Isaac Weld and the

Continuity of Canadian Poetry

D.M.R. Bentley


The Editors and contributors have not joined in a chauvinistic hunt for ‘the great Canadian novel’ or even for ‘Canadianism.’ They wish to demonstrate, not to argue about, what and how much has grown up in Canada….This book treats, not only works generically classified as ‘literature,’ but also …other works which have influenced literature or have been significantly related to literature in expressing the cultural life of the country.

―Carl F. Klinck, ‘Introduction,’

Literary History of Canada

When the Irish poet Thomas Moore visited Canada in 1804 he evidently carried with him a book that had a seminal influence on the poetry written in this country between the turn of the nineteenth century and the onset of the Confederation period: Isaac Weld’s Travels through the United States of North America, and the Provinces of Upper and Lower Canada, during the Years 1795, 1796, and 1797.’[S]hould you like to see a particular account of the Falls,’ Moore told his mother in a letter of July 24, 1804 from Niagara Falls, ‘Weld, in his Travels, has given the most accurate I have seen.’1 Arguing that the ‘language’ of poetry as it then existed was inadequate to describe Canada’s most sublime sight, Moore did not in this instance follow Weld’s example and produce a poetic description of Niagara Falls. But apparently he did use Weld as a point of departure for at least two of his most influential ‘Poems Relating to America,’ the ‘Ballad Stanzas’ that he is reputed to have composed under a ‘small tree’2 on the north shore of Lake Ontario and the exquisite ‘Canadian Boat Song’ (‘Faintly as tolls the evening chime . . . ’) which declares itself to have been ‘Written on the River St. Lawrence.’3 At least part of the inspiration for the former, with its memorable ‘silence’ broken only by a ‘woodpecker tapping [a] hollow beech-tree’,4 obviously came from Weld’s description of a ‘solemn silence’ in a New York forest broken only by a ‘woodpecker….now and then tapping with its bill against a [page 223] hollow tree.’5 For the latter, Moore probably drew similar inspiration from Weld’s remark that ‘[t]he French-Canadians . . .have one very favourite duet amongst them, called the ‘rowing duet,’ which as they sing they mark time to, with each stroke of the oar . . . ’(Travels, II, 51). To observe that Moore’s ‘Ballad Stanzas’ lie behind the opening lines of Adam Kidd’s The Huron Chief (1830)6 and that his ‘Canadian Boat Song’ is echoed in the opening stanza of Archibald Lampman’s ‘Between the Rapids’ (1888)7 is already to indicate the extent of Weld’s reach into nineteenth-century Canadian poetry (and, indeed, beyond, for Lampman’s poem is in turn echoed in Don McKay’s Long Sault [1975]).8 Who, then, was Isaac Weld, and wherein lay the appeal of his Travels?

     ‘A descendant of learned and pious clergymen,’9 who carried forward the name Isaac in memory of Sir Isaac Newton,10 Weld was born in Dublin in 1774 and died in the Irish village of Bray in 1856. Upper middle class by background and English in orientation, he was 'rich' in Gibbon's sense that his income was superior to his expense and his expense was equal to his wish to pursue in a gentlemanly manner his scientific and topographical interests. In addition to his Travels, these interests issued in such works as Illustrations of the Scenery of Killarney and the Surrounding Country (1807) and a Statistical Survey of the County of Roscommon (1832) produced under the auspices of the Royal Dublin Society, an organization of which Weld was a long time member and, in 1849, vice-president. Of course, it was Weld’s Travels that earned him a membership in the Historical and Literary Society of Quebec and an entry in the Literary History of Canada.11 Written while Weld was touring the United States and Canada with the view of ‘ascertaining whether, in case of future emergency, any part of those territories might be looked forward to as an eligible and agreeable place of abode’ (I, iii), his Travels was first published in London in 1799. It was reprinted three times between 1800 and 1807 and translated during the same period into French, German, and Dutch. An Italian version appeared in 1819, and in our own day there have been two facsimile reprintings of the final English edition of 1807.

     There are two primary reasons for the popularity of Weld’s Travels in the early years of the nineteenth century. The first, as G.M. Craig points out, was a matter of historical timing: Weld gave an ‘early, sometimes first, account of many aspects of North American life’ (DCB) ―life in a frontier environment that was of great and growing interest to Europeans. Moreover, and especially for people interested in Canada, Weld’s Travels had no serious rival as a description of the country and its inhabitants until the publication in 1809 of John Lambert’s similarly popular Travels through Canada, [page 224] and the United States of North America, in the Years 1806, 1807, and 1808. (As Lambert’s echoic title indicates, his book is partly a response to Weld’s work, and, indeed, addresses it explicitly in several places.)12 The second reason for the popularity of Weld’s Travels lies, as Craig again points out, in its author’s ‘special skill’ in describing the physical and social landscapes through which he travelled in the late seventeen nineties. Not only did Weld have the ability to portray scenes and people in an evocative manner, but he also had an eye and an ear for the small detail ―the sound of a ‘woodpecker …tapping … a hollow tree’ and so emphasizing the uncanny silence of a North American forest― that gives to a description a convincing touch of authenticity. It is the success of his Travels in conveying vivid impressions of the sights and sounds of North America that puts Weld in the company of Thomas James, Jonathan Carver, Peter Kalm, and the other visitors to this continent whose prose has proved inspirational to poets.13

     A third and more restricted reason for Weld’s popularity in Britain, and particularly in British North America, is the political bias of his Travels. ‘Like many other British travellers, then and later, Weld felt more at home in the provinces [of Canada] than in republican America’ (DCB). As well as finding the treatment of the blacks and the native peoples in the United States abhorrent, he was repelled by the ugliness of American cities and the inefficiency of American agriculture. What was worse from an American perspective (and unforgivable to Washington Irving and many other Americans), Weld found the ordinary people of the United States rude, slovenly, greedy, and self-interested. In contrast, he saw Canada as a demi-paradise of attractive scenery, burgeoning prosperity, excellent roads, and friendly, tolerant, communally-minded people― in short, as a far better destiny for emigrants than the United States. Almost needless to say, these attitudes were bound to endear Weld to British North Americans, not least those whose Tory views predisposed them to relish alike his disparaging remarks about the United States and his enthusiastic endorsement of Upper and Lower Canada. Little wonder that Weld’s earliest and greatest impact in Canadian poetry was on a young writer who characterized the United States as a traitorous and ― wishful thinking― increasingly ‘weak republic’ controlled by ‘despot rabbles14 and such poisonous snakes and Thomas Jefferson.

     A deeply conservative and probably tubercular student from Christ’s College, Cambridge, Cornwall Bayley arrived in Quebec about a month before Moore passed through the province on his way to Nova Scotia. It is tantalizing to imagine that the two met and, indeed, that it was Moore who introduced Bayley to Weld’s [page 225] Travels, but it is more likely that this meeting of like minds occurred impersonally and earlier, and perhaps even lay behind the young student’s decision to come to Canada. In any case, Bayley’s Canada. A Descriptive Poem (Quebec, 1806) makes extensive use of Weld’s Travels, drawing in its opening lines on the traveller’s depiction of the view from the upper town of Quebec (the best for ‘its grandeur, its beauty, and its diversity . . . in America, or indeed in any other part of the globe’ [I, 354]) and reflecting in its closing paragraphs and footnotes the ‘tender sentiments’15 and quaint details of Weld’s description of the Ursuline Convent in Trois Rivières.16 In the body of Canada, Bayley relies on Weld for his treatment of a wide range of topics, from the winter amusements of the Lower Canadians to the growing settlements on the shores of Lake Erie. Here, for the purposes of comparison, is part of Weld’s description of the ‘stupendous Falls’ (II, 112) at Niagara, followed by Bayley’s rendition of the same sublime sight as seen by an elderly voyageur:

No words can convey an adequate idea of the awful grandeur of the scene at this place. Your senses are appalled by the sight of the immense body of water that comes pouring down so closely to you from the top of the stupendous precipice, and by the thundering sound of the billows dashing against the rocky sides of the caverns below; you tremble with reverentialfear, when you consider that a blast of the whirlwind might sweep you off the slippery rockson which you stand, and precipitate you into the dreadful gulf beneath, from whence all the power of man could not extricate you; you feel what an insignificant being you are in the creation, and your mind is forcibly impressed with an awful idea of the power of that mighty Being who commanded the waters to flow. (II, 128-29)

         Wave upon wave it tumbles from its height;

         The rocks below receive th’ incessant stroke,

         And back recoil a cloud of watery smoke . . .

         Thus whilst he tells, the aged sire recalls

         His former thoughts of these stupendous falls,

         He feels how grand―how infinite the tale,

         Himself how little in Creation’s scale;

         And still too low his maker’s works to raise,

         Bids more expressive silence muse his praise!

                                                 (C, 366-68, 373-78)

This is but one of several instances in Canada which show how Weld filtered Canadian scenes through the aesthetics of the sublime and the picturesque and then inspired Bayley to do the same thing. That [page 226] the final line and much else of Bayley’s description of Niagara Falls is borrowed from James Thomson conjures up a compositional setting for Canada that is typical of early Canadian poetry: Bayley, pen in hand at a desk far from Niagara Falls, with Weld’s Travels open to his left and Thomson’s Seasons open to his right. Indeed, so typical is this combination of poet, travel account, and poetic source that it can be described without exaggeration as the primal scene of early Canadian poetry ― the verbal intercourse which, in Bayley’s phrase, ‘Gives birth to song’ on Canada (C, 34).

     Implicit in Bayley’s conception of the ‘aged sire’ in the passage quoted a moment ago is his agreement with Weld that, in contrast to the United States and post-revolutionary France, French Canada has remained a deeply religious society in which traditional faiths  are held and practiced with impunity. ‘There are no animosities in Canada about religions,’ says Weld, ‘ [e]very religion is tolerated . . . and no disqualifications are imposed on any persons on account of their religious opinions’ (I, 415; I, 370-71). Or, as Bayley puts it, ‘in these cots afar from Atheist pride, / And bigot deceit allied . . . persecution tempts not from his door, / To seek a gentler rule the pious poor’ (C, 379-80, 385-86). Bayley does not always agree with Weld’s analysis of French Canada, however; on the contrary, he finds Canada freer than his predecessor did of the moral abuses of feudalism and capitalism, and he defends the French Canadians themselves against the charge of vanity levelled repeatedly against them in the Travels. ‘Some of the lower classes of the French Canadians have all the gaiety and vivacity of the people of France,’ Weld observes, [but] vanity . . . is the ascendant feature in the character of all of them. . . . They are the vainest people, perhaps, in the world. . . . The spirit of the Canadian is excited by vanity. . . . The shape of [their carioles or sledges] is varied according to fancy, and it is a matter of emulation amongst the gentlemen, who shall have the handsomest one’ (I, 338-39; II, 4, 9. I, 392). Bayley disagrees: ‘His neat Calash (himself the artist) [is] made, / For use and pleasure― not for vain parade . . . (C, 404-05). As these examples show, Bayley did not follow Weld slavishly but responded to him, relying upon the reader to recognize points of agreement and disagreement. By articulating a position to which readers and writers could respond on the basis of their own firsthand experience of Canada and its inhabitants, Weld both prepared a readership and opened up imaginative spaces for Bayley and others. Especially when the response to him is corrective or tinged with pique, it is clear that Weld has provided the occasion for the exercise of an emotion that is surely essential for the development of any regional or national poetry: local pride. [page 227]

     Two native-born Canadian poets whose long poems contain a spectrum of responses to Weld based on local pride are Adam Hood Burwell and Oliver Goldsmith. Born and raised in what is now southwestern Ontario, the former draws heavily on Weld in Talbot Road: A Poem (1818) to depict the Lake Erie area and to describe the creation of the Settlement from which his poem takes its title. In October, 1796 the ‘dangerous storms’ (II, 296) that Weld regarded as characteristic of Lake Erie had forced the vessel on which he was travelling ‘to lay at anchor for three days’ before sailing east towards Buffalo Creek by way of some islands ‘which had the most beautiful appearance imaginable. The woods with which the shores were adorned, now tinged with the hues of autumn, afforded in their decline a still more pleasing variety to the eye than when they were clothed in their fullest verdure; and their gaudy colours, intermingled with the shadows of the rocks, were seen fancifully reflected in the unruffled surface of the surrounding lake’ (II, 297). As Burwell’s repetition of the word ‘unruffled’ indicates, this picturesque description and the events surrounding it provided the pretext for the following passage in Talbot Road:

         Uninterrupted roves the careless eye

         . . . where the lake its billowy surges pours,

         And round the beaten cliffs tremendous roars;

         Or, mirror-like, smooth and unruffled lies,

         And seems to mingle with the distant skies,

         Where oft the vessel glides with swelling sails,

         Or waits impatient for the fav’ring gales.17

But while Burwell follows Weld closely here, he carefully places his emphasis, not on the violence of the storm, but on its placid aftermath. Elsewhere in Talbot Road he contradicts Weld’s extremely low opinion of the harbours on the Canadian shore of Lake Erie. ‘On its northern side there are but two places which afford shelter to vessels drawing more than seven feet . . . and these only afford a partial shelter’ (II, 159-60), asserts Weld; on the contrary, writes Burwell proudly (and, very likely, in an attempt to lure pioneers to the Talbot Settlement by emphasizing its water privileges), Otter Creek near St. Thomas provides both a safe harbour from the ‘rough lake’ and a ‘broad highway’ to the Talbot Road itself, ‘whence they transport with ease, / Provisions, furniture, or what they please’ (TR, 199-204). In dialogue with Weld, Burwell thus emphasizes the present amenities and the future prospects of an area which twelve years earlier, Bayley had seen mainly through [page 228] Weld’s eyes as a ‘wild’ region where ‘the scatter’d cot / But proves the former deserts of the spot. . .’ (C, 351-52).18

     Perhaps Burwell’s most subtle and patriotic use of Weld in Talbot Road occurs in his account of the firing of fallen timber during the clearing of land in the Talbot Settlement by a newly-arrived ‘Woodman.’  While visiting Virginia in the spring of 1796, Weld witnessed a dangerous ‘conflagration’ which he attributes to ‘the negligence of people. . . burning brushwood to clear the lands’ and describes as a ‘sublime sight’ complete with a ‘terrible whirlwind,’ a cloud that darkens the horizon, and a ‘prodigious column of fire’ (I, 160-161). ‘When these fires do not receive a timely check,’ Weld writes, ‘they sometimes increase to an alarming height; and . . . proceed with so great velocity that the swiftest runners are often overtaken in endeavouring to escape the flames’ (I, 161).  Obviously, taking his cue from this portion of the Travels, Burwell provides the reader of Talbot Road with a similar description of ‘Wide flashing fires’ surmounted by a ‘dense mantle’ of dark ‘clouds,’ and heightens the sublimity of the spectacle with echoes of the opening books of Paradise Lost.19 But whereas Weld attributes blame to negligent Americans for the kind of fire that he witnessed in Virginia, Burwell characterizes his typical Upper Canadian settler as responsible and ‘assiduous.’ Only after he has worked his way among the ‘raging fires’ to ‘trim the heaps, and fire th’ extinguish’d brands’ (TR, 289-93) does the ‘Woodman’ wend his weary way homeward to his wife and family. In the United States there is slovenliness and bad planning, but in Canada there is ‘morality and good order’ (I, 416).

     Like Burwell and Bayley before him― and in a manner which, again, signals the emergence of local pride and a local perspective― Goldsmith agrees with Weld on some matters in The Rising Village (1825, 1834) and departs from him on others. At several points in the Travels, Weld snobbishly comments on the tendency of the ‘lower and middling classes of people . . . in the country parts of Pennsylvania’ and elsewhere to pester travellers with unwelcome questions. ‘On arriving amongst the Americas,’ he says in one letter, ‘a stranger must tell where he came from, where he is going, what his name is, what his business is; and until he gratifies their curiosity on these points, and many others of equal importance, he is never suffered to remain quiet for a moment. In a tavern, he must satisfy every fresh set that comes in, in the same manner, or involve himself in a quarrel . . .’ (I, 124-25). And in another letter he continues: ‘A traveller on arriving in America may possibly imagine, that it is the desire of obtaining useful information which leads the people, wherever he stops, to accost him; and that . . . particular enquiries. . . are made to prepare the way for questions [page 229] of a more general nature. . . . [B]ut when it is found that these questions are asked merely through an idle and impertinent curiosity, and that by far the greater part of the people who ask them are ignorant, boorish fellows. . . the traveller then loses all patience at this disagreeable and prying disposition . . .’ (I, 134-35). Goldsmith concedes that pointless questions are disconcerting to the ‘traveller’ or ‘stranger,’ but puts them in the mouth, not of the settlers whose hard work has built the poem’s typical Nova Scotia settlement, but of the well-meaning keeper of the village tavern:

         Where some rude sign or post the spot betrays,

         The tavern first its useful front displays.

         Here, oft the weary traveller at the close

         Of evening, finds a snug and safe repose.

         The passing stranger here, a welcome guest,

         From all his toil enjoys a peaceful rest;

         Unless the host, solicitous to please,

         With care officious mar his hope of ease,

         With flippant questions to no end confined,

         Exhaust his patience, and perplex his mind.20

In their defence of the settlers of Nova Scotia in particular and North America in general from Weld’s charges, the ensuing lines in The Rising Village recall Bayley’s protective attitude to the French Canadians in Canada

         Yet, let no one condemn with thoughtless haste,

         The hardy settler of the dreary waste,

         Who, far removed from every busy throng,

         And social pleasures that to life belong,

         Whene’er a stranger comes within his reach,

         Will sigh to learn whatever he can teach.

         To this, must be ascribed in great degree,

         That ceaseless, idle curiosity,

         Which over all the Western world prevails,

         And every breast, or more or less, assails;

         Till, by indulgence, so o’erpowering grown,

         It seeks to know all business but its own. (RV, 141-52)

At once protective and, to a degree, disapproving of the behaviour of the settlers, Goldsmith here exhibits two of the psychological hallmarks of the colonial: an embarrassed sense of the inferiority of the colony in relation to the mother country, and a truculently defensive attitude to criticisms of colonial life by condescending [page 230] visitors from the imperial centre. Perhaps such ambivalence is inevitable in a poem written to celebrate the social and material advances of Nova Scotia by a man who in 1818 had very reluctantly returned to the province after setting his heart on living in England.21

      If one portion of Weld’s Travels stands out as making a repeated and enduring impact on early Canadian poetry, it is the traveller’s description of the birds of North America. Basing his remarks on Mark Catesby’s Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands, Weld observes of the birds in Virginia, and of North American birds generally, that they are ‘much inferior to those in Europe in the melody of their notes, but . . . superior in point of plumage’ (I, 195). By way of illustrating this observation, he mentions several European song birds (the blackbird, the skylark, and the nightingale) and he singles out the American ‘blue bird’ and ‘red bird’ as being especially ‘remarkable for their plumage’ (I, 195). He also notes that ‘many other birds’ in North America such as ‘jays, robins, larks, [and] pheasants . . . were called by the English settlers after birds of the same name in England . . . though in fact they are materially different,’ and he concludes by describing a bird that would become iconic in pre-Confederation Canadian

poetry: ‘the whipperwill, or whip-poor-will, as it as it is sometimes called, from the plaintive noise that it makes . . .’ (I, 196). ‘[T]o my ear,’ he writes, the bird’s call ‘sound[s] wyp-o-il. It begins to make this noise, which is heard a great way off, about dusk, and continues it through the greater part of the night. The bird is so very wary, and so few instances have occurred of its being seen, much less taken, that many have imagined the noise does not proceed from a bird, but from a frog, especially as it is heard most frequently in the neighbourhood of low grounds’ (I, 195-96).

     While Bayley describes another bird mentioned by Weld, the humming bird (I, 196; C, 269-70), and Burwell insists on both the ‘mellow song’ and the bright ‘plumage’ of Upper Canadian birds (TR, 52-54), neither of them so much as mentions the whip-poor-will, the reason probably being that the Romantic vogue for birds had little impact in Canada in the first two decades of the nineteenth century. By the eighteen twenties and thirties the influence of Byron and Scott (not to mention Moore) had been firmly transplanted, however, and may even have had an impact on the stalwartly Georgian Goldsmith, who, nevertheless, need not have read anything more recent than Weld and Pope to generate his lyrical account of the whip-poor-will in The Rising Village:
[page 231]

         The note of the Whip-poor-Will how sweet to hear,

         When sadly slow it breaks upon the ear,                                         

         And tells each night, to all the silent vale,

         The hopeless sorrows of its mournful tale. (RV, 477-80)

Goldsmith’s note to these lines confirms that, whatever their poetic influences, their prose source was Weld’s Travels. ‘The Whip-poor-Will . . . . is a native of America,’ reads the note; ‘[o]n a summer’s evening the wild and mournful cadence of its note is heard at a great distance; and the traveller listens with delight to the repeated tale of its sorrows’ (RV, 477n.).

     Between the publication of The Rising Village in England in 1825 and in New Brunswick in 1834, another native-born Canadian writer, John Richardson, included a reference to ‘the wild plaining of the Whipperwill’ in Tecumseh; or, the Warrior of the West (1828) and glossed the bird in a decidedly post-Romantic expansion of Weld that must be quoted at length: ‘The notes of [the Wipperwill], seldom seen, and scarcely ever caught, even by the Indians, are singularly wild and melancholy. I have never met with it but on the banks of Lake Erie and adjoining rivers. Its plaining is to be heard only at night, and always more distinctly when the canopy of heaven is unclouded, and the pale moon-beams, playing on the motionless bosom of the waters, attest the calm of universal nature. It pronounces the word whipperwill . . . . in so extraordinary a manner, that the most interesting impressions arise to the mind; and the heart naturally attuned to the enjoyment of solitude, may linger on those sweet banks, forming images of happiness, and indulging in every voluptuous sentiment of the soul, until the star of morning, in discontinuing the blended magic of the scene, awakens to miserable reality, and demonstrates but too faithfully that our fairest perceptions, and most exquisite sensations in life, are but the fleeting visions of a faithless dream.’22 It is almost as difficult to doubt that when he wrote this Richardson had Keats’s ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ in mind as it is to deny that he must have had a copy of Weld’s Travels to hand.

     To give many more examples of Weldean whip-poor-wills in early Canadian writing would be tedious and redundant. One more example must be given, however, if only to illustrate the endurance of Weld’s impact on Canadian poetry. It comes in the third chapter of Alexander McLachlan’s The Emigrant (1861), at the end of what is obviously a versification and elaboration in the Ontario woods of Weld’s observations on the birds of Virginia:
[page 232]

         Lovely birds of gorgeous dye,

         Flitted ’mong the branches high,

         Coloured like the setting sun,

         But were songless every one;

         No one like the linnet gray,

         In our home so far away;

         No one singing like the thrush,

         To his mate within the bush;

         No one like the gentle lark. . . .

                      *   *   *

         Some had lovely amber wings,

         Round their necks were golden rings;

         Some were purple, others blue,

         All were lovely, strange and new;

         But although surpassing fair,

         Still the song was wanting there;

         Then we heard the rush of pigeons,

         Flocking to those lonely regions;

         And anon when all was still,

         Paused to hear the whip-poor-will;

         And we thought of the cuckoo,

         But this stranger no one knew.23

The fact that Weld also mentions the European ‘thrush’ (I, 195) and the ‘wild pigeons of Canada’ (II, 42) merely confirms that the Travels was one of the books that McLachlan had to hand when he wrote this passage (and, indeed, several other portions of The Emigrant).24 And the fact that some of the other books on McLachlan’s writing desk ― most notably Moore’s Poems and Catharine Parr Traill’s The Backwoods of Canada (1836)25― also reveal the impact of Weld once again emphasizes the seminal and multifarious nature of his influence on Canadian writing. When Weld ‘depart[ed] from this Continent’ in January, 1797 he did so ‘without a sigh, and without entertaining the slightest wish to revisit it’ (II, 376). As far as early Canadian poetry was concerned, however, he did not really leave at all.

     On September 29, 1804, in his last letter before leaving Nova Scotia for England, Moore wrote as follows to Joseph Dennie in Philadelphia: ‘I have seen . . . the chief beauties of upper and lower Canada, and they have left impressions upon my heart, and fancy which my memory long shall love to recur to. If the soil be not very ungrateful, the new thoughts it is scattered with, will spring up, I hope, into something for your hand to embellish by transplanting.’26 In his graceful assurance to Dennie that he will send him [page 233] material for publication in The Port Folio, Moore uses a botanical metaphor ― poems as transplantable organisms ―that is rich in resonances for early Canadian poetry and useful, too, in assessing  the role of Weld and other travellers in the development of writing in and on Canada. As a work that played an important part in preparing the ground for similar and different species of writing ― Moore’s lyrics, the long poems of Bayley, Burwell, Goldsmith, Richardson, and MacLachlan, Lamberts Travels, and the settler narratives of Traill, Susanna Moodie, and others― Weld’s Travels is the equivalent of a pioneer plant, an early arrival in an environment that makes later tranplantings possible in various ways, most notably by breaking up the soil and by leaving an accumulation of fertile organic matter. The first effect of Weld’s Travels and similar works was to penetrate and divide North America into micro environments― Niagara Falls, brush fires, taverns, birds ― that were hospitable to various species and subspecies of English poetry such as the topographical poem and the picturesque tableau.

Their second effect is almost invisible because it springs from the residue ― the humus ―left by the pioneer plant/travel account in the literary soil from which successive species grew and have continued to grow. Just as The Huron Chief sprang from ground broken and fertilized by Weld, so too in their use of the works of Traill and Moodie do Margaret Laurence’s The Diviners (1974) and Margaret Atwood’s Journals of Susanna Moodie (1970). And how many contemporary works of Canadian fiction and poetry have, in their turn, been influenced by the works of Laurence and Atwood? If it is true that we each have within us one atom from the body of Cleopatra, then, by the same laws of survival and dispersal, it can hardly be doubted that in a great many works written in Canada from 1799 to the present there is at least a trace of Isaac Weld’s Travels.



An earlier version of this essay was published in Biography & Autobiography: Essays on Irish and Canadian History and Literature, ed. James Noonan. Ottawa: Carleton UP, 1993. 223-236.

My thanks to Beth McIntosh for transforming my scrawl into typescript.

The Letters of Thomas Moore, ed. Wilfred S. Dowden (Oxford: Clarendon, 1964), I, p. 77. For references to Weld in ‘Poems Relating to America,’ see The Poetical Works of Thomas Moore, ed. A.D. Godley (Oxford: Humphrey Milford, 1915), pp. 117 n. 1 and 3 and p. 120 n. 1. See also my ‘Thomas Moore in Canada and Canadian poetry,’ Canadian Poetry: Studies, Documents, Reviews, 24 (Spring/Summer, 1989), pp. [vii-xiii]. [back]

The ‘tradition’ is recounted by John Galt in Bogle Corbet; or, the Emigrants (London: Henry Colburn and John Bentley [1831]), III, p. 3. [page 234] [back]


Poetical Works, pp. 124-125. [back]


Ibid., 124. Galt refers to ‘Ballad Stanzas’ as Moore’s ‘Woodpecker poem.’ [back]


Travels through the States of North America, and the Provinces of Upper and Lower Canada, during the Years 1795, 1796, and 1797, 4th ed. (London: John Stockdale, 1807), II, p. 320; hereafter cited as Travels. [back]


See The Huron Chief, ed. D. M. R. Bentley (London: Canadian Poetry Press, 1987), p. 5: ‘Nor heard a sound, save wood-doves cooing,/ Or birds that tapped the hollow tree. . . .’ [back]


See The Poems of Archibald Lampman (including At the Long Sault), intro. Margaret Coulby Whitridge, Literature of Canada: Poetry and Prose in Reprint (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1974), p. 36. Both ‘A Canadian Boat Song’ and ‘Between the Rapids’ find voyageurs nearing rapids at twilight, and both contain references to bells, the shore, and the stream. [back]


Ibid., p. 37 (‘And where is Jacques, and where is Virginie’) and ‘Wolflip,’ Long Sault in The Long Poem Anthology, ed. Michael Ondaatje (Toronto: Coach House, 1979), p. 137 (‘and/where is Jacques and where is Virginie . . . ’). See also Charles Sangster, The St. Lawrence and the Saguenay, ed. D.M.R. Bentley (London: Canadian Poetry Press, 1990), pp. 125-26; ‘I expected to see the Rapid (St. Anne’s) which Moore has immortalized in his “Canadian Boat Song,” somewhat deserving the honor with which Erin’s gifted Bard has covered it; but I was sadly mistaken. . . . At the present time it is a mere ripple. . . . I fancy that many tourists, approaching the Rapid with book in hand . . . have felt very much as if they had been hoaxed. . .. . Notwithstanding this, the ground is sacred, one of the “green spots upon memory’s waste” dedicate to Moore, and it will continue such. . . .’ [back]


This and subsequent details of Weld’s biography are taken from the entry on him by G.M. Craig in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography, VIII (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1985); hereafter cited as DCB. [back]


See Martin Roth, ‘Introduction,’ Travels, 4th ed. (reprint New York: Johnson Reprint Corporation, 1968), I, p. xix. [back]


See ibid., I, p. xx and James J. and Ruth Talman, ‘The Canadas 1763-1812,’ Literary History of Canada, ed. Carl F. Klinck (Toronto: University of Toronto  Press, 1965), pp. 88-89. [back]


See, for example, Travels through Canada. . . . , 3rd ed. (London: Baldwick, Cradock, and Joy, 1816), I, pp. 17 and 469-74. [back]


See the ‘Explanatory Notes’ in my editions of Thomas Cary’s Abram’s Plains: A Poem, (London: Canadian Poetry Press, 1988), passim (Carver) and J. Mackay, Quebec Hill or Canadian Scenery. A Poem. In Two Parts (London: Canadian Poetry Press, 1988), passim (Kalm),  and ―for Coleridge’s use of Thomas James― Miller Christy, ‘Introduction,’ The Voyages of Captain Luke Foxe of Hulle, and Captain Thomas James of Bristol, in Search of the North-West Passage, in [page 235] 1631-32, Works Issued by the Hakluyt Society, No. 88 (London: Hakluyt Society, 1894), I, pp. clxxxix-cxciii. [back]


14 Cornwall Bayley, Canada. A Descriptive Poem, ed. D.M.R. Bentley (London: Canadian Poetry Press, 1990), pp. 13-15; hereafter cited as C, with line numbers. [back]


Lambert, Travels, I, 473. [back]

See the Explanatory Notes to C, pp. 1-28 and 485-96. [back]

Talbot Road: A Poem, ed. Michael Williams, intro. D.M.R. Bentley (London: Canadian Poetry Press, 1990), forthcoming (II. 69-76); hereafter cited as TR, with line numbers. Weld also refers to a ‘favourable’ wind, ‘tremendous’ waves, and a ‘gale of wind’ (II, 297-98). [back]

Cf. Weld, II, 326: “Settlements are now scattered over the whole country. . . .” [back]

Such phrases as ‘dubious maze’ and ‘eternal night’ (TR, 287-88) have a distinctly Miltonic ring. See the ‘Introduction’ and ‘Explanatory Notes’ of Williams’ edition of Talbot Road for the presence and significance of other echoes of Paradise Lost in Burwell’s poem. [back]


The Rising Village, ed. Gerald Lynch (London: Canadian Poetry Press, 1989), pp. 13 and 15; hereafter cited as RV, with line numbers to the 1834 text. [back]


See Autobiography of Oliver Goldsmith: a Chapter in Canada’s Literary History, 2nd ed. (Hantsport, N. S. : Lancelot, 1985), p. 38. [back]


Tecumseh; or, the Warrior of the West: a Poem, in Four Cantos, with Notes, intro. William F. E. Morley (Ottawa: Golden Dog, 1978),  pp. 25 and 86. See also Travels, II, pp. 18 and 86 and Tecumseh, pp. 21(I, p. vii) and 84 (n.1) for Richardson’s use of Weld’s accounts of Indian canoes and torch-fishing. [back]


The Emigrant, ed. D. M. R. Bentley (London: Canadian Poetry Press, 1990), forthcoming (III, pp. 93-116). [back]


See, for example, the ‘Explanatory Notes’ to The Emigrant, III, pp. 5-92. [back]


See ibid., V, pp. 4-36 for the use made by McLachlan of Weld, Moore, and Traill in ‘The Log Cabin.’ [back]


Letters, I, p. 81. Moore continues the metaphor in his next sentence: ‘Indeed, my dearest Dennie, I cannot speak half my acknowledgements to you for the very cordial interest you feel in my reputation, and for the truly beautiful frames of eloquence in which you take care to set all my little miniatures.’ [page 236] [back]