At the Mermaid Inn

The Globe, Toronto: July 1, 1893


       Mr. Frank Yeigh has given us an opportunity of glancing back at our provincial history, and of comparing what Ontario now is with what she once was. The result is inspiriting, and one is irresistibly led to make forecasts of the future, to turn prophetic, and to promise a greatness and a power for our beautiful province transcending anything which she has at present reached. Mr. Yeigh's book, "Ontario Parliament Buildings, 1792-1892," is an historical record of the four buildings which have been successively occupied by the provincial house. It is a valuable record; but it is more—it is a readable one. Anything which Mr. Yeigh would undertake to do would be well done, would be carried out with spirit, taste and judgment, and his record of the many interesting and important occurrences which have gone to make our provincial history is written in a pleasant and entertaining style. Moreover, there is a selection of the things one would want to know, and, in very many instances, notes and striking descriptions of the times which went before our present civilization, and which made it possible.
       The book is filled with pictures of the old buildings, which are in themselves very important and well worth preserving and making readily accessible. The portraits are for the most part good and well-chosen, but, if such have been available, portraits of some of the old worthies would have rendered the collection still more valuable, but there may have been difficulties in the way of obtaining them which could not be overcome. The illustrations of the new building are somewhat marred by the presence of scaffolding and pulley-ropes, but they give a sufficient idea of what must become a most beautiful structure. I say must become, for every building needs time to develop its beauties, and that the new building has beauties, and great ones, no one can deny. I do not think the word grand can be applied to it, but it has a charm which satisfies and inspires—the view of it gives delight and kindred impressions.
       When time has gathered about it countless associations for every Ontario man, it will seem the fitting centre of his provincial life. The most interesting of Mr. Yeigh's chapters may be "Famous scenes in the old chamber," and "Then and now." I say "may be," because my own reading has hardly satisfied me that they are, and the reader of this review will have to satisfy himself by reading the book, a process which should involve buying it, and he will not regret doing that. The book is well printed and bound by Hunter, Rose & Co., and published by the Williamson Book company.

       We notice that the term, "quality" is used to-day in connection with our current minor verse. And, while I would object to it as an unfair and misleading expression as applied to true poetry, yet it comes in very handy as a sort of apology for the kind of pseudo-poetry that is marking these times, and which, in the absence of real poetic imagination and creative ability, has taken to pensive musings and landscape painting in words. The real critic when he meets this article, which is as easy for some men to make as it is to whittle a stick, he passes it over with the slight mention it merits. But there is another class of critic, who, bearing the same relation to true criticism that this kind of verse-maker does to poetry, and stumbling up against a sort of poetical miracle of this kind, he is dumbfounded. Of course, it is a sonnet and is possibly called—

                     AT EVEN.
I sit me moanless in the sombre fields,

The cows come with large udders down the dusk,
One cudless, the other chewing of a husk,
Her eye askance, for that athwart her heels,
Flee-haunted and rib-cavernous, there steals
The yelping farmer-dog. An old hen sits
And blinks her eyes. (Now I must rack my wits
To find a rhyme, while all this landscape reels.)

Yes! I forgot the sky. The stars are out,
There being no clouds; and then the pensive maid!
Of course she comes with tin-pail up the lane.
Mosquitoes hum and June bugs are about.
(That line hath "quality" of loftiest grade.)
And I have eased my soul of its sweet pain.
—John Pensive Bangs, in The Great Too-Too Magazine for July.

       The critic stumbles, I repeat, on this remarkable effusion, and this is what he remarks: "This is verse of a high poetic quality. It is Millet-like in its terse realism. Mr. Bangs is not one of your common flabgasters in rhyme. He is a monk in literature, and wears the hair-shirt of realism. Mark his delicate touches, his firm hand. No laying on with a white-wash brush for him. Oh! It is rare; it is restful. It makes me ——w——. No, the disciple of realism and Arnold does not weep; he only groans. I will hang on to myself." He then consigns all of the other poets who may be standing around stopping up Bangs' literary way to early poetical graves, and black oblivion, while he notes the mellow moon of this his particular poet radiating the heavens with its beams, and rising higher and higher into universal favor. But the funniest part is that the critic should give Mr. Bangs so much praise for his realism. He surely would not have Bangs make the cows drive the landscape, the dog do the roosting, and get the hen, the maid and the June bugs mixed up promiscuously. Hardly! John Pensive Bangs has too much horse-sense for that since he went to college, read Matthew Arnold, cut his hair and got toned down a bit. Nor should the critic expect that Mr. Bangs ever did sit thus, "moanless," in the fields, a martyr to blackflies and damp grass, in order to capture this most rare and fleeting glimpse for the uplifting of his lesser human brethren. Not by any means. John Pensive has a patent on this sort of business, and ten to one he wrote it in his back office, two flights up, with a cigar in his mouth, and the spittoon two points on the weather-bow. Nor should the critic think it anything remarkable to rig or hitch such a landscape together, so as not to forget even the June bugs. This is simple enough. We might give him some more examples. They need no lofty thoughts or wide knowledge of nature and man. This is another, called

                     "PITCHING HAY."
"Hitched to the waggon by the grimy hands
Of the horny-fisted farmer, stands the team,
Filling the drowsy air with languid dream
Of gone, last-winter oats. Aloft there stands
The lusty farm-hand, and he mops his brow,
And says, 'We'll hustle in this last load now.'"

       Or these lines of "singular discernment," says our critic:—

       "Far up the road, where once a waggon was,
Lies all deserted where the toilers sped,
       The foot-path leading to the dun cow's shed
Has but a solitary hobbling toad."

       Fancy such a picture of desolation and bleakness, and so on.
       We have no space here to quote from many such landscapes as "Raking Chips," "The Lonely Clam," "Morn," "Beetles," "Hoeing Potatoes," "Bunch-Grass," "Tadpoles," "Sharpening the Bucksaw," and other equally interesting and peculiar subjects for word-landscape, and all found in John Pensive Bangs' new volume of poems, called "Red Top and Radishes," and all containing that remarkable attribute called "poetic quality" in a marked degree."

       I have just discovered a passage from Frederick Harrison's article on the "Decadence of Romance," which backs up my article of the week before last. Here it is:—
       "We come, then, to this, that for the first time during this whole century now ending English literature can count no living novelist whom the world consents to stamp with the mark of accepted fame. One is too eccentric and subtle, another too local and unequal, a third too sketchy, this one too unreal, that one far too real, too obvious, too prosaic, to win and to hold the great public by their spell. Critics praise them, friends utter rhapsodies, good judges enjoy them; but their fame is partial, local, sectional." Not only in romance but in other branches of art is there this dearth of genius, or even talent of the first rank:—
       "With a very high average of fairly good work, an immense mass of such work, and an elaborate code of criticism, the production of brilliant and inimitable successes is usually arrested in every field. Having thousands of graceful verse-writers, we have no poet; in a torrent of skilful fiction, we have no great novelist; with many charming painters, who hardly seem to have a fault, we have no great artist; with mises-en-scene, make-up, costumes and accessories for our plays such as the world never saw before, we have no great actor, and, with ten thousand thoughtful writers, we have not a single genius of the first rank. Elaborate culture casts chill looks on original ideas. Genius itself is made to feel the crudeness and extravagance of its first efforts, and retires with shame to take a lower place. We are all so fastidious about form, and have got such fixed regulation views about form, we are so correct, so much like one another, such good boys and girls, that the eccentricities and idiosyncrasies of the inventive spirit are taught from childhood to control themselves and to conform to the decorum of good society. A highly-organized code of culture may give us good manners, but it is the death of genius."
       All the men who have made the Victorian age of literature bright with their names, had done their best work by 1805. "We had already got all, or all that was best, of Tennyson, Browning, Carlyle, Ruskin, Lytton, Thackeray, Dickens, Trollope, George Eliot, Disraeli, Kingsley and others who lived after that date." The trouble to-day is that we have "overstrained our taste, we are overdone with criticism, we are much too systematically drilled, there is far too much moderate literature, and far too fastidious a standard in literature." We are so terrorized with the bugaboo of "correctness" and "finish" that we sacrifice any originality we may possess. Says Mr. Harrison:—
       "If another Dickens were to break out to-morrow with the riotous tomfoolery of Pickwick at the trial, or of Weller and Stiggins, a thousand lucid criticisms would denounce it as vulgar balderdash. Glaucus and Nydia at Pompeii would be called melodramatic rant. 'The House of the Seven Gables' would be rejected by a sixpenny magazine, and 'Jane Eyre' would not rise above a common 'shocker.' Hence the enormous growth of the 'Kodak' school of romance—the snap-shots at every-day realism with a hand camera. We know how it is done. A woman of forty, stout, plain and dull, sits in an ordinary parlor at a tea-table, near an angular girl with a bad squint. 'Some tea?' said Mary, touching the pot. 'I don't mind,' replied Jane in a careless tone; 'I am rather tired, and it is a dull day.' 'It is,' said Mary, as her lacklustre eyes glanced at the murky sky without. 'Another cup?' And so the modern romance dribbles on hour by hour, chapter by chapter, volume by volume, recording, as in a phonograph, the minute commonplace of the average man and woman in perfectly real, but entirely common situations. To this dead level of correctness, literary purism has brought romance."
       "Fielding, Scott, Dickens, Thackeray, Trollope lived full lives, they 'drank with both hands from the cup of life'; but 'George Meredith, Robert Louis Stevenson, Howells, James, look on life from a private box. We see their kid-gloves and their opera-glass, and we know that nothing could ever take them on to the stage. There is no known instance of a great novelist who lived obscure in a solitary retreat, or who became famous only after the lapse of many generations.' Life is growing dull. 'Comfort, electric light, railway cars and equality are excellent things, but they are the death of romance.'"