At the Mermaid Inn

The Globe, Toronto: June 17, 1893


       A serious deficiency in current literature, and especially in the department of verse, is an utter lack of imaginative creative ability. We have an overplus of dainty conceits and delicately-spun lyrics, and far too much of verse of a purely descriptive quality. The magazines and weeklies are stocked with such verse, and it is regarded as the characteristic poetry of the age; but of original conceptions of a high order we are almost utterly destitute. Many have been educated into the idea that Tennyson at his best was a poet of rugged power and original conception, but the fact is that his extremely brilliant and successful poetic career was one of marked decadence in this respect, and few realize that the day of great creative genius went out with Byron. What Tennyson did for English verse was to polish and over-refine it. He made verse-reading possible, and even pleasing, to the strict morality of the average middle-class English household. His "May Queen" took the place of "The Bride of Abydos," as the romantic gradually passed into the prosaic that succeeded it. It is true that he gave us some stirring ballads, but his influence on English verse-making did not fall on this side. The successors of Tennyson are a lot of small men, who owe much of their positions as poets to culture and leisure. These men have many masters; some, the nature school, claim Wordsworth as their supreme idol; but, did the simple old man live to-day, they would flee in horror from his lack of style. Some follow Keats, and claim for him qualities he never assumed or deserved. Keats was a man who had a sort of archaic madness; but a knowledge of, and an interest in, the real life about him is entirely lacking in his work. Keats will always remain an interesting story in English poetry. But woe to the man of to-day who tries to build a literary fame with such as Keats as a master. Keats is as evanescent and elusive as his own goddesses, and his imagination is purely of the fantastical order, as would be natural in a man who dares to approach any mythology with an utter lack of the religious genius that gets at the real greatness and human interest that alone can make any mythology important. The man who absorbs Keats gets a sort of honied literature without any comb, and his poems become a series of literary confections. But the brawn and muscle are not there. Such poetry may do well to adorn the current magazines, for gentle women to gush over, or to be admired by a certain order of critics, but it never will move or inspire the world. There is another class of poets who make an idol of Matthew Arnold. They swallow all of his literary creeds, and assume his austere melancholy toward life. They strain to think and write as he did, forgetting that Arnold's real power lay not in all this, but rather in the fact that the man was there himself in all he said and felt. Arnold had many weaknesses of style and limitations of voice as a poet. His marked greatness is as a thinker, who had deeply imbued himself with his own ideals and conceptions. His very egotism is his strength. When he attempted to follow Keats or Wordsworth he made an utter failure. It is impossible for this reason for any man to be a successful follower of such a poet as Arnold, and yet be original. Others of the current schools follow Rossetti and Swinburne, while some essay Browning, with little more success than the attainment of the merely grotesque. That they are all followers of Tennyson in reality goes without saying, which is evidenced by the utter lack of any real new thought or creative imagination in current work, coupled with the evident straining after what is called style or finish. One man gets the trick of Keats' phrasing, his peculiar way of building a line, the adjectives he used and their unique effect. Another assumes Wordsworth's simplicity of attitude toward nature, another aims at Shelley's elusive and airy buildings out of nothingness, with brilliant success. Another strains to express some subtle thought, or personal contempt of the great horde, after the Matthew Arnold plan. But they all forget that to be great a man must first and last be himself, and that borrowed clothing, no matter how it may suggest the original, sits as badly on the borrower's back as the skin of the lion did on the body of the ass. To be called the American Byron or Wordsworth or Tennyson is not certainly a compliment to a man's originality, however it may redound to his powers of imitation. Such a phrase concerning a man's work should cause the reader to look up the work so compared and note wherein the comparison lies. But such a state of things is the result of making mere words and their picturesque groupings for artistic effect the first and most important end of the would-be poet. Subject matter seems somehow at a discount, and what is called quality has taken its place. Strip most of the so-called poetry of its borrowed plumage and very little would remain; yea, not even the dignity of a backbone of thought or incident. The day of the great writer is when we have the great creative power and lofty imaginative genius. A very good test of our current writers would be to search their volumes for evidence of original mental qualities and large sympathetic grasp of our common humanity. A writer may drench himself with the form of expression used by Shelley or Rossetti, and then apply the peculiar mannerism to the analysis of his personal feelings concerning certain aspects of a spring day or of a sea picture, and yet not have a great mind. That is one reason why there are so many successful writers of verse to-day. The fact is that a large mass of college graduates with literary susceptibilities have discovered the trick, and can turn out any amount of the kind of gentle, sensitive verses with a sort of delicate finish that the magazines of to-day seem to require. A remarkable instance is that the greater amount of this kind of work is done by women. Of course I would not rob all of these poets of a certain amount of even poetic genius, but it is another thing to compare the writers of this sort of verse with the minds that conceived such poems as "Byron's Address to the Ocean," or "The Dying Gladiator," Coleridge's "Ancient Mariner," Shelley's "Cloud," Keats' "Odes to a Grecian Urn," and "To the Nightingale," Burns' "Lines to a Mountain Daisy," and "Tam O'Shanter," Hood's "Bridge of Sighs," and the many beautiful poems by Tennyson and Browning, such as "The Lotus Eaters," "The Moated Grange," "The Revenge," "The Funeral of Wellington," "Herve Riel," "The Ride from Aix to Ghent," all of which are poems of great original conception, and show powers that culture alone could not produce. On turning our attention to America, we have Poe's "Raven," Bryant's "Thanotopsis," Whittier's "Maud Muller," Longfellow's "Wreck of the Hesperus," all exquisitely rare as poetry, and containing in themselves in various degrees those evidences of the rare mind, with its grasp of humanity in a lesser or greater degree, coupled with the true dramatic capability of being able to crystallize the individual conception or thought in such a way that it could never be improved upon. Now, let us apply this test, and search our current literature for work of this order, and we fail to find it. Many critics who are acute enough to see this lack try to explain it away when writing up their especial idols by claiming that this is not the highest order of poetry, or that the times are changing, and that "pensive meditation" and "acute observation" amount to genius of a high order. That may "go down" with the people who have not taken the trouble to weigh current literature in the balance in which I have just weighed it. But the fact remains the same, that the truest poets the language has as yet produced have ever been deeply interested in the issues of life and death, and these are the paramount ideas with which they will ever dwell. Wordsworth, who has been called the greatest nature poet, has never divorced nature from humanity in any of his work, and it is really, after all, man with whom he deals. The true greatness of Wordsworth lies in his simple, grand emotion, his power of entering into the humanities of the scene about him. He is not and never could be a minute scenic artist, such as the descriptive sonnet writers we have to-day. Emerson had also some of this peculiar quality. In both men it was a great pressing in, as it were, of nature's impressiveness on their souls. Such men never could write of nature in cold blood. They were too deeply impressed with its reverence to do so. In the highest sense they were impressionists.
       Many of our writers of to-day, on the other hand, are cold-blooded, professional writers for the magazines, who, many of them, turn out any amount of stuff, more from ambition than from a desire to produce what is in them.
       They set themselves a task, as many of their brother-writers in prose do, with the result we have just described.

       Nature has at best only a limited number of patterns for days in her workshop. This morning, for instance, how many we have like it in June of every year. A grey but luminous dawn; then a gentle, fragrant rain that seems to draw the odor out of everything; then an hour or two of quiet silveriness, with damp pathways, and the moistened earth with a light wind turning out the white sides of the maple leaves. The snowballs hang drooping, filled with rain. The earth seems to be waiting for some more powerful manifestation. At length the rain comes again, softly at first, then slanting more and more and pouring down unreservedly. Then it stops suddenly, and the landscape takes on that perfect distinctness that rain brings, with the same silveriness, but with a stronger wind blowing the leaves away from the branches of the trees and giving you a glimpse of the bluebird, which has been vocal through the whole morning in defiance of the wet.