James Alexander Tucker Biography (1872 – 1903)
James Alexander Tucker was born in Owen Sound, Ontario, on the 22nd day of December, 1872. He was descended of that sturdy pioneer stock through which, as may so often be seen in this Dominion of ours, a passionate love for outward freedom and largeness of material life is transfused into an equally passionate love of liberty for those less tangible things of the mind and spirit.
The bending of the twig, in even his earliest youth, showed clearly enough just how the ultimate tree of destiny was to be inclined. At the age of three, before he had so much as mastered the alphabet, he might be called a scribe, for once a week he issued to his family circle a newspaper made up of lines and dots and atavistic little drawings. This in time gave place to a carefully printed weekly, a compact sheet some five inches square, into which crept not infrequent echoes of the tears and laughter, the tiny comedies and the calamities, making up all childhood. This odd little sheet was tenaciously circulated among friends and relatives for years ; and during his subsequent school-days he was responsible for a number of more ambitious journalistic ventures, culminating, after his entrance into the Owen Sound Collegiate Institute, in the establishment of “ The Auditorium ” which, it is perhaps worthy of note, still remains the organ of the students’ literary society in that institution.
Often in those lives predestined to be brief is crowded a compensating capability for continuous and feverish action. The life of James Alexander Tucker, like that of other poets who in the very April of their days bade farewell to the world, is still another instance of the operation of this tendency. He was a worker always, a joyous, indefatigable worker. With all the time and thought and care lavished on his adolescent journalism, he still succeeded in taking a high stand in his school work. When he was matriculated, with honors, from the Owen Sound Collegiate Institute, and became an undergraduate of the University of Toronto, the sphere of his literary activities widened, and an opportunity for sustained and more serious effort presented itself ; but never did he allow the stress of his purely creative work, which was both a delight and a necessity to him, to interfere with his academic obligations.
Although, as a youth, he was touched with that reticence and shyness which is both the evidence and the outcome of the more imaginative and sensitive nature, he had never allowed any shadow of this temperamental timidity to darken his ardent and resolute spirit. He was, indeed, the possessor of that higher and better courage which is born of the union of a delicate and painstaking scrupulosity with a keenly aggressive and almost inflexible will. He was ever more of the Hamlet than the Laertes, gentle, lovable, loyal to the uttermost, with at times a touch of intellectual melancholy about him ; yet even to the end, when entering the very shadow of the Valley, a valiant and outspoken lover of life. To those of his friends who wandered from the straight and narrow path of faith he seemed surprisingly orthodox. For with all his vigor and inquisitiveness of mind, his natural bent was strongly conservative. His entire career, to me, always seemed strangely parallel with that of Arthur Hugh Clough — with the marked difference that where one went on questioning to the end, the other sought consolation in revealed faith and found strength in the religion of his fathers.
It was this seriousness of mind and strength of conviction, even above that indefinite and all-but-in- describable atmosphere of sweetness and light dwelling about the rapt young poet, which attracted to James Alexander Tucker the more serious minds of his university class.
Within the halls of every college, I take it, however materialistic or bacchanalian its outward tendency, there practically always exists a select coterie of finer undergraduate spirits, looking out on life more earnestly and more questioningly, more wistfully and more passionately seeking that inner and older truth which is not to be found in the class-books, draining from pure and congenial fellowship that rarer wine so often denied the noisier apostles of what I might call modern collegiate epicureanism.
It was our young poet’s privilege to be the centre of such a coterie at the University of Toronto. Although neither avid of applause nor audacious of action, he was at once recognized as a leader of student life and thought, and readily and spontaneously those different honors at the disposal of his classmates were thrust upon him. His most significant and noteworthy election was that to the editorship of ’ Varsity , the long- established and jealously maintained weekly paper of the student body. It was while filling this position with such brilliant success that the young poet, with his passionate love of freedom, with his hatred of oppression, and his uncompromising ideality, came into collision with constituted authority.
It is a decade now since James Alexander Tucker fought his courageously determined fight for liberty of undergraduate speech and activity. It would be needless and out of place here to enlarge on his sustained and self-sacrificing opposition to authority tyrannically exercised. Momentous as the episode seemed to the student-body, which joined in open and unanimous revolt against those powers which oppressed them, the movement which Mr. Tucker headed is here worthy of consideration more as an evidence of one unselfish man’s heroic and disinterested devotion to Abstract Right, and as a token of that scrupulous allegiance to a just cause, however hopeless and forlorn, which marks the strong mind as the leader of the weak. It is, at best, a sad and painful chapter in the history of those halls which so many of us love, or have loved. It is a sad and painful chapter, — and yet it is far from being a record of defeat. For out of the ashes of such failures rises the more triumphant and the more enduring victory.
“ Two only in God’s universe —
Two wretched beings, hateful base ! —
The Stars have power to grind and curse,
The Years have warrant to disgrace : —
He who in hate shouts ‘Crucify !’
And he who, knowing well the Right,
Stands by, nor draws his sword to fight,
Because his vile heart fears to die.”
It is true that the young poet left the walls that should have been proud to shield him, preferring expulsion to the sacrifice of a righteous conviction. But his going was of such a character that his migration to Leland Stanford University partook, indeed, of the nature of a justly won triumph, — not of the ignominy of a spiritual defeat. Even the college from which he went, as was the case after the expulsion of Shelley from Oxford, in time learned to regret, tacitly if not openly, the measures which the obduracy of offended dignity had prompted.
After Mr. Tucker’s death, indeed, a number of his most vigorous professorial opponents wrote poignantly significant letters, expressing their personal admiration for the purity and strength of his character and the undeviating lofty disinterestedness of his conduct
After being graduated from Leland Stanford University, James Alexander Tucker, who all through his busy collegiate career had supported himself with his pen, naturally enough turned to the profession of letters for a livelihood. Since he chose to remain in the land of his birth, scorning the wider scope and the noisier and readier recognition of the alien market, he at once identified himself with Canadian journalism. Here again, as during his earlier college course, his clearness of thought and firmness of conviction enabled him to leave a marked influence on even the the busy currents of public opinion. His scholarly and studious editorials were copiously quoted and copied ; the different periodicals with which he was associated took on a personality and vigor all their own. Indeed, so successful and so engrossing did this journalistic work become that it remains a matter of regret that the leisured poet for a time stood in danger of being lost in the busy writer of the day. Already, in the spring of the year 1899, he had married Etta B. Graham, of Owen Sound, the friend and playmate of his ardent boyhood days. It was a happy and enriching union, marked by the birth of one child, a daughter. But with its joys and solaces the newer order of things brought with it its newer preoccupations and responsibilities. His note of song became all too rare. Pure and lofty as was his verse in quality, grim circumstance sternly limited its quantity. The exactions of the newspaper office ordained that lyric-writing should become an avocation of leisure, and not a vocation of self-absorbing idleness.
Yet into this verse has flowered the essential spirit of the young poet as he was and as he lived — only, as Merck once said of Goethe, James Alexander Tucker always stood and always will remain greater than anything he wrote. He made life itself fully and deeply harmonious. He attuned existence to that timeless music which falls from the lips of Faith and Hope and Love.
Indescribably moving and tragic as were the circumstances of that last long illness to which in the end he was forced to bow — an illness, too, of such a nature that as the cruse of the body became frailer the flame of the mind grew stronger — there was no sign, from first to last, of muffled self-pity or attitudinizing. He accepted his fate silently and valiantly, even on the day of his death finding much pleasure and consolation in a volume of Matthew Arnold’s poetry, doubtless thinking of that Thyrsis for whom other minds had mourned. Yet with all this tenacious alertness of mind he had neither the vanity nor the inclination of the trained hand (to be seen even in a Robert Louis Stevenson) to toy with the dark folds of his adversity. Both his grief and his resignation seemed tighter-lipped than that of Stevenson. It was a stoic and studious calm, too deep for words and artistry.
And this the chosen few who knew and loved him wistfully remembered, and at least partly understood, when, on the twenty-second day of December, precisely thirty-two years after the date of his birth, all that was mortal returned to the dust whence it came, and those scattered songs which were but echoes from the fuller symphony of his perfect life, were left to the careless ears of a seemingly uncomprehending world. And yet he is not dead ; nor will he altogether die. For, as once sang that master-spirit whom he so loved —
“ He has outsoared the shadow of our night ;
Envy and calumny, and hate and pain,
And that unrest which men miscall delight,
Can touch him not and torture not again
Peace, peace ! he is not dead, he doth not sleep —
He hath awakened from the dream of life.”
Biographical notes on James Alexander Tucker by Arthur Stringer, published in Tucker’s Poems. Toronto: Briggs, 1904.
See Tucker’s poem Lundy’s Lane