Edwardian and Georgian Canadian Poets
1900-1930


 

 

Selected Essays and Reviews

by Bliss Carman

Edited by Terry Whalen


 

Sir George R. Parkin*


 

As when Zacchaeus to behold
    The Master sped and climbed his tree,
So when along a crowded street
    My hero passed, I ran to see.

His step was swift, his head was high,
    A free Dominion in his mien,
The eagle's look was in his eye
    Piercing the unseen and the seen.

A seraph's voice to rouse the weak
    And lift the backward to the light,
He lent a radiance to this world
    That faded when he passed from sight.

Oh, never say that hope is dead
    And ill triumphant on the earth,
When one such ardent life can bless
    A generation with new worth.

He stood beside the open door
    Of knowledge in the ways of truth,
A comrade in the joys of men,
    A shining Paladin of youth,

Though many years have passed since then,
    How few that I would run to see,
Who have beheld the glory once
    God meant our manliness to be!

As I write this name at the head of an article for the press, I have a strange new sense of loneliness and desolation. I can not think that a lifelong friendship, always so inspiring and so vital that even through years of absence it was an ever-present force, is really brought to a close. Yet it is so. Canada has lost one of her greatest sons; our race and time have lost one of their truly noblest and highest-hearted men; and many of us have lost our oldest friend.

One of my earliest recollections is being taken by my father one Sunday afternoon up to the college to call on Professor and Mrs. Davray and their son-in-law and daughter, Professor and Mrs. Bailey. Sunday afternoon my father always gave to my sister and myself, when we were small. taking us for an outing somewhere, and this was one of his favorite walks. We would pass through the little street where we lived, back from the river, then out the College road toward the high land above the town, where on a rise overlooking the city and the river the college was situated.

Sometimes on our way we would stop to play in the track which ran along the foot of the hill, then follow up the road, and turning in at the college gate climb the steep grade through a grove and the steeper slope of the terrace immediately in front of the stone building, which seemed huge and imposing with its wide flight of stone steps and heavy pillared portico. This fine old structure served in these days as a residence for some members of the faculty, as well as for lecture rooms. Our friends occupied quarters in the western end of the building.

Professor Davray and his wife were a most delightful couple; he, a very distinguished looking French gentleman of the old school with grey waxed moustache and a charming dry wit; she, very animated, with sparkling dark eyes and an incessant fund of humor. The drawing-room of these four good people, who lived together, was like a home to many a college boy of that time. On the particular Sunday which I recall, there was a young man calling on them who had graduated shortly before, was teaching school in another part of the province, and was then visiting Fredericton for a few days. I chiefly remember his ringing voice and his hearty laugh and manner. When he had taken his leave there was much talk of him, and loud praises of his ability and character. Evidently a great favorite of the household. George R. Parkin was his name. I did not guess that I was to come under his care some years later, to spend six of the most impressionable years of life under his daily supervision and guidance, and to become forever indebted to him, more than to anyone else except my parents, for the most priceless things in life.

A FARMER'S SON

George Robert Parkin was the youngest son of a Yorkshire family settled on a farm in Westmoreland County in New Brunswick, where he was born on February 3, 1846. Passing through college in the class with Sir George E. Foster, he chose teaching as his profession, and after gaining his first experience elsewhere, was appointed to the head mastership of the Collegiate School in Fredericton, where I was entered in 1872 at the age of 11, and where I remained for six years, until I matriculated at the University,-six years under the constant vigilance, the most kindly understanding, and the unflagging inspiration of one of the greatest teachers of our time.

Later I was privileged to be a student under Professor P.G. Tait, the famous physicist in Edinburgh, and again under professor Royce at Harvard, both of whom were not only great scholars but most eminent lecturers and teachers, distinguished for their eloquence and their ability to make hard things plain. To both I owe a great deal. But I cannot conceive of a teacher with greater power to arouse and inspire his pupils than Mr. Parkin had-a power he possessed in such abundance and spent so lavishly. The secret of his power, of course, was the heart of the man, his consuming enthusiasm for the great cause, the cause of human goodness and advancement everywhere. In this cause he was a mighty soldier. It was this absolutely unequivocal devotion to the finest ideals, this unquestioning devotion to duty, which was the driving force behind that keen, unresting mind and that tireless physique. It was this which lent conviction to his impassioned oratory, and made him so unquestioned a master in the schoolroom-character, a character untarnished as flame. Boys are often slow-witted, but in some things they are wiser than we think, wiser than they know. They are not to be fooled in their judgments of their "spiritual pastors and masters," and do not make heroes of the unworthy. The camouflage of the brilliant pretender or the shallow wit does not deceive them. The mean of spirit, the ungenerous, the unfair, the base, the ultimately weak, win no shred of respect from them. With them character is all that counts, and it is too bad that we do not remain boys all our lives.

SCHOOL DAYS

The Collegiate School, which had been established as a boys' preparatory school for the Provincial University, had traditions of its own, an honorable history behind it, and a pride in its past which its new headmaster was careful to foster. The school building, new at that time, and a very plain structure, stood on Brunswick street opposite the lower end of the cathedral grounds. Beyond these grounds was the broad, level, green bank of the river, so that with the large yard behind the school we had plenty of space to play. We were encouraged in all kinds of sports and athletics, cricket and football in season, skating and snowshoeing in winter; swimming, canoeing and boating in summer.

Mr. Parkin was especially fond of snowshoeing and paddling, and at one time played football regularly with the boys and even induced some of his assistants to enter a scrimmage. He was the life of the field, of course, and played as he did everything else, with unsparing zest and energy. Theodore Roosevelt was the only man I ever knew who seemed to have been born for the strenuous life, and he was the only man I ever thought could be compared with Mr. Parkin in driving power and compelling moral force. They were both supermen, not only in the possession of dynamic energy, but in their strength of character, their noble generosity of heart, their great singleness of purpose, their simple enjoyment of life, and their abhorrence of anything unworthy.

It was characteristic of Sir George Parkin that he not only knew all about every one of his pupils, their characteristics, their requirements, their family life, their aptitudes and ambitions, while they were under his charge, but never forgot them while he lived. They were all his old boys always, everywhere over the world. None of them ever made a success, however small, that he did not rejoice with him. None ever came to grief, that he did not grieve over the failure. Yet he never seemed like a father, but more like an older brother, I suppose because he was so young at heart. He inspired respect, admiration, devotion, affection, obedience, but not awe. In everything but our thoughtlessness, misconduct, laziness, and neglect of duty, he was too like us to raise anything so forbidding as that chilly sentiment.

He was a fascinating teacher, this intense and magnetic personality. There was never a dull moment in his classroom or in his society. His fresh and eager spirit and his open mind always on the alert made our lessons with him a pleasure rather than a task. It could never be said of him that his flock looked up and were not fed. His care never failed even of the most backward and there was an abundance of mental food for the hungriest of his charge. In the classics, which were his chief subjects, his great appreciation of poetry and letters gave unusual scope to the day's work. The amount of Greek and Latin we read before going to college was not so great-two or three books of Virgil, a book or two of Homer, a book of Horace, in addition to the usual Caesar and Xenophon-but much of it had to be learned by heart, and all of it minutely mastered, with a thorough knowledge of grammar and construction, and an understanding of all the poetic and mythological references. With him as an instructor, it was impossible not to feel the beauty of Virgil's lovely passages and the greatness of Homer as he read them.

A LUCID TEACHER

I don't remember that my lessons in old school were ever drudgery. Often we would not cover more than a few lines in the hour. A reference might occur which would bring up a side issue in history or mythology, and then we must see how some modern or contemporary writer had treated the same theme. One of the class would be sent running to Mr. Parkin's rooms to fetch a book; Tennyson, perhaps, or Rossetti, or Arnold, or another, and we might listen to his poem on the subject. These were wonderful hours of growth, though we never dreamed of our incomparable good fortune, so rare a tutor. I can hear now that ringing voice in many lines of English poetry, as he read them to us, feeling all their glorious beauty. Small wonder if some of us became infected with the rhythms of the muses, all unconsciously, and must be haunted for ever by the cadence of golden words.

When Schliemann's great work on his discoveries at Troy was published, Mr. Parkin secured a copy at once, and we were all gathered about his desk to look at the handsome illustrations, sharing those priceless treasures. We had, of course, nothing like an art museum in our small city. All we knew of the architecture and sculpture of Greece and Rome we must get from the small cuts in the Classical Dictionary, the invaluable Smith's. When Mr. Parkin returned from his year's leave of absence, however, he brought with him several large albums of fine photographs of all the most famous pieces in the British Museum, the Vatican and elsewhere, for our benefit and enjoyment.

Sir George Parkin was a striking figure, conspicuous anywhere. Tall and spare with a quick swinging step, dressed usually in a well-cut suit of rough grey or heather-mixture tweeds, he looked more the country gentleman than the school teacher, and you would never have mistaken him for a business man. Often you would see him swinging along with that free debonair carriage of loosened energy, with a book or two gathered up in his left hand, and swinging a heavy stick in his right. Perhaps too if he was particularly happy and carefree he might be humming to himself as he walked, or half whistling a random note or two with the keen zest of life. For he was a glad being, though so earnest. He had a fine strong head, like Hannibal's I think, broad at the back and covered with very dark hair rather loosely worn. You would never say he was natty or spruce, though always immaculate and distinguished. His face too was striking, dark skinned and lean, with a tawny moustache, and rather deep-set dark grey-blue eyes, not large nor flashing, but very penetrating and observant, and at times glaring with intensity of feeling and conviction.

You would see him come quickly up the schoolroom, or quietly up the Cathedral aisle, and pass to his seat. He never strode, and his head was apt to be carried forward and little to the side, the attitude of the modest thinker. For all, his figure was so erect and vigorous and his personality so forceful, their dignity was innate and ever unassuming. He wore no jewelry other than his gold watch chain with a few charms attached, which he had a habit of twisting and knotting between finger and thumb as he talked. His hand were shapely and not large, with pointed fingers held together, you noticed as he wrote quickly and energetically. The hand of an executive and administrator.

He seldom wore gloves except in winter, and never seemed to mind heat or cold. I don't suppose that he ever thought of the weather otherwise than to enjoy it. He was too full of ardor and zest to heed such a trifling inconvenience. How should a glorious seraph, going swiftly about his business over the world, accomplishing some almighty purpose, making many glad as he went, be discomforted by weather!

JUST IN DISCIPLINE

Discipline in the school was maintained, I think, more through respect for the headmaster's manly, fine, and reasonable code and his own evident adherence to it, than by fear of the rod. Corporal punishment was not unknown and was resorted to unhesitatingly at just need, but there were often long periods when it remained in abeyance. There were rules, of course, and they had to be obeyed, but there were seldom any set punishments for their infraction. If you were guilty of a grave misdemeanor, there was no knowing what the consequences might be. Retribution was certain and very likely to be swift, but its character was left in unpleasant uncertainty. Anything might happen. It all depended on circumstances, extenuating or otherwise, and upon the delinquent's former record to some extent. It certainly never depended on the headmaster's temper or his mood at the moment. A quick indignation he had, kindling instantly against wrong in the school or in the world, but I never saw him lose his temper. Just wrath against evil or wrongdoing was there, like that which drove the miserable malefactors from the temple but also there was unfailing patience and understanding and more than forgiveness for the wrongdoer. Ours was a happy lot in that school.

Mr. Parkin was an unusual talker and a born orator. His sweeping and compelling personality made him instantly the centre of any company, and his fluent, interesting conversation and ready laugh held his hearers. Serious world topics were always his chief interest, and on these he never tired of discoursing. Stories and anecdotes, too, he delighted to have on hand. Humor with a touch of irony pleased him, and if the laugh was against himself it was just as good. When a shopkeeper in the town said of him, "Yes, Parkin's a fine fellow, but he's a great talker," Parkin repeated the saying, with immense delight. So, too, when someone after, hearing him speak on a public occasion, and seeing him carried away with his own tremendous enthusiasm, referred to his "lurid glare," Mr. Parkin told of it with great glee. His home in England was for years in a house on the Thames, near Oxford, which had long ago been part of a nunnery, and where in old days the nuns derived part of their revenue from maintaining a ferry at that point. One day two walkers came down the lane past the old garden and, wanting to cross the river, asked if there used not to be a ferry there. "Yes," said Mr. Parkin, and I can imagine the mischief in his eye, "There was a ferry here, but you are just three hundred years too late."

LEAVE OF ABSENCE

In the early seventies when Mr. Parkin received leave of absence to spend a year in study at Oxford, he was already deeply interested in the question of Imperial Federation, and led a debate on the subject in the Oxford Union. There were a number of men in the university at that time who afterwards became famous in high places, and with whom he made acquaintance. Mr. Asquith, Lord Rosebury, Lord Milner and others. Afterwards Mr. Parkin made a tour of the Empire, speaking on Imperial Federation. And still later, when Cecil Rhodes left a fortune to found the Rhodes scholarships, and made some of these prominent men executors of his will, they chose Mr. Parkin as secretary of the foundation, and placed all the initial arrangements for establishing its working in his hands. He was exactly the man for the office, and gave it all the purpose and strength of his later life. It was a great task, involving thousands of miles of travel each year, no little tact, tremendous energy and a wide knowledge of educational conditions and institutions throughout the Empire and the United States. It is a noble benefaction, and its successful operation is due in large measure to the wisdom and judgement which Sir George Parkin brought to the undertaking, along with his splendid enthusiasm for higher education and the welfare of the English-speaking peoples. Back and forth over the length and breadth of this continent he went on his almost annual tours of enquiry and management, that restless spirit never still, intent on large issues and small details needed to keep the great institution in his charge running smoothly.

It was only on these flying visits as he passed through New York that I saw him in recent years-visits all too brief and too few. But he never failed to look up old friends and old boys in every part of his immense field. The telephone would ring, "Long distance calling.".   "Hello!.Hello, Carmen! Is that you? Ha! Ha! How are you?.That's good.I'm just shooting through to Montreal, then out to the Coast, and down to California. Now when can I see you? I have a conference in the morning and an engagement up at Columbia in the afternoon. Can't you come in to lunch with me, here at the Manhattan?.O, that's capital. That'll be first rate. We must have a talk. Good-bye then, until tomorrow."

Then I would go, to renew memories of old days, the eager talk, the happy laughter, the enquiries for many friendsŪ-none forgotten, the unfailing and solicitous interest in whatever one might be doing, the old fire of kindness at which one's enthusiasm might be rekindled and one's heart warmed anew. Those were golden hours.

Of all the memories, however, of this great teacher and comrade, who never ceased to wear a touch of heroic glory in his boys' sight, none is more thrilling than a glimpse we once had of him in St. John. It must have been on his return from England, I think, when I happened to be in a crowded street of that stirring port with a school friend. Suddenly my chum said:

"Look, there's Parkin!"
"Where?"
"Just going round the corner," and he pointed. "Come on."

In a moment we were in full chase and soon close behind that familiar and gallant figure in all its inspiring young manhood. That was all we wanted, just to see him, and there he was fresh from Oxford, with all the old fire and vigor, hurrying along and eagerly talking with another gentleman. We followed a few steps and then dropped behind, with quite enough joy for one day. He never knew he had been followed, and we did not know how much we had seen nor that one splendid moment might be a part of the inspiration of a lifetime.


"Sir George R. Parkin," Daily Province, Aug. 31, 1922 [back]