"Peter McArthur" (1866-1924) by John Garvin, (1872-1934)
Garvin, John William, ed. Canadian Poets. Toronto, Canada: McClelland, Goodchild & Stewart, Publishers, 1916. pp. 295-304.
No one who turns over the pages of 'The Prodigal and Other Poems,' or who reads his other printed work, can fail to recognize that Mr. McArthur is the possessor of a genuine lyrical voice. . . . Perhaps the first thing that strikes the reader of his poetry–and his prose as well, for the matter of that–is that it possesses that rare enough quality,–zest. Mr. McArthur is no mere æsthete, no lackadaisical dilettante, but is alive to his finger tips; and all his writings fairly tingle with life. The next thing one perceives is that a strong human feeling runs through his work. Mr. McArthur is above all things else a human being, and a lover of all things human. But he loves nature, too, and manages to get very close to her: we can fairly smell the good brown earth in every out-of-doors poem of his. Naturalness is another of his qualities. He is ever himself: affectation of all kinds is anathema to him. His work is marked also by a lambent, playful humour, which, however, can become sardonic enough when occasion requires.–R. H. HATHAWAY.
PETER McARTHUR has recently become one of the most prominent and successful of our Canadian literary men. His syndicated articles pertaining to farm life which appeared in the Toronto Globe and other journals, and which were redolent of humour and wisdom, attracted wide attention; and when the best of them were published in a substantial book, under the alluring title, In Pastures Green, the enduring fame of the author was assured. Indeed he has done more than any other writer of his day and generation, to attract attention back to the farm and to popularize its various pursuits. That wholesome poem, 'The Stone,' was found in this notable book, and is reprinted here by kind permission.
His parents were the late Peter and Catherine (McLennan) McArthur, natives of Scotland. He was born at Ekfrid, in the county of Middlesex, Ontario, March 10th, 1866. After he had attended the local public school and worked on his father's farm, until twenty years of age, his higher education was received at the Strathroy Collegiate Institute, and at University College, Toronto. For a short period, he taught in a public school. In 1889, he entered Journalism as a member of the staff of the Toronto Mail, and later contributed to Grip, Detroit Free Press, Saturday Night, New York Sun, Puck, Judge, Life, Harpers Monthly, Atlantic Monthly, Century, etc. In 1890, he moved to New York. In March, 1895, he became assistant editor of Truth, and in the following August, editor-in-chief and art manager. A month later, he was married to Mabel C. Waters, of Niagara Falls, Ontario.
During the years, 1902-4, Mr. McArthur lived in London, England, and contributed to Punch and to the Review of Reviews. He then returned to New York, and for four years was a member of the firm of 'McArthur and Ryder,' commercial publishers. In 1908, he returned to the old home farm, and has remained ever since.
His chief book publications are: To Be Taken With Salt: an Essay on Teaching one's Grandmother to Suck Eggs, 1903; The Prodigal and Other Poems, 1907; In Pastures Green, 1915; and The Red Cow and Her Friends, 1916.
Mr. and Mrs. McArthur have four sons and one daughter. One of the sons is a corporal in the 56th Overseas Battery.
THE earth is awake and the birds have come,
There is life in the beat of the breeze,
And the basswood tops are alive with the hum
And the flash of the hungry bees;
The frogs in the swale in concert croak,
And the glow of the spring is here,
When the bursting leaves on the rough old oak
Are as big as a red squirrel's ear.
From the ridge-pole dry the corn we pluck,
Ears ripe and yellow and sound,
That were saved apart with the red for luck,
The best that the huskers found;
We will shell them now, for the Indian folk
Say, 'Plant your corn without fear
When the bursting leaves on the rough old oak
Are as big as a red squirrel's ear.'
No crow will pull and no frost will blight,
Nor grub cut the tender sprout,
No rust will burn and no leaves turn white,
But the stalks will be tall and stout;
And never a weed will have power to choke,
Or blasting wind to sear,
The corn that we plant when the leaves of the oak
Are as big as a red squirrel's ear.
HOW dare you sing such cheerful notes?
You show a woful lack of taste;
How dare you pour from happy throats
Such merry songs with raptured haste,
While all our poets wail and weep,
And readers sob themselves to sleep?
'Tis clear to me, you've never read
The turgid tomes that Ibsen writes,
Or mourned with Tolstoi virtue dead,
Nor over Howells pored o' nights;
For you are glad with all your power;
For shame! Go study Schopenhauer.
You never sing save when you feel
The ecstasy of thoughtless joy;
All silent through the boughs you steal
When storms or fears or pains annoy;
With bards 'tis quite a different thing,
The more they ache the more they sing.
All happiness they sadly shirk,
And from all pleasure hold aloof,
And are so tearful when they work
They write on paper waterproof,
And on each page express a yearn
To fill a cinerary urn.
Go, little birds, it gives me pain
To hear your happy melodies!
My plaudits you can never gain
With old and worn-out tunes like these;
More up-to-date your songs must be
Ere you can merit praise from me.
THE wolf of the winter wind is swift,
And hearts are still and cheeks are pale,
When we hear his howl in the ghostly drift
As he rushes past on a phantom trail;
And all the night we huddle and fear,
For we know that his path is the path of Death,
And the flames burn low, when his steps are near,
And the dim hut reeks with his grave-cold breath.
The fawn of the wind of the spring is shy,
Her light feet rustle the sere, white grass,
The trees are roused as she races by,
In the pattering rain we hear her pass;
And the bow unstrung we cast aside,
While we winnow the golden, hoarded maize,
And the earth awakes with a thrill of pride
To deck her beauty for festal days.
The hawk of the summer wind is proud,
She circles high at the throne of the sun;
When the storm is fierce her scream is loud,
And the scorching glance of her eye we shun;
And often times, when the sun is bright,
A silence falls on the choirs of song,
And the partridge shrinks in a wild affright,
Where a searching shadow swings along.
The hound of the autumn wind is slow,
He loves to bask in the heat and sleep,
When the sun through the drowsy haze bends low,
And frosts from the hills through the starlight creep;
But oftentimes he starts in his dreams,
When the howl of the winter wolf draws nigh,
Then lazily rolls in the gold-warm beams,
While the flocking birds to the south drift by.
WHEN snow-balls on the horses' hoofs
And the wind from the south blows warm,
When the cattle stand where the sunbeams beat
And the noon has a dreamy charm,
When icicles crash from the dripping eaves
And the furrows peep black through the snow,
Then I hurry away to the sugar bush,
For the sap will run, I know.
With auger and axe and spile and trough
To each tree a visit I pay,
And every boy in the country-side
Is eager to help to-day.
We roll the backlogs into their place,
And the kettles between them swing,
Then gather the wood for the roaring fire
And the sap in pailfuls bring.
A fig for your arches and modern ways,
A fig for your sheet-iron pan,
I like a smoky old kettle best
And I stick to the good old plan;
We're going to make sugar and taffy to-night
On the swing pole under the tree,
And the girls and the boys for miles around
Are all sworn friends to me.
The hens are cackling again in the barn,
And the cattle beginning to bawl,
And neighbours, who long have been acting cool,
Now make a forgiving call;
For there's no love-feast like a taffy-pull,
With its hearty and sticky fun,
And I know the whole world is at peace with me,
For the sap has commenced to run.
LAST night we marked the twinkling stars,
This morn no dew revived the grass,
And oft across the parching fields
We see the dusty eddies pass;
The eager hawk forgets to swing
And scream across the burning sky,
And from the oak's slow-dying crest
Sends forth a strange and plaintive cry.
The geese on unaccustomed wings
Flap wildly in ungainly flight,
The peacock's fierce defiant scream
Scatters the fowls in wild affright,
The crows are barking in the woods,
The maple leaves their silver show,
The cattle sniff the coming storm,
Then toss their heads and softly low.
And now along the hazy west
The swiftly building clouds uprear;
High overhead the winds are loud,
The thunder rolls and grumbles near;
The housewife trims the leaky eaves,
The farmer frets of lodging grain,
Till all the world, rejoicing, drinks
The long-denied, long-prayed-for rain.
A MAN! A man! There is a man loose in Canada,
A man of heroic mould, a 'throwback' of earlier ages,
Vigorous, public-spirited, not afraid of work!
A doer of deeds, not a dreamer and babbler;
A man, simple, direct, unaffected.
Such a one as Walt Whitman would have gloried in,
And made immortal in rugged man-poetry–
Vast polyphloesboean verses such as erstwhile he bellowed
Through roaring storm winds to the bull-mouthed Atlantic.
And yesterday the man passed among us unnoted!
Did his deed and went his way without boasting,
Leaving his act to steak, himself silent!
And I, beholding the marvel, stood for a space astonied,
Then threw up my hat and chortled,
And whooped in dithyrambic exultation.
Hark to my tale!
On the sixteenth sideroad of the township of Ekfrid,
Just south of the second concession line, some rods from the corner,
There was a stone, a stone in the road, a stumbling-block;
A jagged tooth of granite dropped from the jaw of a glacier
In an earlier age when the summers were colder;
A rock that horses tripped on, wheels bumped on, and sleigh-runners scrunched on,
And no man in all the land had the gumption to dig it out.
Pathmaster after pathmaster, full of his pride of office,
Rode by with haughty brow, and regarded it not,
Seeing only the weeds in the field of the amateur farmer,
And scrawling minatory letters ordering them cut,
But leaving the stone.
Oft in my hot youth I, riding in a lumber waggon,
By that lurking stone was catapulted skyward,
And picked myself up raging and vowing to dig it out–
But dug it not. I didn't have a spade,
Or, if I had a spade, I had a lame back–always an excuse.
And the stone stayed.
As passed the years–good years, bad years,
Years that were wet or dry, lean years and fat years,
Roaring election years (mouthing reforms); in short, all years
That oldest inhabitants keep in stock–there grew a tradition
About the stone. Men, it was said, had tried to move it,
But it was a stubborn boulder, deep sunk in the earth,
And could only be moved by dynamite, at vast cost to the council;
But every councillor was a watch dog of the treasury,
And the stone stayed.
Since the memory of man runneth the stone was there.
It had stubbed the toe of the Algonquin brave, and haply
Had tripped the ferocious, marauding Iroquois.
It had jolted the slow, wobbling ox-cart of the pioneer;
Jolted the lumber waggons, democrats, buggies, sulkies;
Jolted the pungs, crotches, stoneboats, bobsleighs, cutters;
Upset loads of bolts, staves, cordwood, loads of logs and hay;
Jolted threshing machines, traction engines, automobiles,
Milk waggons, with cans of whey, envied of querulous swine;
It had shattered the dreams of farmers, figuring on crops;
Of drovers planning sharp deals;
Of peddlers, agents, doctors, preachers;
It had jolted lovers into closer embraces, to their bashful delight;
But mostly it had shaken men into sinful tempers–
A wicked stone, a disturbing stone, a stumbling-block–
A stone in the middle of the road–
Insolent as a bank, obstructive as a merger!
Year after year the road flowed around it,
Now on the right side, now on the left;
But always on dark nights flowing straight over it,
Jolting the belated traveller into a passion black as midnight,
Making his rocking vocabulary slop over
With all the shorter and uglier words.
Boys grew to manhood and men grew to dotage.
And year after year they did statute-labour
By cutting the thistles and golden-rod, milkweeds and burdocks,
But left the stone untouched.
There is a merry tale that I heard in my childhood,
Standing between my father's knees, before the open fireplace,
Watching the sparks make soldiers on the blazing backlog,
While the shadows danced on the low-beamed ceiling.
A pretty tale, such as children love, and it comes to me now;
Comes with the sharp, crisp smell of wood smoke,
The crackle of flaming cordwood on the dockers,
The dancing shadows and the hand on my tousled head–
A clear memory, a dear memory, and ever the stone
As it lay in my path on the roadway brought back the story–
The loving voice, and, at the close, the laughter.
"Once upon a time there was a king, a mighty ruler,
Deep in the lore of human hearts, wise as a serpent,
Who placed a stone in the road, in the midst of his kingdom,
On the way to his palace, where all men must pass it.
Straightway the people turned aside, turning to right and to left of it.
Statesmen, scholars, courtiers, noblemen, merchants,
Beggars, labourers, farmers, soldiers, generals, men of all classes,
Passed the stone, and none tried to move it–
To clear the path of the travelling multitude.
But one day came a man, a kindly poor man,
Who thought it a shame that the stone should be there,
A stumbling-block to the nation. Bowing his back
He put his shoulder to it, and behold, a marvel!
The stone was but a shell, hollow as a bowl!
A child might have moved it.
And in the hollow was a purse of gold, and with it a writing:
'Let him who hath the public spirit to move the stone
Keep the purse and buy a courtly robe,
And come to the palace to serve the king as prime minister.'
So the kindly poor man who had public spirit
Became the chief ruler of all the nation.
When the news was told to them, all men rushed to the highways
And moved away the stones, but found no purse of gold;
But they cleared the roads of stones, and the 'Good Roads Movement'
Went through without cost because the king was wise
And well understood our weak human nature."
Ever when passing the stone I remembered this story
And smiled, touched by memories of childhood,
But knew there was no purse under it; there might be an angle-worm,
But I was not going fishing–and the stone stayed.
Now mark the sequel, the conclusion of the matter!
Yesterday a man went by–whether a neighbour or stranger,
No man can tell me, though I have questioned widely,
Questioned eagerly, longing to do him honour,
To chant his name in song, or cunningly engrave it
In monumental brass, with dædal phantasies–
To make it a landmark, a beacon to all future ages.
This good man, earnest, public-spirited,
Not fearing work, scorning tradition,
Doing his duty as he saw it, not waiting an order,
Dug out the stone and made it a matter of laughter,
For it was no boulder, deep-rooted, needing dynamite,
But just a little stone, about the size of a milk pail.
A child might have moved it, and yet it had bumped us
For three generations because we lacked public spirit.
I blush with shame as I pass the stone now lying
In the roadside ditch where the good man rolled it,
And left it where all men may see it–a symbol, a portent.
Tremble, ye Oppressors! Quake, ye Financial Pirates!
Your day is at hand, for there is a man loose in Canada!
A man to break through your illegal labyrinths,
A Theseus to cope with your corporate Minotaurs,
A Hercules to clean out your Augean stables of grafters,
A man who moves stones from the path of his fellows!
And makes smooth the Way of the Worker!
And such a man may move you! Tremble, I say!