Sharing the contradictions of a poet-priest

By  Philippa Sheppard, Catholic Register Special
  • May 4, 2007
The Forgotten World of R.J. MacSween: A Life by Stewart Donovan (Cape Breton University Press, softcover, 280 pages, $23.95 list).

Stewart Donovan’s biography of his former St. Francis Xavier University professor, priest-poet Roderick MacSween, is a sincere, elegant and thorough account of an unusual life. The Forgotten World of R.J. MacSween is written in a lucid, unassuming style that reflects something of its subject — MacSween’s poetry is characterized by a plainness that modestly conceals the erudition of the professor. Donovan’s book, transporting us to rural Nova Scotia in the last century, provides a soothing retreat from the hurly-burly of most contemporary lives.
Moving at a leisurely pace, Donovan introduces us to the Cape Breton MacSween family as they wait for the announcement of Roderick’s birth in 1915. MacSween’s Glace Bay childhood was spent avoiding his violent father and volatile brothers by engaging in outdoor sports and wolfing down books in the privacy of his room. MacSween never truly confided in anyone about his father’s physical abuse of his brothers, tending rather, when asked about his childhood, to focus nostalgically on the one summer his father was away, or on the humourous conversations his parents shared in Gaelic. He admitted as an adult to having less respect for his mother than he should. Donovan’s painstaking research reveals that she was a passive parent; her only tool to stem the chaos among her eight children was the threat of their father’s imminent return from work. His father, exhausted from farming or mining, depending on the year, was hardly subtle in his handling of the miscreants.

Donovan stresses throughout MacSween’s escape into reading. He accumulated 20,000 books before his retirement from St. FX. It was his only luxury, though not his only vice (he also liked to eat). He started the habit of buying books when he was still a boy, using money earned from his summer jobs. He always read widely, but contemporary literature soon became his favourite.

Donovan is always alive to the contradictions in the man. MacSween was a skilled athlete and a talented poet; he watched Cheers on TV and read Ezra Pound with equal enjoyment; he was devoted to the Roman Catholic Church, but highly critical of its inflexibility. He read books from every part of the planet, but travelled little, living most of his life in the relative obscurity of a small, Nova Scotia university campus. Donovan implies that this is what he would have wanted. As a Catholic priest, he was trained not to put his ego first, but to go wherever he could be of most service.

However, Donovan is clearly under no illusions about his subject’s ego. MacSween is also revealed as an arrogant intellectual, confident about his own abilities and literary taste, and often insensitive about his social role in the lives of others. For example, MacSween was made chair of the Department of English at St. FX in 1962. He hired some of his brightest former students to teach in the department, and developed a habit of visiting the young men and their wives and children daily. Instead of alternating between the families, however, he would choose one family and visit them every day for a year or so. Much as they loved and revered MacSween, this was seen, understandably, as an infringement of privacy.

This gaucherie of MacSween reveals his besetting challenge: loneliness. Donovan is quietly empathetic with his professor’s plight, especially when he writes about him as a young man of 26, sent to his first parish in the Acadian village of Pomquet. He didn’t speak French; he knew no one; and the pastor he worked under was a tyrant. His books were really his only comfort.

MacSween proved himself a radical priest, though, right from the start. Donovan stresses the remarkable boldness of a priest in rural Nova Scotia in 1942 who urged women through the confessional grille to use birth control. The author links this unorthodox stance with MacSween’s observation of his parents’ misery; their poverty and inability to cope, either financially or emotionally, with their eight children. MacSween’s view on birth control was only confirmed by his sister, who, physically weakened by multiple pregnancies in quick succession, died while in her 30s.

Donovan warns us from the start that his former professor is a hard nut to crack — someone whose private self was only really glimpsed in his poetry. His poems often sound a despairing note unfamiliar even to his closest friends, who knew MacSween as the witty raconteur and razor-sharp intellectual, performing for any audience, whether it was two or three gathered in an Antigonish kitchen or a hundred students eagerly crowding into his classroom. MacSween’s anguish came from his acute sense that his church’s importance in the world was diminishing with each passing year, and with it, his own.

Donovan achieves a graceful balance between his own narrative and his documents (correspondence, interviews and MacSween’s own diary notes). Without ever claiming more for MacSween than is reasonable, he manages to impress upon the reader the incredible potential of the man and the extent of his achievements. MacSween published three volumes of Larkinesque poetry. He was founder of the creative writing program at St. FX, the first of its kind in Canada. He also gave birth to The Antigonish Review, a distinguished literary journal. His erudition and vivacious classroom presence left indelible marks on students, including award-winning writer Alistair MacLeod, and on the future of the university, even though his own way of life, as a Cape Breton, pre-Vatican II priest, became part of “the forgotten world.”

(Sheppard teaches at the University of Toronto.)

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