The Irish woman who became Canada’s first major poet

Isabella Valancy Crawford was one of Canada’s first writers to make a living as a freelancer

Isabella Vlancy Crawford was born in Dublin in 1850. Despite obscurity in her own lifetime, she is now recognised as a pioneer of Canadian poetry.

We know little of her life, except what comes to us through her surviving poems, many of which deal with a mythopoeic landscape very divorced from her own day to day experience. We do, however, have a brief statement in Isabella’s own words:

"I am of mingld (sic) Scotch, French, and English descent, born in Dublin, Ireland. My father was Stephen Dennis Crawford M.D.

"I am his sixth child and only surviving daughter. I was brought to Canada by my parents in earliest childhood, and have never left the country since that period. I was educated at home, and have never left my home but for about a month.

“My father settled in Peterborough, Ontario, where he passed out. My mother and I came then to Toronto, where we have ever since resided. I have written largely for the American Press, but only published one volume on my own account, Old Spookses’ Pass, Malcolm’s Katie and Other Poems which appeared in 1884 in Toronto, and is decorated with press errors as a Zulu Chief is laden with beads. Voila tout!”

Isabella’s story is one of a trajectory of downward mobility. Born in Donnybrook in a house named “Thornberry” (now 55 Marlborough Road), she came from a well-connected Scots-Irish family. Her uncles were all members of the professional classes. Only her father, Stephen, seemed unable to establish a living, despite his medical training. Indeed, it seems that this training may have been more perfunctory than his diploma from the Royal College of Surgeons suggests.

The family emigrated to Canada in 1855, but not before fever had taken seven of the Crawford’s 11 children in one week. The family moved to the tiny settlement of Paisley in 1857, and Dr Crawford obtained a licence to practice medicine.

The family don’t seem to have settled well. One account said of the doctor “women were afraid to have him as he was a heavy drinker, but very clever if sober.’ Dr Crawford also became Town Treasurer, but the family had to leave Paisley in a hurry with a question over $500 of misappropriated funds hanging over them.

A move to Lakefield in 1861, brought about by a fortuitous meeting with Robert Strickland, allowed the young Isabella to mix with Robert's sisters, the writers Susanna Moodie and Catharine Parr Traill. It was in Lakefield that Isabella was first exposed to the native culture and legends that would inform much of her poetry; works such as "The Canoe Speaks", a lavishly descriptive poem which imagines a hunt from the point of view of the hunter's canoe.

The family moved again to Peterborough in 1869, but Dr Crawford’s alcoholism continued to dog them. During this time, Isabella began to have poems published, with her first known publication in the Toronto Mail in 1873.

By the time of her father’s death in 1875, Isabella had established enough of an income to suggest to her mother that the pair should move to Toronto. They stayed in boarding houses while Isabella had poems published in Toronto newspapers, short stories in American journals, and a novel, A Little Bacchante, serialised in the Evening Globe.

She published only one book, the aforementioned Old Spookses’ Pass, Malcolm’s Katie and Other Poems at her own expense. Despite good reviews, the book sold only 50 copies. In 1887 Isabella died of a heart attack while apologising to her landlady for discommoding her: “What a trouble I am, Mrs Stuart.”

Many biographers have attempted to piece Isabella’s story together, speculating on her love life in particular.

It is tempting to compare her to Emily Dickinson, the Brontë Sisters, or, with her penchant for publishing serialised gothic romances, the fictional Jo March in Louisa May Alcott's Little Women. And yet, history has stayed silent on the facts of Isabella's life, apart from the glimpses she offers us herself in her poetry. Her work remains a testament to the spirit of Canadian frontiers-people and to the natural beauty of Canada. Perhaps that is statement enough.

'O, words!' said Katie, blushing, 'only words!
You build them up that I may push them down;
If hearts are flow'rs, I know that flow'rs can root--
'Bud, blossom, die--all in the same lov'd soil;
They do so in my garden. I have made
Your heart my garden.'
(from "Malcolm's Katie")

This Extraordinary Emigrants article was written by Jessica Traynor, deputy museum director of EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum in Dublin’s Docklands, an interactive museum that tells the story of how the Irish shaped and influenced the world.