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

Tuesday, June 18, 2024

A memorable celebration for the EBSNS

The EBSNS marked its 30th anniversary with several events in Great Village last week. On Monday, 10 June, illustrator Emma FitzGerald (A Pocket of Time: The Poetic Childhood of Elizabeth Bishop) did a workshop with the students at the Great Village School. She reported that they all had fun painting what meant "home" to them. Alas, there are not photos.

On Friday, 14 June, the EBSNS held its AGM in the morning at the EB House. A small group gathered to the the society's necessary annual business. The surprise in this routine event was the presence of two poets/Bishop fans from Colorado: Alyse Knorr and Kate Partridge, who teach at Regis University in Denver. Their visit to Nova Scotia/Great Village coincided with the AGM. They not only sat in on the meeting, but they contributed delicious pastries to the lunch afterward, and participated in the "Room by Verse" tour of the house that happened in the afternoon!

Just after AGM business was finished, the final task of the morning was to draw the winning ticket of the EBSNS fund-raising raffle, to win a beautiful painting of the EB House by renowned Nova Scotia artist Susan Tooke. We were delighted that Kate agreed to do the draw. Her disinterested hand reached in the receptacle and pulled out the winning ticket: April Sharpe. April grew up in Great Village and in 2011 she portrayed Elizabeth Bishop during the EB Centenary Arts Festival that August. Everyone present were delighted that this young Great Villager won this lovely prize (and we were told that when April saw the painting, she really wanted it. Congratulations April!)

On Saturday morning, also at the EB House, Nova Scotia poet Brian Bartlett presented a lively PowerPoint talk about Bishop's Key West houses, based on his trip there in January. Another light lunch was served afterwards, followed by the cutting of an anniversary cake by Meredith Layton, one of the founding members of the EBSNS in 1994. Following lunch, British Columbia writer Leesa Dean presented a fascinating talk about The Filling Station, her novella in verse published by Gaspereau Press in 2022. Leesa and her family had the opportunity to stay at the EB House for a few days last week courtesy of the EBSNS.

Below are some photos from Friday and Saturday taken by Brenda Barry.

(Getting down to business: 2024 AGM.)

(Lunch is served. Good food and conversation.)

(Alyse and Meredith deep in conversation.)

(Room by Verse tour: "The Prodigal" in the study.)

(Room by Verse tour: "The Moose" on the verandah)

(Brian Bartlett talks about Bishop's Key West houses.)

(Leesa Dean reads from The Filling Station.)

(The cake! Thank you Margaret Congdon.)

(Meredith Layton cutting the cake.)

The EBSNS wishes to thank all those who bought raffle tickets and all those
who attended both days in Great Village.
We are now on our way to our next milestone: 40!!!

Tuesday, June 11, 2024

The EBSNS Celebrates 30th Anniversary

On Friday and Saturday, 14-15 June 2024, the EBSNS will mark its 30th anniversary with some exciting free events at the Elizabeth Bishop House in Great Village, N.S. Everyone is welcome. After dispatching our necessary business with our AGM on Friday morning (11:00 a.m.), in the afternoon join us for a "Room By Verse Tour" of the Bishop House (1:30 p.m.), which will see a reader in each room reading one of Elizabeth Bishop's Nova Scotia poems. On Saturday morning, Nova Scotia poet Brian Bartlett will give a talk about Elizabeth Bishop's Key West Houses (10:30 a.m.). Then we will cut the anniversary cake! In the afternoon (1:30 p.m.), British Columbia writer Leesa Dean will give a talk about the creative process that yielded her long poem Filling Station (Gaspereau Press 2022) based on Bishop's life in Brazil. We look forward to seeing all who can venture forth to the village and join us for these events. We'll share some images from the festivities later in June.

Our Two Speakers

(Brian Bartlett)

(Leesa Dean)

Tuesday, June 4, 2024

“O, wert thou…”: Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Burns in Nova Scotia — multum in parvo

In advance of the Bishop Symposium in Scotland later this month, I share a little piece about Bishop and Burns. Nothing profound, mind you, just a bit of fun.


Sometime in the late 1990s, when I was in the midst of transcribing Elizabeth Bishop’s early, unfinished “Reminiscences of Great Village,” I also toured around Nova Scotia with a Bishop colleague/friend (a trip that took us from Cape Breton to Annapolis Royal with a stop in between in Great Village). While we spent a day/night en route in Antigonish, we happened to go into a used bookstore where my eyes immediately fell on The Poetical Works of Robert Burns, an 1898 edition by Frederick Warne and Co., a leather bound volume well preserved, covered in a thin cellophane wrapping. It cost $25. I bought it. 

(click to enlarge image)

(The only Burns I knew was the ubiquitous “Auld Lang Syne” and the sentimental “My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose.” But the first page of the “Reminiscences” had given me another work that I wanted to know: “O, wert thou in the cauld blast.”1 Here is Bishop’s memory:

We seldom talked much in the evenings. Now and then my grandfather would read out loud, either from Burns or the Bible. 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 flavor — like the Canadian regiment in our village which wore, above the regular soft kahki [sic] uniform, a sort of tam o’shanter with a bit of Scotch plaid grogram ribbon on it, and a feather.2 It pleased my grandfather to be able to give us that particular feeling of foreigness [sic] — a drop of red wine into the clear yellow of the lamp-lit evenings, he didn't take them away or change them, but gave them a shade of excitement quickened their pulse. His Bible reading, though, did just the opposite. We became quite stolidly a family when he read the Bible. My wicked Aunt looked atoned devout, and my poor grandmother almost a matriarch & 'manager'. Easter [Gertrude] never joined in with on feeling for Grandfather’s reading. She liked Burns, too — once she had asked Grandfather to read “Oh wert thou in the cauld blast”, but almost always she lay on the sofa with an arm across her eyes, her other arm hanging down so that the white hand lay on the floor. Betsy [the family dog] lay across her feet [Insert: mother’s feet], occasionally wrinkling up her forehead and rolling up her eyes at me, so that the whites showed. As it got later you could smell her more and more clearly.

Standing in the bookstore, I immediately looked for this poem in the book and learned that it was, in fact, a song, sung to the tune of “The Lass o’ Livingston.” Not long after, I also learned that Mendelssohn had also set it to music.3

It was abundantly clear to me why Gertrude Bulmer Bishop, who had lost her husband too soon to illness and who had lived the subsequent years struggling with her grief, in a “wildest waste,” found this song so meaningful.4 Imagine Bishop sitting in the parlour with her family in the evening listening to her grandfather read this love song aloud to her mother. The “Reminiscences” records this one instance of Pa’s reading; there would have been many other instances during the year that Bishop and her mother together resided with the Bulmers, before Gertrude entered the Nova Scotia Hospital in June 1916. And how many subsequent evenings of these readings happened in the years Bishop spent in the village during the late 1910s and through the 1920s. One can guess: more than a few.

William Bulmer was descended from Yorkshiremen, but living in “New Scotland” had an impact on him, and the Scottish bard was one of his favourites. Pa Bulmer was not alone in his love of Burns’s work. Shortly after the turn of the twentieth century, the folks of Great Village formed the Christophian Literary Society and Burns was one of their chosen poets. Great Villagers viewed this society as speaking for their literary taste and culture, and for many years it had a scholarly and ambitious program of reading: Tennyson, the Brownings, Keats, Milton, Ruskin, Shakespeare, Dante. The leading light of the society was Rev. Alexander L. Fraser (1870-1954),5 who was not only the Presbyterian minister at St. James Church (1904-1914), but also a prolific poet, who published ten volumes of poems during his life, including one entitled By Cobequid Bay, where sat Great Village.6

Bishop knew that her mother and aunts were members of the society and remembered that her aunts often recited Browning and Tennyson to her. Coincidentally, Mendelssohn was Aunt Mary’s favourite composer, so one can’t help but wonder if she perhaps played his setting of “O, wert thou….” 

(Rev. Alexander Louis Fraser)

Under Fraser’s leadership, the society engaged in public performances, taking their love of literature out of private parlours and onto the concert stage. Dating from the year before Bishop was born, the Truro Daily News, on 4 January 1910, announced a significant upcoming event in Great Village:

Preparations are underway for a great and grand celebration of Robbie Burns night at the town hall on Tues. evening, Jan. 25, in the form of an entertainment by the “Kritosophian [sic] Literary Society” under the able leadership of their President, Rev. A.L. Fraser, members and local talent, for which Great Village is well noted.

(Brief aside: The spelling of the society’s name had at least five variants, which is both puzzling and amusing.)

The TDN was not overstating the descriptors, on 2 February, a detailed account of the festivities appeared:

 “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 honour 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’s entertainment in honour of the immortal bard Burns. One Present. TDN

Burns does not appear often in Bishop’s oeuvre (indeed, no where that I know of in her published poetry or prose). The only reference to him in the Library of America’s Bishop: Poems, Prose, and Letters is on page 704, in notes towards an essay entitled “Writing poetry is an unnatural act….” She wrote cryptically: “Burns: lacks mystery, maybe but weaker in the mystery.” A much more positive statement is found on page 37 in Words in Air, the Bishop-Lowell correspondence. In a 30 May 1948 letter she observed: “Marianne [Moore] has a very nice, old-fashioned steel-engraving of Burns in the front hall. I admired it; said I hoped sometime to write something about him, & didn’t he look nice. She replied, ‘But he couldn’t have looked that nice, really, of course’.” Lowell had to have his say about Burns and in a 2 July 1948 letter he declaimed:

Read a good essay on Burns in an anthology of essays gotten together by F.R. Leavis. I guess he’s really quite a first rate poet, and I’ve followed fashion in ignoring him. It’s funny, because his rhythms and stanzas are technical fire-works just on the surface. Then so much experience or observation. I don’t know which, for I’ve never soaked in him and have trouble with Scots — more verbs I have to look up than a French poet. (WIA, 40-41)

Even if the “great and grand” Burns Night was something of a departure for the Literary Society of Great Village, the TDN records other such events in the village in later years (for example, in January 1923). It will be of no surprise, however, that “Burns Nights” events have been common in many parts of “New Scotland” from the nineteenth century right into the twenty-first.7 Indeed, there is still a Burns Society in Nova Scotia.8 So important was the Scottish national poet to the province that in 1919 a group of admirers funded the casting of a magnificent bronze of the bard, which still stands in Victoria Park in downtown Halifax, N.S. This impressive statue represents decades of celebrations similar to that long-ago Great Village gathering. 

(Burns bronze statue in Halifax, N.S.

Photo by Susan Kerslake)

Perhaps Burns was not as direct and identifiable an influence on Elizabeth Bishop as was Herbert, Hopkins or Baudelaire, whom she studied and imitated at Vassar; but as a child she was “soaked” in the oral culture and traditions in Great Village, many of which were deeply influenced by the poetry and lyrics of Burns. These conditions were not located in a specific moment, event or impact (though there were such things, as noted above); but rather were part of the “yonder lea” of lateral and diffuse effect, an aural and imaginative landscape, what Bishop once described (in relation to her mother) as “the elements speaking: earth, air, fire, water.” (PPL 118) Culture operates in ways similar to mycorrhizal networks in forests, nutrients from ancient (let us say “mother”) trees seeping through the earth, through intricate interconnections, reaching the young growth often distant from the original sources.

Recently, in conversation with an elder friend with a deep Scottish ancestry (she was born and raised in Cape Breton), who lives in Bridgetown (my home town) in the Annapolis Valley of Nova Scotia, she noted that “Burns Nights” were annual events at the Bridgetown United Church, where she attended for decades. Growing up there, I completely gapped these events, as my immediate family was not church-going in the least. Remarkably, these “nights” are still happening. I learned of one such event taking place in Bridgetown on 20 January 2024, at the local Royal Canadian Legion (there was even haggis on the dinner menu).

(Page from The Reader announcing a Burns Night

in Bridgetown, 2024. Ad in the top right corner.

Click to enlarge image.)

Yet again, during a conversation about Burns with another elder friend in Middleton (where I now live, not that far from Bridgetown, I might add), she remembered a songbook she used in school during the 1940s that contained songs from around the world.9 There are two Burns songs: “Ye Banks and Braes” and “O, wert thou in the cauld blast” (Mendelssohn’s setting). My friend remembers vividly singing the latter and went in search of the songbook, which she retrieved and proceeded to sing a few bars of the sad and aching song that had meant so much to Gertrude Bulmer Bishop.

My intention with this brief essay is to convey something of the abiding presence of Burns in Nova Scotia, rather idiosyncratically, I know, and his soft impact on Bishop. I have had such fun in the process. What was a surprise: more delightful conversations than I expected when I took up this subject, revealing to me the persistence of Burns in this part of the world. Burns’s hold on mainstream imagination has diluted to almost nothing, sadly, but that is perhaps a reflection of the general decline of interest in poetry and history, no reflection on Burns. But one could suppose that Bishop herself might be inclined to attend one of theese “Burns Nights.” (I suspect the pandemic curtailed them, as it did most other gatherings, but it is nice to see one happen so recently, at least in Bridgetown! I confess, I did not brave inclement January weather, as did Rev. McKendrick, though Economy is about the same distance from Great Village as Middleton is from Bridgetown, so I missed out on the haggis.) 

(“O, Wert Thou in the Cauld Blast" pages in the songbook.)



 1. https://www.bbc.co.uk/arts/robertburns/works/o_wert_thou_in_the_cauld_blast/

 2. During World War I the young men of Great Village enlisted in a variety of battalions, brigades and regiments. One of the first regiments to recruit was the 6th Canadian Mounted Rifles, which mobilized on 17 March 1915 in Amherst, N.S. The 106th Battalion, Nova Scotia Rifles, was authorized on 8 November 1915, with headquarters in Truro and companies at Truro and Springhill. These young men also joined medical corps and siege batteries. The battalion which most impressed Bishop, which was at the peak of its recruitment activity during 1916, was the 193rd Battalion, authorized on 24 January and commissioned “as a Highland Brigade Battalion...on February 23, 1916.” “The territory of the Battalion embraced the six Eastern Counties of the Mainland — Cumberland, Colchester, Hants, Pictou, Antigonish and Guysboro, with headquarters in Truro. Within one month the Battalion was over strength.” (Stuart M. Hunt, Nova Scotia’s Part in the Great War, 1920) Decades later, Bishop vividly remembered the Great Village lads of this battalion:

In Nova Scotia the soldiers, some of whom I actually knew, wore beautiful tam-o’-shanters with thistles and other insignia on them. When they got dressed up, they wore kilts and sporrans. One of them had come courting my young aunt in this superb costume, carrying a swagger stick, and let me examine him all over. The Johnny-get-your-gun type of soldier in Worcester seemed very drab to me. (CPr 28) 

(Harold Spencer of Great Village in his Highland Brigade Battalion regalia, circa 1916)

3. https://tunearch.org/wiki/Annotation:Lass_of_Livingstone_(The). I have learned that Mendelssohn spent some time in Scotland and I find it so interesting that he chose this short, aching song to set.

 4. In the literary criticism, academic scholarship and biographical literature about Bishop, Gertrude Bulmer Bishop has been treated with great disrespect. She has been dismissed as “mad” or completely ignored, an absent figure at best and at worst a terrible burden to her daughter. Just who she was has not mattered, it seems, in the least. I have spent a lot of time writing about this foundational relationship: the mother-daughter dyad, which was a complex and profound influence on Bishop’s life and work in my own still unpublished biographical study, Lifting Yesterday: Elizabeth Bishop and Nova Scotia.

5. https://pennyspoetry.fandom.com/wiki/Alexander_Louis_Fraser. Though retired by the time Bishop appeared in Great Village, Fraser continued to visit the village regularly throughout the 1920s and early 1930s.

 6. https://canadianpoetry.org/2016/07/05/by-cobequid-bay/ 

7. https://www.dal.ca/news/2013/01/24/robert-burns-day--celebrating-scotland-s-most-famous-poet.html

 8. https://www.halifaxburnsclub.org/index.html

 9. This songbook was used for many years across Canada. The copy my friend has is well-worn from frequent use. 

(Title page of songbook. Courtesy of Janet Parker Vaughan.)