by George J. Dance

The-McGill-fortnightly-review.-Vol.-1-no.-1 Page 1

First issue of the McGill Fortnightly Review, November 21, 1925. Courtesy McGill University.

The Montreal Group was a circle of Canadian modernist writers formed in the mid-1920s at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec, which included Leon Edel, John Glassco, A.M. Klein, Leo Kennedy, F.R. Scott, and A.J.M. Smith.


Most of the Montreal Group's members attended McGill as undergraduates. Due to this connection, the group is also referred to as the McGill Group or McGill Movement. [1] The group especially championed the theory and practice of modernist poetry over the Victorian-style versification, best exemplified by the Confederation Poets, that predominated in Canadian poetry at the time.

The Montreal Group is "defined by its 'little magazines', which catered to innovative prose and poetry influenced by contemporary movements in British and American modernism," and "also by its belated inheritance of a 'Fin de siecle' poetics from the aesthetic and decadent movements in Europe." [1] The Encyclopaedia Britannica credits the group and its members with having "precipitated a renaissance of Canadian poetry during the 1920s and '30s by advocating a break with the traditional picturesque landscape poetry that had dominated Canadian poetry since the late 19th century. They encouraged an emulation of the realistic themes, metaphysical complexity, and techniques of the U.S. and British poets Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, and W.H. Auden that resulted in an Expressionist, Modernist, and often Imagist poetry reflective of the values of an urban and cosmopolitan civilization." [2]


In the 1920s, the prevailing tradition in Canadian poetry was still the "one that had been established by the poets of the Confederation: Charles G.D. Roberts, Bliss Carman, Archibald Lampman and Duncan Campbell Scott. This poetry, although striving for a certain Canadian quality, was very much the offspring of English Victorian verse. The majority of versifiers in Canada were to cling to this mode of expression until the beginning of the 1940's." While some Canadians were writing modernist poetry – W.W.E. Ross, R.G. Everson, Raymond Knister, and Dorothy Livesay were all publishing Imagist poetry in free verse – their "activity was individual and unrelated; their poems appeared in American and English literary publications. In Canada, there was no focal point, no center of activity as of yet." [3]

That changed with the coming of the Montreal Group. The little magazines they founded gave Canadian modernism a focal point. As Louis Dudek and Michael Gnarowski were to write four decades later, in The Making of Modern Poetry in Canada (1967):

The little magazine in Canada has been the most important single factor behind the rise and continued progress of modernism in Canadian poetry. The history of the little magazine covers a period of some forty years and closely parallels the development of modern poetry itself from the mid-1920's to the present time. All the important events in poetry and most of the initiating manifestoes and examples of change are to be found in the little magazines." [3]

The Montreal Group was responsible for several different publications which for the first time gave Canadian modernists the chance to publish in their own country.

McGill Daily Literary SupplementEdit

This first publication began modestly enough, "as a weekly supplemental section of the McGill undergraduate society's newspaper, the McGill Daily." It "was edited by Allan Latham, A.P.R. Coulborn, and A.J.M. Smith."[1] Fellow student F.R. Scott has described those days: "He [Smith] was running the McGill Daily Literary Supplement and every Wednesday you opened it up and there was an insert with some bright poems, a few articles, and book reviews. This delighted me when I was a law student because the lectures were usually so dull that you had to read something during them."[3]

When Scott submitted a translation of "an old French chanson", Smith printed it, and subsequently invited Scott to serve on the editorial board. "Then we heard that the students' society had decided not to give any money to publish the Literary Supplement because it contained no advertising." Smith and Scott decided to close the Supplement and found a new independent student journal instead.[3]

McGill Fortnightly ReviewEdit

Smith was "joined by Scott, [John] Glassco, and [Leon] Edel as editors of the McGill Fortnightly Review (MFR),"[1] which was "the first journal to publish modernist poetry and critical opinion in Canada."[4] The MFR, "the most important of the group's periodicals, ... announced itself in November 1925 as 'an independent journal of literature, the arts and student affairs edited and published by a group of undergraduates at McGill University'." [1] "Other writers associated with the journal were A.M. Klein and Leo Kennedy."[5] (However, "Klein never published in the Review; his one submission was rejected because he refused to change the word 'soul', which the editors considered insufficiently modern." [6]).

The name came from that bastion of Victorian tradition, the Fortnightly Review; and the 1st issue actually praised a talk Bliss Carman had given at McGill. But at least by issue 3 (when Smith was offering readers an analysis of The Waste Land[5] ), there was no doubt where the new biweekly stood. It is fair to say that "The programmatic introduction of Modernism into Canadian poetry as well as the first stirrings of the tradition of the little magazine in Canada began on November 21, 1925 with the printing of the first issue of The McGill Fortnightly Review." [3]

The program had two parts. First, "there was criticism to be leveled at the literary temper of the times, which the McGill group saw as embodied by the Canadian Authors Association promoting the quasi-Victorian verse of the twenties. The McGill group took pot-shots at the C.A.A. throughout the duration of the publication of The McGill Fortnightly Review and The Canadian Mercury" which succeeded it. For example, the MFR's second issue attacked the CAA's promotion of a Canadian "Book Week" – "Publicity, advertising and the methods of big business are not what is required to foster the art and literature of a young country such as Canada, while the commercial boosting of mediocre Canadian books not only reduces the Authors' Association to the level of an advertising agency but does considerable harm to good literature"[3] – while in 1927 "The last issue of the journal included F.R. Scott's much-anthologized satirical poem 'The Canadian authors meet', which pilloried the Association as representing amateurism in art." [5]

"Second, there was the new program of Modernism to be put forward; this was presented in articles and in the poems themselves." [3] There were plenty of articles on the subject in the MFR's brief existence: "In various editorials, Smith argued that Canadian poets must go beyond the 'maple-leaf school' of Bliss Carman, Archibald Lampman, Duncan Campbell Scott, and Charles G.D. Roberts in favour of free verse, imagistic treatment, displacement, complexity, and a leaner diction free of Victorian mannerisms." [5]

Iconoclastic American journalist H.L. Mencken was a major influence on the Group's prose style. "Publisher Louis Schwartz, in the only piece he contributed to The McGill Fortnightly Review, calls Mencken 'the creator of a new sort of writing ... Americanese of a racy bumptiousness so vivacious and interesting that he is eagerly followed by a large number of people.... Mencken is essentially a young man's critic, violent and destructive."[7]

But what was more important was the example of the poetry. Just being a place for modernists to ply their craft, to learn from and teach each other, was enough to make the MFR important. Years later, Edel wrote that "The McGill Fortnightly drew to it other young writers - among them A.M. Klein, Leo Kennedy, and Leon Edel - on whom, as well as on Scott, Smith had an enduring influence." [8] "Its historic value is lodged in the fact that it brought a group of promising poets together, gave them editorial experience and finally pointed them in the right direction, thus starting a literary movement on its way. The McGill group, as it has come to be known, consisting of Scott, Smith and Leo Kennedy (Klein was to join them later in the pages of The Canadian Mercury), had its first practical experience within the pages of The McGill Fortnightly Review." [3]

Canadian MercuryEdit

Founded in 1928, "The Canadian Mercury was the first periodical produced by the Montreal Group without affiliation to McGill, financed by Montreal businessman [Louis] Schwartz." [1] "Lou Schwartz, who had been the business manager for The McGill Fortnightly Review, served as The Canadian Mercury's 'sugar daddy'; he published it and paid its bills. As a result, The Canadian Mercury enjoyed considerable freedom as an independent journal of literature and opinion. Its editorial board consisted of Jean Burton, F.R. Scott, Leo Kennedy and Felix Walter." [3]

Smith and Edel, doing graduate work in Edinburgh and Paris respectively, continued to contribute by mail. But there was an appeal to a wider base of writers. "Unlike the earlier two publications, the Mercury solicited contributions from a broader group of Canadian (and expatriate Canadian) writers and aimed at audiences beyond McGill and outside Montreal." [1] The first issue, for instance, featured an essay on "The National Literature Problem in Canada" by Canadian institution Stephen Leacock. [3]

"Published between December 1928 and June 1929, the contents of The Canadian Mercury disclose the emergence of a modernist aesthetic that was trying to counter a prevailing but lifeless strain of the Romantic tradition in Canada, and which would influence Canadian poetry in the middle decades of the twentieth century.... Established at a crucial moment in the formation of the McGill group of poets, and thus of a significant strain of Canadian modernism, The Canadian Mercury documents a transition between poetic traditions. Canadian modernist poetry is not born in this magazine, but its head is emerging." [9]

The Mercury continued the modernist program begun in the Review. Attacks on the C.A.A. continued, such as Leo Kennedy's polemic, "The Future of Canadian Literature," which opened double issue 5-6. "Kennedy sees the Association as fostering everything that is wrong with Canadian writing in the twenties; he sees the C.A.A. promoting archaic transplanted Victorianisms which are then to be judged by purely parochial standards."[3]

Along with that went the general dismissal of Canadian literature. "Kennedy maintains that, at this time, 'the least attractive aspects of Victorianism still hold licensed Canadian creative writers firmly by the gullet. In poetry the Tennysonian and Wordsworthian traditions still rule, and are bolstered by none of the genius and technical ability of those poets'.... Kennedy recognizes that the future of Canadian literature resides in the sceptical young writers [who] discuss Joyce, Hemingway, Shaw, Pound and Aldous Huxley rather than the Canadian poets of the Confederation.... Having begun to work their way clear of the dead philosophy and restrictions of the previous age, and having begun to comprehend the modern condition, it is these young writers who will be able to provide Canadian literature with a future." [3]

In the Mercury's final issue, Scott reviewed Bliss Carman's new book, Wild Garden (published posthumously; Carmen had died earlier in 1929), finding not one decent poem in the book. "In 1913, F.S. Flint (1885-1960) - and, behind him, Ezra Pound (1885-1972) - had called, in a statement in Poetry, for a poetics that included a 'direct treatment of the thing,' an avoidance of words that do not 'contribute to the presentation,' and the rhythm of the musical phrase rather than that of the metronome ('Imagism' 199). Scott regards Carman's poems as the antithesis of such poetry.... Taking up Smith's programme, Scott criticizes Carmen's use of precious diction; 'joyance, wondrous, beauteous, [and] lovesome' are, he argues, the kind of '"poetical words" so beloved of Victorian minor poets,' adding that 'there is not an idea, a metaphor, an adjective' in Carman's volume 'that did not have the last drop of emotional content squeezed out of it before the beginning of this century.'" [9]

Continued as well was the program of creating a Canadian modernist poetry, now from a much wider circle of poets. However, "It is not the slight poems of ... other contributors to The Canadian Mercury that will birth the McGill movement's new kind of poetry but those of Klein and Kennedy and, especially, of Smith and Scott. Seven poems by Smith and Scott in The Canadian Mercury exemplify the kind of struggle with which their strain of a vitalizing modernism emerges from the deadwood of late Canadian Romanticism.... We hear uncertain voices in The Canadian Mercury, but we also hear a strain of modernism that, though undeveloped, is emerging." [9]".

The Canadian Mercury folded in the wake of the Wall Street Crash of 1929.

The McGilliadEdit

This little-known successor McGill publication was founded in 1930 and ran until 1931. It was edited first by co-founder Klein, and then by Klein's friend, co-founder David Lewis (who would later lead Canada's socialist New Democratic Party).[1] The publication's name was an obvious pun on the classic epic The Iliad – privately, Klein called it the "McGill Yid" (a pun on his and Lewis's Yiddish heritage).[10]

Under Klein's editorship the McGilliad carried the first published poem by then high school student Irving Layton.[11]

Under Lewis the magazine became more political: "It published many of his anti-communist views, though the December 1930 issue included an article he wrote expressing his approval of the Russian Revolution and calling for a greater understanding of the Soviet Union."[12]

New ProvincesEdit

Main article: New Provinces

"After the departure of key figures such as Smith, Glassco, Edel, and Kennedy from Montreal in the late 1920's, four of the poets from the Montreal Group (Smith, Kennedy, Klein, and Scott) reunited for the publication of the anthology New Provinces: Poems by Several Authors." in 1931. [1] In 1934 they invited Toronto poets E.J. Pratt and Robert Finch to participate. The result, published in May 1936, was "an anthology that has between its covers the most famous enactment of modernist values in Canada." [13]

For a Preface, Smith wrote a modernist manifesto that declared Canadian poetry to be dead: "The fundamental criticism that must be brought against Canadian poetry as a whole is that it ignores the intelligence. And as a result it is dead."[14] The Preface was not used. (It was incorporated into the reprinted edition in 1976.)[15] However, Leon Edel for one later thought it had not been needed: "The poems in New provinces had an impact on Canadian verse far beyond any prefatorial pronouncements: in its implicit call for new findings and new attitudes in Canadian writing, it might be likened to the effect of the Wordsworth-Coleridge Lyrical ballads in 1798 on the Romantics.... The effect of New provinces was that it established the 'Montreal Group' as the Canadian avant-garde of its time." [8]


Main article: Preview (magazine)''

In March 1942 Anderson, Scott, and Montreal poet Patrick Anderson founded Montreal literary magazine Preview. Scott "was one of the organizers of Preview"; [16] Anderson became editor; A.M. Klein and P.K. Page also became part of the editorial group.[17]

Preview "adopted an editorial thrust similar to that espoused by the earlier McGill Fortnightly Review, so that there was a continuation of the cosmopolitan impetus that had begun in the previous decade."[13] "Preview's orientation was cosmopolitan; its members looked largely towards the English poets of the 1930's for inspiration."[17]

By then, though, cosmopolitanism was itself under attack, chiefly from another Montreal magazine, First Statement (also founded in 1942, by Montreal poet John Sutherland), which criticized the Montreal Group as "too exclusive in their demand for cosmopolitan sophistication, too ready to denounce the provincial in favour of anything new from far away." [13]

By its very presence, First Statement showed that there was no longer a need for a Montreal Group, because the conditions that gave rise to it had changed. There were now venues for Canadian modernists to place their work, and virtually anyone who could not get published in one of them could start his own. (In fact, Sutherland had done just that, founding First Statement when Preview had rejected some of his poetry).[18] As well, there was now no dispute about modernism. Neither magazine qustioned its tenets: "a number of poets, including Klein, saw fit to contribute to both First Statement and Preview, because both magazines held to an awareness of the new modernist standards."[13] Modernism was now the orthodoxy.

For those reasons, the day in 1945 that Preview and First Statement merged to become Northern Review can be taken arbitrarily as the end of the Montreal Group.


"The McGill Group sought to modernize Canadian poetry writing, and its members drew eclectically on the influences of imagism and symbolism as manifested in the works of poets such as William Butler Yeats, T.S. Eliot, H.D., Wallace Stevens, e.e. cummings and Marianne Moore, to mention just a few. They wished to freshen the craft conventions of Canadian poetry and therefore committed themselves to a new realism of expression, to tonal wit and irony, as opposed to merely effusive lyricism, and to a view of the poet as a responsible and intelligent commentator on culture and society." [13]


As the above list of models shows, the Smith group drew its models and its teachings from world literature. And world literature was what it tried to write. Like the Confederation Poets, the members of the Montreal Group were cosmopolitans to the core. Ironically, as members of the Group sometimes criticized the "Maple Leaf school" of poets for being wholly dependent on an imported tradition, they were vulnerable to the same criticism (which would be made, later, by the First Statement group). "A number of detactors saw [the Montreal group] as gulled by a thin cosmopolitanism that was at odds with the traditions of nationalist Canadian writing, and some critics see them still as (ironically) derivative in their enthusiasm for poetic credos from elsewhere." [13]


Smith, "who was to be the theoretician of the new poetry," wrote about symbolism in the second issue of MFR. His essay, "Symbolism in Poetry," argued "the necessity for the use of symbolism in modern writing and provided some theoretical and historical background for this idea. In the final paragraph of the article Smith quotes Yeats on the role of symbolism in relation to modern poetry ... This symbolism is meant to effect 'a casting out of descriptions of nature for the sake of nature, of the moral law for the sake of the moral law, a casting out of all anecdotes and of that brooding over scientific opinion ... and of that vehemence that would make us do or not do certain things.' This denunciation of the excesses of Victorianism can also be seen to apply to the Canadian poets of Confederation, who, too often, became caught up in descriptions of nature and in extended moralizing." [3]


As important as symbolism to the Montreal modernists was Imagism. Theoretically,their views were no different from the Imagists they took them from. In his Rejected Preface to New Provinces, for example, Smith talked about the poets' attempt to "get rid of the facile word, the stereotyped phrase and the mechanical rhythm..." and "to combine colloquialism and rhetoric...." (all ideas straight from F.S. Flint's 1913 manifesto). Smith went on to give a notable definition of imagism: "The imagist seeks with perfect objectivity and impersonality to recreate a thing or arrest an experience as precisely and vividly and simply as possible." [19]

Smith wrote a number of "Imagist poems" to illustrate the theory, "the most anthologised and famous of which is "The Lonely Land." Some later critics deny "that these poems are merely derivative of Imagism or, indeed, that they are successful, even in theoretical terms, as imagist poems. On the contrary, many of them violate imagist theory as expressed by Pound, Hulme, and others, adapting imagist ideas and practices in ways that are fascinating and significant ... [showing the] reciprocal relations between imported poetics and their Canadian environments and contents" [19]


In Volume II No. 4 of the MFR, Smith wrote an article arguing "that the new poetry 'must be the result of the impingement of modern conditions upon the personality and temperament of the poet' ... whatever the poet's response to modern civilization, Smith rightly saw 'the peculiar conditions of the time [as having] forced them all to seek a new and more direct expression, to perfect a finer technique.' Smith saw the experimentation in the forms of the arts that was so prevalent in the 1910's and 1920's not as something that stemmed out of a conscious choice on the part of writers, but as a condition 'forced' upon them."[3]


A part of the Montreal Group's program that looks questionable is its extreme anti-Canadianism. No Canadian writer (outside their own contributors) ever seemed to get a favourable comment in the movement's publications. Not because it had been read and found wanting; but because mostly it had not been read in the first place. As Leo Kennedy gleefully told biographer Patricia Morley in the 1970s: "We despised them unbeknownst, and you can quote me."[7] Or as Scott later put it, "it was all through us. There was the general feeling that practically all poetry - particularly Canadian poetry - was hardly worth looking at, that something new had to be found, new methods of expression." [20]

Even modernist Canadian writers, though sometimes published in the group's magazines, were never saluted or even acknowledged in its poetics. "One gains the impression that the modern idiom in Canada '"sprang full-blown" from the editorial brow of A.J.M. Smith and F.R. Scott.' Smith has been credited with promoting the view that literary developments in Canada were a generation behind those of the international literary centres.... It was not until the 'forties that he acknowledged the efforts of his contemporaries like W.W.E. Ross and Dorothy Livesay." [20]

Smith himself later repudiated this knee-jerk anti-Canadianism, and blamed it on youthful ignorance: "The atmosphere was a sort of diluted romanticism, a diluted transcendentalism. Bliss Carman was the only Canadian poet that we had heard of and what we heard, we didn't care for much. It was only later, when I began to compile books on Canadian poetry, that I found that Lampman, Roberts and Carman had written some very fine poetry." [20]


By the mid-1920s modernism was already firmly entrenched in both British and American literature, and there is little doubt that it would have come to Canada with or without the Montreal Group. Still, the Group can be seen to have made a unique contribution in 2 ways: through the individual writings of its members; and through the influence of its particular poetics on writing in general.

As to the former: "The Montreal Group is recognized chiefly for the early writings of its poets who later established themselves among the major Canadian modernists of the 20th century."[21] Members of the group have gone on to win a Pulitzer Prize (Edel), five Governor General's Awards (Scott [2], Glassco, Klein, and Smith), three Lorne Pierce Medals (Klein, Scott, and Smith), and a National Book Award (Edel).

As to the latter: "In the end," says the Encyclopedia of Literature in Canada, "the McGill group changed the standard for writing poetry in Canada, and its sense of the function of the poet and the demands of poetic craft continued to influence the writing of poetry in Canada until the end of the 20th century."[13]

See alsoEdit


  • Ken Norris, "The Beginnings of Canadian Modernism," Canadian Poetry: Studies/Documents/Reviews, 11 (Fall/Winter, 1982), Canadian Poetry, UWO, Web.
  • Alan Richards, "Between Tradition and Counter-Tradition: The poems of A.J.M. Smith and F.R. Scott in The Canadian Mercury (1928-29)," Studies in Canadian Literature / Etudes en litterature canadienne, 30:1 (2005),, Web.
  • The McGill Movement: A.J.M. Smith, F.R. Scott and Leo Kennedy. (edited by Peter Stevens). Toronto, Ryerson Press, 1969. ISBN 9780770002947


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 1.7 1.8 Dean Irvine, "Montreal Group," Oxford Companion to Canadian History., Web, Mar. 25, 2011.
  2. "Montreal group," Encyclopedia Britannica, Web, Mar. 25, 2011.
  3. 3.00 3.01 3.02 3.03 3.04 3.05 3.06 3.07 3.08 3.09 3.10 3.11 3.12 3.13 Ken Norris, "The Beginnings of Canadian Modernism," Canadian Poetry: Studies/Documents/Reviews, No. 11 (Fall/Winter, 1982), Canadian Poetry,, Web, Mar. 25, 2011.
  4. Marlene Alt, "Smith, Arthur James Marshall," Canadian Encyclopedia (Edmonton: Hurtig, 2015.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 Geoff Hancock, "McGill Fortnightly Review - (1925-1927)," Encyclopedia of Literature, Web, Mar. 25, 2011.
  6. Zailig Pollock, "A. M. Klein Biography - (1909-72)," Encyclopedia of Literature, 8117., Web, Mar. 26, 2011.
  7. 7.0 7.1 Patricia Morley, "The Young Turks: A Biographer's Comment," Canadian Poetry: Studies/Documents/Reviews No. 11 (Fall/Winter 1972), UWO, Web, Apr. 9, 2011.
  8. 8.0 8.1 Leon Edel, "A.J.M. Smith Biography", Encyclopedia of Literature, 8711., Web, Mar. 17, 2011.
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 Alan Richards, "Between Tradition and Counter-Tradition: The Poems of A.J.M. Smith and F.R. Scott in The Canadian Mercury (1928-29)," Studies in Canadian Literature / Études en littérature canadienne, Volume 30, Number 1 (2005), Web, Mar. 26, 2011.
  10. Joyce Boro, "Klein, Abraham Moses (1909-71)", Encyclopedia of Modern Jewish Culture, Volume 1,, Web, Mar. 27, 2011.
  11. Bronwyn Chester, "Small Magazines, Big Influence," McGill Reporter, Mar. 11, 1999, McGill University. Web, Mar. 27, 2011.
  12. "David Lewis (politician)," Wikipedia. Web, Mar. 26, 2011.
  13. 13.0 13.1 13.2 13.3 13.4 13.5 13.6 William H. New, "McGill Movement," Encyclopedia of Literature in Canada (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2002), 729. Google Books, Web, Mar. 25, 2011.
  14. W.J. Keith, "How New was New Provinces?", Canadian Poetry: Studies/Documents/Reviews, No. 4 (Fall/Winter, 1979). Web, Mar. 16, 2011.
  15. Michael Gnarowski, "New Provinces: Poems of Several Authors," Canadian Encyclopedia (Hurtig: Edmonton, 1988), 1479.
  16. "Francis Reginald Scott," Gale Encyclopedia of Biography,, Web, Mar. 27, 2011.
  17. 17.0 17.1 George Woodcock, "Northern Review," Canadian Encyclopedia (Edmonton: Hurtig, 1988), 1515.
  18. "First Statement," Wikipedia. Web, Mar. 25, 2001
  19. 19.0 19.1 D.M.R. Bentley, "Not of Things Only, but of Thought: Notes on A. J. M. Smith's Imagistic Poems," Canadian Poetry: Studies/Documents/Reviews, No. 11 (Fall/Winter 1982),, Web, Mar. 28, 2011.
  20. 20.0 20.1 20.2 Anne Burke, Critical Introduction, "Some Annotated Letters of A.J.M. Smith and Raymond Knister," Canadian Poetry: Studies/Documents/Reviews, Number 11 (Fall/Winter 1982), UWO, Web, Mar. 26, 2011.
  21. Dean Irvine, "Montreal Group," Encyclopedia of Canadian History, Web, Mar. 15, 2011.

External links Edit

The Young Turks: A biographer's comment] in Canadian Poetry.
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