John McPherson spent his first 17 years in Liverpool, where he obtained most of his formal schooling. He then went to live with his uncle, Donald McPherson, at North Brookfield in the northern part of Queens County, and there came under the influence of Angus Morrison Gidney*, a young schoolteacher at nearby Pleasant River. Gidney inspired a love of poetry in McPherson and encouraged his writing. Subsequently, as a Halifax newspaper editor, Gidney helped McPherson get his poetry published and brought his verse to the attention of literary-minded people in the capital. Of these, John Sparrow Thompson* and Sarah Herbert became the most influential in McPherson’s brief literary career.
As a young man, McPherson had a great deal of trouble deciding what to do with his life. Between 1835 and 1840 he pursued a variety of jobs. He worked briefly in Halifax as a clerk, and then sailed to the West Indies in search of opportunity. However, he soon returned home and began to train as a carpenter. At the same time he became increasingly involved in writing poetry. From 1838 to 1840 his verses appeared frequently in Halifax newspapers, particularly the Novascotian and the Haligonian, and in the Colonial Pearl, a local literary periodical.
The year 1841 seemed to be a turning-point in McPherson’s life. He began work as a schoolteacher at Kempt, near North Brookfield, a job more compatible with his literary interests. He was there for two years, and during that time, on 12 Dec. 1841, he married his cousin Irene, Donald McPherson’s daughter. He was also gaining a reputation as a poet of considerable promise and was developing a poetic style more distinctly his own. He taught briefly at Maitland Bridge in Annapolis County, but soon returned to North Brookfield. It had become increasingly apparent that his teacher’s salary was not sufficient to support a wife and new baby girl, nor did earnings from his writings meet expectations. In the midst of his despair over deepening poverty, his health, always delicate, began to fail. None the less, he managed to sustain a high level of poetic activity. From 1841 to 1844 he continued to publish often in Halifax newspapers and in Sarah Herbert’s journal, the Olive Branch. In 1843 John Henry Crosskill* published McPherson’s temperance poem The praise of water, the only booklet of his verse to appear during his lifetime.
By 1843 his health would not allow him to work steadily and his economic circumstances were becoming desperate. Friends in Halifax, including an anonymous contributor later identified as William Young*, an mha, helped by collecting money that permitted him to purchase land and commence building a small cottage. Relieved of the burden of providing accommodation for his family, McPherson hoped to support them through his writings. But by the time they moved into the home in December 1844, McPherson’s health was very poor and the cottage, unfinished because the funds raised had been insufficient, was not really ready for winter habitation. On 1 May 1845 he had to be moved into his uncle’s home at North Brookfield; there he died on 26 July in his 29th year, leaving his wife and two children.
Like poet Grizelda Elizabeth Cottnam Tonge* in the generation before him, McPherson by his early death had a special place created for him in the hearts of those committed to establishing a native literary tradition. The harshness of his circumstances and the fatal delicacy of his health seemed to symbolize the difficulties and sacrifices involved in nurturing Nova Scotia’s cultural development in the early 19th century. The apparent expendability of local literary activity was further demonstrated by the fact that McPherson’s poetry was not collected and published in book form until 1862, 17 years after his death. It was Thompson who finally brought together a selection of McPherson’s poetic remains.
Because of Thompson’s efforts, McPherson, unlike Tonge, survives as more than a romantic literary myth. He speaks for himself through a sizeable body of verse. Unfortunately, Thompson’s collection does not readily reveal McPherson’s strengths as a poet. In his choice and arrangement of the poems Thompson generally fails to distinguish between conventional treatments of aspects of morality and religion and McPherson’s more perceptive poetic statements rising from his innate sensitivity to the nature of his own life and his experience of the natural world around him. At his best, McPherson projects a vision of individual consciousness in harmony with a particular set of natural circumstances. For example, in his poem “Scenes,” he writes:
I love at night’s mysterious hour,
To muse beside the solemn sea,
And feel its strange mysterious power,
And mark its waves, the wild the free,
While hallowed visions sway the soul
Resigned to thought’s sublime control.
But this harmony, while idyllic and pictured as a release from daily cares, is usually haunted by an awareness of the passing or dying of all things. Thus there is often an element of nostalgia, a Celtic melancholy which significantly colours the tone and mood of the poetry. This effect is most evident in such poems as “The may-flower,” “Autumnal musings,” “Dying in spring,” and “The beautiful is fading.” In expressing his feelings for the beautiful yet transitory character of mortal existence, McPherson frequently turns to flower imagery.
McPherson was buried on a hill near North Brookfield, on the eastern side of the old Annapolis Road overlooking Tupper Lake. His wife put up a simple headstone. In 1906 the grave was moved to the cemetery of the North Brookfield Baptist Church.
John McPherson’s poetry was first published at various times during the period 1835–45 in a number of Maritime newspapers, including the Amaranth (Saint John, N.B.), the Yarmouth Herald and Western Advertiser (Yarmouth, N.S.), and, in Halifax, the Christian Messenger, Colonial Pearl, Haligonian and General Advertiser, Novascotian, Olive Branch, and Temperance Recorder. His temperance composition The praise of water; a prize poem appeared in Halifax in 1843. J. S. Thompson brought out a selection of his works under the title Poems, descriptive and moral . . . (Halifax, 1862), and prefaced it with an “Introductory memoir.”
PAC, MG 24, C4. PANS, MG 1, 848, no. 15. Acadian Recorder, 2 Aug. 1845. Novascotian, 30 Dec. 1841. R. J. Long, Nova Scotia authors and their work: a bibliography of the province (East Orange, N.J., 1918), 161. J. F. More, The history of Queens County, N.S. (Halifax, 1873; repr. Belleville, Ont., 1972), 196–200. “Half hours with our poets . . .,” Provincial: or Halifax Monthly Magazine, 1 (1852): 83. D. C. Harvey, “The centenary of John McPherson,” Dalhousie Rev., 25 (1945–46): 343–53. R. R. McLeod, “Notes historical and otherwise of the Northern District of Queens County,” N.S. Hist. Soc., Coll., 16 (1912): 117. “More of John McPherson,” Provincial: or Halifax Monthly Magazine, 1: 167–72.