A Midwinter Wander: The “Land” in Newfoundland as Intellectual Stimulus

Despite my upbringing in an insular Midwestern American town, since 2012 I have had the remarkable privilege of pursuing higher education in two foreign countries. Yet what I find most striking is the wild aspect of these two geographies I have been able to call my home and the uncanny similarities they share. Perhaps it is the gulls wheeling down jagged, heathered cliffs or the deep coniferous forests whispering their secrets in their ancient language that capture my attention, drawing me ever northward, ever seaward. 

However, I often find it difficult to reconcile my intense dedication to my academic work with my boundless intrepid spirit. The disjoint inherent in myself often leads to significant questioning: what do these books contain that cannot be learned from studying the patterns the waves leave upon the rocks, from immersive traipsing around sites of tremendous history, from a warm exchange with a local encountered along those paths? More often than not, when my mind rebels against the tyranny of the blank page, I take to idle wandering, exploring the narrow trails hidden along the coastline or daydreaming under sunlight-dappled canopies of leaves. In these moments I find that I give myself permission to be, to allow my surroundings to comingle with my blood and infuse my thoughts with color, light, and depth. The bulk of my best academic work is born when I abandon my laptop and my desk for the great out there.

Upon reading scholar Vicki Sara Hallett’s Mistress of the Blue Castle: The Writing Life of Phebe Florence Miller, I was struck by Miller — the turn-of-the-century poetical postmistress of Topsail, Newfoundland — and her profound affinities for the land she called her home for the entirety of her life. According to Hallett, “while it is doubtful that her poetry would find a wide audience today because of its conventionality, Miller’s contemporaries considered her to be closely attuned to the emotional and cultural nuances of Newfoundland” (4). Grappling with Miller’s poetry myself, her pieces at times written in the local vernacular, Hallett’s assessment proves markedly keen. Miller’s modest verse style permits the assimilation of the Newfoundlander’s experience in the reader’s imagination. Consider, for example, the following passage — cited in my previous introductory post — from Miller’s “In Caribou Land”:

In Caribou Land the north winds blow

With whistle of storm and swirl of snow,

And the frost king works his will a while

On seas that bluster and lakes that smile (qtd. in Hallet 145).

Miller’s boreal imagery holds remarkable currency in light of the snowstorms battering the Avalon Peninsula for the past five days, an astounding display of nature’s might for a mainlander (and an American no less). During my snowshoed evening jaunt around Quidi Vid Lake today, Miller’s words permeated my experience. It was as though I could feel the frost king’s frigid, ethereal presence about me, seductively drawing me further and further away into the frost-bitten landscape despite the gathering darkness. In contemplating my entry about Miller for my “Public Intellectuals” blog series, it is in the winds howling across the harbor, in the dozens of gulls dotting the darkening sky like stars, and in the tombstones I passed, draped in winter’s finery, that I found Miller.

Dovetailing Hallett’s observation of Miller’s work, Newfoundland poet E.J. Pratt writes, “‘Newfoundland is in [Miller’s] poetry with the accent on the last syllable'” (ix). It is significant to note that Hallett mines comments about and examinations of Miller’s work primarily from sources that share the poet’s cultural and national heritage; indeed, Hallett herself hails from the province as well. The localization of Miller’s work poses a significant question: how would Miller conceive of her often nationalistically-charged pieces transcending their original receptive context to arrive in the hands of a scholar whose national and cultural background is wholly distinct from her own?

The removal of Miller’s poetry from its context frustrates the effective reception of poems such as “The Knitting Marianna,” composed as a response to the First World War, in the evocative and emotional manner in which they may have been intended. While the reserved stoicism of the poem’s chorus is palpable — “She only said ‘My eyes are weary, / But one must knit,’ she said./ ‘The mother’s sons are cold and dreary/ Who sleep without a bed” (Miller qtd. in Hallett 150) — the keen emotional sting is absented from my reading. The gravity of Newfoundland’s collective memory of the trauma of the First World War does not figure into my awareness as an American. Simply put, I can only grasp at straws conceptualizing how tremendous Newfoundlander casualties may have been during the First World War, given that Newfoundland possessed a small population (relative to, say, the United States) at the time. 

Though intensely local in her concerns, Miller entertained a high degree of public awareness that facilitated stimulating gatherings with her contemporaries in the form of a literary salon, known colloquially as the Blue Castle. The literati collected at the Blue Castle evidence Miller’s role in curating an artistic, intellectually engaged sphere that was distinctly Newfoundlander in its identity. Furthermore, Miller actively pursued publicity in submitting her work to publishers and newspapers, participating in writing contests, and hand-crafting journals out of natural materials in a way that suggests a hidden desire for such pieces to become archival artifacts. Ultimately, Miller’s intimacy with Newfoundland its heritage, its people, and its land — acquires dimension when placed in a dialogue with the notion of public intellectualism.

IMG_9288
“The birchbark cover to Miller’s handmade 1920 journal” (Hallett 70).

As I take to the forest and the cliffside to alleviate my intellectual frustrations, I will observe my surroundings with a more sensitive eye in an active response to Miller’s work. Yet it is critical that I not only strive to appreciate this land with a newly inspired reverence but also heed Miller’s practice, not simply her words. Rather, it may be a more fruitful endeavor to consider how Miller would have utilized the opportunities I have been afforded to enrich her engagement with the public through her published works and circle of literary peers. Is the blog post a substantial enough medium to facilitate discussion about our world and how we interact with it? I find myself living like the sea, the waters of my mind flowing into an array of harbors whether geographic, artistic, or academic. Is there intellectual value in what I — creative writer, scholar, and Michigan girl who has roamed the Scottish highlands, shared conversations in broken dialects over a communal food bowl in Africa, and grappled with the question “Where y’longs to?” in Newfoundland — have done and have to say about it? Though she never strayed much farther than Topsail, Newfoundland, Phebe Florence Miller believed in her own voice enough to make her work known even to a global degree. Perhaps it is time that I do the same. 

Works Cited

Hallett, Vicki Sara. Mistress of the Blue Castle: The Writing Life of Phebe Florence Miller, ISER Books, 2018.

Miller, Phebe Florence. “Birchbark cover of Miller’s handmade 1920 journal.” Mistress of the Blue Castle: The Writing Life of Phebe Florence Miller by Vicki Sara Hallett, ISER Books, 2018, 70.

Miller, Phebe Florence. “In Caribou Land.” Mistress of the Blue Castle: The Writing Life of Phebe Florence Miller by Vicki Sara Hallett, ISER Books, 2018, 145.

Miller, Phebe Florence. “The Knitting Marianna.” Mistress of the Blue Castle: The Writing Life of Phebe Florence Miller by Vicki Sara Hallett, ISER Books, 2018, 150.

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