At the Mermaid Inn

The Globe, Toronto: June 24, 1893


       A little collection of poems, called "The Marshlands," by Mr. J.F. Herbin, published at Windsor, N.S., by J.J. Anslow, will be found to afford some charming reading. Mr. Herbin is a landscape painter in verse, and he has the power to paint landscape admirably—sometimes singularly—well. All his sense as regards the phenomena of outer life appear to be most acutely developed, and this sensitive faculty of perception has at its command a power of metrical expression which I fancy is yet only in growth, and may some day enable him to make poems as complete in form as they are in pictorial truth. As yet he seldom succeeds in producing work without serious weakness or blemish. His successes are in detached passages, phrases and lines, but some of these are exquisite. I would make an exception to this statement in the case of the sonnets, "Haying," "Scowing," "A Homestead," and perhaps "The Night Mower." The last named is the most imaginative of all, but it weakens a little in some of the lines, and is not as cleanly and compactly made as it should be. The other sonnets I have named are entirely satisfying. They are true pictures, clear and fresh from nature, with the very earth-savor in them. Anyone who loves the earth and the things that grow and move upon it will love these two or three sonnet-landscapes, and feel them in some sort as he would feel the originals. Let me quote the best of them, "Haying":—

From the soft dyke-road, crooked and waggon-worn,
       Comes the great load of rustling, scented hay,
       Slow-drawn, with heavy swing and creaky sway.
Through the cool freshness of the windless morn.
The oxen, yoked and sturdy, horn to horn,
       Sharing the rest and toil of night and day,
       Bend head and neck to the long, hilly way,
By many a season's labor marked and torn,
On the broad sea of dyke the gather heat
       Waves upward from the grass, where road on road
       Is swept before the tramping of the teams;
And while the oxen rest beside the sweet
       New hay, the loft receives the early load,
With hissing stir, among the dusty beams.

       There are true descriptive lines in many of the poems, such as, for instance:—

A solitary mower marks his way,
With hissing scythe, in the brine-savored hay.

The tide-deserted creek glows in the sun,
       And the wet scows, now stranded on the shore,
       Gape dark and empty, near a loaded cart,
Drawn by two sturdy oxen, white and dun,
       Which, as the evening reddens more and more,
Bend to the driver's word, ready to start.

For years add beauty to a peaceful age.

       In the longer pieces Mr. Herbin has less command than in the sonnets, but there are some good things, especially in "Willows," and "Change." Taken in the main, there seems to me high and serious tone in this little collection of poems. I think it is the tone of one who loves beauty, and loves her purely and honestly.

       When Matthew Arnold, in his criticism of the "Journal Intime" of Amiel, pronounced that it was ont he side of literary criticism that he was most powerful, he vindicated once more his right to be called the greatest critic of our time. it was in criticism that Amiel was supremely great, and not only in literary criticism. In his journal he sometimes dwells upon music, and whenever he does one feels that here, too, he was supreme, that he understood this art and spoke of it with a sureness and a subtlety which its critics do not often bring to their tack. It is our loss that he does not oftener speak of it; that he did not speak of other musicians with the same critical power that he used with Bach, Beethoven, Mozart and Wagner. I would like to copy here his comparison of Mozart with Beethoven, to my mind the very finality of criticism:—
       "Mozart—grace, liberty, certainty, freedom and precision of style—an exquisite and aristocratic beauty, serenity of soul, the health and talent of the master both on a level with his genius. Beethoven—more pathetic, more passionate, more torn with feeling, more intricate, more profound, less perfect, more the slave of his genius, more carried away by his fancy or his passion, more moving and more sublime than Mozart. Mozart refreshes you like the dialogues of Plato; he respects you, reveals to you your strength, gives you freedom and balance. Beethoven seizes upon you; he is more tragic and oratorical, while Mozart is more disinterested and poetical. Mozart is more Greek and Beethoven more Christian. One is serene, the other serious. The first is stronger than destiny, because he takes life less profoundly; the other is less strong because he has dared to measure himself against deeper sorrows. His talent is not always equal to his genius, and pathos is his dominant feature as perfection is that of Mozart. In Mozart the balance of the whole is perfect and art triumphs; in Beethoven feeling governs everything, and emotion troubles his art in proportion as it deepens it."

       It is strange that in a country like this, where people talk so much about progress and prosperity and so forth, the number of those who count artistic and esthetic development as one of the things to be sought after is so few. Here we have much material for new and original work in art; all we need is the means of education, and some source of influence which shall act upon the latent artistic talent buried in our midst. The least possible is done in this direction by those who have charge of public affairs, and very little indeed by private individuals of wealth and influence. No doubt many a native gift, capable of adding to the foundation of a national structure in art, is withered away for want of assistance, and does not even appear. It is a pity, for there are certain materials for the artist in the present stage of our country's growth, which will soon disappear, and which might produce work worth preserving.
       One of the things which might be done by the Dominion government would be the improvement and increase of the so-called national gallery at Ottawa. If even a few good and valuable works of art were added to this collection, it would furnish an educating influence for young painters and sculptors of inestimable worth. Practically more could be done in this way than by the establishment of hundreds of schools. There is no education for the artist apart from nature, whether in painting, music, literature or any other like the contemplation of a great and inspiring model. If funds are lacking—and they can easily be found for less worthy objects—let them be secured by doing away with some of the encumbrances now maintained—the royal society, for instance, which is a useless and somewhat ludicrous institution. By expending $50,000 annually, and so adding fifteen or twenty valuable articles to the exhibit each year, in a short time a very interesting and respectable collection might be made. The purchase ought to be made from all over the world, wherever great work is done.

                     That very day
From a bare ridge we also first beheld
Unveiled the summit of Mount Blanc, and grieved
To have a soulless image on the eye
That had usurped upon a living thought
That never more could be.

       Those lines of Wordsworth embody a common experience. By the force of imagination we form ideas of the great natural scenery of the earth, which are usually disappointed when we stand face to face with the wonder. Perhaps ninety per cent. of the people who look at Niagara for the first time are disappointed, and feel as if they had been cheated "of a living thought that never more could be." Man is anxious to be carried away and awed by something outside himself, and expects this of the ocean, or of the Rockies, or of the Mammoth Cave, but when he confronts the fact he finds it perfectly natural, and that he was greater than it after all, and has only to grieve for "the soulless image in the eye." But I find that, as a matter of course and by some generic law, the imaginative idea resumes its place, and is if anything heightened by remembrance. When we look back at the picture we find we were not disappointed, that the fact was as we expected it would be, and that our spiritual intuition was fulfilled. But in the record of Wordsworth's experience during his journey to the continent, which we find in that ever-delightful poem "The Prelude," this is not the only instance of a fact of every day human nature, if I may be allowed such an expression, transferred into poetry, often beautiful, sometimes sublime. This is one reason why "The Prelude" is so readable as a whole, it is replete with facts of common experiences expressed in poetic form. Another reason is the constant reference to nature as a setting for man's life. Constantly does the poet turn to the open air and the freedom and activity of the life of nature. Constantly does he seek images and comparisons for the life of the soul from the unconscious proceedings of the power which moves in the world about us. He likens imagination rising from the "mind's abyss" to an "unfathered vapor that enwraps at once some lonely traveller," or the soul to "the mighty flood of Nile poured from his fount of abyssian clouds to fertilize the whole Egyptian plain." Quotation would be endless were one to attempt to illustrate the varied power of such comparison and simile.

       The awful destructiveness of the human race is exemplified in small things as well as great. Not only are our magnificent pine forests disappearing, not only is the buffalo practically extinct and the wild pigeon rapidly becoming so, but wherever any thing of interest or beauty occurs in rare haunts it is instantly set upon and destroyed. I have known some out-of-the-way places in my neighborhood where rare wild flowers could be found not long ago in considerable numbers; now they are gone. People could not be content to look at them, admire them, pluck a few and leave the rest to renew their kind, and yield us the yearly service of their beauty. They must bear them away in armfuls, pull them up by the roots, and make an end of them in the momentary pride of securing a greater display than anyone else. They have killed the goose that laid the golden egg. Recently I was told of a place where I might find the golden lady's slipper, the moccasin flower. The knowledge was imparted to me as a secret. I went there, and found many of them blossoming in bits of deep wood that the crowd had somehow missed. They stood in little companies by the pools in the moist, rocky soil, and shafts of the afternoon sun shining in upon them made them wonderfully beautiful. I carried only two or three of them away, and neither persuasion nor torture shall draw from me the knowledge of their secret abode.