Thomas Moore's Construction of Upper Canada in "Ballad Stanzas"

The utopian power of poetry can only lie in its concrete connections, as a language of practice, with its relevant social contexts rather than in its capacity either to separate itself from those contexts or to set itself above them.

-- John Brenkman, Culture and Domination 108

During the half-century after the Treaty of Paris (1763), British perceptions of what is now southern Ontario underwent some spectacular transformations. In The Present State of the British Empire in Europe, America, Africa and Asia etc. (1768), an anonymous work attributed to Oliver Goldsmith, Upper Canada is an unnamed and scantily described region between (Lower) Canada and the Hudson's Bay Company Territories (337-49), but in Talbot Road, a long poem by Adam Hood Burwell published in The Niagara Spectator in 1818, the area north of Lake Erie is a prime destination for emigrants — "The happiest country in the happiest clime," where "Productive nature" has "strew[n] her bounties with a lavish hand" (6, 8). It was around the turn of the century that perceptions of southern Ontario underwent the most marked changes. In 1797 in Quebec Hill, J. Mackay drew upon John Reinhold Foster's translation of Peter Kalm's Travels (1753) to depict Upper Canada as a wilderness of "forests and lakes . . . intersected with [the] swamps" which, according to the then current miasma theory of disease, emitted vapours that caused "fever and ague, as well as other maladies . . . highly pernicious to the human condition" (1:87n.). In 1799 in The Pleasures of Hope Thomas Campbell looked to the day when "Erie's banks," now the haunts of "tigers" (cougars) and "the dread Indian" who "bathe[s] in brains the murderous tomahawk," will be graced by "flocks on thymy pasture," "shepherds danc[ing] at Summer's opening day," and "the glittering haunts of men" (1:325-32). And in 1806 in Canada Cornwall Bayley, relying on observations in Isaac Weld's Travels (1799), affirms with delighted surprise that

Now on wild Erie . . . the scatter'd cot,
But proves the former deserts of the spot;
. . . [and] the frequent fires that blaze, declare
How cultivation even travels there!

By 1806, a region which had been all but unknown in Britain at the time of the Conquest was well on its way to becoming a proven and highly desirable destination for British emigrants to Canada. Not until the onset of "Manitoba fever" (Morton 361) in the eighteen seventies would Upper Canada have a serious rival as a land of opportunity for migrants from Britain, Europe and elsewhere in North America.

     At least as indebted to Weld's representation of Upper Canada as Cornwall Bayley was the author of a lyric which, more than any other poem, helped to shape British, Canadian, and American perceptions of the Province in the early nineteenth century. Not only did Thomas Moore apparently bring Weld's Travels with him when he        arrived in Upper Canada from the United States on July 21, 1804 but he regarded his fellow Irishman's description of the preliminary object of his visit — Niagara Falls — as the "most accurate" available (Letters 1:77).1 Indeed, Moore could be expanding upon Weld's conviction that "[n]o words can convey an adequate idea of the awful grandeur of the scene" at the Falls (2:128) when he writes that "[i]t is impossible by pen or pencil to convey even a faint idea of their magnificence. Painting is lifeless; and the most burning words of poetry have all been lavished upon inferior and ordinary subjects. We must have new combinations of language to describe the Falls of Niagara" (Letters 1:77). No such misgivings prevented Moore from writing the brief lyric about a "cottage" in a "wood" beside the Niagara River on Lake Ontario that was to exert a profound and lasting influence on perceptions of Upper Canada:

Ballad Stanzas

I knew by the smoke, that so gracefully curl'd
     Above the green elms, that a cottage was near,
And I said, "If there's peace to be found in the world,
                       "A heart that was humble might hope for it here!"

It was noon, and on flowers that languish'd around
                       In silence repos'd the voluptuous bee;
Every leaf was at rest, and I heard not a sound
                       But the woodpecker tapping the hollow beech-tree.

And, "Here in this lone little wood," I exclaim'd,
                        "With a maid who was lovely to soul and to eye,
"Who would blush when I prais'd her, and weep if I blam'd,
                        "How blest could I live, and how calm could I die!

"By the shade of yon sumach, whose red berry dips
                       "In the gush of the fountain, how sweet to recline,
"And to know that I sigh'd upon innocent lips,
                        "Which had never been sigh'd on by any but mine!"
                                                               (Poetical Works 124)

That this lyric, like Moore's even more influential "Canadian Boat Song,"2 was at least partly inspired by Weld is evident from the resemblance between its famous second stanza and Weld's description of the uncanny silence of the forests of northern New York: "[a] few squirrels were the only wild animals which we met with in our journey through the woods, and the most solemn silence imaginable reigned throughout, except where a woodpecker was heard now and then tapping with its bill against a hollow tree" (2:320).3 What may have drawn Moore to this passage is a quality that also helps to account for the effectiveness of "Ballad Stanzas": a focus on small, local details — such as "a woodpecker . . . tapping" and the "red berry" of a "sumach" — which convey a sense of the appealing sounds and sights to be experienced in the solitude of a North American forest.

     It is a measure of the importance of "Ballad Stanzas" to the literature and life of Upper Canada that the poem provided a point of departure for both the title poem in Adam Kidd's The Huron Chief, and Other Poems (1830) and "The Log Cabin" in Alexander McLachlan's The Emigrant (1861). The opening stanza of the former, set on the shore of Lake Huron, describes a silence broken by the "sound" of "birds tapping the hollow tree" (4-5) and the anapestic rhythm of the lyric that begins the latter, set on the shores of Lake Ontario, clearly echoes the measure of "Ballad Stanzas." Kidd's volume is dedicated to Moore as, among other things, "[t]he Most Popular, Most Powerful, and Most Patriotic Poet of the Nineteenth Century" and McLachlan's lyric, like Moore's, treats of a "cabin . . . far in the woods" as an abode of pastoral "peace" and child-like innocence (V, 1-36). Moreover, "Ballad Stanzas" is treated as a foil in The Emigrant (1840) of Standish O'Grady when the horrors of emigrant life in Lower Canada — "a cottage, dismal, cold and dank" surrounded by "stunted alders . . . stagnant waters . . . serpents, toads, and vile mosquitoes" (1833-43) — invite unflattering comparison with Moore's warm "cottage" with its "green elms," "gush[ing] . . . fountain," "voluptuous bee," and harmless "woodpecker." Not surprisingly, the "Preface" to O'Grady's poem designates "[t]he Upper Province . . . by far a more desirable emporium" than the Lower Province for Britons contemplating emigration to Canada or already resident in the country.

     Nor was the impact of "Ballad Stanzas" merely literary. In his novel of pioneer life in Canada, Bogle Corbet (1831), John Galt alludes to the local "tradition" that Moore wrote his "Woodpecker poem" under a "small tree" on the north shore of Lake Ontario between Kingston and Toronto (3:4), and in his collection of historical essays, Annals of Niagara (1896) William Kirby recounts the more mythopoeically appropriate legend that the poem was composed under "a majestic spreading oak tree about two miles from the town [of Niagara] on the Queenston road" (128) — that is, within a short distance of the site of one of the decisive British and Canadian victories of the War of 1812. Whether "small" or "majestic" the trees associated with Moore served as reminders, not merely of a celebrated poet's presence in Upper Canada, but also of his flattering assessments of the Province's scenery and possibilities. And thanks to the ubiquity of woodpeckers, settlers all over Upper Canada had access to the sentiments expressed in "Ballad Stanzas" — or so William Cattermole would have had it believed in Emigration. The Advantages of Emigration to Canada (1831). Appended to the two lectures of which Cattermole's book is comprised are a selection of letters purporting to have been written by happy emigrants to Upper Canada. In one such letter, "John Inglis" of Guelph attests to the resonances bequeathed by Moore on the woodpecker: "I often, when I see it, remember the song of `The woodpecker tapping the hollow beech-tree'" (203). Apparently literary resonances were held to add to the appeal of North American locales for prospective emigrants, a conjecture supported by the fact that Galt was a director and Cattermole an agent of the Canada Company. It would appear that "Ballad Stanzas" played a part, however small in comparison to such factors as abundant land and the promise of wealth, in generating the flood of emigrants that increased the population of Upper Canada by over fifty percent in the early eighteen thirties.

     Beyond the two obvious and related facts that Moore was the only Romantic poet of stature to visit Canada and that "Ballad Stanzas" is an accomplished lyric containing some memorable lines, what was it about this particular poet and poem that lodged them so firmly in Upper Canadian culture? One answer lies in the realm of politics — in the outspoken political views which prefaced and shaped readers' responses to "Ballad Stanzas" in Epistles, Odes, and Other Poems (1806) and in most other collections of Moore's work in which the poem was subsequently published. A conservative Romantic like other Roman Catholics of his own and later times, Moore was nevertheless receptive to the view that the American Republic might offer advances over most European nations in the realm of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. As he explains in the "Preface" to Epistles, Odes, and Other Poems: "I went to America with prepossessions by no means unfavourable, and indeed rather indulged in many of those illusive ideas, with respect to the purity of the government and the primitive happiness of the people, which I had early imbibed in my native country, where . . . the western world has long been looked to as a retreat from real or imaginary oppression; as, in short, the elysian Atlantis, where persecuted patriots might find their vision realised, and be welcomed by kindred spirits to liberty and repose" (Poetical Works 94). For a variety of reasons, including a Weldean dislike of the "rude familiarity of the lower orders" in the United States and a profound revulsion at the American treatment of Blacks and Native peoples,4 Moore was so far disabused of his illusory "prepossessions" that he viewed American civilizatiion as "a close approximation to savage life" (Poetical Works 94). To judge by the quotation from the Medea (328) with which he concluded his final poem set in the United States — "Oh my country, how very much I remember you now!"5 — Moore entered Upper Canada with the feeling of deliverance and anticipation characteristic of unhappy tourists returning to their homeland. As Kirby, himself a fervent anti-American, puts it: Moore's "residence in Niagara seems to have been a great relief and pleasure to him" (128).

     The crucial point about all this is that "Ballad Stanzas" is so placed in Moore's "Poems Relating to America" — between "To the Honourable W.R. Spencer From Buffalo, Upon Lake Erie" and "A Canadian Boat Song Written on the River St. Lawrence" — that it gains and gives the impression of being a homecoming poem, a poem whose positive and reposeful tone reflects its author's "relief" at being back on "British ground" (Letters 1:94). In context, the poem is much more than a celebration of a delightful location in a North American forest; it is a celebration of Upper Canada as a more pristine and habitable place than the United States. The "elysian Atlantis [of] . . . liberty and repose" that Moore failed to find in the American Republic exists in the most westerly region of British North America: "`If there's peace to be found in the world, / A heart that was humble might hope for it here!'" Not merely in its reposeful tone and pastoral subject, but in its very lyricism — its harmonious subjectivity — "Ballad Stanzas" reflects Moore's movement from an oppressively undesirable environment to an inspirationally congenial one. With the slow movement of its anapestic tetrameter slowed yet further by strong cross-rhymes (abab) and medial punctuation in ten of its sixteen lines, the poem declares itself to be in every respect a lyric of repose and meditation, a quietistic response to the external world that simultaneously registers natural and human particulars and grants them intellectual or philosophical significance. Precisely to the extent that they are half perceived and half created in a poem charged with political implications, Moore's "gracefully curl[ing] smoke" and "green elms" ask to be seen as emblems of the simple refinement and appealing fertility to be found in Upper Canada. One of the characteristic patterns of Romantic poetry — the excursion from the (infernal) city to the (paradisial) country — has been assimilated to a cultural contrast between the United States and Upper Canada which can only have been gratifying to many of Moore's British and Canadian readers. No wonder Galt, Kirby, and Cattermole drew attention to the compositional circumstances and affective content of "Ballad Stanzas": the poem was a signpost directing emigrants away from the United States and towards Upper Canada.

     While the focus of Moore's first two stanzas falls primarily on details of the external world, the emphasis in the second two rests heavily on the loving relationship that the poet imagines to be possible in "`this lone little wood.'" With their masculinist assumptions and sentimental exoticism these stanzas are typical of much minor Romantic poetry, and correspondingly distasteful to most academic readers today. Cloying and patronizing though it now seems, however, Moore's emphasis on female beauty, innocence, and deference in his final stanzas is both characteristic of his times and consistent with his overall aim of depicting Upper Canada as the pristine counterpart to the fallen world of the United States. In a subsequent poem set in Canada — "To the Lady Charlotte Rawdon From the Banks of the St. Lawrence," Moore represents the Thousand Islands area as a place "where the first sinful pair / For consolation might have weeping trod, / When banished from the garden of their God" (Poetical Works 126). In the final lines of "Ballad Stanzas," Upper Canada is similarly a refuge from the post-lapsarian world, a green and shady garden to one side of the United States. And, like Eden, Moore's vision of Upper Canada contains the microcosm of a traditional, patriarchal society: 6 a decidedly asymmetrical and undemocratic couple consisting of an innocent and blushing woman who exists primarily for the sensual pleasure of an authoritarian and censorious man who, it appears, does most of the thinking and talking (and who, to judge by the juxtaposition of that "red berry dip[ping] / In the gush of the fountain" with "innocent lips, / Which had never been sigh'd on by any but mine!," desires the usual Edenic combination of sexual inexperience and availability). Although written in the past tense and with many conditionals, "Ballad Stanzas" implies that the Edenic state remains a real possibility in Upper Canada — that the western world may yet see the creation of a new order based on the pattern of the old.7

     At heart, then, "Ballad Stanzas" is a nostalgic fantasy of harmony and romance whose roots lie in the eighteenth-century topos of rural retirement. The peaceful coexistence in the poem of the human and the natural orders — the unobtrusive "cottage" nestled among the trees — recalls countless paintings and poems in the picturesque and pastoral traditions where a quaint dwelling and contented bucolics seem to exist in an organic relationship with their natural setting. As well as implying that Canadians live tranquilly and obediently within a paternalistic frame, Moore's rural idyll remains notably silent about the strains of dislocation and subsistence experienced by most emigrants to Upper Canada around the turn of the nineteenth century. There is nothing in "Ballad Stanzas" of the hardships and loneliness of the pioneer experience. Nor are there any references to agricultural buildings, plants, and animals. Indeed, the only human construction mentioned in the poem — the "cottage" — remains hidden — shielded from description and appraisal by the "`lone little wood'" that lends distance and enchantment. To imagine it as what it may well have been — a "cabin rude" with "sheets of bark of elms o'erspread, . . . A paper window, and a blanket door" (Burwell 227-32) in the depths of "great," "dark forest" (Hollingsworth 186-87) — would be to cut against the idyllic grain of the poem. Precisely to the degree that it is idealized and sentimental, "Ballad Stanzas" aligns itself with such works as Cattermole's Emigration, which, as Susanna Moodie observes in her "Introduction" to Roughing It in the Bush (1852) "prominently set forth all the good to be derived from a settlement in the Backwoods of Canada; while they carefully conceal . . . the toil and hardship to be endured in order to secure these advantages" (12-13). The absence of any reference to "Ballad Stanzas" in Moodie's book is as predictable as Cattermole's reference to it.

     There is no evidence that Moore's male-centred vision of life in the Upper Canadian backwoods appealed more to the men than to women, though the enthusiastic interest of Galt, Cattermole, and Kirby in "Ballad Stanzas" could be seen as carrying this implication. Nor is there any evidence that Burwell knew Moore's poem (though it would be surprising if he did not) or had it in mind when he envisaged the future of the Talbot Settlement near what is now London, Ontario:

On every farm a stately mansion stands,
That the surrounding fields at once commands,
Where, oft, the farmer contemplates alone,
The little Eden that he calls his own.
Blest spot! sacred to pure, domestic joy,
Where love and duty find their sweet employ.


If Moore did not provide direct inspiration for Burwell's lines, he certainly helped to construct the vision of Upper Canada from which they arose.


My thanks to the University of Western Ontario and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada for its support and to Eleanor Surridge for her computing patience.

  1. As Julia Wright kindly brought to my attention, Moore also cites Weld with approval in the Memoirs of Captain Rock 302n.[back]

  2. For the role of this poem in generating an enduring stereotype of French Canadians, see Gross.[back]

  3. See also Traill 111-12: "[w]e soon lost sight entirely of the river, and struck into the deep solitude of the forest, where not a sound disturbed the almost awful stillness that reigned around us. Scarcely a leaf or a bough was in motion, excepting at intervals we caught the sound of the breeze stirring the lofty heads of the pine-trees, and waking a hoarse and mournful cadence. This, with the tapping of the red-headed and grey woodpeckers on the trunk of the decaying trees, or the shrill whistling cry of the little striped squirrel, called by the natives `chitmunk,' was every sound that broke the stillness of the wild."[back]

  4. As Herbert A. Eldridge suggests, Moore's negative opinion of the United States must have been abetted by American sympathy for France in the Napoleonic War, which began in 1803 and, by 1804, had already resulted in several minor military and naval engagements (54).[back]

  5. I am grateful to Christopher Brown for providing a translation of Euripides' line.[back]

  6. Moore's first act on arriving in Upper Canada was "to drink the King's health in a bumper" and a month later in Quebec he commented on the "gratifying" "politeness" with which he had met in Canada, particularly from a "poor watchmaker in Niagara" and from the "captain" of the vessel that carried him along Lake Ontario (Letters 1:94, 97, and see also 98).[back]

  7. The September 29, 1829 issue of The Quebec Mercury contains a parody of "Ballad Stanzas" by "Philo Moose," which substitutes a steam ship for Moore's "cottage." Such was progress.[back]

Works Cited

Bayley, Cornwall. Canada. A Descriptive Poem. Ed. D.M.R. Bentley. London: Canadian Poetry Press, 1990.

Brenkman, John. Culture and Domination. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1987.

Burwell, Adam Hood. Talbot Road: a Poem. 1818. Ed. Michael Williams. London: Canadian Poetry Press, 1991.

Campbell, Thomas. The Complete Poetical Works. 1907. Ed. J. Logie Robertson. New York: Haskell House, 1968.

Cattermole, William. Emigration. The Advantages of Emigration to Canada. London: Simpkin and Martin, 1831.

Eldridge, Herbert W. "Anacreon Moore and America." PMLA 83 (1968): 54-62.

Galt, John. Bogle Corbet; or, the Emigrants. 3 vols. London: Henry Colburn and R. Bentley, 1831.

Goldsmith, Oliver. The Present State of the British Empire in Europe, America, Africa and Asia etc. London: W. Griffin, J. Johnson, W. Nicoll, and Richardson and Urquhart, 1768.

Gross, Conrad. "Coureurs-de-bois, Voyageurs, and Trappers: the Fur Trade and the Emergence of an Ignored Canadian Literary Tradition." Canadian Literature 127 (1990): 76-91.

[Hollingsworth, S.] Nova Scotia: with a Brief Account of Canada, and the British Islands on the Coast of North America. 2nd ed. Edinburgh: William Creech, 1787.

Kidd, Adam. The Huron Chief. Ed. D.M.R. Bentley. London: Canadian Poetry Press, 1987.

Kirby, William. Annals of Niagara. Welland, Ont.: Tribune Presses, 1896.

Mackay, J. Quebec Hill; or, Canadian Scenery. A Poem. In Two Parts. 1797. Ed. D.M.R. Bentley. London: Canadian Poetry Press, 1988.

McLachlan, Alexander. The Emigrant. Ed. D.M.R. Bentley. London: Canadian Poetry Press, 1991.

Moodie, Susanna. Roughing It in the Bush. 1852. New Canadian Library. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1989.

Moore, Thomas. Letters. Ed. Wilfred S. Dowdon. 2 vols. Oxford: Clarendon, 1964.

----- . Memoirs of Captain Rock, Celebrated Irish Chieftain, with Some Account of His Ancestors. 2nd ed. 1824. London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, Brown, and Green.

----- . The Poetical Works. Ed. A.D. Godley. London: Oxford UP, 1915.

Morton, W.L. The Kingdom of Canada: a General History from Earlier Times. 2nd ed. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1969.

O'Grady, Standish. The Emigrant. Ed. Brian Trehearne. London: Canadian Poetry Press, 1989.

Traill, Catharine Parr. The Backwoods of Canada: Being Letters from the Wife of an Emigrant Officer, Illustrative of the Domestic Economy of British America. The Library of Entertaining Knowledge. London: Charles Knight, 1836.

Weld, Isaac. Travels through the States of North America, and the Provinces of Upper and Lower Canada, during the Years 1795, 1796, and 1797. 1799. 2 vols. 4th ed. 1807. New York: Johnson Reprint, 1968.

D.M.R. Bentley