James Reaney on writing and researching the Donnelly plays

In the 1976 Alumni Gazette (UWO) article “Souwesto Theatre: A Beginning” excerpted here, James Reaney describes the years he spent researching the Biddulph Tragedy of February 4, 1880 and how the knowledge he gained about the Donnellys’ world helped create the Donnelly trilogy. 

Orlo Miller, who wrote the historical book The Donnellys Must Die (1962), had based his research on local courthouse documents of the time. Miller’s collection of relevant documents was available to Reaney at the University of Western Ontario’s Regional Archives:

“One of my early experiences back here* […] was to go with my father to hear Orlo Miller lecture at Middlesex College on his recent book The Donnellys Must Die. As a child I had heard the story of this tragic family from our hired man, and my interest was revived now, especially when I heard that Mr. Miller had, in the thirties, collected a huge heap of legal and municipal documents with relevance to the Biddulph Tragedy from the attics of the courthouses at Goderich and at London […]. [In the archives] I entered the really magic world of the past which can only be reached through such fragile ladders and windows as bundles of counterfoils from Sheriff’s cheque books, Court Criers’ Bills, Surveyors’ Notebooks, Chattel Mortgages (whole inventories of people’s furniture and beasts and implements), Jury Lists, Assessment Rules, Crown Attorney Letterbooks and, last of all, mountains of blue paper containing an endless stream of Information and Complaint – the term used for the form you had to fill out when some fellow pioneer had dogged your cattle, tried to pour boiling water on you, torn down your fence, milked your cow furtively or torn down your house with you inside. [Alumni Gazette 1976, pages 14-15]

One of my first research lessons was to train myself to read nineteenth century handwriting and abbreviations; for example, for about a year I somehow assumed that “Inft” meant “infant” so that when you read “.… and poured boiling water over the Inft” I naturally saw the very darkest picture imaginable; suddenly one day it dawned on me that the early Huron District backwoods scene was indeed horrible, but that “Inft” did at least stand for an Informant fifty years old and perfectly capable of running away! Now these documents where a Plaintiff accuses a Defendant of doing something are extremely dramatic, partly because of the variety of things accused, and I made them into one of the choral passages in Sticks and Stones (Part One) in order to show the social situation at its tumultuous litigious mad worst, which is always the dramatic best! [.…] Propelled by the magnetic names “Donnelly” and “Biddulph” I read all the Huron District and County Archives from the beginning to 1863 when Biddulph Township leaves Huron County; I knew that I wanted to write a play about these people, but I wanted to get inside their world first and those hundreds of boxes filled with blue paper – it gets white about 1870 – were the keys to this state. Whoever filed away things in the Huron County Courthouse filed away everything, and I am eternally grateful […]. [H]ere you often get pictures of whole families talking at each other in a way that no history book ever thinks of showing you: one of my favourite lines from the trilogy – “It’s not enough that we should starve, but we must freeze to death as well” – comes right out of a Chancery document. [Alumni Gazette 1976, page 15]

Now there is probably a reason for this material being dear to a dramatist’s heart; a court case is after all a drama – with its lawyers arguing so one-sidedly against each other, with its witnesses opposing each other too and with a Judge, who quite frequently in the early days, climaxes everything with a knock on the head or wallet all around! If at the time you were to have taken a Constable’s Bill to the constable who had just filled it out and told him that it would make a good scene in a play he would have laughed at such foolishness. But time going by changes all that and scholars and artists have as their duty the finding out of just how time does give ordinary things meaning. After the five years were over and I found myself with Five Legal Blue Binders with transcribed material, I found that the three plays of The Donnellys corresponded to three of these binders. All – all!?, I had to do was pare things down from 200 hours of dialogue and action to three hours per binder! [Alumni Gazette 1976, page 15]

After a series of workshops with my own group, the Listeners, at Alpha Centre and Mini-Theatre, where we used this material in prototypes of the Donnelly plays called “Antler River” and “Sticks and Stones”, I did some more shaping until in 1972 I was invited down to Halifax to work with Keith Turnbull, a former student here on the material using local children and professional actors. The actors wolfed down the contents of the binders – and I think that in their performances you can see that they have genuinely touched some area of time not our own […]. [Alumni Gazette 1976, page 15]

This article originally appeared in Western’s Alumni Gazette in 1976 (pages 14-16). Read the full article here.

Miriam Greene, Patricia Ludwick, Jerry Franken, and David Ferry in James Reaney’s Sticks and Stones at the Tarragon Theatre in Toronto, 1973.

For more on James Reaney’s Donnelly research, see The Donnelly Documents: An Ontario Vendetta published by The Champlain Society in 2004.

* In 1960 James Reaney left his first teaching post at the University of Manitoba and came to teach in the Faculty of English at the University of Western Ontario in London, Ontario:
“One of the reasons I decided to leave my first teaching post in Manitoba and come to this campus was that I wanted to find out more about the land of my birth – Southwestern Ontario, or as Greg Curnoe very aptly calls it – Souwesto.” [page 14] 

Souwesto history continues to inspire local playwrights: Jeff Culbert has written a one-man musical version The Donnelly Sideshow, Chris Doty restaged The Donnelly Trial in 2006, and Paul Thompson wrote The Outdoor Donnellys (2001) and The Last Donnelly Standing (2016).

Gil Garratt as Robert Donnelly in The Last Donnelly Standing (Photo by Terry Manzo courtesy The Blyth Festival 2016.)

James Reaney on writing about the Donnellys

In this excerpt from an August 2001 interview conducted by Tim Struthers and published in the Spring 2013 issue of the journal Short Story, James Reaney sheds light on his fascination with the Donnelly massacre of 1880.

James Reaney first heard about the Donnellys from his stepfather when he was a child in the mid-1930s.

JR: I remember saying to my stepfather at the time, “Wouldn’t they have a door with a lock on it?” And he said, “Noooo, they wouldn’t have had a door with a lock on it. They had a piece of burlap bag across a hole in their shanty” … so that was pretty dreadful.
Anyway I was scared out of my wits. It was only twenty miles away from our farm. We were pretty much right next to it all at one time. And I just couldn’t believe it.

In 1946, local historian Alice MacFarlane gave a paper on the Donnellys at a meeting of the London and Middlesex Historical Society at the public library in London.

JR: [Alice MacFarlane’s paper] had all the usual elements of the story that Kelley tells, that people tell about the Donnellys still. And when she got to the part in her paper about how the Donnellys cut out the tongues of horses … an old man rose up out of the audience and came at her with a shillelagh … And he said “They never cut the tongues out of horses. Out of people, yes!” … And then he stomped out…

But I was fascinated as I read this in The Globe and Mail … And I realized the Donnellys had friends. I never thought that before, you see.

TS: When was this?

JR: It would be 1946.

TS: While you were an undergraduate at the University of Toronto.

JR: Yes. I’d been thinking about writing a play about them. The Kelley thing [Thomas P. Kelley’s The Black Donnellys] had not been written by that time. He’s 1954. And you couldn’t write a play about the story my stepfather told. So finding out that they had friends made a big difference. I began to think in terms of a play about them that would be a tragedy, rather than the kind of thing where it’s not tragic at all and they should be exterminated as soon as possible (laughter). Like many a modern horror film.

Note from Susan Reaney: This interview is excerpted from the Spring 2013 issue of Short Story, New Series Vol. 21 No. 1, pages 115-116. See also “Winter’s Tales”, a poem James Reaney wrote in 1949, which makes an oblique reference to “…the massacre at Lucan / Where the neighbours killed all of the McKilligans dead.”

James Reaney wrote a trilogy of plays about the Donnelly family and the tragedy: Sticks and Stones (1973), The St. Nicholas Hotel (1974), and Handcuffs (1975). He also edited and wrote the introduction to The Donnelly Documents: An Ontario Vendetta, published by The Champlain Society in 2004. For more about James Reaney’s research on the Donnellys, see James Reaney on writing and researching the Donnelly plays.

The story of the Donnellys continues to fascinate us and has inspired many other playwrights, including Peter Colley and Paul Thompson. London historian and filmmaker Chris Doty restaged the Donnelly trial, and Jeff Culbert has created a one-man musical version The Donnelly Sideshow. Jonathan Christenson‘s rock opera version of the Donnelly tragedy, Vigilante, premiered in 2015 at Edmonton’s Citadel Theatre.

Jerry Franken and David Ferry in Sticks and Stones, at the Tarragon Theatre in Toronto, 1973

James Reaney: Reflections on Shelter, Food, and “When the Great Were Small”

In his November 2016 lecture on “James Reaney and Music”, composer John Beckwith recalls James Reaney writing that “My experiences of opera were scrubbing kitchen floors on Saturday and hearing the Met broadcasts as I did.” What did Reaney mean, John wondered, his kitchen had more than one floor?

James Reaney's childhood home near Stratford, Ontario
James Reaney’s childhood home near Stratford, Ontario — Summer Kitchen entrance.

Yes, it turns out that “scrubbing kitchen floors” plural is accurate because the farmhouse where James Reaney was born in 1926 had two kitchens – a summer kitchen used May through October in the newer part of the house, and a winter kitchen used November through April in the older part of the house.

In his 1992 autobiography*, James Reaney reflects on “Shelter” and his first home:

[From his diary:] “Tuesday, January 3, 1939 – Wind: east, a sleety and very cold wind. Weather: very cold, snow deep, hard to get around.” Two months before we would have moved the stove and ourselves into the winter kitchen; a constant house-in-winter image, therefore, was passing through the summer kitchen, all cold and deserted, on the way to the pump or the barn. […] [p. 297]

On the topic of “Food”, he describes making toast in the summer kitchen:

“The summer kitchen would be filled with smoke resulting from our toasting of thick bread slices over, top of stove lifted, lids and all, open fire. As we sat down to breakfast, the kitchen was transformed by big, blue sun ladders coming in the east windows and slanting down to the linoleum.” [p. 296]

“Asked to name first foods that impressed me almost to the point of saying ‘dietary gods,’ I should have to say OATMEAL, MILK, WATER, TOAST. By many a mile, oatmeal comes first although the hard, hard water from our hundred-foot well is hard to beat.” [p. 295] […]

Now, the farm actually produced oats, a beautiful crop to watch turning from blue-green mist to yellow curved spikelets to dead-white ripe spilling into the granary from the threshing machine pipe. But the pursuit of status symbols prevented us from slipping backwards into primitivism, and my parents shopped for either Quaker Oats (not instant, long cooking; instant is an abomination) or rolled oats (plain brown paper bag). Sometimes in summer (see Alice Munro) we hereticized to Puffed Oats, shot from a cannon and supported by a radio serial called “Sunny Jim.” We even backslid to Kellogg’s Cornflakes or even Rice Krispies – again a radio programme tugged at us, in this case Irene Wicker’s “Singing Lady”; and for a box top from either of the above you could obtain a booklet called When the Great Were Young [sic] – stories of Michelangelo, Giotto, Bach − filled with notions of how to escape if need be from the farm one day. […] [p. 296]

James Reaney's copy of "When the Great Were Small: Childhood Stories of the Great Artists and Musicians as Told By Kellogg's Singing Lady", 1935 booklet for The Singing Lady radio programme, copyright Kellogg Company. Image courtesy Western University Archives, James Reaney fonds AFC 18.
James Reaney’s boyhood copy of “When the Great Were Small: Childhood Stories of the Great Artists and Musicians as Told By Kellogg’s Singing Lady”, 1935 booklet for The Singing Lady radio programme, copyright Kellogg Company. Image courtesy Western University Archives, James Reaney fonds AFC 18, Box A12-082-029.

* These autobiographical excerpts are from James Crerar Reaney, Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, Volume 15, pages 295-297, Gale Research Inc., Detroit, 1992.

James Reaney, age 1 1/2 years, on his front porch, January 1928.
James Reaney, age 1 1/2 years, on his front porch (summer kitchen side) January 1928.

Butterfly decoration by James Reaney, September 1947 (ink on yellow paper)
Butterfly decoration by James Reaney, September 1947 (ink on yellow paper)

Alpha Centre 1967: Monday June 9 at 7pm

Join us on Monday June 9 at 7 pm at the London Public Library for a lecture by James Stewart Reaney (James Reaney’s son) about the founding of Alpha Centre, an arts space devoted to drama where many of James Reaney’s “Listeners’ Workshops” were held. James Reaney described the new space and the activities there in Issue 13 of Alphabet (June 1967):

“[…] Just out of range — that part of Talbot Street across Dundas where a newly painted green door has appeared leading to newly founded Alpha Centre — in part a fulfullment of the editorial for Alphabet (4) — devoted to drama in Canada. This is “the bare long room” up above a store — it’s an old Legion Hall. Here Listeners’ Theatre Workshop has been meeting with its new kind of play theatre — children and young people pretending to be mirrors chromosomes marionettes, trees, rivers, — the Victoria Boat Disaster. Here Jack Chambers has been working on his Viet Nam film [Hybrid (1966)] transposing images of roses with those of burnt children.  Here all of Paradise Lost and all of Blake’s Jerusalem were read at a sitting — experiences that showed me new depths in these poems….” [Alphabet Issue 13, June 1967, Editorial, page 2]

Note from Susan Reaney: My brother James is the first speaker in the library’s new series of local talks — Terrific Tales of London and the Area. If you remember the green door at 389 Talbot Street, come to the Stevenson & Hunt Room at the London Public Library (Central Branch) on Monday June 9th at 7 pm to share your stories. (The Alphabet Press printing shop was not far from Alpha Centre on the second floor of the Dixon Building, 430 Talbot Street.)

James Reaney and family in 1965 in Leith, Ontario. Standing left to right are the adults: Colleen Reaney, Wilma McCaig (Jamie’s sister), and James Reaney. The children are John Andrew Reaney, James Stewart Reaney, and Susan Reaney (beside Applebutter). Photo by Jay Peterson.


James Reaney’s Alphabet celebrated in Devil’s Artisan

Issue 71 of Devil’s Artisan, A Journal of the Printing Arts, celebrates James Reaney’s magazine Alphabet (1960-1971) with “A Brief History of Alphabet Magazine” by D.I. Brown.

Devil’s Artisan, Issue 71, Fall/Winter 2012

The essay is a revised and updated excerpt from D.I. Brown’s MA thesis, ‘A History and Index of Alphabet Magazine’, which he submitted to the Department of English at McMaster University in April 1973.

“… But, like all of Reaney’s work, the idea of Alphabet was never abandoned. It became absorbed into the collective body of his imaginative output, and many of the ideas tried in the magazine became parts of Reaney’s new work.”
(Devil’s Artisan, Issue 71, page 60)

Alphabet Number One, September 1960

James Reaney printing at the Alphabet Press print shop at 430 Talbot Street in London, Ontario (mid-1960s). Credit: London Free Press/Sun Media Corporation.

As part of his research, D.I. Brown conducted taped interviews with James Reaney in the fall of 1971. The full version of Brown’s thesis can be viewed online at: digitalcommons.mcmaster.ca




Germaine Warkentin on A Suit of Nettles

Germaine Warkentin, Professor Emeritus of English at the University of Toronto, presented this paper on James Reaney’s A Suit of Nettles on January 7, 2011 at the 126th Annual Conference of the Modern Language Association in Los Angeles, California. It is reproduced here by permission of the author.

Modern Language Association, Los Angeles, January 7, 2011; “Spenser as the Poet’s Poet”

“Out of Spenser and the Common Tongue”:

James Reaney’s “A Suit of Nettles” (1958)

Germaine Warkentin, University of Toronto

James Reaney may be the best poet you never heard of. We all know enough about Milton, Stevens, and Merrill to engage in the conversation of this session, but apart from the Canadians here and a few Americans aware of my interest, I can guarantee that Reaney, who died in 2008, is a name unknown to you. In Canada I would not have to say this. Between 1950 and 1970 Reaney wrote prodigiously outside of the modernist framework then dominating Canadian poetry, and endured being unfashionable – too learned, too mythopoeic, too fixated on his home territory around London and Stratford Ontario. There was no cultural “Arcadianism” like that of the 1580s behind A Suit of Nettles. But Reaney was a playwright as well, busy developing a major career in the Canadian theatre, the masterpiece of which is his encyclopedic trilogy (1974-75) on the Black Donnellys, a legendary 19th century family who were at murderous odds with their Southern Ontario neighbours. It was the achievement of his plays that led more recent audiences back to the poems. I confess an interest – in 1972 I edited Reaney’s poems in a volume that helped turn the tide. Reaney was an amazing man: the most learned Canadian poet before Anne Carson, a civic icon in and around London and Stratford, a deeply responsible member of the professoriate at the University of Western Ontario, and a licensed mischief.

All Reaney’s characteristic features come together in the sequence of twelve poems known as A Suit of Nettles, which won the Governor-General’s Award for Poetry in 1958, and in various editions has remained in print for at least half of the 52 years since its publication; it was recently re-issued. A Suit of Nettles is based on Spenser’s Shepherd’s Calendar, though with a difference: its twelve eclogues, a brilliant display of Reaney’s virtuoso poetic technique, are set in an Ontario farmyard, and the figures who converse in its eclogues – Branwell, Dorcas, Mopsus, Effie and Fanny, Valancy, Scrutumnus – are all barnyard geese. What do they talk about? Love and its frustrations, poetic inspiration and the lack of it, pedagogy, literary criticism (Scrutumnus, not much disguised, is F.R. Leavis), Canadian history, and the turning year, which will bring most of them to the farmyard kitchen and the Christmas oven.

First, that virtuosity, in a brief rain of quotations:


The ending of the invocation to the Muse of Satire:

Here, lady, almost blind with seeing too much,
Here is the land with spires and chimneys prickly …
Has no one seen the country where your cure has cursed?
It is a land with upturned privies with occupants inside them
Crawling out through new tops like astonished moths
Bursting from their unusual, foul cocoons.

The January eclogue introducing the geese:

With the other geese within the goosehouse
There lived, I know not how, various kinds
Of geese: some like a cat, some like a mouse
Some like a groundhog, and some like lions,
And some like two straight parallel lines.

The September eclogue when (hee! hee!) farmhouse boy and girl hastily marry:

By parents strong pegged young Peter and Ann
Were wedded in welter by waspish minister

In the same eclogue, the drunken preacher’s sermon on the Last Supper:

What did those white souls eat while their Lord talked:
I don’t know, indeed I don’t, maybe sandwiches.
And He said haughtily head up to the twelve,
“I’ll ask you assafoetidae1 again I will,
Isn’t there one, one disciple with the spunk to betray me?”

And finally the opening lines of “February,” which I must quote entire to this group, for reasons which will be evident – one of the most beautiful things Reaney ever wrote:

The sun begets, the moon bears, tides away
Rush into coastal caves: “Men do bear not”
(The Courtier) “their children for a day,”
But women longer, for a nine-moon trot;
The young cub forms like a dim loose star-knot
In the lioness as down the sun sets,
Night wobbles in, and spirit goslings sought
To dance this month through the small small eyelets
Of birth before birth, death before death pinned
Resolved & tight in each large goose egg’s centre inned.

Which brings us of course to Spenser.

Reaney wrote A Suit of Nettles at breakneck speed in 1956-57 on sabbatical from the University of Manitoba. Bringing his wife Colleen Thibaudeau (also a fine poet) and two small boys to Toronto, he was desperately trying to take all his courses for the PhD, and write his thesis, and write A Suit of Nettles all in two packed years, and he did it – courses, thesis, and poem sequence.2 The thesis was supervised by Northrop Frye, and was called “The Influence of Spenser on Yeats.” Critics of A Suit of Nettles (including myself) have generally assigned its mythopoeic richness to the influence of Frye, who was just then publishing Anatomy of Criticism. Certainly Reaney’s writing at that point took a sharp turn away from the narcissistic minor “symbolisme” of his earliest book The Red Heart (1949) towards the encylopedic power of all his later writing. He never ceased to honour Frye, but his own learning (he had begun as a classicist) gave him a very rich instrument on which to play that tune. And at the University of Toronto in the 1940s and 50s he was surrounded by distinguished Spenserians and Miltonists, Frye of course, but also people like ASP Woodhouse and Arthur Barker. Thinking about Spenser was one of the things Toronto did to you in those days.

And thus the thesis, which has much to say about Spenser, though oddly little on The Shepherd’s Calendar. In it Reaney argues that the early Yeats failed to understand Spenser; in the preface to his anthology of Spenser (1906) Yeats depicted Spenser as “torn between … the aestheticism of the Bower of Bliss and the morality of the Seven Deadly Sins.” But as Yeats developed, “he no longer regards [him] … as having an imperfect, divided genius but as a poet who has successfully fused the two worlds of aesthetics and morality into an imaginative synthesis.”3 Like Reaney himself five decades later, in his own poetry Yeats had “exhausted the possibilities of the ornamental and sensuous.” The catalyst for a solution was his friendship with Lady Gregory, who “gave his imagination its moral and practical turn.”4 Yeats’ very Spenserian “The Shepherd and the Goatherd” draws on the interplay between Spenser’s Astrophel and The Doleful Lay of Clorinda for a vision balancing the two opposing states of consciousness, and seeks equilibrium by as Yeats puts it, “measuring out the road that the soul treads / When it has vanished from our natural eyes.”

Reaney too seeks this equilibrium, as the fine reflection on mutability in his December eclogue, on your handout, shows. He does so by challenging us to bridge the seeming gap between the Spenserian model of the pastoral eclogue and the Ontario barnyard. He found his bridge in Yeats, who he writes “delighted in grotesque contrasts; the sharper and the more vinegary they are, the better they express his system. One thinks of the very filthy swineherd in ‘A Full Moon in March’ set over against the very haughty Queen. But the comic, filthy swineherd is an extremely sacred person. I think that Yeats must have been attracted by the gaiety of the contrast.”5

Reaney didn’t write a Faerie Queene to succeed his pastoral eclogues. Instead he wrote a major dramatic cycle, the trilogy of Donnelly plays, in which the encyclopedism Spenser empowered in him took a very different form. Once Reaney, using his thinking about Yeats’ relationship with Spenser, had worked out for himself a concept of equilibrium, he was free to employ virtually any genre to give it voice. Yeats gives him access to “the gaiety of the contrast,” and we get the puzzled Ontarians peeping out of their overturned privies. But Spenser gives him the structure, one so solid it could even provide him at the end of “December” with the ourobouros of the yellow-beaked Winnipeg streetcar, signalling the fuller meaning of his exile from the east. By 1960 he was home again in Ontario, himself a “poet’s poet,” energizing for the next forty years an entire poetic and theatrical community.



1. Asafoetida: a herb that smells disgusting when raw but is not offensive when cooked.

2. Richard Stingle, to whom A Suit of Nettles is dedicated, confirms that Reaney had said nothing about plans for such a work before he left Winnipeg (R.M. Stingle, personal communication, 8 November 2010). Alvin Lee, the Beowulf scholar who was Reaney’s contemporary in graduate school and later wrote a book about him in the Twayne series, confirms that courses, exams, thesis, and suite of poems were all completed in a manic two years (Alvin Lee, personal communication, 20 November 2010).

3. James Reaney, “The Influence of Spenser on Yeats,” University of Toronto doctoral thesis, defended May 14, 1958; from the author’s abstract.

4. Reaney actually says this with respect to Leicester’s influence on Sidney, as reflected in an image from The Ruins of Time of the unclean fox taking over the noble badger’s den that turns up a number of times in Yeats.

5. Reaney, “The Influence of Spenser on Yeats,” 43.

The following pages were also included in Professor Warkentin’s presentation:

James Reaney (1926-2008); the “December” eclogue, from A Suit of Nettles (1958)

Teachable moments from Reaney’s use of Spenser

Copyright Germaine Warkentin, 2011. Reproduced with permission of the author.

The Story of North Easthope by James Crerar Reaney

From the 1982 Illustrated Historical Atlas County of Perth, here is James Reaney’s history of North Easthope. (James Reaney grew up in neighbouring township South Easthope, and his mother, Elizabeth Crerar (1898-1981), was born and raised on a nearby farm in North Easthope.)

The Story of North Easthope
Sometimes pronounced NORTHYSTOPE
and for reasons of space herein called N.E.

Prepared by James Crerar Reaney, 1982

They named the township after Sir John Easthope, a Canada Company director. Although he also owned a British newspaper called The Chronicle, I doubt if Sir John ever found out what farmboys in his township liked to do on Sunday afternoons in the 1890s. They’d go down to the Huron Road [Hwy. 7 & 8] to fight with their South Easthope contemporaries about which township was better. Picture them lined up on either side of the boundary exchanging stones, scoffs and fisticuffs. Well, whose is the better township has still not been decided. Born in the southern one, I say this: they’re very different from each other. With road names like Porkstreet and Hessenstrasse, musical instruments brought over from Germany such as pianofortes and trumpets, S.E. feels like a gently rolling part of Germany: with its steep roads going up into higher and even bluer hills and also with its kilted pipers at picnics, N.E. seems like a translation of Scotland.

Map of Perth County courtesy The Canadian County Atlas Digital Collection: http://digital.library.mcgill.ca/countyatlas/default.htm

But N.E. is not just Scottish; it was settled and still is made up of two racial groups, one Highland Scots and one Hessen Darmstadt Deutsch, originally about equal in size. One of my maternal great grandparents was born in Schiffelbach (Hessen) and another was born in Glenquaich, Perthshire. Their backgrounds are almost exactly the same as those of the groups mentioned above.

The cairn by the highway at Shakespeare commemorates such N.E. Highland settlers as Stewart, McTavish, Crerar, Scott, Fraser, Fisher, et al. They were crofters in Perthshire whose laird said in 1832 “Get out. I need my land back to raise sheep and you do nothing but distill illegal whiskey and marry your first cousins.” Be that as it may, there was, just before they came, a big fight with excisemen who tried to intercept a shipment of whiskey on its way to Breadalbane. When they came to N.E., some of them had their distilling equipment with them already to start again, but there was more money in growing wheat with no landlord to skim off the profits. Descendants have returned to Glenquaich (glen of the drinking cup!) and come back with snapshots of ruined cots and empty heaths. Such recent formations as a N.E. Pipe Band in the 1950s and an Easthope historical group in the 1960s responsible for making Brocksden School into a museum show that this group has no identity problems.

In 1835, Reverend Proudfoot of the London District sleighed past the new settlement and wrote: “50 Scotch families, most of them Highlanders”; he also describes the Dutch settlers around Helmer’s Tavern on the east border of the Easthopes as having “noble farms” and as holding “no man a preacher who is not inspired by the Holy Spirit and if he get his preaching talent so easily he needs no pay.” By “Dutch” Proudfoot means the Pennsylvania Germans of Wilmot Township, Mennonites, some of whom were settling in N.E. But what his statement also reminds us of is the fact that the Canada Company not only advertised local land for sale in Glenquaich, Scotland, but also in Bremen, Germany. In 1842, the company’s agent in Stratford issued 60 location tickets for N.E., most of them to settlers with such names as: Eidt, Erb, Faulhafer, Henkell, Herman, Hoffmeyer, Wettlaufer, Nafziger, Neeb, Paff, et al. Family tradition has it that avoiding conscription was one reason for leaving Hessen-Darmstadt. A persistent story is that their fathers sometimes held a boy’s foot under the horses’ hooves so he would be lamed and not grow up to march away as cannon fodder. To both groups then, Canada represented a release from unpleasant European constrictions, particularly poverty and repression. They were soon much better off in North Easthope. Descendants go back to tiny villages in Hessen-Darmstadt and return with snapshots of timbered, medieval farmsteads, still run by relatives as they have been for hundreds of years. How do you write a historical sketch about people who left Europe to get away from history?

In a sense nothing happens to happy people, but in N.E. what does happen in another sense is – “plenty”. Here in 1850 is what a hundred acre farm produced:
♦ wheat – 1,000 bushels, barley – 30, peas – 20, oats – 500, potatoes – 50; 12 tons of hay, wool – 100 lbs., maple sugar – 60 lbs., fulled cloth – 50 yds., flannel 50;
♦ supported 12 oxen, 7 milch cows, 10 calves, 5 horses, 35 sheep, 30 pigs, 200 lbs. of butter, 50 of cheese, 4cwt of beef and 20 of pork; also 10 people!

Katherine Fisher, who went to New York as a home economist, points out the drudgery involved: “Housework involved much heavy manual labour for our older sisters and rule-of-thumb methods invited contests with Lady Luck.” Also unpleasant must have been the strictly kept Sabbaths and Rev. D. Allan’s bringing up of young people before the session for their immorality in going to Stratford on Saturday nights. However, Lloyd Herman remembers “when we drove to Berlin to celebrate the change of name to Kitchener. My dad stopped off at Seagram’s Distillery in Waterloo and bought a five gallon jug of Rye Whiskey for $10 to make sure he had enough ‘medicine’ for the kids when they got bad colds in the winter time.” F. Addison Brown remembers a drive with his father down the Sawdust Road (Concession X) “through the little crossroads hamlet of Hampstead with its old-time tavern kept by the Peter Hoffman family, on west on our road bordered by rail fences, stake and rider fences and now, before reaching ‘The Gravel’ we traverse ‘The Sawdust Road.’” What one would not give now when making a journey to Stratford, as they were, to make it on a noiseless road of pine slabs covered “with a deep layer of sawdust from nearby mills.” Minnie Thomson, whose son named his famous artifact museum after her, tells of mischief in her corner of the township – near Ellice and the Irish School, the one part of N.E. neither Scots nor Deutsch:  “Young David Clark dearly loved playing tricks. One day he sauntered along – espied Mary Gillan’s chopping block, the axe and her cat basking in the sun.” Young Clark chopped off the cat’s tail and ran, but its eccentric Irish owner hit him with a heavy sled on his way home from school so heavily that he was in bed for months.

These and countless other anecdotes represent the real history of the township, but the political and economic context should be sketched in although it’s not much different from that of sister townships: the council meets at the township hall, rebuilt in 1963 beside the Hampstead-Amulree-Shakespeare road, the political centre of the township. Mention Ross McGonigle who held the position of township clerk for 25 years, retiring in 1975 and you get some idea of the community’s stability, not to be outdone by the father and son, A.M. and J.D. Fisher, who were clerks for almost 75 years.  Nearly every family has, through the generations, been involved in serving the township whether in political or in public service, the latter represented by such projects as school fairs, Junior Farmers, Women’s Institutes, agricultural fairs and plowing matches. For a long time, grassroots politics could best be observed at the annual meeting of the ratepayers to select three trustees for each of the eight public schools:  “The aim was to maintain the most basic cost of education possible in an atmosphere of seeming generosity.” In 1967, eight one-room schools – Brocksden, Bell’s, Clachan, Hampstead, Ratzburg, Irish, Burnside, Gadshill – were centralized into a township elementary school at Clachan. For further context, you should know that the township’s present acreage is 43,725; it has 335 farm residences, 303 non-farm residences and a population of 2,106, almost what it had in 1850.

A further surface history of N.E. would go something like this: 1835 – only five men own enough land to vote at Goderich against the Family Compact; 1837 – at the Little Lakes Militia parade, some N.E. settlers beg off for reasons of health.  Because they’re Mackenzie sympathizers? 1850 – James Trow starts to build up a power base from buying cheap land at tax sales which sends him to parliament and a manufacturing career in Stratford; 1855 – Crimean War produces wheat boom – up go stone houses and big barns; 1870s bring in cheese factories which take pressure off grain production; 1880 depression makes 1,000 leave for Michigan and Southwest Manitoba; 1905 – hydroelectric towers march across to Stratford, but no power for farms till 1938.  W.W.I. produces N.E. names on Stratford Cenotaph; veterans sally out in the early thirties to prevent a returned soldier’s farm from being taken over for the mortgage; 1939 – the Tweedsmuir books initiate historical research in the Women’s Institutes, a local, kitchen history movement instigated by a local woman; W.W.II, the end of the hunting clubs going up north for deer in the fall, margarine ends creamery cheques, more tractors after gas-rationing ends, no horses, bigger and bigger farm machinery, bigger fields, bigger all-the-same crops, i.e., corn. What next? How much farther can you go with mechanical farming? Back to 1850? Horses? Hay’s cheaper than oil?

But underneath, here is a real history contained in things that I have heard township people say:

“There were two kinds of gipsies used to camp in the bush. Scottish and Russian. The former sold lace.”
“Indian Sal used to pull flax. Drank vinegar.”
“Never played baseball at the Irish School. Always cricket when I was there.”
“If there’s enough blue sky to make a Dutchman a pair of trousers, then it won’t rain.”
“When it snows, there’s an old woman up in the sky plucking her geese.”
“I’m not pro-German, I’m real German.”
“25 men attended her coffin; she’d been midwife to their mothers.”
And in the Beacon for June 1, 1851 – “Queen’s Birthday at Shakespeare – 10 horsemen tilted for the gold ring.”

On Sunday, June 6, 1982, I attended the Annual Decoration Day Service at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, one concession up from the township hall, the oldest kirk in N.E.  My mother and her ancestors are buried there. As I put flowers on her grave using a juice can, I noted others doing the same – some with theirs wrapped in tinfoil. The church was packed, many young people and children in evidence. The Minister in charge was Rev. Sandy Fryfogel, scion of the first settler in the county. As I look over the programme now I see many Scottish names and also German ones; the programme mentioned a hymn sing that evening at Lisbon United Church, which originally was a United Brethren Church brought to N.E. by German settlers. Also mentioned was the coming 125th anniversary of the Presbyterian Church at Shakespeare. The singing of the psalms was loud, clear and enthusiastic; the sermon excellent – on the balance between the past and the ever-present, as a matter of fact. As we drove back down to Shakespeare, we saw the sheep on Bell’s farm. In 1832, David Bell was the very first settler in North Easthope.


For further background to Glenquaich, see Walter Scott’s Waverley, Annie Swan’s novel, Shelia, and Douglas Stewart’s Mactalla/More Scottish-Canadian Poems (Toronto, 1974).

See The Proudfoot Diaries, Militia Lists, and other early records at the University of Western Ontario Regional Collection. Also see Perth County Archives where James Anderson provided the notes and quotation for the political context paragraphs.

For information on German settlers, see Stafford Johnston’s “Hessian migration to the Canada Company’s Huron Tract” (Ontario Genealogical Society). Alice (Paff) Watkinson has compiled a book containing names of all Wilhelm descendants.

Katherine Fisher (Concession II, Lot 33) became Director of the Good Housekeeping Institute. See their Cookbook (New York, 1942).
Lloyd Herman (Concession II, Lot 10), “Memories,” 12 June, 1982, The Beacon Herald.
F. Brown (Nithburg), letter in Perth County Archives, 1935.
Mrs. Minnie Thomson, Avon W.I. Archives, 1947.

There’s a great deal more, both written and spoken. I hope some young N.E. historians get to work on the fuller account this great township deserves. J.C.R.

January 2, 2017 — Note from Susan Reaney: For more about Perth County and the early days of the Huron Tract, see Scottish emigré George Elmslie’s 1834 diary about his encounter with Perth County settler Sebastian Fryfogel: https://wcma.pastperfectonline.com/archive/7CFF3DD7-5CEE-4D84-801F-665918049019

“The Fryfogel Tavern” by James Reaney, 1962

“St. Anthony’s Chapel” by James Reaney, 1990 (St. Anthony’s Roman Catholic Church, a pioneer cemetery, is near Shakespeare, Ontario.)

Alphabet Number 11 and Poems by John Hirsch

From Alphabet Issue 11 (1966), here is John Hirsch’s poem “My Grandfather”:

My Grandfather

Old men love the sun.
My Grandfather, eighty four,
in black bowler,
black overcoat,
in the same chair
through Spring, Summer and Fall
always against the same white-washed wall
sat soaking up the sun.
Hands spread on his knees—
Skin like dried guts
cracked with veins like the indigo ink
he dipped his pen in to write
in velvet covered, silver-locked ledgers.

Dozing in the sun
his skin drew the heat
till he seemed to glow
like a black swathed mummy
of a gold-leafed Pharaoh.

John Hirsch, 1966

John Hirsch (1930-1989) lost his family in the Holocaust and came to Winnipeg, Canada as a war orphan in 1947. With the help of his foster family, he pursued his love of the theatre and became one of Canada’s most renowned directors. John Hirsch directed James Reaney’s play Names and Nicknames at the Manitoba Theatre Centre in Winnipeg in October, 1963.

Earlier this summer at the Stratford Festival, Alon Nashman performed his one-man play Hirsch, a tribute to this inspiring director. For more about John Hirsch, see A Fiery Soul: The Life and Theatrical Times of John Hirsch, by Fraidie Martz and Andrew Wilson.

Colleen Thibaudeau: A Biographical Sketch

Colleen Thibaudeau: A Biographical Sketch by Jean McKay
from Brick, Issue 5, Winter 1979, pages 6-11.
Reproduced with kind permission of Jean McKay and Stan Dragland.

 The following sketch is composed primarily from two interviews with Colleen Thibaudeau, the first, in January 1976, conducted by Stan Dragland, Peggy Dragisic and Don and Jean McKay, and the second in December 1978 with Jean McKay. The interviews themselves each lasted a couple of hours.

The patchwork chart [pages 12 and 13] is the result of a “memory game”. We went through the places where Thibaudeau has lived (the left-hand column, on the chart) and she snapped out quick reactions to the various categories.

PD: How does a poem start?

CT: You generally have a line, comes into your mind, I don’t know from where. Or maybe more than that, even… and if you’re adroit enough to write that down fairly quickly, and its follow-up will come almost right away, then even if you can’t go on with it any more at the moment, if you can get that much down… (this morning, the line hasn’t come yet, but I know the feeling it’s going to be, let me think now, it’s something about calendars, little boxes on calendars being like panes in windows that you can see the day through? Now this morning that sort of came into my mind)… and then the light, it seems to come, either light or music or some movement in the room, or if you’re outside, seems to add another element. I don’t know what that is, I’m just trying to explain it to you. Out of that a line comes. Now, you might change that line, it might have to be longer, or more beats, or different things. And then, if you sit down and work on that, you’re going to have a poem or a story.

Colleen Thibaudeau was born in Toronto on December 29, 1925. Her father, back from the war, was a student at the University of Toronto. He came from the Markdale area of Grey County, Ontario. Her mother was a war bride, from Belfast.

CT: My Dad took us to church, and insisted that we go to Sunday School. My mother only went once, that I knew, and then she hated the smell of the lilies, and never went again. She’s very positive. It was Easter and she asked one of the ushers to open a window, and he wouldn’t, so she said that was that.

When she was a year old, her father took a teaching job in Chesley, a small town back in Grey County. Here her brother John was born. After three years in Chesley, Thibaudeau’s father became Principal of the high school at Flesherton, also in Grey County.

CT: Then in Flesherton the Depression came on, and they were going to have to cut all the salaries in half, and the teachers were so sweet, they were going to give Dad an eighth of their salaries if he’d stay. He did PT too, and he took the debating classes around…

JM: Was he a person with a lot of energy?

CT: I think so, yes, I think he was very energetic. I think he wouldn’t have changed over from being on whatever level he was on there at Chesley to this Principalship even in a tiny little school, except that he felt he would really do something for them, and try to do what had been done for him at Owen Sound. This Owen Sound high school that he went to, I think made people very very… conscientious, and so on. They had very high standards… it’s a Scottish connection up there that’s very high on education… and Dad had wanted to be a journalist, and he had taken part in a lot of debating and so on so it wasn’t hard on him. It was easy for him to train his best kids who were talented, and take them around to debate and they won things. And they were very good in soccer, which is the other thing he was good in.

Rather than stay on in Flesherton, the family moved again to Toronto, where Mr. Thibaudeau (the name is Acadian/French, the Acadian connection being several generations removed) went back to University to improve his degree. The younger daughter Shelia was born there.

 Then they moved to St. Thomas, where Thibaudeau attended the last few years of public school, and then high school. Her life in St. Thomas sounds idyllic.

CT: We liked going down to the creek. My mother always let me go to the ravines, because one friend had a police dog, and another friend had a dog… so I think I had a much freer existence probably… we just did everything… We didn’t actually camp overnight because we didn’t have any camping stuff, but we’d go down early in the morning onto these little islands and just stay there and light fires and roast things. That went on for ages, I adored doing that. I never went to Girl Guides or anything like that… We all kept journals, we were all very influenced by Arthur Ransome, that sort of book… running up flags, and signaling, and lookouts, and skating on the river.

During her school days she wrote poems, and some of them were published in Sunday School magazines.

CT: Then the war came, you see, just as I was going into high school. All the extra-curricular activities stopped. Probably if I ever had a chance to got to, say, a literary society, or something like that or a dramatic society it would have helped me a lot ‘cause I would have had to work with other people, you know, the way we did in the Junior Red Cross, you worked together, and you made up your little plays, and so on, and it was quite fun. But there was nothing, see, all the activities stopped because of the war. We had a nice time. We skated, and did First Aid, and I use to work in Gould’s store… just a small town life. There was very little, really, going on. Then the Air Force came, and there were, you know, lots of young men roaming around the streets so you got to know people from all over Canada and Australia.

Thibaudeau’s father’s relatives were still in the Markdale area, and the family sometimes went back there in the summers.

 CT: During the war there was gas rationing, so we didn’t go up as much as one would think. The big summer that I remember up there was the summer that my mother went to Ireland, so we had to look after all the kids – my brother and I, and Dad, and my little sister – on what we called “the back place.” There was a house, and some animals, it was next to our bush, and Dad went into the bush with John and fixed up the fences…. I think there was an icebox; I’m not certain, maybe not. I guess we just went every day and got some milk, and kept it around the pump.… My sister had fantastic hair, and it was very hard to keep, and it finally just got beyond me. I couldn’t keep her hair right. She was in the woods all the time, burrs and so on. I tried. I had to do it in three plats instead of two. So my mother just was hysterical when she came back and saw her hair.

From St. Thomas, Thibaudeau went to University College at the University of Toronto.

CT: I was the oldest child, you see, so it was sort of assumed that I could go if I got a scholarship. I wanted to go to UC. My dad had taken me to look at Western, and I didn’t like it. I didn’t like the floors. They were all marbly, and I just wasn’t used to that, it wasn’t like old St. Thomas Collegiate, you know with its nice wooden floors. Stupid.

She received a BA in English, with options in French, and then an MA in English. She met several people who were interested in writing, among them James Reaney, and she contributed both poems and short stories to the student literary magazine, the Undergrad.

CT: I went to the Modern Letters club, which I suppose would be the closest thing to a “literary circle,” but I was the very underperson of that, I would say… My husband never talked very much about writing or anything, he just did it. Phyllis Gotlieb, who was then Phyllis Bloom, was quite a good friend, and Phyllis talked more seriously about doing things. Phyllis was quite confident about what she was going to do. She was already working on certain novels and things, and I never thought in these big terms. I guess I always have thought in fairly small units because I just felt I couldn’t get [larger things] finished, and as long as you keep thinking that way you don’t get them finished, of course.… Henry Kreisel was in that group, and Dorothy Cameron… and Jamie, of course, and Duncan Robertson, Bob Weaver… fascinating people…

JM: Where did you meet Margaret Avison?

CT: I think what happened… Margaret had gone to Victoria College. She knew Northrop Frye, and she wanted very much to meet Jamie. Northrop Frye took Margaret Avison and myself to lunch at Eaton’s College Street, and we had sort of cranberry-like things on blanc-mange, as I remember; you know, it was very nice and light. And the idea was that then I would see that she would meet Jamie. She was so shy that she couldn’t meet everybody all together…. A lot of unexpected things have always happened to me like that, I don’t go looking for them.

DM: One of the stories that you published in the Undergrad, “Wild Turkeys,” seems to be recollecting the Markdale experience.

CT: Well, see, I lived [while at U of T] with my great aunt. Great Aunt Belle was the second sister of my grandmother Stewart.… It was just a pleasure to live with her because she had a slightly easier way of remembering things. My grandma was fun in many ways, but she was just so hurried and harried all the time that she never told you anything. But Aunt Belle was a more gentle easy-going person. And a couple of times, you see, she’d just begin to go into stories like that. So it was from a couple of things she said to me that I reconstructed or made up that story. She wouldn’t have said more than a couple of little hints.

Thibaudeau also had poems in the Northern Review and Here and Now.

SD: Were you at University when Here and Now started up?

CT: Oh yes. It was such a very beautifully designed magazine, that grew out of the Undergrad. You see, Paul Arthur was the Undergrad editor, and very autocratic, and wanted to do everything his own way. He had studied typography and so on with “Graphis” in Switzerland, he’d been in the navy and had gone there before he came back, so that he changed the Undergrad into that gorgeous format, and was very strict about what he put in…. Here and Now started because Arthur was tossed out of the Undergrad, because he was too snobby.

SD: It was quite an impressive magazine.

CT: It’s a lovely magazine, yes. He had contacts from Europe and so on, from his father, I suppose.

SD: Did he know people like A.M. Klein?

CT: Oh yes, he brought the Sitwells over, and did he bring Spencer and Auden? Something like that. They’d be on a circuit, a reading circuit…. Maybe this is a sidetrack, I never knew this man so well, except that he gave me his naval greatcoat when I got married and was going to Winnipeg, he took it off, and he said “you’re going to need this more than I will.” He was funny like that, he was very stuffy in some ways, you know very sort of English, but then he was very spontaneous in other ways….

SD: Was Northern Review going then too?

CT: In ’47 [summer] I worked in Montreal, and that was my first real contact with Northern Review. I’d had a couple of poems in so I phoned them. I didn’t know anybody in Montreal… and they said would you come over tonight, and there was some great to-do about the laundry, I remember…. They had no money, the Sutherlands, John Sutherland, Audrey Aitman. Irving Layton was married to Betty Sutherland who was John’s sister…. Anyway, while I was there (this is terrible, you see I knew very little, I had worked in tobacco and all this stuff, but I didn’t really know how people managed because my mother always managed so well)… while I was there this intricate thing took place, there would be a knocking, so we’d all fall silent and practically hide under the table, in case [the knocker] would be looking through the key hole, and it was that they owed for their laundry… where Audrey who was very very clean took everything, and they would go and pick it up and make some nice little remark and get it away, you see, but it wouldn’t be paid for ages. Everything in the apartment was spotless. She worked nights as a proof reader and so did Betty, but they made so little money, and the men were not working, and they were financing the magazine…. It was very simple…. It was just that summer, I only saw them a few times. John was hand-setting all his magazine.

Thibaudeau completed her MA in 1949, and worked for McClelland and Stewart for a year, doing advertising.  Then she spent a year in France, in the town of Angers, teaching and studying. “How to Know the True Prince,” which appears in this issue of Brick, derives from that experience, as do other stories in a planned series that has not yet been completed.

DM: Were there really African Princes in Angers?

CT: Oh yes, that’s not made up. Elements of the story are made up; there was no thievery or anything like that…. The Janine character, I don’t think that was really true, I think that was sort of a friendship, and I made it into a love story. You see, it’s just what is suggested to you by stuff…. There were two African Princes, one was very nice, very above-board, and the other one was very… this white-suited guy that was so different from anybody, and he was involved in some sort of shady dealings, but I don’t think it was exactly what I said. And there were Japanese, and Chinese, and Norwegians… or there had been, other years. People told you about what had been, other years. It was very fertile ground for stories.

In the fall of 1951, back in Toronto, Thibaudeau worked on the Canadian census, and for the post office during the Christmas rush. On December 29, she married James Reaney. They went by train to Winnipeg, where he was teaching English at the University of Manitoba.

JM: Did you feel like you were having a big adventure, going off to Winnipeg?

CT: Oh yes, I loved it….  The only thing that was very difficult about everything – none of the packing or anything like that seemed to be too bad, or the wedding, none of that seemed to be too difficult, although it was very bad weather, but the thing that was the worst, was that Jamie was bound that he was going to teach me how to play chess, and I couldn’t seem to learn…. I wanted to look out the window or do something else.

At first they lived in Reaney’s boarding house, then in a series of apartments. Their first son James Stewart was born while they lived in an apartment on Warsaw Avenue, in 1952. Then for three years they lived in a house in King’s Park, at that time a little German village outside the city. Their second son, John, was born there in 1954. Reaney’s father came to live with them at this time, and remained with them until his death in 1972. They bought a house on Balfour Street in Winnipeg, and were there for another three years.

 Thibaudeau was writing and publishing poetry fairly steadily, in a variety of magazines. While she was in Winnipeg she decided to use a pseudonym. She felt that her name was becoming familiar to editors, and she’d like to start fresh. She used the pseudonym pretty consistently from 1951 to 1962.

JM: Did you feel like you were a different persona when you were M. Morris, or was it merely a convenience for publishing? The poems themselves were different, but I wondered if you were writing them as M. Morris.

CT: No, I don’t think I felt any different. The poems were different, I agree, and it made it sort of pleasant to have a different name with them. I just had… problems getting things published and all of a sudden it hit me, let’s put these under different names and see how it goes along…

JM: And it did go along.

CT: It went along much better, and it also sort of separated these ones out, somehow… it’s hard to remember how it felt at the time, but I don’t think it felt like a different persona, actually.  I think it was more like, almost like a little house or shelter you built around those, because they weren’t like the others…. I don’t know exactly how I got the idea. It just seemed to come all of a sudden, “OK, let’s try a pseudonym.”

JM: Almost like a prank.

CT: Yes, it didn’t seem to mean very much. Probably that heady atmosphere of Winnipeg makes you think of things like that.

JM: Too much oxygen in your blood.

CT: I had just met this Margaret Morris, who said, “Oh sure, a good idea, I’ll take your mail at my house.”

[In 1956]* the family moved to Toronto while Reaney did his PhD. After two years they returned to Winnipeg, and Susan was born, in 1959. Then, in 1960 they moved to London, where Reaney began teaching at the University of Western Ontario. They lived on Craig Street for a year, and then moved to Huron Street, where they are at present. In 1966 their son John died, from a sudden attack of meningitis.

DM: How do you feel about “the region”?

CT: Around here, it’s a very pastoral sort of region. I used to really miss Grey County…. I don’t think I did like London at first, but now I sort of like it better, and see more in it…. I don’t know whether I feel that [my poems] belong to any particular region or not, really…. I felt really attuned to Vancouver Island, that little region where we were in there [in 1968-69, for a sabbatical year], you know it just felt perfect, and certain other places where we’ve lived I’ve just felt really right in that place, and at some times of the year I feel fine where we live now. Other times, no.

JM:  I feel your poems are “domestic” in the sense that you’re not trying to get away from what’s happening to you. They seem to derive quite naturally from the life you lead.

CT: Yes, I’m not a researcher, see, I think you can add a whole new world if you’re a good researcher, and I’ve never really got going at that.

JM: Well, it’s the homogeneity that appeals to me. That’s why I like “The Glass Cupboard” so well, because you’ve got those glasses holding the reflections of everything… all the different worlds really do seem to balance for you.

CT: Yes, they should…. You get energy form using energy, you get more from it, energy to go around faster, and eliminate the things that are unimportant. It’s interesting. We go though different phases, I think.  Sometimes you feel as if you don’t have that content within you to express… there’s a sort of bubbling up of the content so that you know you can do it, you don’t know what it is, yet… but you know that that’s there and that you can just keep drawing on whatever it is, endlessly. Well then you go through other periods, where you don’t feel confident that that content exists….

Balancing writing with domestic concerns has indeed been difficult. Nor has sharing living space with another energetically creative individual always been easy.

CT: People were always asking me about the archetypes and things. Well, I never studied the archetypes, and they’re a little bit mentally beyond me, I mean if someone explains it to me I can remember it for awhile, but I can’t work that way. Like he [Reaney] will draw it all out, and he knows from which column he’s drawing his images… and I think that’s good, to be conscious of what you’re doing, but with me they either seem to come instinctively from the right area, or…. It certainly expands your world.

SD: It sounds like your ways of working are different.

CT: Yes, well, I just don’t seem to have the mentality to understand what that is. I understand the net result of what happens to you when you do it, that it expands, and that it also gives you pegs on which to hang your thought. It makes your mind tidier, and so on… but as far as remembering it all, I don’t have that.

I think you have to have a place where you can leave stuff out a little bit. And although we have lots of rooms in our house, we just don’t seem to have that kind of set-up. I usually work on the dining-room table…. I found out long ago that I could not work while he was… fermenting up an idea…. It just created such a whirlwind around the place, that I couldn’t seem to get out of it. Now that is partly just a thing that you feel; if you wanted you could overcome that… but it just seems the intellectual energy or something is just…

JM: Flying around the house.

CT: Yes, and so you can’t always keep your own thoughts straight, you see, and I don’t want to write what he’s thinking, even if I could tap in on it, I would want to continue what I was thinking. I found that very hard. So, poor soul, he goes over a lot to the office.

JM: What do you want a poem to do?

CT: Well… I really would like very much if they were as good as songs… songs that people could hear, and that would be sort of going round in their head…. They’re not, nor is there any music with them, but I was always interested when occasionally someone would set something to music to try and see if it would be a good sort of song…. I like Robert Burns, I like the feelings of those older popular but good, very very good things. I’ve never been able to achieve that, but that’s the ideal sort of thing….

JM: So you want them to belong to people.

CT: Oh yes, if they could. Now the only way they can, is if they’re good enough, and if they really are relevant, or whatever, if the words are right, you know…. And that’s sort of what you’re struggling toward, in one sense…. However you have problems of time and technique, and lack of, what shall we say, getting the thing across properly, or of getting it published, or of this or that, and it’s sort of easier, always, what you do you’ve done because it’s sort of the easy thing you could do at that moment, you see, and it probably isn’t what you were interested in doing.

JM: But it doesn’t make it bad…

CT: No, sometimes if things have that feeling of ease about them, they are very very good…. It isn’t that you want it to last forever.

*Note from Susan Reaney: In September 1956, James Reaney and Colleen Thibaudeau moved to Toronto with their young sons James and John so James Reaney could complete his PhD. (See Colleen Thibaudeau’s playlet “A Nau(gh)tical Afternoon” from August 1956.)




Happy 50th, Alphabet!

Fifty years ago this month, James Reaney published the first issue of Alphabet, a literary magazine featuring poetry, stories, art, essays, and reviews. Reaney edited Alphabet: A Semi-Annual Devoted to the Iconography of the Imagination from 1960-1971. He published poetry by Margaret Atwood, Jay Macpherson, Al Purdy, Milton Acorn, bp Nichol, and Joy Kogawa, among many others, and kept in touch with writers across Canada.

Here is the cover of the first issue, which was designed by Allan Fleming.

Alphabet Number One, September 1960

Contributors to the first issue were John Robert Columbo, Daryl Hine, Edward Kleiman, Hope Arnott Lee, Jay Macpherson, M. Morris, Norman Newton, John Peter, Richard Stingle, and Colleen Thibaudeau.

Here is the first editorial James Reaney wrote for Alphabet:


Perhaps the drive behind this magazine might be found in the following cluster: (a) The most exciting thing about this century is the number of poems that cannot be understood unless the reader quite reorganizes his way of looking at things or ‘rouses his faculties’ as Blake would say. Finnegans Wake and Dylan Thomas’ ‘Altarwise by owl-light’ sonnet sequence are good examples here. These works cannot be enjoyed to anywhere near their fullest unless one rouses one’s heart, belly and mind to grasp their secret alphabet or iconography or language of symbols and myths. A grasping such as is involved here leads to a more powerful inner life, or Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’s wall.’ Besides which it’s a hell of a lot of fun. It seems quite natural, then, in this century and particularly in this country, which could stand some more Jerusalem’s wall, that there should be a journal of some sort devoted to iconography. After all Ernst Cassirer defines man as a symbol-making animal.

But (b) there had to be more than this general feeling of our time. There had to be the particular pressure of friends, teachers and even scoffers also interested in symbolism in one way or another. I can remember about twelve years ago at Toronto feeling the final clutch of the so-called scientific world. Metaphors seemed lies. Poetry seemed to have no use at all. The moon looked enchanting through the trees on Charles Street, but the enchantment was really nothing but an illusion of clouds and fantasy covering up a hideous pock-marked spherical desert. When I told this part of my problem to a friend, whose work appears in this issue, he showed me a passage from the Marriage of Heaven and Hell which had the effect of starting me back to the belief I had held as a child that metaphor is reality. Those were the months when young men and women sat up all night reading Fearful Symmetry which had just come out. I think I have been present at more conversations about the Fall than even Adam could have thrown a certain withered apple core at, and assuredly more speculations concerning Leviathan than Job scratched his boils to. Here in your hands lies one of the effects of those conversations — a small secret looking book devoted to the proposition that it is very interesting mankind should answer the terrors of the inner and the outer world with a symbolic fruit and an iconic sea-beast. Interest increases with exploration. This attitude is to me one of the most stimulating areas of intellectual life in Canada. A traveller from abroad would immediately pick it out. Ils ont parlé toute la nuit de baleines blanches! So base a mag on this fact, actually personally observed, this fact of our cultural life. It’s a sturdy fact too; why else so much opposition? The tactics of the anti-symbol, anti-anagogy gang could only be described by making up titles for their mags, such as: Anti-Rot, ExeJesus, Values, The Lampman Review and True Feelers. However.

And (c) there was the desire to do the same delightful thing I had watched here and now, also Northern Review, do: publish real poems and real stories in a format and an area of subtle zoning that created a memorable effect (as distinct as a taste) on readers and also ‘placed’ the poems and stories to their advantage. This must by one of the happiest of civilized activities, akin to the proper arrangement of flowers. It was Kleiman’s story I first felt I must see published; it was so imaginative and no one was doing a thing about it. No really live focus appeared to put the story in until a juxtaposition, mind and social, occurred: Jay Macpherson read a paper on myth at the English Club (part of it appears on pages within) and afterwards there was a party at an apartment on Yorkville. Here Hope Lee told the stories about being a twin that we’ve also printed. It suddenly came to me that here was proof that life reflected art. The myth of Narcissus reaches out and touches with a clarifying ray the street scene where the two human beings glide by also in the toils of reflection. That’s how poetry works: it weaves street scenes and twins around swans in legendary pools. Let us make a form out of this: documentary on one side and myth on the other: Life & Art. In this form we can put anything and the magnet we have set up will arrange it for us.

Two years later (printing lessons, typesetting, waiting for t’s to come from Toronto, balancing trays of type on buses rolling in blizzards) here it is.

Winnipeg, July 1960.