George Johnston was born in Hamilton, Ontario, on October 7, 1913. Johnston knew early on that he wanted to be a writer, and published early poems (often comic-satiric), as well as newspaper columns, film reviews and plays, during his years at the University of Toronto's Victoria College, where he studied philosophy and English.
When war was declared, he joined the RCAF and served four and a half years, including thirteen months as a reconnaissance pilot in West Africa. He returned to Canada in 1944, married Jeanne McRae, and completed his MA and doctoral studies at the University of Toronto. In between, he taught two years (1947-49) at Mount Allison University, and in 1950, having found teaching to his liking, accepted a post at Ottawa's Carleton University where, for twenty-nine years, he was a charismatic and much-loved professor of Old and Middle English and Old Norse. His first book of poems, The Cruising Auk, written during the war, was not published until 1959, when he was forty-six.
Sabbatical years were decisive in Johnston's life. During his first, 1957-58 at Dorking in Surrey, he met Peter Foote of the University of London, who taught him Old Norse, and began translating The Saga of Gisli in collaboration with him. A second sabbatical, in 1967-68, was spent in Denmark and included the discovery of modern Faroese poetry and the first of four visits the Johnstons made to the Faroe Islands. A last sabbatical, 1974-75, spent mostly in Gloucester, England, included a three-week visit to Iceland.
After The Cruising Auk, Johnston published four more poetry collections before the appearance of Endeared by Dark, his Collected Poems, in 1990. A man whose diverse interests included calligraphy, bell-ringing, wine-making and beekeeping, who kept up a wide correspondence and enjoyed reading the classics aloud with his wife, Johnston retired from Carleton in 1979. He died in August of 2004.
Carl Schaefer is one of the most significant Canadian historical figures living today; the thirty-five year span of the major oils and water colours in this exhibition are a document of his important contribution to Canadian art. This catalogue lists the 55 works in the exhibition. "A Short Appreciation" by Geroge Johnston is reprinted from Carl Sc …
'Johnston may well be Canada's most accomplished poet in the sense that he writes poetry as a craft, not as self-revelation, or propaganda, or "high art", or psychological therapy. He is preoccupied with rhythms, with diction, with tones and nuances, and the creative challenge of complex metres and stanza forms. ...This verse celebrates ordinary li …
Inward of Poetry presents fifty years of thoughtful and, by turns, chatty letters between poet George Johnston and his good friend and frequent editor, the scholar William Blissett. Edited by former student Sean Kane, this lively collection includes several hitherto unpublished Johnston poems and reveals the development and creative necessities of …
Chapter Three: The Cruising Auk
. . . .
There are more letters for 1954 (fourteen) than for any other year of the fifty years in which Johnston and Blissett wrote to each other. The themes continue much as we see them in 1953: the volume, Imitation and Design; the continued publishing fate of Blissett's Macbeth piece and of Johnston's ''The Phoenix and the Turtle'' article; Johnston's study of the painter Carl Schaefer; plans to meet at the Stratford Festival (a new institution in the 1950s); gossip about Gordon Wood and other academic colleagues (''MacLean ... discloses that Hornyansky is coming dwadwa & that Hoeniger is en route to London for Ph.D.''), as well as Malcolm Ross, James Reaney and, always, Millar and Evelyn MacLure. There is first mention of Blissett's writing to modern poets about the reputation of Edmund Spenser; continued praise of Jay Macpherson; discussion of some modern poets, especially Dylan Thomas and Robert Graves; and persistent attempts by Blissett to force Catcher in the Rye on Johnston. Some of these subjects will be found in other sections of this volume on the correspondence. For the correspondents themselves, of course the most important subject is the mutual editing by Blissett and Johnston of each other's writing during the period when they both attempted to honour the muses of creativity and scholarship.
For this, we start with the poem ''Roses'' sent on 2 February 1954, in which Miss Knit, a sort of Blakean Female Will, ensnares the unsuspecting solar deity, Mr. Byers:
Among the roses around behind the house
Snip snap snip go the little cutting pliers;
Sweet Miss Knit, who is a kind of mouse,
Is gathering buds & blooms for Mr. Byers.
Mr. Byers is a kind of a hungry cat,
But he doesn't pay much attention to sweet Miss Knit;
She loves his magnificent person, which is fat,
And wishes she had to herself his every bit.
Ah roses, roses on Mr. Byers' table
That lean your thorns above the polished wood,
Miss Knit would borrow your death, if she were able,
To darken her small heart, which is sweet and good;
For certainly Mr. Byers' great concerns
Overpower his taste for the good & sweet,
And when he flies across the sea & returns
It's the unremembering and bitter he wants to meet.
Blissett responds (14 February 1954):
'Roses' is nice (& so is you. This is St. Valentine's Day). But whether you can persuade an editor to take all those extra syllables is a moot question (in 'attention' & 'magnificent' e.g. why not 'heed' & 'massive' they will say. Your answer is that the reader has to get used to scurrying -- as in the last line of the first stanza, and lopsidedness -- as in the last line of all; otherwise no poem.
The published version shows relaxations throughout, but where Blissett's argument has prevailed wholly is in the last few lines: the Blakean mythopoeia gives way to ironic sensory particulars:
And yet the room's mahogany-deep light
And all the little rainbows in the glass
Seem to surround her movements with delight
And watch her mouse's footsteps as they pass.
Johnston's letter to Blissett of 20 March does not refer to this editing, but soon after, on 24 April, he encloses ''Kind Offices''; except for an allusion to his family in ''War on the Periphery,'' this is the first of the poems about his children to enter the correspondence. It entered Auk unchanged, having passed Blissett's scrutiny (''nice, should be worth dough'' -- 8 May 1954):
Andrew, an understanding boy,
Helps Cathleen: he gets her toy
Or puts her dolly in her hand;
He sits her up, he makes her stand;
He picks her dolly up again
And gives it back to her and then
Re-erects her on her feet.
In all he does his air is sweet,
Olympian, perhaps. His smile
Is Heaven's blandest. She meanwhile
Is rage itself. I cannot tell
Her rage; she's brimestone pits and Hell.
Johnston's April letter also included ''Cat,'' I and II. These are the first of Johnston's famous cat poems. While Blissett has said, ''I don't know of another poet who celebrates his children so fully,'' I don't know of another with such an affinity for felines:
Pussy's caught a baby bird
And she's so pleased with it
She's purring as she's never purred.
She lets it go a bit
As though she held it by a thread
Or love, perhaps. Above her head
The air's extravagant with grief;
The season, after all,
Overproduces blood & leaf
And even flight, the Fall
Scatters what's left of them at last
Eat it, pussy, life flies past!
Every yard has a cat these days
Watching, footing, blinking;
Every tree has a cheeky squirrel
Seemingly all unthinking,
Going his squirrel ways
As though no cat in the world were waiting, slinking.
Life is exquisite when it's just
Out of reach by a bound
Of filagree jaws & delicate paws
That feel their points in the ground,
That drop their drips in the dust.
Pounce! Up the tree again! the tails whip round.
Blissett writes: ''The first poem is very strong down to 'grief' but then slackens down to 'And even flight', which I don't understand. Blood & leaf can't be parallel to flight can they, or can they? The fall scatters leaves & birds ('flight'?) but not blood any more than any other season. Last line excellent. The second poem good too. I suppose cats do slobber when hunting?'' (Blissett to Johnston 8 May 1954). When published in The Cruising Auk, the Darwinian melodrama came into focus as:
The air's extravagant with grief,
The season over all
Is prodigal of bone and leaf
And feathers too; the fall
Scatters the birds and leaves at last.
Eat it, pussy, life flies past!
. . . .
George Johnston, renowned for his fine translations of Old Icelandic tales such as The Saga of Gisli and Thrand of Gotu, takes a look at two orally-preserved stories from the middle of the ninth to the eleventh century. The first, 'The Saga of the Schemers', is unique in that the work is wholly imaginative and its mood is comic whereas most are wei …
The two sagas of the Faroe Islanders and Greenlanders may be counted among the 'Sagas of Icelanders', though Icelanders play no part in the first and little in the second, and events in both are remote from Iceland. They may be so categorized on account of their style, which is that of sober history, and not less so when events that we would consid …