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Poets And Publishers Post by :aronco Category :Essays Author :Richard Le Gallienne Date :August 2011 Read :1545

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Poets And Publishers


A serious theme demands serious treatment. Let us, therefore, begin with definitions. What is a poet? and what is a publisher? Popularly speaking, a poet is a fool, and a publisher is a knave. At least, I am hardly wrong in saying that such is the literal assumption of the Incorporated Society of Authors, a body well acquainted with both. Indeed, that may be said to be its working hypothesis, the very postulate of its existence.

Of course, there are other definitions of both. It is not so the maiden of seventeen defines a poet, as she looks up to him with brimming eyes in the summer sunset and calls him 'her Byron.' It is not so the embryo Chatterton defines him, chained to an office stool in some sooty provincial town, dreaming of Fleet Street as of a shining thoroughfare in the New Jerusalem, where move authors and poets, angelic beings, in 'solemn troops and sweet societies.' For, indeed, was that not the dream of all of us? For my part, I remember my first, most beautiful, delusion was that poets belonged only to the golden prime of the world, and that, like miracles, they had long ceased before the present age. And I very well recall my curious bewilderment when, one day in a bookseller's, a friendly schoolmaster took up a new volume of Mr. Swinburne's and told me that it was by the new great poet. How wonderful that little incident made the world for me! Real poets actually existing in this unromantic to-day! If you had told me of a mermaid, or a wood-nymph, or of the philosopher's stone as apprehensible wonders, I should not have marvelled more. While a single poet existed in the land, who could say that the kingdom of Romance was all let out in building lots, or that the steam whistle had quite 'frighted away the Dryads and the Fauns'?

Since then I have taken up the reviewing of minor verse as a part of my livelihood, and where I once saw the New Jerusalem I see now the New Journalism.

There are, doubtless, many who still cherish that boyish dream of the poet. He still stalks through the popular imagination with his Spanish hat and cloak, his amaranthine locks, his finely-frenzied eyes, and his Alastor-like forgetfulness of his meals. But only, it is to be feared, for a little time. For the latter-day poet is doing his best to dissipate that venerable tradition. Bitten by the modern passion for uniformity, he has French-cropped those locks, in which, as truly as with Samson, lay his strength, he has discarded his sombrero for a Lincoln and Bennett, he cultivates a silky moustache, a glossy boot, and has generally given himself into the hands of the West-End tailor. Stung beyond endurance by taunts of his unpracticality, he enters Parliament, edits papers, keeps accounts, and is in every way a better business man than his publisher.

This is all very well for a little time. The contrast amuses by its piquancy. To write of wild and whirling things in your books, but in public life to be associated with nothing more wild and whirling than a shirt-fronted eye-glassed hansom; to be at heart an Alastor, but in appearance a bank-clerk, delights an age of paradox.

But, though it may pay for a while, it will, I am sure, prove a disastrous policy in the long run. The poet unborn shall, I am certain, rue it. The next generation of poets (or, indeed, writers generally) will reap a sorrowful harvest from the gratuitous disillusionment with which the present generation is so eager to indulge the curiosity, and flatter the mediocrity, of the public. The public, like the big baby it is, is continually crying 'to see the wheels go round,' and for a time the exhibition of, so to say, the 'works' of poet and novelist is profitable. But a time will come when, with its curiosity sated, the public will turn upon the poet, and throw into his face, on his own authority, that he is but as they are, that his airs of inspiration and divine right are humbug. And in that day the poet will block his silk hat, will shave away the silken moustache, will get him a bottle of Mrs. Allen's Hair Restorer, and betake himself to the sombrero of his ancestors--but it will be all too late. The cat will have been irrecoverably let out of the bag, the mystery of the poet as exploded as the mysteries of Eleusis.

Tennyson knew better. To use the word in its mediaevalsense, he respected the 'mystery' of poetry. Instinctively, doubtless, but also, I should imagine, deliberately, he all his life lived up to the traditional type of the poet, and kept between him and his public a proper veil of Sinaitic mist. You remember Browning's picture of the mysterious poet 'you saw go up and down Valladolid,' and the awestruck rumours that were whispered about him--how, for instance--

'If you tracked him to his home, down lanes
Beyond the Jewry, and as clean to pace,
You found he ate his supper in a room
Blazing with lights, four Titians on the wall,
And twenty naked girls to change his plate!'

That is the kind of thing the public likes to hear of its poets. That is something like a poet. Inquisitive the public always will be, but it is a mistake to indulge rather than to pique its curiosity. Tennyson respected the wishes of his public in this matter, and, not only in his dress and his dramatic seclusion, but surely in his obstinate avoidance of prose-work of any kind we have a subtler expression of his carefulness for fame. It is a mistake for a poet to write prose, however good, for it is a charming illusion of the public that, comparatively speaking, any one can write prose. It is an earthly accomplishment, it is as walking is to flying--is it not stigmatised 'pedestrian'? Now, your true Bird of Paradise, which is the poet, must, metaphorically speaking, have no legs--as Adrian Harley said was the case with the women in Richard Feverel's poems. He must never be seen to walk in prose, for his part is, 'pinnacled dim in the intense inane,' to hang aloft and warble the unpremeditated lay, without erasure or blot. This is, I am sure, not fanciful, for two or three modern instances, which I am far too considerate to name, illustrate its truth. Unless you are a very great person indeed, the surest way to lose a reputation as poet is to gain one as critic. It is true that for a time one may help the other, and that if you are very fecund, and let your poetical issues keep pace with your critical, you may even avoid the catastrophe altogether; but it is an unmistakable risk, and if in the end you are not catalogued as a great critic, you will assuredly be set down as a minor poet: whereas if you had stuck to your last, there is no telling what fame might not have been yours. Limitation, not versatility, is the fashion to-day. The man with the one talent, not the five, is the hero of the hour.

Besides, this sudden change of his spots on the part of the poet is unfair to the publisher, who is thus apt to find himself surprised out of his just gain. For, at the present moment, I would back almost any poet of my acquaintance against any publisher in a matter of business. This is unfair, for the publisher is a being slow to move, slow to take in changed conditions, always two generations, at least, behind his authors. Consequently, this sudden development of capacity on the part of the poet is liable to take him unprepared, and the mere apparition of a poet who can add up a pounds shillings and pence column offhand might well induce apoplexy. Yet it is to be feared that that providence which arms every evil thing with its fang has so protected the publisher with an instinctive dread of verse in any form, and especially in manuscript, that he has, after all, little to fear from the poet's new gifts.


But, indeed, my image just now was both uncomplimentary and unjust: for, parallel with the change in the poet to which I have referred, a still more unnatural change is making itself apparent in the type of the publisher. It would almost seem as if the two are changing places. Instead of the poet humbly waiting, hat in hand, kicking his heels for half a day in the publisher's office, it is the publisher who seeks him, who writes for appointments at his private house, or invites him to dinner. Yet it behoves the poet to be on his guard. A publisher, like another personage, has many shapes of beguilement, and it is not unlikely that this flattering deference is but another wile to entrap the unwary. There is no way of circumventing the dreamer so subtle as to flatter his business qualities. We all like to be praised for the something we cannot do. It is for this reason that Mr. Stevenson interferes with Samoan politics, when he should be writing romances--just the desire of the dreamer to play the man of action.

But I am not going to weary you by indulging in the stale old diatribes against the publisher. For, to speak seriously the honest truth, I think they are in the main a very much abused race. Thackeray put the matter with a good deal of common-sense, in that scene in _Pendennis_ where Pen and Warrington walk home together from the Fleet prison, after hearing Captain Shandon read that brilliant prospectus of the _Pall Mall Gazette_, which he had written for bookseller Bungay, and for which that gentleman disbursed him a L5 note on the spot. Pen, you will remember, was full of the oppressions of genius, of Apollo being tied down to such an Admetus as Bungay. Warrington, however, took a maturer view of the matter.

'A fiddlestick about men of genius!' he exclaimed, 'I deny that there are so many geniuses as people who whimper about the fate of men of letters assert there are. There are thousands of clever fellows in the world who could, if they would, turn verses, write articles, read books, and deliver a judgment upon them; the talk of professional critics and writers is not a whit more brilliant, or profound, or amusing than that of any other society of educated people. If a lawyer, or a soldier, or a parson outruns his income, and does not pay his bills, he must go to gaol; and an author must go too. If an author fuddles himself, I don't know why he should be let off a headache the next morning--if he orders a coat from the tailor's, why he shouldn't pay for it....'

Dr. Johnson, who had no great reason to be prejudiced in their favour, defined booksellers as 'the patrons of literature,' and M. Anatole France has recently said that 'a great publisher is a kind of Minister for _belles-lettres_.' Such definitions are, doubtless, prophecies of the ideal rather than descriptions of the actual. Yet, fairly dealt with, the history of publishing would show a much nearer living up to them on the part of publishers than the poets and their sentimental sympathisers are inclined to admit. We hear a great deal of Milton getting L10 for _Paradise Lost_, and the Tonsons riding in their carriage, but seldom of Cottle adventuring thirty guineas on Coleridge's early poems, or the Jacksons giving untried boys L10--or, according to some accounts, L20--for _Poems by Two Brothers_.

To open the case for the bookseller or the publisher. The poet, to start with, bases his familiar complaints on a wilful disregard of the relation which poetry bears to average humanity. You often hear him express indignant surprise that the sale of butcher's meat should be a more lucrative business than the sale of poetry. But, surely, to argue thus is to manifest a most absurd misapprehension of the facts of life. Wordsworth says that 'we live by admiration, joy, and love.' So doubtless we do: but we live far more by butcher's meat and Burton ale. Poetry is but a preparation of opium distilled by a minority for a minority. The poet may test the case by the relative amounts he pays his butcher and his bookseller. So far as I know, he pays as little for his poetry as possible, and never buys a volume by a brother-singer till he has vainly tried six different ways to get a presentation copy. The poet seems incapable of mastering the rudimentary truth that ethereals must be based on materials. 'No song, no supper' is the old saw. It is equally true reversed--no supper, no song. The empty-stomach theory of creation is a cruel fallacy, though undoubtedly hunger has sometimes been the spur which the clear soul doth raise.

The conditions of existence compel the publisher to be a tradesman on the same material basis as any other. Ideally, a poem, like any other beautiful thing, is beyond price; but, practically, its value depends on the number of individuals who can be prevailed upon to purchase it. In its ethereal--otherwise its unprinted--state, it is only subject to the laws of the celestial ether, one of which is that it yields no money; properly speaking, money is there an irrelevant condition. Byron, you remember, would not for a long time accept any money from Murray for his poems, successful as they were. He had a proper sense of the indignity of _selling_ the children of his soul. The incongruity is much as though we might go to Portland Road and buy an angel, just as we buy a parrot. The transactions of poetry and of sale are on two different planes. But so soon as, shall we say, you debase poetry by bringing it down to the lower plane, it becomes subject to the laws of that plane. An unprinted poem is a spiritual thing, but a printed poem is subject to the laws of matter. In the heaven of the poet's imagination there are no printers and paper-makers, no binders, no discounts to the trade and thirteen to the dozen; but on earth, where alone, so far as we know, books exist, these terrestrial beings and conditions are of paramount importance, and cannot be ignored. It may be perfectly true that a certain poem is so fine that, in a properly constituted cosmogony, it ought to support you to the end of your days; but is the publisher to blame because, in spite of its manifest genius, he can sell no more than 500 copies?

Then, to take another point of view, it is, I think, quite demonstrable that, compared with the men of many other callings, a poet who can get his verses accepted is very well paid. Take a typical instance. You spend an absolutely beatific evening with Clarinda in the moonlit woodland. You go home and relieve your emotions in a sonnet, which, we will say, at a generous allowance, takes you half an hour to write. Next morning in that cold calculating mood for which no business man can match a poet, you copy it out fair and send it to a friendly editor. Perhaps out of Clarinda alone you beget a sonnet a week, which at L2, 2s. a week is L109, 4s. a year--not to speak of Phyllis and Dulcinea. At any rate, take that one sonnet. For an evening with Clarinda, for which alone you would have paid the sum, and for a beggarly half-hour's work, you receive as much as many a City clerk earns by six hard days' work, eight hours to the dreary day, with perhaps a family to keep and a railway contract to pay for. Half-an-hour's work, and if you can live on L2, 2s. a week, the rest of your time is free as air! Moreover, you have the option of going about with a feeling that you are a being vastly superior to your fellows, because forsooth you can string fourteen lines together in decent Petrarcan form, and they cannot. And to return for a moment to Clarinda: it seems to me that your publisher, with all his ill-gotten gains, compares favourably with you in your treatment of your partner in the production of that sonnet What about the woman's half-profits in the matter? For, remember, if the publisher depends on the brains of the poet, the poet is no less dependent on the heart of the woman. It is from woman, in nine cases out of ten, that the poets have drawn their inspiration. And how have they, in eight cases out of this nine, treated her? The story is but too familiar. Will it always seem so much worse to pick a man's brains than to break a woman's heart?

We touched just now on the arrogance of the poet. It is one of the most foolish and distasteful of his faults, and one which unfortunately the world has conspired from time immemorial to confirm. He has been too long the spoiled child, too long allowed to think that anything becomes him, too long allowed to ride rough-shod over the neck of the average man.

Mrs. Browning, in _Aurora Leigh_, while celebrating the poet, sneers at 'your common men' who 'lay telegraphs, gauge railroads, reign, reap, dine.' But why? All these--with, perhaps, the exception of reigning--are very proper and necessary things to be done, and any one of them, done in the true spirit of work, is every bit as dignified as the writing of poetry, and often, I am afraid, a great deal more so. This scorn of the common man is but another instance of the poet's ignorance of the facts of life and the relations of things. The hysterical bitterness with which certain sections of modern people of taste are constantly girding at the _bourgeois_--which, indeed, as Omar Khayyam says, heeds 'as the sea's self should heed a pebble-cast'--is one of the most melancholy of recent literary phenomena. It was not so the great masters treated the common man, nor any full-blooded age. But the torch of taste has for the moment fallen into the hands of little men, anaemic and atrabilious, with neither laughter nor pity in their hearts.

Besides, how easy it is to misjudge your so-called 'common man'! That fat, undistinguished-looking Briton in the corner of the omnibus is as likely as not Mr. So-and-So, the distinguished poet; and who but those with the divining-rod of a kind heart know what refined sensibility and nobility of character may lurk under an extremely _bourgeois_ exterior?

We live in an age of every man his own priest and his own lawyer. At a pinch we can very well be every man his own poet. If the whole supercilious crew of modern men of letters, artists, and critics were wiped off the earth to-morrow, the world would be hardly conscious of the loss. Nay, if even the entire artistic accumulation of the past were to be suddenly swallowed up, it would be little worse off. For the world is more beautiful and wonderful than anything that has ever been written about it, and the most glorious picture is not so beautiful as the face of a spring morning.

(The end)
Richard Le Gallienne's essay: Poets And Publishers

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