At the Mermaid Inn

The Globe, Toronto: June 4, 1892


Put forth thy leaf thou lofty plane,
       East wind and frost are safely gone;
With zephyr mild and balmy rain
       The summer comes serenely on;
Earth, air, and sun and skies combine
       To promise all that's kind and fair:—
But thou, O human heart of mine,
       Be still, contain thyself, and bear.

December days were brief and chill,
       The winds of March were wild and drear,
And, nearing and receding still,
       Spring never would, we thought, be here.
The leaves that burst, the suns that shine,
       Had, not the less, their certain date:—
And thou, O human heart of mine,
       Be still, refrain thyself, and wait.

       I know of no more apt quotation for the present season than the poem of Arthur Hugh Clough printed above, "Nearing and receding still, Spring never would we thought be here." This has been our condition for the last six weeks, enjoying one day of perfect weather and then three of the north wind and bleak rains. But our leaves and suns have had their certain date, and we are now in the possession of summer, having had no genuine spring. The poem is a beautiful example of Clough at his best, with his power of comforting the spirit and his lofty thought. Such poems are very rare, and this one is amongst the highest achievements of lyrical poetry, where both the form and the thought are noble and exalted, and the art is so concealed that the poem seems frigid in its freedom from rhetoric, its absolute plainness. But it succeeds absolutely, and its power of comforting and sustaining the spirit is very great. This is the final test of the highest poetry; it may not be picturesque of vivid with images, but it brings peace.

       The Assocation of American Authors just formed on the 18th of this month has for its leading officers Thomas Wentworth Higginson, president; Julia Ward Howe, first vice-president; Moncure D. Conway, second vice-president; Maurice Thompson, third vice-president; and the Board of Management will include W.D. Howells and Charles Dudley Warner. All the leading writers of the country have enrolled as members, and the assocation promises to be a great success. The main object of the society is to co-operate with publishers in putting American literature on a better footing. Could not such an assocation be formed in Canada? We have many writers, and we have no assocation to bring them together, or develop and encourage our literary spirit. The fact that we could not organise on such a large and successful basis as our friends across the line should not discourage us. No class of literary workers in the world to-day need so much encouragement as do the Canadians. We have an up-hill fight against a narrow spirit of local contempt at the hands of the very class that could help us if it desired to. Therefore Canadian writers would do well to band together on a practical basis of a common fellow-feeling. And such an association, if at all feasible, might be of great benefit as a stimulus to the whole country. The artists have their gatherings, and why should not the literary folk do otherwise?

        My friend the sonneteer has been at it again. He knows in what abhorrence I hold those persons—so exasperatingly numerous in our time—who profane and misapply the sonnet, and he takes a sort of inhuman delight in torturing me with sonnets of his own composition on all sorts of flippant and improper subjects. He came into my room the other day with two papers in his hand. I knew at once what that peculiar grin of malevolent satisfaction meant. "I am going to treat you a couple of sonnets," he said. "I am sure they will give you pleasure," and drawing a chair to the table he carefully spread out the first of the papers before him and began to read as follows:

                                        Falling Asleep.
Slowly my thoughts lost hold on consciousness
        Like waves that urge but cannot reach the shore.
        Once and again I wakened, and once more
The wind sighed in, and with a lingering stress
Brushed the loose blinds. Out of some far recess
        There came a groping as of steps; a door
        Creaked; mice are scuffling underneath the floor.
And then, when all the house stood motionless,
        Something dropped sharply overhead. A deep,
        Dead silence followed. Only half aware
                I sat and strove to waken, and fell flat.
                A moment after, step by step, feet
        Came plumping softly down the attic stair;
And then I turned, and then I fell asleep.

        "Well," I said, "that doesn't seem to be so bad—in a certain sense, from a certain point of view—rather true to life, quite picturesque in fact—but could you not have arranged to cast your impression in some more suitable form a little less ridiculously inapplicable to the smallness and homeliness of your subject?" "No I couldn't," answered my friend, fixing me with a defiant glare. "The best way to impress your subject on the reader is to cast it in a totally unsuitable form. It's the contrast that does it, you know," and he took up the other paper, and read the following utterly artocious and impudent production:—

I stand at noon upon the heated flags
        At the bleached crossing of two streets, and dream,
        With brain scarce conscious, how the hurrying stream
Of noonday passengers is done. Two bags
Stand at an open doorway piled with bags
        And jabber hideously. Just at their feet
        A small, half-naked child screams in the street.
A blind man yonder, a mere hunch of rags,
Keeps the scant shadow of the caves, and scowls,
        Counting his coppers. Through the open glare
        Thunders an empty waggon, from whose trail
A lean dog shoots into the startled square,
        Wildly revolves and soothes his hapless tail,
Piercing the noon with intermittent howls.

        "Certainly you have outdone yourself this time," I cried. "You have violated every law of moral dignity and literary decency. I prefer not to hear any more of your so-called sonnets." My friend instead of answering me broke out into a roar of coarse and offensive laughter. He crushed up his papers into a couple of pellets, and, filliping them into my face, strode rudely out of the room. The poor fellow has talent if he would only apply it in a serious and sensible way.

       A story of most exquisite touch is Barrie's "Little Minister." There is a genuine realism running through much of the tale, and yet when you have laid the book down it is with the impression that Blackmore might have written just such a romance had his environment been a Highland Scotch instead of an English one. There is a marked resemblance in the work of the two writers, which is especially shown in the character of the heroine, who is the most unreal, and yet the most fascinating character in the book. Her strange elfin beauty, the mystery surrounding her, her marvellous escapades, which end all right, and, above all, her coming with a suggestiveness of aristocratic influences and looser social culture into the narrow environment of a small village, with its deep-rooted religious and other prejudices, at once suggest a similar manner of working in Blackmore. The realism of the book is to be found in many characteristics of the little minister and his struggle to be true to his people and his old connections, with the realistic background of the people themselves, who by their very worship of his character and position threatened to come in the way of his happiness. Mr. Barrie uses a heroic action which is too melodramatic to be real on the part of the minister to overcome their prejudices, and so makes the story end happily. Of course this is as it should be in story books, and it is this that makes "The Little Minister" more of a romance than a realistic picture. But we cannot help feeling that if the drunken hero, who is the scapegoat as it is, should have been allowed to have killed the girl or have frightened her to death as he nearly did, and which we fully expected to be the denouement, that Mr. Barrie's story, while certainly painful, would have been more in keeping with the irony of fate. He just failed of making "The Little Minister" a picture of sad and pathetic beauty. As it is, the story is a strange mixture of quaint realism, and daring and fascinating romance.

       The sequel to "Kidnapped," which Mr. Stevenson is now writing, will likely appear before the close of 1892. It will be called "David Balfour." Mr. Stevenson is also writing a "History of Samoa," which he is sure to make interesting. Leaving the question of history aside, there will be room for picturesque writing. The chapter describing the hurricane of March, 1889, has already appeared in The National Observer.