At the Mermaid Inn

The Globe, Toronto: December 10, 1892


       Just now no book can be more interesting to lovers of literature than a life of the late poet laureate, and the demand for such a book is admirably met by Mr. Arthur Waugh's "Alfred, Lord Tennyson, a Study of His Life and Works," published by the United States Book company, New York. Mr. Waugh relates the scanty incidents of the laureate's life, linking together in an easy narrative the particulars of his outer fortunes and inner development, and traces from their utmost sources through every grade of influence the growth of his distinctive imaginative quality and his technical mastery. We have here for the first time a complete survey of the accomplishments of our poet "illustrious and consummate." We follow the course of that long and wonderful life, marked by so few of the vicissitudes of fortune, but full of the records of intellectual effort and imaginative achievement.
       This book, which is written in a simple, charming and instructive manner, is not one of those biographies which are hastily thrown together to meet a sudden rush of curiosity upon the death of an illustrious man. It was begun long before Tennyson's death, was very carefully compiled from every source of information available in the case of a man so hard to get at as the late laureate, and the writer's critical estimate of the poet's work is manifestly the result of intimate study and careful thought. In one of his most interesting chapters he shows how Tennyson not only concentrated in himself the widely differing artistic impulses of his immediate predecessors, but disbursed again from himself the germs of the peculiar qualities of the poets who rose after him. Keats, Wordsworth, Shelley and Byron each of them contributed something to his style, while Rossetti, Swinburne, Morris, Patmore and others followed out impulses which rayed forth from the larger master's work like so many beams of variously colored light.
       The writer gives brief, simple and in most cases perfectly satisfactory analyses of Tennyson's longer poems. Perhaps the only thing I would object to is the prominence given to the "Idylls of the King" as his greatest work. This is a disputed point, for recent critics have pointed out serious weaknesses in the conception and execution of these poems, which the laureate himself no doubt designed to constitute his masterpiece. Mr. Waugh, however, is not one of those who recognise no fault in the master to whom he is devoted, and in many cases he acknowledges undoubted imperfections. He grants the weaknesses of "The Princess" from the larger artistic point of view, while dwelling upon the exhaustless abundance of its beauties; but he combats vigorously the somewhat harsh criticisms of Mr. Stedman upon "Maud." He grants the dramatic failure of "Queen Mary" and makes the most of the success of "Harold."
       A great many interesting anecdotes of the poet, who was singular for his humor, his gruffness, his shyness, and withal his luminous greatness of heart, are scattered about the book, and its pages are made additionally interesting by a number of portraits and pictures of places notable through their connection with the poet's life. Of the portraits, two are of Tennyson himself, one being a reproduction of the well-known painting by G.F. Watts, remarkable for the fulness of the brow above the eyes and the peculiar sloping-downward look of the eyes themselves. There is also an engraving from Watts' exquisite portrait of Lady Tennyson—a face of most gentle sweetness and delicate beauty.

       There is nothing that we require more at the present stage of our literary development than frankness of opinion and proper, unbiassed judgment. In fact this might apply also to our whole national life, as the grave weakness in our literary conditions is the same as that at the bottom of our national existence. Sad to say, we are less a people with one aim and sympathy than we are a bundle of cliques, each determined to get what it calls its rights and caring little for matters outside of its own interests. And be these cliques provincial, racial, religious, partisan, or founded on mere self-interest they are one and all ruinous in the long run to the welfare of the country in its development as a nation. It goes without saying that we will never have a true national spirit until these different elements are, if not totally eliminated, at least so overwhelmed by a larger national spirit that at a grave national crisis the patriotic spirit will conquer them all, and show itself to be the dominant idea. Just as, if our destiny is to become a nation in reality, the clique system will be gradually eliminated in our national life, so in our literary conditions there must develop a larger horison of effort and appreciation, with the attendant result of a fairer and less biased judgment as to our literary standards. So far the general mass of the people have left the settling of such matters to a few critics, who are often personal friends of certain authors, and there being no general canon, the standing of a literary man or woman may depend largely on the booming qualities of his or her personal friends. Of course, the "scratch my back and I'll scratch yours" system is beginning to die out in this country, but it was not long ago that a loud and authoritative statement in one of our literary journals was regarded as final in settling a writer's stand in the eyes of the people. Those who see their favorite authors go to the wall in the literary race must remember that it was much easier to make and hold a literary reputation in Canada ten years ago than it is to-day, when our leading writers have the best of them gone abroad, and in the literary arena of the outside world have won recognition before achieving it at home. What we need, therefore, to-day is local criticism on the same standards, and not mere senseless gush or brutal abuse or mean insinuations, as we now have it. Under the old system, the friend of a certain writer was not content with senseless gush as to his or her favorite writer, but must needs go out of the way to cast a slur on all other writers in the country, or pick out someone who was looked upon as a possible rival, and, metaphorically, "jump on his collar," to use a current vulgar expression. This constituted the old formula to a large extent. And I am sorry to say that this system has not altogether died out. So soon as our literary critics and journals take the trouble to thoroughly study our literature and examine into its real merits, just so soon will they acquire the gift of seeing good in the work of more than one man; and more than that, the gift of judging one author's best work on its own characteristics and not by the characteristics of their favorite author. To generalise, so soon as a man is wild on the subject of Wordsworth, he becomes unjust to Shelley or Byron, and vice versa. The true and unbiassed critic is never a worshipper of any one writer, but admires each writer for what he regards as his best work as compared with the broad sweep of what is best in literature. Literary supremacy in the true sense is something for the future to decide so far as Canada is concerned. To judge our poets as patriotic poets or human poets or nature poets or poet artists, or as disciples of this or that school, is both unnatural and absurd. But so soon as a people gets to be tolerably well cultured it can draw the line between creative genius and mere talent coupled with literary desire, and so soon will it outgrow the mania for this or that favorite author merely because he is local or much talked of, and set itself to the serious and important task of finding out what is best in its general literature. Meanwhile the critic who comes out and makes a calm, unbiassed statement as to the value of the work of this or that author, must be prepared for vituperation at the hands of the particular clique affected by his remarks.

       The passion for reading plays is almost as great as the passion for writing them. I have an elderly friend who has already produced forty-eight and is now on his forty-ninth, writing away with all the gusto of youth, as if he hoped to surpass Lope de Vega, who is reputed to have written one a week, and who actually left a mountain of plays behind him, the best numbered at over four hundred. And there my friend sits plotting and planning his entrances and his exits, himself the kindest of men, yet fabricating disaster and bringing his characters to confusion. And yet he has no hope of dramatic success, "that most tantalising of all enterprises," as Mr. Dobson calls it, in his preface to the "Plays and Poems of Oliver Goldsmith." The passion of playwright has got hold upon him, and he is quite contented to let those who are successful dramatically go on their way so long as he is allowed to spin his plots in peace. The reading of plays becomes even a greater passion than the reading of novels, and it is a special training for the imagination and observation. In a novel every motive is explained with the most trying minuteness; the author gives no room for the reader's faculty of penetration, but binds him down to a rigid chart of the feelings of his characters, by which he must steer his way through the book. But a play is stripped of all commentary, and every one must put his own interpretation upon the motives of the characters as set forth by their words and actions. An essay, written by every reader, could accompany every play, which would give his conception of the moral structure of the characters and their development. But no two of these essays would be exactly alike; they would differ as widely as the personalities of the readers. To consider the art of the playwright, it seems to be hedged in by a mass of absurd conventions, which in some cases become tricks the like of which no other art can show. How often are we asked to believe that the persons who knew one another in the first act fail to see through the thinnest disguises in the second! How often does a character, sorely needed by the dramatic exigencies, make his or her appearance opportunely, but without any reasonable explanation, from the ends of the earth, and depart again, having said his say and helped the action a step farther! And with what a childlike faith we accept the improbably comings and goings, the halt explanations, the blind reasons! It seems fitting and proper that Hastings and Marlow should talk with Mr. Hardcastle without ever discovering their mistake, or that Marlow should fail to recognise Miss Hardcastle in her modest disguise! We are content so long as the solecisms are not too palpable. We are too well pleased with seeing life before our eyes, with the consequence of actions following closely upon their commission, and with the villain punished and the worthy rewarded. But this we demand, the worthy must be rewarded, the villain punished. The playwright would have an empty house if the rewards and punishments were concealed, as they so often are in life. In the wicked prosper in the first two acts they must be brought low in the last two. But this would hardly apply to the closet-drama, where the development and denouement might be as realistic as life itself and still be read with pleasure and appreciation.