At the Mermaid Inn

The Globe, Toronto: September 10, 1892


       "The Life and Times of Sir George Grey, K.C.B.," is the record of a most useful and eventful life, a life devoted to his country's service in the colonies. Although we missed having the distinguished subject of these volumes as our own Governor-General, the record of his labors and successes in other less civilised quarters of the empire will be read with interest by Canadians. He was promised the promotion from New Zealand to Canada, but he went back to his duty at the former field in 1861, giving up his chances for the larger honor. He entered upon his career in 1836, when he went out to explore Northwestern Australia in the employ of the Colonial Office and the Royal Geographical Society. Immediately after this service he was appointed Resident at King George's Sound. From 1841 to 1844 he administered the affairs of South Australia, and brought order out of chaos, saving the colony from threatened ruin. From South Australia he was transferred to New Zealand, and in two months he had closed the war with which the colony was oppressed and restored quietness. During the eight years of his rule New Zealand progressed with the greatest rapidity. He was then sent to the Cape, and one of his exploits while there will give a better idea of the self-reliance and boldness of the man than pages of criticism. Cape Town was a coaling station, and he took the responsibility of ordering to Calcutta the ships with soldiers for China. He also sent all the troops under his own command, and these reinforcements reached Sir Colin Campbell in time for the relief of Lucknow and the saving of India. His boldness was overlooked, and he even received the thanks he so richly deserved, for he probably knew as well as anyone the risk he was running, which, if the exploit had not ended successfully and to the satisfaction of every one, would have cost him his official head. In several other instances, however, he was not so fortunate, and he had to deal with superiors in office who were not slow to show their dislike. Lord Carnarvon considered him a "dangerous man," and the Duke of Buckingham discharged him in a way that "would not have been courteous if dispensing with the services of a temporary clerk in a merchant's office." It would have been interesting to have had such a man as Governor-General of Canada, to have had all his activity and experience working for our interests. Sir George is yet alive at the hearty age of 81 years, and is, according to Mr. Murray, "the only person in New Zealand to whom everybody took off his hat." His biographer says, "He might have added with equal truth 'The only man who took off his hat to everybody.' It was an amusing sight to watch the gravity and courtesy with which the 'great pro-consul' returned the salutations of even tiny children of six and seven years old. Little shy boys pulling off their hats to him in a shame-faced way always saw him in return bare his venerable locks with the same gesture with which he would have responded to the greeting of an arch-bishop."

       The quarrel between realism and romanticism is about as empty a one as that over the iota in the Nicene Creed. Between realists and romanticists, provided they be men of genius, there is very little difference that any but the professional critic can see. The aim of both is artistic truth, and the difference of method fades out of sight before the larger meanings and grander motives of their work. If a writer's work have the charm of beauty, the convincing power of sincerity, the kindling fire of enthusiasm, or if it propels the mind along mightier avenues of thought, opens wider breadths of vision, or plants in the heart the seeds of a juster and tender humanity, what matter whether his method be that of one or the other? Perhaps in the truest sense we should say that every writer of real gift is a realist. If he has surrounded his picture of life with a scenery different from that which we know, he has made his figures act in it with the force and freedom of essential truth; he has conferred upon them by the power of his imagination the right to exist, the right to charm, convince or influence us, like beings singled out from the actual world about us. Perhaps by the strange setting he has only brought them into grander relief, made their just influence more penetrating and their genuine charm more complete.
       To the full-minded, humane reader, unacquainted with the schools, all that is necessary in a writer of fiction is force of imagination and a sympathetic knowledge of the human heart. When he recalls "Rob Roy" or "Old Mortality," and a host of immortal figures, odd or beautiful or heroic, spring to his memory, bringing with them a radiant, indefinable pleasure, it does not matter to him that an occasional realistic critic snaps about the shadow skirts of Walter Scott. Dickens and Thackeray and Charles Reade are enchanted worlds, filled with delightful people, quite as real to him as his next door neighbor, and probably more companionable. The only regret he has in regard to them is that he has read them all, searched their enchained countries through and through, made friends with everybody, and there is nothing more to discover. When a writer has made his book electric with the representations of creatures that move before our imaginations under the influence of forces and thoughts and passions almost as vividly realised as those of actual life, why should we snarl at him as a romanticist because he has not filled page upon page with minutiae of circumstance and motive, merely for the sake of displaying his power of observation, and without any regard to the relative importance of things? When I read "Middlemarch" or "Daniel Deronda," and consider the majesty of the intellect that planned those two books, the insight, the imaginative grasp and the fervid and compassionate wisdom that possess them, and make them in every sentence a revelation and a stimulus, it seems a miserable impertinence to find fault even with the least detail of form or execution.
       He who has read "Roderick Hudson," "An American," or "The Portrait of a Lady," if he be a follower of the romantic school, may complain of the somewhat unimaginative hardness of the details, which Henry James piles up in such pitiless quantity about his characters, of the lack of easy transition in the movement of whatever action takes place, of the too finely drawn subtlety of many of the character sketches that make us feel as if we were moving over a floor covered with delicate pottery in a dimly-lighted room, picking our way nervously for fear of rude contact with any of those exquisite things; he may complain of the general irrelevancy of the narratives themselves as regards the deep meanings of life, and that they are scarcely more than psychological treatises, rendered attractive to less laborious readers by being cast in a dramatic form; so may he complain, and yet after he has finished one of those heavily-weighted books, the characters portrayed in it will be chiselled into his memory as by thousands of strokes, so that they will remain to him after the contents of books that perhaps pleased him better are forgotten. They were real characters, and their section of life cut out and conscientiously recorded was intensely interesting. What matter by what method the effect was obtained? The result is the same. We beat with us the companionship of lives that did not exist, but are as real to us as those that did.

       Mr. Arthur Symons, in his article on Mr. Henley's poetry, in the August Fortnightly, has given us incidentally a definition or description of what a poet's life should be, with what sort of variety and entertainment it should be filled. It is a pronouncement of what a certain "cult" means when it thinks of poetry and the poetic temperament. "A villa and books never made a poet; they do but tend to the building up of the respectable virtues; and for the respectable virtues poetry has but the slightest use. To roam in the sun and air with vagabonds, to haunt the strange corners of cities, to know all the useless and improper and amusing people, who are alone very much worth knowing; to live as well as to observe life; or to be shut up in hospital, drawn out of the rapid current of life into sordid and exasperating inaction; to wait for a time in the anteroom of death; it is such things as these that make for poetry." It is certainly true that experience must be the basis for all art work, and that the poet must write from a fulness of knowledge. But no special set of circumstances will develop or render more complete the expression of a man's genius. There is no value to the poetic temperament in knowing the obscure and vicious side of life; it can hardly make a man's work of greater value to write knowingly about vagrant and wayward things. This definition of the kind of experience required for poetic utterance really marks a decadence in literature. There can be nothing pure in such an ideal, and to follow it would mean a passage into limbo with the rest of the forgotten things. The human mind willingly lets die the disagreeable and the hurtful, and any work of art that attempts to perpetuate them has within itself the seeds of its own mortality.