At the Mermaid Inn

The Globe, Toronto: January 7, 1893


       No one can meet Mr. Gilbert Parker, our young fellow-countryman who has been so successful in the London literary world, without feeling that he deserves all his success and will have more. There is a reserve of force which one becomes, somehow or other, aware of, which inspires a feeling or confidence that Mr. Parker, with his assiduity, his great ability and his opportunities, will achieve a yet higher reputation. He has already seen much of the world, and he seems to have the devouring eye which will not let any fact or color or circumstance escape him. It is an almost absolute necessity to have command of several locales for success in modern storywriting, and Mr. Parker has Canada, with which he is thoroughly familiar, and Australia and the South seas, where he has spent some time, to draw upon. The former field has furnished him already with matter for several of his most successful tales, and he is now engaged in the pastoral and Arcadian Quebec in collecting fresher knowledge of the ways and speech of the people for future use. Australasia has provided him incidents for a volume of South sea stories, which is to appear in May next. In the meantime, "Pierre and His People" has gone into its second edition, and in February Messrs. Methuen are to publish a novel, "Mrs. Falchion," which will also been issued by the United States Book company. Mr. Parker has also been successful with his dramatic productions. "The Wedding Day" is now being produced in England, and Geo. Alexander of the St. James' theatre, London, has accepted a one-act play from Mr. Parker's pen. All this means an extraordinary output of energy, and if our young Canadian continues, and there is no reason why he should not, he will soon occupy a place in the literary firmament which many have coveted and but few obtained. There is about Mr. Parker a freedom from disguise, a perfect, genial open-heartedness and a helpful belief in his art and the worthiness of it which stamp him, as I said before, as a man bound to succeed, and these qualities make us wish him success for his own sake as well as ours. It will be a bright day for Canada when men of such ability can find it to their advantage to remain at home and exercise their faculties in helping to build up the country in which they were born and to which they must often turn with longing. Emerson says somewhere that a man being born in a place means that he has some work to do there; and there is plenty of work for every Canadian to do in Canada. But, at present, it is not the Utopia of authors, except, perhaps, in appreciation—for I hold that there is a great deal of genuine appreciation—and when a man feels that letters is his calling he must depart from our shores and be a sojourner in an alien land.

       One of the most fascinating studies is that of history. To see the past through the glasses of a Gibbon or a Hume, a Hallam or a Froude, is not alone entertaining and instructive, but it is also inspiring. But how much more realistic and important becomes the study when you have a chance thrown in your way to read the past life of a people through its public, every-day affairs. It is like the power of reading between the lines of a letter. We are not only able to see and hear the actors as they strut the stage, but also to discover the secret motives and circumstances that influenced their actions. I have very little faith in biographies as a whole. They are very often but the funeral trappings and trimmings of a life that in its grim realities was a very different matter altogether. So it is with history. Even when that bias is dead which influences contemporary opinion, other public motives and prejudices are at work to prevent a true depiction of the past in its entirety. I am sorry to say that for this reason we have few great historians. And we ourselves know how common a thing it is to have even the greatest historians tampered with in the interests of certain existing institutions. Under this head nothing can be of greater interest to Canadians to-day than anything that may throw light on the early days of old Upper Canada. It can easily be admitted that we have as yet no important chronicle of that period, with the exception of what Mr. Kingsford is doing in that direction. We have been instructed as schoolboys in certain dates and attendant events in connection with old provincial history. But, beyond this and certain patriotic remembrances acquired in a general way, we know little or nothing as a people of our immediate ancestors of old Upper Canada. The U.E. Loyalist and other biographies, for they are nothing more, give us but a small and, for the most part, a false idea of the real history of those days. How interesting, I repeat, is it, then, to be able to see our predecessors, not through any biased eye, but in the light of their own daily acts and ideals, both as private citizens and through their civil institutions. How different do things appear. The hideous appears in all its unvarnished reality, and if there is anything that strikes us as heroic in the period it appeals to us by its very unconsciousness of being anything out of the common. You can fancy the surprise that would come over a man, who, having perused the biography of a dead man, written by some friend or relative, suddenly comes into possession of all his private paper giving the key to the motives and actions of his whole life. If the student were not already a man of the world and accustomed to accept such things with a grain of salt, how many illusions would there not be destroyed for him under the circumstances? In dipping into the early life of old Upper Canada, the truth of these cursory remarks appears almost at every step. And if plain documents of a year or a decade tell anything of the life of a people, the elements of sordidness and personal ambition played no small part in the general impulse. It is almost laughable to read the long-winded preambles of the commons and legislative assembly of that date, and especially the former, and the extreme iteration of loyalty is remarkable. And the constant recurring phrase, "Our one desire is the freedom and happiness of man," which, if we read the people of that period through the utterance of its corporate representatives, seemed to be the one ideal and aim of the age, sounds very funny side by side with the chronicle of the daily acts of the said body, which many of them would lead us to believe to be the acts of those mysterious personages proclaimed in these public documents as the enemies of justice and the freedom of man rather than those of a body whose ideals were so lofty and unselfish in their aim. As to-day the great struggle is for money, so in those days, when money was scarce and of little account in a colony with little trade and no commerce, land was the one standard of power and position, and the greed for the acquisition of that solid representative of material wealth is quite surprising even to the mind of this most degenerate present age. The rapidity with which public officials acquired large grants, some to the immense amount of ten thousand acres, is shown in contradistinction to unavailing efforts of really deserving families to even acquire the common allotment of from one hundred to two hundred acres. Of course we do not go to public documents to learn the heroic in any age, and I doubt not but that our Upper Canadian ancestors were not devoid of this essential quality in a nationality, but at the same time we must not forget that the acquirement of wealth was no small element in the national inspiration of our immediate past, and that if we are wise to-day we will not forget in our hunt for a national feeling to rely largely on the practical every-day interests of an intensely practical people, rather than on any amount of gush and mock sentiment, which is of no more importance to-day, and gives no more true idea of the real life of the age than did those hypocritical and high-sounding documents with their long phrases about "justice and the happiness of man" give of the real motives and actions of our old Canadian ancestors.

       At a time when literary men are credited with an unusual aptitude for money-making and a most keen eye for the main chance, it almost a satisfaction to hear that Ernest Renan, a writer surely of great popularity and exquisite charm, died poor. It is even said that Madame Renan is obliged to sell her husband's library in order to maintain herself until the national pension, which it is proposed to confer upon her, has been granted. Renan sold all the copyrights of his books, and lived upon the proceeds of his salary as professor in the college of France and his earnings from occasional writings. Altogether at the time of his death his income appears to have been about $3,000 a year, certainly a very moderate sum for a man of his fame. As he was not of a saving temperament he easily consumed all of this, and left nothing behind him. It was Renan who said to the minister of Napoleon III, who offered him a lucrative government post, "Sit tecum tua pecunia." Renan was great, and had the poet's sovereign indifference to wealth.

       If a man were to be exiled to some inaccessible island or cast into prison and given the choice of half a dozen books which he might carry with him to be his solace and support, which books do you think would he choose? No doubt every man much given to reading and thought has amused his fancy at one time or another with some such speculation as this. If it were my case I should choose the Bible, the poems of Homer, the plays of Shakespeare, the poems of Wordsworth, the autobiography of Goethe and the Don Quixote of Cervantes; the Bible as the most fervid and fruitful expression of the religious and prophetic spirit, the Iliad and Odyssey of Homer as the most perfect narrative of human effort presented in the clearest simplicity of beauty, the plays of Shakespeare as the picture of human life made for us by the world's highest union of intellect, heart and imagination, the poems of Wordsworth as the noblest presentment of the influence exerted upon the soul by the beauty and grandeur of outward nature, the autobiography of Goethe as the record of the development of an insatiable and most vital mind uniting the scientific and artistic spirits each in an extraordinary degree, and the Don Quixote as the world's book of the sweetest and most humane humor. From these six books a man might draw sufficient strength, knowledge, inspiration, delight and humanity to last him a life time, and leave him with a soul fitted for eternity with all its chambers draped and furnished and all its windows open.

       Now that I am upon such fancies as this—and coming down to a subject which is perhaps of interest only to the more curious student of letters—I have been trying to make out which is the most beautiful sonnet in the English language, not from the artistic sonneteer's point of view, but from the purely human one. After passing in review the sonnets of Shakespeare, Spenser, Milton, Wordsworth, Rossetti and all the other famous ones, I come to the conclusion that the last sonnet of Keats which he wrote on shipboard in the British channel not many months before his end is the loveliest and loftiest of all. Here it is:—

"Bright star! would I were steadfast as thou art—
       Not in lone splendor hung aloft the night,
And watching with eternal lids apart,
       Like nature's patient, sleepless Ereonite,
The moving waters at their priestlike task
       Of pure ablution round earth's human shores,
Or gazing at the new soft-fallen mask
       Of snow upon the mountains and the moors—
No—yet still steadfast, still unchangeable,
       Pillow'd upon my fair love's ripening breast,
To feel forever its soft fall and swell,
       Awake forever in a sweet unrest,
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
       And so live ever—or else swoon to death."

       How tender, how eloquent, how serene! Surely no young poet ever took leave of this troublesome life—this skein of so sweet and bitter destinies—with a purer or sweeter note upon his lips.