At the Mermaid Inn

The Globe, Toronto: May 28, 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.

       A most delightful volume of verse is James Whitcomb Riley's Old-Fashioned Roses. In these days, when there is so much artificial verse-making, it is refreshing to come across such a collection of human and nature-blossoms. Mr. Riley has a quaintness and pathos all his hown, and also an earnestness of spirit that makes his verse a part of his personality. He has a true insight into child-life, and to him people and meadows and flowers and bees are all brethren, only of a different variety. The wind and the sun and the barefooted boys are his boon companions. The following lines we quote at random from the book:—

       The orchard lands of long ago!
       O drowsy winds, awake, and blow
       The snowy blossoms back to me,
       And all the buds that used to be!
       Blow back along the grassy ways
       Of truant feet, and lift the haze
       Of happy summer from the trees;
       Blow back the melody that slips
       In lazy laughter from the lips
       That marvel much if any kiss
       Is sweeter than the apple's is.

Or of the "South Wind and the Sun."

       Arm in arm they went together
       Over heights of morning haze—
       Over slanting slopes of lawn.

       This is an excellent poem all through, and so is "The Beetle," wherein he tells us how—

       O'er slumbrous blooms,
              On floods of musk,
       The beetle booms a-down the glooms
              And bumps along the dusk.

       Among the dialect pieces we miss "The Absence of Little Wesley," one of his most beautiful human touches, which appeared in The Century; but we greet with renewed pleasure "Knee Deep in June" and "Nothin' to Say," and the popular "Little Orphant Annie," and "The Frost on the Pumpkin." In "Knee Deep in June" Mr. Riley's experience must be Canadian, when he sings in Hoosier style of the fraudulent character of the spring months:—

       March ain't never nothin' new!
       Aprile's altogether too
       Brash for me; and May
—I jes'
       'Bominate its promises;

       But when June comes—clear my throat
       With wild honey! Rench my hair
       In the dew!
       June wants me, and I'm to spare!
       Spread them shadders anywhere,
       I'll git down and waller there,
       And obleeged to you at that.

       Mr. Riley has a true philosophy of life running like a brook all through his verses, a philosophy of the best and most durable kind, not found so much in books as in the morning sun and the summer fields, it is a wisdom of the toiling and suffering yet joyous many. In one place he truly says:—

       I've allus noticed grate success
       Is mixed with trouble more or less;
       And it's the man who does the best
       That gits more kicks than all the rest.

       There is a quaint, good-humored carelessness of fate running through this thought, that takes the bitter sting out of its only too evident truth. Among the sonnets, all fine, and some very beautiful, we would prefer the tender one called "When She Comes Home." America has produced many talented men and women, and not a few souls of real genius who have a revelation from nature and humanity, but, among her singers who have drunk at the pure springs, Mr. Riley is one of the most sincere and natural. His voice is not for America alone; wherever the genius of the English language is felt, and his work is read, he will be acknowledged by the hearts and intellects of the few as well as the many to be a new and distinctive note in our literature.

       It has often been said that obscurity can go no further than it has done in the poems of George Meredith; that there is to be seen the perfect flower of the style which in attempting to express thought or emotion ends by hiding the intention as thoroughly as silence. This seems to be a hard saying, and I would not like to agree with it hastily, but there is excellent ground for the charge. It would be impossible for anyone to read "Modern Love" for the first time and understand it, or for the second time. But there is a possibility of understanding it, and I think it is well worth trying to compass. It is hard to speak this way of poetry, which should be of all things perfectly simple and straightforward; but in the case of "Modern Love" it is quite impossible to say anything else. At the outset Mr. Meredith might be charged with having chosen an inartistic form for the psychical drama which he had to present. The divisions of the poem are sometimes dramatic as if written by one of the characters, and sometimes critical as if written by an observer. This is misleading at first and results in intensifying the obscurity. When this is conquered or even partially so, one is apt to be carried away by an insight which is present in everything Mr. Meredith writes and often by poetic beauty of a striking kind. There is development in the sequence of poems, and, although the steps are not always evident, and although the purpose of certain of the poems does not appeal with irresistible force, the story is told and told with remarkable fulness and power. In the short compass of eight hundred lines the emotions and thoughts of two people during a certain crisis in their lives are stated or hinted at. The gaps in the development and the strange phrases in the lines leave the greatest scope for ingenuity in interpretation, and it is a wonder that some admirer such as Mr. Gallienni has not given us a running commentary on the poem. To enjoy it thoroughly one needs to have a subtle mind and acute perceptions. I have no room to quote many of the curious observations that are scattered through the poems, but here are a few:—

O, have a care of natures that are mute!
They punish you in acts. Their steps are brief.
Imagination is the charioteer
That, in default of better, drives the hogs.

       The 47th section is a rarely lovely piece of work, charged with meaning and full of pathos, and the lines that close the 50th section will serve as an example of how felicitous Mr. Meredith's expression may sometimes be:—

In tragic hints here see what evermore
       Moves down as yonder midnight ocean's force
       Thundering like rampant hosts of warrior horse,
To throw that faint, thin line upon the shore.

       "The Sage Enamored and the Honest Lady" is less difficult, although it would probably prove quite as unnatractive to a reader looking for a pastime. But, while these poems are not upon the surface attractive, they are capable of giving a rare pleasure, and are full of unique and profitable philosophy. As I said before, they are often beautiful, and, although they cannot be said to represent the greatness of Mr. Meredith's genius which is supreme in his novels, yet they are not unworthy of it.

       Now if any our wealthy men wished to do their country a patriotic service, I do not think that they could find a better way of putting their wish into effect than by starting a magazine. A country only reaches full national consciousness when it has developed a literature. Our literature is yet to make, and the literary impulse in the present age, especially in America, appears to seek its first outlet in the magazine. It is very difficult for young Canadians to gain access to the great magazines of the United States. There are only four or five of them, and these can publish only a very limited quantity of matter each month. We may be sure that a nation of 65,000,000 will produce enough writers to supply this without any assistance from the neighboring nation of 5,000,000. Such English literature as we already have in Canada shows an extraordinary large proportion of verse. This is simply due to the fact that the literary impulse amongst us has not yet received any general stimulus. In any country where so wide literary activity exists, those few persons whom the imaginative impulse possesses so strongly that they must write will naturally write in verse. It seems to be the primitive germinal method of expression. When the intellect of a nation first becomes conscious of the beauty and mystery of the life around it, that consciousness has in it a religious quality which utters itself most fitly in poetry. This fact is not as discernible now as it was in ruder days, but it still holds good in a certain degree. The various forms of prose literature, fiction, criticism, etc., are an after growth, appearing with the rapid propagation of the creative impulse. There can be no doubt that a great deal of talent for every kind of writing lies dormant in the youth of Canada simply for the want of some attractive and stimulating vehicle of publication. We can have no literature of any consequence where there is no interested public, no publishing facilities, no journals or magazines, to whose pages it is a matter of profit and pride to win admission. But when these are found we shall have plenty of literature, I believe the best on the continent. However, many things will be changed by that time, and it is hard to predict what will happen. Much could be done now to draw out the naturally abundant talent of our people by the establishment and endowment of a great and attractive magazine. Swarms of writers would appear, and the intellectual ferment and competition aroused, together with the growth of an ever more searching process of criticism, would bring the best to the front and urge them to the attainment of an excellence which would otherwise be completely beyond their power. I know that our country is yet hardly out of its pioneer stage. It is necessarily engaged in money-getting and homebuilding as yet, and we cannot expect much attention to art or literature. These must come with a generation of money already got and houses already founded, a generation of people having time to read and riches wherewith to buy. Yet, I think we are approaching near to the turning point, to a season of awakening creative consciousness in which such an experiment as the establishing of a powerful magazine might perform for us the midwife's task and place us in possession of a new-born literature. A year or so ago half a dozen San Francisco millionaires subscribed $20,000 each and started a magazine called The Californian. It was established for the purpose of bringing out the literary talent of the Pacific coast, and those who have seen numbers of this publication will probably agree with me that it is not very much of a magazine after all. If half a dozen of our wealthy men would put together the same sum I believe we could soon place upon the market an infinitely better one.


Behold! I lay in prison like St. Paul,
       Chained to two guards that both were grim and stout,
All day they sat by me and held me thrall;
       The one was named Regret, the other Doubt.
And through the twilight of that hopeless close
       There came an angel shining suddenly
That took me by the hand, and, as I rose,
       The chains grew soft and slipped away from me.
The doors gave back and swung without a sound,
       Like petals of some magic flower unfurled.
I followed, treading o'er enchanted ground,
       Into another and a kindlier world.
The master of that black and bolted keep
Thou knowest is Life; the angel's name is Sleep.
                                                 (Harper's Magazine)