The Canadian Imprint of George Cartwright’s “Labrador”—a Bibliographical Ghost

by Ronald Rompkey

Readers of the Quebec Herald on April 8, 1790 could not have failed to notice an advertisement running the length of the front page, soliciting subscriptions for a volume of two poems in preparation at the Herald printing office.  One of these poems, “Advice to a New Married Lady”, may be safely neglected here; but the other, “Labrador”, presents a bibliographical puzzle.  According to the advertisement, “Labrador”, featured as a “daily instructor” for passing the time in the “various businesses” of the Labrador coast throughout the year, had been written by William Murray, a mariner who had recently drowned, leaving a widow and two children.  “It is well wrote”, the newspaper judged, “and the language would not discredit any of our most celebrated Poets, being chaste and harmonious.  It contains as many lines as there are days in the year”.  Four lines of verse followed:

The Winter o’er, the birds their voices tune,
To welcome in the genial month of June;
Love crouds with feather’d tribes each barren isle;
On all creation nature seems to smile.

The proposed volume was to be printed in quarto, with “large new types”, containing sixteen pages “stiched”, and as soon as the first hundred subscribers were found, the price was to be set at 1/6 d., paid on delivery.  The public was then earnestly entreated to submit orders as soon as possible so that the number of copies could be estimated.

     But the public does not seem to have responded enthusiastically, and the same advertisement appeared regularly throughout the month of April until a new insertion announced on May 3 that the two poems were in the press and “speedily will be published”.  Then, on May 20, the Herald announced that the poems would be published “Monday next” (May 24), on which date the announcement was confirmed.  The first “For Sale” advertisement emerged in a reduced format on May 27 and continued regularly throughout June and early August, when it returned to the front page and died there on August 12.  After that, there is no way of telling whether, in fact, the volume was ever published, even though Tremaine’s Bibliography of Canadian Imprints describes it clearly without recording the location of a single copy.  Yet from the four lines quoted and the poem’s length, “as many lines as there are in the year”, we can safely conclude that the poem had already been published in England five years before.  It was George Cartwright’s “Labrador: A Poetical Epistle”.  Why Murray should have been given credit for its composition remains a murky question, and the Canadian imprint must be set aside as a bibliographical ghost.   Whatever the case, there is no doubt about the identity of the actual author.

* * *

The reputation of George Cartwright is linked nowadays to the three-volume journal of his exploits in Labrador published in 1792.  In this journal, available to the modern reader in the abridged edition edited by C.W. Townsend,1 Cartwright gives details of his involvement in a series of business ventures conducted along the stretch of coast from Cape Charles to Hamilton Inlet during six voyages he completed between 1770 and 1786.  In the end, Cartwright’s heavy financial losses, combined with the damage done by raiding American privateers, rendered him bankrupt.  But his chronicle of sixteen years hunting and fishing, with its daily observations of natural phenomena, notes on hunting expeditions, and comments about his small community of servants and sharemen, survives as a master work of travel literature.  As a record of human endeavour, the journal has attracted its share of admirers; nevertheless, the long poem “Labrador: A Poetical Epistle”, which unexpectedly intrudes at the end of the third volume, has left readers puzzled.  Was it meant to form part of the journal?  Closer examination reveals that it was written independently—not perhaps comparable to the works of the “most celebrated Poets” but competent as “local” or “topographical” poetry, a genre widely practiced at the time.

     The journal’s portrayal of events played out in a remote part of the world appealed to the romantic imagination.  Southey, who claims he read the three folio volumes straight through, found himself amused by their “odd simplicity”.  He recalled vividly,

the importance he attached to his traps delighted me, it was so unlike a book written for the world—the solace of a solitary evening in Labrador; I fancied him blockaded by the snows, rising from a meal upon the old, tough, high-flavoured, hard-sinewed wolf, and sitting down like Robinson Crusoe to his journal.  The annals of his campaigns among the foxes and beavers interested me more than ever did the exploits of Marlbro’ and Frederic; besides I saw plain truth and the heart in Cartwright’s book—and in what history could I look for this?2

On the same page, Southey tells us how much the appeal to “plain truth” also impressed his companion Coleridge, who took up a single volume and delighted in its “strange simplicity”.  Cartwright’s appeal to actuality and circumstance, coupled with his studied artlessness, accounted in part for the journal’s interest.  He had achieved in real life what writers of pseudo-travels such as Defoe could only imagine.  Moreover, Cartwright realized the difference.  In his Preface, he took the trouble to apologize for the lack of an entertaining style yet promoted what he considered to be the journal’s value, its “veracity”, and by so doing distanced himself from the exaggerating tendency of contemporary travel literature.  “I do not pretend to give animated descriptions of a country I have never visited, nor of the custom and manners of a people I have never seen”, he insisted.  Further, he denied seeking publication of his journal at all and claimed he had even resisted certain solicitations before succumbing to the urgings of his friend the Duke of Newcastle.  Then, encouraged to place the raw manuscript in the hands of an editor, he retained the task of working over the sheets for himself so as to make himself solely responsible for their contents.  Once the work was printed, he disclaimed any literary merit, preferring to advance himself as a “faithful Journalist” who prefers “the simplicity of plain language and downright truth, to all the specious ornaments of modern style and description”3.

     Despite Cartwright’s too strenuous modesty, the reader could not have confused directness and simplicity with artlessness.  Cartwright had taken the pains required to convert a private journal into a form suitable for publication, and in a letter to Sir Joseph Banks he acknowledged, “Had I originally entertained the least thought of publishing my journal, I should have taken more pains to have made it worth reading, but I should not have done it now, had I not often been desired to do so, by such of my friends as had perused part of it particularly my good friend the Duke”4.  Not a work of the imagination, it was faithful to a different set of conventions hidden from the modern reader who is familiar with only Townsend’s abridgement.  As Professor Story has shown, readers of the full three volumes will learn that the contents hold more in common with the memorandum book, game book, and ship’s log than with the personal diary of a sporting tourist.5  By reducing the text to less than a quarter of its original length, Townsend’s abridgement obscures these conventions.

     While Cartwright’s journal has been acknowledged as a triumph, his single published poem has been set aside as a jeu d’esprit.  W.G. Gosling, for example, dismisses it in his history of Labrador as “a rhyming letter to his brother Charles”6, as if Cartwright had playfully tacked on a piece of stray correspondence as an afterthought.  What is not generally recognized is the poem’s independent bibliographical history and its interest as a specimen of local poetry, challenging the notion that Cartwright was an indifferent poet as well as an artless journalist.  Eight years before the journal appeared, in the autumn of 1784, a journal entry fixes its time of composition in London at the end of the fifth voyage. With a characteristic display of diffidence, Cartwright records,

I amused myself with transcribing my journal, and in writing a poem, which, bad as it is, I will take the liberty of laying before the public, at the end of my next voyage, in hopes that it may afford some little amusement: at the same time, assuring the gentle reader that, if I am so fortunate as to obtain his pardon for this presumption, I will never more be guilty of the like offence.  Tho’ I have often slept whole nights on mountains as high as that of famed Parnassus, yet, never having taken a nap on its sacred summit, it cannot be expected, that I should have awoke a Poet.7

But Cartwright did not wait until the end of the next voyage.  His poetic composition, which set forth the cycle of the year’s employments and sports along the Labrador coast in exactly 365 lines, emerged the following year as Labrador, A Poetical Epistle in a quarto volume published in Doncaster with only the initials “G.C.” to identify the poet: LABRADOR, / A POETICAL EPISTLE.  / BY G.C. ESQ.  / [rule] / DONCASTER: / PRINTED BY C. PLUMMER, M,DCC,LXXXV.  4. pi.jpg (872 bytes)2 A8 B2 B26 C2 D2 D24.  pp. [1] 2-18, [(1)] (2)-(6).  This was the version advertised by the Quebec Herald and attributed to William Murray.

     At this point, Cartwright did not exaggerate his competence as a poet.  The poem not only required revision, but it was not accurately printed or conveniently laid out (as his annotations in the Yale University Library copy, presented to the Collector of Customs at St. John’s, show us).  Cartwright was not satisfied with it, and before he sent the journal itself to the press several years later, he revised the poem extensively, reordering the material, rephrasing whole sections, correcting printing errors, moving his explanatory notes from the end to the foot of the page, and carefully marking the transitions between poetic “paragraphs”.  With that completed, now he had a shorter, cleaner, more clearly organized piece of work.  Besides binding it into the third volume of the journal, he had the revision issued in a new folio format bearing the title Labrador: A Poetical Epistle; with Explanatory Notes: Addressed to a Friend and selling for 2/6d. : LABRADOR: / A / POETICAL EPISTLE; / WITH EXPLANATORY NOTES: / ADDRESSED TO A FRIEND.  / BY / GEORGE CARTWRIGHT, Esq.  / [rule] / NEWARK: / PRINTED FOR THE AUTHOR, AND SOLD BY ALLIN AND RIDGE; / SOLD ALSO BY G.G.J. AND J. ROBINSON, IN PATERNOSTER-ROW, AND / J. STOCKDALE, PICCADILLY, LONDON. / MDCCXCII. / [rule] / [PRICE TWO SHILLINGS AND SIX-PENCE. ] F0. Frontispiece. [~(pie)1] [A1] B-F2 G3. pp. [1-3] 4-27 [28].  This is the version quoted below.

* * *

In some respects, Cartwright’s “Labrador” fits into the class of poem denominated by Samuel Johnson as “local poetry”, a genre that seems to concentrate primarily on the description of a particular locality but which in fact uses that description for what Johnson termed “such embellishments as may be supplied by historical retrospection or incidental meditation”8.  For such poetry was not merely descriptive.  It was also instructive, following the georgic tradition.  It was also a formulaic genre, numbering among its conventions various combinations of what are now well-recognized motifs: a sense of the speaker’s modesty, an air of retirement, strong local pride, the celebration of rural sports and pastimes, political panegyric, and an appeal to history.  As Dwight Durling’s classic study Georgic Tradition in English Poetry has shown, two elements in particular bear the mark of Virgil’s Georgics: the celebration of country life and the examination of natural phenomena.9  In local poetry, there is an implied contrast between the more urban milieu of the speaker and the simpler joys of fishermen, farmers, and hunters.  The practitioner of this genre is apt to concentrate his skill on country pursuits engaged in by such people and to examine the methods, equipment, and seasons appropriate for carrying them out.  Occasionally, he lapses into panegyric to laud the natural bounty, animal life, picturesque landscape, or inhabitants of the district, frequently one of the counties of England.  And because of this practical and promotional emphasis, seldom does he turn introspective or adopt a complex poetic language.  Seldom does he lead the reader to philosophical conclusions about the Creator’s benevolent design or point out evidence for the immanence of God in nature, features more typical of the nature poetry practiced by Thomson, Cowper, or Wordsworth.

     The poem that takes as its subject an entire district constitutes one of the most numerous forms of eighteenth-century poetic expression.  Of the local poems listed by Aubin in Topographical Poetry in XVIII-Century England, most concentrate on a place in the British Isles.  But there are others featuring newly discovered places in the South Seas and the more established colonies, bearing titles like “Barbados”, “Pennsylvania”, “A Description of the West-Indies”, “The Bermudian”, “Verses Composed on Pettiquamscut, Point Judith, Rhode-Island”, “Verses supposed to have been written in the Isle of Cyprus”, and “On arriving in South Carolina, 1798”10.   Cartwright’s poetic hints for hunters and fishermen hark back to numerous English poems devoted to such procedures as the planting of crops, the tending of sheep, the draining of marshes, and the shaping of the landscape.  The poetic treatment of phenomena such as the nature of ice, the spawning of salmon, and the formation of land masses had already been developed by Thomson.  Here, Cartwright’s strength lay in his personal understanding of the Labrador countryside and the habits of local animals, developed through years of close observation.  As for the inhabitants of this northern region, Cartwright neglects them almost entirely.  Unlike other local poets, he does not take the time to dwell upon the virtues of the noble husbandman. His only hint of panegyric intrudes when he compares the habits of the virtuous Inuit to those of the Montagnard Indians and finds the Inuit preferable because they appear untouched by the evils of civilized society, particularly strong drink:

Thrice happy Race! Strong Drink nor gold they know,
What in their Hearts they think, their Faces shew.
Of manners gentle, in their dealings just,
Their plighted promise, safely you may trust.
Mind you deceive them not, for well they know,
The Friend sincere, from the designing Foe.
They once were deem’d a People fierce and rude;
Their savage hands in Human blood imbru’d;
But by my care (for I must claim the merit)
The world now owns, that virtue they inherit.
Not a more honest, or a more gen’rous Race,
Can bless a Sov’reign, or a Nation grace. (11. 51-62)

Neither does Cartwright emphasize natural description or reflection.  Rather, he occupies himself with explaining seasonal pastimes and employments.

     By dividing these month by month, according to a well practiced formula of pastoral poetry, he provides a sense of the constant change and variety of seasonal work.  The opening lines of the 1792 version contain a dedication (probably addressed to his brother Charles), a conventional expression of modesty, and a statement of the theme (11. 1-10).  In the lengthy opening section (11. 11-126), set in the month of June, the geese and ducks return, the otter season opens, and the habits of the reindeer and the beaver are described.  Then, between the opening of the salmon fishery and the cod fishery, the Inuit and the Montagnard Indians are compared.  Icebergs appear, the first ships from home loom on the horizon, and there is an encomium addressed to Labrador. Cartwright concludes his first section by contrasting the methods for shooting the black bear and the polar bear:

Of the Black-bear, you need not be afraid;
But killing white Ones, is a dang’rous Trade.
In this be cool, and well direct your Lead,
And take your Aim at either Heart or Head;
For struck elsewhere, your Piece not level’d true,
Not long you’ll live, your erring hand to rue.  (11. 117-26)

With the coming of July (11. 127-76), Cartwright teaches us how to stalk the reindeer and the wolf and in August (11. 177-92) how to shoot curlew and geese and how to hunt hare, grouse, and ptarmigan. In keeping with conventional local poetry, he issues this short burst of praise for local delicacies like the curlew:

Delicious Bird! not one with thee can vie!
(Not rich in plumage, but in flavour high)
Nor Ortolan, nor Cock, with trail [i.e., entrail] on toast,
Of high-fed Epicures, the pride and boast!
Young Geese too now, in numbers croud the shore;
Such are the Dainties of our LABRADOR. (11. 179-84)

With September (11. 193-236) comes the stag hunt, a further encomium on country life, a description of autumn employments (packing salmon, curing codfish, cutting firewood, preparing traps) and the first evidence of winter.  October (11. 237-62) brings advice for dealing with the mating stag and for shooting ducks as well as a hint about the importance of attending to the traps set for otter, beaver and fox.  With the coming of November (11. 263-78), the last ships leave for England while they still can, and then the frost sets in:

In chains of Ice, the purling stream is bound;
Black Woods remain; but Verdure is not found.
And Here we feel, the Tyrants iron sway,
Till a more genial Sun, returns with May. (11. 267-70)

November also signals the beginning of the seal hunt, which will continue until Christmas, and Cartwright describes the method of killing seals by netting the animals and allowing them to strangle themselves.  Despite the great effort required, he claims, their skins and oil “Amply repay, expence, and Time, and Toil”.  In the concluding section (11. 279-350), stretching from December to May, Cartwright runs rapidly through a variety of winter employments and includes this conventional prospect piece:

Ascend yon Mountain’s top; extend your view
O’er Neptune’s trackless Empire; nor will you,
In all his vast Domain, an Opening have,
Where foams the Billow, or where heaves the Wave.
A dreary Desart all, of Ice and Snow,
Which, forming Hills, fast into Mountains grow.
So cutting cold, now blust’ring Boreas blows,
None can with naked Face, his blasts oppose.
But well wrapp’d up, we travel out secure,
And find Health’s blessings, in an Air so pure. (11. 281-90)

Finally, the behaviour of the black bear and white bear are described and the tactics of the wolf.  With spring approaching, the men shift to the woods to begin mending casks and building boats. To summarize, the poem ends with this couplet:

In such like Toils and Sports, the Year goes round,
And for each Day, some Work, or Pleasure’s found.

     Generally speaking, Cartwright maintains a plain style in keeping with the poem’s expository aim.  Technical terms and local usages like “net”, “shoal”, “caplin”, “low ice”, “in kind”, and “deathfalls” abound.  The difficulty of handling so many generics at once is worked out through circumlocution in expressions like “feather’d tribes” (birds), “liquid wave” (ocean), “reeking meal” (alcoholic drink), “huge large Isles” (icebergs), “purling rill” (stream), “savage Tribe” (bears), “Nature’s best Tap” (water), “Tyrant’s iron sway” (frost), “Neptune’s trackless Empire” (ocean), and “blust’ring Boreas” (wind).  And despite Cartwright’s claim in the opening lines that the poem constitutes more verses than he has ever read, he neatly introduces within the narrow bounds of the couplet a surprising variety of other rhetorical devices, such as anaphora (43-44), ellipsis (49-50), chiasmus (61-62), metonymy (119), epithet (195), rhetorical question (235), alliteration (238), and parallelism (284).  Through extended personification, winter exerts his “iron sway” as he does in Thomson’s “Winter”, binding Nature in “chains of ice” until she is “set free” again with the coming of spring.  Otherwise, the poem almost completely avoids metaphorical language.

* * *

Cartwright’s poem also reflects one of the ways pastoral poetry had changed at the end of the eighteenth century from a traditional shepherd’s song to an interpretation of the tension established between the world of nature and the world of man.  It required the reader to withdraw from the marketplace for a while in order to adopt a new perspective on affairs.  The shepherd of earlier pastoral was now replaced by the hunter, the fisherman or the shipwrecked mariner temporarily separated from the life of commitment and the expectations of conventional society.  Thus, a poem often became a comparison of two worlds, a reassessment of accepted values—not a way of escaping the realities of life but of understanding them in terms of some fundamental natural pattern such as day and night, the shepherd’s calendar, the cycle of the seasons, or the monthly employments encountered in Cartwright’s “Labrador”.

     Cartwright presents the Labrador landscape not as a romantic setting for reflection but as a playground for the hunter and a rich source of commercial treasures for the entrepreneur. He writes,

If you love sporting, go to LABRADOR:
Of Game of various sorts, no Land has more. (11. 99-100)

Labrador is not seen as a geographically distinct location but as a theatre for one’s enjoyment, a place where people who wish to pay the price can rule their own lives.  The sense of ordinary men acting as masters of their own fates is made clear in these lines:

But do not think, you’ll all this pleasure share,
And, when fatigu’d, to some good Inn repair;
There on a Chop, or Steak, in comfort dine,
And smack your Lips, o’er glass of gen’rous Wine;
No, no; in this our Land of Liberty,
Thousands of Miles you’ll walk, but no House see.
When Night comes on, it matters not a Rush,
Whether you sleep in that, or t’other Bush.
If Game you’ve kill’d, your Supper you may eat;
If not, to-morrow you’ll be sharper set.
Yourself, both Cook and Chamberlain must be,
Or neither, Bed, nor Supper will you see.
Drink you will want not, Water’s near at hand;
Nature’s best Tap! and always at Command. (11. 199-212)

Labrador does not lack the luxuries of the table, for meat is present in abundance, particularly in the autumn:

Fish, Fowl, and Ven’son, now our Tables grace;
Roast Beaver, too, and ev’ry Beast of chase.
Luxurious living this! who’d wish for more?
Were QUIN alive, he’d haste to LABRADOR. (11. 233-36)

(Quite likely, Cartwright refers to James Quin, the actor, bon vivant and glutton who died in 1766.)  Blessed with an enormous and apparently insatiable appetite himself, Cartwright had tasted the delicacies of the Labrador wilds to an extreme.  Thus, within the context of the seasons and the exercise of daily tasks, he presents Labrador as a place affording unimpeded sport and, more especially, unimpeded opportunity for commerce. After all, the poet is primarily a man of business, and he carefully warns the reader towards the end of the poem,

All this is pleasure; but a Man of Sense,
Looks to his Traps; ’tis they bring in the Pence. (11. 255-56)

     A fundamental conflict arises when a poet attempts to praise both nature and industry: industry appropriates nature for its own use, and as soon as the poet begins to think in terms of a productive economy, the fictions of pastoral poetry undergo a profound change.11  The rustic may be presented as either a victim of economic conditions, as he is in Goldsmith’s “Deserted Village”, or as a recipient of nature’s blessings, as he is in Cartwright’s “Labrador”.  Cartwright viewed the world in mercantile terms.  Having left the British army, he began a series of voyages to Labrador at the age of thirty and later joined the landowning class in England when he inherited his father’s estate jointly with his brother.  In Labrador, he engaged in a series of enterprises with an assortment of servants, sharesmen, and other entrepreneurs interested in fishing for cod, salmon, and seals and trading in furs and whalebone.  He arrived on the coast to make money, and although his Labrador venture ended in bankruptcy, he did enjoy years of relative success.  Thus, his view of nature cannot be divorced from his mercantile and industrial vision.  In his single published poem, Cartwright is not as artless as he might appear.  “Labrador” is not so much descriptive as expository, even though certain georgic elements provide the reader with a sense of place.  By choosing to focus on certain favoured sporting pastimes and other employments linked to the seasons, Cartwright gave the poem unity, but by implication he also legitimized English enterprise in a remote corner of the expanding Empire.


  1. Captain Cartwright and His Labrador Journal, ed. Charles Wendell Townsend (London: Williams and Norgate, 1911). [back]

  2. Southey’s Common-Place Book, 4th Ser., ed. John Wood Warter (London: Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans, 1851), pp. 515-16. [back]

  3. George Cartwright, Journal of Transactions and Events, During A Residence of Nearly Sixteen Years on the Coast of Labrador; Containing Many Interesting Particulars, Both of the Country and Its Inhabitants, Not Hitherto Known (Newark, 1792), I, iii ff. [back]

  4. Joseph Banks in Newfoundland and Labrador, 1766: His Diary, Manuscripts and Collections, ed. A.M. Lysaght (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1971), p. 275: Cartwright to Banks, January 27, 1790. [back]

  5. See G.M. Story, “’Old Labrador’: George Cartwright, 1738-1819,” Newfoundland Quarterly, 77 (1981), 23-31, 35. [back]

  6. W.G. Gosling, Labrador: Its Discovery, Exploration, and Development (London: Alston Rivers, Ltd., 1910), p. 231. [back]

  7. Cartwright, III, 38. [back]

  8. Samuel Johnson, LL.D., Lives of the English Poets, ed. George Birkbeck Hill (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1905), I, 77. [back]

  9. See Dwight L. Durling, Georgic Tradition in English Poetry (New York: Columbia University Press, 1935); Wilfred P. Mustard, “Virgil’s Georgics and the British Poets,” American Journal of Philology, 29 (1908), 1-32; and L.P. Wilkinson, The Georgics of Virgil: A Critical Survey (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969), pp. 299-309. [back]

  10. Robert Arnold Aubin, Topographical Poetry in XVIII-Century England (New York: The Modern Language Association of America, 1936), pp. 297-394. [back]

  11. See Harold E. Toliver, Pastoral Forms and Attitudes (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971), p. 201. [back]