At the Mermaid Inn

The Globe, Toronto: April 15, 1893


       Raphael Joseffy, the pianist, says:—"Hasty attempt without sufficient preparation is the bane of all American effort in the realm of art." Again:—"His (the American's) rapidity of apprehension too often gives him a distaste for the slow, patient labor and study absolutely essential to the thorough elaboration of every great thought in art. The slow-thinking, plodding German, and the tenacious, bull-dog Englishman have thus a very great advantage over him in their efforts to achieve the highest art perfection."
       Life in America has bred an unrest that looks for results and expects them without the labor and care that make them valuable. In consequence we have a principle at work in art which has developed the smart and "taking" to the disadvantage of the higher and nobler qualities. The magazines are great and powerful nurses of this principle; it is recognizable in the illustrations and literary work which they often present, which cannot be classed with any known forms of art or literature. They exist for the magazines and by reason of them, and they follow the demand for the merely pretty and ephemeral upon which many of the periodicals exist.

       Success is in most cases not the result of ability only, but of the mercy of chance—the happy fortune of youth which has guided our feet into the right path. How often do we find men in every walk of life who are universally credited with great gifts, yet who have never really succeeded. The labor of a lifetime has been wasted; they are like one who has been wading in sand. Youth, in the beginning, did not set them at the right task, and they had neither pluck nor the good fortune to recover themselves. The lives of such men are more or less unhappy. Their souls inevitably take on the crookedness and ill health of everything that is forced into a shape for which it is not intended. Well it is for them if life has given them so many of its smaller compensating joys that their unhappiness is never anything more than a gentle, sluggish melancholy. Often they are less fortunate; all the circumstances of life have made them raw, and death finds them raving in savage bitterness. This is the commonest and one of the most pitiable of the tragedies of life—the sickness of the soul that had the ability and the yearning to accomplish much but got astray in the world's confusion and found no outlet for its distinctive power. The deeper, the more brilliant the natural gift, the more terrible the wreck which its disappointment must entail. Very often this life-ruin is due to the fact that a special gift has not been recognized by its possessor till too late, or that the merciless needs and constraining circumstances of his environment have forced him to deliberately set it aside. Oftener still, however, it is the result of the awful blindness or shortsighted obstinacy of parents. Long before their children have reached manhood or womanhood they have planned for them their life-long pursuits, in many cases paying no heed to the indications of natural bent, but allowing themselves to be guided solely by some fanciful preference, or, worse still, a narrow solicitude for what they imagine to be the child's material welfare. If such parents were permitted to see into their children's hearts in after years and mark the evil growths, the maladies and distortions that have grown up there like the fungi and creeping things in cellars hidden away from the sun and never used for any healthy purpose, they would perceive, as they seldom actually do in life, how tragically wrong they have been. I call to mind a woman whom I once knew, who had an undoubted natural genius for the stage and the opera. She had never married and had grown old before her time, body and spirit eaten away by the flame of the poetic longing which she could not gratify. Her life was like the rose which has never spread into blossom, but remained withered and stunted in the bud because its root was buried in a barren and innutritious soil, denied water and denied the sun.
       Parents should watch their children's growing minds for every indication of natural aptitude, and when any natural aptitude is discovered every facility should be offered for its development, not, indeed, to the exclusion of the development of other faculties, but so that it may take the lead and all the other faculties by their acquirements may minister to its strength. People often discourage the development of certain talents in their children because they consider the callings toward which they lead them undignified, not respectable or dangerous to morality. In this case, too, they make a mistake. There is always a much greater moral danger to be apprehended from a thwarted ambition, a native mental energy curbed and repressed, than from any amount of freedom given to any natural and legitimate desire for action. The yearning for artistic expression in any form is a particularly dangerous one to repress; it will find its proper outlet or it will explode and destroy the vessel that contains it.

       Among recent volumes of Canadian verse one of the most worthy is "Poems, Lyrical and Dramatic," by Mr. J.H. Brown. It is not our intention to criticize the work more than to point out some of its qualities in passing. It is rarely that the reviewer is justified in making sweeping assertions for or against a work. And sad to say this is only too common to-day in Canada. A reader may be struck with the beauty of a bit of verse by a certain writer, but it should not lead him to bar out all other writers, after the fashion of a critic in Arcadia, who, in a late review of a poem by a Canadian poet, said:—"Only one other Canadian poet could produce such a fine bit of work." Such an assertion shows a rashness unworthy of a critic. How does he know what Canadian poets can do? Probably his knowledge of Canadian poetical literature is limited to his adopted idols. The only fair and legitimate use of a review is to show that the book in question has merits worthy of the attention of the public. The mere disparaging of literature that is so common in contemporary so-called criticism seems to be more the output of bitterness and spleen than anything else. No book of verse ever published in Canada or anywhere else has been devoid of faults. And the duty of the reviewer is not to hunt up the faults which all sensible men know do exist, but to point out that the book has an original keynote of its own, which marks it out from the literature around it. If the book does not show such a keynote then it were best to leave it alone.
       In Mr. Brown's book I recognize a distinct note that marks his work out from that of others. Though not as intense a lover of nature as some of our poets he has the true poetical sympathy for external nature in her great moods. He appreciates the eternal beauty ever present in the universe. But his muse loves to ponder most on the great drama of mankind, with a special interest in the freedom or liberation of human society. In this he is akin to Shelley, whom he calls:

"A prisoned soul, new-thrilled with life's desire;
All tears, all smiles, despairs and eager yearning."

Anyone who has read Mr. Brown's book in a thoughtful manner, as the true critic should, will observe that he has made a faithful study of many of the great poets, and that he has consciously learned much from them. In his dramatic work we see a knowledge and love of Shakespeare, and in his other work we get an appreciation of Omar, Browning and Walt Whitman. But Mr. Brown is not a mere imitator. He has a soul which is intense in its discernment and its love of the lofty and wise. What he has read he has digested well and has made it his own. I think that among Canadian poets he is distinctly the poet of humanity and its problems as approached from a philosophical standpoint, and in this sense he is the most thoughtful of all our poets. He is decidedly lacking on the side of creative imagination, or at least he has given us no sign of it in his book. But he has gained on the side of philosophical meditation. At least this is as far as my understanding of his work would teach me. I have no right to say what others might find in his work. I do not think that Mr. Brown's book has had that proper consideration that it deserves at the hands of those who take upon them to introduce our authors to the Canadian people. At some future time I will give some examples of his verse in this column.

       In these latter days, when everything in the earth and under it is being subjected to scientific inquiry, it seems strange that the venerable myth of the sea serpent has not before this met its deserts in the shape of a careful sifting of the evidence as to its probably existence and a comparison of the accounts of its various appearances. But some person has at least been found with enthusiasm enough to discuss this abstruse subject. He has even digested the sober descriptions of the serpent written by journalists of the great American republic, and this part of his subject was certainly worthy of some consideration. It is a curious fact (is it not?) that the American sea serpent usually appears off the coast of Maine and then in colossal proportions. You will recollect that Maine is a prohibition state. This fact, however, did not find its way into Mr. Oudemans' book, but many other strange and interesting things did. He disposes of the false sea serpents which have been thrust upon a confiding public really interested in the original monster, and he finds that the great republic is responsible for two-thirds of these canards. If his researches had extended to the serpents of inland waters Canada could have swelled the record of lies on this subject; for many of our countrymen have seen strange things from fishing smacks on the lakes. Our author, after weighing all the evidence carefully, comes to the conclusion that the sea serpent "is a long-tailed pinniped, a member of the carnivorous order which includes the seals and walruses." It is to be hoped after all his trouble that Mr. Oudemans, who is a Dutchman, will be rewarded some day by a sight of the serpent which he has so thoroughly investigated and settled so far as such a mythical creature can be settled. His book is written in English although he is a foreigner, and is published, moreover, by a Dutch house—Brill of Leyden.