At the Mermaid Inn

The Globe, Toronto: November 19, 1892



Down a narrow alley blind,
Touch and vision, heart and mind,
Turned sharply inward, still we plod
Till the calmly smiling God
Leaves us and our spirits grow
More thin, more acrid, as we go.
Creeping by the sullen wall
We forego the power to see
The threads that bind us to the all,
God or the immensity,
Whereof on the eternal road
Man is but a passing node.

Subtly conscious, all awake,
Let us clear our eyes and break
Through the cloudy chrysalis—
See the wonder as it is.
Too blind we are, too little see
Of the magic pageantry,
Every minute, every hour,
From the cloud-flake to the flower,
Forever old, forever strange,
Issuing in perpetual change
From the rainbow gates of time.

But he who through this common air
Surely knows the great and fair,
What is lovely, what sublime,
Becomes in an increasing span
One with earth and one with man.
One, despite these mortal scars,
With the planets and the stars;
And nature from her holy place,
Bending with unveiled face,
Fills him in her divine employ
With her own majestic joy.

       A charming book, and well got up as to letter press, is Dr. George Stewart's "Essays From Reviews." The subject matter, the four great New England poets, Longfellow, Lowell, Whittier and Holmes, has found a kindly and appreciative treatment at the hands of the genial pen of our well-known essayist. Though much has been written concerning this famous quartette, yet all who take up Dr. Stewart's little book will be charmed by the style and treatment of these interesting studies. The most notable fact to be drawn from these pages is that independence as to livelihood and ease from the cares of life are certainly helpful to a literary career. They cannot supply the place of genius, but they certainly give genius a chance to develop so far as the artistic side of literature is concerned. It is a grave question whether Longfellow would have attained such signal success if he had had to struggle for his daily bread. Would not his naturally sensitive and effeminate nature have sunk under the strain? It is interesting to notice that all of the most noted poets who have produced a great bulk of work and have lived to a good old age have been comparatively independent as to means of livelihood. Longfellow, Holmes and Lowell in America, and Tennyson, Browning and Swinburne in England, are good examples of the result of ease from care in its influence on a literary career. On the other hand, there is no doubt that in most cases while these men gain on the artistic side, and in the bulk of work, they lose on the human, and fail to impress with that strong lyrical quality, that deep, passionate originality that perhaps after all is the supreme quality of genius. A certain amount of suffering is essential to all true genius, the mark of pain is found on all the greatest work, and it would be wrong to say that these men did not suffer; but it was not the dread reality that shrouded Poe, Burns and Coleridge, the awful loneliness that separated Byron, or the necessity that pinched poor Hood. After all, every man is in accordance with his own inner nature. So it is hard to judge. Meanwhile Dr. Stewart can be congratulated on his charming addition to the study of the lives of the poets.

       Another interesting addition to our essay literature is Mr. J.E. Wetherell's "Over Sea," a brief account of his impressions gathered from a trip to England and Scotland, with special reference to the localities made sacred by the memories of Shakespeare, Burns, Wordsworth and Tennyson.
       There is a simple directness of touch about Mr. Wetherell's style and matter, as of one who was his own guide, and not as of one who might have written as well before he started. The chapter "In Westminster" suggests Irving, but is perfectly free from any likeness more than a kinship of spirit. Without any great pretence, Mr. Wetherell has given us a sincere addition to that Canadian culture and literary refinement which is, we are glad to say, slowly but surely growing in our midst.

       There is a term in the loose literary criticism of the day which has become hopelessly hackneyed, and that is the word "singer" as applied to a poet. Even in the beginning it was an exceedingly namby-pamby expression, but, now that every skimble-skamble sentimentalist who takes to stringing verses dubs himself and is dubbed by his admiring friends a "singer," the word has become simply preposterous. It is impossible to apply it otherwise than in derision. Let us, therefore, respect the feelings of the poet, and refrain from shocking him with a sudden sense of the absurdity of his position by calling him a "singer." Let him be plain, sensible "poet" or nothing.

       In the Christmas number of The Dominion Illustrated we find one of Professor Roberts' patriotic outbursts. It is eminently well done. Where Professor Roberts undertakes anything seriously in verse he rarely fails to do it well. Many of the lines in this poem are very grand lines in a way. They have a kind of bold, broad-browed strength that is admirable, yet they seem to come shouldering up with a conscious and premeditated effort. In the midst of our present political conditions Mr. Roberts in his patriotic vein is a voice crying in the wilderness, and he seems to have set himself in a premeditated pose to cry there with all his might. He is like one who has said to himself that there ought to be a prophet, and he will be that prophet at whatever cost of effort. It seems to me, however, that the times can hardly carry patriotic verse, particularly of a boastful character. Satire would appear to be the species of verse most applicable to the present emergency.

       One is constantly surprised by the ideality of the men and women who sometimes pride themselves upon their matter-of-factness, but oftener repress any expression upon the subject of their "feelings," leaving one to think that the sentiments play no part whatever in their lives. But sooner or later, if you watch them closely, or perhaps you may discover it by chance, you will find them cherishing some little piece of sentiment, some ideal treasure of experience, which they bring out of that casket of the heart which they imagine is clamped with iron, and turn over with a lingering fondness. We are all possessed of the springs of feeling that never run dry, and which assert their presence by keeping our lives more or less green, as they are ample or meagre. I was reminded anew of this rather trite observation on human nature by discovering one of the springs of feeling which was keeping the life of one of my acquaintances green. He is a man who has a family "growing up," as the phrase is, and he had been telling me of the difficulty of living on his income, the one good quality of which was that it was sure. He was devoted to his family, but he confessed to not being quite happy, as he had not been as successful in life as he had hoped to be. I may remark that he had the appearance which a conscientious paterfamilias with a limited income who has his daughters "growing up" always wears—an appearance which seems to say for him, "It makes very little difference how I look." "But," he said, "I have one source of never-ending pleasure in life, which seems to be mine, I mean especially mine, as distinguished from any pleasure I have in my family and in which they can have no part. I mean the friends of my youth, or rather the memory of them. They are away now; some of them are dead; others, God knows where they are. But they are as near to me now as if they lived in the next square. You know the world is a very wide place, indeed, to the man who always stays at home, and I never could keep track of them, where they went or what they did. I think at one time in my life I forgot all about them, but lately they have been coming back to me, as it were, and I have been living over again those old days and taking a real pleasure in them. When I am bothered about things and a little worried it is curious how the memory of those old friends of mine comes in and gives me some comfort. I am getting old, I suppose," he closed with a short laugh. I ventured to express the hope that he might see some of them again, but it was not in his mood to think of that; he had idealised them, and he wanted to cherish his memories. "No," he said, "I think it is better so." And it probably is. He had done his duty by his family and by society in the most matter-of-fact way, so he protested; and he had told me but a moment before that life had no illusions for him, and yet he had shown me the little blade of grass that was greening in his heart, from which I could argue to the whole boundless savannahs of ideality and love which stretch through human nature.