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That's History: From bar to bard: the poet lawyers

Looking into the origins of the words carved over the entrance to the Parliament Building in Ottawa -“The wholesome sea is at her gates/ Her gates both east and west” - the Globe and Mail reported recently that they were written in 1920, just as the Peace Tower was being completed.

They were the then-recent work of one J.A. Ritchie, who was described by anthologist John Robert Colombo as “an Ottawa barrister and poetaster.”

“Poetaster,” by the way, is an old word meaning “a petty or paltry poet.”

Historiaster, its equivalent for history writers, is mercifully extinct. There seems to be no equivalent for lawyer.

What is it, I wondered, with all the lawyer poets? And who was this J.A. Ritchie, barrister, who got his verses on the doors of Parliament?

With some help from Paul Leatherdale at the law society archives, Ritchie proved easy to trace.

John Almon Ritchie (1863-1935) was no petty or paltry lawyer, it turns out. He practised in Ottawa from 1890, was Crown attorney for Carleton and then a Carleton County judge.

He was the son of Sir William J. Ritchie, chief justice of Canada 1879-1892, and therefore part of the vast clan of Ritchie lawyers and judges that ran from John Ritchie, 18th century judge at Annapolis Royal, N.S., to Roland Ritchie, justice of the Supreme Court of Canada 1959-1984. Altogether an embarras de Ritchies, as Roland’s brother, the diplomat and diarist Charles Ritchie, once said in another context.

In his day John Almon Ritchie seems to have been better known as playwright and poet than as lawyer. A Who’s Who of the time credits him with “some meritorious verse” and several plays produced on the American stage. But a quick run-through in Google and Abebooks suggests none of it survives. His literary immortality depends entirely on the stone carver who put him over the doors of Parliament.

Something similar happened to another lawyer/judge, Robert Stanley Weir (1859-1926) of Montreal. Weir was a prolific author of verse but his name survives only because 100 years ago this year he wrote the English lyrics to O Canada. The French lyrics, written in 1880, were by another judge, Quebec’s A.B. Routhier.

Another contemporary of Ritchie and Weir was E. Douglas Armour, Toronto lawyer and bencher, who made a specialty of converting complex legal documents into iambic verse. “Poetaster” might just apply here, but there’s some weird kind of achievement in lines like these, published as “Law Lyrics” by Canada Law Book in 1918:

The said Smith and his heirs also make this concession/

That Brown and his heirs shall have quiet possession/

Of all that the herein before

described land/

And that free and clear of all claim and demand,/

Gift, grant, bargain, sale, jointure, dower and rent/

Entail, statute, trust, execution, extent . . .

And so on, for hundreds of lines.

There is also at least one great poet among the lawyers.

Frank Scott, longtime professor of law at McGill and distinguished civil libertarian, was also F.R. Scott, pioneer of the modernist movement in Canadian poetry and one of the major Canadian poets of the twentieth century.

Scott generally kept his legal scholarship separate from his poetry, but in 1959, after defending D.H.

 Lawrence’s Canadian publisher on a prosecution for obscenity in the Quebec Court of Appeal, he did dash off:

I went to bat for the Lady Chatte/

Dressed in my bib and gown./

The judges three glared down at me/

The priests patrolled the town

The old Law Society Gazette - not the communications vehicle the law society now puts out, but the small volumes edited from the 1960s to the 1990s by John Honsberger and illustrated by Kenneth Jarvis - used to publish lawyers’ poetry.

What do lawyer poets do nowadays? Maybe they have no time.

Christopher Moore writes no poetry. His most recent book is McCarthy Tétrault: Building Canada’s Premier Law Firm, published by Douglas & McIntyre.

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