Robin Mathews | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Robin Mathews

Robin Mathews, poet, playwright, nationalist (b at Smithers, BC 1931). Robin Mathews spent his early years in Powell River, BC and attended the University of British Columbia in the 1950s.

Mathews, Robin Daniel Middleton

Robin Mathews, poet, playwright, nationalist (b at Smithers, BC 1931). Robin Mathews spent his early years in Powell River, BC and attended the University of British Columbia in the 1950s. He earned an Honours BA in English Literature, and encountered many of the worthies of the day while at UBC: Earle BIRNEY, Roy DANIELLS and others. He earned an MA at Ohio State, and then worked for a year as a radio producer for CBC, during which time he began pursuing a PhD at the University of Toronto. He obtained a teaching position in the English Department of the University of Alberta in 1961 and abandoned his doctoral studies.

It was a time when Canadians were questioning their literary heritage. Why was it that English and American literature were studied at Canadian universities, but Canadian literature was marginalized, ignored and rarely brought to centre stage? Few are the states that would allow their literary, educational and political traditions to be co-opted by other states. Mathews was more than alert to the problem; time and training soon converged to draw Mathews to the forefront of the Canadian nationalist debate of the 1960s.

At the University of Alberta, Mathews taught with Eli MANDEL. He had studied with Northrop FRYE when he was at University of Toronto, and, unlike Margaret ATWOOD, he dared to differ with the reigning monarch of the Canadian literary establishment at the time. It is somewhat ironic that when Frye gave the Massey Lectures in 1962, The Educated Imagination, on the role of literature, he never mentioned Canadian literature - an omission that Mathews noted. Mathews the poet and literary critic, political activist and educator was internalizing much that would soon challenge Canadians in the "true north" to retake their history and way of being against the empire to the south.

Mathews' earliest books of poetry were published when he was in Edmonton: The Plink Savoir (1962), Plus Ça Change (1964) and This Time, This Place (1965) made it abundantly clear that this Canadian political poet would not be silent about the tough issues that silenced many others. The Mathews family left Canada in 1966, and Mathews taught at Leeds in England from 1966-1967. The family was also in Paris when the strike took place that paralyzed the nation in May 1968. Mathews collected most of the posters supporting the strike against De Gaulle. The collection is now at Simon Fraser University and is called the "Esther and Robin Mathews Paris Poster Collection."

Mathews' compelling nationalism burst forth in fuller force in 1969 with the publication of The Struggle for Canadian Universities (co-edited by James Steele). Mathews and Steele asked why Canadians were sidelined at Canadian universities from being hired and Americans and Brits given priority. The authors sought to correct this wrong, and did so amid much controversy. This Cold Fist (1969) was also published at this engaging period of Mathews' life. Mathews was increasingly a force to be reckoned with on the Canadian literary, cultural and educational stage - he had now found a home at Carleton University in Ottawa, and it was from such a place he would go after the power elite in Canada.

When Margaret Atwood published Survival in 1972, Mathews took her to task for what he considered her reductionistic and simplistic read of Canada's literary heritage. Atwood reacted quickly to Mathews. "Mathews and Misrepresentation" remains to this day Atwood's classic response to Mathews, just as Mathews' Canadian Literature: Surrender of Revolution (1978) is Mathews at his animated and moderate best, responding to Atwood.

Air 7 (1972), Geography of Revolution (1975), Language of Fire: Poems of Love and Struggle (1976) and The Beginning of Wisdom (1978) made it obvious that Mathews was a political poet with depth and sensitivity, a cold fist, a challenging head and a tender heart. Milton Acorn did not often laud other poets, but in the foreword to Language of Fire he suggested, in his graphic and memorable way, that Mathews would need to use binoculars if he ever hoped to see those of comparable poetic worth and stature in Canada.

Mathews was never far from the fray, and in 1985 he heated things up again. He had rather innocently planned on doing a Carleton-SFU exchange-teaching load for a year. The English department at SFU voted against having Mathews in their midst. Margaret Atwood, Pauline Jewett, David Suzuki, Ed Broadbent and many others came to Mathews' defence. An onslaught of letters represented both sides of the debate; SFU relented and Mathews was offered a position in Canadian Studies.

Mathews retired from SFU in the 1990s, but he remains active, writing literary criticism and poetry, ever engaged in the larger political and economic questions and a regular contributor to the Canadian nationalist website, Vivelecanada. Mathews is a distinctive Canadian icon and legend, and he remains a Canadian nationalist par excellence.


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