At the Mermaid Inn

The Globe, Toronto: July 2, 1892


       It may be an easy thing to look back over the long range of our poetical literature and pick out a favourite here and there, but when it comes to a decision as to supreme greatness there ensues a wide difference of opinion. From Chaucer and Spenser down to Browning, Tennyson, Arnold and Swinburne stretch a great host of names that stand for work that will not easily perish. Though not deemed great in his own age, Shakespeare, in this age, is by common consent acknowledged to be the king of English poets, the one supreme mind whose genius has glorified the language to which it belongs. If this general opinion concerning Shakespeare is true, might it not be well to ask ourselves what are the special qualities that lift him to this supreme place in literature? The common answer would be that it is his great dramatic power that makes him supremely great. But we might again ask, in what does this dramatic power consist? And the answer to this question would be that it is made up of many qualities, each of which would endow a lesser genius. In other words he must have contained in himself all the essential qualities that go to make a great poet, such as unpralleled insight into human life, both as regards his own time and also in past history, so as to render human any history he touched. Then he must have had a remarkable fecundity to have produced all he did, and his range is so wide as to embrace all types of humanity met with in any age. In all of these lie his supreme greatness, not to speak of a wonderful gift of expression. Many poets have a deep insight into nature or into a certain type or class of humanity, but in Shakespeare we find a universality, if I might use such a word, that is found in no other writer. When we try to apply this test to the other great English poets the decision as to supreme greatness becomes difficult. All genius, whether it be that of a Wordsworth or a Byron, calls for our homage, and to deny the one or the other does not harm the greatness we ignore; we but clip the wings of our own humanity to that extent. I would dare to say that for genuine greatness as a poet Coleridge comes next to Shakespeare in the language but there would be many who would prefer some other singer. There are those who elevate Wordsworth to this position, but to do so would be to revolutionise all literature and to strip poetry of her lyrical and dramatical qualities and make mere philosophy usurp the divinity of song. In short it were to strip Shakespeare himself of his supreme greatness. The great glory of poetry in all ages is not mere thought; it is creation which leads to inspiration. In this Homer will always be greater than Plato and Shakespeare than Bacon. A man may be a great thinker and not be a great poet. Philosophy is worked out, song is inspired. Philosophy deals with problems, song with ideals. Philosophy deals with history, song with men; and where the one agonises to seek for what it calls the truth the other contents itself with the beauty that is ever present and always enjoys what the other ever desires in vain. Philosophy lays bare where poetry clothes; and herein is where poetry is in the highest sense spiritual. A man may clothe in delicate language some philosophical thought and yet not be a great poet. The poet is first and last a creator. He does not need to moralise; his creation speaks for itself. The greatest English poets have been in their highest moments of this order. A certain class of poets, such as Matthew Arnold and Emerson, have, with a philosophical tendency, idealised history, they have attempted to poetise the philosophy of history, but great as they are as thinkers they have failed as poets in the highest sense. They recognise man as a unit in history, but knew nothing of him as a living soul; at least not in the dramatic sense, as Shakespeare did.

       There is nothing more exasperating to the free lover of this earth than the spectacle of a placard stuck up in front of a plain pasture field or bit of inviting woodland, bearing some such legend as this: "No trespassing on this property!" Now, to the scientist, the artist and the poet, this earth belongs to no man in particular; everything that he treads upon is his for the moment, and wherever the ground is not encumbered with the actual flesh and impedimenta of the owner he proposes to go at will. To the owner of forest and field, I would say that if he find any poor soul illegal using his property for an hour of innocent research or quiet reflection, and be moved to institute against him the rigors of the law, let him first ascertain what manner of man the offender is, and if he belong to any of the classes mentioned above, let him be careful to leave him alone, for it may chance that he has made more out of that land for the benefit of mankind than the owner or all his descendants will ever do. Moreover, if he is of the true stock he is incorrigible, anyway, and will go where he will no matter what you do.

       Now is the season of the splendor of the fields. The gardens are heavy with the breath of the syringa and the meadows with the perfume of clover. Everywhere the hayfields are floated over with the stars of marguerite and buttercup; we find the bladder-campion and blue-eyed grass in the meadows, and in the deep pine woods the twin flowers intense with perfume and the fair little honey-scented sanilacina. Now it is that in the long afternoons we dream of some place of wind and flowers,

       Full of sweet trees and color of glad grass,

and find it if we can, for we know now with the fullest intensity of sympathy that we are of one birth with everything about us, brethren to the trees and kin to the very grass that now, even at noon in the shadowy places, flings the dew about our feet.

       The reviewers of Mr. Rudyard Kipling's "Ballads and Barrack Room Ballads" have made mention of their astonishing force and freedom, but I have nowhere discovered the statement that they are pleasant reading. I think I have a genuine appreciation for Mr. Kipling's best work, whether in prose or verse, but the failings of both are similar, and for my own part I could have wished them different. Mr. Kipling is a genius, and one of a very positive quality. It is impossible to mistake his distinctive touch; after having read one of his tales the virile and incisive power and the direct forethought stroke are recognisable in every thing he writes. But with all this genius there is mixed a coarseness like the coarseness of a man who despises nature, something sceptical and rude and sinister, something vulgar, born of the unlicensed passions. The glory in the description of what is merely effete in society may have arisen from the surroundings of his early life, but the note is too constant to be passed over in silence. The power with which he describes human suffering and human bloodshed an the ease with which he addresses himself to the task are equally remarkable. In half a dozen of his best tales and in a very few of his ballads these qualities are entirely absent, but when it comes to a question of deciding upon the main mass of his work these characteristics are too strong to be glossed over. And the final question with reference to Mr. Kipling's work, as well as every other man's, is, Does it give pleasure? This question every one will answer for himself, and I must say that the qualities which I have mentioned above as almost ever present are to me intensely disturbing and disagreeable. There is hardly a ballad in this new book which has not some violent barbarity of expression, some rude thrust that unsettles the mind. It is no palliation to say that the strokes are forcible and often tragically powerful; it is no consolation to a man who has been thrashed to think that the beating was well and deftly done. It is too unnerving to meet in a ballad which, although admittedly free, does not always sink to the level of my quotation, that a certain warrior behaved in this fashion:—

       He crucified noble, he sacrificed mean,
       He filled old ladies with kerosene.

       It is, I say, unnerving to meet with such things, for they are neither humorous nor powerful, and they rather degrade than otherwise. I might muliply examples, but another will be sufficient:—

I had nailed his ears to my capstan head, and ripped them off with a saw,
And soused them in the bilge water, and served them to him raw.
I had stripped his hide for my hammock side, and tasseled his beard i' the        mesh,
And spitted his crew on the live bamboo that grows through the gangrened flesh.

       It is useless to ask whether this is fitting in its place; the question is, Is it pleasant reading? Certain of the barrack room ballads have a humorous quality, notably the one "Tommy," and, in common with their companions, they have a swing and a bounding rhythm that is as free and forcible as the wind. I can only regret, for my own part, that the wind which bears Mr. Kipling's message had not passed over more fragrant hollows and hills and had come less often laden with the scent of blood and fire.

       It is a noticeable fact that the greatest poets, those few who are eminent above all others for dignity and majesty of tone, have been men of affairs before they were poets, and that those men who have been poets only have belonged, however illustrious, to the second class. Eschylus was a soldier and an active patriot before he was a poet. The speech that came naturally to his tongue was not the mere utterance of the brilliant playwright. Active participation in great national efforts and the experience of battle and victory were necessary to awaken and confirm in the poet of Agamemnon that mood and note of rugged, sustained sublimity. The mind of Dante, trained in the great cares of statecraft, studying and experiencing the vicissitudes of an active and dangerous time, became capable of the Divina Comedia. Our own Milton could never have written Paradise Lost had he not first been the friend and assistant of Cromwell and concerned in the mighty cares and the proud cause of the Commonwealth. The mood of soul that he learned in those full years of thought and labor and intense experience is the mood of Paradise Lost—grand, ingenuous, austere. If the youth of Byron could have been bred in the hardening atmosphere of great affairs instead of being given over to foppery and dissipation, if the Greek revolution had called him earlier, or if he had lived longer and passed through periods of strenuous deeds and important purposes, he might have given to England a poet more splendidly fruitful, if not so mighty of tongue as Milton.