At the Mermaid Inn

Introduction by D.M.R. Bentley


 

 

Introduction


 

                     THE GLOBE will in to-morrow's issue begin a new feature which is               altogether unique in Canadian journalism and has been seldom               attempted anywhere. It is the establishment of a literary column or               department to consist of contributions from three of the brightest lights               of Canadian literature, viz., Messrs. W.W. Campbell, A. Lampman and               Duncan Campbell Scott. These gentlemen need no introduction to               readers of THE GLOBE, which has on several occasions had the               pleasure of printing and commending their different productions in               prose and poetry. They have made names for themselves as               representative Canadian writers, and the public will doubtless be               pleased to be brought into contact with them oftener than has hitherto               been possible. The department will be known by the title "At the               Mermaid Inn," a name chosen by the authors themselves. It will be               started to-morrow, and will form a permanent feature of THE               SATURDAY GLOBE.

With this statement on February 5, 1892 the Toronto Globe announced the imminent appearance of the column that represents the most sustained collaboration among members of the Confederation group. "At the Mermaid Inn" appeared on every Saturday but one (May 27, 1893) from February 6, 1892 to July 1, 1893. Although written only by the Ottawa contingent of the Confederation group, it contains columns about all three of the other members (Bliss Carman, Charles G.D. Roberts, and Frederick George Scott) and, as Barrie Davies remarks in his Introduction to At the Mermaid Inn: Wilfred Campbell, Archibald Lampman, Duncan Campbell Scott in The Globe, 1892-93 in the University of Toronto Press's Literature of Canada; Poetry and Prose in Reprint series, provides "one of the best guides we have to prevailing intellectual tastes and currents" in Canada in the early eighteen nineties (vii).
       Three days after the appearance of the first "At the Mermaid Inn," The Globe congratulated itself by reprinting an article from the Hamilton Herald that praises it for "doing good work in encouraging young Canadian writers and interesting our people in the literary efforts of those who live among us yet who have heretofore been better known in the States than in our own country" (February 9, 1892). At the time of the column's inception, all three of the poets contributing to it had indeed achieved international recognition—Lampman for Among the Millet, and Other Poems (1884), which had received extravagant praise from one of America's most highly regarded men of letters, William Dean Howells; Scott for "The Reed-Player," which had been singled out by the New York Independent as the best poem published in an American periodical in 1891; and Campbell for "The Mother," which had been praised in the April 5, 1891 issue of the Chicago Inter-Ocean as "[t]he nearest approach to a great poem which has cropped up ... for many a long day."1 The "At the Mermaid Inn" in column, then, was part of a trajectory of international and national recognition that was to make 1893 an annus mirabilis of achievements and accolades for the Confederation group: a "Canadian Literature Evening" in Toronto on January 10, the publication in the April 1 issue of The Globe of Edward William Bok's fawningly laudatory "Young Canadian Writers from an American Standpoint," the appearance of substantial selections of their work in J.E. Wetherell's Later Canadian Poems, and, of course, the publication of individual volumes by every member of the group except Lampman, whose Lyrics of Earth did not appear until 1896.
       But even before the annus mirabilis had begun there were intimations that Campbell was setting himself on a path that would lead in two years to the bitter attack on other members of the Confederation group that quickly escalated into the so-called "War among the Poets." Writing darkly of the presence in Canada of a "bundle of cliques" in his column of December 10, 1892, Campbell accuses the country's "literary critics and journals" of failing to judge works of Canadian literature on their "real merits" and, instead, "booming" the work of their "personal friends." By February 4, 1893, Campbell was writing of "a fraternal system of back-scratching ... and back-biting" among prominent Canadian writers and by March 18 he was disparaging the sonnet—a form in which Lampman and Roberts excelled—as being "over-much abused in these latter days of artificial writing." In the ensuing months, the barbs continued to fly as Campbell added literary "polish," inauthentic imitativeness, a lack of human sympathy, and other characteristics to the catalogue of poetic sins from which he, by implication, was immune (see, for example, his columns of May 20 and June 17). His final column of July 1 may not have been the only cause of the cessation of "At the Mermaid Inn," but it was surely a contributing factor: an attack on the "pseudo-poetry that is marking these times," it contains a sonnet and excerpts from a lyric by "John Pensive Bangs" that receive praise in the column from an equally fictitious critic for their "Millet-like realism"—a reference to the French painter Jean François Millet that in all probability also encompasses Among the Millet, and Other Poems. In the March 16, 1894 issue of The Week (Toronto), Campbell went on the offensive again, and on February 28 and June 6, 1895 he accused the Confederation group of "log-rolling" (that is, mutual "back-scratching") and Carman of egregious plagiarism. The "War" was on and the disintegration of the Confederation group increasingly imminent.
       Of course "At the Mermaid Inn" is of interest and value for much more than its escalating conflict and premonitions of war. In its pages can be found discussions of a wide spectrum of topics that bear more-or-less directly on the work of its authors in other genres and modes. All three poets discuss the work of Alfred, Lord Tennyson and Percy Bysshe Shelley (the former died in 1892; 1893 was the centennial of the birth of the latter). Lampman and Campbell discuss Matthew Arnold, Lampman and Scott discuss A.C. Swinburne, Scott and Campbell discuss Wordsworth. Lampman reveals his admiration for the American nature writer Bradford Tory, Campbell for the American dialect writer John Hay, Scott for the dramas of Henrik Ibsen. There are discussions of Nature and the natural environment, on the nature of Beauty and creative originality, the social position of women, the national importance of education, the pervasive influence of American periodicals, the pernicious effects of class distinctions.... As might be expected from Campbell's increasingly pointed barbs, there are admiring remarks by Lampman and Scott on Carman and by Lampman on Frederick George Scott. Less predictable perhaps are Lampman's reservations about aspects of the work of Roberts, Campbell's arguments in favor of forming an association of Canadian authors, Scott's appreciation of Harriet Monroe as a master of the sonnet, and the number of European as well as American, British, and Canadian writers mentioned and discussed in the course of the column's existence. In short, the literary personalities and positions represented by "At the Mermaid Inn" are complex and shifting—a "guide to prevailing intellectual tastes and currents" certainly, but also an index of the convergences and divergences that characterized the Confederation group at the height of its fame.

 

The Present Text

The present text of "At the Mermaid Inn" is based on the texts published in The Globe between February 6, 1892 and July 1, 1893. It was transcribed from photographic copies of the original columns by Julia Obert, who also emended it in accordance with the editorial principles of the Canadian Poetry Press and compiled the list of emendations that follows the present text. For her great patience and skill in making "At the Mermaid Inn" and numerous other texts on the Canadian Poetry web site readily and reliably available all students and scholars are indebted to Julia and will doubtless share in my profound gratitude to her.
                                                                                                                  —D.M.R.B.

 

Notes

1. For a fuller discussion of the international and national recognition of the poets of the Confederation group and of the group's disintegration and dissolution, see D.M.R. Bentley, The Confederation Group of Canadian Poets, 1880-1897. [back]

 

Works Cited in the Introduction

Bentley, D.M.R. The Confederation Group of Canadian Poets, 1880-1897.        Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2004.

Davies, Barry. "Introduction." At the Mermaid Inn: Wilfred Campbell, Archibald        Lampman, Duncan Campbell Scott in The Globe 1892-93. Literature of        Canada: Poetry and Prose in Reprint. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1979. vii-xxi.