“High Priest of Trinity College”: Milton Wilson’s role as Canadian Poetry’s Gatekeeper, 1957-1968

Death turns the recent past into ancient history. The death of Milton Wilson (1923-2013) at the advanced age of ninety, necessitates underlining what is perhaps his most influential literary achievement. If you wrote, read, edited, or otherwise ingested contemporary English-Canadian poetry from 1957 to 1968, his influence was manifest. Whether as periodical editor (Canadian Forum), annual critical commentator / surveyor (University of Toronto Quarterly, July 1961-65), anthologist (Recent Canadian Verse; Poets Between the Wars; Poetry of Mid-Century), critical essayist (Tamarack Review, Queen’s Quarterly, Canadian Literature), willing grant referee, dissertation supervisor, and / or unfailing correspondent, Milton Wilson exercised a considerable influence over the production and consumption of poetry in English-speaking Canada. More than a university-based critical reader, Wilson occupied a hands-on role in his work with various poets whom he counseled, criticized, encouraged, published, and otherwise aided. Imagine an editor of such influence, then place him within the structure of an academic institution with its own unceasing demands for instruction, evaluation and day-to-day administration. The fact that his principal scholarly activity and teaching performance rested in the area of the English romantics (Shelley’s Later Poetry, 1959; numerous periodical articles), made his commitment to fostering contemporary Canadian poetry all the more remarkable.

His papers in the Trinity College archives include correspondence from such poets as Milton Acorn, Patrick Anderson, Margaret Atwood, Margaret Avison, Earle Birney, Bill Bissett, Fred Cogswell, Leonard Cohen, Victor Coleman, John Glassco, Phyllis Gotlieb, Patrick Lane, Irving Layton, Dorothy Livesay, Gwendolyn MacEwen, Eli Mandel, Alden Nowlan, Michael Ondaatje, Al Purdy, James Reaney, Joe Rosenblatt, F.R. Scott, A.J.M. Smith, and Miriam Waddington. However illuminating this material may be to any student of Canadian poetry of the 50s and 60s, however uneven in quality and quantity the correspondence may appear, it demonstrates just how many strands of the poetry web vibrated at Wilson’s touch.

Wilson’s academic / critical publications alone demonstrate his influential critical role. The 1960 Canadian Literature article, “Klein’s Drowned Poet” was a truly seminal work. It took the corpus of Canadian poetry as an autonomous subject of study, even as a set of materials with its own internal rhythms and motifs. As a later article illustrates, his critical assessments approached the magisterial in their breadth and assurance:

The staple product of conventional up-to-date British and American poetry can (very broadly indeed) be described as having moved from a metaphoric and allusive phase in the thirties and forties to a more linguistic-idiomatic and syntactic-one in the fifties and sixties, from the rhetoric of the image to the rhetoric of the voice. (Wilson, “Poet without A Muse” 15)

His genial nature did not forestall him from at times offering a trenchant assessment. For instance, he didn’t hesitate to comment on Patrick Anderson and P.K. Page as “extremely insulated poets. Anderson’s white anaesthetic winter landscape and Page’s glass-tight but vulnerable aquarium leave me gasping for air. Anderson’s Marxism and self-conscious Canadianism, Page’s vague and stunted expansion toward a larger social body, her Spenderian pity and self-pity-all these do not break open their centripetal, pastoral, half-empty worlds” (Wilson, Other Canadians and After 80)

Whatever the strengths of his critical role, one of his most notable achievements lay in the sheer quantity of the verse whose publication he made possible. During Wilson’s 1955-1968 tenure as successively, Board member, Poetry editor and Managing editor of Canadian Forum, no fewer than 1980 poems originally appeared in the magazine, which did not pay contributors. Poets appeared there because Wilson had made the Forum the agora for new poetry. As his role in the periodical expanded, so did the number of poems published, from an annual figure of 40 to 133 during Wilson’s final period as Managing Editor. For a journal ostensibly devoted to politics and the arts, this figure represents a formidable amount of attention to poetry and its circulation. Ill-natured and inaccurate as it may seem, yet critic Edmund Wilson’s generalized assessment of the poetry appearing in the Forum during this period-“The monthly Canadian Forum prints pages of poems . . . which might almost all be written by the same person” (91-92)-indicates that Edmund Wilson understood exactly where to look for a representative body of Canadian poetry in 1964. Whatever he found in the Forum reflected the taste and critical acuity of Milton Wilson. Small wonder then, that Irving Layton addressed Wilson as “High Priest of Trinity College” in a letter of February 1, 1959. Smaller wonder that Wilson countered almost instantly with a rejection of the label in a letter less than a week later (Feb. 6). Wilson’s correspondence denies him any remote, lofty role as a literary dictator. It shows him instead as a practical critic and hands-on fellow worker, intent on assisting the development of stronger craftsmanship and self-expression.

Nowhere does this editorial and critical engagement more fully express itself than in the extensive Layton-Wilson correspondence. Francis Mansbridge, editor of Layton’s selected letters, refers to Layton’s epistolary friendship with Wilson, but the term fails to express fully the relationship at play here (79). Layton’s many expressions of personal and critical respect-stressing his trust in Wilson’s critical judgment, his importance in the country’s literary scene, and the weight of his anthologies-indicate how Layton excepted Wilson from his normal distrust of academics and their reactions to his work (Layton, letters 1958, Apr.1959, Mar. 1959, 1962). Wilson’s professional esteem for Layton and his work is caught in a 1958 draft of a recommendation for a Canada Council Senior Arts fellowship:

I would say that few (if any) Canadian poets can equal the range and quality of Mr. Layton’s output over the past five or six years. Since this output shows no signs of stopping or deteriorating, and since the top of his achievements may well lie ahead, Canadian poetry is likely to benefit from the grant of a fellowship to Mr. Layton. (Wilson, Recommendation Letter)

We have, on the one hand, a poet who has no qualms asserting his qualifications for the Nobel Prize (Layton, letter 23 Oct. 1959). On the other, we observe a critic who could garner an award for his scholarship from the Keats-Shelley Society, and then forget to take the plaque home with him (Stoffman). On the one hand, we see a poet chafing at the influence exerted by academic critics over a literary culture providing little extra-academic institutional support for criticism. On the other, there is a reviewer who dismissed any professional basis for his work: “[Poetry reviewing is] probably the least professional literary pursuit in this country” (Glassco 56, 52) These differences, temperamental, professional and stylistic, failed to prevent Wilson and Layton from a mutual and fruitful critical engagement.

Spatial limitations do not allow me to illustrate this creative / critical relationship at great length, but I offer three relatively brief examples. Here is Wilson to Layton, Feb. 18 1958:

Your new conclusion to “Whatever Else Poetry is Freedom” [for its final version: Layton’s Collected Poems, 316-17] interests and half-satisfies me. The ending is certainly an inspiration, and ties a lot of things together: e.g., the aggrieved king, in addition to the Christ reference, also develops from the earlier King Canute, the resurrection-sun vs. shadow-vampire opposition comes naturally after the cluster of images in the previous stanza, the statue doesn’t merely kill the vampire but also suggests the bread (staff) of life, the resurrection of the body, which in turn belongs with the fleshy images earlier in the stanza, whose skin and glycerine certainly suggest an explosive mixture. Of course the clinching thing is the poetic (and musical) meaning of “stave”-as you suggest in your letter.

Wilson’s response to the poem before him however, extends beyond the explicative, and darts into the acutely critical:

I’m less certain of the first three lines, for a number of reasons: (a) the poet’s stilts swiveling in the socket provided by somebody’s fat navel is not a very happy image here-particularly as the guy would need two navels; and anyway “swivel” seems dragged in by the half-rhyme; (b) the emphatic tone of lines 2-4 seems a bit laboured and repetitious, perhaps out of key with the more economical and crisp tone of the rest of the poem.

It is in the next brief paragraph that Wilson explains what gives his response its particular flavour: “These were my initial reactions. I include them as from reader to reader, rather than from reader to poet.” This insistence on including himself within an undifferentiated community of readership and response indicates the “workshopping” nature of Wilson’s approach, and the responsive support he offered to the writer.

A second example, from a letter of September 29, 1958 presents another example of Wilson’s insistence on playing a role that is dialogic rather than any critical monologue delivered from on high. Again, the passage underlines the give-and-take of response and revision rather than oracular manifesto between Wilson and his correspondent:

Your two notes have sent me back to Young Girls Dancing [at Camp Lajoie (Collected Poems, 368)]. I must have been looking at it with one eye, because the perspective and focus look a lot better now than they did then. The Timon and Nietszche [sic.] glanced off me I guess, but there’s a lot more detail I should have seen. [allusions to other Layton poems follow] However, a letter isn’t a careful review, just a rapid impression, and likely to be pretty superficial much of the time. Anyway, I agree with you, it’s a much better poem than I first thought, although I still wonder if the conclusion is not a little too heavy and resonant for the tone of the poem-I mean the last two lines. However, they do prepare for the monumental qualities of the two poems that will follow in the series, and of course the contrast in tones does set the no-longer-great events in their proper place. (Wilson n. pag.)

Finally, could any writer demand from a reader a clearer and more economical appraisal of a complex and superb poem than Wilson’s response to “A Tall Man Executes a Jig” (Collected Poems 383-86)?

For your amusement, I offer one man’s reading of the poem. Before man can be properly resurrected, what’s needed is a resurrection of the serpent. To be sure, the tall man tries a resurrection of his own, fly blown as he is, but it won’t come, even if his head touches the sky. Or rather, it does come, but in an unexpected way with the appearance of the gutted serpent. Quite a comedown for the tempter-from the arrogant green flame of life to a coldeyed skinflint. I suppose this is the ultimate tragedy of modern life-even our devils are poor, prudent, shriveled things. So the tall man lies down with the serpent in fellowship of death-its rigidity is sexually pretty ironic-and only then, as man and snake tunnel back together to the bedrock of history, does the snake turn into skydragon being tempted by, worth standing erect for, capable of swallowing its own tail (coiled anyway) and thereby transforming all. But the ending is ambiguous. It’s positive no doubt, but how positive? What’s the final image left in our minds? A weary old man’s last erection or a risen Christ? I think you manage to suggest both and thus preserve your optimism and your pessimism at the same time. (Wilson, letter 11 Dec. 1961)

Layton’s reply to this exposition emphasized Wilson’s brilliance and his own willingness to amplify and pursue some of the leads furnished by Wilson (Layton, letter 16 Dec. 1961). The two communications, if you will, embody an ideal dialogue between writer and reader, with the object of attention, the poem, illuminated at every step.

Milton Wilson’s influence on the Canadian poetry of his time had a considerable institutional basis: the academy, journals and periodicals, and his various anthologies. Despite all these props, as his correspondence indicates, the foundation of his influence rested upon an earned response, his willingness to wrestle with the texts before him and to match his own critical responses with those of his correspondents. Here stands a model of reader and writer, poet and editor. Have we any present-day match for this?


  1. Disclosure: it was my good fortune to occupy the office next to Wilson’s for several years during the 60s, and our friendship extended beyond the strictly professional. Milton Wilson also sponsored my admission to the Canadian Forum editorial board. We knew the inside of each other’s residences. My authority for many of the interpretive matters raised here rests upon my role as colleague, friend, and co-worker during the 60s and early 70s.
  2. According to one of his sons, Wilson waited until post-retirement before offering courses concentrating on Canadian literature (Stoffman).
  3. While others may have held the title of Literary and/or Poetry editor at this time, everyone connected with the magazine took it for granted that no poem appeared there without Wilson’s tacit approval.
  4. Ironically, Wilson’s personal modesty prevented him for the most part from keeping copies of his own correspondence. This accounts for the fact that bulk of his letters to Layton resides in the Irving Layton fonds rather than at Trinity (Jassom). I extend my warmest thanks to Ms. Sylvia Jassom at the Trinity College archives and Ms. Wendy Knechtel at Concordia’s Vanier library for their assistance and support. Indeed, it was the display of many poets’ correspondence with Wilson that Ms. Jassom organized for his memorial service that led me to compose this note.
  5. Wilson’s letter of 15 March 1958 indicates how seriously Layton took his advice by altering some of his lines, and offers the gracious conclusion that even as the poem originally stood, “it was a fine poem even then.”

Works Cited

  • Glassco, John ed. English Poetry in Quebec: Proceedings of the Foster Poetry Conference. October 12-14, 1963. Montreal: McGill UP, 1965. Print.
  • Jassom, Sylvia. Personal Interview. 11 July 2013.
  • Layton, Irving. The Collected Poems of Irving Layton. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1971. Print.
  • Layton, Irving. The Collected Poems of Irving Layton. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1971. Print.
  • —. Letter to Milton Wilson. 1 Feb. 1959. Milton Wilson fonds. Trinity College archives, Toronto. File 2017 1-14.
  • —. Letter to Milton Wilson. 7 Mar. 1959. Milton Wilson fonds. Trinity College archives, Toronto. File 2017 1-14.
  • —. Letter to Milton Wilson. 18 Apr. 1959. Milton Wilson fonds. Trinity College archives, Toronto. File 2017 1-16.
  • —. Letter to Milton Wilson. 23 Oct. 1959. Milton Wilson fonds. Trinity College archives, Toronto. File 2017 1-14.
  • —. Letter to Milton Wilson. 16 Dec. 1961. Milton Wilson fonds. Trinity College archives, Toronto. File 2017 1-14.
  • —. Letter to Milton Wilson. 16 Dec. 1961. Milton Wilson fonds. Trinity College archives, Toronto. File 2017 1-14.
  • —. Wild Gooseberries: The Selected Letters of Irving Layton. Ed. Francis Mansbridge. Toronto: Macmillan of Canada, 1989. Print.
  • Stoffman, Judi. “Romantic Poetry Expert Milton Wilson ‘a truly civilized man’” Globe and Mail. 11 April, 2013. Web. 18 April 2014.
  • Wilson, Edmund. O Canada: An American’s Notes on Canadian Culture. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1963. Print.
  • Wilson, Milton. “Klein’s Drowned Poet.” Canadian Literature 6 (Autumn 1960): 5-17. Print.
  • —. Letter to Irving Layton. 18 Feb. 1958. Irving Layton fonds. Concordia University Libraries, Special Collections, Montreal.
  • —. Letter to Irving Layton. 23 Feb. 1958. Irving Layton fonds. Concordia University Libraries, Special Collections, Montreal.
  • —. Letter to Irving Layton. 6 Mar. 1958. Irving Layton fonds. Concordia University Libraries, Special Collections, Montreal.
  • —. Letter to Irving Layton. 29 Sept. 1958. Irving Layton fonds. Concordia University Libraries, Special Collections, Montreal.
  • —. Letter to Irving Layton. 6 Feb. 1959. Irving Layton fonds. Concordia University Libraries, Special Collections, Montreal.
  • —. “Other Canadians and After.”Tamarack Review 9 (Autumn 1958): 77-92. Print.
  • —. “Poet without A Muse.” Canadian Literature 30 (Autumn 1966): 14-20. Print.
  • —. Poetry of Mid-Century, 1940-1960. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1964. Print.
  • —. Poets Between the Wars: E.J. Pratt, F.R. Scott, A.J.M. Smith, Dorothy Livesay, A.M. Klein. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1969. Print.
  • —. “Recent Canadian Verse,” Queen’s Quarterly 66 (Summer 1959). 269-73. Print.
  • —. Recommendation Letter for a Canada Council Senior Arts Fellowship. Draft. 30 Nov. 1958. Milton Wilson fonds. Trinity College archives, Toronto. File 2017 1-16.

Please note that works on the Canadian Literature website may not be the final versions as they appear in the journal, as additional editing may take place between the web and print versions. If you are quoting reviews, articles, and/or poems from the Canadian Literature website, please indicate the date of access.