A Celebration of Women Writers

"Isabella Valancy Crawford" (1850-1887) by John Garvin, (1859-1935)
Garvin, John William, ed. Canadian Poets. Toronto, Canada: McClelland, Goodchild & Stewart, Publishers, 1916. pp. 33-46.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

[Page 33]

Isabella Valancy Crawford

Let us to the work of this divinely dowered Isabella–this angelic mendicant, craving nothing of life but its finer gifts–this blessed gypsy of Canadian woods and streams. What a royal life she led! No pose to take, no reputation to sustain, no tendency to routine thinking or lassitude of the imaginative faculty to be struggled with . . . . . not a single syllable out-breathing the 'vulgar luxury of despair.' Happy, happy poet! She, like every other genius, found in the ecstasy of expression at the full height of her nature a compensation that turned all outward trials into details not worth speaking of . . . . . She is purely a genius, not a craftswoman, and a genius who has patience enough to be an artist. She has in abundant measure that power of youth which persists in poets of every age–that capacity of seeing things for the first time, and with the rose and pearl of dawn upon them. . . . . ETHELYWN WETHERALD in her Introduction to 'The Collected Poems.'

[Page 34]

ISABELLA VALANCY CRAWFORD, one of the greatest of women poets, was born of cultured parents,– Stephen Dennis Crawford, M.D., and Sydney Scott–in Dublin, Ireland, on Christmas day, 1850.

In 1858, the family emigrated to Upper Canada and settled at Paisley, on the Saugeen river. Of these pioneer days in Bruce county, Maud Wheeler Wilson writes:

The village was but just struggling out of the embrace of the forest, and it was here that the little Isabella, who had developed into a shy and studious child, blue-eyed and with a beautiful profile, beheld the practical results of those harbingers of civilization–the axe, the plough and the hammer–whose work she afterward depicted in Malcolm's Katie. . . . . Their children's education was conducted by both Dr. and Mrs. Crawford. The girls were carefully grounded in Latin, as well as in the English branches. They spoke French readily and were conversant with the good literature of the day, Isabella especially being an omnivorous reader, fondest of history and of verse, and claiming Dante as her favourite poet.

Good fortune did not accompany the Crawfords to the New World. In a few years, disease had taken nine of the twelve children, and a small medical practice had reduced the family to semi-poverty. In 1864, the remaining members moved to the village of Lakefield, the southern entrance to the beautiful Kawartha Lakes, in the county of Peterborough, and lived there about eight years. They then moved to the town of Peterborough, where the Doctor continued the practice of his profession, until his demise in 1875.

Prior to her sudden and premature death from heart failure, on February 12th, 1887, Miss Crawford and her mother had lived for nearly a decade in the city of Toronto,–most of the time in humble lodgings over a small corner grocery store on King St. Here this brilliant writer strove with tireless pen, to earn sufficient for their support. A small quarterly allowance was sent them regularly by Dr. John Irwin Crawford, of the Royal Navy, to whom his grateful niece dedicated her book of verse, Old Spookses' Pass, which she published at a financial loss in 1884.

In 1905, the editor of this volume, with the knowledge and consent of her brother, Mr. Stephen Crawford, collected, edited and published Miss Crawford's best poems, in a volume of over three hundred pages, together with a comprehensive and critical Introduction by Miss Wetherald.

[Page 35]

Songs for the Soldiers

IF songs be sung let minstrels strike their harps
To large and joyous strains, all thunder-winged
To beat along vast shores. Ay, let their notes
Wild into eagles soaring toward the sun,
And voiced like bugles bursting through the dawn
When armies leap to life! Give them such breasts
As hold immortal fires, and they shall fly,
Swept with our little sphere through all the change
That waits a whirling world.
                 Joy's an immortal;
She hath a fiery fibre in her flesh
That will not droop or die; so let her chant
The pæans of the dead, where holy Grief
Hath, trembling, thrust the feeble mist aside
That veils her dead, and in the wondrous clasp
Of re-possession ceases to be Grief.
Joy's ample voice shall still roll over all,
And chronicle the heroes to young hearts
Who knew them not.....
                  There's glory on the sword
That keeps its scabbard-sleep, unless the foe
Beat at the wall, then freely leaps to light
And thrusts to keep the sacred towers of Home
And the dear lines that map the nation out upon the world.

His Mother

IN the first dawn she lifted from her bed
The holy silver of her noble head,
And listened, listened, listened for his tread.

'Too soon, too soon!' she murmured, 'Yet I'll keep
My vigil longer– thou, O tender Sleep,
Art but the joy of those who wake and weep!

'Joy's self hath keen, wide eyes. O flesh of mine,
And mine own blood and bone, the very wine
Of my aged heart, I see thy dear eyes shine!

'I hear thy tread; thy light, loved footsteps run
Along the way, eager for that 'Well done!'
We'll weep and kiss to thee, my soldier son!

[Page 36]

'Blest mother I– he lives! Yet had he died
Blest were I still, – I sent him on the tide
Of my full heart to save his nation's pride!'

'O God, if that I tremble so to-day,
Bowed with such blessings that I cannot pray
By speech– a mother prays, dear Lord, alway

'In some far fibre of her trembling mind!
I'll up– I thought I heard a bugle bind
Its silver with the silver of the wind.'

His Wife and Baby

IN the lone place of the leaves,
Where they touch the hanging eaves,
There sprang a spray of joyous song that sounded sweet and sturdy;
    And the baby in the bed
    Raised the shining of his head,
And pulled the mother's lids apart to wake and watch the birdie.

    She kissed lip-dimples sweet,
    The red soles of his feet,
The waving palms that patted hers as wind-blown blossoms wander;
    He twined her tresses silk
    Round his neck as white as milk–
'Now, baby, say what birdie sings upon his green spray yonder.'

    'He sings a plenty things–
    Just watch him wash his wings!
He says Papa will march to-day with drums home through the city.
    Here, birdie, here's my cup.
    You drink the milk all up;
I'll kiss you, birdie, now you're washed like baby clean and pretty.'

    She rose, she sought the skies
    With the twin joys of her eyes;
She sent the strong dove of her soul up through the dawning's glory;

[Page 37]

    She kissed upon her hand
    The glowing golden band
That bound the fine scroll of her life and clasped her simple story.

His Sweetheart

SYLVIA'S lattices were dark–
  Roses made them narrow.
In the dawn there came a Spark,
  Armèd with an arrow:
Blithe he burst by dewy spray,
  Winged by bud and blossom,
All undaunted urged his way
  Straight to Sylvia's bosom.
'Sylvia! Sylvia! Sylvia!' he
  Like a bee kept humming,
'Wake, my sweeting; waken thee,
  For thy Soldier's coming!'

Sylvia sleeping in the dawn,
  Dreams that Cupid's trill is
Roses singing on the lawn,
  Courting crested lilies.
Sylvia smiles and Sylvia sleeps,
  Sylvia weeps and slumbers;
Cupid to her pink ear creeps,
  Pipes his pretty numbers.
Sylvia dreams that bugles play,
  Hears a martial drumming;
Sylvia springs to meet the day
  With her Soldier coming.

Happy Sylvia, on thee wait
  All the gracious graces!
Venus mild her cestus plait
  Round thy lawns and laces!
Flora fling a flower most fair,
  Hope a rainbow lend thee!
All the nymphs to Cupid dear
  On this day befriend thee!
'Sylvia! Sylvia! Sylvia!' hear

[Page 38]

  How he keeps a-humming,
Laughing in her jewelled ear,
  'Sweet, thy Soldier's coming!'

From 'Malcolm's Katie'

O LIGHT canoe, where dost thou glide?
Below thee gleams no silvered tide,
But concave heaven's chiefest pride.

Above thee burns Eve's rosy bar;
Below thee throbs her darling star;
Deep 'neath thy keel her round worlds are.

Above, below–O sweet surprise
To gladden happy lover's eyes!
No earth, no wave–all jewelled skies.

. . . . . . . . . .

There came a morn the Moon of Falling Leaves
With her twin silver blades had only hung
Above the low set cedars of the swamp
For one brief quarter, when the Sun arose
Lusty with light and full of summer heat,
And, pointing with his arrows at the blue
Closed wigwam curtains of the sleeping Moon,
Laughed with the noise of arching cataracts,
And with the dove-like cooing of the woods,
And with the shrill cry of the diving loon,
And with the wash of saltless rounded seas,
And mocked the white Moon of the Falling Leaves:

"Esa! esa! shame upon you, Pale Face!
Shame upon you, Moon of Evil Witches!
Have you killed the happy, laughing Summer?
Have you slain the mother of the flowers
With your icy spells of might and magic?
Have you laid her dead within my arms?
Wrapped her, mocking, in a rainbow blanket?
Drowned her in the frost-mist of your anger?
She is gone a little way before me;
Gone an arrow's flight beyond my vision.

[Page 39]

She will turn again and come to meet me
With the ghosts of all the stricken flowers,
In a blue smoke in her naked forests.
She will linger, kissing all the branches;
She will linger, touching all the places,
Bare and naked, with her golden fingers,
Saying, 'Sleep and dream of me, my children;
Dream of me, the mystic Indian Summer,–
I who, slain by the cold Moon of Terror,
Can return across the path of Spirits,
Bearing still my heart of love and fire,
Looking with my eyes of warmth and splendour,
Whispering lowly through your sleep of sunshine.
I, the laughing Summer, am not turnèd
Into dry dust, whirling on the prairies,
Into red clay, crushed beneath the snowdrifts.
I am still the mother of sweet flowers
Growing but an arrow's flight beyond you
In the Happy Hunting-Ground–the quiver
Of great Manitou, where all the arrows
He has shot from His great bow of Power,
With its clear, bright singing cord of Wisdom,
Are re-gathered, plumed again and brightened,
And shot out, re-barbed with Love and Wisdom;
Always shot, and evermore returning.
Sleep, my children, smiling in your heart-seeds
At the spirit words of Indian Summer.'
Thus, O Moon of Falling Leaves, I mock you!
Have you slain my gold-eyed squaw, the Summer?"

The mighty Morn strode laughing up the land,
And Max, the lab'rer and the lover, stood
Within the forest's edge beside a tree–
The mossy king of all the woody tribes–
Whose clattering branches rattled, shuddering,
As the bright axe cleaved moon-like through the air,
Waking the strange thunders, rousing echoes linked
From the full lion-throated roar to sighs
Stealing on dove-wings through the distant aisles.
Swift fell the axe, swift followed roar on roar,

[Page 40]

Till the bare woodland bellowed in its rage
As the first-slain slow toppled to his fall.
'O King of Desolation, art thou dead?'
Cried Max, and laughing, heart and lips, leaped on
The vast prone trunk. 'And have I slain a king?
Above his ashes will I build my house;
No slave beneath its pillars, but–a king!'

Max wrought alone but for a half-breed lad
With tough, lithe sinews, and deep Indian eyes
Lit with a Gallic sparkle. Max the lover found
The lab'rer's arms grow mightier day by day,
More iron-welded, as he slew the trees;
And with the constant yearning of his heart
Toward little Kate, part of a world away,
His young soul grew and showed a virile front,
Full-muscled and large-statured like his flesh.

Soon the great heaps of brush were builded high,
And, like a victor, Max made pause to clear
His battle-field high strewn with tangled dead.
Then roared the crackling mountains, and their fires
Met in high heaven, clasping flame with flame;
The thin winds swept a cosmos of red sparks
Across the bleak midnight sky; and the sun
Walked pale behind the resinous black smoke.

And Max cared little for the blotted sun,
And nothing for the startled, outshone stars;
For love, once set within a lover's breast,
Has its own sun, its own peculiar sky,
All one great daffodil, on which do lie
The sun, the moon, the stars, all seen at once
And never setting, but all shining straight
Into the faces of the trinity–
The one beloved, the lover, and sweet love.

. . . . . . . . . .

  O Love builds on the azure sea,
    And Love builds on the golden sand,
  And Love builds on the rose-winged cloud,
    And sometimes Love builds on the land!   

[Page 41]

  O if Love build on sparkling sea,
    And if Love build on golden strand,
  And if Love build on rosy cloud,
    To Love these are the solid land!   

  O Love will build his lily walls,
    And Love his pearly roof will rear
  On cloud, or land, or mist, or sea–
    Love's solid land is everywhere!

. . . . . . . . . .

From his far wigwam sprang the strong North Wind
And rushed with war-cry down the steep ravines,
And wrestled with the giants of the woods,
And with his ice-club beat the swelling crests
Of the deep watercourses into death
And with his chill foot froze the whirling leaves
Of dun and gold and fire in icy banks;
And smote the tall reeds to the hardened earth,
And sent his whistling arrows o'er the plains,
Scattering the lingering herds; and sudden paused,
When he had frozen all the running streams,
And hunted with his war-cry all the things
That breathed about the woods, or roamed the bleak,
Bare prairies swelling to the mournful sky.

"White squaw!" he shouted, troubled in his soul,
'I slew the dead, unplumed before; wrestled
With naked chiefs scalped of their leafy plumes;
I bound sick rivers in cold thongs of death,
And shot my arrows over swooning plains,
Bright with the paint of death, and lean and bare.
And all the braves of my loud tribe will mock
And point at me when our great chief, the Sun,
Relights his council fire in the Moon
Of Budding Leaves: 'Ugh, ugh! he is a brave!
He fights with squaws and takes the scalps of babes!'
And the least wind will blow his calumet,
Filled with the breath of smallest flowers, across
The war-paint on my face, and pointing with
His small, bright pipe, that never moved a spear

[Page 42]

Of bearded rice, cry, 'Ugh! he slays the dead!'
O my white squaw, come from thy wigwam grey,
Spread thy white blanket on the twice-slain dead,
And hide them ere the waking of the Sun!"

High grew the snow beneath the low-hung sky,
And all was silent in the wilderness;
In trance of stillness Nature heard her God
Rebuilding her spent fires, and veiled her face
While the Great Worker brooded o'er his Work.

'Bite deep and wide, O Axe, the tree!
What doth thy bold voice promise me?'

'I promise thee all joyous things
That furnish forth the lives of kings;

'For every silver ringing blow
Cities and palaces shall grow.'

'Bite deep and wide, O Axe, the tree!
Tell wider prophecies to me.'

'When rust hath gnawed me deep and red,
A Nation strong shall lift his head.

'His crown the very heavens shall smite,
Æons shall build him in his might.'

'Bite deep and wide, O Axe, the tree!
Bright Seer, help on thy prophecy!'

Max smote the snow-weighed tree and lightly laughed,
'See, friend,' he cried to one that looked and smiled,
'My axe and I, we do immortal tasks;
We build up nations–this my axe and I.'

. . . . . . . . . .

Who curseth Sorrow knows her not at all.
Dark matrix she, from which the human soul
Has its last birth; whence it, with misty thews
Close knitted in her blackness, issues out
Strong for immortal toil up such great heights
As crown o'er crown rise through Eternity.
Without the loud, deep clamour of her wail,
The iron of her hands, the biting brine

[Page 43]

Of her black tears, the sonl, but lightly built
Of indeterminate spirit, like a mist
Would lapse to chaos in soft, gilded dreams,
As mists fade in the gazing of the sun.
Sorrow, dark mother of the soul, arise!
Be crowned with spheres where thy blest children dwell,
Who, but for thee, were not. No lesser seat
Be thine, thou Helper of the Universe,
Than planet on planet piled–thou instrument
Close clasped within the great Creative Hand!

From 'The Helot'

WHO may quench the god-born fire
  Pulsing at the soul's deep root?
Tyrant, grind it in the mire,
  Lo, it vivifies the brute!

Stings the chain-embruted clay,
  Senseless to his yoke-bound shame;
Goads him on to rend and slay,
  Knowing not the spurring flame!

Tyrant, changeless stand the gods,
  Nor their calm might yielded thee;
Not beneath thy chains and rods
  Dies man's god-gift, Liberty!

Bruteward lash thy Helots, hold
  Brain and soul and clay in gyves,
Coin their blood and sweat in gold,
  Build thy cities on their lives,–

Comes a day the spark divine
  Answers to the gods who gave;
Fierce the hot flames pant and shine
  In the bruised breast of the slave.

Changeless stand the gods!–nor he
  Knows he answers their behest,
Feels the might of their decree
  In the blind rage of his breast.

Tyrant, tremble when ye tread
  Down the servile Helot clods!

[Page 44]

Under despot heel is bred
  The white anger of the gods.

Through the shackle-cankered dust,
  Through the gyved soul, foul and dark,
Force they, changeless gods and just,
  Up the bright, eternal spark,

Till, like lightnings vast and fierce,
  On the land its terror smites;
Till its flames the tyrant pierce,
  Till the dust the despot bites.

The Mother's Soul

WHEN the moon was horned the mother died,
  And the child pulled at her hand and knee,
And he rubbed her cheek and loudly cried:
  'O mother, arise, give bread to me!'
     But the pine tree bent its head,
     And the wind at the door-post said:
     'O child, thy mother is dead!'

The sun set his loom to weave the day;
  The frost bit sharp like a silent cur;
The child by her pillow paused in his play:
  'Mother, build up the sweet fire of fir!'
     But the fir tree shook its cones,
     And loud cried the pitiful stones:
     'Wolf Death has thy mother's bones!'

They bore the mother out on her bier;
  Their tears made warm her breast and shroud;
The smiling child at her head stood near;
  And the long, white tapers shook and bowed,
     And said with their tongues of gold,
     To the ice lumps of the grave mold:
     'How heavy are ye and cold!'

They buried the mother; to the feast
  They flocked with the beaks of unclean crows.
The wind came up from the red-eyed east
  And bore in its arms the chill, soft snows.
     They said to each other: 'Sere

[Page 45]

     Are the hearts the mother held dear;
     Forgotten, her babe plays here!'

The child with the tender snowflakes played,
  And the wind on its fingers twined his hair;
And still by the tall, brown grave he stayed,
  Alone in the churchyard lean and bare.
     The sods on the high grave cried
     To the mother's white breast inside:
     'Lie still; in thy deep rest bide!'

Her breast lay still like a long-chilled stone,
  Her soul was out on the bleak, grey day;
She saw her child by the grave alone,
  With the sods and snow and wind at play.
     Said the sharp lips of the rush,
     'Red as thy roses,O bush,
     With anger the dead can blush!'

A butterfly to the child's breast flew,*
  Fluttered its wings on his sweet, round cheek,
Danced by his fingers, small, cold and blue.
  The sun strode down past the mountain peak.
     The butterfly whispered low
     To the child: 'Babe, follow me; know,
     Cold is the earth here below.'

The butterfly flew; followed the child,
  Lured by the snowy torch of its wings;
The wind sighed after them soft and wild
  Till the stars wedded night with golden rings
     Till the frost upreared its head,
     And the ground to it groaned and said:
     'The feet of the child are lead!'

The child's head drooped to the brown, sere mold,
  On the crackling cones his white breast lay;
The butterfly touched the locks of gold,
  The soul of the child sprang from its clay.
     The moon to the pine tree stole,

* In Eastern Europe the soul of the deceased is said to hover, in the shape of a bird or butterfly, close to the body until after the burial.

[Page 46]

      And silver-lipped, said to its bole:
     'How strong is the mother's soul!'

The wings of the butterfly grew out
  To the mother's arms, long, soft and white;
She folded them warm her babe about,
  She kissed his lips into berries bright,
     She warmed his soul on her breast;
     And the east called out to the west:
     'Now the mother's soul will rest!'

Under the roof where the burial feast
  Was heavy with meat and red with wine,
Each crossed himself as out of the east
  A strange wind swept over oak and pine.
     The trees to the home-roof said:
     ' 'Tis but the airy rush and tread
     Of angels greeting thy dead.'

The Rose

THE Rose was given to man for this:
   He, sudden seeing it in later years,
Should swift remember Love's first lingering kiss
   And Grief's last lingering tears;

Or, being blind, should feel its yearning soul
   Knit all its piercing perfume round his own,
Till he should see on memory's ample scroll
   All roses he had known;

Or, being hard, perchance his finger-tips
   Careless might touch the satin of its cup,
And he should feel a dead babe's budding lips
   To his lips lifted up;

Or, being deaf and smitten with its star,
   Should, on a sudden, almost hear a lark
Rush singing up–the nightingale afar
   Sing through the dew-bright dark;

Or, sorrow-lost in paths that round and round
   Circle old graves, its keen and vital breath
Should call to him within the yew's bleak bound
   Of Life, and not of Death.

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Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom