Non-Fictional Prose

by Charles G.D. Roberts

Edited by D.M.R. Bentley and Laurel Boone




BEVERLY STREET, though it lies in the heart of the city, is one of the most fashionable quarters of Toronto.  About the middle of its eastern side a whole block is walled off from curious eyes by a high, blank fence, behind which rises what seems a bit of primeval forest.  The trees are chiefly fir-trees, mossed with age, and sombre; and in the midst of their effectual privacy, with sunny tennis-lawns spread out before its windows, is The Grange.  The entrance to the grounds is in another street, Grange Road, where the fir-trees stand wide apart, and the lawns stretch down to the great gates standing always hospitably open.  The house itself is an old-fashioned, wide-winged mansion of red brick, low, and ample in the eaves, its warm color toned down by the frosts of many Canadian winters to an exquisite harmony with the varying greens which surround it.  The quaint, undemonstrative doorway, the heavy, dark-painted hall-door, the shining, massy knocker, and the prim side- windows,—all savor delightfully of United Empire Loyalist days.  Just such fit and satisfactory architecture this as we have fair chance of finding wherever the Makers of Canada came to a rest from their flight out of the angry new-born Republic.  As the door opens one enters a dim, roomy hall, full of soft brown tints and suggestion of quiet, the polished floor made noiseless with Persian rugs.  On the right hand open the parlors, terminated by an octagonal conservatory.  The wing opposite is occupied by the dining-room and a spacious library.  The dining-room has a general tone of crimson and brown, and its walls are covered with portraits in oil of the heroes of the Commonwealth.  Milton, Cromwell, Hampden, Pym, Vane, et al.—they are all there, gazing down severely upon the well covered board.  The abstemious host serenely dines beneath that Puritan scrutiny; but to me it has always seemed that a collection of the great cavaliers would look on with a sympathy more exhilarating.  From here a short passage leads to the anteroom of the library, which, like library itself, is lined to the ceiling with books.  At the further end of the library is the fire-place, under a heavy mantel of oak, and near it stands a massive writing-desk, of some light colored wood.  A smaller desk close by is devoted to the use of the gentleman who acts as librarian and secretary.  The ample windows are all on one side, facing the lawn; and the centre of the room is held by a billiard-table, which for the most part is piled with the latest reviews and periodicals.  The master of The Grange is by no means an assiduous player, but he handles the cue with fair skill.  In such a home as this, Mr. Goldwin Smith may be considered to have struck deep root into Canadian soil; and his wife, whose bright hospitality gives The Grange its highest charm, is a Canadian woman, he has every right to regard himself as identified with Canada.  In person Mr. Smith is very tall, straight, spare; his face keen, grave, almost severe; his iron-gray hair cut close; his eyes restless, alert, piercing, but capable at times of an unexpected gentleness and sweetness; his smile so agreeable that one must the more lament its rarity.  The countenance and manner are pre-ëminently those of the critic, the investigator, the tester.  As he concerns himself earnestly in all our most important public affairs, his general appearance, through the medium of the Toronto Grip, our Canadian Punch, has come to be by no means unfamiliar to the people of Canada.

In becoming a Canadian, Goldwin Smith has not ceased to be an Englishman—and he has also desired to become an American by the way.  He holds his English audience through the pages of The Contemporary and The Nineteenth Century, and he addresses Americans for some weeks every year from a chair in Cornell University.  In Canada he chooses to speak from behind an extremely diaphanous veil—the nom de plume of 'A Bystander;' and under this name he for some time issued a small monthly (changed to a quarterly before its discontinuance), which was written entirely by himself, and treated of current events and the thought of the hour.  That periodical has been lately succeeded by The Week, to which the Bystander has been a contributor since the paper was founded.  It were out of place to speak here of Goldwin Smith's career and work in England; it would be telling, too, what is pretty widely known.  In Canada his influence has been far deeper than is generally imagined, or than to a surface-glance would appear.  On his first coming here he was unfairly and relentlessly attacked by what was at the time the most powerful journal in Canada, the Toronto Globe; and he has not lacked sharp but irregular antagonism ever since.  Somewhat relentless himself, as evinced by his attitude toward the Irish and the Jews, and having always one organ or another in his control, he has long ago wiped out his score against the Globe, and inspired a good many of his adversaries with discretion.  He devotes all his energy and time, at least so far as the world knows, to work of a more or less ephemeral nature; and when urged to the creation of something permanent; something commensurate with his genius, he is wont to reply that he regards himself rather as a journalist than an author.  He would live not by books, but by his mark stamped on men's minds.  It does indeed at first sight surprise one to observe the meagreness of his enduring literary work, as compared with his vast reputation.  There is little bearing his name save the volume of collected lectures and essays—chief among them the perhaps matchless historical study entitled 'The Great Duel of the Seventeenth Century'—and the brilliant but cold and ungenial monograph on Cowper contributed to the English Men-of-Letters.  His visible achievement is soon measured, but it would be hard to measure the wide-reaching effects of his influence.  Now, while a sort of conservatism is creeping over his utterances with years, doctrines contrary to those he used so strenuously to urge seem much in the ascendant in England.  But in Canada he has found a more plastic material into which, almost without either our knowledge or consent, his lines have sunk deeper.  His direct teachings, perhaps, have not greatly prevailed with us.  He has not called into being anything like a Bystander party, for instance, to wage war against party government, and other great or little objects of his attack.  For this his genius is not synthetic enough—it is too disintegrating.  But his influence pervades all parties, and has proved a mighty shatterer of fetters amongst us—a swift solvent of many cast-iron prejudices.  He has opened, liberalized, to some extent deprovinicalized, our thought, and has convinced us that some of our most revered fetishes were but feathers and a rattle after all.  But he sees too many sides of a question to give unmixed satisfaction to anybody.  The Canadian Nationalists, with whom he is believed to be in sympathy, owe him both gratitude and a grudge.  He has made plain to us our right to our doctrines, and the rightness of our doctrines; he has made ridiculous those who would cry 'Treason' after us.  But we could wish that he would suffer us to indulge a little youthful enthusiasm, as would become a people unquestionably young; and also that he would refrain from showing us quite so vividly and persistently all the lions of our path.  We think we can deal with each as it comes against us.  His words go far to weaken our faith in the ultimate consolidation of Canada; he tends to retard our perfect fusion, and is inclined to unduly exalt Ontario at the expense of her sister Provinces.  All these things trouble us, as increasing the possibility of success for a movement just now being actively stirred in England, and toward which Goldwin Smith's attitude has ever been one of uncompromising antagonism—that is, the movement toward Imperial Federation.

Speaking of Mr. Smith and Canadian Nationalism, as the Nationalist movement is now too big to fear laughter I may mention the sad fate of the first efforts to institute such a movement. A number of years ago, certain able and patriotic young men in Toronto established a 'Canada First' party, and threw themselves with zeal into the work of propagandizing.  Mr. Smith's co-operation was joyfully accepted, and he joined the movement.  But it soon transpired that it was the movement which had joined him.  In very fact, he swallowed the 'Canada First' party; and growing tired of propagandizing when he thought the time was ripe for it, and finding something else to do just then than assist at the possibly premature birth of a nation, he let the busy little movement fall to pieces.  The vital germ, however, existed in every one of the separate pieces, and has sprung up from border to border of the land, till now it has a thousand centres, is clothed in a thousand shapes, and is altogether incapable of being swallowed.

As I am writing for an American audience, it may not be irrelevant to say, before concluding, that while Goldwin Smith is an ardent believer in and friend of the American people, he has at the same time but a tepid esteem for the chief part of American literature.  He rather decries all but the great humorists, for whom indeed his admiration is unbounded.  He has a full and generous appreciation for the genius of Poe.  But he misses entirely the greatness of Emerson, allows to Lowell no eminence save as a satirist, and is continually asking, privately, that America shall produce a book.  As he has not, however, made this exorbitant demand as yet in printer's ink, and over his sign and seal, perhaps we may be permitted to regard it as no more than a mild British joke.



"Goldwin Smith at the Grange," The Critic IV, New York: The Critic Company, July 11, 1885 [back]