At the Mermaid Inn

The Globe, Toronto: May 21, 1892


Sir Roger—What have we here?
Giles—There is everything under the sun set down with some show of reason; they run atilt at the world, and treat men and manners as familiar as an old hat.
Sir Roger—Think you they protest too much? I like a matter disposed bravely, but—
Giles—Methinks they have a genial tongue. Will you hear them?
Sir Roger—Well, an’ it be not too long I’ll have some sack, and you read on.

— Old Play.

       Reading again that admirable “Letter to a young gentleman who proposed to embrace the career of art,” to which course I was impelled by the prominence given it in a late review of Mr. Stevenson’s collection of essays and papers, I found myself at variance with the plain cynicism which pervades it. No conclusions could be more sound, no advice more weighty than are contained in many of the lines of this “letter.” But surely it is a whimsical comparison to liken the artist to the follower of a profession not in the code and to borrow, with an alteration of sex, a title applied in France to women who live by pleasure, calling the artist a “Son of Joy.” This is unforgivable, the difference in quality of the pleasure should have made it impossible. If Mr. Stevenson had followed out the natural development of his subject from the point when he announces that the artist “works entirely upon honor,” where he bears such plain witness to the fact that in aft the worker is subject to an imperative and austere law, he would hardly have landed in such a desert of cynicism. The whole “letter” is written to a young man who has to decide deliberately upon a profession, and from this point of view the stress laid upon the material conditions may be just enough. Under the imposition of breadwinning the artist may be compelled to strain every nerve to please, but the result of such a desire alone will be disaster. With success the artist should have no haggling. If it comes it should come as an accident of his career; and equally so if it passes. He is compelled by his own spirit to create, and whether he pleases or no, he must create. He must follow that inner, secret law of his personality which may lead him away further and further from the sympathy of his contemporaries or which may place him as their friend and benefactor; but with the fulfilment of which he has absolutely nothing to do. No matter what the result, his reward comes from within. It is this abandonment to the ideal which, as Mr. Stevenson remarks, “makes his life noble.” And this nobility, this elevation, which Mr. Stevenson so loyally recognises, should have secured for his craft a more fitting designation than “Sons of Joy.”

       Some recent writers in certain Canadian journals, speaking of Canadian literature and the subscription book system, direct Canadian literary men to follow the example of Sara Jeannette Duncan and Grant Allen, and write books that will command a large sale abroad. These writers seem to forget that the most promising Canadian writers are poets, and that poetry is not in any age of the world a marketable article. Miss Duncan wrote a very clever book of the kind that has a ready sale, but such a book brings no enduring fame. Poetry of the class produced by Will Carleton is a paying product, but the best order of verse is the last marketable. Longfellow, probably, in his day, the most popular of high-class poets, made but a pittance from the sale of his poems. This is an established fact to all critics who know anything about literature. But the above-mentioned would-be critics, who are so ready with their lordly advice to Canadian literary folk, should take a little of their own advice and show us how it is to be done. I have no doubt, from the self-confident and lordly tone of some of these critics, that the American periodical and journalistic world would be sensibly flattered at their acquisition. The only difficulty in the way is, should they so condescend, what, in the meantime, would become of Canadian literature? Would it not grow altogether irrepressible without these critical turkey cocks who hitherto have ruffled their august feathers, fanned their tails and quelled the literary brood into self-contempt by the disdain of their thunders.

       In an article entitled “William” in the April number of The Contemporary Review, a writer, who does not give his name, handles the present German Emperor in a manner extremely offensive to Mr. Poultney Bigelow, who, in the May number of the same review, proceed to paint the great Bismarck with the same kind of a brush. To anyone who has a heart for human destinies, the present European situation, charged as it is with forces which may explode at any moment in incalculable horror and ruin, cannot fail to be intensely interesting; and a good deal of this interest would in any case centre in the German Emperor, as the man upon whose shoulders the largest human responsibilities rest. This interest which naturally attaches to his position is very greatly increased in the case of Wilhelm II., who is certainly if not a great, at least a very noticeable man. We have two very different pictures of this personage presented to us from time to time. The anonymous writer in The Contemporary Review paints us a man vain, restless, selfish, indifferent to the feelings of others, with a mania for notoriety and a hunger for perpetual activity—activity barren and purposeless, a kind of moral disease, at once uncomfortable, costly and dangerous. Mr. Bigelow, on the other hand, while enumerating the blunders and failures of the great Chancellor, the titanic old dragoon now sitting and growling at Friedrichsrube, points us to the gallant, generous, popular young Emperor, who has already corrected half the follies and salved the bitter wounds which were largely the policy of the former tyrant. Mr. Stead, that versatile and ingenious journalist, in a recent number of The Review of Reviews, institutes several curious comparisons. He finds Wilhelm II. to be like Lord Randolph Churchill in his versatility, originality and love of the unexpected; like the great Napoleon in his restless and devouring activity and his astonishing capacity for mastering details; and like General Gordon in his consciousness of a special mission from the Almighty, “Our Ancient Ally,” as he calls him, addressing the Brandenburgers. At any rate Wilhelm, whatever his shortcomings may be, is a striking and picturesque figure, and to any one who loves the study of human nature it will be exceedingly interesting to watch the development of his destinies.

       One of the great charms that nature possesses is her power to soothe. Running or wind-stirred waters always have a quieting influence on my nerves. No matter how tired and jaded I may be the sound of a running brook or the lapping of waves on a shore soon calms my pulses and gives me renewed vigor. My home on the outskirts of the city on the banks of a beautiful river, and on a hot, dusty day it is like a cooling draught to escape from the jar and noise and hurry out to this quiet spot, where limpid waters and green of fields and woods soothe the eye and ear and renew the soul within.
       Flowers and music have a similar effect. A dreamy sonata or a rhythmical waltz, when the melody is far and elusive, carries me out of myself to suggestions of leafy haunts and drowsy summer sounds, and is as effective a nerve tonic as I require. A couple of years ago I was in New York City in the June heat as they have it there. The day was intensely sultry, the sun beat down and the air was close. I was tired out with overpress of business and the joy and hurry of the city oppressed me with its confusing sounds. At last I got on to a 25th street horse car. The passengers, like myself, looked tired and worn with care and the close, stifling heat, when a man got on at one of the avenue crossings carrying a large bunch of lilac bloom that filled the car with its odor. That man seemed to me like a visitant from a kinder world. In an instant the car seemed as cool and restful as a country lane. The noisy streets, the roar of the overhead trains, the moving crowds became dim and distant and my mind was borne out to visions of quiet villages, peaceful hillside farms and dewy woods, the singing birds, loving hearts and running brooks seemed to possess my dreams. When I got off at 9th avenue I felt as rested and fresh as if I had come from a cool morning walk over the farm fields rather than from a hot journeying of crowded thoroughfares, and my heart revived with an exultation which was marvelous.

       Literary activity in Canada does not increase very rapidly, but it does increase, and the growth is made manifest to us every now and then by the appearance of some new writer or some new journal. This month it is “Arcadia,” a bi-weekly journal of music, art and literature, which comes to us from Montreal, and it seems to me that “Arcadia” makes a very good bid for the popular support in its appearance to begin with. The print, paper and general aspect of its pages prepossess the eye. In its literary department I perceive a disposition to deal roughly, rather too roughly, with that sort of amiable gush and nonsense which is making literature in this country somewhat ridiculous. “Arcadia” evidently designs to be an anti-humbug paper. But in counteracting humbug it should beware of going too far in the opposite direction. Perhaps that will be its danger. It should avoid The Saturday Review kind of thing. Its article on Whitman was hardly just or appreciative. Surely this country is able by this time to support a good literary journal, and “Arcadia” strikes a new note and, in the main, a wholesome one.