Wilfred Campbell was not a modest man, especially when it came to his poetry. By the end of the nineteenth century, he was being hailed as the unofficial poet laureate of Canada—a title he felt he had earned. After all, had he not made it his mission to commemorate national occasions and celebrate noble endeavours? By extolling the values he thought Canadians ought to cherish and emulate, had he not set high standards for them to follow? In his view, a poet had an obligation to uphold whatever was worthy and likely to enrich the lives of others. He was proud of what he had accomplished in that respect.
Another source of pride was his ancestry. He boasted that on his father’s side he was descended from the first Lord Campbell of the house of Argyll. He therefore claimed kinship with the Marquis of Lorne, Governor-General of Canada (1878-83), who became the ninth Duke of Argyll in 1900. Of this same Argyll line was Thomas Campbell (1777-1844), the Scottish poet, whose stirring ballads were standard recitation pieces when Wilfred was a schoolboy.
Around 1612, one of Wilfred’s paternal ancestors, a Presbyterian clergyman named Dugald Campbell, abandoned his native Argyllshire for Ulster in protest against the decision of James I to uphold the Established Church in Scotland. Two hundred years later, Dugald’s descendant, Thomas Campbell, the grandfather of Wilfred, left Ulster for Quebec City, severing his Presbyterian roots to become an Anglican priest. Moving to Upper Canada in 1819, he founded St. Thomas Anglican Church in Belleville where he remained the rector for fifteen years. When he died in 1835 at the age of forty-seven, his son Thomas Swainston Campbell, father of Wilfred, was barely three years old. His wife, née Emily Swainston, daughter of a wealthy merchant and shipowner in Liverpool, was only twenty-one when she was left a widow. She subsequently married Alexander Menzies of Belleville and raised a second family.1
Wilfred Campbell also boasted of his heritage on the maternal side. His mother, Matilda Wright, was the granddaughter of John Stephen Berridge, a London portrait painter, who had been a pupil and associate of Sir Joshua Reynolds. Berridge traced a Germanic family connection back to a Basil Feilding, called Count of Hapsburg and Rheinfelden, whose English descendants anglicized the spelling to Fielding. The most prominent member of the English line was the writer, Henry Fielding (1707-54), probably best remembered today for his picaresque novel, Tom Jones, which may have struck the puritanical Wilfred as being regrettably coarse.
Thomas Swainston Campbell, Wilfred’s father, was a distinguished-looking man with fine features and tidy sideburns.2 He possessed a keen intellect and was remarkably eclectic in his interests, but seems to have been intemperate in his conduct and lacking in will power. Ordained an Anglican priest in 1855, he had a chequered career in the ministry despite being an eloquent and persuasive speaker. Having suffered a breakdown in health while completing his divinity studies, he was advised —without taking his highly-strung temperament into account— to go “to the then Northern Mission fields where it was thought the bracing atmosphere would win back the lost strength.”3 After being assigned the task of setting up a succession of frontier parishes in Canada West, he moved to Meaford (in what had just become Ontario) in 1867. Although he was never the rector there, he evidently remained a resident of the village for several years, often being mentioned in the Meaford Monitor and being listed in the 1871 census for Meaford. However, the records of the Diocese of Huron during that period indicate that he oversaw the building of Trinity, an Anglican church in Wiarton, a pioneer settlement that had recently been carved out of the wilderness in the Indian country of the Bruce Peninsula. The community’s rapid growth soon led to a need for churches for several denominations, but the Anglicans the were the first to erect one. The Huron Synod Minutes for 1871 name the Rev. Thomas Swainston Campbell as the minister responsible for Trinity and the stations of Oliphant, Bass Lake, Kemble and Sarawak. It appears, however, that Campbell may not have moved his family to Wiarton until 1872.4
Wilfred’s mother, Matilda Campbell, was unused to hardship, but she adapted to the rigours of pioneer parishes—perhaps more successfully than her husband. Born at Walworth Manor, Surrey, England, the daughter of Major Francis Wright of the Royal Wagon Train and his wife Faith Henrietta Berridge, she was a child when her father retired to Canada in 1844 and settled on an estate near Belleville. Major Wright was a wealthy man who brought the trappings of a luxurious lifestyle to his new home, including “a remarkble collection of plate, fine china, pictures, among them specimens of Reynolds, and other ornaments of the English manor.”5 He died when Matilda was still a young girl, leaving “a very handsome estate if it had been rightly managed by the executors.”6 However, since his widow soon married John Reid, another man of substantial means,7 there was little change in Matilda’s privileged upbringing. Privately educated, she developed into a cultured young woman, who possessed considerable talent as a pianist and composer. On one occasion, The Wiarton Echo reported that “Mrs. T.S. Campbell has composed some new music which she has got published in Philadelphia in one of the best publishing houses in that city, from which she has received some very flattering recommends.”8
Thomas and Matilda Campbell had seven sons, five of whom survived to adulthood. Wilfred was the second oldest of the surviving children, but the place and date of his birth are open to question. It seems unlikely that he was born in Berlin (now Kitchener) as stated in many reference books. In filling out his registration form at theological college, he indicated that he was baptized at Farmersville (now Athens), the missionary parish near Brockville, Canada West, where his father was stationed from 1860 to 1863. However, if we accept the information on his marriage registration, he was born at Newmarket, a village midway between Toronto and Lake Simcoe. The year given for his birth ranges from 1858 to 1863, but his age in the census records of 1871, 1881 and 1891 indicates that he was born in 1860, as do statements from his mother and his brother Herbert. The records of 1901 (birthdate given as 1863) and 1911 (birthdate given as 1862) appear to be in error, although they are probably correct in listing June as the month of his birth.9
As Carl F. Kinck says of Wilfred, “Wiarton may properly be called Campbell’s home though it was not his birthplace.”10 Although its settlement had begun only six years before the arrival of the Campbell family, Wiarton’s population had already grown to two hundred and continued to increase rapidly. Norman Robertson, writing in 1906, provides a description of the village that was probably still close to the way Wilfred viewed it during his youth:
The beauty of the site upon which Wiarton is built places it in a unique position among the towns in the county of Bruce, none other of which can compare with it in picturesqueness. The view from the hill at the south of Wiarton charms every visitor. At one’s feet lies the busy town, with its numerous factories and mills; further on, at the docks, are to be seen crafts of all descriptions. Beyond, the view extends for miles down Colpoy’s Bay, with White Cloud and Hay Islands in the distance. The cultivated fields on the Keppel side of the bay seem to set off the bold limestone cliffs, commencing almost at the spectator’s left hand and extending as far as the eye can reach along the west shore.11
Wiarton is where Wilfred lived longest while growing up, and is the only place about which he ever recorded any boyhood memories. The area across the Bruce Peninsula, from Colpoy’s Bay to Lake Huron, is recalled with special fondness in one of his “Mermaid Inn” columns for the Globe:
As a boy, I always enjoyed the campfires we built in the woods or on the shingly beach of some lone lake shore, when the stars came out and peered down on the windy darkness and swallowed up the sparks and flames from the crackling logs and dry branches we heaped up while the local warmth and radiance added a contrast to the outside vastness of darkness and cold.12
It was there, also,that he learned to handle a canoe and a sailboat and swim the two-mile distance across Colpoy’s Bay.
Two of Wilfred’s brothers were close to him in age. With Frank, who was only a year older, he explored the Bruce Peninsula in search of Indian artifacts. With Herbert, who was barely a year younger, he often sang in public as part of a male trio, which Mrs. Campbell accompanied on the harmonium. The remaining brothers, Ernest (born in 1867) and Victor (born in 1871), were too much younger to be companionable.13 Of all the boys, it was Herbert who most resembled their mother. As their father once remarked to Wilfred with evident relish: “With the exception of Herbert, you are all more Campbell than Wright.”14
Pride of family, instilled in the Campbell boys by both parents, helped them hold their heads high despite growing up under the shadow of a minor scandal. Their father, who was ill-prepared by temperament and upbringing for the challenges facing a frontier clergyman, came to depend too heavily on alcohol as an escape from his problems. As a result, he was relieved of his charge at Trinity in 1876, although he remained a member of the congregation and was subsequently licensed for occasional duty. He continued to play a prominent part in the community, however, serving on the school board, becoming an active member of the Mechanics’ Institute and the Orange Lodge, and even being elected to the village council for several terms. Profiles of the reeve and councillors published in The Echo, include a candid portrait of T.S. Campbell, which indicates characteristics inherited by Wilfred—like father like son:
MR. CAMPBELL is a gentleman of considerable ability, and if he directs this ability in the proper channel and listens more to his own reasoning than to the counsel of others we don’t think the town is likely to suffer through his presence on the board. He filled a councillor’s seat last year, and was deputy reeve of Amabel before Wiarton assumed the dignity and importance of an incorporated village. He hails from the vicinity of Belleville and at one time occupied a much higher position in society than at present. If left to his own devices he might be a little reckless with the contents of the exchequer as he is of a sanguine disposition and the bump of “hope” is, we should judge, highly developed. He is a good public talker, possessed of fine debating powers, a remarkable memory and a reasonable amount of enterprise. The welfare of Wiarton, we believe, is a theme near his heart, and there is no doubt but his good qualities will be used for his “country’s good.” His enemies take pleasure in dragging from the closet the traditional skeleton and parading it in public places, but we would refer them to the scriptural passage, “Let he that is without sin cast the first stone.” He has a tendency to be communicative on subjects where discretion should be used, but if he guards well his actions outside the Council Chamber, his deliberations within the village acropolis will, we are sure, be of a sound and logical character.15
Wilfred Campbell “was educated at home and at the Owen Sound High School,” he once told an interviewer.16 His early ambition was to become either a sculptor or a musician, but prudence led him to look for a less precarious profession. Following his highschool years (1877-79), he enrolled in the Model School at Owen Sound in the autumn of 1879 to become a teacher, as did his brother Frank. On 19 December 1879, The Wiarton Echo reported:
We are pleased to inform the public that Mr. Frank Campbell has been appointed Head Master of Wiarton School. He is a young gentleman of considerable ability and has passed his examination with very high marks. Mr. Wm. Campbell, another son of Mr. T.S. Campbell, succeeds Mr. Jenkins in S.S. No. 4 Keppel [Zion, in Keppel Township], and we are informed that he is a promising young teacher, and fully believe that he will faithfully discharge his duties.
The wording of the foregoing item is worth examining. Here (as in many other local items) The Echo refers to Mr. T.S. Campbell, emphasising that he was no longer known as Reverend. The statements about Frank might be taken to imply that he received the better appointment because of his record. More likely, however, the Wiarton trustees preferred him because he was older. Although information about the siblings is sketchy, it appears that Wilfred may have been the most studious of all the Campbell brothers. Frank, whose interests were in science, later became a medical doctor, practising in nearby Hepworth. Herbert went to Michigan as a young man and found employment in the treasury department of the city of Detroit. Ernest opened a pharmacy in Hepworth, where he employed Victor as a dispenser, and later took over a furniture business.
Since the school at Zion was within walking distance, Wilfred lived at home, perhaps at minimal cost, but the following term he moved some ten miles away to Purple Springs where he boarded, probably at greater expense. However, in the fall of 1880, although his savings were undoubtedly meagre, he enrolled in University College at the University of Toronto. Among his professors at University College was the newly appointed principal, Daniel Wilson (later Sir Daniel), Scottish born and educated, who had been teaching history and literature at University College for the past thirty-seven years. Another of the professors, George Paxton Young, who taught logic, metaphysics and eithics, had been born in England but educated in Scotland. Both Daniel and Young were in their sixties and had long since acquired reputations as remarkable teachers. Although Maurice Hutton, the young Englishman who taught classics, was fresh out of Oxford, he was equally able, and would rise in his profession to become principal of the college.
Wilfred Campbell was obviously fortunate in his professors, but he once said of Wilson that “while he was a hard and close student and a man of eminence, he was too conservative to be a genuine discoverer in any field.”17 He may have been reflecting in part upon his own experience when he complained in 1892 that “our universities are being stocked with old country professors and tutors who have no real interest in or knowledge of our nationality and literature.” Admittedly, he was in a disgruntled mood, having sought unsuccessfully to acquire an academic appointment himself, but it must have been disheartening to see how little the situation had improved since his own student days. “[H]ow many professors of literature and history,” he asked, “... are truly Canadian in birth, hope, sympathy and education?” 18 Yet, the objection sounds strangely contradictory from a man as deeply attached as Campbell to the British Isles, particularly Scotland—a man sympathetic enough to the nostalgic lament of Sir Daniel Wilson’s poem “The Scot Abroad” to include it in an anthology for the Oxford University Press.
Campbell was no more than fourteen when be began writing verses, but his début as a poet occurred on 19 February 1881 with the publication of “Verses” (signed “Huron”) in Varsity at the University of Toronto. It was the first of twenty-six poems he would publish in Varsity between 1881 and 1888—many of them appearing long after he left Toronto. Several of the earlier contributions were privately printed in a little booklet called Poems! in 1881. The “Local Pickin’s” column of the Wiarton Echo announced on 2 April 1881: “We publish this week from Varsity, a poem on Colpoy’s Bay to which we call the attention of our readers. The author is Mr. Wm. Campbell of this village, who is a student at the Protestant Episcopal Divinity College, Toronto.” The local colour of the poem, a lengthy effort with the Indian title of “Nama-Way-Qua-Donc,” may have given rise to some civic pride, but it is inferior to most of the poems that Roberts and Lampman were writing at the same age. “Autumn,” his five-stanza lyric in Varsity on 21 October 1881, is a much better poem. He would re-issue it as “Indian Summer,” omitting two of its weakest stanzas. As it stands now, despite some banal phrases, “Indian Summer” presents an appealing picture:
Along the line of smoky hills
The crimson forest stands,
And all the day the blue jay calls
Throughout the autumn lands.
Now by the brook the maple leans
With all his glory spread,
And all the sumachs on the hills
Have turned their green to red.
Now by great marshes wrapt in mist
Or past some river’s mouth,
Throughout the long, still autumn day
Wild birds are flying south.
After matriculating from University College, Campbell entered Wycliffe College, an Anglican divinity school in Toronto, on 13 December 1882. He remained there only one year before deciding to register at the Episcopal Theological School, Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the fall of 1883. It was there that “Campbell’s spirit of restless inquiry into any subject and his sense of the unity of knowledge, set in motion at University College, received direction and encourgement.”19 He came to see his mission as a poet to be the betterment of mankind and felt a duty to stress high ideals and whatever else was of value to society. Earnest preaching was to be equated with artistry.
Before he entered the Theological College, he had fallen in love with Mary Louisa DeBelle, a feisty nineteen-year-old schoolteacher in Wiarton, but he could not yet support a wife and it was an era when married women were not allowed to teach in the public schools of Ontario. Therefore, they slipped off to be married secretly at Walkerton, over sixty miles away, on 6 October 1883. There was no time for a honeymoon before the bridegroom hurried off to Massachusetts while the bride, still calling herself Miss DeBelle, returned to the junior department of the William Street school in Wiarton.
Mary Louisa ruled her class with a firm hand, which got her into difficulties with B.B. Miller, the chairman of the school board after she chastised his son for branding another boy on the neck with a hot poker. She told Miller bluntly that she was taking orders from the board only as a body, not from him alone. Miller, who accused her of being “sassy,” was ready to pounce when a Mrs. Penton complained in early March, 1884, that Miss DeBelle had humiliated her insolent daughter by forcing her to write on the blackboard: “I have a long tongue.” When Miller successfully coaxed two more board members (out of a total of five) to join him in demanding that the teacher apologize to the mother, Mary Louisa promptly resigned. However, the community was on her side, and a petition of support persuaded her to withdraw her resignation. There was no apology, and Miller had to admit defeat, never realizing that he had grounds for dismissing the teacher because she was a married woman.20
Although she was prepared to resign as a matter of principle, Mary Louisa was likely happy to reconsider the matter and not have the bother of looking for another school. It would be nearly two years before Wilfred could expect to graduate from the theological school and he was probably depending on her for financial assistance. The Miller incident likely occupied considerable space in the letters that passed between them, but it is more uncertain how much Wilfred confided in her about the changes in his religious thinking. Influenced by the liberalism of his professors, he was finding it increasingly difficult to reconcile his changing views with church doctrine.
Undoubtedly, he told her about meeting Oliver Wendell Holmes, who recommended some of his poems to Thomas Bailey Aldrich, the editor of the Atlantic Monthly. Aldrich decided that the winter setting of “Canadian Folk Song” would be suitable for the January 1885 issue of his magazine. Campbell had good reason to be jubilant over the acceptance: not only was this his first real success as a poet, but to be published in the most prestigious periodical in America was the dream of every young writer. In fact, with “Canadian Folk Song,” he was the first of the Confederation Poets to crack the Atlantic Monthly, preceding Bliss Carman by more than a year. “Canadian Folk Song” is too slight to be compared with “Low Tide on Grand Pré,” Carman’s début in the Atlantic, but it has a certain homespun charm. The opening stanza is typical of the homely details and merry lilt throughout the poem:
The doors are shut, the windows fast;
Outside the gust is driving past,
Outside the shivering ivy clings,
While on the hob the kettle sings.
Margery, Margery, make the tea,
Singeth the kettle merrily.
Campbell graduated from the Episcopal Theological School on 17 June 1885. Two weeks later he was ordained a deacon and began his ministry in the rural parish of West Claremont, New Hampshire. Situated in the south-west corner of the state near the Vermont border, West Claremont was a thriving farm community in Campbell’s time, although it is described today as “a vanished village graced by New Hampshire’s oldest Episcopal and Catholic churches.”21 Union Church, where Campbell found himself serving, is the most historic, being founded slightly prior to the American Revolution. He was also responsible for the Episcopal services at nearby Cornish in the days before its farms were bought up and the area transformed into a colony for artists and writers.
What his congregation saw when he stood before them was an intensely earnest young man of medium height and a somewhat stocky build. His brown hair was brushed back rather severely, and the trace of a mustache flickered above the downward curve of his mouth. They might have considered him rather good-looking if it had not been for his squinty eyes and the stern, almost glum, expression that clouded his well-shaped features except when he was animated by his own oratory. They assumed he was an eligible bachelor and he saw no reason to disabuse them until, much to everyone’s surprise, Mary Louisa joined him in the autumn. The next summer, on 7 July, he was ordained a priest at a salary of about $50 a month—not much for a married man hoping to raise a family.
By his own assessment, Campbell was “a good preacher but a poor minister.” Despite his jitters in the pulpit, manifested in a nervous twitch, his congregation could expect “an excellent discourse, appropriate to the occasion.” Initially, he was praised for taking “a deep interest” in the welfare of the church and it was reported that “the members of the parish cordially co-operate with him.” He was also soon winning local fame as a poet, the Claremont Advocate making the extravagant claim that “he is writing as good poetry as any other American of the present generation.” When poems like “An Old New England Home” (The New England Magazine, February 1888) began appearing, his parishioners started to wonder whether “the ministry was only his stepping stone to a literary career.”22 That thought may not yet have been uppermost in his mind, but he could not long conceal his impatience with the humdrum business of running a church any more than he could remedy his tactlessness in handling congregational matters.
He submitted his resignation as rector of West Claremont and Cornish on 3 April 1888, citing the inability of the parish to raise his salary as the reason for leaving. His daughter Margery having been born on 18 September 1886 and Mary Louisa again being pregnant, his expenses were continuing to rise. However, money was not the only problem on his mind. Adding to his stress were his misgivings about the orthodox tenets he was expected to uphold, and his realization that he was temperamentally unsuited for his profession. While he was not yet ready to give up the ministry, there was an urgent need to move to a more prosperous parish in order to support his growing family. Besides, he may have felt it was time to return to Canada.
Having accepted a call to Trinity Church in St. Stephen, New Brunswick, at eight hundred dollars a year, Campbell settled his family in the old Loyalist town on the St. Croix River across from the state of Maine in time for his second daughter, Faith, to be born there on 24 June 1888. With his preference for plain forms of worship, Trinity seemed to be a church for which he was well suited. It had been founded eighteen years earlier by a group that had broken away from Christ Church because they objected to its High Anglican ritual. However, it was still a contentious congregation to which Campbell was unable to adjust. Moreover, his habit of hiding his insecurity by “taking an aggressive stand against the world” (evident earlier in West Claremont), was undoubtedly a further reason why “sympathetic harmony was not maintained through the period of his ministry” in St. Stephen.23
Before he left West Claremont, Campbell let it be known that he had a collection of poems ready for publication. Called Snowflakes and Sunbeams, it appeared in November 1888, published at his own expense by The Saint Croix Courier of St. Stephen. Missing from the contents was “An Old New England Home,” undoubtedly because its references to the battle of Bunker’s Hill and “Freedom’s hosts” were deemed inappropriate now that its author was back on British soil. Since fourteen of the twenty-one poems in Snowflakes and Sunbeams relate to winter, the emphasis is on snow rather than sun. Not being blessed with a sunny temperament, his instincts gravitated to the bleakness of cold and storm and mist. Apart from a couple of poems, like the cheery “Canadian Folk Song,” his winter pieces are on the sombre side, especially “A Winter Night,” which strikes the morbid note that would characterize so much of his future poetry:
The snows are wound
As a winding sheet on the river’s breast.
And the shivering blast goes wailing round
As a spirit that cannot rest.
Overall, Snowflakes and Sunbeams is not an impressive début for a poet who was twenty-eight years old. With the possible exception of “Indian Summer,” whose total effect surmounts its lack of original images, there is nothing in the collection to indicate anything more than a mediocre talent. Nevertheless, it had a favourable notice from John Talon Lesperance, editor of the The Dominion Illustrated (Montreal), who pronounced the poems to be “racy of the soil.”24 Charles G.D. Roberts, always ready to fan any poetic spark struck by his Canadian contemporaries, wrote a complimentary letter to Campbell from King’s College, Windsor, Nova Scotia, on 28 December 1888:
Exams, & much absorbing toil, have prevented me reviewing your book so far; and now, Goodridge [Roberts’ brother] hath carried it off to F’ton with him, where he is making an exhaustive study of it [to be published in the King’s College Record]. Can you not manage to let me have an autograph copy? I will give you full worth of reviewing—for the copy—not for the poetry, whose worth is not to be measured save in terms of other song equally high and sweet and inspired. How high an appreciation I have of your genius, which is not only fine in itself but particularly to my own particular taste, you shall see by my Progress review at an early date. I shall also send a note to the Dominion Illustrated on same subject. How perfectly you have caught the very spirit of Winter! How distinctive the note!25
Roberts was as good as his word. His comments on Snowflakes and Sunbeams appeared in “Literary Notes” in the Dominion Illustrated (Montreal) on 19 January 1889. In his review in Progress (a Saint John periodical edited by a brother-in-law of his wife), on 9 March 1889, he admitted the author so enthusiastically to “a distinctive place in the narrow front rank of Canadian singers,” that Campbell felt impelled to make a special trip to King’s College just to meet him. Although they had not seen each other before, they had been corresponding for several months, exchanging compliments and commiserating with each other as fellow-sufferers from the toothache. Early in their exchanges, Roberts had notified Campbell that the parish of Windsor was looking for a new rector. “Can you see your way to putting in your name?” he asked. “I shall canvas. It would be fine to have you here! ‘Navarre shall be a little Academe,’ so to speak!”26 However, since Campbell’s appointment to Trinity had been so recent, he felt that he could not openly press for the change, and it soon became clear that the Windsor parish was looking for an older clergyman with more experience.
Perhaps it is just as well that Campbell never moved to Windsor. Otherwise, Roberts’ dream of “a little Academe” might soon have been shattered. As Archibald Lampman and Duncan Campbell Scott discovered at a later date, Campbell looked upon his fellow-poets as rivals and was prone to jealousy. Both of those Ottawa contemporaries found him a difficult associate and eventually despaired of his unpredictable behaviour. Before long, even Roberts was driven to say of him: “He is a queer, jealous, undignified fellow, in some ways, and regards himself as the Canadian poet!” However, with characteristic generosity, he promptly added: “Fortunately, a man may have his little eccentricities, and be nonetheless a true and exquisite poet as Campbell is.”27
Snowflakes and Sunbeams was followed quickly by Lake Lyrics and Other Poems, published in August 1899 (at the author’s expense) by J & A McMillan of Saint John, N.B. At 160 pages, it is a bulkier volume that the first, with a Prelude (“Vapour and Blue,” a six-stanza salute to “the lakes of the west”) and three separate sections. The “lake lyrics,” thirty-three in all, form Part I of the volume; Part II is a complete reprint of Snowflakes and Sunbeams; the fourteen poems in Part III foreshadow several directions his poetry would take in the future: lurid phantasies (“Lazarus”), panegyrics (“Ode to Tennyson”), and paeans to the British Empire (“Canada to Great Britain”). A brief notice in The Dial (Chicago) summed up Campbell’s work succinctly: “His verse is somewhat lacking in finish, but evinces a deep and true poetical sympathy with nature, and occasionally produces a pure and sustained lyric note.”28 Charles G.D. Roberts called it “a little volume of rare verse .... one of the three or four real books we have produced in Canada.”29
This second volume led to Campbell’s reputation as the Laureate of the Lakes, although few, if any, of the “lake lyrics” merit Roberts’ extravagant praise. Even the better pieces, such as “The Heart of the Lakes,” can scarcely be classified as “rare verse”:
There are crags that loom like sceptres
Half under the sun and the mist;
There are beaches that gleam and glisten,
There are ears that open to listen,
And lips held up to be kissed.
There are miles and miles of waters
That throb like a woman’s breast,
With a glad harmonious motion
Like happiness caught at rest,
As if a heart beat under
In love with its own glad rest;
Beating and beating forever,
Onward to east and to west.
There are forests that kneel forever,
Robed in the dreamiest haze
That God sends down in the summer
To mantle the gold of its days,
Kneeling and leaning forever
In winding and sinuous bays.
There are birds that like smoke drift over,
With a strange and bodeful cry.
Into the dream and the distance
Of the marshes that southward lie,
With their lonely lagoons and rivers,
Far under the reeling sky.
It is not surprising that these “lake lyrics” are full of nostalgia. They were written in New Hampshire and New Brunswick, far away from the scenes that were being recalled with much affection. In part, they reflect Campbell’s unhappiness in West Claremont and St. Stephen. Yet it was only his public life that he found depressing. He was happy in his marriage and Mary Louisa was a helpful critic of his work, unlike May Roberts and Maud Lampman, who took no interest in their husbands’ poetry. A devoted family man, he was a loving father to Margery (idolized in his “Little Blue Eyes and Golden Hair”) and Faith (probably the subject of his sonnet “Infancy”). Matilda Campbell, who had not as yet seen those two granddaughters, came all the way from Wiarton to visit her son and his family in St. Stephen in September 1889, but left before winter came on and thus missed the birth of her grandson, Basil (named for his Fielding forebear), on the eighth of December.
In the summer of 1890, Campbell went to New York as a guest at the five-flight walk-up of Bliss Carman, the newly-appointed literary editor of the Independent. Back in March, he had written to Carman protesting that he had been ignored in an article on Canadian writers by J.L Stewart, recently published in the Independent. Carman replied, offering this explanation and advice:
I suppose I need not say that the article in the Independent on Canadian writers was accepted long before I came to the paper. I wished to omit my own name, but the other editor overruled me. As to the omission of yourself—ah! my dear fellow, what does it matter? You have written your work; it is beautiful. That is enough. It would be better if nothing were ever said about us until we were dead. You have all the fire and calm beauty of the lakes in your very heart, what is it to you whether this reviewer or that can see the beauty of it too.30
Somewhat mollified, Campbell decided to visit New York to take advantage of Carman’s personal acquaintance with the literary establishment. Unfortunately, the trip did little to raise either his hopes or his spirits. Judging from the tone of his belated letter to thank Carman, he returned home more downcast than ever:
—I was not well at the time, and very much flustered. I have not been well since I came home, and have been very much downhearted and lonesome. Can you not write me a letter and cheer me up. It is very disheartening to be alone in a place like this .—I would like to go over to see Roberts but—I have spent so much on my New York trip that I cannot afford it. I feel I should have written you some time ago but was too sick to do so. I wish I could get out of the church and into something else. You have no idea of the hideousness of petty parish broils and jars. I envy you your position in a congenial avocation.
.... I am ever so much obliged to you for your kindnesses to me in N. York.
I wish when you come north you could come and stay for a week with me if you have the time. There is a river near St. George [the Magaguadavic] that is worth seeing, and, I would like to run it with you. The scenery is exceedingly fine, so different from the St. Stephen scenery.31
There is no hint in his letter of an imminent departure from St. Stephen—quite the contrary, in fact—but Campbell left rather precipitously before the end of September when Carman was due to take his holiday. On the second of November he was installed as the rector of St. Paul’s in Southampton on Lake Huron. It was not an escape from the ministry, but the promised salary was better, and the move brought him back to the lake region.
Southampton, named after the famous seacoast town in England, is the oldest port on the Bruce coast of Lake Huron, having begun as a trading and fishing post in 1848. By 1890, it had been eclipsed by nearby Port Elgin and had not yet acquired its reputation as a resort area. Close enough to Wiarton for Campbell to have known it in his boyhood, the parish should have been a fortuitous placement. The Huron shore was one he had recalled and idealized in Lake Lyrics, and the congregation undoubtedly included members whose family connections were well known to him. In less than six months, however, his tenure came to an acrimonious end with the congregation refusing to pay his salary and him abandoning the clergy forever. “Last week,” wrote the Southampton correspondent for the sixth of May issue of The Port Elgin Times, “the Rev. W.W. Campbell, incumbent of St. Paul’s church, left here for Ottawa, where, it is said, he secured a position in the civil service.” Praising him for his “fine literary taste and ability,” the writer concluded “we shall not be surprised if he attains still greater distinction in the literary field.”
Much has been made of the contention that Campbell left the ministry because “its dogmas, he felt, placed a restraint on his freedom of thought and speech.”32 His dilemma—not unique among truth-seeking clergymen, surely—was real and deeply distressing, but it was not the only reason for his decision. Indeed, the deciding factor may have been his frustration with parish life. Too tactless to be popular, too dogmatic to be accommodating, he found church business a nightmare that left him mentally exhausted and physically ill. Although he seemed unable to admit it, the fault lay with himself as much as it did with any particular parish.
By 1891 he was ready for almost anything that offered an escape from the Church, but a civil service post in Ottawa was not his first choice. In March, upon learning of a vacant professorship at the Royal Military College in Kingston, he turned to Alexander McNeill, the member of parliament for Bruce North, and Sir John A. Macdonald, the Prime Minister, to support his application to the principal. Although Macdonald, aged seventy-six, was exhausted and ill after a recent general election, he took the trouble to respond encouragingly: “I have great pleasure in laying your letter, and Mr. McNeill’s recommendation, before him.”33 Nevertheless, the appointment went to someone else, and Campbell moved to Ottawa, apparently assured of an opening somewhere in the civil service. As it turned out, nothing was immediately available except a temporary position in Macdonald’s own department of Railways and Canals. Accordingly, Campbell began work there on 18 May, at a salary of $1.50 a day, with the expectation that a position would soon become available in the Parliamentary Library.
There would be no more help from Macdonald. Less than three weeks later, on 6 June, the old statesman died. It must have been a blow to Campbell, who had undoubtedly hoped for Sir John’s continued patronage. He began immediately to compose a tribute, “The Dead Leader,” which was printed in time to be widely distributed on the day of the funeral. Of its eight stanzas, all of them embarrassingly effusive, perhaps none is more fulsome than the following:
God gave this highest honour
To the nation that upon her
He was spared to lay the magic of his hand;
Then to live to see the greatness
Of his noble works, completeness,
Then to pass to rest beloved by his land.
At the time, it went over well enough for Campbell to see the gain in celebrating great people and great occasions. He had taken the first step towards becoming Canada’s unofficial poet laureate.
Campbell’s sponsors, Archibald McNeill of Bruce North and R.C. Weldon of Albert, New Brunswick, both members of the Conservative caucus, argued that their protégé should be given a permanent civil service appointment because he was a poet—just look at his tribute to their dead party chieftain! Even Wilfrid Laurier, the leader of the opposition, thought Campbell deserved consideration because he was “one of the real living poets in the English language.”34 Unfortunately, a report from a joint committee of the House of Commons and the Senate, recommending that Campbell be appointed to the Parliamentary Library, was subsequently turned down by both houses on technical grounds. John Abbott, Macdonald’s successor as prime minister, said bluntly: “We cannot inaugurate a system of pensioning gentlemen who are supposed to possess some particular literary ability.”35 Thus, Campbell was compelled to continue at near-starvation wages until 1 August 1892 when he beame a clerk in the Department of the Secretary of State for ten months. This was followed by three years with the Department of Militia and Defence with an initial salary of eleven hundred a year. His next eleven years were spent as a clerk in the Privy Council Office. On 27 August 1908, he became a clerk in the Public Archives (administered by the Department of Agriculture!) where he remained until his death nine years later.
The civil service was not a stimulating environment for a writer. Charles G.D. Roberts, who briefly toyed with the idea of a clerkship in Ottawa, wisely concluded that the work would be stultifying. Archibald Lampman, in the Post Office department, felt drained by the drudgery even though his office hours were not particularly demanding. For Duncan Campbell Scott, whose aptitude for administration led to his steady rise in Indian Affairs, his employment meant an assured means of paying the bills that enabled him to follow outside pursuits that were more to his liking. Campbell, with his distaste for humdrum routine, was not ideally suited for office life, but at least it had none of the trials and frustrations he had found in parish work. Besides, life in Ottawa provided him with valuable contacts in the arts and sciences as well as in politics. He was soon in his element there.
Among his first literary acquaintances were Archibald Lampman and Duncan Campbell Scott, whose admiration and sympathy for him were not without reservations as Lampman indicates in a letter to E.W. Thomson dated 16 February 1892:
One of my next door neighbours is the poet William Wilfred Campbell. He is an odd fish. His first impression is unsatisfactory and does not inspire confidence; but I feel myself gaining respect for him as I know him better. His mind is erratic and slovenly; but there is some good stuff in it, which now and then comes out in an accidental and unexpected way. Campbell is deplorably poor. In comparison to him I am a small Croesus.... Partly in order to help his pockets a little Mr. Scott and I decided to see if we could get the Toronto “Globe” to give us space for a couple of columns of paragraphs & short articles, at whatever pay we could get for them. They agreed to it; and Campbell, Scott and I have been carrying on the thing for several weeks now.36
The weekly pay of $3.00 for each of the three writers was a godsend for Campbell, still a temporary employee with a wife and children to support. His fourth child, Dorothy Catherine Mackay Campbell, was born on 5 February 1892, shortly before he received his first payment from the Globe.
The “Mermaid” project was barely underway when Campbell nearly caused its demise. On 27 February his essay on mythology classified many of the Old Testament stories as myths—a controversial view in some quarters—but what raised the most hackles was the statement that “The story of the cross itself is one of the most remarkable myths in the history of humanity connected with the old phallic worship of some of our most remote ancestors.” On the following Monday, the Globe emphatically repudiated such heresy, expressing deep regret for its appearance. Campbell responded that, on re-reading the statement, he could see how “readers unacquainted with mythology” might not understand that the reference was to “the cross as a symbol of religious worship in ancient nature religions,” not an “allusion to the history of early Christianity or the death of Christ.” Indirectly admitting partial blame for the misunderstanding, he added: “The article in question was written hurriedly, and in a time of much work and care, and was necessarily compressed to fit the department it was to fill.” 37
The storm blew over and the “Mermaid” columns continued to appear for more than a year until the writers felt that the project had run its course. It had served its purpose by coming to Campbell’s assistance, but once he had a permanent appointment with better pay, his need was no longer as urgent. In the final columns, which appeared on 1 July 1893, Campbell attacked what he called “pseudo-poetry ... which in the absence of real poetic imagination and creative ability, has taken to pensive musings and landscape painting in words.” Inventing poems he credits to a fictitious John Pensive Bangs—probably a play on the name of John Kendrick Bangs, an American whose light verse appeared regularly in the popular magazines—he quotes passages that sound like a parody of the nature poetry of Archibald Lampman and Charles G.D. Roberts. A sonnet called “At Even” certainly seems to echo Lampman’s style and attitudes: “I sit me moanless in the sombre fields ... all this landscape reels ... and I have eased my soul of its sweet pain.” The titles in John Pensive Bang’s “new volume of poems” suggest a lampoon of Roberts’ sonnets. If Lampman and Roberts are indeed among the intended targets, the satire is not only unfair but appears rather churlish since both men had befriended him in significant ways.38
A month later, The Dread Voyage, Campbell’s third volume of poems was published in Toronto by William Briggs, who also published Roberts’ Songs of the Common Day —full of that satirized “landscape painting in words”—at about the same time. Just previously, Roberts had written to Archibald MacMechan: “I fear there is jealousy somewhere in our little band! It is not in Carman, or Lampman, or me.” His meaning is clarified obliquely a few lines later in a reference to Campbell’s forthcoming collection.39 With the almost simultaneous appearance of books by Roberts and Campbell, comparisons were inevitable. Given the latter’s hypersensitive ego, he may have winced to see Roberts’ verse described as being “more finished and technically fastidious.”40
The Dread Voyage has been called “a biographical document,”41 reflecting the recent spiritual crises in Campbell’s life. His religious faith had not been destroyed, but it had been shaken, and he was full of doubts and fears. In this dark mood, he turned to gloomy fin de siècle themes. Archibald Lampman thought there were “some fine things” in the new volume, but dismissed the moody “fad” as “rubbish.”42 At the time, the most celebrated poem in the collection was “The Mother,” which had won immediate acclaim in Canada and abroad after its publication in Harper’s Monthly in April, 1891. It is a variation on the old Germanic wives’ tale of a dead mother coming back to suckle her baby at night. In Campbell’s version, the mother takes the baby back to the grave with her:
And here I lie with him under the stars,
Dead to earth, its peace and its wars;
Dead to its hates, its hopes and its harms,
So long as he cradles up soft in my arms.
And heaven may open its shimmering doors,
And saints make music on pearly floors.
And hell may yawn to its infinite sea,
But they never can take my baby from me.
Today’s readers, less likely to be affected by this morbid—and implausible—Victorian sentimentality, may wonder why the piece created such a fuss. Not only was it widely circulated and admired, it also became the centre of controversy when Katherine Tynan, an associate of William Butler Yeats, fancied she saw too many parallels with one of her own poems and accused him of plagiarism.
None of the other poems in The Dread Voyage has stood the test of time as well as “How One Winter Came in the Lake Region.” From the opening line—“For weeks and weeks the autumn world stood still”—four stanzas of muted images heighten the expectant lull until
When one strange night the sun like blood went down
Flooding the heavens in a ruddy hue;
Red grew the lake, the sere fields parched and brown,
Red grew the marshes where the creeks stole down,
But never a wind-breath blew.
That night I felt the winter in my veins,
A joyous tremor of the icy glow;
And woke to hear the north’s wild vibrant strains,
While far and wide, by withered woods and plains,
Fast fell the driving snow.
The Dread Voyage is “affectionately dedicated” to Alexander McNeill and R.C. Weldon, the Members of Parliament who had campaigned actively for his permanent appointment to the civil service. Weldon, a former dean of the Dalhousie Law School in Halifax, was a lawyer and a mathematician with a liking for poetry. McNeill, a quiet man who was fond of reading, had held the constituency of North Bruce since 1881 when young Wilfred Campbell was one of his constituents. When we are told that he “fathered Campbell in the Dread Voyage days,”43 the statement may imply more than parent-like solicitude. Being a man of considerable means—he built a 17-room mansion near Wiarton—he may have lent financial support as well. “People do things for Campbell,” Lampman said enviously, “-- things they would never do for me for instance.”44
Lampman was often ignored because he shrank from self-promotion. Campbell, who was never one to hide his light under a bushel, thrust himself upon the cultural and political élite of Ottawa and elsewhere, usually catching their attention by sending out complimentary copies of his work. The Dread Voyage was dispatched to Rideau Hall shortly after Lord Aberdeen was installed as the new Governor-General in 1893. Lady Aberdeen wrote a cordial acknowledgement, expressing the hope that they might “soon have the pleasure of making your personal acquaintance.”45 When Aberdeen was succeeded by Lord Grey (donor of the Grey Cup for Canadian football), Campbell and Grey were soon on friendly terms, discussing poetry and their shared imperialistic views. Laurier was among the polititians he cultivated, but after the election upset of 1911, he lost no time in sending greetings and a copy of his poems to Robert Borden, the new prime minister. Goldwin Smith, who once had a Confederation Poet working for him in the person of Charles G.D. Roberts, was a regular recipient of Campbell’s work. Smith’s acknowledgement of The Poems of Wilfred Campbell (1905) was sweeter than honey to a poet inclined to worry about his standing among his contemporaries. “Poetry in the world seems to be moribund,” Smith commented. “But it is showing life in Canada & above all Canadians in you.”46
Upon personal acquaintance, most of the people Campbell wanted to impress found him to be a congenial companion and stimulating conversationalist. He could debate significant issues fervently and eloquently with the best of them. In 1893, three years after arriving in Ottawa, he was sponsored to join the distinguished scholars in the Royal Society of Canada, becoming the second of our Confederation Poets to be admitted into the fellowship of that august body. Only Charles G. D. Roberts, who became a fellow in 1890, had preceded him. Lampman was admitted in 1894, Duncan Campbell Scott in 1899, and Frederick George Scott in 1900. Carman, hindered by his continued residence in the United States, finally became a corresponding member in 1925. As for Pauline Johnson, being a woman was enough in itself to exclude her from what was then a male bastion. Over the years, Campbell would play a prominent role in the section devoted to belle lettres, history, and allied subjects, serving as vice-president (1900), president (1901-02), and secretary (1903-1911).
Lord Lorne (born John Douglas Sutherland Campbell), who founded the Royal Society of Canada in 1882 when he was Governor-General, still maintained a keen interest in its affairs. In 1900, at the same time that Wilfred Campbell became prominent in the Society, Lorne succeeded his father as the Duke of Argyll and hereditary head of the Campbell clan. These events prompted Campbell to initiate a correspondence with his “chief,” who warmly welcomed the exchange. Now in his mid-fifties, Argyll looked back upon his term as Governor-General as the high point of his career. Being the husband of Princess Louise, the fourth daughter of Queen Victoria, had not brought many political rewards or even much royal recognition. Although he was handsome, clever, and charming, he had never been accepted by most of the royal family. His royal brothers-in-law, in particular, looked down upon him as a commoner and had no use for his “arty” ways, including his penchant for writing poetry. At one point, he had been rumoured as a possible successor to Lord Tennyson as poet laureate, but being the Queen’s son-in-law would have made the appointment open to the charge of nepotism, which was probably more of a consideration than the mediocrity of his talent. Always ready to discuss literature and keen to keep up his ties with Canada, he was happy to have Campbell as a correspondent.
Campbell had just begun to savour his sweet success in being elected to the Royal Society of Canada when he plunged into a bitter controversy. For a long time, he had been harbouring resentment over perceived attempts by Roberts, Carman, Lampman and D.C. Scott to undermine his reputation as a poet. As he saw it, they belonged to a mutual admiration society from which he was excluded. The matter came to a head after the publication of an article called “The Singers of Canada” in the May issue of Munsey’s Magazine (New York), 1895. The author, Joseph Dana Miller, an American journalist with only a passing knowledge of the subject, had written to Campbell and others for suggestions as to sources of information, etc. The finished article contains highly favourable comments on Roberts, Lampman and Scott, but ranks Carman foremost in the group. Campbell, damned with faint praise in two short paragraphs, saw red at being glossed over as “a rhetorician rather than a poet.” He jumped to the conclusion that several of his “rivals” had prejudiced Miller against him and even edited the proofs in their own favour. He saw it as part of a conspiracy, an unjust attempt to depreciate his work. It was an injury he was not going to suffer in silence. He would expose the calumny in the public press.
The chief target of his attack was Bliss Carman. No longer did he feel the friendly disposition that had made him yearn for Carman’s company and propose a camping trip up the Magaguadavic River. He believed that Carman, as an editor, had wilfully and unjustly snubbed him while handing out generous praise to other compatriots, particularly Roberts. He decided to strike where he thought his supposed enemy was most vulnerable. He would charge him with plagiarism, a sin which Carman confessed he had inadvertently committed in his poem “The Eavesdropper”:
The line “With small innumerable sound” was, of course, taken wholesale from Mr. Lampman’s beautiful poem, “Heat,” which I had read and admired much, long before my own “Eavesdropper” was written. The reappearance of this line in the latter poem was due, I must believe, to what one may call unconscious (or, better, subconscious) appropriation .... And when one of my friends [Peter McArthur] pointed out the identity of the line with Mr. Lampman’s I was the saddest man in New York, not because I feared the charge of plagiarism, but because I must lose such a good line. In the second edition of “Low Tide,” published in April 1894, the line was amended (for the worse).... I also wrote at once to Mr. Lampman, lamenting my unfortunate blunder, and I have his very friendly note acknowledging the drollery of the situation.47
In a letter to the Toronto Sunday World, 16 June 1895, Campbell compiled a long list of what he considered to be further examples of plagiarism in Low Tide on Grand Pré. However, the alleged similarities are so far-fetched that it is difficult to understand how Campbell expected anyone to take him seriously. That is the very point Peter McArthur makes in an answering letter in the Sunday World, 30 June 1895: “I venture to say that by pursuing the same methods of criticism it is possible to make out at least as strong a case that has been made against Carman, against any poet since Homer.” Then, writing tongue in cheek, McArthur uses those methods to find parallels in Campbell’s poetry with that of Arnold, Tennyson and Rossetti.
With professed reluctance, Carman responded to the personal attack in a letter to the Globe on 20 July 1895. Dismissing the charges of plagiarism, he explains pointedly why he had been praising Roberts, Lampman and D.C. Scott, but not Campbell “in the small criticism I sometimes write for the press”:
Not because they are my friends; for though one of them is my oldest friend, another I have not seen, and the third I have only met once. I praise them because I like their poetry and believe in it. Now, if Mr. Campbell, with whose friendship I was honoured, was left out of this category of poets, the conclusion must have been obvious to most people. Does Mr. Campbell need to be told in plainer words that I cannot think of him (as yet, at least) as the equal of some of his contemporaries.
None of the other poets responded openly. In a private letter to Carman, Roberts fulminated: “What a screeching jackass W.W.C. has made of himself ....”48 Even before Campbell aired his grievances in public, Lampman had written to E.W. Thomson:
I have been having some unpleasantness with our friend William Wilfred Campbell. Campbell has actually got it in his head (and firmly rooted there) that I—I mind you—am engaged with Roberts and Carman in an underhand intrigue to destroy him and undermine his reputation. On two occasions he has even accused me of this by broad hints to my face, and both times I lost my temper and flared up—a thing very rare in me—and talked to him pretty roughly. He harbours infinite wrath and bitterness against me. Campbell is a monomaniac on the subject of his reputation. His state of mind in regard to such matters amounts absolutely to madness.49
Campbell’s battle was fought in the press from June until September, not just by himself, but in a volley of letters, articles and editorials from two camps: those who sympathized with him and those who saw him as man deluded by paranoia. In The War Among the Poets (Canadian Poetry Press, 1994), Alexandra J. Hurst has collected and edited the whole barrage for the convenience of anyone who wishes to assess the skirmish. Today’s readers will be struck by how much heat Canadian poetry could generate back in the late nineteenth century. Emotions were on fire; but, when the smoke cleared, Carman and the other “conspirators” emerged with little lasting damage to their reputations. If anyone was the loser, it was Campbell. He forfeited a lot of good will, and did nothing to enhance his literary reputation. Lampman told him bluntly that he had been wasting his “time and vitality in confounded foolishness.”50
The “war” among the poets leaves a lasting impression of Campbell as a mean-spirited egotist. That is unfortunate since it is far from being the whole picture of the man. Even Duncan Campbell Scott, who was not kindly disposed towards him, conceded in retrospect: “There was much in his character that was good and some sweetness perceptible when he allowed it to appear....” Scott had never found him congenial, however, and felt “that after a certain date he began to develop into a Snob, and in the end that evil prevailed to a large extent.”51 The latter characteristic became more apparent after his first visit to Britain in 1897. The social triumphs of three successive visits over the next fourteen years were enough to go to the head of a colonial like Campbell, who thought that nothing mattered more than the stamp of British approval. Once, while being hosted by Rudyard Kipling, the latter twitted him about relishing the company of “Bishops and the great of the Earth in Palaces and so on.”52
During the trip Campbell and his wife took to England and Scotland in 1897, their only significant social contact was with the Duchess of Sutherland, who acknowledged her distant kinship with Mary Louisa through the clan of Mackay. In 1901, travelling with his wife and young Basil, he was received by Lord Strathcona, the Canadian High Commissioner, and feted in Scotland by the Duchess of Sutherland at Dunrobin Castle, by steel millionaire Andrew Carnegie at Skibo Castle, and by the Duke of Argyll at Inverary. In 1906, accompanied by his daughter Faith, he represented the Royal Society of Canada at the quatercentenary of the founding of Aberdeen University, where he received an honorary LL.D during the main ceremony. On the following day he was presented to King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra. Armed with many letters of introduction, he was received and entertained by powerful people in the church and state. The most cordial welcome of all, however, came from Lord Argyll, by now a devoted friend and admirer, who acted as companion and guide for father and daughter in London and Scotland. During a four-month tour of Britain in 1911, accompanied by daughters Faith and Margery, he viewed the coronation procession of George V from a seat with the Royal Household at Buckingham Palace. Once again, he met with the “great” people in various fields. But mere visits were not enough to the land he regarded as the fountainhead of his heritage. He dreamed of being posted there as an official representative of the Canadian government.
He had tried to lay the groundwork by ingratiating himself with Laurier and the Liberal party. In his ode for the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria’s reign, 1897, he commended the Canadian Prime Minister to the queen in laudatory terms:
And him we send thee as our greatest son,
The people’s choice to whose firm hand is given
The welfare of our country under heaven;
No truer son hast thou in all thy coasts,
No wiser, kindlier, stronger, Britain boasts;
Our knightly leader, Norman in his blood,
But truest Briton in heart and speech and mind.
Belovèd well of all his fellow-kind,
In statemanship our nation’s highest mood,
Our silver-tongued and golden-hearted one,
In every inch and every thought a man,
Our noblest type, ideal Canadian!
Receive him ‘mid those greatest thou dost own,
Thy mighty empire-builders, bastioning round thy throne.
If Laurier was any judge of poetry, this doggerel could hardly have pleased him, but perhaps he was susceptible to the flattery. At any rate, he permitted Campbell to dedicate his next volume of poems, Beyond the Hills of Dream (1899), to him as one “by whose appreciation, sympathy, and friendship the author has been aided and encouraged.”
Included in Beyond the Hills of Dream was the jubilee ode. Eleven of its other thirty-five poems were reprinted from The Dread Voyage, thus perpetuating the dark tone of the earlier volume. Sombre also was “Bereavement of the Fields,” one of the better new poems, written in memory of Archibald Lampman, who died on 10 February 1899. His former antagonism towards Lampman is replaced by lamentation:
Soft fall the February snows, and soft
Falls on my heart the snow of wintry pain ....
Also noteworthy in this volume, not for their merit but as forerunners of a future trend, are several poems such as “England,” written from the viewpoint of what he would later call “Vaster Britain.”
Late in 1901, Campbell unexpectedly gained a lasting ally in the person of Mackenzie King, an ambitious young Liberal, who had already risen to become the Deputy Minister of Labour. On the evening of 6 December, Bert Harper, King’s departmental assistant and closest friend, was drowned during a skating party on the Ottawa River while trying unsuccesssfully to save Miss Bessie Blair (daughter of the Minister of Railways and Canals), who had fallen through the ice. With all of Ottawa in shock over the tragedy, Campbell contributed an elegy, “H[erbert] A. Harper,” to the Evening Journal, extolling Harper’s heroism as evidence that “There lurks a godlike impulse in the world,/ And men are greater than they idly dream.” King, deeply moved by this tribute to Harper’s knightly valour, paid a printer five dollars to publish it in pamphlet form, and thereafter became one of Campbell’s most loyal friends. Possibly at King’s suggestion, the poem appeared under the title “A Canadian Galahad” in later printings.
Having the backing of Laurier and King raised Campbell’s hopes that an appointment in London might soon be his. As early as 2 February 1900, Laurier confirmed: “This is what I have in mind for you.”53 A year later, he reported:
I have had for some time your last letter before me. With regard to you being transferred to the High Commissioner’s Office in London, this is a matter as to which I cannot give you any information. I have put your application before Lord Strathcona several times, but though we have practically the control of that office, Lord Strathcona is such an important man that we must consult his wishes. I have not yet given up all hopes, but until he comes again to Canada, I cannot hold out to you any expectation in that direction.54
Years would pass with the prize still dangling beyond Campbell’s grasp. He continued to lobby for London, however, even after Lord Grey assured him that “Your influence is greater than you know, and it is wanted ... more on this side [Canada] than on the other side of the Atlantic.” 55
By 1911, he may have been angling for something more than a subordinate appointment in the High Commissioner’s Office. With Lord Strathcona in his ninety-first year and showing signs of dotage, everyone was hoping—expecting, in fact—that following the coronation of George V, the old man would mark the end of an epoch by resigning. It was no secret that Sir Gilbert Parker, a Canadian-born novelist elected to the British House of Commons, had long anticipated Strathcona’s departure and was campaigning to be his replacement. Equally covetous of the position was Sir Frederick Borden, the convivial Minister of Militia and Defence in Laurier’s cabinet. A cautionary letter from Mackenzie King makes it clear that Campbell was another aspirant.
In regard to the High Commissioner’s Office it is out of
the question to think of anything being done at the present
time. As a matter of fact Lord Strathcona has not sent in
his resignation and I understand is unlikely to do so until
after the general election, which as you will doubtless
have learned by press despatches has been fixed for
September 21 .... There is absolutely no chance of
getting consideration for anything further until at least
after the election, and it would only prejudice your chances
later on were further efforts to be made at the present
When the Liberals lost the election over the issue of reciprocity, Strathcona packed his bags for Ottawa to pay his respects to Robert Borden, the Prime Minister elect. The triumphant Tories were afraid to hint that the old potentate should resign, and he preferred to think that they wanted him to stay on. He was still clinging to office when he died on 21 January 1914 in his ninety-third year. Borden promptly filled the vacancy with George Perley, a member in his cabinet and one of his closest friends. Campbell’s hopes for any kind of overseas appointment died when his two patrons lost their political power.
From the 1890s onward, although he never abandoned poetry, Campbell devoted more of his energies to drama and prose. Altogether, he wrote nine tragedies, none of which was ever performed —just as well, maybe, if Lampman was right in saying that they had “enough fire and fury in them to blow up a theatre”57—and only five ever appeared in print. They had two strikes against them: they were poetical in form and historical in setting, two characteristics that were out of favour at a time when the London stage was setting the trend with the social realism of Ibsen, Shaw, and others. Early on, he had high hopes for his Arthurian drama, Mordred, which Lady Aberdeen submitted on his behalf to Henry Irving, but the famous British actor-manager turned it down. Lord Grey sent it to another actor-manager, Herbert Beerbohm Tree, but he, too, was not interested. These rejections were not necessarily a reflection on the merits of Campbell’s work. Actor-managers—already an anachronism in the changing theatre world—were not interested in great plays, only in roles to showcase their histrionics.
From 29 August 1903 to 24 June 1905, Campbell contributed a column to the Saturday editions of the Ottawa Evening Journal. Under the heading “Life and Letters,” the contributions usually take up the better part of a page. The topics cover a wide range with frequent inclusions of his own poetry, but the recurring theme is patriotism. Pointing to the lack of good patriotic poetry in Canada—and maybe settling an old score—he takes aim at the early nationalistic verse of Charles G. D. Roberts:
But for all his taste for fine verses and his ambition to excel as a Canadian poet, he lacked the genuine fire for the real production. Mr. Roberts’ lines are well built or constructed, but as national verse they are cold, they lack that fire, that magic something, which only genius can supply, and not all the study of sounding phrases and mated vowels can ever give. Then, Mr. Roberts has long since left this country and has shown by this that his attempt was more academic than patriotic.58
Campbell’s idea of Canadian patriotism is loyalty to the country’s British heritage. In particular, he extols the Scottish influence, quoting from his own poem, “The World-Mother (Scotland).”59
The early years of the twentieth century saw a prolific outpouring of prose from Campbell. In addition to numerous pamphlets, he wrote five historical novels and three works of non-fiction. Only two of his novels ever appeared in book form: Ian of the Orcades (1906), dedicated to Lord Argyll, “my chief, kinsman, and friend,” and A Beautiful Rebel (1909). Another novel was never re-printed after its appearance in The Christian Guardian, and two novels still remain only in manuscript form. Two of his works of non-fiction were labours of love: a book about the Great Lakes (1910, reprinted and enlarged 1914)), and an account of the Scottish settlements in Eastern Canada (1911). The title of the former is quite a mouthful: The Beauty, History, Romance, and Mystery of the Canadian Lake Region. Campbell intersperses these descriptive sketches, which appeared originally in The Westminster magazine, with selections of his lake lyrics to give the reader a very personal tour of the region. Subjective, also, is the bias of The Scotsman in Canada, which credits Scots with laying the foundation of nearly everything that is admirable in Canada.
While he was busy with prose, Campbell published his collected verse in The Poems of Wilfred Campbell (1905). It is an impressive volume in size (190 poems, 354 pages) and also in arrangement (large divisions of “Elemental and Human Verse,” “Nature Verse,” “Elegiac and Memorial Verse,” “Dramatic, Classical and Imaginative Verse,” “Sonnets,” “Sagas of A Vaster Britain,” and “Lake Lyrics”). Overall, it was favourably received by critics at home and abroad, although the attention is not, despite the opinion of one admirer, “evidence of the secure place Campbell had won among contemporary poets.”60 “To find the true poetry,” Campbell writes in his “Introduction” to the collection, “needs no subtle insight into the intricasies of language and the laws of prosody.” While he may be talking about the appreciation of poetry, which is not dependent solely upon an understanding of technicalities, one suspects he is also referring to the writing of poetry. The statement sounds like an answer to the critics who faulted his work for its clumsiness in language and construction.
Campbell was fond of the phrase “Vaster Britain.” It embodied his imperialistic vision of Canada as a sibling of the “Mother Country,” weaned on her culture, inheriting her virtues, and cherishing her kinship. Just as the clouds of war were gathering over Europe in 1914, threatening his spiritual homeland, he issued Sagas of a Vaster Britain, a collection of poems dedicated to the new Governor-General, the Duke of Connaught, favourite son of the late Queen Victoria. Many of its seventy poems were recycled from previous collections, patriotic effusions like “England” (“Over the freedom and peace of the world/ Is the flag of England flung”) and some of his best work like “How One Winter Came to the Lake Region.” The new poems, like “Life’s Ocean” and “The Dream Divine,” have the old weaknesses of displeasing sound (“large-mooned waters”) and awkward structure (“And of all love’s far, dim dawnings of hope unborn/ God’s latest are best”).
If anything, the war years increased Campbell’s imperialistic fervour. He supported Britain’s role in the war wholeheartedly, giving lectures and writing pamphlets. Although he did not manage to enlist in spite of his age, like Charles G.D. Roberts and Frederick George Scott, he helped form the Home Guard in Ottawa, worked as a recruiting officer, and became a drill sergeant. It was a source of great pride that his son Basil, who had found work in Michigan, probably on the recommendation of Herbert Campbell, came home at once to join the Canadian army and was sent overseas as a major with the 2nd Canadian Pioneer Battalion.
With his war effort added to his civil service duties, Campbell was pushing himself to the limit. Nevertheless, although weary from overwork and anxiety, he doggedly continued the role of “poet laureate,” feeling an obligation to rouse public feeling. His rhetoric is not the stuff that endures, but at the time it struck the right note for many Canadians whose patriotism had been heightened by war. In “We Are Coming, Mother Britain,” he may not have been speaking for all of his countrymen, as he claimed, but the sentiments he expressed were widespread:
We have heard the summons, Mother Land,
Your sudden call for aid;
From Atlantic to Pacific we are one;—
We have dropped the hoe and hammer,
We have left the desk and spade,
At the thunder of the foeman’s battle gun.
There’s no Canadian heart that beats
From east to western shore,
But is longing for a place beside your men;
We have sent our troops to aid you
In the glorious wars before,
And our souls are keen to join with you again.
He saw the world in turmoil and feared the wreckage, but his homelife was tranquil and his prospects stable. After years of frequent moves from one rented house to another—since coming to Ottawa, the family had lived at six different addresses—he acquired a stone farmhouse out in Nepean in April, 1915. Bestowing the name “Kilmorie” upon this “country estate,” although the farmland was not yet his, he settled down with his extended family, which now consisted of four generations, including his mother-in-law and four grandchildren, the latter being the children of his daughter Margery, who had married George Archibald Grey, a relative of Lord Grey. A year earlier, his daughter Faith had married Edmund Malloch, who, Campbell was intrigued to discover, shared some ancient lineage with his in-laws. His youngest daughter, Dorothy, was still unmarried.
For the next three years, this country retreat was Campbell’s haven in an otherwise hectic existence. The only drawback was the three-mile distance between Kilmorie and the end of the Ottawa car line. Walking home on a bitterly cold night in late December, 1917, he caught a cold that kept him home from the office. On Saturday, 29 December, feeling housebound, he unwisely took a stroll for some fresh air on the veranda of Kilmorie. That evening he developed a high fever. By Sunday night he was dangerously ill with pneumonia. The family doctor was summoned, but nothing could be done to save him. He died at three o’clock in the morning on New Year’s Day, 1918.
The newspapers were unanimously effusive in their eulogies for the man they mourned as “Canada’s greatest poet.”61 The Ottawa Journal outdid them all by publishing a tribute from Albert R. Hassard, an Irish-born Toronto attorney, better known for writing about constitutional history and law. Campbell, Hassard declares, “is a poet because the sweetness of Shelley, the music of Keats, yes, even the master touch of Shakespeare are to be found in his rich and powerful verse.”62 The funeral at St. George’s Anglican Church, Ottawa, had the appearance of a state occasion, befitting a “poet laureate.” As the lengthy cortège filed from the church to the strains of the dead march from Saul, played by Annie (Lampman) Jenkins, Mackenzie King was among the honourary pall bearers, and Duncan Campbell Scott followed as a representative of the Royal Society of Canada.
Wilfred Campbell was not the only Confederation Poet to be overpraised by his contemporaries, but probably no one else was ever extolled so far beyond his merits. He promoted love of the land, loyalty to one’s heritage and the pursuit of lofty ideals, but high-minded aims do not necessarily make for good poetry. The old criticism that he is “a rhetorician rather than a poet” is close to the mark. He is at his worst in his fulsome tributes and bombastic odes. Nor is there much of artistic worth in his morbid musings and earnest didactics. When he writes simply and directly, as he does in some of his lake lyrics, he produces verse that is more enduring. The latter comprises only a small segment of his total output, but his reputation as a poet rests upon those remnants.
Today, it is impossible to take Campbell as seriously as he appears to have taken himself. Perhaps it may have been insecurity as much as vanity that made him defensive over his stature as a poet, but he comes across as an egotistical crank. He never allowed a perceived slight to his reputation to pass without a challenge. The furor he raised over the article in Munsey’s Magazine is not an isolated incident. Equally characteristic is his angry letter to the publishers Houghton, Mifflin when he felt under-represented in the Canadian section of their Victorian Anthology (1895). The editor’s private reaction was one of amused annoyance: “Defend us from a cocksure, cloisterbred, disgruntled under-curate!”63
Once, when he was in is mid-thirties, Campbell told an acquaintance: “I fear I have fought and lived too long by myself ever to have a close friend.”64 Yet, there were many in all walks of life with whom he was on cordial terms. Pauline Johnson, who was guest in his home in 1895, wrote afterwards to express how appreciative she felt “to find you so hearty, so warm, so companionable—ah! it was a treat and I shall not soon forget all your little kindnesses and encouragements so freely given to me.”65 Although he held strong opinions and was forceful in debate, he never became quarrelsome except in defense of his poetry. Otherwise, he would not have retained the goodwill of men like Mackenzie King, Argyll and Grey. King, who arrranged for the erection and payment of Campbell’s monument in Ottawa’s Beechwood Cemetery, commented upon its appropriateness to Mary Louisa: “It is most artistic and has a quiet dignity about it which is all that we who loved Wilfred so dearly could wish.”66 His literary executor, W. J. Sykes, recalling their daily discussions as they went into town together in the mornings, remarked sadly: “To his friends life seems poorer, more conventional, and commonplace since he is gone.”67