At the Mermaid Inn

The Globe, Toronto: October 29, 1892


 

       No man is more sincere than the poet; yet no man is more given to expressing under different circumstances the most opposite sentiments. Let none quarrel with the poet for this variableness of mood; in fact it is his chiefest charm; it is that which brings him into the most tender and intimate relation with the general soul of humanity. The listener, as he is touched in turn by so many rapid and equally passionate alternations of hope and sorrow, anger or despair, perceives that he is in contact with one who knows the most secret impulses of his heart, and whose spirit, through quickness of sympathy, is in the closest friendliness with his own. I have a friend—a lyric poet—whose mind is, as a general rule, more stolid and less violent in its changes of color than is the case with many of his kind; yet he has just furnished me with a very pretty example of this fine fickleness of thought. It had been an unfortunate day for my friend. Unpleasant sensations had followed closely one upon another. He had been worried by some small monetary difficulty, a thing that to another man would have been a very trifle, but to him was like the breaking of the Bank of England. He had been in contact with business men, men who deal in money, and their cold brutality and callousness of heart had affected his spirit with a kind of gloomy horror. When night came he was sad and weary, and enveloped in a cloud of portentous darkness. Yet it was not long before the old and ever-active remedy began to insinuate itself and work among his distracted thoughts. As by some happy accident, a touch of song kindled his reflections with a sudden illumination, and after meditating a little while he composed with little effort a sonnet which he has called the "Cup of Life," and here I give it just as he read it to me a few days later:—

One after one the high emotions fade,
Life's wheeling measure empties and refills
Year after year. We seek no more the hills
That lured our youth divine and unafraid,
But, swarming on some common highway, made
Beaten and smooth, plod onward with blind feet,
And only where the crowded crossways meet
We halt and question, anxious and dismayed.

Yet we cannot escape it. Some we know
Have angered and grown mad, some scornfully laughed,
Yet surely to each lip—to mine, to thine—
Comes with strange scent and acrid, poisonous glow
That cup of life—that dull Circean draught—
That taints us all, and turns the half to swine!

       The following morning seemed to usher in a complete change of destiny for the poet. As he passed the threshold, the sunshine greeted him with an unusual heartiness of warmth, and the great elm before his door, whose vast level fleece and pendent draperies seemed afloat upon the air, invited his eyes coolly and alluringly into its shadowy recesses. The birds sang in their gayest and happiest humor. A few paces on a friend met him with good news. When the long day's toil was over, still under the influence of the morning's first joyous impressions, he made his way into the fields, and as he returned homeward after an hour of easy accord with nature, at peace with all mankind, the following verses formed themselves naturally and almost unconsciously in his mind. I give them exactly as he set them upon paper at the moment of his return:—

       I love the warm bare earth and all
              That works and dreams thereon;
       I love the seasons yet to fall;
              I love the moments gone.

       The valleys with the sheaved grain,
              The river smiling bright,
       The merry wind, the rustling rain,
              The vastness of the night.

       I love the morning's flame, the steep
              Where down the vapor clings;
       I love the clouds that float and sleep,
              And every bird that sings.

       I love the masted pines that soar
              Above the mountain villas;
       I love the silent wood whose floor
              Is spread with golden lilies.

       I love the heaven's azure span,
              The grass beneath my feet;
       I love the face of every man
              Whose thought is swift and sweet.

       I let the merry world go by,
              And like an idle breath
       Its phantoms and its echoes fly;
              I have no dread of death.

       I hear the jar of right and wrong;
              Yet both are things that seem;
       Each hour is but a fluted song,
              And life a lofty dream!

       Assuredly one may say that these verses are light, and inconsiderable in texture, and ethically of little value; yet I give them as the happy and sincere expression of a wonderful change of mood and of all the relations of the poet's mind. Under what different aspects indeed did this life present itself to the poet when he composed these two diverse poems, yet they are both equally sincere.
                                                                                                                L.

       A lyric to be perfectly successful should not need any special interpretation. It should not be so involved with personal feeling that it would need a commentary upon the event or upon the special mood which called it forth. All the great lyrics which have been preserved by the common decree of the people have some expression of general experience which renders them capable of proof, as it were, by any human soul. Thus it has often happened that a writer who toiled to win fame by some creation of great length, filled with imagination, accomplished his object by some fragment wherein he gave voice to some common experience of the race. There are too many of the lyrics in Mr. W.E. Henley's new book of which it can be said that they require a special interpretation; that they are not self-evident. Although the mass of the work leaves an impression of extreme cleverness, the effect is not one either of pleasure or profit. Mr. Henley seems to have looked at everything which he attempts to portray with the eye of a painter, and a painter of the impassionist school. The poem dedicated to Mr. Whistler is an attempt to reproduce the effect of one of the painter's harmonies. But it is far from being a success. The choice of words and imagery gives no effect of beauty, which must be the basis for every work of art, however small in dimension. And this principle of beauty would be present in the scene which inspired the picture or the poem, no matter to what thoughts the associations which accompany the scene might give rise. Now these associations are specially the material of poetry; painting cannot reproduce them and it is fatuous for poetry to attempt to give by the choice of special words the exact value of tone and color in painting. The beauty of a scene is ever present, and although it may influence the mind in many different ways the effect can never be immoral, no matter how terrible the associations may be. And in such work as the third of the "London Voluntaries" the feeling of beauty is entirely absent, and we have the sense of actual immorality forced upon the material picture. The wind "comes sullen and obscene, in a cloud unclean of excremental humors," and every natural appearance wears a sort of lewdness, an abject awfulness of shape and purpose. There is present neither the element of beauty nor the element of human interest, but the landscape exists by itself and for itself in this unreal and grotesque masque as if it had a separate, conscious and rather immoral personality. An example of the legitimate treatment of a weird and terrible landscape is Browning's "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came," where we have a human interest informing the whole poem, accompanied by a sense of strange wild beauty. In his actual choice of word and phrase Mr. Henley has been undoubtedly influenced by Rudyard Kipling, and, although in some instances the result of this insolent realism of expression is fine, in the majority of cases the striving after an effect is too apparent. Mr. Henley's philosophy is not deep. When he leaves life he but leaves "books and women and talk and drink and art," and he goes into the ways of death stoically with a sense of relief and release.
                                                                                                                S.