At the Mermaid Inn

The Globe, Toronto: November 12, 1892


       Some very satisfactory observations are made by the writer of "Causerie" in the last number of Arcadia on the subject of the vacant poet laureateship. Lewis Morris and Sir Edwin Arnold are surely out of the question. Anyone who has ever tried to read the "Epic of Hades" could have no doubt whatever of the impossibility of the former; and equally certain in the case of the latter will be the unfortunate one who has been left alone for an hour or two with no other reading than the "Light of the World." Sir Edwin Arnold is not only, as the writer in Arcadia says, "one of the most overrated and over-advertised poets of the time"; he is one of the most elaborate poetical frauds that ever worked up a reputation by palaver and puffery. He is an instance of the harm that may be done to a man at some distance above mediocrity by the modern passion for notoriety and money-making. His one respectable poem, "The Light of Asia," got him into the mischief. It won him a certain measure of fame and spoiled him. Since then he has poured forth stuff less genuine and more hollow in its ring year by year. His last book, the "Potiphar's Wife," bears the stamp of meretricity in every line.
       Alfred Austin is a very good poet, and, to those who do not look at the matter purely from the poet's point of view, has more to recommend him than any of the others. He is, I understand, an irreproachable person, loyal and orthodox, and his Laureate verses would certainly do the nation no discredit. William Morris, a noble poet and most interesting man, might put forth a claim to the vacant office were it not that in the first place he does not want it, and in the second that he is not anyway exactly the stuff that laureates are made of, either as regards his opinions or the quality of his genius.
       Mr. Swinburne, as the writer in Arcadia urges, is the man for the laureateship. It should be offered to him, and he should accept it. In the present mingling of aristocratic relics with a powerful and increasing democratic life, there is no need to consider the laureateship anything but a purely national office, to be held by the man most honored and beloved by his countrymen, and to be served simply under patriotic impulse. He need not be bound to sing hymns to royalty; all that is necessary is that he should celebrate his country and make some occasional poetic record of the momentous incidents of his time. This no man is better qualified to do than Mr. Swinburne.

       In the death of Mr. Paul Peel at Paris Canada lost one whose name was linked with hers in honorable distinction. This promising painter, who had taken up his residence permanently in Paris, was a native of London, Ont., and was still a very young man. We have all of us seen some of his large canvases in the annual collections of the Royal Canadian Academy exhibitions; and although they did not appear to give evidence of any strikingly original gift, we remember well the pleasant impression they left upon us.

       I have often imagined, in the face of the high place now accorded them, that if the English poets of the latter end of the last and the first of this century had been fated to live in the present age, what a hard time they would have had to make the position they now hold. I am afraid that the high-class magazines which give these immortals a prominent place in the subject matter of their text and illustration would be rather backward in accepting for publication some of the verse that they so highly extol. The question to me is, why this condition of things should be? Should a young poet of to-day send such a poem as "The Ancient Mariner" to the magazines, he would get a quick return with regrets. And if he persevered for a reason with the critics he would be showered with advice as to lack of form and length of matter. I am afraid poor Coleridge would have had a hard fight for existence. Wordsworth would be shut out entirely, unless "We Are Seven" and "Lucy Gray" got squeezed into the juveniles. But fancy the reception "Resolution and Independence" would have to-day! I can hear lots of my readers say, "That is not so; its remarkable qualities would be recognised at once." But with that I cannot agree, and the very men who now worship him the most would be the first to find fault with him for his weaknesses. We hear a great deal about the finish of Keats' work, but, judged by the standards of to-day, much of his work is mere archaic doggerel. If a young writer writes a number of strong poems to-day and publishes them in a book with more work scarcely up to the finish of these, the critics one and all ignore the good work and hunt up all the weak points for especial damnation. And the wonder of the matter is that they cite those old poets as our ideal in finish. They won't go to the utter trash written by all of these men, but they go to their few gems, and balance them against the weakest work of the man of to-day. I am sure that I will call anathemas down on my head, but I must here express my strong conviction that the greatest genius, and the one that bids most for immortality, is the genius that is the most uneven in flight and finish. Nature requires contrast, and the greatest and strongest poetry is that which is at times rugged and even bold. To spend years polishing down a man's thoughts and visions into a certain glittering monotony is just as though nature would level her hills and fill up her valleys into one immense plain. My idea of verse is that it should be as near nature as possible. The very charm of those old poets was their entire originality; they did not write to sell or suit the times, but each man worked out his genius in his own way, and it was recognised. To-day the man who uses the file because his talent lies that way is the successful man. And why? Because polish seems to be the fad. The result is that the books of verse floated on the markets by the big houses are chiefly noted for quaint conceits and fancies, but well polished into perfection of brilliancy. Or else they are crystalline masques, containing monotonous and wintry verses, from which all life and originality have been extracted.

       At the very opening of Henrik Ibsen's drama, "The Lady From the Sea," he epitomises the circumstances by which his chief character is surrounded. Ballested, who is a whilom scene-painter, a barber, a horn-player and a linguist, is exercising his talents upon a marine canvas, when young Lyngstrand approaches him. The subject he is working at is a view of the fjord, and he explains that a mermaid, who has wandered in from the sea and who cannot find her way out, is to lie dying upon the rocks. But his picture is incomplete, as he cannot find a model for the mermaid. Ballested says that the subject was put into his head by the "mistress of this house"—Ellida Wangel—and in the opening of the play she is found in just the situation of the mermaid, heartsick for the sea. Ballested's picture is never completed, and similarly Ellida does not die in her captivity. To thoroughly understand the subtlety of the art by which this curious character is portrayed, one must read the play. It contains other characters which are just as firmly and finely drawn, and there is an element of longing for change, for a wider horison, for a knowledge of life, which actuates at least two of them, Bollette and Lyngstrand. Ellida desires only those surroundings which she has before known, and which are bound up for her in the strange character of the man from the sea. But Bollette wants to see beyond the little town, and expects everything from that; to gain her end she betrothes herself to Arnholm, a commonplace individual, who is to take her out into the "great, strange world." But one feels how fallacious the hope of the young girl is, for her betrothed, who is to guide her and who has seen this same world, has returned from it as he went. We feel that this change will not bring her the happiness she expects, for travel and a knowledge of the world may bring to a few souls greater happiness, but to the many it is only an excitement which changes for a little while the circumstances of their lives. Young Lyngstrand is a type of the artist who has imagination but no creative energy. The Rome towards which he is constantly looking is really the shadow of accomplishment which he pursues. If he could have accomplished one little piece of work he would not have thought so much of Rome, and one feels anew that, relatively, so little depends on the externalities of life and so much on the spirit.