From the Saunderson Rare Books Room: Songs of the Wilderness

Despite winter throwing (what we hope will be) one last punch, spring is inevitably in the air. To anticipate this coming vernal period, the Graham Library has chosen Songs of the Wilderness: Being a Collection of Poems, Written in some Different Parts of the Territory of the Hudson’s Bay Company, and in the Wilds of Canada, on the Route to that Territory, in the Spring and Summer of 1844 as our featured rare book this month.

Mountain 2

The book, written by George Jehoshaphat Mountain, the Bishop of Montreal, was published in London by Francis and John Rivington in 1846. All of the proceeds from the sale of the book went to the newly founded Bishop’s College in Lennoxville, Quebec (later to become Bishop’s University), which Mountain founded in 1843 as an Anglican liberal arts college. At the time, the buildings were mostly incomplete and the instructors were in need of salaries. Some financial contributions had been made from various Christian charitable organizations, but Mountain took it upon himself to fund the construction in a different way.

Mountain 1

An account of his journey was separately published in The Journal of the Bishop of Montreal During a Visit to the Church Missionary Society’s North-West American Mission (1845), and the proceeds of that book went to funding the bishopric of Rupert’s Land. Mountain writes in his preface: “I entered the Hudson’s bay territory without one thought of writing verses. But in travelling, weeks after weeks, in a canoe through the wilderness, it is not easy to fill up the whole summer’s day by reading, conversation, roughly noting the incidents of the way, or simply gazing about upon the scenery through which you pass: and the perfect wilderness of your life for the time, together with the character of the objects which surround you, cannot do otherwise than suggest many contemplations of a poetic cast.” All of the poems were composed while on his journey, with some minor editing once he returned to Montreal.

It is a small book, only 17 cm in length, with a faded green cloth binding and gilded page edges. The book contains four lithograph plates drawn by Thomas Picken, working for Day & Haghe. The book has five poems: “Le Lac des Morts”, “The Rose of the Wilderness”, “The Toils of the Voyageur”, “The Rainbow at Kakabéka Falls”, and “The Lost Child”, each one with explanatory notes. “The Rose of the Wilderness” begins thus:

“What doest thou here, fair rose, on rocky shore | Opening thy pure and scented breast to blush | In these rude wilds, where, with eternal roar, | Of thundering Winnipeg the waters rush? | Were, at this spot, his foam and fury less, | Could travelers (few, in sooth, and far between) | Still in his stream their onward journey press, | No hand had found thee and no eye had seen.”

There are also sixteen sonnets. The next time you’re planning a trip up to the northern reaches of Ontario, consider Mountain’s words in “Return to Thunder Bay”:

“Twice, Bay of Thunder, thee I visit now; | Noiseless the heavens, the while, and fair found. | Thine aspect is not fierce; yet towering brow | Of rock and wood-clad steep they bosom bond; | Heaved in unwonted form lie islets round. | Loosed through this door upon the mighty lake, | Once more we feel within Canadian ground | Rupertia’s wilds farewell!–the leave we take | Is link’d with thoughts which oft will blandly wake: | Much comfort have we had brethren true, | Much with their flocks; nor can we cease to make, | Kind lords of traffic, mention meet of you. | What debts, as guest, on service of my Lord, | From thence to Gaspé’s Gulph could I record!”

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Like all our rare books and special collections items, this volume is available for consultation any time in the John W. Graham Library. For further information, please inquire at the circulation desk or contact us at ask.grahamlibrary@utoronto.ca.

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