At the Mermaid Inn

The Globe, Toronto: February 27, 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.

       MY DEAR FRANCESCA,—My mind has the full impression of a new book; I have just laid it down, and, in a reader’s existence, this is the moment of the fullest, the most perfect delight. The book is finished and he lays it aside. All the excitement, of whatever kind, is past; he has now no such active interest in the characters or arguments or opinions as he had a few moments before. Now he has the scope of the whole work before him, borne in upon him vividly and comprehensively and he is in full possession of the new province he has conquered. Before an hour has passed the change will have commenced, until, like a landscape veiled gradually by the night, he has only the great points of emotion or argument left, like mountains against the sky. I know you, too, would have been delighted with this book, and I choose to prepare you for the pleasure you will have when Aspasia consents to release it and when I send it you. I have heard you express a curiosity to read some of the criticism of that writer whose name is somehow linked with that of Arnold and Amiel; and now Mr. George Saintsbury has given us the essays on English literature of Edmond Scherer, that just and discerning critic, whose work we have before viewed with a potential admiration. Much of this book is taken up with your favorite novelist, George Eliot, and your favourite poets, Matthew Arnold and Wordsworth; and I call the powers of that great public school system, in whose mill you are ground daily, to witness to the taste and moral force of one of the human wheels in its insatiable machine, as denoted by these preferences. To George Eliot M. Scherer assigns a very high place and deservedly so; and although Mr. George Saintsbury has written in his pleasant preface that we must not accept the first paper as the final and nicely balanced criticism of the author of “Adam Bede,” I fancy you will dwell with most eagerness upon this very section of the book. It is in the essay on “Daniel Deronda” that M. Scherer pronounces this just and forcible sentence; one which I cannot refrain from copying for you:—“For art lives not by ideas, but by sentiments. I had almost said by sensations; it is instinctive, it is naïf, and it is by direct and unconsidered expression that it communicates with reality. Among all the contradictions of which life is made up, there is none more constant than this—that there is no great art without philosophy, and yet there is no more dangerous enemy of art that reflection.”
       But to me the most valuable and at the same time the most interesting essay is the one on “Wordsworth and Modern Poetry.” It contains amongst other appreciative words a tribute to the distinct and individual position held by Matthew Arnold in the literature of his country. He says of him as a poet:—“In every style he has an absolutely personal accent and note of distinction”; as a critic, “The liveliest, the most delicate, the most elegant of critics, the critic who has given out most ideas, has conferred upon them the most ideas, has conferred upon them the most piquant expression, and has most thoroughly shocked the sluggishness of British thought by wholesome audacities.” How apt, how forcible are these words! I have quoted them to prepare you for others equal in power and penetration which succeed one another as this great essay unfolds itself. I must take leave of you; let us again dedicate ourselves to great things; let us again resolve to live with the sweet and beautiful things of earth; let us pass more often into the province of purer thought, of profounder contemplation.

       A writer in “Shakespeariana” refers to the present decadence of Browning societies as an instance of that poet’s lack of true greatness. It might be answered that fads are not the true tests of genius. A man’s injudicious disciples may be in a sense his worst enemies. As in religion God is more truly felt than He can be described, and theologians are not necessarily the best interpreters of religion, so Browning societies and Shakespearian and Ibsen crazes are not the measures of the several geniuses they claim to represent. That there is much that is worthless and unmeaning in Browning no true lover of literature will deny. On the other hand he possesses a unique greatness of his own that marks him out from all other writers. Such a short drama as “In a Balcony” is an evidence of dramatic greatness of a kind not even found in Shakespeare, and met with no where else in any language. Even the immortal William has perhaps been overestimated as to perfection. Weakness is found in the greatest work. This is an age of sifting the wheat from the chaff, and when this is done no true genius will suffer, though many injudicious admirers may be shocked to find that their idol was not all gold but had its necessary admixture of clay and sand.

       The terrible Russian famine, besides calling forth the helpful enthusiasm of many generous Americans, has brought again before the world’s view in the sweetest and noblest light the devoted figure of Count Tolstoi. To anyone who has studied the writings of this wonderful man, the greatest after Shakespeare in his vast and subtle knowledge of the human heart, it seems perfectly natural to hear that he has thrown himself with all the energy of his intensely compassionate nature into the work of healing and relief. An old man, between 60 and 70 years of age, he has gone forth dressed in the peasant’s garb, and, as we are told by a newspaper correspondent, “from morning till night he is on his legs, distributing administering, organizing, as if endowed with youthful vigor and an iron constitution. Hail, rain, snow, intense cold and abominable roads are nothing to him. . . . He is now in the Danskovsky District, moving about from house to house, from village to village, from canton to canton, gathering information about the needs of each family and individual, feeding the hungry, tending the sick, comforting those who have lost their breadwinners, and utterly forgetful of himself.”
       There are some people who have spoken harshly of Count Tolstoi, particularly in reference to some of his recent writings, but I fear it is because they do not understand the man, or, more probably, because they do not understand Russia. The articles of Mr. E.B. Lanin in the English reviews have thrown an awful light upon that subject.

       It seems impossible for the majority of mankind to realize that every species of affectation is a derogation from dignity. Nothing is more provocative of the sarcastic sense than the spectacle of a character or quality habitually assumed and seriously paraded, and the people who have talent enough to make an affectation pas for reality are so few that one does not meet with more than half a dozen of them in a lifetime. In most cases the fraud is perfectly transparent, and there are always plenty of people about us who are quite clever enough to penetrate it. The assumption of an affectation, therefore, indicates a deficiency in the knowledge of human nature. It indicates also a lack of humanity and real goodness of heart, for the good man desires to bring himself into the nearest and readiest touch with the universal human soul, and this he can only do by the most complete development and revelation of his own individuality. He must be himself most thoroughly before he can enter with real sympathy into the hearts of others.
       One of the most offensive affectations is that of roughness and brutality, assumed by some men who wish to acquire a reputation for openness and candor. Another affectation, odd and sometimes unamiable, is that of unkemptness and squalor in personal appearance as a means of creating the impression of mental abstraction and intense devotion to thought. “I see your pride, oh Antisthenes,” said Socrates to the famous Cynic, “peering through the holes in your cloak.” All these things are the mark of a more or less ludicrous vanity. The man of fine feeling does not desire that the world shall be forever pointing the finger at him; and, so far from cultivating conspicuous peculiarities of outer habit, he endeavors to the utmost of his power to efface those which are naturally his.
       In his incomparable “journal” Sir Walter Scott relates two very characteristic anecdotes of Byron. As I do not remember to have read them elsewhere and as they give such a perfect idea of the whimsicality and impulsiveness of the man I re-tell them here. One evening when Byron and Tom Moore were standing at the window of the former’s palazzo in Venice viewing the sunset, Moore was led (“naturally” Sir Walter says) to make some observations on its beauty. Byron replied, in his usual tone, “On! come, d—m ye, if ye had known what two fellows you were staring at, you would have taken a longer look at us.”

       How utterly destitute of all light and charm are the intellectual conditions of our people and the institutions of our public life! How barren! How barbarous! It is true that this is a new and struggling country, but one would think that the simplest impulse of patriotism, if it existed at all in our governing bodies, would suffice to provoke some attempt at remedy.
       To-day I spent a little while in what is called the National Art Gallery at Ottawa. Here, scattered about the walls of a poor and average-looking room, are two or three paintings by distinguished old country artists, half a dozen fair specimens of our native product and a considerable number of nondescript articles hardly to be considered or named. Of what use is such a collection in its present condition? What pleasure can it afford to anyone? What educational stimulus?
       If our public men had any interest in the beauty, the honor, the real well-being of this country they could as well as not provide that a hundred thousand dollars or double that amount be annually set apart by the Government for the purpose of buying good pictures. A few fine foreign paintings might be added to the collection every year, and a fair sum might be expended in the purchase of Canadian work of the highest merit. In this way our native art would receive both culture and reward. The best models would be provided for its study and the benefit conferred upon it of encouragement and support would be incalculable in its effect. One would think that no sacrifice would be deemed too great, which might tend to relieve in any respect the arid poverty of our social and intellectual life.

       One of the most interesting of studies for those who have the leisure is that of mythology. Many persons associate this branch of study with old Greek gods and goddesses. But by far the most interesting branch is that pertaining to the north European nations. The name mythology is very deceiving, as it suggests something the opposite of reality, and therefore of little interest to the practical world of today. Of course it is a favourite study with poets, but others also can gain much benefit from what it reveals, for it reveals much. The fact is, mythology is more nearly connected with our present life than we have realized, and studied in connection with ancient customs and beliefs will explain away in a simple manner many strange superstitions and customs that extend even to the present. In no age has the world needed more common sense and real simple fact than it needs to-day. The mind to do battle in this age needs to be well balanced and practical, and the only way to attain this is by good scientific training in facts founded on solid reason. But we want something more to really understand and to be able to judge the present, we want to know the past as it really was. A man who still holds on to a superstitious or false notion of things pertaining to the past is not really competent to build up the present so as to aid the future.
       The Irish peasant who will tell you that there are no fairies in this country but that there are in Ireland is no more befogged than the man who accepts as a natural phenomena now what he regarded to be a miracle having taken place 2,000 or 3,000 years ago. The Irishman is freed from his superstition as far as this country is concerned but is still bound to it by the influence of his late environment. So the man who claims as a miracle of old time what he recognises now as a natural occurrence is the creation of a false conception of the past. With the Irishman so soon as he comes to look at the old as he sees the present, so soon will he be freed from his false conception. For this reason mythology is of great value to the casual student, it is really the history of the infant world, when the mind of mankind was the mind of the child or savage. It may not be generally known that much of the so-called history of the past is pure mythology. Much of the earlier part of the Old Testament, such as the stories of the Garden of Eden, The Flood, The Serpent, The story of the Cross itself is one of the most remarkable myths in the history of humanity. Connected with the old phallic worship of some of our most remote ancestors. What more remarkable instance of myth which was long mistaken for actual history than the now well-proved myth of William Tell, who never existed at all in real history. Probably the greatest stumbling-block to real knowledge of the past is the false religious prejudice which is hampering modern society to a large extent in countries like Canada; but even this is rapidly passing away in the more cultured localities. It is a poor and tottering religion that has to be bolstered up by ignorance. Mythology is a beautiful and instructive study, and to beginners I would recommend no better book than “Myths and Myth-Makers,” by John Fiske, the celebrated Harvard professor, who is one of the strongest and ablest thinkers of the day. This book is to be found in every first-class city or town public library. I will have more to say on this subject later on.