At the Mermaid Inn

The Globe, Toronto: March 18, 1893


       It has been a common complaint in regard to courses in literature, not only in the universities of our own country, but in those of other lands as well, that they do not produce the effect upon the literary output of the people nor accomplish the great general advancement in culture that is expected of them. Of course, one of the principal reasons for this is that the study of literature is carried on in many universities and higher institutions of learning in a very stilted and academic manner. The courses of instruction, including as they do grammar, philology, the study of the growth of modern languages, the history and analysis of literary masterpieces, conducted mostly in a spirit of barren ingenuity, produce scholars simply—too often pedants—rarely men of original energy or even of true literary taste. This is particularly so in the case of universities like our own, whose endowment is not sufficient to admit of the division of the main branches of study into many branches and the placing of specially qualified men in charge of each. In the English courses one professor has usually to cover the whole ground, and in order that a man may be found properly equipped for the position from an academic point of view a sacrifice has generally to be made on the side of critical and artistic attainment. The study of literature, therefore, like all the studies which are not what are commonly called practical, a tendency to fall into a sterile and depressing, however thorough, routine.
       A remedy for this would be some system, the reverse of university extension, whereby new blood and a regenerating energy might be infused into the university courses from the more vivid literary life without. In all the universities courses of lectures in English literature might be arranged apart from the regular system—lectures which would be delivered by literary men, not connected professionally with the universities, but known to be specially gifted as critics and essayists. Each lecturer might deliver a certain number of lectures at all the universities, passing from one to the other, and there might even be an arrangement among the lecturers whereby their work might all fit together into a complete and symmetrical scheme, the result being the formation and maintenance of a sort of lecturing guild, in touch both with the inner work of the universities and the activities of the literary world. A moderate payment allowed to each lecturer by each university would suffice for the support of such a body of men and enable them to devote the best part of their time to this work.
       I imagine that if any such plan as this could be carried out it would give an immense impetus to literature and the higher culture. The students at the universities would benefit by being brought into closer contact with the actual life of literature, and by receiving instruction and stimulus from a great variety of sources; while the men of letters employed as lecturers would be given opportunity to devote their energies to the work for which they are by nature best fitted. I speak of English literature as the study to which a system of this kind would best apply, but the same idea could, of course, be worked out with advantage in some other branches of university work.

       If it be a fact that humor in literature is on the decline, there is certainly no doubt that this world is as anxious to laugh to-day as ever it was. I was reminded of this fact the other evening by the conduct of an audience we had assembled to hear a lecture that was not advertised as humorous, but which they succeeded in making so, subjectively, before the somewhat surprised lecturer recovered from the usual vote of thanks. There were some pleasantly facetious remarks at the opening, which may have misled the willing audience, but it let the lecturer know at once that it was willing to meet him half way if he wanted to be funny. And after that every pleasantry was greeted with audible titters, every semblance of a joke was rewarded with laughter. I did not quarrel with this; but the plainest fact in the whole matter was the eager, the desperate desire of the people to laugh. One good fellow who sat before me and who was built for mirth, like Falstaff, had such a merry time of it that no one could have denied that laughter was a gift of the gods. Covering two chairs with his bulk, he commenced to shake early in the evening, and was in a state of eruption, as they say of volcanoes, until the close. He laughed at everything he could find to laugh at, and as he had no friend with him to poke with his elbow, an action that seems to carry some relief for the paroxysm with it, he was transferred from one point to the next in a state of commotion. I was reminded of James Whitcomb Riley's exquisite description of laughter, and only wished that my Falstaffian friend could have had room to "pelt his thighs and roar again." The wages of humor have always been high, but the world will open its hands to-day with infinite generosity to the man who will make it "hold both its sides." There is no decadence in the desire to laugh, but the humorous is disappearing from fiction. We have a sort of scientific substitute for it; we have Mr. Hardy's rustics and Mr. Meredith's whimsical creatures, but we have no humor like George Eliot's or Charles Dickens' or Sterne's, spontaneous and gusty, driving ill tempers before it like clouds before the wind. But the desire is just as strong for laughter, and our modern life has even developed a class that think it quite proper and edifying to laugh in church.

       I do not pretend to be of those who make a special study or worship of the sonnet as a form of verse. I have often thought, as many others have, that this form of verse has been done to the death, especially by our minor poets of the last two decades. We all admit that there are a number of beautiful sonnets, but the few gems are no excuse for the myriads of poems of this sort that have poured forth in England and America during the last twenty years. Anyone who picks up an anthology of sonnets will perceive the truth of my remarks. You may in such a collection note the clever conceits of a corps of mediocre verse writers, young and old. But you soon grow to realize that the greatest poets have paid the least attention to the sonnet as an art. There are some extremely clever sonnet artists in America and England, especially in America, who have wrought hard to perfect this form of verse. But what does it all amount to? After all is said and done, the reader goes to an anthology of these poems, and he finds at the most half a dozen in hundreds that appeal to him and haunt him as true poems, and it is not strange to say that these half dozen are not found among the delicate word artists who have wrought so hard in this direction, but exist among the few sonnets of the greater writers in both countries who made use of this form as a lyric interlude between more ambitious flights of creation.
       In England we know that the half dozen or so highest creations in this form are from the pens of Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Keats, Milton and Tennyson. In America the case is similar, the few good sonnets being the productions of our leading poets. In my estimation the three or four greatest American sonnets have been written by Gilder, Longfellow and the Canadian Heavysege. Their sonnets which I will quote were not written with the premeditated idea of producing a fine sonnet, but show on their faces suggestions of power that are not found anywhere else in this form to the same extent. Gilder's sonnet, "On a Life-Mask of Abraham Lincoln," is, I believe, the greatest by an American, and one of the few great sonnets in the language. It is a little epic:—

"This bronze doth keep the very form and mould
Of our great martyr's face. Yes, this is he;
That brow all wisdom, all benignity;
That human, humorous mouth; those cheeks that hold
Like some harsh landscape all the summer's gold;
That spirit fit for sorrow, as the sea
For storms to beat on; the lone agony
Those silent, patient lips too well foretold.
Yes, this is he who ruled a world of men
As might some prophet of the elder day—
Brooding above the tempest and the fray
With deep-eyed thought and more than mortal ken.
A power was his beyond the touch of art
Or armed strength: his pure and mighty heart."

       Longfellow's "Nature," though less powerful, is, next to the one quoted, a great American sonnet; like Gilder's, it shows "a power beyond the touch of art."
       Beginning, as it does,

"As a fond mother when the day is o'er
Leads by the hand her little child to bed."

       The sonnets by Heavysege are "Annihilation," "The Dead" and "Night."
       In the first occur the lines

"All round about him hanging were decays
And ever dropping remnants of the past."

       In "The Dead" are lines of great power and beauty, as

"Even as gigantic shadows ont he wall
       The spirit of the daunted child amaze,
So on us thoughts of the departed fall."

       He speaks of "Night" as

"Like a nude Ethiop 'twixt two houris fair,
Thou standest between the Evening and the Morn."

       In all of these sonnets we get glimpses of the power of great poets. They are not little frameworks, so polished and overwrought as to make the critic wish the idea framed were a little more prominent and the adornment a little less clever. But they lead us by a few lines into the presence of the holy of holies of genius itself. This, to my mind, is the office of the sonnet, which has been over-much abused in these latter days of artificial writing.