William M. Leggett

The Forest Wreath, William Martin Leggett
The Forest Wreath, William Martin Leggett

William Martin Leggett (poet, teacher, and preacher) was born in 1813 in New York, the second son of Mary (Martin), teacher, and Joseph Regan Leggett, teacher and farmer. He married Mary Anne Stevens on 24 July 1839 in Bathurst, New Brunswick. They had one child who died in infancy.

In 1798, William Martin’s father moved from New York to New Brunswick, where he married Mary Martin, daughter of Loyalist Rev. Dr. John Martin, formerly a surgeon in the Royal Navy. After his marriage to Mary Martin, Joseph Leggett returned to New York, where his three sons—David Denison, William Martin, and Joseph Cameron—were born. He taught school in New York until 1818, at which point the Leggetts moved to Sussex Vale, New Brunswick. Mr. and Mrs. Leggett took charge of the Indian School at Sussex Vale from 1818 until 1826. They resided at the Indian Academy, and when it closed in 1826, they taught school from their home, the celebrated Lansdale Cottage at Sussex Vale.

The Leggetts not only operated one of the most advanced schools in the province, but they also possessed considerable literary talents. They both published poetry in the local newspapers, and at the age of ninety, Mr. Leggett wrote a poem for the Prince of Wales in honour of his New Brunswick tour in 1860. Leggett’s aunt, Rachel Martin, taught in schools throughout New Brunswick and penned dozens of petitions to the Legislature in an effort to draw attention to the plight of teachers. Martin was known on occasion to voice her teaching activism in verse, and when she advertised her school at Saint John, the notice in the newspaper appeared as a poem. Being reared in a rich and diverse cultural environment left a lasting and influential impression on the young poet, William Martin.

Educated solely under the direction of his parents, he was not known to have received any other formal instruction. That schooling prepared him well for the future, and he consequently made an early and rapid transition from student to teacher. At the age of fifteen, he applied for a teaching licence, which was granted on 28 July 1827, making him one of the youngest teachers ever licenced in the province. He taught school at Sussex Vale, in the same district as his parents, for the next six years.

Shortly after embarking on his teaching career, Leggett began publishing his poetry in a number of provincial and local newspapers, including The New Brunswick Courier, The Royal Gazette, and The City Gazette. His first poem appeared in the 13 October 1827 issue of The New Brunswick Courier and answered the question “How look’d the pride of the Vale?” Leggett composed all of his early verses from his home at Lansdale Cottage in Sussex Vale, and his sense of place figured prominently in his work. In 1830, he submitted a poem to the New Brunswick Courier which had been written “on a Ramble thro’ Sussex Vale to Lansdale Cottage, at Salmon River.” His signature piece, entitled “The Harp of New Brunswick,” first appeared in The City Gazette before being re-printed in his collection of lyrics, The Forest Wreath (1833).

In the months before its release, The Forest Wreath had been advertised to the public as an example of “Homespun Genius.” The reviews of this first collection, published when he was only twenty years of age, confirmed that early assessment. A review from The Halifax Free Press that appeared in The City Gazette praised the work of the “young bard,” describing the “Harp of New Brunswick” as a masterpiece. The reviewer marveled that an artist as young as Leggett could exude such “poetical sensibility.” A subsequent review printed in The Northumberland Gleaner and Schediasma criticized Leggett for publishing a volume in which the majority of its contents had previously been printed in provincial newspapers; however, although The Forest Wreath contained selected re-prints, most of the 143 poems were original to the publication.

Following the release of The Forest Wreath in 1833, Leggett took charge of the Albion Academy at Saint John, the school formerly conducted by his deceased brother, David. While in Saint John, Leggett experienced a spiritual awakening. Raised Anglican, he converted after attending a Methodist revival. He surrendered his school in 1835 to enter the Methodist ministry, soon becoming a powerful preacher who commanded a large following. In 1842, he moved to the West Indies with his wife Mary Ann (Stevens), whom he married in 1839, to undertake missionary work. When he returned to New Brunswick, he assumed the ecclesiastical reigns of the Bathurst Methodist Church. In an apparent crisis of faith, Leggett left the Methodist ministry in 1845. Returning to his religious roots, he became an Anglican priest, one who so inspired his former followers that the entire congregation converted to Anglicanism.

Throughout the 1830s and 1840s, his poems continued to appear in provincial newspapers. He followed The Forest Wreath with Sacred Poetry (1840). His life and career are shrouded in mystery after his conversion to Anglicanism in 1845, though he later moved to London, England, with a view to pursuing his literary interests. If he initially took his wife Mary Ann with him to England, she returned to New Brunswick after his death. Mary Ann Leggett, who died 9 August 1886, was buried in a Methodist cemetery in Carleton County.

Along with many of his contemporaries, Leggett embraced forms of poetry already obsolete in England, including the heroic couplet and the public song. His poetry was nonetheless highly regarded by critics, bearing, indeed, the mark of genius. Leggett covered a variety of themes in his verses, handling love, death and dying, and remembrance with sensitivity. William Martin Leggett achieved considerable acclaim as a poet, and he remains worthy of his self-appointed title, “The Bard of New Brunswick.”

Koral LaVorgna, Summer 2009
University of New Brunswick

For more information on William M. Leggett, please visit his entry at the New Brunswick Literature Curriculum in English.

Bibliography of Primary Sources

Leggett, William Martin. The Forest Wreath. Saint John: Durant & Sancton, 1833.

---. Sacred Poetry. N.p.: n.p., 1840.

Bibliography of Secondary Sources

Cogswell, Fred. “Literary Activity in the Maritime Provinces (1815–1880).” Literary History of Canada: Canadian Literature in English. Eds. Karl F. Klinck, et al. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1965: 102-124.

MacFarlane, W. G. New Brunswick Bibliography: The Books and Writers of the Province. Saint John: Sun Printing Co., 1895.

Nowlan, Michael O. Stubborn Strength: A New Brunswick Anthology. Don Mills: Academic Press Canada, 1983. 5.

Rhodenizer, Vernon Blair. Canadian Literature in English. Montréal: Quality Press Ltd., 1965.

Scobie, Charles H.H., and John Webster Grant, eds. The Contribution of Methodism to Atlantic Canada. Montréal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s UP, 1992.