MENZIES, GEORGE, printer, newspaperman, and poet; b. 1796 or 1797 in Kincardine, Scotland; m. 13 Feb. 1841 Harriet Burton; d. 4 March 1847 in Woodstock, Upper Canada.
On 3 April 1846 and on many occasions thereafter the Woodstock Herald, and Brock District General Advertiser, edited by George Menzies, carried a notice of the planned publication of his “Poetical Scraps,” “the scatterings of nearly thirty years’ intercourse with the Press, having occasionally found their way into some of the most distinguished periodicals in both hemispheres.” Menzies intended to publish the book on subscription, the most common way for poets to proceed at the time, but it did not appear. Instead his widow, who carried on with the paper, succeeded in publishing the volume in 1850 as The posthumous works of the late George Menzies. These “Poetical Scraps” have the air of being a personal record and, therefore, provide a glimpse into the religious life, the loyalties, and the frame of mind of a Scottish emigrant of humble origins who by his own desire and tenacity carved a niche for himself as a moderate voice in the provincial press of Upper Canada.
According to Menzies’s obituary in the Herald, he trained as a gardener in his native Scotland and served his apprenticeship in the area of Brechin, but upon completing his training he indulged his love of history and literature by travelling through the country visiting the sites of battles and places referred to in song and story. Menzies “cultivated” his mind to the extent that he became qualified to teach and served for several years as a schoolmaster in Scotland. In 1833 he emigrated to Upper Canada, probably for the common reason of anticipated opportunity to better his condition although several of the poems dwell on a disappointment in love, apparently around his 30th year, and others acknowledge an attraction to “sublime” sites such as Niagara Falls.
Indeed, it appears that Menzies was immediately drawn to the Niagara area and he maintained a lifelong fascination with the falls, which he expressed in his writing and in collecting both whimsical and serious literary curiosities about them. In 1846 he published these in a slim volume, Album of the Table Rock, which also included his own guide to points of interest for tourists. Ten years earlier Menzies had served his apprenticeship as a newspaperman and printer in the Niagara area, with the St. Catharines Journal. Thereafter he joined the Niagara Reporter and in September 1837, with John Simpson*, he founded the Niagara Chronicle. Menzies left the Chronicle some time in 1839 and may have worked briefly with Thomas Dalton on the Toronto Patriot. In July 1840, in partnership with Alexander Hay, he launched the Woodstock Herald, and Brock District General Advertiser, of which he was the editor. Hay left the Herald in October 1846 and Menzies carried on alone until his death early the next year.
The motto of the Herald was “British Connection, With Responsible Government,” clearly reflecting the moderate outlook of its editor. When in November 1846 Menzies was charged by a correspondent with being a fence-straddler, he replied it was indeed so, but the fence he straddled was the British constitution; from that fence, he said, he was able to look down on the antagonistic flocks. This had always been his position, and he reminded his readers of his original prospectus, which had asserted his intent to be non-partisan, “conservative but not bigoted – liberal but not levelling.” His wish was to preserve the British constitution as the basis of government in the Canadas, but to acknowledge that “new circumstances may render necessary a new system of tactics.” Such an outlook naturally made him an opponent of the radicalism of William Lyon Mackenzie* and a supporter of responsible government, which in 1846 he urged the new governor-in-chief, Lord Elgin [Bruce*], to move toward with understanding and swift decision.
Menzies’s general philosophic outlook was that of a dour Scottish Presbyterian. Perhaps his attitude, especially in his later years, was chastened by his apparently frequent illness, although his poetry and his editorial observations indicate a life of hard work as well as a religious conviction that life is a trial and an illusion that must be endured, the only relief being that “safe harbour on the shores of some world in which there is no time at all.” Even when his writing diverges from such themes, the issues and tones are still serious and sombre. There is a good deal of nostalgia for his native land with its personal associations, picturesque beauty, and tradition of minstrelsy. His favourite poet, not surprisingly, was Burns, whose work he sometimes emulated, but he indicates that he had studied the classics and was fond of reading the British poets of his time.
Nostalgia was not constant. In fact the Herald reveals quite a different facet to Menzies’s personality, for it was his custom frequently to replace the political editorial with a folksy column of sardonic humour entitled “Extracts from an unpublished dictionary.” Each column is comprised of an alphabetical list, one word for each letter, with definitions calculated to ridicule the follies and pretensions of individuals and institutions. Eloquence, for example, is “the power of employing many words of equivocal, or no, meaning, generally used in parliaments and pulpits.” In such columns as well as in his other journalistic and poetic pursuits Menzies evinced a basically sceptical view of human activities and sought to be the “guardian of existing good.”
The main collection of Menzies’s poetry, The posthumous works of the late George Menzies, being a collection of poems, sonnets, &c., &c., written at various times when the author was connected with the provincial press, was published by his widow in Woodstock, [Ont.], in 1850; an edition also appeared in Aberdeen, Scot., in 1854. Menzies himself edited and published Album of the Table Rock, Niagara Falls, C. W., and sketches of the falls, &c. (Niagara [Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.], 1846).
Chatham Gleaner of News, Literature & General Intelligence (Chatham, [Ont.]), 16 March 1847. St. Catharines Journal, 11 March 1847. Woodstock Herald, and Brock District General Advertiser, July 1840–March 1847. J. J. Talman, “Three Scottish-Canadian newspaper editor poets,” CHR, 28 (1947): 166–77.