For Jean Vincent D’abbadie, Baron St.-Castin
For Jean Vincent D’abbadie, Baron St.-Castin
Alden Nowlan 1967
The poem, “For Jean Vincent D’abbadie, Baron St.-Castin,” is dedicated and addressed to a French noble who played a crucial role in the seventeenth-century struggle between the French, the English, and the Indians for possession of New England. Jean-Vincent D’abbadie first came to the area as an officer on a French expedition to Penobscot Bay, in what is now Maine. While there, he befriended the local Abenaki Indians and eventually married Pidianske, the daughter of Madokawando, chief of the Abenakis in the Penobscot area. Baron St. Castin was instrumental in persuading the Abenakis to join the French side, and he participated in the Franco-Indian expedition against the English settlement at Casco in 1690. He also played a large part in the capture of Fort Pemequid in 1698. St. Castin’s loyalty to the Indians and his decision to spend most of his life with them made him almost a legendary figure at the time, and he remains one of the most colorful figures in the history of colonial Maine.
The poem is a celebration of the exploits of this swashbuckling Baron, written from the standpoint of the twentieth century. Nowlan evokes the French noble as a man who straddled two cultures, the French and the Indian, and he raises him to an almost mythic stature. As a representative of the Indian way of experiencing the world, St. Castin represents all that is still foreign to the Anglo-Saxon Protestants of Maine, and their descendents still fear it, three hundred years after the Abenaki warriors descended on their fortresses. “For Jean Vincent D’abbadie, Baron St.-Castin” is one of many poems by Nowlan that conveys a sense of the mystery of experiencing life in a more primeval, instinctive, and sacramental manner than is customary in rational Western culture.
Alden Nowlan was born to Freeman and Grace (Reese) Nowlan on January 25, 1933, in a rural area near Windsor, Nova Scotia, in Canada. He left school at the age of twelve and worked in a series of unskilled laboring jobs. The job he liked best was that of night watchman at a sawmill, because it gave him time to read. Although Nowlan lacked formal education, he had an intensely curious mind and an active imagination. He wrote poetry and read voraciously at the regional library on any subject that caught his interest.
In 1952, Nowlan became news editor at the Hartland Observer in New Brunswick. About that time, he began submitting his poetry to literary magazines. It was not long before his poems started appearing in print. This led to the publication in 1958 of two slim volumes, A Darkness in the Earth and The Rose and the Puritan. Three more volumes of poetry followed within the next four years, including Wind in a Rocky Country (1960) and The Things Which Are (1962). His success, together with a small grant from the Canada Council, encouraged Nowlan to leave his newspaper job and devote himself to full-time writing. In 1964 he married Claudine Orser. In the same year, unable to find a publisher for the novel he had written, Nowlan took a job as night editor for a newspaper in New Brunswick. In 1967, he published his most acclaimed book, Bread, Wine and Salt, which won a Governor-General’s Award for Poetry. This volume includes the poem, “For Jean Vincent D’abbadie, Baron St.-Castin.” Also in 1967, Nowlan was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship.
Nowlan’s career was interrupted by his struggle with throat cancer in the mid-1960s. He recovered, against all odds, and in 1969 became writer-in-residence at the University of New Brunswick. That year saw the publication of another volume of poems, The Mysterious Naked Man. He later published I’m a Stranger Here Myself (1974). In addition to poetry, for which he is best known, Nowlan wrote short stories, including Miracle at Indian River: Stories (1968); a novel, Various Persons Named Kevin O’Brien: A Fictional Memoir (1973); plays, a collection of essays, and a book of local history.
Nowlan died of pneumonia in Fredericton, New Brunswick, on June 27, 1983.
Take heart, monsieur, four-fifths of this province
Is still much as you left it: forest, swamp and
Even now, after three hundred years, your enemies
Fear ambush, huddle by coasts and rivers,
The dark woods at their backs. 5
Oh, you’d laugh to see
How old Increase Mather and his ghastly Calvinists
Patrol the palisades, how they bury their money
Under the floors of their hideous churches
Lest you come again in the night 10
With the red ochre mark of the sun god
On your forehead, you exile from the Pyrenees,
You baron of France and Navarre,
You squaw man, you Latin poet,
You war chief of Penobscot 15
And of Kennebec and of Maliseet!
At the winter solstice
Your enemies cry out in their sleep
And the great trees throw back their heads and
Take heart, monsieur,
Even the premier, even the archbishop,
Even the poor gnome-like slaves
At the all-night diner and the service station
Will hear you chant 25
The Song of Roland
As you cross yourself
And reach for your scalping knife.
In the first line of “For Jean Vincent D’abbadie, Baron St.-Castin,” the poet addresses the Baron as though he is encouraging him. Although the Indians were eventually defeated in the New England wars, the poet assures St. Castin that he did not live in vain. St. Castin’s French origins are made clear by addressing him as “monsieur.” The reason for the comfort the poet offers is that although D’abbadie lived three hundred years ago, little has changed since that time. Four-fifths of “this province,” by which the poet means Maine, is still covered by forests and swamps. It is still uncultivated, barren land. Then the poet explains that something else remains unchanged too. The local inhabitants, whose English ancestors were, during D’abbadie’s lifetime, his enemies, still have not conquered the region or overcome their fear. They live huddled in the coastal regions, or by the rivers, still fearing ambush, with “the dark woods at their backs.” This phrase is to be understood both literally and symbolically. The poet does not mean that the citizens of present-day Maine fear attacks from Indians in the woods. The “dark woods” symbolize the unknown, instinctual, subconscious life on which the inhabitants, with their cold, rationalistic religion, have denied and turned their backs.
Continuing the address to D’abbadie, the poet tells him that he would laugh if he could see how the descendents of his enemies behave in exactly the same way as their forbears. He mentions Increase Mather (1639–1723), a Puritan minister known for his part in prosecuting the Salem witchcraft trials, in which hysteria about witchcraft resulted in many innocent people being put to death. Mather published “An Essay for the Recording of Illustrious Providence,” in which he claimed that the Indian wars had been brought upon the English settlers because of their sins. The emphasis on sin, and the rejection of sexuality, which Increase and his son Cotton Mather both associated with witchcraft, were typical of the Puritan religion.
The poet makes no attempt to disguise his dislike of this attitude. He describes the Calvinists as “ghastly” and their churches “hideous.” (The Puritans derived their theology from the teachings of the Protestant reformer, John Calvin. The word Calvinist is sometimes used in a negative sense to refer to anyone who sticks rigidly to a dogmatic point of view.) In the poem, modern-day Calvinists still patrol their “palisades,” fences consisting of a row of stakes, sharpened at the top, as a defense against attack. They still bury their money under the floors of their churches because they fear another Indian attack in the night. Once again, the poet is not speaking literally. He is referring to a characteristic way of thinking and of experiencing the world. This might be described as defensive, materialistic, obsessed with wealth, fearful of the unknown, or of anything that lies beyond the immediate realm of experience.
These lines are an extended and admiring characterization of Jean-Vincent D’abbadie. He is seen
- “The Alden Nowlan Interviews,” http://www.unb.ca/qwerte/nowlan/nowlan.htm (January 2001). This website contains audio recordings of Nowlan taken from interviews conducted by Canadian filmmaker Jon Pederson in 1982, one year before Nowlan’s death. Nowlan reads some of his poems, and also discusses writing and the topic, “on place.”
- “Alden Nowlan,” http://www.vix.com/menmag/nowlan.htm (January 2001). This website includes eight poems by Nowlan read by Robert Bly and Thomas Smith in 1994 at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota. It also includes Bly speaking about what he admires in Nowlan’s poetry.
to carry the mark of the Indian warrior, the “red ochre mark of the sun god,” painted on his forehead. Ochre is a yellow or reddish-brown earthy clay, and the reference to the sun god is a reminder that Indian spirituality took a form very different from that of the European Christian settlers. The poet then evokes the Baron’s birthplace in the Pyrenees, a mountain range that separates France from Spain. He follows this with a double reference to D’abbadie’s status as a French nobleman from the region known as Navarre, in southwest France. Next, the Baron is described as a “squaw man,” a reference to his marriage to an Indian woman (“squaw”), and “Latin poet,” which ascribes literary achievements to him, although the historical Baron was not known as a poet. Finally, D’abbadie is described as a war leader of the Indian tribes of Penobscot, Kennebec, and Maliseet, all of whom were involved in the struggle against the English. However, the poet does not mention the Abenakis, with whom the historical D’abbadie was principally associated.
Building on his evocation of the powerful figure of the Baron, and the way in which he embodies two distinct cultures, the poet now turns the focus back to the Baron’s enemies. As he has done earlier in the poem, the poet refers to the modern-day descendants of the English settlers. At the darkest night of the year (the winter solstice), they still cry out in their sleep at night, perhaps dreaming nightmares of the unknown demons that haunt their lives. Outside, the trees respond to the cries, and the poet pictures them throwing back their heads and shouting out in the Alonquin dialect, the language spoken by the Abenaki.
In these final lines, the poet returns to where he began. He assures the baron, who is once more referred to as “monsieur,” that no one in present-day Maine can avoid being influenced by what he, the Baron, represents. His reach extends to both the political and religious realms (conveyed by the references to “premier” and “archbishop”) and to the impoverished workers at the all-night diner or the service station.
The final threefold image reemphasizes, as lines 11–16 had done earlier, the dual cultural heritage associated with the Baron. The Baron is portrayed chanting The Song of Roland, a chivalric romance (adventure narrative) that dates from twelfth-century France. It is used here as a symbol of the height of European culture. As he chants, the Baron makes the sign of the cross, acknowledging the Christian Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The act is a sign of the Catholic faith to which the historical Baron belonged. The third part of the tripartite image with which the poem ends shows St. Castin in the role of Indian warrior. At the very moment he crosses himself, he reaches for his “scalping knife,” the weapon with which the Indian warrior mutilated his defeated foe. It is not known whether the historical baron ever actually scalped any of the Puritan English, but the image serves the poet well: the unusual amalgam in the Baron of French Catholic and Indian cultures, both of which possess theologies and world-views different from those of the Puritans and their descendents, has power to annihilate the safe, yet small and impoverished, certainties of their day-to-day life.
The poem takes as its inspiration the conflict in seventeenth-century New England between the English settlers on one side, and, on the other, the Indian tribes in alliance with the French. The dominant theme is the contrast between the world views of the Puritans and the Indians, and how that conflict still continues today, internalized within the minds of the present-day inhabitants of New England.
The clash of cultures is seen from the point of view of the Puritans, who fear what they do not know or understand. Nowlan makes no attempt to be evenhanded or neutral in this fight. The English settlers are equated with the intolerance and religious fanaticism of Increase Mather, who is pointedly referred to as “old.” The suggestion that Puritan culture and religion are feeble and in decline is reinforced throughout the poem. The Puritans and their modern-day descendents are fearful; they “huddle” together and turn their backs on life. They cry out at the winter solstice, the darkest point in the year. Everything in their world is dark; they cannot let light in. What they value most are material things. But they cannot enjoy even those. They bury their money under their churches, which suggests that their materialism is bound up in their religion; that Puritanism is as lifeless as money. This enslavement to money continues to the present time, in the form of the “poor gnome-like slaves” who labor for small reward at the diners and service stations of New England. The expression “gnome-like” suggests that they are stunted in their growth; not quite what they are designed to be, not fully human.
The portrait Nowlan creates is hardly a flattering one. It is far more than an indictment of seventeenth century Puritanism; his target is the impoverished rationalistic Western culture of his own time, which according to this poem had cut itself off from the real springs of life.
In clear contrast to this stands the Baron. He belongs to the night, but his world is very different from the dark, fearful night that the Puritans inhabit. When applied to the Baron, night suggests a world of instinct and mystery, filled with secret life. The life that his world honors is conveyed by the red ochre mark of the sun god that he carries on his forehead. There could hardly be a more striking symbol of the vast difference between the two cultures. In Puritan theology, a distant God sits somewhere beyond the skies and judges men and women. And nature is merely a collection of inanimate objects, wholly separate from the mind of man. But for the Indians, all things in the natural world share in the divine energy. The sun is a god; the earth is a god, everything is a god. The Puritans
Topics for Further Study
- Write a poem in free verse about a heroic figure from American history whom you admire. Try to make the poem illustrate at least two qualities that make the person a hero.
- Explain why people throughout history have often hated and feared those who come from a different culture. Why are cultural differences such a potent source of discord? What can be done to minimize cultural conflict?
- Has the American government done enough to compensate Native Americans for seizing their lands? What more could the government do? Should more be done to improve the quality of life for Native Americans?
- Should Native-American reservations be entirely independent, or should they be under the jurisdiction of the federal government?
thought such views blasphemous, and indeed the early Puritans regarded the Indians as primitive devil-worshippers.
The vivid picture Nowlan creates of the Baron is a youthful and virile warrior, embodying the divine spirit, rising up out of the mysterious night to tower over the puny settlers. The poet mythologizes the Baron in this way precisely because St. Castin has done what the Puritans cannot. They hate and fear the Indians as a threat to their lives and culture, but the Baron has managed to straddle both cultures. He is at home in two worlds.
This feeling is richly conveyed in lines 12–16 of the second stanza, which begins with three references to the Baron’s origins (Pyrenees, France, Navarre). Then in line 14, the two sides of his nature are condensed into one line: “you squaw man, you Latin poet”; the Baron is at once primitive Indian and refined European. Lines 15–16 round out this admiring address by naming three tribes, the Penobscot, Kennebec and Maliseet, that connect the Baron to the Indians. The symmetry of the whole passage is perfect; it suggests a psychic wholeness to the Baron that has eluded the Puritans. And once more, Nowlan is clearly on the Baron’s side. The tone in these lines is affectionate and familiar.
The clash of cultures is also conveyed in the dramatic contrast in lines 18–19 between the sleeping Puritans and the great swaying trees outside. The Puritans are unconscious, afraid, crying out involuntarily, symbolically withdrawing from life. But the trees possess consciousness (more, it seems, than the sleeping Puritans) when they are seen in the light of the Indian ability to commune with everything in creation. The Puritans, knowing the value only of dead things like money, cannot penetrate the way of seeing that enables trees to exult and shout out in the language of those who understand them.
It is one of the subtleties of this poem that the Indians, who were eventually defeated by the Puritan English, are presented as the true victors. What they symbolize, a more holistic mode of experience, cannot be defeated. But to those who fear this other, “dark” side of the psyche, it appears like something to be chased away or suppressed—a skulking thing in the night woods.
The poem is written in unrhymed free verse, and is divided into three stanzas of uneven length. A conversational tone is adopted at the beginning, which is reinforced by the colloquial exclamation (“Oh”) followed by the contraction (“you’d”) in line 6. The entire line, “Oh, you’d laugh to see” gives the impression that the poet is talking to an old friend. This conversational effect is balanced by the formality of addressing the subject as “monsieur,” which upholds his dignity and prepares for the laudatory descriptions of him in the second stanza.
The eleven lines that make up stanza two form only one sentence. Lines 6–9 and line 11 are run-on lines, in which the syntactical or grammatical unit carries over to the next line without a natural pause. (This technique is also known as enjambment.) There is only the minimum of punctuation. The effect of the run-on lines is to speed up the verse. In lines 12–16, however, there is a change. With the use of mostly end-stopped lines (the opposite of run-on lines, in which the end of the grammatical unit coincides with the end of the line), the repetition of an initial word (“you”), and of the structure of five short phrases (beginning with “you exile from the Pyrenees”), the verse slows down considerably. The poet achieves a pleasing cadence made up of a rising rhythm. This serves to elevate the Baron and make him seem a larger than life figure.
The poet’s manipulation of cadence (measured, rhythmical effects) is apparent also in the final stanza. After the poet repeats in line 20 the statement with which the poem began—“Take heart, monsieur”—the triple repetition of the word “even,” in “even the premier, even the archbishop, / even the poor gnome-like slaves,” creates a rising rhythm that is a suitable accompaniment to the evocation of the wide scope of the Baron’s reach. The rhythm falls with the line that follows: “at the all-night diner and the service station.” The slowly rising and falling cadence creates an expectation in the reader’s mind of what is to come, thus paving the way for the final image of the baron crossing himself and preparing to kill.
One final stylistic device should be noted. Line 19, “and the great trees throw back their heads and shout nabujcol” is an example of personification, in which an inanimate object is referred to as if it possessed human form or qualities. The effect in this poem is to create the impression that nature responds to human thoughts and feelings.
During the early part of Nowlan’s life, the question of the status of Indians in Canadian society was being pushed to the forefront of the national agenda. During the decades up to the end of World War II, Indians had been almost an “invisible” people in Canada. The federal government maintained control over all aspects of life on Indian reservations, and there was massive neglect. But beginning in the late 1940s and continuing into the 1950s and 1960s, this control began to change. Public awareness of the lack of adequate health care and education for the Indian population grew. At the same time, Indian leaders began to organize and campaign energetically to regain their independence and preserve their endangered culture. By 1960, improvements had been made in social and economic conditions. In the same year, the right to vote in Canadian federal elections was extended to Indians.
Nowlan was no doubt aware of these events, and they must have contributed to his interest in Indian culture and history. This interest is evident not only in his book Campobello: The Outer Island (1975), which is a volume of local history, but also in Nine Micmac Legends (1983), a compilation of Micmac stories. The Micmac tribe is one of the largest Indian groups in Canada.
Nowlan’s sympathy with the Indian cause, and their alienation from the dominant culture that is expressed in “For Jean Vincent D’abbadie, Baron St.-Castin,” may also have its roots in some of the circumstances of Nowlan’s life. He was born and raised during the Depression, in an isolated area of Nova Scotia where the soil was too poor to farm. He grew up in a house that lacked all modern amenities.
Nowlan’s difficult early life and gradual climb from poverty gave him an ability to empathize with the underdog. In his poem “Long Long Ago” he remembers with warmth the visits made to the family home by an Indian woman selling her wares. Many of his early poems draw on his own background and reveal how he admired courage and despised intolerance and ill-treatment of the weak or vulnerable.
When Nowlan moved to Saint John in New Brunswick in 1962, it was the first time he had lived in an urban environment. For a while he experienced life there as a not always sympathetic outsider. In “Britain Street,” for example, he writes of how the entire street seems as if it is perpetually quarreling: “I have lived here nine months / and in all that time / have never once heard / a gentle word spoken.”
All these elements must have contributed to the sympathy that Nowlan felt towards Indians and also the figure of the Baron, as the champion of a threatened people.
St. Castin’s War
As Nowlan read in the history of the period, he would have come across many accounts of the Indian wars. As in many wars, atrocities were committed on both sides. In 1688, for example, the Abenaki Indians sent a war party to destroy the English fort at Pemaquid. A contemporary account tells of how the Abenaki, “in full war dress and with terrifying screams, hurled themselves into the village, breaking down doors and killing all they found.” Historian Aline S. Taylor, who quotes this passage in her book, The French Baron of Penagouet (1998), also notes that the presence of St. Castin usually held the Indians in check, although
Compare & Contrast
- 1675–1760: During the wars with the English, many Abenaki migrate to Quebec, Canada, where the greatest number can be found today.
Today: After centuries of cultural assimilation, the Abenaki have banded together as a people and are demanding their rights, their lands, and federal recognition of their tribe. Today’s Abenaki in the United States are known as the Western Abenaki (Vermont and New Hampshire) and the Eastern Abenaki (Maine).
- 1800s: Folktales abound in the villages of New England about the exploits of the Baron St. Castin.
1967: Nowlan’s Bread, Wine and Salt, which contains “For Jean Vincent D’abbadie, Baron St.-Castin” is published.
Today: A monument to Baron St. Castin stands on the site of an old French fort in the town of Castine, Maine, which is named after him.
- 1954: Native Americans in Maine gain the right to vote in national elections.
1967: Native Americans in Maine gain the right to vote in state elections.
1970s: Scholarly research in New England shows that many of the property deeds through which land changed hands from Indians to English were forgeries. The Indians were often cheated out of land they believed they were sharing.
1980: In the Maine Indian Land Claims Settlement, the Penobscots and Passamoqoddies win their case against the state of Maine after a ten-year court battle. As compensation for land they claimed had been stolen from them, the two tribes receive eighty million dollars and the right to purchase 300,000 acres of woodland.
Today: The status of the Native American people across the United States is still a subject of debate. Indian leaders are involved in jurisdiction claims against states over gambling rights on reservation lands.
on this occasion, many English were killed in violation of the terms of their surrender.
On other occasions there was ample provocation from the English side. During 1690, the English insisted on settling in fertile valleys that had been cultivated by the Abenaki for hundreds of years. Throughout the summer and fall of that year, Abenaki revenge attacks terrified the English settlers. Then the English went on a rampage of their own, led by the notoriously brutal Colonel Church. Marching on the Indian villages of the Androscoggin and Kennebec rivers, the English ruthlessly killed men, women, and children.
During this period, Jean-Vincent D’abbadie was such a key figure that the conflict was known as “St. Castin’s War.” The Baron was a target of English threats, attempted bribery, and a kidnap attempt. Treading a fine diplomatic line, he was also involved in negotiations between English, French, and Indians, and he acted as a go-between in trade between the English and the Abenaki. Both loathed and admired, it was this romantic, larger than life figure that inspired Nowlan, several hundred years later, to pay him tribute.
“For Jean-Vincent D’abbadie, Baron St.-Castin” has attracted little or no direct critical appraisal, although it has proved popular enough to be reprinted in at least one anthology of modern Canadian verse. The poem first appeared in Nowlan’s volume, Bread, Wine and Salt (1967), which critics usually regard as the book that first marked Nowlan’s emergence as a poet of distinction. For example, reviewer Fred Cogswell admired “the transparent fluidity of [Nowlan’s] presentation. Whether he writes of the inhabitants of Hainesville (Hartland), for whom he feels such ambivalence, his friends, or his own personal feelings and predicament, thought and form merge and change so beautifully and organically that one is not conscious of a seam between them.”
Although Nowlan is regarded as one of the most important Canadian poets of the last forty years, he is not well known in the United States. However, the poet Robert Bly, who wrote an introduction to Nowlan’s selected poems in 1974, has taken the lead in championing Nowlan’s cause. Bly argued that Nowlan was one of the small group of poets who were prepared to tear apart the comforting layer of reassurance that humans create for themselves as a barrier against the chaotic and frightening nature of life as it really is. Nowlan was not afraid to face fear, Bly argued, and bring it to the surface. Although Bly did not mention “For Jean Vincent D’abbadie, Baron St.-Castin,” the poem embodies exactly this attitude. The inhabitants of New England who so fear the explosion of unfamiliar, alien life into their midst are an example of the human tendency to construct a life that does not face up to the totality of human experience.
Nowlan also has a reputation as a regional poet, frequently evoking the places and people of his native Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. “For Jean Vincent D’abbadie, Baron St.-Castin” extends that range by a few miles into Maine, and it is strongly rooted in the topography and history of the area.
Aubrey holds a Ph.D in English and has published many essays on twentieth-century literature. In this essay, he approaches Nowlan’s poem from the point of view of Jungian psychology.
Nowlan’s “For Jean Vincent D’Abbadie, Baron St.-Castin” works at a number of different levels. First, it alludes to the historical situation in New England during the conflict between Indian tribes and English settlers in the seventeenth century. But Nowlan cleverly transposes the conflict into modern times by interpreting it in psychological terms, and this adds another dimension to the poem. This level of meaning can be illuminated by the psychological theories of one of the great thinkers of the twentieth century, Carl Jung.
What is so noticeable about “For Jean Vincent” is not only how the figures that populate it are so starkly split into two opposing sides, but how the poet’s sympathy is placed entirely on one side, that of the Baron. The Puritans and their modern-day descendents are presented as truly pitiable. Fearful, huddled together for safety, obsessed with a materialism that is also reflected in their Calvinist religious faith, and tormented in their sleep by nightmares, they are completely overshadowed and dominated by the magnificent figure of the Baron. Nowlan has elevated this historical figure, the French nobleman who married an Indian woman and took up the Indian cause against the English, into a gigantic, almost mythic figure. He is an inhabitant of the dark woods; he blends two very different cultures and traditions; he is a man of refinement and learning and yet also a feared warrior who leads no less than three Indian tribes; and he is a mysterious figure who carries the mark of the sun god worshiped by the Indians upon his forehead. His charisma and power is so great that even the great trees seem to be on his side.
The Baron is thus presented as an almost superhuman figure. Everyone else mentioned in the poem is small by comparison; even the premier and the archbishop, figures of status and power in their society, are given not a single adjective to enhance their standing. Everyone is dwarfed by the Baron, and the poet reinforces this effect with his cunning use of rhythm, cadence, and repetition to describe the hero.
It is clear that on a psychological level, what is being presented in this poem is a radical split in the human psyche. From the point of view of the Puritans, the Baron embodies everything they fear, reject and do not understand. In terms of Jungian psychology, the Baron embodies what Jung calls the “shadow.” The shadow is the dark side of the personality that is unacknowledged and repressed, and it is often projected onto others—people of other cultures, for example, or experienced in dreams. The shadow often embodies the qualities that a person dislikes when he or she encounters them in other people.
This is plainly what is happening in the poem. The Baron, who represents not only the Indian cause in war but also its culture and religion, embodies everything that the rational Puritans, with their Calvinist God, have denied. The two opposing camps—the Puritans and the Baron—represent two conflicting world views (corresponding to different aspects of the psyche). One represents rationality, self-control, order, discipline, material progress and conquest of nature, while the other represents instinct, emotion, natural impulse, communion with nature, and communication with the gods who inhabit nature.
Jung believed that the unconscious, repressed aspects of the psyche often found expression in dreams. In his memoir, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, Jung, who was Swiss, wrote of a visit he made to North Africa. He noted how people thought and behaved in the Arab cultures that were quite a contrast to his own European background. In a dream Jung had while in North Africa, he encountered an Arab man who attacked him. Jung fought back and the two of them wrestled, each trying to immerse the other’s head in water and drown him. As Jung reflected on the dream (of which the battle with the Arab was only a part) he decided that the Arab embodied the shadow side of the personality that had been pushed out of consciousness but was now trying to find a way back in. Jung wrote:
The predominantly rationalistic European finds much that is human alien to him, and he prides himself on this without realising that this rationality is won at the expense of his vitality, and that the primitive part of his personality is consequently condemned to a more or less underground existence.
Here is the underlying psychology of Nowlan’s “For Jean Vincent.” The “primitive” part of the personality is embodied in the Baron, a man regarded as alien by the Puritans, who have, as Jung writes, lost the vitality that an integrated rather than fragmented psyche would possess. Like Jung dreaming of being attacked by an Arab, they dream of the Baron and his cohorts and fear an attack from the unknown, “the dark woods at their back.” As Jungian scholar M. L. von Franz, writing in Man and His Symbols, states, “Through dreams one becomes acquainted with aspects of one’s own personality that for various reasons one has preferred not to look at too closely.”
It should be noted, however, that the shadow is not in itself a negative or evil force. According to von Franz, “The shadow becomes hostile only when he is ignored or misunderstood.” Also, the shadow often contains values that need to be integrated into consciousness. This explains the poet’s presentation of the Baron in such a positive light. Only the Puritans see the Baron as evil. For the poet, the Baron represents a higher level of integration than the narrow Puritans are able to comprehend. He symbolizes not the shadow, but the whole psyche that contains opposites and is able to
“For the poet, the Baron represents a higher level of integration than the narrow Puritans are able to comprehend. He symbolizes not the shadow, but the whole psyche that contains opposites and is able to integrate them into a powerful whole.”
integrate them into a powerful whole. The psychic wholeness of the Baron is made clear by the fact that he is at home in two cultures. Not only is he an Indian war leader, married to an Indian woman (and thus a “squaw man”) he also embodies the flower of European culture. He is presented as a Latin poet and as a man who recites the medieval romance, The Song of Roland.
It is because of the range of associations that the figure of the Baron calls up that the poet presents him as living on in the present, still threatening his enemies. Everyone will hear from the Baron because he will always represent the Jungian shadow to those who fear him and an integrated psyche to those who perceive him from the broader perspective of the poet. As an ever-present reality in the human psyche, the voice of the Baron cannot forever be drowned out, not by orthodox religion (the archbishop) political action (the premier), or the daily drudgery of work (“the gnome-like slaves” who work in the diners and service stations). As to what effect his voice will have on those who hear him, von Franz points out that “whether the shadow becomes our friend or enemy depends largely upon ourselves.”
The shadow, in the Jungian sense, appears in another poem by Nowlan, “He continues to try to avoid being caught,” which was published in his 1974 collection, I’m a Stranger Here Myself. The entire poem is only four lines, and it shows the difficulty that the conscious part of the personality may have in acknowledging whatever it is that the shadow is trying to communicate:
What Do I Read Next?
- Nowlan’s Selected Poems (1996), edited by Patrick Lane and Lorna Crozier, was compiled thirteen years after his death. This volume contains some of his most popular and well-formed poems and reflects how well his poems stand the test of time.
- Besides being a poet, Nowlan also wrote short stories. His collection, Miracle at Indian River: Stories (1968), has attracted praise for his ability to see into the core of his characters.
- The poet Robert Bly has praised Nowlan, and the volume of poems that Bly edited and introduced, News of the Universe: Poems of Twofold Consciousness (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books 1980), illuminates the clash between two ways of seeing the world that is the theme of “For Jean Vincent D’abbadie, Baron St.-Castin.” One view sees human consciousness as separate from the world; the other finds consciousness in everything.
- The Plumed Serpent (1926), by the English novelist D. H. Lawrence, also explores the clash of two cultures. One of these is modern American culture, which for Lawrence represents the civilization of money. The other is represented by the old Indian religions of Mexico. Many of the issues that Nowlan tackles in miniature in his poem about Baron St. Castin are explored on the much larger canvas of this novel. Like Nowlan, Lawrence is clearly on the side of the Indians.
- Rooted Like the Ash Trees, edited by Richard Carlson (Eagle Wing Press, 1987), is a collection of writings by members of the New England Indian tribes. It includes a sampling of legends, crafts, recipes, research and information on the present-day land struggles of the Micmac and Penobscots of Maine, the Paugusset of Connecticut and the Abenakis of Vermont.
A memo to myself: Don’t tell
anyone that a fiend from hell
bent over you last night and grinned.
Ask why you whimpered, blame the wind.
Here, in miniature, is “For Jean Vincent D’Abbadie, Baron St.-Castin” once again. The sleeping, or sleepless, poet is like the descendents of the Calvinist Puritans who cry out in their sleep in fear; and the grinning “fiend from hell” is another version of their nightmare vision of the Baron.
The nightmare vision is of course self-created. As Hamlet puts it in Shakespeare’s play: “For there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so”; the shadow takes on such a frightening form only because the conscious mind has exerted great effort in fighting it or simply denying its existence. And when an image of this nature does finally well up from the depths of the subconscious, the conscious mind will often go to great lengths to dismiss it or rationalize it away, as the poet does in this example, rather than confront it.
The shadow makes another appearance in Nowlan’s poem, “Footsteps in the Dark,” which was published in Bread, Wine and Salt, the same volume in which “For Jean Vincent D’Abbadie, Baron St.-Castin” appeared.
In “Footsteps in the Dark,” the poet hears footsteps, belonging to an unidentified “he,” approaching in the dark every night. The footsteps then retreat into the “boundless, teeming / darkness of the blind” as the poet strains to hear. He knows that one day the footsteps will reach him and something of great power will be unleashed upon him but he cannot imagine what that might be. All he knows is that when it happens
It will be loud and quick, though you know he will
like Christ with his bleeding hands to the disciples,
who backed away, half-crazed with fear, or like
Jack the Ripper
falling upon a whore in Whitechapel.
The phrase “you know he will come” recalls the similar fear of the Puritans in “For Jean Vincent”: “lest you come again in the night.” Whatever the ominous footsteps represent, they cannot forever be escaped, for they exist in the mind itself. What they bring may be negative or positive— a mysterious, primal force that destroys, or the transformative experience of the numinous, that is, the awe that comes upon a person in the presence of some divine power or revelation.
What this poem suggests, as does “For Jean Vincent,” is that there is a lot more to human consciousness than a person’s everyday experience might suggest. Nowlan explores this idea in other poems in Bread, Wine and Salt. He is particularly interested in moments when a person is swept up into states of consciousness that are beyond the normal, and which yield moments of ecstasy or freedom. Sometimes this comes close to a mystical vision, as when in “I, Icarus,” the poet imagines he is flying, and his vision of the freed human soul, floating beyond all the restrictions that normally hedge it in, combines the image of an Aeolian harp—which produces music when the wind blows upon it—with a suggestion of the ancient idea of the music of the spheres:
Outside, I rose higher and higher, above the pasture
above the clothesline, above the dark, haunted trees
beyond the pasture.
And, all the time, I heard the music of flutes.
It seemed the wind made this music.
And sometimes there were voices singing.
In similar fashion, “Daughter of Zion” starts with a description of a very ordinary, sad, beaten-down woman who would merit a second look from no one. It ends with a vision of this same woman the previous night, when, under a tent by a river,
God himself, the Old One, seized her in his arms
lifted her up
and danced with her,
* * *
and the Holy Ghost
went into her body and spoke through her mouth
the language they speak in heaven!
Perhaps this is a reminder that, as the poet Walt Whitman wrote in “Song of Myself,” “All truths wait in all things.” It is the task of the poet to squeeze out those truths, and to do so he must delve deep into his own psyche, where all possibilities dwell. As Nowlan points out in “On names and misnomers,” in a conclusion that is very apt for the divided consciousness that is at the heart of “For Jean Vincent D’Abbadie, Baron St.-Castin”:
Each of us contains multitudes,
every one of whose
personalities is split.
Source: Bryan Aubrey, Critical Essay on “For Jean Vincent d’Abbadie, Baron St.-Castin,” in Poetry for Students, The Gale Group, 2001.
Dupler is a published writer and critic. In the following essay, he considers how a poet enhances his powers of description.
Alden Nowlan is a poet who is very skilled at describing a sense of place in his poetry. His manner of description has undoubtedly been affected by the rough and cold landscape of his native Canada. In many poems, he has described places where the forces of nature have the capacity to overwhelm the human inhabitants. “For Jean Vincent d’Abbadie, Baron St.-Castin,” is no exception to this sort of description of the natural world. This poem is a wonderful example of how a poet can rely on several techniques to provide a compelling description of a place, to paint a vivid and complex landscape. Alden Nowlan uses many tools of the poet’s trade, including diction, imagery, texture, tone, structure, and allusion.
Nowlan began writing poetry in Canada in a period that critics called “cultural nationalism,” which began in the 1950s and continued through the 1960s. As the poet and novelist Margaret Atwood described it in The New Oxford Book of Canadian Verse in English, “cultural nationalism was merely a determination on the part of writers to stay in their own country . . . and to write about what they knew and saw around them.” In “For Jean Vincent,” Nowlan describes a landscape that he knows intimately. Nowlan also shows that properly describing a landscape must take into account the culture and history.
The poet and critic Robert Bly writing in Canadian Writers and their Works: Poetry Series once praised Alden Nowlan for his powers of description, noting that “[Nowlan’s] details are fantastically clear. His clear direct language is not a transformative language—it’s not about one thing changing into another—but a descriptive language, about the way things are.” For Nowlan, this detailing of “the way things are” is not always so easy, because the present moment is deeper than the reader first expects. In the present moment, there are also connections with the past and future. If “For Jean Vincent” is a descriptive poem of the present state of a particular place, then this poem is
“If ‘For Jean Vincent’ is a descriptive poem of the present state of a particular place, then this poem is also forced to deal with the many layers that make up the present.”
also forced to deal with the many layers that make up the present.
From its title, the poem leads readers to presume that they are about to read an ode to an historical figure. An ode is a poem that is dedicated to a person or object and can be enthusiastic or ironic in tone. However, in the first stanza of the poem, the landscape and setting immediately overshadow the person to whom the poem was dedicated. Nowlan uses very particular diction and imagery to establish a sense of place right away. Note the nouns that Nowlan places in the first stanza: forest, swamp, enemies, ambush, coasts, and rivers. These words and images present the landscape and lend an ominous texture to the poem. In this first stanza, Nowlan also uses the verbs “fear” and “huddle,” and the adjectives “barren” and “dark.” All of these word choices contribute to the poem’s texture. Indeed, from the beginning, the reader senses that a forbidding and powerful landscape pervades the poem. If human beings are present in this place, they must take care to watch for things that might creep up “at their backs,” a warning issued in the final words of the first stanza.
In the second stanza, the diction and imagery continue to reinforce the eerie and dark texture of the first stanza. Other historical figures are mentioned besides the man of the title, and these people are “ghastly” and “old.” The reader can almost visualize the ghosts who “patrol the palisades.” When they “bury their money” in “their hideous churches,” the imagery is of darkness and of the underground. The churches and the palisades the building blocks of the culture itself, are still haunted by disturbing figures who have long been gone. The past is reaching up into the description of the present.
Midway through the second stanza, Nowlan keeps piling up haunting images and words that have weight. A warning is issued that even the ghosts must fear something that can “come again in the night.” The next line, in a single stroke, lifts the poem from darkness into the light, presenting an image of the “red ochre mark of the sun god.” Now the poem begins to celebrate and exalt its subject with several lines that describe with repetition. Even though the stanza ends with a jubilant exclamation point, the poem retains its texture by using mysterious and potent names such as Pyrenees, Navarre, Penobscot, Kennebec, and Maliseet.
The third stanza begins with an image that pulls the reader right back into the dark. The “winter solstice” is the darkest day of the year, and even sleep is not safe in the next line that again contains “enemies.” The third line of the stanza reinforces that nature is dangerous, as the trees seem to be on the side of the assassin. The line, “the great trees throw back their heads and shout,” is an example of anthromorphism, or giving human qualities to non-human objects. Even the trees contribute to the dark atmosphere of the poem, by shouting a strange word, nabujcol, into the night. The poem ends with a sentence that repetitively lists other figures that make up the landscape, from the highest government official to the lowest workers. All walks of life subconsciously fear the final image, the “scalping knife.”
The tone that a poet uses can also affect the meaning of a poem, can provide descriptive details. In the first line, with the phrase, “Take heart, monsieur,” the voice of the poem seems to be speaking intimately and sympathetically to its subject. This tone may serve a purpose. When the voice of the poem is sympathetic with this historical figure, it places the poem in a position to describe the present day against the backdrop of history. Furthermore, a voice that is intimate with history builds the ethos, or credibility, of the poem as well. After the lighthearted entrance, the first stanza lists darker images, and then the tone seems to change again with the first line of the second stanza: “Oh, you’d laugh to see . . .” Again, the tone becomes light and ironic. Later in this same stanza, the tone celebrates the persona of Baron St.-Castin. In the third stanza, the tone alternates between being ironic, when it provides imagery of trees shouting, and being sympathetic, when it repeats the line, “Take heart, monsieur.” This ambiguity and shifting of tone may serve to keep the reader as alert as those who fear the “scalping knife” at the poem’s conclusion.
The structure of the poem also contributes to its meaning. If the poem aims to describe a world that is deep and chaotic, then a structure that is free and variable in form can contribute to this purpose. One of Nowlan’s influences was the modern American poet William Carlos Williams, who frequently used the “triadic stanza” form, or three separate stanzas that vary in form. Williams also relied upon variable sentence structures and changing rhythms in his poems, as Nowlan’s poem does. The effectiveness of variable sentence structures and rhythms is illustrated by the second sentence of the first stanza:
Even now, after three hundred years, your enemies
fear ambush, huddle by coasts and rivers,
the dark woods at their backs.
In the first line of this sentence, the rhythm enables the reader to practically hear something sneaking up in ambush. In the second and third lines, Nowlan uses caesuras, or pauses, to emphasize the images of those who “huddle” and of the “dark woods.” Nowlan once stated in an interview in Canadian Writers and Their Works: Poetry Series that he relied upon irregularities and pauses in his sentence structures because “sometimes the break adds an additional level of meaning.” Nowlan also strives to write in a manner that imitates how people speak. Another of Nowlan’s influences, T.S. Eliot, stated in A Poetry Handbook that, “poetry must not stray too far from the ordinary everyday language which we use and hear.” In “For Jean Vincent,” Nowlan writes in a conversational tone, varying his sentences and rhythms as people would speak naturally. There is none of the rhyming or alliteration that more formal poems contain. They would detract from the deep texture for which Nowlan seems to be striving.
“For Jean Vincent” speaks in figurative language, using bold images and statements that are not meant to be taken literally. For instance, in the third stanza, trees cannot really throw back their heads and shout, and people cannot actually hear songs chanted by a long deceased warrior. Figurative language gives meaning not by what it says, but by how it stimulates the imagination. William Carlos Williams, writing in Canadian Writers and Their Works: Poetry Series penned the famous creed for modern poetry of “no ideas but in things.” In other words, images of things can be more effective at getting across meaning than explanations with words. In “For Jean Vincent,” Nowlan follows this theory, using images instead of ideas.
Nowlan uses allusion quite effectively in this poem as well. Alluding to historical figures adds an extra degree of description. The title of the poem alludes to a historical figure, Baron St. Castin, a French nobleman who went to Canada in the 1600s. This Baron created controversy by marrying a Native American woman and fighting with Indians against English settlers. The allusion in the title creates other connections from the past because the Baron St. Castin was written about by the American poet Longfellow. Another effective allusion occurs in the second stanza. Increase Mather is mentioned in the description of the “ghastly Calvinists” who haunt offices. The reader who is knowledgeable of history will recognize that Increase Mather was a man who was closely connected with the Salem witchcraft trials, a detail which makes the figures even more ghastly.
Allusions can be made to works of art as well as to people. In the final stanza, an allusion to The Song of Roland is made. This is an old epic French poem, and mentioning it establishes another connection between modern Canada and the Old World. This allusion also speaks of the power of poetry: words that are centuries old are just under the surface of things, are still present in the way people react to the world.
Source: Douglas Dupler, Critical Essay on “For Jean Vincent d’Abbadie, Baron St.-Castin,” in Poetry for Students, The Gale Group, 2001.
Atwood, Margaret, ed., The New Oxford Book of Canadian Verse in English, Oxford University Press, 1982, pp. i–37.
Jung, Carl G., and M. L. von Franz, Joseph L. Henderson, Jolande Jacobi, and Aniela Jaffé, Man and His Symbols, Picador, 1978.
———, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, Collins, 1967.
Lecker, David, and Ellen Quigley, ed., Canadian Writers and their Works: Poetry Series, Vol. 7, ECW, 1990, pp. 87, 94, 96, 116.
Nowlan, Alden, Bread, Wine and Salt, Clarke, Irwin and Co., 1967.
———, I’m a Stranger Here Myself, Clarke, Irwin and Co., 1974.
———, Playing the Jesus Game; Selected Poems, with an introduction by Robert Bly, The Crossing Press, 1973.
Oliver, Mary, A Poetry Handbook, Harcourt Brace, 1994, p. 68.
Steele, Apollonia, and Jean F. Tener, eds., The Alden Nowlan Papers: An Inventory of the Archive at the University of Calgary Libraries, with Biocritical Essay by Robert Gibbs, University of Calgary Press, 1992.
Taylor, Aline S., The French Baron of Pentagouet: Baron St. Castin and the Struggle for Empire in Early New England, Picton Press, 1998.
Whitman, Walt, Leaves of Grass, The New American Library, 1958, p. 72.
Oliver, Michael Brian, Poet’s Progress: The Development of Alden Nowlan’s Poetry, Fiddlehead, 1978.
This is the most extensive (forty-eight pages) treatment of Nowlan’s poetry to date. It traces the development of his verse from his earliest published poems to the work of his maturity.
Taylor, Aline S., The French Baron of Pentagouet: Baron St. Castin and the Struggle for Empire in Early New England, Picton Press, 1998.
This text is useful because it supplies the historical background to Nowlan’s poem. Taylor describes the dramatic events in St.-Castin’s life, ranging from escaping assassination attempts to leading Indian tribes into battle.
Toner, Patrick, If I Could Turn and See Myself: The Life of Alden Nowlan, Goose Lane Editions, 2000.
This text is the only full-length biography of Nowlan and sheds light on the relationship between his poetry and his life.