At the Mermaid Inn

The Globe, Toronto: April 2, 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.

       A great many people have the idea that a poet, or, indeed, any kind of literary artist, must be a sort of monstrosity, a person whose dress, language and habits are quite out of the line of their ordinary experience. They expect to find him a being wrapped in fiery abstractions, of frenzied glance and disordered locks, forever impelled by the most gorgeous sentiments, and getting off impassioned remarks, full of unintelligible profundity. And how astonished they are to find the poet so wonderfully like other sensible men, the chief difference being that he is possessed in a much higher degree of that quality which they least looked for, namely, common sense; for the faculty of genius is nothing more than clear, plain common sense, carried to a high degree and kindled with imagination. The poet differs from the ordinary man of affairs in that he applies the quality of common sense to all the relations and activities of life; the man of affairs merely applies it in a limited way to things as they are related to certain accepted ideas, which he has been taught to regard as the sum of existence. The hard-headed man of the world always distrusts the poet as a dreamer or unpractical person. It is a curious thing to reflect that the very reverse is the fact. The business man, for instance, who with ingenuity and labor accumulates a fortune, spends his whole life in the pursuit of a dream, which in the end is the most empty and futile imaginable; a dream which to the unsparing eye of the poet is not only despicable for its narrowness but possesses in a gigantic degree all the elements of the ludicrous. The poet attaches himself to no dream. He endeavors to see life simply as it is, and to estimate everything at its true value in relation to the universal and the infinite. But the man of affairs still calls the poet a dreamer. There are also a very great number of people, especially, I believe, in this country, who regard the word “poet” as simply and completely synonymous with the word “fool.” They expect to find in the poet a very erratic person, with weak eyes, a flabby complexion, an effeminate drawl, and an alarming tendency to be affected to tears on slight provocation. What is their astonishment when he proves to be the wisest, the manliest, the most self-contained and sometimes even the austerest and apparently most unimpassionable of all men. Let us instance a few of the great names:—Aeschylus, Sophocles, Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, Goethe, Wordsworth, Tennyson. Are there in the annals of statecraft or business or philanthropy any goodlier or wholesomer figures of men than these?

       We may now look forward to numberless papers and reviews on Shelley and subjects connected with his life and works. The first of these is the article in the current number of Harper’s by Guido Biagi, entitled “The last Days of Percy Bysshe Shelley.” The author is chief of the Laurentian Library of Florence. The paper is exceedingly interesting and contains much new matter collected by Signor Biagi. It is to be hoped that the Shelley centenary may bring forth some new matter dealing with his life and work, but it is extremely doubtful whether research could discover any unknown particular in connection with a subject so well and so lovingly studied. But we should certainly look for some new editions of his works—there is room for them—and one in three or four small volumes, with good-sized print, would be the most acceptable. The tercentenary of Tasso’s death, which will be celebrated in 1895, is likely to be made of considerable literary interest, from the fact that a new, a heretofore unknown manuscript, by the author of “Jerusalem Delivered,” has been discovered in Italy, and will be published during the year above mentioned. The manuscript deals with a journey made by the poet to Egypt and Palestine, and also contains several new sonnets.

       Mr. Hardy’s new novel is a splendid performance. It has all his old picturesqueness and his personal singularity, but it springs from a deeper, a more human motive than much of the work which has preceded it. There is less of that theatric disposition of scene and incident which has not been uncommon in Mr. Hardy’s work, and, although it is full of distinctive happenings which could not have been arranged by any other hand, they fall naturally and inevitably. The book is replete with descriptions of external nature which catch the strangest, the most bizarre efforts with exquisite truthfulness. Anything weird or obscure in a landscape Mr. Hardy reproduces with perfect impression and his new book is even more striking in this particular. I remember in “The Return of the Native” some descriptions that will hold with these later ones, but it is only in his books that this special treatment of landscape is found. But he has nowhere equaled the tragic pathos of this story, which is almost too heavy for the heart to bear and which is yet so true to the conditions of life. It is only upon reflection that the true insight of the tale comes out. Mr. Hardy has left us to work out the lesson for ourselves, like the artist that he is, and has only interfered with the complete impersonality of his work in the sub-title, in which he seems to have felt the need of emphasising the main feature of his heroine’s character. It is upon reflection that one derives the true value from the book, and in the end we cry out once more against the code of morals which visits destruction upon one sex and allows the other to go free for the same crime. We may blame Angel Clare for not being stronger than the society in which he was reared, but to me the most heartrending thing in the whole book is to feel how slight the veil was which separated him from his happiness and Tess from her fate, and how any one of many possibilities might have rent it asunder and left them heart to heart as they should have been. But in life it is just these infinitesimal things which will not happen and to avoid such catastrophes we would need a prophetic power of insight and a god-like power of criticism.

       The investigations of a certain Vienna professor into the language of monkeys constitute one of the latest curiosities in the way of scientific research. This professor affirms that monkeys have a quite intelligible language, and it appears that he has already made considerable progress in the study of it. He holds long conversations with some of the apes in the zoological gardens at London, and whenever he appears these apes call to him, it is said, with the greatest impatience and show manifest pleasure in his society. The professor is now on the point of setting out for Africa in order to prosecute his studies among the native simian tribes. Let us hope that he will be cautious in interviewing some of them. An interchange of sentiments with an impulsive and able-bodied gorilla, for instance, would call for a degree of delicate diplomatic skill not at the disposal of every man.

       The item of most interest in this month’s literary news is that Mr. Swinburne has a tragedy in press, which will be ready before long. It is called “The Sisters,” and is written on a Northumbrian subject. Mr. Swinburne has been silent now for some little time, and his new tragedy will be received with general interest. Mr. David Nutt has commenced the publication of a series of Tudor translations, the initial number of which is to be Florio’s Montaigne in three volumes. Mr. Nutt will also publish three dramas by W.E. Henty and Robert Louis Stevenson.