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Photo of Charles Boyle

Charles Boyle, photo: Prayers at High Alter

Charles Frederick Boyle

Charles Frederick Boyle (poet) was born in Waasis, New Brunswick—a small community located a few kilometres east of Fredericton—in 1911. He was born into the Catholic family of Joseph Frederick and Mary (Donahue) Boyle. Boyle published three chapbooks of poetry beginning with Stars Before the Wind in 1937. He drew inspiration from both the New Brunswick landscape and his religious convictions. The first recognition of Boyle’s work outside of New Brunswick was the publication of one of his poems in Canadian Poetry Magazine. Boyle’s poetry has also been published in the Daily Gleaner, the Telegraph-Journal, the Toronto Daily Star, the Atlantic Advocate, and the Montreal Star.

Charles Boyle had a slight figure, perhaps due to a serious childhood illness (Maxwell 81). Although his build was small, he had dark, powerful eyes and a commanding voice. When he spoke it was to the point. The different sides of Boyle’s personality enabled him to be a good businessman, as well as a good artist. His artistic skills were not confined to poetry, and he spent time as an amateur actor.

Boyle grew up on a farm in rural New Brunswick and from a young age was surrounded by the landscape that he would eventually write about. Prayers at a High Alter (1943) contains an autobiographical poem called “Biography.” In the poem, Boyle looks back on his life as a young child, giving thanks for his gift of words: “This child, this farm-child, this misshapen thing, / Shall have unto him give/ Some touch of madness that will make his soul/ A willow-harp for all the winds of heaven” (7).

Boyle received his education at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton, NB. He was a member of the editorial staff for the Canadian Author and Bookman, a quarterly magazine that acted as the voice of the Canadian Author’s Association (CAA) until 1992. Boyle was also elected to the position of Grand Master of the Order of the Knights of Columbus.

His first book of poetry, Stars Before the Wind, was followed by the chapbooks Excuse for Futility (1939) and Prayers at a High Alter. Boyle’s chapbooks reflect three distinct periods of the poet’s life. Stars Before the Wind portrays a romantic notion of the world and nature. Its poems contain rich, natural imagery that reveal his youthful idealism. Describing his love for a woman, he writes, “If you were here, were with me once again,/ How we would splash through puddles without care/ And dodge from tree to tree-shade without pain,/ Strong in our youth, a happy thoughtless pair!” (“Rain at Evening” 2). Stars Before the Wind is personal and reminiscent; it expresses the emotions of a young man, such as love, passion, and heartbreak.

Excuse for Futility takes a dramatic turn towards religion and God. This collection reveals a man mature in his faith, and, unlike his previous collection, he is not concerned with worldly things, preferring to focus on the connection between man, nature, and God. Boyle’s sense of identity seems to be drawn from nature and God, as evident in the poem “Grand Manan Island”: “Here on this isle of Grand Manan we take/ From woodland and from crag, from sea and sun/ A true perspective, for our lost souls’ sake” (7).

Boyle’s final book was written during the Second World War (WWII), and its poems address issues of violence, hate, freedom, and truth. Prayers at a High Alter takes a more holistic look at society and is much more politically and socially critical of Canada. In “The Elementals”, Boyle writes with passion about Canada’s sense of duty to continue fighting for freedom. He writes, “Let us take place with Campbell, Scott, and him/ Who sang of Tara’s loss in loft tones-/ The flames of truth and freedom shall not dim/ While we have breath to blow their alter-stones” (2). Two of his war poems appeared in the British publication, The Empire Anthology of Verse (1941). Out of sixteen Canadian poems chosen for the book, two were his, including one of his best entitled “Winter in Leinster Street.”  

Although Boyle did not fight in WWII, the carnage and tragedy of war deeply affected him. Like many poets of that time, the stories that came back from the front lines both horrified and inspired him. Boyle felt compelled to help in the war effort in any way possible and donated all the royalties from Prayers at a High Alter to the Queen’s Fund in London, England, which helped civilian war victims.

Boyle’s strong connection to the land and the city of Fredericton created his identity as a Fredericton poet. He considered himself lucky to live in a city that appreciated and supported his art. His poem “Sonnet to Fredericton” appeared in Stars Before the Wind and idealizes the city: “O jewelled empire in the wooded hills,/ With thy sweet stream where sunlight first was born” (2).

The predominant image in Boyle’s poetry is his home place. However, his comfortable, middle class life was later seen by critics as a contributor to his nostalgic romanticizing: “This image of the ‘home place’ as the nurturer not only of local tradition but also of a wider social universe runs counter to current critical charges by cultural historian, Ian McKay, that much Maritime literature is merely a literature of nostalgia created by middle class writers who idealize a pastoral, golden age as part of a ‘culture of consolation’” (Davies 195). Boyle’s poem “Sonnet to Fredericton” certainly idealizes the city without making reference to any of the negative aspects that plague Maritime towns. Gwendolyn Davies, however, counters McKay’s argument and writes, “But to dismiss this literature as static, merely the product of middle class romanticization, is to ignore the elements of realism, irony, and economic cynicism permeating much of it” (198). Boyle’s poem “The Saviours,” published in Prayers at a High Alter, is the kind of poem that Davies notes, for it is satiric about Canada’s soldiers: “See them coming out of bawdy houses or bootleggers’/ joints,/ Hear them fighting and singing and yelling at girls,/ Watch them careening down alleyways, blind-drunk/ on a bottle of “goof”-/ These, our saviours” (5).

In all of his poems, Boyle is direct and personal. He uses natural imagery and familiar symbols like the moon and night. Although he sometimes reaches for the classical and remote, he is candid about his personal feelings: “I am a lonely shade in an ancient world,/ An alien presence in a hamlet tucked/ Within a mountain pass, impervious/ To time and change, and wars, and men of hate” (1).  

As a mark of their enduring charm, his poems have been frequently anthologized. His poem “End or Beginning” (1959) was featured in Fiddlehead Gold: 50 Years of the Fiddlehead Magazine (1995). His poems “Summation” and “Aftermath” were published in The Atlantic Advocate’s Holiday Book (1961).

Although his name is relatively unknown, Boyle’s poetry has been published next to some of Canada’s most famous authors. Charles Frederick Boyle died in Fredericton in 1966 at the age of 55. 

Emma Smith, Winter 2009
St. Thomas University

Bibliography of Primary Sources

Boyle, C. Frederick. Excuse for Futility. Toronto, ON: Ryerson, 1939.

---. Prayers at a High Alter. Toronto, ON: Ryerson, 1943.

---. Stars Before the Wind. Toronto, ON: Ryerson, 1937.

Bibliography of Secondary Sources

Campbell, Sabine, Roger Ploude, and Demetres Tryphonopolous, eds. Fiddlehead Gold: 50 Years of the Fiddlehead Magazine. Fredericton, NB: Goose Lane Editions, 1995. 31-2.

Davies, Gwendolyn. Studies in Maritime Literary History. Fredericton, NB: Acadiensis, 1991.

Laugher, Charles T. Atlantic Province Authors of the Twentieth Century: A Bio-Bibliographical Checklist. Halifax, NS: Dalhousie U Libraries, 1982.

Maxwell, L.M.B. The River St. John and Its Poets. Sackville, NB: Tribune, 1947.

Parr, D. Kermode, ed. The Atlantic Advocate’s Holiday Book. Fredericton, NB: Unipress, 1961.