"I am 3/4ths Canadian, and one 4th New Englander - I had ancestors on both sides in the Revolutionary war." - Elizabeth Bishop

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Nova Scotia Connections -- Tradition and Modernity

Horse-drawn wagon in Great Village, circa turn of the 20th century

Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “Manners,” with its epigraph “For a Child of 1918,” speaks about her close bond with her maternal grandfather, William Bulmer, and about the how his traditional way of life was being affected by the changing modern world, represented in the poem by automobile.

William Bulmer, a tanner, currier and shoemaker, continued to ride his horse-drawn wagon right up until he died in 1930, that is, he remained faithful to old ways of artisanship and the home-made. While he undoubtedly drove in automobiles, he never owned one. Elizabeth Bishop’s vivid memories of her beloved “Pa” (as she called him) centre on his quiet, gentle and patient practices of craft and oral tradition.

In the poem, grandfather and granddaughter trundle through Great Village on his wagon greeting everyone they meet with a courteous hello and good day – even shouting to the people inside noisy automobiles which speed by in clouds of dust. Being on the wagon means that they were part of the community, there was no separation from others, unlike those contained inside automobiles, a technology that advanced civilization but that also divides us from each other.

Elizabeth Bishop’s childhood in Great Village occurred during World War I. I have already written about how the war intersected in strange and profound ways with Bishop’s maternal family (see Nova Scotia Connections: The War Was On, parts 1 and 2). This “Great War” marked a cataclysmic shift in the world, on all levels of existence, which can be defined and characterized in many ways (countless books have been written doing so). One of the ways to characterize this time was as a tension-filled dialectic between Tradition and Modernity.

Even in Great Village, in rural Nova Scotia, this dynamic played out in many ways and the young Elizabeth Bishop observed and absorbed some of the dialogue/debate between these two cultural and existential forces. Decades later she acknowledged the impact of World War I on her own life and poetic practice, describing herself to Anne Stevenson as a “late, late post-World War I generation poet.” I have argued elsewhere that Elizabeth Bishop had her own life-long dialogue between tradition and modernity, which I believe was set during her formative years in Great Village, a dialogue which helped shape the kind of poet she became.

In “Manners,” Bishop presents this dialogue in a quiet, gentle and patient manner. She does not tell us what she is doing, she simply shows us in the juxtaposition of Pa Bulmer’s wagon and the speeding automobiles. Just as William Bulmer stayed true to his old-fashioned way of life, Bishop’s maternal uncle, Arthur Bulmer, a tinsmith, embraced the new order. He was one of the first people in Great Village to get a Model-T Ford, along with the fellow who delivered the mail and the village doctor. In a memoir of her uncle, “Memories of Uncle Neddy,” Bishop observed: “Uncle Neddy got his Ford somehow, and the younger daughter [Hazel], fifteen or so, with long curls just like Mary Pickford’s, drove it hell-for-leather, expertly.”

As the spectacle of an unprecedented war loomed over the world in the 1910s, each person, each family, each community, engaged and came to terms with personal and cultural change as best they could. Elizabeth Bishop always respected traditional ways and sought to connect with and understand them regardless of where she was in the world. She engaged and came to terms with the modern, uncertain world and its pervasive technological change – not always with equanimity, sometimes with resignation, but always with curiosity. Sometimes the seemingly innocuous or trivial has an abiding affect on our lives and so it was with wagons and automobiles, realities of daily life and metaphors for philosophical positions. Elizabeth Bishop’s special brilliance is the way she held dualities like this one in fluid connection, how, as she wrote in “Santarém,” such ideas always, for her, “dissolved, straight off” in a “watery, dazzling dialectic.”

Dr. T.R. Johnson and his automobile, circa 1910s

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