Isabella Valancy Crawford Essay - Critical Essays

Crawford, Isabella Valancy


Isabella Valancy Crawford 1850-1887

Irish-born Canadian poet, novelist, short story writer, and fairy tale writer.

Crawford published one book of poetry in her short lifetime, Old Spookses' Pass, Malcolm's Katie, and Other Poems (1884), in addition to numerous pieces in magazines and newspapers. Writing primarily as a means of supporting herself and her family, Crawford penned poetry and prose that emphasize the importance of nature and romance, and employ the tension of opposites in symbolism and imagery. Her work features social criticism and an emerging Canadian nationalism. Critics highlight the influence of contemporary poets such as Alfred, Lord Tennyson on Crawford's work, and discuss how her interest in mythology impacted her writing. Relatively unknown during her life, Crawford is now generally regarded as a substantial figure in Canadian literature.

Biographical Information

Scholars debate the details of Crawford's early life, including her date of birth, but it is generally agreed that Crawford was born in December, 1850, in Dublin, Ireland, to Dr. Stephen Dennis and Sydney Scott Crawford. Of at least 12 children born to the couple, only Crawford and a younger brother survived to adulthood. Her father, having difficulty supporting his family, decided to emigrate to North America in the early 1850s. The Crawfords settled in Paisley, Ontario, Canada by 1857.

In Paisley, the Crawford family owned a plot of land and were supported by Dr. Crawford, who was an alcoholic with unreliable medical credentials, and thus ran an ill-esteemed practice. For three years, Crawford and two younger siblings were taught at home. There, she read classical Greek literature and Dante, while also learning French, and Latin, music and needlepoint. Crawford held nature in high esteem and had a sentimental appreciation for Native Americans in the area, both of which would later play significant roles in her writing. Because Dr. Crawford's practice was failing, he planned to return with the family to Ireland in the early 1860s. However, he was later convinced to move to North Douro, Ontario, and become the local doctor in 1862. North Douro was a setting that further nurtured Crawford's interests in music and nature, and is probably where she began writing the fairy tales that would later comprise Fairy Tales of Isabella Valancy Crawford (1972). The Crawford family continued to struggle, and by 1869 moved to Peterborough. By the early 1870s, Crawford was writing short stories and poems, winning competitions, and publishing her work to help support her impoverished family.

Crawford's literary activities increased in 1875 when her father and beloved younger sister died, and she became the sole provider for herself and her mother. For four years Crawford published solely in American publications such as The Popular Monthly and Frank Leslie's Illustrated Weekly Newspaper because they were more lucrative than Canadian magazines. Although Crawford became more withdrawn and continued to struggle financially, her writing remained imaginative and optimistic.

In 1876, Crawford and her mother moved to Toronto where they lived in boardinghouses. By 1879, Crawford's work appeared again in Canadian journals such as the Toronto Globe and the Toronto Evening Telegram. She also published short stories and novels in serials. In 1884, hoping to generate income and establish her status as a writer, Crawford self-published a collection of poems, Old Spookses' Pass, Malcolm's Katie, and Other Poems. While favorably reviewed, the volume did not sell. Undaunted by dismal sales, Crawford published less but continued work on a novel and a possible second book of poems. One of the last works she published in her lifetime was the poem “The Rose of a Nation's Thanks” (1885), which brought her public recognition. Reprinted on February 7, 1887, in the Telegram, the verse commemorates the return of soldiers to Toronto from the battle of Batoche. Five days later, on February 12, 1887, Crawford died of heart failure. Her works continued to be collected and published in various volumes after her death.

Major Works

The only volume of poetry to appear during her lifetime was the self-published Old Spookses' Pass, Malcolm's Katie, and Other Poems. The collection garnered optimistic reviews in America and England, but sold sparingly in Canada. The poem that has attracted the most critical attention from this collection is “Malcolm's Katie.” The plot focuses on the romantic troubles of Katie whose father Malcolm tries to prevent her from marrying her boyfriend, Max. Katie also has an evil admirer, Alfred, who tries to kill both Katie and Max. Katie eventually marries Max, Alfred is reformed, and Katie and Max name their son after him. The narrative poem focuses on love's triumph over darkness and the relationship between man and nature. Crawford includes in the poem a complex use of natural imagery.

Natural imagery plays a similar role in another narrative poem about crossed lovers, “Gisli the Chieftain.” Gisli is a hero who is to marry Brynhild, a swan-maiden, but complications result because of a phantom rival and the Goddess Lada. Crawford again pits good versus evil, love and light versus darkness. Mythology being a tenet of her poetry, this poem features Norse and Russian Lore. A shorter poem of note in the collection is “The Canoe” (also known as “Said the Canoe”). The plot of the poem focuses on two hunters who are getting their evening campsite together, and is written primarily from the point of view of their vessel, the canoe. Like the other poems, there are tensions in the binary imageries: love and the hunt, death and life, man and nature.

Well received by critics and the general public, “The Rose of a Nation's Thanks” was written in 1885 when Canadian troops returned to Toronto from the battle of Batoche. The poem was reprinted in the Telegram several times at the request of patrons. Stories written for newspapers and those that were unpublished were collected in Selected Stories (1975). Crawford's unpublished fairy tales appear in Fairy Tales (1977); the stories feature many elements found in her later works, including descriptions of nature and the use of binary oppositions in her symbolism and imagery. In 1977, another of her previously unpublished works was printed, the unfinished narrative poem, Hugh and Ion (also known as “The Hunters Twain”). The story focuses on the philosophical discussions and disagreements between the title characters. Ion, the intellectual, is pessimistic, while Hugh, the painter, is more hopeful. The poem contains social criticism, sexual metaphors, and more tension between opposites, including city versus country. The Halton Boys, a serialized novel, was published in 1979. Typical of Crawford's work written for serials, the story focuses on twin brothers separated at birth—one raised in wealth and privilege, the other in poverty—who later meet. Again the tension between opposites, in this case light and darkness, plays a prominent role symbolically and thematically.

Critical Reception

Crawford's Old Spookses' Pass, Malcolm's Katie, and Other Poems, was reviewed favorably by critics at the time of publication. Other works published in newspapers, including serialized novels, were similarly regarded. Despite this, Crawford was relatively unknown in her lifetime. However, one person who sent congratulations to Crawford on the publication of her poetry volume was Alfred, Lord Tennyson, who many critics regard as a primary influence on her poems. Others disagree and instead site the impact of other poets of the time, as well as the importance of mythology in her work.

Public and critical interest increased after Crawford's death, with a large amount of criticism appearing in the 1970s. Many modern critics regard Old Spookses' Pass, Malcolm's Katie, and Other Poems as inconsistent, with some brilliant and other less-notable poems. “Malcolm's Katie” receives the bulk of critical attention, though it is controversial and there are many interpretations of the imagery. Some critics interpret the poem as an early feminist work and/or an ironic, complex poem, while others regard it as problematic with one-dimensional characters. While some critics see Tennyson's influence, others believe that Crawford was reacting to other sources like Charles Gounod's Mireille, an opera. Originally viewed as an unknowingly gifted poet, critics have reevaluated Crawford as an intellectual who carefully crafted her verse and whose work accurately reflects nineteenth-century Canadian life.

Principal Works

Old Spookses' Pass, Malcolm's Katie, and Other Poems (poetry) 1884

The Little Bacchante; or, Some Black Sheep (novel) 1886; published serially in newspaper Toronto Globe

The Collected Poems of Isabella Valancy Crawford (poetry) 1905

Collected Poems: Isabella Valancy Crawford (poetry) 1972

Selected Short Stories of Isabella Valancy Crawford (short stories) 1975

Fairy Tales of Isabella Valancy Crawford (fairy tales) 1977

Hugh and Ion (poetry) 1977

*The Halton Boys (novel) 1979

*This novel was written between 1876 and 1879.


Kenneth J. Hughes and Birk Sproxton (essay date summer 1975)

SOURCE: Hughes, Kenneth J., and Birk Sproxton. “‘Malcolm's Katie’: Images and Songs.” Canadian Literature, no. 55 (summer 1975): 55-64.

[In the following essay, Hughes and Sproxton argue that “Malcolm's Katie” consists of several intertwined love stories.]

Isabella Valancy Crawford's “Malcolm's Katie,” as we learn from the sub-title, is a love story. But even the most cursory reading reveals that this is not simply the story of love between a man and a woman. “Malcolm's Katie” in fact consists of a series of interrelated love stories. In addition to the story of the love of Max and Katie, we have the story of Malcolm's love for his daughter, the...

(The entire section is 4260 words.)

Robin Mathews (essay date winter 1977)

SOURCE: Mathews, Robin. “‘Malcolm's Katie’: Love, Wealth, and Nation Building.” Studies in Canadian Literature 2, no. 2 (winter 1977): 49-60.

[In the following essay, Mathews studies the various themes that comprise “Malcolm's Katie.”]

Isabella Valancy Crawford's major poem “Malcolm's Katie,” a central work in the English Canadian literary tradition, deals with love, regeneration, wealth, and nation building. The poem, along with her others, has often been treated as the production of a solitary genius working largely outside the ideas of her time and tradition. Readers have seen Crawford as unique or eccentric because “Malcolm's Katie,” unlike...

(The entire section is 5960 words.)

Catherine Sheldrick Ross (essay date spring/summer 1978)

SOURCE: Ross, Catherine Sheldrick. “Isabella Valancy Crawford's ‘Gisli the Chieftain.’” Canadian Poetry: Studies, Documents, Reviews, no. 2 (spring/summer 1978): 28-37.

[In the following essay, Ross analyzes “Gisli the Chieftain,” arguing that the poem best embodies Crawford's use of the “solar myth” and outlining the poem's mythological sources.]

The structural core of all Isabella Valancy Crawford's work is romance. At fourteen she was writing fairy tales already containing the elements of design that she was to elaborate in her later fiction and poetry. Her prose romances repeatedly use motifs of dark and fair heroines; a descent into a world of...

(The entire section is 4905 words.)

James F. Johnson (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: Johnson, James F. “‘Malcolm's Katie’ and Hugh and Ion: Crawford's Changing Narrative Vision.” Canadian Poetry: Studies, Documents, Reviews, no. 3 (1978): 56-61.

[In the following essay, Johnson compares the early “Malcolm's Katie” with the unfinished Hugh and Ion.]

The poetry of Isabella Valancy Crawford has not gone completely unadmired since her death in 1887, though it has never been elevated to the stature of the work of Lampman and Roberts. Students of Canadian poetry, throughout this century, have generally been aware of a handful of lyrics and of the narrative poem “Malcolm's Katie,” or at least of excerpts from this long work....

(The entire section is 2749 words.)

John Ower (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: Ower, John. “Isabella Valancy Crawford and ‘The Fleshly School of Poetry’.” Studies in Scottish Literature 13, (1978): 275-81.

[In the following essay, Ower argues that “The Lily Bed” is an ironic reaction to the essay “The Fleshly School of Poetry: Mr. D. G. Rossetti” by Robert Buchanan.]

The sexual symbolism in “The Lily Bed,” one of the best-known poems by the Canadian writer Isabella Valancy Crawford (1850-1887), has been noted by several of the writer's more recent critics. Thus, James Reaney suggests that the thrusting of a “cedar paddle, scented, red” into a bed of water lilies is a figure that “Solomon might have borrowed for...

(The entire section is 1989 words.)

John Ower (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: Ower, John. “Crawford and the Penetrating Weapon.” In The Crawford Symposium, edited by Frank M. Tierney, pp. 33-47. Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 1979.

[In the following essay, originally presented at the fifth Symposium of the University of Ottawa Symposia series in 1978, Ower analyzes Crawford's use of the “piercing weapon” as a phallic symbol in her poetry.]

In his brilliant pioneering study of Crawford's poetry, James Reaney stresses the architectonic quality of her imagination.1 He indicates how her work exhibits a visionary system that is in turn expressed through a “syntax” of repeated and modulated images. While Reaney has...

(The entire section is 6595 words.)

Fred Cogswell (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: Cogswell, Fred. “Feminism in Isabella Valancy Crawford's ‘Said the Canoe.’” In The Crawford Symposium, edited by Frank M. Tierney, pp. 79-85. Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 1979.

[In the following essay, originally presented at the fifth Symposium of the University of Ottawa Symposia series in 1978, Cogswell offers an analysis of “Said the Canoe,” which he argues is a feminist response to Tennyson's The Princess.]

The thesis which I put forward below is highly speculative. It is, however, speculative in the light of certain demonstrable factors which, taken together, make the speculation more than idle exercise. These factors are, firstly, my...

(The entire section is 3132 words.)

Barbara Godard (essay date winter 1979)

SOURCE: Godard, Barbara. “Crawford's Fairy Tales.” Studies in Canadian Literature 4, no. 1 (winter 1979): 109-35.

[In the following essay, Godard examines the structure and style of Crawford's fairy tales.]

Today, we sometimes forget that fairy tales were not always the exclusive domain of childhood. Their remote origins lie in the folk tradition, but in the last three centuries they have become part of popular literature. Recognition of this fact has often led readers to identify this relatively primitive art form, “the childhood of art,” with “the art of childhood.” In particular, this confusion gained ground in the nineteenth century when, between 1840...

(The entire section is 9702 words.)

Catherine Sheldrick Ross (essay date summer 1979)

SOURCE: Ross, Catherine Sheldrick. “I. V. Crawford's Prose Fiction.” Canadian Literature, no. 81 (summer 1979): 47-58.

[In the following essay, Ross analyzes Crawford's fiction, primarily stories written for magazines and incomplete works.]

Crawford's literary reputation will be based, as she expected it would, upon her poetry and especially upon her verse narratives. She undoubtedly saw herself as a poet who must interrupt her real work long enough to write popular romances for money. There is, nevertheless, a continuity in her work that gives the prose its special interest. In the poetry and prose alike, her characteristic mode of perception is romance....

(The entire section is 5349 words.)

Germaine Warkentin (essay date winter 1985)

SOURCE: Warkentin, Germaine. “The Problem of Crawford's Style.” Canadian Literature, no. 107 (winter 1985): 20-32.

[In the following essay, Warkentin examines stylistic contradictions in Crawford's poetry.]

Isabella Valancy Crawford is from one point of view a figure easily stereotyped. Though he wisely rejected any such pitfall, Northrop Frye nevertheless acknowledged that she was “an intelligent and industrious female songbird of the kind who filled so many anthologies in the last century.” But Frye also called her “the most remarkable mythopoeic imagination in Canadian poetry,”1 and (although he himself has written nothing extended on...

(The entire section is 5369 words.)

Mary Joy MacDonald (essay date fall/winter 1988)

SOURCE: MacDonald, Mary Joy. “Inglorious Battles: People and Power in Crawford's ‘Malcolm's Katie’.” Canadian Poetry: Studies, Documents, Reviews, no. 23 (fall/winter 1988): 31-46.

[In the following essay, MacDonald reveals issues of power and gender in “Malcolm's Katie.”]

Critics of Isabella Valancy Crawford's “Malcolm's Katie: A Love Story” have tended to concentrate attention on certain problems of the poem, while overlooking others which may ultimately prove to be of equal significance. An important instance of this pattern is that, while most critics recognize spiritual growth in Max and Alfred, and a few accord Alfred a partially constructive...

(The entire section is 7846 words.)

Robert Alan Burns (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: Burns, Robert Alan. “The Poet in Her Time: Isabella Valancy Crawford's Social, Economic, and Political Views.” Studies in Canadian Literature 14, no. 1 (1989): 30-53.

[In the following essay, Burns discusses the impact that Crawford's gender had on her writing, her reaction to events and social norms of the day, and analyzes related poems.]

After a lifetime of solitary effort to achieve recognition as a poet, Isabella Valancy Crawford felt understandable disappointment and bitterness toward the male-dominated editorship of literary periodicals in Canada. She expressed these emotions in a letter to Arcturus, a newly established literary journal, which...

(The entire section is 8278 words.)

Robert Alan Burns (essay date winter 1995)

SOURCE: Burns, Robert Alan. “Crawford, Davin, and Riel: Text and Intertext in Hugh and Ion.Canadian Poetry: Studies, Documents, Reviews, no. 37 (winter 1995): 62-78.

[In the following essay, Burns looks at Crawford's writings in terms of intertextuality and her use of parody of other (primarily male) writers, focusing on Hugh and Ion and “Malcolm's Katie.”]

Renata R. Mautner Wasserman has commented recently that intertextuality occurs “when literary texts connect with other literary texts, with nonliterary texts, and with broadly conceived cultural contexts.” Wasserman continues by pointing out that intertextuality “can be conscious, as a...

(The entire section is 6055 words.)

Further Reading


Martin, Mary F. “The Short Life of Isabella Valancy Crawford.” Dalhousie Review 52 (1972): 390-400.

Offers a brief overview of Crawford's life.


Burns, Robert Alan. “Crawford and Gounod: Ambiguity and Irony in ‘Malcolm's Katie.’” Canadian Poetry: Studies, Documents, Reviews, no. 15 (fall-winter 1984): 1-30.

Argues that Gounod's opera Mireille was a primary inspiration for “Malcolm's Katie.”

Burns, Robert Alan. “Isabella Valancy Crawford's Poetic Technique.” Studies in Canadian Literature, 10, no. 1-2 (winter 1985):...

(The entire section is 235 words.)