Unstrung Hero

Contributed by Gail Benjafield

(A version of this article was first published as an ‘Ode to St. Catharines’, in The Downtowner, Vol.5, no. 2 February/March 1989; it is also a feature in the Summer 2010 Society Newsletter)

In the mid-19th century, St. Catharines was graced by the presence of an extraordinary citizen whose name has since become synonymous with doggerel, or rather wretched poetry. The kind of florid Victorian poetry was practiced by many, but James McIntyre became a master. His works and that of four other Canadian poets of that era have been immortalized in W. A. Deacon’s book ‘The Four James’. All four shared the same given name.

James McIntyre was born in 1828 in Scotland and emigrated with his parents, Peter and Primrose McIntyre, to St. Catharines in 1841. In 1850 he opened a business as a cabinetmaker and undertaker in Thorold.  Cousins of James were in the same business in downtown St. Catharines, variously known as McIntyre’s Furniture and Undertaking on St. Paul Street. Until recently, another funeral home, Passmore’s, worked from that same building on the SE corner of St. Paul and Carlisle. One cousin of James became prominent in his own right by becoming the city’s mayor in the latter part of the 19th century.

But none of the McIntyre’s shared the zeal for literature that infused James’ life. He penned poetry on anything that came to mind, and is immortalized for his best known bad poem Ode to the Mammoth Cheese which he wrote about the Oxford County dairy industry. He may have moved to that county, but he is one of St. Catharines unsung, or as I have labeled him, unstrung heroes. He plied his trade in Ingersoll, and penned his poetry at off times.  His neighbour in Ingersoll, James Harris, created a legendary-sized piece of cheese which went on show at exhibitions. After Harris molded the Big Cheese, James McIntyre wrote:

We have seen thee, Queen of cheese

Laying quietly at your ease

Gently fanned by evening breeze,

Thy fair form no flies dare seize

He has become known as The Cheese Poet.  When he heard the cheese was going to France for an exhibition, he added these lines:

May you not receive a sear as

We have heard that Mr. Harris

Intends to send you off as far as

The great World Show at Paris.

Doesn’t scan? Consider then McIntyre’s only known offering to our own city – he penned the following poem which he read at the Welland House at an Oddfellows Grand Lodge banquet:

St. Catharines famed for her mineral waters

And for the beauty of her daughters,

For some do worship at the shrines

Of the fair St. Catharines.

St.Catharines your greatness you inherit

From the genius of a Merritt

You still would be a village dreary

But for this canal from Lake Erie

But on its bosom there doth float

Full many a ship and steamboat,

Brings world’s commerce to your doors

And many gifts on you it pours.

Among its many great rewards

It gives you dry docks and shipyard

To drive your mills great water power

It doth give you as a dower.

Since we above did lines compose,

Through new canal vast steam it flows,

The lock gates at the hill of Thorold

Cannot be equaled in the world.

Well what can one say to that?  Some would say that this ‘poetry’ rivals the world’s famous bad poet, McGonnigle. I, for one, am glad to have found at least one of McIntyre’s poems which ostensibly celebrates our city.

Gail Benjafield is a member of the Society, and proud owner of a copy of The Four James.

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