21 August 2011

Our Embarrassing Poet Reconsidered

Just over a century ago, he was the toast of Montreal. His poetry collections sold tens of thousands of copies; two universities gave him an honorary degree; the Royal Society of Literature elected him a member. He travelled across the United States, Canada and Britain, lecturing before admiring crowds. In 1907, when he died of a stroke just before his 53rd birthday, his reputation seemed assured.

Today almost nobody reads William Henry Drummond. In the literary world, he's close to an embarrassment.

So begins a very fine piece by my pal Mark Abley, published in yesterday's Gazetteavailable online here.

Mark is spot on in writing that almost nobody reads Dr Drummond today. I don't; in fact, I've never read a single poem by the man. Strange this, because his The Habitant and Other French-Canadian Poems was one of only four books of Canadian verse present in my childhood home. I took it with me to university, thinking that at some point I might have to read a poem or two by this once popular poet. Never happened – his name wasn't so much as mentioned.

I've been carrying The Habitant with me ever since. A first edition, published in 1897 by G.P. Putnam's Sons, it once belonged to A. Berenice Hunt (née Coslett), who was a neighbour of my father when he was growing up on Pointe Claire's Claremont Avenue. It's pretty clear that Mrs Hunt was a fan of Drummond. Found within the book's leaves are numerous newspaper clippings of the doctor's verse, all dating from the early years of the last century. Added into the mix is something called "Lac Felice" credited to Joe Picard.

I've not been able to find out anything about M Picard, nor have I been able to track down any more of his verse, but I think it safe to say that Drummond was an influence. Did the doctor's reach extend even farther? Louis Dudek thought so, writing in his Selected Essays and Criticism that the poet "loosened the straightjacket of literary puritanism and made it possible to free language for the expression of real life and human character."

Drummond might be worth a second look... or, in my case, a first.


  1. I wrote a short piece on Drummond for The Beaver several years ago which I could dig up and send to you if you're curious. I would be kinder to his memory and your literary sensitivities if you remained ignorant of and intrigued by his writings, rather than familiar with and appalled by them. Time has not been kind to the good doctor.

  2. I somehow missed your piece on Dr Drummond. Time has indeed been harsh - to go from such a height to become the poet whose name we dare not mention.

    His Dictionary of Canadian Biography entry paints a most remarkable portrait. I'd be interested in reading more. If you can email or post your piece I'd be very appreciative.

  3. Mark, the email address you sent was bounced ("unknown or illegal alias" - sounds exciting and dangerous). Perhaps you could try emailing me: brianjohnbusby@gmail.com.

  4. I believe "Joe Picard" is the nom de plume of my great-grandfather, Charles FitzSimon, originally of Co. Tyrone, Northern Ireland. He emigrated to Canada and spent some years living in Sault Ste. Marie. I'm surprised to see this clipping!