Jenkins: Ottawa's poetry history still with us

Kilmorie House at 21 Withrow Avenue in Ottawa. Photo: Errol McGihon, Postmedia

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

OTTAWA CITIZEN, By Phil Jenkins

In the April of 1915, when Wilfred William Campbell was 54, he moved with his wife Mary and several members of his extended family into an old stone farm house he had bought about three miles outside the Ottawa city limits in City View, a rural area in Nepean Township. 

For Campbell, an irascible, relatively poor man, it was a dream come true and he called the house Kilmorie. Five and a bit acres surrounded the house, built in 1840, and Campbell set to work on weekends and days off to transform the rough grounds into gardens and landscaping. By day he would walk to the city limit and take a street car to his place of work in the Dominion Archives.

And whenever possible, he would sit in his library and write poetry, which is what he most truly was: a poet. Here's a few lines from a poem he wrote in Kilmorie, referencing the First World War, in which his only son Basil was fighting.

When the woods at Kilmorie are scarlet and gold, And the vines like blood on the wall; I hear on the winds o'er the wood and the wold, A bitter, insistent call.

By the time he took a spade to the soil of Kilmorie, Campbell was known by many as the "unofficial poet laureate of Canada." He was an intimate friend of two other famous national poets, Archibald Lampman and Duncan Campbell Scott, and part of a group of writers we now call the Confederation poets. They were all civil servants who wrote enduring poetry at their desks, either at home or perhaps even at work.

Campbell was able to enjoy three years at Kilmorie, and then he caught pneumonia and died on New Year's morning, 1918, just short of two months after the war has ended. He is buried in Beechwood Cemetery on Poet's Hill. An interesting group called the Poets Pathway have put a plaque on Colonnade Road near Campbell's beloved Kilmorie, that details one of his poems, Down the Merivale Road.

A few weeks back, on the website realtor.ca, a listing went up that contained the following realtor-speak under the title Description.

Attention developers! Potential for 14 lots, all approximately 50 x 100. Rare find within the greenbelt. Drawing has not yet been approved. Huge potential. No offers until March 3rd, 2016.

The asking price is $2,599,999 and there is little more than two acres left of Campbell's original holding. The house came on the market following the death last summer of one Dr. Rogers, a gentleman and somewhat of a scholar who was well aware of the story the walls could tell.

When the listing appeared, there was a stirring in City View, particularly among the members of the community association. Clearly, there was an intention to have the house make way for a suite of lots on which an eager developer could build at minimum more than a dozen houses. At the other end of the seesaw, ideas for the latest fate of Kilmorie began to bloom like flowers in Campbell's garden in the minds of the community association. Councillors were contacted, investigations begun into the heritage status of the 175-year-old farmhouse and flocks of emails began circulating.

Notions of what is to become of the house continue to proliferate. When I found out about the sale, via one of the Poets Pathway people, visions of a poetry centre, with a poet-in-residence and poetry readings and a small library/museum and a poet from near or away finishing off a collection there began to dance in my head.

I'm going to track what befalls Kilmorie, a valuable, in the non-monetary sense, piece of Ottawa's cultural heritage. Meanwhile, last call for your least and most favourite buildings in Ottawa. Perhaps Kilmorie is on your list of the latter.

 

Phil Jenkins is an Ottawa writer. Reach him by email at phil@philjenkins.ca 

 

Update: The Kilmorie House has since been designated under Part IV of the Ontario Heritage Act.