The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIV. The Victorian Age, Part Two.

XI. English-Canadian Literature

§ 2. Isabella Valancy Crawford

Isabella Valancy Crawford is the first Canadian poet of distinction, and her work would challenge attention in the poetical history of any country. She was born in Dublin in 1850, and her family settled in Canada when she was a child of eight. She spent her last years in Toronto, and her poems appeared, for the most part, in the unregarded corners of the daily papers. She died in 1886. Two years before her death, a meagre and unassuming volume of her verse was published, bearing the title Old Spookses’ Pass, Malcolm’s Katie, and Other Poems. In 1905, a reasonably full collection of her poems was published with an introductory notice by a fellow poet, Ethelwyn Wetherald.

Valancy Crawford’s lyrical verse is singularly intense and pure, with the intensity and purity that we find in the work of Emily Brontë, whose shy austerity and solitary brooding passion her own suggests, without its tragic morbidity. Love’s Forget Me Not which stands first in the volume, has this peculiar Brontë, quality.

Suggestions of resemblance to famous writers may be excused in an account of an unknown poet. So, the following lyric may be compared, for its daintily jewelled workmanship, with many a similar lyric by Théophile Gautier, with whose very name Valancy Crawford was probably not familiar:

  • O Love builds on the azure sea,
  • And Love builds on the golden sand,
  • And Love builds on the rose-winged cloud,
  • And sometimes Love builds on the land!
  • O if Love build on sparkling sea,
  • And if Love build on golden strand,
  • And if Love build on rosy cloud,
  • To Love these are the solid land!
  • O Love will build his lily walls,
  • And Love his pearly roof will rear
  • On cloud, or land, or mist, or sea—
  • Love’s solid land is everywhere!
  • And a further resemblance which, again, is purely fortuitous, suggests itself between The Helot and Meredith’s tersely powerful ballad Attila. There is the same compression, the same commanding vigour, and an approach, at least, to the imaginative breadth of Meredith’s great poem.

    Isabella Valancy Crawford was no man’s disciple, but she read her poets to advantage. There is a quality in Malcolm’s Katie (not a wholly successful piece) which argues a familiarity with Tennyson’s narrative method, but the dependence is slight. Her dialect poems, of which Old Spookses’ Pass is the most vigorous example, bring her into a comparison which is not wholly in her disfavour with Bret Harte, Lowell and their progeny of Hoosier and cowboy writers. How original her lyric gift is we realise by her fresh handling of an old theme. There is a whole literature of the rose in English poetry. Valancy Crawford’s version of the theme has the freshness of a new discovery:

  • The Rose was given to man for this:
  • He, sudden seeing it in later years,
  • Should swift remember Love’s first lingering kiss
  • And Grief’s last lingering tears;
  • Or, being blind, should feel its yearning soul
  • Knit all its piercing perfume round his own,
  • Till he should see on memory’s ample scroll
  • All roses he had known;
  • Or, being hard, perchance his finger-tips
  • Careless might touch the satin of its cup,
  • And he should feel a dead babe’s budding lips
  • To his lips lifted up;
  • Or, being deaf and smitten with its star,
  • Should, on a sudden, almost hear a lark
  • Rush singing up—the nightingale afar
  • Sing thro’ the dew-bright dark;
  • Or, sorrow-lost in paths that round and round
  • Circle old graves, its keen and vital breath
  • Should call to him within the yew’s bleak bound
  • Of Life, and not of Death.