IN the year 1888 there
was published in St. John, N.B., a little book of verse entitled
Snowflakes and Sunbeams, by William Wilfred Campbell. Campbell was at
that time rector of Trinity Church, St. Stephen, N.B., and the book was
published as a means of raising money for charity. It was a slight
paper-bound volume, containing only some twenty short poems; but among
them were a number of exquisite lyrics, notably the poems entitled Snow,
Indian Summer, and Before the Dawn. Most of these lyrics had, however,
already appeared in magazines, and their publication now in book form is
important only because it definitely marks the beginning of Campbell’s
career as a poet.
Campbell’s father and grandfather were clergymen; and at the time of the
poet’s birth (1861) his father, Rev. Thomas Campbell, was rector of the
Anglican church at Berlin (Kitchener,) Ont. Wilfred Campbell was the
second son in a family of seven boys. For a number of years after the
poet’s birth the Rev. Thomas Campbell did parish work in the eastern
part of Ontario, in Lansdowne, Athens, and on the upper Ottawa; but in
1871 he removed to Wiarton, on a branch of the Georgian Bay. From this
time forth, Wiarton was the family home, and the scenery and
surroundings of this romantic neighborhood had much to do with
stimulating the poet’s imagination. He attended High School in Owen
Sound, after which he was engaged in teaching for two years. At the age
of twenty he entered the University of Toronto, with the intention of
taking the first two years in one. But after one year in Arts he decided
to study theology, and next autumn (1882), he was registered as a
student in Wycliffe College. Those who knew him at this time report that
he was not interested greatly in student life or in sports; but, as in
later life, he was fond of discussion and argument.
After a year at Wycliffe he attended the Episcopal Theological School in
Cambridge, Mass., as a special student. In the meantime in 1884 he was
married to Miss Mary Dibble, daughter of Dr. Dibble, of Wood-stock, Ont.
Marriage, while he was still a student and with limited means of
support, may seem to have been imprudent; but in his case it proved a
The following year (1885) Campbell was ordained as minister of the Union
Church at West Claremont, New Hampshire; and during the three years that
he remained there he began to contribute poems to The Atlantic Monthly
and Harper’s. Tn the year 1888 he resigned his charge at West Claremont
to become rector of Trinity Church, St. Stephen, N.B. The two years that
he spent here were years of happy inspiration and earnest work. The
little volume Snowflakes and Sunbeams, it is true, attracted little
attention; but in the following year (1889), other poems were added and
the larger collection appeared under the new title of Lake Lyrics. It
was this little volume that first gave Campbell a recognized place among
Canadian poets. Most of the poems contained in the volume are true “lake
lyrics,” descriptive of the scenes and impressions of the poet’s boyhood
and youth. They are an at-1 tempt to express in language something of
the glamour of this “magic region of blue waters,” the “wild paradise”
of the northern lakes, which had made a lasting impression on the poet’s
imagination. He knew and loved the lake country in all its moods, from
the sunlight on the blue water which lay stretched out beneath the
hilltop where stood his boyhood home, to the harder and harsher prospect
of the ice-bound bay on which he skated as a boy. It was all an
inspiration, and we can understand why he chose as a title to one of his
later books in prose, The Beauty, History, Romance and Mystery of the
Canadian Lake Region. To him, as boy and man, it was a land of magic.
But aside from the lake lyrics, there were a number of poems in the
volume which showed that Campbell possessed gifts other than those of
the merely descriptive poet. In Dan’l and Mat and in Lazarus, there
appeared in two widely diverse forms unmistakable evidence of unusual
narrative and dramatic power. There are two songs of childhood which are
written in a tender, affectionate, delicate vein; and in the last poem
in the series, the sonnet on Knowledge, it is the soul of the
philosophic, didactic Campbell that looks out upon the mystery of the
In 1890 Campbell resigned his charge in St. Stephen, and after spending
a few months in Southampton—a short distance from his boyhood home in
Wiarton—in charge of the parish, he withdrew from the ministry. He
perhaps felt that the creeds of the church were too narrow and dogmatic,
and he was too independent to hold to dogmas with whose spirit he was
not fully in accord.
It was not long,
however, before he found more congenial employment. In the following
spring he was appointed by Sir John Macdonald to a position in the Civil
Service at Ottawa—the very last appointment which the veteran chieftain
made. In this position his duties were light, and he had a good deal of
leisure time for reading and study. His life, from this time forward,
except for the publication of his books, was, on the whole, uneventful.
In 1893 he was elected
Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, and thereafter he took a great
interest in the work of the History and English Literature Section of
the Society. In 1906, on the occasion of a visit to Scotland, he was
asked to represent the Society at the four hundredth anniversary of the
founding of the University of Aberdeen; and on that occasion, along with
some eighty others (including Andrew Carnegie and Signor Marconi), he
received the degree of LL.D., and during the ceremonies he was presented
to the King and Queen.
But his real life and real interests during these years lay in his
literary work. Two years after his removal to Ottawa he published The
Dread Voyage and Other Poems (1893), and this was followed a few years
later (1899) by the volume entitled Beyond the Hills of Dream. In these
two volumes a distinct change comes over his work. There is a widened
range of interest and a deepening of tone. He is now not so much
interested in nature for its own sake as for its human associations; and
myth and legend occupy a larger place in his poems. Among the finest of
the poems in these two volumes are The Mother, the poem by which he is
best known; the dramatic monologue Fnabsolved, the exquisite Harvest
Slumber Song, and The Bereavement of the Fields, written upon the death
His Collected Poems, published in 1905, in-eludes more than one hund:
red hitherto un-published poems; and this new volume contains the best
of Campbell’s mature work. Perhaps in some poems the phil-o s o p h e r
and teacher, the preacher of human life, is too much in evidence, and
perhaps, on the whole, there is a sacrifice of the sensuous elements,
the pure music of his earlier verse, to philosophic utterance; but poems
such as Lines on a Skeleton, The Hills and the Sea, The Vanguard, The
Dream Divine, A Canadian Galahad (Henry A. Harper), Not Unto Endless
Death, and the lines on Poetry are examples of Campbell’s finest and
most enduring work.
Campbell had a strong dramatic sense and an ambition to write great
dramas that might be acted on the stage. In 1895 he published two
dramas,, in a volume entitled Mordred and Hildebrand. In 1898 two others
were added, and he has left several other dramas which are still in
manuscript form. At a later period he became interested in prose
fiction, and produced two historical novels, Ian of the Orcades (1906)
and A Beautiful Rebel (1909). But neither , his dramas nor his novels
can take rank with his poems, and it is on his work as a lyrical and
reflective, poet that his reputation must finally rest.
During the last ten years of his life Campbell became more and more
interested in world politics, and his later poems are strongly patriotic
and imperialistic in character. In these later years, indeed, so changed
was his point of view that he even spoke slightingly of his own earlier
nature poems, When the Great War broke out his patriotic spirit was
stirred to the depths, and pride of race and passion for British
tradition found? expression in a number of stirring war poems, some of
which were not published until after his death. But admirable though
they are these poems of race and empire have in them less of “the dream
divine” than his earlier work.
It is not surprising that the general reader finds it difficult to form
a proper estimate of Campbell’s work; fOr his poems are diverse in theme
and treatment and uneven in character. In general, there were three main
influences that affected the character of his poetry. Perhaps the
strongest of these was his Celtic temperament. He traced his descent
from the Campbells of Argyll, and he was very proud of his lineage.
Throughout his life, indeed, he was an intimate friend of the late Duke,
who is better known to Canadians as the Marquis of Lorne. This Celtic
strain—its fire, its impetuous ardour, its seriousness, its dignity, its
tenderness, its sense of mystery, is in evidence in much of Campbell’s
poetry. And nearer at hand there is the inheritance from his immediate
ancestry. His father and his father’s father were churchmen, and he
himself had been associated with the Church for nearly ten years. This
may account, in part at least, for the tone of seriousness sometimes
approaching austerity, the spirit of moral earnestness, that pervades so
much of his work. It was from his mother, however, that he inherited his
purely literary gifts, his love of music and painting and good books,
and his sense of literary style. The third great influence, which
supplied the inspiration for his earlier verse, was “the beauty and
mystery” of the northern lake region. It held Campbell under its spell
as another part of the north country held Tom Thomson at a later day.
As a result of these diverse influences Campbell excelled in various
forms of poetry—in the pure nature lyricj in narrative and dramatic
poetry, in philosophic and reflective verse, and in lyrics which appeal
to the emotions and stir the imagination of the reader. He takes rank
easily as one of our greatest Canadian poets, and at times he rises to
heights which place his work on a level with the classics of the greater
British poets. But for various reasons his work was not fully
appreciated in his lifetime, either by the general reader or the
literary critic. The average reader of poetry was no doubt repelled by
the didactic tone of much of his verse. Then, too, the work of Campbell
is uneven in quality. There are poems that are dull and even harsh in
tone. Campbell evidently did his finest work when his Celtic imagination
was stirred by strong emotion and in those supreme moments he was, in a
sense, inspired; but he spent little time in perfecting the technical
form of his verse. In his later period he came to attach so much
importance to the thought and so little to poetic form that his poetry
suffers as a result. But in his moods of poetic exaltation his verse
rises to heights of rare poetic beauty.
But perhaps the main causes— weaknesses you may call them if you
will—that were responsible for the general lack of appreciation of
Campbell’s poetry were his own personal peculiarities of temperament. He
had strong likes and dislikes, strong aversions and strong convictions;
he was tenacious of his opinions and inclined to be intolerant of those
who held different views. Moreover, he felt very keenly the fact that
his work was undervalued by the public, and he accordingly put an
estimate on his own work which gave him the reputation of being
egotistic. But if Campbell was egotistic, so was Wordsworth and so was
Tennyson, in his later years at least, and so were many other great
Aside from idiosyncrasies such as these, Campbell’s personal tastes and
habits of life were not such as to bring him into public notice. His
tastes were simple, he belonged to no clubs, and preferred his own
fireside, with music and poetry and discussion with intimate friends,
quiet walks in the country, correspondence, and the companionship of
books, “letting the world remote, and its roar, go by.” Some years
before his death he removed to a suburban home—Kilmorie house, on the
Merivale road—high above the Ottawa Valley, and with a view of the
distant Laurentians; and here he spent much time in gardening and in the
improvement of the grounds of his new home.
In personal and public life he was actuated by the loftiest motives. The
following passages from a letter which the writer received from him some
years before his death is an admirable expression of his ideals: “Canada
wants today to be saved from her worser-self, namely materialism. The
best cure is in the highest British ideals—character, culture, loyalty
and imagination. The people want to forget their ‘rights’ and awake to
their ‘responsibilities.’ For this end we must all work—both the
educationalist and the poet, side by side.”
At the time of his death he had scarcely passed the prime of life, but
perhaps he had outlived the period of his highest poetic powers. He died
very suddenly, of pneumonia, on New Year’s day, 1918. He was buried in
Beechwood cemetery, in a plot of ground overlooking the Gatineau Valley,
with the blue Laurentians on the far horizon. The plot was the gift of
Hon. Mackenzie King, one of his most intimate friends. The monument, a
seat in marble, was a token of affection from other friends and the
medallion in the centre was the tribute of Dr. Tait Mackenzie, the
eminent sculptor, an old personal friend.
Check-List of First Editions
Snowflakes and Sunbeams, St. John, NJB., 1888.
Lake Lyrics, St. John, N.B., 1889.
The Dread Voyage, and Other Poems, Toronto, 1893.
Mordred and Hildebrand, Ottawa, 1895.
Beyond the Hills of Dream, Boston and New York, 1899.
Collected Poems, Toronto, 1905.
Ian of the Orcades, a Scottish 'Romance, Edinburgh and London, 1906.
Canada (illustrated by T. Mower Martin, R.C.A.) London, 1907.
Poetical Tragedies, Toronto, 1908.
A Beautiful Rebel, an historical novel, Toronto, 1909.
The Beauty, History, Romance and Mystery of the Canadian Lake Region.
The Scotsman in Canada, Toronto, 1911.
Sagas of Vaster Britain, London, 1914.
Poetical Works, London and Toronto, 1922.
Editor, Oxford Book of Canadian Verse, London: 1914.
The poetical works
of Wilfred Campbell
Edited with a Memoir by W. J. Sykes (1922) (pdf)