Friday, March 20, 2009

The Very Cold (but Pious) Poet of Moore

Previous entries have made reference to Thomas Sutherland, Jr. (1797-1880) as the “poet of Moore.” I’ve now had the opportunity to read some of his work. It’s not horrible by nineteenth-century standards, but it’s also not fantastic or particularly original. I’m not making this pronouncement based only on the poem he wrote for his granddaughter, Agnes, as that would be unfair. Rather, I’m drawing primarily on the February 1865 offering, “A Winter Retrospect of Spring’s bright Morn—Pointing to a Clime without a Cloud.” In form it is fairly standard, consisting of twelve stanzas of four lines each, using an A/B/A/B rhyme scheme.

It opens:

This Sabbath evening, by the Fireside musing,
Unmoved by Wintry horrors howling round,
And present worldly thoughts and themes refusing,
My pleasure is in past resources found.

In cosy contrast with external roaring,
My mind enjoys a more internal calm;
And whilst my ardent soul aloft is soaring,
My earthly sorrows find a soothing balm.

The past is painted in somewhat fanciful pastoral terms—seemingly at odds with his urban Edinburgh upbringing—where his “fancy flies upon the wings of love.” We could read this romanticizing of his youth as a cliché, but I’m choosing to be a bit more generous, and think of it in the context in which it is written. Namely, February, 1865 had turned out to be colder than expected by all accounts. No doubt many colonists, subject to the “Wintry horrors” he cites—which could include cabin fever or depression—were prone to looking back fondly on the past. What Sutherland does is marshal that tendency in the pursuit of other ends, namely an assertion of personal faith and its importance, towards which the poem builds.

In this way, we can read the pastoral scenes as serving an allegorical function in keeping with the implicit Christian message of the poem to trust in God. In this way, the “Clime without a Cloud” is both the promise of spring, and eternal grace. But even in that, the poem runs to cliché:

Remembering how implicitly I trusted
Parental power without a fear or doubt,
My faith in God, if ever frail or rusted,
Gets strong and clear when gloom is put to rout.

Certainly the language is clear and accessible, the sentiment simple and affective, in common with much nineteenth-century verse of this kind. The poem asks that its readers not let the uncertainty caused by external factors undermine their faith. As a North American production, it could only have been written in Canada; in February 1865 the U.S. Civil War had caused far too much devastation for this work to have emerged from New England. Consider, for instance, Walt Whitman’s verse penned at this time; by contrast there’s a simplicity in Sutherland’s verse that suggests he has not been tested as others have.

Perhaps another productive way to think about the verse is as an explicit directive to children (“how implicitly I trusted / Parental power without a fear or doubt”). This would reflect Sutherland’s own commitment to the instillation of Christian values in the young. In 1856 he had complained: “Half of the schools in this township, have been vacant for nearly half the year. We have some good teachers, but these breaks interrupt steady progression. I regret not only that the Bible is little used, but likely to be omitted altogether. Many are blessed by its teaching at school, who learn it no where else.” If we consider the reading practices of the time, whereby family members took turns reading aloud every night as a means of imparting both spiritual and secular education (often deemed inseparable at the time), then Sutherland’s poem assumes additional value. Given the shortage of reading material, such things were kept and read aloud repeatedly.

In case it is not clear, what I’m suggesting is that we think of Thomas Sutherland not as a great poet, but a half-decent one. What is more interesting is thinking about him as a public poet, one who writes for the betterment of his community, a role he seems to have embraced. In this way, it is not sufficient to judge his work for its literary value, but rather we must consider it for its social value. Or maybe this is just me imposing a wishful recuperative reading.

No comments:

Post a Comment