a talk by
at Tower Poetry Society's
Summer Book Launch
June 22, 2003 at
Whitehern Historic House & Garden
a talk by
The Breadalbane area of Scotland lies in the heart of the country, under the shadow of the Grampion mountains.
In the early seventeenth century it was the centre of power for Black Duncan of the Cowl, the feared and powerful
chief of the Campbell clan who ruthlessly persecuted and nearly exterminated the MacGreggors, McEwans and McNabs
while extending his domain from sea to sea with a string of castles and fortified manors. The extensive Breadalbane
estates remained the seat of the Campbells well into the twentieth century.|
At Breadalbane, in Perthshire, William Murray was born on May 25, 1834. His father was employed by the chief as the head gardener for the estate, a position he would hold for more than thirty-five years. Young William was the oldest son, withdrawn and bookish by nature, so his father used his position to see that he received the most careful and extensive education possible for a young man in the Highlands at that time. For a farm worker's son that meant reading, writing and arithmetic, with literature and philosophy if they became available through itinerant scholars. More advanced educational opportunities were not available. By his late teens, William had come to some definite conclusions about life. Much as he liked the countryside, he was not going to become a slave to it like his father. And, like most Scots, he was enchanted by the writings of Robert Burns, whose poems and lyrics had established themselves in the core of the Scottish psyche.
Robert Burns, too, had been the eldest son of a Scot who tilled the soil. While writing his poems he had tried his hand at his father's occupation and failed, then had taken a low-paying government job for the rest of his days. No matter how popular his writings, Burns was never well off. Well aware of his idol's plight, William decided to improve his own chances as a young man and aspiring poet. His father had a brother living in Toronto, Upper Canada. In 1854, at the age of twenty, William Murray emigrated to Canada. He worked in Toronto, probably in his uncle's business, for two years until he had accustomed himself; then he moved to the growing city of Hamilton, which seemed to offer greater opportunities.
In Hamilton, he shrewdly continued with the business he had learned from his uncle: the import, wholesale and retail of dry goods. At first he worked for other merchants and lived in rooms on King Street. With continued success, he brought his brother and two sisters over from Scotland. Together they bought a fine house with extensive grounds at the northeast corner of Queen and Herkimer Streets and called it 'Athol Bank'. The house was named after a place that intrigued the poet Robert Burns enough that after a visit he entreated the Duke of Atholl to turn it into a nature preserve which the Duke did. (In 1624 a noble branch of the Murray clan had, through marriage, acquired the dukedom of Atholl.)
By 1870 he was secure enough to establish a partnership in the business he knew so well with two other merchants, Alexander Murray (no relation) and William London. They operated a very successful dry goods emporium at a prime downtown location, 12 King Street East between James and Hughson, as Alexander Murray & Co. William became an upstanding member of the community and joined the local Scottish and Gaelic societies. He was a member of the McNab Street Presbyterian Church and a friend to many influential people. Although neither he nor his brother Charles ever married, both sisters did marry well. Phyllis married Rev. Donald Fletcher, the long-serving pastor of the church. His sister Mary was wed to William Hendrie; at her grand house, Holmstead, on Bold Street, she entertained such luminaries as royals who would become George V and Edward VIII, Sir John A. Macdonald, and several governors-general when they visited Hamilton.
What sort of man was this poet? William Murray was successful in business, respected in the community, and welcome in the homes of the powerful and influential. He is described as 'industrious and earnest' and 'very thin and serious', unlike his brother Charlie who was often contrasted as 'sleek and fat, usually joking' and who, whenever he undertook employment, never seemed to care if he held on to the job. William was involved in several of the important Scottish societies; in the St. Andrew's Society he was elected to the ceremonial position of 'Bard' whose duties were to write a poem for any special occasion. In 1869 he wrote his first poem for St. Andrew's Day; from 1889 on he wrote an address for every St. Andrew's Day celebration.
The house in which he lived had extensive grounds and he loved presenting aquaintances with flowers from his gardens. He could often be found puttering in his garden while muttering, working on some poem in his head. He loved dogs; he always had a terrier he named 'Archie'. Whenever a terrier died, he would obtain another and call it 'Archie'. He had a historical interest in Clan Murray, in its tartan and its relationship with the Isle of Man, which the Murray clan governed for a time.
So, what sort of poet was this man? His first publication in a local paper was in 1863. Greatly influenced by the work of Robert Burns, his early works may seem somewhat derivative because they use the rhythms and constructions so characteristic of Burns.
A LINE ON BURNS
His like we ne'er again will find,
Many early poems dealt with the Scotland he'd left behind: its land, its history and its people much as Burns' had. He often gave his serious subjects a characteristic humourous twist.
IT WAS BROSE (excerpt)
It was brose, I may mention, developed to porridge
To hold every form of a Frenchman in check
It was brose and the breeze from the heath scented rocks
It was brose, or its substitute, cloudy and cream
It was brose, or something concocted from oats,
(Brose: a concoction of oat mash liquid, honey and whiskey)
ROB ROY (excerpt)
True, bold Rob, in hours of sleep,
He believed that sheep and cattle
(originally published in the New York Scotsman)
At this time he was also attracted to acrostics, poems whose initial letters of each line spell out the name of the subject. He would write and present such poems not only to friends but also to well-known persons: British Prime Ministers Disreali and Gladstone, Sir John A. Macdonald, local artist William Blair Bruce. He wrote a very fawning and flattering one to Bismark, the first chancellor of Germany, and received a polite reply.
Sly, snakish, concentration of all evil
(note rhythm, rhyme scheme, heavy alliteration)
From the beginning, he became a good friend of the McQueston family. He wrote a simple but heartfelt poem for Mary on her wedding to Isaac.
TO DEAR MARY
May all thy days be peace and joy,
Though clouds should sometimes cross thy way,
(Mary Baker married Isaac McQuesten June 18, 1873)
The death of young Muriel Fletcher McQuesten at the age of two resulted in one of his finer poems.
MURIEL FLETCHER McQUESTEN
"Only a little child! What loss is this
Mother and Father! Your lamented child
(note sonnet form)
The poem he wrote on the death of Isaac McQueston eight years later is very different.
Our eyes are dim, our hearts are sad,
About this time he seems to have reached the peak of his writing career. In 1889 he was included in a book called Scottish Poets in America. The author praised his 'fine literary taste,' and remarked on his 'graceful and easy style,' and that many poems were 'skillfully worked out.' He bemoaned the fact that Murray's work was not available in book form and noted that the poet seemed 'too unassuming in regards to his own merit.' There is some truth in that assertion. He would sometimes read his poems aloud to friends, but never in public. Any poem written for public occasions such as St. Andrew's Day were always read aloud by someone else.
Although Murray continued to write and publish in local newspapers and magazines, his contributions were often unsigned or unacknowledged, used to fill the odd empty space. Rather than crafting poetic reflections on the human condition, he seemingly was peoccupied with events and personalities. By reason of his position in the Scottish community, he would be asked to provide poems for occasions such as visits by dignitaries as well as other local events and the annual celebrations of St. Andrew's Day. From time to time he would descend into doggerel, such as this excerpt from a poem written at dinner between courses.
from THE RIVER ILLINOIS
Rid of care
Here I am
Another example of his work during this time comes from his warm response to a collection of poems published by James McIntyre, the “Cheese Poet” from Ingersoll, Ontario, and author of “Ode to the Mammoth Cheese,” a poem many acknowledge as the worst Canadian poem ever.
“In writing you do not pretend
Murray knew a kindred spirit when he met one.
Although sometimes still displaying some of his wit and wordplay, his work became dependent on stale rhythms and rhyme and heavy alliteration. He spent much time and effort toward his annual address to the St. Andrew's Society. Here are excerpts from two addresses, the first from 1901 and the second from 1910.
THE BARD'S ADDRESS TO SCOTIA'S SONS FOR 1901
'While rendering to the Scottish race
This is from the Hamilton Herald, November 27, 1901.
The following is excerpted from Murray's address to the St. Andrew's Society as published by the Hamilton Times, November 30, 1910.
ST. ANDREW'S DAY, 1910
Again arrives our darling day,
Your bard, though still alive, may limp
His poems for the McQuesten family, as they are found in the Whitehern archives, show the same tendency toward frivolity and wordplay.
In 1910, Calvin McQuesten was sent by the church to work in the west. This poem was written to congratulate him.
"To Rev. Calvin on his appointment as Assistant to Rev. Dr. McQueen, Presbyterian Church Superintendent at Edmonton Alberta."
Bells are ringing, and bells are singing
Success a thousand times from all
It isn't Qrious of course
A shorter poem survives, written for Reverend McQuesten when he accepted a posting in the province of Quebec in late 1914.
TO CALVIN (on his appointment to Buckingham, Quebec)
The Bishop of Buckingham! Who can deny
Murray wrote this Christmas greeting for the McQuestens in December 1915.
CHRISTMAS GREETINGS TO REV. CALVIN & MARY B. MCQUESTEN
"St. Andrew's Bard," with much regard,
Remember, in 1915 he was eighty-one years old.
William Murray enjoyed his standing in the community and was content to contribute to it through his poetry. His friends and family seemingly were more important to him than renown. He never sought it out and never claimed to be more than he was: a local businessman with a knack for language. He found more pleasure in finding that the local newsboys used his rhymes to hawk their papers than in prestigious publication.
In comparison with his contemporaries, William Murray was not a poet of national stature and self-effacing as he was, never entertained such a claim. He once described himself as 'a witty poetic power and punner.' He found a place in life where he could do what he liked for people he liked and was satisfied.
William Murray died in 1923. His poetry, whatever still exists, remains uncollected.
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