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Macpherson, (Jean) Jay


Nationality: Canadian. Born: London, England, 13 June 1931. Education: Carleton University, Ottawa, B.A. 1951; University College, London, 1951–52; University of Toronto, M.A. 1955; Ph.D. 1964. Career: Member of the English department, Victoria College, University of Toronto, 1957–96. Awards: Contemporary Verse prize, 1949; Levinson prize, Poetry magazine, Chicago, 1957; President's medal, University of Western Ontario, 1957; Governor-General's award, 1958.



Nineteen Poems. Deyá, Mallorca, Seizin Press, 1952.

O Earth Return. Toronto, Emblem, 1954.

The Boatman. Toronto, Oxford University Press, 1957.

Welcoming Disaster: Poems 1970–1974. Toronto, Saannes, 1974.

Poems Twice Told: Collected Poems. Toronto, Oxford University Press, 1981; New York, Oxford University Press, 1982.


Four Ages of Man: The Classical Myths (textbook). Toronto, Macmillan, and New York, St. Martin's Press, 1962.

Pratt's Romantic Mythology: The Witches' Brew. St. John's Newfoundland, Memorial University, 1972.

The Spirit of Solitude: Conventions and Continuities in Late Romance. New Haven, Connecticut, Yale University Press, 1982.


Critical Studies: By Kildare Dobbs, in Canadian Forum (Toronto), XXXVII, 438; "Poetry" by Northrop Frye, in "Letters in Canada: 1957," in University of Toronto Quarterly, XXVII; "The Third Eye" by James Reaney, in Canadian Literature 3 (Vancouver); Milton Wilson, in Fiddlehead 34 (Fredericton, New Brunswick); Munro Beattie, in Literary History of Canada (Toronto), University of Toronto Press, 1965; "Poetry" by Michael Gnarowski, in "Letters in Canada: 1974," in University of Toronto Quarterly, XLIV, 1974; "In the Whale's Belly: Jay Macpherson's Poetry" by Suniti Namjoshi, in Canadian Literature (Vancouver), 79, 1978; "The 'Unicorn' Poems of Jay Macpherson" by Audrey Berner, in Journal of Canadian Literature (Ottawa), 3(1), winter 1980; Second Words: Selected Critical Prose by Margaret Atwood, Toronto, Anansi, 1982, and Boston, Beacon Press, 1984; "Toward a Feminist Hermeneutics: Jay Macpherson's Welcoming Disaster" by Lorraine Weir, in Gynocritics: Feminist Approaches to Canadian and Quebec Women's Writing, Toronto, ECW, 1987; Jay Macpherson and Her Works, Toronto, ECW Press, 1989, and "Jay Macpherson," in ECW's Biographical Guide to Canadian Poets, edited by Robert Lecker, Jack David, and Ellen Quigley, Toronto, ECW, 1993, both by Lorraine Weir; "Jay Macpherson's Welcoming Disaster: A Reconsideration" by W.J. Keith, in Canadian Poetry (London, Ontario), 36, spring-summer 1995.

*  *  *

Jay Macpherson's The Boatman has been accepted with enthusiasm by academic critics as well as the general public and has been reprinted many times since its first publication in 1957. The book is a subtly organized suite of lyrics—elegiac, pastoral, epigrammatic, and symbolist-that utilize the traditional forms of quatrain and couplet with great metrical virtuosity. It also shows a remarkable flair for the presentation of serious philosophical and, indeed, religious themes in verse that is sometimes beautifully lyrical and sometimes comic in the tradition of Lear or Gilbert or of nursery rhymes—and sometimes both at once.

The book has as its unifying theme the transmutation of time—bound physical reality into the eternal and the spiritual through the magical intermediary of man's imagination. Symbol and myth are the instruments, and the drama of man's Fall and Redemption is worked out in terms derived from the Bible, Milton, Blake, and such modern poets and scholars as Robert Graves and Northrop Frye. Among the protagonists whose fables supply the seeds of the mystical drama unifying the book are Noah, Leviathan, the Queen of Sheba, Mary of Egypt, Eurynome, Merlin, Helen, and such symbolic figures as The Plowman, The Fisherman, The Shepherd, and Angels. One of the reasons for the success of these poems is that they take the reader into the world of childhood faith through the unquestionable truth of fairy tale and legend. The elegance and grace of the writing and the authority with which wit and a sense of comedy are conveyed in verse that is both timeless and temporary also give the book an appeal to the most sophisticated of readers.

The Boatman and Welcoming Disaster (1974) complete Macpherson's poetical oeuvre. In 1981 the two books were published together, along with other poems, as Poems Twice Told. Macpherson is also the author of a scholarly study, The Spirit of Solitude: Conventions and Continuities in Late Romance (1982), that includes a remarkable essay about the Canadian achievement in romance literature titled "This Swan Neck of the Woods." Here she explains that "Canadian literature is without strong individual characters on the whole, being much more forceful in its presentation of settings. Man appears rather generalized: what has character is the wilderness, the city, the snow, the sea."

Macpherson taught for many years at Victoria College in the University of Toronto, where, influenced by the literary critic Northrop Frye, she in turn influenced the poet and writer Margaret Atwood. For some years Macpherson was grouped with the poet and dramatist James Reaney and the poet Daryl Hine and was considered to be a leading member of a so-called mythopoeic school of writers led by Frye. The association did not win readers, but at least it drew attention to her work in respectable places. For instance, Macpherson and Hine are the only two Canadian poets listed by Harold Bloom in his influential Western Canon.

—A.J.M. Smith and

John Robert Colombo

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