A Poet from My Past: Marjorie Pickthall
April is National Poetry Month and it is being celebrated by the League of Canadian Poets and the Academy of American Poets. I've recently discovered a personal connection to Toronto poet and librarian Marjorie Lowry Christie Pickthall (1883-1922). She was once lauded as the best poet of her generation and her style of 19th century verse with its focus on nature, art and religion was incredibly popular. However, that style was replaced by modernism and today her work is virtually unread.
I first learned about Pickthall while researching family history at the E.J. Pratt Library at Victoria University, U of T. I have a family connection to the Canadian poet Helena Coleman who was a mentor and friend to Marjorie. The helpful librarians steered me to the Marjorie Pickthall Special Collections — files full of handwritten letters, photographs and drawings that were sent to Helena Coleman and others. Pickthall's letters reveal a talented poet and short story writer and a young woman who was clever, humorous, thoughtful and determined. In her personal correspondence, she talks about friends and family and the daily life of a young woman trying make her mark as a writer at the turn of the century.
Pickthall began writing stories and poetry in her teens and at age 15 she sold her first story to the Toronto Globe. In her twenties, she published three literary thrillers for young people, all of which appeared first as magazine serials. Her stories won several prizes and brought her to the attention of Andrew MacPhail, the editor of the University Magazine, which was the preeminent Canadian literary journal of the time. MacPhail published many of her stories as well as a book of poetry, The Drift of Pinions, which was both a commercial and critical success.
Pickthall continued to write poetry and short stories, which paid better, for prestigious American magazines Atlantic Monthly, Harper's, Scribner's and others. With the help of Helena Coleman, Pickthall got a job as a librarian at Victoria College Library. When Pickthall's mother died in 1910, she was devastated and wanted a change of scenery from Toronto. She had always dreamed of travelling and so set off for England to live with family. With the outbreak of World War I she wanted to contribute and so trained as an automobile mechanic, worked on a farm growing vegetables and as a librarian in a meteorological office. She continued her writing during summers and wrote many new stories and poems including Marching Men, a poem reflecting her horror of the human costs of the war.
Pickthall faced many trials as a female writer of her time because she wrote against the conventional male models of poetry and the traditional image of femininity. She rebelled against the stereotype of the frail female poet and was frustrated by the restrictions of her gender.
"To me, the trying part is being a woman at all. I’ve come to the ultimate conclusion that I’m a misfit of the worst kind, in spite of a superficial femininity — emotion with a foreknowledge of impermanence, a daring mind with only the tongue as an outlet, a greed for experience plus a slavery to convention — what the deuce are you to make of that? — as a woman? As a man, you could go ahead and stir things up fine." (from Marjorie Pickthall: A Book of Remembrance)
She persevered with her writing and was able to make a living and be financially independent. In 1920, she was homesick and returned to Canada, to the West Coast, to stay with friend and fellow writer Isabel Ecclestone Mackay. She settled in the First Nations' community of Clo-oose. She died suddenly in 1922 at the age of 38 as a result of a blood clot after back surgery and is buried in Toronto.
I leave you with a poem for spring and urge you to discover your connection to poetry this April, or any month of the year!