The Cheesiest Poet of All

Originally published as a “Historicist” column on Torontoist on April 2, 2011. Cheese poets don’t get enough credit in this world…but, seriously, this was a fun column to work on. If you catch me in a good mood, I’ll happily recite “Ode on the Mammoth Cheese.”

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Portrait of James McIntyre, Poems of James McIntyre (Ingersoll: Ingersoll Chronicle, 1889).

It’s a safe bet to declare that James McIntyre was the cheesiest poet of all time. And not just because his verse is, shall we say, not among the most spectacular examples of the poetic form written during the 19th century. No, McIntyre’s poetry was cheesy due to one of its frequent subjects: cheese. As the Ingersoll-based bard noted in the preface to the “Dairy and Cheese Odes” section of Poems of James McIntyre, “as cheese making first began in this county and it has already become the chief industry of many counties, it is no insignificant theme.” Of the verses he dedicated to cheese, perhaps the best known, or most mocked, is an ode to a seven thousand pound wheel of pressed curd that Torontonians observed with amused awe during the Provincial Exhibition of 1866.

We encourage you to indulge in your favourite fromage while reading “Ode on the Mammoth Cheese.” For added enjoyment, read the following lines aloud in your finest Scottish accent:

We have seen thee, queen of cheese,
Lying quietly at your ease,
Gently fanned by evening breeze,
Thy fair form no flies dare seize.
All gaily dressed soon you’ll go
To the great Provincial show,
To be admired by many a beau
In the city of Toronto.
Cows numerous as a swarm of bees,
Or as the leaves upon the trees,
It did require to make thee please.
And stand unrivalled, queen of cheese.
May you not receive a scar as
We have heard that Mr. Harris
Intends to to send you off as far as
The great world’s show at Paris.
Of the youth beware of these,
For some of them might rudely squeeze
And bite your cheek, then songs or glees
We could not sing, oh! queen of cheese.
We’rt thou suspended from balloon,
You’d cast a shade even at noon,
Folks would think it was the moon
About to fall and crush them soon.

We’re unaware of any reports of anyone physically crushed by the mammoth cheese while it was showcased on both sides of the Atlantic during 1866 and 1867, though there were rumours that several ports in England refused to accept it due to the crushing smell caused by lack of refrigeration.

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Mammoth Cheese made at Ingersoll, Canada West, 1866. Library and Archives Canada, R7244-0-0-E.

The genesis of the mammoth cheese was in Oxford County, where the dairy industry experienced rapid growth during the mid-19th century. By 1866, the county’s major cheese producers looked for new markets to sell their products and saw an opportunity when the aftermath of the Civil War in the United States hampered American exports of cheese to England. An attention-grabber to impress the English was required, so work began on a massive wheel of cheese at James Harris’s factory south of Ingersoll in June 1866. At least three factories provided the raw ingredients to produce a wheel that was approximately three feet thick, seven feet in diameter, and boasted a circumference of 21 feet. When the finished product arrived at the Great Western Railway station in Ingersoll to be shipped to its first destination on August 23, the town celebrated a public holiday. It was amid the speeches by local dignitaries that McIntyre publicly debuted “Ode on the Mammoth Cheese.”

The cheese’s first major showing was at the New York State Fair in Saratoga. Harris was offered $6,000 to part with the cheese, but refused. He also refused to accept $500 to show it as a separate attraction at the upcoming Provincial Exhibition (the forerunner of the Canadian National Exhibition) in Toronto. Rather than charge visitors an extra fee to see the monstrosity, Harris preferred to display it alongside other major attractions in the Crystal Palace or with entrants in the dairy competition. A team of four horses was required to haul the cheese into the Crystal Palace for setup on September 22. When the fair officially opened a few days later, the Globe observed that “no object in the Exhibition arrested more general attention than this. It is visited throughout the day by a crowd of interested spectators, by many of whom the most amusing opinions are expressed.” Harris and fellow mammoth cheese contributor Hiram Ranney left the fair with third place prizes in the “best factory cheese, not less than 50 lbs each” category. After Toronto, the cheese made its way across the Atlantic, where its use as a promotional stunt proved effective. The cheese met its final fate when the remnants were divided among Oxford County farmers who had contributed to its production.

Though not a farmer, James McIntyre deserved some of the leftovers due to his deep admiration for the work of dairy producers. He was born in Forres, Morayshire, Scotland in 1827, where his neighbours included future Canadian Pacific Railway last spike driver Donald Smith. McIntyre immigrated to Canada in his early teens and, after a long series of odd jobs, settled in Ingersoll and established a furniture/undertaking business. McIntyre’s other interests included serving as an official in the Liberal party and his duties as a Mason and Oddfellow. During his lifetime, McIntyre’s poetry was published in the Globe and, according to notes at the front of Poems of James McIntyre, received praise from the likes of Globe editor Sir John Willison (“the gem of the table”), Toronto Police Magistrate George Taylor Denison III (who “found many most interesting pieces on Canadian subjects”), historian Henry Scadding (who felt a poem about one pioneering cheese maker “had the ring of a fine old ballad about it”), and Ontario Premier Oliver Mowat (who was impressed with McIntyre’s patriotic spirit). One wonders if, in the case of fellow Liberals like Mowat, political allegiances shaped the praise.

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Man and woman fishing in the Credit River, July 1, 1902. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1231, Item 1430.

Occasionally McIntyre mentioned Toronto in his poems. “Credit Valley Trip” arose when McIntyre was among a delegation visiting Toronto on a train provided by the Credit Valley Railway Company. While McIntyre seems to have enjoyed the sights he saw out the train window, and makes reference to Toronto sporting legend Ned Hanlan (despite misspelling his name), in the end he and his companions agreed that while Toronto was a nice place to visit, they wouldn’t want to live here.

Whenever we take a tour abroad
We love to travel o’er new road,
When scenery to us is new
And landscape pleasing to the view,
When invited for to rally
And take a trip on the Credit Valley,
We resolved for to afford
A day with Council and School Board,
For to view the rural charms
Of hills and dales and fertile farms,
With joy we saw the sunbeams gleam
On Grand River beauteous stream,
And those perpendicular walls
Of rock, like old baronial halls,
We saw the great lake ebb and flow
And queen city of Ontario.
While some enjoyed the genial smile
Of Hanlon on his lake girt isle,
Returning home each one exclaims
“Happiest spot is banks of Thames.”

When McIntyre died in 1906, an editorial in the Star set the tone for future critical evaluation of his poetic skills:

Mr. James McIntyre, whose death is announced, had a harmless hobby, the turning of familiar topics into verse. His muse was not too proud to notice a big cheese, or to describe those methods of intensive farming by which Ontario has grown rich. It cannot be said that it was good poetry, and many of us must plead guilty to making it the theme of comment of a more or less humorous character. When the body of a young man was found in Toronto Bay, and was identified by the buttons on his clothing, Mr. McIntyre celebrated the event in verse, of which we recall the lines, “Buttons gave no clue he did desire, Showed suit was made by McIntyre.” There have been better poets whose hearts were not as sound or whose natures as kindly and gentle as McIntyre’s.

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Cover to the 1974 edition of The 4 Jameses. McIntyre is second from the right.

Much of McIntyre’s posthumous notoriety is due to William Arthur Deacon’s 1927 book The 4 Jameses, which playfully lumps in McIntyre’s verse with three other well-intentioned poets who happened to be named James (Gay, Gills, and MacRae). The book spun out of a series of articles Deacon (often regarded as Canada’s first full-time professional book reviewer) wrote about lousy Canadian poets for Saturday Night in the mid-1920s. Throughout The 4 Jameses, Deacon offers ironic commentary on the featured authors and works and blows their historical importance out of proportion—in the case of McIntyre, tying his Scottish hometown to Macbeth’s slaying of King Duncan and noting that both McIntyre and Donald Smith would “play significant parts in the upbuilding of the Dominion of Canada.” Deacon also noted that “McIntyre must have immersed himself in cream, and made cheese his chief mental diet, for years. To the new gospel of dairying, he was a convert so ardent that he barely missed becoming fanatical.” Though it was a poor seller upon its initial release, The 4 Jameses became, as George Fetherling noted in the forward of a 1974 reprint, “that rare thing in Canadian literature: an underground classic,” as it grew fans through word of mouth.

Despite the humour made at the expense of McIntyre’s work, Deacon ultimately found that the cheese poet and his brethren deserved respect for trying:

When the limitations of an old warrior like McIntyre are apparent, it is sanity and not sacrilege to smile at them; but it should be done kindly, remembering always their inescapable disadvantages, their valour and their chivalry…Their aspirations, their will to universal betterment, and their intuitive reach beyond the measure of their grasp is easily traceable through their writings, like the proverbial thread of gold. By these shall they be judged and not by flaws in the pattern. The more their work is pondered, the greater one’s affection for them, the greater his admiration for their honest efforts to noble expression and the greater his tolerance for mistakes growing out of inevitable limitations of opportunity, and creating the human, personal touches that first attract readers to them. Who sees not this, has lost the better, sweeter half of their message, and is himself to blame.

Additional material from The 4 Jameses by William Arthur Deacon, third edition (Toronto: Macmillan, 1974), Poems of James McIntyre by James McIntyre (Ingersoll: Ingersoll Chronicle, 1889), William Arthur Deacon: A Canadian Literary Life by Clara Thomas and John Lennox (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1982), and the following newspapers: The September 26, 1866 edition of the Globe; the September 24, 1866 edition of the Leader; and the April 3, 1906 edition of the Toronto Star.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

More context for poets like McIntyre, from Heather Menzies’s book By the Labour of Their Hands: The Story of Ontario Cheddar Cheese (Kingston: Quarry Press, 1994):

He wasn’t trying to write Great Poetry. He wanted to honour the achievements of people like himself, who had come to this country with little or nothing, hoping to make new lives for themselves in British North America. Parochial poetry, published in the local paper, was one of the most accessible local media for doing this.

This “folk poetry,” as it’s called, helped interpret the rural community to itself and bind it together in a shared world view and ethos. As such, McIntyre and others like him made important contributions to Canadian folk culture through their verses. For folklore historian Pauline Greenhill, folk poetry is not meant to be separated from the context of a particular local community. Also, it must be understood as process as well as product: a sort of ongoing dialogue between the poet and the community, in which the poet brings order out of the minutiae of everyday life through verses. By the title and content of the poems, the folk poet implicitly names what is “appropriate” and symbolically important to readers.

Menzies concludes that McIntyre viewed the mammoth cheese as “the ultimate symbol of progress, combining local hand labour and scientific technology in the modern pursuit of ‘industry.'”