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

XI. English-Canadian Literature

§ 4. William Henry Drummond

William Henry Drummond invented a mode of poetry that won him great popularity from the appearance of the first volume, The Habitant, in 1897. Dialect poems, exhibiting the humours of humble or rustic folk, have been written in many tongues. Drummond’s originality consists in conveying his theme through the medium of a speech not native to the speakers. One has to imagine a sympathetic English-speaking listener and an expansive habitant farmer or voyageur, who, in a kind of fluid and most un-Browninglike monologue, reveals himself and his surroundings with mirth-provoking simplicity and charm. The full flavour of these pieces cannot be gained by mere reading, nor is the elocutionist’s platform their proper setting. They should be heard, as most Canadians are privileged to hear them, repeated round a camp-fire by someone competent in French-Canadian English patois, or recited at cigar-time after dinner, when subtle literary qualities are prone to be neglected, and it suffices that a poem should be humorous and human. Thus it was that Drummond gained his first success and learned his power. His widow tells the story in her biographical introduction to the posthumous volume, The Great Fight:

  • It was during my convalescence that Le Vieux Temps was written, and its first public reading was at a dinner of the Shakespeare Club of Montreal, of which the doctor had once been a member. On this occasion, being asked to reply to one of the toasts, he would have refused the invitation, declaring that speech-making was not in his line; but finally a compromise was effected by his diffident suggestion that perhaps he might read the new poem instead of making a speech. When the night of the dinner arrived he was with difficulty prevented from running off somewhere on the plea of professional duty. However, he went, and was bewildered by his own success. “It’s the strangest thing in the world,” he said, “but do you know they simply went wild over that poem!” This was the beginning of a long series of triumphs of a like nature, triumphs which owed little to elocutionary art, much to the natural gift of a voice rare alike in strength, quality, and variety of tone, but most of all to the fact that the characters he delineated were not mere creations of a vivid imagination. They were portraits, tenderly drawn by the master hand of a true artist, and one who knew and loved the originals.
  • It is a healthy sign that poetry should, occasionally, revert to the primitive conditions from which it originated, and assume its original public function as a binding social force.

    How Drummond’s circumstances gave him access to his material may briefly be told. Born at Currawn, county Leitrim, Ireland, in 1854, he came to Canada with his parents at the age of eleven. Soon afterwards, his father died, leaving his widow with very narrow means. The boy studied telegraphy, and, in 1869, received an appointment in the little village of Bord-à-Plouffe on the beautiful Rivière des Prairies:

  • “Here it was,” to quote from Mrs. Drummond’s account, “that he first came in contact with the habitant and voyageur, and listened to their quaint tales of backwoods life; here that he heard from Gédéon Plouffe the tragedy retold as The Wreck of the Julie Plante, a poem of which he himself thought little, and never cared to recite, but which had made its way through the length and breadth of the American continent before ever his first book of poems was published. It was the old lumberman’s reiteration of the words, ‘An’ de win’ she blow, blow, blow!’ which rang so persistently in his ears that, at the dead of night, unable to stand any longer the haunting refrain, he sprang from his bed and penned the poem, which was to be the herald of his future fame.”
  • By the year 1876, when he was twenty-two, Drummond had saved enough money to resume his interrupted education. From the high school in Montreal, he passed to McGill university, and, later, studied medicine at Bishop’s college, Montreal, whence he graduated in 1884. After a few years of country practice, which familiarised him with the types represented in his Canadian Country Doctor and Ole Doctor Fiset, he returned, in 1888, to Montreal, continued his practice and, subsequently, lectured on medical jurisprudence at Bishop’s college.

    In 1905, Drummond became interested in some silver properties at Cobalt, which he and his brother successfully developed. The possibilities of wealth did not dismay him. What he craved was, in his own words, “enough money to own a strip of salmon water, and the best Irish terrier going, and to be able to help a friend in need.” Smallpox broke out in his camp in 1907. He hurried there to cope with the disease, and, shortly after his arrival, died of a cerebral hemorrhage. Drummond’s sympathy with the habitant and his passion for wild life had been dominant with him to the end. He perpetually refreshed himself in the springs from which his poetry flowed.

    Four volumes of verse stand to Drummond’s credit: The Habitant, Johnnie Courteau, The Voyageur and the posthumously published The Great Fight. Another small book, Philorum’s Canoe, consists of two poems which reappear in Johnnie Courteau.

    Drummond’s work is not characterised by the polished perfection of individual lines or stanzas. It is impossible, therefore, to convey an adequate idea of his poetry by brief and disconnected quotation; let this be said in no disparagement of the result. It is honest, homely poetry, and Drummond broke new ground.

    The humours and the forgivable, even, as Drummond tells them, the lovable, weaknesses of the habitant are traversed in these poems. He sings his clumsily efficient courting, his worthy pride in his abounding family of strapping sons and marriageable girls, his love of the old homestead by the river, his anxiety to return to it from his enforced wanderings and his reluctance to leave it when his increased fortunes give him the dazzling prospect of a “tousand dollar” house. No poet ever derived his inspiration from simpler themes, and the reader shares his enjoyment of the good man’s sublime selfcontent, his boastfulness, his love of a horse-race and a dollar bet, his parochial outlook on politics and the great world and his pardonable conviction that his own life, his own wife and family, his own village and village curé, his fields, his river and his weather are the best gifts that le bon Dieu dispenses. That in all this there is never a hint of unkindly caricature, the prefatory words of Louis Fréchette are sufficient proof:

  • Dans son étude des Canadiens-français, M. Drummond a trouvé le moyen d’éviter un écueil qui aurait semblé inévitable pour tout autre que pour lui. Il est resté vrai, sans tomber dans la vulgarité, et piquant sans verser dans le grotesque … que le récit soit plaisant ou pathétique, jamais la note ne sonne faux, jamais la bizarrerie ne dégenère en puérilité burlesque.