Bertille Tobin (1888-1966)
Born at Harbour Grace, one of at least nine children to a carpenter, Michael Tobin, and his wife, Margaret Scully, Bertille Tobin was educated at Presentation Convent in Harbour Grace and possibly trained as a teacher in 1905 at St. Bride’s College, Littledale. By 1908, her uncle, Father John Scully, secured her a teaching position at King’s Cove where she predominately resided the rest of her life. Suffering from rheumatic fever when young, she later became inflicted with severe arthritis and had to retire from teaching. The arthritis disabled her fingers and knuckles, but she continued to write with the use of a typewriter her friend had given her. In 1958, after suffering a bad fall, she moved to St. John’s and eventually passed away at St. Patrick’s Mercy Home.
Family descendants say her family was rather scholarly and that books were more important than food in their household. This interest in education reflects in her winning the Associate of Arts Examination scholarship. Her poetry, most likely influenced by the Romantic poets, offers a glimpse of the landscape, customs and history of King’s Cove. The majority of her poems focus on the changing of seasons and the detailed landscapes of King’s Cove, ranging from the “white chaos” of blizzards to the “blind machine” of a snowmobile. Tobin’s talent lies in her ability to capture the way the landscape and weather affect the atmosphere and livelihood of King’s Cove:
Excerpt from “The Pessimist in Spring”
The rotten snow is festering away;
The brook, an ugly gash, corrodes the pond,
Its gangrened course increasing every day;
And darkly glowers the ocean out beyond.
Beyond the evocative depictions of landscape, her poetry abounds with the customs and livelihood of King’s Cove’s residents, particularly caplin season, squid season and seal hunting. Sometimes noting the beauty in these traditions, other times the misery and hardship, she frequently depicts the sense of community among people through difficult times. She also has a keen ear for representing vernacular language, such as the “canting” on the squid grounds and her capturing of local language blends in with her keen ear for rhythm; most of her poems have a cadence that fluidly rolls when spoken. Complementing the local culture, her poetry offers historical reflections, from homage to the ship that brought supplies to King’s Cove, the Prospero, to the lamenting of the sinking of the Caribou and the follies of Newfoundland men sent to war. Humour also intervenes at times, such as the nightlong annoying toil of trying to kill a mosquito, or “skeeter,” that interrupts her sleep and tranquility, suavely asking “how do you do?”
Tobin published her poetry in the Newfoundland Quarterly and Family Fireside and appeared regularly in the Monitor from January 1942 to April 1949. She also won the F. M. O’Leary contest four times between 1945-52. Upon her death, her niece found over 1,200 poems among her papers.
It’s caplin season in Newfoundland,
Silver is scattered on every strand,
Grey fogs are sweeping in from the sea,
Gulls are crescents of ivory
As they wheel and soar and scream their joy
O’er the plenteous food that the waves deploy –
Whilst in gardens shrined in fog’s thick veil
Heart-reaching perfume lilacs exhale.
Over the roads to the waiting fields
Is brought the wealth that the ocean yields,
And e’en through “wee sma’” hours of night
Carts rumble as if in furtive flight;
Also, in homes as meal-time nears
Silver transmuted to gold appears
The frying-pan being the magic vat
Where small fish sizzle in boiling fat.
It’s cold and chilly, the wind from the east,
But it brings an Epicurean feast,
As well as the fertilizing aid
Which Providence seems to have kindly made
Accord with the Newfoundland farmers’ need
In furthering growth of various seed;
So whilst cherry, damson, and wild pear
Make all the woodlands bridally fair
In waning June or early July
The caplin seines eager toilers ply.
Article by Aaron Peach. © 2006, Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage Web Site.