Wow – Canada!

Canada through the eyes of world literature

Escape Into Hopelessness


Basil Bunting, Complete Poems (2000)

I don’t know how well it comes across at the size above, but that cover photo must be one of the all-time greats in the annals of collected poetry volumes: Bunting casually reclining in a wicker chair against a Mediterranean background (the back cover tells us he’s in Rapallo, Italy – how Poundian!), his (carefully coiffed?) facial hair simply glorious in its effrontery.

Of course Bunting, so proud of being a Northerner (as opposed to what he calls a “Southron”), couldn’t resist mentioning our Northern land:

The Complaint of the Morpethshire Farmer

On the up-platform at Morpeth Station
in the market-day throng
I overheard a Morpethshire farmer
muttering this song:

Must ye bide, my good stone house,
to keep a townsman dry?
To hear the flurry of the grouse
but not the lowing of the kye?

To see the bracken choke the clod
the coulter will na turn?
The bit level neebody
will drain soak up the burn?

Where are ye, my seven score sheep?
Feeding on other braes!
My brand has faded from your fleece,
another has its place.

The fold beneath the rowan
where ye were dipt before,
its cowpit walls are overgrown,
ye would na heed them more.

And thou! Thou’s idled all the spring,
I doubt thou’s spoiled, my Meg!
But a sheepdog’s faith is aye something.
We’ll hire together in Winnipeg.

Canada’s a cold land.
Thou and I must share
a straw bed and a hind’s wages
and the bitter air.

Canada’s a bare land
for the north wind and the snow.
Northumberland’s a bare land
for men have made it so.

Sheep and cattle are poor men’s food,
grouse is sport for the rich;
heather grows where the sweet grass might grow
for the cost of cleaning the ditch.

A liner lying in the Clyde
will take me to Quebec.
My sons’ll see the land I’m leaving
as barren as her deck.     (1930; pp. 112-13)

In the main, the poem is the moving lament of a farmer for the home and land he is leaving, which he sees falling into disrepair and uselessness without his care. Canada appears as the country he’s leaving for, where he will seek a new life.

We encountered a similar view of Canada in Dickens’ Little Dorritt, where our country represents a new opportunity for Amy’s brother Tip. Whether it’s the 70 years that have elapsed between the two works, or some other reason, Bunting’s poem seems to take a much more bitter view of Canada; it’s quite clear that the farmer doesn’t want to go – presumably only the utter desperation of his present situation is driving him to it – and furthermore, doesn’t believe things will be any better when he arrives. (Tip, admittedly, doesn’t want to go to Canada either, but Amy seems to believe that our country represents a genuine hope if he would only seize it.)

Not this Morpethshire farmer – his heart is with the farm he must leave, not the country he is going to, and the first half of the poem is filled with images of its decay. Only in the second half does he get to Canada – introduced by the mention of Winnipeg, no less.

Now, I must admit, I’m always a little suspicious when a poet uses a proper name as a rhyme word, and I grow even more so when, as here, two proper names are rhymed with each other. It just seems to have a slight whiff of desperation about it, and one feels that words are being chosen to provide rhymes rather than because they are the right words. (No doubt poets often choose words to provide rhymes, but the reader shouldn’t feel it. The most perfect rhyme words are the ones that seem inevitable; you can’t imagine any other word in that place, and the rhyme appears almost coincidental.) But which came first: is the sheepdog conveniently named “Meg” in order to allow Bunting to bring in Winnipeg, or, having decided, for reasons we may never know, that the dog simply had to be named Meg, did Bunting pull down his atlas and scan the page showing Canada in search of a name to suit his rhyme scheme? (If so, he got pretty lucky.)

Canada appears more naturally in the following two stanzas, although the ideas associated with it are hardly surprising; it’s “a cold land,” apparently – Bunting never visited Toronto in August – and also “a bare land.” In fact, the cluster of words associated with Canada in those two stanzas could almost stand as a summary of the image our nation has in the minds of others: “cold,” “bitter air,” “bare,” “north wind,” “snow.” These aren’t earth-shaking revelations, but it’s noteworthy to see such a complete image of Canada captured in such a compressed form.

The poem does, however, raise the intriguing question of why Canada is a bare land, in a stanza we’ll quote once more:

Canada’s a bare land
for the north wind and the snow.
Northumberland’s a bare land
for men have made it so.

Interesting, no? Canada is a bare land, but no reason is offered as to why it is bare. Northumberland, which the farmer must leave, is also a bare land, but here the reason is clearly stated: “men have made it so.” So Northumberland wasn’t always bare; it was fruitful once, but was spoiled by men. The bareness of Northumberland is portrayed as the result of negative human action, while Canada was never anything other than bare and never will be; bareness is an aspect of its eternal and unchanging essence.

In the final stanza, Bunting introduces another part of Canada, and again, conveniently, it provides him with another rhyme (who knew Canadian place-names were so rich in poetic possibility?):

A liner lying in the Clyde
will take me to Quebec.
My sons’ll see the land I’m leaving
as barren as her deck.

That’s a great conclusion, but it does make the reader – or the Canadian reader, at least – wonder a bit about Bunting’s grasp of geography. I suppose the idea is that the ship will take him as far as Quebec (City? or just some part of the province?), and from there he’ll journey by some other means to Winnipeg, where he will start his new life.

Still, it’s hard not to feel that some of Bunting’s references to Canada grow out of the need for rhymes rather than from a desire to discuss our country.

Bunting’s own explanatory notes are included in the Complete Poems, and from them you can learn interesting words, like Southron, as well as the proper pronunciation of the word “scone”: it rhymes with “on,” not with “own”. (My mother always pronounced it Bunting’s way. At the end of Macbeth, however, it seems like it ought to rhyme with “one” – but the pronunciation of Shakespearean English is a snakepit best left undisturbed.) He also has the following note on this poem:

The war and the Forestry Commission have outdated this complaint. Cowpit means overturned.

The second bit of that note, at least, is helpful. As for the first part, presumably World War II (and the Forestry Commission as well?) have created work in England for men like the complaining farmer of the poem, making emigration to Canada unnecessary.

Something about the end of this poem always reminds me of the famous (is it famous? maybe not) painting by Ford Madox Brown called “The Last of England”.


The barren land behind, the barren land ahead, and the barren ship’s deck in between.

The dominant mood of Bunting’s poem is bitterness, and the bitterness of failure in England colours the prospect of Canada as well, making it appear an inhospitable place that no one would journey to except in cases of utter desperation. Not exactly one to quote in the travel brochures.


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4 thoughts on “Escape Into Hopelessness

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