The Best of William Canton

by Michael Peverett

What I've been reading is a 1925-ish pamphlet from the series The Augustan Books of Poetry Edited by Edward Thompson. William Canton's early poetry, written in the 1870s, gained attention (e.g. from Thomas Huxley) for its adoption of up-to-date materials from Darwinism, geology and archaeology. In later years Canton (1845 - 1926), editor and leader-writer for the Glasgow Weekly Herald, was mainly known for his children's books and popular Christian works (A Child's Book of Warriors, Dawn in Palestine, etc). Some of the poems here date from after the death of his beloved daughter Winifred Vida in 1901.

Canton's principal themes are A: huge vistas of time and B: children, about whom he writes very sweetly and warmly. This is the end of "A Philosopher":

     Take them to bed, nurse; but before she goes
     Daddy must toast his little woman's toes.
     Strange that such feeble hands and feet as these
     Have sped the lamp-race of the centuries!

That last couplet, combining his two themes, goes into my page-long anthology of The Best of William Canton. Yes, it might have been written by any number of Victorian poets, but not all perfections are individual. Some shorthands, such as the word "sped" in that fragile moment before motoring, are achieved communally. (Indeed, as much as Rimbaud's "Bateau ivre", Canton's lines are a sort of birth-pang of motoring, already envisaged in dreams before it was engineered.)

But my favourite poem is "The Haunted Bridge", partly because I have no logical explanation for the suggestive phrase "citron shadow". The ancient bridge, now cut adrift from roads, is haunted by a little lad, a Roman truant who has gone a-fishing

     And, dangling sandalled feet, looks down
          To see the swift trout dart and gleam --
     Or scarcely see them, hanging brown
          With heads against the clear brown stream.

It does not exactly suggest a Roman scene, sandals or no, but that's what makes the poem interesting. A similar appropriation of the past occurs in my other favourite poem, "Woodland Windows" - these are "foliage-fretted lancets" through a line of elms, which Canton oddly calls woodland - but these pillared elms, now long gone from the English landscape, did not grow in woods but around field edges. Anyway, the poet, glimpsing first an old fisherman and then "two bright sunburnt tots at play", then meditates the past into the scene:

     Within the woodland's pillared shade,
          I seem from some dim aisle to see
     That shore by whose blue waters played
          The little lads of Zebedee.

(Those bright-coloured stained-glass narratives of Victorian churches are obviously a birth-pang of Technicolor, already envisaged etc...)

The major poem here is "Through the Ages", which is in three parts, the first a dramatic Stone Age tragedy featuring a sabre-tooth tiger. This section is fascinatingly crude; that is, it pre-dates a consensus about how to portray prehistory in literature.

          By the swamp in the forest
               sings shrilly in glee
          The stark forester's lass
               plucking mast in a tree --
     And hairy and brown as a squirrel is she!

The second section is a grand processional covering vast expanses of time:

     For lo! the shadowy centuries once more
     With wind and fire, with rain and snow sweep by;
     And where the forest stood, an empty sky
     Arches with lonely blue and lonely land.
     The great white stilted storks in silence stand
     Far from each other, motionless as stone,
     And melancholy leagues of marsh-reeds moan,
     And dead tarns blacken 'neath the mournful blue.

These eras and sea-pictures are eventually populous and as we reach recorded history they even name some individuals - the last is Oliver Cromwell.

The third section is a comic schoolroom scene in which an eloquent but droning professor is gently ribbed by a lively class of girls, but then young Phemie suddenly awakens in her imagination the scene with which the poem began. The verse looks like this: -

               Monstrous bird stalk stilted by as
                    She perceives the slab of Trias
     Scrawled with hieroglyphic claw-tracks of the mesozoic days...

Not only the professor, but the whole poem, is reoriented through this mockery. The mixture of registers is piquant - the question underlying each of the poem's sections is: in what way are our lives altered by these unearthings of the past? "Through the Ages" stands modestly at the head of a proud succession that would include Doughty's The Dawn in Britain (1906), Kipling's "Puck's Song" and others, the first part of The Anathemata, Riley's Excavations, etc.

(Other readers may not value that modesty as I do. This was an age in which the poet's eagle eye, the colonialist's eagle eye, the ruling-class Englishman's eagle eye, the journalist's eagle eye, were omnipresent assumptions: all subsumed into the image of civilization's guardian who sees beyond the petty campfires of the women and of lesser men. Surely Canton, scion of a family of colonial administrators, would assume that complacent patriarchal mantle? From what I can see in this pamphlet, it never occurred to him.)

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