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

Friday, February 24, 2012

Nova Scotia Connections: A Day in the Life of Great Village: The Bard of Great Village and the Christophian Literary Society

Or cold night winds that blow from yonder bay ─
All’s silent here:─o’er head is God’s profound.
Out through the trees
Home-lights flare forth; inside are families ─
Their day’s work done ─ within the ingle’s glow.

Rev. A.L. Fraser

The love of music and theatre in Great Village speaks to another passion of its residents: literature. Mrs. T.D. Blaikie’s library in the Masonic Hall is patronized with such regularity by young and old that her nominal lending fee raises quite a bit of money for the Mission Band. Her collection of books comprises the great Romantics and Victorians, as well as the classics from Shakespeare to Spencer, even some Blake. Of an evening, if you peek in the parlours of Great Village homes, you will as easily find someone reading Tennyson as the Bible or the newspaper....

And by the moon the reaper weary,
Piling sheaves in uplands airy,
Listening, whispers ’tis the fairy
The Lady of Shalott....

Villagers have long been keen about education beyond the basic 3Rs. From the time they enter primary, the village children begin to memorize the mighty poems of the British Empire. Over the years the thriving schools have succeeded in instilling an interest in and love of poetry and prose of the highest standard. When the young people graduate their minds are filled with verses and epigraphs ─ whether they can recite them or not. Remarkably, many keep the lilting iambic pentameters of Keats or Mrs. Browning at the ready for years.

The devotion to literature reached a pinnacle in Great Village during the past decade with the formation of the Christophian Literary Society. As with many other activities in the village, the war has diverted attention away from this society, but its memory and influence is still lively. Even if people must turn their thoughts and hands to more practical activities, the need for literature does not diminish during dark times, indeed it can be argued that the comfort and inspiration of art is more important than ever. Most social gatherings, concerts and ceremonies in the village continue to include recitation of poems and stories as surely as they do music.

Folks here still regard Rev. Alexander Louis Fraser as the Bard of Great Village.(1) Though Rev. Fraser left the Village in 1914, he continues to visit in the summers and on occasion some of the former members of the Christophian Literary Society gather with him for an evening of Milton or Dante. Rev. Fraser and his family are expected to return for a few week’s visit in August. Many are hoping he will do a service or two, as Rev. Gillespie will be away on his vacation, and hope, too, that he will host a few literary soirees.

Rev. Fraser took charge of the Presbyterian church in 1905, replacing Rev. J.W.M. Crawford, who had served since 1901. Rev. Fraser arrived to find the Christophian Literary Society well underway. He fit right in being a distinguished poet and man of letters in his own right, with many poems published in literary magazines across Canada. A few years after settling down in the village he published his first volume of poems, Sonnets, and other verses, and has been steadily bringing them out ever since. Rev. and Mrs. Crawford had been involved in the formation of the Literary Society, but under Rev. Fraser it, not surprisingly, flourished.

One of the liveliest activities Rev. Fraser contributed to was the inauguration of “Burns’ Night,” a celebration of Robert Burns’s birthday in January. Under his guidance, this event was grand indeed. Since Rev. Fraser left and the war began, these nights have fallen off; but villagers hope that when the war is over “Burns’ Night” can be reinstated.(2)

Robert Burns

Villagers still remember one of the grandest “Burns’ Nights” of them all, the first one in 1910. The Truro Daily News gave it a full description in its columns on February 2:

“A Burns’ Night at Great Village” — The regular meeting of the Literary society being due to occur on the 25th inst., and that date being the anniversary of Scotland’s greatest poet, Robbie Burns, it was decided to deviate from the usual course and celebrate the occasion by a public evening’s entertainment in honor of that illustrious bard. Accordingly, at 8 p.m., on Tues. the Town Hall was filled to overflowing with an expectant and somewhat enthusiastic audience, from this and adjoining villages as a “Burns’ night” is a new departure from what has hitherto been observed in our town. The meeting being called to order by the chairman, Rev. A.L. Fraser, President of the Society, two solid hours of genuine pleasure was afforded by a well directed and efficient body of entertainers, when the following program was carried out:

Scotch National Anthem — “Scots Wha’ Ha” (chorus & violins)
Life of Burns — Mrs. W.G. Blaikie
“Hundred Pipers” — (violins)
“My Love is like a red, red Rose” — (violins)
“Coming thru the Rye” — (solo & violins)
Address on Burns — Rev. A.L. Fraser
“Bonnie Doon” — (chorus & violins)
“John Anderson my Jo’ John” — (violins)
“Afton Waters” — (solo & violins)
Reading selection from Burns, Mr. Brownie (Scotsman)
Reading selection from Burns, Mrs. L.C. Layton
“Here’s a health to one I love, dear” — (solo & violins)
“Will ye na’ come back again” — (violins)
“O wert thou in the cauld blast” — (Duet & violins)
“My love she’s but a Lassie yet” — (violin duet)
Imitation bagpipes (violins — Dr. & Mrs. Doherty)
“Auld Lang Syne” — (closing — chorus & violins)

Two gentlemen direct from the heather were present, Mr. Brownie, referred to above, and Rev. McKendrick, of Economy, who faced the inclement weather to be present, and who in the course of a few remarks, stated that he had never yet failed to be present at a Burns celebration, and it afforded him pleasure to attend here by special invitation.

A vote of thanks was tendered to Miss Morris, violinist, of Londonderry, and also to Miss Abby Spencer and others, including the orchestra, for their generous assistance.

Miss Annie Gould presided at the organ. The violinists included Dr. and Mrs. Doherty, Mrs. D.W. Blaikie, Misses Winnie Morris, Belle Chisholm and Hattie Carter. The soloists, Misses Abby Spencer, Annie Moraesh and Maggie Chisholm.

Whilst leaving the hall the idea suddenly occurred to Mr. Aubrey Smith, of Londonderry, that Great Village had a really truly living poet, in the person of Rev. A.L. Fraser, author of “Songs and Sonnets,” and other poems (the latest being part of his address on “Burns” in poetry, which we hope will be reproduced in print), where upon three cheers for “Our Poet” were called upon for by Mr. Smith and the building resounded with hearty good cheers and a “tiger.” Thus was brought to a close what proved to be a successful and enjoyable evening'’ entertainment in honor of the immortal bard Burns. One Present.


Rev. Fraser’s departure was a blow to villagers, but many homes have copies of his books. He wrote and published three volumes during his years in Great Village. It is an especial source of pride for villagers to have a poet write so eloquently about their home. And everyone welcomes him and his family when they visit. Rev. Fraser has not forgotten the Literary Society. He speaks about it on many occasions. Recently, he wrote, “We found the little club worthwhile. We had college graduates, teachers, doctors of medicine, housewives, merchants, school girls. It gave colour 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.” You can be sure every meeting of the Christophian Literary Society included a piano or violin. Rev. Fraser loves the landscape and people of Great Village and Colchester County. He writes nostalgically about his memories and majestically about its history and geography in many poems, and Villagers are anticipating his next volume.(3)

Now that the spring has come, I’d like to go
And follow her across Acadian fields
To well-known haunts where first the Mayflowers blow,
And drink the fragrance that the forest yields.
To go and sit where old Atlantic beats
His endless music ─ walk beside the bays,
Upon whose bosom Fancy saw strange fleets
Set seaward ’neath the skies of yesterday.

Rev. A.L. Fraser


1. Rev. Alexander Louis Fraser (1860–1936) was the author of a number of books of poetry:

*Sonnets, and other verses (1909)
*At Life’s Window (1910)
*Fugitives (1912)
The Indian Bride (1915)
Aftermath (1919)
God’s Wealth (1922)
The Drained Cup (1925)
By Cobequid Bay (1927)
People of the Street (1929)
By Eastern Windows (1932)
*volumes written during his years in Great Village

2. Indeed, that is just what happened, and “Burns’ Nights” continued in Great Village throughout the 1920s. Elizabeth Bishop remembered that one of her mother's favourite poems is the achingly sad "O Wert Thou in the Cauld Blast," which Mendelssohn set.

3. Not until Elizabeth Bishop wrote her poems and stories about her childhood in the village did a poet evoke so lovingly as Rev. Fraser the textures of land and life in Great Village. Bishop would have been very aware of Rev. Alexander Louis Fraser’s presence. They were present together in Great Village on at least two occasions: the summers of 1917 and 1919. Rev. Fraser’s poems possess the characteristics and conventions of late Victorian and Edwardian formal rhyming verse ─ he did not adopt the radical styles of the war poets and the nascent modernists who were stirring up such controversy in Europe. While Bishop was indeed influenced most by these modernists, her childhood was steeped in the formal rhythms of Victorian poetry, and their influence is seen in many places in her poems. She once described herself as an “umpty-umpty” poet, and a “late, late World War I poet.” Indeed, some of Rev. Fraser’s poems resonate in startling ways with Bishop’s late twentieth century work, in both content and form. His “Summer Rain” sounds uncannily like a forerunner of Bishop’s “Sestina”:

The rain is on the roof; it taps
against the pane.
It brings to mind a roof where I
could hear it plain;
There I knew childhood’s sleep, ─ a
sleep that has no fears,
But childhood’s happy sleep becomes
disturbed with years....

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