Sir Charles G.D. Roberts 1860 - 1943

Canada’s Knight of Literature

Known as the Father of Canadian Poetry, Charles George Douglas Roberts was born in Douglas, New Brunswick, in 1860. As a child he was surrounded by lovely landscapes and this beauty inspired his work throughout his life.

In 1879, he graduated from the University of New Brunswick. He then moved to Chatham, N.B. to become head master of the grammar school. At the age of 20 he published his first volume of poetry, Orion and Other Poems (1860).

He was an inspiration to Bliss Carman (his cousin), Archibald Lampman, and Duncan Campbell Scott. The four poets became known as the “Confederation poets”.

Roberts biographers have pointed out that, although he was a prolific writer with an international reputation, his financial circumstances were very difficult. It is said that he was knighted in absentia since he was unable to pay for the trip. He also was unable to pay for his own Letters Patent. He was also very modest, often citing other poets as better than himself.

Two of his best collections of verse  are In Divers Tones (1886) and Songs of the Common Day and Ave! An Ode for the Shelley Centenary (1893) written while Sir Charles worked as a teacher, professor, and editor.

In 1897, he moved to New York leaving his wife Mary Isabel Feney and his four children in New Brunswick. For financial reasons, he turned to prose-writing and along with Ernest Thompson Seton, Sir Charles Roberts was acknowledged for inventing the modern animal story. Teddy Roosevelt invited him to the White House to discuss his wilderness fiction.

On moving to Europe in 1907, he travelled and eventually made London, England, his home. He served in the British Army as a commissioned officer during World War I. While freelancing, he worked as an editor, gave lectures, published and toured Europe, Britain and the United States.

The Ernescliffe as seen in 1948 is on the right. Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 372, Sub 58, Item 1767

Looking east (1948) on Wellesley from Sherbourne. The Ernescliffe is on the right. Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 372, Sub 58, Item 1767

In 1925, he settled in Toronto and lived for 18 years in Cabbagetown at the Ernescliffe apartments at Sherbourne and Wellesley. Here he continued to write poetry. The Vagrant of Time and The Iceberg and Other Poems were written at this time. In his poem “Two Rivers”, he tries to explain the contradictions in his character. He speaks of his wayward spirit and his temperate side. He struggled with the opposing forces throughout his life.

“For both are in my blood and bone

And will be till I die.

Along my veins their argument

Goes on incessantly.”

In 1935, when he was honoured by King George V and given the title of Knight Bachelor, some twenty volumes of poetry, forty novels and nature stories, four history and travel books and many articles, addresses, and book introductions had been published.

The following is an excerpt from a 1940 Globe and Mail article entitled, “Canada’s Knight of Literature” by Fred Williams:

“Primarily a pioneer, his literary triumphs have not resulted in any swollen fortune. His cozy but quite small flat at the Ernescliffe is overflowing with books, photographs and other souvenirs of a busy artistic life. He does not, like Edgar Guest, drive a Packard, but in these simple and appropriate surroundings the once-remote Dr. Roberts has become contemporary with a later generation and, to many of them, is “Charles”. A title must fit so easily upon him that it is conceivable some will forget the Sir. For he is a great man. Besides his fine mind, and beyond analysis is a quality of personality that clothes him and his work with dignity and incalculable significance. During more than half a century he has not only led Canadian literature, but has impressed it with truly national characteristics, the debt a country owes such a man cannot be paid, but all who understand the value to Canada of his career will rejoice in the official acknowledgment of his priceless services.”

He was most popular in and lectured throughout Canada, always promoting Canadian writers. He served as national president of the Canadian Author’s Association and as editor of Canadian Who Was Who.

Sir Charles G.D. Roberts was the first resident of Canada to be knighted for his contributions to literature.

Awards and Honours

  • 1893 Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada
  • 1898 United States National Institute of Arts and Letters
  • 1906 Honorary Doctor of Law, University of New Brunswick
  • 1926 Lorne Pierce Medal for his contributions to Canadian literature (first recipient)
  • 1945 Person of National Historic Significance

In 1947, a sculpture portraying Roberts with Bliss Carman and fellow poet Francis Joseph Sherman was erected on the University of New Brunswick campus.

In 2005, the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada erected a monument in Roberts’ honour in Westcock, New Brunswick.

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