At the Mermaid Inn

The Globe, Toronto: February 25, 1893


       It is quite interesting to notice the different attitudes with regard to such poets as Wordsworth and Tennyson assumed by the general public and the cultured poetical critics. And it is strange to note how much the former have been imposed on by the latter. The general public regards a poet to the extent that he thrills and pleases. The poetical critics have a different standard of judgment. The general public cares little or nothing about the evolution of nature or morals, or spiritual intuition. It accepts poetry for its great human qualities, its grasp of or sympathy with the general pathos of human life. And here I must say that to a great extent I agree with the general public. With all due regard to those who would lay so much stress on the inner consciousness, it is not by straining the inner ear for the voice of the Nameless that life is made great, but by clothing the realities of existence with that grandeur and divinity that belong to it.
       It was this mastery of the humanities that made Shakespeare the greatest poet of modern times. Tennyson says:—

                            "For I have learned
To look on nature, not as in the hour
Of thoughtless youth; but hearing oftentimes
The still, sad music of humanity."

       It is a pity that Tennyson did not "look on humanity" more than he did. He had too little affinity to the common toiling souls; he lived apart and brooded too much. Tennyson was too self-centred to be a great human poet. The great human poet must feel within the common love and the common joy, and be ever aware of the pulse of humanity as human. He must not write of men as beggars and gentlemen, but as men. Now the cultured critic is not at all an appreciator, he rarely discovers a new poet, but is, on the other hand, such a blind worshipper of the poetical god he adores that his first aim is to find in new work some affinity to his idol. He judges verse by what he calls the "quality" in it, which means nothing more than a certain vague finish. His eye and ear are all wrapt up in style, and he is keen to discover any sin of omission or commission in this regard. He is always talking about the file, and did he have his way would attenuate all modern poetry to a thin flute-note of twilight melancholy. The truth is that this idea is perfectly fitted for the guidance of minor poetry, which, devoid of great imagination and creative gift, can afford to spend the time in tuning its gentle and mellow reeds to the required softness that is pleasing to the sensitive ear of the modern critic, who is himself generally a minor poet. But the larger and more sublime landscapes—the rugged skies, the woes and battles of earth—are not for it.
       The general public are not yet tired of life, even if the critics are, and they still are interested in the storm and stress, the hopes and despairs, of human life. The true worth of the poet, or rather the joy of the poet, is to dwell on and depict the divinity that is everywhere existent in our common humanity. As he does this, so does he succeed in or fail in being great.

       In the Imaginary Conversation between Bishop Burnett and Humphrey Hardcastle, Lauder makes the bishop say that Mr. George Nelly (who is intended for Lord Byron), after certain rather daring performances, began to lose ground rapidly, when on a sudden he cried out at the Haymarket, "There is no God!" It was then surmised more generally and more gravely that there was something in him, and he stood upon his legs almost to the last. It is a fact that it is only necessary for a writer to be heterodox or even a trifle blasphemous, and to maintain at the same time a show of profundity, to arouse a degree of curiosity which many a writer of real value to the world could never claim as his own. The explanation is not far to seek, for there is nothing about which the mass of humanity is so interested as its religious opinions, and if a writer, either from conviction or with an eye to the "market," will early aim a blow at these convictions, provided he will aim it so as to reach the popular intelligence, he may be sure of a monetary success. Robert Elsmere is an example of success so won, and Mr. Robert Buchanan has earned for himself a similar success by his "Wandering Jew," which is called by some of the orthodox "blasphemous" and by others "a valuable and instructive poem." The Rev. Hugh Price Hughes says that "it will do endless good to ponder and remember the attack upon historic and ecclesiastical Christianity which this poem utters. I say that nothing better could be done than that Robert Buchanan should rub these facts into our ecclesiastical skins." I am sure we will all wish that Mr. Hughes had revised that last sentence, no matter how valuable Mr. Buchanan's poems may be as an ecclesiastical embrocation.

       I have been reading another of Mr. Bradford Torrey's charming and helpful books, "The Footpath Way," published by Messrs. Houghton Mifflin & Co., Boston. Almost everybody has read some of the writings of Thoreau and John Burroughs. Mr. Torrey, although not yet as well known as either of these writers, is, I think, a finer and more suggestive thinker than Burroughs, and a more pleasing, if a less brilliant one, than Thoreau. I can scarcely promise anyone who is a reader, and at the same time a true lover of nature, a greater delight than an excursion through this simple, thoughtful, humorous book, whether the author conduct him to the top of some bird-haunted mountain of Massachusetts, lead him a chase after killdeer plover about the beach at Nahant, loiter with him among the healthy hollows of Cape Cod, or interest him in the family operations and moral qualities of the ruby-throated humming-bird.
       Mr. Torrey is not only a most minute and patient observer, after the persistent modern manner, of the habits of plants and birds, but also a literary artist, who possesses you with his simplicity, sweetness and charm, a poet-philosopher, swift to perceive and reveal the parable in every commonest operation of nature, and a humorist of that tenderly reflective sort whose jesting—if that is not too rude a word for anything so delicate—leaves the mind in a gentle and genial sunshine, I think that a writer of this kind does mankind more good than all the weighty system-builders and nine-tenths of the professed poets. He introduces the minds of his readers to inexhaustible sources of innocent and pleasurable activities, puts them upon the watch for innumerable delightful suggestions, and prepares them for a world of tender and humanizing influences.
       I quote below a passage from Mr. Torrey's essay "In Praise of the Weymouth PIne" as a specimen of the sort of work he does. I would, however, have my reader read the whole of this article, which is the last in the book. It is a true poem in prose, nobly thoughtful and excellently expressed. It is the best thing that has ever been said about the white pine, a beautiful and inspiring tree, which is to the woody growths of forest and plain what those rarer spirits are to human kind, who write the characters of priest and poet.
       "But the pine forest, dark, spacious, slumberous, musical! Here is something better than beauty, dearer than pleasure. When we enter this cathedral, unless we enter it unworthily, we speak not of such things. Every tree may be imperfect, with half its branches dead for want of room or want of sun, but until the devotee turns critic—an easy step, alas! for half-hearted worshippers—we are conscious of no luck. Magnificence can do without prettiness, and a touch of solemnity is better than any amusement.
       "Where shall we hear better preaching, more searching comment upon life and death, than in this same cathedral? Verily, the pine is a priest of the true religion. It speaks never of itself, never its own words. Silent it stands till the spirit breathes upon it. Then all its innumerable leaves awake and speak as they are moved. Then 'he that hath ears to hear let him hear.' Wonderful is human speech—the work of generations upon generations, each striving to express itself, its feelings, its thoughts, its needs, its sufferings, its joys, its inexpressible desires. Wonderful is human speech for its complexity, its delicacy, its power. But the pine tree, under the visitations of the heavenly influence, utters things incommunicable; it whispers to us of things we have never said and never can say, things that lie deeper than words, deeper than thought. Blessed are our ears if we hear, for the message is not to be understood by every comer, nor, indeed, by any, except at happy moments. In this temple all hearing is given by inspiration, for which reason the pine tree's language is inarticulate, as Jesus spake in parables."