At the Mermaid Inn

The Globe, Toronto: January 21, 1893


       Amongst the most interesting of the publications which appeal to the antiquarian are the issues of old English parish registers and constables' accounts. From these we can to some extent construct the past, discover the manners and customs of our forefathers, their amusements and what they paid for them as well as other things, the fines they were liable to and the laws to which they had to bow. Such documents have preserved the knowledge of local customs and traditions, and have thrown much light upon the original application of words and phrases which have gained a currency wider than amongst the gossips of the district in which they first arose. One of the latest of these books is the transcript of "The Constable's Accounts of the Manor of Manchester," edited by J.P. Earwaker and published by Blackburn & Co. of Manchester. The originals of the documents are in the possession of the corporation of Manchester. One of them was bequeathed to it, the other purchased for it, and they now form part of the city archives. It is related of a former owner of one of the manuscripts that he saw it in a bookseller's shop, and, knowing that he had discovered a prize, carried it off under his arm and left a friend to arrange for the price. From the accounts themselves we learn that the authorities in Manchester long ago practised the art, which some of our city corporations have brought to such perfection, of getting rid of objectionable paupers and mendicants by passing them into the next municipality with as great expedition as possible. It is a question of some interest what in the end becomes of these unfortunate individuals. Are they passed on constantly, never resting, with a mayor's pass always in their hands, until at last death thrusts them out of the world with a chuckle, giving them the passport which he never denies to anyone? But if our city officials have retained these habits they no longer wear the gorgeous plumage which their predecessors wore. Beadles were the show of the town in those days, with their utter magnificence and the importance of their duties. Scourging offenders of all sorts—thieves, blacklegs, idiots, beggars, dissolute persons and nondescript vagrants—was one of their chief duties, as well as applying the municipal tortures for scolding and bewitching. The bellman also was a functionary of more than ordinary importance, and on Shrove Tuesday we are informed he had to take particular precautions against "lifting," a practice which consisted of groups of women catching hold of and lifting from the ground all the men they met, and the men doing the same to the women. We could imagine a group of these Manchester dames descending upon and "lifting" the bellman, bell and all, much to the alarm of municipal authority in general and of that functionary in particular. But the Constable's Accounts contain less pleasant items than these, for there is, amongst other things, a small payment for fixing the heads of two rebels, Thomas Deacon and Thomas Sydall, upon their spires on the Exchange, and Deacon's father, who was a non-juring clergyman, "never passed under the Exchange without uncovering his head." What a picture of the times that one description calls up; the son's head on the spire, held aloft between heaven and earth, a warning to rebels and malefactors, and his father, with uncovered head, passing beneath!

       The Canadian reading public are not likely to meet with anything more interesting than a new publication by Prof. Charles G.D. Roberts, our master workman in verse. Such an event is unfortunately too rare. In the present case it comes to us in the brief shape of the "Ave, an ode for the Shelley centenary." In these beautiful and strenuous stanzas Prof. Roberts enrolls himself in the special band of the Shelley worshippers, who attribute to that poet a degree of divinity which I, for one, am hardly inclined to allow. But whether the reader be a follower of this cult or not, the beauty and fervor of the "Ave," and the sonorous pump of its versification, can hardly fail to possess his imagination. The poem opens with an address to the poet's beloved Tantramar marshes, always a theme upon which he warms into his finest vein, and the following stanzas will serve not only as an example of his vivid and luxurious delight in splendid landscape and the richness of his gift as a word-painter, but also will indicate how he connects the Tantramar marshes with his view of the character and fate of Shelley:—

And when the orange flood came roaring in
       From Fundy's tumbling troughs and tide-worn caves,
While red Minudie's flats were drowned with din
       And rough Chignecto's front impugned the waves,
How blithely with the refluent foam I raced
       Inland along the radiant chasm, exploring
The green solemnity with boisterous haste;
       My pulse of joy outpouring
To visit all the creeks that twist and shine
From Beausejour to utmost Tormentine.

And after, when the tide was full, and stilled
       A little while the seething and the hiss,
And every tributary channel filled
       To the brim with rosy streams that swelled to kiss
The grass-roots all a-wash and goose-tongue wild
       And salt-sap rosemary—then how well content
I was to rest me like a breathless child
       With playtime rapture spent—
To lapse and loiter till the change should come
And the great floods turn seaward, roaring home.

And now, oh tranquil marshes, in your vast
       Serenity of vision and of dream,
Where through by every intricate vein have passed
       With joy impetuous and pain supreme
The sharp, fierce tides that chafe the shores of earth
       In endless and controlless ebb and flow,
Strangely akin you seem to him whose birth
       One hundred years ago
With fiery succor to the ranks of song
Defied the ancient gates of wrath and wrong.

       These stanzas are an excellent specimen of Prof. Roberts' diction, which, although at times a little heavy in its movement and wanting in flexibility, has always the charm of an exceedingly broad and full-vowelled flow, with a sort of determined strenuousness of accent. There is, moreover, the indefinable individual touch which marks all of Prof. Roberts' best work as his own. The following is one of two very beautiful stanzas in which he skilfully refers to some of Shelley's greater works as figurings of various aspects of the poet's own soul:—

Thyself the last melodious in mid-heaven;
       Thyself the Protean shape of chainless cloud,
Pregnant with elemental fire and driven
       Through deeps of quivering light, and darkness loud
With tempest, yet beneficent as prayer;
       Thyself the wild west wind, relentless strewing
The withered leaves of custom on the air,
       And through the wreck pursuing
O'er lovelier Arros, more imperial Romes,
The radiant visions to their viewless homes.

       There are other stanzas as fine as these which I would that I had space to quote, but I shall have to content myself with some instances of our poet's gift of descriptive phrase-making—an art in which he is a master:—

The flicker of sandpipers in from sea
In gusty flocks that puffed and fled.

Hither and thither in the slow, soft tide,
Rolled seaward, shoreward, sands and wandering shells
And shifting weeds thy fellows.

In that unroutable profound of peace,
Beyond experience of pulse and breath,
Beyond the last release of longing.

       We have heard from time to time of a forthcoming volume of collected pieces by Professor Roberts, and we trust that its publication may not be long delayed.

       It is rarely that we meet with good religious verse to-day. Even in the hymnologies the gems are among the oldest. The late Cardinal Newman's "Lead, kindly light" is probably the most human and the greatest among modern hymns, containing as it does in itself the whole circle of modern faith and doubt. The poet Whittier was the greatest hymn writer of this century, chiefly because of his large faith in the infinite and his wide human charity linked with a pure lyrical genius. After all, if a writer is allowed to express an opinion, my choice would fall on the "Te deum" as the greatest religious hymn ever written. There is a largeness and majesty in the style and the language that is simply glorious, and one of the greatest punishments one can endure is to hear this great hymn murdered by bad music and a poor choir. It is also a prayer, and such a chant of prayer can only be truly delivered where all is in keeping. Among religious poems not found in rituals Milton's superb hymn to the "Nativity" is by all odds the greatest. In the Christmas number of The Owl, the Ottawa college paper, there appeared a "Christmas hymn" by Mr. Waters, whose "Water lily" has already given him a place among Canadian poets, though I understand he is not Canadian by birth. This poem is no doubt one of the finest religious poems ever written in Canada. The theology is Roman Catholic, which fact will to a large extent prevent outsiders from appreciating many beauties of expression. But the literary reader cannot but realise many beautiful passages in the poem, as the following:—

"And down the asphodel-flowered lawn
Of opening heaven the angels tread
With folded wings and eyes serene,
To where the ever-virgin queen
Low o'er the infant droops her head."

The finest lines in the whole poem are those describing how

       "He empties heaven of all his might
       And bides within a little span."

Mr. Waters is a true poet, who without any idea of fame has written for the pure love of his art and the enjoyment it has given him. But nevertheless he has done work of a quality that might easily outshine that of others who are more ambitious for literary honors.

       Mr. George Meredith is reputed to have nearly finished his new novel, but its name has not been announced. Mr. R.D. Blackmore is to publish his new novel as a serial in Macmillan's Magazine. It is called "Perelycross," and is said to be equal in interest to Mr. Blackmore's best work.

       If the author of the poem "Life," which was sent to this department, will kindly send his address a private opinion will be given.