Essays and Reviews
by Terry Whalen
are apt to forget how many of them there must be. Since
the world began, think of the innumerable army of mortals,
happy or ill-starred, who devoted this brief hot life
to the cold, beautiful service of words, then laid them
down to dusty slumber, unremembered as the leaves! And
how absurdly illogical it all is! How shall we explain
the phenomenon of the artist? He spends his energy,
his time, his blood and spirit, freely as water to further
his own tiny aims. He is not paid; he does not wish
to be paid; he does not work to please others; he does
not claim any place in the social scheme. He has really
no excuse for living-this ridiculous useless devotee
of colors, or sounds, or shapes. Why should we regard
him at all? Is he not truly the most absurd of beings?
We who go down into the city every day, and toil for
some purpose-we have a substantial reward. We taste
the fruit of our own toil, and the zest of life is sweet,
though the hours be long. But this maniac of art, this
lover of syllables, this dauber of shades, this mooning,
moody sufferer of the time-spirit, what gain has he?
Not a sou for all his labour-not a penny for his deprivation.
We dine, and wine, and smoke, and lounge at ease, and
are warm and well-groomed, because we had the industry
to win these things and the sense to care for them.
But what idiocy can possess the artist's soul that he
can forego our solid comfort and be content to "live
in a garret aloof and have few friends, and go poorly
clad," and come to nothing at last?
is a curious problem. His position is supported by most
unreasonable logic. He must be as blindly faithful as
the coral insect, building for a day he shall never
see. And the curious thing is, that even when the artist
(in one case out of a thousand) is really successful
in our worldly sense, when he gains some popular favor
and solid regard for his work, he seems to himself still
that the whole army of martyrs to the cause of art is
closely knit to the small handful of its conquering
heroes. And while there are few whom we all know by
heart, there are the shadowy multitudes whom no one
knows, who toiled and dared in their little day, yet
reaped no visible reward. One comes on traces of their
work occasionally, sometimes to find it astonishingly
fresh and vigorous, and even authoritative.
have before me such a record this morning, a book whose
title page reads: Old Spookses' Pass, Malcom's Katie
and Other Poems, by Isabella Valancy Crawford. Toronto:
James Bain & Son. 1884. Perhaps the first
quality of the work to strike one its sureness, its
precision. There is in it almost none of the groping
and ineffectual sort of writing which usually characterizes
the immature. Isabella Valancy Crawford (it is enough
to say) was a young Canadian who died before she had
done more than this single volume. And yet it is reverberant
with an almost masculine vigor, and it stands easily
among the most notable first volumes of poetry in the
western world. There is a lyric force in the lines quite
uncompromising, spontaneous and final. And there is
a breadth and variety of sympathy and interest only
to be matched in the truest poets. It is the utterance,
indeed, not of a beginner, not of an amateur, not of
a small provincial bard, but of one who was equipped
for great things, though destined for so brief a term
of the poems are narrative in dialogue-that dangerous
form of art where failure is so easy, yet where some
of our best writers-Lowell, Bret Harte and James Whitcomb
Riley-have been so happy. The ballad of Old Spookses'
Pass itself is a stirring romantic tale of a night
stampede, set forth in masterly fashion. The speaker
tells the story with home-spun soliloquies. He hears
the creek coming down through the stones of the gully
as he keeps mounted watch over the herd,
ain't no matter wharever ye be,
I'll 'low it's cur'as sort of
Whar thar's runnin' water, it's sure to speak
Of folks to home and the old
And yer bound to listen an' hear it talk.
As yer mustang crunches the
dry, baid sod;
Fur I reckon the hills an' stars an' creek
Are all of 'em preachers sent
An' them mountains talk to a chap this way;
"Climb if ye can, ye degenerate
An' the stars smile down on a man, an' say,
"Come higher, poor critter,
come up to us."
An' I reckin, pard, thar is One above,
The highest old star that a
chap can see,
An' He says, in a solid etarnal way,
Ye never can stop till ye get
. . .
He knows that he made him in that thar way,
Somewhars to fit in his own
An' he ain't the Bein' to pour His wrath
On the head of a slimpsy and
An' He says to the feller, "Look here, my son,
You're the worst case that I
But be thet it takes ye a million y'ars,
Ye never can stop till ye get
much incidental feeling of this sort, the main theme
of the ballad-the rescue of the stampeded herd by a
superhuman unseen rider who comes to the herder's assistance,
and succeeds in "milling" the cattle-is admirably
set down, with spirit and stirring power. Again there
is a deal of excellent homely wit like Lowell's own
in other dialect studies. For instance, in The Deacon's
didn't, when he sunk a well,
Inspect the stuns and gravel.
To prove that Moses was a dunce,
Unfit for furrin' travel;
He marvell'd at them works of God-
And broke 'em up to mend the
again, in Farmer Stebbin's Opinions,
never bet on Paul agin
The argyments of Peter;
I never made the good old Book
A kind of moral teeter
To pass a choreless hour away,
An' get the evenin' over;
I swallered it jest as it stood,
From cover clar to cover.
is a startling revelation of versatility to turn from
such a work to a lyric like Roses in Madrid:
None so fresh as mine,
Plucked at rose of morning
By our lady's shrine.
. . .
Hear the tawny bull
Thundering in the circus,
Buy your arms full.
. . .
by the dozen!
Roses by the score!
Pelt the victor with them-
Bull or toreador!
The Land of Kisses there is a note of lovely,
fleeting, wistful human sadness like the undertone of
Rossetti's poetry-something not at all imitative, either,
but wholly spontaneous and convincing. And when one
comes on such a quatrain as this from The Helot,
Stood the sky above the lands;
Sun and moon at east and west,
Brasen cymbals in his hands,
can be no longer any doubt of the writer's authenticity.
On that modest shelf of English letters reserved for
the "inheritors of unfulfilled renown" she
must have a place of honor.
Forgotten Poet," Commercial Advertiser,
Feb. 11, 1899 [back]