SMYTH, JOHN (also known as Sir John Smith), farmer, land agent, and poet; b. c. 1792; d. 1 Sept. 1852 at the House of Industry in Toronto.
By his own account, John Smyth was “born and bred up in this Province of Canada” and worked as a farmer until he was 23 years old. About 1815 he left that occupation to become a land agent in York (Toronto). Smyth was a railway enthusiast and in 1837 he published a Map of Upper Canada, shewing the proposed routes of rail roads, for the purpose of extending the trade of the province. Copies of this map were sold by Toronto book-dealers Henry Rowsell*, Robert Stanton*, and James Lesslie*. Eight years later Smyth published a short essay entitled “Railroad communication” in which he made one of the first public proposals calling for the construction of an all-Canadian railway route, saying that, in the event of war between Great Britain and the United States, a branch of the railway should be built “to run in the rear of Lake Huron, and also in the rear of Lake Superior, twenty miles in the interior of the county of the lake aforesaid; to unite with the Railroad from Lake Superior to Winepeg at the north-west main trading post of the North West Company.”
Smyth had started writing in 1837 or 1838 in response to an anonymous poem which he received in the mail. The discovery of his talent surprised him “as much so, as though I had seen a person fly to the moon.” The British writer Frederick Marryat* included one of Smyth’s early poems, “To the ladies of the city of Toronto,” in his widely circulated A diary in America (1839). Smyth is best known, however, for his two books. The first, Select poems, was published in Toronto in 1841; a copy now in the Metropolitan Toronto Library bears the handwritten inscription “A Literary Curiosity.” The volume contains a number of poems on topical subjects, for example, Toronto’s celebration of the marriage of Queen Victoria and the vandalism of Sir Isaac Brock*’s monument at Queenston Heights. In a poem on the transfer of the seat of government from Toronto to Kingston, he predicted that Toronto would “flourish and blossom like a rose” despite the loss of government revenue.
Advertisements placed in some contemporary newspapers hailed Smyth’s work with extravagant accolades. One in the Toronto Patriot on 14 May 1841 proclaimed: “He is alike beyond the reach of praise and censure. In some departments of literature Sir John May have been exceeded, but we hesitate not to say that for exquisitely musical versification, peculiar originality of conception, and the power of blending the keenest and most withering sarcasm with the purest breathings of Christian charity, he must be forever unsurpassed!”
Four years later Smyth published A small specimen of the genius of Canada West, and the wonders of the world. In its preface he claimed that his writing was spontaneous and effortless: “I am pretty astonished at myself that I can compose as well and elegant any subject that I attempt.” He signed this volume of essays and poems with a self-created designation as “Sir John Smyth, Baronet, and Royal Engineer, Canadian Poet, L.L.D., P.L. [Poet Laureate], and Moral Philosopher.”
In fact, Smyth was seen by many of his contemporaries as a laughing-stock. In an open letter to Governor Sir Charles Theophilus Metcalfe* published in A small specimen, he flatly denied rumours that he was mad, claiming that “such evil reports of me are all false, untrue, and most diabolical.” A note attributed to Matthew Teefy of Richmond Hill reported that Smyth “never was an active, intelligent man; [but] was weak, and silly, – given to [poetry ?] and love making – and became a butt for the young men about town.” Smyth’s notoriety was further enhanced after he lost the use of his legs and got about by means of a carriage he could propel while sitting in it. He died in 1852, impoverished and dependent upon public charity.
Although his poetry was unspectacular, the eccentric Smyth was not soon forgotten. Twenty years after his death Henry Scadding* recalled, “Sir John Smythe found in the public papers a place for his productions which by their syntactical irregularities and freedom from marks of punctuation proved their author . . . to be a man supra grammaticam and one possessed of a genius above commas.”
John Smyth is the author of the following publications, all of which are available at the MTL: Map of Upper Canada, shewing the proposed routes of rail roads, for the purpose of extending the trade of the province (New York, 1837); “To the ladies of the city of Toronto” in Frederick Marryat, A diary in America, with remarks on its institutions (3v., London, 1839), 1: 217; Select poems (Toronto, 1841); and A small specimen of the genius of Canada West, and the wonders of the world (Toronto, 1845), which includes his “Railway communication . . .” on pp.25–32. The MTL’s copy of the Select poems, originally the property of Matthew Teefy, contains a handwritten note concerning Smyth. Its copy of A small specimen is the only one recorded and may be the only one extant; it is itself an incomplete copy, missing pp.13–24.
British Colonist (Toronto), 5, 12 May 1841. Christian Guardian, 8 Sept. 1852. Toronto Patriot, 14 May 1841. Scadding, Toronto of old (Armstrong; 1966), 118–19.