Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:

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


French Canadian ( Quebec ) Literature

Literary Origins, 1760-1840



[This text was written by Camille Roy in 1914. For the full citation, see the end of the text. Footnotes will be found at the end of the text.]


THE literary history of the French Canadians may be   said to date from the year 1760, or, if one prefers, from the cession of Canada to England . Before that time, indeed, there had been certain manifestations of literary life in New France: there had been accounts of travel, like those of Champlain ; interesting narratives, like the Relations o f the Jesuits; histories like that of Charlevoix ; studies of manners like those of the Père Lafitau ; and instructive letters, full of shrewd observa­tions, like those of the Mère Marie de l'Incarnation . But these works were, for the most part, written in France , and all were published there. Their authors, moreover, belong to France much more than to Canada, and France, rather than Canada, is entitled to claim their works as her patrimony.


During the hundred and fifty years of French domination in Canada the colonists were unable to devote much attention to intellectual pursuits. All the living forces of the nascent people were engrossed by the ruder labours of colonization, commerce and war.


Nor was it even on the morrow of 1760 - the morrow of the treaty that delivered New France to England - that the first books were printed and the first notable works written. There was other work to be done, and the French under their new rulers betook themselves to action. While repairing the disasters to their material fortunes, they numbered themselves, consolidated themselves, and set themselves to preserve as intact as possible their ancient institutions and the traditions of their national life.


From this effort to preserve their nationality the first manifestations of their literary life were soon to spring; and it was through the newspaper - the most convenient vehicle of popular thought - that the French-Canadian mind first found expression. Only colonial literature could begin in the newspaper article. The older literatures were born on the lips of the aedes, the bards or the troubadours it was the human voice, the living song of a soul, that carried to attentive ears these first untutored accents. But in Canada, in America, where machinery is at the beginning of all progress, the Press is naturally the all-important instrument for the spread of literary ideas. In the years immediately following the Cession there were established in Quebec and Montreal several periodicals, in which the unpretentious works of the earliest writers may be found.


The following are some of the journals that appeared at the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth, and that mark the true origin of French-Canadian literature La Gazette de Québec (1764); La Gazette du Commerce et littéraire, of Montreal, named almost immediately La Gazette littéraire (1778); La Gazette de Montréal (1785); Le Magasin de Québec (1792); Le Cours du temps (1794); Le Canadien, of Quebec (1806); Le Courrier de Québec (1807); Le Vrai Canadien, of Quebec (1810); Le Spectateur, of Montreal (1813); L'Aurore, of Montreal (1815); L'Abeille canadienne, of Montreal (1818 ).


These journals were not equally fortunate. Most of them - La Gazette littéraire, L'Abeille canadienne, Le Magasin de Québec, Le Courrier de Québec, Le Vrai Canadien - struggled for life for a few months or a few years, and disappeared one after the other. With the exception of La Gazette de Québec, La Gazette de Montréal, Le Canadien, and Le Spectateur, the first newspapers succumbed after a valiant struggle for existence. To reach the greatest possible number of readers, several of these journals - La Gazette de Québec, La Gazette de Montréal, Le Magasin de Québec and Le Cours du temps - were written in both English and French.


The French newspapers may be divided into two distinct categories. There were those that were mainly political, or contained political news, like La Gazette de Québec and La Gazette de Montréal ; and the periodicals that were distinctly literary, such as La Gazette littéraire of Montreal and Le Magasin de Québec. This last-named journal contained little but reproductions from foreign literature.


La Gazette littéraire of Montreal, published by Fleury Mesplet , on whose staff Valentin Jautard , a native of France, was an active collaborator under the pseudonym of 'Le Spectateur tranquille,' is noteworthy as having given the French Canadians their first opportunity of writing on literary and philosophical subjects. Much literary criticism, sometimes of a decidedly puerile nature, also appeared in it. In this paper, too, are encountered the first manifestations of the Voltairian spirit that had permeated many minds in Canada during the latter part of the eighteenth century.


The first political journals were literary in but a small degree, and it was seldom that they published French articles of any value. Apart from a few occasional poems - of little merit, however - the French contents of La Gazette de Québec were, for the most part, merely translations of its English articles. The political literature of this journal is dull and unimportant. William Brown , who, with Thomas Gilmour , was its founder, characterized his journal only too well when he wrote ( August 8, 1776 ) that it 'justly merited the title of the most innocent gazette in the British dominions.'


Nevertheless it was Quebec that became, in 1764, the cradle of Canadian journalism. Before the end of the French régime Quebec was already the centre of a civilization that was polished, elegant - refined even - and often very fashionable. Peter Kalm , the Swedish botanist - who visited New France in 1749, and left such a curious, instructive and faithful record of his journey - observed that Quebec then contained the elements of a distinguished society, in which good taste was preserved, and in which the people delighted to make it govern their manners, their language and their dress. Quebec, moreover, prided herself not only on gathering within her walls the most important personages of the political and the ecclesiastical world, but also on being the chief seat of intellectual life in the new country. From Bougainville (1) we learn that in 1757, towards the end of the French regime, there was a literary club in Quebec. Besides this, the Jesuits' College and the Seminary had for more than a century drawn to Quebec the studious youth of the entire colony. Michel Bibaud , who visited the city in 1841, noted there 'the agreeable, affable manners of her leading citizens, and their French urbanity and courtesy.' (2) For this reason he called her 'the Paris of America.'


It was at Quebec, too, after 1791, when parliamentary government was accorded Lower Canada, that political oratory - timid at first, and modest in expression - was born. There the first groupings of intellectual forces were afterwards organized: the Club constitutionnel (1792); the Société littéraire (1809); the Société historique et littéraire (1824), founded at the Château Saint-Louis, under the presidency of Lord Dalhousie ; and the Société pour l'encouragement des Sciences et des Arts (1827), which soon amalgamated, in 1829, with the Société historique et littéraire .


Montreal, in the nineteenth century, was not backward in seconding, propagating and developing those movements of intellectual life which were gathering force in Quebec. At Montreal people read both poetry and prose. Joseph Mermet, a French military poet, who came to Canada in 1813 and took part in the war then in progress, had a large number of admirers in the city. There Jacques Viger pursued his historical studies on Canada ; and Denis Benjamin Viger , who at certain moments thought himself a poet, published his ponderous verses in Le Spectateur. In 1817 H. Bossange established in Montreal a fairly considerable bookselling business. The City Library is said to have contained eight thousand volumes in 1822. (3) The inhabitants might also nourish their intellectual curiosity in the newspapers and the literary miscellanies published about the middle of the nineteenth century, such as - La Minerve (1827), L'Ami du Peuple (1832), Le Populaire and La Quotidienne (1837), L'Aurore des Canadas (1839), and Le Jean-Batiste (1840). To these may be added the miscellanies of Michel Bibaud -La Bibliothèque canadienne (1825 to 1830), L'Observateur (1830), Le Magasin du Bas-Canada (1832), and L'Encyclopédie canadienne (1842).


At this period Quebec and Montreal, with their associations, their journals and their literary miscellanies, were not as yet, of course, powerful centres of intellectual life, nor was the energy they radiated either very active or brilliant. In tracing the real origins of a literature, however, it is not unprofitable to indicate briefly the historical environment, in which that literature was to have its birth. By this means the relative value of its earlier efforts is more justly appreciated.


With the French Canadians, song appears to have been the first form of poetry. Some verses written in 1757 and 1758 (4) are still to be found; many may be read in the journals which made their appearance later. The popular song flew quickly from mouth to mouth when, in 1775, or again in 1812, the people were fired with a fine patriotic ardour to defend the soil of their invaded country. New Year's Day also supplied the rhymesters with matter for a few verses, mainly intended for newsboys' addresses. Needless to say, these poems - interesting as they are from the point of view of literary origins - have in themselves scarcely any literary value. The same may be said of many lyrical, pastoral and satirical pieces that appeared anonymously in the early journals. (5)


At this period, however, two poets stand out from all others - Joseph Quesnel and Joseph Mermet. Although they were of French origin, they so deeply impressed Canadians of their time, and exercised such an influence upon later writers of verse and men of letters, that we cannot but take account of them in a history of the beginnings of French-Canadian poetry.


Quesnel was born at St Malo in 1749, and died at Montreal in 1809. He came to Canada from France in 1779. He was a village merchant at Boucherville, and afterwards lived in Montreal . He employed much of his leisure in writing verses and music. His principal work consists of a large number of poems, epistles, hymns, epigrams and songs. He also left a dialogue in verse, Le Rimeur dépité; a comedy in verse, L'Anglomanie; and two prose comedies - Colas et Colinette, the text of which is embellished with ariettas, and Les Républicains français.


Quesnel's poetry was for the most part light and playful. His muse never tires of pleasantry, in which he often indulges with delicacy and grace. To fine badinage he readily adds a piquant irony. In his epistle to M. Généreux Labadie he pokes fun playfully both at the public, for not sufficiently encouraging literature, and at Labadie himself. Le Rimeur dépité is another example of this raillery, at once light and biting. In these two pieces, however, there is a lack of care in regard to form and of scholarly dignity.


Quesnel concerns himself more with the quality of his verse and the trueness of its tone when he writes idyllic poetry and sings of nature. He had a keen appreciation of that beauty of nature which the descriptive poets of the eighteenth century made popular. He was probably the first French-Canadian poet to sing in praise of running brooks and blossoming flowers.


Quesnel's two most important works, however, are Colas et Colinette, the text of which is preserved in Le Repertoire national, and l'Anglomanie, a little comedy in verse which has not been published, but has been included by Jacques Viger in his Saberdache.


Colas et Colinette is a comedy, and is French rather than Canadian. Traces of the customs of Canada are rare. Apart from certain psychological observations on love, which may be applicable to any country, the piece has little interest except as a picture of popular manners in provincial France. The old and gallant bailli, who wishes to rob the rude, rustic Colas of his delicate and graceful Colinette, resembles a Canadian magistrate but distantly; while Colas himself, with his strange and, faulty speech, in no way represents a young peasant of Lower Canada.


Quesnel's L'Anglomanie, or Le Diner à I'anglaise, is frankly Canadian in inspiration. The subject was suggested by a caprice that affected the upper ranks of French-Canadian society about the beginning of the nineteenth century. At that time certain families allowed themselves to be too easily fascinated by English fashions and customs. They abandoned the old French domestic traditions, in order to adopt the habits of their British compatriots. L'Anglomanie is not, of course, a powerful work, but it is nevertheless interesting. It is to be hoped that it may yet be printed and submitted to the curiosity of the public. Quesnel's light comedies and his copious poetic output led his contemporaries to regard him as the model of elegant and witty versifiers.


A few years after Quesnel's death another French poet arrived in Canada, and in turn succeeded in getting his work read and admired - sometimes with a too generous admiration. This was Joseph Mermet, lieutenant and adjutant of de Watteville's regiment. Mermet came to Canada in 1813 with his regiment, composed mainly of Swiss soldiers and officers. Watteville's regiment took a prominent part in the War of 1812-4. It was sent to Kingston, and in that town the poet-lieutenant employed his leisure in writing verse. There he made the acquaintance of Jacques Viger, and the two became friends. It was Viger who made the poet's work known to his friends in Montreal, and got his poems published in Le Spectaleur.


In these poems Mermet sang of war - the war that American cupidity had just brought close to Canadian homes, and that had summoned the brave militia beneath the colours. Several of his pieces owed their success chiefly to the actuality of the subject treated rather than to their artistic merit - for example, the lyrical verses in which he essayed to sing the victory of Chateauguay.


The hymn of the 'Victory of Chateauguay' secured its author the friendship of the hero of that day. De Salaberry , wishing to meet the poet who had extolled his military deeds, invited him to his table. The soldier-poet went to Chambly; he passed a few hours in the colonel's retreat there, and on returning from the visit wrote his poem on 'Chambly.'


During his travels on Canadian soil Mermet could not but admire the magnificent spectacles presented by nature. He is, we believe, the first Canadian poet to sing of Niagara; he set himself to describe it, and his lines possess the special merit of precision.


It is not, however, in Mermet's poems of patriotism and war, nor even in his descriptive poetry, that the author's best and most characteristic spirit is to be found. The adjutant of de Watteville's regiment loved raillery above everything. This French soldier is merry. He loses no opportunity of throwing off a humorous couplet or of distributing impromptu rhymes among his friends. To him everything is matter for amusing or satirical verse. In the Saberdache of Jacques Viger many of these light and often carelessly written poems may still be found; although of little value, they were received enthusiastically by the readers of 1813.


Mermet returned to France in 1816. In Canada, therefore, he was merely a visitor. Nevertheless it is plain, from certain literary discussion in which he took part in Le Spectateur , (6) that his influence upon the poets of his time was considerable.


Mermet has given us several examples of that sprightly, bantering literature so long practised by Quesnel. He is not, of course, a great poet; he did not even take pains to be a second-rate poet. Yet he stimulated the ambition of those who at the beginning of the nineteenth century were endeavouring to make the new-born literature of Canada lisp in numbers.


In Quesnel and Mermet we see the expression of the French muse, which has become Canadian for a brief period. In their poems, too, we see a reflection - dim though it be - of those light, graceful and terse forms of poetry, frequently idyllic, that flourished in France during the eighteenth century.


While these poets were still making their influence felt at Quebec and Montreal, a Canadian poet - Canadian by birth - essayed to capture public attention. This was Michel Bibaud , who was born near Montreal, at the Côte des Neiges, in 1782, and died at Montreal in 1857. To Bibaud must be accorded the honour - if honour it be - of publishing the first miscellany of poems in the history of French-Canadian literature. This collection, which appeared in 1830, is entitled Épîtres, Satires, Chansons, Épigrammes, et autres pièces en vers. It is composed of pieces that had appeared several years previously, the first satire dating from 1817. It contains no poems that are really good. It was seldom given to Bibaud himself to be a poet; and the pieces he published are more interesting from the point of view of the history of manners and ideas than from that of art, which in him is usually commonplace.


Michel Bibaud and Denis Benjamin Viger , who contributed to Le Spectateur, were the representatives of French-Canadian poetry at the moment when it was venturing on its first flights. It is true these men were not great poets, but we must be thankful to those who, at the beginning of a country's history, venture to do something, and who, at the cost of their own failure, point the way to others who may yet follow and excel them.


The most important chapter of French-Canadian literary origins - dull though it often is - is composed of the prose matter in the early newspapers. Among the first to write for the journals and to influence the public mind in their diverse degrees were - Pierre Bédard and François Blanchet in Le Canadien ; Jacques Labrie and Louis Plamondon in Le Courrier de Québec ; Denis Benjamin Viger in Le Canadien and Le Spectateur; Michel Bibaud in L'Aurore des Canadas and later in his collected works; and Jacques Viger in Le Canadien and in the literary journals and miscellanies of Michel Bibaud. After these came Étienne Parent , who, by virtue of his forceful thought and the vigour of his articles, merits a place apart.


This newspaper prose was almost the only literary matter printed at the close of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth century; it was also the only literature, or nearly so, that expressed Canadian thought. It was this literature that engaged the attention of the citizens, directed their political sympathies, and often moulded their judgment on public affairs. This prose is by turn passionate and calm, fiery and restrained, aggressive and patient. It is full of those agitations that at certain periods troubled the national life-when, for example, Craig was the dupe of the evil counsellors who surrounded him, and the French Canadians were at once irascible and bold in their demands. Throughout this political literature are to be found the deep traces of those increasing recriminations excited during nearly forty years by topics that so often irritated, such as supplies and the reform of the legislative council.


The political oratory of the first parliaments had naturally much of the qualities and defects of the journalism. Usually we find the same men speaking from the political platform and writing in the journals. Their style varies greatly: it is generally temperate, terse and precise; but frequently it is confused, ponderous and solemn. The oratory, like the written prose of the time, was substantial rather than artistic, vigorous rather than pliant, firm rather than passionate. The name of Louis Joseph Papineau stands out among all those who earned applause as political orators during the first half of the nineteenth century. Papineau's name is still popular among French Canadians, for he long embodied the highest aspirations of his countrymen. This is not the place to discuss the excesses into which he was sometimes led by his ardent patriotism. It is well worth remembering that, more than any other in his day, he was an orator and a political tribune. He knew and could use those expressions that strike the imagination of a people. From the platform, where he himself fought like a soldier, he impetuously sounded the charge, at once restraining and inflaming popular passions.


While Papineau was making speeches, a journalist was writing articles in which the very soul of the French-Canadian people was expressed with an eloquence by turns commanding, ironical, rugged and light. It may be said that Étienne Parent portrayed the most intimate thoughts of the people for a longer time than Papineau, and more faithfully. In Parent, indeed, we encounter the man who, during the period of the literary origins of French Canada, was the most sagacious of the politicians and the greatest of the writers.


Parent was born at Beauport, near Quebec, on May 2, 1802. On the completion of his classical studies at the College of Nicolet and the Seminary of Quebec, he entered the profession of journalism. In 1822 he became editor of Le Canadien in Quebec. After the temporary cessation of this journal in 1825, the young editor pursued his law studies, and was admitted to the bar in 1829. He was unable to devote himself long to the practice of law. His literary temperament, his well-stored mind, his desire to discuss ideas, and his taste for controversy drew him once more to journalism. In 1831 a group of young deputies demanded the establishment of a fighting journal, and suggested the revival of Le Canadien, whose very name was a watchword. Parent undertook the task of resurrecting it, and on May 7, 1831, the initial number appeared. On the first page a new device was inscribed: 'Our Institutions, our Language and our Laws !'


In Montreal, at that time, La Minerve - a very violent patriotic organ - was read. At Quebec, it was Le Canadien that undertook to scatter the seed of those political truths with which it was desired to imbue all minds.


The office of Le Canadien, in which Parent reigned, became a sort of centre where politicians gathered, and where the plans of attack and defence of the parliamentarians were arranged. Parent retained the conduct of his journal until 1842. In the preceding year he had been elected member for the county of Saguenay. In consequence of serious deafness, contracted in the state prisons in which he was confined with so many other patriots during the winter of 1837-38, he considered it necessary in 1842 to resign his seat. He accepted the post of clerk of the executive council. He ceased to direct Le Canadien, therefore, in the same year. He reappeared frequently, however, and still conducted lively controversies, in its columns.


From 1842 it was chiefly by means of lecturing that Parent sought to continue among his countrymen the educative ministry to which his journalistic activity had accustomed him. To the members of the Canadian Institute of Montreal and Quebec, at the reading-room of Saint-Roch, Quebec, and before the Society for the Early Closing of Shops, Quebec, he delivered courses of public lectures that testify to the extent of his knowledge, and especially to the philosophic penetration of his mind. He became under-secretary for the Province of Lower Canada in 1847, and retained substantially the same functions under Confederation, with the title of under-secretary of state. He retired from office in 1872, and died at Ottawa on December 22, 1874 . On the day of his death Le Courrier de l'Outaouais declared that Parent 'created the journalistic style of this country.' This eulogy suggests the high and authoritative place that the editor of Le Canadien had won. By his brother journalists he was called 'the Nestor of the Press,' as a tribute to the prudence he generally exercised in his writings.


Moreover, Parent the journalist was more than any other of his contemporaries a courageous and clear-sighted patriot. A master-thought directed all his ideas. 'A pole-star led me,' he used to say in his later years. (7) This star - the guide of his spirit - was the motto which he inscribed at the head of Le Canadien : 'Our Institutions, our Language and our Laws !' Whatever had no concern with this patriotic programme was banished from the journal's columns. Parent had well-defined political principles, and it was upon these principles that he founded his journalistic activity, and sought to achieve the liberty of his compatriots. What were the principles he professed? Upon what rights did he wish to base the stability and progress of the nation?


He considered, in the first place, that in a country endowed with a parliamentary system the House of Assembly ought to have a certain and decisive influence upon the policy of the government. He could not conceive this influence being sufficient without the absolute control of supplies. This famous question of supplies, it will be remembered, was, in both Upper and Lower Canada, for more than thirty years the cause of the most violent public controversies. Parent combined this principle of the control of supplies by the assembly with the higher principle of the responsibility of the executive. The latter, he held, ought to be responsible to the people or to their deputies. It is especially interesting to note with what precision the editor of Le Canadien, in 1833, demands this responsible government:


"We now ask that the Executive Council be assimilated to the cabinet in England. Thus, instead of influential members of one Chamber or the other being summoned and made mere political councillors, we now desire that they be made heads of departments, severally and jointly responsible to the Chambers." (8)


It was to secure a more complete application of this governmental responsibility that Parent, and all the patriots of his day, conducted their agitation against the legislative council, then composed of members nominated by the crown. In place of irresponsible councillors he demanded elective councillors. He regarded the constitution of the legislative council, as defined by the constitution, as a great error on the part of Pitt. 'The minister,' he declared, 'ought to have seen that he was bringing into the lists against the people a class of men who could never have anything in common with them, since the former ran necessarily towards liberty, and the latter towards absolute power and privilege.' (9)


In the exposition and defence of his political principles Parent always displayed a calm and appropriate moderation. He was never a lover of excess, either in words or deeds.


Although he long fought by Papineau's side, and was long one of 'the sullen guard of the agitators' in the phrase of that day - he was unable to follow the leader of the patriots to the end. He broke away when it seemed to him that Papineau was about to abandon the paths of prudence and legality.


In his study of social questions, no less than in politics, Parent displayed the lucidity and penetration of his intellect. Both by taste and by virtue of his remarkable mental qualities he was a philosopher: His contemporaries did not hesitate to call him 'the Victor Cousin of Canada,' at a time when Cousin was exercising in France a very great influence on philosophic thought.


In his lectures Parent set himself to popularize those philosophical and social ideas, inspired by Christianity, towards which his sympathies and intellect naturally drew him. In order to present some idea of the wide range of his studies, it will suffice to cite the subjects of the speeches or lectures delivered by him in Montreal and Quebec. At the Institut Canadien, Montreal, he gave the following lectures: 'Industry as a Means of Preserving our Nation­ality' (January 22, 1846); 'The Importance of the Study of Political Economy' (November 19, 1846); 'Human Labour' (September 23, 1847); 'The Priest and Spiritual­ity in their Relation to Society' (December 17, 1848); and 'Considerations on our System of Popular Education, on Education in general, and the Legislative Means of providing for it' (February i9, 1848). At the Institut Canadien of Quebec he delivered two lectures on 'Intelli­gence in its Relations to Society' (January 22 and February 7, 1852); before the Society for the Early Closing of Shops, Quebec, he spoke on 'The Importance of Commerce and its Duties' (January 15, 1852); and at the reading-room of Saint-Roch, Quebec, he lectured to an audience of working­men on 'The Condition of the Working Classes' (April 15, 1852). This last lecture puts very happily, from a Christian standpoint, the necessary social conditions of labour, and formulates the principles that ought to regulate the relations of masters and men.


At this conference Parent thus exhorted his hearers to make Catholic doctrine the rule of all economic progress:


"Ouvriers, mes amis, pour qui je parle, vous qui êtes les abeilles travailleuses de la ruche sociale, voulez-vous éviter les maux dont souffrent vos semblables ailleurs, tenez fort et ferme à. votre système catholique, et à tout ce qui en fait l'essence. Repoussez les adeptes du jugement privé, qui cherchent à vous en éloigner. Le catholicisme, voyez-vous, c'est l'association dans sa plus haute et sa plus vaste expression, et cela au profit du pauvre et du faible, qui ne peuvent être forts que par l'association. Celle-ci en les réunissant en un faisceau saura les rendre plus forts que les forts. Je ne nierai pas que, humainement parlant, le principe du jugement privé, qui est, en pratique, l'individualisme appliqué aux choses morales, ne tende à augmenter la force des individualités; mais cela ne peut profiter qu'au petit nombre d'individus fortement trempés. L'individualisme est comme le vent qui anime un brasier, mais qui éteint une chandelle. Aux masses il faut l'association d'idées, l'unité, et par conséquent l'autorité. je prie ceux de mes jeunes auditeurs qui seraient, comme on l'est trop souvent à leur age, enclins à se révolter contre toute espèce d'autorité, de bien réfléchir là-dessus, avant de jeter le doute et le trouble dans l'esprit du peuple, à l'endroit de ses anciennes institutions. Les anciennes institutions d'un pays, ses croyances religieuses surtout, il ne faut jamais l'oublier, sont à un peuple ce que sont à un individu sa constitution physique, ses habitudes, sa manière de vivre: en un mot, c'est sa vie propre. Et dire qu'il se trouve des hommes, de soi-disant patriotes, prêts à faire main-basse sur tout cela, sous le prétexte de réforme et de progrès! Les malheureux ! ils ne voient pas que c'est la destruction et la mort. Réformons, mais ne détruisons pas: avançons, mais sans lâcher le fil conducteur de la tradition".


In these lectures, as in his articles in Le Canadien, may be seen the impressive, forceful and clear language of which he was master. True, it has not always the freedom and grace that might be wished; but it is often coloured by vivid and striking images that fix the idea in bold relief. It readily becomes ironical, incisive and caustic. In Le Canadien there are articles, directed against the Montreal Herald, the Mercury, and even L'Ami du Peuple, that are little masterpieces of invective and sound sense.


Parent's contemporaries did not fail to recognize his high intellectual value and his practised taste as a man of letters. He was often consulted, and his judgments were highly esteemed. He was not only a political leader, but also the literary leader of his time. He loved to welcome, encourage and stimulate talent; and, as Hector Fabre said in those days, 'no one dared to think himself a writer unless he had his patent from Parent's hands.'


It would be impossible, then, to accord this father of French-Canadian literature too large a place in the history of its origins. His is incontestably the finest, most worthy and most expressive figure of that time. While Parent belongs to the origins of the literature, he is also a prophet of the following period - that of more fruitful growth; he even merits a place beside the most illustrious in any period of the literary history of French Canada, for he is still recognized in the Dominion as one of the highest representatives of French thought and culture.


While Parent held the public mind by his journalism and lectures, another write - at first by journalism and later by literature - was seeking to attract attention. This was Michel Bibaud , whose heavy and dull poems have been mentioned; but he succeeded better in prose than in verse. Public sympathy, however, was meted out to him but sparingly. We have already recalled the literary miscellanies that he successively edited between 1825 and 1842. Here must be mentioned the Histoire du Canada, which at first appeared fragmentarily in these miscellanies, and was afterwards published in three volumes, the first of which was given to the public in 1837, the second in 1844 and the third - long after the author's death - in 1878.


This Histoire du Canada comprises the whole course of the political life of the country from its first settlement until 1837. It had not the good fortune to please French-Canadian readers, and this explains the silence with which the work was received. Bibaud was not one of the patriotic school. He did not agree with such men as Papineau , Morin , Viger and Parent ; in politics he held aloof from his French-Canadian fellow-citizens. He rather sided with those who at that time approved the conduct of the English functionaries, governors or councillors - collectively termed 'bureaucrats.' Bibaud, a bureaucrat, wrote the history of Canada from the point of view of a friend of the administration: on nearly every page of his narrative he censured the attitude and conduct of the patriots. He reproached them especially with their irreconcilability, complacently set forth certain errors in their tactics, and devoted himself, for the most part, to defending the policy of the oligarchy by which Lower Canada was governed. It will be readily understood that such a history could not be acceptable to the public. Although it occasionally contains judicious observations, it is evident that the work is written with prejudice. It was, therefore, condemned to failure at the outset.


The matter, especially in the second and third parts, is not well assimilated, or presented with sufficient skill. Bibaud is too often content merely to pile documents and official papers on the top of each other. Frequently confusion and obscurity are the result. The narrative might well have been freer, more spirited, and more precise.


(1) Bougainville, Louis Antoine, Comte de (1729-1811), came to Canada in 1756 as Montcalm's aide-de-camp. He kept a careful journal of the campaign ending with the surrender of Quebec. He returned to France and joined the navy. He made a voyage round the world (1766-69), and later fought with distinction against the British during the Revolutionary War.


(2) Encyclopédie canadienne, I. 309 : ' Mon dernier voyage à Québec.'


(3) Histoire du Canada , by Michel Bibaud, ii. 403.


(4) Le Foyer canadien, 1865: article on 'Nos chansons historiques,' by Dr Hubert Larue, pp. 17-18 .


(5) On this subject see the author's work, Nos Origines littéraires , pp. 70-83 and 70-83, in which several extracts from these early poems are given.


6) Le Spectateur , September 16 and 23, and October 21, 1813.


(7) Words quoted by Benjamin Sulte, in La Minerve, December 23, 1874.


(8) Le Canadien, June 19, 1833.


(9) Ibid ., May 1, 1833.




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. 435-451.


© 2004 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College