At the Mermaid Inn

The Globe, Toronto: June 25, 1892


       It is not the brilliancy, the versatility, the fecundity or the ingenuity of a poet that makes him "great"; it is the plane upon which his imagination moves, the height from which he looks down, the magnitude of his ideas. This largeness of vision is often accompanied by extreme simplicity in the literary faculty, and it is on thei account mainly that the really great poet is often partly obscured from public recognition by the greater brilliancy and fertility of some of his contemporaries. We are too apt to measure the greatness of a writer by the degree to which he astonishes us or interests us, rather than by the actual spiritual benefit and enlargement of ideas which he confers. There was a time when Dryden was considered a greater poet than Milton. Dryden was a writer of great intellectual power, great literary activity and an admirable range of accomplishment; but we know now that that obscure old man, who did not write so very much in all his life, and who but for his obscurity and his blindness might never have written our grand epic at all, was so far greater than the renowned Dryden by the grandeur and breadth of his imagination that the latter sinks altogether into a lower rank in the record of literature. So, too, in more recent times, Lord Byron, with his dash and daring and his immense cleverness and gift of verse, overclouded all the reputations of his age, but I think that we are now nearly all of us agreed that three at least of his contemporaries dwell upon an intellectual level far loftier and purer than his, and were, therefore, essentially greater poets than he.
       In our own time I think we allow ourselves to be a little too much dazzled by the supreme literary gift and magnificent versification of Tennyson, and the insight, vigor and extraordinary versatility of Browning. We are apt almost to pas by a poet who in this last age occupies the clearest and noblest plane of all. I mean Matthew Arnold. Arnold is not so triumphantly the poet as Tennyson, nor is he so various or so clever as Browning, but he looks from a grander height than either, his imagination has its natural abode in a diviner atmosphere. The whole range of life, time and eternity, the mysteries and beauties of existence and its deepest spiritual problems are continually present to his mind. In his genius is that rare combination of philosophy and the poetic impulse in the highest degree, which has given us our few solitary poets. The only test by which we can measure the greatness of a verse writer is the quality of the effect which he produces upon the mind of a reader. He who has been reading Browning till his head spins with the multitude of subtleties and splendid tours de force, or he who is even weary, if such a thing may be, of the rounded perfections of Tennyson, betakes himself to Matthew Arnold, and then he seems to have reached the hills. With a mind blown clear as by the free wind of heaven he surveys the extent of life. He passes through an atmosphere where only the noblest emotions, life, beauty and thought, possess him. He becomes gentle and majestic as the mind of the master who commands him.
       I believe that the time will come when Matthew Arnold will be accounted the greatest poet of his generation, and one of the three or four noblest that England has produced.

       Now that the artists are making preparations for an exhibition at Chicago in 1893, the thought naturally arises that in some way the literary men should be represented also. Here the latter are distinctly at a disadvantage. If in Canada we had a large native literature to draw upon, our books might be placed on sale during the time of the exhibition; but this is not the case, and even if it were so it might not have the desired effect. It has occurred to me that one of our enterprising publishers should arrange with some person of known taste and judgment to collect a representative mass of Canadian literature, and publish it as a Canadian memorial volume. This could be placed on sale in the proper section of the exhibition, and I have no doubt but the publisher would be substantially rewarded for his trouble and outlay. The volume need not be a large one, two hundred pages would cover the ground, and this space would compass a collection in which Canada could feel a genuine pride.

       I have always believed that nature poetry was not limited to mere description of external nature, but that it extended to all natural phenomena, and that the really great nature poet would desire to get back to primeval man when he was closely united with nature, and scarcely beginning to dream of conquering her elements. Among the great elements of nature that have had a strong fascination for me is the element of fire. It seems to me that of all the elements it is by far the most remarkable and the nearest to man in its personality, if it could be said to have a personality. How man first became aware of its use, and the gradual stages through which he came to have it in such wide use, and yet in such comparatively supreme subjection, has always been a matter of deep interest to me. Fire has appeared to me to be a strange demon, whose very nature is essentially cruel, and yet perfectly natural and necessary to the existence of the universe. The following is an attempt to personify fire in its relationship to man:—


       In the night I sit beside you,
       Dream the dreams that glow inside you,
       As you sparkle ever higher;
       While your flame-whip goads and lashes
       The red back logs into ashes
       On their crackling, hissing pyre
       Clinging, kissing, like a leman,
       Writhing, twisting, like a demon;
       How I love and dread you, Fire!

       What a strange, uncanny spirit
       From some far past you inherit,
       Some weird, unappeased desire
       Like some unavenged devil,
       Leaping, lurid, red in evil,
       That the ages cannot tire;
       Clinging, kissing, like a leman,
       Writhing, twisting, like a demon,
       Strange, weird, red, unholy Fire!

       How and whence was thy beginning?
       From what liberty of sinning?
       From what genie's licensed hire?
       From what dread power that possessed you
       Did the men of earth first wrest you,
       Causing unavenged ire?
       From what liberty of sinning?
       From what weird and strange beginning
       Wrested, chained, and bound thee, Fire?

       There within their iron prison
       Did they hold you, shrunk and wisen,
       Colled your red tongue like a wire;
       Curbed in iron teeth your malice,
       Till as in the golden chalice
       Leaps the wine in ruddy spire;
       So with glowing madness gleaming,
       From your trance of evil dreaming,
       Leaped you forth in hatred, Fire.

       Leaped you forth an evil gladness
       Shining through your demon madness,
       Lusts that rudest hates inspire;
       Growing, growing, ever younger,
       With an unappeased hunger,
       With an appetite so dire,
       Went you forth, a thing of horror,
       Desolater, hell-restorer,
       Scourging earth and heaven, Fire!

       Imp-like, laughing, far-sky-shining,
       Like ten million serpents twining,
       Ruddy, ray-like, ever higher;
       Imp-like, climbing, ever-building
       Over earth one flame-house, gilding
       Land and heaven with red desire.
       Cities fell in lurid thunder,
       Souls that lived were mute with wonder,
       Earth and man were conquered, Fire.

       All wide earth was one red clamor,
       Moan of bell and stroke of hammer,
       Shriek of souls ere they expire;
       Glare of town and forest flaming,
       Sights of horror past tongue's naming,
       Even death would not require;
       Till at last men starved and bound thee,
       Built an iron cage around thee,
       Sleepy, snake-like, once more, Fire.

       And they think they hold thee prisoned,
       But whene'er I see thy wizened
       Look of serpent-like desire,
       Then I know that thou art dreaming
       Over in a sleepy seeming
       All the madness of thine ire;
       Then I know that thou art longing,
       With a hate to hell belonging,
       For thy freedom, Demon-Fire.

       Yet I love to sit beside you,
       Dream the dreams that glow inside you
       As you leap up ever higher,
       While your flame-whip goads and lashes,
       The red back logs into ashes
       On their crackling, hissing pyre;
       Clinging, kissing, like a leman,
       Writhing, twisting, like a demon,
       Strange, weird, red, unholy Fire.

       A critic should have the most amiable disposition of his time; he should possess the gentler qualities of humanity developed more sweetly and evenly than his contemporaries. With a breadth of sympathy and keenness of vision that will embrace the horizon and notice an irregularity in the petals of a flower; he should have a taste less individual and more catholic than any one of his readers. He should be able to mingle praise and blame in such exact proportions that the true value of the work which he criticises will at once become apparent. As Lauder says:—"It is only thus a fair estimate can be made, and it is only by such fair estimate that a writer can be exalted to his proper station. If you toss the scale too high it descends again rapidly below its equipoise; what it contains drops out, and people catch at it, scatter it and lose it." If he is the owner of some crotchet which he endeavors to force upon the notice of the world, and which he cries, using the shoulders of the man nearest him to perch upon, the world finds out speedily that his own limits do not give him the elevation, and that his voice has no authority. If he is violent and sounds a rattle when anything dangerous or formidable approaches, he may for a time have the credit of being a faithful watchman over the moral treasure chest of society, but the next generation usually finds that he was keeping it from its inheritance. The effect of violence in criticism is to discredit a man's utterance. We do not allow a lunatic to claim inspiration by reason of the foam on his lips.
       The watchword of the critic should be "Freedom of Mind." As Amiel says:—"The reward of the critic is to feel himself freer than his neighbor," and although this implies a knowledge of his superiority to his surroundings, this knowledge brings with it no triumph. The reward is esoteric, and is the mere consciousness of truth within. It has no note of personal victory, the desire for which is after all the most dangerous passion in the human bosom.