Alexander, William John

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"Alexander was born in Hamilton, Ontario in 1855, and completed his secondary education at the Hamilton Collegiate Institute. From there he entered the University of Toronto, graduating in 1873. With a Dominion Gilchrist Scholarship, he was able to attend the University of London, where he completed a first class honours degree in English in 1877. Following that period of study, he taught at Prince of Wales College in Charlottetown, PEI for two years (1878-79), and then moved on to graduate work at Johns Hopkins University (Baltimore, MD), completing his PhD in Greek and Philology in 1883. He followed this with a year of study at the University of Heidelberg, and then an appointment in 1884 as professor of language and literature at Dalhousie University (Halifax, NS). This led in turn to an appointment in 1889 at the University of Toronto, to the newly established chair in English at University College. He remained in this position until his retirement in 1926. The Department gave him a farewell dinner at Hart House on December 4, 1926, when Robert Knox read the following poem:

   Professor Alexander 
   1     I trust, my frien', that you'll forgie
2     A prosy body e'en like me
3     For being wi' yoursel' sae free
4             In ragged rhyme.
5     Pray, tell me what your thochts may be
6             Some ither time. 
   7     We miss you sair. For wha like you
8     Could sift the tinsel frae the true,
9     And gie each man his honest due
10           Of blame or praise,
11   When he would set his thochts on view
12           Of poems or plays. 
   13   And wha had sic a bonnie art
14   To mak sae clear what he'd impart,
15   Or to lay bare a poet's heart
16           Wi' sure appeal;
17   Twa generations you has gart
18           To see and feel. 
   19   Yours was the gift to mak folks share
20   Your ain delight in varied fare:
21   They'd ride wi' you upon Tam's mare
22           Frae Cutty Sark,
23   And then go soaring in the air
24           Wi' Shelley's lark. 
   25   You've ae dislike:-- let's noo confess't --
26   You canna thole the second best:
27   And any gaudy mind that's dressed
28           Wi' mere pretence
29   Lord how it wilts before your test
30           O' common sense. 
   31   And often in the council ha'
32   When ithers haver o'er the law
33   And truth is tint amang them a'
34           That wrestle wi't,
35   You'll up and say a word or twa
36           And, lo, we'll see't. 
   37   E'en though your pow be stroked wi' grey,
38   There's nae chiel younger, I daur say,
39   Mair live to interests o' the day
40           Or morrow even,
41   Frae Lawrence to the C.T.A.
42           Or group o' Seven. 
   43   Would mair o' us had your rare knack
44   To carry wisdom on your back,
45   Yet keep a supple mind and swack
46           And open-wide,
47   And snap your fingers at the wrack
48           O' time and tide. 
   49   And noo you've thochts, I ken fu' well,
50   to send, for hearing o' yoursel',
51   Baith me and my puir rhymes to Hell,
52           Wi' candour:
53   But even then I'd turn and yell
54           "That's Alexander. 


   [The notes, all in the right margin, are by Knox, perhaps a small joke with Alexander, who had spent so much time writing them himself and was of Scottish parents. The line numbers are by this editor.] 
gart: made.


   thole: endure.


   haver: talk nonsense.


   tint: lost.


   pow: head.


   chiel: man.


   swack: vigorous. 

He continued to be a living presence for his eighteen years as a professor emeritus, most conspicuously at the Alexander Lectures which he attended from 1929-1944, the year of his death."

Alexander's publications combined textbooks aimed at the secondary schools, along with a range of scholarly publications in English. The former include:

  Shorter Poems (published by the T. Eaton Co., initially in 1924) 

  Short Stories and Essays (published by the Ryerson Press in 1928)

The latter included:

  An introduction to the poetry of Robert Browning. Boston: Ginn, 1889.

Harris, Robin S. English Studies at Toronto: A history. Toronto: University of Toronto Governing Council, 1988.

Murray, Heather. Working in English: history, institution, resources. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1996