In Roughing It in the Bush, Moodie refutes the common Romantic assumption that living in a wilderness area, far from the corruption of cities, makes a person both spiritually and morally stronger. Although upon her arrival she delights in Canada’s natural beauty, her enthusiasm later wanes as she becomes increasingly disillusioned with nature as a source of moral and spiritual rejuvenation. She depicts nature, instead, as “red in tooth and claw,” offering little security to the middle-class female immigrant like herself, who is constantly fearful of the known and unknown dangers of the woods. Moodie refers to the bush as a “green prison,” a description that surely expressed the thoughts of many other women immigrants. Living closer to nature fails to offer the immigrant a heightened experience of the sublime, as described by such Romantic poets as Wordsworth, Keats, and Shelley; instead, the middle-class woman is confronted with the sordid actuality of daily life in the backwoods, a reality that seems impossible to change. Longtime Canadian settlers tell Tom Wilson, the Moodies’ friend and fellow immigrant, that it is “impossible to be nice about food and dress in the bush; that people must learn to eat what they could get, and be content to be shabby and dirty, like their neighbors in the bush”.
Susanna was not exempt from dutiful care of the creatures about their childhood home in Reydon, but her writing reveals that her relationship with nature was a romantic one, articulated in poetic language. In “Tom Wilson’s Emigration” Susanna recalls her unwillingness to leave the landscape aroundReydon Hall, saying, “It was while reposing beneath those noble trees that I had first indulged in those delicious dreams which are a foretaste of the enjoyments of the spirit-land. In them the soul breathes forth its aspirations in a language unknown to common minds; and that language is Poetry.” Education
Susanna may sometimes fear the land’s brutality, but accepts it without embroidery. “We beheld the landscape, savage and grand in its primeval beauty” says Susanna from her canoe in Stony Lake. She loves the “strange but sadly plaintive” cry of the whip-poor-will. Her own quick-changing temperament responded to the flash and flow of fast water: “By night and day, in sunshine or in storm”, says Susanna, “water is always the most sublime feature in a landscape, and no view can be truly grand in which it is wanting. Sometimes Susanna can make the sublime her own, moving beyond convention, fitting it to her own psyche.
In Susanna’s case, the exultation that she experienced on first seeing the “astonishing panorama” of Quebec City and the St. Lawrence River soon gave way to loneliness and homesickness, and she sometimes viewed the landscape as a prison. Such feelings did not prevail, however. Roughing It in the Bush more often reveals Susanna’s romantic enthusiasm for the “sublimity” and “grandeur” of the Canadian landscape. She also begins to take note of the particular features of her surroundings, recalling in “Phoebe H_, And Our Second Moving” that with the arrival of spring “gorgeous butterflies floated about like winged flowers, and feelings allied to poetry and gladness once more pervaded my heart.” Roughing It in the Bush records such feelings in prose and in poetry. Many of the chapters in the book begin and end with poems celebrating the powerful forces of Canadian nature and the human activity that goes on in its midst.
While closely connected in mood and focus to the immediately preceding prose, however, “The strains …” seems to reverse the warm sentiments of the chapter’s opening poem “Quebec” where Moodie speaks of Quebec in glowing terms and looks to the future greatness of its inhabitants. Yet the sense of opposition created by the bracketing poems emphasizes the sketch’s prose structure—a general movement from praise to dejection, as the tears of joy elicited by the sublime beauty of Quebec, “a second Eden”, become tears of regret occasioned by memories of the lost Eden. Moreover, upon closer examination, it seems that even in “Quebec” the voice of the emigrant predominates. Quebec, or Paradise Regained, is evoked as a standard, unsurprising sublime scene featuring height (mountains), power (storms), speed (rushing water), and strength (rocks). The awe-inspiring situation is far from unique, and could call forth any European mountain setting. Thus, while positive in tone, this is not a ringing endorsement of Canada. The praise of Canada is further made tentative by future conditional verbs in the final two stanzas where the poet has moved from a depiction of the sublime setting to a contemplation of the city’s inhabitants: if Quebec flies the British flag, it “should be, / The mountain home of heaven-born liberty!”; its “children may defy” the malice of others; the residents “may rest securely in their mountain hold.” In this manner Moodie injects a note of caution, not to say warning, and withholds absolute approbation. Not overtly looking back at England, she nevertheless covertly holds to preconceived ideas in this picture of Canada. The beauty of the Canadian setting is acknowledged, and the future greatness of Canadian people is hypothesized—but only as these connect with standards set in the English Eden.
One of the longest laments in Roughing It, “The Lament of a Canadian Emigrant” has an interesting textual placement. Chapter Four starts with a two-line commentary on oddity, pointing to the comic sketch of Tom Wilson which follows. The sketches, and others like it, display the strength of Moodie’s prose; her comic/ironic/critical observer’s eye is at work as she delineates the people around her. Yet in the centre of the chapter, the focus shifts as Moodie muses on her enforced departure from England, typically mixing together Nature, England, the Creator, and May flowers. The ending of the prose sketch reverts to laughter with the return of Tom Wilson to the foreground. Then, coming as it does at the end of “Tom Wilson’s Emigration,” “The Lament …” echoes back to the chapter’s melancholy centre. At first glance, the poem summons up a limited amount of, if not praise, then at least grim, teeth-clenched acceptance of pioneer life. The unhappy female speaker fondly remembers “distant” England and then mounts a weak defense for emigration, chiefly the over-riding needs of the family—the husband and the child. She may have obeyed the “stern voice of duty,” but the “deep pang of sorrow” is only “repress’d,” and the tears and “useless repining” are merely “check’d.” Stanza three drops all pretext of defense, as the poet juxtaposes a Canadian hell9 to an English Eden. Exiled from the “Bless’d Isle of the Free” the emigrant is “cast,” Crusoe-like on a “far distant shore.” The emigrant poet (the English songbird) complains: “In the depths of dark forests my soul droops her wings.” The final stanza turns from the present hell of Canada to a dream of “lovely England,” the lost paradise, and of “dearest Nature.”10 In a somewhat confusing conclusion, the poet asserts that her love for Mother England will last as long as her love for Mother Nature, and she abandons the poem’s closed couplets to demonstrate through expansion the strength of her devotion. The poetic gaze is once again turned back to the lost Eden. Without the poem, the chapter ends as comedy and as prose of settlement; with the poem, the chapter finishes on a despairing note as elegy of emigration.
There is, of course, some backsliding in the poem, as is consistent with Moodie’s life-long preoccupation with her decline in social standing: “Our hut is small and rude our cheer.” In addition, five out of ten lines in the last stanza feature Moodie’s fears of the wilderness: she mentions wolves, a “felon owl,” the wintry “blast”; she contrasts the frightening noises of the woods with the merry sound of her husband’s sleigh bells. Even so, some unspecified danger seems to be averted by her husband’s arrival, and the poem ends joyously. The emigrant’s complaints are subdued, over-ridden in this case by the settler’s joy. There is no backward glance at England, nor is there an extended look at the emigrant’s fears.
“The Otonabee” ends “A Journey to the Woods” and is the first in a series of chapter-ending poems of settlement. “I love thee, lonely river!” says the poet of the Otonabee River. Ever the minor poet, Moodie cannot rid her work of the poetic commonplace, addressing the river as “thee” and employing such lines as the following: “No longer shall rejoice / The woods where erst it rung!” But Moodie chooses a Canadian subject and includes one native Canadian word, the river’s Indian name “Katchawanook.” As in “Quebec” the poet appreciates present beauty and anticipates future greatness. The Otonabee’s “furious headlong” motion will be tamed into a “glide” when certain “improvements” are made to the Trent River system (see Moodie’s footnote to the poem). At some point the Otonabee will be part of a direct water route to England:
And many a bark shall ride Securely on thy breast, To waft across the main Rich stores of golden grain From the valleys of the West.
The envisioned link reverses the emigrant’s desire to return to England; here something of value will be sent by the settler to England. Also of interest in the above passage is the imagery connecting Mother Nature to Canadian nature.
The last poem in Roughing It, “The Maple-Tree”, praises Canada and Canadian nature. While there has been a general movement in the poetry towards settlement and leading up to this final poem, the prose is less consistent. In fact, “The Maple-Tree” follows hard upon Moodie’s stern prose warning:
If these sketches should prove the means of deterring one family from sinking their property, and shipwrecking all their hopes, by going to reside in the backwoods of Canada, I shall consider myself amply repaid for revealing the secrets of the prison-house, and feel that I have not toiled and suffered in the wilderness in vain.