Transcription of Narration

The Bismarck was all but destroyed. Royal Navy warships had hunted down and demolished the powerful German battleship. Perilously low on fuel after the pursuit, two Tribal-class destroyers, the Tartar and the Mashona, left the British fleet and turned for home.

George Whalley, a twenty-five year old Sub-Lieutenant, was aboard the Tartar. It was one in the morning. The sleep that had eluded him for the past several days was denied him once more. Alarms signaled an air attack. German Luftwaffe bombers were overhead. A day-long battle began. The destroyers repelled wave after wave of aircraft, but the Germans finally broke through the anti-aircraft defences. The Mashona was hit and began to capsize. Seeing three men in the water, Whalley leapt into the sea. One man was dead, and the second died before Whalley pulled him back to the ship. The third man he saved. In later years he did not talk about this act of heroism. Courage, and his reticence regarding it, were characteristic of this exceptional man.

Soon afterwards, Whalley was assigned to the Naval Intelligence Division in London. For most of the next two years he was an intelligence officer. He planned and implemented secret operations to Holland and France, sometimes landing and retrieving agents. The missions were dangerous. The most difficult of the operations, codenamed TENDERLY, was in January 1943. Whalley was on Motor Gun Boat 318 on a mission to Triagoz, on the coast of France. Between the stormy weather and the weapons fire from German vessels, the gun boat was fortunate to return from the sortie.

During other assignments Whalley exercised his scientific and technical knowledge. He tested and designed a modern surfboat to ensure the safety of the men infiltrating the German occupied coast. He also designed an underwater acoustic beacon, code-named the FH 830. The device made it possible for naval ships to navigate with pinpoint accuracy during the Allied invasions of Sicily in 1943 and Normandy in 1944.

From April to August 1943 Whalley was stationed in the Middle East, Malta, and Sicily. During this time he served on the staff of Admiral Bertram Ramsey, the man responsible for the Dunkirk evacuation and the amphibious landings for the Allied invasions of North Africa, Sicily, and Normandy.

While in London, between his covert missions in England and abroad, Whalley met Elizabeth Watts in 1942. They rented rooms in adjoining buildings in the historic Cheyne Walk along the Thames. They were married on his 29th birthday at Battersea Church, close by Cheyne Walk. After the war, they had three children: Katharine, Christopher, and Emily.

In November 1944, Whalley went home to Canada. For the remainder of the war he served as the first lieutenant on Canadian destroyers along the east coast, first the Chaudière and then the Saskatchewan. He remained active in the Royal Canadian Navy Volunteer Reserve until 1956 and retired with the rank of Commander.

In the summer of 1945, Whalley received an unexpected offer from a place familiar to him. Bishop’s University, in Lennoxville, Quebec, invited him to become a lecturer in the English Department. Whalley did not have a degree in English, but his extensive reading, both during and after the war, more than made up for a lack of formal instruction in the discipline.

At Bishop’s he had been an undergraduate student and completed his degree in Classics in 1935. In studying there he followed in his father’s footsteps. And a year later, when he won the Rhodes scholarship to study Greats and Theology at Oriel College, Oxford, he earned an honour that his father narrowly missed nearly two decades before.

The Very Reverend Arthur Francis Cecil Whalley was descended from a line of Anglican ministers. He married Dorothy Quirk and they had four children: Cecilia, George, Basil, and Peter.

Arthur George Cuthbert Whalley was born in Kingston on July 25, 1915. Four years later, the family moved to Brockville. In 1933 Cecil Whalley was appointed the Dean of Nova Scotia and became Chaplain to the The Princess Louise Fusilliers. The family relocated to Halifax. Reverend Whalley’s tenure as Dean lasted until 1942, when he died. George was always close to his mother Dorothy. She encouraged him in his many pursuits, and he always wrote to her detailed and loving letters. She died in 1956.

The family was close and the home was lively. Whalley remembered it as a place full of conversation.

As far back as I can remember, growing up in a small Ontario town, I was always fascinated by words and language, as well as by music, and as a child listened entranced to the talk of my parents and grandparents and their friends. We were read aloud to a great deal as children. I learned to read very early and read voraciously throughout childhood. My father and grandfather were both keen classical scholars. I began to learn Latin at about seven and Greek a couple of years later.

Whalley’s intelligence and athleticism were evident from the time he was a boy. At St Alban’s School, he was the junior athletic champion. In 1929, he wrote perfect papers in Algebra and Geometry for the McGill University junior matriculation exams. He played on the Bishop’s Intermediate Rugby team, which won the Quebec Intercollegiate Championship. Throughout his time at Oxford, he competed in rowing. In 1938, he was Oriel College’s captain of boats. He led the college’s record-breaking coxwainless IV in the Henley rowing regatta.

Early on his family nurtured in Whalley a profound love of music. He learned to play the piano with great proficiency, and always wished to have one close by. Bartok, Beethoven, Brahms, Britten, Hindemith, and Mozart were among his favourite composers.

Writing seemed to come naturally. While at boarding school he wrote letters home. As an undergraduate student and as a naval officer he carried on an extensive correspondence with friends and family. Over the years he developed a distinctive style. In his writing and speaking, he was articulate and precise, having achieved an extraordinary fluency in language.

During the war Whalley reflected on his experiences in the letters and the poems he wrote. By the time he returned to Bishop’s in 1945, he had finished a significant number of poems about love and war. A chapbook, Poems 1939-1944, appeared in 1946. A larger collection, No Man An Island, was published two years later.

Whalley left Bishop’s for England in 1948 to pursue his doctorate at King’s College, London. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the English poet and critic, was the focus of his studies. When he returned to Canada in 1950, he joined the English Department at Queen’s University in Kingston. Over the next three decades he was a central figure in the institution. Twice he served as the Head of the Department. In the 1960s he inaugurated the film studies program.

Students were impressed by his knowledge, his eloquent speech, and his handsome appearance. He seemed to compel attention whenever he was present. In his teaching he was notable for his extemporaneous and yet highly organized lectures and for the pregnant silences that punctuated his classes. He made literature real for the students by revealing the life of the poem, its wholeness and its integrity as a work of art.

Poetic Process, published in 1953, was Whalley’s first book of literary criticism. Rooted in philosophical ideas, the work made a persuasive case for the value of ways of thinking and knowing that are not scientific and technical. For the first time, Whalley articulated an idea central to his mature thought. Criticism, he said, is a getting-to-know. Our inquiries, he argued, ought to be heuristic. That is, they should be a searching out of something that is at once familiar and unknown.

In 1954, Whalley wrote a radio script for the CBC entitled “Death in the Barren Ground.” It dramatized the story of John Hornby, Edgar Christian, and Harold Adlard. The three men had travelled and died together in the Canadian North over the winter of 1927 to 1928. Questions about the events had been in Whalley’s thoughts since 1937, when he first read Christian’s diary. After several years of investigations into Hornby’s strange and largely solitary existence, he published The Legend of John Hornby, in 1962.

I’d always been fascinated by polar literature and the experiences of people travelling in the Antarctic, particularly, then in the Arctic. I’d experienced some of the sorts of things that Edgar Christian wrote about. I was fascinated by his diary, and then later on when it was possible to learn more about Hornby, I became even more fascinated by him. And what interested me was the writing of the biography, of finding out how to write about a person like that so that he came out of the book.

For more than twenty years, Whalley wrote radio plays and adaptations for the CBC. One of the most moving was “If This is a Man,” an adaptation of Primo Levi’s harrowing account of life in the Nazi concentration camps.

In the 1960s and 1970s Whalley worked closely with Kathleen Coburn, the general editor of Coleridge’s Collected Works. He tracked down the books in which Coleridge had written. He collected the notes, sometimes lengthy, that Coleridge wrote in the margins and gradually constructed a comprehensive picture of Coleridge’s reading. It was a monumental task. And yet he made time for other things.

In 1963 he became the President of the Kingston Symphony. For the next seven years he helped build both the symphony and the music department at Queen’s. He succeeded in bringing the renowned Vaghy Quartet to Kingston, where it became the quartet-in-residence at the university in 1968.

By 1969 Whalley had largely completed a translation of Aristotle’s Poetics. It gave close attention to Aristotle’s view of the poet as a maker and the poem as something made. In rendering a translation that holds close to the Greek diction and syntax, Whalley sought to startle readers into a fresh recognition of the treatise.

From time to time, when the inspiration arose, he continued to write and publish poetry. George Johnston, a long-time friend and himself a poet, encouraged Whalley to publish a new collection.

In a series of remarkable public lectures and essays in the 1970s, Whalley rediscovered and in his own style made anew a way of thinking that implicitly countered his structuralist and post-structuralist contemporaries. He enjoined others to recognize that literature embodies a process of making the world real, of making us real. In regards to language, he argued that words do not mean, but people mean, reaffirming the integrity of the individual. He became a prominent champion of the value of the humanities in the world.

In 1977, Carleton University honoured Whalley with a Doctor of Letters degree for his many achievements. Recognitions from the University of Saskatchewan and Bishop’s University soon followed.

Cancer was discovered in his stomach early in 1979. In February a major surgery removed the malignancy but permanently compromised his digestion. Afterwards, he slowly built his strength, regained his health, and returned to his work.

He retired from Queen’s in 1980. That year the first volume of Coleridge’s marginalia was published. Simultaneously, his new edition of Edgar Christian’s diary appeared.

The cancer returned. This time, the doctors could do nothing. He died at home in Hartington on May 27, 1983. A full military escort was present for the funeral at St. George’s Cathedral in Kingston.

Within a few years, the appearance of several books signaled the legacy Whalley bequeathed to others. The first was a selection of his essays that embodies his superb prose style. It was followed by an edition of his collected poems, a book of remembrances written by family, friends, colleagues, and students, and finally by his translation of Aristotle’s Poetics. They are fitting tributes to a supremely gifted man of letters.


Film Production by Evan Wainio
Written by Michael John DiSanto
Narrated by Brian Brockenshire

Images provided by:

The George Whalley Estate
Queen's University Archives, Kingston, Ontaio
Bishop's University Archives, Sherbrooke (Lennoxville), Quebec
Victoria University Library, Toronto, Ontario

German Federal Archives
Imperial War Museum
Naval Historical Foundation

Image of Paul Hindemith courtesy of Hindemith Foundation, Blonay, Switzerland

Alicia Boutilier, Agnes Etherington Art Centre
Elizabeth Tatchell Harrison
Department of English, Queen's University

Steve Lukits, Royal Military College
William O'Neill, Kingston Whig-Standard

Trygve Bratteteig
Grace Allen
Richard Johnson
David Kent

Katharine and William Clark
Emily Whalley
Jan Speight
Tiemo Brand

Special Thanks to:

Christopher Whalley
Elizabeth B. Whalley

National Archives and Records Administration

Funded by:

Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada
Editing Modernism in Canada

Copyright 2015 - The Whalley Estate, Evan Wainio, and Michael John DiSanto

All Rights Reserved.