Box 14-095 'THE BARD OF ATHOL'
Jun 22 2003
A TALK by
at TOWER POETRY SOCIETY'S
SUMMER BOOK LAUNCH
JUNE 22, 2003 at
WHITEHERN HISTORIC HOUSE & GARDEN1
The Breadalbane area of Scotland lies in the heart of the country, under the shadow of the Grampion mountains. In the early seventeenth century it was the centre of power for Black Duncan of the Cowl, the feared and powerful chief of the Campbell clan who ruthlessly persecuted and nearly exterminated the MacGreggors, McEwans and McNabs while extending his domain from sea to sea with a string of castles and fortified manors. The extensive Breadalbane estates remained the seat of the Campbells well into the twentieth century.
At Breadalbane, in Perthshire, William Murray was born on May 25, 1834. His father was employed by the chief as the head gardener for the estate, a position he would hold for more than thirty-five years. Young William was the oldest son, withdrawn and bookish by nature, so his father used his position to see that he received the most careful and extensive education possible for a young man in the Highlands at that time. For a farm worker's son that meant reading, writing and arithmetic, with literature and philosophy if they became available through itinerant scholars. More advanced educational opportunities were not available. By his late teens, William had come to some definite conclusions about life. Much as he liked the countryside, he was not going to become a slave to it like his father. And, like most Scots, he was enchanted by the writings of Robert Burns, whose poems and lyrics had established themselves in the core of the Scottish psyche.
Robert Burns, too, had been the eldest son of a Scot who tilled the soil. While writing his poems he had tried his hand at his father's occupation and failed, then had taken a low-paying government job for the rest of his days. No matter how popular his writings, Burns was never well off. Well aware of his idol's plight, William decided to improve his own chances as a young man and aspiring poet. His father had a brother living in Toronto, Upper Canada. In 1854, at the age of twenty, William Murray emigrated to Canada. He worked in Toronto, probably in his uncle's business, for two years until he had accustomed himself; then he moved to the growing city of Hamilton, which seemed to offer greater opportunities.
In Hamilton, he shrewdly continued with the business he had learned from his uncle: the import, wholesale and retail of dry goods. At first he worked for other merchants and lived in rooms on King Street. With continued success, he brought his brother and two sisters over from Scotland. Together they bought a fine house with extensive grounds at the northeast corner of Queen and Herkimer Streets and called it "Athol Bank." The house was named after a place that intrigued the poet Robert Burns enough that after a visit he entreated the Duke of Atholl to turn it into a nature preserve which the Duke did. (In 1624 a noble branch of the Murray clan had, through marriage, acquired the dukedom of Atholl.)
By 1870 he was secure enough to establish a partnership in the business he knew so well with two other merchants, Alexander Murray (no relation) and William London. They operated a very successful dry goods emporium at a prime downtown location, 12 King Street East between James and Hughson, as Alexander Murray & Co. William became an upstanding member of the community and joined the local Scottish and Gaelic societies. He was a member of the McNab Street Presbyterian Church and a friend to many influential people. Although neither he nor his brother Charles ever married, both sisters did marry well. Phyllis married Rev. Donald Fletcher, the long-serving pastor of the church. His sister Mary was wed to William Hendrie; at her grand house, Holmstead, on Bold Street, she entertained such luminaries as royals who would become George V and Edward VIII, Sir John A. Macdonald, and several governors-general when they visited Hamilton.
What sort of man was this poet? William Murray was successful in business, respected in the community, and welcome in the homes of the powerful and influential. He is described as "industrious and earnest" and "very thin and serious," unlike his brother Charlie who was often contrasted as "sleek and fat, usually joking" and who, whenever he undertook employment, never seemed to care if he held on to the job. William was involved in several of the important Scottish societies; in the St. Andrew's Society he was elected to the ceremonial position of "Bard" whose duties were to write a poem for any special occasion. In 1869 he wrote his first poem for St. Andrew's Day; from 1889 on he wrote an address for every St. Andrew's Day celebration.
The house in which he lived had extensive grounds and he loved presenting aquaintances with flowers from his gardens. He could often be found puttering in his garden while muttering, working on some poem in his head. He loved dogs; he always had a terrier he named "Archie." Whenever a terrier died, he would obtain another and call it "Archie." He had a historical interest in Clan Murray, in its tartan and its relationship with the Isle of Man, which the Murray clan governed for a time.
So, what sort of poet was this man? His first publication in a local paper was in 1863. Greatly influenced by the work of Robert Burns, his early works may seem somewhat derivative because they use the rhythms and constructions so characteristic of Burns.
A LINE ON BURNS
His like we ne'er again will find,
Such kings have no successor;
But of the treasure of his mind
All nations are possessors;
And while the vault of heaven glows
And earth endure below it,
So long resplendent lives and grows
The fame of Scotland's poet.
Many early poems dealt with the Scotland he'd left behind: its land, its history and its people much as Burns' had. He often gave his serious subjects a characteristic humourous twist.
IT WAS BROSE (excerpt)
It was brose, I may mention, developed to porridge
That gave Wolfe's mighty Highlanders muscle and courage
To hold every form of a Frenchman in check
And capture forever to Britain, Quebec.
It was brose and the breeze from the heath scented rocks
That gave power to the arm and the spirit of Knox.
It was brose, or its substitute, cloudy and cream
That gave Watt the control of the magic of steam.
It was brose, or something concocted from oats,
That gave to great Gladstone his voice and his votes.
(Brose: a concoction of oat mash liquid, honey and whiskey)
ROB ROY (excerpt)
True, bold Rob, in hours of sleep,
Sometimes captured Lowland sheep
Which the owners couldn't keep,
Lacking strength and skill;
Or some cattle he might sweep
From some Lowland hill.
He believed that sheep and cattle
Gave a kind of charm to battle
Which improved a hero's mettle
And (which wasn't worse)
While they helped his nerves to settle
They improved his purse.
(originally published in the New York Scotsman)
At this time he was also attracted to acrostics, poems whose initial letters of each line spell out the name of the subject. He would write and present such poems not only to friends but also to well-known persons: British Prime Ministers Disreali and Gladstone, Sir John A. Macdonald, local artist William Blair Bruce. He wrote a very fawning and flattering one to Bismark, the first chancellor of Germany, and received a polite reply.
Sly, snakish, concentration of all evil
Artful, abominable, arch-antagonist of man
Thief, traitor, murderer, dark daring devil
And source of every crime and woe since life on earth began
Nor ceasing in thy hate new fiendish deeds to plan
(note rhythm, rhyme scheme, heavy alliteration)
From the beginning, he became a good friend of the McQueston2 family. He wrote a simple but heartfelt poem for Mary on her wedding to Isaac.
TO DEAR MARY
May all thy days be peace and joy,
And free from care and sorrow.
Restrained by nought that can alloy,
Your prospects for the Morrow.
Though clouds should sometimes cross thy way,
Though sorrow may betide thee,
From darkest night shines forth the day
There pleasure dwells beside thee.
(Mary Baker married Isaac McQuesten June 18, 1873)3
The death of young Muriel Fletcher McQuesten at the age of two resulted in one of his finer poems.
MURIEL FLETCHER McQUESTEN
Died 27 August 1882, aged 2 years & 10 months.
"Only a little child! What loss is this
O'er which to brood with heavy heaving heart?
Who in this world of wealth can mourn or miss
One little jewel from a teeming mart?"
This from some thoughtless one with faint concern
For aught that moves most mightily the soul.
What saith the mother? "Oh! How can I learn
My grief expressless upon Christ to roll?"
Mother and Father! Your lamented child
Is still your own: amid your deepest gloom
Look up: methinks she has already smiled
Upon you sweetly from the upper room.
Nature awhile relief in tears will seek,
But nature's God will joy and comfort speak.
(note sonnet form)
The poem he wrote on the death of Isaac McQueston4 eight years later is very different.
Isaac Baldwin McQueston, M.A.
Obit. 7 March 1888
Our eyes are dim, our hearts are sad,
For he is dead who made us glad--
Glad with the friendship of a soul
From which no worthless word could roll;
Glad with the love of one who knew
What things were false and what were true;
Whose cultured intellect could gauge
Alike the philosophic page
And all the varied thought that threads
The realm where fleetest Fancy treads;
And whose benificence wide-spread
Will rise to bless him though he's dead
Our hearts are sad, our tears o'erflow,
And faith to vanquish grief is slow;
But lifting up our hearts above
To Him whose very name is Love.
At length, while further faith we seek
We yield with resignation meek,
And thus our confidence we tell:
"O Lord! Thou doest all things well!"
About this time he seems to have reached the peak of his writing career. In 1889 he was included in a book called Scottish Poets in America. The author praised his "fine literary taste," and remarked on his "graceful and easy style," and that many poems were "skillfully worked out." He bemoaned the fact that Murray's work was not available in book form and noted that the poet seemed "too unassuming in regards to his own merit." There is some truth in that assertion. He would sometimes read his poems aloud to friends, but never in public. Any poem written for public occasions such as St. Andrew's Day were always read aloud by someone else.
Although Murray continued to write and publish in local newspapers and magazines, his contributions were often unsigned or unacknowledged, used to fill the odd empty space. Rather than crafting poetic reflections on the human condition, he seemingly was peoccupied with events and personalities. By reason of his position in the Scottish community, he would be asked to provide poems for occasions such as visits by dignitaries as well as other local events and the annual celebrations of St. Andrew's Day. From time to time he would descend into doggerel, such as this excerpt from a poem written at dinner between courses.
THE RIVER ILLINOIS
Rid of care
and every snare
and every strife
that can annoy
Here I am
As free's a fly
Face tanned brown
Another example of his work during this time comes from his warm response to a collection of poems published by James McIntyre, the "Cheese Poet" from Ingersoll, Ontario, and author of "Ode to the Mammoth Cheese," a poem many acknowledge as the worst Canadian poem ever.
"In writing you do not pretend
With Tennysonian themes to blend.
It is an independent style
Begotten on Canadian soil."
Murray knew a kindred spirit when he met one.
Although sometimes still displaying some of his wit and wordplay, his work became dependent on stale rhythms and rhyme and heavy alliteration. He spent much time and effort toward his annual address to the St. Andrew's Society. Here are excerpts from two addresses, the first from 1901 and the second from 1910.
THE BARD'S ADDRESS TO SCOTIA'S SONS FOR 19015
'While rendering to the Scottish race
Their present proud and peerless place,
Far be it from St. Andrew's bard
To seek to limit the reward
Canadian lads so well deserve
For daring deeds and dauntless nerve.
Not satisfied with their exploits
In Indian feuds and Fenian fights,
Or with the work in Afric lairs
Destroying burly Boers and bears,
They've clapped the climax of their claim
To glory and immortal fame
By doing what has ne'er been done
Before with any earthly gun:
In Bytown's broad and babbling brook
They shop a rapid, with a Duke!
This is from the Hamilton Herald, November 27, 1901.
The following is excerpted from Murray's address to the St. Andrew's Society as published by the Hamilton Times, November 30, 1910.
ST. ANDREW'S DAY, 1910
Again arrives our darling day,
Again our peerless pipers play
Our peerless Scottish tunes;
And Scotia's sons are all as gay
And gallant as dragoons.
Your bard, though still alive, may limp
A little o'er his lyric,
But though the scribble may be scrimp
And happy, e'en hysteric,
He hopes it will not interfere
With either fun or choicer cheer.
His poems for the McQuesten family, as they are found in the Whitehern archives, show the same tendency toward frivolity and wordplay.
In 1910, Calvin McQuesten was sent by the church to work in the west. This poem was written to congratulate him.
"To Rev. Calvin on his appointment
as Assistant to Rev. Dr. McQueen, Presbyterian Church Superintendent at Edmonton Alberta."
Bells are ringing, and bells are singing
"Success to C. McQuesten
Who has been chosen o'er fifty dozen
To work throughout the West in
The company of so great and keen
A captain as renowned McQueen."
Success a thousand times from all
At ancient Athol Bank;
Whose blissful bard will ne'er retard
Him toward still higher rank--
Not even towards the towering upper
Position as Intendent-super!
It isn't Qrious of course
That two such great McQ's
Should work together through wind and weather,
To win whatever they choose.
(With power divine) within a field
Which promises so vast a yield.
May ne'er that yield be low or lean
To loved McQuesten and McQueen.
A shorter poem survives, written for Reverend McQuesten when he accepted a posting in the province of Quebec in late 1914.
TO CALVIN (on his appointment to Buckingham, Quebec)6
The Bishop of Buckingham! Who can deny
The title sounds happy, majestic and high?
And with a McLaren, with millions on hand
A stipend to match it you aye can command.
Murray wrote this Christmas greeting for the McQuestens in December 1915.
CHRISTMAS GREETINGS TO REV. CALVIN & MARY B. MCQUESTEN7
"St. Andrew's Bard," with much regard,
and sans an atom Sinister
Mid all that's gay, desires today
To bright "St. Andrew's Minister."
Both joy and cheer from far and near--
Today and soon, a glad new year!
The bard may add that Andrew's Church
So bright, will ne'er be in the lurch.
Remember, in 1915 he was eighty-one years old.
William Murray enjoyed his standing in the community and was content to contribute to it through his poetry. His friends and family seemingly were more important to him than renown. He never sought it out and never claimed to be more than he was: a local businessman with a knack for language. He found more pleasure in finding that the local newsboys used his rhymes to hawk their papers than in prestigious publication.
In comparison with his contemporaries, William Murray was not a poet of national stature and self-effacing as he was, never entertained such a claim. He once described himself as "a witty poetic power and punner." He found a place in life where he could do what he liked for people he liked and was satisfied.
William Murray died in 1923. His poetry, whatever still exists, remains uncollected.
1 This address can also be located on the Tower Poetry Society's website at http://www.towerpoetry.icomm.ca. [Feb. 17, 2004]
Jeff Seffinga is the Editor-in-Chief of the Tower Poetry Society.
2 Jeff Seffinga uses "McQueston" and "McQuesten" interchangeably.
3 Mary and Isaac married after a lengthy and 'rocky' courtship. In autumn, 1870, Mary had broken off their engagement because of Isaac's drinking, and apparently had requested that they separate for a year. William Bickford, one Isaac's most exuberant friends, wrote:
I admire your resolve to wait upon her a year hence... Stick to your promise, call upon her when another year shall have rolled around, and if she be the woman that from what I have heard and seen I suppose her to be, I shall fully expect a new suit of clothes, wherein properly arrayed, I may witness with savage satisfaction the sacrifice of "Isaac the Happy!"
(see W-MCP5-6.256 and footnote)
A year later, the engagement was renewed (W-MCP5-6.257) and there is evidence to suggest that the engagement had been broken once more sometime later and again renewed approximately three months before the wedding (W2339).
For some of Mary and Isaac's courtship letters, see W2259, W2336, W2337, W2339, W2343, W2344, W2351, W2361, W2364, W2368, W2377, W2380, W2392.
4 Isaac's sudden death appears to be alcohol-related (W2520, W2275) although it is clear that he had suffered from health problems--both physical and emotional--for some time See W2511, W4327 and Mary Anderson's thesis essay "Mary's Childhood, Marriage, Widowhood, Six Children and Lives of Genteel Poverty."
5 The entire poem, as taken from a clipping from The Hamilton Herald, November 27, 1901, can be found at Box 09-208.
6 For the brief but affectionate letter containing this poem, see W8748.
7 Note: This poem was addressed to Mrs. Mary Baker McQuesten, Rev. Calvin McQuesten's mother, not Mary Baldwin McQuesten, Calvin's older sister.