At the Mermaid Inn

The Globe, Toronto: April 30, 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.

       If the fates ever furnish me with the means of building a house, and give me the liberty of placing it where I will, I shall certainly set it either on a lofty hill, or, if I am not thoroughly suited in that respect, in a very deep valley. Men who dwell upon the hills should be cool-blooded and large-minded. The outlook over a vast stretch of country is magical in its effect upon the mind, and if we make it the habitual circumstance of our lives it cannot fail to exercise a permanent influence over the character. He who looks abroad from the hills is reminded at every hour of the day of the largeness and beauty of life, of the variousness of human labors, of the inexhaustible freshness and loveliness of this earth. His vision passes to the utmost visible limit and projects itself into the immensity beyond. The infinity of space and time, the multitude of worlds, the strangeness of human destiny, the smallness and insignificance of the unit which is himself, are always present to his thought. One can hardly conceive how he should be a mean man, or harbor thoughts otherwise than calm and spacious. The dwellers in valleys also are more fortunate, I think, than those who have built upon the plain. The upward sweep of the enclosing hills, especially if they be plumed and ruffled with forest, leads the mind out of itself, and conducts it to regions of morning, freshness and beauty.

       I happened to pick up a copy of Gottschalk’s “Notes of a Pianist” the other day. It is a jumble of all sorts of remarks about the places he visited and the incidents of his concert tours. Some of his references to Canadian towns are interesting. Writing in 1862 he says of Ottawa, “They are building a House of Parliament here which, considering the narrowness of the town and the number of deputies which it is required to accommodate, give it the appearance of Robinson Crusoe’s canoe.” He makes great fun of the French spoken by the Canadians in Montreal and Quebec and the names of the people he finds very amusing—“Mr. Cauchon was the Minister of the Interior for some years.” Then he makes fun of him for his pronunciation. In Quebec he finds that everything “reflects the sacristy.” But he everywhere abuses the French Canadians. He calls them with scant courtesy “ugly and apathetic.” He spells Caughnawaga “Coylmawaggher,” which is certainly a very extraordinary attempt. He played in Toronto on July 18, 1862, but he does not say anything about the town; he says merely that his concert was under the patronage of Major-General Napier and that he met some officers he had known in Paris.

       Nothing more truly American has ever been written than the strong and original collection of Pike County Ballads, by John Hay, editor with J.G. Nicolay of the famous Life of Lincoln. These remarkable poems were first written for The New York Tribune, and republished in book form in 1871. While these verses show something akin to those of Bret Harte, they have about them an originality all their own which makes them unique in American literature. The ballad “Jim Bludso,” the most characteristic, is an epic of Mississippi steamboat life, told in strong and pathetic language, with a quaint humor and a practical theology evolved from the rude western environment, and truly human in its freshness and boldness of conception. The quaint originality of statement in this western epic, is shown in such lines as:

       Wall, no! I can’t tell whar he lives,
       Because he don’t live, you see;
       Leastways, he got out of the habit
       Of livin’ like you and me.
       A keerless man in his talk was Jim,
       And an awkward hand in a row,
       But he never flunked and he never lied—
       I reckon he never knowed how.

       Then the lines relate how the steamer, the Prairie Belle, who wouldn’t be passed though she was the oldest craft on the line:

       Came tearing along that night,
       With a nigger squat on her safety valve.

       What could be finer than the description of the fire that broke out, and—

       Burnt a hole in the night.

       Then is told how the heroic Bludso, after holding “her nozzle agin the bank,” till “the last galoot” was “ashore,” went up alone in the smoke of the Prairie Belle. Then comes the summing up in the simple and childlike theology of the stanza:

       He weren’t no saint—but at judgment
       I’d run my chance with Jim.
       ’Longside of some pious gentlemen
       That wouldn’t shake hands with him.
       He seen his duty, a dead sure thing,
       And went for it thar and then;
       And Christ ain’t agoing to be too hard
       On a man that died for men.

       In a similar vein is “Little Breeches,” with its quaint humanity; and that remarkably terse relation of a fight for “whiskey skin,” called the “Mystery of Gilgal.” Those who have not already perused these irresistibly charming ballads can obtain them in a small edition of Routledge’s Companion Poets.

       The late Lord Lytton seemed to have inherited the fatality which haunted his father when he wrote “King Arthur.” He seemed predestined to write verse that, practically at least, is a failure. His long novel in verse, “Glenaveril,” was in every way a lamentable performance, so tedious that it has even failed to find a place in the list of his works. “Lucile” now forms the interior of many gaudily-bound gift books, and it may be read by the gentle young ladies who receive it on the anniversaries and holidays of the year, but I have genuine misgivings even upon that last point. I fancy even they turn with a sense of relief to the freer atmosphere of Mr. E.P. Roe and “The Duchess.” Yes, these books are immensely dull and have no touch of poetry from cover to cover. It is hardly possible to consider seriously the work of a man who could write this stanza:—

Whate’er the gain by these from love expected,
       Whether its acquisition be in pelf
Or pleasure, it is wholly unconnected
       With love itself.

Yes, that is true, very true; but then what a bore it is to have it said that way. Anyone could have said it as well, and no one would in consequence feel like calling him a poet. But Mr. Blunt asks us to put “Owen Meredith” among the immortals. This, of course, prevents us from putting Mr. Blunt among the critics, and leaves us with a feeling of bewilderment as to just what to do with him. It is possible that a poet never existed who could not charm one ear with his rhyme. This is probably a provision of considerate Nature, who does not care to leave any of her children uncomforted, and who recognized the ultimate of human misery in the man who would write verses and have no single admirer.

       The art of reading is one which is left for the most part to take care of itself. Many people go to a teacher to learn music, but very few ever think of having themselves taught how to read, i.e., how to read with precision and effect. The art of elocution might be made to afford almost as much pleasure and inspiration as that of music if it were as honestly cultivated and as widely practised. The systems of professional elocution taught in the reading schools and practised on our public platforms seem to be applied only to a very narrow range in literature. We all know the sort of thing we may expect from the elocutionist who advertises a public reading. It must be something affording opportunity for a vehement display of voice and plenty of vigorous gesticulation—something dramatic—more often something melodramatic. I wonder if anyone ever heard the “Ode to a Grecian Urn” or “The Blessed Damosel” from the lips of a professional elocutionist. The greatest part of which is strongest and most beautiful in our literature remains untouched by this art as an art. There is no reason why it should be so, except that its masters are themselves deficient in the deepest and truest culture, or that they are not content to undertake the slow and somewhat ungrateful task of reforming the taste of the thoughtless multitude. However this may be, there is room for a splendid new departure in the art of elocution, and there would be a high reward of ultimate fame, if not of fortune, for the man who should successfully undertake to fill it. It seems to me not by any means impossible that great bodies of people from the general masses might in time be drawn together for the purpose of listening to the deepest and subtlest products of thought and imagination, if only these were rendered by persons possessing at the same time a high literary faculty of appreciation and the necessary technical training. What a benefit, too, to the body of the people would be the establishment of a system of elocutionary training based upon delicate and comprehensive literary taste. We meet with very few people who are able really to read. Not one person in twenty is able to read plain prose, and not one in a thousand—I had almost made it more—to read verse. Yet a great many people have in them the natural capacity to do both. All that they need is culture, encouragement and the proper vocal training. Surely there can hardly be a greater delight than to listen to some magical story or poem rendered by a sweet and sonorous voice, perfectly governed and informed by the spirit of what is read. Every household should have its reader and every school its competent reading master. In our higher public schools, I understand, reading is practically untaught, and the result is made awfully apparent in the coarse accent and barbarous pronunciation which torture us daily from our pulpits and platforms. It would no doubt be unreasonable to expect that these schools should furnish any very exquisite or elaborate culture in elocution; but they should at least make a certain sound and practical exercise in reading under a trained master a part of their course in order that their scholars might go forth able to enunciate correctly and convey something of the sense and feeling of any ordinary passage of literary English.

       We ought to be very careful how we praise Canadian work, merely because it is Canadian, but we have a man in Canada of whom we are all justly proud, and whose genius is unique in its peculiar originality. I mean Mr. Bengough of Grip. His work as a caricaturist is considered by many to be superior in its simple suggestiveness to any other of the kind in the world. Certainly his work compares favorably with the elaborate work of the American and German schools of cartoonists. He always hits the nail on the head, and while unmerciful on fraud of any kind is never brutal. But, famous as he is, it is not as a caricaturist that I would now speak of Mr. Bengough, but as a literary man. In a late number of Grip I noticed a strong and simply beautiful poem in memory of Mackenzie that has touched me very much; a poem that in conception and style is worthy of the personality it depicts. There is a stately simplicity about such lines as:

No God-like gifts were his;
His Scottish tongue could speak unvarnished truth;
Better than great, he stood for what was right,
Just plain Mackenzie—nobly commonplace.

He was a Christian of that old-time sort—
Unfashionable now and growing rare—
Who knew no sacred barr’d from secular,
But worshipped God by doing honest work.

       Such lines as these need no recommendation other than their own merit.