Wilson MacDonald (1880-1967) was a Canadian poet, and a seeker for truth. He believed in non-violence, and adopted a vegetarian diet. He looked forward to a world wherein peace would dwell, and strove by his writings, to call attention to that high ideal.
I discovered his writings over 20 years ago, while browsing through used bookstores in Vancouver, BC. I was looking for books on sacred poetry, and came across a copy of his Greater Poems of the Bible (1943). I was surprised that a Canadian poet would devote his talent to the field of Biblical poetry, as most of the poetical works I had studied up until that time were from England, America, or perhaps translations of pietist German hymns.
So I sought out more of his books and found quite a few of them, often delightfully signed and decorated by the author himself. I remember the owner/proprietar of Lawrence Books in Vancouver, who was quite a literature scholar, remarked once, when I purchased some of Wilson’s books: “Oh, Wilson MacDonald! He was a poor poet!” He meant “poor” as in “poverty”. I guess Mr. Lawrence was old enough to have met or heard Wilson reciting his poems, on one of his cross-Canadian tours. And his comment was true: earlier in his life, Wilson left behind a successful career in advertising in order to be faithful to his God-given talent. He decided it was better to be poor, yet pursuing what God made him for, than to sell off his talents to the lovers of mammon.
While the other books by Wilson did not have the same amount of Biblical content as the Greater Poems of the Bible, they often had a spiritual element to them, and the lyrical quality was superb. They seemed to encapsulate in word-form the natural beauty of Canada itself.
But Wilson did not confine himself to writing poetry simply about nature; he studied human nature as well, and had an eye for small, seemingly insignificant details, and called attention to their beauty. He was quick to point out the good in human nature, and also unsparing in condemnation of its hypocrisies.
He was a great humanitarian, became good friends with Albert Einstein and George Bernard Shaw, and visited the first Pugwash Conference in 1957, afterwards publishing a small book about the experience.
“The Pugwash Conferences take their name from the location of the first meeting, which was held in 1957 in the village of Pugwash, Nova Scotia, Canada, birthplace of the American philanthropist Cyrus Eaton, who hosted the meeting. The stimulus for that gathering was a Manifesto issued in 1955 by Bertrand Russell and Albert Einstein — and signed also by Max Born, Percy Bridgman, Leopold Infeld, Frederic Joliot-Curie, Herman Muller, Linus Pauling, Cecil Powell, Joseph Rotblat, and Hideki Yukawa — which called upon scientists of all political persuasions to assemble to discuss the threat posed to civilization by the advent of thermonuclear weapons. The 1957 meeting was attended by 22 eminent scientists (seven from the United States, three each from the Soviet Union and Japan, two each from the United Kingdom and Canada, and one each from Australia, Austria, China, France, and Poland).” – quoted from the pugwash.org website.
Wilson had a vision that humanity would one day dwell in peace, and these conferences seemed to him to be a move in this direction.
Visit to Russia
In 1957, during the time of the “Cold War” when there was great tension between the “western powers” and Communist Russia, Wilson was one of the few westerners invited to Russia. The barriers of prejudice meant nothing to him, and he gladly accepted the invitation. Wilson writes about the invitation:
“Anything important in the mail?” asked my wife. I handed her the letter in which was an invitation to visit Moscow for ten days during the month when the 40th Anniversary of the U.S.S.R. was to be celebrated. All my expenses were to be paid. The letter told of the high regard in which my poetry was held in Russia. I was urged to bring my manuscripts on Shakespeare and a set of my published books.
We get a glimpse into his Health Reformer views when he writes about the airplane trip from Paris to Moscow:
I dined on sunflower seeds, vitamin pills and honey, for the meals served consisted of pork, fried potatoes, white bread, cake—foods which, while palatable to most, are foods I never taste. This is the only criticism I have to offer about this end of my trip.
A tour through the Moscow University was scheduled, but Wilson had other plans:
I hate conducted tours because I like to find out things in my own way, so I asked our guide how long they would be in the University, and when she told me, I slipped away from our party and wandered wherever my inclinations suggested and the result was that I touched the very pulse of this great seat of learning. I saw an open classroom door, and I stood in the hall, looking in at the large class assembled. No person was lecturing so I boldly entered the room…
He found a student who spoke english, and when they realized he was from Canada, they all crowded around him wanting to know more:
One girl said: “I would like to see Canada more than any other country.” I found an affinity between Russians and Canadians everywhere I went. We both loved the same things—pine trees, white birches, skiing, skating and snow-covered hills.
My time would be soon up, so I reluctantly left my new friends shaking hands with one and all of them. This intrusion would have shocked any seat of learning in America, but Russia has an idea of education which shames American conceptions. Their brief talk with me was super-education to them. To meet a poet was something to remember as long as they lived, and they will tell their grandchildren about a Canadian poet who came uninvited into their classroom and spoke to them at Moscow University…
When I rejoined our party I said little about my experience which told me in a few minutes more about Russian education than an official tour of fifty colleges would have done. Education is not the acquiring of knowledge. It lies rather in the awakening of new wonder and yearning in the eyes of the student. The true teacher tries to kindle this yearning instead of attempting to cram down knowledge into the throat of youth. If I were asked to judge the academic status of a group of students before me, I would give all the laurels, not to those who were stuffed, like a Thanksgiving turkey, with facts, but to those who had the greatest number of stars in their eyes.
And later, during a parade he writes:
…there were other evidences of Russian character which were revealed to me more clearly than anything I had seen in the Great Parade. In theatrical terms, I went behind the scenes and there I looked into the human hearts of people. While the marchers were still passing, I studied the faces of men and women who stood behind our favoured boxes. The day was cold and dark and I had buttoned up my coat collar. When I looked around an elderly woman beckoned to me. She had put a cushion or shawl on the cement wall in front of her that I might have a seat. As I accepted her invitation I thought of the story of a woman who broke a bottle of myrrh over the feet of a tired journeyman long, long ago. The spirit of love was the same. All I could say was “spasiba”, but that elderly woman will have a shrine forever in a poet’s heart.
One last anecdote is worth mentioning. In our times, artists are often unbalanced people, who are expected to be deficient in the practical things of life because of the devotion of all their time and efforts to their “gift”. This is a mistake, and at least partly explains the extravagant and erratic display of the arts in modern society. It was not so with Wilson MacDonald:
My regular room maid had marvelled at the fact that I made my own bed and tidied my room each morning. One day she brought in the other maids on our floor and pointed with wonder at my perfectly made bed. Then she put her hands up in an angelic pose as though to say, “you are an angel!” All I could say was “spasiba, spasiba!”
Later he published a small book about his experience. This did not increase his popularity with the west, but he counted it a small sacrifice for the sake of brotherhood.
Angels of the Earth
His last book, Angels of the Earth (1963) was his swan song. It is a hand-written volume of short prose pieces, each one a parable of wisdom, summing up what he had learned and believed to be true during his time on earth.
The book begins with the phrase “This is the Gospel according to Wilson MacDonald,” and that is precisely what it is. In each chapter, a point of truth is embodied in the form of an angel:
- The Angel of Tolerance
- The Angel of Wisdom
- The Angel of Little Things
- The Angel of the Lonely Ways, etc.
I have scanned this book and offer it here for download (It is around 100mb as I wanted to keep the quality of the scans good so the hand-written script would be readable and printable).
He kept high faith with beauty
Wilson, according to his wish, had a line from one of his poems inscribed on his gravestone: “He kept high faith with beauty to the end.”
Every nation has had it’s great men, who were not always appreciated: men who saw beyond the narrow confines of human selfishness, self-centeredness, and greed, and who wrote about their vision, and attempted to live it. Gandhi, Wilberforce, Wesley, Lincoln, Luther…these are just a few of the names which shine on the pages of history as real benefactors for humanity. Although he did not have the opportunities and influence of these former men, Wilson MacDonald, I believe, was one of the few Canadians whose devotion to those same principles and ideals, put him in that company.
Join hands, ye nations,
This is the last call:
Join hands, or the Play ends,
And the curtains fall.
Gun and bomb and sword
Have had their day:
Now for the living Word
And the King’s way.
Let Peace be the bridegroom;
If he is denied
Death will take his place,
And Earth will be the bride.
It is yours to say.
This is the last call:
Join hands or the Play ends,
And the curtains fall.
– Wilson MacDonald (1957)
(this poem was read by the author before English-speaking writers in Moscow,
and brought the author a standing ovation)
Books for Download
Many of Wilson’s books can be downloaded in readable PDF format from here:
Haldimand County website.
Poems Set to Music
I have set a few of Wilson MacDonald’s poems from Greater Poems of the Bible to music. These are included in the songbook, Song in the Night, which you can download on this website. Also, five of these were recorded in an impromptu session with some church members:
One other poem from Greater Poems of the Bible is included as a song in our church songbook, Songs of Hope and Trust. You can view it here:
Samples of His Poetry
Next, as sub-pages beneath this article, I will include some of Wilson’s poems, those that particularly impress me by their poetic fire, and uplifting character (this list will grow with time):
- A Courtier’s Song
- A Gypsy Song
- John Graydon
- Mary Mahone
- O Sweet Translator
- Out of the Wilderness
- The Loon
- The Song of the Flashing Door
- The Song of the Rebel
- These Friends of Mine
- Where is Antioch!
Wilson MacDonald – His Life and Legacy
Originally sold in VHS format from Heronwood Enterprises