• Throwback Thursday: Poems before Politics

    Image of cartoon newspaper boy holding up newspapersDespite the “gloom-and-doom” forecasts for the end of the printed word, newspapers continue to persist in the present day. One only has to look up from the subway floor to see people devouring the printed word every morning, reading everything from the Metro News to the Toronto Star. Just as Mrs. Moodie is recorded saying in 1852, “The Canadian cannot get on without his newspaper,” the same can be said of today’s morning transit commute (Talman 166).

    However, newspapers were not always focused on the latest scandal involving crudely-spoken mayors or irresponsible celebrities, nor were they riddled with accounts of sporting events. Instead of a complete dedication to local news, the newspapers of Canada West in the 1840s and 50s were proportionally inclined to save space for literature, specifically selections taken from the work of those considered to be the best authors of the time. James J. Talman, in his article “Three Scottish-Canadian Newspaper Editor poets,” suggests that these literary inclusions undoubtedly raised the cultural standards of these newspapers’ communities and nurtured, in small part, a rise in Canadian culture.

    Talman focuses on three Scottish-Canadian editors who were also poets. While these editors were not exceptionally talented, especially in the terms of today’s poetry, they were well-respected by their surrounding communities where their work flourished. George Menzies, the editor of the Woodstock Herald, and his poetry while often morbid also tastefully encapsulated his town, such as his feeble poem titled “Woodstock in 1854,” in which he describes his town in rhyme: “a simple, quiet village stood,/ Surrounded by the then remaining wood” (169). The second editor/poet was Robert Jackson Macgeorge of the Streetsville Weekly Review. As the editor, he published literary references and poems tailored for the housewife and farmer. He also included his own poetry, where he wedded Scotland and Canada together in addition to being deeply infused with religious conviction (he was also a church dignitary). Finally, Thomas Macqueen, editor of Goderich's Huron Signal, had high literary ambitions for Canada, seen by his printed editorial, “Will nobody write a few songs for Canada?” (176). In addition to a call for literary talent, Macqueen also printed poetry he had written. One of his poems, “Our Own Broad Lake,” celebrates the beauty of Lake Huron: “To tell of Huron’s awful grandeur; /Her smooth and moonlight slumbering” (176).Image of a poem in the poetry corner of a newspaper

    Alas, even Macqueen admitted in the 1800s that newspapers and their editors were “creatures of reality” and thrived “by the quantity of hard cash”; therefore, the “delicate ditties” of poets were unable to find the solid niche within the newspaper that Macqueen had initially hoped for (175). But despite this bleak view, Macqueen and the other two Scottish editors mentioned here obviously felt a need to awaken Canada to its own poetic potential, and their individual newspapers set out with the objective of “improving the tone of thought and action in a prosperous community, [and] establish[ing] a local Newspaper under the management of a man who [would] fearlessly bring the filth to the bottom” (176)

    These Scottish-Canadian newspapers were clearly not the only impetus for creating a native culture in Canada, but in a period when one had scarcely developed, they certainly lent a hand, a conclusion that Talmer alludes to. Perhaps it is also about time that today’s newspapers brought the filth to the bottom and returned to the imaginative that once fostered Canadian creativity and culture. Something to ponder…

    Interested in reading more about Canadian newspapers before the subsuming love for public shaming and disaster? Consider purchasing a more in-depth look at Talmer’s article “Three Scottish-Canadian Newspaper Editor Poets,” published in the Canadian Historical Review in 1947 or purchasing a subscription to gain access to all of the journal’s fascinating historical content.

  • Throwback Thursday: Royal “Bear-necessities”


    The majestic white bear of the North is now often found in Cineplex previews and TV commercials promoted by WWF and Coca Cola’s combined campaign “Arctic Home,” initiated to help protect polar bears and their habitat from global warming. Of course, before protection efforts were ever underway, it is well known that they were also prized for their fur. What isn’t common knowledge for most is that polar bears were, next to the Queen’s corgis of the last two centuries, the highly sought after royal pets of the Middle Ages.

    This endeavour to trap and transform polar bears into pets was considered to be a life of luxury and ease for the polar bear and therefore preferable to their alternate lifestyle. As a prized possession of medieval monarchs, the polar bear was therefore often used by trappers to gain royal favour. Specifically, the inhabitants of Iceland and Greenland were the only men known to have trapped polar bears to train and make pets of them, importing them into Northern Europe and presenting them to various interested kings. As a reward for their services, these northerners often gained either wealth or support, such as ocean-going vessels loaded with merchandise or the funds to establish a bishopric.A black and white image of a polar bear and her cubs with a person touching the polar bear's paw

    While, for the sake of safety, Greenlanders and Icelanders often killed polar bears who wandered into their villages’ outskirts, there are many true and fictional accounts from the annals that portray the polar bear not only as valued commodities but also as benevolent saviours, such as the story of the widow during a famine who was rescued from starvation by a female bear in 1403. Incidentally, the polar bear gave birth to her cubs beneath the widow’s bed and in the process of raising her young until they could fend for themselves, she brought fish and other edibles and gave what was leftover to the widow and her children (Oleson 49).

    However, the most famous bear of all is the one in the “rags-to-riches” story of the Icelander, Auđunn, from the Westfjords, who paid for a polar bear with all his possessions so he could present the bear to King Sveinn Ulfsson of Denmark. The short story is akin to the renowned epic poem Beowulf written in Old English. While not as well known, it stands as a tribute to Old Icelandic literature and cultural traditions and, significantly, the special importance placed on the capture and exportation of polar bears.

    According to Oleson, the polar bear of the Middle Ages can be seen not only as having been an efficient tool of diplomacy among kings but also as a means of fostering geographical knowledge of the lands from whence they came. From diving for fish in Damascus on behalf of the Sultan El-Kamil to stalking the halls of the Tower of London under the rule of Henry III, the great White Bear graced more than just the TV screens and magazine covers of modern day—they were once a esteemed part of the medieval royal entourage.Tower of London advertisemenet for their menagerie

    Find out more about the value of polar bears in the Middle Ages by purchasing and continuing to read T.J. Oleson’s article “Polar Bears in the Middle Ages," published in the Canadian Historical Review in 1950.

    Interested in more under-the-radar topics such as this? Consider subscribing to the Canadian Historical Review and gaining access to its bountiful archives on all things historical!

  • Throwback Thursday: Love is blind...or is it?

    A 1920s woman holding a big pink heart and rosesI hope everyone has bought that heart-shaped box of chocolates and pre-ordered that bouquet of crimson roses because Valentine’s Day is less than twenty-four hours away—the day you are expected to show your love in the most extravagant ways imaginable…after all, love makes us do crazy things sometimes. Or is that love at all? Shakespeare, the “bard of love,” has a very specific concept of what “true” love consists of, and it might not be what we expect.

    The dominating theme of Shakespeare’s play A Midsummer Night’s Dream has often been interpreted as a ridicule of romantic love, but this, according to Ernest Shanzer, is an incorrect assumption. Although Shakespeare may smile occasionally at the follies of romantic lovers, such as the purchasing of expensive gifts to express one’s affection on Valentine’s Day, he always treats them with the utmost indulgence as long as their love conforms to the Shakespearean norm. As defined by Herford, this love is “a passion, kindling heart, brain, and senses alike in natural and happy proportions; ardent but not sensual, tender but not sentimental, pure but not ascetic, moral but not puritanic, joyous but not frivolous, mirthful and witty but not cynical” (Shazner 2).

    Therefore, true love is that which has reason, senses, and feelings all working together in harmony, keeping perfect balance. Shanzer argues that the love Shakespeare ridicules, which ultimately undermines our own cliché aphorisms for love,  is the one that is engendered in the imagination, blind to reason and the senses. This is the kind of love-madness, an aberration from the norm of love, that Shakespeare’s midsummer night instigates, a concept previously unexplored before Shanzer.Image of the play A Midsummer Night's Dream. Image of Titania, the fairy queen, awakening, surrounded by other fairies

    Is the love you’re celebrating tomorrow for real or just a magic spell Shakespeare’s characters have also fallen prey to? Perhaps you should reread A Midsummer Night’s Dream to find out, or read the rest of Shanzer’s article “The Central Theme of A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” which was published by the University of Toronto Quarterly in 1951.

  • "The True, Authentic Theatre of the People": A French Stage Renaissance

    Auditorium_at_Regent's_Park_Open_Air_TheatreDespite being a somewhat vintage form of entertainment, theatregoing remains a popular activity in the twenty-first century. Of course, when one typically thinks of going to a theatrical performance the usual venue imagined is an enclosed theatre space, such as the various stages found inside The Stratford Festival or The Grand Theatre. It is therefore presumed that the growing phenomena of open-air theatre is something new, such as the now popular Canadian Stage production of Shakespeare in High Park in Toronto, which features at least two of Shakespeare’s plays during the summer months in their outdoor amphitheatre. But in reality, open-air drama is a very old tradition that hails back to Ancient Greece and the medieval epoch, and neither was it just reawakened recently: The French accomplished that task as early as the 1920s.419px-Jacques_Copeau_001

    In 1924, Jacques Copeau sought to repurify the theatre experience, weary of plays being performed in confined spaces before a limited number of spectators. In order to accomplish this desire, Copeau asked a close associate, Léon Chanceral, to rediscover “the beautiful sites of France, places of architectural nobility totally impregnated with a long history offering to the imagination and skill of a dramatic creator the opportunity for renewal and aeration, as well as a way to meet and commune in seasonal dramatic celebrations….” This rejuvenating endeavour began with Copeau and Chancerel initiating a widespread renaissance of open-air dramatic performances in France, roaming through the French provinces, performing in all sorts of out-of-the-ordinary venues, such as village squares and fields, not unlike troupes of the medieval period.

    While Copeau’s dream was destined to fail, it did inspire another generation of dramatists to recapture his vision, taking open-air theatre to new heights four decades later, when between mid-May and early September, 1960, more than fifty-five Summer Festivals of Drama were in existence in almost every part of France. Perhaps not so coincidentally, the movement was led by Jean Vilar, whose teacher, Charles Dullin, had learned his trade as a faithful student of Copeau’s back in the day. Spectators from almost every conceivable social level attended these summer festivals—a revolution itself in terms of sociological patterns of French theatregoing.

    Pursuing Copeau’s ideals, the plays put on by Vilar’s Théâtre National Populaire were often performed at historic sites of architectural nobility, including Roman amphitheatres and old French chateaux. These open-air theatre productions were considered the “crème de la crème” of French theatre, putting performers and audience under a mutual spell of enjoyment. This unanimous response was eloquently captured in a contemporary review, stating that such performances were “a delight which will not fade from our memories.”

    “Drama under the stars” was, and still is, considered to be an unrivalled aesthetic that only Nature could provide human performance with. Witness the rebirth of man’s handiwork wedded with Nature’s creative genius as Kenneth S. White explores this concept in his article "The New Open-air Drama in France: Rediscovery and Renascence," published in the journal Modern Drama in 1961.

  • Throwback Thursday: Canadian Kings, Eh?


    Most, if not all, Canadians learned from a grade-school history class that Canada was once a British colony. Today, Canada is a federal parliamentary democracy and a constitutional monarchy, meaning Canada still recognizes the king or queen of the United Kingdom as head of state. But according to writers of the eighteenth century, Canada once had kings of its own—the so-called “four kings of Canada,” who visited Queen Anne in 1710.

    These “kings” were in fact four Aboriginal chiefs, representing the Five Nations, Iroquois, and Mohawk, brought to England by Colonel Peter Schuyler and Colonel Francis Nicholson, to strengthen the colonists’ case for English assistance in the conquest of Canada. In the chiefs’ speech to the queen, they asked for her help in driving out the French, promising her their alliance and active support.

    Aside from the original purpose of the trip, the visit of the four chiefs generated a deluge of publications, pamphlets, and ballads, explaining their mission and describing their entertainment, as well as their homeland. While there is the standard rendition of their speech, other writing varied, including a sidelight on their attendance of a performance of Macbeth, in which the kings were brought out onto the stage to satisfy audience curiosity; they were then officially welcomed as guests of honour in the play’s epilogue. Pamphlets produced also discussed the kings’ visit. But, most interesting is their list of astonishing facts about Canada, such as fish with heads resembling the heads of hares or the apparent “oriental” style of the kings' clothing .

    Interested in finding out more of what the British thought of Canada and its native inhabitants? Check out Freda F. Wilson’s article Queen Anne and “The Four Kings of Canada”: A Bibliography of Contemporary Sources, published in the 1935 edition of the Canadian Historical Review.

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