At the Mermaid Inn

The Globe, Toronto: August 20, 1892


       Mr. W.D. Howells is reported to have said:—"Whenever I have given way to the so-called inspiration of the moment, and have worked with reckless enthusiasm, I have always found the next day that my work was rubbish and all lost." I imagine that Mr. Howells, when he said that, was speaking with a somewhat exaggerated force. If he meant the statement to be taken literally, I think he was in error. Every writer who does much work and has been writing for many years accomplishes a certain part of everything he undertakes under the influence of no special imaginative excitement—almost in a routine sort of way; but there are many points in a work of fiction, if it be a dramatic work at all, which are all the better for being carried by storm, so to speak, and the greatest writers have no doubt sketched out momentous situations in their novels under impulse of great excitement. If Mr. Howells had allowed some of those runaway adventures of his pen to be incorporated in his stories, whatever he might have thought of them himself the world would probably have decided that they were far better than anything he has actually printed. An author, especially if he be gifted or cursed with a strong critical faculty, is often not a fair judge of his own work. In the pale light of the reaction which always follows an outburst of mental excitement, the result assumes an unnatural color, and the author underestimates the force or beauty of what he has done. When the imagination is carried away by the enthusiasm and thoroughly rejoices in the work it is doing the result must be good.

       "The Siege of Lucknow," by the Hon. Lady Inglis, is an interesting and absorbing chronicle of one of the most exciting occurrences of the Indian Mutiny. Although this is not the first diary of the siege which has been published, it has the first claim to recognition, not only on account of the illustrious name which the author bears, but because of its intrinsic merit as a faithful and graphic narration of this gallant defence. The popular idea of the siege will always be involved with the fiction of the Scotch lassie who heard "The Campbells are Comin'" played by the bagpipes of the relief, under Generals Outram and Havelock, and it is interesting to read an authentic account of that first relief without any heightening of the facts. Mrs. Inglis' style is admirable simple and unaffected, and she has been enabled to make use of the notes of Col. Birch, who was her husband's aide-de-camp during the time of the siege. We therefore have two accounts: one from inside the walls of the building, where so many women and children were confined, and where the active life of the garrison was only a matter of report, and the other from the very thick of the fight. We have a detailed description of the holding at bay of 15,000 rebels by 1,800 regulars and loyal natives, who had to defend the Residency and 800 women and children. This they did for 87 days. The garrison was commanded during this period by Brigadier Inglis of the 32nd, who joined the regiment in 1832, when it was stationed at Quebec.
       As an example of Lady Inglis' style, I quote from her notes on the 25th of September:—"At 6 p.m. tremendous cheering was heard, and it was known our relief had reached us. I was standing outside our door when Ellicock rushed in for John's (Brigadier Inglis') sword; he had not worn it since Chinhut, and a few minutes afterward he came to us, accompanied by a short, quiet-looking, grey-haired man, whom I knew at once was Gen. Havelock." Col. Birch gives the following account of the arrival of the relief:—"It was indeed a gallant feat of arms by which Generals Havelock and Outram and their small force threw themselves into our entrenchments. They were outnumbered 100 to 1, and had to make their way through narrow streets and dense parts of the city. Indeed so dense were the suburbs that they completely swallowed up the force, preventing our seeing them. The first sign of their approach was the evident panic amongst the citizens. Crowds streamed out of the city in headlong flight. Horsemen rode to the banks of the river, and, cutting the tight martingales of their horses, plunged into the stream. The enthusiasm of the garrison was tremendous and only equalled by that of our relievers. H.M.S. 78th Highlanders and the 14th Sikhs raced up to our gate, which was earthed up, and which we did not dare to open, as the enemy kept up their fire till the last moment. Generals Outram and Havelock came in at an embrasure which had been pretty well knocked about. Gen. Havelock was buttoned up to the chin in a blue coat. We, of the old garrison, had long deserted red and blue, and, with flannel shirts, white clothing, dyed dust-color and soiled with gunpowder, we looked more like buccaneers than officers of the British army."

       A century ago there was born into English life a soul of remarkable and lofty genius, whose song added a new and subtle essence to the quality of English poetry. In Shelley we have, without doubt, the greatest lyric poet in the language. All true poets, while they may have affinities, must prove their right of place in the literary constellation by showing a peculiar original quality of thought and expression which is theirs alone, and which can be found in no other writer. This is the patent of genius which distinguishes the great and original mind from the child of the schools, from the mere imitator. To be great is to have all the qualities that are called god-like, supreme among which are emancipation from the petty thraldom of life, so as to be able, from earliest childhood, to contemplate the wonder and greatness of the universe, and to realise in and through all the realms of humanity and nature, in the realms of humanity and nature, in the good and evil, in the hope and despair, in ocean and land and the misty stars of Heaven, a weird, haunting beauty that is forever present in it all, and yet behind it, where dwells the invisible. To be this is to be a poet. He is of the world and yet he is apart from it. He sees faces and dreams dreams that none others know of. He may often seem to be lawless and erratic, with the voice of a god in the body of a satyr, but he can never be less than great. A man who is born with a soul of this nature, though he may be shunned or even execrated by his own age, is sure to be vindicated by history in the end. There is a divine essence running all through our humanity that loves and feeds on greatness; it is a quality of history that periodically revolts against bigotry and tyranny; that sifts the wheat of the ages from the chaff and straw, and places eternal genius on its pedestal in the sight of men. This quality, that is, the power to appreciate genius, is stronger than race or creed or environments. In the exquisite genius of Shelley we have a wonderful example of the peculiar originality that is the true mark of greatness. It might be said of him that he is a paler, more ethereal Shakespeare. But in Shakespeare we have a sun, while Shelley is a white star of the first magnitude. It may be said of Shelley that he is too ethereal, and did not get close enough to the earth. This may be so, but what was his weakness was also his greatest strength. He seems to me to be a poet of the stars and dew, and whatever adverse critics may say they can never dethrone from the kingship of true English (lyrical) poetry the genius who wrote the "Lines to an Indian Air" and "The Ode to a Skylark." Or who has surpassed in English such exquisite and ethereal description of the night as:
       "You orbed maiden,
       In white fire laden,
       Whom mortals call the moon;
       Glides, glimmering o'er
       My fleece-like floor,
       By the midnight breezes strewn."

       The management of the Chicago Exhibition made a mistake, it seems to me, in offering a prize for the best collection of stuffed birds. The result will be a wholesale destruction of these beautiful and innocent creatures that every true naturalist and lover of nature must deplore.

       Mr. W.T. Stead has also made a mistake in promoting the publication of a version of the Bible in the common language of the day. What reasonable object he can hope to gain by this it would be hard to say. As regards force, melody and dignity of diction the proposed version is sure to be a failure, and no improvement in perspicacity can possibly be attained, inasmuch as the old version of King James unites almost in the ideal degree the different rare qualities necessary to convey the true force of the original to a religious imagination. The men of the sixteenth century knew how to translate the Bible, because they believed it in a sense which is not intelligible even to the devout people of our day, and because they were saturated with its spirit. A translation by a modern newspaper man would be about the same as a translation of Homer by Will Carleton or Martin Farquhar Tupper. It would be enough to make heaven and earth crumble together before the eyes of the true, old-fashioned man of letters.