point the north is to be viewed. In directing our gaze towards the north, however, the search for orientation is symbolised in a vivid way - in the North, there is the Pole Star, the compass needle points to the magnetic north, and the travellers' maps are orientied towards the north. Thus man finds his direction and perhaps also his salvation in nature which lies "north of passion... north of the touch of flesh" and so outside human life. This life has, however, negative connotations with the metonymies "passion" and "touch of flesh" - we can distinctly hear the etymological connection of suffering in the word "passion" and similarly in "flesh" the Biblical connotation of mortality ("all flesh is grass"). What does lie beyond the human sphere, however,

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is primordial nature in its ageless beauty which can only be comprehended with loving empathy:

It is quite obvious that continental drift cannot be physically perceived in the limited lifetime of a human being. The beauty of nature however, the eternal permanence behind the changing seasons, the changes on the surface of the earth which can only be measured in millions of years, the cosmic order of the stars in their courses, can be appreciated by those who love nature; in contrast, the blinded eye of the others - perhaps at this point one can begin to recognise a Platonic influence - has to seek out interruptions, "faults" in the continuum of creation to be able to find their bearings although nature, because of this, does not appear to them as anything other than the doodles of a madman thrown together by chance, "wanting sense" (27). Man is ephemeral. Neither as an individual nor as a species will he leave behind permanent traces in creation: "darkness drifts/into our tracks of snow" (34) and only nature's eternity symbolised in the topos of the circular motion of the constellations can express in a concrete and comprehensible way

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the transience of mankind: "The moon [brings] what passes into relief". Nevertheless, man is also important to nature, if he feels his way back to "his primordial roots" (88); only in man has nature become conscious of itself - this is the philosophical message of the poem perhaps derived from the philosophy of Teilhard de Chardin or perhaps from Berkeley: "In your seeing the sun exults" - only in the loving act of being perceived by man does nature have a meaning. And this love must also be man's love of himself, which is reflected in the sense of responsibility the guiding and teaching poet has for his readers.


Just as the modulation in the structure of the main theme took the form of alternating strophe with anti-strophe as already analysed in Canto 1 with the emphasis constantly changing from the presentation of facts to their interpretation, - in a similar way, the alternating from epic Cantos with a clear emphasis on Canadian history to lyrical Cantos using a more pronounced lyrical and metaphorical language for the interpretation of history continues throughout the whole work. It must be admitted that the epic cantos cause considerable problems for the reader to assimilate them in the first instance and even more so for the non-Canadian reader because unlike Eliot's Waste Land they do not refer to a literary myth but to the actual chaotic history of real

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events: there are hidden word games referring to events which took place outside Eurocentric history, headlines and slogans from political battles long since defunct, exact quotations presumably from letters and diaries of obscure, simple people who had never even appeared on the horizons of literary consciousness - all this produces a confusing picture reminiscent of the apparently uncentred Macchia teeming with figures to be found in certain works of Breughel. It is, however, this very picture which is the message: order and sense are not to be found anywhere in human history, however intensely the reader may work on a historical reconstruction, he will only find fragments everywhere and would never be able to explain the whole - only the eternally regular circular movements of nature have a centre from which man might be able to determine his own position. So we can see that understanding the whole message of the work does not depend on a systematic explanation of his references, but instead, it is a matter of understanding his contrastive methods and principles in structuring the whole work.

To illustrate the above points, Cantos 6 and 9 taken together will be compared with Cantos 2 and 7: "Other colours, Other Designs" is the title of Canto 6 with a hidden echo of the motifs referring to painting. Its central theme is the French colonisation of Canada. The text begins with the words "Step back now from this canvas" and in fact challenges the reader to step back to gain perspective. This title is, however, typically ambiguous: "colours" can also mean "flag", designs" are also

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"plans", intentions" - in particular evil intentions as the imperative in the first line creates a moral distancing in the reader. The Canto contains an extremely large quantity of highly specialised references in accordance with its theme so that an objective local history and chronicling of events emerges by referring to numerous historical figures, places and events. Nevertheless, a main theme running throughout the whole work is to be distinctly heard - the vain struggle of the white conquerors against nature ("This vast stretch of frozen country never/yielded to imperial command or to the march/of boots" (41-43) which is contrasted with the struggle for survival itself, with the eternal natural life process in its violent beauty:

Canto 9 "Breakers of Ice" has a similar theme. In this Canto, the main focus is on the scientific exploration of the North which was, however, by no means free from material interests. Many names are quoted and the following list represents only a few of the many examples: Franklin, Van Allen, Frobisher, the Company of Cathay, the ships of the discoverers from Francis Drake's Golden

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_ Hinde and Amundsen's Fram to the Nautilus the US Navy's atomic submarine which was the first ship in the world to reach the North Pole: all this creates a dense referential system, but it is still once again linked to the main theme of overpowering nature by the heavy weighting of factual content in the descriptions of the Arctic wastes. In this context we also find enumerations similar to those Whitman used in comparable texts: "Slush ice rind ice cake ice brash ice/bay ice - a holocaust of ice", 10f.]. Here, the 'conquerors' are defeated and only the people like the Inuit, who adapt to nature's conditions, will survive. In contrast, Canto 2 ("Survey Crew") portrays in a symbolic way the various waves of occupation of the continent and the stages of settlement in an extremely concentrated time sequence: "from forest to forage to farm" (l. 48) and dresses the human disaster of the encounter between Red and White in allegorical structure based on the seasons which characteristically ends with winter.

Finally Canto 7 does not make the slightest reference to the history of the country. Even though the title "Compass and Circles" seems to be a play on the geography theme we have already discussed and on the journeys of exploration and discovery, the poem whose structure consists of short stanzas of irregular length makes a quite different statement about man's relationship to the land. Man's feeling of being totally trapped within his own nature is reflected in his encounter with nature in which aeons of geological evolution are repeated each year in its eternal

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cycle ("Each year/the ice age returns", 61f.). In this context, "compass" could symbolise "orientation", "direction" but has, of course, another meaning in the sense of "circle" or "scope". Man's attempt to comprehend this ultimately incomprehensible world through his science, to measure this world and subdue it, has an in-built 'circle' ending in "madness" (9): We can also recognise in these lines Beissel's typical series of images to chart an etymological progression (lunacy > luna > moon). We can see here that despite their differences, Cantos 6 and 7 which form the mid-axis of the external structure of Cantos North, do in fact have themes which refer to each other: in Canto 6, the chaotic true history of its settlement motivated by greed and blood-thirstiness ("They came here to make a killing") is structured in its appearance as an "impossible puzzle" (177f.). In Canto 7, man's relationship to the north and to nature is metaphorically presented in his "essence". This stylistic polarity was already evident in Canto 1, but can only be recognised as a central theme in the synoptic interpretation of the whole work. Similarly, the tectonics of the work can only be revealed at the

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synoptic level where Canto 1 and 12, 2 and 11, 3 and 10, etc. are more closely connected with regard to their themes and contents than would be obvious from a purely linear reading of the work.

The characteristic basic diction or voice of the Cantos, however, is never lost; it is audible throughout the whole complex composition; it is fainter, perhaps, in the epic passages with their high level of factual content but it can be heard more distinctly in the lyrical parts; this voice finally becomes dominant in the collocation "north my love north" which appears in almost every Canto as a leitmotif, as its ambiguity continues to diminish as the work progresses. Two examples illustrate the loss of ambiguity: in the lines "The artic willow/embraces the earth against the north against/my love where all else is forgotten" (VI.199-201), "Love" is in apposition to "North" by the grammatical analogy and in other passages, it is expressed without any grammatical ambiguity "The North is my love..." (VI.39). This love is expressed as being in a state of fascination, being held captive by absolute otherness which, despite being absolutely alien to the human world, is still humanised in the imagery:

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As a detailed, chronologically structured discussion of the individual Cantos is simply quite impossible in this study, I shall endeavour in this part to give a systematic interpretation of the whole work by referring to structure of themes and motifs which were seen as central in the analysis of Canto 1 and which have already been touched upon in the brief description of Cantos 6, 7 and 9. Special attention will be focused on the following themes and motifs: the natural history of Canada and the history of the settlers; the contrast of the mentality of the whites and of the 'indigenous' people; eternity of nature and the ephemerality of man - also with reference to the ambiguous 'circle' structure; the Canvas or the Measure theme as well the poetic features of the Cantos.


As has already been established in the analysis of Canto 1, in the vision of the work, the 'substructure' of the land flows into the evocation of its surface structure without the past in its pre- and early history ever seeming to belong to the past. We have already interpreted this in our discussion of Canto 1 so that man is a part of natural history and is linked to nature's fate even though he has lost his direct relationship to nature. Thus, the history of the earth about the time of the end of the ice age ("By degrees the glaciers crawl/back into the mountains", II.32f.) is interwoven into the history of successive waves of settlers, into the possession of the land by the 'savages' and by the Europeans who finally founded the state of Canada - as is particularly clear in Canto 10:

We can interpret this simultaneity of the past and present at the heart of his work as one of his most important statements: Canada, the north, nature are not seen as static, but as a living process

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"permanent/in transience" (II.47f.). This process does not, however, display a linear progression and it is also by no means the case that the present is 'progress' with regard to the past; in nature, there are endless recurrences. One of the most striking motifs in the poem, the circle and words which imply circular, self-contained movements, derive their meaning from this theme: the circular motion of the constellations, of the seasons, of the geological cycle, the water cycle (this is a particularly important theme in Canto 11) all symbolise the existence of natural evolutions. The direct experience of a life process progressing in non-linear movements as is most impressively seen in the circular motion of the seasons in the northern zones of the earth has, as Beissel himself sees, produced a specifically Canadian view of the world which appears in Cantos North. This was confirmed by the poet in a letter of Mai, 30th, 1993 to the author of this study:

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The linear, teleological view of history of western "American" civilisation denies man's close dependence on nature whereas the opposite is the case in the Cantos, where the harmonising of man in circles and circular movements implies closeness to nature. This is particularly evident in Canto 8, "Sun Dance/Out of History" where the Indians' relationship to nature and to human existence is symbolised in the dance - the image of cosmic order even in Elizabethan literature; here, in nine stanzas, the sun, the moon, the stars and the earth are each addressed twice (or three times in the case of the earth and the sun) in the magic dance ritual as the embodiment of nature: "Oh sun [moon, stars, earth], you remain forever and we must die". These are the dying words of Kiowa chief Satank ("Sitting Bear") (Brown 1973: 246). The Indians accept the natural limits set for human existence. He adapts himself to the natural rhythms determining his life: "Not by mastering/the tree do you harvest its fruit/but by submitting proudly to its seasons" (VIII.55ff.); he sees man as deeply involved in the whole cosmos: "Their lives were mirrors/of a larger world"(VIII.98 f.).

We have already seen in the structural analysis of Canto 1 that this does not conform to the mentality of the white races who subjugate the 'earth' and derive their ideological justification from the Creation story in the Bible - "people /come for God's sake to master the land/to carve it into portions/to plunder its stock and stores" (X.108ff.): "mastery" instead of "submission",

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"plundering" instead of "harvest", "carving" the land into portions", instead of the holistic view of nature of the Indians - that is that "scourge of white history" (VIII.61) which drove the Indians out of history: "Balance of millenia/destroyed forever by an alien history" (VIII.102). The word "alien" in this quotation is very striking. The perspective has subtly changed so that the point of view of the Indians is made vividly clear: 'history' also means history in the sense of "writing history". From the point of view of the conqueror, the fate of the Indian races does not appear in their representation of history; it is a forgotten chapter. The poet, however, shows his own bias by abandoning the "white perspective": "alien" in the work does not refer to the savages, but to the Europeans.

This juxtaposition of Europeans and the American indigenous population is one of the main themes of the epic to be seen as a "literary reflection of a people's their own history" (Wilpert 1964: s.v. Epos). The bias towards the victims of history is as unequivocal as the hatred of the white mentality perhaps most particularly characterised in Beissel's work by the fact that nature is not sacred to these people: "bush became brush, the beaver/banknotes" - an attitude in direct opposition to the Indian's participation in the "communion of loon and lake/of eagle cry and mountain peak" (III.82). For this reason, the full history of Canada's occupation by man is at the same time the history of the destruction of man's basis for existence: "Survival. The hunter hunts himself/out of game" (II.42). Alongside greed, the

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characteristic feature of the white race is hybris - not towards God, but towards nature and the human conditions for survival: Just with a ruler, the co-ordinates, stipulated by the white conquerors are drawn across the land without any regard to the natural conditions. It could be asserted that this attitude was typical of the mentality of white colonialists in general, not just in America.

Beissel's characteristic, ambivalent mode of expression, however, compels to interpret the word "ruler" as also meaning "governor" in conjunction with the religious connotations of "hope", "expectation" and "everlasting" (the American myth - referred to by Beissel as the so-called "Pilgrim Fathers' Syndrom"!) could be an allusion to the ancient 'Vanitas' topos in the Bibel (Nimrod, the builder of the Tower of Babel is the first ruler over people) and in fact the word play in the immediate context as in "ambition" and "vanity" is very conspicuous. The general style and tone at this point adopts an ironic distance -

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all human activity is seen as futile sub specie aeternitatis and is revealed, "dis-covered" to be vain by nature in the north, eternal behind its constant changes: "The north my love discovered us/fell upon our vanity/ with tomahawks of ice (III.64ff.). In the context of these themes, the important "canvas" metaphor appears several times in a changed form.

As has already been demonstrated in the study of Canto 1 - in the first instance, nature is the tabula rasa on which, true to their attitude, the Europeans hope to make their mark without, however, leaving behind anything more than temporary traces: "The northward wipes our tracks/off winter's slate... (III.100f. - 'slate' as in the literal sense of a pupil's slate - cf. also "page of snow", II.23f.). From their encounter with the nature of the land, the European has not learnt that man cannot in any absolute sense make his own mark; he remains a captive of himself - "captive/in the rib-cage of desire and ambition" (III.47f.) as he cannot escape his European past:

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The twelve stanzas of Canto 4 each with a chorus from Iroquois imperative "Cassee Kouee!" (author's note: something to the effect of 'Be off with you!') in line with the usual change of perspective adopt the standpoint of the original American inhabitants with regard to the white aliens, the Vikings, the early discoverers, the "English and French/Italian and Spanish and Portuguese knights and knaves" (IV.125f.) - "Froth and flotsam/ washed ashore by wave after wave of greed" (IV.49f.).

The curse "cassee kouee" is even aimed at the missionaries ready to be martyred for their faith. The Cantos are written from a humanist and not from a religious perspective: Beissel stresses that the Iroquois have a right to preserve their Indian soul and as a humanist rationalist he makes it devastatingly clear that even the Christian mission is presumption if behind the fašade there lurks the will to subjugate as their true motivation: "They chose suffering/rather than let a people be who would not bow/for a crucifixion" (IV.81-83). For the humanist, man belongs to this world and it is in this world that he must find his vocation: "It's better to search one soul than save a thousand" (IV.88).

To conclude these aspects, let us examine the r˘le of the Eskimos or rather: the Inuit - like the Indians, the original inhabitants, but who unlike them are only once the focus of attention in the poem in Canto 5. This has nothing to do with the fact that the poem might have become unwieldy in its structure,

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but on the contrary absolutely fits the historical and geographical facts of the matter. Canto 5 which uses the techniques of concrete poetry for the first time in the work and so already seems isolated on account of the external form, represents the isolated environment and unique way of life of the Inuit, who had considerably less contact with the thrust of the white occupation of the land than the Indians and so do not disappear from history because they had never lived within the scope of Canadian history. This is made perfectly obvious in a very convincing manner by linking the historical Inuit culture, as for instance the Dorset culture (ca. 800 BC to 1300), to the epochs of European culture at that time so that the actual meeting only takes place in the world of this poem:

Before blindness struck the isle of Chios there was Baffin Island and the tambour pulsebeat of a race of gods sterner than Olympus, Before Homer could drink to the sea with his eyes full of the dark wine of his song the same sun was singing here up north in the pinched eyes of men against the cold. Bone rattle and lyre - two voices to the same heart, but the wind is harsher here and sculpts the frozen plains for one season only. (V.1-7)

This first stanza shows that Beissel is not concerned with a one- sided glorification of the "Noble Savages": the great achievements of European culture are not denigrated and there is not the

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slightest hint that a rattle and lyre could be of equal value - the point is quite different. The cultural achievements of the Inuit have to be wrested from a natural environment which is extremely hostile to civilisation. For this reason, they acquire a greater value in the exposed world of their marginal existence than even the creations of the Mediterranean world:

We see here one of the central themes of the Cantos: the Inuit and their environment are an archetypal symbol of the precarious position man has in the world and of the will to make his mark in this world. This will is expressed by doing things, in the struggle for survival and not in poetry, philosophy and certainly not in debating, a point which is ironically emphasised by the dynamic ambiguity of the first enjambement. It has already been pointed out that circular movement and structures which have been assigned to man present man's closeness to nature. In the above quotation, this motif appears again in the metaphor of "curved space", the shelter for survival which the Inuit have to build

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from snow, the material nature has provided for them. From this the significance of the igloo is revealed as the psychological subject of the Canto, even of the whole work itself. Its construction is typographically (I am using this term for the want of a better) imitated in the seven anti-strophes of the poem, which increase by one line in turn until the last one leads to the momentous result that only the Inuit have solved the problem of squaring the circle, the paradox of creating a culture which is not hostile to nature:


The Inuit culture, which is symbolised by the round igloo (built from square snow blocks!), is that very chrysalis in which mankind's future lies hidden. This alone can still give orientation and direction to the decaying western civilisation: "Look north for the future/in a chrysalis of snow" (I.18f.). Perhaps it is not an exaggeration if at this point we say: The essence and the value of mankind at its most pure is embodied in the Inuit (the word means "human being").

How is the contrastive basic structure shaping Canto 5 to be understood? Are the Inuit the better or even the good human beings and the whites are the bad ones? In view of the basic humanist conviction running through the whole work this form of inverted

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racism would be most unlikely. It is most striking that "courage" and "endurance", the virtues of survival are also attributed to whites even in the ironic passages with the theme of vanitas, referring specifically to the vanity of 'white' man's endeavours (the subject matter in the following quotations concerns the men in the disastrous Franklin expedition to the Northern Polar Sea):

It certainly needs to be stated that the Inuit are closer to the original idea of what manis and could have been. Their consciousness has not been deformed by a thousand- year history of the suppression of the spirit (by the churches and by feudalism) nor by the European materialistic attitude, by ambition and vanity. This is easily supported in the text. In those Cantos with a polemical and sarcastic tone, the subject is not the white man as such, but the rulers with their minions whose

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victims are not only the Indians with their doomed way of life: It is sufficiently clear to see that it is white civilisation which is the target of the attack. This civilisation is based on a hierarchically structured society where the prevalent ideas - such as, for example, the ideology of nationalism - are determined by those who domineer, the rulers who are indifferent to the happiness of their own subjects. The victims are the ones who have no part in the corruption of the rulers and as builders of houses and cultivators of fields (culture in Latin also means "tilling the land"). They belong in fact to those who create culture, who did not come into the New World "to make a killing" (63) - but who like the maltreated Indians are themselves victims.

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At this point, the role Indians have in the context of the ideas of the work can also be seen: they represent man as a victim of history just as the Inuit represent mankind as a whole. So far, it cannot be said that Beissel romanticises the native Americans. His high regard for them refers more to the people who are doers without regard to race, nation or sex: I shall let this passage speak for itself but I should like to point out that once again 'culture' in the Cantos has been linked to tilling the land according to its etymological derivation. The working man eking out his existence from an indifferent, hard earth not made for him is the true hero of the Cantos whether he be an Inuit, Indian or white settler:

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It is the task of literature, however, to speak up in a responsible fashion for those who in the official chronicling of history, the history of the victors, are not even mentioned. More than any one else, these include the women who neither hunt nor wage war but who plough the fields to ward off hunger and - like the Inuit women - make clothes to protect against the cold:

The work is dedicated to the forgotten people in human history: "The forgotten are remembered/in this song which celebrates the passage north/of all that lives" (X.132ff.).

For this reason, it must seem to be very surprising that the whole of Canto 11 is not dedicated to the forgotten people, but to one of the 'great' men in Canadian history, Alexander Mackenzie,

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who succeeded in crossing the whole of the American continent from East to West and on reaching the Pacific, managed to cross the North-west passage by land. This achievement of Mackenzie is not denigrated by the following ironic contrast:

As we know that hero worship is completely alien to the spirit of the poem, the question arises as to what it is that distinguishes the achievement of the Scottish discoverer from the achieve- ments of all the others - apart from success, of course. It could be maintained that Mackenzie did not come to take possession of the land. He was neither a buccaneer nor a conqueror. This makes him different, for example, from Franklin, who, as Vice- Admiral of the Royal Navy led the largest expedition that ever set out to discover the North West Passage (and he also led it into death). It consisted of no less than 138 men in two ships presumptuously named "Erebus" and "Terror".

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Mackenzie, on the other hand, submitted to the conditions of the land - he approached the land like the real heroes, for Beissel the "voyageurs" and the natives. He did not force his will on them, but let himself be led by them:

And like the Indians and the Inuit he learns something that is alien to the mentality of the whites - humility: "In the mountains we have learned/to dwell in valleys/and leave the peaks/to the sky" (XI.40ff.) - perhaps this is the sum total of what man can learn from his encounter with primordial nature. Mackenzie is successful - but despite the motivation and achievement of man, nature does not allow itself to be grasped in the end by the hand of man:

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The land, the north, nature can only be mapped within the limited life-time of humanity; the everlasting water cycle which is constantly changing the earth's surface, though unnoticed within the life of the individual, will also grind the mountains which Mackenzie explored and which bear his name and alter the course of the river named after him. And afterwards, new mountain ranges will unfold and different rivers will spring up as has already been the case three times in the geological history of the continent. The only constant is change itself. A human being who has recognised this basic principle of nature will not build a Babylonian tower.

In the discussion so far, we have already interpreted the appeal to man to feel his way back to his roots and have humility as the actual message of the Cantos. This interpretation is supported by the figurative use of basic structures which are frequently used in the poem such as the canvas, the North West Passage, Cathay:

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Confronted as we are by the abundance of these images if we nevertheless attempt a provisional interpretation of the whole work, the main theme emerges as the insoluble paradox of life's journey for the individual and for humanity (as the topos is used in the symbol of the North-west passage). The North-west passage which took centuries to find can only be crossed on the land, the route Mackenzie took; but on the land route Cathay, or China, the goal of this journey cannot, of course, be reached. Nevertheless, the poem sums up the journey as a success: "Cathay found/from Canada by land" (XI.193f.). This, however, can only signify an ideal Cathay, the destination of "dreams and imagination" of man, and that means that the journey itself is Cathay, a journey which is not aimed at conquest, exploitation, occupation of land, but instead it is experience and knowledge motivated by love - and so the central theme of the occupation of territory proves to be the symbol for the relationship of man to the earth.

We have dealt with the relationship of the Inuit, the Indians and white conquerors to the land; Mackenzie's interest in the the north which was characterised by neither material nor nationalistic ambition but by a thirst for knowledge, symbolises perhaps in a positive sense the potential in the 'white' mentality so often referred to. It could be that the final change towards the good world be found in a blend of the

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indigenous and European attitude: "Rise up, Riel. You have a mission to fulfil./A half-breed is a bridge/between two tempers of mind (X.115ff.).

Let us now finally turn our attention to the twelfth Canto in which the poetological theme, which has become more and more important in the final cantos, becomes central:

The attitude contained in the language in these opening lines states clearly the moral condition of the country at present and moral demands of the lyric mode in the first person, the poetic "I", which is to be interpreted as the voice in the wilderness taken from the Biblical topos, and so, exhorts both change and "conversion".

In this canto, one of the central word themes running throughout the work, "measure" or "measuring" undergoes a semantic shift to "judging" or "weighing up". The land and the people will be weighed and - as will be clear in the next part - found wanting. With the evocation of the desert - a key term in modern critiques of civilisation since Dickens, Nietzsche and Eliot - it

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is obvious that the individual cannot be the target of the attack. What is really being condemned here with vitriolic polemics, is modern Canada as a state in the hands of the politician and racketeer caste claiming to represent the people: "the gold in the vaults of the unscrupulous/or the voices of charlatans elected appointed to their places/ [is not] the measure of a people (XII.10-12). The ordinary people are just as distant from the unscrupulous and the charlatans who rule the state and exploit its democratic structure and capitalist ideology as people were in the ages of "rulers" and "indifferent kings" - now just as then, state and society have fallen apart.

The task of the poet, however, does not consist of polemical writings, but of integration: only in the consciousness of the poet can the past be revoked and so, one of his tasks as we have already seen is to take on the trusteeship of history - not political history which belongs to historiography, but the lived history of real people, the simple, anonymous people who built up Canada throughout the centuries - a process of civilisation which is seen ironically as the path away from the calloused hands (e.g. from the coureurs de bois, cf. VI.177-178) to the diseases of civilisation: "We moved into the present/blister by blister callus by callus by slipped disc" (XII.12-13). The classical topos of weaving is cited as the symbol for the poetic process to fulfil this task, one of the most important achievements in literature:

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It is not until we reach this point that the 'canvas' metaphor which introduced the Cantos, acquires its full significance. Just as the white areas on the atlas challenged people to discover the empty land, to chart it and settle there, in the same way their own chaotic, incomplete history is waiting for its artistic moulding into myth, into the merging of past and present with the dream of a better future in the work of the poets.

Tabula rasa is to be understood literally in the original sense used by Locke. The poet's consciousness is empty (a good comparison is the idea of negative capability in Keats), it is the laboratory where the chaotic, meaningless details of empirical experience arrive as 'sensations' in order to be blended into a meaningful whole (which of course does not exist in the real world) by 'reflexion' (the action of the mind in Beissel's work) and also by involving the whole personality of the poet ("heart's fibre"). The true history of Canada, the history of its potential

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- as a utopia still linked to the idea of the New World - has not yet begun. Art, however, is the "herald for the kingdom of liberty". The poem that shapes the myth as a rough draft for the future from the history of the country and from the encounter of different cultures in the past, is the complete canvas.

In this picture, where the details even the bad ones can be seen by any one - there is nothing lost: The wind has blown the ashes of victors and victims/east and west across a million lakes and dreams/their voices lingering like some elusive scent..." (XII.32-34). But in the apparent Macchia of history the eye of the poet sees structures and contradictions are resolved in their consciousness of the whole picture :

Again the key-word "measure" undergoes a semantic shift: here it signifies 'beat' in the musical sense of the word, a

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correspondence between nature and the human mind which subtly touches on the dance metaphor in the eigth Canto. Unlike the whites, the Indians and the Inuit never lost their sense of rhythm. We must learn from them how to rediscover the primordial whole, the metaphorical north towards which we should direct our map.

At this point, it is obvious that Beissel like any moralist - who must believe that it is possible to change people by education - is also an idealist, although an idealist without illusions, who has not abandoned hope for civilisation's potential, nor has he closed his eyes to the grim reality of its horrors. The ambiguity of the last line expresses in a most persuasive way both hope and resignation, self-confidence and self-doubt. Blind trust, the crass optimism of Utopians is not a matter of Beissel's concern: "I dream [and] I am because I sing" - "I dream [that] I am because I sing." The last line, however, is the only one which is the only one to be rhymed in the whole work although this is cleverly concealed by the enjambement. And so this rhyming couplet with which the Cantos end emphasises hope despite everything: The task of the poet is to keep the hope of spring awake throughout the long winter, the hope of spring with which the life cycle starts again; in his work, man's original yearning for the Golden Age which still has never been forgotten remains preserved, the dream of the ice melting and of an eternal spring, of a New World where liberty rules, fraternity between the races and peace between man and nature:

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Beissel, Henry (1987). Poems New and Selected. Oakville: Mosaic Press.
Benn, Gottfried (1980). "Probleme der Lyrik", in: Essays, Reden, Vorträge. Das Hauptwerk, Bd. II, ed. by M. Schlüter. Wiesbaden, München.
Brown, Dee (1973). Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, 13th ed. New York.
Groß, Konrad (1981). English Literature of the Dominions. Würzburg.
Kurz, Gerhard (1982). Metapher, Allegorie, Symbol. Göttingen.
Staiger, Emil (1968). Grundbegriffe der Poetik, 8th ed. Zürich.
Wilpert, Gero v. (1964). Sachwörterbuch der Literatur, 4th ed. Stuttgart: Kröner.

Helmut Markus
Seminar für Englische Philologie
Humboldtallee 13
D-37073 Göttingen