Sir Charles George Douglas Roberts, KCMG, FRSC was a Canadian poet and prose writer who is known as the Father of Canadian Poetry. He was "almost the first Canadian author to obtain worldwide reputation and influence; he was also a tireless promoter and encourager of Canadian literature.... He published numerous works on Canadian exploration and natural history, verse, travel books, and fiction." "At his death he was regarded as Canada's leading man of letters."
Besides his own body of work, Roberts is also called the "Father of Canadian Poetry" because he served as an inspiration and a source of assistance for other Canadian poets of his time.
Roberts, his cousin Bliss Carman, Archibald Lampman and Duncan Campell Scott are known as the Confederation Poets.
Roberts was born in Douglas, New Brunswick in 1860, the eldest child of Emma Wetmore Bliss and Rev. George Goodridge Roberts (an Anglican priest). His brother Theodore Goodridge Roberts and sister, Jane Elizabeth Gostwycke Roberts, would also become authors.
Between the ages of 8 months and 14 years, Roberts was raised in the parish of Westcock, New Brunswick, near Sackville, by the Tantramar Marshes. He was homeschooled, "mostly by his father, who was proficient in Greek, Latin and French." He published his first writing, three articles in The Colonial Farmer, at 12 years of age.
After the family moved to Fredericton in 1873, Roberts attended Fredericton Collegiate School from 1874 to 1876, and then the University of New Brunswick (UNB), earning his B.A. in 1879 and M.A. in 1881. At the Collegiate School he came under the influence of headmaster George Robert Parkin, who gave him a love of classical literature and introduced him to the poetry of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Algernon Charles Swinburne.
Roberts was principal of Chatham High School in Chatham, New Brunswick, from 1879 to 1881, and of York Street School in Fredericton from 1881 to 1883. In Chatham he met and befriended Edmund Collins, editor of the Chatham Star and the future biographer of Sir John A. Macdonald.
Early Canadian career
Roberts first published poetry in the Canadian Illustrated News of March 30, 1878, and by 1879 he had placed two poems in the prestigious American magazine, Scribner's.
In 1880 Roberts published his first book of poetry, Orion and Other Poems. Thanks in part to his industry in sending out complimentary review copies, there were many positive reviews. Rose-Belford?s Canadian Monthly proclaimed: "Here is a writer whose power and originality it is impossible to deny ? here is a book of which any literature might be proud." The Montreal Gazette predicted that Roberts would "confer merited fame on himself and lasting honour on his country." As well, "several American periodicals reviewed it favourably, including the New York Independent, which described it as 'a little book of choice things, with the indifferent things well weeded out.'"
On December 29, 1880, Roberts married Mary Fenety, who would bear him five children.
The biography by Roberts's friend Edmund Collins, The Life and Times of Sir John A. Macdonald, was published in 1883. The book was a huge success, going through eight printings. It contained a long chapter on ?Thought and Literature in Canada,? which devoted 15 pages to Roberts, quoting liberally from Orion. "Beyond any comparison," Collins declared, "our greatest Canadian poet is Mr. Charles G.D. Roberts." "Edmund Collins is probably responsible for the early acceptance of Charles G.D. Roberts as Canada?s foremost poet."
From 1883 to 1884 Roberts was in Toronto, Ontario, working as the editor of Goldwin Smith's short-lived literary magazine, The Week. "Roberts lasted only five months at The Week before resigning in frustration from overwork and clashes with Smith."
In 1885 Roberts became a professor at the University of King's College in Windsor, Nova Scotia. In 1886, his second book, In Divers Tones, was published by a Boston publisher. "Over the next six years, in addition to his academic duties, Roberts published more than thirty poems in numerous American periodicals, but mostly in The Independent while Bliss Carman was on its editorial staff. During the same period, he published almost an equal number of stories, primarily for juvenile readers, in periodicals like The Youth?s Companion. He also edited Poems of Wild Life (1888), completed a 270-page Canadian Guide Book (1891), wrote about a dozen articles on a variety of topics, and gave lectures in various centres from Halifax to New York."
Roberts was asked to edit the anthology, Songs of the Great Dominion, but that position eventually went to W.D. Lighthall. Lighthall included a generous selection of Roberts's work, and echoed Collins's assessment of six years earlier: "The foremost name in Canadian song at the present day is that of Charles George Douglas Roberts."
Roberts resigned from King's College in 1895, when his request for a leave of absence was turned down. Determined to make a living from his pen, in 1896 "he published his first novel, The Forge in the Forest, ... his fourth collection of poetry, The Book of the Native, ... his first book of nature-stories, Earth?s Enigmas, ... and a book of adventure stories for boys, Around the Campfire."
Move to New York
"Determining to work free-lance, Roberts separated from his wife, daughter, and sons in 1897, leaving Canada for New York City." During 1897 and 1898 he worked for The Illustrated American as an associate editor.
In New York Roberts wrote in many different genres, but found that "his most successful prose genre was the animal story, in which he drew upon his early experience in the wilds of the Maritimes. He published over a dozen such volumes between Earth's Enigmas (1896) and Eyes of the Wilderness (1933).... Roberts is remembered for creating in the animal story, along with Ernest Thompson Seton, the one native Canadian art form."
Roberts also wrote historical romances and novels. "Barbara Ladd (1902) begins with a girl escaping from an uncongenial aunt in New England in 1769; it sold 80,000 copies in the US alone." He also wrote descriptive text for guide books, such as Picturesque Canada and The Land of Evangeline and Gateways Thither for Nova Scotia's Dominion Atlantic Railway.[
Roberts famously became involved in a literary debate known as the nature fakers controversy after John Burroughs denounced his popular animal stories, and those of other writers, in a 1903 article for Atlantic Monthly. The controversy lasted for nearly six years and included important American environmental and political figures of the day, including President Theodore Roosevelt.
Europe and return to Canada
In 1907 Roberts moved to Europe. First living in Paris, he moved to Munich in 1910, and in 1912 to London, where he lived until 1925. During World War I he enlisted with the British Army as a trooper, eventually becoming a captain and a cadet trainer in England. After the war he joined the Canadian War Records Office in London.
Roberts returned to Canada in 1925 which "led to a renewed production of verse." During the late 1920s he was a member of the Halifax literary and social set, The Song Fishermen.
He married his second wife Joan Montgomery on October 28, 1943, at the age of 83, but became ill and died shortly thereafter in Toronto. The funeral was held in Toronto, but his ashes were returned to Fredericton, where he was interred in Forest Hill Cemetery.
Orion and Other Poems
Roberts's first book, Orion and Other Poems (1880), was a vanity book for which he had to "pay an advance of $300, most of which he borrowed from George E. Fenety, the Queen's Printer for New Brunswick, soon to become his father-in-law." Orion was "a collection of juvenilia, written while the poet was still a teenager."
Critic Desmond Pacey wrote in 1958 that "when we remind ourselves that it was published when the poet was twenty ... we realize that it is a remarkable performance. It is imitative, naively romantic, defective in diction, the poetry of books rather than life itself, but it is facile, clever, and occasionally distinctly beautiful.... It is the work of an apprentice, who is quite frankly serving under a sequence of masters from whom he hopes to learn his art."
In Divers Tones
The title of Roberts's second book, In Divers Tones, "aptly describes the hodgepodge of its contents. The selections vary greatly, not only in style and subject matter, but also in quality.... Among those written between 1883 and 1886 ... there is evidence of a maturing talent. In fact, it might be argued that at least three of these poems, 'The Tantramar Revisited,' 'The Sower,' and 'The Potato Harvest,? were never surpassed by any of his subsequent verse."
Songs of the Common Day
By the time of Songs of the Common Day, and Ave (1893), Roberts "had reached the height of his poetic powers.... It is the sonnet sequence of Songs of the Common Day that has established Roberts? reputation as a landscape poet.... Evidence of the Tantramar setting occurs in lines like ?How sombre slope these acres to the sea' ('The Furrow?), 'These marshes pale and meadows by the sea' ('The Salt Flats'), and 'My fields of Tantramar in summer-time' ('The Pea-Fields'). The descriptions are full of evocative details."
After Roberts turned to free-lance writing in 1895, "Financial pressure forced him to turn his main attention to fiction." He published two more books of poetry by 1898, but managed only two more in the following 30 years.
"As their titles often indicate, the numerous seasonal poems in The Book of the Native were written with an eye on the monthly requirements of the magazines: 'The Brook in February,' 'An April Adoration,' 'July,' and 'An August Woodroad.' Roberts "is generally at his best in the poems in which he depicts these seasonal stages of nature with the palette of a realistic landscape painter." However, the book also "signalled a shift in his poetic oeuvre away from descriptive, technically tight Romantic verses to more mystical lyrics."
"Most of the nature poetry in Roberts?s New York Nocturnes and Other Poems was written before he moved to New York. It belongs to a period of upheaval, desperation and overwork, which may at least partly account for its disappointing slackness.... Even 'The Solitary Woodsman,' much anthologized and frequently praised, is a series of unremarkable images made tedious by fifty-two lines of irritating rhythm and rhyme.... Roberts seldom looks at New York with the eye of a painter, and never captures its essence with the effectiveness he displays in his best pictures of rural landscape.... Instead of turning an inquiring eye upon urban conditions, he is inclined to retreat from ?'he city?s fume and stress' and 'clamour' ('The Ideal').".
The first and title section of The Book of the Rose (1903) was a collection of love poetry. "Roberts handling of the symbol sounds artificial at best and sometimes downright fatuous.... Although most of the poems in the second section are unimpressive, there are a few exceptions. ?Heat in the City,? noteworthy for being the best poem he ever wrote about city life, effectively evokes the distress and despair of the tenement-dwellers.... The final poem in the book, ?The Aim,? is remarkable for its frank self-analysis."
"New Poems, a slim volume published in 1919, shows the drop in both the quantity and quality of Roberts? poetry during his European years. At least half of the pieces had been written before he left America, some as early as 1903."
Roberts's "return to Canada in 1925 led to a renewed production of verse with The Vagrant of Time (1927) and The Iceberg and Other Poems (1934)." Literary critic Desmond Pacey calls this period ?the Indian summer of his poetic career.?
"Among the best of the new poems" in The Vagrant of Time "is the one with this inspired opening line: 'Spring breaks in foam along the blackthorn bough.' In another love poem, 'In the Night Watches,' written in 1926, his command of free verse is natural and unstrained, unlike the laboured language and forced rhymes of his earlier love poetry. Its synthesis of lonely wilderness setting with feelings of separation and longing is harmonious and poignant."
"Most critics rank 'The Iceberg' (265 lines), the title poem of the new collection" published in 1934, "as one of Roberts? outstanding achievements. It is almost as ambitious as 'Ave!' in conception; its cold, unemotional images are as apt and precise in their detached way as the warmly-remembered descriptions in 'Tantramar Revisited.'
The Canadian Encyclopedia says that "Roberts is remembered for creating in the animal story, along with Ernest Thompson Seton, the one native Canadian art form." A typical Roberts animal story is "The Truce".
In his introduction to The Kindred of the Wild (1902), Roberts called the animal story "a potent emancipator. It frees us for a little from the world of shop-worn utilities, and from the mean tenement of self of which we do well to grow weary. It helps us to return to nature, without requiring that we at the same time return to barbarism. It leads us back to the old kinship of earth, without asking us to relinquish by way of toll any part of the wisdom of the ages, any fine essential of the 'large result of time.' (Kindred 28)"
Critical interest in Roberts's animal stories "emerged in the 1960s and 70s in the growth of what we now know as Canadian Literary Studies.... But these critics tended as a group to see in the animal stories a masked reference to Canadian nationhood: James Polk 'attempts to subsume the animal genre entirely within the identity crisis of an emerging nation [?seeing] the sympathetic stance of Seton and Roberts towards the sometimes brutal fate of the ?lives of the hunted? as a larger political allegory for Canada?s ?victim? status as an American satellite. (Sandlos 74)'"
Margaret Atwood devotes a chapter of her 1971 critical study Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature to animal stories, where she states the same thesis: "the stories are told from the point of view of the animal. That?s the key: English animal stories are about the 'social relations,' American ones are about people killing animals; Canadian ones are about animals being killed, as felt emotionally from inside the fur and feathers. (qtd. in Sandlos 74; emphasis in original)."
Charles G. D Roberts was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada in 1893.
Roberts was elected to the United States National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1898.
He was awarded an honorary LLD from UNB in 1906, and an honorary doctorate from Mount Allison University in 1942.
For his contributions to Canadian literature, Roberts was awarded the Royal Society of Canada's first Lorne Pierce Medal in 1926.
On June, 3 1935, Roberts was one of three Canadians on King George V?s honour list to receive a knighthood (Knight Commander of the Order of St. Michael and St. George).
Roberts was honored by a sculpture erected in 1947 on the UNB campus, portraying him with Bliss Carman and fellow poet Francis Sherman.
"In the 1980s ? a hundred years after his first volumes appeared ? a major Roberts revival took place, producing monographs, a complete edition of his poems, a new biography, a collection of his letters, etc. A Roberts Symposium at Mount Allison University (1982) and another at the University of Ottawa (1983) included several scholarly reappraisals of his poetry."
Roberts was declared a Person of National Historic Significance in 1945, and a monument to him was erected by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada in Westcock in 2005. ..