- Why Should We Read and Study Leggett?
- Literature & Analysis
- “The Harp of Brunswick”
- Analysis of “The Harp of Brunswick”
- Questions and Considerations for Reflection
- Strategies for Teachers
- Further Reading
William Martin Leggett was born in New York in 1813 and moved to New Brunswick in 1818 when his parents took charge of a school in Sussex Vale. Inheriting his parents’ vocational interests, he became a teacher in the province, acquiring his license at a very young age. His writing began shortly after, his poems appearing in provincial and local papers in the late 1820s. His poem “The Harp of Brunswick,” for which he is best known, was published in his collection The Forest Wreath (1833). After a profound spiritual experience, Leggett converted to Methodism, leaving his first profession to become a preacher. He worked abroad for a while as a missionary, then returned to New Brunswick, where he reaffirmed his original faith and became an Anglican priest. Throughout this period of spiritual investigation, he continued to write, giving himself the title “The Bard of New Brunswick.”
For a much more detailed biography of Leggett, see his New Brunswick Literary Encyclopedia entry.
According to literary critic Thomas B. Vincent, William Martin Leggett “was perhaps the finest lyricist of the early Methodist poets [from the Maritime provinces]” (201). He “rarely slips into sentimental morbidity,” Vincent observes, but “is able to achieve something of the mystical character of Celtic lament,” by which Vincent means that Leggett succeeds in tapping into a universal element that all readers, regardless of location or perspective, understand (201). That ability to speak universally, which requires the poet to turn a specific local experience into a common shared one, is a sure sign of literary artistry.
Leggett, as well, was among the first New Brunswick authors to address the province on its own terms rather than on the terms of another place or another tradition. The writers who came before him – Adam Allan is a good example – used foreign imagery (mostly British) to describe New Brunswick. As Allan’s efforts illustrate, applying foreign linguistic and imaginative tools to New Brunswick didn’t always work. Leggett, however, shows a movement toward the beginning of a homegrown toolkit. He might well have asked, “What is the New Brunswick accent?,” a question that has nothing to do with the sound of a voice but with the nature of a place. All genuine poets of place must consider the peculiarity of “accent” (tone, light, colour, feeling, sense, mood) if they are to enter successfully into that place’s unique character. We read early poets such as Leggett to see how this slow process of finding an “accent” develops.
“The Harp of Brunswick”
Harp of Brunswick, thou hast slumber’d;
Wrapt in dreams of ages, long—
Thy wild Genius yet unnumber’d
On the records-bright of song!
‘Tis no Campbell’s touch of mildness—
Tis no Byron’s bolder charm—
I invoke thy muse of wildness!
I aspire thy chords to warm!
Had some nobler Bard watch’d o’er thee,
I should ne’er have dared to keep
Nightly vigils, leaning o’er thee,—
Ne’er aspired to ‘wake thy sleep;
But I stand alone, in childhood,
Childish minstrelsy go forth
Whilst the Genius of the wildwood
Crowns a minstrel of the north!
Sound then! and if others find no
Kindred notes thy chords among,
They are strangers—they have ‘twin’d no
Laurels to adorn thy song.
But there are warm hearts of feeling,
Dreary tho’ the prospect seems—
Hearts, on whose deep fancy stealing,
Thou shalt whisper kindred claims!
Sound then!—and these echoing mountains,
Rocks and streams and vales among,
Starting into second being:—
Chase away their gloom with song!!!
Analysis of “The Harp of Brunswick”
While it is fair to say that in this poem Leggett hasn’t yet arrived at a homegrown imagery and language that readers would immediately recognize as “New Brunswick,” it is clear that he is leaning in that direction. To begin, he is invoking a “muse of wildness,” which may not seem to be especially progressive but in the context of this period it certainly was. In rejecting the muse that inspired Thomas Campbell and Lord Byron, both English Romantic poets from another continent, Leggett is inviting a northern muse of trees and wilderness who has long slept, having had no poet of worth to inspire. That idea alone marks a significant advance, for Leggett is admitting that New Brunswick is worthy of poetic attention. His poem sounds the note, calling boldly to muses and poets to sing of “kindred claims” – claims that will stir the province into “second being.” Leggett instinctively knew, then, that a place was not a place until it was named and sung into existence. It is this lofty role that literature undertakes.
► Leggett’s poem presents a significant advance from the earlier work of Loyalist poets such as Jonathan Odell and, as already mentioned, Adam Allan. An instructive point of comparison is to consider Odell’s “Ode for the New Year” next to Leggett’s “Harp of Brunswick.” Both seek to stir readers to new beginnings, but each treats the New Brunswick place differently. Odell’s stridency seeks to remake New Brunswick into a utopian preserve that displays the best of British ideals, thereby negating New Brunswick as its own place, whereas Leggett’s more generous and democratic sensibility seeks to set aside colonial partisanship for homegrown expression. Where Odell imposes his will on place, Leggett opens himself to place. The change in attitude does not so much reflect political difference as it does settler habits. Much happens over three generations in a new settlement, and Leggett’s poem shows how people slowly seep into soil.
► Readers will note, however, that the language of Leggett’s poem does not match its idea. While the idea expressed in the poem is indeed progressive – seeking to address the province on its own terms rather than on the terms of another place – the language of the poem is the Romantic language of another tradition. The poem calls for homegrown metaphors, seeking those in the hearts of men and women, but it is unable to deliver one. That will change in the work of Peter John Allan. What is important is that Leggett opened the door to a New Brunswick accent.
Strategy 1: Compare with Coleridge’s “The Eolian Harp” (“The Harp of Brunswick”)
The harp and lyre are common poetic symbols, and lyric poetry (such as Leggett’s) even draws its name from lyre. The Aeolian/Eolian harp, which produces music when wind blows through it, appears in several Romantic poems; it can symbolize such things as the power of nature to stir human emotion and thought, or the role of the poet in translating the sublime beauty of nature into human language. Before reading, introduce students to the concept and sound of a wind harp. Then, ask students to compare Leggett’s “The Harp of Brunswick” with Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The Eolian Harp.” Possible questions for discussion or writing prompts include: Are these authors using the symbol of the harp in the same way? Who or what is the Harp of Brunswick, and how does the harp make music? Is the sound of the New Brunswick harp different from the sound of Coleridge’s harp? If so, why? What is the relationship between nature and the poet, and between the poet and the reader? In what ways may Leggett have been influenced by Coleridge’s earlier poem? Is there anything distinctly New Brunswick about Leggett’s poem, other than the title?
Key Stage Curriculum Outcomes:
Reading and Viewing: Note the relationship of specific elements of a particular text to elements of other texts
Strategy 2: Muses (“The Harp of Brunswick”)
Leggett suggests that he lacks the stature of “nobler Bard[s]” such as Lord Byron, but the largely unsung beauty of New Brunswick emboldens him to write. Ask students to discuss what inspires them to creativity. When they choose to write/dance/draw/photograph are they driven by desire to express or examine something about themselves? About the external world? About the intellectual or emotional effect of the external world on the self? If students had to name their muse in one word, what would it be? Likewise, if they had to name Leggett’s muse in one word, what would that word be? How do the New Brunswick muses compare with the muses of Romantic poets such as Wordsworth and Coleridge? And why (here is the BIG question) have Wordsworth and Coleridge’s muses been considered more important than Leggett’s?
Key Stage Curriculum Outcomes:
Speaking and Listening: Examine others’ ideas and synthesize what is helpful to clarify and expand on their own understanding
Cogswell, Fred. “Literary Activity in the Maritime Provinces (1815-1880).” Literary History of Canada: Canadian Literature in English. Ed. Carl F. Klinck, et al. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1965. 102-124.
Leggett, William Martin. “The Harp of Brunswick.” The Forest Wreath. Saint John, NB: Durant and Sancton, 1833. 6. Rpt. Michael O. Nowlan, ed. Stubborn Strength: A New Brunswick Anthology. Don Mills, ON: Academic Press Canada, 1983. 5. (Leggett’s The Forest Wreath has been digitized and is available online.)
MacFarlane, W.G. New Brunswick Bibliography: The Books and Writers of the Province. Saint John, NB: Sun Printing Company, 1895.
Vincent, Thomas B. “Methodism and Methodist Poets in the Early Literature of Maritime Canada.” The Contribution of Methodism to Atlantic Canada. Ed. Charles H.H. Scobie and John Webster Grant. Montréal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s UP, 1992. 189-204.
For much more detailed primary and secondary source bibliographies of Leggett, 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, it 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 Leggett poem above appears in Stubborn Strength: A New Brunswick Anthology. Ed. Michael O. Nowlan. Don Mills, ON: Academic Press Canada, 1983. 5.
All contents except for poetry and fiction copyright © Tony Tremblay, James W. Johnson, and Alexandra Cogswell.