This Week in History


A Life of Poetry

For the week of Monday January 2, 2012

On January 1, 1918, William Wilfred Campbell died of pneumonia in Ottawa. He was a man of religion and a public servant, but he is best known for his poems.

William Wilfred Campbell was born in Ontario circa 1858 and attended Wiarton high school before teaching in rural schools in the area. He continued his education at University College of the University of Toronto and in episcopalian seminaries in Ontario and the United States. During his years of religious studies, he was already composing poems. In 1885, he was ordained as a deacon of the Episcopal Church before being appointed as rector of a parish in New Hampshire. While he was serving as rector, some of his poems appeared in U.S. periodicals. His first collection of poems, Snowflakes and Sunbeams, in praise of nature, appeared in 1888 and the second, Lake Lyrics, a year later.

Wilfred Campbell
© McClelland & Stewart / Edward S. Caswell / circa 1919
In ministry in New Hampshire, New Brunswick, and Ontario, he eventually began questioning his faith and gave up preaching. He settled in Ottawa in 1891, where he hoped to land a public service appointment to support his wife, whom he had married in 1883, and his children. He did not get the job he wanted, but was hired as a clerk. A few years later, he obtained a permanent position and remained in the public service for the rest of his life.

Campbell continued writing poems. In 1892-93, in collaboration with friends, he edited a literary review entitled At the Mermaid Inn, which was published in the Toronto Globe. It was at this time that he published another collection of poems, The Dread Voyage, in which he expressed his difficulties in reconciling religion and science.

A collection of poems by William Wilfred Campbell
© McMaster University Library

William Wilfred Campbell explored many genres during his life. Apart from the five collections of poems, he wrote novels, many plays and travel stories, and he edited two poetry anthologies. The themes of his works evolved as his life unfolded: his first collections deal with nature and spirituality, while his later works, particularly his last collection of poems, Sagas of Vaster Britain, which came out in 1914, sing the praises of imperialism.

When the First World War broke out, one of his sons enlisted in the army. Campbell immediately began distributing leaflets of poems. Unfortunately, he died at the beginning of 1918 and did not live to see the outcome of the conflict. As a novelist, playwright, writer and poet, William Wilfred Campbell was designated as a person of historical importance in 1938.

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