Guelph’s best worst poet

James Gay wearing a boulder hat, glasses, and holding his hand up while pointing.

For James Gay, poetry wasn’t a solitary pursuit, reserved for quiet hours in the study. It was the stuff of everyday life.

Gay would greet a familiar face on the streets with a quick rhyme:

“Nice day—good day—James Gay—here today—soon away.”

Born in England in 1810, Gay was trained in carpentry, but entered the hotel business upon moving to Guelph. He owned and operated Gay’s Inn from 1842 to 1865, and was successful. After suffering from a bout of “brain fever” in the 1860s, however, Gay turned to poetry.

He was famous for roaming the streets of Guelph in his trademark frock coat and bowler hat, and stopping passers-by to play an impromptu tune on his flute or recite a recently composed poem. Given the choice, you’d be wise to pick the flute—or perhaps duck him altogether. Friendly though he was, his poetry was dreadful. Take this bit of doggerel, for example:

I came on this earth a natural born poet.

And for the good of my fellow-man the world will soon know it;

My talents received are too bright, understand,

Ever to be buried in the sand.

Gay himself thought highly of his art. When the Guelph Daily Mercury and Advertiser called it “rot,” he brought a libel suit against them. Undeterred by his critics, he proclaimed himself the “Poet Laureate of Canada” and wrote, in an open letter to English poet Alfred Lord Tennyson, “now Longfellow is gone there are only two of us left. There ought to be no rivalry between us two.”

Today, of course, Guelph’s literary scene is no laughing matter, with writers like Thomas King, Mary Swan, and Robert Munsch calling the city home. In many ways, Gay was their forerunner, exemplifying the confidence and conviction—if not the talent—necessary to succeed as an artist.

Let not his name be buried in the sand.

Previously published in Snap’d.

Posted by Sarah Ball on July 8, 2015

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