At the Mermaid Inn

The Globe, Toronto: April 23, 1892


Sir Roger—What have we here?
Giles—There is everything under the sun set down with some show of reason; they run atilt at the world, and treat men and manners as familiar as an old hat.
Sir Roger—Think you they protest too much? I like a matter disposed bravely, but—
Giles—Methinks they have a genial tongue. Will you hear them?
Sir Roger—Well, an’ it be not too long I’ll have some sack, and you read on.

— Old Play.

       There is no doubt but that much of the charlatanism of to-day is due to a corresponding weakness in the great mass of humanity which is willing to be imposed upon. One of the most glaring instances of this is to be found in the many attempts to publish comprehensive volumes of verse and periodicals devoted entirely to literary people. Two or three striking instances of this have come to the notice of the present writer, who has been pestered on this score. Cincinnati and Chicago seem to be the chief homes for the immortalizing of “inglorious” if not mute literature.
       The whole trouble is that man has a craze for notoriety, and some people have a madness to see themselves in print even if they have to pay for it. The Homer of Michigan or the Sappho of Texas gets his or her divine utterance embalmed in covers, with a myriad of sisters and brothers (immortals?) for the small sum of ten dollars, and price of subscription additional. Such a condition of things is but natural in a large population where there must necessarily be a great literary impetus, without restraint of self-imposed standards, and we may afford to pass this phenomenon with a curious smile. But there is a graver condition of things, when really admirable and aspiring writers are willing to give their work for nothing to the first periodical or journal to impose upon them. Many of our writers here in Canada would do wisely if they forbore to print until their work was worth paying for. Young writers especially make the grave mistake of rushing into print without due consideration, hence we have college papers, and any amount of unbaked work in other journals as well which seem unable or unwilling to pay for proper material. It may be hard to check this sort of thing, but as long as it continues it will be injurious to the development of good literature. It seems a shame that a periodical or journal which pretends to uphold a high standard of literary work in a community should accept most, if not all, of its best work without payment. In this case both editor and contributor are lowering the status of the profession which it should be their first duty to uphold. The result is the endless amount of twaddle and inane matter that goes to fill up the journals of this class. We may forgive the college paper, as merely amateur, but there is no excuse for journals and contributors who claim to be grown up. I wish all young and sincere Canadian writers would make a compact with themselves not to give any work to a journal whose editor does not think that matter worthy of even nominal payment. By doing this they might for a while deprive themselves of the doubtful pleasure of seeing their work in print, but in the long run they would be conferring on themselves and contemporary journalism and literature a lasting benefit.

       The last poems of Phillip Bourke Marston have been collected by his friend Louise Chandler Moulton. They may add no additional luster to a name already famous, but they will prove to have the qualities which have made Marston’s work such a definite quantity in literature. With him one was always sure of certain things: of sombre beauty, of weighty and tragic lines drenched with sorrow. No writer has so completely translated his life into his verse. That life was shut in by suffering as by a wall; and although we are told he was cheerful and resigned, yet when he lets his heart out the cry is one of passionate pain. In his way of looking at things and in his style of expression he was influenced largely by Rossetti and his sonnets are identical in method. Some of the latter are equal to anything in “The House of Life” but his range was more restricted and his hand less firm. I must confess the sense of misfortune which anyone must feel when he finds a thing admittedly good which he cannot enjoy. I cannot delight in Marston’s sonnets, and most of his verse I have to pass by with a feeling of regret. But he had an individual note which does appeal to me, and which I find his true admirers lay too little stress upon. His garden fancies, those poems to flowers and about them, are very fresh and lovely. Flowers must have appealed to him strongly. There is no object in nature that seems to have such a living, personal charm as a flower; its accent seems to be a language; if it has no perfume it still looks as if it could speak. These poems of his are full of fancies which the odor of the blossoms must have brought him. When the flowers are talking about the wind and where he sleeps at night, the lily says, “In branches of great trees he rests”; the rose, “Not so; they are too full of nests.” Such sweet, childlike ideas are found abundantly in the poems to which I refer, and to me they are very touching and very beautiful.

       No writer in the region simply of poetry or fiction has ever been greeted by the reviewers with a stranger variety of championship and assault than the venerable old Scald just dead at Camden. Even in the case of Browning the contrast between praise and blame has not been so vehement and sharp. We all know with what burning enthusiasm a good many Americans and a few Europeans talk about Whitman, and some of the old reviews, both in America and England, so loud-mouthed in mockery and abuse, are not yet forgotten. Even yet what dissenters there are! I suppose that Mr. Theodore Watts, the companion of Ruskin and Rossetti, might be chosen as the representative of that subtle, poetic culture which is the product of centuries of literary and artistic activity in an historic land; and this is the way in which in a recent number of the Athenæum, he speaks of Walt Whitman, to whom he most irreverently alludes as the “Jack Bunaby of Parnassus”:—“That Whitman had the temperament of the poetical thinker no one, I suppose, would deny. Whenever he writes about death, and in one or two lyrics about Lincoln, he is fine—sometimes he is almost sublime; and it is by no means sure that if he could have been compelled to give his attention not merely to English metres, but to English grammar and English common sense, he might not have left something notable behind him.” He professes to be unable to find out what Whitman’s message to humanity is, and avers that “it is easy to disguise puzzle-headedness the moment that you pas away from prose statement.” “As to his amazing indecency,” he adds, “that may be forgiven. It has done no harm. It is merely the attempt of a journalist to play ‘the tan-faced man’—to play ‘the noble savage’—by fouling with excrement the doorstep of civilisation. In England, to be sure, he would have been promptly run in.” The Saturday Review also in an article written in the well-known manner of that very smart and decidedly offensive weekly, grants to Whitman a measure of genuine and enduring poetic power, but dismisses all his political, social and moral ideas as too infantile to be worthy of any serious notice whatever. In truth it may be said that personality enters into the quality of Whitman’s work more prominently than in the case of any other writer. It is his personality that so keenly attracts and repels, and there will always be a class of gentle and delicate minds to whom, however willing they may be to recognise the frequent beauties and grandeurs in Whitman’s work, his brawny egotism and raw aggressive force will be instinctively repulse. The old world will acknowledge his power in theory and at a distance, but it will approach him with a shrug or a shudder.

       Probably few Canadians are familiar with Emerson as a poet. Like Whitman and Browning, he wrote a great deal of stuff that is worthless, but now and again produced something remarkable for its originality and power. I have no patience with those who would do homage to him as a poet. He is nothing but a rhyming philosopher, who often lost himself to no effect in long-winded doggerels. It was as a prose writer that Emerson was in his own way a master. But here and there in his doggerels he struck chords of beauty in his thought that are unique and irresistible. Emerson had certainly high and reverential thoughts with regard to nature, and possessed a keen insight into all her forms and phases, but he lacked two important essentials—power of expression in any kind of form, and a knowledge of human life. He had a large vision with regard to history and the philosophy of history, but was but a child as to the life about him. Perhaps the most beautiful thoughts expressed in his verse are found in the following lines:—

       The hand that rounded Peter’s dome,
       And groined the aisles of Christian Rome,
       Wrought in a sad sincerity;
       Himself from God he could not free;
       He builded better than he knew;
       The conscious stone to beauty grew.

       But here the beauty lies entirely in the thought. The expression, as in all his verse, is crude and the rhyme and metre often abominable. I can easily understand Emerson’s appreciation of Whitman, despite his disregard of the canons of verse. They had much in common, but Whitman’s crudity was the defect of a true poet with no sense of the necessity of form, while that of Emerson was the result of an attempt to put into rhyme thoughts, that he could and did express much more fitly and satisfactorily in prose.

       One of the most promising among our portrait painters is Mr. W.A. Sherwood of Toronto, whose fine picture of Dr. Scadding stands high in the scale of Canadian portraiture. While Mr. Sherwood’s work on exhibition this year does not quite do justice to his best effort it shows a power which if properly controlled and developed would give him high standing. What many of our young artists need is a close study of realism, without becoming slaves to mere technique. Mr. Sherwood has a bold and a rapid touch and a genuine enthusiasm for his art, which shows promise; and he is, we also understand, a hard worker, which is necessary to the accomplishment of the best works.

       The May number of The Cosmopolitan, which has just appeared, is the first number under the joint editorship of Mr. Howells and the proprietor, Mr. J. Brisben Walker. In securing such a distinguished name to an already strong editorial staff Mr. Walker has achieved a triumph worthy of his best ambition and has placed his magazine on a sure footing for popular favor in the foremost ranks of the giant monthlies of the continent. The initial number under the new regime is unusually strong and includes such names as Lowell, Stedman, Hale, James, Stockton, Fawcett, Jewett, Hay, Howells himself and a number of other established and promising literateurs. The world of to-day owes much of its refining influence and higher enjoyment to the high-class magazine, so we congratulate Mr. Walker and wish The Cosmopolitan all the success it deserves.