Alfred Goldsworthy Bailey

A.G. BaileyPhoto: The River St. John and its Poets, L.M.B. Maxwell
A.G. Bailey
Photo: The River St. John and its Poets, L.M.B. Maxwell

Alfred Goldsworthy Bailey (1905-1997; Order of Canada, Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada) was an ethnohistorian, anthropologist, university builder and administrator, and among the first of Canada's "modernist" poets.

Son of Ernestine and Loring Woart Bailey Jr., grandson of Loring Woart Bailey, and great grandson of Marshall D'Avray, the latter both professors at the University of New Brunswick, Alfred Bailey came naturally by his interests in science, geology, history, anthropology, and literature. He was born in Quebec City, where he went to high school, spent most summers at Tadousac, at the mouth of the Saguenay, and maintained close links with Fredericton. Dr. Bailey's father had known Francis Sherman, and Dr. Bailey's father's family had been friends with Bliss Carman and Charles G.D. Roberts. Living between Quebec and New Brunswick, and early aware of the interaction of these societies with Native societies, Bailey's "understanding of Canada was rooted in his appreciation of this cultural diversity" (Pugh 81).

Bailey began writing verse and essays in high school; some of his writing was published in The High School of Quebec Magazine, of which he was an editor in 1921 or 1922. During his senior year at the University of New Brunswick (1927), he was verse editor for The Brunswickan, in which poetry by both Bailey and Dorothy Roberts appeared. He also worked briefly as a reporter for The Fredericton Daily Mail.

After graduation Bailey went to the University of Toronto for his MA (1929), where he became friends with poets Roy Daniells, Robert Finch, E.K. Brown, Dorothy Livesay, Stanley Ryerson, Henry Noyes, Malcolm Ross, and Earle Birney. He shared with them his affections for the Maritime poets of his father's generation, whose work influenced Bailey's first two books, but also shared with them the discovery (introduced to them by Roy Daniells) of the poetry of T.S. Eliot, with its very un-Carmanesque use of metaphors for emotions rather than for things, its rhythmic and structural experimentalism, its willingness to do without structuring by narrative or "logical" argument, and, above all, its view that a new approach to poetry-making was necessary. According to Bailey, the effect of Eliot's poetry was such that "one could only think that the old symbols and intonations and meanings had become completely dead, that a great spiritual void had been created by a sense of the bankruptcy of nineteenth century beliefs and standards, that the economic system under which we lived was in a state of disintegration, that the urban wilderness of the modern world marked the sterility and death of our society. Eliot supplied the catharsis" (Pacey, 1976 51).

After his MA Bailey worked in Toronto as a reporter for The Mail and Empire, an experience he credits with improving his literary style (and to which Pacey attributes Bailey's darker subject matter 51). Bailey returned to the University of Toronto for his PhD in 1934, specializing in ethno-history and aboriginal culture, completing his formal education on a Royal Society fellowship at the London School of Economics. Earle Birney was also on a Royal Society fellowship at the time, and the two poets became acquainted with what Pacey calls "leftist" groups (57). In his “Biographical Sketch,” Anthony Pugh also speaks of Bailey's "political leanings" as "far to the left of the American establishment" despite "his affinity with the intellectual elite of New England" (81). In London Bailey encountered the poetry of Dylan Thomas, which, although less politically overwhelming than Eliot's, was a strong encouragement toward experiment in rhythm and imagery.

From 1935-38 Dr. Bailey served as Assistant Director and Associate Curator at the New Brunswick Museum in Saint John under Dr. J.C. Webster. In his last year, Bailey was asked by Dr. Webster to give lectures as a service of the museum. At that time there was no department of history at UNB; however, UNB President Jones offered to elect Bailey to head a history department if he could talk the province into granting the university sufficient funding. Dr. Bailey did so and held that position until 1969, during which time he not only oversaw the starting of the departments of anthropology, sociology, psychology, political science, and economics, but also laid the foundation of the provincial archives, and, as Honorary Librarian and Chief Executive Officer of the UNB Library (1946-59), was instrumental in directing and advising Lord Beaverbrook in the selection and purchase of approximately 50,000 books. In addition, he oversaw the construction, design, and funding for the new UNB library, and he served as Dean of Arts (1946-64) and Vice-President Academic (1965-69).

Dr. Bailey was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada in 1951, received three honorary doctorates, was made the New Brunswick representative on the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada, and served on the first advisory board of the National Library of Canada, and on the Governor General’s Literary Awards committee. He was appointed Officer of the Order of Canada in 1978, and received honorary membership in the Association of Canadian Archivists in 1989. UNB awarded him the title emeritus, and the City of Fredericton made him a freeman in 1984. He is commemorated by the Arts Faculty Auditorium, by one of the campus roads, and by the Alfred G. Bailey Poetry Prize awarded annually by the Writers’ Federation of New Brunswick.

Dr. Bailey was particularly esteemed for his seminal work in ethnohistory. His doctoral dissertation, republished by the University of Toronto in 1969, has been widely influential, as were his many essays and reviews, particularly those collected in Culture and Nationality: Essays by A. G. Bailey (1972). The tributes to him from historians, anthropologists, ethnohistorians, and archivists are numerous and impressive. In a sense, he created the field of ethnohistory in Canada. Except for the three years when he was working for the Museum in Saint John, and had "no holidays" (Lane, “Interview” 244) he has always been deeply involved, influential, and productive in the field of poetry.

After his return to Fredericton Dr. Bailey "thought to revive the literary movement here." He gathered fellow poets and writers at his home to share criticism and creative efforts. One offshoot of that, The Bliss Carman Society, was, as he said, “not really a society but my guests" (Lane, “Interview” 244-45). Eventually Fred Cogswell took over the society. Among the guests/members were Robert Gibbs, Elizabeth Brewster, and Donald Gammon. Bailey kept copies of all the poems read at these meetings, and the copies of these, originally mimeographed, eventually grew into The Fiddlehead.

Bailey's first collection of mature work, Border River, did not appear until 1952. Because of his decision to avoid the clichés of conventional poetic method, his work was initially described as difficult, obscure, and sometimes grotesque. Even Bailey's admiring friends—Desmond Pacey, Malcolm Ross, and Fred Cogswell—spoke of Bailey's new style as difficult, although Cogswell admitted that one of the poems that most defied "rational exposition" (or paraphrase), "The Winter Mill," seemed to him as expressing the "essence of what I like to think of as Canadian." Indeed, Cogswell found that he liked best the poems he could only understand "conceptually" (120-21). The new kind of poetry demanded a new kind of understanding.

The difference between a "rational exposition" and a "conceptual" understanding seemed less insurmountable for later readers. In her review of Bailey's Thanks for a Drowned Island (1973), Travis Lane pointed out the following: "That a historian should recreate the sense of history is fitting; that he should convey so well the sentiment of history which lures us all to be historians and rememberers, is our good luck. For the sentiment of history is something that can not be articulated in words, but in gestures" (1974 95). History in Bailey's poetry, Lane goes on to say, "is most often felt as a genetic working out in the present of the patterns of the past as part of a still living web; the link is biological, vital, present" (97).

The deeply humane vitality and the passionate modernity of Bailey's poetry, early recognised by Desmond Pacey, is perhaps best described by Albert Moritz, who stated that Bailey's work "had the intensity and depth of major poetry owing to the persistence with which he probes a few central questions." Bailey, says Moritz, presents us with "a hope that seeks faith and defends the possibility of faith. It expresses itself in the skepticism with which Bailey, the man of science, rejects the prideful human claims that life's essential nature can definitively be proved material and absurd." Rather, "Faiths wither and from dead faith springs a new faith in the form of a new vitality" (31).

M. Travis Lane, Fall 2010
Fredericton, NB

For more information on Alfred G. Bailey, please visit his entry at the New Brunswick Literature Curriculum in English.

Bibliography of Primary Sources

Bailey, Alfred G. Border River. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1952.

---. "The Conflict of European and Eastern Algonkian Cultures, 1504-1700: A Study in Canadian Civilization." PhD. dissertation, University of Toronto (1934); Rpt. (with two chapters omitted) Saint John, 1937; Rpt. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1969.

---. Culture and Nationality: Essays by A. G. Bailey. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1972. [See especially "Creative Moments in the Culture of the Maritime Provinces.”]

---. “Literary Memories of Alfred Goldsworthy Bailey.” Unpublished. [Bailey Fonds, UA RG 80, Case 108, file 3. UNB Archives and Special Collections.]

---. “Literature and Nationalism After Confederation.” University of Toronto Quarterly (July 1956). 409-24.

---. Miramichi Lightning: The Collected Poems of Alfred Bailey. Fredericton: Fiddlehead Poetry Books, 1981.

---. “Overture to Nationhood.” The Literary History of Canada. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1976. 69-81.

---. “Retrospective Thoughts of an Ethnohistorian.” Canadian Historical Association Papers (1977): 14-29.

---. "The Significance of the Identity and Disappearance of the Laurentian Iroquois." Transactions of the Royal Society of Canada. 3rd series, 2 xxvii (1933): 97-108. [One of the chapters omitted from the Saint John republication of Bailey`s thesis.]

---. “Social Revolution in Early Eastern Canada." Canadian Historical Review XIX (1938): 264-276. [The other chapter omitted from the Saint John republication of Bailey's thesis.]

---. Songs of the Saguenay and Other Poems. Quebec City: Chronicle-Telegraph Publications, 1927.

---. The Sun the Wind the Summer Field. Fredericton: Goose Lane Editions, 1996.

---. Tâo. Toronto: Ryerson P, 1930.

---. Thanks for a Drowned Island. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1973.

---. “Towards an Ecumenical Ethnohistory.” Convocation Address. McGill University, 1975. [Bailey Fonds, UA RG 80, Case 109, file 1. UNB Archives and Special Collections.]

[For a complete list of Dr. Bailey's numerous historical reviews, essays, and publications, see the Bailey Fonds, UA RG 80. UNB Archives and Special Collections. This fonds includes most of the published and unpublished works written by Dr. Bailey over a span of seventy-six years. See especially Alfred Goldsworthy Bailey, a checklist, the Poet Files Series, and the Inventory to the AGB fonds.]

Bibliography of Secondary Sources

Beattie, Munro. "Poetry 1935-1950." The Literary History of Canada: Canadian Literature in English. II (1976): 269-270.

Chapman, J. K. "Remembering Dr. Alfred Goldsworthy Bailey: A Memoir." Fredericton: York Sunbury Museum. 13.3 (1997).

Cogswell, Fred. "Canadian Essence." Canadian Literature 61 (Summer 1974):119-121.

Gibbs, Robert. "Bailey, Alfred Goldsworthy." The Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature. 2nd edition. Toronto: Oxford UP, 1997. 45-46.

Lane, M. Travis. “Interview with A.G. Bailey.” Studies in Canadian Literature 11.2 (1986): 226-245.

---. “Introduction.” The Sun the Wind the Summer Field. Fredericton: Goose Lane Editions, 1996: 9-11.

---. "The Muskrat in His Brook." The Fiddlehead. 100 (1974): 95-101.

---. “A Sense of the Medium: The Poetry of A.G. Bailey.” Canadian Poetry 19 (1986): 1-10.

Moritz. Albert. “Faith, Hope and Charity.” Books in Canada 11.7 (Aug./Sept. 1982): 30-31.

Murphy, Rosalie. “Bailey, Alfred Goldsworthy.” Contemporary Poets of the English Language. Chicago: St. James, 1970. 46-47.

O'Connell, Victor E. Alfred Bailey and Canadian Anthropology. Fredericton: Kanata Institute, 1990.

Pacey, Desmond. “A.G. Bailey.” Canadian Literature 68-69 (1976): 49-60.

---. Creative Writing in Canada. Toronto: Ryerson, 1961. 183-184.

Pugh, Anthony. “Alfred Goldsworthy Bailey.” Proceedings of the Royal Society of Canada: Biographical Sketches of Deceased Fellows. XII (2001): 81-84.

Ross, Malcolm. “Alfred Goldsworthy Bailey.” Canadian Writers 1920-1959. First Series. Dictionary of Literary Biography. Vol. 68. Detroit: Gale, 1988. 11-14.

Story, Norah, ed. "Bailey, Alfred Goldsworthy." The Oxford Companion to History and Literature. Toronto: Oxford UP, 1967. 45-46.

Tremblay, Tony. “A.G. Bailey: Bridging the Centuries.” The Fiddlehead Moment: Pioneering an Alternative Canadian Modernism in New Brunswick. Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s UP, 2019. 41-96.

Trigger, Bruce G. “Alfred G. Bailey: Ethnohistorian.” Acadiensis 18.2 (1989): 3-21.

Wells, Zachariah. “How Poems Work.” Arc Poetry Magazine. 30 July 2008