Duncan Campbell Scott
Biography of Duncan Campbell Scott
Duncan Campbell Scott was a Canadian poet and prose writer. With Charles G.D. Roberts, Bliss Carman and Archibald Lampman, he is classed as one of Canada's Confederation Poets.
Scott was also a Canadian lifetime civil servant who served as deputy superintendent of the Department of Indian Affairs from 1913 to 1932, and is "best known" today for "advocating the assimilation of Canada’s First Nations peoples" in that capacity.
Scott was born in Ottawa, Ontario, the son of Rev. William Scott and Janet MacCallum. He was educated at Stanstead Wesleyan Academy.
Early in life, he became an accomplished pianist.
Scott wanted to be a doctor, but family finances were precarious, so in 1879 he joined the federal civil service. As the story goes, "William Scott might not have money [but] he had connections in high places. Among his acquaintances was the prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, who agreed to meet with Duncan. As chance would have it, when Duncan arrived for his interview, the prime minister had a memo on his desk from the Indian Branch of the Department of the Interior asking for a temporary copying clerk. Making a quick decision while the serious young applicant waited in front of him, Macdonald wrote across the request: 'Approved. Employ Mr. Scott at $1.50.'"
Scott "spent his entire career in the same branch of government, working his way up to the position of deputy superintendent of Indian Affairs in 1923, the highest non-elected position possible in his department. He remained in this post until his retirement in 1932."
Scott's father also subsequently found work in Indian Affairs, and the entire family moved into a newly built house on 108 Lisgar St., where Duncan Campbell Scott would live for the rest of his life.
In 1883 Scott met fellow civil servant, Archibald Lampman. "It was the beginning of an instant friendship that would continue unbroken until Lampman’s death sixteen years later.... It was Scott who initiated wilderness camping trips, a recreation that became Lampman’s favourite escape from daily drudgery and family problems. In turn, Lampman’s dedication to the art of poetry would inspire Scott’s first experiments in verse." By the late 1880s Scott was publishing poetry in the presitigious American magazine, Scribner's. In 1889 his poems "At the Cedars" and "Ottawa" were included in the pioneering anthology, Songs of the Great Dominion.
Scott and Lampman "shared a love of poetry and the Canadian wilderness. During the 1890s the two made a number of canoe trips together in the area north of Ottawa."
In 1892 and 1893, Scott, Lampman, and William Wilfred Campbell wrote a literary column, "At the Mermaid Inn," for the Toronto Globe. "Scott ... came up with the title for it. His intention was to conjure up a vision of The Mermaid Inn Tavern in old London where Sir Walter Raleigh founded the famous club whose members included Ben Jonson, Beaumont and Fletcher, and other literary lights.
In 1893 Scott published his first book of poetry, The Magic House and Other Poems. It would be followed by seven more volumes of verse: Labor and the Angel (1898), New World Lyrics and Ballads (1905), Via Borealis (1906), Lundy's Lane and Other Poems (1916), Beauty and Life (1921), The Poems of Duncan Campbell Scott (1926) and The Green Cloister (1935).
In 1894, Scott married Belle Botsford, a concert violinist, whom he had met at a recital in Ottawa. They had one child, Elizabeth, who died at 12. Before she was born, Scott asked his mother and sisters to leave his home (his father had died in 1891), causing a long-time rift in the family.
In 1896 Scott published his first collection of stories, In the Village of Viger, "a collection of delicate sketches of French Canadian life. Two later collections, The Witching of Elspie (1923) and The Circle of Affection (1947), contained many fine short stories." Scott also wrote a novel, although it was not published until after his death (as The Untitled Novel, in 1979).
After Lampman died in 1899, Scott helped publish a number of editions of Lampman's poetry.
Scott "was a prime mover in the establishment of the Ottawa Little Theatre and the Dominion Drama Festival." In 1923 the Little Theatre performed his one-act play, Pierre; it was later published in Canadian Plays from Hart House Theatre (1926).
His wife died in 1929. In 1931 he married poet Elise Aylen, more than 30 years his junior. After he retired the next year, "he and Elise spent much of the 1930s and 1940s travelling in Europe, Canada and the United States."
He died in December 1947 in Ottawa at the age of 85 and is buried in Ottawa's Beechwood Cemetery.
Aside from his poetry, Scott made his mark in Canadian history as the head of the Department of Indian Affairs from 1913 to 1932.
Even before Confederation, the Canadian government had adopted a policy of assimilation. "The Canadian government’s Indian policy had already been set before Scott was in a position to influence it, but he never saw any reason to question its assumption that the 'red' man ought to become just like the 'white' man. Shortly after he became Deputy Superintendent, he wrote approvingly: 'The happiest future for the Indian race is absorption into the general population, and this is the object and policy of our government.'... Assimilation, so the reasoning went, would solve the 'Indian problem,' and wrenching children away from their parents to 'civilize' them in residential schools until they were eighteen was believed to be a sure way of achieving the government’s goal. Scott ... would later pat himself on the back: 'I was never unsympathetic to aboriginal ideals, but there was the law which I did not originate and which I never tried to amend in the direction of severity.'"
"I want to get rid of the Indian problem. I do not think as a matter of fact, that the country ought to continuously protect a class of people who are able to stand alone… Our objective is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic and there is no Indian question, and no Indian Department, that is the whole object of this Bill. ”
—Duncan Campbell Scott,
In 1920, under Scott's direction, it became mandatory for all native children between the ages of seven and fifteen to attend one of Canada's Residential Schools. The children were taken away from their homes, their families, and their culture, with or without their parents' consent.
"In all, about 150,000 aboriginal, Inuit and Métis children were removed from their communities and forced to attend the schools." Many of the children who attended these schools lived in terrible conditions; in some cases the mortality rate exceeded fifty percent due to the spread of infectious disease. Students were punished for speaking their native languages. In some cases they were physically, mentally, and sexually abused, actions either covered up or tolerated in the drive to achieve the objective quoted above.
When Scott retired, his "policy of assimilating the Indians had been so much in keeping with the thinking of the time that he was widely praised for his capable administration."
Scott's "literary reputation has never been in doubt. He has been well represented in virtually all major anthologies of Canadian poetry published since 1900."
In Poets of the Younger Generation (1901), Scottish literary critic William Archer wrote of Scott:
He is above everything a poet of climate and atmosphere, employing with a nimble, graphic touch the clear, pure, transparent colours of a richly-furnished palette.... Though it must not be understood that his talent is merely descriptive. There is a philosophic and also a romantic strain in it..... There is scarcely a poem of Mr. Scott's from which one could not cull some memorable descriptive passage.... As a rule Mr. Scott's workmanship is careful and highly finished. He is before everything a colourist. He paints in lines of a peculiar and vivid translucency. But he is also a metrist of no mean skill, and an imaginative thinker of no common capacity.
The Government of Canada biography of him says that: "Although the quality of Scott's work is uneven, he is at his best when describing the Canadian wilderness and Indigenous peoples. Although they constitute a small portion of his total output, Scott's widely recognized and valued 'Indian poems' cemented his literary reputation. In these poems, the reader senses the conflict that Scott felt between his role as an administrator committed to an assimilation policy for Canada's Native peoples and his feelings as a poet, saddened by the encroachment of European civilization on the Indian way of life."
"There is not a really bad poem in the book,” literary critic Desmond Pacey said of Scott's first book, The Magic House and Other Poems, “and there are a number of extremely good ones." The 'extremely good ones' include the strange, dream-like sonnets of "In the House of Dreams." "Probably the best known poem from the collection is 'At the Cedars,' a grim narrative about the death of a young man and his sweetheart during a log-jam on the Ottawa River. It is crudely melodramatic,... but its style — stark understatement, irregular lines, and abrupt rhymes — makes it the most experimental poem in the book."
His next book, Labour and the Angel, "is a slighter volume than The Magic House in size and content. The lengthy title poem makes dreary reading.... Of greater interest is his growing willingness to experiment with stanza form, variations in line length, use of partial rhyme, and lack of rhyme." Notable new poems included "The Cup" and the sonnet "The Onandaga Madonna." But arguably "the most memorable poem in the new collection" was the fantasy, "The Piper of Arll." One person who long remembered that poem was future British Poet Laureate John Masefield, who read "The Piper of Arll" as a teenager and years later wrote to Scott:
I had never (till that time) cared very much for poetry, but your poem impressed me deeply, and set me on fire. Since then poetry has been the one deep influence in my life, and to my love of poetry I owe all my friends, and the position I now hold.
New World Lyrics and Ballads (1905) revealed "a voice that is sounding ever more different from the other Confederation Poets ... his dramatic power is increasingly apparent in his response to the wilderness and the lives of the people who lived there." The poetry included "On the Way to the Mission" and the much-anthologized "The Forsaken," two of Scott's best-known "Indian poems."
Lundy's Lane and Other Poems (1916) seemed "to have been cobbled together at the insistence of his publishers, who wanted a collection of his work that had not been published in any previous volume.". The title poem was one that had won Scott, "in the Christmas Globe contest of 1908,... the prize of one hundred dollars, offered for the best poem on a Canadian historical theme.". Other notable poems in the volume include the pretty lyric "A Love Song," the long meditation, "The Height of Land," and the even longer "Lines Written in Memory of Edmund Morris." Anthologist John Garvin called the last "so original, tender and beautiful that it is destined to live among the best in Canadian literature."
"In his old age, Scott would look back upon Beauty and Life (1921) as his favourite among his volumes of verse," E.K. Brown tells us, adding: "In it most of the poetic kinds he cared about are represented." There is a great diversity, from the moving war elegy "To a Canadian Aviator Who Died For His Country in France," to the strange, apocalyptic "A Vision."
The Green Cloister, published after Scott's retirement, "is a travelogue of the sites he visited in Europe with Elise: Lake Como, Ravelllo, Kensington Gardens, East Gloucester, etc. — descriptive and contemplative poems by an observant tourist. Those with a Canadian setting include two Indian poems of near-melodrama — 'A Scene at Lake Manitou' and 'At Gull Lake, August 1810' —that are in stark contrast to the overall serenity of the volume." More typical is the title poem, "Chiostro Verde."
The Circle of Affection (1947) contains 26 poems Scott had written since Cloister, and several prose pieces, including his Royal Society address on "Poetry and Progress." It includes "At Delos," which brings to mind the poet's approaching death:
There is no grieving in the world
As beauty fades throughout the years:
The pilgrim with the weary heart
Brings to the grave his tears.
Scott was honored for his writing during and after his lifetime. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada in 1899 and served as its president from 1921 to 1922. The Society awarded him the second-ever Lorne Pierce Medal in 1927 for his contributions to Canadian literature.
In 1934 he was made a Companion of the Order of St. Michael and St. George.
He also received honorary degrees from the University of Toronto (Doctor of Letters in 1922) and Queen's University (Doctor of Laws in 1939).
In 1948, the year after his death, he was designated a Person of National Historic Significance.
However, as the Encyclopædia Britannica points out, Scott is "best known at the end of the 20th century," not for his writing, but "for advocating the assimilation of Canada’s First Nations peoples."
As part of their Worst Canadian poll, a panel of experts commissioned by Canada's National History Society named Scott one of the Worst Canadians in the August 2007 issue of The Beaver.
Arc Poetry Magazine renamed the annual "Archibald Lampman Award" (given to a poet in the National Capital Region) to the Lampman-Scott Award in recognition of Scott's enduring legacy in Canadian poetry, with the first award under the new name given out in 2007.
The 2008 winner of the award, Shane Rhodes, turned over half of the $1,500 prize money to the Wabano Centre for Aboriginal Health, a First Nations health centre. "Taking that money wouldn't have been right, with what I'm writing about," Rhodes said. The poet was researching First Nations history and found Scott's name repeatedly referenced. Rhodes felt "Scott's legacy as a civil servant overshadows his work as a pioneer of Canadian poetry", in the words of a CBC News report.
Anita Lahey, editor of Arc Poetry Magazine, responded with a statement that she thought Scott's actions as head of Indian Affairs were important to remember, but did not eclipse his role in the history of Canadian literature. "I think it matters that we're aware of it and that we think about and talk about these things," she said. "I don't think controversial or questionable activities in the life of any artist or writer is something that should necessarily discount the literary legacy that they leave behind."
Duncan Campbell Scott's Works:
The Magic House and Other Poems Ottawa: Durie, 1893. London: Methuen, 1893. Boston: Copeland & Day, 1895.
Labor and the Angel, (Boston: Copeland & Day, 1898. Ryerson, 1945. McClelland and Stewart, 1973
New World Lyrics and Ballads. 1905. Morang.
Via Borealis. Toronto: W. Tyrell, 1906.
Lundy's Lane and Other Poems, Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1916.
To the Canadian Mothers and Three Other Poems. Toronto: Mortimer, 1917.
Beauty and Life, Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1921.
The Poems of Duncan Campbell Scott, Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1926.
The Green Cloister: Later Poems, Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1935.
Selected Poems, E.K. Brown. ed. Toronto: Ryerson, 1951.
Selected Poetry. Glenn Clever ed. Ottawa: Tecumseh, 1974.
Powassan’s Drum: Selected Poems of Duncan Campbell Scott.Raymond
Souster and Douglas Lochhead ed. Ottawa : Tecumseh, 1985.
In the Village of Viger, sketches of French Canadian life; Boston: Copeland & Day, 1896.
The Witching of Elspie: A Book of Stories, Toronto: McClelland & Stewart New York: Doran, 1923.
The Circle of Affection and Other Pieces in Prose and Verse Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1947.
Selected Stories of Duncan Campbell Scott, edited by Glenn Clever. -- Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 1972.
The Untitled Novel. Moonbeam, ON: Penumbra, 1979. ISBN 0-920806-04-X (written about 1905; posthumously published)
John Graves Simcoe Morang, 1905. Biography, in the "Makers of Canada" series.
The Administration of Indian Affairs in Canada. Toronto: Canadian Institute of International Affairs, 1931.
Walter J. Phillips Toronto: Ryerson, 1947.
More Letters of Duncan Campbell Scott. Arthur S. Bourinot ed. Ottawa: Bourinot, 1960.
At the Mermaid Inn: Wilfred Campbell, Archibald Lampman, Duncan Campbell Scott in the Globe 1892–3, Barrie Davies ed. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1979.
The Poet and the Critic: A Literary Correspondence Between Duncan Campbell Scott and E.K. Brown. Robert L. Macdougall ed. Ottawa: Carleton U P, 1983.
Archibald Lampman, The Poems of Archibald Lampman, Duncan Campbell Scott ed. (Toronto: Morang, 1900) (General Books, 2009)
Archibald Lampman, Lyrics of Earth: Sonnets and Ballads, Duncan Campbell Scott ed. (Toronto: Musson, 1925)
Archibald Lampman, At the Long Sault and Other New Poems, Duncan Campbell Scott and E.K. Brown ed.. (Toronto: Ryerson, 1943)
Archibald Lampman, Selected Poems of Archibald Lampman, Duncan Campbell Scott ed. (Toronto: Ryerson, 1947)
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- The Forsaken
- When Spring Goes By
- The Onondaga Madonna
- The Half-breed Girl
- At the Cedars
- The Violet Pressed in a Copy of Shakespe...
- The Harvest
- Rain and the Robin
- The Message
- Improvisation On An Old Song
- Fragment Of An Ode To Canada
- Feuilles D'Automne
Set within a desert lone,
Circled by an arid sea,
Stands a figure carved in stone,
Where a fountain used to be.
Two abraded, pleading hands
Held below a shapeless mouth,
Human-like the fragment stands,
Tortured by perpetual drouth.