At the Mermaid Inn

The Globe, Toronto: September 3, 1892


       At the Congress of Experimental Psychology an interesting paper was read by Dr. Berillon, dealing with the uses to which hypnotism might be put in educating and improving the moral nature of children. The doctor's experience has been large in this department of experimental psychology, for he has personally attended to the education of 250 children. He found it possible to give, in some cases, a check and in others a perfect cure to habits of stealing, idleness, cowardice and impudence. The paper naturally caused discussion, and although the doctor found opposition to his theory that it was useful to aid the transformation of the moral nature of children by physical methods, yet the consensus of opinion seemed to show that hypnotism might be advantageously used to these ends. Mr. F.W.H. Myres mentioned that Mr. Wingfield had found no difficulty in persuading a Cambridge undergraduate to give up his bad habits, to "sport his door" every morning and get a very creditable degree. Here is a new method of action for weary and discouraged parents, who are in despair over their recalcitrant offspring: take them to the nearest hypnotiser, or, better than that, learn how to use the "influence" themselves. All that would have to be done in the latter case would be to transfix the unruly John Henry who persists in stealing the neighbors' pears, and suggest to him that he hates pears and that climbing over orchard fences is a thing to be despised. He would awake after a few applications of this influence to refuse pears even at dessert, and this would leave his parents the full enjoyment of the fruit basket and reduce the family expenses. Even in a well-regulated family this influence might result in producing anything but model members of society; but what would be the result if the parent was himself vicious, and turned his child, who loved to go to Sunday school and was by nature the model boy of the ward, into something a good deal worse than himself? It is to consider too whimsically to consider so; but the possibility of hypnotic influence being used from evil as well as good motives must be recognised. In fact at this very congress an instance was cited by Professor Liegeois of this vicious application of the force, where a lady in Algeria was supposed to have killed her husband and children, acting on the suggestion of a man who had fallen in love with her. The plea of hypnotic influence or suggestion may in the future be a favorite one with criminals, but a jury would have to be specially constituted before such a defence would receive much consideration.

       There can be nothing more life-inspiring than to read the well-written biography of a great man. To live over again in fancy his deeds, his aspirations and even his faults, is to give one a larger idea of man and his destiny.
       Much has been said about the influence of example on others, and there is a plain truth underlying this idea, sadly as it has been abused. We have been taught in many quarters that man should live good so as to be an example to others. With many biographers such a simile as this is the chief motive, and they are right in a sense, but also gravely wrong. They are right in saying that example is a stimulative to better life. But they fail in not discriminating between examples and examples. All the strength in this position is got from quoting the lives of great men, not men who have consciously striven to be known as good, but whose lives were great and hence good. True greatness must always precede true goodness. And the best biography, or in fact the only moral one, to speak plainly, is the realistic biography, which gives a man's life as he really lived it, or as near as it can be got at for the purpose to be attained. It is not necessary to gloat over a man's weaknesses and follies in order to avoid them ourselves, but at the same time a man's life, if it is worthy of being studied, must have some greatness in it, and our true experience is that in all great natures there is what some call an alloy. The true value of the biography as a stimulus lies in the greatness which inspires us, but another work the biography does is to convey a knowledge of human life, so that it is necessary for us to know the good and ill, the strength and weakness, and in their natural relations, or else we will fall into the error of hero-worship and cultivate a false idea of life, and become, in a sense, saint-worshippers. The old and foolish idea of padding up a good life till the goodness was nauseating, and of exaggerating a bad life, after the manner of the hero and the villain in the show, may have been convenient to the teacher in enforcing his lesson, but it had its evil effects all the same, and has largely resulted in turning the sympathy completely over to the other side, the villain becoming the most interesting character. We have a startling example of this in one of the masterpieces of literature—Milton's "Paradise Lost"—where, whether unconsciously or not, the great poet makes the majestic fallen angel the great central figure of the play, and the reader becomes impressed with the idea of his greatness as the most interesting personage in the poem. In truth, take Satan out of "Paradise Lost" and the poem is a mere shell. The great power and interest here lies in the human qualities ascribed to the fallen one, as a rebel against authority, but we are also impressed with a certain sympathy for the soul that grew sick of the ever-monotonousness of the Miltonic heaven. Satan here is nothing more or less than a great human military leader. And there is no doubt that Milton had Cromwell in mind when he was writing his majestic epic. In this sense, "Paradise Lost" is one of our most remarkable biographies, and as such it has had an unconscious influence on more minds than ever suspected it, even to the extent of a theological reform. As a biography it is akin to those of Plutarch, which while largely imaginative were truer than is common to the real greatness of human life in its relation of good and evil in the human heart. Many of Shakespeare's plays and many of the characters in the greater novelists partake of this character and are of the highest value as biographies of human character. The mingling of the good and evil in character is becoming more evident all the time, where the old idea was an almost childish and most unnatural distinction into purely good and purely evil. But the reader's common sense outgrew this stage, until we have reached this age of realism when we like to take men as they are. We have found out that even men like Washington used occasional bad language, and the story of the cherry-tree, with its accompanying moral, is an imagination, but none the less do we respect the first great President of the great republic. We may not worship him, but we have more sympathy with him for having, as a biographical figure, stepped down a peg lower, and become a little more like ourselves. I do not think, even with much of the evil around us, that the world has not gained a little at any rate, and that it has gained a good deal by desiring to know the truth as it is. For this reason the realistic biography is of the greatest importance.

       It is at this season that the streams—those streams that loiter slowly through low-lying meadows—put on their utmost beauty. Bordered by trees and exposed in little reaches to the sun, the golden heats and full shadows of August lie upon them. The bitter sweet hangs from the close branches of the alder and ripens its berries. Innumerable water weeds and mosses float and sway in the sluggish stream, and the swift spiders upon its surface flit hither and thither, throwing their spotted shadows upon the bottom. The loose-strife, knotted with ruby bloom, curves down its willowy stems to meet the water. Masses of blossoming plants line its edges; golden-rod in miniature slender groves arching into gold, purple bone-set or trumpet weed, in whose soft and woolly heads the bees love to trample and burrow; tall stems of chelone or turtle-head, with their white spout-like blossoms; tangled drifts of white-starred bed straw; jewel-weed in delicate profusion of translucent stems and rich-tinted, sensitive bloom; cloudy spots of white snakeroot; tufts of closed gentian, whose long violet corollas that never open the bumble bees spread asunder with their feet, thrust themselves into them and almost disappear; these, with patches of yarrow, many shades and sizes of aster, delicate blossoms of arrowhead that seem made of snowflakes that may melt as you look at them, and an occasional bed of purple pickerel-weed springing from the shallow edge of the water, almost cover and conceal the little stream with their wild vigor of growth and mingled splendor of color. it is in the midst of some such scene as this, in a late August afternoon, when the sun rests hot upon the harvested fields, and the woods are deep with mellow glooms, and the elms cast long shadows, that the season seems to present herself to us like a divine personality in all the gracious joy of her prime and the calm confidence of perfect achievement.

       Since Mr. Aldrich left The Atlantic Monthly his verse has appeared more frequently than of old in the magazines, a circumstance which has added much to the interest of the magazines for lovers of poetry. Mr. Aldrich's fame as a poet has been one which has grown slowly, and his gift, though indeed very genuine, will probably never command wide popular applause. He is one of those literary poets of a high order, like the late Lord Houghton or Coventry Patmore, whose work will live because it gives an exquisite, if not very passionate, pleasure to a certain order of minds whose tastes and inclinations are guided by the pure love of beauty. Mr. Aldrich has in a pre-eminent degree that gift of beautiful phrase-making which has been enough in itself to make some delightful, if not actually great, poets. The mass of the public, however, is somewhat indifferent to delicate artistic power and beauty of form and phrase, and is likely to be better pleased with Mr. James Whitcomb Riley, another writer of the second generation who has come prominently into notice, and bids fair to absorb the common affection of the people. Mr. Riley stands almost at the opposite pole from Mr. Aldrich. With him the desideratum is not a motif which promises artistic success, but one which touches some homely, popular chord. To this love for the homely, the popular, the emotional, he adds a certain nimble wit and whimsical cleverness which are delicious to all, and render his poems especially irresistible to his own people, whose mood they thoroughly represent. With Mr. Aldrich and Mr. Riley at the head, American poetry is perhaps not quite so dismally on the decline as many people just now imagine.