At the Mermaid Inn

The Globe, Toronto: October 1, 1892


       The readers of Harper's Magazine who have for so many years been accustomed to turn to the "Easy Chair," sure of half an hour's enjoyment, will miss that humor and good sense which have made the name of George William Curtis a household word. He had many another claim to the world's attention and respect, and he was in his own country as active a politician as he was a writer, but to the thousands scattered over the world his literary work will be his title to remembrance. He was born in 1824. His father was a business man and intended his son to follow in the same path, but he had hardly been in business a year before he took up farming. In 1842 he joined the community at "Brook Farm," and resided there for four years, making the acquaintance of all the enthusiasts who formed that extraordinary group—Margaret Fuller Ripley, Hawthorne, Emerson, Parker, Alcott and Thoreau. In 1846 he went to Europe and travelled for four years. After his return he joined the editorial staff of The Tribune, and in 1852 was the editor of Putnam's Monthly Magazine, to which he contributed "Prue and I." When the magazine changed hands he became a partner in the new concern, and when the firm suspended payment he sank his whole private fortune and worked with all his energy to save the good name of the firm, which he was at last successful in doing. His first connection with Harper Brothers was in 1852, when he wrote for the "Monthly," and in the following year he assumed control of the "Easy Chair," upon the establishment of the "Weekly." In 1857 he became its leading editor, and held the position until the time of his death. He was thus closely identified with the success of three important periodicals. Although he will never take rank as one of the foremost literary men of America, with those friends of his youth, Thoreau and Hawthorne, yet his books will be read for their charming style and unaffected geniality. For years thousands of people looked to him for a weekly and monthly return of pleasure, and one may safely say that they were never disappointed. His death will leave a gap which it will be hard to fill, and as yet no announcement of the continuance of the "Easy Chair" has been made. To many it will never be the same, no matter how brilliant a successor may discourse from the seat they will always remember George William Curtis.

       Some little discussion having arisen in regard to one of Mr. Bliss Carman's poems, it is not inopportune to say something in regard to Mr. Carman in general. The number of people who have the time or inclination to interest themselves in young contemporary writers is always very limited, and of the few who care to do so in this country, still fewer, I fancy, have any notion of the immense promise—nay, more than promise, the immense accomplishment—there is in Mr. Carman's work. Mr. Carman has published very little of his work, probably because he is confronted by the same obstacle that stands in the way of every new writer of obstinate originality—the impenetrable stupidity that invariable shortsightedness of publishers. Those few personal friends of Mr. Carman, however, who have been specially favored with an opportunity to judge his work, know that there is hardly any limit to the expectation that may be had of their friend's future. With great imaginative power and a most uncommon gift of musical versification, he has discovered and taken up a quite new poetic standpoint. His poems are suffused with a new and peculiar and most beautiful imaginative spirit, a spirit which is that of our own northern land, developed in the atmosphere of the Norse, with tinges of Indian legend. Many people will complain of his obscurity, and he is often—very often—obscure, because he does not aim at conveying clearly-cut images and ideas, but prefers, in obedience to a powerful impulse of his own mind, to steep his reader's imagination in splendid moods through the agency of magnificent metrical effects and a vast and mysterious imagery. Whether obscure or not, for the true lover of poetry there is one presence that covers a multitude of faults—the presence of beauty. We cavil in vain at a man's work if it is beautiful, and Mr. Carman's work is exquisitely beautiful.

       I am told that the poetry of Mr. T.B. Aldrich sells better just now than that of any other living American poet, with the exception of that of Jas. Whitcomb Riley, and that it is increasing in popularity. Mr. Riley's work has such a popular quality that it cannot help but be marketable, but the work of Mr. Aldrich is noted for its artistic delicacy and strength of fancy, qualities that without unusual power attached should restrict a poet's constituency to a cultured few. Mr. Aldrich, who is slightly over 50, can now be conceded to be the most prominent of living American poets who have produced a large volume of high class work. Of course, we still have Dr. Holmes, the oldest and most distinguished all-round litterateur, but it is as a humorist that Dr. Holmes will live longest. Then, Mr. Stedman, the distinguished critic, has denied himself too much the exercise of his undoubtedly high poetical powers in order to identify himself as he has done with his monumental works in criticism. In Richard Henry Stoddard America has a lyrist of whom any country might be proud, but he has grown old in the toils of journalism. But Aldrich, since he has severed his editorial connections, has tuned his lyre anew with much ambitious effort to achieve loftier work. Aldrich is essentially an artist, and on this side will take high rank, but he is too much the artist, I am afraid, to be a great popular poet of the people, who require a stronger heart-touch than his artistic repression will allow. He has attempted such a wide range of work that it would be a hard matter to give a proper idea of his powers by adequate quotation, but there is no doubt that he is at his best in exquisitely delicate cameos. He has no burden of song for the righting of wrongs, as Whittier had. He has no spiritual sombreness of sentiment such as made Longfellow a household friend. He has not the clarion note, the manly, human didacticism that fired Lowell; but perhaps in the long run he may prove to have the most enduring qualities of them all. He has certainly proved himself to possess the strongest artistic powers of any American poet who has ever written, and perhaps, after Tennyson, than any of this century in the English language. Certainly, none show to a better extent the Greek-like polish and repression of the artist. But it is as a thinker and as a poet of the heart that Aldrich falls short in all-round greatness, or else he would have outshone Tennyson. He appears to have so many moods, or else such a general lack of mood, that it is hard to get at his feeling, outside of his art. That he loves nature no one can doubt from his exquisite suggestion of Herrick, whom he resembles on one of his lighter sides, but he loves the well-kept lawns and parks and the cultured haunts of the old world too well to ever be a genuine American nature-poet. As a thinker, where his marked repression allows us to see it, he might be called the most worldly of all the greater American singers. His philosophy is ever governed by his art, and is almost heartless in its want of bias. His whole work has a general lack of that pathos found in poets who have probed deep down into life. But Mr. Aldrich's verse structures are not human houses wherein men and women dwell, and suffer and enjoy, like to those of Burns, Hood and Wordsworth. Nor are they demon caves of a weird imagination, such as were conjured up by Coleridge and Poe (not that he does not possess the qualities requisite to such production, for some of his earlier work had a kinship to the former school, while such a remarkably strong poem as "The Shipmaster's Tale," in a recent Harper's, shows a strong affinity to the latter). But for the most part his verses are airy turrets carved with exquisite skill from gems. Within are dreamy boudoirs of the artist's imagination, where he may sit on cushioned divans and flawless bric-a-brac, and dream Eastern dreams toned down by a Western artistic repression, wherein the weird and fanciful are strung together on a cynic fatalism that pervades the whole. This is Aldrich, pure and simple. That he has written poems depicting great deeds, as in "Judith," or the soul struggle, as in "Friar Jerome's Beautiful Book," we must admit, and that they are poems of a high order, especially the latter, no one can deny; but in both it is the artist who is supreme, and somehow we miss the man who feels, despite the exquisite art and stately verse. There is all through felt the lack of an uplifting thought, nor is there a touch of the really lofty imagination that exalts though it may not touch. All through it is the master artist, who dazzles by deft and often stately phrases, or quaint and sometimes exquisite fancies. But the true poet, apart from the artist, who stands forever on the threshold of the unknowable and reports to his fellows the majesty of life, is not to be found, for the most part, in these magic pages. I do not say he is not found, for art, even in verse, has its revelation of life beauty, but where it is here found, it is for the most part whispered in under-breath interludes rather than sung. His exquisite sonnet, "Sleep," is a good sample of his best work, and is by some regarded as his master-piece. The fancy here is almost transcendent in its delicacy of expression, but the thought involved touches no high chord in the reader. As already stated, the master-artist is there, but that is all. For the uplifting quality, the divine gift of revealing the unseen, and the beauty of thought in its relations to the universe, we must go to another school. We are glad to see the ever-growing popularity of this master in artistic and exquisite verse; but Mr. Aldrich must know himself that, much as his work may be admired and read, as certainly it deserves to be for the artistic genius shown therein, he has given himself over to too much artistic repression ever to be beloved as a poet.

       It is satisfactory to note a considerable recent increase in our literary activity, as indicated by the rise of new periodicals and the improvement of old ones. In Arcadia we have a journal vigorously edited, filled with a great quantity of interesting matter, some valuable original contributions, and of an exceedingly attractive appearance. It has also kept completely clear of that tendency to over-bubbling nonsense, which has been the besetting sin of Montreal literary periodicals heretofore. The Lake promises well as a magazine. We have hardly seen enough of it yet to judge, but there is no reason why an unillustrated magazine, wisely edited, and backed by a little money, should not succeed in this country, sufficiently well, at any rate, to maintain its place and standard. The Week has much improved in the last year or two, and its editorial department in particular has become a very important addition to our means of guidance in the practical questions of the day. A weekly journalistic expression of opinion characterised by undoubted sincerity and impartiality is a rare and valuable thing. The Dominion Illustrated, if it would drop the illustrating and the articles on football and such things and go in for literature, would also have a good prospect of success. It enjoys the advantage of seniority, and needs only to enter upon the right path. Let us not neglect to mention that great journal whereof this, the Mermaid Inn, is a humble part, and to praise the largeness of that enterprise which has scattered weekly broadcast over the Dominion so vast a quantity of useful information, and various and interesting matter of all sorts, literary and otherwise.