At the Mermaid Inn

The Globe, Toronto: September 17, 1892


       I have been reading with much pleasure and no little profit the volume of Mr. Wetherell's selections from the poems of Wordsworth. The book is an immense advance from the days of the old "Red Book series," which we can all so vividly remember, and to judge of its usefulness I have only to recall that it was between the humble covers of one of that very series that I first became acquainted with a single poem of Wordsworth, "Fidelity." I can remember distinctly the great attraction this single poem had for me, and I can form some idea of the force for good which such a carefully edited volume of Wordsworth's selections must inevitably have. The book is decently printed and well bound considering its low price, which of course is a requisite in a book intended for the use of the schools; the illustrations are not bad, and, as they discreetly represent only familiar haunts of the poet and a very tolerable cut of his face, they are acceptable. It was a rare piece of taste that kept the illustrations of special poems out and spared us all the unnamable horrors of a delineation of the "Highland Reaper." The biographical sketch and the essays are admirable and serious, and the notes are not absolutely superfluous, as is so often the case with notes. The selection of special criticisms on individual poems is also a good idea and should serve to stimulate reading. Of course we must not forget that this volume is a text-book and that notes and counter notes are the real reasons for its being, otherwise we might feel that the author of the preface might have spared us his notes on the essays with their insistence on what he desires the student to find in them. When he asks us to believe that Mr. Roberts "shows us clearly that Matthew Arnold's estimate of Wordsworth's genius is misleading and demands correction," there are not a few of us who will refuse to assent. It would have been wiser for Mr. Wetherell to have allowed Mr. Roberts' thoughtful essay to stand for itself; its context cannot be strengthened by the assertion that it is an absolutely safe guide to the true position of Wordsworth in the poetic firmament. But even if it were impossible for the Wordsworthian to agree with Mr. Roberts, there is so much of sound, healthy criticism in his remarks that this minor point, for it is really a minor point, may be very well left for the controversialists. We have one more thing for which to thank Mr. Roberts. His own genius is essentially un-Wordsworthian, and it is pleasant to find him able and willing to give us such a wholesome dissertation on the great poet. The closing words of his essay convey the true value and power of the poet's work:—"The distinctive excellence of Wordsworth's poetry is something so high, so ennobling, so renovating to the spirit that it can be regarded as nothing short of a calamity for one to acquire a preconception which will seal him against its influence. One so sealed is deaf to the voice which, more than any other in modern song, conveys the secret of repose. To be shut out from hearing Wordsworth's message is to lose the surest guide we have to those regions of luminous calm which this breathless age so needs for its soul's health." To me it seems an evident contradiction to write so, and then to make the subject of the criticism equal with Byron and Shelley. For this "luminous calm," this "repose," which we need for our soul's health, is surely for us among the very greatest of all powers, the one to which we turn as the centre of all things when the spirit is at rest and contented. But the agreement or disagreement with this view will be settled by personal characteristics. It is to be hoped that for every student this little book will be a prelude to the reading of Wordsworth's poetry; there is always too great an insistence upon the tediousness of much of the poet's work; this has come to be a sort of cant in criticism. He who will pas from the selections to "The Prelude" and the longer works will find ample compensation for the lapses into dulness of which we hear so much. We should thank Mr. Houston for his just remark upon the memorisation of poetry, which, he says, is "invaluable for life." This is very true, and no one can properly judge the comforting power of poetry until it becomes a thing of the memory, to be called up when the heart is troubled or distressed.

       The last of the great group of American poets has passed to his long home after having lived to a ripe old age, and in the death of Whittier New England loses her most characteristic poet. Holmes, who is the only one of the old writers now living, while just as famous a personality in his own way, will be less regarded as a poet than as a humorist, though "The Chambered Nautilus" is a poem of exquisite beauty. Whittier was essentially the poet of a cause, and he so identified himself with the abolition movement that many have failed to see the real beauty of several of his other poems. "Maud Muller" is a poem of enduring quality in its human interest and pathos, and "In School Days" is also very touching. Whittier has also done some exquisite nature-work, and has written some strong ballads, such as "The Witch of Wenham," but to my mind his most enduring poem is "Snow-bound," which is the great New England pastoral. Like Longfellow and Lowell, Whittier lived in a heroic age, that of the great civil war, and so gained a widespread fame, that might have been more slowly achieved in more prosaic times. That he was great as a man none will deny. His heart was large and tender; and the most religious of the poets of his day, he was also intensely human, so that even his hymns, notably his "Centennial Hymn," are great in their way. While restless and progressive as a reformer, Whittier's mind was gentle and almost child-like in its faith in the great Ruler of the universe. No dark problems seem to have ruffled the serene tides of his soul, no hideous doubts appeared to confront him, but his was a large and simple creed, that gave little room for doubt and speculation. Then we must remember that he lived in an age that was advancing to easier achievements than are possible now, and that he was reared in a healthy rural environment, prolific with hope for the individual, and hence the universe, and strong in those nerve-giving qualities that brace the spirit to great deeds. In those days there was plenty of room for all, men on this continent were not so crowded. The tides of immigration and of human freedom had not reached the points where the ebb sets in. In the days of Whittier's prime the era of personal independence and self-assertion was at its best. When we look back to the widespread popularity of the leading singers of his school, we find that the age was sympathetic to their song, which was largely sentiment, pre and yet only ephemeral in its existence. While their song was large and human, it was largely the stretching out of the hands of liberty and the heart-strings of hope in a world where there was plenty of room. Now and then we catch a gleam of the deeper sounding with the plummets into the human ocean, where life is always the same, no matter what the age or its wants. After all, it seems to me that the real greatness of the New England school lay in its largeness of personality, so that they made great anything they laid hands on, and their age never failed to take them seriously. Even if poets like Whittier cannot be classed with the greater singers of the earth, they have built for themselves such a pinnacle of nobleness of effort and aspiration, such a large human love and sympathy, that they never can be less than great. And all true souls cannot but be thankful that such souls have dwelt on earth. Even if we, with clearer if less hopeful sight, see afterwards that the evil was not crushed, in the real sense, but only hurled to the ground to rise in another, perhaps more hideous, form, yet the voice that is large and strong against evil is never lost on this earth. The beautiful souls that teach us of beauty in life and thought, they are the voices of morning at noonday and evening. Whatever be our standards, whatever our hopes, they will ever be to suffering, weak and maimed humanity as the angel-voices of earth.

       Sonnet writing is fascinating exercise. Every man who writes verse at all must write a sonnet. The form has been abundantly cultivated in America. Our magazines and journals are full of sonnets, many of them revealing an excellent gift of versification and true thought and feeling; yet America has not produced any poet who has been a really eminent sonnet writer, and she has produced very few sonnets of a very high order, perhaps none of the highest. It may be that the unsettled social atmosphere of this continent is not fitted to develop that particular union of austere dignity and lyric fervor which makes the fine sonnet writer. The sweetest sonnets and the most beautiful in all the American collections are undoubtedly Longfellow's. His "Nature," "Sound of the Sea," "Milton," "Tides" and "Chimes" are very lovely little poems and only need a little strengthening, a slight access of ruggedness, to make them sonnets of the highest order. The cleverest sonnets we have are those of Mr. Edgar Fawcett. They are the cleverest, the strongest, the most ingenious and the least touching. Like all Mr. Fawcett's work, they are the product of a powerful artistic genius, devoted to a sort of subtile imitation of passion and equipped with an unusual faculty of invention. Some of them are splendid as bits of versification—"Sleep," for instance—others are simply horrible, the more so for being able, and not one of them has the accent of real tenderness or moves with the freedom of the noblest beauty. Edgar Allen Poe came nearest to writing the grand sonnet of his continent in "Silence." Bryant nearly succeeded in "October," and so did Lowell in some of his sonnets addressed to persons, in which he seems to have been moved by a specially lofty and musical spirit. Mr. Aldrich has written some exceedingly able and grandly sounding sonnets, but he has generally erred, as Americans are so apt to do, on the side of cleverness. Many of his pieces are marred by a line or two of much too evident effort at fine writing. He has not often the patient ear and majestic self-restraint of the true sonneteer. Sydney Lanier injured the character of his sonnets not only as sonnets but even as poems by weaving them full of careful subtleties of phrase and meaning and weighting them too heavily with intricate imagery; for the sonnet—most particularly among all kinds of poetry—should be simple. Mr. Gilder, who also came very near the ideal American sonnet in "The Life-mask of Abraham LIncoln," has written a number of other beautiful ones—"The River" and "The Holy Land," especially. His sonnet on the sonnet, which is much extolled, seems to me rather a spasmodic little production, a sort of task momentarily imposed, and done by tour de force, but very cleverly. Some of James Whitcomb Riley's sonnets are exquisite in their almost impish cleverness and their dainty and whimsical beauty. For with him the sonnet has put off her fair and majestic robes of wisdom and has donned not exactly the cap and bells, but certainly some sort of gay and rather impudent apparel. The sonnets of Emma Lazarus are the finest of those written by American women. One or two of them—"Success," for instance, and "The Venus of the Louvre"—are strong, and bite keenly into the memory. A certain looseness, however—the flagging of a line here and there—prevents them from ranking with the very best work of their kind. Our own poet, Chas. G.D. Roberts, has written at least one sonnet of a high order, "Reckoning," and several others of marked and individual excellence. Among the poems of Mrs. Moulton, Helen Gray Cone, Mrs. Jackson, Clinton Scotland, Charles H. Luders, Bayard Taylor, and R.H. Stoddart are scattered sonnets of considerable beauty, but not often with the genuine sonnet ring.