"Why should one read the letters and pamphlets, the documents and opinions of the man who used to sign himself "John Toronto," now over a hundred years dead?" asks J.L.H. Henderson (John Strachan: Documents and Opinions [Hereafter DO] vi). In his own time, and in the century and a half since the height of his power, John Strachan has not fared well at the hands of his critics. Lord Elgin called him "the most dangerous and spiteful man in Upper Canada" (qtd. in Craig DCB 9:764), and many since have been eager to criticize his methods and points of view, but the fact remains that "John Strachan was the most continually conspicuous figure in Upper Canada from 1812 until the union of 1841" (DO vi). As an educator, from family tutor to founder of universities, as a clergyman, from outpost missionary to Anglican Bishop, as a politician, from writer of patriotic pamphlets to member of the Legislative Council, he "touched the life of the colony at most points" (DO vi). He exercised tremendous influence over the affairs of Upper Canada in the first half of the nineteenth century through his own involvement and that of his students in the Tory oligarchy that became known in reform circles as the "Family Compact." From the moment he arrived in Canada, on the last day of 1799, until he died in the year of Confederation, Strachan was actively involved in shaping the country of his adoption.

What most people do not know about the man who has been described as "the dominant personality in Upper Canadian life until his death in 1867" (Black 26), was that, in addition to numerous sermons, letters, pamphlets, a textbook, an immigrant’s handbook, and an autobiography, he wrote numerous poems. Strachan’s poetic efforts receive only the briefest of mention from his biographers. According to Henderson,

From autobiography he turned to verse, Scots verse first as became a man who always whistled Scots, then translations from the classics, and at last playful rhymes in English, corrected by Cartwright, for the boys to read at school, or even for ladies to read when alone. (10)

David Flint writes of Strachan’s students: "A boy might earn a half-day break by composing a particularly good poem, for Strachan wrote poetry and imagined himself quite talented" (29). George Spragge, in the copious and valuable notes to The John Strachan Letter Book: 1812-1834, describes a poem that appears amidst other correspondence with the following: "These verses are in Strachan’s handwriting, and since, as is well-known, he often composed verses, we may suppose that he was the author" (228). Certainly, it is not as a poet that Strachan is remembered, and only a few of his poems ever made it into print.

Strachan published some of his poems in The Kingston Gazette under the pseudonym "The Reckoner" and in a variety of Canadian and American newspapers such as The Quebec Gazette and The Port Folio under the pseudonym N.N., the last letters of his first and last names. However, the bulk of his poetic output appears in a manuscript notebook now housed in the Ontario Archives in Toronto. This unlined, soft-cover notebook, into which Strachan began to copy his poetry on July 29, 1802, is divided into two sections: "Original" and "Translations and Humble Imitations." The first and by far the longest section contains over fifty original poems of varying lengths written in Strachan’s own hand. These poems, written primarily in the first decade of Strachan’s life in Canada, are now appearing in print for the first time, though some were published in newspapers during Strachan’s own lifetime. In 1969, John Robert Colombo published John Toronto: New Poems by Dr. Strachan, though these, in fact, were passages culled from Strachan’s prose and presented as free verse "found" poems. In the manuscript book we find the original odes, ballads, sonnets, songs, satires, and long poems that Strachan himself wrote from 1802 to 1833.

In his Introduction to The John Strachan Letter Book: 1812-1834, Spragge suggests why comparatively little use had been made of Strachan’s correspondence: "Strachan’s handwriting is not always easy to decipher and students may have been repelled by the labour involved in reading the original letters. Possibly, too, the very voluminousness of the correspondence may have caused some students to pause" (i). These matters of accessibility apply equally to the poems, which have, up to now, remained in manuscript form. The more likely reason the poems have been almost entirely ignored is an underestimation of their value. If, indeed, these poems were only "playful rhymes" (Henderson 10), mere products of vanity created by an insignificant colonial who "believed himself quite talented" (Flint 29), then they could be readily dismissed, but this is not the case. Strachan himself regretted not giving more attention to his poetry. At the age of seventy-seven he wrote to Thomas Duncan, a friend from his youth in Scotland: "Sometimes I think I ought to have done more—yet I have been a hard worker.... Sometimes I think I should have cultivated Poetry—sometimes Mathematics. And yet looking at things around me there is much to produce admiration" (DO 278). And indeed there was:

He educated two generations of the ruling class in his own private schools. He founded public-school education in the province. He badgered the British into granting him charters for two universities in Toronto and persuaded his brother-in-law, James McGill, to found one in Montreal. He wrote prodigiously—tracts, texts, letters and bad verse; he built the province’s first science laboratory; organized its early charities; was a founding director of the first bank and hospital; led the assault on cholera personally.... Strachan was the closest thing Upper Canada ever had to a prime minister. He became the first advocate of Confederation [and the] first Bishop of Toronto. (Kilbourn 7-8).

So why, out of this amazing list of accomplishments, should we draw attention to what William Kilbourn calls Strachan’s "bad verse?" Because these poems, despite their many shortcomings, provide a record of the man, a record of the times, and a record of the role poetry played and continues to play in the forging of a national identity.

Throughout his busy and eventful life, Strachan was intent on keeping a record. "He would not be lost in this wilderness, even to himself" (Henderson 9). He wrote prolificly throughout his life, beginning with an autobiography composed at the ripe age of twenty-two, within months of arriving in Canada. This document provides many details of Strachan’s early life. He was born in Aberdeen, Scotland on April 12, 1778, a day his mother decided was "accompanied with too many singularities not to portend something great" (DO 2). The son of a granite quarry foreman, Strachan was educated for the ministry, because his mother "thought she observed that gravity in [him] which was necessary in such an office" (DO 1). After the death of his father in a mining accident, when Strachan was only sixteen, he supported his education at King’s College, Aberdeen and the University of St. Andrews by working as a parish school master. The fact that he was unable to secure a position in a university or a church made the invitation to tutor the children of Richard Cartwright in Upper Canada more attractive when it appeared. Strachan had the choice between staying in Scotland in "ease and mediocrity" (DO 13) or undertaking the adventure of a life-time: "My curiosity to see foreign parts, my ignorance of the country, the small appearance I then had of soon obtaining a Church, with many other reasons still more frivolous determined me..." (DO 13).

His first impressions of his new home were not positive, but he soon adjusted with the help of Richard Cartwright, who was to be a lifelong mentor and friend, John Stuart, the Anglican minister and missionary in Kingston, and the many influential people whom he encountered. Though it was not until his appointment to York in 1812 that Strachan was able to "forge on the anvil of practical politics those plans and principles to which he was to hold fast throughout his life," the early years in Kingston and Cornwall were crucial in establishing the ties that would serve him throughout his life and the "theories of what might be accomplished in the province" (Spragge i-ii). His contract called for him to teach for three years, and during that time he enquired about a position first in the Presbyterian church then, when that did not materialize, in the Anglican church. This decision, which later prompted accusations of cupidity and ambition, led to his appointment in 1803 to Cornwall as missionary and minister, though he continued his role as teacher. In 1807 he married the wealthy widow of Andrew McGill, and in 1812 he moved to York, where he would remain until his death.

With the exception of a handful of poems written later in his life, the poems that fill the pages of the notebook date from the years in Kingston and Cornwall. This is not surprising, because it was only the additional stipend (and duties) of chaplaincy to the Legislative Council and to the garrison, as well as the missionary posting and mastership of the Home District Grammar School, that enticed Strachan away from the familiar and pleasant society of Cornwall to York. He was immediately thrust into what he described as "the bustle and confusion occasioned by the war" of 1812, and, as a man of action, he turned his hands and his pen to other tasks, all related to his three concerns closest to his heart, "education, religion, and politics" (Spragge ix).

The events that followed Strachan’s move to York are extremely well documented, first by Strachan himself and later by historians; it is primarily the less familiar first decade of his life in Canada that is explored in the poems. G.M. Craig writes that "because he fought so hard, so long, and at times so bitterly, he may be remembered as a harsh, narrow autocrat devoid of human qualities" (764). It is the "human" side of Strachan that the poems illuminate, shedding new light on the period in which his private affections and public aspirations were established. Because many of these poems were addressed to men of influence with regard to public issues, they also become a record of the times. Spragge, whose letter book covers 1812-1834, speculates on the possibility that "originally there were one or two more letter-books containing correspondence for the years before 1812" (i), though none has been discovered. This lacuna is more than filled by these poems, many of which take the form of correspondence with significant individuals.

Despite James and Ruth Talman’s contention that in the Canadas between 1763 and 1812, aside from a handful of long poems, "very little verse remains, except for fugitive items in the newspapers" (101), Strachan’s poetry, even in manuscript form, confirms the existence of an active literary community in Upper Canada earlier than has previously been thought. Not surprisingly, the Maritime provinces were more advanced than their Western counterparts in this and many other areas, but it is worth noting that before Joseph Howe was even born in 1804, Strachan was writing poetry with great enthusiasm, and passing on his admiration of the form to his students.

In Poetry in Canada: The First Three Steps, R.E. Rashley refers to "immigrant" poems as "poetry of emotional disturbance" (5), efforts to cope with the loss of a familiar world written by individuals "whose Canadian contact is accidental and who contribute nothing to the development of Canadian poetry" (4). Though he was not a native-born Canadian, Strachan was not a tourist. He was here to stay, in dwellings that would become increasingly refined, from a humble loghouse in Cornwall to the first brick residence in Toronto, affectionately called The Palace. By the time he moved to York in 1812, Strachan had "three public interests: education, religion, and politics," all of which were "subservient to his desire to make of Upper Canada a loyal British colony" (Spragge ix). The poems in Strachan’s collection fall roughly into these three categories, with a fourth category of private poems to individuals who sustained his efforts and furthered his ambitions in the three areas so dear to his heart. Needless to say, these concerns rarely operated independently, and there is considerable overlap. However, an examination of these four aspects serves to show the range of Strachan’s poetry and how it contributes to a fuller understanding of his career.


By far the most numerous category comprises those poems best described as "personal." These are generally addressed to individuals, ranging from Strachan’s private circle, including love poems to two of the women he wooed, Margaret England and Ann McGill; poems of gratitude to friends such as Richard Cartwright, his mentor in Kingston, Dr. James Brown, his Scottish professor and friend, and James McGill, his brother-in-law; and verses addressed to more public figures such as Bishop Jacob Mountain. Ever an ambitious man, Strachan was not above sycophancy in the various odes he addressed to men in prominent places, men who might someday be able to further his career, but these poems did not always produce the desired result. Strachan’s ode to Mountain is brimming with flattery, producing a somewhat equivocal response. After praising the poem’s "real poetical merit," Mountain wrote: "I need hardly add that the cultivation of this talent...may clearly be placed under certain class of amusements...nor need I, I am convinced, caution you against indulging even this elegant and pleasing talent, to neglect of more important pursuits, and more profitable studies" (qtd. by Bull 337). Strachan was eventually to adopt Mountain’s priorities, writing in an introduction to the last poems in his manuscript book, "I have so many duties on my hands that little time is left me for lighter matters," yet he never entirely abandoned his passion for the verse that allowed him to voice his fondest dreams and deepest attachments.

One year before his death, Strachan wrote to a young man of his acquaintance, "I am glad you are to marry. A single man lives only half a life..." (DO 280). In his autobiography, Strachan describes his "first attachment" of a romantic nature in Scotland, and "the unlucky delirium into which [his] passion precipitated [him]" (DO 11). On the Canadian side of the Atlantic, the young woman who attracted his attentions was Margaret England, the sister of one of his students. Relying on Petrarchan conventions in several early poems, he ascribes to her the role of Laura, Petrarch’s beloved in Canzoniere, and to himself the role of Philo, the lover. The relationship, which apparently went as far as betrothal, was brought to a crashing conclusion when, according to Strachan, Margaret England suddenly married a man "she had formerly despised, and who had no qualifications whatever to recommend him, but a little and only a little, money"(See "On finding that a Lady had deceived her lover..."). As so often throughout his life, Strachan’s pecuniary circumstances were uppermost in his mind.

Apparently, this was to play a role when the next woman with whom he fell in love came to him with a dilemma:

When first he was engaged to Miss Wood (whom he subsequently married) the lady was courted by Andrew McGill (brother of James McGill, founder of the University of that name), who promised her that if she accepted him, his Will would provide for her and help any subsequent offspring she might have by the Bishop, to make a start in life. The future Mrs. Strachan is supposed to have asked her fiancé what she should do, and he to have replied, "Tak’ him," which she did, and had her promised recompense. (Hett 317)

A.H. Young contends that "contemporary legal documents, letters, and verses disprove the story" (392), but true or not, in two years time Ann was widowed with a considerable life annuity. Strachan’s patience was rewarded, and he wrote to his friend Dr. Brown

I had almost forgot to tell you that, seeing no prospect of my ever being able to return home I married last spring and find myself happy in the connexion. My wife has an annuity of three hundred a year during her life. She has a great share of beauty, in her twenty-second year, and as good an education as this country could afford, which by the way is not great. (DO 26)

Strachan’s marriage to the widow of Andrew McGill further strengthened the alliances he had forged with the Montreal fur merchants such as James McGill, who were some of the colonies’ wealthiest and most powerful men. "Indeed," writes Spragge, "if Strachan was, before 1818, a member of any "Family Compact," it was of that true family compact composed of himself and the Montreal fur-traders" (vi). These friendships are celebrated in poems to James McGill, Thomas Blackwood, and even the curling club which they formed in Montreal, interspersed with songs, both sentimental and comical, celebrating the Scottish heritage they shared. Though Strachan had abandoned the ecclesiastical tradition of his homeland in favour of the Anglican church, he still felt strong ties to the intellectual and cultural institutions of Scotland which had shaped his imagination. His admiration appears in the many songs and verses that he composed with Scottish content and Scottish forms, some actually in Scots, in the tradition of Robert Burns and others of the Scots vernacular school. Soon after his arrival in Canada, Strachan bravely claimed that he had left his homeland with "the greatest indifference" (DO 13), but his poems suggest otherwise. He carried his heritage with him in his heart and in his voice. Throughout his life Strachan spoke with a Scottish brogue so thick that strangers had difficulty understanding him. According to one contemporary, "he used to flatter himself that he had entirely got rid of his pronounced Scotch accent, and would say to candidates for Holy Orders who had it, "Ye sud try to lose your-r Scotch accent, as I ha’ dune. Noo ye might tak’ me, from my tongue, to be an Englishman" (Hett 317). It was not an easy accent to lose, nor was Strachan’s native land easy to forget. A half century later, another Canadian poet of Scottish birth, Alexander McLachlan, would ask, "Why did I forsake / The land of the hill for the land of the lake?" (57) and answer, "Poetry is every where" even in "the backwoods settlement.../ Have we but the heart to feel it, / All the world will reveal it" (12). Strachan, too, was to discover that there were many consolations to soothe "the woes that exile brings" ("Ode").


For both personal and political reasons, Strachan’s feelings for Scotland were not all positive. This becomes evident in "A Dialogue," the longest of what might be called Strachan’s "pedagogical" poems—written either to describe the education he himself received, or that which he passed on to the boys and girls under his guidance in Kingston and Cornwall. "The Dialogue" and the copious authorial notes that accompany it occupy a full quarter of the manuscript. Strachan contends that the poem is written "merely for amusement," but, like Thomas Mathias’s The Pursuits of Literature, after which it is modeled, Strachan’s poem tackles many serious subjects, including education, religion, and politics. The poem is a whirlwind tour of Strachan’s reading, his opinions of what he read, and what he considered to be the strengths and weaknesses of the Scottish ecclesiastical and educational systems. Strachan’s efforts to be a part of that world had continually met with frustration, and no doubt his disappointment lent a particular edge to his satire. Elsewhere Strachan writes of Scotland, "The country that rejects her more lament." In "A Dialogue," Strachan employs, in turn, satiric wit and affectionate praise to describe the professors and churchmen who governed the intellectual life of Scotland in the closing years of the eighteenth century. The details of this poem help to explain the less than sparkling assessment he makes of his own education:

...the advantages I reaped were few. I acquired some taste for study and collected a considerable mass of indigested knowledge. I could not boast of my proficiency in any of the branches taught, nor was I entirely ignorant of any. My degree made up all deficiencies, for how could a Master of Arts be destitute of learning? (DO 8)

Strachan, it would seem, like another Canadian schoolteacher who went on to make his mark in a different sphere, became an educator more by accident than by design. In his preface to Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, Stephen Leacock writes that:

At the University I spent my entire time in the acquisition of languages, living, dead and half-dead.... Very soon after graduation I had forgotten the languages and found myself intellectually bankrupt. In other words, I was what is called a distinguished graduate, and, as such, I took to school teaching as the only trade I could find that needed neither experience nor intellect. (xiii)

Strachan, like Leacock, disparaged his own education, but it was undoubtedly his early experiences as a student in Scotland that shaped his ideas about education, ideas that were ultimately to affect so many. Because of the many unfamiliar individuals and texts to which Strachan refers, "A Dialogue" is not easily accessible to present-day readers, but contains some moments of real wit, and assumes particular significance as a record of Strachan’s own education.

Other "pedagogical" poems such as "The Day" and "Verses Written August 1802" present the curriculum Strachan favoured, and the authors he preferred. The educational ideas of a young colonial schoolmaster may seem insignificant until one remembers that the boys he taught almost invariably went on to assume positions of power in Upper and Lower Canada. This, it would seem, was Strachan’s intention. "By and bye," he wrote to Dr. Brown, "my pupils will be getting forward, some of them perhaps into the House & then I shall have more in my power" (Spragge xix). The fact that so many of Strachan’s students went on to become lawyers, politicians, and clergymen of influence makes any glimpse of what and how he taught them worthy of study. The poem "The Day," a record of a day in the life of a school master, was published in the American periodical The Port Folio in 1807, with a foreword that reads in part "I am sure that an attempt to extract amusement from a very irksome task, if it does not meet the general taste, will please those of your readers who are employed in the education of youth."

"The Day" draws attention to four points with regard to Strachan’s ideas on education that deserve particular mention. The first point worthy of notice is that in the published version the names of the female students that appeared in the original manuscript were excised and replaced with names of male students. Whether this was Strachan’s decision or that of the editors, it draws attention to the fact that in his school in Cornwall female students were being taught alongside male students under the same educational curriculum, rather than being restricted to domestic training or what was called "fancy work." When he sought to comfort himself for the loss of his first love in Scotland, Strachan wrote, "It was not till now that I remembered that her mental qualifications were not equal to her exterior charms" (DO 11). That he sought to equip young women as well as young men with "mental qualifications" merits attention. To say this is not, of course, to suggest that Strachan had feminist sympathies! In fact, some of his poems are enough to make a modern reader wince, including "To Mrs. Strachan on Her Birth Day" in which the husband bids the wife, "centre all your joys in me."

The second point worthy of mention is the varied nature of the curriculum that Strachan offered to his students. This combined "practical" learning such as arithmetic (Strachan authored a mathematics textbook) with a classical education that emphasized history and literature, a balance that was a hallmark of the extra-Anglican education system in Great Britain in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and recommended by such experts as John Milton in his tract Of Education. According to a contemporary account in The Upper Canada Gazette, the education Strachan offered at the Cornwall Grammar School consisted of

...the Latin classics, Arithmetic, Bookkeeping, Elements of Mathematics, Elements of Geography, of Natural and Civil History. …The whole was interspersed with different pieces of poetry and prose, many of the most humourous cast, composed for the occasion. (Brode 8)

This account draws attention to the third point, Strachan’s use of humour as a teaching tool. Through comic dialogue, parody, anecdote, tall tale, pun, sudden juxtaposition of levels of speech, irreverent vocabulary, and satire, both Horatian and Juvenalian, Strachan produced what he called "mirth" in his students, thereby participating in a long tradition of Canadian authors from Thomas McCulloch and Thomas Chandler Haliburton to Stephen Leacock and Margaret Atwood who have helped us learn through laughter.

And if humour could be used to teach, so could history. In "The Day," Strachan discusses appearance and reality and the advance of knowledge through the Pope’s response to the heretical ideas of Galileo: "The moon, this heretic maintains, / Great mountains, seas and dens contains, / Yet we can see with half an eye, / She’s smaller than a pastry pye." He also applies the tales of classical literature to the lives of his students, substituting Dic[k] and James for Aulus and Tiberius. "Tempora mutantur," Strachan says in a note to "A Dialogue." Indeed times change, but it would appear that human beings stay much the same.

Strachan’s gift of applying classical literature and history to contemporary situations takes a more complex form in "Verses Written August 1802." As D.M.R. Bentley explains in his Introduction to this poem, Strachan draws a parallel in its exordium between "ancient Greek and early Canadian transmarine migrations" (83). Whether or not Strachan saw history as cyclical, he placed great importance on learning from the lessons of history. To attain his goals of "a well instructed population," and the "respectability" which arises from "public situations filled with men of ability and information" (A Visit to the Province of Upper Canada in 1819 131), Strachan emphasizes the need for a coherent educational vision which he felt could be best achieved through an alliance of church and state. In "Verses Written August 1802" and throughout his writings, Strachan places immense importance on the "cultivating of young minds as well as the fertile lands of Canada" (Bentley "Verses 1802," 83).

Attend, your country calls. Delay no more
To plant instruction on Ontario’s shore,
Nor let your rising offspring wildly roam
To seek the knowledge they should find at home,
To change their patriot love for deadly hate
And wish the int’rests of a foreign state....

Strachan believed that the way to the hearts of Canadian youth was through their minds. The establishment of a Canadian university was his fondest dream; in fact it was the promise of such an institution that tempted him to come to Canada in the first place. He longed for the day when it would no longer be "thought necessary as it too often was before the war to send our Youth to complete their Education in the States where they learn very little more than anarchy in Politics & infidelity in Religion" (Spragge 59). Every effort must be made to battle what he considered "pernicious" influences.


It is Strachan’s disapproval of American ideology that informs many of the "political" poems, the third and perhaps most intriguing category for modern readers. In "Verses Addressed to Mr Jackson," Strachan once again draws a parallel between ancient history and contemporary issues. Francis James Jackson (1770-1840) was given the difficult mission of British diplomacy in Washington in the years leading up to the War of 1812 and Strachan wishes him success: "Britain’s cause / Intrusted to his genius bright / More aid from truth and justice draws / Than from her sons in martial fight." Strachan was later to change his mind, arguing during the War of 1812 that "forbearance will never answer with our present enemy" (Spragge 17). Strachan compares the United States to Corcyra, a Corinthian colony which became proudly independent and even hostile to its mother city of Corinth, resulting in the Peloponnesian Wars. Throughout his life Strachan remained deeply loyal to the Crown, a commitment fostered by his friendships with the men who first welcomed him to Canada, including Cartwright and Stuart, Loyalists who had fought for Britain in the American War for Independence and fled to Canada. Strachan was intent on proving that Canada was superior to its southern neighbour. As he writes in A Discourse on the Character of King George the Third Addressed to the Inhabitants of British America (1810), "what can we wish for that we do not possess? Behold comfort, wealth, and grandeur flowing in upon us, and our liberty giving our country the most solid charms, notwithstanding its freezing sky and procrastinated snows..." (DO 31). Much of Strachan’s correspondence bristles with anti-American sentiment, and the poems are no exception. It annoyed him that the United States should be thought of so highly around the world. To Dr. Brown he wrote: "I can assure you that the praises bestowed upon the United States on your side of the water are very much misplaced. …This new nation are vain & rapacious and without honor—they are hurried on to any action provided they gain money by it" (Spragge vii-viii).

Like the ancient states that once vied for dominance over the Mediterranean, "Columbia’s Statesmen gnaw / Their British Sires with serpent jaw" ("Verses Adressed to Mr. Jackson"). In A Visit to the Province of Upper Canada in 1819, Strachan comments that any reference to the American War of Independence as a revolution without bloodshed "arises from a culpable want of information" (158). Having personal knowledge of the privations suffered by the Loyalists during the American Revolution, Strachan found it particularly galling that "the best poet of the age has embalmed in imperishable verse, the cruelties of his countrymen, united with the savages" (159). In 1809, the Scottish poet Thomas Campbell published Gertrude of Wyoming, a long poem that glorifies the rebel Americans and vilifies the Loyalists and the Natives who fought by their side. "It is expected," writes Strachan, "that, in a new edition of his beautiful poem, Mr. Campbell will adhere to historical truth in relation to the story" (A Visit to the Province of Upper Canada in 1819 162). It may have been a desire to set the record straight himself that prompted him to write his own poem exploring American treatment of the First Nations. Though many aspects of this long poem of 392 lines remain uncertain, including the exact title, the date of composition, and the identity of the villain, one thing is absolutely clear—Strachan sought to expose what he saw as the duplicity in American policy towards the First Nations. "Were the matter truly stated," he writes, "it would be found that the Indians, within the bounds of these States, had been used most cruelly.... In fine, the policy of that government, instead of civilizing, is to exterminate the natives" (A Visit to the Province of Upper Canada in 1819 148).

Central to Strachan’s understanding of the themes explored in his poem is the life story of the celebrated chief Thayendanegea, better known as Joseph Brant. In Gertrude of Wyoming, Campbell refers to him as "the Monster Brant," a designation he later retracted under pressure from the Chief’s son John, who proved that his father was not even present when the "massacre" at Wyoming was supposed to have occurred. Strachan argues in his poem that the true monsters are not the warriors of the First Nations but those who corrupt them with "poisonous draughts" of hard liquor and rebel politics. Strachan believed that Brant had been diminished by alcoholism, and the criticism of Brant’s drinking that Strachan delivered from the pulpit apparently led to an encounter between the two men in 1804 or 1805. Brant swore he would make the "Scotch turncoat apologize wherever he found him, even if it were in church" (Kelsay 640). He found Strachan on a street in York and threatened to scalp him unless he apologized. Strachan retracted everything, though undoubtedly this experience coloured the biography of Brant he was to publish first in The Christian Recorder in 1819 and again in A Visit to the Province of Upper Canada in 1819. Strachan was once again called upon to retract his unflattering statements, this time by the "vigorous and virtuous indignation" (Stone 2:523) of Joseph’s son John, who had also gone to work on Campbell. Strachan’s reasons for writing the biography of a character "so variegated and original" also apply to his long poem. "I merely attempt an imperfect sketch of this uncommon Mohawk, because the particulars I have to relate are authentic, known to very few persons now living, and are passing fast in oblivion." Captain Brant died in 1807, and his last words were, "Have pity on the poor Indians; if you can get any influence with the great, endeavor to do them all the good you can" (Kelsay 652). Strachan took him at his word, chastising those who had brought destruction upon the Iroquois. Strachan’s motives, as always, were not entirely pure, since he was also seeking to protect the interests of the Crown, of Anglicanism, of Canada, and of the great fur trading families—all causes in which he had a personal as well as an ideological stake. Nonetheless, he deserves approbation for his revisionist look at the voices of the First Nations on behalf of their own people and their own future. He was not willing that they should be dismissed as "monsters" or used as pawns in the great struggle for power that began from the first moment that Europeans set foot on North American soil. Studies such as Barbara Graymont’s The Iroquois in the American Revolution do much to unravel these complex times, and point out the key players in the dramatic conflicts that occurred before, during, and after the war that changed the face of the continent. The struggle for the resources of the powerful Iroquois confederacy emerged in the 1770s as a struggle between Revolutionary and Loyalist, Calvinist and Anglican, warrior and sachem. Strachan and his friends John Stuart and Richard Cartwright are clearly part of the latter camp, but who represents the opposition?

Juxtaposed with Logan, a symbol of the tragic consequences of loyalty betrayed, and the other Native chiefs is the white antagonist "Crafty Rankins." This character is either a fictional amalgam of all American agents who Strachan felt had dealt duplicitously with the First Nations, or a real historical individual. If the latter is true, possible candidates include fur traders James Rankins and David Rankin, and missionary Samuel Kirkland.

Whether Rankins is meant to represent one of these men, or American policy in general, in the same way that the various chiefs appear to represent tribes rather than historical individuals, he is characterized by the "craft and duplicity" Strachan associated with the American character. As the chiefs struggle with the decision to allow the white man a foothold in their world, a variety of associated plagues, begins to take a toll on the Native community, including liquor, internal violence, and disease.

Thus, Indians from disease no refuge find,
But sickening, die and leave no trace behind,
Just as fire before autumnal rains
Converts the lofty woods to dreary plains.

Strachan pays particular attention to the "deadly strife" created by alcohol, because it was this vice of all those bestowed by Europeans that had the most devastating effects upon the Native community, contributing to the demise of its most eloquent and capable leaders, including John Logan and Joseph Brant.

Strachan concludes his poem by having Rankins’s conscience, "now extremely sear’d by frequent crimes," call him forth to plead his "impious cause" and to stand trial for the many dead. The self-justifying soliloquy with which Rankins responds was echoed by many who sought to drive out the Indians to make way for Western expansion, including Thomas Jefferson (Lipscomb 10:369-71), though couched in gentler rhetoric. But the poet does not accept excuses for the crimes against the First Nations: "No, injur’d heaven for such no pardon knows, / But gives them up to never ending woes." The debate that takes place between the warriors and the sachems in Strachan’s poem is an intriguing one, because it suggests that there were still choices to be had. Was it of greater advantage for the Iroquois to have supported the British or the Americans? Those who allied themselves to the Americans were the first to be decimated, but life had inevitably changed for all of the First Nations; "in reaching out for the white man and his civilization, the Indian was, in a large measure bringing despair upon himself. This has always been the irony of Indian history" (Graymont 295). In 1791, Joseph Brant wrote to Kirkland, a school-mate from Connecticut whose life he had spared in battle that

A chain of corroborating circumstances, and events, seems to evince to them [the First Nations] that the white people, under whatever pretence, aim at their destruction—possess’d with such Idea’s their prejudices naturally encrease and seeing the sword in one hand, supported by injustice and corruption, is it any wonder that they suspect the sincerity of any proposals made on the other hand for so great a change as civilization must make.... (qtd. in DCB 5:811)

What is especially intriguing about Strachan’s approach to this material is that, in contrast to Campbell and others, who relied mainly on travel narratives such as Isaac Weld’s Travels through the States of North America, and the Provinces of Upper and Lower Canada, during the Years 1795, 1796, and 1797 or the Travels through America of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, he gathered information from his own experience and the testimonials of friends. He was no doubt familiar with documents such as these, and may certainly have borrowed details from them. However, it would seem that he does not use Native material for merely ornamental or dramatic purposes, but genuinely wrestles with the question which heads a chapter in his own "travel" narrative, "Are there many Indians?" His answer is an interesting one in light of Canada’s ongoing struggle to be accountable to its First Nations: "we seem bound, both by honour and interest, to cultivate a friendly intercourse with them, and, in some measure, to contribute to their support" (A Visit to the Province of Upper Canada in 1819 146). Strachan’s motivation for responding humanely was simple; he believed "the human mind, whether enclosed in a white, red, or black tabernacle, exhibits the same qualities, and powers, when subjected to similar discipline" (A Visit to the Province of Upper Canada in 1819 151). Strachan believed in the human family.

Another vexing question which Strachan addressed in his emigrant’s guide was "Why does the Stream of Emigration flow chiefly to the United States, and not to Canada?" His answer to that question, and in fact this entire book, is designed to prove the superior conditions of British North America, and Upper Canada in particular, reasons which played a part in his notorious attack on the Earl of Selkirk’s Red River settlement. This, of course, was not Selkirk’s first "emigration" scheme. Earlier settlements had been established on Prince Edward Island, and on the shores of Lake St. Clair, near present-day Wallaceburg, Ontario. The latter settlement, named Baldoon after Selkirk’s ancestral home, is the subject of Strachan’s "Cold was the blast and deep the snow...," a poem modeled after the prologue of Sir Walter Scott’s "Lay of the Last Minstrel," which was published in 1805 to instant popularity. In his poem, Strachan considers both the cost and the challenge of what was then referred to as "emigration." "Emigration," he wrote in 1842, "never fails to be attended with many sacrifices and privations and many longings after the home of our childhood and yearnings of the heart towards them we left behind (DO 85). The Minstrel of Strachan’s poem

...mourns the luckless day
That took him from those scenes away
Which rais’d the true poetic fire
To dreary wastes that grief inspire....

The aging man struggles not merely with the failure of the Baldoon settlement, which finally disbanded in 1812 because of bad management, devastating malaria, and the encroachments of war, he also despairs of poetic inspiration in an unfamiliar land. To cheer the discouraged father, the son reads Scott’s poem to him so "Scotia’s glory can drown his care." The father responds "but why should I these tales review? / We have not here a sweet Buccleugh" (the setting of Scott’s poem). The youth’s reply is both instructive and poignant: "But you have sons, / Whose hearts to hear you sing rejoice." Strachan believed the future of Canada lay in its young people, and that is why he dedicated the best years of his life to their education. In "Verses Written August 1802," Strachan wrote, "What tho’ no columns, busts, or crumbling fanes / Exalt the pensive soul to classic strains... / Here simple nature nobler thoughts inspires." Canadians, he goes on to assert, are not bereft, despite the miles separating them from the cultural centres of the day. "At Kingston, Bards may glow with Milton’s fire." In time, we too will create our poets and prophets. And in the meantime, as he says in one of his songs, "Contented we’ll live, tho’ remote and obscure."


Religion was to bring Strachan much controversy occasioned by his opinions on the clergy reserves and other contentious issues, but it was also an area that was to bring him great contentment throughout his life. At the age of eighty-one, Strachan wrote to an American bishop, "Religion has always been to me a source of cheerfulness. I look forward in hope, deeply sensible of my short comings with humble faith, for God is love and so I feel" (DO 282).

Surprisingly, out of a collection of over fifty poems, only five have directly religious themes, all of which, with one exception ("Hymn Written at the Founding of the Church at Cornwall, 1803") were written after 1830, more than half a decade after he had become Archdeacon of York. Though Strachan provided the thunder in many a religious storm, his poems with scriptural themes are the least controversial and most conventional in the collection.

In the sonnet, "Love Not the World," Strachan expands on the dictum found in I John 2:15, and, with some rather fine poetry, declares the world’s pleasures to be as "transient as the drops of dew that swell / the Lily’s cup, and tip the blossom’d thorn/ Or, quiv’ring, glitter on the tulip bell." The final original poem that appears in the manuscript book is "David’s Lamentation for Saul and Jonathan," which expands on the Bible story of friendships torn asunder by jealousy and war. In the light of Strachan’s practice of interpreting the present through the past, it is tempting to read this poem as a commentary on the "the mutual desolation" of the American revolution (A Visit to the Province of Upper Canada in 1819 159). The poem begins and ends with the oft-quoted line, "How the mighty have fallen" (2 Samuel 1.19), but in the last line Strachan reminds his readers that ultimate power rests in the hands of the Lord. Strachan saw himself as a soldier in real and spiritual battles, and he fought fearlessly for the causes closest to his heart, buoyed always by his belief that he was in the right. His poetry is yet another record of the many strategies that led him sometimes to victory and sometimes to defeat.

In the end, Strachan heeded the advice once given to him by Bishop Mountain, and allowed "even this elegant and pleasing talent" to give way to "more important pursuits." In a letter dated December 12, 1831 that appears with the last poems in the manuscript, Strachan attempts to explain the decline in his poetic output: "In the first place, my poetical vein, if ever I had one, is rapidly drying up from age and non-usage. In the second place, the little that remains stands frozen by the frost." However, he never lost sight of the importance of literary endeavours in the forging of a national identity. His Christian Examiner (1819-1820) "was an early attempt at an indigenous literary magazine not confined in content to religious themes" (Gundy 190), and in 1847 he wrote to William Dunbar Moodie, whose wife Susanna’s Roughing it in the Bush was then appearing serially in The Literary Garland out of Montreal.

We are, I fear, too little as yet advanced in this new country to appreciate literary merit as we ought: therefore the support may not be so good as your friends desire. Nevertheless Mrs. Moodie’s talents are so excellent and so generally acknowledged that we must not be discouraged. (DO 280-81)

Though Strachan continued to cultivate an environment sympathetic to the literary arts, to argue for the importance of his own poems is not to suggest that they are literary masterpieces. In fact, they evince, as Bentley says in his Introduction to Cornwall Bayley’s Canada, "the lack of all but sporadic literary merit" (xvi). John Strachan was a prolific writer, and these poems, like the many letters, essays, pamphlets, and sermons he wrote, were usually composed to further some private or public cause. Consequently, poetic merit is not their most distinguishing characteristic, though memorable lines do occasionally appear. Sir Walter Scott wrote of himself, "I am sensible that if there be anything good about my poetry, it is a hurried frankness of composition which pleases soldiers, sailors, and young people of bold and active disposition" (x), an apt description of the poetry of the young Canadian poet who admired and emulated Scott. The multitude and diversity of Strachan’s activities, his familial commitments, and his sense of being distant from the centre, or, as he put it, "exiled from classic ground," all contributed to his feelings of poetic inadequacy. Contrary to the claims of his biographers, he does not appear to have had an inflated opinion of his talents. In "Ode," he says his muse "aspires to no Poetic fame, / But, like the Sun-fish on the main, / A moment flies and sinks again." Nonetheless, the sheer range of forms he employs is testimony to his versifying talents and versatility—ballads and songs in English and Scots, classical rhetorical forms, odes, dialogues, sonnets Petrarchan and Shakespearean, satires Juvenalian and Horatian, elegy and epithalamium, long poems, lyrics, and even a double acrostic, all in a variety of metres from trimeter to alexandrines, and of course, as one would expect, heroic couplets to describe what he perceived to be heroic times. He admired the poets of antiquity and the poets of the Bible; he admired the great poets of England, including Shakespeare, Milton, and Pope, and the poets of his homeland, including Ramsay, Burns, and Scott, all of whom he imitated to some degree, believing that "humble" imitations were the best apprenticeship. In his introduction to Eighteenth-Century Canadian Poetry: An Anthology, Thomas Vincent points out that "in the wake of post-romantic assumptions relating to artistic originality, we tend to use ‘imitation’ as a pejorative term," but creative activity in the eighteenth century was "fundamentally a mimetic process" (vi). It is not surprising, then, to find a colonial poet availing himself of established forms, but Strachan’s themes nonetheless reveal a deep awareness of his personal experience and his local environment. His are brave poems of a new world.

On the last page of his autobiography, Strachan describes his resolution to go to Canada, despite the tears and "tender sorrows" of his mother. He implies that only the poets could declare what his feelings were at that moment, poets "who raise sympathy and unstring the heart, who rouse the soul to virtue and contemplate with satisfaction the struggles of the Good..." (DO 13). If this indeed is the task of the poet, then Strachan has attained, however modestly, this status in his collection. These, one might add, were also his goals as an educator, cleric, and politician.

In a note accompanying "Verses Addressed to Mr. Jackson," which he refers to as "the tribute of a rustic muse," Strachan includes a caveat that might be issued to all of his readers: "As the Muses are not yet familiarized to the Woods of Canada the lines require much candour in the perusal." Because of what they tell us of the inner life of an influential man and the tumultuous times in which he lived, these poems are deeply rewarding for those who read in a spirit of "candour" and generosity.

The Present Text

The poems are reproduced as they appear in the manuscript poetry book in the Ontario Archives. In the original book the poems proceed chronologically to a certain point, at which Strachan evidently turned the book over and started filling them in from the back. I have consequently attempted to place the poems in order according to their dates of composition or transcription where they are included.

Several of the poems appeared in such newspapers as The Port Folio, The British American Register, and The Kingston Gazette. But as emendations were often a result of editorial policy rather than authorial intention, the original manuscript version appears here, with a reference to the place of publication, so comparisons can be made. We know of several printed poems signed N.N. that do not have an original in the poetry manuscript book, and there may well be many more fugitive pieces that were published anonymously or under another pseudonym.

Two other points must be mentioned. The most significant is the fact that most of the poems, though lineated, are not punctuated in any way. To facilitate the reading process, punctuation has been inserted with reference to the published versions where they exist. Strachan, it would seem, was orthographically challenged, often misspelling words and proper names; in addition, his use of elision and syncope is inconsistent. Irregularities in spelling have been allowed to remain, particularly with regard to American or British spelling. Abbreviations such as "Septr." and "Dr.," as well as Strachan’s version of the ampersand, have been spelled out in full. On the few occasions when his penmanship makes a word impossible to decipher, a note to that effect has been included. Strachan’s use of majuscule has been made to conform with twentieth century practice, maintaining only indications of the personification of abstract qualities.

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——. and Wanda Campbell. "John Strachan, ‘Verses...1802’" Canadian Poetry: Studies/Documents/Reviews. 32(1993): 82-93.

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