At the Mermaid Inn

The Globe, Toronto: November 26, 1892


       The advent of a new story by a Canadian author has a certain interest for those of our people who care about our literary development. We have two or three strong and promising prose writers, and now and then a clever story is published, as for instance Miss Duncan's popular book. I have just had the pleasure of reading a new story by Miss Machar, entitled "Roland Graeme, Knight," which is probably the best bit of work that she has ever produced. Miss Machar's story is more than clever, for it has a purpose, and a serious one at that. It is a study of a well-worn problem, the labor question, and the relation of the classes in society from a Christian woman's standpoint. The book is readable, well-written, and not so intense as many of its kind, owing to a good substratum of common sense and a broad human sympathy that save it from mere sentimentality. But, with all its strong points as an earnest attempt to portray the influence of religion as a social lever, the book falls below the ideal as a literary achievement, and there is not a spark of genius from cover to cover. I would not accuse Miss Machar of plagiarism, nobody would do so, and I believe her religious attitude is her own, but anyone who reads "Roland Graeme" will at once revert to "Nicholas Minturn" and other similar stories by the late Dr. J.G. Holland, which no doubt strongly appealed to her sympathies and helped to form her social and religious attitude. There is also a suggestion of "Felix Holt" in the hero, with the exception that Miss Machar makes "Roland Graeme" accept the cardinal truths of Christianity, and that without giving us any analysis of his journey in that direction. Miss Machar shows a woman's literary weakness in being unable to keep her own individuality out of her favorite characters, and in a contempt for, and almost hate of, at least one of her evil characters, whom in one place she verges on the hysterical in denouncing. One would almost think that she had some person in mind when she wrote. At the same time, what helps to spoil the book's literary merit is valuable in giving us the characteristics of a woman who will always be more human and more interesting than any book she will ever write, and whose work in prose and verse will be appreciated and felt in so far as she puts herself into it. Miss Machar, as far as I have seen, has no original creative genius, but she has the literary desire strong within her, and she has something else that goes with it, and it is often more looked for in the passing literature of to-day than mere creative ability, namely, a strong and abiding interest in the social and religious problems of our present humanity, which she has worked with some force into verse and prose. In spite of these evident limitations, Miss Machar's work will compare favorably with much of that of the American didactic school, and as a personality she is a woman whom all Canadians will contemplate with respect and pride.

       Anyone who possesses a copy of the shorter poems of Robert Bridges has a source of pleasure which is sweet and which will not soon run dry. It is a grateful thing to find in these days, when verse is compelled to contain so much of turgid personal experience, so much that should have remained forever unsaid a poet who has a pure and simple heart and a winning accent, who charms by his idyllic grace and his unpremeditated happiness. Such a poet is Robert Bridges, and to anyone who wants to spend a pleasant hour with feelings similar to those which the simpler pleasures inspire, I would say secure a copy of this volume, which is published by Geo. Bell & Sons, London. In the atmosphere which fills its covers he will not meet with anything to startle or confuse, but only tranquil shadows and quiet deeps of thought. It is a country which reaches Landor's ideal:

"Where every voice (but the bird's or child's) is hush'd
And every thought, like the brook nigh, runs pure."

       Sometimes the reader discovers a quaintness which reminds him of William Blake, and often some passage which it is not possible to scan, which does not conform to the usual metrical laws. But if sometimes one can find a little fault from over-sensitiveness of ear, the blemish can be readily forgiven upon the very same page will doubtless be some harmony that will chime the faulty line into silence. I wish I had space to quote for the lovers of poetry the two spring odes, "Invitation to the Country" and "The Reply." About the first there is a sort of homely joy in outdoor life and in the beauty of growing things and things commencing to grow that makes one feel the ardency of spring and the ideality of it. It leaves the conviction which the poet himself expresses:—

                     "Content, denied
       The best, in choosing right;
       For nature can delight
       Fancies unoccupied
       With ecstasies so sweet
       As none can even guess,
       Who walk not with the feet
       Of joy in idleness."

       In "The Reply" the dweller in the town contrasts his pleasure with those of his brother in the country and finds himself also contented. But the poet's heart is with the pleasures of the field, and he writes of them with a sort of trust in their power to please; as if, too, his words were not meant for any but himself, but only intended to remind him that the world is yet young and the heart can be kept so. And the essence of his verse is that unexcited pleasure in life which is the more lasting because it is contemplation, and is based upon the eternal truths and upon nothing shifty or compromising. So we get back, as it were, to the springs of poetry, and see the beauty at its source where the water is clear and flows limpidly with a small, pure stream.

       I have loved flowers that fade,
              Within whose magic tents
       Rich hues have marriage made
              With sweet immemoried scents.
              A honeymoon delight,
              A joy of love at sight,
              That ages in an hour:
              My song be like a flower!

       I have loved airs that die
              Before their charm is writ
       Along a liquid sky
              Trembling to welcome it.
              Notes that with pulse of fire
              Proclaim the spirit's desire,
              Then die and are nowhere;
              My song be like an air!

       Die song, die like a breath,
              And wither as a bloom;
       Fear not a flowery death,
              Dread not an airy tomb!
              Fly with delight, fly hence
              'Twas thine love's tender sense
              To feast; now on thy bier
              Beauty shall shed a tear.

       This is one of Robert Bridge's most perfect lyrics, and there are not a few of them as perfect. For such things we will love him, and for such things he will be remembered long after the work of many who now receive unstinted praise for performances which cannot be ranked with his shall be forgotten.

       We are reminded frequently in the customs of every-day life of the survival of ancient ineradicable instincts, which bid defiance to the influences of popular religion and even to the actual articles of faith. One case—and the commonest—is to be found in the ceremonials connected with the burial of the dead. We profess to accompany our dead to the grave in the hope of a blessed connection, and the assurance of a future life of perfect and eternal happiness; yet in actual practice we surround death with every emblem of utter horror and despair. Nothing can be more hideous or more dreadful than our common paraphernalia of burial—the coffin, the hearse, the palls, the black trappings—everything but the pure white surplice of the minister.
       Surely it is not necessary in a philosophic age, when people are beginning to realise with a sort of poetic clearness their true relations with nature and life, that all these horrors should be kept up. Whether we accept with the mass of mankind the belief in a happy immortality of the soul, or whether we refuse to busy our thoughts with that great after-blank into which we cannot see how we shall penetrate with profit, in neither case will the sound-hearted man and the true lover of humanity and life look upon death as in anywise a hideous or desperate thing. The ceremonial of burial might be simplified, and our emblems of ugliness and despair exchanged for beautiful ones, indicative simply of love and a hopeful sadness.
       It seems to me that the whole practice of burial, ancient and universal as it is, might well give way to the much more beautiful one of burning. I do not know whether the burning of the dead is an old a custom as burial; but, at any rate, the Greeks practiced it largely at all stages of their history until the triumph of Christianity. Moreover, there ought to be no offence in it to those who desire that their bodies should be committed to the earth, for it seems to me that the body reduced to a handful of light ashes may be much more fitly buried than the body in its entire and corruptible state.

       Now that the rude season has wrinkled the barren earth, and the tide of nature's life has ebbed lower with the downward sap, the heart of man pulses with renewed heat, as if he felt the need of the inward warmth that nature has withdrawn. Here in our strong and bracing northern land there is a glow and thrill in the sense of snow and ice that is very gladdening to the heart of boyhood. And I think that many a Canadian will echo the sentiment found in the following song of the bleak months, which the author dedicates at this season to the Canadian boys, old and young:—

              The Song of the Bubbling Pot.

O sing me the song of the bubbling pot
When the weather is cold and the kitchen is hot,
And winds outside are moaning;
When the summer is gone and the birds are fled,
And the leaves are shrivelled that late were red.
And the bee-hives are hushed of their droning;
O the crackle of wood
Does a boy's heart good
When the snowflakes the hay-cocks are hooding;
But better than all is the bubbling sound
That comes from the pot when the plate goes round
And rattles down under the pudding.

O the keen, clear days of the chill-nipt fields,
Of the ponds all hidden in silver shields,
And orchards too naked for robbing;
When all the red blood of the frozen year,
That is shrunken in meadows and woodlands sere,
Through the heart of one urchin is throbbing;
As he whistles and lingers,
And blows on his finger,
Schoolward, when snow clouds are brooding;
But his steps grow quick and his heart gives a bound,
As he dreams of the pot and its bubbling sound,
Of the plate down under the pudding.

Manhood has fame and knowledge and love,
The wide, wide wisdom of heaven above,
The lore of the rich earth under;
And the soul of the poet is wide in its range,
The spirit of woman surpassingly strange,
But the heart of the boy is a wonder;
In the chillest November
The years can remember
The boy-heart with blossoms was budding;
And we all look back to the old kitchen joys,
And the song of the pot and its bubbling noise,
Of the plate down under the pudding.

       Tennyson is said to have done a very wise thing some time before his death. Warned by the fate of Carlisle in the hands of his biographer, Froude, he set to work and destroyed everything amongst his papers and letters that it might not be quite safe to place in the hands of an unwise historian. The biographer of Tennyson will accordingly have plain sailing. There will be nothing to perplex his imagination or mar the perfect beauty of the structure which he proposes to raise.
       This is only another example among many of the manly wisdom which seems to have distinguished the great poet in all relations of life—that wisdom which made it so very difficult for newspaper men, portrait painters and sightseers to get within shouting distance of him. All that kind of people he abhorred, and it was not altogether safe for them to approach his neighborhood.
       There is only one circumstance that detracts in the least degree from our regard and reverence for the poet and the man, and that is "the lord." It is a pity that they could not have abstained from marring the noble simplicity of Tennyson's fame by decking him with that incongruous relic of decadent vain-glory. It was somewhat ridiculous, and his reputation slightly suffered from it.