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Full Online Book HomeEssaysThe Poet At The Breakfast Table - Chapter IV
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The Poet At The Breakfast Table - Chapter IV Post by :jokennen Category :Essays Author :Oliver Wendell Holmes Date :April 2012 Read :1844

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The Poet At The Breakfast Table - Chapter IV


The old Master has developed one quality of late for which I am afraid I hardly gave him credit. He has turned out to be an excellent listener.

--I love to talk,--he said,--as a goose loves to swim. Sometimes I think it is because I am a goose. For I never talked much at any one time in my life without saying something or other I was sorry for.

--You too!--said I--Now that is very odd, for it is an experience I have habitually. I thought you were rather too much of a philosopher to trouble yourself about such small matters as to whether you had said just what you meant to or not; especially as you know that the person you talk to does not remember a word of what you said the next morning, but is thinking, it is much more likely, of what she said, or how her new dress looked, or some other body's new dress which made--hers look as if it had been patched together from the leaves of last November. That's what she's probably thinking about.

--She!--said the Master, with a look which it would take at least half a page to explain to the entire satisfaction of thoughtful readers of both sexes.

--I paid the respect due to that most significant monosyllable, which, as the old Rabbi spoke it, with its targum of tone and expression, was not to be answered flippantly, but soberly, advisedly, and after a pause long enough for it to unfold its meaning in the listener's mind. For there are short single words (all the world remembers Rachel's Helas!) which are like those Japanese toys that look like nothing of any significance as you throw them on the water, but which after a little time open out into various strange and unexpected figures, and then you find that each little shred had a complicated story to tell of itself.

-Yes,--said I, at the close of this silent interval, during which the monosyllable had been opening out its meanings,--She. When I think of talking, it is of course with a woman. For talking at its best being an inspiration, it wants a corresponding divine quality of receptiveness; and where will you find this but in woman?

The Master laughed a pleasant little laugh,--not a harsh, sarcastic one, but playful, and tempered by so kind a look that it seemed as if every wrinkled line about his old eyes repeated, "God bless you," as the tracings on the walls of the Alhambra repeat a sentence of the Koran.

I said nothing, but looked the question, What are you laughing at?

--Why, I laughed because I couldn't help saying to myself that a woman whose mind was taken up with thinking how she looked, and how her pretty neighbor looked, wouldn't have a great deal of thought to spare for all your fine discourse.

--Come, now,--said I,--a man who contradicts himself in the course of two minutes must have a screw loose in his mental machinery. I never feel afraid that such a thing can happen to me, though it happens often enough when I turn a thought over suddenly, as you did that five-cent piece the other day, that it reads differently on its two sides. What I meant to say is something like this. A woman, notwithstanding she is the best of listeners, knows her business, and it is a woman's business to please. I don't say that it is not her business to vote, but I do say that a woman who does not please is a false note in the harmonies of nature. She may not have youth, or beauty, or even manner; but she must have something in her voice or expression, or both, which it makes you feel better disposed towards your race to look at or listen to. She knows that as well as we do; and her first question after you have been talking your soul into her consciousness is, Did I please? A woman never forgets her sex. She would rather talk with a man than an angel, any day.

--This frightful speech of mine reached the ear of our Scheherezade, who said that it was perfectly shocking and that I deserved to be shown up as the outlaw in one of her bandit stories.

Hush, my dear,--said the Lady,--you will have to bring John Milton into your story with our friend there, if you punish everybody who says naughty things like that. Send the little boy up to my chamber for Paradise Lost, if you please. He will find it lying on my table. The little old volume,--he can't mistake it.

So the girl called That Boy round and gave him the message; I don't know why she should give it, but she did, and the Lady helped her out with a word or two.

The little volume--its cover protected with soft white leather from a long kid glove, evidently suggesting the brilliant assemblies of the days when friends and fortune smiled-came presently and the Lady opened it.---You may read that, if you like, she said,--it may show you that our friend is to be pilloried in good company.

The Young Girl ran her eye along the passage the Lady pointed out, blushed, laughed, and slapped the book down as though she would have liked to box the ears of Mr. John Milton, if he had been a contemporary and fellow-contributor to the "Weekly Bucket."--I won't touch the thing,--she said.---He was a horrid man to talk so: and he had as many wives as Blue-Beard.

--Fair play,--said the Master.---Bring me the book, my little fractional superfluity,--I mean you, my nursling,--my boy, if that suits your small Highness better.

The Boy brought the book.

The old Master, not unfamiliar with the great epic opened pretty nearly to the place, and very soon found the passage: He read, aloud with grand scholastic intonation and in a deep voice that silenced the table as if a prophet had just uttered Thus saith the Lord:--

"So spake our sire, and by his countenance seemed
Entering on studious thoughts abstruse; which Eve

went to water her geraniums, to make a short story of it, and left the two "conversationists," to wit, the angel Raphael and the gentleman,--there was but one gentleman in society then, you know,--to talk it out.

"Yet went she not, as not with such discourse
Delighted, or not capable her ear
Of what was high; such pleasure she reserved,
Adam relating, she sole auditress;
Her husband the relater she preferred
Before the angel, and of him to ask
Chose rather; he she knew would intermix
Grateful digressions, and solve high dispute
With conjugal caresses: from his lips
Not words alone pleased her."

Everybody laughed, except the Capitalist, who was a little hard of hearing, and the Scarabee, whose life was too earnest for demonstrations of that kind. He had his eyes fixed on the volume, however, with eager interest.

--The p'int 's carried,--said the Member of the Haouse.

Will you let me look at that book a single minute?--said the Scarabee. I passed it to him, wondering what in the world he wanted of Paradise Lost.

Dermestes lardarius,--he said, pointing to a place where the edge of one side of the outer cover had been slightly tasted by some insect.--Very fond of leather while they 're in the larva state.

--Damage the goods as bad as mice,--said the Salesman.

--Eat half the binding off Folio 67,--said the Register of Deeds. Something did, anyhow, and it was n't mice. Found the shelf covered with little hairy cases belonging to something or other that had no business there.

Skins of the Dermestes lardaraus,--said the Scarabee,--you can always tell them by those brown hairy coats. That 's the name to give them.

--What good does it do to give 'em a name after they 've eat the binding off my folios?--asked the Register of Deeds.

The Scarabee had too much respect for science to answer such a question as that; and the book, having served its purposes, was passed back to the Lady.

I return to the previous question,--said I,--if our friend the Member of the House of Representatives will allow me to borrow the phrase. Womanly women are very kindly critics, except to themselves and now and then to their own sex. The less there is of sex about a woman, the more she is to be dreaded. But take a real woman at her best moment,--well dressed enough to be pleased with herself, not so resplendent as to be a show and a sensation, with those varied outside influences which set vibrating the harmonic notes of her nature stirring in the air about her, and what has social life to compare with one of those vital interchanges of thought and feeling with her that make an hour memorable? What can equal her tact, her delicacy, her subtlety of apprehension, her quickness to feel the changes of temperature as the warm and cool currents of talk blow by turns? At one moment she is microscopically intellectual, critical, scrupulous in judgment as an analyst's balance, and the next as sympathetic as the open rose that sweetens the wind from whatever quarter it finds its way to her bosom. It is in the hospitable soul of a woman that a man forgets he is a stranger, and so becomes natural and truthful, at the same time that he is mesmerized by all those divine differences which make her a mystery and a bewilderment to--

If you fire your popgun at me, you little chimpanzee, I will stick a pin right through the middle of you and put you into one of this gentleman's beetle-cases!

I caught the imp that time, but what started him was more than I could guess. It is rather hard that this spoiled child should spoil such a sentence as that was going to be; but the wind shifted all at once, and the talk had to come round on another tack, or at least fall off a point or two from its course.

--I'll tell you who I think are the best talkers in all probability, --said I to the Master, who, as I mentioned, was developing interesting talent as a listener,--poets who never write verses. And there are a good many more of these than it would seem at first sight. I think you may say every young lover is a poet, to begin with. I don't mean either that all young lovers are good talkers,--they have an eloquence all their own when they are with the beloved object, no doubt, emphasized after the fashion the solemn bard of Paradise refers to with such delicious humor in the passage we just heard,--but a little talk goes a good way in most of these cooing matches, and it wouldn't do to report them too literally. What I mean is, that a man with the gift of musical and impassioned phrase (and love often deeds that to a young person for a while), who "wreaks" it, to borrow Byron's word, on conversation as the natural outlet of his sensibilities and spiritual activities, is likely to talk better than the poet, who plays on the instrument of verse. A great pianist or violinist is rarely a great singer. To write a poem is to expend the vital force which would have made one brilliant for an hour or two, and to expend it on an instrument with more pipes, reeds, keys, stops, and pedals than the Great Organ that shakes New England every time it is played in full blast.

Do you mean that it is hard work to write a poem?--said the old Master.---I had an idea that a poem wrote itself, as it were, very often; that it came by influx, without voluntary effort; indeed, you have spoken of it as an inspiration rather than a result of volition.

--Did you ever see a great ballet-dancer?--I asked him.

--I have seen Taglioni,--he answered.---She used to take her steps rather prettily. I have seen the woman that danced the capstone on to Bunker Hill Monument, as Orpheus moved the rocks by music, the Elssler woman,--Fanny Elssler. She would dance you a rigadoon or cut a pigeon's wing for you very respectably.

(Confound this old college book-worm,----he has seen everything!)

Well, did these two ladies dance as if it was hard work to them?

--Why no, I should say they danced as if they liked it and couldn't help dancing; they looked as if they felt so "corky" it was hard to keep them down.

--And yet they had been through such work to get their limbs strong and flexible and obedient, that a cart-horse lives an easy life compared to theirs while they were in training.

--The Master cut in just here--I had sprung the trap of a reminiscence.

--When I was a boy,--he said,--some of the mothers in our small town, who meant that their children should know what was what as well as other people's children, laid their heads together and got a dancing-master to come out from the city and give instruction at a few dollars a quarter to the young folks of condition in the village. Some of their husbands were ministers and some were deacons, but the mothers knew what they were about, and they did n't see any reason why ministers' and deacons' wives' children shouldn't have as easy manners as the sons and daughters of Belial. So, as I tell you, they got a dancing-master to come out to our place,--a man of good repute, a most respectable man,--madam (to the Landlady), you must remember the worthy old citizen, in his advanced age, going about the streets, a most gentlemanly bundle of infirmities,--only he always cocked his hat a little too much on one side, as they do here and there along the Connecticut River, and sometimes on our city sidewalks, when they've got a new beaver; they got him, I say, to give us boys and girls lessons in dancing and deportment. He was as gray and as lively as a squirrel, as I remember him, and used to spring up in the air and "cross his feet," as we called it, three times before he came down. Well, at the end of each term there was what they called an "exhibition ball," in which the scholars danced cotillons and country-dances; also something called a "gavotte," and I think one or more walked a minuet. But all this is not what--I wanted to say. At this exhibition ball he used to bring out a number of hoops wreathed with roses, of the perennial kind, by the aid of which a number of amazingly complicated and startling evolutions were exhibited; and also his two daughters, who figured largely in these evolutions, and whose wonderful performances to us, who had not seen Miss Taglioni or Miss Elssler, were something quite bewildering, in fact, surpassing the natural possibilities of human beings. Their extraordinary powers were, however, accounted for by the following explanation, which was accepted in the school as entirely satisfactory. A certain little bone in the ankles of each of these young girls had been broken intentionally, secundum artem, at a very early age, and thus they had been fitted to accomplish these surprising feats which threw the achievements of the children who were left in the condition of the natural man into ignominious shadow.

--Thank you,--said I,--you have helped out my illustration so as to make it better than I expected. Let me begin again. Every poem that is worthy of the name, no matter how easily it seems to be written, represents a great amount of vital force expended at some time or other. When you find a beach strewed with the shells and other spoils that belonged once to the deep sea, you know the tide has been there, and that the winds and waves have wrestled over its naked sands. And so, if I find a poem stranded in my soul and have nothing to do but seize it as a wrecker carries off the treasure he finds cast ashore, I know I have paid at some time for that poem with some inward commotion, were it only an excess of enjoyment, which has used up just so much of my vital capital. But besides all the impressions that furnished the stuff of the poem, there has been hard work to get the management of that wonderful instrument I spoke of,---the great organ, language. An artist who works in marble or colors has them all to himself and his tribe, but the man who moulds his thought in verse has to employ the materials vulgarized by everybody's use, and glorify them by his handling. I don't know that you must break any bones in a poet's mechanism before his thought can dance in rhythm, but read your Milton and see what training, what patient labor, it took before he could shape our common speech into his majestic harmonies.

It is rather singular, but the same kind of thing has happened to me not very rarely before, as I suppose it has to most persons, that just when I happened to be thinking about poets and their conditions, this very morning, I saw a paragraph or two from a foreign paper which is apt to be sharp, if not cynical, relating to the same matter. I can't help it; I want to have my talk about it, and if I say the same things that writer did, somebody else can have the satisfaction of saying I stole them all.

(I thought the person whom I have called hypothetically the Man of Letters changed color a little and betrayed a certain awkward consciousness that some of us were looking at him or thinking of him; but I am a little suspicious about him and may do him wrong.)

That poets are treated as privileged persons by their admirers and the educated public can hardly be disputed. That they consider themselves so there is no doubt whatever. On the whole, I do not know so easy a way of shirking all the civic and social and domestic duties, as to settle it in one's mind that one is a poet. I have, therefore, taken great pains to advise other persons laboring under the impression that they were gifted beings, destined to soar in the atmosphere of song above the vulgar realities of earth, not to neglect any homely duty under the influence of that impression. The number of these persons is so great that if they were suffered to indulge their prejudice against every-day duties and labors, it would be a serious loss to the productive industry of the country. My skirts are clear (so far as other people are concerned) of countenancing that form of intellectual opium-eating in which rhyme takes the place of the narcotic. But what are you going to do when you find John Keats an apprentice to a surgeon or apothecary? Is n't it rather better to get another boy to sweep out the shop and shake out the powders and stir up the mixtures, and leave him undisturbed to write his Ode on a Grecian Urn or to a Nightingale? Oh yes, the critic I have referred to would say, if he is John Keats; but not if he is of a much lower grade, even though he be genuine, what there is of him. But the trouble is, the sensitive persons who belong to the lower grades of the poetical hierarchy do not--know their own poetical limitations, while they do feel a natural unfitness and disinclination for many pursuits which young persons of the average balance of faculties take to pleasantly enough. What is forgotten is this, that every real poet, even of the humblest grade, is an artist. Now I venture to say that any painter or sculptor of real genius, though he may do nothing more than paint flowers and fruit, or carve cameos, is considered a privileged person. It is recognized perfectly that to get his best work he must be insured the freedom from disturbances which the creative power absolutely demands, more absolutely perhaps in these slighter artists than in the great masters. His nerves must be steady for him to finish a rose-leaf or the fold of a nymph's drapery in his best manner; and they will be unsteadied if he has to perform the honest drudgery which another can do for him quite as well. And it is just so with the poet, though he were only finishing an epigram; you must no more meddle roughly with him than you would shake a bottle of Chambertin and expect the "sunset glow" to redden your glass unclouded. On the other hand, it may be said that poetry is not an article of prime necessity, and potatoes are. There is a disposition in many persons just now to deny the poet his benefit of clergy, and to hold him no better than other people. Perhaps he is not, perhaps he is not so good, half the time; but he is a luxury, and if you want him you must pay for him, by not trying to make a drudge of him while he is all his lifetime struggling with the chills and heats of his artistic intermittent fever.

There may have been some lesser interruptions during the talk I have reported as if it was a set speech, but this was the drift of what I said and should have said if the other man, in the Review I referred to, had not seen fit to meddle with the subject, as some fellow always does, just about the time when I am going to say something about it. The old Master listened beautifully, except for cutting in once, as I told you he did. But now he had held in as long as it was in his nature to contain himself, and must have his say or go off in an apoplexy, or explode in some way.--I think you're right about the poets,--he said.--They are to common folks what repeaters are to ordinary watches. They carry music in their inside arrangements, but they want to be handled carefully or you put them out of order. And perhaps you must n't expect them to be quite as good timekeepers as the professional chronometer watches that make a specialty of being exact within a few seconds a month. They think too much of themselves. So does everybody that considers himself as having a right to fall back on what he calls his idiosyncrasy. Yet a man has such a right, and it is no easy thing to adjust the private claim to the fair public demand on him. Suppose you are subject to tic douloureux, for instance. Every now and then a tiger that nobody can see catches one side of your face between his jaws and holds on till he is tired and lets go. Some concession must be made to you on that score, as everybody can see. It is fair to give you a seat that is not in the draught, and your friends ought not to find fault with you if you do not care to join a party that is going on a sleigh-ride. Now take a poet like Cowper. He had a mental neuralgia, a great deal worse in many respects than tic douloureux confined to the face. It was well that he was sheltered and relieved, by the cares of kind friends, especially those good women, from as many of the burdens of life as they could lift off from him. I am fair to the poets,--don't you agree that I am?

Why, yes,--I said,--you have stated the case fairly enough, a good deal as I should have put it myself.

Now, then,--the Master continued,--I 'll tell you what is necessary to all these artistic idiosyncrasies to bring them into good square human relations outside of the special province where their ways differ from those of other people. I am going to illustrate what I mean by a comparison. I don't know, by the way, but you would be disposed to think and perhaps call me a wine-bibber on the strength of the freedom with which I deal with that fluid for the purposes of illustration. But I make mighty little use of it, except as it furnishes me an image now and then, as it did, for that matter, to the Disciples and their Master. In my younger days they used to bring up the famous old wines, the White-top, the Juno, the Eclipse, the Essex Junior, and the rest, in their old cobwebbed, dusty bottles. The resurrection of one of these old sepulchred dignitaries had something of solemnity about it; it was like the disinterment of a king; the bringing to light of the Royal Martyr King Charles I., for instance, that Sir Henry Halford gave such an interesting account of. And the bottle seemed to inspire a personal respect; it was wrapped in a napkin and borne tenderly and reverently round to the guests, and sometimes a dead silence went before the first gush of its amber flood, and

"The boldest held his breath
For a time."

But nowadays the precious juice of a long-dead vintage is transferred carefully into a cut-glass decanter, and stands side by side with the sherry from a corner grocery, which looks just as bright and apparently thinks just as well of itself. The old historic Madeiras, which have warmed the periods of our famous rhetoricians of the past and burned in the impassioned eloquence of our earlier political demigods, have nothing to mark them externally but a bit of thread, it may be, round the neck of the decanter, or a slip of ribbon, pink on one of them and blue on another.

Go to a London club,--perhaps I might find something nearer home that would serve my turn,--but go to a London club, and there you will see the celebrities all looking alike modern, all decanted off from their historic antecedents and their costume of circumstance into the every-day aspect of the gentleman of common cultivated society. That is Sir Coeur de Lion Plantagenet in the mutton-chop whiskers and the plain gray suit; there is the Laureate in a frockcoat like your own, and the leader of the House of Commons in a necktie you do not envy. That is the kind of thing you want to take the nonsense out of you. If you are not decanted off from yourself every few days or weeks, you will think it sacrilege to brush a cobweb from your cork by and by. O little fool, that has published a little book full of little poems or other sputtering tokens of an uneasy condition, how I love you for the one soft nerve of special sensibility that runs through your exiguous organism, and the one phosphorescent particle in your unilluminated intelligence! But if you don't leave your spun-sugar confectionery business once in a while, and come out among lusty men,--the bristly, pachydermatous fellows that hew out the highways for the material progress of society, and the broad-shouldered, out-of-door men that fight for the great prizes of life,--you will come to think that the spun-sugar business is the chief end of man, and begin to feel and look as if you believed yourself as much above common people as that personage of whom Tourgueneff says that "he had the air of his own statue erected by national subscription."

--The Master paused and fell into a deep thinking fit, as he does sometimes. He had had his own say, it is true, but he had established his character as a listener to my own perfect satisfaction, for I, too, was conscious of having preached with a certain prolixity.

--I am always troubled when I think of my very limited mathematical capacities. It seems as if every well-organized mind should be able to handle numbers and quantities through their symbols to an indefinite extent; and yet, I am puzzled by what seems to a clever boy with a turn for calculation as plain as counting his fingers. I don't think any man feels well grounded in knowledge unless he has a good basis of mathematical certainties, and knows how to deal with them and apply them to every branch of knowledge where they can come in to advantage.

Our Young Astronomer is known for his mathematical ability, and I asked him what he thought was the difficulty in the minds that are weak in that particular direction, while they may be of remarkable force in other provinces of thought, as is notoriously the case with some men of great distinction in science.

The young man smiled and wrote a few letters and symbols on a piece of paper.---Can you see through that at once?--he said.

I puzzled over it for some minutes and gave it up.

--He said, as I returned it to him, You have heard military men say that such a person had an eye for country, have n't you? One man will note all the landmarks, keep the points of compass in his head, observe how the streams run, in short, carry a map in his brain of any region that he has marched or galloped through. Another man takes no note of any of these things; always follows somebody else's lead when he can, and gets lost if he is left to himself; a mere owl in daylight. Just so some men have an eye for an equation, and would read at sight the one that you puzzled over. It is told of Sir Isaac Newton that he required no demonstration of the propositions in Euclid's Geometry, but as soon as he had read the enunciation the solution or answer was plain at once. The power may be cultivated, but I think it is to a great degree a natural gift, as is the eye for color, as is the ear for music.

--I think I could read equations readily enough,--I said,--if I could only keep my attention fixed on them; and I think I could keep my attention on them if I were imprisoned in a thinking-cell, such as the Creative Intelligence shapes for its studio when at its divinest work.

The young man's lustrous eyes opened very widely as he asked me to explain what I meant.

--What is the Creator's divinest work?--I asked.

--Is there anything more divine than the sun; than a sun with its planets revolving about it, warming them, lighting them, and giving conscious life to the beings that move on them?

--You agree, then, that conscious life is the grand aim and end of all this vast mechanism. Without life that could feel and enjoy, the splendors and creative energy would all be thrown away. You know Harvey's saying, omnia animalia ex ovo,--all animals come from an egg. You ought to know it, for the great controversy going on about spontaneous generation has brought it into special prominence lately. Well, then, the ovum, the egg, is, to speak in human phrase, the Creator's more private and sacred studio, for his magnum opus. Now, look at a hen's egg, which is a convenient one to study, because it is large enough and built solidly enough to look at and handle easily. That would be the form I would choose for my thinking-cell. Build me an oval with smooth, translucent walls, and put me in the centre of it with Newton's "Principia" or Kant's "Kritik," and I think I shall develop "an eye for an equation," as you call it, and a capacity for an abstraction.

But do tell me,--said the Astronomer, a little incredulously,--what there is in that particular form which is going to help you to be a mathematician or a metaphysician?

--It is n't help I want, it is removing hindrances. I don't want to see anything to draw off my attention. I don't want a cornice, or an angle, or anything but a containing curve. I want diffused light and no single luminous centre to fix my eye, and so distract my mind from its one object of contemplation. The metaphysics of attention have hardly been sounded to their depths. The mere fixing the look on any single object for a long time may produce very strange effects. Gibbon's well-known story of the monks of Mount Athos and their contemplative practice is often laughed over, but it has a meaning. They were to shut the door of the cell, recline the beard and chin on the breast, and contemplate the abdominal centre.

"At first all will be dark and comfortless; but if you persevere day and night, you will feel an ineffable joy; and no sooner has the soul discovered the place of the heart, than it is involved in a mystic and ethereal light." And Mr. Braid produces absolute anaesthesia, so that surgical operations can be performed without suffering to the patient, only by making him fix his eyes and his mind on a single object; and Newton is said to have said, as you remember, "I keep the subject constantly before me, and wait till the first dawnings open slowly by little and little into a full and clear light." These are different, but certainly very wonderful, instances of what can be done by attention. But now suppose that your mind is in its nature discursive, erratic, subject to electric attractions and repulsions, volage; it may be impossible for you to compel your attention except by taking away all external disturbances. I think the poets have an advantage and a disadvantage as compared with the steadier-going people. Life is so vivid to the poet, that he is too eager to seize and exhaust its multitudinous impressions. Like Sindbad in the valley of precious stones, he wants to fill his pockets with diamonds, but, lo! there is a great ruby like a setting sun in its glory, and a sapphire that, like Bryant's blue gentian, seems to have dropped from the cerulean walls of heaven, and a nest of pearls that look as if they might be unhatched angel's eggs, and so he hardly knows what to seize, and tries for too many, and comes out of the enchanted valley with more gems than he can carry, and those that he lets fall by the wayside we call his poems. You may change the image a thousand ways to show you how hard it is to make a mathematician or a logician out of a poet. He carries the tropics with him wherever he goes; he is in the true sense felius naturae, and Nature tempts him, as she tempts a child walking through a garden where all the finest fruits are hanging over him and dropping round him, where

The luscious clusters of the vine
Upon (his) mouth do crush their wine,
The nectarine and curious peach,
Into (his) hands themselves do reach;

and he takes a bite out of the sunny side of this and the other, and, ever stimulated and never satisfied, is hurried through the garden, and, before he knows it, finds himself at an iron gate which opens outward, and leaves the place he knows and loves--

--For one he will perhaps soon learn to love and know better,--said the Master.---But I can help you out with another comparison, not quite so poetical as yours. Why did not you think of a railway-station, where the cars stop five minutes for refreshments? Is n't that a picture of the poet's hungry and hurried feast at the banquet of life? The traveller flings himself on the bewildering miscellany of delicacies spread before him, the various tempting forms of ambrosia and seducing draughts of nectar, with the same eager hurry and restless ardor that you describe in the poet. Dear me! If it wasn't for All aboard! that summons of the deaf conductor which tears one away from his half-finished sponge-cake and coffee, how I, who do not call myself a poet, but only a questioner, should have enjoyed a good long stop--say a couple of thousand years--at this way-station on the great railroad leading to the unknown terminus!

--You say you are not a poet,--I said, after a little pause, in which I suppose both of us were thinking where the great railroad would land us after carrying us into the dark tunnel, the farther end of which no man has seen and taken a return train to bring us news about it,--you say you are not a poet, and yet it seems to me you have some of the elements which go to make one.

--I don't think you mean to flatter me,--the Master answered,--and, what is more, for I am not afraid to be honest with you, I don't think you do flatter me. I have taken the inventory of my faculties as calmly as if I were an appraiser. I have some of the qualities, perhaps I may say many of the qualities, that make a man a poet, and yet I am not one. And in the course of a pretty wide experience of men--and women--(the Master sighed, I thought, but perhaps I was mistaken)--I have met a good many poets who were not rhymesters and a good many rhymesters who were not poets. So I am only one of the Voiceless, that I remember one of you singers had some verses about. I think there is a little music in me, but it has not found a voice, and it never will. If I should confess the truth, there is no mere earthly immortality that I envy so much as the poet's. If your name is to live at all, it is so much more to have it live in people's hearts than only in their brains! I don't know that one's eyes fill with tears when he thinks of the famous inventor of logarithms, but song of Burns's or a hymn of Charles Wesley's goes straight to your heart, and you can't help loving both of them, the sinner as well as the saint. The works of other men live, but their personality dies out of their labors; the poet, who reproduces himself in his creation, as no other artist does or can, goes down to posterity with all his personality blended with whatever is imperishable in his song. We see nothing of the bees that built the honeycomb and stored it with its sweets, but we can trace the veining in the wings of insects that flitted through the forests which are now coal-beds, kept unchanging in the amber that holds them; and so the passion of Sappho, the tenderness of Simonides, the purity of holy George Herbert, the lofty contemplativeness of James Shirley, are before us to-day as if they were living, in a few tears of amber verse. It seems, when one reads,

"Sweet day! so cool, so calm, so bright,"


"The glories of our birth and state,"

as if it were not a very difficult matter to gain immortality,--such an immortality at least as a perishable language can give. A single lyric is enough, if one can only find in his soul and finish in his intellect one of those jewels fit to sparkle "on the stretched forefinger of all time." A coin, a ring, a string of verses. These last, and hardly anything else does. Every century is an overloaded ship that must sink at last with most of its cargo. The small portion of its crew that get on board the new vessel which takes them off don't pretend to save a great many of the bulky articles. But they must not and will not leave behind the hereditary jewels of the race; and if you have found and cut a diamond, were it only a spark with a single polished facet, it will stand a better chance of being saved from the wreck than anything, no matter what, that wants much room for stowage.

The pyramids last, it is true, but most of them have forgotten their builders' names. But the ring of Thothmes III., who reigned some fourteen hundred years before our era, before Homer sang, before the Argonauts sailed, before Troy was built, is in the possession of Lord Ashburnham, and proclaims the name of the monarch who wore it more than three thousand years ago. The gold coins with the head of Alexander the Great are some of them so fresh one might think they were newer than much of the silver currency we were lately handling. As we have been quoting from the poets this morning, I will follow the precedent, and give some lines from an epistle of Pope to Addison after the latter had written, but not yet published, his Dialogue on Medals. Some of these lines have been lingering in my memory for a great many years, but I looked at the original the other day and was so pleased with them that I got them by heart. I think you will say they are singularly pointed and elegant.

"Ambition sighed; she found it vain to trust
The faithless column and the crumbling bust;
Huge moles, whose shadows stretched from shore to shore,
Their ruins perished, and their place no more!
Convinced, she now contracts her vast design,
And all her triumphs shrink into a coin.
A narrow orb each crowded conquest keeps,
Beneath her palm here sad Judaea weeps;
Now scantier limits the proud arch confine,
And scarce are seen the prostrate Nile or Rhine;
A small Euphrates through the piece is rolled,
And little eagles wave their wings in gold."

It is the same thing in literature. Write half a dozen folios full of other people's ideas (as all folios are pretty sure to be), and you serve as ballast to the lower shelves of a library, about as like to be disturbed as the kentledge in the hold of a ship. Write a story, or a dozen stories, and your book will be in demand like an oyster while it is freshly opened, and after tha--. The highways of literature are spread over with the shells of dead novels, each of which has been swallowed at a mouthful by the public, and is done with. But write a volume of poems. No matter if they are all bad but one, if that one is very good. It will carry your name down to posterity like the ring of Thothmes, like the coin of Alexander. I don't suppose one would care a great deal about it a hundred or a thousand years after he is dead, but I don't feel quite sure. It seems as if, even in heaven, King David might remember "The Lord is my Shepherd" with a certain twinge of earthly pleasure. But we don't know, we don't know.

--What in the world can have become of That Boy and his popgun while all this somewhat extended sermonizing was going on? I don't wonder you ask, beloved Reader, and I suppose I must tell you how we got on so long without interruption. Well, the plain truth is, the youngster was contemplating his gastric centre, like the monks of Mount Athos, but in a less happy state of mind than those tranquil recluses, in consequence of indulgence in the heterogeneous assortment of luxuries procured with the five-cent piece given him by the kind-hearted old Master. But you need not think I am going to tell you every time his popgun goes off, making a Selah of him whenever I want to change the subject. Occasionally he was ill-timed in his artillery practice and ignominiously rebuked, sometimes he was harmlessly playful and nobody minded him, but every now and then he came in so apropos that I am morally certain he gets a hint from somebody who watches the course of the conversation, and means through him to have a hand in it and stop any of us when we are getting prosy. But in consequence of That Boy's indiscretion, we were without a check upon our expansiveness, and ran on in the way you have observed and may be disposed to find fault with.

One other thing the Master said before we left the table, after our long talk of that day.

--I have been tempted sometimes,--said he, to envy the immediate triumphs of the singer. He enjoys all that praise can do for him and at the very moment of exerting his talent. And the singing women! Once in a while, in the course of my life, I have found myself in the midst of a tulip-bed of full-dressed, handsome women in all their glory, and when some one among them has shaken her gauzy wings, and sat down before the piano, and then, only giving the keys a soft touch now and then to support her voice, has warbled some sweet, sad melody intertwined with the longings or regrets of some tender-hearted poet, it has seemed to me that so to hush the rustling of the silks and silence the babble of the buds, as they call the chicks of a new season, and light up the flame of romance in cold hearts, in desolate ones, in old burnt-out ones,--like mine, I was going to say, but I won't, for it isn't so, and you may laugh to hear me say it isn't so, if you like,--was perhaps better than to be remembered a few hundred years by a few perfect stanzas, when your gravestone is standing aslant, and your name is covered over with a lichen as big as a militia colonel's cockade, and nobody knows or cares enough about you to scrape it off and set the tipsy old slate-stone upright again.

--I said nothing in reply to this, for I was thinking of a sweet singer to whose voice I had listened in its first freshness, and which is now only an echo in my memory. If any reader of the periodical in which these conversations are recorded can remember so far back as the first year of its publication, he will find among the papers contributed by a friend not yet wholly forgotten a few verses, lively enough in their way, headed "The Boys." The sweet singer was one of this company of college classmates, the constancy of whose friendship deserves a better tribute than the annual offerings, kindly meant, as they are, which for many years have not been wanting at their social gatherings. The small company counts many noted personages on its list, as is well known to those who are interested in such local matters, but it is not known that every fifth man of the whole number now living is more or less of a poet,--using that word with a generous breadth of significance. But it should seem that the divine gift it implies is more freely dispensed than some others, for while there are (or were, for one has taken his Last Degree) eight musical quills, there was but one pair of lips which could claim any special consecration to vocal melody. Not that one that should undervalue the half-recitative of doubtful barytones, or the brilliant escapades of slightly unmanageable falsettos, or the concentrated efforts of the proprietors of two or three effective notes, who may be observed lying in wait for them, and coming down on them with all their might, and the look on their countenances of "I too am a singer." But the voice that led all, and that all loved to listen to, the voice that was at once full, rich, sweet, penetrating, expressive, whose ample overflow drowned all the imperfections and made up for all the shortcomings of the others, is silent henceforth forevermore for all earthly listeners.

And these were the lines that one of "The Boys," as they have always called themselves for ever so many years, read at the first meeting after the voice which had never failed them was hushed in the stillness of death.

J. A.


One memory trembles on our lips
It throbs in every breast;
In tear-dimmed eyes, in mirth's eclipse,
The shadow stands confessed.

O silent voice, that cheered so long
Our manhood's marching day,
Without thy breath of heavenly song,
How weary seems the way!

Vain every pictured phrase to tell
Our sorrowing hearts' desire;
The shattered harp, the broken shell,
The silent unstrung lyre;

For youth was round us while he sang;
It glowed in every tone;
With bridal chimes the echoes rang,
And made the past our own.

O blissful dream! Our nursery joys
We know must have an end,
But love and friendships broken toys
May God's good angels mend!

The cheering smile, the voice of mirth
And laughter's gay surprise
That please the children born of earth,
Why deem that Heaven denies?

Methinks in that refulgent sphere
That knows not sun or moon,
An earth-born saint might long to hear
One verse of "Bonny Doon";

Or walking through the streets of gold
In Heaven's unclouded light,
His lips recall the song of old
And hum "The sky is bright."

And can we smile when thou art dead?
Ah, brothers, even so!
The rose of summer will be red,
In spite of winter's snow.

Thou wouldst not leave us all in gloom
Because thy song is still,
Nor blight the banquet-garland's bloom
With grief's untimely chill.

The sighing wintry winds complain,
The singing bird has flown,
--Hark! heard I not that ringing strain,
That clear celestial tone?

How poor these pallid phrases seem,
How weak this tinkling line,
As warbles through my waking dream
That angel voice of thine!

Thy requiem asks a sweeter lay;
It falters on my tongue;
For all we vainly strive to say,
Thou shouldst thyself have sung!

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The Poet At The Breakfast Table - Chapter V The Poet At The Breakfast Table - Chapter V

The Poet At The Breakfast Table - Chapter V
CHAPTER VI fear that I have done injustice in my conversation and my report of it to a most worthy and promising young man whom I should be very sorry to injure in any way. Dr. Benjamin Franklin got hold of my account of my visit to him, and complained that I had made too much of the expression he used. He did not mean to say that he thought I was suffering from the rare disease he mentioned, but only that the color reminded him of it. It was true that he had shown me various instruments, among them one

The Poet At The Breakfast Table - Chapter III The Poet At The Breakfast Table - Chapter III

The Poet At The Breakfast Table - Chapter III
CHAPTER IIIThe old Master was talking about a concert he had been to hear.--I don't like your chopped music anyway. That woman--she had more sense in her little finger than forty medical societies--Florence Nightingale--says that the music you pour out is good for sick folks, and the music you pound out isn't. Not that exactly, but something like it. I have been to hear some music-pounding. It was a young woman, with as many white muslin flounces round her as the planet Saturn has rings, that did it. She--gave the music-stool a twirl or two and fluffed down on to it