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Charles Heavysege

Charles Heavysege

Charles Heavysege (1816-1876) was a Canadian poet and dramatist. He was one of the first serious poets to emerge in Canada, and his play "Saul" was hailed on its appearance as the greatest verse drama in English since the time of Shakespeare.

Charles Heavysege was born at Huddersfield, Yorkshire, left school at the age of 9, and was apprenticed to a carpenter and cabinetmaker. As a youth, he saw a production of Macbeth and bought a cheap edition of Shakespeare: Shakespeare and the Bible were the chief influences on all his own writings. Heavysege's first book of verse, The Revolt of Tartarus, appeared in England in 1852.

In 1853 Heavysege emigrated to Canada, settled in Montreal, and supported his large family by working as a cabinetmaker. A second volume of verse, Sonnets, appeared in 1855. His chief work, the long verse drama Saul, was published in Montreal in 1857. Coventry Patmore, reviewing Saul in the North British Review, ranked it as the greatest English poem published outside Great Britain. Hawthorne, Emerson, and Longfellow were all enthusiastic in their praise, and the play went into three editions.

In the 1860s Heavysege published six more books. In 1860 there appeared Count Filippo; or, The Unequal Marriage, a five-act tragedy in blank verse; in 1864, The Owl, a narrative poem in direct imitation of Poe's "The Raven," and The Dark Huntsman; in 1865, Jepthah's Daughter, a long biblical narrative in blank verse, and The Advocate, a historical romance in prose; and in 1867, Jezebel, another biblical narrative poem. In his later years Heavysege gave up his trade as a cabinetmaker and became a journalist, writing first for the Montreal Transcript and later for the Montreal Witness.

At its best, Heavysege's work is marked by its massive dignity, its acute analysis of morbid mental states, its descriptive accuracy, and its melancholy atmospheric effects. Perhaps because of his defective education, however, his taste was uncertain, and his dignity often lapsed into grandiloquence, his delight in subtlety into a kind of fantastic eccentricity. His language is often inflated in the manner of the pseudo-Miltonists of the 18th century, and he never overcame a tendency toward garrulousness and verbosity. Although his work is now seen to be somewhat pompous and derivative, he is of interest because, at a stage in Canadian literary history when there was little to encourage literary excellence, he persevered in his attempts to express his vision in memorable form.

Further Reading

There is no book-length study of Heavysege. Information on him is in Ray Palmer Baker, A History of English-Canadian Literature to the Confederation (1920); Desmond Pacey, Creative Writing in Canada (2d ed. 1961); and Carl F. Klinck, ed., Literary History of Canada (1965). □

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