Can the North Produce Its Poet?

Beverley Baxter November 15 1954


Can the North Produce Its Poet?

Beverley Baxter November 15 1954


Can the North Produce Its Poet?

Beverley Baxter

IT MUST be a wonderful thing to be the editor of Maclean’s. There sits Ralph Allen in his ivory tower on University Avenue rejecting manuscripts, sending special writers all over the place, and generally behaving like something between an orchestra conductor and an imperial Caesar.

Therefore when he wrote me that Maclean’s was doing an all-north number and wondered if I could fit my London Letter into the scheme of things I meekly answered “Yes.” After all I sit for a north London constituency; my home is in the London postal district of North West 8; the House of Commons is on the north bank of the Thames, and the newspapers I once edited are on the north side of Fleet Street.

In fact by the time I finished this personal survey I felt like a Norseman and would not have been surprised if I had been served blubber for lunch.

The first time the word “north” fired my imagination was a few years ago in Toronto when, as a boy contralto in Professor Blakeley’s Boy Trio of Sherbourne Street Methodist Church, we got an engagement to give an organ recital and concert in St. Andrew’s Church in North Bay, Ont.

This was exciting. This was romance. Hitherto we had not journeyed beyond Galt and Guelph and London (Ontario) but now we were to go such a vast distance that we would travel overnight in upper berths. My father saw me safely to the train and I bade him good-by with all the self-importance of a polar explorer going into the unknown.

Sometimes in our travels as a trio we took along a boy organist whom we affectionately called “the Shrimp” because he was younger than the rest of us. His name was Ernest MacMillan and he was pretty good with the organ keys. We did not suspect that he would someday be knighted for his services to music. However, it would be a dull world if young eyes could see the distant scene.

But at any rate the great Professor Blakeley was taking us to North Bay. He used to play a terrific piece on the organ called The Storm. By putting both hands solidly on the bass notes and expanding and contracting the bellows he would achieve such an imitation of thunder that people nearly put up their umbrellas. He was, in fact, a great showman. No wonder he ended up in Hollywood.

To this day I have never lost my love for trains. Even the little English trains that give a high soprano squeak and then dart out of the station still have a fascination. Imagine then an overnight CPR train drawn by an engine the size of Jove’s chariot. How it groaned and shook and strained as it slowly left the station. There was none of that diesel engine nonsense of today when a transcontinental train whips away like a greyhound out of a trap.

North Hay! The air was bracing and the waters of the bay looked chilly, but there was the romance of distance about it all. No longer was Niagara Falls to be the farthest place ! I had journeyed. In the evening we ! did our stuff' in St. Andrew’s Church where the chairman explained that if it had not been for the rival attraction of a hockey match the church would have been crowded.

Hut what did we care? Ten dollars each we boys were paid and that was real money. I found that I liked earning money. I still like it.

However, that was not to be my only experience in the north. A few years later I journeyed to the mining country of Cobalt to sell Nordheimer pianos. It was the dead of winter and my mother had bought underclothing for me of a thickness which would have astonished a polar explorer. May I quote a short extract from my book, Strange Street?

“Early next morning we left North Hay for the final run to the mining country that had excited the whole world. At last it appeared, hideous and magnificent, with rough buildings, thrown up overnight, sprawling like drunken men across the landscape, towering shafts driven into the rebellious earth, .smoke nosing its way through the falling snowflakes, men in fur caps over their ears and their breath steaming in the wintry air.

“The Cobalt House was a large I wooden hotel that served as first-class I accommodation. I was given half a | cubicle in which there were two tiny ! iron beds. The noise in the hotel was terrific. The rush was on and the adventurers of a continent were there, full-bearded, hard-eyed fellows who had struck lucky and were celebrating in j laughter, drink and blasphemy. The | others were there too, the failures. ! They had gambled and lost—not like | the Monte Carlo pygmies with counters I on a green table but with hunger and heartaches and defeat. There were promoters as well, preparing the bait for the public, and confidence men content with quicker profits, and the harlots were beginning to arrive. All mining rushes are the same.

“Dazed by the roughness of it I was hopelessly lonely and depressed. I sat all day in a leather chair looking at the snow and listening to the clamor at the bar. I spoke to no one and no one spoke to me. The interminable day at last came to an end and I went to bed. To my relief the other occupant was not there and I was soon asleep. About midnight my fellow lodger burst into the cubicle drunkenly brandishing a bottle of whisky and a bottle of olives. His eyes were bloodshot and his beard was full of crumbs. Stretching himself on the bed and ignoring my presence he alternatively drank from the one bottle and swallowed olives from the other while he talked to himself of bastardy.”

There is nothing kind or gentle about the word “north.” Even when it comes to the arts you do not expect the sensuous or the voluptuous. The only warmth Ibsen ever showed in his plays was when someone’s house burned down and the owner had failed to pay his last insurance premium. My own impression is that Ibsen was so chilly that he put in a burning house to warm himself.

One has only to look back to the American Civil War to realize that the north was certain to defeat the south. There was a gracefulness about the life in the south; there was a chivalry, an elegance, formality, charm and, of course, slavery.

But in the north there were factories and hard-headed men who knew how to manufacture guns. The whole affair was not unlike the schoolboy’s description of the English Civil War which ended with the decapitation of Charles I. “The Cavaliers,” wrote the schoolboy, “were wrong but romantic; the Roundheads were right but repulsive.”

Yes, the north must always conquer the south. Look at the way the Scots have invaded England through the centuries. They become the heads of English banks; they rise to power in industry; they secure high posts in the fields of science and education, and they make us drink whisky instead of wine. The only thing they cannot do is make us eat porridge.

The World’s Finest Poets

But the English need the rugged qualities of the Scot. Left to themselves the English would be just dreamers and poets and visionaries and explorers. They know that there is something lost behind the ranges and that they must go and find it. Captain Cook is a good example. He was sent out by the navy to chart the transit of Venus, but discovered Australia instead. A grateful government gave him £250 but warned him not to do it again.

So out go the Scots to organize what the Englishman has found. On every British liner that sails the seas today there is an English captain and a Scottish chief engineer. That is the traditional combination of the north and south.

England has produced the greatest poets in the world, whereas the Scots have had to get on with one poet. But that is the north and south of it.

Over here we speak of Yorkshire as the north, and it is therefore not surprising that although the Romans invaded Yorkshire they could not subdue it. The men of York gave the Romans no peace and I am certain that they, the Romans, were glad to leave it eventually. Even today that tough little Yorkshireman, Sir Thomas Beecham, is the terror of the musical world.

This brings us to the question of whether the vast Canadian north will breed a new race of artists and dreamers in the white silence of the snows. This

much is certain—it will inspire the painter, the novelist and the poet but they will almost certainly he southerners.

I saw the effect of the far north on Lord Tweedsmuir when he was your governor-general. I stayed with him at Rideau Hall just after he had come back from a flight to the frozen north, and one could see how it was obsessing him as a novelist.

The silent temple of the snows, the selflessness of a priest ministering to his far-flung little flock, the simple kindliness of people to each other, a remoteness which gives the soul a chance to be heard, the whispering music of the snowflakes ... it was a pity he could not have written a novel with that background.

Here indeed is food for the artist, the dreamer, the poet. Yet oddly enough the grandeur of nature more often subdues than inspires the creative artist. Arnold Bennett, living in the hard, materialistic industrialism of the Five Towns, sought escape from it through his pen. Charles Dickens as a small boy in a bottle factory experienced that divine discontent which is the very basis of literature.

Beauty in itself does not necessarily inspire the creative artist. More often it is the ugliness of things that drives the artist to his canvas, or the novelist to his manuscript.

But there is a terrible fascination about the unconquered north. Few of the Arctic explorers going to their death trying to find the North Pole would have asked for a better end. It had to be. The call was stronger than life itself.

Nor can we forget the questing spirit of Frobisher who, as far back as the sixteenth century, sought to find the Northwest Passage to the Orient. He failed and was almost lost on the coast of Greenland. He eventually reached Labrador, and Frobisher Bay is named for him. Dreamers, heroes, poets, adventurers—for so many of them there was just the memorial of the eternal snows.

The northern heritage of Canada is vaster than a miser’s dream. There lies the stubborn wealth that will sustain the strength of the democracies in peace and war. And perhaps the poets, the dreamers, the painters and the composers of young Canada will find their inspiration there.

It challenges imagination, and imagination is the parent of expression, if