|Robert J. C. Stead|
|Robert Stead as a Poet|
Robert J.C. Stead as Poet In his forward to the 1923 edition of Empire Builders (the 5th edition of Stead poems), Professor W.T. Allison PHD writes: "Robert Stead is the only singer of any decided merit that the West has yet produced." In directing itself to the affairs and aspirations of wheat-growing patriots, "Stead's work gained wide readership on the prairies. Tom Saunders (literary contributor to the Winnipeg Free Press on July 8, 1961) notes the inclusion of Stead's work in 1920's school readers and tests his memory by quoting (near perfectly!) a passage from "The Homesteader." Saunders acknowledges that much of Stead's writing (both prose and poetry) has understandably gone out of fashion - especially the ultra-imperialistic poetry which brought him prominence just before and during the Great War of 1914-1918. However, Saunders argues for the preservation of Stead's prairie pieces as "good verse," if not "great poetry."
Stead's first book of poems appeared in 1908 under the title Empire Builders. Subsequent editions appear under the titles Songs of the Prairie (1911), Prairie Born (1911), and Kitchener & Other Poems (1917), with a return to the original title Empire Builders in 1923. Stead's novel The Bail Jumper (1914) highlights selected poems from early editions as chapter prefaces, prompting this review to highlight the poetic aspect of the entire body of Stead's writing and to provide focus on recurrent motifs common to Stead's prose and poetry.
Stead's writing pays huge tribute to the homesteader, and in particular "The Old Guard" - these "giants of strength and will" arriving with little but hope of a better life in the land of "I Will" than that left behind them in the country of "May I." Fearlessly, they "stake their lives and their young and wives on the road up Fortune's hill." As described in Bail Jumper, they were "strange soldiers of fortune who feared neither the wilderness nor the hardships of the pioneer, volunteers who marched out to the sunset to wrest an existence from the unknown." (P. 294-5) They and their children, "The Prairie Born," inspired by a land abounding in sensual experience will come to perceive "the reason of existence, the touch that [is] divine, and the End of God's design." Here life is a "psalm of existence and opulence only a dream." yet before them lay "an empire untrod for the roaming. Ah this [was] a life for a King!" We can visualize their plows "tap[ping] the boundless treasure of the soil" and comprehend their sense of "something almost sacred in the bringing of [their] will to bear upon soil which had come down to [them] through all the ages fresh from the Creator." (P. 67 Homesteaders). Through Stead's body of work, the reader witnesses the grand immigrant transformation of "the haggard, huddled, homeless" from lands of "who-knows-where" cast into the prairie "Mixer" which "takes them as it gets them and turns them out Canadians." "Vortex" later points to the cities' allure which even in pioneer days then magnetically pulled farmers, storekeepers, newspaper editors (such as Steadhimself), lawyers, realtors, ministers, and country maidens - this to the detriment of rural prosperity, today as then.
Stead's capacity to paint a glowing and attractive picture of life in the West was recognized by both the CPR for whom he worked and by Ottawa who in 1918 made him director of publicity for the Dominion government, and in 1936, Superintendent of Publicity & Information for the National Parks Bureau (1936). It is important to note that Stead's literary works do not gloss over the rude realities of prairie life. "Little Tim Trotter" reminds us of the high incidence of childhood mortality, just as "Prairie Heroine" focuses on the loss of mothers in childbirth. "Going Home" documents the winter death of a settler on the trail that matches local historical detail. Thank God for the invention of the Gramophone, bringing "its miracle of eloquence imprisoned in the wax" to settlers living far from auditoriums and halls. Here was the "humanly impossible attained." Stead's work also makes clear that not all newcomers to the prairie stand to be admired, such as "The Son of Marquis Noodle" and the prodigal students at "Lord Landseeker's Alkali Hall" who indulge in a curriculum of fun and games, their principle accomplishments being support for breweries and dodging the Bailiff. "This was what their parents wanted when they sent them out to farm." Also criticized is the less than enlightened British social policy which placed vulnerable "Bernardo Boys" in the clutches of vile and abusive settlers like Hiram Riles in The Cow Puncher. Nor is Stead silent on the Canadian immigration policy which in "Mixer" is seen to exclude "the Yellow and the Brown." To the extent that we see a Chinese presence in Stead's writing, we find it in the kitchen and servant quarters of established pioneers.
Stead finished his formal education in his fourteenth year, judging from the 1895 register of Badger Creek School and the fact that the registers for subsequent years make no mention of him. He may have attended a term at a business school in Winnipeg. His literary success must in some way attest to the excellence of early instructors such as Dave Duncan, and the sympathy he demonstrates for teachers speaks well for his early school experiences in at first Chesterville District's one room school and later the Badger Creek village school. Tribute is first found in "School Ma-am." in Grain, Stead focuses on the plight of the young Plainsville teacher, 18 years old, a hundred miles from home, and a little terrified by the chaos of youthful energy. "She noted the farm-bred muscles of her older boys and remembered that her parents had prophesied disaster. These boys were not accustomed to taking orders; if they obeyed, it was because it pleased them to do so, or because they liked her. She took these things into consideration and held her throne by judicious concessions." In the Cow Puncher, we are introduced to Melvin Duncan who would have made a splendidteacher were he able to afford to practice the profession. Stead uses his voice to espouse the value of education and educational theory gained from his own life's experience. He writes of the importance of applying the five senses to every experience of life. (P. 114-5) to this, Stead adds the value of maximizing life's experiences and learning from them. Stead sounds not unlike 1940's First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt when he affirms, "Life is made up of experiences... Therefore welcome every opportunity to broaden yours by travelling in new tracks, as long as they aren't injurious or immoral." (P. 111) Next Stead adds the importance of good listening skills. "The first thing to learn is that all learning does not come from books. A good listener can learn as much as a good reader if he listens to the right kind of people." (P. 105). In other writings, Stead affirms the mind's need to be "fertilized" in one such manner or another in order for thought formation and thinking excellence. The following quotation from Cow Puncher may provide the best summary of Stead's philosophy of education. "Education is not a thing of books or studies, or formulae of any kind. It is the whole world of thought, feeling and expression. It is not a flower in the garden of life; it is the garden itself, with its flowers, and its perfumes, and its sunshine and its rain. Yes, and its weeds, and droughts, and insects and worms." (P. 132)
Stead's writing leaves little doubt as to his patriotic and imperialistic bent. In "Charity Ward" published well before World War I, Stead chides Canadians for their reticence to contribute towards the defence of the British Empire. "Hers is all the burden and yours is all the shame - The Charity Ward of the Empire, a nation only in name." With the onslaught of war, Stead's tune changed. In "We Were Men of the Furrow" he marvels at the remarkable transformation occurring as prairie farmers ("without heart for the soldier, loathing his life and his trade") put down their ploughs and take up the implements of war. In doing so, they answered "The Call" for defence so that "little lands shall rise again" with "a Freedom perfect and complete." Compared to the British war poetry of the time, Stead's commentary on war loss is relatively restrained. In "Why Don't They Cheer," and "He Sleeps in Flanders" the reality of Canadian war loss is placed within the context of a necessary patriotic response to a Nation's need.
"He saw a Nation in her need
On learning of Kitchener's death during the Great War, Stead shows no restraint in his expression of grief. Within hours, Stead expressed heart deep emotion and sympathy for the empire in his poem, "Kitchener."
Stead fortuitously gave a copy of the poem to a Calgary
editor who wired it via the Western Associated Press. It appeared nationally
the next day, and then internationally, earning Stead great acclaim. On
the homefront, Stead's writing recurrently stressed the importance of
prairie food production in the war effort. "Think of every furrow
as another trench in the defences ... Those less fit for the fight must
in some form or other produce food."
For a man without letters, Stead was a master with words. From a literary prospective, much of Stead's prose writing was every bit as evocatively descriptive and delightfully figurative as his poetry. This is evidenced by random gleanings from his novels.
"An over-lace of silver moonlight draped the familiar objects near at hand and faded into the dark, vague lingerie of night where spruce trees cut their black wedge along the valley." (P. 55 Cow Puncher)
"And at night, when the moon rose in wonderful wholeness and purity, wrapping field and ravine in a riot of silver, the strange, irresistible, unanswerable longing of the great plains stole down upon them and they knew that here indeed was life in its fullness - a participation in the Infinite, undefinable, but all embracing, everlasting." (P. 66, The Homesteaders)
"Heroism is a flower which grows in no peculiar soil... [it] blossoms as richly among the unwashed and the underfed as among the children of fortune. This fact only aggravates the extremes of wealth and poverty and makes them seem more unjust than ever." (P. 269, Dennison Grant)
"The gulf of loneliness into which I fell on the night of Marjorie's marriage was but the shallow waters of an ocean of despair in which I floundered through the dreary days that followed." (P. 24, Neighbours)
"Anything worthwhile that has ripened in my life was sown by your smile and your strange pride in me, back in those sunny days." (P. 242, Cow Puncher)
"The trimmings on a vehicle are no good if the motor won't let it run. The motor that has kept [the church] running for 19 Centuries is the doctrine of love - love of man to man, love of man to God, love of God to man. Nothing about wrath - that's only backfire. But love - without that motor, all the trimmings are junk. Each sect has its own trimmings, but they all profess to use the same motor." (P. 109, Cow Puncher)
"Convention is a torture monger. It binds men and women to the stake of propriety and bids them smile while it snuffs out all the soul that' in them." (P. 364, Dennison Grant)
"Slang is to language what feathers are to a hat
- they give it distinction, class. They lift it out of the drab commonplace."
(P. 60, Homesteaders)