More than a century ago in the American colonies of Great Britain, there were two families of German and Dutch descent, one surnamed Lampman the other Gesner. The Lampman family lived in Pennsylvania, and belonged to the community called Pennsylvania Dutch. At the outbreak of the American Revolution one of these Lampmans, a Tory with strong feelings in favour of British connections, turned his face toward the North, and eventually taking land that the British government had provided for loyalists like himself, settled near Niagara in the present Province of Ontario. Colonel John H. Gesner, a contemporary of this loyal Lampman, was a resident of Long Island, the family to which he belonged being of Knickerbocker stock. But he also was a King’s man, and when the Revolution was imminent, he crossed the stretch of sea to Nova Scotia and settled at Annapolis.
Peter Lampman, the son of the original settler, struck firm root at Niagara, and the old homestead known as Mountain Point still remains in possession of the family. During the war of 1812, both the Lampmans and the Gesners fought for their land and had their due share in the events of those times. One of the Gesners was a colonel of militia and was therefore prominent in the conflict.
While the Lampmans were clearing their land in the fruitful Niagara peninsula, the Gesners had been making homes for themselves in the Annapolis valley. David Henry Gesner, a son of the colonel who had migrated from Long Island, drifted to Upper Canada, a far journey from the sea in those days. One may find his name in the record as Crown Land Agent in the County of Kent, and he is remembered as a strong man mentally and physically, with aptitudes for colonization. He settled on the Talbot Road in the County of Kent, about seven miles from the Village of Morpeth, where the [page 50] homestead still stands. His wife was a Stewart, from the County of Tyrone, Ireland, whose mother was of Dutch descent, springing from a Knickerbocker family called Culver. The fifth child of this union was Susannah Charlotte, the mother of Archibald Lampman, the poet.
The sons of Peter Lampman were brought up for different employments, and one, Archibald, studied divinity and took holy orders, and in 1858 was appointed Rector of Trinity Church, Morpeth. Here he married Susannah Gesner on the 29th of May, 1860, and here was born Archibald Lampman, the poet, on Sunday morning, the 17th of November, 1861.
There had been poets and scientists on his mother’s side of the house; the Gesners were an intellectual race and Dr. Abraham Gesner, Archibald’s great-uncle, is, in Nova Scotia at least, a well-remembered writer and scientist. The Lampmans were men of their hands, fighting King’s battles and winning them too; a valiant, loyal race. So the young Archibald had men and women for forebears who were remarkable for their achievements and worthy of remembrance and honour.
It was seen as years went by that Archibald resembled his maternal grandmother Stewart in his disposition, which was gentle, unselfish and tender, and in the physical characteristics of dark auburn hair and clear brown eyes. His intellectual endowments came both from the Gesners and the Lampmans, and if his temperament can be traced to a maternal source, his father gave him logical power, accuracy of observation and expression, and his rare gift of language.
In Morpeth Mr. Lampman continued to live until Archibald had entered his sixth year, when a change of residence was made and for a short time the home was located at Perrytown, near Port Hope, in the County of Durham.
In October, 1867, he moved to Gore’s Landing, a small town on the shore of Rice Lake. Here the family remained for seven years. It is well that these impressionable years of Archibald Lampman’s life were passed upon the shores of this beautiful lake. The scenery seemed enchanted, the society was congenial, and many forces united to strengthen his love of nature and his powers of observation, and much of his descriptive work is reminiscent of this region.
Unfortunately the only house available for a rectory at Gore’s Landing was damp, and in November, 1868, Archibald was stricken [page 51] with rheumatic fever, and lay suffering acutely for months. It was not until spring that he could walk, and for four years he was lame and during part of the time was compelled to use crutches. His physique was never powerful nor was his health robust, and it may be that the main cause of both lay in this severe illness. But despite his crutches he was active and interested in life, for his spirit was always great and courageous to triumph over any ills of body or estate which he had to bear.
In March, 1870, Mr. Lampman purchased a house in the village and there he sojourned until he left Gore’s Landing and the pleasant shores of Rice Lake. Previously to 1870 Archibald’s studies had been conducted at home under his father’s direction, but in September of that year he entered the school of Mr. F.W. Barron, M.A., of Cambridge, formerly Principal of Upper Canada College. The recollections of the four years he spent there were always vivid and pleasurable. Mr. Barron was a famous schoolmaster. He was thorough in his system, stern in his manner and a strict disciplinarian; but he had the respect of his boys. Many were sent to him who had conquered other masters, but he managed them by rod or by will, and made men of them, some great, and all self-reliant.
Every school day, we are told, the master marched into the room with a cushion upon his outstretched hands, upon that lay the Bible, and upon the Book the rod. He had a liking for Archibald and his clear and ready wit. He laid a deep foundation for his scholarship, taught him how to write beautifully, and grounded him in Latin and Greek. Archibald, during the first year at the school, could not join in the sports; but in January, 1872, his health was so far restored that he was able to run about freely with his companions.
Gradually during the last four years of the residence at Gore’s Landing Mr. Lampman’s health had begun to fail. The home at Gore’s Landing had to be given up, and to Cobourg, a larger town upon the shores of Lake Ontario, the family was next transplanted. Young Archibald, now thirteen, had to leave his beloved flowerbeds, and the deep bass pond in which he had fished on Saturday afternoons, and the lovely lake with its sunny water and shimmering rice fields. Cobourg seemed grim and uncertain, merely an arena for struggle and possible failure, compared with this dear spot transfigured by the glamour of childhood.
But when affairs wore their darkest aspect, it became clear that good fortune was with young Archibald in the protection of his [page 52] mother. She at least would fight conditions, subdue them, would have for her children what she considered their right, cost what it would of her own strength and energy. Through many schemes in which she did not spare herself she succeeded in educating her son and daughters. In the dedication of Lyrics of Earth Archibald acknowledged in some part what he owed to the mother who had battled for him in those early days.
In Cobourg, Archibald first attended the Collegiate Institute, and after a year went to Trinity College School at Port Hope. This is an institution of preparation for Trinity College, Toronto, modelled on the English Public Schools. Through the interest taken in him by Bishop Bethune and John Cartwright, Esq., scholarships were given nearly sufficient to cover his expenses at the school. This genuine interest was well repaid, for during his two years’ stay at Port Hope he won many prizes and in his last year was Prefect of the school. At the commencement exercises of that year he was chaired by his companions and carried in triumph and with much cheering through the buildings and school grounds. Although during these years his application was intense, he found time to be interested in others, and while he was Prefect many a disheartened lad at his gentle bidding and encouragement took up with awakened trust in himself tasks thrown by in despair.
In September, 1879, he entered Trinity College, Toronto. There must have been some hard work scattered through the years at Trinity, for it was in the main by the help of the scholarships that he won that his course was completed. But at best he was a desultory student. His love of general reading was great and many an hour when he ought to have been labouring at some set task he was poring over the pages of a history or some narrative of travel, or enjoying a pot of beer, a pipe and a lively discussion in some friend’s quarters.
At Port Hope he was singular for an intense application which won him nearly all the prizes that were to be gained in each year, and his memory as a lad shy of the energies of the cricket crease and foot-ball green might have more speedily waned had not rumours come from Trinity that Lampman was not the man he was taken for, that he was a boon companion, and was to be found foremost in any innocent wildness that was afoot. And so Dame Rumour kept his fame aglow at Port Hope, and the boys who were next year or so to meet him at Trinity had their curiosity roused and their interest [page 53] piqued by the discordance between his past record and his present fame. When they did come within his circle they found a man who had gained a unique position in his college by his temperament and character. He was probably the poorest man in a worldly sense in the school, and physically the least powerful, yet he had a greater influence than any of his fellows.
He did not work as hard as many, nor did he play so successfully, but he was accepted without reserve. He had done nothing in particular, so far as his companions knew, he had never written anything that showed genius, but there was an opinion abroad that Lampman was in some way different from ordinary men, that he would do something famous some day.
He was editor of the college paper Rouge et Noir, so called from the college colours, and “Scribe” of the manuscript journal called Episkopon. A fair half of his time was spent in writing for these papers both in prose and verse and in the work of editing them.
The poets he had begun to read with care, and he commenced to form poetic ambitions of his own. He laid epic plans, and in the endeavour to realize them he sat long and late with his heroes and demi-gods. These labours were useful, as they taught him the weight and colour of words, gave him exercise in rhythm, and fertility in rhyme. But he left them unfinished and passed on to other work and served his apprenticeship, joyously, full of happy dreams and ambitions. He laid the foundation of a few chapters of what was to be a long novel, which in after years he used to describe with a glow that would lead one to imagine a very paragon of a novel, full of tragic pathos and illuminating laughter, pervaded by deep knowledge of life. But the dissertation would end with his genuine laugh, and the perception by his auditors that the matter was a mere whim.
He graduated in 1882 with second-class honours in classics. This was hardly a matter of surprise to his class-mates or concern to himself. It was beyond question that he could have taken a first had he applied himself, but his final year had been spent in that general reading and social intercourse which he so greatly valued and which was a larger force in his development than many text-books devoured for examination.
There was some doubt as to what he should do in the world, now that he had received his equipment. The first employment that offered was uncongenial. He was appointed assistant master in the [page 54] High School at Orangeville. He did not dislike the actual labour of tuition, for which he was well prepared, but it was quite impossible for him to enforce discipline and to maintain order in his class. Chaos ruled in his form at the Orangeville High School; the pupils did as they pleased, and the assistant master wished fervently that he might do the same.
But release came shortly from this bondage. One of his friends at college had been Archibald Campbell, son of Sir Alexander Campbell, and through the son’s influence with the father, who was then Postmaster-General, he was offered a clerkship in the Civil Service of Canada. He gave up his uncongenial task at Orangeville without regret, and was appointed temporary clerk in the Post Office Department on the 16th of January, 1883. On the 23rd of March following, his position was made permanent, and he was fixed in an employment that was to continue with his life. If an artist be possessed of a private fortune, he is happy indeed; if not, some occupation not subject to the ordinary stress and change of business life is best for him. In the Canadian Civil Service at headquarters there is that element of security, and it is well that Archibald Lampman became a member of the permanent service when he did. He was appointed without reference to any literary achievement, for his name was at that time unknown, and he received the small increments of salary and the single promotion which came to him as the years went by, merely in the ordinary routine, not as a reward for the poetry which was gradually making his name well known. He became an excellent clerk, valuable in his office to those whom he assisted. The work he did not like, and the confinement he found irksome, but he recognized that the life had its compensations, in periods of leisure secure and serene, which he might devote to his one great passion, poetry.
He was fortunate too in his removal to Ottawa. He found in the strenuous climate of the growing city all that is characteristic of Canadian summers and winters. He was on the borders of the wild nature that he loved, and in the midst of a congenial society. To some extent, if not to the limit, he might now follow his inclination. The result was that he began to apply himself steadily to composition. His first contributions to the public journals were two poems, which may now be found in Among the Millet—“The Coming of Winter” and “Three Flower Petals.” They appeared in 1884 in The [page 55] Week, a literary periodical since discontinued, of which Mr. Chas. G.D. Roberts was at that time the editor.
His first poem presented to a wider public was a quatrain called “Bird Voices” printed in the Century Magazine for May, 1885. The early encouragement of Scribner’s Magazine gave him confidence, and the greater part of his contributions to the periodical press appeared in its pages.
During the first year of his sojourn in Ottawa he lived at home, as his father had removed thither from Toronto, and resided in the cottage now No. 144 Nicholas Street. In September, 1887, he married Maud, the youngest daughter of Edward Playter, Esq., M.D., of Toronto. In 1892 a daughter was born to them, and in the early summer of 1894, a son. The loss of this child in the August following was a source of great grief to his father and its poignancy may be traced in the poems “White Pansies” and “We Too Shall Sleep.”
In 1895 the death of his father broke the family circle. Archibald was in faithful attendance upon him during his long and trying illness. In his early days his father had taught him the art of verse, as he says in the dedication to Alcyone, and had sharpened his wits in disputations upon the poets. Pope was the idol of the older man and the model for his own verses, of which he wrote many. Pope was to be upheld before the youngster, and Keats, Tennyson and Coleridge were to be given their proper rank beside the giant. He was a man of strong opinions and scholarly attainments, and to the last he retained his eagerness for discussion on all topics, sacred and profane, and was a worthy antagonist.
In 1895 the poet received the only honour that our country can offer a literary man: he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada.
Gradually his poems written between 1884 and 1888 had increased, and in the latter year he decided to collect and publish them. Without taking the useless course of presenting the manuscript of his first book of poems to a publisher, he determined himself to accept the risk. Fortunately at this time his wife had received a small legacy, which was faithfully placed at her husband’s disposal, and so Among the Millet came into being. It was printed and bound at a local establishment and everything was done that could be accomplished with limited skill, experience and equipment to make the book a success. It brought its author wider fame and surer standing in the world of letters. Five years afterwards Messrs. [page 56] Copeland & Day of Boston, Mass., issued his second book entitled Lyrics of Earth, a collection of poems following the sequence of the seasons.
There is in the years between 1883 and 1899 no incident or action that the world would call stirring, that would meet the demands for a relation of adventure or peril. The sixteen years were full of high endeavour and of fine accomplishment, but they were outwardly placid and uneventful. They were varied by change of residence now and then, and every year by an absence of three or four weeks from the office and its routine. These weeks were spent in short journeys and recreation, sometimes in visits to Boston, to Niagara, or to the lower St. Lawrence; but more frequently, and by preference, in camping expeditions. Nowhere was Archibald Lampman so content as in the great wilderness, which he so often and so lovingly described. The only existence he coveted was that of a bushman, to be constantly hidden in the heart of the woods. There he would neither be solitary nor lonely, for the clear distance and the tangled undergrowth were peopled with companionships known to few men nurtured as he was.
It was probably upon one of these canoe journeys that his heart, naturally weak, received the injury from which it never rallied. In the autumn of 1896 accompanied by two of his brothers-in-law he went into Lake Temagami by Lake Nipissing down the Metabechawan River to the Ottawa. The trip is not an arduous one, but the party was small and the time limited. After his return from the journey Mr. Lampman developed a severe and constant pain across his chest, which increased and would not yield to any ordinary remedies. His physicians traced the trouble to his heart, and then were recalled by his companions the feats he had performed in the wilds of Temagami, his labours at the portage and the camping place, and their fruitless endeavours to restrain him from doing an undue share of the work. For heavy burdens and tasks requiring great endurance his physique was ill-fitted, yet there was in the man that robustness of will and tenacity of purpose that prompted him to lift as if he were a giant and paddle as if he were a trapper. His weakness, finally called by his physicians enlargement of the heart, with valvular incompetence, and an aneurism of the artery at the base, gradually developed, and it became evident that he could not survive a great while, that he must leave many of his plans unfinished, many of his dreams unrealized. [page 57]
During the winter of 1896-7 he produced several poems, but he laboured without his wonted spirit, and with perhaps a foreboding unexpressed that there were many that he would never write. He was constantly at his desk until September, 1897, when he enjoyed his last sojourn in the woods at Lake Achigan, east of Maniwaki. By this beautiful lake, amid dense forest, neighbour of many wild shy things, he was once more restored at the heart of nature. After his return he continued his employment until it became clear that a long rest must be had if he were ever to be even conditionally well. Full of hope that many years of life might be left to him, bearing suffering and fatigue with absolute patience, he rested quietly during the first months of 1898. When the spring drew on he was sufficiently well to walk about slowly in the sunshine, observing the process of nature, in which he took the old delight, the advent of the warblers, and the triumph of the fruit blossoms.
It was then that he heard for the first time that when he was ready he might gain whatever benefit was to be derived from change of scene and air, that a few of his friends and admirers had removed the only material obstacle.
In June a son was born to him and when he felt he could leave home he travelled to Montreal and passed the summer and part of the fall in sojourning at Lake Wayagamac, Digby and Boston. He returned to his work on the 15th of October benefited by the change, and by the prolonged freedom from official labours. But as the winter drew on it became apparent that his strength was gradually declining. He spent these last weeks happily in the correction of the proofs of a new book Alcyone, which he designed to issue in the spring. It gave him pleasure to look into the future, with this project, around which he had built many hopes. He had again assumed the risk himself, as he had ten years before when Among the Millet was published. But on this occasion he had gone to one of the best presses in the world, and the Messrs. Constable & Company of Edinburgh had done the work. It was to be in form such a book as he loved to contemplate, and day by day he was expecting to hear of its completion. But he was never to hold it in his hands.
On the evening of the 8th of February, 1899, he was stricken with a sharp pain in the lungs, and lingered with intermittent suffering until the 10th; then in the first hour of the morning he passed away as if to sleep. He was no more in this world, in which he had worked so steadfastly, and which he understood and loved so well. On Saturday, [page 58] the 11th, his body was borne to Beechwood Cemetery surrounded by many of the men who had loved and respected him in life.
Archibald Lampman was of middle height, and of a slight form. In the city he walked habitually with a downcast glance, with his eyes fixed upon the ground; in the fields and woods he was alert and observant. His manner was quiet and undemonstrative. His voice was mellow and distinct. The portrait preceding this memoir gives an idea of his features and is the best of several in existence. Before the camera the lines of his face hardened, and the lovely spirit in his eyes departed. It would explain the fascination of this personality if that deep, bright, lucid glance could be preserved, if it could look out upon the old and new readers of his poems with the shadowed sweetness that charmed and attracted in life. Although his face and its expression were in harmony, the index of his character was written in his brow, candid and serene, and in his eyes sincere and affectionate. His brow was finely moulded and over it fell the masses of his brown hair, that glowed with a warm chestnut when the light touched it. His eyes were brown, clear and vivid.
Perfect sincerity was the key-note of his character. He was true to his ideals, in his work and in his life. Born without means and always living on a narrow income, his desire was for the greatest simplicity. A lodge in the forest and the primitive life would have fitted his contemplative mood. And when he built castles his imagination always placed them beside one of our northern lakes where everything was profoundly free and natural. His genial, tranquil temperament lent a quietness to his manner that gave not a hint of his virile spirit. There was no balance between the body of the man and his mind. That was radical and pierced to the sources of things. He was on the side of all good in the wider way. No convention frightened him or obscured his judgment. His writing proves his faith, his courage and the soundness of his morality. In the wider politics he was on the side of socialism and reasonable propaganda to that end, and announced his belief and argued it with courage whenever necessary. Caution might have been prophesied from his want of bodily vigour, but he had an adventurous spirit, and believed in the independence of Canada, and many other things commonly esteemed wild and visionary. Behind all he said and wrote was felt a great reserve of wisdom and integrity. [page 59]
As a companion he had two manners, one absorbed, thoughtful, reticent; on the other happily external, with brilliant conversation, an outpouring of genial criticism on current life or literature, with flashes of whimsical humour, and with a ready and ringing laugh. His talk was always uncommon in a manner natural to him, expressed in singular words and uttered in long flowing cadence.
Solitude he loved, and society, and he was always warm towards any scheme for a union of men, or men and women of intelligence, where a free discussion of all topics could be had. His manner with his acquaintances and friends, old and new, had the charm that Isaac Walton reports of the behaviour of that admirable poet Dr. John Donne, that winning behaviour “which when it would entice had a strange kind of elegant, irresistible art.” His deep love of his own children was but a well-spring of love for all the children he knew. Again, what he was in his life and in his work came from sheer sincerity, from a temperament in harmony with clear ideals, directed by a mind free from guile.
His poems were principally composed as he walked either to and from his ordinary employment in the city, upon excursion into the country, or as he paced about his writing-room. Lines invented under these conditions would be transferred to manuscript books, and finally after they had been perfected, would be written out carefully in his clear, strong handwriting in volumes of a permanent kind.
Although this was his favorite and natural method of composing, he frequently wrote his lines as they came to him, and in many of his note-books can be traced the development of poems through the constant working of his fine instinct for form and expression: both were refined until the artist felt his limit. With Archibald Lampman, as with all true artists, this was short of his ideal; as he frequently confessed, there always remained some shade of meaning that he had not conveyed, some perfection of form that he had not compassed.
He did not win his knowledge of nature from books, but from actual observation and from conversations with men who had studied the science of the special subjects. Without a thought of literature he would intently observe a landscape, a flower or a bird, until its true spirit was revealed to him. Afterwards, it may have been days, weeks or months, he called upon his knowledge, striving to revive his impression and transcribe it. [page 60]
To write verses was the one great delight of his life. Everything in his world had reference to poetry. He was restless with a sense of burden when he was not composing, and deep with content when some stanza was taking form gradually in his mind.
Although there were periods during which he added nothing to the volume of his work, the persistence of his effort was remarkable. He did not over-estimate his own powers, and he wrote with no theory and unconscious of any special mission.
It amused him when he was called a didactic poet, not as slighting the term, but all such poems as “Insight,” “Truth” and “The Largest Life,” having been written from fullness of conviction and experience and prompted only by the joy of production, the idea of didacticism had its humours for him.
He was not a wide reader; books of history and travel were his favourites. During his last illness he read The Ring and the Book, the novels of Jane Austen, and continued a constant reading of Greek by a reperusal of Pindar, the Odyssey, and the tragedies of Sophocles. Matthew Arnold was his favorite modern poet and he read his works oftener than those of any other; but Keats was the only poet whose method he carefully studied. Of his own sonnets he said: “Here after all is my best work.”
His last poem, written on the evenings of the 29th and 30th of January, 1899, was the winter sonnet beginning “The frost that stings like fire upon my cheek.” When he had finished its last line his work was done, and his final words are lovingly directed to an aspect of nature, “To silence, frost and beauty everywhere.”
He rests in Beechwood Cemetery, part of the wild wood through which he was accustomed to wander peering about the chilly margin of snow-water pools for the first spring flowers. He said it was a good spot in which to lie when all was over with life. Even if there be no sense in these houses of shade, it is a pleasant foreknowledge to be aware that above one’s unrealizing head the snow will sift, the small ferns rise and the birds come back in nesting-time. And though he be forever rapt from such things, careless of them and unaware, the sternest wind from under the pole star will blow unconfined over his grave, about it the first hepaticas will gather in fragile companies, the vesper sparrow will return to nest in the grass, and from a branch of maple to sing in the cool dusk. [page 61]