Samuel Marchbank’s Almanack by Robertson Davies




To Chandos Fribble, ESQ.

Learned Fribble:

I have been reading a good deal of Canadian Poetry lately, and it has disturbed me. But last Sunday I attempted to go for a country walk, and by the time I had reached home again I knew what was wrong with Canadian Poetry.

Canadian poets are not allowed to come into contact with Nature. The great English poets have, in most cases, refreshed themselves continually by spells of country life, or by excursions into the country. Canadian poets cannot do this. I walked about two miles in the country and although I did not count them I estimated that roughly 300 cars passed me in that time. I had no time for Nature; I was perpetually on the jump. So I decided to walk across country. A farmer chased me, and told me not to tramp on his Fall wheat, which I was not doing. However, I left his land and struck into the bush. This was a mistake, for a big dog came and pointed his nose at me, and did his best to look like a bronze dog on a book-end. Soon two men with guns came crashing through the undergrowth, and seemed astonished when they saw me. “Say, what’s that bird doing here?” cried one, and I knew at once that they had mistaken me for a partridge. But as they seemed about to blast my tailfeathers off I had the presence of mind to shout “I’m a game-warden!” and they made off as fast as their legs would carry them. The dog was still pointing, and as stiff as a mackerel, so they snatched it up in one piece and bore it away with them.

That is what Nature means in Canada. Cars, grouchy landowners, people with guns. No wonder our poetry is of nervous, urban, over-bred elegance.

Yours for a less cluttered countryside,

Samuel Marchbanks.

Musings at Eventide

THE RULING PASSION / I was introduced to a lady this evening who said, “Well, and do you still do any writing on the side?” I simpered and said, “Oh, a little, you know,” for I was so thunderstruck that I could not collect my wits in time to make a proper rejoinder. But I made a speech to her in my head, afterward, which ran thus: “Woman, for almost all of my adult life I have lived by the pen, with some assistance from the typewriter and the printing press. I do not write ‘on the side’ as you insultingly suggest. I write morning, noon and night. When I am not actually engaged in the physical act of writing I am thinking about writing — my own and other people’s. Writing is my business and my pleasure, my cross and my salvation, my joy and my sorrow.” But it would have been foolish to say this aloud. There are many millions of people who think that writing, and painting, and music are things which their practitioners pick up in an idle hour; they have no conception of the demands which these apparently trivial pastimes make upon those who are committed to them. Such people live in a world which is as strange to me as the Mountains of the Moon.

BLUE DANUBE / Concert-going, which most people look upon as pleasure, is part of my work, and it is surprising how one’s pleasure in a concert is dulled when one knows it will be necessary to write something about it. . . The singer sang several songs in praise of the gaiety of Vienna. Was Vienna ever really so gay as we are asked to believe? I can find no evidence of it. Sigmund Freud lived in Vienna during its supposedly gayest period, and had a pretty solemn time among the foot-fetichists and undinists on the beautiful Blue Danube. Stefan Zweig in his autobiography tells us that the gay Viennese ate so much whipped cream and almond paste that they were all fat at thirty, and wheezed as they waltzed. The leading romance of the period was the Emperor’s very dull and proper affair with Kathi Schratt. I have even heard it suggested that those parties at Sacher’s were rather quiet. There is plenty of evidence that Vienna in its heyday was about as gay as Calgary, but it was luckier in having a handful of really good song-writers.

POSTURE PROBLEM / I observe with no enthusiasm it is National Posture Week in the USA; thank Heaven this heathen festival is not being observed in Canada. When I was young we were taught that the only proper posture for the boy was that of a sentry at attention — eyes glazed, chest bursting, shoulders under the ears, toes curled and chin digging into the Adam’s apple. Later this position was somewhat relaxed, and it was admitted that it was sometimes permissible to touch the heels to the ground. Recently a scientist who had done a lot of work with monkeys has said that a relaxed posture, leaning forward and ambling like a gorilla, is the best and most natural for man. So confused am I by these changes that I have developed my own posture, which has two phases — standing up and lying down. I cannot sit. I lie in chairs on the back of my neck, allowing gravity to drag my vital organs toward the floor. When I stand, I lose height at the rate of about two inches every hour. In the morning, when I am thoroughly uncoiled, I am six feet tall; if my day involves much standing, I am five feet tall by lunchtime, four feet six inches by dinner, and go to bed a midget. Posture is a word I prefer not to use in connection with myself.

From My Archives

To Samuel Marchbanks, ESQ.

Dear Mr. Marchbanks:

I have just finished reading a book by the eminent child-psychologist, Dr. Blutwurst Susskind, in which he makes it clear that what children want more than anything in the world is parental love. It is this desire, he says, which makes children ask questions at inconvenient times, wake their parents up early in the morning, kick them on the shins, and in general behave in a way which thoughtless parents call “making a nuisance of themselves.” Dr. Susskind says that an eager child should never be rebuffed. The parents should say: “I love you dearly, but I haven’t time to attend to you now,” or something of the sort.

Now I have a scheme which I would like you, as an internationally-known lover of children, to assist me in popularizing. It is based upon the old system of Sunday School cards which you will remember: a child got a small card for each visit to S.S.; when it had ten small cards it could exchange them for a large card; when it had ten large cards it could get a Bible. Now my idea is that a parent should have a stock of cards saying: “Love you dearly; busy now,” which it could hand to the child which interrupted at an inconvenient moment. Ten such cards could be exchanged for a large card saying: “Dote upon you madly, go away.” Ten of these large cards could be exchanged for a visit to the circus, a picnic, a soda-guzzle or some similar treat.

The cards, I feel, could most effectively be sold through the Home and School Clubs; the whole scheme could be financed for a beggarly $100,000 and it is for this laughable sum that I confidently turn to you.

Yours with complete confidence,

Minerva Hawser.


To Miss Minerva Hawser.

Dear Miss Hawser:

How lucky that your letter reached me when it did! I was just about to write to you about a scheme of my own for the improvement of the lot of children, which is a notoriously hard one in our age. It has been my observation that many children suffer real hardship because they want to see all (not just a few) TV programs, but they are of such a restless bodily composition that there are times when they simply have to get up from their seats and run about. This means, of course, that they lose many desirable half-hours of prime viewing-time.

I have devised a small battery TV which any child can wear concealed in its hat; electric wires running down from the hat into the child’s shoes keep the battery constantly charged by the energy which the child generates as it runs, operating a tiny portable set. Thus the child may play and teleview at the same time, without missing a thing.

As it happens I also need $100,000 to launch this scheme, and had decided to turn to you for it. We can both go on with our work, therefore, without even troubling to exchange cheques.

With thanks for your invaluable help,

Samuel Marchbanks.


To Samuel Marchbanks, ESQ.

Dear Sam:

I was reading a new book about the eighteenth century a few days ago, and came upon some references to Dr. Samuel Johnson and his cat Hodge; the author remarked that however out of temper the great Doctor might be, the appearance of Hodge was enough to put him in a good humour. I send you, therefore, the following poem, which I have called Remarkable Power of a Cat to Soothe a Raging Philosopher:

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Categories: Davies, Robertson