At the Mermaid Inn

The Globe, Toronto: December 17, 1892


       We must add another, my friends, to the lengthening list of our poets. I have been reading Mr. J.H. Brown's "Poems, Lyrical and Dramatic," published by Messrs. J. Durie & Son, Ottawa. Those who have followed the periodicals will remember some of Mr. Brown's pieces in The Week, especially some of his excellent sonnets. The present volume is a collection of short poems on a considerable variety of subjects, together with a drama, called "The Mad Philosopher," which fills the latter half of the book. Mr. Brown is a scholar, a philosopher and a poet, and his book gives evidence of the extent of his studies, the sweetness and delicacy of his natural gift, and the excellence to which he has attained in the workmanship of his art. We have not gone far before we discover that he is not a careless trifler in verse, but a man interested in the deeper spiritual problems of the day, a writer of humane enthusiasms and serious intent. A great many of his pieces are of a speculative and philosophic cast. His "Mad Philosopher" centres in the effort of an impractical enthusiast to interest the two most prominent leaders of his day, Napoleon Bonaparte and Thomas Jefferson, in a scheme for the regeneration of mankind. His "Julian," a somewhat daring bit of dialogue, inspired, I imagine, by Shelley, treats of the subject of marriage. In his poem, "A Letter," one of the best pieces of versification in the book, with now a sharp touch of satire, and now a full phrasing of some generous thought, he states his attitude toward life and society, and calls up before us the chief captains of his soul—Shakespeare, Shelley and Whitman.
       Although not what is called in common critical parlance a "nature-poet," Mr. Brown sometimes strikes in with a vivid descriptive touch, as when he says:—

"Last night the lightning flashed in fork and flame,
And the deep thunder groaned and roared so loud
As it would rip the timbers of the world
And scatter them to chaos."


"A new-born breeze comes out unseen,
Flies o'er the mead on joyous wing;
The verdure lines in motion swing;
The heart of nature seems to sing."

       One of Mr. Brown's especial successes, both as regards thought and versification, is the poem "On reading the Rubaiyat of Omar Koiyyam." I give the concluding stanzas, which will sufficiently indicate the wisdom and beauty of the whole piece:—

"Oh, brave and strong! My Omar, kind and wise!
Scorner of sophists and their subtle lies;
Lover of truth—of truth without disguise,
And soul's integrity—the highest prize!

"With thee, I hold, He placed us here to live;
To love the life He found it good to give;
And, though the secret we should never know,
Why life at worst is sweet—and wherefore grieve?

"Lo, in the east the light of morning grows;
The curling mists ascend, the crimson glows;
And in the smile of greeting earth and heaven
The universe appears, on opening those!"

       But I think Mr. Brown is at his strongest in the sonnet. There are many excellent examples of this form scattered about through his book. Lack of space obliges me to limit my quotation to one. It is entitled "Greatness":—

"What most men hunger for, yet none achieves
       Save him who greatly cares not to be great;
       Who knows the loom of time spins not more state
Than that small filament a spider weaves.
Since single barley straws make piled-up sheaves,
       And atoms diminute the gross earth's weight;
       Nor comes from Sirius earthward rarer freight
Than this small taper-beam my page receives.

"No greater is the desert than one sand,
       The mountain than one dust-spec at its base,
The ocean than one rain-drop in my hand;
       And Shakespeare's self, there in the foremost place,
Hath but in ampler measure at command
       That thought which shines from rustic Hodge's face."

       I must congratulate Mr. R.K. Kernighan upon his poem in the Christmas number of Saturday Night. It is a skilful and successful piece of work; it has a movement that proves that Mr. Kernighan has a true natural gift for verse. We are all familiar with the author's work under the nom de plume of "The Khan," and to an extent at least he is our Canadian James Whitcombe Riley when he writes in the vernacular of homely things; but such pieces as the one I have mentioned above show that he can also deal with images and ideas which require artistic treatment.

       Prominent among the articles in the December Cosmopolitan is a fine one on the subject of the Trappist monks of Oka, written by Mr. Gorman, editor of The Ottawa Free Press. This article ought to be of special interest not only to Canadians, but also to all Americans who have studied the lives and habits of religious orders. Even in this overpractical and worldly age the cloister life, with its peculiar environments, appeals to the consideration of the thoughtful and reflective mind. And while it seems out of place in our modern world and hurrying toil and scientific spirit, yet as an institution the monastic life in its finer aspects still retains for us a certain dignity and sternness of reality that is found wanting in much of our modern religious life. Mr. Gorman has performed for the silent monks of Oka what the distinguished American writer, Mr. James Lane Allen, did some time ago in The Century Magazine for the convent of the same order in Kentucky. While the Canadian convent is not so old as that of Kentucky, it is equally interesting to those who would study the peculiar characteristics of the Trappist order, which is without doubt the most remarkable and perhaps the most worthy of our consideration and respect among all the religious brotherhoods. It is impossible for the modern cultured mind to regard the monastic institution in contemporary religion as other than a survival of medievalism, and so indicate an attitude toward life more in keeping with that of the present day. History and human experience have also shown that the first homes of all religious orders that grew out of the asceticism of the Christian, Buddhist and Mohammedan faiths, the milder climates of southern Asia and Europe, are still, and always will be, the only localities where such institutions can be successful. Aside from all other reasons, there is no doubt that much of the corrupt life and falling off from the old standards of the monastic life of western Europe was owing to the climate that tempted men to a greater necessity of indulgence in physical nourishment. In Southern Asia, where abstinence from grosser food is almost necessary to common existence, the life of lonely contemplation has long been an inseparable part of the genius of the people. Matthew Arnold expressed this so finely in four lines:

"The east bowed low before the blast,
       In patient, deep disdain.
She let the legions thunder past,
       Then plunged in thought again."

       Whatever may be the future development of religion, there is no doubt that both the severer climates and the restless, practical spirit of the peoples of western Europe and North America will always prove inimical to the success of the conventual system in religion. Apart from all these considerations and our natural repugnance for any order of men who are consciously or unconsciously out of keynote with the spirit of what is best in the age, anyone who recognises the inner life of these men, who willingly immure themselves within gloomy walls, and, alienated from their kind and in constant contemplation of death, deny themselves all but the commonest necessities of life, cannot but be impressed by the stern reality of these lives where the tragedy of the soul in its striving for the eternal is daily enacted. While we all agree that there are millions of men and women in the world to-day who by acts and often by lives of heroic self-denial are in their several vocations as wives, husbands, parents and citizens doing much more for the good of humanity than could ever be done by any amount of silent contemplation, and however we may differ from the doctrines that have originated this peculiar order, yet we cannot but respect the phase of religion which, no matter how gloomy in its outlook on humanity, is almost great in its intense realism of practice.

       It is most difficult and nearly always an ungrateful task to write poems for special occasions. The greater the occasion the most difficult the task, for what may be a really great celebration of a most important event may not arouse those feelings of enthusiasm which are necessary to the making of a poem. It is gratifying to know how worthily the commemoration ode for the 400th anniversary of the discovery of America has been accomplished. It was peculiarly fitting that this ode should have been written by a woman, for the American civilisation gives a larger and larger scope for the development of woman. She has nowhere attained such freedom and is nowhere, excepting perhaps in Canada, treated with such respect and consideration. It was therefore a recognition of this fact perhaps as much as anything else which led to the choice of Miss Harriet Monroe as the poetess who should express in verse the great anniversary which has just passed. She had proved herself entirely able for the task by her ode for the opening of the Auditorium, and her production for the latter and more important occasion surpassed her first effort. Miss Monroe is first of all a poet, and she approaches her subject from the poetic standpoint. She has enthusiasm not only for her art but for her subject, for the future of America, for the outcome of her civilisation. It was almost inevitable then that she should make a success of what would have been a task to one who had not her glow of enthusiasm. But her ringing and true-hearted lines prove that she found the production of the ode no task, but rather accepted the opportunity with a knowledge of its import and with a resolve to make the work the expression of her heart towards the life and aspirations of her people. In the development of her subject she has shown true constructive ability, and her lines progress naturally to their inspiring and prophetic close.