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On A Certain Affectation Post by :jayleishman Category :Essays Author :Thomas Bailey Aldrich Date :July 2011 Read :1349

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On A Certain Affectation

EXCEPTING on the ground that youth is the age of vain fantasy, there is no accounting for the fact that young men and young women of poetical temperament should so frequently assume to look upon an early demise for themselves as the most desirable thing in the world. Though one may incidentally be tempted to agree with them in the abstract, one cannot help wondering. That persons who are exceptionally fortunate in their environment, and in private do not pretend to be otherwise, should openly announce their intention of retiring at once into the family tomb, is a problem not easily solved. The public has so long listened to these funereal solos that if a few of the poets thus impatient to be gone were to go, their departure would perhaps be attended by that resigned speeding which the proverb invokes on behalf of the parting guest.

The existence of at least one magazine editor would, I know, have a shadow lifted from it. At this writing, in a small mortuary basket under his desk are seven or eight poems of so gloomy a nature that he would not be able to remain in the same room with them if he did not suspect the integrity of their pessimism. The ring of a false coin is not more recognizable than that of a rhyme setting forth a simulated sorrow.

The Miss Gladys who sends a poem entitled "Forsaken," in which she addresses death as her only friend, makes pictures in the editor's eyes. He sees, among other dissolving views, a little hoyden in magnificent spirits, perhaps one of this season's social buds, with half a score of lovers ready to pluck her from the family stem--a rose whose countless petals are coupons. A caramel has disagreed with her, or she would not have written in this despondent vein. The young man who seeks to inform the world in eleven anaemic stanzas of _terze rime_ that the cup of happiness has been forever dashed from his lip (he appears to have but one) and darkly intimates that the end is "nigh" (rhyming affably with "sigh"), will probably be engaged a quarter of a century from now in making similar declarations. He is simply echoing some dysthymic poet of the past--reaching out with some other man's hat for the stray nickel of your sympathy.

This morbidness seldom accompanies genuine poetic gifts. The case of David Gray, the young Scottish poet who died in 1861, is an instance to the contrary. His lot was exceedingly sad, and the failure of health just as he was on the verge of achieving something like success justified his profound melancholy; but that he tuned this melancholy and played upon it, as if it were a musical instrument, is plainly seen in one of his sonnets.

In Monckton Milnes's (Lord Houghton's) "Life and Letters of John Keats" it is related that Keats, one day, on finding a stain of blood upon his lips after coughing, said to his friend Charles Brown: "I know the color of that blood; it is arterial blood; I cannot be deceived. That drop is my death-warrant. I must die." Who that ever read the passage could forget it? David Gray did not, for he versified the incident as happening to himself and appropriated, as his own, Keats's comment:


Last night, on coughing slightly with sharp pain,
There came arterial blood, and with a sigh
Of absolute grief I cried in bitter vein,
That drop is my death-warrant; I must die.


The incident was likely enough a personal experience, but the comment should have been placed in quotation marks. I know of few stranger things in literature than this poet's dramatization of another man's pathos. Even Keats's epitaph--_Here lies one whose name_ _was writ in water_--finds an echo in David Gray's _Below lies one whose name was traced in sand_. Poor Gray was at least the better prophet.


(The end)
Thomas Bailey Aldrich's essay: On A Certain Affectation

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