At the Mermaid Inn

The Globe, Toronto: May 20, 1893


       The New York World has just celebrated its 10th anniversary by bringing out an issue of one hundred pages. In its review of the last decade it has a bright but rather incomplete article on American literature. It says, very truly, "During the last ten years American literature has produced no great masterpieces. No commanding genius has arisen, but only a number of new men and women of talent—men and women of delicacy, insight, refinement—but none of whose present importance entitles them to rank with the immortals." The modern or present-day school of verse-writers is cleverly summed up as follows:—
       "But during the past few years an extraordinary number of new writers of exceptional cleverness have made their appearance. Never before have the American periodicals been kept at such an even level of excellence. The excellence may be ephemeral, it may not appeal to the future, but to us of the present it has a most grateful flavor. It is an excellence that in the larger number of cases concerns itself with manner rather than with matter. It has no great truth to enunciate, no message from the infinite to convey; it deals in airy nothings and it tricks them out with elaborate felicity. This is especially true of our singers. It is astonishing how many of them have attained to an almost flawless perfection of form. It is a pity they have nothing to say, they say it so admirably. The very forms they affect are rarely original. They have developed a strange passion for the resuscitation of old poetical garbs—the ballads, the rondeaus, the villanelles of the past—and in their very imitations they are imitators of imitators; they follow in the wake of Dobson and Andrew Lang. Yet they are excellent imitators.
       "Fifty years ago such beauty of expression would have been the gift only of the favored few whom the gods had inspired. To-day the most difficult metres seem to lie within the reach of many sensitive and artistic minds. Edith M. Thomas, H.C. Bunner, Helen Gray Cone, Frank Dempster Sherman, Clinton Scollard, Charles L. Hildreth, Maurice F. Egan and a score of others—what are these, after all, but elegant triflers in verse, and yet does not this very elegance rise to the dignity of an art? To some of us the dainty trick cloys, however, and we turn with something like relief to rougher and more potent voices, infused with a stronger individuality—to Eugene Field and Whitcomb Riley in the west, to Dawson in Philadelphia, to Amelie Rives in the south."
       Of course this article is limited to those who have arisen in the last decade. But while Aldrich and Bunner are mentioned, no evidence is given of the high place occupied by Gilder in verse, and no mention is made of such important prose writers as Cable, Craddock, Allen, Garland and Mrs. Catherwood. Nor can I understand why Sherman and Scollard are mentioned among the younger poets when such a powerful writer as Cowen of Kentucky is left out. The same slip is made in the absence of Miss Guiney and Miss Reese from the list of women poets. Apart from this I entirely agree with the writer in his conclusions as to the average school of writers. The great lack seems to be in real genius. Of over-perfect style there is abundance. But of great subject matter, dealt with on a large scale, there is none. It may be that the United States has somewhere genius undeveloped. But it has gone out of fashion in a decadent and over-practical age. The magazines and publishing houses have chained literature with meagre golden links to the triumphal car of an advertising and superficial present. Therefore the keen business man who is literary has usurped the place of the true literary genius who refuses to be chained, and thus sinks into a condition of neglected outlawry.

       Edgar Fawcett as a poet and novelist is distinctively the product of New York, or, indeed, one might say, the modern metropolis in general. His talent—brilliant, ingenious, productive, but artificial, overstrained and devoid of tenderness—has developed naturally in the eager and heated air of a vast city, in the midst of its awful material splendor, its spiritual ennui, its perpetual and complex exhibition of all the extremities of human passion and vicissitudes of human destiny. His work is that of a man from whose soul every simple and childlike impulse has been eliminated, who is driven by weariness of every ordinary emotion or natural image to find his material in the fantastic and the intensely far-fetched. The imagery in Mr. Fawcett's poetry is often of a most tremendous character, but its effect upon the imagination is that of lurid unreality; it astonishes but very soon surfeits the reader. Nevertheless, some of his pieces are so remarkable for fantastic invention and a certain sensuous verbal exquisiteness of presentation that they must be classed with the most interesting products of American genius. As a novelist Mr. Fawcett is less able than as a poet. In verse of a half lyrical, half pictorial order he is at home. He does not possess the story-telling faculty, nor the faculty of dramatic expression. His novels have the cumbersome movement and air of over-elaboration common to the writings of imaginative men who are unable to absorb themselves in the characters and situations they desire to create. His dialogue is always stilted and unreal, sometimes quite astonishingly so for so able a man. Yet here, too, as in his poetry, the imaginative power, the abundant, if uninspired, invention, the purely intellectual force displayed, are so great that we cannot refrain from according the work a sort of high praise, though it may repel us with its lack of sweetness, its lack of humanity, its lack of tone.

       In the following words, written in 1887, Wilkie Collins gave an interesting account of his manner of writing and constructing his novels:—
       "My first proceeding is to get my central idea—the pivot on which the story turns. The central idea of the 'Woman in White' is the idea of a conspiracy in private life in which circumstances are so handled as to rob a woman of her identity by confounding her with another woman sufficiently like her in personal appearance to answer the wicked purpose. A clever devil must conduct the conspiracy. The sort of wickedness wanted seems to be a man's wickedness. Perhaps a foreign man. Count Fosco faintly shows himself to me before I knew his name. I let him wait and begin to think about the two women. They must be both innocent, both interesting. Lady Glyde dawns on me as one of the innocent victims. I try to discover the other—and fail. I try what a walk will do for me—and fail. I devote an evening to a new effort—and fail. Experience tells me to take no more trouble about it, and leave that other woman to come of her own accord. The next morning, before I have been awake in my bed for more than ten minutes, my perverse brains set to work without consulting me. Poor Anne Catherick comes into the room and says, 'Try me.' I have got an idea; I have got three of my characters. What is there now to be done? My next proceeding is to begin building up the story." Then the novelist describes his invention of the details of his work: "I have yielded to the worst temptation that besets a novelist—the temptation to begin with a striking incident without counting the cost in the shape of explanations that must and will follow. In the case of the 'Woman in White,' I get back, as I vainly believe, to the true starting point of the story. I am now at liberty to set the new novel going, having, let me repeat, no more than an outline of the story and characters before me, and leaving the detail in each case to the spur of the moment." After working for a week the writer finds he has not yet discovered the true beginning, so he has to recast his material. "One evening I happen to read of a lunatic who has escaped from an asylum—a paragraph of a few lines only in a newspaper. Instantly the idea comes to me of Walter Hartright's midnight meeting with Anne Catherick, escaped from the asylum. The 'Woman in White' begins again, and nobody will ever be half as much interested in it now as I am. For the next six months the pen goes on. It is work, hard work, but the harder the better, for this excellent reason, the work is its own exceeding great reward. As an example of the gradual manner in which I reached the development of character I may return for a moment to Fosco. The making him fat was an afterthought; his canaries and his white mice were found next; and the most valuable discovery of all, his admiration of Miss Halcombe, took its rise in a conviction that he would not be true to nature unless there was some weak point somewhere in his character."

       It is a pity that Mr. Arnold Haultain gave to the little collection of poems recently issued by him the very unprepossessing title which they bear, "Versiculi." It was an unnecessary humility, and the word will be apt to prejudice the reader against the pieces before he has opened the cover. Mr. Haultain is a well-known scholar and a critical writer, whom his countrymen value, and in these verses we find, as we should expect, fine thought, deep feeling, and the evidences of a pure and sensitive soul. One recognizes, however, that the author is not at ease in the composition of verse. The thought is generally better than the workmanship, and one of the pleasantest of the poems—that entitled "Adunaton Eidenai"—is considerably injured by a poor last line. Of the seven sonnets at the beginning of the collection, "To the Plenitune," is finely said, although a little obscure. "At Dusk," is beautiful, and has a fuller accent than any of the others. Mr. Haultain's poem "Beauty," which we read not long ago in The Week, is the most important of these brief poems. Those who read it will remember its genuine fervor, its abundant fancy and its many pleasant lines.

       The offering of the poet-laureateship to Mr. Ruskin may be an honor to a man who is famous in letters, but is certainly unjust to the undoubtedly large genius of both Swinburne and Morris as poets. Since Wordsworth and Tennyson the post has become dignified, and has risen from the position of court troubadour to represent the nation's recognition of the greatest living poet of his generation; and if there be two, as in the case of Tennyson and Browning, the one more representative of the popular feeling. It is ridiculous to ignore two such men. And the present action is a childish attempt to ignore the gifts of two writers whose work is abiding in our literature.