21 March 2011

A Mildly Eccentric Man Turns Nasty

Much of this past weekend was spent working on a limited edition chapbook of verse by John J. MacDonald – a modest fundraiser for the St Marys Public Library. MacDonald, better known as James MacRae, one of William Arthur Deacon's unfortunate 'Four Jameses', was a patron. Indeed, Deacon tells us that MacDonald "spent a pleasant old age" in the library, where he poured over "books on controversial subjects like political economy and religion."

In the three years I've lived in this little town, I've done a bit of digging into MacDonald's life, but until last week knew nothing of his verse beyond the few scattered snippets Deacon had chosen to reproduce in The Four Jameses. MacDonald's writing – all self-published – is not exactly easy to find. Poems of J. J. MacDonald, a Native of County Glengarry, the c. 1877 volume from which the chapbook is drawn, has almost vanished. Held by a handful of academic universities, it's much more common in microfiche – which is to say that it isn't common at all.

The exposure to MacDonald's writing has been something of an eye-opener. Nothing in Deacon prepared me for the quantity of venom in MacDonald's verse. Drops are found throughout, even in otherwise innocent and inoffensive poems like "The Scattered Family", a sentimental thing about home, hearth, and momma and papa:

We left our sweet home distant climates to range,
To meet there with nothing but infidels strange,
Who know not our feelings, who know not our hearts;
Such is often the fate who from parents departs.

We left all the pleasures of birthplace and home,
To wander about, for a living to roam,
Cast on the wide world – so unfriendly, so cold
Where honor and virtue mean riches and gold.

How bitter is life, full of sorrow and woe,
When children from father and mother must go!
When brothers must part from the sisterly smile,
To live with the stranger, the wretched and vile.

Now, is that any way to talk about one's neighbours?

MacDonald lived amongst the wretched and vile of St Marys and its environs for over sixty of his nearly eighty-eight years. "Among the townspeople he was reported to be mildly eccentric," writes Deacon, "which probably means nothing more than a strongly marked personality intensified by a touch of the artistic temperament, without which no poet is properly equipped... I like to picture him as he has been described to me – sitting in the Library, lost in a book, and, as the theme grippd him, conducting audibly an animated debate with himself, and finally becoming quite excited as the argument progressed."

What better to argue over than politics, especially when religion, hellfire and damnation are added to the mix:

Epitaph for a Grit Politician

As your victim with Government money has got away,
We Canadians, Satan, would thank you sincerely
If you kindly consent to return to Ottawa,
When you come for the next of the clique you love so dearly.

There's plenty of hate in this poetry, most of which is inflicted upon Charles Chiniquy. The protestant convert and conspiracy theory kook is the focus of "Father Chiniquy’s Prayer", "Lines Written on a Bill Announcing One of Chiniquy’s Lectures" and this poem, in which he imagines the man's death:

For Chiniquy

Here lies the priest who changed his creed
To get what custom calls a wife,
But solemn vows most strongly plead,
He never led a married life.

St. Peter, if your dome he seek,
Refuse to open heaven’s door,
For he would scarcely stay a week,
When for a wife he’d hell explore.

Dear reader, please in mind to bear,
That in the realms of bliss above,
There is no wife permitted there
To Man, however strong his love.

The former Father was a healthy sexagenarian when MacDonald published these poems – he would live for a further two decades. Although Chiniquy isn't mentioned by name, it is clear that he is also the subject of this final fantasy:

For a Fallen Priest

Ye passers by here pause to mourn
Around this melancholy urn,
Where loathsome maggots careless feast
Upon the poor degraded priest.

No more the hungry passions rave;
The appetites no longer crave
Their usual supply of ill,
And all around is solemn still.

The soul – that slave of fear and dread,
Of shame, remorse, and pride – is fled.
Oh! Poor, immortal soul, couldst thou
Reveal what’s thy religion now.

For some time now I've been pushing for recognition of MacDonald in this, my adopted hometown, all the while describing him just as Deacon does: a mildly eccentric man. Now I'm beginning to wonder... is it really so strange that his books aren't found on the shelves of the library in which he "spent a pleasant old age"?

Related posts:

No comments:

Post a Comment