Sparshott, Francis (Edward)
SPARSHOTT, Francis (Edward)
Nationality: Canadian. Born: Chatham, Kent, England, 19 May 1926; immigrated to Canada, 1950, naturalized, 1970. Education: King's School, Rochester, Kent, 1934–43; Corpus Christi College, Oxford, 1943–44, 1947–50, B.A. 1950, M.A. 1950. Military Service: British Army Intelligence Corps, 1944–47: Sergeant. Family: Married Kathleen Elizabeth Vaughan in 1953; one daughter. Career: Lecturer in philosophy, University of Toronto, 1950–55; lecturer in classics, 1955–70, and assistant professor, 1955–62, associate professor, 1962–64, professor, 1964–82, chair of department of philosophy, Victoria College, and university professor, 1982–91, University of Toronto. Visiting professor, Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois, 1958–59, University of Illinois, Urbana, 1966, and Sir George Williams University, Montreal, 1971. President, Canadian Philosophical Association, 1975–76, and League of Canadian Poets, 1977–79; president, American Society for Aesthetics, 1981–82. Awards: President's Medal, University of Western Ontario, for poetry, 1959, for essay, 1962; American Council of Learned Societies fellowship, 1961; Canada Council fellowship, 1970; Killam fellowship, 1977; Canadian Broadcasting Corporation prize, 1981; Royal Society of Canada Centennial Medal, 1982; Connaught senior fellowship, 1984. Fellow, Royal Society of Canada, 1977. Address: 50 Crescentwood Road, Scarborough, Ontario M1N 1E4, Canada.
A Divided Voice. Toronto, Oxford University Press, 1965.
A Cardboard Garage. Toronto, Clarke Irwin, 1969.
The Naming of the Beasts. Windsor, Ontario, Black Moss, 1979.
The Rainy Hills: Verses after a Japanese Fashion. Privately printed, 1979.
New Fingers for Old Dikes. Toronto, League of Canadian Poets, 1981.
The Hanging Gardens of Etobicoke. Toronto, Childe Thursday, 1983.
The Cave of Trophonius. Ilderton, Ontario, Brick, 1983.
Storms and Screens. Toronto, Childe Thursday, 1986.
Sculling to Byzantium. Toronto, Childe Thursday, 1989.
Views from the Zucchini Gazebo. Toronto, Childe Thursday, 1994.
Home from the Air. Toronto, Childe Thursday, 1997.
An Enquiry into Goodness and Related Concepts, with Some Remarks on the Nature and Scope of Such Enquiries. Toronto, University of Toronto Press, and Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1958.
The Structure of Aesthetics. Toronto, University of Toronto Press, and London, Routledge, 1963.
The Concept of Criticism. Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1967.
A Book by Cromwell Kent (humor). Scarborough, Ontario, Vanity Press, 1970.
Looking for Philosophy. Montreal, McGill-Queen's University Press, 1972.
Taking Life Seriously: A Study of the Argument of the Nicomachean Ethics. Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 1994.
A Measured Pace: Toward a Philosophical Understanding of the Arts of Dance. Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 1995.
The Future of Aesthetics. Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 1998.*
Bibliography: "Francis Sparshott: A Bibliograhpy of His Writings," in Journal of Aesthetic Education, 31(2), 1997.
Manuscript Collection: Pratt Library, Victoria College, University of Toronto.
Critical Studies: "Francis Sparshott" by E.A. Trott, in Profiles in Canadian Literature, vol. 6, Toronto, Dundurn Press, 1986; "Off the Ground: First Steps to a Philosophical Consideration of Dance by Francis Sparshott" by Gerald E. Myers, in Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 52(1), March 1992.* * *
Although Francis Sparshott remains relatively unknown as a poet, he became known internationally as a professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto and as one of Canada's foremost theoreticians of aesthetics. The search for value and meaning that informs much of his philosophical writing extends to his poetry, and the most successful of his poems draw heavily from philosophy, often taking the form of a dialogue between mythical, modern, and historical characters and events.
In "Rhetoric for a Divided Voice" Sparshott proclaims that, muselike, "behind my brain / Distant voices sing." In his panhistorical search for meaning and value Sparshott does indeed invoke the voices of diverse historical, mythical, and contemporary characters, for example, Mu'Allaqa of Imr Al-Qais, Charon, Jacques Derrida, Farrah Fawcett, and Walt Whitman. Their faint voices inevitably remain unheard, however. In "The Wall" Sparshott laments this condition, suggesting that our search for meaning and value is not only eternal but also ultimately elusive:
We walk away from our lives backward through
as though life were a painting on a wall and we moving
slowly away seeing at first mere splashes
of dense colour thrilling & huge but meaningless.
An inability to locate meaning in either the objects, events, or personalities of contemporary society frequently manifests itself in an idealization of youth or, in a more general sense, in a fictive idyllic past. In "Stations of Loss" growing older is described as "nothing really, / folks do it every day / who can't do anything else at all hardly. / It is only not to be young again / that's hard, that's hard," while "Reflex" bitterly reflects upon youth's passing—"I never felt ready / to give up the earth."
If meaning is beyond our grasp, then what sustains us in Sparshott's poetry is the quest, the journey toward meaning. The poet has, for example, described his poem "The Cave of Trophonius" as a "trip of the shaman through the universe." This pronouncement applies equally to poems such as "Migrants," "Neanderthal National Anthem," and "Lines for a Future Astronaut," which are indeed peopled with travelers, migrants, explorers, and wanderers of all kinds. In "Legends," for example, a returning explorer tells his anxious companions that the Canadian coast "doesn't end … / it goes all the way round." Thus, even the journey provides not answers but more questions.
Stylistically, imagism lends itself well to the travel narrative of a Sparshott explorer, hence its function as the primary stylistic feature of his poetry, graceful meditations on the material things that we see on our journeys through life. The essential features of imagism—the avoidance of clichéd language, the use of the vernacular, the eclectic, sometimes banal, choice of subject, and the attempt at suggestion rather than complete presentation—appear in most of Sparshott's collections of poetry. An example is his poem "Still Life with Campanulas":
Silence was brushed over surrendered farms
from fragile bells. Cars in their black park
turned slow, teased from cold coils a sudden spark.
The attempt to adopt a literary style that successfully accommodates both his philosophical and theological training as well as his preoccupation with the search for meaning continues in Sparshott's experimentation with the haiku form. His work in the form culminated in the publication in 1979 of his collection of haiku titled The Rainy Hills.
The quest for value and meaning is not without its lighter side, and Sparshott's poems are frequently imbued with a sense of humor and irreverence. His poems offer witty insights into the everyday machinations of contemporary society ("Penguins and Eskimos"), blend the sacred with the profane ("The 64,000 Drachma Question"), or delight in a playful manipulation of language ("Cyclic Poems"). In the poem "Stations of Loss," for example, we are told that God "blew it," while in one of his more amusing poems, "Bookkeeping," Sparshott nonchalantly explains the sorry plight that those who cannot read their own handwriting face daily:
What was it cost me four dollars April twentynine
I can't read the entry
on a good day it looks like milk or mail
mornings like this mire or perhaps ruin
most of the time it looks like misc
what kind of entry is that for a man's accounts.
Sparshott's poetry is not widely read in Canada because of its sometimes inconsistent and uninventive use of language and technique and its too frequent slips into parody. Nevertheless, it demonstrates an eclectic mix of themes, styles, and techniques and warrants consideration of the poet in the international context of twentieth-century poetry.