At the Mermaid Inn

The Globe, Toronto: September 24, 1892


       In its issue of the 19th September last The Week devoted one of its editorial paragraphs to a comment upon the general obscurity of the younger verse writers of Canada, and a special request for light upon a poem of Mr. Bliss Carman. The writer is so frank in setting forth the generous disposition which he brings to the subject, and so candid in his admission that the fault or misfortune is his own, that he disarms criticism. For my own part, I have no desire to criticise or find fault with the paragraph itself, for there is much in it which can only give pleasure to a Canadian writer, even if he finds himself weighted with the charge of obscurity. "In common with other loyal Canadians, we have felt and still feel a legitimate pride in the success with which so many of our gifted young men and women have courted the muse during the last few years." This sentence is almost compensation enough for any stripes that come after, for there is nothing so gratifying to a writer of whatever standing as to know himself admired by his fellow-countrymen. I think it would be impossible to find a more loyal group of men in Canada than her writers. Although from no fault which can at present be remedied our country furnishes for the literary man absolutely no chance of living by his art, the desertions from her ranks of the men of letters have been small indeed, probably the severance was not of the spirit at all. If a man is forced to live by his pen in Canada, or wilfully determines to do so, there is only one refuge for him—journalism—and if all my journalistic friends tell me is true, even that field is not covered very thickly with clover. So that it happens that all our country can bestow upon her writers is in some cases only a very modest (or, perhaps, a prudish would be the better word) income, in others, no income at all. But it is a source of pleasure to all the writers alike to be appreciated in their own country; and when we have advanced a step further, and when it is possible to have a criticism, genial but not flattering, just but not envious, the lot of a Canadian literary man will begin to be not undesirable. I have no intention of presenting a commentary upon Mr. Carman's poem, for, with the majority of the readers of The Week, I am unfortunate not to have had the opportunity of reading it, and what that journal now owes to Mr. Carman and its readers is to publish his poem in full. It was hardly what would have been expected, from the chivalrous tone of the paragraph, to find it ending with two verses only of a poem of nine, which, from the extract, must contain some story, lyrically hinted at, after Mr. Carman's manner. It was, I am sure, unintentionally unfair to give only an excerpt from a poem which should be judged in its entirety. I am tempted to answer the question as to the italicised words, which I have no doubt have been many times ere this explained. It will hardly satisfy the questioner to be told that they do not mean anything in the sense of conveying a definite idea, like the words, "the bird is a thrush," and that from this point of view they were not intended to mean anything. But poetry is an art by which impressions are conveyed as well as ideas, and this translation into words of the cadence and pause of the thrush's song must be judged successful or unsuccessful, as it conveys an impression of the song itself. This must be decided by each individual reader, but no one can be expected to form any definite opinion without the possession of the whole poem; at present what he is requested to do is similar to the task imposed if a definite meaning were asked for a shred torn from one of Corot's landscapes, which in its proper place led the eye from a foreground of hazy sunlight into the deeps of a forest, with only vestiges of light dappling the amber pools.

       The New York Critic has the following note in connection with the death of G.W. Curtis:—
       "The Athenæum is the leading literary journal of England—the leading literary journal of the English-speaking world. The United States is an English-speaking country containing some 65,000,000 inhabitants, whose authors' names are known and their books read in England as well as in America. Yet when one of the best-known men of letters in America, our most distinguished orator, the political editor of our most influential weekly newspaper, the writer of an editorial department in an old-established magazine widely read not only here but in England, and the leader in the movement for civil service reform in the United States Government offices—when this eminent American passes away, still in the active discharge of all his duties, The Athenæum finds only this to say of him:—'Dr. Curtis, the editor for 34 years of Harper's Magazine and a high authority on educational questions, died on Wednesday last at New York, in his 69th year.'
       "George William Curtis was never known as 'Dr.' Curtis; he was never the editor of Harper's Magazine; and while he held the (almost honorary) post of chancellor of the University of the State of New York and was well informed on matters pertaining to education, he was not generally known as 'a high authority on educational questions.' It is as if The Critic should note the death of Mr. Morley (may it be long before it has occasion to do so) in some such wise as this:—'Mr. Morley, literary editor of The Pall Mall Gazette and a high authority on the subject of copyright (or church history, or French poetry, or what not) died' etc."
       This fact is strangely significant in its bearing on current English literary periodicals and their attitude towards American and even colonial literature. The leading English literary journals are The Athenæum, The Academy, The Spectator and The Literary World, all published in London, and the common characteristic of these journals is their intense stupidity as to American literature. It would be wrong to call it wilful neglect. Stupidity is the best word that meets the case. The fact is there is no place in the world more insulated and provincial than literary London. The literary people there are at what is considered vulgarly to be the centre of intellectual thought, but such is not the case nowadays. As Mr. Howells pointed out a short time ago in Harper's, the American literary centres have lost their one-time greatness, and much of the best and promising work is done by writers far removed from such centres. And so it is in London. There was a day when we might have looked up with awe to these thunderers, who made or unmade a writer by a paragraph. But the true genius to-day lives his own life and works out his own ideals, careless as to the opinions of such dethroned gods. When we realise that each of these journals is surrounded by a small clique of ambitious and often disappointed literary men and women, who know nothing of the great development of literature as it really is, we cannot wonder that these journals are not worthy the notice of a sincere worker. These circles have their prejudices and vain likings, and are often influenced by the dislike or likings of a rival journal. Then all these hangers-on have their rising literary friends, whom they have to foist on the public. So that no one can place any real value on a critique he may see in these papers. All the same it is a shame that this condition of things should exist, a condition which is rapidly spreading to America, so that very little literary work goes on its face value; hence the literary man needs to be a politician in a sense, and try and get in with these cliques, which are the vermin of our literature. They are made up of small men who build up false reputations for themselves and friends by occupying the literary journals. Under the existing circumstances it is no wonder that a growing contempt is rising in respect to the so-called literary centres and literary journals. If the young writer, who is dazed by finding himself patted condescendingly on the back by one of these journals, only knew who the real writer was, and his real standing, his self-exaltation would soon evaporate. Until we have a humble desire to know the real growth of true literature at our so-called literary centres, we may expect many of our much over-estimated critical periodicals to be the immense frauds that they are at present.

       It is a fact which we all know, that the commonest pursuit among men is the pursuit of wealth—the accumulation of riches—either for the sake of the splendor which it enables them to assume or the power with which it arms them, or, in the lowest case of all, for the mere sake of watching the pile grow—a purely brute instinct. This importance attached to the possession of wealth is due to a species of madness or mental blindness which is endemic in no particular country, but has been a universal pestilence affecting every age and every climate. People of almost all religions assert this life to be but a period of sojourn, a period of probation in which we shall prepare the soul for the better use of an after existence, and yet most of them employ it in a pursuit from which the least possible good can accrue to the soul—from which indeed the result can be no good at all, but only degradation. Those who spend their lives in the acquisition of knowledge, in the cultivation of art or of any intelligent industry for its own sake, in prosecution of political or social reform, not to speak of the more intimate works of benevolence, these are indeed increasing and deepening and expanding the capacities of the soul and rendering it a fitter inhabitant of a purer world. But what shall we say of the men who have merely accumulated vast wealth and concentrated it under the roofs of glittering palaces—and that in the presence of all the hungering despair and misery which we know to be the lot of thousands to every one of these? All this vanishes like smoke at the touch of death, and they carry nothing with them, if it be true that there is a life beyond the grave, but the hardened, distorted and attenuated soul. There is only one excuse for a life of money-making—an excuse which has just saved some of our wealthy neighbors of the United States from the reprobation under which they must fall with every really wise man—and that is that it furnishes the power to do good. Even this is an echo of the old plea that the end justifies the means.
       If, all at once, through some strange moral awakening, men could be got to see the miserable emptiness and vulgarity of this desire for riches, the work of the social and political reformer would be made beautifully straight before him, and all things would adjust themselves to the ideal plan; for, as we have been told many times, and most truly, "gold is the root of all evil," and the real enemy of mankind is that emissary of Satan who says with the Cyclops in Euripides: "Wealth, my little man, is the wise man's god; all other things are mere boasts and refinements of words."