Wilfred Campbell (1860-1918)
William Wilfred Campbell was a member of the Canadian school of “Confederation Poets” who were born in the mid-19th century around the date of the constitution of Canada as a confederated Dominion of Britain in 1867. Northrop Frye saw their distinctive Canadian romantic style and effect on Canadian poetry as “very much like the impact of the Group of Seven painting two decades later…..like the later painters, these poets were lyrical in tone and romantic in attitude”. Still using the brushes of the Victorian Romantics, they moved away from heavy classical and religious metaphor to paint in verse their personal relationships with nature and modern civilization. They never considered themselves a cohesive group. Indeed, some regard their School as having been arbitrarily defined to provide a powerful post facto canon to celebrate the new Dominion into the first quarter of the 20th century, with the effect of retarding the development of Modernist Canadian poetry.
The Confederation School is considered to have two geographic branches: the Ottawa poets including Archibald Lampman (1861-1899), Duncan Campbell Scott (1862-1947) and William Wilfred Campbell (1860-1918), and the maritime poets, including Charles G. D. Roberts (1860-1943) and his cousin, Bliss Carmen (1861-1929). Others have been added to the School, including Frederick George Scott (1861–1944), Francis Joseph Sherman (1871–1926), Pauline Johnson (1861–1913) George Frederick Cameron (1854–1885), and Isabella Valancy Crawford (1850–1887).
William Wilfred was born in 1860 in Newmarket, Upper Canada, the son of an alcoholic clergyman whose wife was a gifted pianist and composer. After teaching in the Wiarton district for several years, he studied divinity and theology and was ordained in 1885. He secretly married Mary Louisa Debelle in 1883 so that she not lose her teaching position. They had four children. He was a pastor at West Claremont N.H., St Stephen N.B. and Southampton, Ont. but alienated his last congregation as his religious beliefs evolved away from classical dogma. In poor health, he moved to Ottawa in 1891 for a federal civil service job that fell through. In 1915, Campbell moved with his family to an old stone farmhouse on the outskirts of Ottawa, which he named "Kilmorie". The house still exists with its original stone wall at 21 Withrow Avenue, (City View) Nepean, off Merivale Road.
By 1891, Campbell was a well-recognized and highly productive poet who’s lyrical and beautiful compositions were featured in the most prestigious magazines in North America. His muse was God’s presence expressed in Nature. Sir John A. Macdonald habitually hired poets; in 1891 he hired Campbell as a temporary clerk for $1.50 a day in the Department of Railways and Canals and then in the Department of Secretary of State in 1892. His success as a poet prompted debates in the House of Commons and the Senate to give him a permanent position; both were defeated as creating unwanted patronage precedence for artists. However, he was so insistent that he was quietly given a permanent job, firstly in the Department of Militia and Defence (1893), the Privy Council Office (1897), the Archives Branch of the Department of Agriculture (1908) and the Dominion Archives in 1909.
From 1892 to 1893, he joined fellow civil servants and Confederation poets Duncan Campbell Scott and Archibald Lampman, his next-door neighbor, in writing a column of essays for the Toronto Globe newspaper called “At the Mermaid Inn”. It helped to pay his bills but collapsed as William continued to express his liberal and unorthodox religious theories, seeking to reconcile religion, science and sociology. This blend, however, appealed to the members of the Royal Society of Canada who elected him a member in 1894, and their vice-president (1899-1900), president (1900-1901) and secretary (1903-1911).
His poetry, verse dramas, pamphlets, five novels and three works of non-fiction expressed this blended philosophy and his patriotic British Imperialist politics. These principles guided his choices for Poems of Loyalty by British and Canadian authors (London, 1913) and for The Oxford Book of Canadian Verse (Toronto, 1913); he somewhat egocentrically devoted more pages in the latter to his own poetry than to anyone else! Throughout the Great War, he distributed pamphlets of poems and was seconded from the archives branch, where he was working on Loyalist historical projects, to the Imperial Munitions Board, where he began a history of the Canadian munitions industry. He died of pneumonia on New Year’s morning, 1918, and was buried in Beechwood cemetery; a frank and highly gifted Canadian poet, author and provocative philosopher. William Lyon McKenzie King and Viola Markham bought his plot and memorial.
The following poem by Campbell, “Bird on a Bough”, could not be found in the usual anthologies of his work. It is one of his Nature poems with only a slight hint of God, represented by the Sun. It celebrates springtime. It was sent to W.P.Lett, signed personally and from an early address for Campbell at “24 Lisgar Street, Ottawa, Canada”. It is an original, typed manuscript and must have been composed shortly after his arrival in Ottawa in 1891 judging by the address and the fact that the recipient, W.P.Lett, died in 1892.
*Biographical information has been abstracted from:
PoemHunter.com at http://www.poemhunter.com/william-wilfred-campbell/biography/
The Dictionary of Canadian Biography at http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/campbell_william_wilfred_14E.html
Confederation Poets at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Confederation_Poets
Poets’ Pathway at http://www.poetspathway.ca/bio_campbell.htm
Context for Wilfred Campbell
During my research of the life and poetry of William Pittman Lett, I have discovered two “lost” and important poems of William Wilfred Campbell. I have already blogged the first in my article on Sir Sanford Fleming; the second is reproduced at the end of this article. However, I thought we should know something about him! I shamelessly compiled the condensed biography from the sources listed. The poem is a copy of the original discovery.The entire article was published in the newsletter of The Ottawa Historical Society