Of Sunken Islands and Pestilence: Restoring the Voice of Edward Taylor Fletcher to Nineteenth-Century Canadian Literature
Review By Barry M. Gough
March 21, 2023
Here is a sweet zephyr from a distant past, one now but of memory. Fair comment it is that 1914 – and the horrors of world war developing in that year and ever expanding into our own times – marks the beginning of the modern age.
Edward Taylor Fletcher (1817-1897) lived long before that time division, and the Canada that he surveyed and appreciated was that of relative peace and prosperity, or hard labour and of civic pride. He grasped in his writings (as selected for this handsome volume) such places as hinterland Saguenay, vibrant Quebec City, barren Labrador, outpost Victoria, and progressive New Westminster, fragments so to speak that made up the Dominion, the whole, the one of promise. There is no Rule Britannia here. We find no anti-American discourse. Rather we find in the landscape, the history that Fletcher knew so well, and the natural history of these parts of the whole a deep attraction and affection. Like many a Canadian he was a Briton, and he came to Quebec as a lad. His preparatory education was excellent, and his knowledge of classical literature and allusions go far beyond the mimicry and rote that were the bane of the student of the classics. He studied Classics at Laval University. No, Fletcher imbibed the genre, and he knew the classical illusions and was charmed my them, using them to immense effect in his poetry.
Thirteen shorter poems are reproduced here, and the crowning jewels are two long poems, The Lost Island and Nestorious: A Phantasy. These poetic forms transport us to another place, and we are delighted by illusions, imaginings, and tales of experience and expectation. We have a sense of a Byron present here, and certainly a Tennyson, and certainly and happily not a Noyes or a Kipling. No, there is something special here, something unique. They draw us in, make us ponder; they are transports of delight.
The editor, James Gifford of Farley Dickinson University, has published widely on subjects of personal modernisms and fantasy. Here he has ably gathered Fletcher’s travel pieces and poems, short and long, and assembled them in accessible, logical format. He has brought Fletcher out of the shadows of our literature, given him a certain pride of place. Fletcher, Gifford explains, was not preoccupied with the Canadian search of an inwards nature that has been such a dull preoccupation of so many. Rather, he presents Fletcher as a worthy witness to aspects of Canada that we have lost: a knowledge of exploration by the Jesuits of the Saguenay, a portrait of Old Quebec in the late 1820s, a perspective on the great agitator Papineau, a cartouche of baby-carriage Victoria 1890, and a view of prosperous, railway dominated New Westminster in 1892. Fletcher was a great traveller and a professional surveyor. He was an esteemed member of the Literary and Historical Society of Quebec and he published in that Society’s Transactions and also in assorted scientific and general publications. His oeuvre is extensive. A superb introduction, by Gifford, and a strong biography by Sidney Ashe Fletcher, son of Edward Taylor Fletcher, enhance this book. Above all, Gifford has restored the voice of Fletcher to Canadian literature of the nineteenth century. In doing so he has revived the vitality of those times, placed his subject in the context of the age, and reminded us of the fact that Canada is made up of diverse places and peoples, noble in landscape and personality. Such a world as he presents is not class-dominated, race-preoccupied, introspective and mean, venal and attention-grabbing; rather, it is one of observation and acceptance, appreciation and admiration. Fletcher’s deep soaking in the classics had given him broader perspectives. We welcome him back and into our fresh view.
Fletcher, Edward Taylor. Of Sunken Islands and Pestilence: Restoring the Voice of Edward Taylor Fletcher to Nineteenth-Century Canadian Literature. Edited by James Gifford. Athabasca: Athabasca University Press, 2022. 220 pp. $34.99 paper.