Martin Butler


  1. Biography
  2. Why Should We Read and Study Butler?
  3. Literature
    • from “The Beaver and the Maple Leaf”
    • “An Evening Reverie”
  4. Questions and Considerations for Reflection
  5. Strategies for Teachers
  6. Further Reading
  7. Copyright


Martin Butler was born in Bloomfield, Kings County, NB in 1857. A work accident at a tannery in Maine when he was nineteen resulted in the loss of his arm, and forced him to go through life as a pedlar, selling wares and his own writing from his pedlar’s cart, which he lovingly called the “Democrat.” He was known and revered in all parts of the region as a sympathetic recorder of provincial life, and often accompanied on his rounds by trains of spirited children. In 1890 he started Butler’s Journal, a monthly paper of rural and working-class concerns (poems, essays, humour, letters, and journalism) that gave a venue to the literary expressions of the labouring classes or “yeomanry” as he termed them. Butler’s Journal was one of the most dynamic reform journals of its time, and certainly the longest lived, surviving twenty-five years until Butler’s death in 1915.

For a much more detailed biography of Butler, see his New Brunswick Literary Encyclopedia entry.

Why Should We Read and Study Butler?

  • Butler is considered one of the province’s early champions of labour and the labouring classes, and, as such, his is one of the first “literary” voices of the common man and woman in New Brunswick. Unknown to him was the Loyalist privilege through which much of the province’s early literature was created, though he did frequently criticize that privilege. Much like his contemporary Michael Whelan, Poet of the Renous (see The Literary Miramichi), Butler was a folk poet who celebrated his fellow citizens while also lambasting political oppression and the ruling classes. We read him to get a perspective that was formed close to the ground among the hardworking though often marginalized populations of New Brunswick.

  • We also read Butler to gain insight into how personal hardship and empathy coalesce in the artistic sensibility. As later New Brunswick writers Alden Nowlan, Elizabeth Brewster, and Raymond Fraser will illustrate, privations of various sorts, especially in childhood, often cultivate deep stores of sympathy that resonate with great literary force. So is the case with Butler, a writer whose difficult childhood and life translate into a finely honed humanism that celebrates society’s underdogs. He literally speaks for those underdogs, capturing in his work their aspirations, frustrations, angers, and joys.


from “The Beaver and the Maple Leaf”

When Freedom’s morn shall rise and wake
The slumberers by sea and lake,
And men shall learn it is not given
To any nation under heaven
To hold another in its thrall,
We’ll join together one and all --
We’ll toss aside the jack and crown
Which onto us was handed down,
And there enthrone in bold relief
The Beaver and the Maple Leaf.

“An Evening Reverie”

In deep reflection, and recollection
      I wandered on in the soft twilight,
When the fading pinion of day’s dominion
      Was sinking into the silent night.

The dews were falling, the birds were calling,
      The sun had sunk in the silent west,
The moon had risen, and on the village
      Its beaming splendors did softly rest.

The winds pathetic, did moan prophetic
      Of autumn’s chillness and winter’s gloom;
The hay was cut and the harvest garnered,
      ‘Twas the closing season of summer’s bloom.

And sorrow’s feeling came o’er me stealing
      Of brighter fancies in days of yore;
On wings of light were those visions wafted
      From childhood’s sunny and distant shore.

In memory’s mirror I saw reflected
      The dear home faces of long ago,
The sweet spring mornings, the autumn evenings,
      The summer’s gladness, the winter’s snow.

The river, sparkling in lines of beauty,
      The sunbeams dancing along its tide,
And slight removed from its sloping margin
      The lofty forest, in all its pride.

The nooks and corners, the secret places
      Where mosses gathered in clusters bright,
The dainty gems and wild-wood flowers,

      The spreading foliage hid from sight.

Likewise the brook, which with merry music,
      Rippled throughout the lonely glade,
Where my companions, with happy faces,
      In childish pastime beside me played.

It seemed a haunt for forms elysian,
      Where nymphs and naiads weave their spells;
And many a sweet entrancing vision,
      I’ve often had in those witching dells.

How strange it seems, that my wayward foot-steps,
      As I journey on in the road of life,
Should leave behind, perhaps forever,
      That lovely valley with gladness rife.

And, ‘though scarce more than a score of summers,
      In light and shadow have passed my head,
Those days are past, and those flowers faded,
      Those garlands withered, those blossoms dead.

And grave and careworn, in toil and sorrow,
      I plod along for my daily bread,
With none to care, if perhaps to-morrow
      I might be laid with the silent dead.

But though my hopes are forever faded,
      Though cold my prospects in future now,
And the grim shadow of gaunt misfortune
      Sits like a spectre upon my brow,

Those hallowed memories will surround me,
      My feet will travel that distant shore,
And still retrace those familiar pathways,
      Till life and sorrow with me’s no more.

Questions and Considerations for Reflection

► Butler’s reference to “Freedom” in “The Beaver and the Maple Leaf” (“When Freedom’s morn shall rise and wake”) invites comparisons with Jonathan Odell’s references to “Freedom” in “Ode for the New Year,” specifically Odell’s line “Rise bright Freedom’s morning star!” The two lines of poetry are so alike, and their use of the capitalized “Freedom” so similar, as to suggest Butler’s awareness of his literary predecessor, which we cannot know for certain. In Odell’s poem, freedom is imagined as the escape from “democratic tyranny,” from a new republicanism in America that is bottom-up (radically democratic) rather than top-down (conventionally class-based and monarchic). The American republicans denounced the monarchy, for example, which the Loyalist Odell believed would have terrible consequences. In Butler’s poem, however, freedom has an entirely different meaning, one that condemns Odell’s imperial “Freedom” as an oppressive force that keeps people “in its thrall.” Butler thus rejects Odell’s British sense of freedom (“We’ll toss aside the jack and crown”) – toss aside the union jack and the imperial crown, both foreign symbols – for a homegrown Canadian freedom, symbolized by the beaver and the maple leaf. The fragment from Butler’s poem, then, reveals that the New World Loyalist “utopia” envisioned by Odell and his ilk may have been good for Loyalist Protestants of a certain period and class but not for all New Brunswickers, and certainly not for those in subordinate positions and working inferior lands to that of the Loyalists. The difference in meaning invites us to consider that freedom for one group is rarely freedom for every group. When power of any sort asserts itself, tyranny naturally follows.

► In addition to challenging the imagined utopia of Loyalist New Brunswick, Butler’s poetry is notable for adding a dimension of the psychological to our literature that anticipates the work of the Confederation Poets who follow. “An Evening Reverie” provides ready examples of this psychology. Unlike earlier poets who took a mostly objective measure of the landscape around them, Butler takes that measure but combines it with a sense of how landscape impinges on the psyche. Like Peter John Allan, he opens himself to this possibility by pausing to observe deeply, the poem’s title, “An Evening Reverie,” providing evidence of that intention. What is born of that pause or reverie, however, marks the poem’s real significance, for the result of feeling “autumn’s chillness and winter’s gloom” is a weighty psychological sorrow that pervades the poem. We might term that sorrow “autumnal discontent,” for it is now recognized clinically in northern peoples as a “seasonal affective disorder” that colours moods and alters perspectives. Butler’s juxtaposition of “autumn” with “loss,” then, creates an experience of landscape that is beyond mere description. The seasons don’t only change, says the poem, but people change along with the seasons, as do habits of living and ways of thinking. This, Butler’s speaker suggests, is not only what autumn looks like in New Brunswick but also how it feels. The ability (much more skilled than Butler’s) to combine exact description with a sense of how people coexist psychologically and emotionally with their New Brunswick surroundings will become a hallmark of the Fredericton School of the Confederation Poets.

Strategies for Teachers

Strategy 1: Freedom (“The Beaver and the Maple Leaf”)

Along with the enduring popularity of the beaver and maple leaf as symbols of Canada, this poem reveals that the nature of freedom has long been debated. In opposition to Loyalists like Jonathan Odell (see Questions and Considerations above), Butler rejects British symbols like the jack and crown, and celebrates the symbols unique to Canada, suggesting that only those lead to freedom. Do today’s students understand freedom in the same way? Do they feel free, and do they equate the local and the familiar with freedom? Do they feel that imported symbols impinge on their freedoms, and, if do, how? Or do different injustices, beyond the imposition of foreign symbols, stand in the way of their freedom today? If they were to create a similar poem about freedom, what symbols would they include in the title and body of the poem? Who might these symbols exclude?

Key Stage Curriculum Outcomes:

  • Speaking and Listening: Articulate, advocate, and justify positions on an issue or text in a convincing manner, showing an understanding of a range of viewpoints

Strategy 2: Rhymes and Mood (“An Evening Reverie”)

The first stanza of “An Evening Reverie” contains two lines with internal rhymes (reflection/recollection, and pinion/dominion). The following three stanzas have one line of internal rhyme, and all subsequent stanzas none, paralleling the speaker’s shift from describing the landscape to exploring its impact on his psyche. Ask students to identify 1) a point where the mood of the speaker changes, and then 2) a point where the rhyme scheme changes. Read the poem aloud once more, asking students to consider how subtly altering how a poem sounds affects the reader/listener. Do these “auditory” clues help them to feel what the speaker is feeling?

Extension 1: If applicable in this class, ask students to return to a previous piece of their own writing, identifying a point where the mood of the speaker changes. Can students improve this piece of writing by changing something structural at the point the speaker’s mood changes? A few structural changes might include word choice, sound, sentence length, or look on the page.

Extension 2: Ask students to find an instance of and discuss the effect of internal rhyme in a song they enjoy. Is internal rhyme particularly popular and effective in certain genres of music? Why?

Key Stage Curriculum Outcomes:

  • Writing and Representing: Demonstrate an understanding of the ways in which the construction of texts can create, enhance, and control meaning

Further Reading

Bauer, William. Comp. and Introduction., “Martin Butler: Early Recollections.” The Journal of Canadian Fiction 2.3 (Summer 1973): 180-190.

Frank, David. “The Several Lives of Martin Butler.” The Officers’ Quarters 20 (Spring and Summer 2003): 3-12.

Stiles, Deborah. “The Gender and Class Dimensions of a Rural Childhood: Martin Butler in New Brunswick, 1857-1871.” Acadiensis XXXIII.1 (Fall 2003): 73-86. [Rpt. Readings in Canadian Social History, Volume 1: Pre-Confederation. Ed. Jane Errington and Cynthia Comachio. Toronto: Nelson Education, 2006. 347-358.]

For much more detailed primary and secondary source bibliographies of Butler, see his New Brunswick Literary Encyclopedia entry.


The work above has been in the Canadian public domain for 50 years after publication and 50 years after the author’s death. As such, it is no longer protected by copyright in Canada. However, the poems may still be under copyright in some countries. Readers outside Canada must comply with the respective copyright laws of the country in which they live.

The fragment of “The Beaver and the Maple Leaf” appears in The River St. John and its Poets. Ed. Lilian M. Beckwith Maxwell. Sackville, NB: Tribune, 1947. 39. “An Evening Reverie” appears in Stubborn Strength: A New Brunswick Anthology. Ed. Michael O. Nowlan. Don Mills, ON: Academic Press Canada, 1983. 7-8.

All contents except for poetry and fiction copyright © Tony Tremblay, James W. Johnson, and Alexandra Cogswell.