At the Mermaid Inn

The Globe, Toronto: November 5, 1892


       I was surprised the other day to come upon a passage which convinced me that we Canadians as a people had passed into literature, in at least one instance, as a rough and a rude nation. The reader of Sir R.F. Burton's "Ultima Thule" will find in his section devoted to Society in Iceland these words, "Yet the Icelander, fraklin or pauper, has none of the roughness or rudeness of the Canadians and of the Lowland Scotch." Sir R.F. Burton was a wide traveller, and at the time he wrote these words (1875) he had visited nearly every country on the face of the globe, and, as he was an acute and careful observer, one must take some notice of his remark. It must have some foundation in fact. We have always considered Iceland and the Icelanders as out of all comparison with other nations, and here we find a noted traveller telling us very plainly that we are behind them in courtesy and fine manners. I hope we have improved since the time when Burton formed his opinion of us, and if it were possible for him to visit again the "glimpse of the moon" he might find it possible to say that we were a little softer, a little more civilised. There is some doubt in my mind of the fairness of travellers generally to the countries and peoples they visit; it is so hard to be exactly just, and still more difficult to arrive at the absolute truth or to strike an average, when considering the characteristics of a people. It is impossible to do that fairly until you become thoroughly familiar with their home life and habits. To view a country from the hotel window or even from the smoking room of a club or to judge finally of the people by the specimens one meets on a railway train are all hazardous and untrustworthy. All the atrabilarious people may have taken a melancholy holiday and be travelling on the same train, or the club-room may be haunted by the local "crank," or the meals at the hotel may not be what one would care to praise. But a people should hardly be judged by these casual impressions; the home life should be the test, and in Canada we are developing a standard of home life which is different from either the English or American, and which may in the end be better and more enjoyable than either. I am bound to say that amongst our rural population there is a good deal of surliness and heaviness of mind. I do not think it is by any means general, but it is certainly present, and it may be passing away. But its presence is not to be wondered at; we must remember the hardships which the settlement of this country brought on those who determined to live here, hardships that will never have to be gone through again and of which our Manitoba settlers can know nothing. And among the worst of them was the isolation, the absence of society, in its wider sense; this, with the severity of the climate, was sufficient to breed distemper and moroseness, to say nothing of rudeness and roughness. But, as I said before, I hope we have improved. We can never be a light-hearted, careless people, but there is no reason why we should not be kind-hearted and considerate.

       It has been claimed by many critics that a man cannot be a truly great writer unless he pictures what is hopeful in humanity and passes over what is dark and tends to despondency and despair. We hear so often of what is called the healthy imagination, which is essential to and is found in all the greater writers. All the literary works from those of Shakespeare and Milton to Browning have been scoured for extracts carrying out this theory. But I would just here like to note that the very opposite is true, and that, strange to say, all that is strongest and most lasting in literature depicts not the bright and joyous side of life, but rather what is gloomy, despairing the critics of to-day, the poets who have endlessly sung life is happy because I am happy have been of the weaker and more ephemeral class. The work of a great poet, like that of any other great man, is not to hypnotise the world into a false or fancied dream of security and selfish indifference, but rather to show life as it is in all its reality—but as a god would show it. The great man is he who truly knows life but still sees the divine back of the most hideous manifestations of its existence. Were the season always springtime and the day always morning, we all would be lotus-eaters. But it is the struggles and the longings, the memories and the might-have-beens that make us great. This wonder and awe of the greatness of life in its sombre aspects is impressed on us by the greatest writers of all ages.
       Beginning with Homer, called the greatest epic poet of any age, we find him depicting almost wholly endless battle, which, with all its good side, is perhaps the most awful spectacle humanity can dwell upon. Battle and deceit, rapine and despair is what he gives us. The downfall and destruction of a great people, the Trojans, is his chief theme. Virgil, the noble Roman who followed him, is certainly greater in his epic, which is largely influenced by the Iliad, than when he described piping shepherds and fleecy flocks. Dante, the next great poet, has dedicated his whole magnificent genius to the description of hell. Milton, the literary descendant of the Greek, the Roman and the Florentine, and the greatest English poet after Shakespeare, made the fall of man and the attendant evils the subject of his great epic, which has rendered him immortal. Shakespeare has four or five masterpieces among his marvellous dramas, and what are the subjects of the greatest? We will name them:—"Macbeth," "Lear," "Hamlet," "Othello," "Julius Caesar," "Richard the Third," "Juliet." I have named seven, which include all of his greatest works. Now what are the bare subjects of these dramas? The hideous murder of a king and the attendant horror and punishment of the murderers. The despair and death of a despised old king ruined by his own children. Madness, death, graves and spooks are the stock in trade of "Hamlet," and so on through all of these remarkable productions. The dark, the hideous, the tragic side of life is shown in these plays, if they have ever been depicted in literature. Surely if any poet ever lived in the weird, the awful and the despairing in humanity that man was Shakespeare. And yet we hear so much about the healthiness of the minds of the greatest poets. All that is great in literature will always be connected with the tragedy of human sin and human despair as long as the humanity we are walks this earth. In this lies the greatness of genius. And true genius must always be sad, because it sees the true state of things so acutely. "The man who went down into hell," it was said of the great Florentine as he walked the streets, and so it will be unto the end—greatness must suffer.

       It is a great question whether literature can be taught; that is, taught in schools. It seems to me that every man must learn his literature for himself, and that all that ought to be done for him to that end is to teach him to read—to read in English, French, Latin, Greek, or whatever one will. After that if we have an inclination toward any particular literature, he will follow it of himself in the most natural and fruitful manner. If he have no instinct for literature it is waste time to endeavor to force it upon him. In our Canadian schools we undertake to teach literature, and we certainly do teach it with a vengeance. We have bulky grammars, awful and discouraging to the eye; elaborate books, instructive of the art of composition; carefully prepared editions of classical English writings, with explanatory notes, historical notes, glossaries, critical introductions and so forth. Armed with these, our literature classes are set upon the study of some particular masterpiece—say, a book of "Paradise Lost." They read it; they declaim it rhetorically; they get it by heart; they analyse it sentence by sentence; they parse it word for word; they study its language syllable by syllable, following each word to its remotest kindred in Latin, Greek, Saxon, old high German, Lithuanian or Sanscrit; they turn it into prose and back again into verse; they hunt up all the allusions; they make themselves acquainted with parallel passages; they discuss it historically, geographically, critically; they tear and worry and torture the lines of the great poem till they are littered out as dry and innutritive as a worm-eaten codfish. When all this had been done the student's mind is perhaps the accuter for the mental training, but he wishes never to hear the name of "Paradise Lost" again. It is indeed a Paradise Lost for him. And not only have the power and beauty of one English masterpiece been destroyed to his ear, but the chances are that his faculty of appreciation generally has been robbed of its natural freshness and permanently blunted. Whatever may be the merit of this system as an intellectual exercise for the young, it is decidedly not the way to cultivate a book of literature or the power of producing it. Indeed, it seems to me that to teach literature in schools by classes is as impossible as it would be to teach morality in the same way. The love of literature is a natural gift, and if not strong enough to develop itself can only be drawn out by the influence of a certain surrounding intellectual atmosphere and the magic of literary companionship.