menu Arc Poetry Magazine
Essay

Sandy Shreve on Charles Bruce's "Biography"

(How Poems Work, October 2003)
Charles Bruce (1906-1971) wrote numerous poems, as well as short stories and a novel, evoking life in the Chedabucto Bay area of Nova Scotia where he was raised. A journalist by profession, he spent most of his career in Toronto with Canadian Press (CP), and wrote the original _CP Stylebook_.
“Biography” first appeared in Bruce’s 1951 book _The Mulgrave Road_, which won the Governor General’s Award for Poetry. The collection portrays a community whose inhabitants rely on land and sea, as well as one-another, for their livelihood….

Charles Bruce (1906-1971) wrote numerous poems, as well as short stories and a novel, evoking life in the Chedabucto Bay area of Nova Scotia where he was raised. A journalist by profession, he spent most of his career in Toronto with Canadian Press (CP), and wrote the original CP Stylebook.

“Biography” first appeared in Bruce’s 1951 book The Mulgrave Road, which won the Governor General’s Award for Poetry. The collection portrays a community whose inhabitants rely on land and sea, as well as one-another, for their livelihood.

Charles Bruce (1906-1971) wrote numerous poems, as well as short stories and a novel, evoking life in the Chedabucto Bay area of Nova Scotia where he was raised. A journalist by profession, he spent most of his career in Toronto with Canadian Press (CP), and wrote the original CP Stylebook.

“Biography” first appeared in Bruce’s 1951 book The Mulgrave Road, which won the Governor General’s Award for Poetry. The collection portrays a community whose inhabitants rely on land and sea, as well as one-another, for their livelihood.

While it’s unclear whether the man in this poem has died, the title and past tense suggest it is an elegy, as do the elegiac quatrains (so named after Thomas Gray used the form for his “Elegy in a Country Churchyard”). This elegy, however, does not express the kind of inconsolable grief found in those like W. Wilfred Campbell’s “Bereavement of the Fields,” on the death of Archibald Lampman (“Soft fall the February snows, and soft / Falls on my heart the snow of wintry pain”).

Still, something is mourned here. At the outset, “the beach” and “the old fish huts” adjacent to his pastures indicate a way of life that was available to, but not pursued by, this man. The speaker laments that even though “the whole wide reach / Of blue Atlantic” beckoned to him daily, he “stayed ashore.” The immediate repetition of “He stayed ashore” at the beginning of stanza two (a device known as anadiplosis) both emphasizes the loss in this and contributes to the conversational tone of the poem.

The man depicted is hard-working, a farmer who “planned his hours and finished what he planned” and “made his profits.” His is an honourable occupation, important to any community. But by piling “and” upon “and” (“and plowed” “and drilled” etc.) in reciting the farmer’s labours, the speaker implies the work is also tedious; unsatisfying compared to what the sea has to offer.

The farmer, “a trifle cold / to meet and talk to,” was considered by some to be “a bit grasping.” But his foibles were only “habits,” and minor ones at that (“a trifle,” “a bit”); the traits of one who is “dry-footed.” People would offer this explanation softly, after a pause (emulated by the line break), indicating they felt compassion, not rancour toward the man. The brief statement “And he was” closes the poem, an insistence that the explanation is fact, not idle gossip.

To be “dry-footed”—to never get one’s feet wet—is understood in this context to mean never going to sea. The poem suggests that, at least in this coastal community, being dry-footed is a misfortune for which no amount of financial success can compensate.

We are not told why this man is dry-footed and are left to wonder whether it was by choice or due to some insurmountable limitation. Regardless, “Biography” is a tender profile of a man thought by his neighbours to have lived but partially.

By extension, the poem can also be read as a lament for all who never ‘get their feet wet’ by venturing beyond certain bounds; who thus settle for, or are burdened with, an unfulfilling life.