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The poetry of place in Cobalt (8 photos)

Today, Back Roads Bill tells a story about two people, a poet and a par excellence fan of the poet

Cobalt native David Brydges is obsessed - with Dr. Henry William Drummond and with his community.

His sister says he is obsessed. David Brydges would also say as such. Getting involved in your community is a really good thing.

The Cobalt native probably knows more about who was one of Canada’s most famous poets, Dr. Henry William Drummond.

Today, Back Roads Bill tells a story about two people, the poet and a par excellence fan of the poet.


When you read your favourite prose you wonder about the author. Where did that inspiration come from? The beginnings and the background becomes more relevant when you visit their roots.

The poem below was often recited at country dances, church services and family gatherings during a time when reading out loud and reciting poetry was what people did and appreciated. Henry Drummond was a populist poet of the times. They listened then and created pictures in their minds.

Read the poem, you might think the poet is poking fun of the dialect. It was certainly not his own.

What he was really doing was passing on the French Canadian stories he heard and celebrated what was, to him, a rich culture of people living with the land. He purposely wrote in broken English to retain the heritage of the French-Canadian farmer and woodsman. He broke the writing bonds of convention.

Little Bateese

You bad leetle boy, not moche you care
How busy you 're kipin' your poor gran'pere
Tryin' to stop you ev'ry day
Chasin' de hen aroun' de hay--
W'y don't you geev' dem a chance to lay?
Leetle Bateese!

Off on de fiel' you foller de plough
Den w'en you 're tire you scare the cow
Sickin' de dog till dey jomp the wall
So de milk ain't good for not'ing at all--
An' you 're only five an' a half dis fall,
Leetle Bateese!

Too sleepy for sayin' de prayer to-night?
Never min' I s'pose it'll be all right
Say dem to-morrow--ah! dere he go!
Fas' asleep in a minute or so--
An' he 'll stay lak dat till de rooster crow,
Leetle Bateese!

Den wake us up right away toute suite
Lookin' for somet'ing more to eat,
Makin' me t'ink of dem long leg crane
Soon as dey swaller, dey start again,
I wonder your stomach don't get no pain,
Leetle Bateese!

But see heem now lyin' dere in bed,
Look at de arm onderneat' hees head;
If he grow lak dat till he 's twenty year
I bet he 'll be stronger dan Louis Cyr
An' beat all de voyageurs leevin' here,
Leetle Bateese!

Jus' feel de muscle along hees back,
Won't geev' heem moche bodder for carry pack
On de long portage, any size canoe,
Dere 's not many t'ing dat boy won't do
For he 's got double-joint on hees body too,
Leetle Bateese!
But leetle Bateese! please don't forget

We rader you 're stayin' de small boy yet,
So chase de chicken an' mak' dem scare
An' do w'at you lak wit' your ole gran'pere
For w'en you 're beeg feller he won't be dere--
Leetle Bateese!

Drummond Background

The author, Henry Drummond, is often considered to be Canada’s first national poet, a “great poet,” the poet of the Habitant. He became Cobalt’s first doctor and was revered by the silver mining community.

You may visit the foundation of his house, his place of inspiration or the place of community recognition. David Brydges knows this. He is the Artistic Director of the Spring Pulse Poetry Festival - Northern Ontario’s largest and only poetry/arts event. He is an aficionado.

“The Dr. William Henry Drummond National Poetry Contest was founded in Cobalt in 1970," Brydges said. "It is the oldest non-governmental national poetry contest in Canada. The Dr. William Henry Drummond Poetry Contest award ceremony is held annually to honour the memory and legacy of one of the most popular poets in the English speaking world."

He said we will have to read a number of Drummond’s poems to appreciate what his intent really was.

“His goal was to talk about rural French Canadians and share his experiences of this culture with English-speaking people."

Successful he was. He published six books of poetry during his lifetime.

Drummond began reciting his poems at parties and at events and he soon published The Habitant and other French Canadian poems in 1897.

His goal was to talk about rural French Canadians and share his experiences of this culture with English-speaking people. His work was well received and he toured Canada, England and the United States, reciting his poems.

By 1897 four additional editions had been printed and, by the time Drummond died, more than 40,000 copies had been printed. In perspective, the population of Canada and media attention were both pale in comparison with today’s numbers and impact.

The preface for the Habitant anthology was written by poet Louis Fréchette and he writes in French of the good intended by Drummond’s words and observations. Fréchette, notes, his friend, Drummond had not written his verses “as examples of a dialect, or with any thought of ridicule.” Having lived beside French Canadians most of his life, Drummond “... had grown to admire and love them.”

Although the English-speaking public might be familiar with French Canadians from Montreal or Quebec City it “had little opportunity of becoming acquainted with the habitant,” he, “endeavoured to paint a few types.”

This is contained within The Habitant and Other French-Canadian poems. Throughout the 20th century The wreck of the Julie Plante became his best-known poem.

Cobalt Heritage

David said that, until his death, Drummond commuted frequently between Montreal and Cobalt, where he and his brothers had acquired an interest in a silver mine, called the Drummond Mine.

He built what was considered then to be a lavish two-storey log cabin overlooking Kerr Lake. It is said he personally picked the stones for the fireplace and the hearth (this you will see at the monument in Cobalt). Also, he hired only miners who could sing. He would sit on the veranda and listen to their melodies. Not an obsession but what he continued to do all his life, listening carefully to the lifestyle and then writing.

“Cobalt was then a rough and tumble canvas tent boom town. Steamboats on Lake Temiskaming were overloaded, store shelves emptied before new supplies arrived by the T&NO railroad; wood siding hotels, halls were always jammed; boardwalks skirting the mud lengthened past new building lots; music halls entertained; sawmills whined night and day. It was the Canadian frontier,” Brydges said. 

A walkabout in Cobalt will give you a flavour of a place.

Drummond spent most of the winter of 1906–7 in Cobalt combatting a smallpox epidemic.

“It was during this time he authored The Voyageur and other poems," Brydges said. "During this time he was not always well himself. He returned to Montreal in early March, in time to take his wife on a trip to New York and Washington. He returned to Montreal to read We’re Irish yet to the annual dinner of the St Patrick’s Society on March 18, 1907. He once again returned to Cobalt. In less than a month on April 7, he died of a cerebral hemorrhage."

Drummond was never forgotten by the community.

His original cabin/hearth was constructed in 1905, it was eventually destroyed by fire; in the 1930s the hearth was preserved on-site with a chain-link fence and a commemorative plaque dedicated by the attending Governor-General in 1933 and later another plaque in 1969.

Later still the entire area was deemed to be unsafe and the fireplace stones were recovered and reconstructed in the town of Cobalt with a commemorative plaque in 1988 on Lang St. The Drummond Cairn is one of the many heritage mining destinations of Cobalt and there is the poetry festival and contest, as Brydges says, “This will continue.” See the map.

Drummond Legacy

Brydges talks about Drummond’s writing legacy.

Drummond helped to establish an alternative for other writers. He created an independent Canadian literature, in which writers could write in their own vernaculars as opposed to traditional conventions. 

The Scottish-born Canadian poet Robert Service (1874–1958) utilized this licence within many of his famous poems such as 'The Cremation of Sam McGee' (…Till I came to the marge of Lake Lebarge, and a derelict there lay;…) and ‘The Shooting of Dan McGrew,’ (…Then I got to figgering who he was, and wondering what he'd do…).

Service, like Drummond, wrote of cabins. See Service’s ‘The Little Log Cabin,’ (“…An' he ain't got nothin' comin' an' he can't afford ter eat,…).

At one time, within our schools' curriculum, these Drummond poems were a mainstay of Canadian literature but his creations became shelved.

His work was criticized because of a fear that his portrayal of the “habitant” would create resentment among Québécois.

His writings are not a formative study. These are sincere reflections of a reporter.

He worked and lived in rural French Canada it represents a recording of the thoughts and feelings of the residents he respected. He worked and lived with them. He really helped preserve what might be called a uniquely Canadian/Canadien language and a way of early pioneer life. 

Think about the next time you say or hear, “eh,” we are Canadian “eh.” Drummond would approve. He was preserving our heritage.

Now in the works is the Dr. Drummond Memorial Park located beside the library. The signs will have a makeover and within the adjoining lot a glacial boulder rock garden with cedar benches and new banners.

Brydges has pledged some of his own money and the time and effort to look for additional funding to continue the dream.

Poetry Reading

The Red Canoe is a favourite Drummond poem of Back Roads Bill because like Roy McGregor, Bill Mason, James Raffin, Omer Stringer, Hap Wilson and Kirk Whipper and many canoeists, our little red and green canvas canoes are special crafts. Canoes and canoe trips are mindful times.

The Red Canoe

DE win' is sleepin' in de pine, but O! de
night is black!
An' all day long de loon bird cry on Lac Waya-
No light is shinin' by de shore for helpin' steer
heem t'roo
W'en out upon de night, Ubalde he tak' de
red canoe.

I hear de paddle dip, dip, dip! wance more I
hear de loon-
I feel de breeze was show de way for storm
dat 's comin' soon,
An' den de sky fly open wit' de lightning
splittin' t'roo-
An' 'way beyon' de point I see de leetle red

It 's dark again, but lissen how across Waya-
De tonder 's roarin' loud, an' now de mount-
ains answer back-
I wonder wit' de noise lak dat, he hear me, le
bon Dieu
W'en on ma knee I ax Heem save de leetle red

Is dat a voice, so far away, it die upon ma hear?
Or only win' was foolin' me, an' w'isperin'
Yaas, yaas, Ubalde, your Belzemire she 's
prayin' hard for you-
An' den again de lightning come, but w'ere 's
de red canoe?

Dey say I 'm mad, dem foolish folk, cos w'en
de night is black
An' w'en de wave lak snow-dreef come on Lac
I tak' de place w'ere long ago we use to sit, us
An' wait until de lightning bring de leetle red

Other Thoughts for a Red Canoe

By Back Roads Bill

These boats contain our spirit,
And energy stored.

As Drummond says:

“…An' 'way beyon' de point I see de leetle red

It takes us.
Too many more places.
More to come?

The canoe only asks we take care.
We do.

Through the winter it rests quietly.
We carefully dust the snow off,
And pat it.

We look at the canoe,
Always wondering about the next time?

Anticipation grows.
The places, the water, in our minds.

And then, comes spring, finally.
Its magic comes alive.

We slide the canoe into the water,
Reach for my paddle worn.

Those longing thoughts,
Are here and now,
We take the first draw.

The first dip.
The sound, the ripple pattern.
A smile.

My prose aside, maybe I should enter it into the next festival, you should consider as well.

I think Dr.Henry Drummond was the Robert Service of Northern Ontario. By happenstance, I met David’s sister, Sue Nielsen, a sixteen-year reporter for the Temiskaming Speaker newspaper by the commemorative cairn located by the Paul Penna Library.

She said, “He will talk your ear off about Drummond.”

He did.

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Bill Steer

About the Author: Bill Steer

Back Roads Bill Steer is an avid outdoorsman and is founder of the Canadian Ecology Centre
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