At the Mermaid Inn

The Globe, Toronto: February 6, 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.

       The year that has just passed has given no remarkable addition to the world of books. But there has been much that is very good. In verse Gilder’s “Poems of Two Worlds,” Aldrich’s “Sister’s Tragedy,” Helen Cone’s “Ride to the Lady,” Miss Reese’s “Handful of Lavender,” and Reilly’s “Old Fashioned Roses” are probably the most notable additions to American published verse. Mr. Gilder’s world is imbued with the lofty ideal of a true poet. His work is both sincere and human, with a spiritualised regard for nature that makes his verse unique among that of the stronger American poets. The very essence of the human soul in its more spiritual moods is found in his work, which is inspired by the humanity in its greater and broader phases.
       It is some time since a boon of short stories has been published worthy of such close and eager attention as “Main Travelled Roads,” by Mr. Hamelin Garland. This book has something direct and forcible about it, and proceeds with the touch and point of the truest art; it has something naturally inevitable about it, too, and its tragedy is often the outcome of the old stern laws of life. The contrast between the beauty of nature, ever present and unconquerable, and the sometime hardness and wickedness of the life which we men make for ourselves, come out with new force. In fact, the only fault to be found with these stories lies in the seeming contradictions of a style which for the description of natural scenery take a form elevated and poetic and for the dialogue one as coarse as natural man. But possibly Mr. Garland had a purpose in this, and we cannot quarrel with him when he has given us a brilliant light on some phases of our mixed and perplexing conditions. He has humor, too, of a caustic kind and in “Mrs. Ripley’s Trip” he has achieved a pathetic result by what is in reality a method of geniality or humor. But this book will teach us all something if we read it attentively, and, although not written with a direct purpose, such a tragic picture of human error, carelessness and selfishness as “Up the Coulee” brings some earnest warning to every heart. There is plenty of the sunshine of life in this little book, and we commend it to those who would like to feel once more the way young love comforts itself. Mr. Garland’s book is a distinguished performance.

       Winter for reading and study; summer for loafing and dreaming and getting near to nature; spring and autumn for joyous and active production. The mind does not mount readily to the higher exertions during the severity of our winter season. Most of us gain at that time in fulness and robustness of body, while we lose in intellectual elasticity. We are taken up in eating, digesting, sleeping and exercising. The whole force of the constitution goes to increasing the warmth of the body, and arming it to endure the prolonged strain put upon it. Only with difficulty do we address ourselves to any original or creative effort. The routine of the hour, the intellectual labors commonly and easily fulfilled, are as much as we find ourselves able to accomplish; yet, undoubtedly, the general rule has its momentary exceptions, and in some hours of these austere winter days and nights we awaken to an unusual intellectual light and happiness. Sitting before the fire in the depth of the January midnight, surrounded by uncertain shadow and penetrating warmth, when the windows glitter in the moonshine against an atmosphere of intense and dazzling frost, and everything is so silent that we almost hear the blood winding in our own veins, have we not often caught ourselves exerting unconsciously an extraordinary swiftness and brightness of intellectual movement? The forms of unseen things present themselves to our imaginations with a vividness and reality of detail rarely at other times attained. Out on a country road, walking in a quiet and silent downfall of snow, when distances are veiled and hidden, and my mind seems wrapped about and softly thrown in upon itself by a smooth and caressing influence, I become immersed in the same depth and intensity of reflection.
       But in the main, winter is not the season of great mental activity. Perhaps you point me to the long, quiet winter evenings, and inquire whether these do not lend themselves obediently to the current of intellectual labor. Nay, you are mistaken. If you are like me you will spend most of the long quiet winter evenings with your feet disposed upon an opposite chair, a long-stemmed pipe between your teeth and some entertaining book of travels placed comfortably upon your knee. No, if you have proposed to yourself an intellectual task, calling for high inventive effort, attack it when the long September days grow golden and the first elm leaves fall, or wait in patience till you have heard the shore lark soar and twitter over the first bare hummocks of March.

       Judging from some of the recent acts and utterances of the German Emperor we had been inclined to believe that one of the things that that excellent man most seriously lacked and most seriously needed was the sense of humor. For our comfort and reassurance a writer in The New York Critic informs us that Wilhelm II not only possesses the sense of humor, but is a conversational humorist of much power and geniality. He is moreover an enthusiastic admirer of Mark Twain, and is particularly fond of the Innocents Abroad.

       In April next Mr. W.D. Howells will assume the editorship of The Cosmopolitan, and the editor’s study in Harper’s Magazine will be conducted by Mr. Charles Dudley Warner. Mr. Howells’ connection with The Cosmopolitan will doubtless lead to the development of more interesting features in that magazine, which seems to us to have been hitherto a rather unattractive sort of publication.

       What is probably the last poem of Victor Hugo which remained unknown to the world has just been published. It was announced at the time when “Les Contemplations” was issued; it was never finished and is published in that form. The title “Dieu,” fixes the profound and sublime subject which Hugo chooses with his usual daring. Mr. Swinburne, who of all appreciators is the most appreciative, and who expresses himself as the years go by with more and more adjectival weight, introduces this poem to the English reader in the last number of The Fortnightly, or rather he judges it for them and commands their immediate submission. Mr. Swinburne has a way of making his reader feel rather ashamed of himself, as if he was the bad boy who did not know his lesson. For instance, he says:—“It is hardly necessary to transcribe any of the parallel passages which no probable reader can be supposed not to know by heart.” Observe that word “probable” and then imagine the feelings of some poor sciolist who had passed over the very passage without any considerable tremor of the heart, much less the active interest which would lead him to memorise it for the comfort of his weary hours. Then Mr. Swinburne has a defiant way of making his comparisons which throws his reader into a state bordering on alarm. The lesser English gods are treated with the respect due them, but he bows the knee to none so adoringly as the great French supreme, who is above either the faults or trivialities of his brother deities. Such furious utterances come well from one who has dwelt so long in the very flames of inspiration; and in viewing as a whole the critical work of this great poet it cannot be gainsayed that he has touched the literature of England at least with an insight and interpretive power which have put the whole race in his debt.

       The class distinction on the continent of America has developed further than we have realised. The concentration of wealth into the control of a few, and the gradually growing poverty of the working classes, is becoming more apparent every day. Here in Canada as in dying out as the result of the absorption of capital. The liberty and safety of the State has so far mainly depended on the influence of this class. When it goes, then may come the long-prophesied struggle of the rich and poor. For selfish ends of their own men many deny this state of things, but it is heart-rending to go into some of our large cities and see the immense amount of wealth squandered on personal aggrandizement and selfish luxuries and then to note the corresponding amount of destitution, degradation and misery both within the shadow of the same church spire or within the sound of the same Sabbath bell. Religionists may cry out about the hopelessness of mere humanity as a religion, but it would be better did they put a little more hope into the anguish of this world by putting more of the humanities into their religion.

       Some notable volumes of short stories have appeared in 1891. Among which the work of James Lane Allen, Miss Wilkins, H.B. Bunner, Octave Thanet and R.H. Davis are especially strong and subtle.
       Mr. Allen has a touch in some senses similar to that of Hawthorne, and in the “White Cowl,” which first appeared in The Century, he gives a beautiful but sombre picture of American monastic life. Miss Wilkins, who is regarded now with favor in England, has a fine and subtle insight into New England everyday life, which she, perhaps, attenuates to a perceptibly painful extent in showing its poverty of animation and hopefulness.
       Mr. Bunner, who is a well-known poet and journalist of a delicate type, has given us examples of his realism and idealism in “Zadoc Pine.” He sometimes writes with a freer hand than his compeers, but there is a simplicity and naturalness about some of his types that make them realistic and yet good reading. He has a knack of making short and well balanced sentences, and there is an atmosphere about his work that hints of its being the prose work of a poet, who can charm in a serious as well as in a lighter vein.
       Octave Thanet has been for some time a writer for Scribner’s, and in her short stories shows a freshness of landscape, a masculine vigor and fineness of touch that mark her out as prominent among the later writers of the South.
Mr. Davis, who is a professional journalist, has garnered some of his experiences in that line. He has a strong and nervous grasp, and is akin to Kipling in his observation of society; but perhaps his work should be regarded rather as that of promise than achievement.

       “The Sister’s Tragedy” shows more of the dramatic element than any of Aldrich’s former works—and contains some strong and occasionally remarkable work. “The Ship Master’s Tale,” which first appeared in Harper’s, is startling in its direct and simple mastery of style and conception.
       “The Ride to the Lady,” by Miss Cone, contains some of the most subtle and delicate verse written by a woman in late years.
       Miss Reese’s verse shows a kinship with Rossetti’s, but she has a genuine lyrical touch that shows much promise.
       Mr. Reilly’s work is the antipodes of that of Mr. Aldrich, in that it is intensely American and of the times. He is assuredly a poet of the every-day life and of the common people. He has an intense sympathy with childhood, which he celebrates with a pathos and humor that is irresistible. He is probably the most sincere and natural of the younger generation of American singers.

       M. Adolphe Guillot, a magistrate of Paris, has written two histories, one of the morgue, “The Temple of Suicide,” as he calls it, the other of the “Prisons and Prisoners of Paris.” The morgue is a low building planted by the edge of the Seine, just behind that other temple, the great Cathedral of Notre Dame, where the sufferer seeks the peace not of death, but of God. There each day on the damp marble slabs, always tenanted, lie the voiceless remains of the saddest and most desolate of Paris, and its history, could it be written by one having the eye of omniscience, would indeed be a narrative of strange and sickening pathos and unimaginable horror.
       Scarcely less gloomily interesting would be the history of the old prisons of Paris, the Chatelets and La Force, haunted by the hideous and gigantic spectre of the butcheries of September, 1792; Sainte Pelagie, that saw the last tragic hours of Madame Roland; the Temple, where Louis “Capet,” the prisoner, lay, and the little Dauphin died, the victim of half-revealed brutalities; the Conciergerie with its three towers, one of the picturesque sites of Paris; For l’Eveque, the Bicetre, and the ever-memorable Bastile, dead these hundred years with all its villainous memories. But what human soul would dare to penetrate, even if it could, the horrid secrets of these dreadful abodes.

       An Australian poet whose work was lately published in England made a strong stand for the pervasion of local color in his verse, and has turned the seasons topsy-turvy to let us know how a poet must feel in the Antipodes. After all is said and done it amounts to the same thing: flowers are fair and sweet no matter whether they bloom in August or December, and ice is ice even if it comes in June, or, as Mr. O’Hara says,
                            While June upon the meadow pools
                                   Was building icy bridges.
       In Canada we have a decent, old-fashioned climate, which corresponds in all essential points to that which has bronzed the poets of old England, and our poets can sing of the seasons in their old round and cannot fail to be understood. Our skies are higher and brighter, the tints of our forests are more varied, our winter comes with greater snows and frosts. Once and a while the critics across the water may look perplexed and ask our poets what they mean by “timothy,” or some other colloquial term, but in the main we must depend for local color on whatever there is of real difference in our manner of looking at the old world with its changeful beauty.