At the Mermaid Inn

The Globe, Toronto: May 7, 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.

       On my humble bookshelves a place has ever been set apart as sacred to volumes of wit and humor. I cannot exactly understand the nature of a man who is impervious to the influences of this essential department of literature. Like Shakespeare’s man who did not appreciate music, he would seem to me a sort of moral monstrosity, lacking one of the qualities that go to constitute an all round personality. He may be a heavyweight, to use a sporting expression, in the affairs of life, but he is among his fellows but bread without leaven, sandwich without the mustard, wine without the sparkle; and, no matter what may be his ideas or qualities as a worker, such a man is sure in the end to be a failure. I think we ought to be very charitable toward many bigots and other persons of narrow and extreme tendencies, who have attempted rabid and impractical changes in society. History may regard them as fanatics and even as brutal persecutors, but it seems to me the poor fellows meant well, but, lacking the necessary balance, they failed in the essential quality, a sense of humor. Men and women of an intensely zealous nature, who are wrapped up in their own ideas of bettering the world, are perfectly incapable of looking at the ridiculous side of anything. On the other hand, the great reformers of all ages have been intensely susceptible to humor, and appreciated it to the fullest extent. Hence all of the greatest humorists have been closely identified with the world’s progress. Many brutalities have been ridiculed out of society that graver influences would not have removed. So humor and satire have their essential place and work to do. In the education of the young this should always be kept in mind. The sense of shame and of the ridiculous are closely allied in character, and have much to do with moulding the finer feelings and yet in keeping the normal balance. It is a pity that some of the most famous wit and satire of the past is so allied to indecency of thought and expression that it is unreadable, and disgusts and repels rather than pleases and instructs, and nothing shows the gradual elevation of modern society more than our disgust for this sort of thing in the old writers. The remarkable genius of Rabelais and of his apparent follower Swift cannot recompense the coarseness of thought and expression they have left behind them. The same must be said of the humor of Fielding and Smollett, and of the rhymed satires of Pope and Dryden. At the best, we can say that the age was coarse, and that they mirrored its grossness. It is with a sense of relief that we turn to our modern humor and satire, and at once we are struck by the kindly humor of Irving and Dickens, and the worldly-wise but kindly satire of Thackeray. And the world will never in a sense tire of such creations as the Connecticut schoolmaster in “Ichabod Crane;” the cockney immortal “Sam Weller” or of the genial worldly wisdom of the somewhat blase but almost lovable (society man) Major Pendennis. To come down to humorists pure and simple, Canada and the United States have produced three of the most famous of this century—Sam Slick (Haliburton), Artemus Ward (Browne) and Mark Twain (Clemens). Of the three the Canadian Haliburton was undoubtedly the founder of this school of American humorous writers, and in his “Sam Slick,” immortalised the sharp, shrewd Connecticut Yankee, who, from being a vendor of important clocks and wooden nutmegs, rose to be an ambassador, and still remaining the same remarkable and interesting personage. The followers of Haliburton were legion, but Browne in his “Artemus Ward,” the travelling showman of the era of the war, with his moral waxworks and civilised wild beasts, rivaled and surpassed Haliburton. Both Haliburton and Browne became noted in England as well as America. The present king of humor, Mark Twain (Samuel L. Clemens), is one of the most remarkable personalities of the American Republic, and his famous “Innocents Abroad,” which all have read or ought to read, and his “Tom Sawyer” and “Yankee at King Arthur’s Court,” are books that mark an epoch in the upward grade of the humorous literature of the age.

       This year the French will celebrate the centenary anniversary of the composition of the “Marseillaise,” a song which did more for the armies of France in the last days of the old revolution than all the genius of their generals; and though it did not avail to save the decrepit wreck of their power at Woerth or Wedan, nevertheless when the next war shall arise its thunder will be terrible upon the Rhine. Modern France is the France of the revolution, and the very soul of the revolution pulses in the Marseillaise, a spirit wild, daring and titanic. It is the most tremendous call to battle that ever sprang to the lips of man. Its note is inspired, fierce, aggressive. But like the military fervor that gave it birth its passion is too high to be maintained. It represents the charge, the first splendid fury of the attack; it does not fit so well the hour of uncertainty, of dogged defence, still less of miserable defeat. “The Watch on the Rhine” is a much better “working” battle song. It represents the feeling of a nation of serious, home-loving people, who in the hour of solemn necessity go forth not to conquer or even to win glory but simply to defend their fatherland. It is strong, sonorous, somewhat sad, a spirit and a cry that will stand, and not give back. The Germans have a great many very fine battle songs, most of them the product of the War of the Liberation. Through all of them there runs a peculiar vein of tragic sadness. In the midst of their romantic heroism they never lose sight of the awfulness of the battle field and the piteousness of the soldier’s death. They are tenderer, more human, more deeply tragical than the French songs.

       A review of Lord Tennyson’s “Foresters,” in a recent issue of The Athenænum, after stating the eagerness with which the production of that play will be awaited in England, goes on to make some rather startling observations on the relative importance of verdicts of play-goers in England and America. He concedes without an argument that the superiority is “with the Americans in regard to the acceptance of drama as a literary form. An American first night audience is almost as intelligent and almost as artistic as a Parisian one, while the intelligence and culture of England are poorly represented on such occasions in London.” There was no urgent call for the writer to say this, and the statement must have proceeded from reflection, and must have had some personal experience of both audiences as a foundation, otherwise it would have been hazardous. It would be hardly prudent to found such an assertion upon the success of the new play in New York, for there are special reasons why it should attract and interest an American audience. In fact, the production of the play is almost an international episode, as the part of “Maid Marian” was at first intended for Miss Mary Anderson, and was afterwards altered for Miss Ada Rehan. Even if the writer is not qualified to speak with final authority of the position of the American audience he is certainly at home in his criticisms of the English one, and he gives a very clear and unhesitating opinion as to its culture and acuteness. “It is only in the cheaper parts of the house that intelligence and attention are still awarded to the play.” I find that sentence genuinely gratifying, and it is what one would naturally expect; it is probably just as true of the American audience if the skits of the caricaturists have any foundation in fact. It must necessarily follow that the class of the population who have the most active interest in life, and whose outlook is not limited by any sacred social code, will bring to the consideration of any work of art a livelier perception and a more nimble intelligence. It is inevitable that the people who live and whose experience is of the earth and the rough facts of life will most readily see the truth and beauty of those types by which the artist has endeavored to reproduce the essence of events and emotions which have been and will be to them matters of daily occurrence. It is in their case more a matter of sympathy than of culture. Our own audiences would have an equal appreciation if they had a chance to exercise their native taste. But unfortunately the “stage” is non-existent in Canada, and it will be some decades yet before we add that final flower of culture to our national civilisation.

       Certainly custom is a more thorough inculcator of patience than all the precepts of the stoics. I have often wondered as I sat in church on a quiet murmurous summer morning, longing for the end of some pathetically futile sermon, and battling with the sea of sleep that threatened every moment to overwhelm me, why it is that so many sensible people in so many thousands of churches persist in placidly subjecting themselves to a torture which they would not endure for a moment in any other sort of building. I do not see why it should be established as a kind of eleventh commandment that every good Christian soul must submit to be plagued with a sermon, good or bad, at least once a Sunday. In the Presbyterian, Methodist and other bodies, where the ceremonial of religious service is so slight, I suppose that the sermon is unavoidable and the only resource for those who follow these branches of the common faith is to insist on it that their clergy be selected only from those who have the gift of eloquence. In the Roman and Anglican bodies, however, the case is different and they ought to do away with the incompetent preacher. The clergy should be divided into two distinct classes, the parish priests and the itinerant preaching priests. We know to our discomfort that many—one might say most—of those clergyman who are most useful and most beloved as parish workers and private spiritual comforters are hopelessly incapable of exerting any powerful influence from the pulpit. These men should be restricted to the work for which they are fitted, and in which their interest is most centred. Those priests who are found after thorough probation to be gifted with the power of moving speech should be set apart and formed into an unbeneficed body of preachers, whose duty it should be to go about among all the parishes in rotation delivering genuine and effective sermons. In this way the working parish priest would not be withdrawn from the occupations nearest to his heart by the necessity of composing toilsome and unendurable discourses, and the naturally-gifted preacher would be enabled by undisturbed study and meditation to develop to its utmost the bountiful power that is in him. Church men might not have sermons every Sunday, but when they did have them they would be of that magical and inspiriting kind that would more than compensate them for an occasional silence.