"I am 3/4ths Canadian, and one 4th New Englander - I had ancestors on both sides in the Revolutionary war." - Elizabeth Bishop

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Nova Scotia Connections -- The Christophian Literary Society

On January 14, 1903, the “Newsy Notes” of Great Village, in the Truro Daily News, reported: “An evening with the Christophian Literary Society ... speaks for our literary taste and culture.” In 1961, Elizabeth Bishop received the Women’s Institute’s newly printed History of Great Village from her Aunt Grace. The item that most intrigued her was about “The Literary Society”:

In the early 1900̓s the Great Village Literary Society was formed. Rev. and Mrs. W.M. Crawford were active in the Organization and fortunately Mr. Crawford’s successor, Rev. A.L. Fraser, brought to the Group a literary interest and knowledge which assured its continuance ....The Society met fortnightly in the homes of the members, to spend the evening reading and discussing great literature. A winter each was spent on Keats, Ruskin, Mrs. Browning, Milton, Shakespeare, Dante, and two winters on Browning and Tennyson ....The Society did not long continue after Mr. Fraser left in 1914, but for ten years at least, each winter the Group had lived with great writers.

After reading this passage, Bishop was prompted to write Grace, “And did you see the item about the old ‘Literary Club’ — I’d like to know how many people in G[reat] V[illage] ever read Browning or Tennyson these days ... and it happens everywhere — culture is dying out completely in small places.” (20 February 1962, Vassar College) Shortly afterwards, she wrote to Robert Lowell:

The saddest thing is the Literary Society (my mother and aunts belonged) in the early 1900̓s .... I imagine no one in that village has opened a Milton or a Browning for years now, and TV aerials rise from the shingles. The dying out of local culture seems to me one of the most tragic things this century — and it’s true everywhere, I suppose — in Brazil, at any rate. (One Art, 407–8)

Why this literary society was called “Christophian” (the Truro Daily News spelled it several different ways, including Kristosophian, Kritisphian, etc.!! – apparently, the locals couldn’t quite figure it out either) is a mystery. Its guiding light was Rev. Alexander Louis Fraser, Presbyterian minister in Great Village from 1905–1914. In his day, Fraser was a well-known and beloved poet, who published many books. Though living elsewhere during Bishop’s childhood in the village, he continued to summer there during the 1910s. Without a doubt, Bishop would have known him, as he was a friend of her grandparents, mother and aunts. Even Uncle George Shepherdson had been treasurer of the society for a couple of years.

The society’s members did not only gather in parlours and sitting rooms for quiet evenings of reading, discussion and reflection, they also organized concerts. An especially popular event was the annual Robbie Burns’ night.

Even though the society was defunct by the time the four-year-old Bishop arrived with her mother in Great Village in 1915, its residue persisted. She had vivid memories of her Aunts Maude and Grace reciting Browning and Tennyson to her throughout her childhood. She remembered her grandfather sitting at night in the parlour reading to the family from Burns, “He had a way of reading Burns — he neither wrestled with the Scotch dialect nor ignored it — he conceded wherever necessary. There was just enough to give it a Scotch flavour ... a drop of red wine into the clear yellow of the lamp-lit evenings.” (Vassar College) Those quiet private readings also brought the memory of her mother’s favourite Burns poem: “O wert thou in the cauld blast,” which Mendelssohn had set, which she requested that her father read in that lamp-lit parlour. Might she have heard it, too, during one of those Burns’ nights? In February 1910, as the Daily News reported, the literary society hosted “A Burns’ Night at Great Village” and part of the ambitious programme was a “Duet & violins” rendering of this wrenching poem:

O, wert thou in the cauld blast
On yonder lea, on yonder lea,
My plaidie to the angry airt,
I’d shelter thee, I’d shelter thee;
Or did misfortune’s bitter storms
Around thee blaw, around thee blaw,
Thy bield should be my bosom,
To share it a’, to share it a’.

Or were I in the wildest waste,
Sae blaek and bare, sae blaek and bare,
The desert were a paradise,
If thou wert there, if thou wert there:
Or were I monarch o’ the globe,
Wi’ thee to reign, wi’ thee to reign,
The brightest jewel in my crown
Wad be my queen, wad be my queen.

Did the daughter understand more of the mother’s (and widow’s) pain hearing these lines spoken quietly by the (grand)father?

Reflecting on the affect of the society in the lives of Great Villagers, Rev. Fraser noted: “We found the little club worth while. We had college graduates, teachers, doctors of medicine, housewives, merchants, school girls. It gave color to their lives, and there are people from Halifax, N.S., to Vancouver, B.C., to recall with pleasure and profit the discovery of great lines and the hearing of great music.”

Elizabeth Bishop’s fear about the dying out of local culture is a valid one even today. However, perhaps she would not be too dispairing. While not many people in Great Village are reading Browning’s or Tennyson’s poems these days, they are more and more reading Elizabeth Bishop’s. In the literary and musical gatherings held now at the Elizabeth Bishop House and in public spaces in Great Village (the church, the legion, the school, the community hall), we not only honour Elizabeth Bishop, a modern-day Keats or Shakespeare, but we also reflect back on the tradition of the Christophian Literary Society. As the Elizabeth Bishop centenary approaches, as many artists of all disciplines prepare to honour and celebrate her continuing relevance and influence, it behooves us all to think about the importance of “great literature” in our lives.

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