"E. W. Thomson" [Edward William Thomson] (1849-1924) by John Garvin, (1872-1934)
Garvin, John William, ed. Canadian Poets. Toronto, Canada: McClelland, Goodchild & Stewart, Publishers, 1916. pp. 157-166.
The name of E. W. Thomson is a household word among Canadian literary men, and stands for a skilled craftsman in both prose and verse. . . . . The dramatic and thoughtful power of his stanzas, his finished workmanship, the gentleness and breadth of his love for humanity, all stamp his work as that of an artist of whom Canadians have good reason to be proud, and of the first rank of our litterateurs.–W. D. LIGHTHALL, F.R.S.L., in 'The Witness.'
Here is a poet, manly, fresh, independent, a democratic lover of man . . . . . He has technique, but can hide it and get an effect of life and originality thereby. He has heart and brains and imagination. He is daringly vernacular in his speech, which is all the better, for it reminds us that the proper idiom of poetry is drawn from the people, not the drawing-room He is a realist, not in diction alone, but in his liking for plain realities and persons. But he is equally an idealist, because he sees the beauty which hides in common things, and believes in the spirit which aspires from clod to star.–PROF. RICHARD E. BURTON, PH.D., in 'The Bellman.'
EDWARD WILLIAM THOMSON was born in Toronto township, county of Peel, Ontario, February 12th, 1849. His father was William Thomson, grandson of Archibald Thomson, the first settler in Scarboro. His grandfather Edward William Thomson, was present at the taking of Detroit, and served with distinction under Brock at Queenston Heights; and was afterwards well known in Upper Canada as Col. E. W. Thomson of the Legislative Council, and as the one successful opponent of William Lyon Mackenzie in an election for the Legislature. The mother of the present E. W. Thomson was Margaret Hamilton Foley, sister of the Hon. M. H. Foley, twice Postmaster-General of the united Canadas.
The future poet was educated at the Brantford Grammar School, and at the Trinity College Grammar School at Weston; but when about fourteen years of age, he was sent to an uncle and aunt in Philadelphia and given a position in a wholesale mercantile house as 'office junior.' Finding this employment very uncongenial, he enlisted in the Union army, in October, 1864, as a trooper in the 3rd Pennsylvania Cavalry. This corps was engaged twice at Hatcher's Run, and was with Grant when he took Petersburgh. Discharged in August, 1865, he returned to the parental home at Chippewa, Ontario. In June, 1866, when the Fenians raided Upper Canada, young Thomson promptly enlisted in the Queen's Own, and was in action at the Ridgeway fight. The following year he entered the profession of Civil Engineering, and in 1872 was registered a Provincial Land Surveyor. He practised his profession until December, 1878, when at the invitation of the Hon. George Brown, he joined the staff of The Globe, Toronto, as an editorial writer. Four years later the Manitoba boom attracted him, and he practised surveying for two or three years in Winnipeg. In 1885, he rejoined The Globe staff, but retired again in 1891, because of his opposition to the Liberal policy of Unrestricted Reciprocity. Shortly afterwards he was invited to join the staff of the Youth's Companion. He accepted and remained for eleven years.
Since 1903, he has lived in Ottawa, employed as a newspaper correspondent and engaged in literary work.The Many-Mansioned House and Other Poems was issued in 1909. His poems, like his short stories, are lucid, vital, original.
WHEN the years grew worse, and the tribe longed sore
For a kinsman bred to the white man's lore,
To the Mission School they sent forth me
From the hunting life and the skin tepee.
In the Mission School eight years I wrought
Till my heart grew strange to its boyhood's thought,
Then the white men sent me forth from their ways
To the Blackfoot lodge and the roving days.
'He tells of their God,' said the Chiefs when I spake,
'But naught of the magic our foemen make,
'T is a Blackfoot heart with a white man's fear,
And all skill forgot that could help him here.'
For the Mission Priest had bent my will
From the art to steal and the mind to kill,
Then out from the life I had learned sent me
To the hungry plain and the dim tepee.
When the moon of March was great and round,
No meat for my father's teeth I found;
When the moon of March was curved and thin,
No meat for his life could my hunting win.
Wide went the tracks of my snowshoe mesh,
Deep was the white, and it still fell fresh
Far in the foothills, far on the plain,
Where I searched for the elk and the grouse in vain.
In the Lodge lay my father, grim in the smoke,
His eyes pierced mine as the gray dawn broke,
He gnawed on the edge of the buffalo hide,
And I must be accurst if my father died.
He spoke with wail: 'In the famine year
When my father starved as I starve here,
Was my heart like the squaw's who has fear to slay
'Mongst the herds of the white man far away?'
From the Mission School they sent forth me
To the gaunt, wild life of the dark tepee;
With the fear to steal, and the dread to kill,
And the love of Christ they had bent my will.
But my father gnawed on the buffalo hide,–
Toward the sunrise trod my snowshoe stride,
Straight to the white man's herd it led,
Till the sun sank down at my back in red.
Next dawn was bleak when I slew the steer,
I ate of the raw, and it gave me cheer;
So I set my feet in the track once more,
With my father's life in the meat I bore.
Far strode the herder, fast on my trail;
Noon was high when I heard his hail;
I fled in fear, but my feet moved slow,
For the load I shouldered sank them low.
Then I heard no sound but the creak and clack
Of his snowshoes treading my snowshoe track,
And I saw never help in plain or sky
Save that he should die or my father die.
The Mission Priest had broke my will
With the curse on him who blood would spill,
But my father starved in the black tepee,
And the cry of his starving shrieked to me.
The white world reeled to its cloudy rim,
The plain reeled red as I knelt by him,–
Oh, the spot in the snow, how it pulsed and grew,
How it cried from the mid-white up to the blue!
For the Mission Priest had sent forth me
To the wants and deeds of the wild tepee,
Yet the fear of God's strong curse fulfilled,
Cried with the blood that would not be stilled.
They found me not while the year was green
And the rose blew sweet where the stain had been,
They found me not when the fall-flowers flare,
But the red in the snow was ever there.
To the Jail I fled from the safe tepee,
And the Mission Priest will send forth me,
A Blackfoot soul cleansed white from stain–
Yet never the red spot fades from the plain.
It glares in my eyes when sunbeams fall
Through the iron grate of my stone-gray wall,
And I see, through starlight, foxes go
To track and to taste of the ruddy snow.
THEY call me now the Indian Priest,
Their fathers' fathers did not so,
The very Mandan name hath ceased
From speech since fifty years ago;
I am so old my fingers fail
My trembling rosary beads to tell,
Yet all my years do not avail
My Mandan memories to quell.
The whole flat world I've seen how changed
Within my lifetime's hundred years;
O'er plains where herding buffalo ranged
Came strange new grass with white men's steers,
The lowing cattle passed as dreams,
Their pastures reared a farmer race,
Now city windows flash their gleams
Nigh our old Monastery's place.
The Prior gives to me no more
Even a task of inward praise,
The Brethren bear me through our door
To bask me here on summer days;
I am so old I cannot kneel,
I cannot hear, I cannot see,
Often I wonder if I feel
The very sunbeams warming me.
Yet do I watch the Mandan dogs
And Mandan ponies slain for meat
That year the squaws chewed snakes and frogs
That babes might tug a living teat,
And Mandan braves, in daylight dance,
Gashed side and arm and painted breast
Praying The Manitou might trance
No more the buffalo from their quest.
A circled plain all horse-high grassed
Our mounting scouts beheld at dawn,
They saw naught else though far they passed
Apart before the sun was gone;
Each night's ride back through starlit lanes
They saw the tepee sparks ascend,
And hoped, and sniffed, and knew their pains
Of famine had not yet an end.
Alone within his magic tent
The new-made Midi wrought the spell
That soothed Life's Master to relent
In years the Old remembered well.
He cried,–'The Mission Priests have wreaked
Some curse that balks the Ancient Art!'
'Thou useless Fool,' the war-chief shrieked,
And sped the knife-thrust to his heart.
With that, 'What comes?' my mother screamed–
How quick the squatted braves arose!
Far in the south the tallest deemed
He saw the flight of up-scared crows;
Above the horse-high grass came slow
A lifted Cross, a tonsured head,–
And what the meaning none could know
Until the black-robed rider said:–
'Mandans, I bear our Mission's word,–
Your children, brought to us, shall eat.'
Scarce had the fierce young War-chief heard
Ere fell the Blackrobe from his seat;
The Chief held high the reeking knife,
He frowned about the Woman's Ring,
And yet my mother's face took life
Anew in pondering the thing.
She stole at night the dead Priest's scrip,
His meagre wallet's hard-baked food,
His crucifix, his waist-rope strip
All blackened with his martyr blood;
Through dark, day-hidden, hand in hand,
We traced his trail for ninety mile,
She starved herself that I might stand,
She spoke me comfort all the while:–
'So shalt thou live, my little son,
The white men's magic shalt thou learn,
And when the hungry moons are run,
Be sure thy mother shall return;
Oh, sweet my joy when, come again,
I find thy Mandan heart untamed,
As fits a warrior of the plain,
That I, thy mother, be not shamed.'
She left me while the black-robed men
Blest and beseeched her sore to stay;
No voice hath told my heart since then
How fared my mother's backward way.
Years, years within the Mission School,
By love, by prayer they gained my heart;
It held me to Our Order's rule,
From all the Mandan life apart.
From tribe to tribe, through sixty years,
The Mandan Priest for Christ he wrought,
And many an Indian heart to tears,
And many a soul to God he brought;
Yet do I hear my mother's voice
Soft lingering round her little son,
And, O dear Lord, dost Thou rejoice
In all my mother's child hath done?
WHEN furrowed fields of shaded brown,
And emerald meadows spread between,
And belfries towering from the town,
All blent in wavering mists are seen;
When quickening woods with freshening hue
Along Mount Royal rolling swell,
When winds caress and May is new,
Oh, then my shy bird sings so well!
Because the bloodroots flock so white,
And blossoms scent the wooing air,
And mounds with trillium flags are dight,
And dells with violets frail and rare;
Because such velvet leaves unclose,
And new-born rills all chiming ring,
And blue the sun-kissed river flows,
My timid bird is forced to sing.
A joyful flourish lifted clear,
Four notes, then fails the frolic song,
And memories of a sweeter year
The wistful cadences prolong;–
'A sweeter year–Oh, heart too sore!–
I cannot sing!'–So ends the lay.
Long silence. Then awakes once more
His song, ecstatic with the May.
PRONE where maples widely spread
I watch the far blue overhead,
Where little pillowy clouds arise
From naught to die before my eyes;
Within the shade a pleasant rout
Of dallying zephyrs steal about;
Lazily as moves the day
Odours float and faint away
From roses yellow, red, and white,
That prank yon garden with delight;
Round which the locust blossoms swing,
And some late lilacs droop for spring.
Anon swells up a dubious breeze,
Stirring the half-reluctant trees,
Then, rising to a mimic gale,
Ruffles the massy oaks to pale,
Till spent its sudden force, once more
The zephyrs come that went before;
Now silvery poplars shivering stand,
And languid lindens waver bland,
Hemlock traceries scarcely stir,
All the pines of summer purr.
Hovering butterflies I see,
Full of business shoots the bee,
Straight from the valley is his flight
Where crowding marbles solemn white
Show through the trees and mutely tell
How there the low-laid loved rest well.
Half hid in the grasses there
Red breast thrushes jump and stare,
Sparrows flutter up like leaves
Tossed upon the wind in sheaves,
Curve-winged swallows slant and slide
O'er the graves that stretch so wide,
Steady crows go labouring by–
Ha! the Rossignol is nigh!
Rossignol, why will you sing,
Though lost the lovely world of spring?
'T was well that then your roulades rang
Of joy, despite of every pang;
But now the sweet, the bliss is gone–
Nay, now the summer joy is on,
And lo, the foliage and the bloom,
The fuller life, the bluer room,
'T was this the sweet spring promised me.
Oh, bird, and can you sing so free,
Though never yet the roaming wind
Could leave earth's countless graves behind?
And will you sing when summer goes
And leaves turn brown and dies the rose?
Oh, then how brave shall Autumn dress
The maple out with gorgeousness!
And red-cheeked apples deck the green,
And corn wave tall its yellow sheen.
But, bird, bethink you well, I pray,
Then marches winter on his way.
Ah, winter–yes, ah yes–but still,
Hark! sweetly chimes the summer rill,
And joy is here and life is strong,
And love still calls upon my song.
No, Rossignol, sing not that strain,
Triumphant 'spite of all the pain,–
She cannot hear you, Rossignol,
She does not pause and flush, your thrall,
She does not raise that slender hand
And, poised, lips parted, understand
What you are telling of the years,
Her brown eyes soft with happy tears,
She does not hear a note of all,
Ah, Rossignol! ah, Rossignol!
But skies are blue, and flowers bloom,
And roses breathe the old perfume,
And here the murmuring of the trees
In all of lovelier mysteries–
And maybe now she hears thy song
Pouring the summer rills along,
Listens with joy that still to me
Remain the summer time and thee.
COUNT up the dead by fever, shot and shell,
Count up the cripples, count all tears that fell,
Count up the orphan children of the strife,
Count the long-yearning heart of parent, wife,
Count the vast treasure, count the labour's waste
Count all the cost of passion's headlong haste,
And then you'll know what solid nations pay
When common impulse sweeps good sense away,
Flushing the millions madly all at once
With Wisdom down, and up the truculent dunce.