Poetry and Thoughts on the Canadian Plains

Below are some poems writen by early 20th century Canadian poets concerning the plains of Canada.


by John McCrae

The day is past and the toilers cease;
The land grows dim ’mid the shadows grey,
And hearts are glad, for the dark brings peace
             At the close of day.

Each weary toiler, with lingering pace,
As he homeward turns, with the long day done,
Looks out to the west, with the light on his face
             Of the setting sun.

Yet some see not (with their sin-dimmed eyes)
The promise of rest in the fading light;
But the clouds loom dark in the angry skies
             At the fall of night.

And some see only a golden sky
Where the elms their welcoming arms stretch
To the calling rooks, as they homeward fly
             At the eventide.

It speaks of peace that comes after strife,
Of the rest He sends to the hearts He tried,
Of the calm that follows the stormiest life--
             God’s eventide.

When The Dark Comes Down
by L.M. Montogmery

When the dark comes down, oh, the wind is on the sea
  With lisping laugh and whimper to the red reef's 

The boats are sailing howeward now across the harbour bar
With many a jest and many a shout from fishing grounds afar.
So furl your sails and take your rest,
Ye fisher folk so brown,
For task and quest are ended when the dark comes down.

When the dark comes down, oh, the landward valleys fill
Like brimming cups of purple, and on every landmark hill
There shines a star of twilight that is watching evermore
The low, dim-lighted meadows by the long, dim-lighted shore,
For there, where vagrant daisies weave the grass a silver crown,
The lads and lassies wander when the dark comes down.

When the dark comes down, oh, the children fall asleep,
And mothers in the fisher huts their happy vigils keep;
There's music in the song they sing and music on the sea,
The loving, lingering echoes of the twilight's litany,
For toil has folded hands to dream, and care has ceased to frown,
And every one's a lyric when the dark comes down.

The Pilot Of The Plains
by E. Pauline Johnson

"False," they said, "thy Pale-face lover, from the land of waking morn;
Rise and wed thy Redskin wooer, nobler warrior ne'er was born;
Cease thy watching, cease thy dreaming,
Show the white thine Indian scorn."

Thus they taunted her, declaring, "He remembers naught of thee;
Likely some white maid he wooeth, far beyond the inland sea."
But she answered ever kindly,
"He will come again to me,"

Till the dusk of Indian summer crept athwart the western skies;
But a deeper dusk was burning in her dark and dreaming eyes,
As she scanned the rolling prairie,
Where the foothills fall, and rise.

Till the autumn came and vanished, till the season of the rains,
Till the western world lay fettered in midwinter's crystal chains,
Still she listened for his coming,
Still she watched the distant plains. 

Then a night with nor'land tempest, nor'land snows a-swirling fast,
Out upon the pathless prairie came the Pale-face through the blast,
Calling, calling, "Yakonwita.”

The Cattle Country 
  by E. Pauline Johnson

    Up the dusk-enfolded prairie,
     Foot-falls, soft and sly,
    Velvet cushioned, wild and wary,
     Then---the coyote's cry.

    Rush of hoofs, and roar and rattle,
     Beasts of blood and breed,
    Twenty thousand frightened cattle,
     Then-the wild stampede.

    Pliant lasso circling wider
     In the frenzied flight-
    Loping horse and cursing rider,
     Plunging through the night.

    Rim of dawn the darkness losing
     Trail of blackened soil;
    Perfume of the sage brush oozing
     On the air like oil.

     Foothills to the Rockies lifting
     Brown, and blue, and green,
    Warm Alberta sunlight drifting
     Over leagues between.

    That's the country of the ranges,
     Plain and prairie land, .
    And the God who never changes
     Holds it in His hand.

The Flight Of The Crows
by E. Pauline Johnson

The autumn afternoon is dying o'er
  The quite western valley where I lie
Beneath the maples on the river shore,
  Where tinted leaves, blue waters and fair sky
  Environ all; and far above some birds are flying by

To seek their evening haven in the breast
  And calm embrace of silence, while they sing
Te Deums to the night, invoking rest
  For busy chirping voice and tired wing--
  And in the hush of sleeping trees their sleeping
            cradles swing.

In forest arms the night will soonest creep,
  Where sombre pines a lullaby intone,
Where Nature's children curl themselves to sleep,
  And all is still at last, save where alone
  A band of black, belated crows arrive from lands

Strange sojourn has been theirs since waking day,
  Strange sights and cities in their wanderings blend
With fields of yellow maize, and leagues away
  With rivers where their sweeping waters wend
  Past velvet banks to rocky shores, in cañons bold
            to end.

O'er what vast lakes that stretch superbly dead,
  Till lashed to life by storm-clouds, have they
In what wild lands, in laggard flight have led
  Their aërial career unseen, unknown,
  'Till now with twilight come their cries in lonely

The flapping of their pinions in the air
  Dies in the hush of distance, while they light
Within the fir tops, weirdly back and bare,
  That stand with giant strength and peerless 
  To shelter fairy, bird and beast throughout the 
            closing night.

Strange black and princely pirates of the skies,
  Would that your wind-tossed travels I could

Would that my soul could see, and seeing, rise
  To unrestricted life where ebb and flow
  Of Natures's pulse would constitute a wider life
Could I but live just here in Freedom's arms,
  A kingly life without a sovereign's care!
Vain dreams! Day hides with closing wings her
  And all is cradled in repose, save where
  Yon band of black, belated crows still frets the
            evening air.

Prairie Greyhounds 
  by E. Pauline Johnson


    I SWING to the sunset lands--
The world of prairie, the world of plain,
The world of promise and hope and gain,
The world of gold, and the world of grain,
    And the world of the willing hand.

    I carry the brave and bold--
The one who works for the nation's bread,
The one whose past is a thing that's dead,
The one who battles and beats ahead,
    And the one who goes for gold.

    I swing to the " Land to Be,"
I am the power that laid its floors,
I am the guide to its western stores,
I am the key to its golden doors,
    That open alone to me.

      C.P.R.  "NO. 2,"  EASTBOUND

    I swing to the land of morn ;
The grey old east with its grey old seas,
The land of leisure, the land of ease,
The land of flowers and fruits and trees,
    And the place where we were born.

    Freighted with wealth I come ;
For he who many a moon has spent
For out west on adventure bent,
With well-worn pick and a folded tent,
    Is bringing his bullion home.
   I never will be renowned,

As my twin that swings to the western marts,
For I am she of the humbler parts,
But I am the joy of the waiting hearts ;
    For I am the Homeward-bound.

Below are some thoughts on the Canadian Prairie by some historical and contemporary Canadian writers.

William Francis Butler
was a military officer during the first Riel Rebellion.  In his book The Great Lone Land (1872), he described the prairie skies and landscape as follows: 

“No ocean of water in the world can vie with its gorgeous sunsets; no solitude can equal the loneliness of a night-shadowed prairie: one feels the stillness, and hears the silence, the wail of the prowling wolf makes the voice of solitude audible, the stars look down through infinite silence upon a silence almost as intense… One saw here the world as it had taken shape and form from the hands of the Creator. Nor did the scene look less beautiful because nature alone tilled the earth, and the unaided sun brought forth the flowers.”

Henry Kreisel

“The long journey West was one of the most memorable experiences I have ever had. There were moments of weariness and dullness. But the very monotony was impressive. There was a grandeur about it. It was monotony of a really monumental kind. . . . I also began to understand why Nick Solchuk was always longing for more space and more air, especially when we moved into the prairies, and the land became flatter until there seemed nothing, neither hill nor tree nor bush, to disturb the vast unbroken flow of land until in the far distance a thin, blue line marked the point where the prairie merged into the sky.” 
— “The Broken Globe”

“We sat for a while in silence, and then I rose. Together we walked out of the house. When I was about to get into my car, he touched me lightly on the arm. I turned. His eyes surveyed the vast expanse of sky and land, stretching far into the distance, reddish clouds in the sky and blue shadows on the land. With a gesture of great dignity and power he lifted his arm and stood pointing into the distance, at the flat land and the low-hanging sky. ‘Look,’ he said, very slowly and very quietly, ‘she is flat, and she stands still.’” — “The Broken Globe”“Only one other kind of landscape gives us the same skeleton requirements, the same vacancy and stillness, the same movement of wind through space—and that is the sea.” 
— “The Prairie: A State of Mind”

Margaret Laurence

“I had, as a child and as an adolescent, ambiguous feelings about the prairies. I still have them, although they no longer bother me. I wanted then to get out of the small town and go far away, and yet I felt the protectiveness of that atmosphere, too. I felt the loneliness and the isolation of the land itself, and yet I always considered southern Manitoba to be very beautiful, and I still do. I doubt if I will ever live there again, but those poplar bluffs and the blackness of that soil and the way in which the sky is open from one side of the horizon to the other—these are things I will carry inside my skull for as long as I live, with the vividness of recall that only our first home can have for us.”
 — “A Place to Stand On”

W. O Mitchell

“Here was the least common denominator of nature, the skeleton requirements simply, of land and sky—Saskatchewan prairie. It lay wide around the town, stretching tan to the far line of the sky, clumped with low buck brush and wild rose bushes, shimmering under the late June sun and waiting for the unfailing visitation of the wind, gentle at first, barely stroking the long grasses and giving them life; later, a long, hot gusting that would lift the black top soil and pile it in barrow pits along the roads or in deep banks against the fences.” 

“And all about him was the wind now, a pervasive sighing through great emptiness, as though the prairie itself was breathing in long, gusting breaths, unhampered by the buildings of the town, warm and living against his face and in his hair.”

“The wind could be heard in a more persistent song now, and out along the road separating the town from the prairie, it fluted gently along the wires that ran down the highway. Brian and Fat and Ike descended and went through the barrow pit filled with loose dust. Ike shied a rock at a meadow lark. He missed it. Ahead of the boys, the long grass bent to the bidding of the wind, lay a moment, then sprang up again.”

“All around him the wind was in the grass with a million timeless whisperings.  Forever and forever sound it had, forever and for never. Forever and forever the prairie had been, before there was a town, before he had been, or his father, or his father before him. Forever for the prairie—never for his father—never again. People were forever born; people forever died, and never were again. Fathers died and songs were born; the prairie was forever, with its wind whispering through the long, dead grasses, through the long and endless silence.”

“High above the prairie, platter flat, the wind wings on, bereft and wild its lonely song. It ridges drifts and licks their ripples off; it smoothens crests, piles snow against the fences. . . . The wind turns in silent frenzy upon itself, whirling into a smoking funnel, breathing up top soil and tumbleweed skeletons to carry them on its spinning way over the prairie, out and out to the far line of the sky.”

Sinclair Ross

“It’s the most nerve-racking wind I’ve ever listened to. Sometimes it sinks a little, as if spent and out of breath, then comes high, shrill and importunate again. Sometimes it’s blustering and rough, sometimes silent and sustained. Sometimes it’s wind, sometimes frightened hands that shake the doors and the windows. Sometimes it makes the little room and its smug, familiar furniture a dramatic inconsistency, sometimes a relief. I sit thinking about the dust, the farmers and the crops, wondering what another dried-out year will mean for us.” 
As for Me and My House 

“And always the wind, the creak of walls, the wild lipless wailing through the loft. Until at last as he stood there, staring into the livid face before him, it seemed that this scream of wind was a cry from her parched and frantic lips. He knew it couldn’t be, he knew that she was safe within the house, but still the wind persisted as a woman’s cry. The cry of a woman with eyes like those that watched him through the dark. Eyes that were mad now—lips that even as they cried still pleaded, ‘See Paul—I stand like this all day. I just stand still—so caged! If I could only run!’”
 — “The Lamp at Noon”

“Across the drifts sped swift and snakelike little tongues of snow. She could not follow them, where they sprang from, or where they disappeared. It was as if all across the yard the snow were shivering awake—roused by the warnings of the wind to hold itself in readiness for the impending storm. The sky had become a sombre, whitish grey. It, too, as if in readiness, had shifted and lay close to earth. Before her as she watched a mane of powdery snow reared up breast-high against the darker background of the stable, tossed for a moment angrily, and then subsided again as if whipped down to obedience and restraint. but another followed, more reckless and impatient than the first. Another reeled and dashed itself against the window where she watched. Then ominously for a while there were only the angry little snakes of snow. The wind rose, creaking the troughs that were wired beneath the eaves. In the distance, sky and prairie now were merged into one another linelessly. All round her it was gathering; already in its press and whimpering there strummed a boding of eventual fury. Again she saw a mane of snow spring up, so dense and high this time that all the sheds and stables were obscured. Then others followed, whirling fiercely out of hand; and, when at last they cleared, the stables seemed in dimmer outline than before. It was the snow beginning, long lancet shafts of it, straight from the north, borne almost level by the straining wind.”
 — “The Painted Door”