Sing to Us: E. Pauline Johnson ~ Tekahionwake

I have just finished the first round of edits on a contemporary novel based on Jane Austen’s wonderful Persuasion. Despite the story taking place in the present (well, post-COVID, so perhaps that makes it fantasy), I still found myself diving down the rabbit hole of historical research.

One such dive involved poetry. My main character, Anne Eliot, is a composer and she is working on a piece for choir. A piece for choir involves words and that usually means poetry, so I began my search for the perfect text.

I wanted something very Canadian, something steeped in tradition, but also modern and forward-looking. And I wanted poetry that sang to my soul. I hunted and I searched and I scrounged and found nothing that really called out to me. And then I saw a name I knew. E. Pauline Johnson.

I’d heard of her before and certainly knew her photograph, but had never really taken the time to read her poetry. So I sat down with a collection and began to read. Oh, how glad I am that I did! This was exactly what I wanted. Her poetry is rooted in the land and in her indigenous North American traditions, while still speaking to European sensibilities. And most importantly, it sings. It sings to my soul. I am not a particular aficionada of poetry, as much as I appreciate it, but sometimes something just reaches out and grabs me. And this is exactly what happened. As I read her words, melodies formed in my head. I can just imagine the fabulous riches a real composer could find in her work.

Emily Pauline Johnson was born in 1861 in what is now Ontario, Canada. Her father was Mohawk and her mother English, and she often went by her Mohawk name, Tekahionwake, meaning Double Wampum. Despite the inherent prejudice her parents faced from their mixed marriage, she was brought up in comfortable and culturally rich circumstances. Her father, George, was chief of the Six Nations, spoke English, French, German, and the languages of the Six Nations Confederacy, and worked as an interpreter and cultural liaison between the federal government and the indigenous peoples of the area. Her mother, born Emily Susanna Howells in England, came from a family known for their interest in the literary arts. Due to a large extent to George’s reputation, their home was often host to quite distinguished guests, such as the Marquess of Lorne, Lord Dufferin, and Princess Louise, and Pauline’s elegant manners owed much to this aspect of her childhood.

As might be imagined, Johnson’s life and work were greatly influenced by her dual heritage. She received a good if modest European education from her mother and from Brantford Collegiate Institute, where she graduated in 1877, and learned about her Mohawk background from her grandfather Chief John Smoke Johnson, whose dramatic talents inspired many of Pauline’s poetic works.

When George died in 1884 the family was forced to leave their home and move to nearby Brantford. Pauline turned to writing as means of supporting herself. She had been writing poetry since her teens, and between 1884 and 1886 published several poems. Four were in Gems of Poetry (New York), eight were in The Week (Toronto), and several occasional pieces appeared elsewhere, including a poem written for the retirement of Seneca orator Red Jacket in 1885 and the dedication of a statue of Joseph Brant (Thayendanegea) the following year. By 1886 she had acquired a considerable reputation and it was now that she began signing her works as both E. Pauline Johnson and Tekahionwake.

In 1892 she was invited to participate in an evening of poetry sponsored by the Young Men’s Liberal Club in Toronto, which she did to considerable success. Here her childhood lessons in elegance, manners, and deportment came into play, along with the dramatic gifts and lessons from her grandfather. The audience was delighted with her recitation of her poems, and she soon embarked on a tour of towns and villages across Ontario. She had become, if not the serious poet she wished to be, successful as a popular performer of her own poetry.

Over the next seventeen years she toured Canada and parts of the United States, and presented a series of successful recitals in London, England. While there, she arranged for the publication of her first collection of poetry, The White Wampum (London, Toronto, and Boston, 1895). Her second collection, Canadian Born, was published in 1903, and Flint and Feather was published in 1912.

She continued touring and writing poetry until ill health forced her to retire in 1909. She chose Vancouver, British Columbia, as her new home and it was here that she died of breast cancer in 1913, three days before her birthday.

Johnson’s poetry really celebrates her heritage and her home and is rich in early expressions of Canadian nationalism. She turned the styles and techniques of English poetry to the landscapes and scenes that she knew: gurgling brooks, towering pine trees, purple sunsets, and a lover in a canoe. She extoled the glories of the wilderness and wrote ballads with episodes drawn from First Nations history. Hers was not an easy life, having to straddle late Victorian expectations as an unmarried performer, societal and institutional racism as an Indigenous woman, and just surviving as a woman artist in a time when women’s rights were more fantasy than reality.

As I wrote my novel and looked for the perfect poem for my composer’s music, I found so many wonderful pieces, I wished I could include them all. Choosing just one was an almost impossible task, but I think I’m happy with my selection.


THE BIRDS’ LULLABY

I

Sing to us, cedars; the twilight is creeping
  With shadowy garments, the wilderness through;
All day we have carolled, and now would be sleeping,
  So echo the anthems we warbled to you;
        While we swing, swing,
        And your branches sing,
    And we drowse to your dreamy whispering.

II

Sing to us, cedars; the night-wind is sighing,
  Is wooing, is pleading, to hear you reply;
And here in your arms we are restfully lying,
  And longing to dream to your soft lullaby;
        While we swing, swing,
        And your branches sing,
    And we drowse to your dreamy whispering.

III

Sing to us, cedars; your voice is so lowly,
  Your breathing so fragrant, your branches so strong;
Our little nest-cradles are swaying so slowly,
  While zephyrs are breathing their slumberous song.
        And we swing, swing,
        While your branches sing,
    And we drowse to your dreamy whispering.

And here is another piece I was – and still am – seriously considering for including somewhere.

THE SONGSTER

Music, music with throb and swing,
  Of a plaintive note, and long;
‘Tis a note no human throat could sing,
No harp with its dulcet golden string,—
Nor lute, nor lyre with liquid ring,
  Is sweet as the robin’s song.

He sings for love of the season
  When the days grow warm and long,
For the beautiful God-sent reason
  That his breast was born for song.

Calling, calling so fresh and clear,
  Through the song-sweet days of May;
Warbling there, and whistling here,
He swells his voice on the drinking ear,
On the great, wide, pulsing atmosphere
  Till his music drowns the day.

He sings for love of the season
  When the days grow warm and long,
For the beautiful God-sent reason
  That his breast was born for song.

I hope this beautiful poetry makes your heart sing as it did mine.

You can read more of her beautiful poetry on Project Gutenburg: https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/author/1209

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