by George J. Dance


Wilson MacDonald (1880-1967) in Canadian Singers and their Songs, 1919. Courtesy Internet Archive.

Wilson MacDonald
Born Wilson Pugsley MacDonald
May 5, 1880
Cheapside, Ontario
Died April 8, 1967
Occupation poet
Nationality Canada Canadian
Education B.A.
Alma mater McMaster University
Notable work(s) Out of the Wilderness

Wilson Pugsley MacDonald (May 5, 1880 - April 8, 1967) was a Canadian poet.[1] In the 1920's he was so popular "that his fame eclipsed that of Robert Service and Pauline Johnson."[2]



MacDonald "was known mainly in his own time for his considerable platform abilities" as a reader of his poetry. By reading fees, and by selling his books at readings, he was able to make a living from his poetry alone.[1]

Youth and educationEdit

MacDonald was born in Cheapside (now part of the municipality of Haldimand), Ontario. He attended McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, graduating in 1902.[3] He began publishing poetry in the Toronto Globe in 1899, while still a student.[1]


Canadian poet Albert E.S. Smythe described MacDonald as a "slight, lithe, graceful Italian figure, the same dark eyes and olive complexion, the same inscrutable smile of the shy but friendly soul."[1]

After graduating, MacDonald worked at a number of jobs. As he later wrote: "I have been, in my varied career, a view agent, seaman, cabin-boy, bartender (one night), school-teacher, actor, inventor, producer, playwright, composer, advertisement writer, newspaper reporter, editorial writer, columnist, banker, and poet. When my poetry would not sell, circumstances forced these other tasks upon me."[4]

His 1st collection of poetry, Song of the Prairie Land, was published in 1918.[1] In 1921 MacDonald self-published a book of Christian poetry called The Miracle Songs of Jesus.[1]

Because he refused to be anything but a fully committed poet, now that he had been published, in the early 1920's MacDonald managed to find a way to "supplement his income by engaging in lengthy and rather successful tours of readings and lectures."[1]. He became what Douglas Fetherling called, in the Canadian Encyclopedia, "a barnstorming versifier with an unbending faith in his own greatness."[3] MacDonald travelled both Canada and the northern United States reciting his poetry in large city and small town alike. "His personal shyness disappeared on stage, where he became dynamic; humming, chanting, and singing, he synchronized his whole performance to make poems come alive for his audience."[4]


Wilson MacDonald, circa 1960. Courtesy Heritage Perspectives by Doug Mackey.

MacDonald was not the 1st Canadian poet to make a living from performance touring; Pauline Johnson had done so 30 years earlier. But MacDonald is the 1st noted for merchandising his tours. Fetherling noted, with an apparent shudder, MacDonald's books that "he himself hawked at his 'recitals,'".[3] And not just books. MacDonald "was something of an artist, a designer. Frequently he illustrated his own poems and dabbled with illumination and typography."[1] There are many examples online of individual poems illustrated and/or calligraphed by MacDonald, which look like merchandising aimed at those unwilling or unable to buy a whole book.[5]

Of course, everything bought at a performance could also be autographed; MacDonald is an author whose books are seldom found unsigned.

MacDonald's most popular work, Out of the Wilderness (1926), went into 10 editions.[2]

Critics seldom paid attention to his work,[1] and it was not taught in schools. MacDonald went around that barrier by reciting his poetry for free in high school auditoriums across Canada, paying for it with his merchandising. "He was the one poet a generation or two of Canadian students had ever seen or heard."[2]

A fan club, the Wilson MacDonald Poetry Society, was active in several cities,[3] including in the United States,[1] "and at least one such group still survives."[3] From 1953 on, when MacDonald was in his 70's and no longer performing, the Poetry Society supported him financially.[2]


Wilson macdonald-plaque

Wilson MacDonald plaque in Cheapside, Ontario. Photo by Alan L. Brown, August 2004. Photo used with permission from the website

In a 1933 talk on "Canadian Poetry in its Relation to The Poetry of England and America", Charles G.D. Roberts singled out MacDonald as one of 3 postwar poets representative of modern trends. Roberts said of him: "Wilson MacDonald is purely a lyricist, with a very wide range of form and theme. His best work is forged in the white heat of emotion and is always definitely stamped with his own personality. It is primarily subjective. In his shorter, personal lyrics, such as 'Exit,' he achieves at times an unforgettable poignancy. In his passionately humanitarian poems he is modern in spirit, but in form he is distinctly classical."[6] (Italics in original.)

The Encyclopedia of Literature praised technical aspects of MacDonald's poetry: "The poems are invariably well balanced because of his musical interest; parts of stanzas are repeated for emphasis and direction - as major melodies in music would be - with other lines juxtaposed to heighten the emotional effect."[4]

Fetherling was frankly dismissive: "It is surprising the extent to which MacDonald was often taken seriously as an artist and equally surprising that genuine poems or hints of them can sometimes be discovered in his collections by those willing to wade through his vapid romanticism and pre-modernist conventions."[3]

Some of MacDonald's poetry certainly does not hold up: for example, the books Caw-Caw Ballads and Paul Marchand, and other poems, which employ dialect verse - here the French-Canadian habitant dialect of English popularized by William Henry Drummond - would be more entertaining if heard performed rather than read, and even then more embarrassing than entertaining.

Other pieces of MacDonald's work stand the test of time. The title poem of his collection Out of the Wilderness sounds like something by Walt Whitman: "I, a vagabond, gypsy, lover forever of freedom, / Come, / Come to you who are arrogant, proud, and fevered with civilization - / Come with a tonic of sunlight, bottled in wild careless acres,/ To cure you with secrets as old as the breathing of men."

Roberts said of that poem that MacDonald "has been so bold as to experiment frankly with Whitman's peculiar form and content, and he has justified the experiment. He has succeeded at times in breathing into that harsh form a beauty of words and cadences which Whitman never achieved."[6]



Wilson MacDonald Memorial School Museum, Cheapside. Courtesy Haldimand County.

The Wilson P. MacDonald Memorial School Museum near Selkirk in Haldimand (the school MacDonald attended as a boy) has been designated a National Historic Site of Canada.[7] Dedicated "to preserving the history of rural education, the heritage of the surrounding community, and the memory of poet Wilson Pugsley MacDonald," the museum "allows students to experience a typical day in a 1925 one-room rural school. Costumes, role playing, lessons and games help modern youngsters learn about their heritage and the history of education. The day-long programme is especially tailored to the school curriculum."[8]



  • The Song Of The Prairie Land, and other poems (introduction by Albert E.S. Smythe). Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1918.
  • The Miracle Songs Of Jesus. Toronto: privately published, 1921.
  • Out Of The Wilderness. Ottawa: Graphic Publishers, 1926. New York & London: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1926.
  • An Ode on the Diamond Jubilee of Confederation. Toronto: privately published, 1927.
  • Caw-Caw Ballads. Montclair, NJ: Pine Tree Publishing, 1930.
  • A Flagon Of Beauty. Toronto: Pine Tree Publishing, 1931.
  • Paul Marchand, and other poems. (illustrated by Guy Ritter). Toronto: Pine Tree Publishing, 1933.
  • Quintrains Of "Callender", and other poems. Toronto: S.J.R. Saunders, 1935.
  • The Song Of The Undertow, and other poems. Toronto & Buffalo: S.J.R. Saunders, Broadway P, 1935.
  • Comber Cove (illustrated by Frank A. Stockwell). Toronto: S.J.R. Saunders, 1937.
  • Greater Poems Of The Bible: Metrical versions, biblical forms, and original poems. 1943.[4]
  • Armand Dussault. Toronto: Macmillan, 1946; Buffalo, NY: Broadway Press, 1946.
  • The Lyric Year. Toronto: Ryerson, 1952. Buffalo, NY: Foster & Stewart, 1952.
  • Pugwash. Toronto: Pine Tree Publishing, 1962. "No type is used in this book, It is unique in that it is one of the few books which reproduce the author's own handwriting".
  • The Angels Of The Earth. Toronto: Nelson, 1963.


  • Wilson MacDonald's Western Tour, 1923-24: a collage of letters (to, from and about Wilson MacDonald), newspaper clippings, poems, drawings and miscellaneous MacDonaldiana assembled by Stan Dragland. Toronto: Coach House, 1975.

Except where noted, bibliographic information courtesy Open Library.[5]

See also Edit

Exit (Easily to the Old...

Exit (Easily to the Old....) by Wilson MacDonald (read by Tom O'Bedlam)

References Edit

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 1.7 1.8 1.9 "Wilson (Pugsley) MacDonald Biography," Dictionary of Literary Biography,, Web, May 10, 2011.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 John Robert Colombo, "Wilson MacDonald," Canadian Literary Landmarks (Hamilton: Dundurn, 1984), 205, Google Books, Web, May 10, 2011.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 Douglas Fetherling, "MacDonald, Wilson Pugsley," Canadian Encyclopedia (Edmonton: Hurtig, 1988), 1262.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 Donald Stephens, "Wilson MacDonald Biography," Encyclopedia of Literature, 8259,, Web, May 10, 2011.
  5. 5.0 5.1 Search results: Wilson MacDonald, Open Library, Internet Archive. Web, May 10, 2011.
  6. 6.0 6.1 Charles G.D. Roberts, "Canadian Poetry in its Relation to The Poetry of England and America", Canadian Poetry: Studies/Documents/Reviews No. 3, UWO, Web, May 10, 2011.
  7. Canadian Register of Historic Places.
  8. "Wilson MacDonald Memorial School Museum,", Web, May 11, 2011.

External linksEdit

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