The Canadian Landscape

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By David Bentley
Thursday, February 5, 2009
Benumbed by the cold
  Quebec Hill; or Canadian Scenery
Nor in the fields alone the cold prevails, Nor only there pervade the frigid gales; The shelter’d domes confess their searching breath, Which pierces walls, and issues from beneath. The shiv’ring stranger sees with new surprize, As in the morn his chamber he surveys, That fields of ice the solid mass pervade, And on the walls like pendant charts are spread.
 by J. Mackay     
 
The lines above are taken from the “Winter” section of a long poem by J. Mackay that was largely written in Canada in the early 1790s and published in London, England in 1797.
 
Drawing on a passage in Travels into North America (1753-61; trans. 1770) by the Swedish botanist Pehr Kalm, the lines describe a phenomenon of winter in Lower Canada that Mackay apparently found both surprising and alarming: the ability of the extreme cold to produce sheets or “fields” of ice that resemble maps hanging on the interior walls of houses (“domes,” from the Latin “domus”).
 
As Kalm had put it, “[m]any of the best people in Quebec” “assured me” that the “wind, when it is very violent in winter, pierces through walls of a moderate thickness, so that the whole wall on the inside is covered with … a thick hoar frost.” If a wall of “moderate thickness” could not keep out the cold in Canada, then surely the country was scarcely fit for human habitation – at least, Mackay suggests, by “Briton[s].”
 
Although Mackay concedes that Canadian scenery has its “charms,” Canada was not much to his liking, and Quebec Hill is largely a jaundiced catalogue of the dangerous and debilitating effects of its extremes of heat and cold.
 
In the summer, he observes in a footnote to the poem, the “foetid” swamps that are common in Upper Canada (Ontario) “emit vapours pernicious to the human condition.” In winter, he observes in the poem itself, the sunlight “blaz[ing] on the ice, and glitter[ing] on the snow” can damage unprotected eyes.
 
Both seasons are fraught with dangers for the unwary: in summer, “ev’ry grove a hidden foe conceals,” be it a “rattling snake,” a “surly bear,” or a “fiery tiger” (cougar), and woe betide anyone who ventures outside in winter in “scanty vestments”: “piercing Boreas”  will first turn his “frigid limbs” “red” and “blue,” then cause the blood to  “stagnate … in his veins,” and finally “enchain” his “active pow’rs.”  Unless he is fortunate enough to find shelter for his “maim’d limbs,” his frozen corpse may lie “unheeded in the snows, / Till weeping thaws the hidden spot disclose.”
 
As bad or worse, the length of the winter and the “ardent … cold” sap “vital heat” from animals and humans alike, leaving the inhabitants of Quebec “drooping,” unable to work, and in a state of “waking dream” that renders them “Unmindful,” “void of thought,” and susceptible to gambling, excessive drinking, and other activities that further “impair” “mental pow’rs” and, moreover, damage the moral fibre and fabric of society.
 
Behind Mackay’s comments on the physically, psychologically, morally, and socially damaging effects of the Canadian winter lies an environmental determinism that was shared by other visitors to Canada from Britain.
 
“Those who expect to see ‘A new Athens rising near the pole,’ will find themselves extremely disappointed,” says a character in Frances Brooke’s History of Emily Montague (1769): “Genius will never mount high, where the faculties of the mind are benumbed half the year …. [T]he cold really sometimes brings on a sort of stupefaction …. [T]here is something in the climate which strongly inclines both the body and mind … to indolence.”
 
Other writers were more positive about the Canadian winter. In “Song,” an anonymous poem published in the Quebec Gazette in 1767, none of the other seasons can compare with winter for “Love, and Mirth, and jovial Cheer” and in “Winter: An Ode,” a pseudonymous poem published in the same newspaper in 1782, “Censor” regrets the harmful activities that the long winters can encourage, but celebrates the special “majesty, … Greatness and Grandeur” of the season.  To Cornwall Bayley in Canada. A Descriptive Poem. Written at Quebec, 1805 (1806), “the biting north” is the “Parent of health and pleasure” that “Braces every nerve” and puts a “flush in every cheek” and to George Longmore in The Charivari; or Canadian Poetics (1824), winter weather is also “healthy” – and the occasion of many “good pastimes,”  hilarious goings-on,  and comical sights, such as people so “profoundly cas’d”  in “robe of fur, or raiment made of leather” that they resemble “some strange animal.”
 
“Blush ye London fops … Who fear … to face the air,” wrote Thomas Cary in Abrams Plains (1789), a long poem published in Quebec several years before Quebec Hill: in Canada, “the fair brave forest and driving snows” “unaw’d” and “deride”  “Tales of Europeans lost in snow.” Not surprisingly, Cary settled permanently in Canada – indeed, he went on to found the Quebec Mercury, which survived until 1950.
 
As for J. Mackay, he returned to Britain, where Quebec Hill was described by one reviewer as “cold and spiritless” and by another as producing “all the somniferous effects of a dose of opium.”  
 
The writer teaches in the English Department and is founding editor of Canadian Poetry: Studies, Documents, Reviews.                

 

 

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