Duncan Campbell Scott, poet and short story-writer, is one of the major Canadian literary figures of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Scott was a member of a group known as the "Confederation poets" which also included Charles G.D. Roberts, Bliss Carman and Archibald Lampman.
Scott was born in Ottawa in 1862, where he lived for his entire adult life. From his parents, Scott developed a love of literature and of music, and became an accomplished pianist. He obtained his elementary education in Ottawa, attended high school in Smith's Falls, Ontario and junior college in Stanstead, Quebec. In 1879, financial constraints forced an end to Scott's formal education, and, in December of that year, he entered the federal civil service as a clerk in the Department of Indian Affairs. Scott spent his entire career in the same branch of government, working his way up to the position of deputy superintendent of Indian Affairs in 1923, the highest non-elected position possible in his department.
He remained in this post until his retirement in 1932. Scott's career brought him into contact with Native people in isolated settlements in the Canadian wilderness, and he drew upon these experiences in his literary career.
In the early 1880s, Scott pursued his artistic inclinations primarily through music. This changed in 1883 when he became acquainted with Archibald Lampman, who had come to Ottawa to work with the postal service. It was Lampman who encouraged Scott to try his hand at poetry and prose, and Scott found that he had a facility in both. As early as 1887, a story of his was accepted by Scribner's magazine, and in 1888, his second poem appeared in this prestigious American periodical. In the following two decades, Scott's work was frequently published in Canadian and American magazines and newspapers. During 1892 and 1893, Scott collaborated with his friends Archibald Lampman and W.W.Campbell on a weekly column of literary and social commentary entitled "At the Mermaid Inn" for the Globe.
In 1893, Scott privately published his first book The Magic House, and Other Poems. Although his poems were heavily influenced by Romantic and Victorian themes, Scott's facility with language and verse forms was evident, and the book was generally well received. In 1894, he married Belle Warner Botsford, an American concert pianist whom he had met when acting as her accompanist at a recital in Ottawa. Their only child, a daughter, was born in 1895 and died, tragically, at the age of 12.
In 1896, Scott published his first book of prose, In the Village of Viger, a collection of delicate sketches of French Canadian life. As a spare-time writer, however, Scott found the pursuit of poetry more manageable than fiction. Between 1893 and 1935, he published eight volumes of poetry. Although the quality of Scott's work is uneven, he is at his best when describing the Canadian wilderness and Indigenous peoples. Although they constitute a small portion of his total output, Scott's widely recognized and valued "Indian poems" cemented his literary reputation. In these poems, the reader senses the conflict that Scott felt between his role as an administrator committed to an assimilation policy for Canada's Native peoples and his feelings as a poet, saddened by the encroachment of European civilization on the Indian way of life.
Scott and his friend Archibald Lampman shared a love of poetry and the Canadian wilderness. During the 1890s the two made a number of canoe trips together in the area north of Ottawa. When Lampman died in 1899, Scott devoted himself to keeping his friend's literary reputation alive, and, from 1900 to 1947, edited a number of editions of Lampman's poetry. Although Scott has been criticized for taking editorial liberties with the manuscripts, he was responsible for bringing Lampman's works to the attention of 20th-century readers.
In 1929, Scott's wife died. Two years later he married fellow poet Elise Aylen who was over 30 years his junior. In 1932, Scott retired from the civil service and he and Elise spent much of the 1930s and 1940s travelling in Europe, Canada and the United States. After 1935, Scott wrote little, editing two selections of Lampman's poems. The Circle of Affection, and Other Pieces in Prose and Verse (1947) was the last collection of Scott's writings to be published in his lifetime. Two months after its appearance, Scott died in December 1947 at the age of 85.
Scott received a number of honours throughout his long literary career. Elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada in 1899, he became its president in 1921. He was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Toronto in 1922, received the Lorne Pierce medal in recognition of his contribution to Canadian literature in 1927, and an LL.D from Queen's University in 1939.
Scott is renowned for his use of archetypal Canadian subjects and for his stark and uncompromising narratives about Indians, fur traders and other inhabitants of the Canadian North. Scott's poems, with their intensity, precise imagery and flexibility in metre and form, have been credited with marking the transition from the traditional to the modern in Canadian poetry.
Canadian Literature Research Service