At the Mermaid Inn

The Globe, Toronto: February 11, 1893


       My Dear Francesca,—If like Epimenides you could sleep for 57 years you would find the world changed, but would you find it much better? There would be a chance of your being taken for a goddess, which chance is not so remote even now, I fancy, and you might be worshipped; for, despite the croaking of our philosophers, I know that it will take more than a term of 57 years to persuade the race that it is folly to venerate what it thinks divine. By such a sleep you could escape the irritations of the present, and you might escape those of the future if you were protected by your divinity; but the troubles of life would still exist for your devotees, although they might find them lightened by your worship. For them much the same struggle would be going forward, the weaker would be ground against the wall and the idealists would suffer. The friend for whom you utter such a heart-felt complaint would find himself overwhelmed in the same way, and unless I very much mistake he would also find another spirit as sweet as your own to mourn over him. But are you sure that he has real cause for complaint in the inattention with which the world seems to receive his work, or rather has he not become for the moment confused by what is really only a cloud of dust upon the highway raised by the careless trampling of the hasty throng? Of necessity the world must have something to talk about, and quite carelessly it selects not the best or most worthy, but just the subjects that come uppermost with the turn of the wheel. If your friend knew how most of the literary fame which he envies had been made he would redden to have coveted it. So if his name is left out altogether from the lists of poets which are so commonly ludicrous, and if he is not called the Shelley of Canada, he may perhaps begin to think that there is something in him after all. Perhaps the true test of poetic greatness in our time would be complete neglect, if not contempt. For the great poet always belongs more to the next age than to his own, and instead of the plaudits of the multitude he must listen with fortitude to the approbation of his own spirit. He will be understood by the few, and some of these who believe in him the most fervidly he will draw into immortality with him, and they will be remembered because they gave him comfort when he needed it. About this desire for notoriety Whitman has a sane remark, "If no one is aware I sit content, and if each and all be aware I sit content." I quote from memory and may not have all the words in place, but that is the substance of it, and a most excellent utterance it is; one with which any artist who truly values his art will agree. But let your friend be sure that he has done well, and if he has the right spirit in him no one is a better judge of that than himself.

       From the publishing house of William Briggs, Toronto, comes a little book of verse bound in delicate, pale blue covers, and bearing the title, "This Canada of Ours and Other Poems," by J.D. Edgar, M.P. Though Mr. Edgar's verse is not unknown in Canada—his "The Song Sparrow" and "The White Stone Canoe" being already well known to readers of verse, the former being incorporated in "Songs of the great Dominion"—yet it is an agreeable surprise to lovers of Canadian letters that a leading politician, amid the hard toil and stress of public life, should still find time to cultivate those more sensitive and more refined moods that are necessary to the production of verse.
       It might be hard to classify these few poems among the many productions of our past and present literary development. The author of "The White Stone Canoe" and "The Song Sparrow" has made literature a pastime or recreation from the sterner toils and cares of everyday life. Such as it is, it shows scholarly refinement and some literary power, with a good deal of the patriotic spirit which this country so sadly needs. "The Canada of Ours" and "Arouse, Ye Brave Canadians" have evidently been written from the heart, and there is terse strength and an awakening power in

       "Let every man who swings an axe,
       Or follows at the plough,
       Abandon farm and homestead,
       And grasp a rifle now."

       "The Canadian Song Sparrow" is a genuine nature-lyric, and the production of one who has a loving eye for our every-day nature, and makes one wish that the writer had done more work in this direction:—

       "Where the farmer ploughs his furrow,
       Sowing seed with hope of harvest,
       In the orchard white with blossom,
       In the early fields of clover,
       Comes the little brown-clad singer,
       Flitting in and out of bushes,
       Hiding well behind the fences,
       Piping forth his song of sadness."

       Such lines, by their genuine, simple and truthful beauty, bespeak for themselves a place in our permanent Canadian literature. "The White Stone Canoe" is finely written and can scarcely be called an imitation of "Hiawatha," but the use of the Longfellian style of stanza and the manner was, to say the least, unfortunate, and takes from the poem even that charm that Mr. Edgar has added to it. Even "Hiawatha" has suffered from the extreme facility of the verse in which it is written, a kind of verse that does not generally adapt itself to any depth of thought or feeling, and is certainly unfitted for the best kind of nature description. It is a kind of wordy chant, that flows from the mind as fast as it enters. Mr. Edgar's poem, however, shows a fine, pure choice of language, and a certain vigor of style that makes it more than readable, and leads one to believe that had he taken a less hackneyed form of verse he might have produced an original poem of power worthy of the subject.
       There are some good translations in the book, but the other good thing, to my mind, is "Nunc est Bibendum," which suggests a poetical power, even in a translation, not common in our literature:—

       "The daughter of a hundred kings,
       She spurned the Roman chains,
       And sought to spill the fiery blood
       That swelled her ruby veins.

       "In her ears the chariots rumbled,
       In her ears the shoutings rang,
       Then she bared her snowy bosom
       To the serpent's poisoned fang."

       This is not verse to be sneered at, or tolerated merely because it is Canadian. True lovers of verse read for enjoyment and inspiration, and in this little book both will be found, if to a limited extent. Mr. Edgar has done wisely in publishing. And in this simple and unaffected volume he has materially added in a scholarly manner to that rapidly growing store of patriotism and love of nature with which our literature is becoming endowed.

       The letters of Heinrich Heine to his mother and sister from a very early period to the time of his death have been published in Germany in a book called "The Family Life of Heinrich." The collection is made and edited by Heine's sister's son, Baron Ludwig von Emden, "in order that the character of the poet might be estimated with more exactness." A translation by Charles de Kay is to be published shortly by the Cassell Publishing Co. This book is said to represent Heine in a much more amiable light than anything which has hitherto appeared in regard to him. His affectionate attachment to his mother, and that little sister Lotta whom he declared to be "all music, all proportion and harmony," and the patient tenderness of his relations to his wife, who sometimes tried his temper a little with her extravagant ways, give us a pleasant impression of the poet which we are grateful and delighted to have. Many of these letters were written in the last years of his life, and we are told that the wit and gaiety which they display would be remarkable under any circumstances, but are infinitely more so when we consider what Heine's health was at that time. There is something very magnificent about the attitude of Heine, who, in the midst of horrible sufferings, in the course of a lingering and torturous death, had the stoic power to play upon all things with that Titanic lightning flash of his wit.

       It seems to me that Canadian painters have a great and comparatively unbroken field before them, if they will only take advantage of it, in the color effects of our midwinter landscape. On some of these splendid February mornings it cannot but occur to one that there is some wonderful painting to be done, which has perhaps not yet been even attempted. In the winter dawn, with every gradation of red and gold and blue; even in the early forenoon, when the towers of our northern capital stand westward, pale luminous, touched with rose, against a pale, greenish blue sky, when every roof fronting the sun is a sheet of dazzling cream, and every roof not sunlit and every shadow a patch of the clearest crystalline violet; in the coming of the winter night, with its gorgeous changes of color, subtle and indescribable, what an infinite variety of choice there is for the hand of the painter, and how simple in many cases, yet always how perfect, the beauty with which he would have to deal. No doubt there would be extreme difficulties in the way of painting landscape from nature in a temperature of twenty degrees below zero, but the artists will probably devise some means of making it possible. I can imagine nothing more beautiful in nature than some of our winter scenes, and if they could be imaginatively reproduced by the brush I can conceive of nothing more beautiful upon canvas.