At the Mermaid Inn

The Globe, Toronto: June 11, 1892


       There are two kinds of poetry that may develop in a country, one born of the soil, and yet dependent on universal sympathy for its audience; the other largely of local growth, and the result of the various vicissitudes of national development. They may both be great in their way, but the latter is the most certain to acquire a quick sympathy. It is patriotic, cast in a large and heroic mould, and a necessary part of the pulse-beat of the day. Such a school was the great New England one of the era prior to and following the civil war. It was human and popular, and the writers were necessarily strong men with large human instincts and enthusiasms. But it might be said that the time made them as much as they helped to make the time, and that much of their largeness of mould and high ethical vision was due to the high pitch of the national spirit at the time they wrote. Then again, their work contained much sentiment that was merely local and passing, but of no effect now when the community is not pitched to appreciate it. They had a note that was impossible in a less heroic day, but it carried them beyond the natural which endures, and so rendered their work necessarily ephemeral. Much of the work of Whittier, Longfellow and Lowell is of this class, and, as literature of immediate interest, perished with the passing of the time and events that gave it being. When we go back to the works of these poets to find poems of enduring beauty on subjects that might be treated about, and have been treated about, in all ages of our literature, we find that what they have left is small indeed. If we look for complete poems that will rank with the old English masterpieces we have to be chary in our choice. Longfellow has many tender and heroic tales in verse, and his Hiawatha, while not original in construction, is almost an epic, but it has not that haunting beauty of expression to be found in the best work of many of the greater poets. It is diffuse and full of mannerisms, and grows tiresome after much repeating. The opening and closing lines of Evangeline are fine, but the poem as a whole also is diffuse, and lacks solidity even in the nature descriptions, for which there was great scope given. It is a decided failure as a great poem, if not as a story, and much of the charm lies in the pathos of the incident embodied. Many of his shorter pieces are by far his best. A noted reader for a famous New England publishing house told me that he always considered Longfellow did his best work in "Voices of the Night," his first small published volume, and I think he was right, though for pure beauty and simplicity, in my opinion, "The Wreck of the Hesperus" is his finest bit of work. This poem, while not by any means his most ambitious attempt, is such as a poet might accomplish in any age, even of less heroic pitch than that in which he wrote. To Whittier and Lowell this test is even more applicable than to Longfellow. Freedom was the great inspiration that gave the key-note to both, and yet poems like "Snowbound," "In School Days" and "Maud Muller" are the gems that one leaves to posterity, while the other will endure in such poems of deep insight as "Extreme Unction," and nature descriptions as found in "The Dandelion," and in "Indian Summer." The former class of verse, which I mentioned at the beginning of this article, is that produced in an unheroic age, such as ours is to-day in Canada, when the ethical pulse is even below the normal, certainly not above it, and when to be a true poet one must be a born singer, without the aid of any unusually strenuous environment to inspire the song. This clas of singers run no great chance of being overrated in their generation. They may leave no lofty epics or funeral peons to mark the historical eras, but their note, if true, is liable to be deep and lasting. They are interpreters rather than chroniclers, and their message from humanity or nature, or from both, if they are great enough, is sincere and direct. There is a shallow idea that the length of a poem is the test of a poet's greatness. But, on the contrary, most of the greater poets have written at the most half a dozen poems, and many of them less than a hundred lines, that have given them claims to immortality. The greatest epics in all languages are but, as some one said of Milton's "Paradise Lost," rare oases of beauty in a desert of verbiage. Like in all other cults, there is no end of writing and the making of books, and happy is the man who has produced one poem that can be classed with those of even a century's endurance.

       I have been once more looking over a book which a friend had sent me from Scotland, and which in all respects is one of the most curious I ever opened. It is not entertaining and is quite unintelligible, but very often it is unconsciously humorous, and osmetimes it is touching. In fact, I am not sure whether it is not always more touching than anything else, and whether the whole contents of the book does not twitch one's heartstrings, and make one feel guilty of having laughed when the sentence has proved irresistible. But perhaps my impressions are influenced by the history of its production, which is certainly sad enough. It was written by an old man in one of the towns of Scotland, who makes his living by teaching when he can get anyone to teach. He lives high up in one of the tallest buildings in the place, a situation from which he can see the four quarters of the heavens. Here he stays all the year round, for he is a cripple and deformed, surrounded with heaps of old books and pamphlets, and abandoned to great thoughts and lofty ideas. Passionately fond of music, he solaces himself with a small barrel-organ, which plays selections from the great masters, and when he is weary with study he is borne through the domain of fairy as he turns the crank of this wonder-box. The knowledge of these facts is what has made his little book seem to me sad, for although he seems to have had the desire for expression very highly developed very few have had less of the faculty.

And little ones a-gathering lilies will hear flutter o' angel wing,
And that will be religion for every star,
And, surely, they will not die for knowing not, anent
The pig iron and antimony in Aldebaran,
                     Will they now?

       He coins words or transfers them badly from forgotten languages, and mixes the whole mass of his ideas with them.

Blastoderne, that's to evolve its neurosis and psychosis,
Lies asleep in atom venerable
Awaiting psychogenetic avatar!
But, the while, shall poet be stayed
From dragging matter by the heels behind
Chariot triumphant of thought?

       He has a perfect faith in the "plan of things:" "yea, blasphemy of belladonna is redeemed with euphemy o' lemontine." The absoluteness of mind is ever his theme. Listen to him:—

Your microbe, now will only need a day
To make fifteen millions, and kill a king,
While smile o' lily sleeps in her swathe o' green.
Matter is septic, mind antiseptic;
Reason staggers at thought o' dead mind.

       Here the materialist has no chance whatever. The crippled Scotch tutor, almost starving in his garret, has perfect faith in the triumph of the soul, and although he cannot express his thought in any but the most uncouth terms, still it is to him a living spring of pure and crystal inspiration, making green the desert of the earth. I can imagine him reading these things to himself as he holds his book close to the sunset pane to save candles, with the tears in his eyes as he sees all the beauty and nobleness of his ideas transfigured by the light of his mind, as those clouds far over the sea are crimsoned by the light of the sun. And not in vain are your tears, not in vain your lofty ideals and your pure faith. Somehow in the development of nature, through no fault of your own, your proud and inquisitive soul became possessed of your twisted and wracked body, and amid circumstances that seem fit for such a deformity you live alone in poverty, often beaten by anguish, but never overcome, often pinched by hunger, but never discontented. But it will not always be so. You who have succeeded amidst such discouragements in keeping alive a perfect trust will take the next step in your destiny with your soul well-knit. 'Tis but a little shift and you will have taken the irremediable path and journeyed beyond our hall. But it will be well with you; you will have forgotten the sordidness of this planet, and your contemporaries in immortality will wonder at the largeness of your accent, the sweep of your vision.