canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Beyond Bethune: Thomas D’Arcy McGee’s Recovery of the Trail to the True North

In which the author argues that People’s Poetry in Canada is dead, Norman Bethune was spiritual forebear to Milton Acorn, and Thomas D’Arcy McGee provided the signpost to the True North before Canada was confederated.

This essay is part of a collection tentatively titled Beyond Bethune: People's Poetry and Milton Acorn’s Metaphor for the Canadian Fate.

by Terry Barker

By the close of 2002, the People’s Poetry Movement in Canada, as a movement, was moribund. The People’s Poetry Award and People’s Poetry Letter, had, despite the good intentions of Ted Plantos’ friends and associates, ceased functioning shortly after the death of their chief creator and sustainer in 2001. The Acorn—Livesay People’s Festival, animated in Ontario by the superior organizing abilities of Hamilton poet, James Deahl faltered and fizzled out with his withdrawal from the organization for unavoidable personal reasons in 2002. Finally, in the autumn of that year, a series of manifestoes appeared in the newsletter of the Canadian Poetry Association, Poemata, outlining individual People’s. Poets’ summary personal Views on the nature of People’s Poetry, reflecting, or reflecting upon, statements made at a controversy of poets organized by James Deahl at Hamilton, Ontario during the preceding summer, to discuss the future of People’s Poetry.

People’s Poetry in Canada is now dead, following belatedly the conservative, liberal and socialist versions of Canadian nationalism which preceded it into the past in the twentieth century. However, as part of the Counterculture movement of the 1960s, it represented an attempt during the era of the collapse of the Enlightenment ideologies, to restore order in the soul albeit one that misfired. As such, it can be analyzed philosophically, so that its spiritually restorative elements can be identified and developed, and its spiritually destructive aspects clarified and eschewed. Thus, the work of poets after Acorn, who, like him, have discovered some of the structure of reality beyond Bethune, will not have been in vain.

It is difficult now for the heirs of Acorn to find a readership for their work, however, even among the members and friends of the Canadian Poetry Association, an organization that was founded in 1985 by activists in the Toronto Chapter of the Associate Members of the League of Canadian Poets, such as Wayne Ray, Shaunt Rasmajian, Bev Daurio, Chris Faiers and Ted Plantos. The purpose of this group was to set up a more democratic and non-authoritarian fellowship of poets than the League, and to extend its already—significant activity as the "Associate Members of the League of Canadian Poets’ in the fields of extra-party politics and co—operative self—publishing. Drawing together members of several successor organizations of the Maoist—oriented nationalist Canadian Liberation Movement (1969—1975), such as the Link Poetry Workshop, Unfinished Monument Press, Steel Rail Educational Publishing, and the periodical Anthos, the Canadian Poetry Association (originally called "The Association of Canadian Poets"), many of whose members considered themselves to be disciples of Milton Acorn or Dorothy Livesav (then both still alive), was consciously promoting People’s Poetry for the first year or two of its existence. Over the years, as the founders drifted nay, or (in several prominent cases), died, this ideological focus faded, and little more than the desire of minor poets and small publishers for mutual support and exposure remained, acting as the rather unreliable balm that kept the CPA limping along. By the Annual General Meeting of the organization, held at Hamilton, Ontario, in June 2003, it became obvious that a renewed philosophical basis for the Association had become necessary, even if only to prevent repeated misunderstandings among the officers and chapters, and the final disintegration of the group itself.

One of the issues raised during the Hamilton AGM of the Canadian Poetry Association (by Tais Lintz, the Burlington, Ontario, Chapter chair), was that the CPA did not seem to particularly promote Canadian poets and poetry, an echo, at least, of one of the concerns of the founders with regard to the League of Canadian Poets. This point received some attention, suggesting that the national component of the original Left Populist and Nationalist ideology is still alive among CPA members. However, any real discussion of this point was soon eclipsed by the chief issue that has plagued the Association for a decade: the absence of agreed procedures concerning the management of the group’s finances, a secondary aspect of which is the lack of clarity with regard to officers’ duties, and constitutional rules of order. All of this pointed to an underlying dearth of ethical, and more broadly, philosophical unity among the members. This, of course, is quite reflective of the (euphemistically described) "pluralism" of contemporary Canadian society, riven as it is by disputes among the shipwrecked citizens left clinging to different bits of flotsam and jetsam of Canadian liberal ideology in its break-up.

During the rather heated discussion about the Canadian Poetry Association’s practical woes at its 2003 Annual General Meeting, one of the participants, Leda Lubinskyj of Toronto, remarked that as poets, perhaps the members of the Association, like she, felt little enthusiasm for dealing with matters of money management. While this created a bit of an uproar, it did point out the obvious basic principle that poets can, and need to, find solutions to their organizational problems in the realm of mythopoeia, if they are truly to penetrate to underlying causes.

As Milton Acorn knew, the mythopoeic hero of the Canadian Left nationalism of the 1960s and early 1970s was Norman Bethune, a product of the l93Os era of ideological conflict, which, in turn was rooted in the era of European revolutionary ferment of the 1830s and ‘40’s (reflected in the Rebellions in Upper and Lower Canada of 1837-38). This fact tied Bethune to his grandfather, and childhood hero, the first Dr. Norman Bethune, and his father, Angus Bethune, both radical activists on the Toronto political scene of the time. On the other hand, it also linked Bethune with some of the "many Bethunes" that Acorn had perhaps not been aware of, including Alexander Nell Bethune, Angus’s brother, and the supervisor of the first Dr. Norman Bethune’s education. This Bethune was a protégé of John Strachan, first Anglican bishop of Toronto, and he himself became the second bishop of Toronto in 1867.

Alexander Bethune was the scholarly defender and interpreter of the vision of Canada put in place in Upper Canada by its first Lieutenant-Governor, John Graves Simcoe, so both the Loyalists and Rebels of Canada’s revolutionary years were represented on the Bethune family tree, closely intertwined. Among the Bethunes, as among many old Canadian families, what later became "Red Toryism" emerged as the substratum of a new people, articulated fully in 1867.

While others were to be the pillars of this New Canada, the esprit of the building was invoked by a recent immigrant, the Irish poet Thomas D’Arcy McGee. That esprit was old in fact much older than Cabot, or even than the Vikings: it was the True North, later caled-upon by Tennyson at a time of national crisis, and finally incorporated in the Canadian national anthem.

McGee had learned by experience, first in Ireland then in the United States, and finally in Canada, to distinguish the constructive and destructive elements in nineteenth century populist poetry. A member of Thomas Davis and Gaven Duffy’s "Young Ireland" Movement of the 1840s, and a fugitive in the United States from the failure of the Romantic revolution it spawned, McGee almost was drawn into the Irish—American theosophically-inspired ideological cabal, Fenianism, which, did, however, eventually engineer his assassination in Canada in 1868. Put off his original admiration for the U.S. by the presence of slavery there, the nativist Know Nothing party, and beginnings of Fenianism, he moved to Montreal in 1857, where he found a more congenial atmosphere for Irish Roman Catholics, an audience for his pan-Celtic patriotism among the Scots and French-Canadians, and a reformed and responsible, and relatively independent British parliamentary democracy and constitutional monarchy, such as he had wished for for Ireland. The situation in Canada, in fact, appealed to both sides of his nature — the reformer and the traditionalist (this latter particularly in matters of faith and philosophy), and in the decade leading up to Confederation he found himself sitting in the House of Commons as a Reformer, a Conservative, and an Independent, and travelling up and down throughout the British North American colonies as the clearest and most eloquent advocate for the new "dominion". During the same time, McGee was calling for a national literature as essential to the young country, and contributing mightily to it by producing many poems in the bardic populist tradition both about Ireland and his new home. In addition, it was during this last decade of his life that McGee wrote and published his Popular History of Ireland in the spirit of Young Ireland, a work readable and accurate, and still worth consulting.

In McGee’s poetry, the image of the True North gradually grows out of the Ulster of his birth ("The Man of the North Country") through the Northern United States of his refuge ("Freedom’s Journey") to the true freedom of Canada ("Along The Line"):

Along the Line

a.d. 1812

Let them rail against the North

Beyond the line! Beyond the line!

When it sends its heroes forth

Along the line! Along the line!

On the field or in the camp

They shall tremble at your tramp,

Men of the old Norman stamp,

Along the line! along the line!

Although McGee had been a member of Macdonald’s cabinet before Confederation, the machinations of New Canada excluded the troubadour of the True North from the Dominion government, and those of ideological Mad Canada struck him down. Nevertheless, McGee left a legacy of People’s Poems such as "Icebergs" (1867), "The Death of Hudson", "The Launch of the Griffin", "‘Our Ladye of the Snow!’", "The Arctic Indian’s Faith" "A Plea for the Poor", and the often anthologized "Jacques Cartier", that reconfirmed the bardic tradition in Canada, and set the later ‘Confederation Poets" in motion. Above all, McGee rearticulated the trail to the True North, one that must be searched for again by every generation of Canadian People’s Poets. Looking back to the French experience of this process, he wrote ("Jacques Cartier"):

He told them of a region, hard, iron-bound and cold,

Nor seas of pearl abounded, nor mines of shining gold,

Where the wind from Thule freezes the word upon the lip,

And the ice in spring comes sailing athwart the early ship;

He told them of the frozen scene until they thrill’d with fear,

And piled fresh fuel on the hearth to make him better cheer.

But when he changed the strain--he told how soon is cast

In early spring the fetters that hold the waters fast;

How the winter causeway, broken, is drifted out to sea,

And the rills and rivers sing with pride the anthem of the free;

How the magic wand of summer clad the landscape, to his eyes,

Like the dry bones of the just, when they wake in Paradise.



McGee, Thomas P’Arcy. Selected Verse, (edited with an introduction by Sean Virgo), Toronto: Exile Editions, 1991.

Phelan, Josephine. Ardent Exile: The Life and Times of Thomas D’Arcy McGee, Toronto: Macmillan, 1951.

Smith, Mary Larratt. Probate to Norman: The Canadian Bethunes, Oakville and Ottawa: Mosaic Press/Valley Editions, 1976.

Terry Barker teaches Canadian Studies at Humber College, Toronto. He is the author of After Acorn: Meditations on the Message of Canada’s People’s Poet (Mekler and Deahl, 1999), and is currently preparing another collection of essays, Beyond Bethune: People's Poetry and Milton Acorn’s Metaphor for the Canadian Fate, for publication.






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