James McIntyre: The World’s Cheesiest Poet
By Julia Davis
Once dubbed “The Worst Poet in History,” Scots-Canadian writer James McIntyre set a new standard for cheesy poetry. His dramatic verses celebrate the then-fledgling Canadian dairy industry, while also communicating his personal passion for fermented milk. (Even if you hate poetry—or, God forbid, cheese—it's hard not to be charmed by his enthusiasm.)
Before he was a poet, McIntyre was a man of many trades. This would-be Cheese Wiz was also a cabinetmaker, furniture dealer, and undertaker. Born in Scotland in 1828, he immigrated to Canada in 1841. In the early 1860s, he became a prominent local poet with the Ingersoll Literary Society in southwestern Ontario. The Toronto Post even featured some of his poems, including classics such as the “Oxford Cheese Ode,” “Hints to Cheese Makers,” “Dairy Ode,” and “Father Ranney, the Cheese Pioneer.”
McIntyre would go on to publish two full collections. The most famous was Poems of James McIntyre (1889). Before that, there was 1884's Musings on the banks of the Canadian Thames, which included poems about local Canadian and British subjects, and musings on the great poets of England, Ireland, Scotland, and America, as well as the wars of Victoria’s reign. But the central theme of both books gets lost in the formal language of the day. For the most part, McIntyre wrote about his true love: dairy.
McIntyre’s poems were about more than just his personal tastes: by writing about the region's foodstuffs, he hoped to stimulate the local economy. “As cheese making first began in this county and has already become the chief industry of many counties, it is no insignificant theme,” he wrote. “Now cheese is the principal article of export from the Province of Ontario.”
In 1866, Ontario dairy farmers produced what was then the world’s largest block of cheese. It measured over 21 feet across and weighed 7300 pounds. McIntyre paid homage to this whopper in his two most famous poems: “Prophecy of a Ten Ton Cheese” and “Ode on the Mammoth Cheese.”
“Prophecy of a Ten Ton Cheese” predicts the wonders that lie ahead:
Who hath prophetic vision sees In future times a ten ton cheese, Several companies could join To furnish curd for great combine More honor far than making gun Of mighty size and many a ton.
Yes, he does indeed rhyme “join” with “combine.” A few lines later, he also rhymes “one” with “span,” and “agog, so” with “Chicago.”
The other poem, “Ode on the Mammoth Cheese,” addresses the cheese directly. It begins:
We have seen thee, queen of cheese, Lying quietly at your ease, Gently fanned by evening breeze, Thy fair form no flies dare seize.
He then warns the cheese to “Beware of youths, for some of them might rudely squeeze and bite your cheek.”
Other odes in the collection provide handy life tips. In “Hints to Cheese Makers,” McIntyre offers the following words of wisdom: “Fatten pigs upon the whey, for there is money raising grease as well as in the making [of] cheese.” In “Cheese Curd for Bait,” McIntyre suggests that his readers—you guessed it—use cheese curd for bait.
Surprisingly, McIntyre's 19th-century readership ate this stuff up. One Mr. William Murray of Hamilton wrote that McIntyre had "an independent style begotten on Canadian soil.” And fan George McIntyre (no word on if he's related) expressed his gratitude in rhyme:
My thanks I send, To him who in his hours of leisure those verses penned!
McIntyre was so popular that he was often asked to speak at local events and gatherings.
War of the Worsts
McIntyre probably took his passion for cheese whey a little too far. But does he truly deserve the title of Worst Poet in History? Many critics argue that Scotland’s infamous William McGonagall actually deserves this dubious honor.
“McGonagall is by far the worst poet in the English language,” Scottish poet Don Paterson has said. “He could write a bad poem about anything. This cheese guy may be a bad poet, but it seems he could write bad poetry about only one subject.”
McIntyre admirers emphatically disagree. They argue that while his dairy odes catapulted him to fame, the so-called "Chaucer of Cheese" had a broad repertoire. He composed thrilling epics about nature, such as “Fight with a bear in the northwest,” “Fight of a buffalo with wolves,” and “Wild goose shot at midnight November 1888.”
He also used poetry for political purposes. Via oh-so-subtle titles such as “Things Should Be Judged By Merit” or “Firearms Should be Banned,” McIntyre communicated his stance on contemporary issues. (Another topic of choice: serious life advice, such as his words of wisdom for unmarried gentlemen in "Lines Addressed to an Old Bachelor." He poses the question, "Tell me why my dearest wingle/With the fair do you not mingle?")
Indeed, McIntyre could cheese-ify just about anything. Although "The World's Worst Poet" is a pretty subjective title, it's safe to say that when it came to writing over-the-top verses, McIntyre was the cream of the crop. Check out his full collection here.