02 April 2014

The Master of All Poets Outlives Longfellow, Writes Victoria, Takes on Tennyson and Calls for a Vote

With National Poetry Month in its second day,
Is it not time to celebrate James Gay?

The first Poet Laureate of Canada (by his own account), James Gay produced some of the most memorable verse of the nineteenth century. Such was his capacity that the titles alone are worth repeating: "Gay's Talents", "James Gay's Book of Poems", "A Greater Scholar than James Gay", "The Feathered Tribe and the Poet James Gay", "Throw All Our Grog Bottles Away, Like J. Gay" and "The Mind of Man is Ofttimes Blighted". The poet's accomplishments become all the more impressive when one considers that he didn't begin composing until late in life, after having suffered a bout of "brain fever".

As his name suggests, Gay was a cheerful man, though sadness did enter through the death of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and the inexplicable silence that met repeated entreaties that Victoria recognize his position as Poet Laureate. Both are united in his 1882 poem "My Latest Address to Her Majesty":

My honoured Queen, I feel sorry to say,
I received the sad news across the way
Of my brother Longfellow's death, on the twenty-fourth day.
Singular for me to say he died on my birthday, March, the twenty-     fourth day.
The age of both is very true—
Longfellow seventy-five, and Gay seventy-two.
The brightest of poets have passed away:
Now its left between Tennyson and Gay.

Four years earlier the poet had doubled his efforts to be recognized after Victoria's son-in-law, the Marquis of Lorne, became Governor General of Canada. Gay had something in common with the Marquis as he was not born Canadian. The Bard of Guelph began life on 24 March 1810 in Bratton Clovelly, Devon, emigrating to the fair Dominion twenty-four years later. Anticipating a trip to the land of his birth, Gay sent to Rideau Hall "My Address to His Excellency the Marquis of Lorne and Her Royal Highness Princess Louise (No. 2)", in which are found these lines:

As the greatest Poets have passed away,
It appears it's left between Tennyson and James Gay.
Being so long in Canada, according to my belief,
I want to wear on my person the Canadian medal, the beaver and      maple leaf;
So when I travel throughout my native land hundreds can have to say,
And also have the pleasure of seeing the world's Poet James Gay,
Poet Laureate of Canada up to this present day;
And when I receive my Canadian medal I shall feel happy as the      flowers of May.

A carpenter, an innkeeper, a gunsmith, a locksmith, a musician, a showman and, of course, a poet, Gay was nothing if not ambitious. Recognition as Poet Laureate was secondary to confirmation of his claim to being the Master of All Poets.

Laurels, I have not gained through superstition,
But won by merit and fair ambition;
The greatest poets having long since gone to rest,
On two are left behind of the very best.
Alfred Tennyson is from the south of England,
And James Gay is from Devonshire in the west,
So both poets are English I am proud to say.
It now remains for all to say
Who is the Master Poet of the day,
Tennyson or James Gay.

Gay called for a popular vote to determine whether it was he or Tennyson who was the Master of All Poets. Though it never came, the former gunsmith continued with certain confidence to use the title throughout the remainder of his life. Seven months Tennyson's junior, I imagine he thought he had a fair chance at outliving the Poet Laureate of Great Britain and Ireland. However, it was Gay who was called heavenward first, on 23 February 1891. Alfred, Lord Tennyson, his rival, followed nineteen months later.

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