At the Mermaid Inn

The Globe, Toronto: April 9, 1892


Sir Roger—What have we here?
Giles—There is everything under the sun set down with some show of reason; they run atilt at the world, and treat men and manners as familiar as an old hat.
Sir Roger—Think you they protest too much? I like a matter disposed bravely, but—
Giles—Methinks they have a genial tongue. Will you hear them?
Sir Roger—Well, an’ it be not too long I’ll have some sack, and you read on.

— Old Play.

       Of the many inspiring phenomena that make this teeming age wonderful and noteworthy, the most hopeful and the most significant is the change which is so rapidly taking place in the social position of women. The sentimentalist of the old school looks askance, and pictures to himself with disgust and dread the “masculine” woman of the future. The rest of us need have no fear. Most of the frivolity, the vice, the sordid brutality that have characterized too much of human society in the past have been due to the condition of comparative social inferiority in which women have been forced to live. Give them perfect independence, place them upon an exactly even footing with men in all the activities and responsibilities of life, and a result for good will be attained which it is almost beyond the power of the imagination to picture. In the first place the effect upon the institution of marriage will be in the highest degree wholesome and beautiful. The degrading necessity for marriage, which is one of the wretchedest curses of society as we see it, will be removed. The woman will marry from choice, and the intellectual and moral training derived from her improved condition will enable her to choose rightly. The man will no longer choose a wife; it will be the woman who will choose her husband. Who can follow out in all their many branches the beneficent results of this one gain alone. The high standard of excellence which the woman will certainly look to in making her choice, cannot but ensure the elimination or repression of a great part of the fool and the brute that is in men. Then as to those vices and dreadful degradations which many of us pass over in ashamed silence when we speak of the conditions of life, what will the effect be upon them? Assuredly it will be great. Women, no longer weak and dependent, no longer kept in an emotional atmosphere of frivolity and sentimental irresponsibility, but strong, active and self-reliant as men, will not be subject or exposed to the same temptations, and above all they will not be at the mercy of men. When the moral and intellectual emancipation of women is fully effected many a cloud will be lifted from human life, and no sensible man will believe that the sex will have sacrificed one whit of that grace and beauty which we think to be its chiefest charm; rather there will be added to these a power, a beneficence, a dignity which are only the exception now.

       The affair of Dollard on the Ottawa has been one of the most popular stories of New France. Many poems and more than one novel have been founded on it. But our latest historian has refused to allow us to believe in the heroic purpose of the expedition. Dr. Kingsford conceives the facts to be as follow: “Dollard, who had left France under a cloud, desirous of regaining his character by some dashing act of gallantry, enticed sixteen young men to join in an expedition against the Iroquois. The intention appears to have been to surprise some of the bands of the marauding Mohawks and to exterminate them, and so give confidence and security to the settlement and remove the feeling of terror which was paralyzing it; at the same time inflict a lesson on the Iroquois, so that they on their side would feel it was insecure for them to approach Montreal with hostile intent. De Maisonneuve reluctantly consented to the expedition. The party either fell into an ambush or unexpectedly became engaged with overpowering numbers. The fight must have been desperate and determined, for all of them were killed or made prisoners.” He concludes that “the expedition had doubtless a defined end, and one considered practicable of attainment, and was so accepted by De Maisonneuve; he could never have foreseen so unfortunate a result.” It is interesting to note that the Jesuit Relations locate the encounter at Chaudiere, in fact at Ottawa, although the Long Sault rapid at or near Carillon has long been popularly fixed as the scene of this desperate encounter. It would certainly seem that the Relations, written in 1660, shortly after the event, would be the best authority for a detail of this kind. Dollier de Casson did not arrive in Canada until 1666, and by that time the affair must have commenced to take on “the strained and lofty accents of romance.” But even at the time of writing the Relations the whole occurrence must have been shrouded in mystery. But the story of its romantic form has come to live with us, and it is well. There is probably as much foundation for it as there is for the majority of the romances of history, and these are amongst the dearest possessions of the race. Nothing can dim the gallantry or overcloud the valor of the fight between these sixteen young men and their Mohawk antagonists. If they had no fort to shelter them, but only a breastwork hastily thrown up, their defence becomes still more heroic. It requires no labor of the imagination to conjure up the scene on their leaving Lachine for that wilderness of the Ottawa. They made their progress to death through a lovely landscape which then must have been more romance than it is now; the Lake of Two Mountains with its sheeny distances, its pale and shallow lights, its shores covered with rising forests and dappled with immense shadows. I can never pass Carillon and see the Long Sault tossing its white foam without a thought of Dollard and his heroes.

       One of the strongest and most remarkable personalities of this century has just passed away at Camden, New Jersey. By the death of Walt Whitman, America loses her most distinctively national poet, in the sense that he was the voice of the greater part of the people. Not one of the great New England school, not even Emerson nor Lowell, with all their natural and untrammeled vigor, voiced, as did Whitman, the American life and sentiment. Emerson was universal in his largeness of intellect, but in his local characteristics was essentially New England. Lowell, the laureate of the civil war and of the republic at its best in Lincoln, voiced the aspirations of the more cultured few with regard to the republic. Longfellow was essentially the laureate of the home and of the higher sentiments of a large class who are now already passing away. But if we want to find a poet, and a great one, who was as truly the singer of the great, crude, material and yet aspiring republic, as Dante mirrored the Italy of the middle ages, we must go to Whitman. Much of his verse has rightly been called grotesque and even brutal in its barbarous egotism; but in this he was essentially the voice of the larger part of the common American people of the last quarter century. His very grossness of expression and untrammeled search for individual freedom show him to be the point at which the greater, cruder and unformed part of the republic had found its poetical consciousness. If we were to have dreamed a poet for the era of the republic just gone, Whitman is the sort of individuality that might have been prophesied. His very simple and unaffected egoism, his intense enjoyment of life and his ever-abiding interest in the country and nation as a whole, has no parallel in any other American poet. His was a largeness of heart and sympathy that was in keeping with the great institutions and the marvelously gigantic natural scenery of the republic. There is much in Whitman that jars on and repels the sensitive mind the cultured artistic sense, and a large part of his verse would hardly be admitted by many within the canons of recognized poetry. But this is nothing more than should be expected of the natural poet, who is the poetical voice of that strange, heterogeneous and magnificent but grotesque and inconsistent humanity which went to make up the larger part of the great American republic during the last 30 years. Of course even now the nation is outgrowing the Whitman era, and a larger culture and a new conservatism is coming in that Whitman could not have dreamed of nor have understood. But when history looks back to the golden age of the greatest republic of modern times she will note two Titanic figures stand out as the blossom of the development of the age, the statesman Abraham Lincoln and the poet Walt Whitman. Both are grotesque and rude as was the age, but both must be judged not by any social standard of human culture, but both being judged by natural standards of a large and robust humanity, which, leaving the old world trammels behind, found a new development and blossom of characteristics, both will be found unique in the history of the world—Lincoln, the flower of the best ideals of the new republic; Whitman, the voice of its unmentionable reality of thought and existence.

       A late critic of Mr. William Morris’ last book of poems occupied two full pages of The Athenæum in a dissertation on the inexactness of the nomenclature of the poets generally and the probable effect that the spread of scientific knowledge would have on the knowledge would have on the value of the impressions intended by the use of certain definite words. His whole argument was hung on the line in the poem, “The Folk Mote by the River,” “Woke up the swallows under the thatch,” the point being that it was martins Mr. Morris meant and not swallows. The critic avers that the line as it stands may now give us a vivid picture of “the snowy throats gleaming and throbbing through the little doorways of their nests,” but that it will be less so to a reader equipped with a more exact vocabulary. This may be so, but the time which will elapse before that day makes the discussion profitless. As a picture of the early morning, the lines from Mr. Morris were very beautiful and impressive, but the impression from the line quoted will not be such as the critic supposes. Surely it refers merely to the sudden stir and twitter of the swallows (I use the inexact word) in their nests disturbed by the “clattering latch.” In the first line of the next couplet we learn that it was too dark for the men to see their scythes. “It was dark in the porch, but our scythes we felt.” So that the impression of the snowy throats of the swallows has to be forced into the line at first quoted. But it serves the purpose of a very subtle discussion, and Mr. Morris’ book, although it plays a prominent part in the first columns, is gradually lost sight of until the writer finds himself dealing with the decay of the epic.

       It is the nature of men never to be satisfied. We complain of the length of severity of our writers; of the shortness of the summer months, those periods of enchantment that rush upon us with leaf and flower and vanish like a tumultuous dream; of the restless and violent alternations of heat, and tempest, and rain, of foliage and frost. How seldom we reflect upon the real and solid advantages we derive from these very circumstances. Does not the return of the year, the sudden and golden dawn of our summers, come to us with an energy of exhilaration quite unknown to the people of southern latitudes? In those gorgeous countries of the tropics, for which it is our nature to yearn, with all their teeming glory of life and color, there is a voluptuous monotony, enervating alike to body and mind. With us the coming of spring is the signal for a physical and intellectual revolution and revival a new birth of buoyant and unconquerable energy rendering us capable of undreamed-of labors and immense undertakings. Our summer heats are keen and wholesome, and neither depress nor enervate. Autumn with its refreshment of splendid colors and its tonic days comes before we have lost anything of the vital impetus, and carries us on with renewed energy into the depth of that trying season which is our severest test. Yet even through the winter months, bitter but bracing, labor is a moral necessity, and we continue to prosecute it with strenuous energy, if not with actual joy. In Canada with the snows and frozen months of Stockholm or St. Petersburg we combine the long days, the blue sky and the splendid sunshine of the north of Italy. There has never been any other nation on earth so situated, and we cannot but suppose that our people will in the future develop an unusual buoyancy and novel energy of character.

       The comfort and enjoyment that many men find in their pipes is afforded to me by an open fire. A coal grate is cheerful and attractive, but for really delightful reverie give to me the crackle and blaze of a wood fire, especially one of maple or beech. A not over-large room with book shelves lined with volumes, enough curtains of a dark, rich shade to add suggestion of warmth, two or three easy chairs and an open grate or fire-place to light all with its glamour of heat or radiancy, is to me the ideal of the earthly paradise of the man of thought and aspiration.
       I have often thought that my remote ancestors must have been sun or fire worshippers, for in the genial seasons of the year, when the lord of day is at his meridian, I find it almost impossible to stay indoors, but choose rather the sunny slopes and the golden ray-kissed shades of the leafy-tented woods; but when nature withdraws her warmth and shrinks into lifeless sleep, and in the frost-nipped seasons of long, iced nights and short, dull days, I need the companionship and inspiration afforded by a wood fire. Nothing seems to me more unbearable than the semi-modern manner of heating houses and rooms by a concealed heat. As a literary workman, my fancies are dulled and my faculties repressed by such a room. The crackle and glow, or even the smoulder of embers on the hearth, stir and inspire my imagination as nothing else can within doors.
       There is something very marvelous and mysterious in this influence of light and heat. As a boy I always enjoyed the camp fires we built in the great woods or on the shingly beach of some lone lake shore, when the stars came out and peered down on the windy darkness and swallowed up the sparks and flames from the crackling logs and dry branches we had heaped up; while the local warmth and radiance added a contrast to the outside vastness and mystery of darkness and void.
       The fireplace as a social centre must be an institution of great antiquity, and must have owed its origin to the chance discovery of some of our remote cave-dwelling ancestors, who found the convenience of the smoke draught in the roof, and who, when they began to make artificial dwellings, at first rudely, and afterwards more accurately, copied the idea, until after long use and improvement we have the modern mantel and hearth of to-day.
       Much of the glamour of the old-time Christmas season of the past, so beautifully described by the genius of Washington Irving, Dickens and other writers, is closely associated with the old-time, large, open fireplaces in the inns, hotels and private mansions, which are now largely a thing of the past.
This, sad to say, is an age of hurry and change, but, if the family circle is to be preserved, the home comfort and sacredness to remain, I would advise all persons of even moderate means to have one room in the house—that in which the family usually congregates—ventilated and heated by one of those old-time fireplaces. We hear a wide grumble as to waste of fuel and the extra trouble, but if home wives and mothers only knew that such a spot of rest and comfort in every home, with its unique attractions, can do much to enlarge the humanity and create a fellow and social feeling in the misanthropic mind, no home in the land would be without its cosy, warmly-curtained rooms, its genial bookshelves and its open fire.