Bards of the Kawarthas: Our poetic past
Many years ago, when my father taught school full-time, a highlight of the academic year for his students occurred on or around the 25th of January – the birthday of Robert Burns (1759-1796), the “Bard of Ayrshire,” who is widely regarded as Scotland’s national poet. For over 30 years, students in Mr. McKechnie’s classroom celebrated the legacy of this literary legend by reciting portions of To A Mouse and Auld Lang Syne, among other works; enjoying a cup of tea; and feasting on the Abernethy biscuits and shortbread made by his grandmother and mother, respectively.
Dad was brought up in a household where the poetic genius of Robert Burns was especially treasured. My grandfather, the late Allan Peacock McKechnie (1923-1998) was a devotee of Burns, and growing up, I heard more about Robert Burns than I think I ever did about the Canadian poets whose work I would later study at Trent University while completing a degree in English Literature.
January 2019 marks the 260th anniversary of the birth of Robert Burns, and while we rightly celebrate the works of Burns and other poetic greats, we should also take the time to reflect on how people in Kawartha Lakes have captured their sense of place and occupation through couplets and free-verse. Just as artefacts and artworks function as windows into our collective past, so to do those rhymes of old, three of which we’ll look at in this month’s column.
Perhaps the most well-known poet to have made his home in Lindsay was William McDonnell (1814-1900), an Irish-born businessman who made his home on the west bank of the Scugog River, where the Royal Canadian Legion hall is now located. McDonnell was an accomplished writer, producing a three-act opera called The Fisherman’s Daughter, several novels, and two long narrative poems. One of these poems, “Manita,” tells of a love affair between a young indigenous man and the daughter of a Huron chief in the region now known as Sturgeon Point. It begins:
The sultry summer day was near its close,
A ruddy glow still lingered in the west,
As the red sun ‘ere sinking to repose
Spread wide his last rays o’er the lake’s calm breast.
The tall oaks list’ning on the shaded shore
To lisping wavelets that now kissed their feet,
Threw deeper, longer, shadows than before,
As if they might the moonbeams sooner greet.
Though McDonnell’s taking it upon himself to compose a poem about a culture and a people other than his own might raise eyebrows today, his choice of language throughout “Manita” may reflect his own idealized picture of Sturgeon Point – a place to which Lindsay residents travelled in the summer to savour its placid waters and peaceful forests. Capturing that sense of place seems to be as much a part of his artistic goal as is relating the story of Manita and her lover, Ogemah.
Other settlers, in trying to capture a sense of place, described their communities in language that all but sounds like it could have been inspired by the great English poet, William Blake (1757-1827). “My Grand Resolvent Views,” composed anonymously around 1884, paints an almost Romantic picture of Frankhill, down in Emily Township:
The first grand scene we introduce in competition’s test
The scenery we do produce of which Frankhill is blest,
The beauty of its verdant fields, its hills and valleys fair,
All richly dressed in nature’s green, its balmy sunlit air,
And if you wish the scene to change, another view to take,
Beneath the dazzling splendor lies the far-famed Pigeon lake;
These have been duly chronicled by time’s historic muse,
Kind friends assist what nature blest, “My Grand Resolvent Views.”
While poets past and present have used their art to articulate their awe about a place (what the Romantics called “the sublime”), others offer simple sketches through clever couplets – much like a traditional nursery rhyme. Asa Gildersleeve Churchill, an obscure poet of the late 19th Century, was a master at this. Among his works is the Poetical Directory of Lindsay and Businessmen of the Surrounding Country (1872), wherein Churchill employs simple and memorable verses that capture the character of Lindsay and Victoria County at a time when both were basking in the optimism of post-Confederation Canada:
See Scugog’s powerful waters flow
Through Lindsay Town, Ontario,
And County of Victoria,
In British North America…
…Rich townships round this city stand
Like gardens in the Promised Land, –
Ops, Emily, Verulam, Fenelon wide,
And Mariposa are her pride…
…Telegraph to Britain’s throne,
Two presses make the tidings known
That reading millions all may know
This total town is a business show.
Of course, though it is one thing to sketch out one’s poetic reflections of a place in the third-person – as McDonnell and Churchill do – it is quite another to describe it in more subjective, more personal terms. That was clearly the goal of C.R. Ashman around 1924, when Lindsay celebrated “Old Home Week,” and to him we give the last word:
What do I find when I go back
To my home town?
Ghost faces of the past I see,
A story’s written round each tree,
Old friends in dreams to welcome me,
To my home town.