Playing the Indian Card

Monday, October 30, 2017

The Lake of the Thousand Isles

The bard.

Evan MacColl, the Bard of Loch Fyne, is not well remembered. I see no reason to disagree with the judgment of time on this. In English—his poems in Gaelic I cannot evaluate—he was a competent versifier, no more. His poems are good, but generic, with nothing to distinguish them from the output of a hundred other poets of the day.

Still, if he was no more than a competent versifier, he was no less. He was a skilled craftsman, and there used to be a place for a competent craftsman of verse: as an occasional poet. Someone who could be counted on to write a poem to mark some special occasion: the opening of a new bridge, a visit by the Prince of Wales, the founding of the Engineers’ Society.

For that, MacColl was more than adequate. Consider his ode to the steam engine, “The Modern Hercules”:

Offspring renowned of Water and of Fire!
Thy triumphs, Steam, to sing I would aspire:
Let critics who would deem my numbers tame
Confess at least the greatness of my theme.
Power unmatched! what wonders hast thou wrought!
What feats sublime beyond the reach of thought!
In thee we gladly realize at length
The fabled Titans’ all- compelling strength —
A might that dwarfs what Grecian bards have told

Of deeds Herculean done in days of old.
The winged Mercury of their proud day
Were, matched with thee, a lagger on the way:
Scornful of distance, unfatigued by toil,
No task thy temper or thy strength can spoil, —
Whate’er thou doest doing with good will.
And at such speed as seems a miracle.
Man's mightiest ally upon land or sea.
He owns indeed a glorious gift in thee!
Not mine the skill to sing in fitting phrase
How science yokes thee to her car — the maze
Of tubes metallic, wondrous as a spell,
In which, like to a spirit, thou dost dwell —
A worker with a zeal that naught can tire,
Determined, prompt, impetuous as fire,—
Seeming as almost taught to think and feel
With that complex anatomy of steel!
To this let others fitting homage pay.
My task be thy achievements to portray.
Cliched and predictable, but seamless. My favourite line is “complex anatomy of steel.” That was a nice little verbal pirouette.

The only reason MacColl seems worthy of mention, even to me, is that he spent thirty years at the Kingston, Ontario, Canada, Customs House, and composed rhymes on his new home. Which happens also to be the area, more or less, where I largely grew up: the Thousand Islands.

I think the Thousand Islands are, legitimately, one of the more beautiful parts of the world. I say that having visited and lived in many parts of it now. At one time, many of America’s rich and mighty agreed, and built summer palaces on its banks.

Yet it has not been much celebrated in verse. And any verses I have seen have been awful.

To this task, MacColl is up:


Though Missouri’s tide may majestic glide, 
There's a curse on the soil it laves; 
The Ohio, too, may be fair, but who 
Would sojourn in a land of slaves? 
Be my prouder lot a Canadian cot 
And the bread of a freeman’s toils; 
Then hurrah for the land of the forests grand, 
And the Lake of the Thousand Isles! 

I would seek no wealth, at the cost of health, 
‘Mid the city’s din and strife; 
More I love the grace of fair nature’s face, 
And the calm of a woodland life; 
I would shun the road by ambition trod 
And the lore which the heart defiles; — 
Then hurrah for the land of the forests grand. 
And the Lake of the Thousand Isles! 

O, away, away! I would gladly stray 
Where the freedom I love is found; 
Where the pine and oak by the woodman’s stroke 
Are disturbed in their ancient bound; 
Where the gladsome swain reaps the golden grain. 
And the trout from the stream beguiles; 
Then hurrah for the land of the forests grand, 
And the Lake of the Thousand Isles!

I doubt the Thousand Islands were an untouched “forest grand” even in MacColl’s day. And I think the area was short on gladsome swains reaping grain. Or trout: pike and bass are more common. These are bits of his standard-issue romantic claptrap. But the thing is decently done, with a nice refrain to which one might hoist a glass.

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