AJM Smith: Canadian Metaphysical


250 pages
Contains Bibliography, Index
ISBN 1-55022-225-2
DDC C811'.54





Reviewed by Paul Hjartarson

Paul Hjartarson is an associate professor of English at the University
of Alberta.


With the consolidation of modernism in this country following World War
II and the institutional espousal of Canadian literature by the newly
expanded universities, it should not be surprising that the literary
history of Canada in the 20th century became the narrative of
modernism’s emergence and development. In that narrative, the
establishment of the McGill Fortnightly Review by students, including
A.J.M. Smith, became foundational. In the second half of this century,
the poets of the “McGill movement” have been more frequently
celebrated than studied (and sometimes more criticized than read). As
this century draws to a close, their work is badly in need of

This book promises such scrutiny. Compton’s study of Smith’s poetry
is divided into two parts. In chapters 1 through 4, she examines the
critical reception of Smith’s poetry and the relation of that poetry
to the traditions that, in her view, shape it: the Canadian, the modern,
and the metaphysical. In chapters 5 through 8 she offers readings of
selected poems in roughly the same subject groupings Smith himself chose
for Poems: New and Selected (1967).

Compton’s study is avowedly old-fashioned. “I do not believe,”
she argues in the preface, “the chief business of a work of practical
criticism, such as this one, to be a self-conscious interrogation of its
own premises and procedures.” Asserting that she “[takes her]
bearings from inside the poetry,” Compton declares, “My analysis of
individual poems focuses on internal matters and formal
features—verbal, syntactic, rhythmic, and phonetic patterns—the
elements of poetic artifice. As well, my discussion focuses on the
external matters of draft versions and chronology, and on the relations
among the poems in the total work.”

While this methodology might suggest how Compton arrived at her
readings, it can neither explain the principles that inform the first
part of her study nor justify her argument that the metaphysical poets
had a greater influence on Smith than the moderns. In the conclusion,
Compton describes Smith as “one who lived in the twentieth-century
present but thought like a seventeenth-century man.” Any study that
make such a claim needs more interrogation of its “premises and


Compton, Anne., “AJM Smith: Canadian Metaphysical,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed April 22, 2024, https://cbra.library.utoronto.ca/items/show/6565.