At the Mermaid Inn

The Globe, Toronto: June 3, 1893


       Now that the season for outdoor walks and afternoon-long rambles is with us, and we can go forth as yet unmolested by that forest robber, the mosquito, it is pleasant to spend hours in the sun under the shadow of a maple whose foliage is yet so tender that the rays reach you only half-tempered by the delicate intervention; or, better, to spend a whole day listening to the first birds singing in some pleasant opening in the bushes, where they have all seemed to wander by common consent, to compare notes, perhaps, and mounting higher up the hills, until noonday finds you on the steepest places, with a tranquil distance below you, and only the poplars and the willows showing veils of green. It is no bad plan to take a book with you on such an excursion. You may not read it. Experience has taught me that one rarely does, but nevertheless it is no bad plan to take a book with you. It is only in perfect moods that one can enjoy whole days in the woods; the pleasure is too intense, it is a wearing tension on the nerves that commonly leaves most people with a headache. We take our sylvan pleasures to ecstatically and come to them with too great a preparation, not with the feeling that we are to be tranquillized, but in some sort surprised and overtaken by a shock of enthusiasm. Having got so far away from our natural state we make an expedition to recover it, too often in groups of tens and even twenties, with a commissariat department, as if the goddess was to be surprised by such an organized incursion. If you should chance then to find that it is one of the days you should have spent in the grooves between the stones and mortar you may find it somewhat of a relief to have a book in your pocket; you may feel tempted to draw it forth and read a little here and there and afterwards imagine that you had a read a great deal. But which book to take? That is always the vexed question. It must, of course, be light, for it will never do to feel it tugging at your pocket, and it must be small, to slip readily into it. Be wary of what it contains; here an error of judgment may spoil your walk for you. Only a certain sort of man makes a pleasant walking companion, and so it is with a book. You want something that will not take you by the throat with an idea; something that will not remind you of the world you are trying for a little to leave behind; something that will not try to teach you a lesson; something that will not excite your imagination beyond the borders of the little copse you may at that time be resting in. I know which sort of a book to take. You are a lucky man or woman if you, for yourself, know, but you are a happier if it never comes out of your pocket.

       Every householder, I think, has heard of the servant question. He has heard of it until he earnestly desires some revolution which will effectually remove the trouble. The mistresses of households complain that they can no longer secure servants who are servants in the old sense of the word—simple, honest, sympathetic young women, who will devote themselves thoroughly to the duties of their position and be deferential, contented and industrious. They complain that such girls are no longer to be found. Indeed no, for the class has disappeared, and it is necessary and right that it should be so. Democracy advances rapidly, and not only liberty, but fraternity and equality also are becoming more and more the sine qua non of a contented human race. The position of a servant, who lives in your house, does your coarse work and is in ever respect located as a social inferior, was, 30 years ago, natural and accepted. Now it is an anomaly and will very soon be impossible. There is no longer any sound relation or mutual confidence between mistress and servant. The servant is suspicious and self-assertive, for she feels that no one has a right at the present day to treat another openly as a social inferior. The mistress also is unable to exercise her superiority in the old, confident way, for she, too, feels that the order of things is changed and that it is now a practical truth that one person is of the same dignity as another. In many of the farming districts the difficulty has been removed by actual equalization. The farmer's family and their servants, men or women, dwell together in the easiest manner, treating each other exactly as equals. This is no doubt as it should be, but in the cities other solutions will probably be adopted. Some co-operative plan of house-keeping and food-providing will be discovered within the next ten or fifteen years which will enable certain numbers of associated housekeepers to have their work done for them by contract. It will save a great deal of trouble and moral uncomfortableness, and the sooner people resort to it the better. To the simple, modern American mind, not affected by Anglicism or plutocracy, there is nothing more unpleasant—I would almost say more humiliating—than to have a certain human being in one's house whom one cannot under present social arrangements treat as an equal. It is a dishonest position, and every right-minded person feels it to be so.

       To those who are interested in the progress of mankind, it is very pleasing to realize the immense strides discovery has made in the last ten or twelve years. Among the sciences no more wonderful advances have been made than in those of astronomy, geology and archeology. By the first the sun has been discovered to be an immense electrical centre. In anthropology the existence of man on this earth for millions of years has been proven without a doubt. And in archeology we have sufficient evidence of wonderful civilizations on this continent long prior to the mound builders. The unquestioned proof of man's long existence in his present state, even by some supposed to be previous to the anthropoid ape, has caused some persons to doubt the applicability of Darwin's theory of evolution to man. But it is not so easy to overthrow the theory of evolution which is now accepted by many orthodox ministers. Men are but now beginning to dimly understand the relation of the Infinite in nature and human history. It has taken men centuries to gradually work back to the first principles and read aright those pages that tell of the marvellous drama of life and its forces that has been enacted on this planet for millions of ages. Leaving aside the Darwinian theory of the gradual development of the human species from the lower creation, the history of the life of man on this planet is one of wonderful interest and significance. If man has inhabited the earth for millions of years, how infinitesimal is the history we have that stretches through the blurring mists of two or three thousand years back to the Romans, Greeks and the Egyptians. We talk of developing during this time from barbarism to a modern civilization. But if so, how long has this state of things been repeating itself in the history of mankind. We have just discovered that the ancient Hindoos were more scientific astronomers than we are to-day. According to the ancient temple teaching of the Brahmins as to the origin of man, the great Atlantic races existed for over half a million years and became extinct about 14,000 years ago. According to this account, the Egyptians are descendants of some of the more easterly of these people. This would explain the mystery of the wonderful similarity of the ancient pyramids of Central America to those of Egypt. Only there is no doubt that the ruins of Central America are more ancient than those of Egypt. Dr. Brinton of Philadelphia, the most learned archeologist on this continent, is of the opinion that this is the oldest of the existing continents, and that the present Indians have remained in their present state for at least 5,000 years, and that they are party the descendants and partly the destroyers of a former race, commonly known as the mound builders. It has now been proved that men were alive here prior to and during the glacial ages. One of the most interesting facts to Canadians must be that the present mines at Thunder Bay were worked ages ago by some of these extinct peoples, and that what was until a short time ago a wilderness of wood and water was, in ages prior to the existence of Greece and Rome, a civilized community which time, the destroyer, has long since swept away. To me there is a great fascination in all this wonderful process, and its contemplation is but another proof of the greatness of our existence and of the wisdom and incomprehensible greatness and glory of the Infinite.

       Nearly every one who reads Dante in English reads him through the medium of Cary's translation; but how little is popularly known of the man who has given the English world the standard translation of the great Italian. Other translations he made, of Aristophanes, and others of the ancients, but they have faded out; his original works had scarcely enough vitality to survive in his own time, and are now unknown, but his great achievement still holds the foremost place among all the translations of the Divina Commedia which have appeared since his time. This is a sufficient tribute to his erudition and worth. There may be translations more faithful in part—we constantly hear that there are—and his cannot be called a faultless one, but it will continue for years to supply the English reading public with its version of the great vision. If Rossetti could have translated the Commedia with the fidelity with which he rendered the "Vita Nuova," and with the same wonderful art could have transferred its charm into our mother tongue, he would have made the greatest, the most incomparable success in translation which the world has ever seen. He had the requisite power, as witnessed by the wonderful transference of the Paola and Francesca incident—a power that withers the feeble efforts of Cary. The last few lines of the passage in Cary read:—

"       *       *        But at one point
Alone we fell, when of that smile we read,
The wished smile, so rapturously kissed
By one so deep in lover, than he, who ne'er
From me shall separate; at once my lips
All trembling kissed. The book and writer both
Were love's purveyors. In its leaves that day
We read no more. While thus one spirit spoke,
The other walked so sorely, that, heart-struck,
I, through compassion fainting, seemed not far
From death, and, like a corse, fell to the ground."

       The same portion of Rossetti's translation reads:—

"But one sole point it was that conquered us,
For when we read of that great lover, how
He kissed the smile which he had longed to win;
Then he, whom nought can sever from me now,
For ever, kissed my mouth, all quivering.
A Galahalt was the book, and he that writ;
Upon that day we read no more therein
At the tale told; while one soul uttered it
The other wept: a pang so pitiable
That I was seized, like death, in swooning-fit,
And, even as a dead body falls, I fell."

       The task that Rossetti set himself was far more difficult than Cary's, who chose the comparatively simple medium of blank verse. Rossetti's translation is in "terza rima," the form of the original, and gains greatly in musical force and beauty through this form. It is needless to point out the superiority of the latter passage. If Rossetti had had the activity of mind which only could have rendered the accomplishment of such a stupendous work possible he might have made a translation of merit equal to this fragment. He had the requisite knowledge and insight, and, above everything else, he had an intuitive feeling for the inner sense, the atmosphere of the Italian's work. We can only speculate upon the potential greatness of such an unaccomplished work, and read Cary with a feeling that he is not winged, but only moves slowly and faithfully, giving us a not inadequate rendering of his sublime author.

       One of the most noticeable institutions (it may almost be called an institution) in Boston, or for that matter in the United States, is The Youth's Companion, nominally a paper for young people, but in reality a kind of weekly family magazine. It is an illustrated paper, which has been brought to an extraordinary pitch of popularity and prosperity under the astute management of its now aged editor and proprietor, Daniel Ford. Mr. Ford seems by some fortunate intuition to have divined the peculiar instinct of American family life and to have found the precise means of ministering to its needs. It is a paper beautifully printed, beautifully ordered, and delicately illustrated. An immense amount of talent and industry is spent upon its production; talent and industry of a peculiar kind, for the conditions imposed upon its contributors as regards the quality and subject matter of their work are most difficult. Party politics, sectarian theology, and many other subjects are tabooed, and many kinds of writing, as for example all sorts of fairy tales, are inadmissible. A number of other restrictions, as regards motif, length of article, use of words, etc., weigh heavily upon the intending contributor. It has been said that The Youth's Companion has reduced commonplace to an art, and that its pages are destitute of any inspiring influence as it is possible to make them. Nevertheless it publishes vast numbers of stories, poems and articles of use and interest by many of the best writers of the time, and that it is always readable and suits an immense constituency is attested by its enormous subscription list of 560,000. One of the largest, most comfortable and best-appointed buildings in Boston is entirely occupied by its staff and machinery.

       A good deal of regret is felt by literary people and the better class of theatre-goers on the other side of the line at the decease of the Theatre of Arts and Letters in New York. It was an attempt—the first of its kind in America—to bring the drama into closer relations with the realities of life, and make it a vehicle for the conveyance of serious thought. High hopes had been built upon it by those who had been looking for some influence to counteract the degenerating tendencies of the ordinary stage, but its management appears to have fallen by some unfortunate accident into rash and incompetent hands. Its last effort was the production of Miss Wilkins' "Giles Corey," a drama of a somewhat too sombre character to be very popular. The only dramatic organization of this kind now existing in America—if it can be called an organization—is that of the Hernes in Boston. These people, however, are somewhat too eccentric and too deeply immersed in the fad of extreme realism to promise any great and reasonable success.

       I would like to call attention to the following very pretty sonnet in the last Week by Mr. Colin A. Scott:—

                Remembered Love.
A weariness of sweet familiar words,
       Of oft-repeated, oft-remembered songs,
       Of duties fingered till they seemed as wrongs,
That cut the aching heart like sharpened swords,
A weariness of tender, binding cords,
       That passion of subtle love, in love so winds
       About his very own, the while he blinds
Their eyes to any but his crested lords.
A weariness that Helen lightly sped,
       For with her magic fingers on the keys
       She woke a sudden stir of memories,
That thronging from the place where they had fled
Burst like a storm of blossoms, roughly shed
       From over-arching, long-forgotten trees.