THE COMPLETE POEMS
of FRANCIS SHERMAN


Edited by Lorne Pierce

 


 


FRANCIS SHERMAN

A Memoir


Those who knew Francis Sherman intimately were few, and most of these have passed away. It seems almost incredible that one who lived so recently, who was loved by some of the leading poets of his day, and became Assistant General Manager of a great bank, should even now be an almost mythical figure. From a small sheaf of poems, a few letters (most of them written nearly forty years ago), the recollections of a little group of old friends and an occasional record in a contemporary periodical, all that is known of Francis Sherman survives, the barest outline of a life that was in many respects radiantly beautiful. These scraps of facts and half-forgotten memories have been carefully harvested, in order that something should survive for another generation as to the manner of man he was. The reticence with which he clothed himself during his lifetime seems to have cloaked his memory with jealous care.
     The present attempt to sketch Sherman’s career, for it can only be a sketch, will also provide something in the way of context for his imperishable verse. Much of what he wrote was published privately, and is now unobtainable. Yet he was fully aware of his powers, and sought as others did to have his verse appear in the leading periodicals of the day. When The Atlantic Monthly accepted “An Acadian Easter,” Sherman wrote on the margin of his manuscript: “The Atlantic has accepted this!” He was happy and proud as any normal man might be. He wrote Fred H. Day (June 2, 1896) enclosing $1.50 for United States stamps:


     I am still trying to impose on the magazines. I am not having any remarkable success, it is true, but The Chap-Book asked leave the other day to retain awhile longer a poem which I had sent them—[page 1] one of the longest now in your hands—“The Window of Dreams.1 If they print it, it will be quite an advertisement, will it not? A sonnet of mine they have already accepted2. I wonder if you can understand—in spite of your being a publisher—the unrest that one has when one’s first book is about to be put forth?

     Some may hold that, since Sherman published much of his work privately, it should not be reprinted. But the letters written between 1896 and 1900 show that he was as eager to get his best pieces into print, and as practical in the matter of typography, paper, binding and general promotion as any other poet. He took a normal man’s delight in adequate press reviews, and even wrote his publisher as other men do when his book was not on sale at the local dealers. Therefore Sherman’s poems have been gathered together and published with the care he would have wished. While his life is largely written in these poems, and in the records of his bank, enough of his days are called back to show that poet and song were one.
     All those who remember Francis Sherman speak of him with enthusiasm. There seems to have been that rare quality in him, discovered occasionally in the lives of great men, which commanded something akin to idolatry. Frederick Fairchild Sherman,3 of New York, said of him: “Francis Sherman was one of the enthusiasms of my youth. He was like a young Greek god and looked like the portraits of John Keats.” Bliss Carman echoed almost the identical words to me one day. The late Charles E. Neill, General Manager of The Royal Bank of Canada, Montreal, S.R. Noble, Assistant General Manager of The Royal Bank, and others have left on record their profound regard for him. The Honorable Mr. Justice C. Gordon MacKinnon of the Superior Court of Quebec writes thus:


     Frank Sherman was one of the most remarkable men I have ever known. . . . I knew him intimately, and fell under his spell as all others did who knew him as well. He and I, for over two years, at the [page 2] front in France, shared together the same billets and bivouacs, and I have much to be grateful for. Too few men has the opportunity come to know such a man as Frank Sherman and to know him so intimately.
     Sherman had a most remarkable sense of humour, and with it the gift of a caricaturist in words. He was at his best when making fun of one’s peculiarities, and this was always done in such a delightful way that no possible offence could be taken. He was brilliant in repartee, and that is what made him such a delightful conversationalist.
     Francis Sherman loved fellowship, friendship and companionship. He loved his country with a devotion that was passionate. A man of strong personal feeling and sentiment he concealed it all by a bantering, jocular manner. He taught me that there was more in life than mere living; that the stars and the sun, morning and evening, winter and summer . . . everything had something to give you if you only looked for it. He also taught me that all men have a great deal of good in them, and that all life is worth while. He had that marvelous and rare gift of giving happiness to others, and of radiating happiness and cheer. He had no malice and bore no ill will.
     He was the most generous man I have ever known. The sums he gave away to privates in need, or who were going away on leave, must have amounted to many hundreds of dollars. While he was in France he received every month from a bank in London a package of 1,000 francs (then $200.00), which was all given away before the end of the month, and often it did not last till then.
     Forgive me writing you so at length about my hero and friend, but I wanted you to know how I feel about him.


     Francis Joseph Sherman was born February 3, 1871, in Fredericton, New Brunswick, and on April 28 was christened by Rev. Charles Lee. He was the eldest son of Louis Walsh Sherman, a lumberman, who came of seafaring stock. His mother was Alice Maxwell Myshrall, daughter of Joseph Myshrall. Myshrall married Louise Maxwell of Charlotte County, New Brunswick, whose father, William Maxwell, was the son of James Maxwell, a Loyalist from Connecticut and a major in the New Brunswick militia.
     The modest frame house in which Sherman was born, and in which he wrote Matins, his first book of poems, still stands. This house was built by Edward Miller, a kinsman of Edward Winslow, Loyalist, and passed into the hands of Joseph Myshrall, father of Mrs. Sherman, who kept a wine store. No doubt the [page 3] atmosphere of his home contributed to Sherman’s love of books. This was the only wealth he knew in those early years. His small room at the head of the stairs was crowded with books. The Bishop, who lived next door, gave the body the freedom of his library, and often called with some volume he thought Frank would like. Professor F. S. Stockley, head of the English Department of the University, later became an intimate friend, and under his inspiring mentorship Sherman broadened out from his early passion for Rider Haggard.
     The environment of the capital city of the Province was also congenial to Sherman’s thoughtful spirit. Under his very eyes a new national literature was taking shape, with Roberts and Carman in the van. The brooding spirit of George R. Parkin in the Collegiate School, and George E. Foster at the University, bred a thorough cosmopolitanism as well as robust intellectual independence both in the city and Province. In addition to the University of New Brunswick and the Collegiate School, there were private schools, a teachers’ college, military academy, law courts, the Government civil service and the many churches thrusting their spires upward through the ancient elms, with the Cathedral at their head. Canon Goodridge Roberts was rector of Fredericton, and the old red-brick rectory was a meeting-place for the best minds and wisest hearts of the community. Sherman knew the rectory well, and the famous brood of cousins, Charles G. D. Roberts, Theodore Goodridge Roberts, William Carman Roberts, Barry Straton and Bliss Carman. About the growing boy there was a select society of cultured men and women, which provided every inducement to a spirit so sensitive and eager as his.
     Sherman came under the influence of George R. Parkin at the Collegiate School, a memorable experience shared by Roberts, Carman and many another Fredericton youth since celebrated. In this school Sherman also had the inspiring “Lady Jane” (Miss Jane Gregory) for his English master. Carman was one of his [page 4] teachers for a short time. During week-ends and holidays, Sherman participated in the games appropriate to the seasons. There were long hikes in all weathers, and his poems are filled with vivid recollections of the things his eager senses then fed upon. In summer the boys went swimming off his father’s wharf. He explored the forest and rivers, on one occasion walking eighty miles without sleep, and also took long trips in his birch-bark canoe, in both pastimes following the example of Roberts and Carman. His velocipede was the first one in town. A jig-saw sang away merrily in his room at all hours. For three consecutive days he records rapturously in his diary: “I go in my bare feet!” But most of all he loved to pitch his tent on Camp Comfort Island of a week-end or in the long summer days, accompanied by the Winslow boys, Charley Neill and other cronies. When winter came Sherman and George Blair made a rink in the back yard, but perhaps he was happiest when snow-shoeing alone. If the weather was inclement he would take down his violin. As for the piano, his sister remembers that his favorite piece seems to have been “Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes!” Mrs. Lilian M. Maxwell of Fredericton recalls these days:


     The Sherman family were all musical. I remember as a school girl spending an evening in the house when all the children were home, three girls and three boys, weren’t there? Myra, the oldest, said—“Let’s have an orchestra!” And the family rendered several selections, each audibly and by action imitating a different instrument.  It was one of the cleverest and funniest things I ever heard.


     In the autumn of 1886, when he was only fifteen, Sherman entered the University for the arts course. He did not take lectures in Latin, and evidently completed his Matriculation in October, 1887. The records show that he took no academic examinations. The University’s fifty-seventh year opened September 16, 1886. This was the first time that women were admitted to proceed to the degree. Of the twenty-four freshmen Sherman stood seventeenth, and was listed as a “partial student,” signifying [page 5] his lack of full entrance requirements. The University Monthly provides an interesting record of the year, the courses offered, personalia on professors and students, athletic activities, and frequent mention of Charles G. D. Roberts, Bliss Carman, Barry Straton, Theodore Goodridge Roberts, all cousins, George R. Parkin, J.D. Hazen, Walter C. Murray, winner of the Gilchrist Scholarship, and W. F. Ganong, recently elected to a Harvard Fellowship. But Sherman’s name does not appear save for his entrance and departure. Ten years later, in 1896, the Monthly printed four sonnets by Sherman, which were later published in The Deserted City. Throughout his entire career Sherman’s name does not occur again. President Walter C. Murray of the University of Saskatchewan recalls, that Sherman “was a great favorite with his friends, the junior professors, and enjoyed the contrast between his associations with the bank and with the men in the University.” This and the memories of Charles G. D. Roberts are all that survive of the old college associations. Early in his academic career he had the misfortune to fracture a leg, and during the long convalescence formed a deep friendship with the coadjutor bishop, Dr. Kingdon. Due to financial reasons, Sherman’s college days were cut short. His youngest brother, Louis Ralph Sherman, followed him at the University some years later, becoming Rhodes Scholar and ultimately Bishop of Calgary. His other brother, Lawrence, was killed in the Great War, falling in his first action.
     A junior post was found for Sherman in the Merchants’ Bank of Halifax, at Woodstock, N. B.  Later in the same year his transfer to Fredericton is mentioned in The University Monthly, November, 1887: “’89. F. J. Sherman secured a position in the Merchants’ Bank of Halifax in this city.” Thus began a career which was to bring him in period of less than twenty years to the position of Assistant General Manager. His rise to Manager of Fredericton Branch at the age of twenty-six is recorded in a letter from an official of the bank: [page 6]


    
Mr. W. R. Racey was Manager until June or July, 1897, when he was accidentally killed while riding. Mr. Neill at that time was Accountant at Woodstock Branch, and he and Mr. Sherman were appointed Joint Managers temporarily, but a few months later Mr. Neill was transferred to Vancouver and Mr. Sherman continued as Manager until February, 1899. Mr. Sherman was at that time the senior, so that actually he was Manager from July 1897, to February, 1899.


     In March, 1896, Sherman visited Boston with a small sheaf of sonnets entitled Matins, and was successful in persuading Copeland and Day, friends and publishers of Bliss Carman, to bring them out. From the office of the New York Independent, April 2, 1896, Charles G. D. Roberts writes Fred. H. Day:


     Will see you tomorrow. So glad you like Sherman’s work. Yes, he is young. Just under twenty-five, and just beginning to find himself! I regard him as one of the coming men! Forgive haste.


     On April 28 Charles G. D. Roberts again wrote Day:


. . . Sherman was immensely delighted with his experience in Boston. He has not yet finished telling me the delights of your library, and your rare editions. He raves, too (as I did), over your exquisite photography. When will his book appear? And am I free to start paragraphs about it yet?


     It now seems clear that to the names of Bliss Carman, Archibald Lampman and Duncan Campbell Scott, whom Roberts sponsored, there must be added Francis Sherman.
    On October 30, 1896, Sherman wrote Fred. H. Day: “…The little book came today, and I think the cover is perfect. The initials and the type are very fine. . . . I trust the Morris MSS. has reached you safely.” Thus Sherman recorded the advent of Matins, and the prospect of In Memorabilia Mortis. Long afterward Carman wrote: “Sherman was a lovely Acadian singer; Matins is a gem.” Certainly it was not one of the most distinctive first-offerings by an Canadian poet to appear. The Harford Courant stated that Matins had “dignity, art, and much beauty of thought and expression”; the Boston Transcript added that it was “of genuine literary importance.” In December Copeland [page 7] and Day published In Memorabilia Mortis. These sonnets were written on December 3, 1896, in memory of William Morris, a lifelong influence upon Sherman’s thought and style. Sherman wrote Day on December 11: “. . . and no one who has seen the sonnets can see one least thing wrong with the printing…May I send you this one with your name and my name written in it? And I should like to send one to Carman and Miss Brown. . . .” Bliss Carman as Editor of The Chap-Book had sponsored at least one poem by Sherman, while his hand may be seen in more than one review, one of which rather irritated Sherman because of its somewhat patronizing tone. Alice Brown, author of The Road to Castalay, a book of poems published by Copeland and Day, had read some of Sherman’s verse in manuscripts. She may have been the publisher’s reader, since several proofs from the publishers contain corrections and suggestions by her. Matins was bound in boards, and In Memorabilia Mortis in wrappers, a style which he adopted for all his future booklets.
     Among those who shared the young poet’s happiness in his first book was his fiancée, Miss May Whelpley. She has been described by several who knew her as a remarkably beautiful and noble woman. When they had been engaged some time, Miss Whelpley contracted infantile paralysis, which left her a cripple, and any question of marriage had to be put aside. After he left Fredericton, Sherman returned each year to her so long as she lived. She rarely left her home, but on these annual visits they would drive about the countryside together. Mr. S. R. Noble, who entered the Fredericton bank about five years after Sherman’s removal, has pointed out a fact which should be borne in mind. “Except against such a background, Mr. Sherman’s best poems are rather vaguely sentimental, and in others there is no satisfactory explanation of his despair as in ‘So After All,’ or his resignation as in ‘Te Deum Laudamus.’” Indeed, the voice and form of his beloved are built into nearly every memorable line he wrote. [page 8]
     A Prelude, which appeared at Christmas time, 1897, was likewise published by Copeland and Day. On December 29 Sherman wrote Day, thanking him “for the beautiful dress you have given A Prelude, and for the honor you have done me in issuing it as you have. . . .” A month later, January, 1898, Sherman became sole Manager of the Fredericton branch, the youngest man holding that office in Canada. On April 1st Sherman wrote Day:


MY DEAR DAY:
     I love The Treasure, and am glad that it was you who brought me to it. I have read nearly all the translated plays—some of them many times; but they hardly prepared me for such beautiful work as there is in these essays. Indeed, I am once more greatly your debtor.
    O! how cold it is here today: and, indeed, ever since the New Year. I wish I could get as far south as Boston, soon; but how the work piles up here! It is nearly two years since I have had “a day off.” Not that I mind the work; only one gets so tired of the same thing over and over again.
     Have you seen Forman’s The Books of Wm. Morris? It is most interesting. I have just finished it; and The Water of the Wondrous Isles, too; and the Kelmscott Syr Isumbras, a beautiful piece of work.
     Will you please send me your Shakespeare’s Sonnets, the new Pater, and One Way to the Woods? The enclosed cheque is right, I think.

Continually and gratefully,                   
Yours,         
F. S.

     Do you like this? The Speaker printed it.


   In February, 1899, Sherman was appointed Assistant Manager of the Montreal office, and in May was transferred to Havana as Assistant Agent, becoming First Agent in November of the same year. He and his accountant, R. W. Forrester, lived for many years at Malecon 3, adjoining the Miramar Hotel at the foot of the Prado. Mr. S. R. Noble, Assistant General Manager of The Royal Bank, when he was on the staff of the bank at Fredericton, heard rumors that Sherman’s outstanding ability fist came to the attention of Head Office as a result of his contributions to journals on financial matters. Persistent searching has so far failed to unearth any articles of this or any other sort. [page 9]
     On April 10, 1899, H. E. Scudder reported on behalf of Houghton, Mifflin & Co., that they were obliged to decline a new volume of Sherman’s poems, and the taking over of Matins. Two booklets were published in 1899, and both printed for him by Copeland and Day. The Deserted City (“Stray Sonnets, written by F. S., and Rescued for the Few Who Love Them, by H. D. “), was published by Copeland and Day, the initials H. D. concealing Fred Day’s identity not quite successfully. Two Songs at Parting, by John Bodkin and Francis Sherman, was the poet’s l’envoy to his native city. This booklet appeared about Christmas time, 1899. Fred Saint John Bliss and John Bodkin were Sherman’s most intimate friends at that time. Bliss was a cousin of Carman and Roberts. Bodkin, with a brother and sister, came from England, and took up farming a few miles out of Fredericton. Older than Sherman, his ripe experience and extensive knowledge of literature attracted the young poet-banker. Sherman, wise for his years, with the instincts of a poet and scholar, as well as a practical man of affairs, tall, swarthy, dark-browed, resembling early portraits of Keats, appealed to Bodkin. While both were artists at heart, they were also strong characters, each of them quiet and reserved, and with a genius for the practical. Sherman at this time seems to have preferred men older than himself, but in later years his associates were often younger than he. Professor Stockley, Professor Raymond (“Tyng” to Roberts and Carman), Davidson, Bodkin and others were his closest acquaintances. No doubt the success of Roberts and Carman at this time inspired Sherman in his own flights of song. He read their multiplying books with eagerness and pride.
     Sherman’s success as a banker in Havana was outstanding. In 1900 he became Supervisor of Branches in Cuba. The banking business there was intricate. There were three currencies—Spanish gold, Spanish silver and United States money, each fluctuating in value in terms of the other currencies. There were likewise many traditions and customs. Great knowledge and [page 10] unfailing tact were necessary. Banking was chiefly a matter of character in those unsettled days; personality and confidence in a man were the chief elements of credit. During the Spanish-American War, 1902, the Spanish government exploited the Banco Espanol through a note issue, for the purpose of securing funds with which to oppose the revolution. These notes were subsequently worthless, and when a savings bank failed people lost confidence in banks. Yet Sherman, beginning in a few rooms at a total rental of 100 dollars a month, in 1899, saw an imposing bank building erected in 1902, and the bank’s influence extended throughout the West Indies within a few short years. Wisdom and insight helped, but unshakeable integrity helped more.
     From 1900 onward Sherman evidently had little inclination to write. The reasons may have been partly mental, partly physical, and some clue no doubt is given in his last poem, “So, After All.” Outside business hours, his chief hobby was reading, and collecting first editions. What little spare time remained he devoted to swimming and yachting. A love of the seas was in his veins. He sailed his own yacht, White Wings, in many races, and was Vice-Commodore of the Havana Yacht Club at the time of his return to Canada. The Atlantic Monthly, 1900, published “An Acadian Easter,” and at Christmas time, the same year, appeared his last collection of poems, A Canadian Calendar: XII Lyrics. It was privately printed at Havana, bound in brown butcher-paper wrappers, and dedicated to F. H. D., Fred Day, his old fried and first publisher.
     Sherman continued to be an eager bibliophile. William Morris, Rossetti and the pre-Raphaelites thrilled him still, and he loved to quote to his friends The Defence of Guenevere. His enthusiasm for Stevenson, Kipling, Hardy, Conrad, James and Masefield, among the moderns, and Arnold, Browning, Keats and Shelley among the more recent ancients, never flagged. “He had an amazing memory for verse,” says an old friend. “If any one quoted a line to him, he would place it. I would except Tennyson, [page 11] and Longfellow, whom he never regarded seriously as a major poet.” The Honourable Mr. Justice MacKinnon remarks:


     Sherman was an admirer of Conrad, and constantly referred to him. Once on leave in London I found, in a second-hand book store, Henry Van Dyke’s Little Rivers and Fishermen’s Luck. I brought them back with me to read again and throw away, as they could not be conveniently carried in our kit. Sherman had never read them and was very much taken with them, and I remember two sentences which impressed him. One was, I think, in the story “White Heather,” to the effect that, “Love is not getting but giving,” and another, “It is better to desire what we have than have what we desire.”


Mr. G. W. MacKimmie, Assistant General Manager of The Royal Bank, also records an interesting reminiscence:


     Although twenty-two years have gone by, I remember very well a short conversation in Mr. Sherman’s office provoked by a volume of Owen Meredith’s Lucile, which I had purchased for no better reason than that a young niece of mine had just been baptized and had been given the name of Lucile. Mr. Sherman chided me for reading a story described by him as favorite of school girls, but at once admitted that he could recite many parts of the poem from memory.


     Sherman declared Tess of the D’Urbervilles one of the most perfect women ever created. A friend reports that he was everlastingly reading Lord Jim. These delights he willingly shared with his friends, but not even his most intimate circle knew about his poetry, and, indeed, his wife was not aware that he had written anything until long after their marriage.
     The Royal Bank purchased the assets of Banco d’Oriente in Santiago, in 1903, and correspondingly widened its activities and sphere of influence. In September of the following year, Sherman’s bank was appointed agent for the Cuban Government in distributing the 31,000,000 dollars awarded to the Army of Liberation. The amount was fifty per cent. of the soldier’s claim. So satisfactory was the bank’s conduct of this under taking, that is was entrusted with the distribution of the remainder of the award in 1905. Bank deposits increased rapidly with growing confidence, and new branches were opened in quick succession at [page 12] Camaguey, Matanzas and Cardenas. Sherman’s counsel was frequently sought by leading bankers in Cuba. Poet and banker—this association is not so strange as at fist might appear. Both avocations are based upon swift insight and infallible intuition. The poet element appeared in his method of approaching a problem, his instantaneous grasp of a client’s character, his radiant personality, quick repartee, and wide tolerance, heightened by a quiet reserve that told of hidden sanctuaries. The banker was revealed in the manner he assumed before the world, a robust man, physically and mentally, with strong likes and dislikes, and a general bearing that bespoke the successful man of affairs. A friend describes him thus: “Handsome, swarthy, quickly strong, taking the world by the horns.”
     In 1901 the Merchants’ Bank of Halifax, to avoid possible confusion, changed its name to The Royal Bank of Canada. In Havana they often called it Sherman’s Bank! In 1907 he was appointed Assistant General Manager. Five years later (1912) Sherman left Cuba for the Montreal Head Office, retaining his rank. When the War broke out, he joined the Officers Training Corps of McGill University, Overseas Contingent, and in 1915 enlisted as a private in one of the drafts raised by the McGill O. T. C. as reinforcements for th Princess Patricia Canadian Light Infantry. While standing in line waiting for the eyesight test, he memorized the letters, fearing that his imperfect vision might disqualify him. It was a long step down, as the Montreal papers stated, from the position of Assistant General Manager of a great bank, carrying a fittingly high salary, and from a sumptuous bachelor apartment in the Windsor Hotel, to the rank of private, a misfit uniform, $1.10 a day, and a bunk in the barracks. In France he won his captaincy, and was later transferred to the Royal Canadian Pay Corps, being discharged at the end of the war with the rank of major. After Sherman’s discharge, following demobilization, he returned home, but the rigors of war had undermined his health, seriously affecting his heart. In 1909 [page 13] he retired on pension from the Royal Bank, and took up residence in Atlantic City.
     Sherman met Ruth Ann, daughter of Jeremiah J. J. Sullivan, a prominent Philadelphian, when she attended the wedding of a friend to R. W. Forrester in Havana, in 1909. They met for a day or two each year until the war intervened. Gifts of flowers marked the holidays and special anniversaries during his absence. They were married June 16, 1921. After the wedding they toured the east. One evening at Yokohama, while looking over the harbor and listening to the music, Mrs. Sherman was surprised to discover that the selections being played were all her favorites. Sherman had quietly arranged it, subsidizing the orchestra. At Hong Kong a gaily-costumed little Chinese boy greeted Mrs. Sherman on the steps leading to her apartment, and, with a courtly bow, presented her with a gorgeous bouquet. There could have been but one source for those blossoms. Overhearing a woman friend describing the delights of a visit to Pekin, Sherman was convinced that his wife wished to go there, and nothing could dissuade him from changing all the tickets, re-routing via Pekin. They stopped in Manila and Australia, and then returned home. The remaining years were spent between Philadelphia and Atlantic City, where their two sons, Francis and Jerry, were born.
     Francis Sherman died at Atlantic City, June 15, 1926. A few hours after his death a bouquet of red roses was delivered to Mrs. Sherman. Although failing, and very weak, he had not forgotten to order them the day before. Perhaps, in this last act, and in the anonymous thoughtfulness of the eastern trip, are to be found the key to his winsome and reticent spirit. Sherman was buried at Forest Hill Cemetery, Fredericton, where repose the ashes of many he loved, among them Bliss Carman.
     Kipling wrote Francis Sherman: “It must be a gorgeous thing to be one of the band of new singers. You don’t know how much Canada lies in your hands―and Canada doesn’t either.” Sherman no doubt felt that it was a splendid thing to be a poet, but he [page 14]
suffered no delusions as to moulding Canadian life and thought. Canada neither knew nor cared. Roberts, Carman, Parker, McArthur, Thompson, Ethelwyn, Wetherald and others left for the United States and England, where appreciative markets were to be found; Canada was too engrossed with building railroads and making land to note their departure. A new generation welcomed the travellers’ return, but the homecomers were famous then. Of all who went and retuned Sherman alone received no notice. Careless of fame, he had shunned display, and as for his poems they appeared as if by stealth and were, moreover, unobtainable. The excessively limited editions of his booklets were in the hands of a few friends and these kept alight the flame of remembrance. Tomorrow Canada will place Francis Sherman among her major poets.
     Sherman will be remembered as the maker of a small and classic collection of poems. Fastidious as a Greek, his lines were wrought with a tireless passion for perfection. As a master of the sonnet form he not only took his place beside Roberts and Lampman, but challenged comparison with the best in the English language. In this most exacting of all vehicles the perfection of his technical skill may easily be overlooked because of his unfailing grace and charm.
     In ripeness and artistry, Sherman approached the masters in the great English tradition. If his range was limited there is no doubt about his depth, which is the main thing. Impeccable the form should be, the music perfect, but the soul of the matter must be ripe and wise. Yet range there is, from Arcady to medieval towns, from Acadia to the Caribbean, color, romance, dreams and the will to live and love. The classic element in Sherman is most clearly seen in the texture and finish of his work. But this classic finish was warmed with glamorous color and haunting memories, just as the perfection of form in the marbles of Praxiteles was enhanced by the splendors of the coloring that Nikias gave them. Sherman also succeeded in recapturing the [page 15] spirit of medieval romance. No one can read “The Window of Dreams” and not recall William Morris. Morris died October 3, 1896, and In Memorabilia Mortis was composed two months later to the day. It was the Morris of The Defence of Guenevere that Sherman followed, and of Love is Enough. Like his master Sherman lived constantly among men who were doing things, and inspired confidence even devotion, yet in their poetry the real world often escapes. Passion there is and the tangible objects of nature, but the emotion recedes into an idyll, exquisite but nevertheless a picture. Sherman, however, had daily to cope with men as men; his success as a banker depended upon his unerring judgment of character as a basis of credit. He was far too shrewd to lose himself forever in mystical beauty and the pleasant unrealities of Japanese color prints. The predominant note in much of his poetry is one of deep personal loss. His glamorous tapestries, for which he borrowed moods and tints from the pageantry of the Acadian seasons, have this pervading motif. Everything about him recalls the voice and features of this vanished love. This must be kept in mind adequately to appreciate his most elusive sonnets. They were fashioned fastidiously because the maker was a rare artist, but they were founded on life, for the poet had lived long and loved deeply. We may guess at the meaning of the metaphors, significant hints of color, and the small voices among the leaves, but the only exegetes who could make the meaning wholly clear have both withdrawn. Sherman’s mind was far too forthright and independent, his experience won at too costly a price, to permit the cheap imitation of style in another, or any second-hand, unworthy sentiment.
     In some respects Sherman was most akin to Rossetti. “A Memory,” “The Path,” “The Last Flower” and “The Kingfisher” from Matins, and several of the lyrics in A Canadian Calendar, vividly recall Rossetti’s brilliance of light color, but most of all his rich imagery and sensuous recollection. The Deserted City likewise calls to mind Rossetti’s idealization of love in The House [page 16] of Life, and especially in such sonnets as “Love-Sight,” “Love-Sweetness” and “Known in Vain.” The most casual reading of Sherman will prove clearly enough that he was not one of the Brotherhood of Pre-Raphaelites, even when Venetian sensuousness prevailed in their work. As has been shown, Sherman’s Guenevere was the Guenevere of Morris, not of Rossetti. Yet Rossetti’s revival of the spirit of wonder and romance assuredly influenced Sherman, as it has every other poet from that day to this. Holman Hunt speaks of the “beautifully devotional feeling,” a mood in which Rossetti was deeply immersed. Sherman transferred this feeling of wonder and awe to the object of his own desire. Whereas in Rossetti the feeling had been childlike in its simplicity and directness, in him it became simple and direct, but with a difference. What Sherman saw was not an imaginary object, some Blessed Damozel of dreams, or other celestial figure, but, on the contrary, the realest thing in his life, and, like Rossetti, what he beheld he saw with his eyes as well as with his soul. Where Rossetti, especially in The House of Life sonnet sequence, tended more and more to escape from all reality, Sherman entered more deeply in life. Poets might dally with Pan, and dissolve divinity in a cosmic mist, Sherman condensed the universe to one beloved form and piped to it in the valley of the St. John.
     Francis Sherman’s work is rich both in nature and humanity. He never forgot, in his passionate pursuit of subtle rhythms and the fastidiousness of his diction, the old burden of humanity. Color, contour and cadence unite to work their magic, yet everything is clear. Enchanted isles and unearthly paradises there are, but they do not preempt the place of living realities. Clear he ever was; at times his lines are almost naked in their simplicity, and all for one purpose―that man himself might shine through. Not man in the mass, nothing suggesting a world of social, industrial, or political conflict, there is nothing of all this is Sherman, but mankind in one man, how life and death, love and fear, joy [page 17] and grief, beauty and frustration make of his soul a world battleground, and that soul ultimately its own hell or heaven.
     While much of Sherman’s work is tinged with tragic suggestion, with drama and pathos, it also possesses charm and swift insight after the manner of Landor and DeQuincy, but without the exuberance, rhetoric and glitter of the one, or the remoteness and elaborate preciousness which frequently mar the work of the other. On occasion Sherman rolled out his lines with Elizabethan relish and gusto, as in the poem “To Doctor John Donne,” but on the whole there is a brooding wistfulness, a note of tragic suggestion and pathos as of a sensitive and lonely spirit contemplating the transitoriness of all life. Yet it was life he demanded, full-flavored and abundant. Life he conceived in terms of love, love that might solace the spirit, yet could kindle the mind also and exalt the senses. This, if so quiet and poised a spirit might be said to have striven, was the goal of all his questing and striving. His credo may be found in his first book, in the memorable sonnet, “Let Us Rise Up and Live!”, and it forms the pattern of his last known lines― “So, After All.” The songs that he sang were the songs of ascent, the songs of a pilgrim homeward bound.

 

LORNE PIERCE.

YORK MILLS.
    April 16, 1935.
[page 18]





1 Appeared in Matins [back]

2 “At Advent Tide,” published December 15, 1896. [back]

3 A New York editor and bibliophile; no relationship to the poet. [back]

 
 
 

 

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