Quebec History Marianopolis College

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L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia


French-Canadian (Quebec) Literature








This text was written by abb/ Camille Roy in 1914. For the full citation, see the end of the text.

In French Canada poetry was the daughter of history. It is true that, during the period of literary origins, poetry sang freely of all subjects, but it sang, for the most part, without either inspiration or craftsmanship. About 1840, however, it essayed to do better and to take a loftier flight. It was the breath of history that inspired its voice and sustained its wing. The work of François Xavier Garneau long supplied the verses of the poet-patriots with themes. It evoked before their eyes the image of a country which had never before appeared so great, heroic and beautifull - country whose many wounds still bled. They set themselves to extol 'that glorious world in which our fathers dwelt.' Garneau himself was naturally the first to be fascinated by the spectacle of the heroic deeds of his ancestors, and he wrote some of the first pieces in the repertory of 1840.


Another influence, however, was about to modify profoundly French-Canadian poetry - the influence of the romantic school. The intellectual relations of Canada with France had long been maintained with difficulty; they suffered from the mere distance of the motherland, and from the political and social severance of New France from Old France. Thus the literary revolutions that agitated the mind of France were long in making themselves felt in Canada . About the middle of the nineteenth century, however, Octave Crémazie, the poet-bookseller, exerted himself to make the newer works of French poetry known in Quebec. He himself had felt the influence of his eager reading, and he was the first to tune his song to the note of romantic lyricism. Crémazie may justly be called .the father of French-Canadian poetry.


Crémazie was born at Quebec on April 16, 1827. After completing his education at the Seminary of Quebec, he became associated with his two brothers, Jacques and Joseph, in their bookselling business. Anxious to instruct himself, and gifted with a fine imagination and keen sensitiveness, Crémazie loved to devote his leisure to reading his favourite authors, particularly the French poets whose works were in his bookshop. He was fond of inviting friends to talk literature in the back shop; among these were the Abbé Raymond Casgrain, Antoine Gérin-Lajoie, Hubert Larue and Joseph Charles Taché.


About 1854 Crémazie published his first poems in Le Journal de Québec. These thrilling utterances of his soul stirred to their depths the hearts of his countrymen. Men felt them to be inspired by the profound emotion of a poet who loved Canada and France above everything. Unhappily, reverses of fortune, in which Crémazie found himself gravely compromised, obliged him to fly from the justice of his country into exile. In 1862 he took refuge in France. He lived there, poor and alone, under the name of Jules Fontaine, and died at Havre in 1879. During his exile he published no more poetry. He often confided to his friends that he had hundreds of poems in his mind, but he would not give them to the world. The only literary work remaining from these hard years, spent far from his native land, consists of a few letters to friends on questions of Canadian literature, some letters to his mother and brothers, and the detailed narrative, written from day to day, of the siege of Paris. This record is a journal which Crémazie used to write up every evening for his family, and in which he noted down such minor incidents, interesting gossip and fugitive impressions as do not usually figure in serious history.


In Crémazie's letters, and in his Journal du Siège de Paris, the whole heart and soul of the writer was disclosed. His letters give evidence of an alert and versatile mind, by turns serious and humorous, playful and sarcastic; capable of prompt and just judgments, but also of ideas that can with difficulty be accepted. His theories as to the impossibility of creating a Canadian literature, most disputable in principle, have been falsified by facts. In this long correspondence Crémazie displays all the delicate, wounded sensibility of his nature.


It was by the poems collected by his friends in book form that Crémazie was chiefly known, and it is these that still secure him so much lasting sympathy. Not that this poetry is really of a high quality, or that it constitutes a considerable achievement. Crémazie left scarcely more than twenty-five pieces, and one unfinished poem, La Promenade des Trois Morts. Into these two hundred pages of verse, however, he infused a generous, patriotic and Christian inspiration that moved Canadian readers. He was able to express so many of the things with which the heart of the people then overflowed, and which were the favourite subjects of popular thought; and for this he was awarded the warmest and most sincere admiration.


In Castelfidardo Crémazie sings of the papacy menaced by the Piedmontese and defended by the heroic zouaves; in the Chant du Vieux Soldat canadien and Le Carillon he celebrates the glorious memories of the history of New France; in the Chant des Voyageurs he recalls certain familiar features of Canadian life; in La Fiancée du Marin he relates, in the manner of Hugo's ballades, a legend of the country. Because, for the first time in the history of Canadian poetry, readers found in these verses of Crémazie something of themselves so fully expressed, they applauded the poet, and his name and his verse were soon on every lip.


Crémazie's work has one rare merit. This is the sincerity of inspiration, and the profound feeling that imbues his patriotic songs. But Crémazie suffers in that he came too soon - at a time, that is to say, when he had himself to discipline his talent and learn to fashion his verses without any master. It was very difficult for the poets of 1850 to perfect their art: they were sadly lacking in the implements necessary to enable them to excel. Crémazie was obliged to pick up the lessons he needed casually in the course of his reading. To this cause are attributable his sometimes rather naïve imitations of the masters of French poetry - for example, of Victor Hugo in his Orientales.


Crémazie, moreover, did not sufficiently concern himself with correcting his work and lightening its heaviness. He cared nothing about being an artist. He first composed his poems in his memory; thence he let them drop on paper without altering their often commonplace matter, and without recasting their somewhat ponderous construction. La Promenade des Trois Morts, which he left unfinished, is a varied medley of delicate, moving lyricism and of realistic tales which are at times gruesome.


It is noteworthy that Crémazie did not pause to sing of love and the ardour of passion. His lyricism excluded this favourite theme of Lamartine and Musset, and devoted itself to the expression of religious and patriotic sentiments. This lyricism, with its twofold object, religion and patriotism, fascinated Crémazie's young contemporaries, and was continued in some of their works. Most of the poets of this period and the following years were disciples of the author of the Chant du Vieux Soldat canadien. They form what may be termed the patriotic school of Quebec .


The first of Crémazie's disciples was Louis Fréchette, born at Lévis on November 16, 1839 . He was a student at Quebec when Crémazie was issuing his first poems and gathering the studious of 1860 into his côterie of the Rue de la Fabrique. Fréchette did not attend these meetings in the back shop; but he read the poet's verses, he felt the enthusiasm which they excited in the readers of Quebec , and when he was twenty he began to write poetry himself.


In 1863 he published his first collection of poems, Mes Loisirs. He soon became immersed in politics, a sphere in which he never succeeded. Often disillusioned and embittered by the struggle for life, Fréchette, then a volun­tary exile in Chicago, published from 1866 to 1869 the Voix d'un Exilé. He returned to Canada, and having at length abandoned political life, after being a member of parliament at Ottawa for a few years, he devoted himself almost entirely to literary work, and published successively Pêle-Mêle (1877); Fleurs boréales and Oiseaux de Neige (1879); La Légende d'un Peuple (1887); and Feuilles volantes (1891). Before his death he prepared a final edition of his poems.


Under the title of É paves poétiques he introduced, in addition to the finest poems that had already appeared in Mes Loisirs, Pêle-Mêle and Fleurs boréales, a few unpublished pieces and his great pathetic drama, Veronica.


In prose Fréchette published Originaux et Détraqués (1892), in which he delineated certain popular types, though sometimes with a little exaggeration; and his Noël au Canada (1900), in which he depicts in simple fashion the believing, faithful soul of the French-Canadian people. After a fuller poetical career than that of any other Canadian poet, he died at Montreal on May 31, 1908.


Fréchette devoted himself chiefly to lyrical poetry. Feeling rather than thought animates his verse. His inspiration, more versatile than that of Crémazie, touched upon nearly all the usual lyrical themes. Fréchette, however, like Crémazie, scarcely ever concerned himself with the passion of love. Crémazie shunned it altogether; Fréchette skimmed with a light wing over such ardent subjects. The bearing of his muse never ceased to be irreproachable. The author of Mes Loisirs, Pêle-Mêle and Fleurs boréales contents himself with singing of the most delicate ties of friendship and the family, and of all the precious memories which we accumulate in our lives. He sings, too, in praise of nature and her varying expressions. Having studied in the school of the romantic poets dear to his youth, he loved, like them, the spring, flowers, trees, rivers and landscapes, and he sought to portray their colours, lines, depths and harmonies. At times he succeeded well in expressing many of the feelings awakened in us by contact with persons and things, and his verses entitled 'Sursum Corda' in Pêle-Mêle and 'Renouveau' in Fleurs boréales are full of the most deep and delicate feeling. In these lyric poems of sentiment Fréchette diverges and differs from Crémazie; in his patriotic songs in La Légende d'un Peuple he approaches and resembles him. Like Crémazie, he was a patriotic poet. He shared with his master the readily accorded title of 'national poet.' In La Légende d'un Peuple he set himself to relate the epic of French Canada - to write in eloquent strophes the history of his race. From among the events of this history he chose those that seemed to him most representative of a moment or a period; he celebrates them one after another, without linking them sufficiently, and without sufficiently disclosing, by means of general and essential ideas, their powerful cohesion.


At the beginning of La Légende d'un Peuple Fréchette hails in eloquent strophes the America which its discoverers had revealed to the world:


Amérique ! - salut à toi, beau sol natal!

Toi, la reine et l'orgueil du ciel occidental !

Toi qui, comme Vénus, montas du sein de l'onde,

Et du poids de ta conque équilibras le monde !


Quand, le front couronné de tes arbres géants,

Vierge, tu secouais au bord des océans

Ton voile aux plis baignés de lueurs éclatantes;

Quand, drapés dans leurs flots de lianes flottantes,

Tes grands bois, tout pleins d'oiseaux chanteurs,

Imprégnèrent les vents de leurs âcres senteurs;

Quand ton mouvant réseau d'aurores boréales

Révéla les splendeurs de tes puits idéales;


Quand tes fleuves sans fin, quand tes sommets neigeux,

Tes tropiques brûlants, tes pôles orageux,

Eurent montré de loin leurs grandeurs infinies,

Niagaras grondants ! blondes Californies !

Amérique ! au contact de ta jeune beauté,

On sentit reverdir la vieille humanité !


All the poet's eloquence found vent in this collection; along with strongly inspired couplets there are pages throughout which rhetoric lavishes its pompous and easy periods. Rhetorical language and structure too often weaken poetry under their sway verse constantly becomes commonplace and bombastic, particularly when the poet's native land and its traditional glories are the theme. Great originality alone can triumph over these temptations to swell one's voice, in order to dazzle the reader with grandiloquent words and make him forget the emptiness of sonorous constructions. Fréchette was not always proof against these dangerous temptations, and his lyricism, although often sustained by powerful inspiration, also degenerates, here and there, into mere declamatory harangues. Moreover, he was ambitious to imitate Victor Hugo in his Légende des Siècles, and he exposed himself to the charge of copying Hugo's least pardonable faults. Nevertheless, to Fréchette must be ascribed the honour of perfecting the form of French-Canadian verse. More concerned about variety of rhythm and harmonious cadences than Crémazie, he produced a more carefully wrought and more artistic poetry. It was with justice that, about 1880, French Canadians acknowledged Fréchette to be their greatest poet.


By Fréchette's side, sometimes separated from him, but always related to him by common tastes and an equal if not a rarer talent, another poet, Pamphile Le May, lived and wrote. Born at Lotbinière in 1837, he was older than Fréchette by two years. He too received, from that epoch of literary effervescence in which he passed his youth, an influence and an impetus that were soon to make him follow in the footsteps of Crémazie. In 1865 he published his Essais poétiques ; in 1870 he translated, in verse, Longfellow's Evangeline ; in 1875 he produced Les Vengeances, republished in 1888 under the title of Tonkourou, the Indian name of one of the chief personages of this romance in verse; in 1881 he published his Fables canadiennes , in 1883 Petits Poèmes , and in 1904 Gouttelettes. Le May still devotes his laborious old age to writing little comedies, poems that he will doubtless collect some day in volume form.


Le May was not so given to using the file as Fréchette, or, like him, careful to perfect as much as possible his poetical style. Yet he had, perhaps in a fuller measure, the ready inspiration, the vivid imagination, the profound sensibility, the mens divinior, that go to the making of true poets. He was also, like Fréchette, a national poet, yet in a different sense: he betook himself naturally, and with irrepressible spirit, to singing of the things that make Canadian life. Into the intimacy of that life he penetrated more deeply than Fréchette - into the details of the customs of the people, into all the picturesque manifestations of their rustic life. It was, indeed, to its charming pictures of country life that Les Vengeances owed its success; for, despite its rather hasty and careless workmanship, this poem derives value from its portrayal of Canadian customs.


It was Le May's wish to be the poet of the soil. He could not well be more ' regionalistic,' to adopt the French expression of to-day. Even while his art is being perfected he remains the friend of his country; he has not forsaken the source of his early inspiration. The best of his collected poems are the sonnets which he published under the title of Gouttelettes. These mark the truest progress in his career.


One of the finest poems in this collection is the sonnet in which Le May sings the return, the awakening of spring


Laissons l'âtre mourir; courons à l'aventure.

Le brouillard qui s'élève est largement troué;

La fontaine reprend son murmure enjoué;

La clématite grimpe à chaque devanture.


Le ciel fait ondoyer les plis de sa tenture;

Une tiède vapeur monte du sol houé;

L'air doux est plein de bruits; les bois ont renoué,

Dans les effluves chauds, leur discrète ceinture.

L'aile gaiment [sic] s'envole à l'arbre où pend le nid;

L'enfant rit; le vieillard n'a plus de tons acerbes;

Les insectes émus s'appellent sous les herbes.


O le joyeux réveil! tout chante, aime, bénit!

Un élan pousse à Dieu la nature féconde,

Et le rire du ciel s'égrène sur le monde.


In these carefully wrought little pieces Le May has not confined himself to the artistic treatment of Canadian themes. There are biblical and evangelical sonnets; there are poems that breathe of religion and of love; but above all there are rustic sonnets, songs of the hearth and songs of history. The whole mind of the poet is found in this collection. Along with the poet of private life and domestic confidences we have the poet-patriot moved by the noblest inspirations of his race, and the Christian poet extolling that which is most dear to his faith and piety. Because Le May has thus expressed, often with charm and exquisite sweetness, so many things that fill the national consciousness with pride, he stands out as the most sympathetic poet of the school of 1860.


To this school belongs another poet who yields to no one in respect of the oratorical cast of his verse - William Chapman . He has published Les Québecquoises (1876), Feuilles d'Érable (1890), Aspirations (1904) and Les Rayons du Nord (1910). These works do not resemble those of Crémazie, Fréchette and Le May, except in their patriotic and religious inspiration - that correct and austere sentiment which above all characterizes the whole Quebec school. Chapman's verse is also less sincere and more grandiloquent than that of his rivals. He is the poet-rhetorician par excellence, who does-not shrink from oratorical displays, however threadbare. Yet, as with all who flutter their wings, Chapman at times takes flight, and soars and hovers, bearing with him the reader's admiration. He has written some very fine verse, stately in movement and proportion. What he lacks is a more constant inspiration, a more fully fledged thought, a less flagging and less wordy versification. He too often delights in enveloping his ideas in needless amplification. Aspirations seems, so far, the culminating point of his work.


Adolphe Poisson and the Abbé Apollinaire Gingras, the former in Heures perdues (1894) and Sous les Pins (1902), the latter in the poems and songs entitled Au foyer de mon Presbytère (1881), gracefully carried on the traditions of the Crémazie school. Alfred Garneau and Nérée Beauchemin, although both were the precursors of a new art, may also be included among the poets of this group.


Alfred Garneau, son of the historian, was born at La Canardière, near Quebec, in 1836, and died at Montreal in 1904. He was hardly known as a poet during his lifetime; he published but little, keeping in his desk the poems that, after his death, were collected in a volume under the title of Poésies . He was at once sensitive, timid and artistic, and does not seem to have given out the full measure of his talent. Yet he was especially remarkable for an art more subtle than that of most of his contemporaries, for a more painstaking regard for form, and for a more refined delicacy of feeling.


Nérée Beauchemin, born at Yamachiche in 1851, pos sessed all the patriotism and piety of the Crémazie group. With these qualities he united a great regard for rhythm and harmony. His Floraisons matutinales (1879) contains some very beautiful pieces.


A new school, called 'L'École littéraire de Montréal,' was founded in that city in 1895. It gathered together a few active, enthusiastic spirits - for the most part poets - who sought to lead French-Canadian literature into new paths. The poets of this school, of which Alfred Garneau and Nérée Beauchemin may be regarded as the forerunners, are less circumscribed by patriotic and religious subjects than their predecessors. They may be said to have altogether abandoned these somewhat hackneyed themes, and to concern themselves mainly with the analysis of personal feeling, or the expression of the most diverse emotions of the human soul.


Emile Nelligan and Albert Lozeau are the two best known and most notable members of this group. Nelligan's poetry comes feverishly from an imagination and sensibility that are often morbid. It is inspired too readily by the works of the French school of Verlaine , Beaudelaire , or Rollinat . It does not retain the measure and equilibrium indispensable to enduring work. Yet it contains accents of profound sincerity and of poignant sadness, which provoke the most ardent sympathy.


In the Vaisseau d'or Nelligan describes at the outset the tragic shipwreck of his spirit:


Ce fut un grand Vaisseau taillé dans l'or massif;

Ses mâts touchaient l'azur, sur des mers inconnues;

La Cyprine d'amour, cheveux épars, chairs nues,

S'étalait à sa proue au soleil excessif.


Mais il vint une nuit frapper le grand écueil

Dans l'Océan trompeur où chantait la Sirène,

Et le naufrage horrible inclina sa carène

Aux profondeurs du Gouffre, immuable cercueil.


Ce fut un Vaisseau d'or, dont les flancs diaphanes

Révélaient des trésors les marins profanes,

Dégoût, Haine et Névrose, entre eux ont disputé.


Que reste-t-il de lui dans la tempête brève?

Qu'est devenu mon coeur, navire déserté?

Hélas! Il a sombré dans l'abîme du Rêve!


Albert Lozeau is more personal than Nelligan; he is less bookish, having formed himself by long and solitary meditations. He prefers to sing of what is external to him, although his songs are always the expression of the dream through which all things had to pass to reach his sick-room. His verses are also dictated by passion. Like external nature and the beauties of art, passion can assume in his lines a subtle accent, and sometimes a rather quaint form. In L'Ame Solitaire (1907) and also in his Billets du soir (1911), which resemble sonnets in prose, and in Le Miroir des Jours (1912), there are, however, the most delicate manifestations of a fine intellect.


In the following sonnet the poet thus describes the loneliness of his inward life :


Mon coeur est comme un grand paradis de délices

Qu'un ange au glaive d'or contre le mal défend;

Et j'habite mon coeur, pareil à quelque enfant ¸

Chasseur de papillons, parmi les calices.


Gardé des chagrins fous et des mortels supplices;

En l'asile fleuri du jardin triomphant,

Pour me désaltérer, dans le jour étouffant,

J'ai ton eau, frais ruisseau du rêve bleu, qui glisses !


Je ne sortirai plus jamais du cher enclos

Où, dans l'ombre paisible, avec les lys éclos,

Par ses parfums secrets je respire la vie.


Car la nature a mis en moi l'essentiel

Des plaisirs que je puis goûter et que j'envie :

C'est en moi que je sens mon bonheur et mon ciel. (1)


Each year sees an increase in the disciples of the École littéraire de Montréal. They seem to be held together by no common doctrine : each develops in the direction of his personal aptitudes. Charles Gill, Albert Ferland and Paul Morin are among those most appreciated by readers. Paul Morin, who published Le Paon d'Émail (1912), gives more care to the form of his verse than other Canadian poets. He aims chiefly at producing sonorous lines in which the varied rhythm and rich rhymes charm the ear. From Greek and pagan antiquity he gathers much of his inspiration. He draws landscapes with a glowing pen. There is in his poems more colour than ideas. But his first collection of verse promises a still finer art. Let us hope that ideas may add to his muse the force necessary for true greatness.

(1) Le Miroir des Jours: Le ciel int/rieur, p. 196.

Source: Camille ROY, "French Canadian Literature", in Adam SHORTT and Arthur DOUGHTY, eds, Canada and Its Provinces , Vol. XII, Toronto, Glasgow, Brook & Company, 1914, pp. 460-471.






© 2004 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College