Charles G.D. Roberts
by D.M.R. Bentley and Laurel Boone
I count it a great honour to
present to you [The subject of this article is
one whom I cannot but consider] a Canadian poet
of the first rank—of the rank of Carman and Lampman—hitherto
unknown in Canada except to the very few, but
recognized and rightly appraised, again by the
few, in England and America. I refer to Francis
Sherman, who was born in Fredericton in 1871,
and died in Atlantic City in 1926. The neglect
of his work by the critics, till within the last
two or three years, may be accounted for, though
hardly excused, by the fact that his poems are
in mere bulk so slender, and issued in such extremely
limited editions that they seemed hardly to bid
for any general recognition. They have none of
them been published in Canada, and the scattered
copies that found their way across to us came
into the hands of poetry-lovers and collectors
who were content to cherish them in private. I
should mark one notable exception, however. In
March, 1927, the year following Sherman’s death,
that great collector and fine critic the late
Rufus Hathaway published an article in Willison’s
Monthly, calling the
attention of the Canadian public to the beauty
of Sherman’s poetry. But the Canadian public refused
to take notice. When Sherman’s first book, "Matins",
appeared, (Boston, 1896), I sent a copy to Kipling,
who wrote me about it with warm admiration. Carman,
needless to say, praised it without qualification.
But Sherman, besides being a poet, was a banker
of special distinction, (he established the foundations
of Canadian banking in Cuba), and I suppose it
never occurred to Canadians that a man could achieve
a like distinction in two such unlike fields of
endeavour as poetry and banking.
Pierce has prepared for early publication the
first collective and complete edition of Francis
Sherman‘s poems. As the introduction to this edition,
he has written an admirable monograph, a sketch
of Sherman’s career and personality, with a brief
critical appraisal of his genius, gathering the
material with painstaking care from many authoritative
sources. This address of mine will serve merely
as a supplement to Dr. Pierce’s monograph, giving
my own personal reminiscences of Sherman, whom
I knew intimately and loved and admired, and attempting
a more or less detailed estimate of certain of
the poems, which I propose to read to you.
in 1874 my father was appointed Rector of Fredericton,
and I forsook Westcook and the wide horizons of
the Tantramar country to live in the beautiful
little city of elms on the River St. John, the
eager schoolboy of fourteen was, of course, quite
unaware of the existence of three-year-old Frankie
Sherman, though his home was only four blocks
away from the Rectory, as was the home of Bliss
Carman in another direction. But though little
Frankie was all unknown to us schoolboys, the
name of Sherman was one to conjure with among
us, because of "Sherman’s Wharf". This
massive old structure, since fallen to decay and
removed, lay along the riverside in front of the
Cathedral and Parliament Buildings, only a couple
of hundred yards from the Collegiate School; and
throughout the spring, summer and autumn it was
the very centre of our schoolboy activities, our
favourite resort. Around it, under the shelter
of the high bank, we swam, we launched our birch
canoes, we explored for spruce gum the great log-rafts
sometimes tied up below it. And once there I was
saved from drowning by the heroism of a senior
school-mate, Frank McInnis, who, when I was sucked
beneath the raft by the strong current, with splendid
daring plunged under and dragged me forth into
life. There at Sherman’s Wharf the lumber-tugs
and snub-nosed wood-boats used to tie up. I have
a far-off memory of Sherman’s father, a tall,
heavy-shouldered, grave-eyed man with, I think,
a flowing light moustache, standing on the bank
and thoughtfully contemplating his storied wharf.
Of Sherman’s mother at that time I have a more
vivid memory—a dark, black-browed, strikingly
handsome woman, Spanish-looking as it seemed to
my boyish imagination, though she was of United
Empire Loyalist stock. Sherman’s home, wherein
he was later to write the immortal "Matins",
stood near the river end of St. John Street within
a stone’s throw of "The Wharf".
not till 1895, when I resigned my professorship
at King’s College, Windsor, and returned to Fredericton
to live, that I came into close personal contact
with Sherman, though I had heard of him from time
to time, from Carman, Fred St.J. Bliss, and others
of my Fredericton relations and friends, as someone
who was going to count heavily in our circle,—as
already, though so much younger, a "kindred
spirit". He was then twenty-four years of
age, and held the position of cashier of the Fredericton
Branch of the Merchants’ Bank of Nova Scotia;
and such was his genius for banking that three
years later he was made manager of the Fredericton
branch—"the youngest man holding that office
in Canada," to quote Dr. Pierce;— and in
February of 1899 he was promoted Assistant Manager,
at the head office in Montreal, was transferred
in May to Havana as Assistant Agent, and in November
of the same year was appointed First Agent, which
put him in charge of the whole Cuban business.
I mention this en passant,
to show the impression his financial abilities
had made on the authorities of the Bank, and also
to explain the scantiness of his poetic output.
With business responsibilities so vast upon so
youthful a pair of shoulders, it is not strange
that his poetry was all but smothered in the bud.
return to Fredericton in 1895! I had looked forward
with special interest to meeting Sherman, after
all I had heard of him; and he more than fulfilled
my anticipations. In appearance he was tall, lean,
very dark with heavy black eye-brows like his
mother, and with the large, wistful eyes of the
poet rather than the banker:— in all he was good
to look upon, and had a very definite air of distinction.
I found him most congenial, not only in his devotion
to poetry, in which our tastes consistently agreed,
but also in his passion for canoeing and for the
life of the wilds.
this period Sherman had very little time for his
masculine friendships, however congenial. He had
become engaged. I knew his fiancée, Miss May Whelpley,
who was a singularly beautiful girl with great
charm both of manner and of character. I used
to think that, in that Fredericton which prided
itself on its beautiful girls, she was perhaps
the loveliest and the most altogether desirable;
and Sherman was deeply devoted to her. I don‘t
remember that she was a hiking enthusiast, but
they were accustomed to go on long drives in the
country together, in her carriage, after banking
hours; and in the long, bland summer evenings
there was his birch canoe for them, and all the
lovely world of the winding Nashwaak and Nashwaaksis.
They never married, because just about the time
when he was becoming able to marry—I cannot place
the exact date, but I think it was sometime in
1898—Miss Whelpley was stricken with a deadly
tubercular disease which crippled her and some
years later caused her death. Until the end Sherman
remained devoted to her. I believe she was the
one great and inspiring romance of his life until,
after a long lapse of years, he was to meet Miss
Ruth Sullivan of Philadelphia, the lady who in
1921 became his wife.
Sherman was living in Cuba, I several times ran
down to Havana to visit him. These visits shine
in my memory. Heavily engrossed though he was
in his banking affairs, out of hours he threw
them off completely. Our concern, our conversation
was, to paraphrase Horace, about libros,
venerem, vinum. Over
our fragrant "green Havanas" and the
potent golden distillage of Bacardi rum, we discussed
everybody’s poetry except our own,—for in regard
to his poetry he was always extremely reticent.
Sometimes we would drive out to the lovely silver-sanded
bathing beach of the Marianao, which was protected
from the sharks of those infested seas by a broad,
shelving bar of white sand which the man-eaters
feared to cross. I had misgivings lest some shark
more individual and exploratory, and more voracious,
than his fellows might venture in over that bar;
but I pretended to be content with Sherman’s assurance
that this was, as he casually phrased it, "rather
improbable". And the swimming there was so
delightful that I almost forgot the remote but
uncomfortable possibility of sharks!
memories of my visits to Sherman in Havana seem
to be chiefly of gay dinners, and of moonlight
drives beneath the palms of the Malecon. But one
episode stands sharply outlined. It was at the
great annual function of the Masquerade Ball at
the Takon Theatre. Frank and I went in ordinary
evening dress, but most of the other men, and
all the women, were in costume, and masked. We
were both enthusiastic dancers, and, of course,
with partners unlimited and unrecognized to choose
from, we enjoyed ourselves immensely. In the course
of the evening we made the acquaintance of a pair
of slender and flowerlike girls, gracefully and
scantily costumed and heavily masked. We danced
with them, and Frank and I got separated for a
time. I was enraptured with my partner. She danced
exquisitely. She helped me sweetly with my halting
Spanish—she herself knowing no English. She initiated
me into the difficult and impassioned steps of
the Cuban Valson.
We stayed together through four or five dances.
Then, to my keen regret, a tall cavalier in scarlet
came and carried her off—but it would be only
for a little while, she sweetly assured me. I
felt that I had made a great hit with her. And
in very truth I had. When I came down to earth,
I presently realized that I had made such a hit
with her that she had been unable to tear herself
away from me without a keepsake. In the close
embrace of the last Valson the
dear child had relieved me of a gold matchsafe
and of my gold watch,—the one and only gold watch
I have ever possessed.
I am always able to be amused at my own follies.
A few minutes later, when I met Frank at our rendezvous
under the boxes and told him about it, he did
not jeer at me as I expected. "My
said he thoughtfully, "was rather a sweet
thing too. I‘d like to meet her again. I had left
my watch at home. It would have been just as well
if I had left my money and my cigarette case at
home also. They have gone to keep your watch company".
not see our merry maskers again. They had evidently
gone home and changed their costumes, to be ready
for other romantic adventures. But Frank and I
remained, and continued to enjoy ourselves. For
I, fortunately, had had my money in an impregnable
trousers pocket where not the daintiest fingers
could get at it.
after my last visit to Cuba I went to London to
live, and I never saw Frank Sherman again. We
just dropped out of each other‘s lives—though
not out of each other‘s hearts. During the Great
War, (like myself, he joined up as a private at
the very beginning of it, but was speedily promoted),
our lines nearly crossed at times, but he was
in the Canadian service and I for a long period
was in the Imperial service, so we never managed
to meet, which is a matter of deepest regret to
me. After my own return to Canada in February,
1925, I heard of him, but never from him. And
then, in June, 1926, I was shocked by the news
of his most untimely death.
influence to be detected in Francis Sherman‘s
verse is that of William Morris,—the early Morris,
of the "Defence of Guenevere". This
influence is shown in certain ballads, such as
"The Kingfisher", "A November Vigil",
"The Quiet Valley", "The Window
of Dreams", and "The Relief of Wet Willows".
These have Morris‘s wistful and homesick aloofness
from the actual and the contemporary. They have
the flavour of old tapestries. They sing longingly
of knights in armour, and of lovely ladies whose
red lips have long, long vanished into the kingdom
of dream. They are of the very stuff of romance.
They have a haunting beauty of cadence and colour.
And they are of meticulously perfect craftsmanship.
But in a sense they are Sherman‘s ‘prentice work.
Almost at once he threw off the unreal enchantment,
the moonlit glamour of the Morrisian romance,
and made his contact with the realities of life
and human emotion, and also with the authentic
austerities and sharp, strong sweetness of his
own New Brunswick landscape. But he held fast
to the directness and lucidity of utterance, the
extreme verbal simplicity which he had learned
from Morris. Much of Morris‘s yearning imagination
he has always, but he applies it to the emotions
and aspirations of to-day. In his attitude toward
life, in his "philosophy of life" as
we say, he is profoundly at odds with Morris.
He looks forward, not backward. He does not, like
Morris adjure us to
six counties overhung with smoke;
rather speaks with the high faith, the considered
optimism (a rather characteristic note of Canadian
poetry, by the way) of "At the Gate"
and "Let us rise up and live".
Let us rise up and live.
Behold, each thing
Is ready for the moulding
of our hand.
Long have they all awaited
None other will they
ever own for king.
Until we come, no bird
dare try to sing,
Nor any sea its power
No buds are on the trees;
in every land
Year asketh year some
tidings of some Spring.
Yea, it is time,—high
time we were awake!
Simple indeed shall
life be unto us.
What part is ours? To
take what all things give;
To feel the whole world
growing for our sake;
To have sure knowledge
of the marvellous;
To laugh and love.—Let
us rise up and live!
fidelity in description of typical Canadian landscape,
combined with music and with that emotional quality
which lifts description into essential poetry,
I would select such a poem as "The Rain",
and call attention to the plain, blunt words,
and the beauty which bathes their austerity. His
poem entitled "Between the Winter and the
Spring" is, it seems to me, in its infinite
tenderness, its reticence and its elusive suggestiveness,
a quite flawless lyric expression of love surviving
the transition of death. The same intense reticence,
veiling a poignancy too keen for tears, is displayed
in "The Mother", which seems to me second
to no poem of its class in the language. W.W.
Campbell’s poem of the same title, very widely
and very rightly praised, appears melodramatic
which I refer to are all from "Matins".
Sherman‘s next little volume, called "In
Memorabilia Mortis", is a collection of sonnets
in memory of William Morris. In mastery of the
sonnet form, in beauty and cadence, in verbal
felicity and adequacy of thought content, (with
the 19 sonnets of lofty faith published in 1899
under the title of "The Deserted City"),
they fully establish him in the same rank with
Lampman, our master sonnetteer. I must resist
the temptation to quote, except for such haunting
comfort him who suffered yesterday," and
"The young June grasses seem Quite still
that keep the edge of the still stream" and
"Where love hath lived, never hath Beauty
died", and "When age knocks at the inn
of youth‘s desire", and "Lead me beyond
the dominance of death", and "But I
between dead suns must peer, and grope Among forsaken
Prelude", published in 1907, is a sustained
contemplative poem of nature interwoven with human
interest, inspired with that seriousness, that
unawareness of the trivial, so characteristic
of all Sherman‘s work. It is written, with unfaltering
technique throughout, in that most exacting Italian
verse form, the Terza Rima, which scarcely
anyone else, except Shelley, has known how to
of 1900 the Atlantic Monthly
published, as its leading feature, Sherman‘s most
ambitious poem, "An Acadian Easter".
This is an attempt—a very successful attempt—to
present a heroic and supremely tragic episode
of Canadian history, the episode of Madame La
Tour and the fall of Port Royal, and to present
it not in direct narration but impressionistically
and by allusion. It
is written in firmly woven but intensely emotionalized
blank verse interspersed with plangent lyrics.
It is a poetical, but hardly a popular, triumph.
It will be, I think, greatly loved by the few,
but always "caviar to the general".
"XII Lyrics" of "The Canadian Calendar"
issued at Havana, Christmas, 1900, there is to
be found Sherman’s most mature and deepest work.
Life has marked him inescapeably. The tragedy
of his great love and his great loss inspires
every one of the twelve poems, but always it is
expressed interpretatively in terms of the changing
season, and always with that reserve of pouring
of grief. Always there is the long dwelling upon
the gladness of the remembered love—and then the
short, sharp awakening to the irremediable loss.
all are so fine and of the very essence of poetry,
it seems invidious to choose, but I have no space
here for more than one brief, haunting lyric and
two or three excerpts. This lyric is called "The
Are those her feet at last upon the stair?
Her trailing garments echoing there?
The falling of her hair?
About a year ago I heard her come,
Thus; as a child recalling some
Vague memories of home.
Oh, how the firelight blinded her dear eyes!
I saw them open and grow wise.
No questions, no replies.
And now, to-night, comes the same sound of rain.
The wet boughs reach against the pane
In the same way, again.
In the old way I hear the moaning wind
Hunt the dead leaves it cannot find,—
Blind as the stars are blind.
She may come in at midnight, tired and wan.
Yet,—what if once again at dawn
I wake to find her gone?
these stanzas are from "The Ghost":
Where the poplars quiver endlessly
And the falling leaves are grey,
I saw her come, and I was glad
That she had learned the way.
She paused a moment where the path
Grew sunlighted and broad;
Within her hair slept all the gold
Of all the golden-rod.
* * * * *
All this was long ago. To-day
Her hand met not with mine;
And where the pathway widened out
I saw no gold hair shine.
I had a weary, fruitless search.
—I think that her wan face
Was but the face of one asleep
Who dreams she knew this place.
will close by quoting Sherman’s last poem, entitled
"So after all":
after all, when all is said and done,
And such is counted
loss and such as gain,
For me, these many years,
the tropic rain
That threshes through the plumèd palms is one
With the next moment’s certitude of sun.
Indolent, without change,
So my days follow; long
have the old hopes lain
Like weeds along the road your feet have run.
Now I know what thing is good, what bad;
And faith and love have
perished for a sign:
But, after I am dead,
my troubled ghost
Some April morn shall tremble and be glad,
Hearing your child call
to a child of mine
Across the northern
wood it dreams of most.
is a note of finality about this exquisite sonnet,
and so far as we know at present, it was the last
piece of verse Sherman ever wrote. It bears the
date of July 2, 1901. But knowing Sherman’s strange
reserve about his poetry—Dr. Pierce says that
even his wife never knew he wrote verse till after
they were married, and he had known her for years—there
is some hope that more such treasure, such "infinite
riches in a little room", may yet be discovered.
Sherman," Proceedings and Transactions
of the Royal Society of Canada Series 3 Vol.
28 (May 1934), 1-9; Dalhousie Review 14:4
(January 1935), 419-27; The Complete Poems
of Francis Sherman, ed. and with a memoir
by Lorne Pierce (Toronto: Ryerson, 1935) [back]