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Leonard Cohen called Milton Wilson ‘the best critical mind in the country.’ (Trinity College Archives)
Leonard Cohen called Milton Wilson ‘the best critical mind in the country.’ (Trinity College Archives)

Obituary

Romantic poetry expert Milton Wilson ‘a truly civilized man’ Add to ...

When the colleges that make up the University of Toronto were required in 1975 to combine their separate English departments into one, the result was a mega-department with 150 full-time members – the largest English department in any Canadian university.

In changes intended to eliminate overlaps, long-standing rivalries between colleges died hard and the moves were widely resented. Milton Wilson, a literary scholar at Trinity College, was thought by his colleagues to be so fair-minded and wise that this fractious group chose him as the only possible person to chair the amalgamated department, which he did for the next 10 years.

Some referred to him as “the genial giant” – a comment on both his 6-foot-2 frame and his moral stature.

Prof. Wilson, authority on the Romantic period, an editor for 14 years of Canadian Forum, piano player, canny negotiator, mentor to Canadian poets, a truly civilized man, died in Toronto on March 22, after a stroke at the age of 90.

“It was Milton Wilson's great diplomatic skill that enabled the new department to work at all,” recalled John Baird, a retired English professor who lived through the upheaval. “Slowly but surely he persuaded a severely factionalized department to pull together. Some other departments that were thriving then have stumbled badly (the Sanskrit department, largest in the world outside India in the ’70s, has vanished altogether), but English held together.”

He hired women at a time when that was a rarity. Jill Levenson, who recently retired as an English prof at Trinity, remembers her job interview in 1967 at which Prof. Wilson asked only gender-blind questions about her professional qualifications and nothing about her personal life.

When Milton Wilson began his academic career after the war, there were no courses devoted to Canadian literature at U of T, but this changed markedly, with his encouragement. He supervised many doctoral candidates who chose to specialize in Canadian literature, who then went on to teach courses in it. He edited Canadian poetry anthologies including Poetry of Mid-Century, 1940-1960 (1964), and Poets Between the Wars (1967).

“His anthologies stood up; I used them as a student and later as a teacher,” says John O’Connor, professor at St. Michael’s College, whose thesis on Prairie literature in English and French had been supervised by Prof. Wilson.

When Leonard Cohen was asked by publisher McClelland & Stewart for permission to use his poems in an anthology, he replied in a letter: “Milton Wilson is the best critical mind in the country. I would be delighted to be in anything he puts together.”

Milton Wilson was born in Toronto on Feb. 23, 1923 to Garnett and Myrtle Wilson, their only child. Well before he entered school, he learned to read sitting on the knees of his paternal grandfather, who lived with the family. His father was a stock-

broker who lost his money and his job in the crash of 1929; his parents divorced soon after.

From the age of 8 until high school graduation, he attended St. Andrew’s College, a private boarding school for boys in Aurora, Ont., where he was such a quick learner that he was skipped ahead two grades. Being the youngest in his year, he tried to find ways to impress the older boys. According to his son Gregory, he did this by becoming a storyteller, producing long sequences of tales, and by rarely losing at ping pong or bowling. He was editor of the yearbook, acted in plays and could play anything on the piano by ear.

Summers were spent at a camp in Temagami, where he was famous for making up his own musical shows and comedy sketches.

He entered U of T, planning to study mathematics, at which he excelled, but switched to English. When the Second World War intervened, he joined the navy and was assigned to a minesweeper out of St. John’s.

When he returned to Toronto after the war, friends introduced him to an attractive young woman named Joanna Crawford; they married in 1947 and went on to raise six children together.

“He was supposedly very good at off-colour limericks in the navy, but we never heard them,” says Gregory. “The kind of joke he made up for us was, ‘Why do goalies wear masks?’ ‘Because they don’t want to lose their face off.’”

“The university gave all the returning young men a BA even if they had not finished their courses,” Joanna Wilson recalled. “Milton did only two years as an undergraduate but he got his BA.”

Prof. Wilson next enrolled in a master’s program, during which he encountered an extraordinary teacher: Arthur Barker. He was, says his son, influenced by Prof. Barker’s analysis and his critical style, which went against the flow of the prevailing formalist criticism propounded by T.S. Eliot.

When Prof. Wilson went on to Columbia University in New York for his doctorate, he incorporated his mentor’s methods in his analysis of Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound, published in 1959 as Shelley's Later Poetry: a Study of His Prophetic Imagination. In 1949, even before the thesis was finished, Prof. Barker hired his former student to teach at Trinity.

“The Romantics were out of fashion then,” recalled Dennis Duffy, who had been a Trinity colleague. “Eliot and his American representative, Allen Tate [the Southern poet, critic and white supremacist] loathed them, and especially scorned Shelley. But they appealed to Mr. Wilson’s

idealism, his devotion, like Northop Frye’s, to the imagination. There was always a strong Romantic interest at U of T.”

It was Prof. Frye who roped Prof. Wilson into working for the Canadian Forum when the former, then the Forum’s editor, casually asked him to review a new book about the U.S. poet Edward Arlington Robinson; Prof. Wilson was still an MA student. Many other reviews followed, including music reviews sent from New York while he was at Columbia.

“Do you know how he reviewed new recordings? He listened to them in the soundproof booths of record shops,” recalls Jill Levenson. “He had no phonograph.”

The Canadian Forum, which ceased publication in 2000, began at the U of T 80 years earlier and was unique in combining poetry and fiction with political and social commentary. Although its circulation was tiny and its writers and editors unpaid, it punched above its weight in defining Canadian culture for a scattered and underpopulated country.

Between 1954 and 1968, Prof. Wilson followed in Prof. Frye’s footsteps as editor of the Forum. The poets he made welcome in its pages alongside political scientists and historians included Margaret Avison, Dorothy Livesay, Milton Acorn, Al Purdy, Margaret Atwood, Irving Layton, P.K. Page and Jay Macpherson (his former doctoral student.) He maintained a voluminous correspondence with them and offered them astute advice about how to make their poems sharper.

“I think it would not be a stretch to say that he was an important figure in the 1950s and 1960s renaissance of Canadian literature,” says Sam Solecki, a recently retired English professor at St. Michael’s College, who was (a generation later) was himself an editor of the Canadian Forum.

He recalls some conversations with Prof. Wilson about the Forum’s earlier days. What was remarkable was “how casual it all was, a sort of mom-and-pop show run by academics and artists and political people whose left and leftish cultural and political and social views overlapped. When you read those issues you get the impression that this is an off-shoot of English Fabianism and the Canadian CCF.”

In later years, Prof. Wilson received many tributes, including an honorary degree from Trinity College in 1992 and membership in the Royal Society of Canada. But he was too modest to take awards seriously. When the Shelley/Keats Society gave him a prize, he forgot to take the plaque home with him. He retired at 65, but continued to teach for five more years as emeritus professor.

“They were his most enjoyable years of teaching. He actually got to teach Canadian literature in small groups,” says his son.

In 2006, he fell while running for a bus and soon after moved with Joanna into a retirement residence, surrounded by his beloved books, which he could no longer read. Although his intellect was damaged by age, he lost none of his musical skills. He played the piano for the residents three times a week and could fill any request.

He leaves his wife, Joanna, children Barbara, Katharine, Gregory, Victoria, Timothy and Anthony; by 16 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

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