At the Mermaid Inn

The Globe, Toronto: January 28, 1893


       At a time when the Canadian critics have softened their asperity toward our more ambitious songsters, when Mr. Roberts is called a master, and when special beauties are being found in the works of John Henry Brown, Bliss Carman and many others of our deserving and painstaking poets, I hope that the Canadian people will forgive me for introducing them to another aspirant, who in his own place is not unworthy of public recognition. The poet in this case is Mr. James Ernest Caldwell, who has rightly earned, if he has not gained, the distinction of being the poet of the Ottawa valley. Mr. Caldwell is also by right the singer of the Canadian lumber woods and farm life. He is a young man of about 30 years of age and most of his verse (for much of it has the right to that title) was written before the age of 23. He has worked all his life on a farm, and is now engaged in that most unpoetical vocation of milk-selling, which he adds to his other rural activities. I do not mean this as an advertisement, but I believe he has a most successful trade in that line and gives good satisfaction. He has had no other education than that afforded by a country school and not too much of that. But I should say, from the evidence of his literary efforts, that he has tried to read, and has thought not a little.
       Though Mr. Caldwell's work abounds in many crudities and immature strains of thought and style, yet there is much of his work that is both dignified and poetical, and showing a strength of imagination and creative ability that is scarcely credible in a young Canadian farm lad. His two principal poems are "Cecilia," a poem of the Ottawa valley, and "The Marketing," both written in rhymed couplets after the style of Scott. The first is a story of over 2,000 lines, and is a tale of love and treachery, the scenes being laid in Ottawa and the lumber woods of the upper Ottawa. After taking into account the lack of culture in the author, much dramatic force will be found in the poem. Though written at that formative age when a young poet would be liable to imitate, the poem shows a rugged and quaint simplicity of style that makes it his own, and almost leads one to forget that the style of the romance writers is scarcely adaptable to the relation of life-episodes in a lumber shanty.
       There are many really good descriptions of nature, and all are quite Wordsworthian in their direct simplicity, such as the opening lines of canto I.:

The sky was all a crimson glow,
Where the August sun hung rich and low,
The air was still, and the dying day,
Like a spent, ensanguined warrior, lay
       Breathing out its latest hour,
       Conscious of its spirit's power.

       The description at the commencement of canto II. of the shantymen leaving Ottawa for the woods is a quaint word picture, and is worthy of reproduction:—

The clock is pointing round towards four,
The buss is at each tavern door.
In Murray street, where flock together,
To spend their hours of summer weather,
The hardy reapers of the woods,
The nimble riders of the floods;
Now many a farewell glass is taken,
And many a farewell hand is shaken;
And many a bag and box is stored
Within the bus, then "All aboard!"
Joe, Jacques, Baptiste, Francois, Xavier,
Dave, Peter, George; yes all are there;
Fresh from the barber's unctuous hands,
Fingers bedecked with jewelled bands,
A massive chain hangs from each vest,
A soft slouch hat, with care compressed,
Poised far and deftly on one side;
Shoes of the calf's soft, supple hide,
High-heeled and neat for merry dance,
So step they forth, their play time o'er,
Gay as the cavaliers of yore;
Bold, reckless hearts that know not home,
Joy in a life that bids them roam,
And love the freedom of the woods,
And all the perils of the floods.

       Here we get not only the seeing eye and the poetical imagination but also the pathos which is depicted in the last lines. There is also further on a fine song which contains some strong and tender lines.
       What is more suggestive of outdoor freedom than

Pull boys, pull, leave home and friends behind;
Pull boys, pull, this life is to our mind,
In the pine woods deep,
Our camp we'll keep,
Where never a care will find.

And the lines,

To-night the murmuring pines shall steep
Our dreams in music while we sleep.

have the beauty of true poetry.
       I only wish I had more room to quote some other fine descriptions.
       "The Marketing" is less tragic, but is a Canadian pastoral, and opens with these simple yet truly poetical lines.

The moon was breaking dull and drear,
In that cold month which ends the year,
Deep, soft and pure the fresh snow lay
In woods and fields and broad highway.

       There is a true homeliness and tenderness in the description of the daily toil and lives of the farmer's home, and some delicate descriptions, such as—

       Tardily the pale light falls
       Upon this dusky cottage walls,
       And through the frost-enamelled pane.

       Likewise the description of the preparation for the market is realistic in its quaint verity—

       Jessie must see the eggs well packed
       In bran so that they not be cracked;
       The butter prints so deftly made,
       In snowy-napkined baskets laid.

       There is also a graphic and terse depiction of the rural butcher, at one time an institution, who comes to examine the family cow, and who—

To a shade the weight could tell,
And handled knife and steel right well,
And knew who'd fed the heaviest steer,
The fattest hog for many a year;
And now he viewed his latest case
With grave and calculating face,
And felt her brisket, ribs and flank
And then pronounced her "good" pont blank.

       I have not space to quote any more of this genuine homespun poetry. Sufficient to say it is true Canadian pastoral of the people and for the people. I do not claim for Mr. Caldwell that he is a poetical artist. Much of his work abounds in crudities and marks of immature inspiration. It is the work of one who has lacked culture. But he is something more than a mere writer of doggerels. As I have shown, he has the poetical gift in thought and imagination. And what he has done, if of no further value, has at least shown that there can be thoughts of beauty and inspiration drawn even from the everyday toils and privations of Canadian farm life.
       I will end this review with one more instance of this Canadian rural verse, which may not appeal to the worshippers of Keats and Shelley, but which in its simple limitations bears evidence also of the beauty of nature and the pathos of human life:—

O sing me a song, sweet sister,
       A song of the olden time,
When hearts were full of music,
       And lips were full of rhyme.
And a song shall bear me backward
       To happier times than these,
When flowers were in the pastures
       And birds were in the trees;
And the robin's song at morning
       Awoke from happy dreams,
As into the attic window
       Came the sun's first ruddy beams.

Gone now are the happy songsters,
       And gone from the fields the flowers;
And few the trees that sigh for
       The gentle summer showers;
And never a juicy berry
       To color the finger tips;
And dust in hillside fountains
       Where we drank with eager lips.
Now never from out the greenwood,
       In the days of blooming spring,
Like the roll of distant thunder
       Comes the throb of the partridge wing.

Over the world the shadow
       Of Mammon slowly rolls,
And a sacrilegious humor
       Hath seared uncounted souls;
Nothing too fair and sweet
       To earn the scornful gibing
That comes from the jester's seat!
       Then sing me a song, sweet sister,
A song of the olden time,
       When hearts were full of music,
And lips were full of rhyme.

       It is a strange fact that, although 71 years have elapsed since the death of Keats, no monument of any sort to his memory has been erected upon English soil. Other poets of less power, but greater worldly fortune, have been crowned with every species of honor, and a corner of Westminster abbey packed with the memorials of their genius. Yet the fame of this poet, almost the brightest of all, has been curious neglected. We learn, therefore, with satisfaction that a very beautiful bust of Keats, by Miss Anne Whitney, an American, is about to be placed in the parish church at Hampstead, London, where Keats lived and wrote many of his best pieces. The expense of this memorial is being borne by a number of American literary people, who have thus undertaken a duty which should have been performed long ago by the poet's countrymen.

       The madness of Monsieur de Maupassant is as singular as one might expect from the character of his genius. For some time after the power to compose left him he was haunted by the pathetic sense that he had lost his ideas, and presently he imagined that he saw them floating about in the air in the shape of variously-colored butterflies, one color representing one sort of feeling or passion, and another another. Then he fell to work picking these butterflies out of the air with his fingers, and carefully setting them down and arranging them in imaginary patterns on sheets of paper, thus, as he supposed, fashioning works of fiction in a new and symbolical way. But we are told that recently even this curious mode of imaginative activity has been slowly deserting the unfortunate novelist, and he is falling into that condition of stupor and total vacancy of mind which is ominous of the end.

       The doctrine—not a new one, indeed, but a very old one—revived by certain contemporary philosophers, that genius is simply one form of madness, is a very comforting one for those who do not possess it. The men of genius, if there are any existing in our day, might well turn upon these wiseacres and maintain the exactly opposite view—that men of the world are the real madmen, and people of genius the only sane. I think they could adopt this position with all the best of the argument in their favor.

       Nothing can be of greater importance as a factor in the education of our youth than a good Canadian history for the use of the schools, in their education as future citizens particularly, as the mass which will before many years commence to form public opinion. Any movement which may result in the possession of such a book must receive the interested attention of anyone who has the welfare of Canada at heart, and any plan which has that in view should be fostered by all those who are in positions where their influence tells for or against such a project. The future of Canada will to a great extent, in so far at least as the national spirit is concerned, be determined by the school children of the next thirty years. If they are taught that they have reason to admire and love the country in which they live, for the great deeds that have been done in it and for the heroic sufferings of those who laid the foundations of its peace and prosperity, they will be fired to maintain the national integrity at any cost. If they can be made aware that this land of ours has had a development from small and arduous beginnings and that men and women great enough to have overcome difficulties and dangers are buried in their midst, we may hope for the upspringing of a genuine national pride. I cannot think of any task more difficult or any more worthy of all the labor and care that a writer could expend upon it than this "History of Canada," and if a man comes forward who can give us what we need we will be in truth a fortunate people. Judged by results anything we could do for him would be too small for his deserts. Nothing could be more dreary than Canadian history as I remember it taught—a mass of cold facts, unanimated by any spirit of historic insight, administered tot he pupil as a matter of necessity, like those household remedies which are held to be good for the children whether they like them or not. Now nothing can be more interesting than Canadian history, which has its roots, if I may so express it, on two continents, and which has all the romance of adventure and all the heroism of pioneer effort. To attempt to teach the early history of Canada without showing how all its life flowed either from the old world or New England, and how its development was retarded or advanced by the intrigues and cabals of the old empires, is worse than folly, it is lost time. So our historian must have such a grip of European history that he can refer back to its old world cause the effect which transpired under our skies. And his history must be a record of the Canadian people and have a constant reference to their social condition, their aspirations and how these were gradually transformed, and the deep waters through which they passed. It should not presuppose any historical knowledge whatsoever on the part of the reader, and each event or actor should be explained or characterised as if they had never before been heard of. For instance, when we come to Lord Durham's mission to Canada, we must learn what manner of man he was, what his antecedents were, why he was chosen for his mission, and what became of him after it was over. In a word, our history should be based in sympathy, a sympathy which should extend to every province of the Dominion, and which should give as true a picture of the special characteristics of maritime province life as that of Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia. It may be argued that this would make too long a history, but do we want a short history? I think not. It might rather be too long than too short. We want a book in which the scholars can read, and not a mere skeleton of parched and confused facts where he may become utterly confounded. We want a a book full of spirit and color and liveliness, one that will tell us not only the date of the battle of Lundy's Lane, but of the condition of the people who lived in the province at that time; a book that will tell us of Laura Secord and Dollard, and of the thousand picturesque characters which have played upon our stage. I would not attempt to conceal the difficulty of writing such a book, but we should not be satisfied unless something of the kind is forthcoming. Would it not be better to wait until such a book was written than to accept the lesser of a number of evils and choose some production which might be only a little better than what we have at present? In the meantime any power making for the development of a Canadian sentiment must largely reside in the hands of the teachers of our schools. Unaided they can foster it, but they should have that most desirable of all assistants—a Canadian history.