Hedley S. Vicars Parker
Hedley S. Vicars Parker (poet, balladeer, and newspaper columnist) was born in 1856 in Miramichi, New Brunswick. Parker’s published works—Miramichi Poet: 6 Poems by Hedley Parker (1947)—is a collection of poems and ballads that show the impact that the Miramichi had on his life, even after he moved to New York. His poems and ballads describe the daily activities in the lives of people living in Miramichi, the harsh weather conditions they face, and Miramichi's golden age when the lumber business was in full swing.
Early in Parker’s life his family moved from Derby, Miramichi to Newcastle because of his father’s job as Deputy Collector of Customs for the Port of Newcastle. His mother Ellen (Spratt) and father William had three daughters and two sons: Olivia, Elizabeth, Herbert, Hedley, and Ella. Hedley attended “Harkins Seminary [sic] in Newcastle where he learned Latin, Mathematics, and memory work” (Lord Beaverbrook 4), all under the guidance of Principal John Harper from Scotland. Harper insisted on absolute obedience in his school and touted the importance of religion.
Despite the stern upbringing in school and at home, the Parkers were a very loving family and well liked by all in their community. They were also avid readers and father William possessed “a good sound gentleman’s library” (Lord Beaverbrook 4). Some of the texts in his possession were by Plutarch, Plato, Homer, and Byron. There were also theological books—the Koran, and Bible—around. It was through this exposure to great literary writers that Hedley developed his taste for writing.
Growing up in the 1860s when shipbuilding was still a major industry and long lumbering was on the rise, Parker would often observe the workers returning from jobs and spending their money in week-long benders fueled by alcohol and women. This contrasted with Parker’s strict religious upbringing, but he also grew to respect those men who worked to provide for their families. It was through his exposure to wild Miramichi nights that Parker developed a love for his town, a love that would become central to his poems and ballads in the coming years.
In his early twenties, Parker moved to New York where he found a job working for the Herald. After a few years he was promoted from compositor to the editorial staff, and later given a job working on the shipping pages. He wrote two pages every day for the Herald about the shipping activities at the port. His desk also became a meeting area for captains from all over the world. Parker was eventually given the nickname “Captain Parker,” a name that he was known by in the shipping world. He was in care of precious mail sent to him by sailors who trusted him. When the Herald was absorbed by the New York Tribune, Parker left the newspaper and began writing for The Sun. In total, he spent forty-nine years as a Marine Editor and for thirty years he cabled messages about marine affairs in America to London.
Parker took a year-long leave of absence from The Sun near the end of the 1890s and returned home to Newcastle, where he edited a small local paper called the Union Advocate. In 1899, he wrote “The Days of Duffy Gillis,” a poem that is not only based on an actual person but also the “former glory days of Miramichi” (Manny 4). Duffy Gillis was a local man known for telling tales of the good old days when Hedley was a young boy. His tales were so grand that everyone knew not to take them at face value. Parker’s poem is rooted in an affection for Gillis and in memories of the better days of financial prosperity. The poem reflects on a time when the Miramichi lumber industry was a major boon to Canada:
Come all you jolly lumbermen
Whose better days have fled,
And I will sing of halcyon days
Before we had confed.
When two logs made a thousand,
Our country at its best,
In the days of Duffy Gillis
From the Sou-ou-West
(qtd. in Manny 6).
In 1902, he wrote another poem titled “The Man Behind the Boathook,” depicting the breaking of the Southwest boom in 1881 because of a huge log jam. His poem describes the heroics of the workers as they try to dislodge the jam so that the timber can continue through the river to its destination. The poem, then, depicts in detail one of the major industries in operation when he was young, and the dangers that went with it. The poem alludes to famous mythological characters (such as Leonidas, the great Spartan warrior) and their brave adventures; however, unlike Anna Leticia Barbauld’s work in “Washing Day,” Parker’s use of mythological language is not to ridicule the job, but in fact to “paint a picture of how daring these men are” (Manny 5):
So doff your hat, Horatius bold,
Of Roman bridge renown,
And you, Leonidas, brave Greek,
Go way back and sit down.
A new Thermopylae is here,
With heroes’ wreaths to burn;
The man behind the boathook now
Is going to have his turn.
(qtd. in Manny 13).
The importance of these men succeeding at their job was vital to the Miramichi's success, both in terms of financial prosperity and in helping push the wilderness back so that a community could be established.
After his leave was over, Parker returned to New York, but not before marrying Maud (Williston). The couple would constantly return to the Miramichi on vacation, a place that stayed close to his heart. Later in life, Parker wrote another poem titled “The Wail of the Snow-Shoveller” (1923), based on a photo a friend sent to him from Miramichi showing towering snowdrifts. The poem describes a tumultuous winter storm and the plight of the person who has to shovel the snowdrifts on his property. Even a simple task such as shoveling was made monumental in Parker’s poetry, thus allowing others to comprehend the harshness of the New Brunswick world. His final substantial poem, titled “Last Poem,” declares his everlasting love for the Miramichi and his desire to be carried back to his home upon death:
But carry me back to the
Few friends that love me;
Where the memories of boyhood
Flow sacred and free
(qtd. in Manny 17).
Unlike Charles G.D. Roberts who expresses tentativeness upon contemplating a return home in “The Tantramar Revisited,” Parker never lost his love for home, relishing every moment he had in Miramichi.
Each of Parker’s poems discuss Miramichi’s beauty and its unique people. His preferred style of poetry was the ballad or folksong, forms that were very common in central New Brunswick in Parker’s childhood and are still in use today. Folklorists Louise Manny and James Reginald Wilson describe the Miramichi ballad/song style in their book Songs of Miramichi as a sophisticated form consisting of “1) contraction of the number of beats in a measure when a line of text is shortened; 2) addition of beats to accommodate longer lines; 3) lengthening of note values to accentuate important words quantitatively; 4) rhythmic adjustments to suit the rhythm of the spoken word” (39-40).
Other than Parker’s six poems in Miramichi Poet: 6 Poems by Hedley Parker, no other works have been discovered. He is a relatively unknown poet/balladeer; however, his works delighted many in his community, especially a young Max Aitken, who would become Lord Beaverbrook. Parker was so respected by Beaverbrook that he personally wrote the introduction to Parker’s only published work, praising his style and his abilities as both a poet and balladeer. Beaverbrook remarks that Parker’s poems are “part of the most deeply rooted memories” (3) of growing up in Miramichi. Beaverbrook’s love for Miramichi poems, ballads, and folksongs led him to ask Louise Manny to collect all the important works she could find from Miramichi authors and singers. Parker’s work is certainly part of that great legacy. It was Beaverbrook’s hope that Parker would become better known through the publication of his poems: “In the days to come, they [Parker’s poems] will, I am convinced, be equally familiar to a vastly wider public. For Hedley Parker is a neglected poet. His work has never received the attention that his genius deserved” (qtd. in Manny 3).
Chad Ramsay, Spring 2010
St. Thomas University
bibliography of primary sources
Parker, Hedley S. Vicars. Miramichi Poet: 6 Poems by Hedley Parker. Ed. Louise Manny. Saint John, NB: New Brunswick Museum, 1947.
Bibliography of secondary sources
Lord Beaverbrook. Introduction. Miramichi Poet: 6 Poems by Hedley Parker. Ed. Louise Manny. Saint John, NB: New Brunswick Museum, 1947.
Manny, Louise. The Old Songs: Miramichi Folksongs and Singers. S.N. 1951.
Manny, Louise and James Reginald Wilson, eds. Songs of Miramichi. Fredericton, NB: Brunswick Press, 1970.