Francis Joseph Sherman

Francis ShermanPhoto: Ryerson Press.
Francis Sherman
Photo: Ryerson Press.

Francis Joseph Sherman (1871−1926) was born 3 February 1871 in Fredericton, New Brunswick. The oldest of seven siblings, he spent his early years supporting his family after his father abandoned them. Orthodox in his beliefs and ideals, he remained true to his Anglican roots and strove towards becoming a man who might reconcile his faith with his metaphysical curiosity. Fredericton, at this time, was heavily influenced by the Anglican Church (the spire of Bishop Medley’s Christ Church Cathedral was visible from anywhere in downtown Fredericton), and this defined his character as he grew older. His friendship with his next-door neighbour, Bishop Kingdom, likely helped seal some of his beliefs. As Malcolm Ross has posited, Sherman’s generation was the heir of Bishop Medley’s influence and educational fervour (27).

Under the tutelage of Oxonian and Head Master George R. Parkin (later Sir George, General Superintendent of the Cecil Rhodes Scholarship Trust), Sherman attended the Collegiate School in Fredericton. Like his predecessor, Bishop Medley, who saw a “beauty of all creation” (Ross 35), Parkin’s passions were manifest in his literary inclinations and appreciation for the natural world. Parkin recited poems by Tennyson, Browning, and Rossetti while taking walks with his students, among whose number were Bliss Carman and his cousin, Charles G.D. Roberts. Carman would later teach Sherman at the Collegiate School for a short while.

Sherman took this classical training, intellectual mentorship, and outdoor exploration of New Brunswick to heart, turning to the Pre-Raphaelites for inspiration throughout his writing career. He also remained an avid hiker and canoeist as he grew older, eventually taking part in yacht races in the Caribbean. Sherman also became a voracious reader, taking full advantage of Bishop Kingdom’s well-stocked library.

Although he did not meet matriculation from the Collegiate School, he did complete a freshman year at the University of New Brunswick in 1886, where he worked under George E. Foster (later the Right Honourable Sir G.E. Foster). During these years a new national literature was shaping and redefining Canada, and Sherman’s Fredericton was in the epicenter of this cosmopolitan and intellectual ardour that came to define Fredericton. At this time, the city was distinguished for being “calm, settled, and certain; conservative and no doubt rather narrow; a beautiful flowering of many traditions—the Loyalist, the Anglican, and the classical—all coming to terms with the wilderness after nearly a hundred years of struggle” (Smith 71). It was during these years that Sherman was invited to Canon George Goodridge Roberts’ rectory on George Street, where Carman and Roberts met for poetry readings and debate.

Forced to leave UNB the following year due to financial difficulties, Sherman took a junior position at the Merchants’ Bank of Halifax (which later became the Royal Bank of Canada) in Woodstock, New Brunswick. That same year, Sherman was transferred to Fredericton and promoted to branch manager, becoming the youngest banker holding this position in Canada. In 1899, he was transferred to Montreal and later that year to Havana, Cuba, where he was promoted from third agent to first agent within months. Sherman remained employed with The Royal Bank of Canada in Cuba until 1912, when he applied for a permanent transfer back to the Montreal office.

It was while working at the bank in Fredericton that Sherman started writing poetry. His career as a poet commenced with the publication of Matins (1896). With Roberts’ encouragement and Carman’s introduction, Sherman visited Carman’s publisher, Copeland and Day, in Boston with a slim manuscript of thirty poems in an assortment of styles, most either sonnets or ballads. Upon publication, the volume was received with generally strong reviews. Bliss Carman touted Matins as “the most notable first volume of verse of the past year” (4), and Roberts added that it was “a work of considerable significance” (qtd. in Wilson 41).

New Brunswick’s landscape had a profound effect on Sherman’s work. However, his work differs from the Fredericton school of poets in some notable ways. Whereas Carman incorporated nature impressionistically into his poetry and Roberts depicted rural New Brunswick’s tableaux, Sherman’s sense of landscape was presented in a spirit of greater adulation, which may reflect his deeply Anglican beliefs and Pre-Raphaelite influences. His landscapes are backdrops that complement his melancholic poetry. In his work, there is a tension between nature as a condolence and the Pre-Raphaelite notion of nature as a metaphor for inner turmoil. This Pre-Raphaelite influence would colour Sherman’s work until his final collection. Unlike Carman’s and Roberts’ use of specific language to evoke New Brunswick’s topography, Sherman’s use of phrases such as “cloudless sky,” “blue waters,” “old brown earth,” and “snowless ground” suggests that he was not interested in a more precise handling of these generalities.

This may reflect a young poet’s need to explore his own time—to explore, that is, a Fredericton and a New Brunswick without having to limit his own notions of reality and mysticism. Sherman’s nature is closer to a pastiche of real and poetic nature, and though not geographically grounded, it has its own skill in the use of colour and its offset placement of animals and plants. This reluctance to anchor his poetry in the earthy metaphor of his day may also reflect his double identity as financier and writer and the difficulty he found in reconciling their seeming distances. Sherman’s work is distinct in that it seems to resist its own regional ferment; it remains vague and fanciful, as if exploring a landscape still metaphorically and physically unchartered, still missing unequivocal meaning. One might surmise that some of this rhapsody was influenced as well by Carman, who embraced “the mystical quest of poets and thinkers as the dedicated warriors of the spirit, of the religious mission of art and literature” and “whose spirit was quite untouched by the decadentism of contemporary poetry” (Cappon 22).

Sherman’s work has been criticized for being too heavily influenced by the Pre-Raphaelite school, particularly his stylization after William Morris and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. However, as Northrop Frye suggests in The Bush Garden, when writers are “confronted by a new life or environment, the new life may suggest a new content, but obviously cannot provide him with a new form” (173). As has also been noted, Sherman’s body of work is small compared to other poets of his time, so it is difficult to judge where his career may have taken him if he had continued to write. Little of his manuscripts and drafts were readily available for study during his life and he published privately in the United States, meaning he was virtually unknown in Canada.

Several months after Matins, In Memorabilia Mortis (1896) was privately printed by Copeland and Day. Elegiac in tone, this series of six sonnets was dedicated to William Morris who had died two months earlier in October. In places, they adopt Morris’ voice, thus recreating the man in Sherman’s own form. The sonnets also reflect the Pre-Raphaelite view of the natural world, being set in autumn, a season of both mercurialness and demise.

Sherman’s longest poem, A Prelude (1897), was published privately by Copeland and Day, as it was too long to be placed in leading periodicals. A Prelude demonstrates a subtle shift away from the Pre-Raphaelites. Its diction is not as anachronistic as the previous collections, though it is still freighted with elevated language. Sherman incorporates Canadian foliage such as birches, maples, and pines more perceptibly here and allows himself a closer association to New Brunswick subject matter.

The Deserted City (1899), which was also published privately by Copeland and Day, consists of eighteen sonnets modeled metrically after Rossetti’s “House of Life.” Following the stifling enigmas of lost love, the collection demonstrates Sherman’s attempts to reconcile spiritual/secular dichotomies by exploring the soul/body conflict. The Deserted City exhibits a less elevated language and explores the Canadian scene in a more realistic sense.

Sherman’s final collection, A Canadian Calendar: XII Lyrics (1900), was privately published in Havana, Cuba. These poems are descriptive of nature in various seasons and turn toward a more authentic New Brunswick, partly because Sherman exhibits a greater diversity of metrical pattern than in previous works.

The Atlantic Monthly published Sherman’s last poem, “An Acadian Easter,” considered Sherman’s strongest piece of work. Like A Canadian Calendar: XII Lyrics, it is a synthesis of nascent Canada and Romantic literary heritage. It follows the story of Madame La Tour and the fall of Port Royal. Karen Herbert has noted that Sherman’s attempt to apply Rossetti and Morris’ style to a Canadian landscape is more successful in this collection because it exhibits both “sensitivity and clarity” (12).

After “An Acadian Easter,” Sherman stopped writing. While no one knows exactly why, his decision may have been due to a combination of the outbreak of war and his banking responsibilities. Enrolling with the Officers Training Corps of McGill University, Overseas Contingent, in 1914, Sherman left his prestigious banking position and enlisted as a private for reinforcements of the Princess Patricia Canadian Light Infantry in 1915. In France, he won a captaincy and was transferred to the Royal Canadian Pay Corps, where he was later discharged with the rank of Major. The Honorable Mr. Justice C. Gordon MacKinnon of the Superior Court of Quebec noted that Sherman should be remembered for his generosity during the war, giving away large sums of money to privates in need and those going on leave. In France, he received 1000 francs (approximately $200 Canadian) from a bank in London and gave it all away before the end of the month (Pierce Complete 3).

Sherman remained unmarried for much of his life. Although he was engaged to Miss May Whelpey in Fredericton when they were both in their twenties, the marriage was called off after she was stricken with infantile paralysis. Some critics surmise that the mysterious woman in Sherman’s work is Miss Whelpey. Others similarly think that Whelpey may have influenced his work, as his interest in poetry declined rapidly after her death. In 1919, with the war having undermined his health, he retired from the bank and in 1921 married Ruth Ann Sullivan, an acquaintance he had met years earlier in Cuba. They moved to Atlantic City and had two sons, Francis and Jerry.

Although Sherman no longer wrote, he remained until the end of his life an avid bibliophile, collecting first editions of William Morris and Rossetti, as well as more contemporary selections from Conrad, Stevenson, Kipling, and Hardy, among others.

Sherman died in Atlantic City in 1926 after suffering from a heart condition. He is buried in Forest Hill Cemetery in Fredericton close to Bliss Carman and Sir Charles G.D. Roberts. In 1947, a memorial service was held on UNB’s campus for all three of these pivotal poets. A national monument was erected at “Poets’ Corner” on UNB’s campus. The monument was relocated in front of the Harriet Irving Library in 1970 and remains there to this day. The Monument Board of Canada subsequently honoured the City of Fredericton with the declaration that the City would be known as the “Poets' Corner of Canada.” The Honorable Vincent Massey was chief speaker at the service and stated that New Brunswick poets “‘wrote from some overwhelming sense of the beauty and mystery and the glory of life’” (qtd. in Wilson 27). Mr. Massey also revealed that Sherman was so reticent concerning his poetry that his wife, Ruth Ann, was unaware that he was a published poet until they had been married for several years. Sherman’s influence in our national literature may not be as well-celebrated as some may wish, but, as Lorne Pierce noted, “Sherman enhanced the poetical tradition of this university [UNB] and of the Dominion. He drew a circle round his art and stepped inside” (Three Fredericton Poets 26).

Tammy Armstrong, Spring 2009
University of New Brunswick

For more information about Francis Sherman, please visit his entry at the New Brunswick Literature Curriculum in English.

Bibliography of Primary Sources

Bodkin, John, and Francis Sherman. Two Songs at Parting. Fredericton, NB: n.p., 1899.

Sherman, Francis. A Canadian Calendar: XII Lyrics. Havana, Cuba: n.p., 1900.

---. The Deserted City: Stray Sonnets. Boston, MA: Copeland and Day, 1899.

---. In Memorabilia Mortis. Boston, MA: Copeland and Day, 1896.

---. Matins. Boston, MA: Copeland and Day, 1896.

---. A Prelude. Boston, MA: Copeland and Day, 1897.

Bibliography of Secondary Sources

Bentley, D.M.R. “‘A Well-Wrought Clay’: Francis Sherman’s In Memorabilia Mortis.” Essays on Canadian Writing 30 (Winter 1984–5): 320−38.

Cappon, James. Bliss Carman and the Literary Currents and Influences of His Time. Toronto: Ryerson P, 1930.

Carman, Bliss. Rev. of Matins, by Francis Sherman. The Book Man 5:76 (1897):4−5.

Frye, Northrop. The Bush Garden: Essays on the Canadian Imagination. Toronto, ON: Anansi, 1971.

Gibbs, Robert. “Francis Sherman.” Canadian Writers, 18901920. Ed. W. H. New. Detroit, MI: Thomson Gale, 1990. 355−6.

Hathaway, R.H. “Francis Sherman: Canadian Poet.” Willison’s Monthly 2:10 (Mar. 1927): 383.

Herbert, Karen. “‘A Moment Where the Path Grows Sunlighted’: Francis Sherman and the Voice of Canadian Pre-Raphaelites.” Journal of Pre-Raphaelite Studies 6−7 (1997 Fall-1998 Spring): 45−63.

---. “‘There Was One Thing He Could Not See’: William Morris in the Writing of Archibald Lampman and Francis Sherman.” Canadian Poetry: Study, Documents, Reviews 37 (1995 Winter): 79−99.

Maxwell, Lilian M. Beckwith. The River St. John and Its Poets. 2nd ed. Sackville, NB: The Tribune Press,1947.

McGillivray, Mary B. “The Poetry of Francis Sherman.” MA thesis. Dalhousie U, Apr. 1977.

Pierce, Lorne, ed. The Complete Poems of Francis Sherman. Toronto, ON: The Ryerson Press, 1935.

---. Three Fredericton Poets: Writers of the University of New Brunswick and the New Dominion. Toronto, ON: The Ryerson Press, 1933.

Roberts, Charles G.D. “Presidential Address: Francis Sherman.” The Royal Society of Canada. Quebec, May 22, 1934.

Ross, Malcolm. “A Strange Aesthetic Ferment.” Canadian Literature. 68−9 (1976): 13−25.

Smith, A.J.M. “The Fredericton Poets.” Toward a View of Canadian Letters: Selected Critical Essays 19281971. Vancouver, BC: U of British Columbia P, 1973.

Wade, H. Gerald. An Acadian Singer: Francis Sherman. Winnipeg, MB: Stovel Co., 1930.

Wilson, Laurence R. “The Life and Poetry of Francis Sherman (1871–1926).” MA thesis. U of New Brunswick, Aug. 1957.