Historicist: A Handful of People Who Know About Books
Every Saturday at noon, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters—good and bad—that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.
Looking southeast from Richmond and Bay streets, between 1912 and 1920. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 602.
“It is impossible to give it anything but commendation,” Rupert Brooke wrote of Toronto in 1913. “It is not squalid like Birmingham, or cramped like Canton, or scattered like Edmonton, or sham like Berlin, or hellish like New York, or tiresome like Nice. It is all right. The only depressing thing is that it will always be what it is, only larger, and that no Canadian city can ever be anything better or different. If they are good they may become Toronto.”
The 25-year-old poet, who’d been having poems published since his undergraduate days at Cambridge, was on assignment as a correspondent with the Westminster Gazette. The previous year, an unhappy and thwarted love affair precipitated a series of emotional breakdowns, and the all-expenses-paid trip to North America provided a welcome relief. With the tone of a haughty sophisticate among the colonials, Brooke’s travel pieces—later assembled into Letters from America (Sidgwick & Jackson, Ltd., 1916)—detailed the landscape, cultural life, and politics he observed in the United States and Canada.
Sketch of Rupert Brooke (from a photograph) by Arts and Letters Club member Francis H. Johnston, from The Lamps [PDF] (December 1919).
In his travel articles, Brooke strove to present a more realistic view of Canada than seen in the laudatory pamphlets aimed at enticing immigration and financial investment that flooded Europe at the turn of the 20th century. And he sought to have his insight surpass the banal information contained in the Baedecker guide he carried. Certainly, with Brooke’s poetic sensibilities, Sandra Martin and Roger Hall write in Rupert Brooke in Canada (PMA Books, 1978), “cities were not merely boundaries, buildings, and statistics, nor the countryside simply so many square miles to be cultivated, stripped, or mined.” But along with his talent, Brooke arrived with the arrogance of youth and the preconceived notions of one coming from the imperial metropole to the colonial hinterland. At one point he called the country “a most horribly individualistic place, with no one thinking of anything except the amount of money they can make, by any means, in the shortest time.” This sort of attitude was common among the literary visitors to Toronto whom W.J. Keith describes in Literary Images of Ontario (University of Toronto Press, 1992).
He arrived in Toronto—or “T’ranto,” as he put it—in the midst of a July heat wave. “It has an individuality, but an elusive one,” he wrote. “It is a healthy, cheerful city (by modern standards); a clean-shaven, pink-faced, respectably dressed, fairly energetic, unintellectual, passably sociable, well-to-do, public-school-and-varsity sort of city.” He anthropomorphized the city, describing it as an upper-middle-class personage:
One knows in one’s own life certain bright and pleasant figures; people who occupy the nearer middle distance, unobtrusive but not negligible; wardens of the marches between acquaintanceship and friendship. It is always nice to meet them, and in parting one looks back at them once. They are, healthily and simply, the most fitting product of a not perfect environment; good-sorts; normal, but not too normal; distinctly themselves, but not distinguished. They support civilisation. You can trust them in anything, if your demand be for nothing extremely intelligent or absurdly altruistic.
The arch-Imperialist Brooke noted the devoutly pro-British patriotism in Ontario. He observed: “A Toronto man, like most Canadians, dislikes an Englishman; but, unlike some Canadians, he detests an American. And he has some inkling of the conditions and responsibilities of the British Empire. The tradition is in him. His fathers fought to keep Canada British.” He praised the rapidly growing city’s excessive Britishness—resurgent with the recent 1911 federal election and centenary of the War of 1812—but noted “the cheery Italian faces that pop up at you out of excavations in the street.”
Toronto, he said, was “liberally endowed with millionaires, not lacking its due share of destitution, misery, and slums.” However, as Martin and Hall point out, Brooke’s view of North America was limited because his own life experience had been limited. Although he’d been active in Fabianism, Brooke had always been insulated from the realities of unemployment or poverty. While he would lament the lack of a literary culture in Canada, Martin and Hall add, he missed that, for many newcomers, the country represented “hope and opportunity and a chance to make good.”
Bay Street crossing 3:29 p.m., June 14, 1913. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1231, Item 1382.
He described the skyscrapers of the business section as being “in the American style without the modern American beauty,” and particularly noted the Canadian Pacific Building, which was at the time the tallest building in the British Empire. He described the “quiet streets, gardens open to the road, shady verandahs, and homes” of the residential district. But it was the city’s relationship to Lake Ontario that elicited Brooke’s most extended comment:
It is situated on the shores of a lovely lake; but you never see that, because the railways have occupied the entire lake front. So if, at evening, you try to find your way to the edge of the water, you are checked by a region of smoke, sheds, trucks, wharves, store-houses, ‘depôts,’ railway-lines, signals, and locomotives and trains that wander on the tracks up and down and across streets, pushing their way through the pedestrians, and tolling, as they go, in the American fashion, an immense melancholy bell intent, apparently, on some private and incommunicable grief.
Throughout his trip, Brooke was searching for the Canadian “soul,” by which he meant “a cultural identity, a unifying emotional principle that could never be found in statute books and Acts of Parliament,” according to Martin and Hall. He came closest to finding it in Toronto, which he called the “soul of Canada.” Brooke admitted that the city housed “what faint, faint beginnings or premonitions of such things as Art Canada can boast.” With an air of English condescension, he added: “Most of those few who have begun to paint the landscape of Canada centre there, and a handful of people who know about books. In these things, as in all, this city is properly and cheerfully to the front.” These brief comments on the arts in Toronto—as they appeared in the Westminster Gazette—don’t amply demonstrate how thoroughly Brooke had inculcated himself in the artistic community during his brief stay in the city.
Armed with a letter of introduction from Duncan Campbell Scott—whom he’d met during his visit to Ottawa—Brooke lunched at the Arts and Letters Club with Edmund Morris, the distinguished painter who would drown in the St. Lawrence River within a matter of weeks.
Toronto Arts and Letters Club Executive, December 1910. Archives of Ontario (F 1075-16-0-0-21).
It being late July, most of the artists had abandoned the club’s quarters at 57 Adelaide Street East for the seclusion of Georgian Bay or Muskoka. Nevertheless, Brooke spent a good deal of time at the club during his Toronto sojourn, which club member R.H. Hathaway recalled in a piece for the Colophon (later adapted to appear in the club’s December 1919 newsletter [PDF]).
Hathaway described Brooke’s unusual appearance:
He seemed to me, indeed, to be the most beautiful youth—the word beautiful, used in this connection may seem somewhat extravagant, but I use it advisedly—that I have ever seen. Rather above medium height, straight, slim, with remarkably well-cut features, clear blue eyes, the coloring of a girl, and a mass of fine, golden-brown hair, worn rather long, he looked the veritable picture of a young Greek god—of Apollo himself. There was nothing of the effeminate about him for all the slightness of his figure and the delicacy of his coloring; indeed, one felt instinctively that he was no stranger to the cricket-bat or the oar….Brooke wore a dark grey suit which looked as if it had seen good service, and that his wide-brimmed soft felt hat, tossed on a table behind the one at which he sat, also spoke of usage. In fact, one of the Club members, speaking of our visitor later, referred to him as ‘the man with the shabby clothes.’ His appearance, altogether, was such as to incline one at once to set him down as a poet or painter or a musician—and the big loose-knotted tie which he wore definitely decided the matter.
In private letters to friends, Brooke—still a relative unknown outside London circles—was genuinely flattered that some club members were aware of his single published volume and of Georgian Poetry, the poetry journal he had co-founded. He confided:
I’ve found here an Arts and Letters Club of poets, painters, journalists, etc., where they’d heard of me and read [Georgian Poetry], and Oh, Eddie, one fellow actually possessed my Poems. Awful Triumph. Every now and then one comes up and presses my hand, and says, ‘Wal, Sir, you can not know what a memorable Day in my life this is.’ Then I do my boyish-modesty stunt and go pink all over; and everyone thinks it too delightful.
Resistant to speaking about himself, Brooke showed the most interest in speaking about the aboriginals and frontier life of his next destination, the Canadian West. In answer to one question thrown at him by the Canadians, Brooke admitted to not knowing much about Canadian poets, save having read some Bliss Carman, but he promised to find out more about their work.
Percy Hollinshead at the Toronto Arts and Letters Club piano, February 4, 1911. Archives of Ontario (F 1075-16-0-0-40).
Hathaway, who had several conversations with Brooke, found him to be gracious but rather aloof, “seldom speaking unless in response to a direct question or to ask a question of his own.” Hathaway speculated that this might be “because he felt lonely in consequence of his long distance from home.”
On the other hand, Brooke might’ve been demonstrating the reserve he’d observed in his fellow English tourists who, on the steamer to Toronto, worked diligently to avoid being spoken to by other passengers.
Although both private letters and Gazette articles make no comment, one wonders at Brooke’s reaction to Arts and Letters Club member Percy Hollinshead singing “in his honor, if not at his wish,” as Hathaway conceded.
Walking Brooke back to his hotel one day, Hathaway tried to point out the city’s sites of interest. But the young poet was distracted and excused himself because he wanted to return to his hotel room to compose a poem. Until that point on his journey, Brooke had written only bits and pieces, and incomplete verses. But, “Doubts,” the poem written in Toronto, showed that Brooke “was fully on the mend—physically and psychologically from his collapse the year before,” Martin and Hall explain.
Soon after, Brooke left Toronto, and headed toward Winnipeg, the Prairies, the Rockies, and the West Coast. Just after his departure, Hathaway published a glowing article about Brooke (and reprinted the poem, “Dust“) in the Globe‘s weekly magazine on August 2, 1913. Later, Hathaway liked to take credit that it was the first critical appreciation of Brooke published in the world. The article followed the poet across the country, being reprinted—in shortened form—in the local newspapers of Saskatoon, Calgary, and the like.
“My progress is degenerating into a mere farce,” Brooke wrote in a letter. “Every little paper in Western Canada has started its Society Column with ‘Dust’ sometime in the last three weeks. Solemn thought.”
Photo of Rupert Brooke, 1915, from Wikimedia Commons.
As he progressed westward, the press became less interested in him as a poet and became chiefly concerned with him as a political expert and representative of the English point of view. “I average two reporters a day,” he wrote a friend, “who ask me my opinion on every subject under the sun. My opinions on the financial situation in Europe are good reading. And there are literally columns of them in the papers. I sit for an hour a day & laugh in my room.”
Despite such professions of annoyance, Brooke couldn’t help but speak his mind. An acquaintance of Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty, Brooke was particularly outspoken on the question of whether Canada should give money to Britain’s Royal Navy or create its own navy, which was a heated debate of the day.
After Vancouver and Victoria, he went down the coast to California and off to the South Seas for seven months. On June 6, 1914, he arrived back in England. Within weeks, Britain was at war. And for the imperial sentiment of King and Country, Brooke volunteered for service as a sub-lieutenant in the Royal Navy. During his service he composed his famous war-themed poems. After his death of blood poisoning near the Dardanelles on April 23, 1915, Brooke was hailed as a martyr and symbol of the cost of war.
Other Sources Consulted: Nan Gray, “Rupert Brooke in Canada;” and Ronald L. Olesky, “A Poet In The Wild,” The Beaver (Feb/Mar 1990).