Pauline Johnson was famous for her warm personality, affability and charisma. Many believe that her finest character traits were marked by the fondness and loyalty for her friends. Arguably, these qualities were a compelling force during theatrical performances. Audiences were captivated by her narratives, the use of both European and First Nation attire, and stirred by the emotional nuance of her speaking voice. She was beloved by her contemporaries, yet with her passing, her reputation as a writer and poet experienced a decline. Over the years, Canadian literary critics and historians have argued that Pauline created an idealized image of the First Nation identity that was pleasing and acceptable to her “white” listeners. For that reason, Pauline was not a creditable spokesperson for their culture. She did not speak a First Nation language and spent most of her life within mainstream society.
Pauline has been disparaged by noted Canadian writers and poets such as Earle Birney, Mordecai Richler and Patrick Watson. Even the famed Margaret Atwood confessed to overlooking Pauline Johnson when she wrote, “Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature (1972). Instead of being a strength, it seems that Pauline’s multi-cultural heritage did not give her traction in either world.
Critics, in the end, are not infallible. Pauline Johnson’s works have experienced a rebirth. Her importance as a figure of resistance against racism, gender bias, and human rights is coming full circle. Pauline dedicated 30 years to her artistic endeavours. Her contribution to the oral and written literary history of First Nation people is unequaled. She transcends her time and gives relevance to ours.
The Song My Paddle Sings
West wind, blow from your prairie nest,
Blow from the mountains, blow from the west
The sail is idle, the sailor too ;
O! wind of the west, we wait for you.
I have wooed you so,
But never a favour you bestow.
You rock your cradle the hills between,
But scorn to notice my white lateen.
I stow the sail, unship the mast :
I wooed you long but my wooing’s past ;
My paddle will lull you into rest.
O! drowsy wind of the drowsy west,
By your mountain steep,
Or down where the prairie grasses sweep!
Now fold in slumber your laggard wings,
For soft is the song my paddle sings.
August is laughing across the sky,
Laughing while paddle, canoe and I,
Where the hills uplift
On either side of the current swift.
The river rolls in its rocky bed ;
My paddle is plying its way ahead ;
While the water flip
In foam as over their breast we slip.
And oh, the river runs swifter now ;
The eddies circle about my bow.
How the ripples curl
In many a dangerous pool awhirl!
And forward far the rapids roar,
Fretting their margin for evermore.
With a mighty crash,
They seethe, and boil, and bound, and splash.
Be strong, O paddle! be brave, canoe!
The reckless waves you must plunge into.
On your trembling keel,
But never a fear my craft will feel.
We’ve raced the rapid, we’re far ahead!
The river slips through its silent bed.
As the bubbles spray
And fall in tinkling tunes away.
And up on the hills against the sky,
A fir tree rocking its lullaby,
Its emerald wings,
Swelling the song that my paddle sings.
Emily Pauline Johnson
18 thoughts on “The Controversy”
I suspect that in earlier days very few people would have understood, utterly and completely, the complexity of a mixed race heritage. I think the way Pauline managed both inheritances is remarkable. I am glad her work is experiencing a rebirth. I love her Paddle Song.
The Paddle Song was quintessential Pauline Johnson. Sometimes a rebirth is even more powerful because we can more clearly see the linkages between past and present. Our society faces many of the same issues.
I’ve come to realize that the opinion of critics is overrated. Same goes for awards.
I agree wholeheartedly. Your reminded me of Teddy Roosevelt’s quote about the man in the arena.
“It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena,…
I read somewhere that most critics are failed writers/artists/etc. Makes sense.
🙂 🙂 🙂
Dear friend, we need by warm personality, affability and charisma from people. We need by oposite of indiference.
You are so right, my friend. Every day, we must seek the opposite of indifference.
It’s a shame that Pauline wasn’t recognized as the true pioneer and cultural ambassador that she was during her time. Creating an awareness that otherwise wouldn’t have existed.
I have a feeling that Pauline Johnson will continue to provide insight into the times in which she lived. You are absolutely right – she created awareness that otherwise wouldn’t have existed. When she lived in Vancouver, she was able to write the stories as told to her by Chief Joe Capilano and Mary Capilano of the Squamish Indian Band. She wanted their book to be called “Legends of the Capilanos but her wish was denied. Evidently it had something to do with marketing. Even so, I wonder if those narratives would have ever been written at all had it not been for Pauline Johnson.
Thanks for sharing this one with us!
Happy Easter to you and yours, dear Clanmother! Enjoy the rest of your Sunday.
All the best
Thank you so much! The sun is shining and I’m heading out for a walk to see if there are any Easter eggs waiting for me!! All the very best on this special day…
critics — people who judge without having done
Well said!!! And it is so important to do!
“Even the smallest person can change the course of the future.”
― J.R.R. Tolkien
That’s a beautiful poem! 🙂 It seems such a pity that writers of whatever kind, get torn to pieces and critically analysed. It all feels very unfair when writing is just the opinion of one person – they are not God, neither are they claiming to be. And yet some get so upset over a few simple creative words or ideas. There are many things about this world that are worthy for people to get upset about – but they don’t, they barely notice! 🙂
History has given us many wonderful examples where the creative endeavour, which was at first rejected, became the benchmark that encouraged others to be courageous in their artistic development. We need to write, paint, compose that which is in us…
So let’s keep on writing! Thank you for adding to the dialogue – very much appreciated.
What a beautiful poem, sad that critics can be like that, but art can be like that not everyone is going to like what you do, even if is beautiful like this work.
Thank you so much for stopping by. I agree – not everyone will like what you do, say, think or feel. We have many ideas, thoughts and words. A dialogue would not be a dialogue if we didn’t have the flexibility to listen to different ideas. Aristotle said it better than I could:
“It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”
Comments are closed.