HASKINS, JAMES, teacher, doctor, and poet; b. between 1802 and 1805 in Dublin, son of Charles Haskins, a merchant, and — Kelly; m. 10 March 1835 Mary Ann Everitt of Kingston Township, Upper Canada, and they had one child; d. 10 Oct. 1845 at Frankford, Upper Canada.
James Haskins was of a moderately wealthy background, his father being a merchant and supplier of clothing to the British army. At the age of 17 James entered Trinity College, Dublin, from which he graduated with an ab in 1824. Instead of entering his father’s business, he followed his inclinations and his love of classical literature and taught in various locations in Ireland and England. This career permitted extensive travel in Ireland and on the Continent.
Haskins returned to Trinity College to study surgery and to take an mb in 1833. Shortly thereafter, accompanied by his sister and an aunt, he immigrated to Upper Canada. He arrived in Belleville in July 1834 and on 13 August obtained a certificate to practise medicine. His own comments indicate that he did practise in Belleville, although there is not much information available about his movements from 1834 to 1836. On 10 March 1835 he married 15-year-old Mary Ann Everitt. A Hastings County historian, Gerald E. Boyce, reports Haskins opening a “classical” school in 1836 and applying, unsuccessfully, that September for the post of master of a proposed district grammar school. Haskins may well have taught at a Belleville seminary for girls taken over by his sister in 1834. By 16 June 1837 he was advertising in the Kingston Chronicle & Gazette that he was opening a medical practice at “Yarker’s Mills” in Loughborough Township on the River Trent, citing his accreditation and good references and noting his earlier success as a doctor. Haskins was very happy there and wrote much poetry. But the happiness did not last. Mary Ann died giving birth to a daughter and Haskins, in his grief, moved to Frankford. There he lived in relative obscurity, practising medicine and writing the majority of his poems, finding outlets for some of them in the Literary Garland and the Church.
It is concerning this segment of his life that the two main sources of information about his character and early death particularly clash. The first, a poem by Susanna Moodie [Strickland*], with accompanying comments, was first published in the Literary Garland in 1846. She makes Haskins a “Neglected son of Genius,” unable to cope with an anti-intellectual society and driven by it to a reclusive life and alcoholism. She perpetrates the story that Haskins and another doctor “entered into a compact to drink until they both died.” The story serves Moodie’s purposes, which are to indicate the terrible abuse of alcohol in the colonies and the antagonism and suspicion with which the arts were regarded. Her observations on Haskins are, however, supported by William Hutton*, who noted in March 1844 that Haskins “drinks hard.” The second source, an introductory memoir by his friend Henry Baldwin, appeared in the posthumous collection of Haskins’s Poetical works in 1848. Baldwin, who visited Haskins often at Frankford, protects the doctor’s reputation, mentioning nothing of a drinking problem but viewing him as one who chose solitude because of his grief and his deeply religious nature. He indicates that Haskins exhausted his health by the strenuousness of his service as a doctor in the area and by a too intense devotion to his poetry and his intellectual pursuits. He also observes that Haskins suffered frequent attacks of ague and had a susceptibility to diseases of the chest; his comments suggest that Haskins may have died of tuberculosis.
Perhaps the truth lies somewhere between the two views. Haskins’s poetry would indicate that he was a very religious and a contemplative person, stressing as it does the illusory nature of earthly bliss and the general unworthiness of man. His longest work, “The Cross,” written after the death of his wife, is a religious epic, his version of paradise lost and found, written in Spenserian stanzas; it often reflects his personal afflictions and a sense of his own personal unworthiness. Several other poems are elegiac in nature and clearly show how keenly he felt the loss of his wife.
In his poetry Haskins was more interested in the symbolic use of nature than in specific and local characteristics. His dominant images are of storm, wind, and darkness, representing man’s condition and urging him toward the peace and love of Christ. He is more akin to Blake or Shelley in his poetic texture than to Wordsworth.
There are some specific personal digressions, however, and in “The Mediterranean Sea,” which appeared in the Literary Garland early in 1846, he indicates that his life as a doctor in Canada was not easy: he faced many demands for service in severe weather when travel was difficult, often with little or no remuneration. Yet, trying as his situation was, he indicates that he could not live “in crowded city-pent / Like eagle in its cage,” but would roam “E’en as the wind, / Walking upon the mountain.” Unappreciated he may have been, but his was a chosen rather than an imposed solitude.
In Canadian literary history Haskins has been, like so many other minor poets, neglected. His fate until now has been to serve as an analogue for Susanna Moodie’s own sense of being on the fringes of literary culture. And yet in his time he served other purposes, both in revealing his own nourishment by the great English Romantic poets and by the classical writers and in professing a conservative reaction to progress, materialism, and other earthly snares. He must have appealed to many people, as he did to Baldwin, as a man of learning and strong religious conviction.
James Haskins’s published works include “The Mediterranean Sea; a poem,” Literary Garland, new ser., 4 (1846): 13–16, 73–76, and The poetical works of James Haskins . . . , ed. Henry Baldwin (Hartford, Conn., 1848), both issued after his death.
PAC, RG 5, B9, 63: 624. [Susanna Strickland] Moodie, “Sonnet to the memory of Dr. James Haskins,” Literary Garland, new ser., 4: 76. Chronicle & Gazette, 29 April, 16 June 1837; 22 Oct. 1845. Church, 1838. Death notices of Ont. (Reid). An index to the “Literary Garland” (Montreal, 1838–1851), comp. Mary Markham Brown (Toronto, 1962). G. E. Boyce, Hutton of Hastings: the life and letters of William Hutton, 1801–61 (Belleville, Ont., 1972). Walter Lewis and Lynne Turner, By bridge and mill: a history of the village of Frankford (Kingston, Ont., 1979).