At the Mermaid Inn

The Globe, Toronto: October 8, 1892


       The legend that Keats' death was caused by certain malignant criticisms in The Blackwood's Magazine and The Quarterly Review appears now to be altogether exploded. Anyone who has read the letters of Keats is brought to the extreme point nearest to conviction that the story is absurd. No one ever expressed more thoroughly manly views in regard to verse criticism in the public press than Keats, and his words have in all cases the unexcited and sedate tone of perfect sincerity. That Byron should have believed and put it on record is not surprising. Byron was not a particularly honest man, not a particularly generous one, nor a particularly decent one. He was not unwilling to credit his brother poet—whose earlier work he himself had abused in a manner hardly less brutal than that of the writer in Blackwood's Magazine—with a weakness of which he deemed himself in his god-like superiority incapable, and, moreover, the supposed fatal injury done to Keats furnished him with material for a very clever stanza in Don Juan, a thing in itself quite irresistible. It is, however, strange that Shelley, who knew Keats well enough, one would suppose, to be thoroughly acquainted with his disposition and even with his attitude in regard to this very matter, should have so confidently accepted the tale, and given it the tragical prominence that he did in "Adonais." This is the one fact yet remaining which tempts us to suspect that there may have been a shade more truth in the old story than recent writers are willing to allow.

       With its wide margins, its heavy soft paper and large print, Mr. William Morris' "Poems by the Way" is a delightful book to read—delightful as well from the many beautiful things it contains (Robert Brothers, 3 Somerset Street, Boston.) Some of the poems are old favorites, such as the song from the "Life and Death of Jason," but most of them are new. Mr. Morris has even given us two or three socialistic poems, full of hope for the future and denunciation of the present. In one, "The Day is Coming," he writes:—

For then laugh not but listen
       To this strange tale of mine
All folk that are in England
       Shall be better lodged than swine

Then a man shall work and bethink him,
       And rejoice in the deeds of his hand,
Nor yet come home in the even
       Too faint and weary to stand.

And what wealth then shall be left us
       When none shall gather gold
To buy his friend in the market,
       And pinch and pine the sold?

Nay, what save the lovely city,
       And the little house on the hill,
And the wastes and the woodland beauty
       And the happy fields we till?

       But the three or four poems which deal with these subjects have not the freedom or the exquisite ease of his best work. It is in such poems as "Mother and Son," "The Half of Life Gone," "The Folk-mote by the River," where there is scope for those clear pictures of landscape, with their gem-like tints, and for that knowledge of the human heart, that we find Morris at his best. Over such subjects he throws a glamor, a penetrating simplicity, the sadness of the remembrance of lost things.

High up and light are the clouds,
       And though the swallows flit
So high o'er the sunlit earth,
       They are well a part of it;
And so, though high over them
       Are the wings of the wandering herne,
In measureless depths above him
       Doth the fair sky quiver and burn;
The dear sun floods the land
       As the morning falls toward noon,
And a little wind is awake
       In the best of the latter June.
They are busy winning the hay,
       And the life and the picture they make,
If I were once as I was
       I should deem it made for my sake;
For here, if one need not work,
       Is a place for happy rest,
While one's thought wends over the world,
       North, south and east and west.

       The book abounds in pictures of life and nature, drawn with that firmness of outline and colored with that vividness and depth which are characteristic of Morris as a poet. We can nowhere else find such pictures, so ample, so full of air and light, and so tender:—

All things I saw at a glance:
       The quickening fire tongues leapt
Through the crackling heap of sticks
       And the sweet smoke up from it crept
And close to the very hearth
       The low sun flooded the floor,
And the cat and the kittens played
       In the sun by the open door.

       That is from "Mother and Son," and as an example of his treatment of an early morning landscape I would quote this from "The Folk-mote by the River":—

Then into the mowing grass we went
Ere the very last of the night was spent.

Young was the moon, and he was gone,
So we whet our scythes by the stars alone.

But or ever the long blades felt the hay,
Afar in the east the dawn was grey.

Or ever we struck our earliest stroke
The thrush in the hawthorn bush awoke.

While yet the bloom of the swathe was dim,
The blackbird's bill had answered him.

Ere half the road to the river was shorn
The sunbeams smote the twisted thorn.

       Last week I spoke of the qualities of the poetical work of Mr. T.B. Aldrich, the distinguished American poet, and now I will give some quotations from his poems. In the poem to "Cloth of Gold," one of his volumes of verse, Mr. Aldrich gives us a hint of his artistic ideals in verse-building when he says:—

You ask us if by rule or no
       Our many-colored songs are wrought
       Upon the cunning loom of thought,
We weave our fancies so and so.

The busy shuttle comes and goes
       Across the rhymes, and deftly weaves
       A tissue out of autumn leaves,
With here a thistle, there a rose.

With art and patience this is made
       The poet's perfect Cloth of Gold;
       When woven so, nor moth nor mould
Nor time can make its colors fade.

       A strong individual piece in his best vein is Destiny:—

Three roses, wan as moonlight and weighted down
Each with its loveliness as with a crown,
Drooped in a florist's window in a town.

The second rose, as virginal and fair,
Shrunk in the tangles of a harlot's hair.

The third, a widow, with new grief made wild,
Shut in the icy palm of her dead child.

       One of the most remarkable of his weird pieces is Identity:—

Somewhere in desolate, wind-swept space—
       In twilight land, in no-man's land—
Two hurrying shapes met face to face,
       And bade each other stand.

"And who are you?" cried one agape,
       Shuddering in the gloaming light.
"I know not," said the second shape,
       "I only died last night!"

       "On an Intaglio Head of Minerva" and "In an Atelier" are too long to quote, and so is "The Flight of the Goddess," where he describes how

A man should live in a garret aloof
       And have few friends and go poorly clad,
With an old hat stopping a chink in the roof
       To keep the Goddess constant and glad.

Wretched enough was I sometimes,
       Pinched and harassed with vain desires;
But thicker than clover sprung the rhymes
       As I dwelt like a sparrow among the spires.

Midnight filled my slumbers with song,
       Music haunted my dreams by day;
Now I listen and wait and long,
       But the Delphian airs have died away.

I wonder and wonder how it befel;
       Suddenly I had friends in crowds;
I bade the housetops a long farewell,
       "Good-bye," I cried, "to the stars and clouds!"

And the woman I loved was now my bride,
       And the house I wanted was now my own;
I turned to the Goddess satisfied,
       But the Goddess had somehow flown.

Flown, and I fear she will never return;
       I am much too sleek and happy for her.
Whose lovers must hunger and waste and burn,
       Ere the beautiful heathen heart will stir.

       In "Judith," a long and ambitious poem in blank verse, there is some magnificent description. As in the flight of Judith and her maid from the camp of Ashur after the slaying of Holofernes:

              They fled like wraiths
Through the hushed midnight into the black woods,
Where, from gnarled roots and ancient, palsied trees,
Dread shapes upstarting, clutched at them; and once
A nameless bird in branches overhead
Screeched, and the blood grew cold about their hearts.

       Among many fine sonnets is the one called "Sleep," which many critics have considered his masterpiece. It is certainly among his best work. I have not attempted by these short quotations to give an idea of the artistic beauty of Mr. Aldrich's work, but hope that I may have succeeded in introducing his exquisite genius to some of those Canadians who have not had the good fortune to be already acquainted with the entrancing work of this master artist in the domain of poetry:—

When to soft sleep we give ourselves away,
And in a dream, as in a fairy bark,
Drift on and on through the enchanted dark
To purple daybreak, little thought we pay
To that sweet-bitter world we know by day.
We are clean quit of it as is a lark
So high in heaven no human eye may mark
The thin, swift pinion cleaving through the grey.
Till we awake ill-fate can do no ill,
The resting heart shall not take up again
The heavy load that yet must make it bleed;
For this brief space the loud world's voice is still,
No faintest echo of it brings us pain.
How will it be when we shall sleep indeed?

       The number of poems which have been translated from other languages into English with just effect is remarkably small—smaller even than need be, notwithstanding the great difficulty of transferring from one language to another the inner spirit of a fine poem. This is due of course to the fact that the work of translation has been left in most cases by the creative poets to writers of inferior power—people who had not sufficient aesthetic grasp and metrical gift for the task. Those who are unable to read originals, and even those who are, must be eternally grateful to Browning for his "Prometheus"; to Shelley for the "Cyclops" of Euripides, that delicious piece of English; to Dryden for the "Aeneid," a noble rendering despite many faults; to old Chapman, whose Homer still towers heavily over so many a more ambitious attempt; to Edward Fitzgerald for the "Rubaiyat"; to Rossetti for his one translation from Villon, and to Swinburne for some others; to Emma Lazarus and James Thompson for several genuine translations from Heine, particularly those of the former, who, by a subtle affinity of genius and perhaps of race, seems to have taken upon her tongue to an unusual degree the distinctive tone and accent of her original. Dante is said to be very ably translated by Chas. Elliot Norton; and even the old translation of Carey must convey to us something more than the bare tissue of the Italian. We owe Coleridge a good deal for the Wallenstein. Goethe has been translated, but surely not adequately, and nearly all the rest of the vast field remains unturned save in the clumsiest and most unsightly manner. To have at our command real translations of all the noblest poems of other tongues so that we might be able to enter somewhat into the inner spirit of them without undertaking the impossible toil of mastering seven or eight different languages would be an advantage which the wise at least would repay with the truest kind of fame to those mightier ones in their succeeding generations who should be self-sacrificing enough to confer it. If each genuine poet would reproduce even one of these masterpieces it would not be very long before we should have a tolerably complete series.