HAWLEY, WILLIAM FITZ, author and office holder; b. 1804, probably in La Prairie, Lower Canada; d. there January 1855.
Information about William Fitz Hawley is scant, and comes largely from his two printed volumes. In the earlier of these, published at Montreal in 1829, he refers to his writing as being done “amidst the turmoil of business” but the nature of that business is not known. The only other evidence of an occupation is his appointment as registrar for Huntingdon County on 31 Oct. 1850. Interest in Hawley lies in his activity as one of a number of authors of prose and verse during the 1820s, some of whom were published locally, especially in the newspapers.
Across the St Lawrence from La Prairie, Montreal was experiencing in this decade an initial flurry of literary activity in English. Canadian imitations of the great British literary journals were provided by the Scribbler (1821–27), the Canadian Magazine and Literary Repository (1823–25), and the Canadian Review and Literary and Historical Journal (1824–26). Hawley is said to have written extensively for local periodicals, but few of his contributions have been identified.
He began by collecting manuscripts and pagers for a history of the Canadas. The collection was destroyed by fire and, according to Henry James Morgan*, the project was “reluctantly abandoned.” Then Hawley turned to what he described as “irregular effusions of early life.” These poems were gathered into his first book, Quebec, the harp, and other poems, printed at the Montreal Herald. A second volume, The unknown, or lays of the forest, was ready shortly afterwards and was published in Montreal early in 1831.
“The harp,” which won for its young poet an honorary medal from the Société pour l’Encouragement des Sciences et des Arts en Canada, at Quebec, showed the path of poetry he hoped to follow. In its lines it soon became apparent that Hawley was one for whom “blest sounds of music” were to issue from “The Western Harp’s yet untun’d strings” and that a colonial “Harp of the West” might attempt to emulate the celebrated songs and romances of the “Harp of the East” (the Near East) and of “the North” (Great Britain). In this first volume the poem “Quebec” was Hawley’s show-piece for “native numbers.” The technique for his elevated review of heroic events along the St Lawrence River was borrowed, with, as Richard Ernest Rashley has pointed out, only “a partial bridging of the gap” between “the old world art” and the expression of “new world experience.” The book was apparently received “in a flattering manner” by the contemporary public.
Hawley named his Old World masters in the preface to his second volume: Thomas Campbell, Lord Byron, Thomas Moore, and Ossian. There too he cited Arabian nights’ entertainments and Moore’s Lalla Rookh, an oriental romance as examples of how a series of independent tales could be linked, a structure he himself adopted for The unknown. He sets four eastern romances (told “in the forest”) in the framework of a narrative about “the Stranger,” a young Frenchman who comes to Lower Canada to convert the Indians to a “civilized” way of life. Into this framework Hawley incorporates some accurate description in prose and verse of the manners and homes of French Canadians, apparently observed at first hand, and of the Rivière Saint-Maurice and the Chutes Shawinigan.
Hawley was proud of Quebec’s Indian-French-British history and, while he indulged in songs and narratives in the Byronic romantic fashion, he also “essayed faithfully to delineate [Quebec’s] unknown scenery, together with the dark traits of its early history, and to cheer the fire-side of our long winter evenings with ‘the deeds of days of other years.’”
Montreal Gazette, 12 July 1830. Morgan, Bibliotheca Canadensis, 179–80. Norah Story, The Oxford companion to Canadian history and literature (Toronto and London, 1967), 349–50. L. M. Lande, Old lamps aglow; an appreciation of early Canadian poetry (Montreal, 1957), 145–49. Lareau, Hist. de la littérature canadienne, 75. Lit. hist. of Canada (Klinck et al.; 1976), 1: 144–45. R. E. Rashley, Poetry in Canada; the first three steps (Toronto, 1958), 17–22. Benjamin Sulte, “The unknown,” RSC Trans., 2nd ser., 6 (1900), sect.i: 117–20.