At the Mermaid Inn

The Globe, Toronto: March 11, 1893


       Canadian scholars and literary folk should thank the Rev. Principal Grant for striking a blow in The Canadian Magazine at the absurd and iniquitous duty on books. This tax is so strange and indefensible that its continued existence must be due not to the deliberate intention, but to the thoughtlessness, of the people in power, and if the matter were brought very forcibly to their attention it would doubtless be removed. Why should our rulers take away with one hand what they give with the other? Why should so much care and money be spent upon our educational institutions while a heavy tax is laid upon the intellectual material necessary to render those institutions effective and to mature the fruit of their effectiveness? Putting aside the case of the poorer students in the schools and universities to which Principal Grant calls attention, and turning to that of the mass of the reading public, every one knows that those people who have just means enough to purchase a few books each year are gradually discouraged in the practice. Finding every purchase so unnecessarily costly they give up altogether the attempt to form libraries of their own. They either rely upon the newspapers for their intellectual pabulum—and none of our journals are fitted to meet the need—or they buy and read those books which are published in cheap editions, a practice which leads to the consumption of much rubbish, and owing to inferior qualities of paper and print to impaired eyesight and a deterioration in the esthetic sense of the reader; or, if they happen to be in the vicinity of lending libraries, they use borrowed books, an unsatisfactory expedient resulting in hasty, superficial and confused reading.
       In this country more than any other we have need of the means of a fine intellectual development for the whole of our people. We look forward, or ought to look forward, to the establishment of a commonwealth freer and nobler than that of any other land. To accomplish this all our people must be educated as no other people are educated, and the best instruments of education must be made as easily obtainable as possible.
       Every man in this land, whose occupation calls for the exercise of intelligence, or rather every man, whatever his occupation, should have in his own possession before he has grown old a selected library of 300 or 400 volumes. There are certain books which he should have on his shelf in order that he may read and re-read them, until he has mastered them, and so collected together a compact body of important facts and ideas, which may serve as the sure starting points for such logical processes and currents of emotion as must direct his influence upon the social and national affairs about him.
       If the 15 per cent. duty on books were removed there would be a considerable increase in the book trade, and the booksellers would doubtless be able to sell books somewhat cheaper than if the volume of trade were less. A book which sells in England for 3s 6d could perhaps be sold in this country for 90 cents, instead of $1 25 as now. This difference would be more than sufficient to tempt a great many people into the habit of occasionally purchasing books, and a great and fruitful work would be begun.
       Surely there are some members of the house of commons—themselves readers of books and filled with a fellow-feeling for the great popular hunger for knowledge—who could spare some of the time so liberally given to the subject of binder twine in order that this matter may receive the consideration which is its due.

       A writer in The New York Critic complains of the injustice of a writer in an English Review who passes over Mr. Aldrich's "Queen of Sheba" with the remark that it was "no better than the author's other poems." Now every one knows that the book referred to is one of the author's most delightful prose tales, and not a poem at all. The conclusion that we arrive at in consequence is that the reviewer in question was either laboring under a temporary insanity or else that he was "no better than he ought to be," and, to use a substitute for a plain Anglo-Saxon phrase, he was prevaricating, and grossly deceiving the public by pretending to pass a harsh judgment on the contents of a book which he had never opened. There is, I am sorry to say, too much of this sort of immorality in current criticism to-day, until a man who possesses any practical knowledge of the making and circulation of books soon grows to hold in utter contempt much of the current jargon on such matters which is found inside columns of sundry newspapers. Much of it is the outgrowth of the childish ambition of would-be litterateurs to foist themselves upon the notice of the public. Many of their readers would be perfectly astounded did they know what windbags many of these men are, and the extent of their ignorance on the very matters that they pretended to treat in such a lordly manner. To watch how these men will review a book that they have merely glanced at, or pass a sweeping charge on one they have never read, is extremely interesting to the professional writer, who can see through all the little pretences and affectations.

       If I were asked to give advice to a young man who desired to form a prose style by a study of the best models of English composition, I would direct him to Shakespeare, Walter Savage Landor and Matthew Arnold. In them he would find whatever old example could give him, and I would have to advise him to depend upon his own native taste and his ear for cadence, assisted and confirmed by the study of these great writers. But first of all he must be taught to depend upon what nature has given him as his most valuable asset; whatever he can add to that by study, self-criticism and research is so much capital gained, but by far the greater portion of his success must be laid to his native gift, his "ear," as they say in music. I am writing now of style, of the way of putting a thing so that it will live by reason of the vital force with which it is uttered as well as by the inherent strength or beauty of the idea expressed. And from this point of view I would select Landor as the prototype of all that is excellent in English prose composition; Landor, who, as Mr. Lowell has said, "Leaving Shakespeare aside, has furnished us with so many delicate aphorisms of human nature." He has said himself, "Poetry has always been my amusement, prose my study and business," and, if for no other reason, it would be safe to consult a writer who had spent as much time over his prose as another man over his poetry. Landor gathers up in himself all the excellencies of the prose writers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, he can be gorgeous in his imagery, ponderous in movement, delicate in fancy and tender in expression; his instrument has all the stops and registers. But with this variety of power he has his faults, and they are so easily distinguished that they are not dangerous; the want of complete continuity and an imperfect sense of progression mark him as vulnerable in the mass of his work, if the weak spot in his single sentences or paragraphs cannot be found. The study of this great artist should be joined with that of another who put his great gift of expression to more popular uses and who perhaps injured a style which has directness and lucidity as its foundations by controversial writing. Arnold oftentimes irritates his readers by insistence, by repetition, which he finds necessary in order to satisfy himself that he has made his point; but he makes it oftener unconsciously, by a clear, direct sentence that expresses the thought with the bareness sometimes of a conversational statement. In fact, this is a well defined characteristic of Arnold's prose—its conversational tone, like the utterance of some mind stored full of the graces of learning and the love of humanity. And all good prose is never far from this accent of converse as of one mind speaking without effort to another. You find it in Landor, in Sterne, in Thackeray, in Arnold, and, above and before all, in Shakespeare. The latter, supreme in poetry, is also unapproachable in the prose fragments in his plays which are like nothing written either before or since. So our student must go to him for his perfect model of accent as he would come to Landor for his model of form and to Arnold for his model of directness and force.

       For the benefit of those who have not seen it I will quote some stanzas from a very beautiful poem by Mr. Edmund Clarence Stedman, the distinguished American poet and critic. The poem is called "Ariel," and is the fines I have seen among the Shelley memorial poems. It appeared in The Atlantic Monthly for last August and was written by Mr. Stedman in May, 1892. It contains fifteen stanzas of eight lines each, and is filled with the very spirit of the poet whom it commemorates in these masterly lines:—

"Thyself the wild west wind, O boy divine,
       Thou fair wouldst be—the spirit which in its breath
Woos yet the seaward flex and the pine
       That wept thy death?
Or art thou still the incarnate child of song,
Who gazed as if astray
From some uncharted stellar way,
With eyes of wonder at our world of grief and wrong.

"Not ours to parley with the whispering June,
The genii of the wood,
The shapes that lurk in solitude,
The cloud, the mounting lark, the wan and waning moon."

"For thee the last time Hellis tipped her hills
With beauty; India breathed her midnight moan,
Her sigh, her ecstasy of passion's thrills,
To thee alone.
Such rapture thine, and the supreme gift
Which can the minstrel raise,
Above the myrtle and the bays,
To watch the sea of pain whereon our galleys drift."

       In such exquisitely beautiful language the poem is sustained from beginning to end. In the ninth stanza the elfin character of Shelley's power is given in the lines:—

"The slaves of air and light obeyed afar
Thy summons, Ariel; their elf-horns wound
Strange notes which all uncapturable are
Of broken sound."

       Then the poet turns to the present and alludes to the poetical followers of the "poet's poet":

"But now with foolish cry the multitude
Awards the throne,
And claims thy cloudland for its own
With voices all untuned to thy melodious mood."

       After this magnificent stanza describing his death and cremation:—

"Oh, the swift wind, the unrelenting sea!
They loved thee, yet they lured thee unaware
To be their spoil, lest alien skies to thee
Should seem more fair;
They had their will of thee, yet aye forlorn
Mourned the lithe soul's escape,
And gave the strand thy mortal shape
To be resolved in flame whereof its life was born."

The poem ends with an acknowledgement of Shelley's lasting fame:—

"The century wanes—thy voice thrills as of yore
When first it fell."

       I am astonished that such a beautiful poem written by a distinguished American should not have been noticed by the Canadian devotees of Shelley.