At the Mermaid Inn

The Globe, Toronto: February 13, 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.

       The thing that attracted our attention and made us stop was the bright light in the window. It was close to the street, so close that the lamp must just have been lighted, else the curtain would have been pulled down. It is no sin to look in at a window; so long as windows are left unblinded and free to the eye the interior is common property. ’Tis much as when a man lifts the veil unconsciously and lets us see what he has left behind, deep in his uncontrollable heart. Behind this window we first saw the lamp, standing upon the plain table; then a colored print from a Christmas number of The Star pinned to the wall, then a large rocking chair, with a cretonne cover, picked out with red wool. But the plainest object in the room was a bedstead covered with very white clothes. Upon it lay an old woman; she had a white cap on her head, and a silvery grey shawl around her shoulders. She was leaning back with her eyes close; a very sweet expression lingered about her mouth, an expression of great serenity and confidence. Almost immediately after we looked, a young girl came into the room; she was about thirteen years old; her dark hair went back straight off her brows, and was braided behind. She carried a china cup, which she set down on the table; then she fixed the old woman’s cap and shawl. She opened her eyes, but did not smile; it was not necessary, she had that look upon her face which is better than a smile. The young girl raised the cup to her lips and she drank; then she laid back and closed her eyes as before with the same serene and confident expression. A moment after she was left alone. Instinctively we turned away and were for a long time silent. The new snow was falling softly, almost damply; the evening was mild, with a touch of spring in the air. At last I said, “We have had a long walk.” “Yes,” said my companion; “and we have read a verse from the great bible of human life.”

       There is no limit to the making of fanciful classifications in literature, yet after the manner of men I must needs put forward a little one of my own. Poetry of the imaginative and essentially lyrical sort may, as it seems to me, be divided into three clases—poetry of imaginative inspiration, poetry of impassioned reflection and poetry of eloquence. The most eloquent of poets was Shakespeare, the most inspired was Shelley and the most intensely reflective, Rossetti. Shelley’s “Alastor” and Coleridge’s “Ancient Mariner” are perfect examples of the poetry of imaginative inspiration; Rossetti’s “Blessed Damosel” and “Bride’s Prelude” of the poetry of impassioned reflection, and I can think of no finer example of the eloquent in verse than Tennyson’s “Revenge.” The poetry of eloquence lends itself most readily to vocal rendition; that of reflection is the most difficult to interpret to an average audience. Swinburne is also, I think, one of the poets of eloquence. How magnificently readable is “The Lost Oracle.” Contrast with this the “Bride’s Prelude” of Rossetti, a poem to be held and brooded on, its intense and restrained passion, its subtle and vivid touches only to be thoroughly apprehended upon repeated reading, and not to be successfully interpreted save by a spirit and tongue exceptionally rich in resource and utterly in accord with the bent of the poet.

       It has ever been a pleasure to me since my early childhood to wander alone in the woods on a winter’s day. Following a glistening, Polish sleigh road, down into some snow-hooded swamp of brown green cedars, where the wind scarcely enters save with a lonesome sign, as he silts the powdery snow athwart the tented tree tops on the caverned aisles within.
       Down under here where the shadows hare has left his long lope on the snow, over buried logs and around ermine-draped stumps I wander in a semi-dream of frosted and yet warm winter reverie. Now and again a few dried, shriveled tassels of the cedar fall rustling at my feet. Far overhead among the tree tops there is a sound and motion like the waves on a shore, a subdued sound that scarcely enters here and disturbs the snow-muffled dream of these lonesome, sombre avenues of winter solitude.
       Outside sometimes comes the far away shout of a driver, or the echo of a chopping axe in the distant clearings, but down in these frosty silences, where the trees lean, still and shadowy, and the snows wind like misty grave clothes over autumn’s mounds, the great spirit of winter stalks by my side, but I care not for his masked face and icy beard, for to my heart, with the slanting sun rays that blink under the brown-golden, tented branches, from the sloping afternoon, comes the soft sighs of melting drops, the balm of winds, the flush and beauty of the far-off spring. God-like is the heart of man which triumphs over cold and ruin and sheeted death, and sees beauty in the shrouded snows, the short, lonesome, shriveled days and long-drawn, iced nights, and the spirit that dwells therein, while under the frost and ruin, under the beard of the wrinkled earth, there comes the pulse and murmur, the music and roseate dream of the eternal, waking world.

       Almost incredible is the influence of mere place in attracting the attention and winning the service of men. Two or three years ago a Berlin bookseller published a work called “Prinz Bismark’s Gesammette Sckitten,” a collection of the speeches, essays, etc., of the great chancellor. Orders from booksellers flowed in abundantly. Then came the fall of the Titan. The orders suddenly ceased, and in the succeeding 21 months less than a 100 copies were sold. The publishers are now endeavoring in vain to get rid of the plates and the 3,000 volumes of the work still on their hands.

       To write a play in blank verse seems to be a lost art. Something alien to the large and generous dealing required for such a task seems to have eaten into our modern life and left it without the great requisites. The task is rarely performed with even a passible success, and the poet who conquers must have, to our humanity, an almost superhuman equipment. Not that the art of playwriting has fallen into the deeps out of sight; far otherwise. Our modern stage is crowded with plays of the last half century which fulfil all the conditions imposed on the playwright and which mirror the complex state of our society with the sufficient faithfulness. In truth in the department of the playwright there seems to be actually a renaissance, and, to judge by the discussions of the last two years, something may come of it. The performances of Ibsen’s “Hedda Gabler” in London last winter would, I fancy, give hope to any man who had the real interest of the stage at heart. Not that this play need be held up as a model, but when its dissimilarity to the mass of the work which occupies the attention of the public is considered we see what a distance we have come. But, although the playwright may have reason to rejoice at the real advance, the lover of the grand drama must still mourn. Probably one of the most tragic of all failures is the last. The story of Edgar and Athelwold is a likely subject for a drama, but Amelie Rives has succeeded only in showing that here an excellence might have been done. The language of the piece is almost burlesque, and in its freedom and interjectional crudity it would serve to point a comparison. As literature it falls below the level. Elfreda finds Athelwold asleep by the wayside and answers the remonstrances of her woman when she approaches him with “Would’st thou sour me with this thundering?” This arouses a pretty image in the reader’s mind, and the young lady does not disappoint him. By and bye she wakes the stranger by kissing him, and then she threatens to bite him if he kisses her. Such “goings on” may not be entirely unknown to the readers of this authoress, who seems to be never so much at home as in the free description of overwrought passion. We commend the dialogue and general treatment of this subject to any one who wants to know what to avoid in a similar composition.

       The next best thing to a morning’s walk in the woods or along some country lane is a half hour spent in the company of such an excellent book as “A Rambler’s Lease,” by Mr. Bradford Torrey. Mr. Torrey is a poet-naturalist, a botanist and ornithologist, with a poet’s love of nature and a high literary gift, one of the class of writers to which Thoreau and John Burroughs belong. About twelve miles back of Boston are the quiet valleys and wooded hills of Wellesley, a country full of variety and beauty. This is Mr. Torrey’s haunts. There, intent upon the every-day life of the woods and fields, he watches with a happy and affectionate interest its moods and changes, its multiform activities and intelligences, its little dramas and episodes, and records them in a style full of amusement and sympathy. Like a gentle poet and philosopher as he is, Mr. Torrey works into his sketches many wise thoughts, and applies the interesting facts of plant and bird life in many curious ways. In “A Rambler’s Lease” there are also frequent touches of a quiet and charming humor, that sort of humor that does not send a man of into an open roar of laughter, but causes him to smile inwardly, kindling his infections with a softer and more generous fire. Our writer is especially fond of the study of ornithology. His insight into the habits, affections and eccentricities of birds, and his naive felicity of phrase in interpreting them make him a bringer of perpetual charmed surprise to anyone who is himself a lover of the wild wood and its gentle inhabitants. He is not one of those bird hunters, ornithologists of the intellect only, men interested in collections and the accumulation of passionless facts, mere scientists who prowl about the country with guns, committing murder on every hand without scruple and without remorse. Mr. Torrey is an ornithologist of the heart, who spends many of his hours in the fields and the woods, but never carries a gun, never kills a bird and knows a great deal more about the inner life and domestic characters of birds than those who do.

       Most human beings have a kindly and amiable weakness for some sort of pet animal. Anybody who has not is surely lacking in humanity. The love of dogs is inherent in a certain robust and active type of men. Most Englishmen are fond of dogs. The cat is hardly so popular, but I have found that all people who have a fine and subtle sense of humor love cats. In fact, if you wish to ascertain whether a man has a really nice sense of humor you can best do so by watching him for a few moments in the society of your household cat. All the movements and attitudes of a sleek and well-matured cat are a study replete with perpetual amusement. At this moment there comes to me from the back yard a medley of sound which indicates that our large white tom-cat Thomas has detected a neighbor’s tabby, an animal exceedingly bold and fierce, in the act of penetrating into premises which he regards as his own. Thomas is crouched upon the edge of the shed roof, switching violently a tail at least four inches in diameter, and giving fierce vent to the torrent of his indignant feelings. His is a rich, deep, contralto voice, of great compass, and of an eloquent range of expression. When I first brought Tom to my present place of residence he was subjected to several weeks of very hard fighting. He had not yet learned the secrets of battle, and the enemy had him ever at a disadvantage. Notwithstanding the guardedness of his coming in and going out, no sooner had he passed the threshold than our neighbor’s bravo was upon him. A sudden rush, a moment’s silence, and then an agonized squall many lots away announced the attack, the desperate fight and the prompt and ferocious capture. The evidences of our poor pet’s sufferings saluted our ears at all hours. But all this was experience for Thomas. Like the allied armies who were so often beaten by Napoleon, he acquired the art of war. The battle shout has now no longer any terrors for him, and his wounds are all in front. Indeed, I regret to say that his ears are beginning to assume the appearance of the tattered battle flags so often noticeable in elderly and experienced tom-cats. I have always had a deep affection for Thomas as for all good cats. He lands upon my shoulders with a spring and coils himself purringly around my neck at meal times, and when I let him in hungry at night he leads me winningly and beckoningly to that kitchen cupboard where he knows that cold potatoes are stored, for Thomas is singularly partial to cold potatoes. No animals display a greater diversity of manner and character than cats. I never know a cat that was not distinguished from all others of its species by many peculiar tricks of expression and idiosyncrasies of temper.