Canadian literature is defined by the contribution of written composition by Canadian authors. Because of Canada’s multiculturalism and strong bilingualism, Canadian literature includes both French and English speaking writers of various genres, including poetry and prose, fiction and others.
Keep reading to learn more about Canada’s diverse culture of literature, find out who some of the most famous writers are, and see examples of famous Canadian authors’ writing.
Canadian 19th-Century Literature Contributions of Prose and Poetry
The first known writers of prose and poetry in Canada began hen-scratching in diaries, journals and letters as far back as European colonization in the 1500s. However, poetry only began to increase in popularity in the 19th century. Some famous Canadian poets of the 19th century include Al Purdy, Alan Sullivan, Arthur Stringer and John McCrea. Here is a little bit about these Canadian authors and some of their best-loved poems.
1. Al Purdy (1918 – 2000)
Born in Ontario, Canada, Al Purdy was a free-verse poet. His contributions to Canadian poetry included 39 poetry books, He is known as Canada’s “unofficial poet laureate.” Many of his poems include details of the life and culture seen growing up in Canada.
The Last Picture In The World
A hunched grey shape
framed by leaves
with lake water behind
standing on our
a little point of land
like a small monk
in a green monastery
except that it’s alive
Brooding immobile permanent
for half an hour
a blue heron
and it occurs to me
that if I were to die at this moment
that picture would accompany me
wherever I am going
for part of the way
2. Alan Sullivan (1868 – 1947)
Born in Montreal, Canada, Alan Sullivan was a 19th-century Canadian poet. He was also the author of several short stories. One of his most prominent works included the historical novel, The Great Divide, written in 1935. The Great Divide details the history of the Canadian Pacific Railway being built. Here is another piece of poetry that was composed by Alan Sullivan.
The Little Street
Listen. The clop of wooden soles still sounds
along this crudely cobbled alleyway,
a washerwoman sings a rondelet,
and two young truants haggle over rounds
of jacks. Somewhere an unseen bell resounds,
tolling the passage of an August day;
yet nothing moves. These shutters never sway.
These children never leave their checkered bounds.
beside the entryway. The clouds diffuse
a drop of rain or flush with sunset’s blush.
No bargeman hauls; no windmill fills a sluice.
Upon some far-off field of war, a truce
as time stands still beneath the artist’s brush.
3. Arther Stringer (1874-1950)
Arthur Stringer was another famous Canadian poet. Born in Chatham, Ontario, Stringer was also a screenwriter and a novelist who later moved to the USA. He has published over 50 books during his career. He has also contributed to film scripts and written several articles in his lifetime. One of his catchphrases included;
“Society, my dear, is like salt water, good to swim in but hard to swallow.”
From hill to hill he harried me;
He stalked me day and night;
He neither knew nor hated me;
Nor his nor mine the fight.
He killed the man who stood by me,
For such they made his law;
Then foot by foot I fought to him,
Who neither knew nor saw.
I trained my rifle on his heart;
He leapt up in the air.
The screaming ball tore through his breast,
And lay embedded there.
Lay hot embedded there, and yet
Hissed home o’er hill and sea
Straight to the aching heart of one
Who’d wronged not mine nor me?
4. John McCrea (1872 – 1918)
John McCrae was a doctor and a Canadian teacher who began writing poetry as a student. Born in Guelph, Ontario, he was well-known for his poem In Flanders Fields.
In Flanders Fields
In Flanders Fields, the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
Canadian 20th-Century Literature Contributions of Poetry and Prose
The 20th-century saw many changes and advancements to Canadian poetry. It put a new spin on creativity and opened up several new genres of poetry including:
- Confessional poetry
- New formalism
- Concrete poetry
- Visual poetry
- Slam poetry
French-Canadian poetry also blossomed in the 20th-century, developing a strong, passionate voice among authors with vibrant imagery. Notable poets of this era included Leanard Cohen, Irving Layton, and Margaret Atwood. Here is a little more information about these incredible authors and some of their best-loved poems:
1. Leonard Cohen ( 1934 – 2016)
Leanard Cohen was a famous Canadian poet born in Westmount, Montreal. He was also a talented musician who later moved to Los Angeles, California. Despite his move, he continued to have strong heritage roots in Canada.
Beneath My Hands
Beneath my hands
your small breasts
are the upturned bellies
of breathing fallen sparrows.
Wherever you move
I hear the sounds of closing wings
of falling wings.
I am speechless
because you have fallen beside me
because your eyelashes
are the spines of tiny fragile animals.
I dread the time
when your mouth
begins to call me hunter.
When you call me close
to tell me
your body is not beautiful
I want to summon
the eyes and hidden mouths
of stone and light and water
to testify against you.
I want them
to surrender before you
the trembling rhyme of your face
from their deep caskets.
When you call me close
to tell me
your body is not beautiful
I want my body and my hands
to be pools
for your looking and laughing.
2. Irving Layton (1912 – 2006)
Irving Layton was another inspirational Canadian poet from the 20th-century. His works of literature have been enjoyed by many readers over the years.
Hills and hills
they curve soft and warm
lovely and firm
under the Greek sun
towards the horizon
in slow limpid waves
falling away mysteriously
at the edge of the sea
So that I can only surmise
they’re being there
beyond my gaze
and stare into the greyness
a long time ago
you stared at them
as I am staring now
- Margaret Atwood (1939 – )
Margaret Atwood is a Canadian writer of poetry, prose, children’s books and fiction novels. Best known as a novelist, she has also published over 20 books of poetry. Most of her poetry is inspired by fairy tales. She has also won numerous awards throughout her lifetime of achievements as a famous Canadian author.
Love is not a profession
genteel or otherwise
sex is not dentistry
the slick filling of aches and cavities
you are not my doctor
you are not my cure,
nobody has that
power, you are merely a fellow/traveller
Give up this medical concern,
permit yourself anger
and permit me mine
which needs neither
your approval nor your surprise
which does not need to be made legal
which is not against a disease
but against you,
which does not need to be understood
or washed or cauterized,
which needs instead
to be said and said.
Permit me the present tense.
Fiction Contributions Made to Canadian Literature
Canada, a country rich in culture, has plenty of great fiction authors to boast about. Canadian fiction was discovered in the late 19th century and early 20th century. Popular fiction authors from the early years, included Marshal Saunders, Stephen Leacock and Nellie McClung, among several others. Nowadays, it’s difficult to find any of their books still in print.
20th-century famous Canadian fiction authors included Margaret Atwood, Thomas King, Alice Munroe and many other brilliant authors who helped define Canada. Many of these authors are still just as popular today in Canada and worldwide as they were at the start of their writing careers.
Many Canadian fiction writers have a vast amount to write about, from multiculturalism, beautiful scenic landscapes, to famous cultural traditions that never seem to get stale to readers. Canada also has several Indigenous voices who enjoy sharing their stories with readers around the world.
Canadian literature offers something for everyone to enjoy whether you are young or old.
Fictional Books of Literature Set In Canada
1. M. Montgomery’s novel Anne of Green Gables
Anne of Green Gables tells the tale of Anne Shirley, a young orphan who was sent to a home that was looking for a boy to adopt, not an eleven-year-old rambunctious, freckled red-haired girl.
Nevertheless, Shiley’s kind-hearted personality and witty charm ended up winning the entire family over.
Set in a fictional town on their farm in the fictional town of Avonlea in Prince Edward Island, Canada, the setting of the book features similar characteristics and trademarks of the current Canadian province. The only difference is the made-up town name.
Being a curious child with a great imagination, Shirley spends no time at all getting to know her neighbours. She adapts quite well to her new surroundings and thrives within the close-knit small farming community of Avonlea.
2. Margaret Atwood’s novel The Blind Assassin
Margaret Atwood is a well-known Canadian author. Her novel The Handmade Tale helped lead her to global success when it was made into a television series and movie.
The Blind Assassin was published in 2000 by McClelland and Stewart Publishing House. The novel was set in Port Ticonderoga, a fictional town in Ontario, Canada. Some scenes also take place in Toronto, Ontario.
The novel begins in 1945 with the strange death of Laura Chase, a young woman from the area. A few decades after the death of her sister, Iris tells the readers tales of childhood memories. She also recounts other deaths that have plagued their rich family’s history.
Richly layered stories open up the long-lost family secrets that have haunted the Chase family for years. The novel finishes off with an outstanding final plot twist. Atwood is certainly a must-read Canadian author.
3. Louise Penny’s Novel Still Life
Still, Life by Louise Penny is the first novel in her mystery series. Set in Montreal, Canada, it didn’t take long for Still Life to become one of the author’s best-selling books.
Armand Gamache, the Chief of Police for the Surete du Quebec, is called to the scene of a murder that takes place in the outskirts of Montreal.
The body of a well-known woman from the small town of Three Pines was discovered in the bushes. The town’s people are convinced it was just a hunting accident. But, Gamache has a hunch there’s something sinister happening in the small Montreal village and it was no accident.
Penny’s novel, Still Life, is a contagious book that will quickly turn the pages to find out what happens next. The setting in this novel vividly details Canadian culture.
4. Farley Mowat’s Novel Never Cry, Wolf
Never Cry Wolf is set in Manitoba, Canada in 1948. A young biologist arrives on the scene to investigate the dwindling population of caribous in the area.
Community members thought that the decline of the caribou was simply the result of an overpopulation of wolves in the area.
Mowat camps out on the outskirts of the small community of Manitoba, expecting to catch some devilish creatures in the act. But instead, he discovers the beauty found in wolves and their powerful displays of affection, loyalty and wisdom.
The setting of Keewatin Barren Lands in Manitoba displays vivid imagery of rich nature and scenic views.
5. Peter Heller’s Novel The River
The last of our fiction novels is The River by Peter Heller. Set on a Northern Canadian river. Jack and Wynn quickly realize that their peaceful canoe trip down the Madawaska river is being jeopardized by an out-of-control raging forest fire.
Through their journey to safety, they come across other characters in the book, including a pair of drunken Texas fools who ignore their warning about the fire, and a man and woman arguing loudly on the river bank.
When the fire has been subdued, they see the same man paddling alone on the river. But, where is the woman?
Another must-read book of Canadian literature, that has vivid imagery of Northern Canadians.
Final Thoughts About Canadian Literature
The written works of Canadian authors found in Canadian literature, deeply reflect our country’s culture, origin, bilingualism and diversity.
Canadian literature through the creation of stories, poetry, prose, fiction, and other genres has helped to create an expression that instills images in the minds of young and old readers, worldwide.
Literature is a useful tool to help readers understand experiences they have never had the pleasure of encountering personally, but they can venture there through books.