An Acadian Singer

Francis Sherman

 

BY H. G. WADE

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Winnipeg, Canada
Stovel Company Limited
1930

 




Of this edition1 of An Acadian Singer

(Reprinted from the Western Home Monthly)

100 copies have been issued of which this is No. 712



 

An Acadian Singer

 

     “For sheer poetry Canada has produced little to equal Sherman’s Matins.” —CHARLES G. D. ROBERTS.


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     “It must be a gorgeous thing to be one of the brand of new singers. You don’t know how much of Canada lies in your hands—and Canada doesn’t either.”—RUDYARD KIPLING.


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     “Sherman was a lovely Acadian Singer—Matins is a gem.”—BLISS CARMAN


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     “My brother was one of the best-read persons I have ever known.”—BISHOP L. RALPH SHERMAN, D. D.


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     “Sherman had a most delightful personality. He was a man of great ability and a sound and successful banker. Intellectually he was outstanding.”—C.E. NEILL, LL.D., Managing Director, Royal Bank.


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     “Sherman’s work is definitely “Romantic” with the unmistakable note of Sincerity.”—PROF. ARCHIBALD MACMECHAN.


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Come and let me make thee glad
In this house that I have made!
Nowhere (I am unafraid)
Canst thou find its like on earth;
Come, and learn the perfect worth
Of the labor I have had.
                                   —FRANCIS SHERMAN.



 

THE CELESTIAL CITY of Tradition and Culture, known as the home of the United Empire Loyalists and the nursery ground for the training of Canadian poets, has produced several writers besides the Carman-Roberts group, as it was also the home of the Acadian singer, Francis Sherman. Born in Fredericton, 1871, he was educated at the famous collegiate school, under George R. Parkin; later he studied in the classic halls of the University of New Brunswick.
    “In Canadian House of Romance,” we learn that little Fredericton, with its elm-hung shady streets, which has no names and very few lamps, over which floats the sound of cathedral bells, is still a Celestial City, as quiet as the crystal air that surrounds it, and a house interesting to Canadians in general is the red brick rectory where lived Canon George Goodridge Roberts. Here Charles G.D., the eldest son; a daughter, Elizabeth, and Theodore Goodridge all grew up. They used to read aloud for each other’s amusement the rhymes of and stories which the day called forth. In summer weather the great old-fashioned garden, haunt of all fragrant and time-honored flowers, was the favorite spot. There, in and about the hammocks with their cousin, Bliss Carman, extending his great length on the grass below, these young people did indeed see visions and dream dreams, and Theodore Roberts in his “Acadie” describes the house in which Bliss Carman spent his early youth as a small edifice which faces inward on its own garden of lawn and elms and lilacs and turns a windowless back on the street.
    But in those days there was nothing in Shore Street to cause even a poet’s house to turn its back. Grass grew there, between the earthen footpaths and the earthen roadway; the neighbors’ various live stock wandered there, grazing or grunting; all the little front-gardens were full of flowers and bees and butterflies, all the little back-yards of scratching poultry, and all the trees of singing birds. The romantic spirits of Julia Horatia Ewing and the girl-queen still brooded over this little colonial, Tory, provincial British North-American town, infusing a gentle and sentimental glamor with prayer-books with markers of purple ribbon, of church parades of little red-coated garrisons and transplanted English fairies and English parsons.
    Charles G.D. Roberts in describing these same early days says Fredericton was a good place for a poet to be; she was the Capital with Government House, the House of Assembly and Law Courts, and she had little of the commercial spirit. Instead of expecting her people to be cut from one pattern she seemed to prefer to be just a little queer, and, if people wrote verses, they had no need to be apologetic about it.
    To Fredericton it did not seem impossible that some of them might even turn out to be good verses, and good verses were being written not only in “the quaint brick rectory” and the Carman house, but also in other Fredericton homes, where good literature was loved and studied. A slim, dark-eyed, and black-browed youth, by the name of Francis Sherman, when not toiling at his desk in the bank, was dreaming over old romances. The fruitage of this dreaming was a volume of poems called “Matins,” which remains to this day almost unknown in Canada or elsewhere.
    But Dr. Roberts says he cannot believe that it will always remain so. “I feel,” he says, “that for sheer poetry, we have produced little equal to ‘Matins’.”


He walked by me with open eyes,
    And wondered that I loved it so;
Above us stretch the grey, grey skies;
    Behind us footprints on the snow.

Before us slept a dark, dark wood,
    Hemlocks were there, and little pines
Also; and solemn cedars stood
    In even and uneven lines.

The branches of each silent tree
    Bent downward, for the snow’s hard weight
Was pressing on them heavily;
    They had not known the sun of late.


    Our Acadian poet was one of the truest and most individual young poets that Canada has produced and he was not only a poet but a man of affairs. Bishop Ralph Sherman, of Calgary said recently: “My brother was really rather a great person; he founded the Royal Bank of Canada in Cuba and was [page 1] responsible for the bank’s progress throughout the West Indies. At forty-four he resigned the position of assistant general manager and went overseas as a private. There he was promoted to a captaincy. It was war-strain on his heart that finally took him from us in June, 1926. He was one of the best-read persons I have ever known.”
    And C. E. Neill, Vice-President and Managing Director of the Royal Bank, a close personal friend of the poet from his earliest school days, said in a recent letter to the writer: “We went to the same schools, enjoyed the same recreations, and afterwards entered and worked together in the same bank. Sherman was in high esteem, affection and regard by all classes, wherever he went. He was a sound and successful banker. Intellectually, he was outstanding, and withal he had a most delightful personality.”
   
SHERMAN’S literary output has been meager, comprising one regularly published book, “Matins,” consisting of fifth-eight pages, printed by the Rockwell and Churchill Press of Boston, in November, 1896. This was followed later with a booklet of sonnets: “In Memorabilia Mortis,” and in 1897, “A Prelude,” a book of sonnets which was privately printed and is precious to collectors of rare Canadiana. “An Acadian Easter,” was published in “The Atlantic Monthly” for April, 1900. “The Deserted City, Stray Sonnets,” was written by F.S. and rescued for the few who love them by H.D. “Two Songs at Parking,” written by John Bodkin and F.C., was privately issued from Fredericton late in the winter of 1899 and “A Canadian Calendar,” made up of lyrics selected by Sherman, appeared in 1900. Rudyard Kipling specially liked these lyrics and wrote to Sherman—

     “It must be a gorgeous thing to be one of the band of new singers whose eyes are well opened on the country of their birth and love—in a land that is both old and new. Please take my best thanks. You don’t know how much of Canada lies in your hands, and Canada doesn’t, either.”
   
    Sherman’s poetry shows an independent individuality. His poetic soul was sensitive to beauty in all her forms and could always express what he felt. A number of his poems, like those of Carman, have the great out-of-doors as their theme, and the quality of his efforts is sufficient to fix his place in the company of our best Canadian poets.
    The Bookman (in the Manitoba Free Press) recently asked why has a volume of poetry that will win such sincere appreciation from another poet who is also a critic—what has “Matins” been permitted to lie so long without recognition?
    Sherman was a lovable character, so modest that he never realized what beautiful work he was producing. This is brought out forcibly in a note that the writer received the Rush Ann Sherman written at “Willow Pond Farm,” Frazer, Penn.:—

    “Mr. Sherman was always so modest. It was not until after we were married         that I discovered he was the author of “Matins.” [page 2]

    In “Matins” one finds such homely titles as the following:—

THE MOTHER
THE RAIN
AMONG THE HILLS
THE PATH
AFTER HARVEST
THE QUIET VALLEY
THE BUILDER
ON THE HILLSIDE
THE WINDOW OF DREAMS

    R.H. Hathaway was probably the first Canadian writer to draw public attention to Sherman. “I have been keen on Sherman for many years and I do wish that it could be arranged to bring out a collected edition of his work. The moment we open ‘Matins,’” Hathaway writes, “we feel ourselves in the presence of the work not only of a true poet but of a poet whose utterance is entirely new except in a few instances—in Canadian poetry.”

SHERMAN, it is clear from the opening pages, was steeped in the world of the English pre-Raphaelite poets; we catch an echo of the voice of William Morris as we read the first verse of the first poem, “At the Gate.”
 


Swing open wide, O Gate,
That I may enter in
And see what lies in wait
For me who have been born!
Her word I only scorn
Who spake in death and sin.

I know what is behind
Your heavy brazen bars;
I heard it of the wind
Where I dwelt yesterday;
The wind that blows always
Among the ancient stars.

Life is the chiefest thing
The wind brought knowledge of,
As it passed, murmuring;
Life, with its infinite strength
And undiminished length
Of years fulfilled with love.

The wind spake not of sin
That blows among the stars;
And so I enter in
(Swing open wide, O Gate!)
Fearless of what may wait
Behind your heavy bars.


    There are poems later in the volume, however, which are even more plainly influenced by Morris and his fellows, notably “A November Vigil,” in which a woman tells of her thoughts as she watches by the body of her dead lover:—
 


Now, I can hope for naught but death.
    I would not stay to give him pain,
Or say the words a woman saith
    When love hath called aloud in vain

And got no answer anywhere,
    It were far better I should die,
And have rough strangers come to bear
    My body far away, where I

Shall know the quiet of the tomb;
    That they should leave me, with no tears, [page 3]
To think and think within the gloom
    For many years, for many years.

The thought of that strange, narrow place
    Is hard for me to bear, indeed;
I do not fear cold Death’s embrace,
    And where black worms draw nigh to feed

On my white body, then, I know
    That I shall make no mournful cry;
But that I should be hidden so
    Where I no more may see the sky—

The wide sky filled with many a star,
    Or all around the yellow sun,
Or even the sky where great clouds are
    That wait until the rain be done.


    Particularly fine is “A Memory,” in which he has embodied his love of Nature:—
 


You are not with me though the Spring is here!
    And yet it seemed to-day as if the Spring
Were the same one that in an ancient year
    Came suddenly upon our wandering.

You must remember all that changed that day.
    Can you forget the shy awaking call
Of the first robin?—And the foolish way
    That squirrel ran along the low stone wall?

The half-retreating sound of water breaking,
    Hushing, falling; while the pine-laden breeze
Told us the tumult many crows were making
    Amid innumerable distant trees.

The certain presence of the birth of things
    Around, above, beneath us,—everywhere;
The soft return of immemorial Springs
    Thrilling with life the fragrant forest air;

All these were with us then. Can you forget?
    Or must you—even as I—remember well?
To-day, all these were with me, there,—and yet
    They seemed to have some bitter thing to tell.

They looked with questioning eyes, and seemed to wait
    One’s doubtful coming whom of old they knew;
Till, seeing me alone and desolate,
    They learned how vain was strong desire of you.


    His vivid expression, his strong feeling and his lyric note are shown in “Between the Battles”:—
 


Let us bury him here,
    Where the maples are red!
    He is dead,
And he died thanking God that he fell with the fall of the leaf and the year.

Where the hillside is sheer,
    Let it echo our tread
    Whom he led;
Let us follow as gladly as ever we followed who never knew fear.

Ere he died, they had fled;
    Yet they heard his last cheer
    Ringing clear,—
When we lifted him up, he would fain have pursued, but grew dizzy                     instead.

Break his sword and his spear!
    Let this last prayer be said
    By the bed
We have made underneath the wet wind in the maple trees moaning so         drear:

“O Lord God, by the red
    Sullen end of the year
    That is here,
We beseech Thee to guide us and strengthen our swords till his slayers         be dead!”


    Like all Canadian poets, Sherman loved to paint the pageant of the seasons from “A  Prelude”
 


A Little While Before the Fall Was Done

A little while before the fall was done
    A day came when the frail year paused and said:
    “Behold! A little while and I am dead;
Wilt thou not choose, of all the old dreams, one?”
Then dwelt I in a garden, where the sun
    Shone always, and the roses all     were red;
    Far off the great sea slept, and overhead
Among the robins matins had begun.
And I knew not at all it was a dream
    Only, and that the year was near its close;
    Garden and sunshine, robin-song and rose,
The half-heard murmur and the distant gleam [page 4]
    Of all the unvest sea, a little space
    Were as a mist above the Autumn’s face.


    In the following poem he celebrates the glory of summer:—
 


To Summer

Summer! I praise thee, who art glorious!
For now the sudden promise of the Spring
Hath been fulfilled many ways to us,
And all live things are thine.
Therefore, while all the earth
Is glad, and young, and strangely riotous
With love of thee, whose blood is even as wine,
I dare to sing,
Worshipping thee, and thy face welcoming;
I, also a lover of thy most wondrous worth.

Yet with no scorn of any passed days
Come I,—who even in April caught great pleasure,—
Making of ancient woes the stronger praise;
Nor build I this new crown
For my new love’s fair head
Of flowers plucked in once oft-travelled ways,
And then forgot and utterly cast down;
But from the measure
Of a strange, undreamt-of, undivided treasure
I glean, and thus my love is garlanded.


    Here are a few verses which reveal his power to behold Beauty in solitary places:—
 


From “A Prelude.”

O covering grasses! O unchanging trees!
    Is it not good to feel the odorous wind
Come down upon you with such harmonies

Only the giant hills can ever find?
    O little leaves, are ye not glad to be?
Is not the sunlight fair, the shadow kind,

That falls at noontide over you and me?
    O gleam of birches lost among the firs,
Let your high treble chime in silverly

Across the half-imagined wind that stirs
    A muffled organ-music from the pines!
Earth knows to-day that not one note of hers

Is minor. For, behold, the loud sun shines
    Till the young maples are no longer gray,
And stronger grows their faint, uncertain lines. [page 5]

Each violet takes a deeper blue to-day,
    And purpler swell the cones hung overhead,
Until the sound of their far feet who stray

About the wood, fades from me, and, instead,
    I hear the robin singing—not as one
That calls unto his mate, uncomforted—
    But as one sings a welcome to the sun.


    I conclude this brief survey with “Songs at Parting,” reproduced from the little booklet sent me by Theodore Roberts who was a great admirer of Sherman’s work. This is the last poem written by the poet in Fredericton, late in the winter of 1899:—
 


Parting

And after many days (for I shall keep
    These old things unforgotten, nevertheless!)
    My lids at last, feeling thy faint caress,
Shall open, April, to the wooded sweep
Of Northern hills; and my slow blood shall leap
And surge, for joy and very wantonness—
Like Northern waters when thy feet possess
The valleys, and the green year wakes from sleep.
That morn the drowsy South, as we go forth
(Unseen thy hand in mine; I, seen of all)
Will marvel that I seek the outmost quay,—
The while, gray leagues away, a new-born North
    Harkens with wonder to thy rapturous call
For some old lover down across the sea. [page 6]

 


 

 

1
Editor’s Note: The first blank page in this particular edition (which is housed in the Archives and Research Collections Centre at the University of Western Ontario) has been inscribed in ink by the author: Queens Quarterly from HG Wade 1930. [back]

2

Editor’s Note: The number “71” was stamped into the book in red ink after the rest of the text had been printed. [back]