The Contributors' Club

WHTCH is harder to bear, ignorant praise or undeserved censure ? To the common run of people the latter evil no doubt seems the worse. There is a degree of discomfort, of course, in feeling shame-faced and foolish, as the least sensitive of us must do on finding ourselves tricked out with borrowed plumes ; it is better, we all admit, to pass for what we really are; but to be falsely accused, to suffer under outrageous misrepresentation, — this is a misfortune of quite another grade.

So the average man reasons ; and even for those of us who do not rank under that head, who value ourselves on having something of the philosophic spirit, — even for us, I say, it is not easy always to feel that instantaneous and utter loathing for an undeserved compliment which on all sound moral theories we ought to feel. Praise — shall we own it? — praise is praise, be it never so incompetent. It must be poor indeed not to carry a savor of sweetness, though it be only a bitter-sweet.

Still, it is better to be eulogized with a moderate degree of discrimination; and when I say “ moderate ” I am not to be understood in any-oblique, ironical sense. Let my good qualities be spoken of discriminatingly, by all means ; but not too discriminatingly. In such a cause I can tolerate a slight tendency to overstatement, a benignant elasticity of phrase, better than a super-conscientious adherence to literal exactness. I am resigned to having ray faults kept a little in the shade and my good points made the most of. I would not have my critics, much less those who love me, contemplate my character or my work in too dry a light. A judge should know how to wink, else he is no judge for me.

What I deprecate is nothing of this innocent and wholesome sort, but rather that reckless disregard of fact and proportion which comes not of kindly exaggeration (in this wicked world there are few things better than that), but of downright lack of intelligence or a congenital deficiency of sense.

Natural as the appetite for the good opinion of our fellows is (and whoever is without it is not fit to live), there are few of us, I suspect, but are often put to shame by its excessive and misdirected cravings. We lecture ourselves on the folly of minding what other people think of us. To check our own pride we call our brother mortals fools. Why should we care for the approbation of such a pack of dunces ? Yet so strong and unreasonable is our passion that we find to our sorrow that the most undeserved commendation, from some most benighted admirer, has power to tickle us into a momentary pleasure. Here, if I mistake not, is one of the most deplorable features of praise ignorantly bestowed. We have absolutely no respect for the judgment of our flatterer; honest and well-meaning as he probably is, it is plain as day that he knows nothing about the matter in hand ; yet for all that, we are made happy by his inane applause. How can we respect ourselves after such weakness ! In the end we scarcely know which we more despise, the fool without or the fool within.

I have often thought that no class of persons have more to endure in this respect than clergymen. There is hardly one of them, it is safe to say, but has his bevy of feminine worshipers, who take his lightest word for law and gospel, and admire him most loudly for his least excellent gifts. In all probability, he is subjected at the same time to inordinate praise and unmitigated censure. Cold winds and hot blow upon him from opposite quarters : the one set pleasant but miasmatic, the other very uncomfortable but not altogether insalubrious. A minister must receive many compliments which turn quickly to wormwood, — compliments quite undeserved, or, if deserved, so much the worse for him ; such, at any rate, as no preacher of righteousness ought to count worthy of his notice for an instant. What kind of an artist is it that blushes with pleasure on hearing some boor extol the frame in which his picture is hung?

But nothing is easier than to grow sarcastic over the foibles of other people. How is it with ourselves? When the Evening Daybeam reviewed our last book, crying it up without stint for the space of half a column, were we not gratified ? Yea, there is no denying it, though it provoked us to see that the reviewer had never read the work, — however he might have thrown his eye over the pages, as De Qnincey would have said, —and was landing it in terms a full half of which were wide of the mark.

And again, to come a little nearer home, when your first thin volume of Poems appeared (I was very near misplacing that mensural adjective), and was greeted with so significant and painful a silence, were you not elated out of measure (blush as you may at this reminder of the fact) by a certain notice which was printed in the Daily Annunciator, and which made up for its tardiness by its unqualified admiration ? To be sure, it was evidently the production of some blind personal friend, or else of some (poetical) ignoramus. Yet it was praise, and that of the most ungrudging sort. As such it was no more than your due ; only it was very unfortunate that it should not have been more elegantly and judiciously expressed. Even for you, interested as you were, — interested and young, — it was a trifle too much when your anonymous eulogist declared that in your poems were combined “ the martial enthusiasm and fiery passion of Wordsworth, the ineffable grace and delicacy of Byron, and the tender and homely simplicity of Shelley.” It was well enough to link your name with theirs; time would no doubt ratify so much of the verdict; but somehow it had to be confessed that the details of the comparison might have been more felicitously put. But what then ? You were allowed to possess fire and grace, fervor and simplicity. What more could a young poet ask ?

Well, well, it is cruel to revive such memories. You are no longer in love with your juvenile Poems, and the recollection of the Daily Annunciator’s encomium is a temptation to profanity. Let it pass. Who knows but in the same manner you may once more outgrow yourself (I am no longer sarcastic), and come to reckon the compliments which now titillate your sensibilities as only so much idle breath ?

Ignorant praise is bad, very bad, — let us pray to be delivered from it; but, after all, it is better than none.

— It is a very pathetic thing to see the efforts some of our industrious young poets make to write something good. They appear to gird up their loins, and rake the dictionary, and crowd their verses with all the choicest kind of language, all to no avail. " Majora canamus! ” they constantly exclaim, but they somehow continue to be minor poets.

It has occurred to me that they might do well to risk an opposite course. Instead of attempting any longer to make their verse mean something (for in this they do not seem fitted by nature to succeed), let them try to enrich it with passages of melodious idiocy. Like the wretched prisoners in the elevator, since the thing won’t go up, why not try it down ?

For it has been borne in on me lately that people like a little Mother Goose in their poetry. I notice that some of the stanzas most quoted from our best poets are those of whose real meaning the quoters plainly have not the remotest idea. It is not merely that the verse is liked in spite of its having, to them, no meaning, but just because of this fact. I can remember that I used to be fond of chanting,

“ Corn rigs, and barley rigs,
And corn rigs are bonnie,”

before I had any notion whatever of the sense of “ rigs.” Since the time of learning the meaning of the word, I observe that I do not seem to care half so much for the song. There is a verse of Maud that I used to rave over continually when a boy. It runs : —

“ The slender acacia would not shake
One long milk-bloom on the tree ;
The white lake-blossom fell into the lake,
And the pimpernel dozed on the lea.”

Now this pimpernel was not a flower familiar to my childhood, and I actually supposed it was a bird. I can see now the picture as my innocent youthful mind conceived it, — the pimpernel standing gravely on one long and stiltlike leg at the margin of the lake, well out of the cold wind, on “ the lee ” side, fast asleep, and probably dreaming of more polliwogs. When this halcyon bird flapped his wings of fancy and soared away on a gale of truth, the charm of the stanza was gone for me. Is there any line of Auld Lang Syne that simple people sing with such appreciative fervor as that of, “ Pu’ing ” the “gowans fine”? And what idea have they when they declaim of “ shuffling off this mortal coil”? And what feline melodiousness is suggested to them by Milton’s “ Eagle mewing her mighty youth ” ? And how nonplused they would be if suddenly called on to expound in their true relation to the thought those lines, so charming in their “ simplicity,” —

“For the soul is dead that slumbers,
And things are not what they seem ” !

How many times have we heard some poem of Browning or of Emerson delivered with ingenuous enthusiasm as a “ selection ” at some reading club, or “ circle,” when to have stopped the reader and naively inquired the meaning would have brought on a most painful situation! Depend upon it, there is nothing that so lends charm to verses as the line that is perfect nonsense to us, so long as we do not notice that it lacks sense. Even passages that are frankly and avowedly nonsense meet a felt want. Is it not one of the charms of the old ballads that they refresh our intellects now and again with their “ Oh and’s ” and " Oh but’s,” and their “ Hey no nonny’s ? ” What a terrible line is that in the “ grand old ballad of Sir Patrick Spens,” —

“ And gurly grew the sea ” !

These meaningless refrains and unintel ligible words are like the parenthetical twirls and “ warbles ” of the bagpipe, or like the banjoist’s strum and stamp. As the bumper of milk refreshes the weary pedestrian, so do these dashes of nonsense the mind, by a return to the diet of infancy.

One of the most impressive songs I ever heard was a ditty which used to be sung, or rather strummed and stamped, by an old frosty-pated darky on the village street-corner. It consisted only of the words, “ Wi’ goose — — — how long ? ” All the rest was banjo and the flat of his foot, filling in the pause of three or four measures where I have placed the dashes. (Wi’ goose — tink-a-tink-a-slamp, tink-a-tink-a-slamp, tink-a-tink-a-slamp, — how long ?) At first it had for me only the pure and unadulterated nonsense-interest. But by and by, as I used to listen sleepily to it from my window on a summer evening, I came to fancy a meaning in it. Was it not the song of some dumb heart-break of slavery, listening to the far-off, lonely cry of the wild geese flying away northward, and calling out in a repressed agony of impatience, “ Wi’ goose — — — how long ?