A Celebration of Women Writers

"Charles Mair" (1838-1927) by John Garvin, (1872-1934)
Garvin, John William, ed. Canadian Poets. Toronto, Canada: McClelland, Goodchild & Stewart, Publishers, 1916. pp. 19-32.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

[Page 19]

Charles Mair

Charles Mair is the first of our poets of the nature school. . . . . He might in many senses be called the first Canadian poet, as his first volume was published in 1868, one year following Confederation. 'Dreamland' was a small volume of one hundred and fifty pages, printed at the Citizen Printing House in Ottawa. The author was then in his thirtieth year. The thirty-three poems constitute the first attempt to deal with Canadian nature, in the manner of Keats and the other classic poets, and many of them in theme and treatment are similar to the verse of Lampman and Roberts. . . . . And there are strong evidences in Mair's work that he influenced these poets to a great extent.WILFRED CAMPBELL, in the Ottawa 'Journal.'

Charles Mair and Isabella Valancy Crawford, whose best work was written in the early 80's of last century, were the first to raise the standard of Canadian poetry to greatness, and it is doubtful if their work has since been out-classed by that of any successors.–'Public Health Journal.'

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AS Tecumseh–a drama, native to the soil, and still without a successful rival–was published in 1886, and as the same author, by the publication in 1868 of Dreamland and Other Poems, originated our nature school of verse, it seems clear that the poetical work of Charles Mair has a significance in Canadian literature, not yet fully recognized.

Charles Mair, son of the late James Mair, a native of Scotland, one of the pioneers of the old square timber trade in the Ottawa valley, and Margaret (Holmes) Mair, was born in Lanark, Ontario, September, 1838. He was educated at the Perth Grammar School and at Queen's University, Kingston. In 1867, he returned to Queen's College and studied medicine. In the summer of 1868, he was called to Ottawa by the Hon. William McDougall, Minister of Public Works, to prepare a précis of available records in the Parliamentary Library, pertaining to the Hudson's Bay Company's territories and tenure. The following autumn, he was appointed paymaster of the first expedition sent to the North-West by the Canadian Government, its object being to open up an immigration route via the Lake of the Woods, and was requested to describe in the press, the prairie country and its inducement to settlers. His correspondence to the Toronto Globe and the Montreal Gazette was widely copied and was potent in influencing western immigration.

In Winnipeg, Sept. 8th, 1869, he married Elizabeth Louise, daughter of the late Augustus Mackenney, Amherstburg, Ont., and a niece of Sir John C. Schultz, K.C.M.G.

During the first Riel rebellion, 1869-70, Mr. Mair was imprisoned by the rebels, and until he escaped, his life was in serious danger, but his greatest distress was caused by the loss of valuable manuscripts which he had taken with him to the West, to revise and prepare for publication, and which: his memory was unable to restore.

This loss and discouragement doubtless had its effect, for his next publication did not appear until 1886. In the meantime he was engaged in the fur trade at Portage la Prairie and later at Prince Albert until 1883, when he returned to Ontario and resided at Windsor. It was during the next two years that he had leisure to write his great drama.

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In 1885, when the second Riel rebellion broke out, Mr. Mair promptly enlisted and served as quartermaster in the Governor General's Body Guard, commanded by Col. G. T. Denison. Afterwards he removed to Kelowna, B.C., of which he was one of the founders. Subsequently he joined the Immigration Service at Winnipeg, and several years later, took charge of the Lethbridge Immigration Office and Agency. Thence was removed to Coutts on the Boundary, and was afterwards transferred as relieving officer to Fort Steele, B.C., where he now resides.

The Last Bison, an original and virile poem of gripping interest, was written in 1890. In 1901, his collected poems, Tecumseh, a drama, and Canadian Poems, was published; and in 1908, there appeared in prose, his Through the Mackenzie Basin, an important work giving an account of the great Peace River Treaty of 1899, with the Indians of the North, who ceded a territory 800 miles by 400 in length and breadth. Mr. Mair was English Secretary to the Scrip Commission and gave a favourable account of the vast region, since confirmed by the extensive immigration into that country.

The Last Bison

EIGHT years have fled since, in the wilderness,
I drew the rein to rest my comrade there–
My supple, clean-limbed pony of the plains.
He was a runner of pure Indian blood,
Yet in his eye still gleamed the desert's fire,
And form and action both bespoke the Barb.
A wondrous creature is the Indian's horse;
Degenerate now, but from the 'Centaurs' drawn–
The apparitions which dissolved with fear
Montezuma's plumed Children of the Sun,
And throned rough Cortez in his realm of gold.

A gentle vale, with rippling aspens clad,
Yet open to the breeze, invited rest.
So there I lay, and watched the sun's fierce beams
Reverberate in wreathed ethereal flame;
Or gazed upon the leaves which buzzed o'erhead,
Like tiny wings in simulated flight.

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Within the vale a lakelet, lashed with flowers,
Lay like a liquid eye among the hills,
Revealing in its depths the fulgent light
Of snowy cloud-land and cerulean skies.
And rising, falling, fading far around,
The homeless and unfurrowed prairies spread
In solitude and idleness eterne.

And all was silent save the rustling leaf,
The gadding insect, or the grebe's lone cry,
Or where Saskatchewan, with turbid moan,
Deep-sunken in the plain, his torrent poured.
Here Loneliness possessed her realm supreme,
Her prairies all about her, undeflowered,
Pulsing beneath the summer sun, and sweet
With virgin air and waters undefiled.
Inviolate still! Bright solitudes, with power
To charm the spirit-bruised, where ways are foul,
Into forgetfulness of chuckling wrong
And all the weary clangour of the world.

Yet, Sorrow, too, had here its kindred place,
As o'er my spirit swept the sense of change.
Here sympathy could sigh o'er man's decay;
For here, but yesterday, the warrior dwelt
Whose faded nation had for ages held,
In fealty to Nature, these domains.
Around me were the relics of his race:
The grassy circlets where his village stood,
Well-ruled by custom's immemorial law.
Along these slopes his happy offspring roved
In days gone by, and dusky mothers plied
Their summer tasks, or loitered in the shade.
Here the magician howled his demons up,
And here the lodge of council had its seat,
Once resonant with oratory wild.
All vanished! perished in the swelling sea
And stayless tide of an enroaching power
Whose civil fiat, man-devouring still,
Will leave, at last, no wilding on the earth
To wonder at or love!

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                            With them had fled
The bison-breed which overflowed the plains,
And, undiminished, fed uncounted tribes.
Its vestiges were here–its wallows, paths,
And skulls and shining ribs and vertebrae:
Gray bones of monarchs from the herds, perchance,
Descended, by De Vaca first beheld,
Or Coronada, in mad quest of gold.
Here hosts had had their home; here had they roamed,
Endless and infinite–vast herds which seemed
Exhaustless as the sea. All vanished now!
Of that wild tumult not a hoof remained
To scour the countless paths where myriads trod.

Long had I lain 'twixt dreams and waking, thus,
Musing on change and mutability,
And endless evanescence, when a burst
Of sudden roaring filled the vale with sound.
Perplexed and startled, to my feet I sprang,
And in amazement from my covert gazed,
For, presently, into the valley came
A mighty bison, which, with stately tread
And gleaming eyes, descended to the shore.
Spell-bound I stood. Was this a living form,
Or but an image by the fancy drawn?
But no–he breathed! and from a wound blood flowed,
And trickled with the frothing from his lips.
Uneasily he gazed, yet saw me not,
Haply concealed; then, with a roar so loud
That all the echoes rent their valley-horns,
He stood and listened; but no voice replied!
Deeply he drank, then, lashed his quivering flanks,
And roared again, and hearkened, but no sound,
No tongue congenial answered to his call–
He was the last survivor of his clan!

Huge was his frame! the famed Burdash, so grown
To that enormous bulk whose presence filled
The very vale with awe. His shining horns
Gleamed black amidst his fell of floating hair–
His neck and shoulders, of the lion's build,

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Were framed to toss the world. Now stood he there
And stared, with head uplifted, at the skies,
Slow-yielding to his deep and mortal wound.
He seemed to pour his mighty spirit out
As thus he gazed, till my own spirit burned,
And teeming fancy, charmed and overwrought
By all the wildering glamour of the scene,
Gave to that glorious attitude a voice,
And, rapt, endowed the noble beast with song.

The Song

Here me, ye smokeless skies and grass-green earth,
  Since by your sufferance still I breathe and live!
Through you fond Nature gave me birth,
  And food and freedom–all she had to give.
Enough! I grew, and with my kindred ranged
Their realm stupendous, changeless and unchanged,
  Save by the toil of nations primitive,
Who throve on us, and loved our life-stream's roar,
And lived beside its wave, and camped upon its shore.

They loved us, and they wasted not. They slew,
  With pious hand, but for their daily need;
Not wantonly, but as the due
  Of stern necessity which Life doth breed.
Yea, even as earth gave us herbage meet,
So yielded we, in turn, our substance sweet
  To quit the claims of hunger, not of greed.
So stood it with us that what either did
Could not be on the earth foregone, nor Heaven forbid.

And, so companioned in the blameless strife
  Enjoined upon all creatures, small and great,
Our ways were venial, and our life
  Ended in fair fulfilment of our fate.
No gold to them by sordid hands was passed;
No greedy herdsman housed us from the blast;
  Ours was the liberty of regions rife
In winter's snow, in summer's fruits and flowers–
Ours were the virgin prairies, and their rapture ours!

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So fared it with us both; yea, thus it stood
  In all our wanderings from place to place,
Until the red man mixed his blood
  With paler currents. Then arose a race–
The reckless hunters of the plains–who vied
In wanton slaughter for the tongue and hide,
  To satisfy vain ends and longings base.
Thus grew; and yet we flourished, and our name
Prospered until the pale destroyer's concourse came.

Then fell a double terror on the plains,
  The swift inspreading of destruction dire–
Strange men, who ravaged our domains
  On every hand, and ringed us round with fire;
Pale enemies who slew with equal mirth
The harmless or the hurtful things of earth,
  In dead fruition of their mad desire:
The ministers of mischief and of might,
Who yearn for havoc as the world's supreme delight.

So waned the myriads which had waxed before
  When subject to the simple needs of men.
As yields to eating seas the shore,
  So yielded our vast multitude, and then–
It scattered! Meagre bands, in wild dismay,
Were parted and, for shelter, fled away
  To barren wastes, to mountain gorge and glen.
A respite brief from stern pursuit and care,
For still the spoiler sought, and still he slew us there.

Hear me, thou grass-green earth, ye smokeless skies,
  Since by your sufferance still I breathe and live!
The charity which man denies
  Ye still would tender to the fugitive!
I feel your mercy in my veins–at length
My heart revives, and strengthens with your strength–
  Too late, too late, the courage ye would give!
Naught can avail these wounds, this failing breath,
This frame which feels, at last, the wily touch of death.

Here must the last of all his kindred fall;
  Yet, midst these gathering shadows, ere I die–

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Responsive to an inward call,
  My spirit fain would rise and prophesy.
I see our spoilers build their cities great
Upon our plains–I see their rich estate:
  The centuries in dim procession fly!
Long ages roll, and then at length is bared
The time when they who spared not are no longer spared.

Once more my vision sweeps the prairies wide,
  But now no peopled cities greet the sight;
All perished, now, their pomp and pride:
  In solitude the wild wind takes delight.
Naught but the vacant wilderness is seen,
And grassy mounds, where cities once had been.
  The earth smiles as of yore, the skies are bright,
Wild cattle graze and bellow on the plain,
And savage nations roam o'er native wilds again.


The burden ceased, and now, with head bowed down,
The bison smelt, then grinned into the air.
An awful anguish seized his giant frame,
Cold shudderings and indrawn gaspings deep–
The spasms of illimitable pain.
One stride he took, and sank upon his knees,
Glared stern defiance where I stood revealed,
Then swayed to earth, and, with convulsive groan,
Turned heavily upon his side, and died.

From 'Tecumseh'

  LEFROY. This region is as lavish of its flowers
As heaven of its primrose blooms by night.
This is the arum which within its root
Folds life and death; and this the prince's pine,
Fadeless as love and truth–the fairest form
That ever sun-shower washed with sudden rain.
This golden cradle is the moccasin flower,
Wherein the Indian hunter sees his hound;
And this dark chalice is the pitcher-plant,
Stored with the water of forgetfulness.
Whoever drinks of it, whose heart is pure,

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Will sleep for aye 'neath foodful asphodel
And dream of endless love. I need it not.
I am awake, and yet I dream of love.
It is the hour of meeting, when the sun
Takes level glances at these mighty woods,
And Iena has never failed till now
To meet me here. What keeps her? Can it be
The Prophet? Ah, that villain has a thought,
Undreamt of by his simple followers,
Dark in his soul as midnight! If–but no–
He fears her though he hates.
                              What shall I do?
Rehearse to listening woods, or ask these oaks
What thoughts they have, what knowledge of the past?
They dwarf me with their greatness, but shall come
A meaner and a mightier than they,
And cut them down. Yet rather would I dwell
With them, with wildness and its stealthy forms–
Yea, rather with wild men, wild beasts and birds,
Than in the sordid town that here may rise.
For here I am a part of nature's self,
And not divorced from her like men who plod
The weary streets of care in search of gain.
And here I feel the friendship of the earth:
Not the soft cloying tenderness of hand
Which fain would satiate the hungry soul
With household honey combs and parloured sweets,
But the strong friendship of primeval things–
The rugged kindness of a giant heart,
And love that lasts.
                              I have a poem made
Which doth concern earth's injured majesty–
Be audience, ye still untroubled stems!

(Recites)

There was a time on this fair continent
When all things throve in spacious peacefulness.
The prosperous forests unmolested stood,
For where the stalwart oak grew there it lived
Long ages, and then died among its kind.

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The hoary pines–those ancients of the earth–
Brimful of legends of the early world,
Stood thick on their own mountains unsubdued.
And all things else illumined by the sun,
Inland or by the lifted wave, had rest.
The passionate or calm pageants of the skies
No artist drew; but in the auburn west
Innumerable faces of fair cloud
Vanished in silent darkness with the day.
The prairie realm–vast ocean's paraphrase–
Rich in wild grasses numberless, and flowers
Unnamed save in mute nature's inventory,
No civilized barbarian trenched for gain.
And all that flowed was sweet and uncorrupt.
The rivers and their tributary streams,
Undammed, wound on forever, and gave up
Their lonely torrents to weird gulfs of sea,
And ocean wastes unshadowed by a sail.
And all the wild life of this western world
Knew not the fear of man; yet in those woods,
And by those plenteous streams and mighty lakes,
And on stupendous steppes of peerless plain,
And in the rocky gloom of canyons deep,
Screened by the stony ribs of mountains hoar
Which steeped their snowy peaks in purging cloud,
And down the continent where tropic suns
Warmed to her very heart the mother earth,
And in the congealed north where silence' self
Ached with intensity of stubborn frost,
There lived a soul more wild than barbarous:
A tameless soul–the sunburnt savage free–
Free, and untainted by the greed of gain:
Great nature's man content with nature's food.

But hark! I hear her footsteps in the leaves–
And so my poem ends.
                              –Scene II, Act I.

..........

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Tecumseh to General Harrison

  TECUMSEH ....
Once this mighty continent was ours,
And the Great Spirit made it for our use.
He knew no boundaries, so had we peace
In the vast shelter of His handiwork,
And, happy here, we cared not whence we came.
We brought no evils thence–no treasured hate,
No greed of gold, no quarrels over God;
Add so our broils, to narrow issues joined,
Were soon composed, and touched the ground of peace.
Our very ailments, rising from the earth,
And not from any foul abuse in us,
Drew back, and let age ripen to death's hand.
Thus flowed our lives until your people came,
Till from the East our matchless misery came!
Since then our tale is crowded with your crimes,
With broken faith, with plunder of reserves–
The sacred remnants of our wide domain–
With tamp'rings, and delirious feasts of fire,
The fruit of your thrice-cursèd stills of death
Which make our good men bad, our bad men worse,
Ay, blind them till they grope in open day
And stumble into miserable graves!
Oh, it is piteous, for none will hear!
There is no hand to help, no heart to feel,
No tongue to plead for us in all your land.
But every hand aims death, and every heart,
Ulcered with hate, resents our presence here;
And every tongue cries for our children's land
To expiate their crime of being born.
Oh, we have ever yielded in the past,
But we shall yield no more! Those plains are ours!
Those forests are our birth-right and our home!
Let not the Long-Knife build one cabin there–
Or fire from it will spread to every roof,
To compass you, and light your souls to death!
                              –Scene IV, Act II.

..........

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Enter General Brock and Lefroy

  BROCK. You may be right, Lefroy, but, for my part,
I stand by old tradition and the past.
My father's God is wise enough for me,
And wise enough this gray world's wisest men.
  LEFROY. I tell you, Brock,
The world is wiser than its wisest men,
And shall outlive the wisdom of its gods,
Made after man's own liking. The crippled throne
No longer shelters the uneasy king,
And outworn sceptres and Imperial crowns
Now grow fantastic as an idiot's dream.
These perish with the kingly pastime, war,
And war's blind tool, the monster, Ignorance,
Both hateful in themselves, but this the worst.
One tyrant will remain–one impious fiend
Whose name is Gold–our earliest, latest foe.
Him must the earth destroy, ere man can rise,
Rightly self-made, to his high destiny,
Purged of his grossest faults: humane and kind;
Co-equal with his fellows and as free.
  BROCK. Lefroy, such thoughts let loose would wreck the world.
The kingly function is the soul of state,
The crown the emblem of authority,
And loyalty the symbol of all faith.
Omitting these, man's government decays–
His family falls into revolt and ruin.
But let us drop this bootless argument,
And tell me more of those unrivalled wastes
You and Tecumseh visited.
  LEFROY.       We left
The silent forest, and, day after day,
Great prairies swept beyond our aching sight
Into the measureless West; uncharted realms,
Voiceless and calm, save when tempestuous wind
Rolled the rank herbage into billows vast,
And rushing tides which never found a shore.
And tender clouds, and veils of morning mist,

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Cast flying shadows, chased by flying light,
Into interminable wildernesses,
Flushed with fresh blooms, deep perfumed by the rose,
And murmurous with flower-fed bird and bee.
The deep-grooved bison-paths like furrows lay,
Turned by the cloven hoofs of thundering herds
Primeval, and still travelled as of yore.
And gloomy valleys opened at our feet,
Shagged with dusk cypresses and hoary pine;
The sunless gorges, rummaged by the wolf,
Which through long reaches of the prairie wound,
Then melted slowly into upland vales,
Lingering, far-stretched amongst the spreading hills.
  BROCK. What charming solitudes! And life was there?
  LEFROY. Yes, life was there, inexplicable life,
Still wasted by inexorable death!
There had the stately stag his battle-field–
Dying for mastery among his hinds.
There vainly sprung the affrighted antelope,
Beset by glittering eyes and hurrying feet.
The dancing grouse, at their insensate sport,
Heard not the stealthy footstep of the fox;
The gopher on his little earthwork stood,
With folded arms, unconscious of the fate
That wheeled in narrowing circles overhead;
And the poor mouse, on heedless nibbling bent,
Marked not the silent coiling of the snake.
At length we heard a deep and solemn sound–
Erupted moanings of the troubled earth
Trembling beneath innumerable feet.
A growing uproar blending in our ears,
With noise tumultuous as ocean's surge,
Of bellowings, fierce breath and battle shock,
And ardour of unconquerable herds.
A multitude whose trampling shook the plains,
With discord of harsh sound and rumblings deep,
As if the swift revolving earth had struck,
And from some adamantine peak recoiled,
Jarring. At length we topped a high-browed hill–
The last and loftiest of a file of such–

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And lo, before us lay the tameless stock,
Slow wending to the northward like a cloud!
A multitude in motion, dark and dense–
Far as eye could reach, and farther still,
In countless myriads stretched for many a league.
  BROCK. You fire me with the picture! What a scene!
  LEFROY. Nation on nation was invillaged there,
Skirting the flanks of that imbanded host;
With chieftains of strange speech and port of war,
Who, battle-armed, in weather-brawny bulk,
Roamed fierce and free in huge and wild content.
These gave Tecumseh greetings fair and kind,
Knowing the purpose havened in his soul.
And he, too, joined the chase as few men dare:
For I have seen him, leaping from his horse,
Mount a careering bull in foaming flight,
Urge it to fury o'er its burden strange,
Yet cling tenacious, with a grip of steel,
Then, by a knife-plunge, fetch it to its knees
In mid career and pangs of speedy death.
  BROCK. You rave, Lefroy, or saw this in a dream!
  LEFROY. No, no; 'tis true–I saw him do it, Brock!
Then would he seek the old, and with his spoils
Restore them to the bounty of their youth,
Cheering the crippled lodge with plenteous feasts,
And warmth of glossy robes, as soft as down,
Till withered cheeks ran o'er with feeble smiles,
And tongues, long silent, babbled of their prime.
  BROCK. This warrior's fabric is of perfect parts!
A worthy champion of his race–he heaps
Such giant obligations on our heads
As will outweigh repayment. It is late,
And rest must preface war's hot work to-morrow,
Else would I talk till morn. How still the night!
Here Peace has let her silvery tresses down
And falls asleep beside the lapping wave.
                              —Scene VI, Act IV.

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Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom