At the Mermaid Inn

The Globe, Toronto: January 14, 1893


       I was lately struck by the appearance which a volume of Montaigne's Essays, which had been a wanderer from a public library fro some time, presented when it came into my hands through possibly hundreds of others. It seemed to support a proposition that I have heard defended many times and with much spirit, that these old books lived by the uncleanliness which was in them, for as I looked at the pages of the closed book there was a discolored streak down the centre, and these pages had, by reason of much thumbing, become loosened from the back and had protruded themselves slightly in advance of their fellows, as if petitioning to be read before their betters or wholly to the exclusion of them. It was a comment on a peculiarity of human nature that these pages had been oftener used than any others in the book, and they contained what Montaigne would perhaps not be complete without, but what is a valueless portion of this incomparable work. I was led to think that hundreds of people had read these pages to their own destruction, and had been led to the great essayist from no desire to profit from his genuine spirit, by his animated sayings, by his inexhaustible knowledge of human nature, but by the very small portion of his work which deals with baser things. Montaigne's work, as I have said before, would be incomplete without the chapters which are pervaded by a license which is inadmissible in our own day. They enable us to see more clearly what manner of man Montaigne was, and they throw a distinct light on the customs of the age in which he lived; but they are not Montaigne in the sense in which one uses the name when one thinks of the force he can be in the modern world, and when one associates it with those stores of wit and human kindliness and rare wisdom which make him forever the refuge of minds which can be touched and won by such qualities. Anyone who reads the old authors out of pruriency, for the delight of what is unclean in them, takes them at a mean and disgraceful disadvantage. If they had provided a table of obscenity and invited the world to partake, theirs would have been the blame; but when they load the board with all manner of wholesome food it is an act of monstrous ill-breeding for a guest to satiate his unnatural appetite with some special dish, and not to refresh himself with the plain and vigorous fare spread before him. We will always find men who will match what is unclean in themselves with the uncleanliness of the old authors, but these worthies are like eagles who soar away from their befouled nests into their natural element, the clean, universal air. Happy is the man who can follow them, who can enjoy the depth of their wisdom and the penetration of their wit, and who refuses to be misled by the belief that they exist for, and are perpetuated by, those portions of their works which appeal to the baser qualities of human nature. The readers who perused only the discolored pages of the Montaigne to which I have referred had not communed with him at all, they had left him without a shadow of an idea of what a fine, companionable fellow he was, and will never know until they discover for themselves those qualities which made Emerson include him as one of the world's representative men.

       Some fortunate persons have been given the pleasure in recent years of reading two remarkable poems called "The Lost Island" and "Nestorius," printed and bound in two very thin little books. The author is Mr. E.T. Fletcher, a writer I believe, as a poet, almost unknown to fame. These poems, written in stanzas full of musical and imaginative power, the first printed in 1888 and the second in 1892, treat of old-world subjects, and are similar in tone and coloring. In both the writer has succeeded admirably in enveloping his theme in that brooding and mysterious splendor which associates itself in our imaginations with the enormous memorials of far-off antiquity.
       "The Lost Island" is a story of Atlantis. A pestilence rages upon the island, and is removed by Sanadon, a Marut, or lord of the winds, who put on human nature in order that he may be united to the island queen, Evanoe, whom he loves. Afterward, when the doom falls upon Atlantis, he sacrifices himself for the safety of the people, who escape in a fleet which he has taught them to build. Evanoe and her two adopted children, Eiridion and Thya, voluntarily share his fate. The description of the journeys upon which Sanadon carries the two children over the whole earth for the purposes of their education affords Mr. Fletcher an opportunity for the exercise of the Miltonic picturesqueness of his imagination:

Such were the lessons which the Marut taught,
Lessons of pity and of hardihood.
Then rose the four from that green solitude
And floated westward over Hadramaut,
Region of death; and passed Canopus hoar,
Fresh as a vision of the morning then, and sought
The silence of the lonely western sea
Unknown and vast, with wild waves rolling free,
Beyond Pyrene and the sunset shore.

Through the dim shadows of the moonlit night
What phantom comes? The winds have sunk to sleep,
There is no sound or motion on the deep;
Wrapt, as a bride, in veil of gauzy light,
What galley, slow and ghostlike, parts the foam
With laboring oars and shredded sails of white,
Battered with storms? "Behold," said Sanadon,
"Girt with his friends, Ulysses wanders on,
Adventurous, forgetful of his home!"

The large-browed chieftains from Scamander's plain,
Sages and warriors, kings of oldest time,
Sitting as gods—Ulysses with the rime
Of years upon his beard—the sails—the vane—
Were seen a moment through the gloom; then passed
Beyond their ken, and all was night again.

       In the poem "Nestorius" a young Arab girl comes to the aged and banished patriarch, as he broods by the bank of the Nile, and devotes her life to him. The two go forth into the desert, and after many days reach an oasis which had once been the retiring place of the Mizrite Pharaohs, and the last refuge of the worship of the ancient deities. Nestorius exorcises and banishes the spectres of the old religion forever. On their returning journey his little companion starts from her sleep to defend the old man from the threatened attack of a lion, and, in consequence of the shock, she sickens and dies. The return and death of Nestorius are recorded. The poem is not very strong as to "motif," but the descriptions of the desert, the oasis, the strange, forsaken palaces, the ghostly throng within them, and the vision of the ancient deities and their worshippers, all lend themselves to that gift of high imagination and sonorous and beautiful versification which Mr. Fletcher certainly possesses. How rich this versification is my readers may judge from the following stanzas:—

And down the highway, like the ceaseless course
Of some majestic river, swept along
A multitude past numbering, a throng
Of strange-clad, many-nationed worshippers;
Priests in rich panther skins and robes of white,
Princes uraeus-crowned—and sceptred queens.
Brown Abyssinian girls, with tambourines,
Slaves, warriors in cohorts infinite,
Bejewelled Khita, and wild Hagarines.

Far in the van, King Ramses Miamon,
The lord of victory, the eagle-eyed—
A tawny lion stalking by his side—
Stood in his car, and seemed to lea them on;
Still in his hand he held the mighty bow,
Which none but he might bend, of mortal men;
The quiver still he bore, whose arrowy rain
Showered death, like Amun's lightning, and laid low
The hosts of Syria on Khadesh plain.

       It will be a surprise to my readers—those of them who do not know Mr. Fletcher personally—to know that he is an old man, more than 70 years of age. He was born an Englishman, came to this country when very young, and was an architect and surveyor in the service of the crown lands department at Quebec until his superannuation some years ago. Since that time he has lived in British Columbia, where one of his sons is post-office inspector. Among his friends he is distinguished as an excellent scholar and accomplished man.
It seems strange that amid the numerous company of verse-makers whom our reviewers delight to honor with sounding paragraphs, and whose work is, much of it, such very indifferent stuff, a writer capable of "The Lost Island" and "Nestorius" should have reached old age almost unknown as a poet beyond a limited circle of sympathetic friends. Let us do honor to such a poet, who has maintained a reserve so fine and so unusual, who has run so far counter to the clamorous custom of his age as to live out a long life in the tranquil life of books, wisdom and poetry, without caring whether the public buy his photograph or the reviewers blow all their penny whistles in his praise.

       The New York Critic of Jan. 7 is an especially interesting number and contains over half a dozen able reviews of important timely books. A notice of Lowell's "Old English Dramatists" heads the list. This collection of essays, which has been edited since the author's death by Prof. Elliot Norton of Harvard college, is ranked by The Critic as even superior to that of Lamb on the subject. The reviewer says:—"In these lectures the American shows himself the more charming idealist of the two, unlocking the chambers of poetry with a golden key, and turning them into delightful whispering galleries for the spirit." These essays, outside of their perennial charm and value, are interesting to us as an example of Lowell's personality in his latter days, as shown in his work. The young Lowell was great as an American, who was both a poet and a patriot. But the man was fated to outlive the era and its dreams for which he wrote and struggled. He lived to change his mind, and with the death of his old enthusiasms his foreign residence toned him down into a delightful cosmopolitan man of letters. Though Lowell never ceased as an American to live in the present, yet it was not the fiery Lowell of 1843 who penned those delightful essays.
       The next review is a long and appreciative one of the late Sir Daniel Wilson's "The Lost Atlantis." The Critic says with regard to this work, which ought to be of especial interest to Canadians and graduates of Toronto university, "The most striking quality of the essays which make up this volume is what may be called their judicial quality. They are the productions of a clear-sighted and conscientious instructor." This review, I should not doubt, has been contributed by a Canadian. The late Sir Daniel Wilson has done much in his "Prehistoric Man" and his later works for the study of ethnology. But while he was a hard and close student and a man of eminence, he was too conservative to be a genuine discoverer in any field. Then he was too old a man to come into touch with the growth of science during the last two decades. As a classifier and as a collector of knowledge he has done his part like many other able and painstaking students. But when it comes to a large sweep of the intellect, unclouded and unbiased for the purpose of free comparison, a broader and more modern type of mind is necessary. There are many men in the world to-day whose minds are storehouses of knowledge in detail, but who have never grasped the whole at a quick sweep, so as to really own it for themselves or others. This is one of the grave weaknesses of our modern life; a man is regarded as an authority on a subject merely because he has got a lot of technical knowledge with regard to it. I do not say that the author of "Prehistoric Man" was not a scholar of large calibre, or was not a thinker. He was a thinker, but he thought within certain limitations. I rather think that if Dr. Wilson had been born thirty or forty years later he might have done more for the advancement of science than he has done.
       Another interesting review is on Sidney's "Social Life in England, 1660-1690." Such a work should be of the greatest importance to all students of our own times. We are, the most of us, too much inclined to live in a mist of tradition as regards the past, and we have a foolish idea that we are much advanced as social beings. After all, when we come down to solid reality, this age is just as sordid and brutal as any that has preceded it. We fancy that all the misery of our time is relegated to the Siberian mines and the poor of London. But if we only want to look we will find enough at our own doors. As for the immoralities, so-called, of Charles II's reign, the less we say of them the better. Idle wealth will produce such a condition in any age or country, and the form of government or of religion does not matter one iota. It is a well-known fact that there is as much vice to-day in high-class society, so-called, of New York, London or Paris as there was in the worst days of the Roman empire. The revelations of Stead and others in London alone are revolting in the extreme. Any man who wants to get good reading and who can afford to buy good books, should take The New York Critic for a year, and buy the books, or a part of them, that are reviewed in its columns, and if at the end of that time he had not gained in knowledge of the thought and culture of his own times, it would not be the fault of that excellent paper.