At the Mermaid Inn

The Globe, Toronto: March 19, 1892


Sir Roger—What have we here?
Giles—There is everything under the sun set down with some show of reason; they run atilt at the world, and treat men and manners as familiar as an old hat.
Sir Roger—Think you they protest too much? I like a matter disposed bravely, but—
Giles—Methinks they have a genial tongue. Will you hear them?
Sir Roger—Well, an’ it be not too long I’ll have some sack, and you read on.

— Old Play.

One service more is one more beauty.


       I would write a sermon on this text.
       Here the external acts of life communicate with the subtle and divine mind; the link so delicate, so secret, becomes for a moment visible. Into terms of spirit we translate the motions of reality or service, and are aware of the complex reaction of the soul upon itself. The promptings to kindness result in a greater humanity, to abstinence in a more sublime self-control. And who shall measure the effect, or set a bound to the force of the objective value of service? The washing the disciples’ feet, the acts of tenderness and mercy start at once a thousand roots of peace and promise in the heart. By these present virtues we communicate with the millennium; we are part of that circle of goodness and beauty which shall widen out into eternity. By this service we are linked to the past, and its throes are triumphant in us. So between the two abysses we stand conservators of the past, pioneers of the future. But we are most of all pioneers, the function of our service is one for progress, for advance; by these acts of humanity and usefulness we increase the store of the beauty and goodness of the race. No individual excellence was ever lost; to-day we are protected by the valor of one of our ancestors, who stood in the breach of the wall and would not let the enemy pass. And will we not by our present self-control make the task of life easier for some one who is to come after us. Beauty is not a term of form alone, it is the secret and ever-present essence of the spirit of absolute truth, of supreme goodness, so that each service, each stroke of kindness, each expression of geniality is one more beauty.

       Hitherto English literature in Canada has been cultivated by so scanty a population, scattered at great distances over so vast a country, that it has not been a matter of any great public interest whether our native writers produced good work or bad. Consequently anything like an efficient critical press has been out of the question. Certainly those occasional writers in the daily papers, who greet every new production of whatever merit or demerit with the same ridiculous praises decked out in the same fulsome and meaningless phraseology, have the least claim possible to be considered critics. Of late years we have had to depend solely upon The Week, and it may be observed here that, considering the difficulties with which the publisher of that journal has been obliged to contend, it is surprising that he has been bale to supply its pages with so much really excellent matter. It will probably be a generation or so before the study of literature will become a matter of daily intent and solicitude to so large a body of our people that it will be necessary to adjust the claim of each new publication according to a rigorous scale; but even now much benefit might be done to our growing literary movement by the establishment on a solid financial basis of a really good literary magazine, including a department of criticism conducted in a spirit of serious appreciation and uncompromising candor. There could be no sounder stimulus to the young talent of Canada than the knowledge that its work would be seriously examined and honestly ranked by competent authority, instead of meeting either with the inert neglect or the spasmodic and senseless eulogy which are its lot to-day. But in the meantime, in the absence of any such acknowledged authority within our own country, let each one of us be the more careful to exercise the severest self-criticism. Let the young writer not fall into the mistake of imagining that, because he appears to be a little better than his more deplorable neighbors, his work is therefore satisfactory. Let him remember that he must “scorn delights and live laborious days,” that he must apply himself to intense study, to unremitting observation, to perpetual practice, if he would win fame that is worth the having. There is only one standard for all the world. Let us ascertain what that is, and direct our labors solely with reference to it. Nothing less will do.

       Yes; he borrowed the book. I had rather it were put that way than to have it said I lent it to him. He was a professional book borrower and so I have only myself to thank for it. I knew it by his pose and by the peculiar, innocent wheedling of his tone of voice. It was years ago, but I remember it all as if it were day before yesterday. He was leaning against the bookshelves with his hat and gloves in his hand. I knew he was going and I felt glad; but the admission of this feeling was my ruin. I suppose by the subtle spirit that is in these fellows he must have known that his moment had arrived, for he said, “Oh, by the way, I’d just like to take this Boccaccio, I won’t keep it long.” “Oh certainly,” I said, “take it with you.” My heart quaked as I heard the words, but he went off very speedily, trying to stuff the book into his pocket although it was much too large. I never saw it again. Many times I asked for it but the devil always put a good excuse into his mouth. Very often he met me on the street and said: “By the way I have a Boccaccio of yours; haven’t I?” Twice he wrote me a note about it. One of these notes was characteristic. He said that last night (it was years ago) he had just put that Boccaccio of mine aside to bring it over when the fire department turned up at his house and insisted on laying the hose; they broke a window and deluged the place with water and his natural indignation at their conduct, for there was no fire anywhere in his house, his family being in the country and he having meals at the club, made him forget all about the book. He moved several times and each time further away, and at last he left the city altogether and took my Boccaccio with him.
       Strange! I have just taken up the evening paper. I see that wretched fellow has been sent to Baghdad to inquire into the state of the coffee trade in Turkey and Arabia. Good-bye, Boccaccio.
       Stranger still! The postman has just left a parcel, and it was my long lost copy of Boccaccio. But how changed, how altered with the flux of time. Three of the plates have disappeared; a child has drawn a house on the red cover with a blue pencil; his wife must have got hold of the book, for she is a very pious person, and many of the leaves are gone, or has he saved these and taken them to Baghdad with him? The book is a wreck. I wish I could forget what it once was. Is it any consolation to be told, under these circumstances, that I will be the first person to get a sack of real Mocha direct from Arabia via the C.P.R.? Is it likely that a man who could not send back my book will remember me in Arabia, especially when he has returned the Boccaccio and has nothing left to remember me by?

       Many Canadians were deeply affected by the news recently received of the death of Mr. Joseph Edmund Collins at New York. The New York Critic referred to him as a man “of strong individuality and considerable ability.” As a journalistic statement, cold and brief, this was accurate enough. Mr. Collins was a man whose personality will always be vividly remembered by every one who was brought into contact with him, and I think that his ability might be regarded as potentially more than considerable. He was an instance of how in a raw and uncultured society like ours a great deal of genuine original talent may be dissipated and wasted through the pressure of sordid conditions, and the absence of bracing, intellectual influences. In Mr. Collins there was a genuine streak of genius. He had an exceedingly rare faculty of appreciation as regards the true and the good in literature, and especially in poetry. He was one of the only two or three good readers of verse whom I have ever met with. His genuine delight in fine literary work, and his boundless enthusiasm for it were a source of refreshment and help to all who were much in his company. The fact that Mr. Collins never attained real excellence in his own efforts of the pen was no doubt owing to the circumstances of his early life, the utter want of proper education and discipline, his long journalistic experience which was deadly to the literary gift, the society into which he was thrown, and the perpetual struggle he was obliged to maintain for self-support. All these causes have no doubt been the ruin of many another goodly talent in Canada.
       There are two or three—perhaps more—young writers, whose names are now well known in the Dominion, who remember Collins with an especial feeling of tenderness, gratitude, and almost of reverence. To his helpful enthusiasm, his kindly praise, his eager excitement, they owe the courage and self-confidence which enabled them to take the first daring step in the difficult and unpromising path of literature. Collins was almost the literary father of some of the young men who are now winning fame among us. There are only a few people who know what Joseph Edmund Collins has done in this way for our literature, and perhaps all that he has done will never be known. The few who were his nearest friends—and one of the nearest was myself—will always tenderly remember his passionate constancy of friendship, his prodigal generosity, his contagious humor, his gift of story-telling and all the strange whims of his emphatic personality.