At the Mermaid Inn

The Globe, Toronto: March 5, 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.

       A very singular book is Mr. Barry Pain’s “In a Canadian Canoe.” Mr. Pain is a brand new English humorist, or rather wit, for he is certainly not a humorist in the true sense of the term. The full title of the book is “In a Canadian Canoe: The nine muses minus one, and other stories”; it is one of the White Friars library of wit and humor, edited by Mr. W.H. Davenport Adams. The first article, “In a Canadian Canoe,” is a sort of dreamy irrelevant series of allusions to the author’s experiences on the Thames in a Canadian canoe, mixed up with a lot of other ludicrously out of the way and equally irrelevant matter. “The Nine Muses Minus One” is more forced, and its fantastic alternations of pathos and burlesque do not attract the imagination. “The Celestial Grocery” is an enormously clever bit of work, and even more whimsical and fantastic than the rest. “Bill” and “The Girl and the Beetle” are the best things in the book, and there are phrases and incongruities of idea scattered about these sketches which throw one every now and then into an agony of laughter. But Mr. Pain has an extraordinary and disheartening fancy for interweaving his mirth with psychological subtleties, and driving all the wit and frolic out of a sketch by ending it up with some dreadful and unexpected stroke of pathos. In Mr. Pain one discerns traces of Stevenson, traces of Stockton, traces of Mark Twain, and this mixture is brewed up with a liberal allowance of an odd and eccentric faculty of his own. His book is ingenious, brilliant, witty, and the reader is occasionally prostrated with paroxysms of laughter, but nevertheless one wearies of it; it lacks the warm human sense; the true touch of humor; it leaves no flavor of lingering pleasure and sweetness upon the intellectual palate. So far has pessimism darkened the spirit of our time that even the humorist cannot bear to leave us in the enjoyment of his drollery, but must poison the last taste of it with some morbid sting.

       It was a curious and uncomfortable experience of the Duke de Levis when he presented himself at Abbotsford without his letters of introduction. He, the representative of the oldest family in France, lay under the suspicion of being an impostor, and I fancy that the real tact and kindness under such trying circumstances of that great-hearted Walter Scott had more to do with the extravagant dedication to him of the duke’s book than any mere admiration for his qualities as a writer. This is only a fancy of mine, however. There is something about the idea of a duke astray in the world without his credentials that is grotesque to say the least for it. The human mind revolts from the position; would there not be some mark of distinction, some authoritative grace of carriage, some delicate and unmistakable aroma which would mark him no matter where he had left his “papers”? In vain the sentiments demand this in the name of society. The sentiments may go on demanding. The duke exists by reason of his documents. Armed with these he limps into the salon on his one sound leg, his weak soul wavering in his distorted body, dangling his blase sentiments before a delighted and captivated crowd. Without these he is the bagman in masquerade, a fellow of the baser sort who would trick society with his audacities. But let us do the duke justice. He may have lost the vouchers for his aristocracy, but he may be a man and a gentleman; he may have charmed us with his wit, with the breath of his sympathies, with the humanity of his candor; we may have exclaimed time and again as we remembered his fine manner and exquisite thoughtfulness, “What a splendid fellow!” And then one dull day we find out he was a duke. Our feminine relations would say, “I told you so,” but would not the wisest of us say, “What matter, it was the man we met and not the duke?”

       I have every reason to remember the pleasant hours I passed last summer reading “The Chavalier of Pensieri Vani” by H.B. Fuller. The days were dull and almost cold; the sea kept plunging under a mist; but this disastrous weather was made bearable by this charming and spirited book. Whoever wants a book to hand to his friend with the words, “this is good, fanciful and humorous and finely done too,” should ask his bookseller to send for a copy. There is something of the whimsicality of Sterne in the work, and the writer has that quality called the “light touch.” In the story of “How the Chevalier gained his title” there is a fine description of the Chevalier’s organ-playing, which is the best thing of the kind I have seen. The Chevalier was a great organ-player and a ready improvisatore. I am writing from memory, I have not the book before me, and the titles of most of the sketches elude me in the way peculiar to titles and other things, but the general impression of a really delightful book is strong in my mind, and, even if I cannot sketch all Mr. Fuller’s characters and call them by name, this is a work I may fairly leave to the readers I would like to gain for him.

       A good deal of interest has been taken in Mr. Arnold Haultain’s suggestion in The Week that some Canadian publisher should issue a memorial volume of contributions by Canadian authors in honor of the Shelley anniversary. It is to be doubted whether there are a sufficient number of Canadian writers who would be naturally impelled to produce enough writing of a high standard of excellence to form the volume proposed. Of course we should expect to find in the essays and poems, composing such a memorial volume, the expression of a sort of religious enthusiasm for the object, and most of the writing would have to be done by the professed Shelley devotees.
       There will always be a class of minds—and I confess myself to be one of them—who do not find themselves drawn to Shelley in the intensest degree. As I read over and meditate on those wonderful poems I find myself often a little repelled by the absence of something, which for lack of a nearer term I would call “the human.” Shelley appears to us not as a normal being of this world, but as a spirit, strange, radiant and inspired, whose joy had in it the glow of an unearthly light, and its gloom a shadow fantastic and without the bound of mortal conception. The world and its life floated before him not as the substance of reality, but a glorious and awful vision, full of seductive vistas, peaks strangely lighted, and gulfs of profound and terrible darkness. We miss in him that earthly human heartiness and neighborly warmth of touch which render the great passages of Shakespeare so imperishably beloved to all tender hearts of men, the quality that glows in Keats’ and Wordsworth’s best, and lends the sweetest charm to the greater poets of our own age.
       Nevertheless, even those who are not specially worshippers of Shelley would, no doubt, have something interesting to say in regard to him, and we have several writers who are avowedly of this poet’s cult. Prof. Roberts would certainly have something strong to say of the poet whom he is said to look to as a master. Mr. Bliss Carman, who should have been mentioned in Mr. Haultain’s brief list of Canadian writers, has already written a beautiful and original poem, which might form a chief ornament of any memorial volume. The late Mr. Cameron of Kingston also wrote an admirable poem on Shelley.

       The February Fortnightly opens with a poem by James Thomson, author of “The City of Dreadful Night.” It is intensely gloomy. The author seems to speak to us from his grave. The manner of the verse is the same as in the poem the title of which I have quoted above, the lines reminding us her and there of Rossetti. To Canadians the most interesting paper in the number is that of Francis Adams on “Some Australian Men of Mark.” Mr. Adams is an uncompromising writer. He has dealt with the social conditions of his country with no desire to make them out better than they are, and now the public men receive similar attentions. He commences by saying that the athletes of Australia are the only men known by name to the “general run” of Englishmen. I suppose this may also be said of Canada. But there is, or appears to be, a bitterness in Mr. Adams’ tone which Canadians, and perhaps Australians, will not feel when confronted by this fact. If it is a desirable thing to have forced our existence upon the attention of the mother country, it is no contemptible thing to have done it with our men of muscle. But we have to some slight extent done it by our men of brains and that we are continuing to do it by our men of action and by their trade and transportation schemes is a fact incontestable. That we will continue to do so, as the years go by, in an increased measure, is also indisputable, but this is not the end and purpose of our national life; the ultimate object of this is to build a nation, strong, great and enduring. If, when this is accomplished, we or our posterity discover that Canada, her public men and her institutions are known and admired in London, Bombay, Yokohama, Melbourne and New York, we will not be surprised, and we will be careless of a fame we never desired for its own sake.