Eric MacKay Yeoman

Cover of The Canadian Magazine.
Cover of The Canadian Magazine.

Eric Mackay Yeoman (poet, writer, and journalist) was born 9 October 1885 in Newcastle, New Brunswick, and died on 3 February 1909 in Halifax, Nova Scotia. He is best known for his work in poetry, which was frequently published in The Canadian Magazine. Most of his poetry registers a tone of despair, and there is a kind of lyric artistry in the emotion it portrays. This is perhaps due to the loss of his father at an early age, and the many changes that followed in his life after that.

His father, James Yeoman, worked as a manager at the Newcastle branch of the Royal Bank of Canada at the time of Eric’s birth. In Newcastle, the Yeoman family was devoted to the St. James Presbyterian Church, where Eric was baptized (MacKinnon). He had two brothers and one sister, and after their father’s death, when he was only five years old, their mother, Elizabeth Mackay, took them to live in Halifax, Nova Scotia. The parents of both John and Elizabeth had long since lived in Halifax, so the family found lodging with Elizabeth’s mother. By the time Eric was 10 years old he was forced to relocate again after the death of his grandmother, and moved in with his wealthy aunt, Catherine Olivia, and uncle, John James Stuart. His uncle John was the editor of the Halifax Herald newspaper, and it was under his influence that Yeoman became exposed to the world of writing.

In his early years, Yeoman attended public school in Halifax and eventually graduated from the Halifax Academy. In 1903, he began his higher education at Dalhousie University, where he studied journalism towards an arts degree. After three years of studying, however, Yeoman’s education was disrupted by the death of his uncle, James. It took Yeoman two academic years to finish his fourth year of education (MacKinnon). During that time, Yeoman’s passion focused on his writing, as he worked on perfecting it for a broader audience.

His first published work was a lyric poem, “The Contrast,” in The Canadian Magazine in April 1907. He was twenty-two. With this publication, Yeoman found a confidence that enabled him to develop his work (MacKinnon). In the years following, the Canadian Magazine would publish fifteen of Yeoman’s poems and two more after his death.

In all of Yeoman’s poetry, the influence of his predecessors, the Loyalist and the Confederation poets, is clear. In his poem “To Canada,” his national pride bursts forth:

Young Canada! And mayst thou be
Mother of Sons well worthy thee,
Pure spirited as are thy snows
Harmonious as thy water flows. (16)

In his poem “Dusk” he reveals something as simple as a sunset turning into night: “[a]nd in the Heavens, splendour—drest / In crimson tints with gold ornate, / Gorgeous in pompous purple state” (5).

Although beautiful in description, a sombre mood in much of Yeoman’s work remains. As nature enlivens his poems, much of the descriptions involve death in some way or another. This is apparent in his short verse entitled “The Sweetest Things are First to Die,” as described in the final stanza:

I had a love; gold was her hair,
Her eyes were blue as summer skies.
She showed me joy was ev’rywhere—
Taught me Time’s wings dropped melodies
But she is dead. “Ay, Dead!” I cry,
"The sweetest things are first to die" (4).

Yeoman faced much death throughout his short life and suffered many losses in his extended family. It is perhaps due to these losses that we see such remorse in his poetry. His poems are representative of the pain that he experienced and the joy that he felt in his natural surroundings. At the time of his death in 1909 due to brain fever, he had never been married. As Newton MacFaul MacTavish explains, he was “devoted to literary work” (1).

Yeoman’s death was described as both sudden and tragic (North Shore Leader 1). Upon word of his passing, the Halifax Herald spoke fondly of his literary talents and academic promise (7). In her anthology of Maritime poetry, Eliza Ritchie described his work as giving “promise of rare poetic talent” (213). His last published poem became one of his most popular. “Sing low, Wild bird” was featured in the February 1909 edition of The Canadian Magazine, as well as in the Halifax Herald, A Wreath of Canadian Song, and Songs of the Maritimes. Typically, the poem speaks of death and sorrow: “Sing low, wild bird, and sing a requiem o’er / For symphonies of life that are no more!” (10).

After his death, tributes were paid to him by fellow poets. One entitled “To E.M. Yeoman,” by John Mortimer, was published in the Canadian Magazine in January 1910. Another more substantial tribute was in the form of the only compilation of his poetry, Poems by Eric Mackay Yeoman. This selection included comments about the author by Newton MacFaul MacTavish, editor of The Canadian Magazine. Yeoman was a well-respected poet in his time, and his work lives up to the respect other artists had for him.

Andrea Dennis, Spring 2010
St. Thomas University

Bibliography of Primary Sources

Yeoman, Eric Mackay. Poems. Toronto: n.p., 1910.

Bibliography of Secondary Sources

“Death of Eric Yeoman.” Halifax Herald 4 Feb. 1909: 7.

“Eric Mackay Yeoman.” Atlantic Province Authors of the 20th Century: A Bio-Bibliographical Checklist. Halifax: Dalhousie U, 1982.

MacKinnon, Kenneth A. “Eric Mackay Yeoman.” Dictionary of Canadian Biography. Vol. 13. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1994. Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online. 2000. U of Toronto/U Laval. 5 Apr. 2010

MacTavish, Newton MacFaul. Introduction. Poems by Eric Mackay Yeoman. Toronto: n.p., 1910.

Ritchie, Eliza, ed. “Biographic Notes on Eric Mackay Yeoman.” Songs of the Maritimes: An Anthology of the Poetry of the Maritime Provinces of Canada. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart Ltd., 1931. 213.

“Sudden Death of Eric M. Yeoman.” North Shore Leader [Newcastle] 5 Feb. 1909: 1.

Whyte-Edgar, C.M., ed. A Wreath of Canadian Song: Containing Biographical Sketches and Numerous Selections From Deceased Canadian Poets. Toronto: W. Briggs, 1910.