Grow old along with me! The best is yet to be, the last of life, for which the first was made. Our times are in his hand who saith, ‘A whole I planned, youth shows but half; Trust God: See all, nor be afraid!”
This year, marks the 100th anniversary of Pauline Johnson’s passing. She died on March 7, 1913 of breast cancer, three days short of her 52nd birthday. In the end, she called Vancouver home. Her last wish was to be buried in her beloved Stanley Park. The city of Vancouver granted her request with the proviso that she be cremated. Pauline Johnson’s ashes were held in an urn encased within a small concrete vault that was gently placed in the ground. A granite boulder, which boasted a carving of double hearts, the tribal badge of the Mohawk, marked her grave. Today, what remains is a stone monument, established by the Women’s Club of Vancouver, as a final tribute.
Pauline Johnson was a global voice that embraced universal themes of tradition, nature and compassion. These are dialogues that cannot be limited by time, space or culture. She honoured the customs of the past by preserving and sharing the stories; she paved the way for women and First Nation writers and performers to boldly pursue an artist’s path; most of all, she believed that what she wrote and spoke about was important. A woman of Mohawk and English parentage, living at the turn of a new century spoke for all of humanity. May we have the courage to do the same.
There’s wine in the cup, Vancouver,
And there’s warmth in my heart for you,
While I drink to your health, your youth, and your wealth,
And the things that you yet will do.
In a vintage rare and olden,
With a flavour fine and keen,
Fill the glass to the edge, while I stand up to pledge
My faith to my western queen.
Pauline Johnson was famous for her warm personality, affability and charisma. Many believe that her finest character traits were marked by the fondness and loyalty for her friends. Arguably, these qualities were a compelling force during theatrical performances. Audiences were captivated by her narratives, the use of both European and First Nation attire, and stirred by the emotional nuance of her speaking voice. She was beloved by her contemporaries, yet with her passing, her reputation as a writer and poet experienced a decline. Over the years, Canadian literary critics and historians have argued that Pauline created an idealized image of the First Nation identity that was pleasing and acceptable to her “white” listeners. For that reason, Pauline was not a creditable spokesperson for their culture. She did not speak a First Nation language and spent most of her life within mainstream society.
Pauline has been disparaged by noted Canadian writers and poets such as Earle Birney, Mordecai Richler and Patrick Watson. Even the famed Margaret Atwood confessed to overlooking Pauline Johnson when she wrote, “Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature (1972). Instead of being a strength, it seems that Pauline’s multi-cultural heritage did not give her traction in either world.
Critics, in the end, are not infallible. Pauline Johnson’s works have experienced a rebirth. Her importance as a figure of resistance against racism, gender bias, and human rights is coming full circle. Pauline dedicated 30 years to her artistic endeavours. Her contribution to the oral and written literary history of First Nation people is unequaled. She transcends her time and gives relevance to ours.
The Song My Paddle Sings
West wind, blow from your prairie nest,
Blow from the mountains, blow from the west
The sail is idle, the sailor too ;
O! wind of the west, we wait for you.
Pauline Johnson captured the hearts and imaginations of her audience. A talented writer, she possessed an uncanny ability to understand the needs, desires, and dreams of an unpredictable public. Early in her career, she recognized the power of combining theatre and literary endeavours to craft a vibrant and dynamic performance. Pauline developed a her stage persona by dressing in tradition First Nation garments and using her father’s artifact collection that included such items as wampum belts and spiritual masks in her presentations.
Living during the last vestiges of the Victorian Age, Pauline Johnson was not defined by gender, but by an acceptance of her humanity. While not directly involved, her activities positioned her in the forefront of the women’s suffragette movement. Despite forces for change, women had few options for self-determination in the late 1800’s. Society was doggedly rigid, accepting only those who would abide by clearly outlined rules of conduct. Choices were limited to matrimony, striving for equality, or living a life outside of conventional norms. Pauline Johnson’s unique ancestry offered a viable alternative. Two cultures, two societies and two worldviews provided the necessary foundation for moving freely within a confined social structure.
The Corn Husker
Hard by the Indian lodges, where the bush
Breaks in a clearing, through ill-fashioned fields,
She comes to labour, when the first still hush
Of autumn follows large and recent yields.
Age in her fingers, hunger in her face,
Her shoulders stooped with weight of work and years,
But rich in tawny colouring of her race,
She comes a-field to strip the purple ears.
And all her thoughts are with the days gone by,
Ere might’s injustice banished from their lands
Her people, that to-day unheeded lie,
Like the dead husks that rustle through her hands.
Emily Pauline Johnson
When I think of a poet’s capacity to synthesize complex concepts into a single sentence or a few words, I am curious about where their insight comes from. When you dig into the poet’s background there is always a source of inspiration.
Theodore Roethke (1908-1963) was awarded the 1954 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for The Waking. Twice, he was the recipient of the National Book Award for Poetry: 1959 for Words for the Wind and posthumously in 1965 for The Far Field.
Theodore Roethke grew up in Saginaw, Michigan. His Father and Uncle were market-gardeners, who owned a large 25 acre greenhouse. The use of natural images in Theodore Roethke’s poetry was inspired by the many years that he spent tending the plants. He affirmed the greenhouse “is my symbol for the whole of life, a womb, a heaven-on-earth.” His ability to convey profound emotions was rooted in the tragic deaths of those he loved. In 1923, when he was only 15, his father died from cancer and his uncle, from suicide.
“Deep in their roots, all flowers keep the light.”
“I am a part of all that I have met; Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough Gleams that untravelled world, whose margin fades For ever and for ever when I move.” Ulysses – Alfred, Lord Tennyson
I first met Alfred, Lord Tennyson when I was in grade 11, long after his passage through this world. The Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom during Queen Victoria’s reign still has the power to awaken the imagination of a generation born a century later. My whole life has been in search of archways that open portals to journeys yet to be explored. And age does not impede the effort.
“Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and though We are not now that strength which in old days Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are; One equal temper of heroic hearts, Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.” Ulysses – Alfred, Lord Tennyson