This Week in History


A French-Canadian Poet is Mourned

For the week of January 15, 2012

On January 16, 1879, Octave Crémazie died at the age of 52. The death of this national poet was mourned by many Canadians.

A photo of Octave Crémazie
©Jules-Ernest Livernois / Library and Archives Canada / PA-023442
Octave Crémazie, christened Claude-Joseph-Olivier Crémazie, was born on April 16, 1827 in Quebec. The youngest of the family, he spent his childhood with his brothers Jacques, Joseph, and Louis. In 1836, at the age of nine, he began to attend school at the Seminary of Quebec. There, he developed an interest in literature, especially French Romantic writers. This love of literature was to stay with him for the rest of his life.

In 1844, he opened a bookstore with his brother, where he focused his interests on purchasing and reading books about French literature and culture. As the business flourished, Crémazie gained a reputation as an intellectual. By the time he was 20, he was involved in Montréal’s Institut Canadien, a hotbed of liberal literary and scientific discussions. Crémazie’s bookstore became an unofficial meeting place for many popular literary figures that would later go on to form the “Quebec school” literary movement. With the aid of friends, he launched two literary magazines, Les Soirées canadiennes and Le Foyer canadien

Cremazie monument, St. Louis Square, Montréal, QC, about 1910
© McCord Museum MP-0000.859.6

Crémazie’s poetry was first published in a newspaper in 1849, and from that year on, his poetry became a regular fixture in many Quebec newspapers. In 1858, one of his most famous poems, Le Drapeau de Carillon became popular and established him as a national poet. Crémazie remained deeply devoted to Canadian, specifically, French-Canadian, culture throughout his life. His patriotism can be seen in his poetry; for example, note his description of the land in Le Canada (passage translated from French original):

Under the sun lies a blessed land,
On which the sky shines its most precious gifts,
Where endless nature extends a hand
Among its vast forests, immense lakes pass adrift.

Unfortunately, Crémazie became bankrupt in the 1860s, and fearing scandal fled to France in 1862. He remained there in self-imposed exile for 16 years, cutting off ties from all but his family and close friends, and giving up his poetry-writing. Despite his absence from Canada and lack of new work, he gained popularity during his exile; many people saw him as a victim of unfortunate circumstances. He never returned to Canada, however, and he died at La Have, in France, in 1879.

Octave Crémazie was designated a National Historic Person in 1937. For more information about French Canadian poets, please see the This Week in History stories A French Canadian Romantic and Émile Nelligan, a poet with a tragic destiny.

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