At the Mermaid Inn

The Globe, Toronto: July 23, 1892


                   From Amiel's Journal—(Six O'clock.)
Once more the day is drawing to its close.
The heat of afternoon has vanished quite,
And all the mountains lose their tender light,
Save Mont Blanc, rising flushed with perfect rose.
Alas! the restless hours, without repose,
How they oppress the soul with sudden night.
In vain we cry, "Oh, time, suspend thy flight!"
In vain! for as we cry the moment goes.
What days to keep? The glad days? Yea, we will.
The lost days, too; the first memory retrieves,
The last are but remorse and mockery.
                   (Eleven O'clock.)
A gust of wind; a few clouds in the sky;
The nightingale is silent, but it leaves
The cricket and the river singing still.

       Matthew Arnold, who is Wordsworth's most famous admirer, and without doubt the best judge of his finest work, considers the poem called "Michael" to be his greatest poem. Therefore as a brief study of the poet's worth (for poet I concede him to be, though not of the highest order) I would like to direct attention for a space to this particular poem. I would begin by denying that it is a poem at all in the true sense of the word. If poetry is mere thought or sentiment, no matter how expressed, then many of the essays and sermons, not to speak of short stories, prevalent to-day are poems. But we know this is not so. Then on what grounds can this poem be called great or even passably beautiful, according to the poetical canons? Can any of Wordsworth's admirers state such grounds so as to satisfy the average mind? The tale, for such it is, has a certain pathos, naturally pertaining to the subject. But so far from being a poem, the story might just as well have been written in prose, in fact it is written in prose, as far as the language used is concerned, which is simple, common-place prose, marked out in blank verse metre, but not any more beautifully expressed than such tales of life as we commonly meet with in the magazines of to-day. Many of these tales, for beautiful and fitting simplicity of diction, far surpass this so-called poetical tale of Wordsworth's. To prove my statement, I will quote at random:—
       "Upon the forest-side in Grassmere vale there dwelt a shepherd. Michael was his name, an old man, stout of heart and strong of limb. His bodily frame had been from youth to age of an unusual strength; his mind was keen, intense and frugal, apt for all affairs, and in his shepherd's calling he was prompt and watchful, more than ordinary men."
       Now, this is nothing more than ordinary prose, and of the most common-place character, and the whole tale is of this order of language. As I have already stated, there is a certain pathos in the story, but no more than is found, as I have stated, in many strong and original short stories of to-day. We feel sorry for the old shepherd who is left alone in his old age to mourn his erring son, but there is a touch of the patriarchs of the Old Testament, as seen through modern religious ideals, that suggests a borrowed pathos, if unconsciously so. The idea of David weeping for Absalom, or, more in keeping, the patriarchal fatherhood of Abraham, comes to mind. The current characteristic of the whole poem is that of the orthodox idea; it is a story told by a religious moraliser. I admit there is humanity and pathos in the story, but it owes this largely to, as I have said, its imitation of the Old Testament type. Mr. Richard Harding Davis, a young prose writer of to-day, had a short time ago a strong and pathetic tale in The Century Magazine, called "The Ninety and Nine." It had the same pathos, and yet, like Wordsworth's tale, it is a modern edition of the prodigal son. No one denies the strength and beauty of Mr. Davis' short tale, but he would be mad to call it a poem. Now, I contend that "Michael" is no more a poem in the real sense than "The Ninety and Nine." In both, it is the pathos inherent in the story, it is the human incident that appeals to us. But to call "Michael" a great poem is another thing. There is diffuseness, there is moralising, there is a certain touch of nature, the tale is even picturesque, if it were not so long-winded and common-place in its detail, but there are not six lines of poetry in it.
       On the whole, I fail to see Wordsworth's greatness as a poet. I would like one of his intense admirers to quote from his works enough instances of really great verse to prove their admiration. Wordsworth was thoughtful, I grant, but it was largely the thoughtfulness of a prosaic order. He was even poetical at times, when he was not carried away by a common-place moralising, which he expressed in blank verse or crude rhymes. He had in a gentle, innocent, but childish manner, an interest in life and man's destiny, but his mind was not original enough to lead him beyond the commonest orthodoxy of his day, and he was too much wrapt up in himself and his own little world of shepherds and lambs and common-place gardeners to feel the pulse-beat of the great humanity outside. We hear stories of his intense interest in the French revolution, and we see some of it in his works, but he never really was a part of it, as was Shelley, who, with all his faults, was a born poet. Wordsworth was a good, innocent soul, no doubt, but it can be seen he was rather selfish, and too self-centred to be great, in the best sense. He much resembled many good, old-time clergymen, whose lives were good, in a sense, because they had no great tendency to practical evil, but who have bored us by long-winded sermons. His disciples see in him greatness, hidden meanings and lofty heights he would never have dreamed of. His descriptions of nature are mere catalogues, mingled with all sorts of digressions as to his own experiences. Now and then he strikes a good thought or expression but such instances are like rare cases in a desert of tiresome verbiage. In short, you can find hundreds of young minor poets of to-day who show more real practical power of expression than he ever had. The mass of his work, if written now by an unknown man, would not be tolerated even by his most ardent admirers. I admit that much of his thought is often sincere and pure, but mere sincerity and purity of thought do not give a patent greatness in any age. He is childish in his sympathies, almost senile in his descriptions. He lacks the most ordinary taste in his choice of subjects, and is about as advanced in his ideas as the ordinary parish rector of his day. He is just the kindly, simple, placid old man (for who could ever think of Wordsworth as being young?) who wandered about, leaving the every-day cares to his wife and sister, and weaving his tiresome doggerels and inane platitudes in the quiet English lake country. Considering the peaceful life he led, his evident desire to express himself and his charming environment, it is no marvel that now and again he uttered a thought that might stir the mind and touch the heart, but it is a strong argument against his having high poetical gifts, that in such favorable surroundings he wrote so much utter trash as to form and thought. When we look on the scores of geniuses who have had to struggle with infirmities, both moral and physical, and had to bear privations and intense misery away in busy haunts of men, far from peaceful nature; men like Hood and Burns and Poe, who yet managed to give us even single gems of song, that it is passing strange that such a man as Wordsworth should be placed among the first poets in the English language. To say that his supreme greatness consists in the height form which he looks on life, is to insult all the other poets who have written. No one poet can claim such a plane as his own. No poet was a true poet who did not get on to a high plane. But a mock spirituality in poetry as in religion is not a sign of greatness. Sermonising is not necessarily evidence of a great mind, but very often proceeds from a small, distorted and self-complacent environment, that would shrivel up the whole of this great universe of humanity and nature with its marvellous and weird beauty, its terrible tragedy and pathos, into the narrow horison of a country sheep fold.

In Robert Louis Stevenson's last book, "The Wrecker," we find ourselves possessed by the shifting, various, omnipresent spirit of our own age. We flit about the world as if it were a thing measurable by a few strides. We are in the South Sea, then in Paris, in San Francisco, in Edinburgh, in the midst of the Pacific, in Austria, in Devonshire, in Barbison. We meet with strange varieties of men and manners; and all this gliding panorama is made real to us with a deliberate clearness and sureness of touch that might be the envy of the avowed realist. If we look for any particular quality in literature we are very likely to find it where it is least professed. I think that Mr. Stevenson is a much more genuine realist than most of those who are commonly named as masters of the realist school. He never describes a scene which he has not beheld, and his characters, striking and singular as they are, are manifestly in every case founded upon the careful study of actual models. Then there is a keenness of insight and accuracy of understanding evidenced in the picturesque and clinging phraseology of his, so instinct with Scotch strength and Scotch imperturbability, that afford us a perfect guarantee of artistic truth. One can read Stevenson with comfort; we are seldom harassed by the sense of any inadequacy of the result as compared with the design. He never undertakes what he cannot do, and he always brings to his work that rare and priceless faculty of artistic judgment which enables him to know what is too much or what is too little, or, in other words, precisely what and how many strokes should go to the picture.
       The same observation may be made, however, about Mr. Stevenson's books, that applies to all the best fiction writing of our time. It is good art, but not good drama. It is very clear, strong, subtle, picturesque, but it has not the fine breath of life. The art of conveying the reader into an actual moving world of delightfully animated people appears to have died with George Eliot, and even with her was on the decline. In "The Wrecker," notwithstanding its rapidly-changing scene and its diversity of actors, every movement is studied, every speech is deliberately thought out, and the reader knows it. In this book there is, perhaps, less spontaneity than in some of Mr. Stevenson's former works, "Kidnapped," for instance, in which some very life-like passages occur.
       Mr. Stevenson is very fond of the study of characters, common enough, as every humane person knows, in which the mixture of good and evil is strongly and strangely marked. His sea-captain Nares and his little disreputable San Francisco lawyer seem to me quite true and successful portraitures, and the capacity the writer shows for understanding human nature in this way inclines one to form a favorable estimate of his own qualities of heart. The figure of Pinkerton—almost the principal one in the book—is that of the buoyant, indefatigable, unconquerable and forever inventive American man of speculation—a delightful figure, although I think the naivety is just a trifle exaggerated. The story of the wretched lawyer Bellairs is one of the truest and most tragical things in all Mr. Stevenson's literature.
       Mr. Stevenson has not yet discarded his diabolical taste for bloodshed. In this case it is no less than the murder of a whole ship's crew, a slaughter so sickeningly horrible that one cannot help feeling that the abrupt termination of the story and the absence of any further tragic consequence are a dramatic defect. With all his manifest delight in the ever-varying human spectacle, there is certain want of gentleness and contagious humanity. He is too fond of an artistic triumph, and does not always sufficiently consider the actual import of the thing portrayed with reference to the laws governing human motive and action. It seems to me that the narrative of the "Flying Send" is not altogether good work from an ethical point of view.