At the Mermaid Inn

The Globe, Toronto: July 9, 1892


       I read in Arcadia the other day that Thomas Cooper the Chartist, as he loved to call himself, had been granted a pension by the English Government. I read this with unmixed gratification. Thomas Cooper is usually referred to as the author of the "Purgatory of Suicides," but this poem will hardly give him the fame he deserves. It was the life he lived, a life full of fightings, imprisonment, and trouble of all kinds that is his real claim to remembrance, and his most interesting book is his own account of his life: "The Life of Thomas Cooper, written by himself." It is a thoroughly entertaining book, written in a simple style full of energy. Anyone might profitably spend the few hours required to read it in following the struggles of this intrepid old man, who would never give in if he thought he was right, no matter what hardship he had to undergo in consequence. He was at one time of his life an enthusiastic musician, and before the "Chartist" times he spent his energies in organising the choral societies in Lincoln, England. But his zeal raised up enemies against him, and after making the society a success he was forced to resign. He was also forced out of the Wesleyan Church by one or two men who have their types in every religious community. It was shortly before this time that my late father knew him, and I have before me now four letters addressed by him to my father, with reference to the work in which they were then engaged. One of the most entertaining portions of his "Life" is that describing his efforts in finding a publisher for the "Purgatory of Suicides." He had the usual experience of persons seeking a market for verse. He was refused by all the publishers with whom he most desired to deal. At last Douglas Jerrold found him a publisher, and his book reached the public. I think he had a success which gratified him, and the connections he formed with famous men gave him huge pleasure. He dedicated the poem to Mr. Carlyle, and the philosopher wrote him a letter which no one else could have written. He found in the poem traces of genius, "a dark Titanic energy struggling there, for which we hope there will be clearer daylight by-and-bye." But he advises that Mr. Cooper write his next work in prose. "We have too horrible a practical chaos round us; out of which every man is called by the birth of him to make a bit of cosmos; that seems to me the real poem for a man, especially at present. I always grudge to all any portion of a man's musical talent (which is the real intellect, the real vitality or life of him) expended on making mere words rhyme. These things I say to all my poetic friends, for I am in real earnest about them; but get almost nobody to believe me thitherto." Carlyle afterwards assisted Cooper in many ways, and the latter says: "Twice he put a five-pound note in my hand when I was in difficulties, and told me with a look of grave humor that if I could never pay him again he would not hang me."
       If Mr. Cooper lives until the 20th of March next he will be 88 years of age, and I hope he will live for many years yet to enjoy his pension.

       Among the chief glories of the natural scenery of a country are its forests and trees, and among the countries of the world Canada may be said to be supreme in this respect. But all of her native trees the maple, the fitting emblem she has chosen, is by far the most beautiful and most suited to the high, dry atmosphere of her climate. In our city and village streets the maple is unique in beauty because of the sunny splendor of its foliage, as if the sunlight not only fell on it, but pervaded and lighted it up, till the whole tree seems aglow with warmth. But to see the maple in all its native splendor you want to seek the virgin woods of Northwestern Ontario, which, I am sorry to say, are yearly growing less and less with the development of the country. Here its rugged and massive trunk, its spreading, skyward branches and gold-green foliage make it the supreme monarch of the Canadian forest. We have many beautiful trees, but none in the Canadian forest can compare with the maple.

       The river winds down from the dim country ways, creeping and sliding over pebbly shallows that glint and sparkle in the sun, then glides, turbid and deep, round steep curves where elms lean and mirror in its inky depths. Now and again a kingfisher swoops down from a decayed branch and skims the water with his purplish wings. Far out where the river winds in a thin haze, in sunlight and shadow, lie the country lands, undulating in hill and hollow, with level meadow lands, dotted with trees and sleepy cattle, who lazily gaze, or stand meditatively chewing their cuds and whisking their tails under the trees in the fence corners. A road like a brown riband winds over one of the hills from the eastern horison, and crosses the river by means of dilapidated wooden bridge. Now and then the stillness of the sleepy summer afternoon is disturbed by a stray waggon that rumbles over the bridge and up the eastern hill, raising a cloud of dust as it disappears.
       Near the bridge there is a small, dilapidated frame house by the roadside. Two lilac bushes fringe the fence in front, and a thin, care-worn woman moves within, now and again coming to the door with an anxious look on her sallow face. A sickly dog lies in the dirt in front, and thumps his tail in the dust as he leers contemplatively at an old hen and a brood of active chickens in a coop near. The sky grows closer and blacker. Great clouds roll up over the farm lands. The cows have ceased to low and the birds to twitter, and nature has grown intensely still. Soon a patter of large drops is felt, that comes faster and faster, the dog has crawled under a corner of the house, the chickens can be heard twittering in the coop under the old hen's wings, and the rain descends with a roar and rush on the fields, river and roof-tops, till the roads run in rivulets and the hollows turn into pools, while a fine mist shuts out the distant landscape of farms, woodland and horison.
       After a while a voice is heard singing snatches of a maudlin song, coming round the bend of the hill beyond the bridge, and the figure of a drunken man reels round the bend, staggering from side to side as he approaches the bridge. His clothes are drenched and muddy and his hat is jammed over his eyes. He reels for a moment and, losing his balance, completely tumbles into a muddy pool. With a muttered exclamation he staggers to his feet, looks for a moment with a sort of indignant reproach at the spot where he had fallen, and then zigzags slowly and methodically over the bridge, braiding his way till he comes to the dilapidated house, where the sad-faced woman who is waiting opens the door and ushers him in from the storm. The day declines, the rain is harder and comes with a steady pour, till night gradually lets its misty curtains down in murky folds about the wet, lonely and bedraggled world.

       It is a common saying of the ordinary Englishman that in America we have no singing birds. It is true that we have no singer possessing the fire and compass of the nightingale or the sky-lark, i.e., I believe we have not, for I have never listened to either of the latter birds myself, but I am inclined to think, from what we read on the subject, that not even in England have they as great a variety of dainty and appealing voices as are to be met with on any summer day in our Canadian fields—the song-sparrow, and the robin, and the blue bird that come before the wind-flower and the lilium—the vesper sparrow, tenderest and most lyric of singers, whose song seems most touching and most in season as his name implies, when we hear it from the dusky, scarce distinguishable fields at evening; the bob-o-link, who is the merry love-making, gay-coated cavalier of our breezy meadows, forever joyous and alert, thinking that his life is intended for nothing but the old-fashioned troubador business of strumming the guitar and singing rondeaus and villanettes to one's lady love; the white-throat sparrow, the piper of that strange, clear, long-drawn, meditative note that comes to us from the swamp or clearing, and embodies the very mood of him who whiles away a long May day in idle stroll and meditation; the grave thrushes, the veery, with his revolving, metallic note, having something in it like the sound of shot running round and round in a gun barrel, a note suggestive of midsummer quiet and heat; the hermit according to Burroughs the finest of our songsters, whose distant, lingering music, heard in the forest depths or from the untilled mountain-side, is the very voice of the spirit of solitude, laden with the memories of forgotten flowers, and fading away into a silence and shadow as remote and spectral as they; the wood-thrush, not so common with us, and the brown thrush, a singer of great energy and variety; the catbird, the vivacious mimic and eccentric songster; the peweet, with its peculiar infantine, appealing note: the great highholder or higho, whose jolly, flute-like laughter rings far away out of the woodside or the rough field; the drawling pipe and silvern sputter of the meadow lark; and many another of the warblers, flycatchers, vireos, and the rest, too numerous to recount. All these voices from April to August, and later, are a perpetual delight to the ear, and just as each man will have his favorite poet or his favorite story-teller, so each will have his favorite songster of the wood or field. I myself have almost concluded that I find most pleasure in the song of the little vesper sparrow. There is an abandon, a fitting tenderness, a lyrical gush in the utterances of this exquisite little bird that causes him to grow upon the heart of the hearer. The ear seeks his song at morning and eventide, and if it is misisng we feel the loss of something that tempers our thoughts with a gentle and humane emotion.