IF the reader thinks that all these talking Teacups came together by mere accident, as people meet at a boardinghouse, I may as well tell him at once that he is mistaken. If he thinks I am going to explain how it is that he finds them thus brought together, — whether they form a secret association, whether they are the editors of this or that periodical, whether they are connected with some institution, and so on, — I must disappoint him. It is enough that he finds them in each other’s company, a very mixed assembly, of different sexes, ages, and pursuits ; and if there is a certain mystery surrounds their meetings, he must not be surprised. Does he suppose we want to be known and talked about in public as ” Teacups ” ? No ; so far as we give to the community some records of the talks at our table our thoughts become public property, but the sacred personality of every Teacup must be properly respected. If any wonder at the presence of one of our number, whose eccentricities might seem to render him an undesirable associate of the company, he should remember that some people may have relatives whom they feel bound to keep their eye on ; besides, the cracked Teacup brings out the ring of the sound ones as nothing else does. Remember also that the soundest teacup does not always hold the best tea, nor the cracked teacup the worst.
This is a hint to the reader, who is not expected to be too curious about the individual Teacups constituting our unorganized association.
The Dictator discourses.
I have been reading Balzac’s Peau de Chagrin. You have all read the story, I hope, for it is the first of his wonderful romances which fixed the eyes of the reading world upon him, and a most fascinating if somewhat fantastic tale. A young man becomes the possessor of a certain magic skin, the peculiarity of which is that, while it gratifies every wish formed by its possessor, it shrinks in all its dimensions each time that a wish is gratified. The young man makes every effort to ascertain the cause of its shrinking; invokes the aid of the physicist, the chemist, the student of natural history, but all in vain. He draws a red line around it. That same day he indulges a longing for a certain object. The next morning there is a little interval between the red line and the skin, close to which it was traced. So always, so inevitably. As he lives on, satisfying one desire, one passion, after another, the process of shrinking continues. A mortal disease sets in, which keeps pace with the shrinking skin, and his life and his talisman come to an end together.
One would say that such a piece of integument was hardly a desirable possession. And yet, how many of us have at this very moment a peau de chagrin of our own, diminishing with every costly wish indulged, and incapable, like the magical one of the story, of being arrested in its progress !
Need I say that I refer to those coupon bonds, issued in the days of eight and ten per cent. interest, and gradually narrowing as they drop their semi-annual slips of paper, which represent wishes to be realized, as the roses let fall their leaves in July, as the icicles melt away in the thaw of January ?
How beautiful was the coupon bond, arrayed in its golden raiment, of promises to pay at certain stated intervals, for a goodly number of coming years! What annual the horticulturist can show will bear comparison with this product of auricultural industry, which has flowered in midsummer and midwinter for twenty successive seasons ? And now the last of its blossoms is to be plucked, and the bare stem, stripped of its ever maturing and always welcome appendages, is reduced to the narrowest conditions of reproductive existence. Such is the fate of the financial peau de chagrin. Pity the poor fractional capitalist, who has just managed to live on the eight per cent. of his coupon bonds. The shears of Atropos were not more fatal to human life than the long scissors which cut the last coupon to the lean proprietor, whose slice of dry toast it served to flatter with oleomargarine. Do you wonder that my thoughts took the poetical form, in the contemplation of these changes and their melancholy consequences ? If the entire poem, of several hundred lines, was " declined with thanks ” by an unfeeling editor, that is no reason why you should not hear a verse or two of it.
THE PEAU DE CHAGRIN OF STATE STREET.
In the manifold array
Of its promises to pay,
While the eight per cent. it gives
And the rate at which one lives Correspond!
Where the coupons one by one
Through their ripening days have run,
And the bond, a beggar now, Seeks investment anyhow,
The Mistress commonly contents herself with the general supervision of the company, only now and then taking an active part in the conversation. She started a question the other evening which set some of us thinking.
“ Why is it,”she said, " that there is so common and so intense a desire for poetical reputation ? It seems to me that, if I were a man, I had rather have done something worth telling of than make verses about what other people had done.”
“ You agree with Alexander the Great,”said the Professor. " You would prefer the fame of Achilles to that of Homer, who told the story of his wrath and its direful consequences. I am afraid that I should hardly agree with you. Achilles was little better than a Choctaw brave. I won’t quote Horace’s line which characterizes him so admirably, for I will take it for granted that you all know it. He was a gentleman, — so is a first-class Indian, — a very noble gentleman in point of courage, lofty bearing, courtesy, but an unsoaped, ill-clad, turbulent, high-tempered young fellow, looked up to by his crowd very much as the champion of the heavy weights is looked up to by his gang of blackguards. Alexander himself was not much better, — a foolish, fiery young madcap. How often is he mentioned except as a warning ? His best record is that he served to point a moral as ‘ Macedonia’s madman.’ He made a figure, it is true, in Dryden’s great Ode, but what kind of a figure ? He got drunk, — in very bad company, too, — and then turned fire-bug. He had one redeeming point, — he did value his Homer, and slept with the Iliad under his pillow. A poet like Homer seems to me worth a dozen such fellows as Achilles and Alexander.”
“ Homer is all very well for those that can read him,” said Number Seven, " but the fellows that tag verses together nowadays are mostly fools. That’s my opinion. I wrote some verses once myself, but I had been sick and was very weak ; had n’t strength enough to write in prose, I suppose.”
This aggressive remark caused a little stir at our tea-table. For you must know, if I have not told you already, there are suspicions that we have more than one " poet” at our table. I have already confessed that I do myself indulge in verse now and then, and have given my readers a specimen of my work in that line. But there is so much difference of character in the verses which are produced at our table, without any signature, that I feel quite sure there are at least two or three other contributors besides myself. There is a tall, old-fashioned silver urn, a sugar-bowl of the period of the Empire, in which the poems sent to be read are placed by unseen hands. When the proper moment arrives, I lift the cover of the urn and take out any manuscript it may contain. If conversation is going on and the company are in a talking mood, I replace the manuscript or manuscripts, clap on the cover, and wait until there is a moment’s quiet before taking it off again. I might guess the writers sometimes by the handwriting, but there is more trouble taken to disguise the chirograpliy than I choose to take to identify it as that of any particular member of our company.
The turn the conversation took, especially the slashing onslaught of Number Seven on the writers of verse, set me thinking and talking about the matter. Number Five turned on the stream of my discourse by a question.
“ You receive a good many volumes of verse, do you not ? ” she said, with a look which implied that she knew I did.
I certainly do, I answered. My table aches with them. My shelves groan with them. Think of what a fuss Pope made about his trials, when he complained that
What were the numbers of the
to that great multitude of contributors to our magazines, and authors of little volumes — sometimes, alas ! big ones — of verse, which pour out of the press, not weekly, but daily, and at such a rate of increase that it seems as if before long every hour would bring a book, or at least an article which is to grow into a book by and by ?
I thanked Heaven, the other day, that I was not a critic. These attenuated volumes of poetry in fancy bindings open their covers at one like so many little unfledged birds, and one does so long to drop a worm in, — a worm in the shape of a kind word for the poor fledgling ! But what a desperate business it is to deal with this army of candidates for immortality ! I have often had something to say about them, and I may be saying over the same things; but if I do not remember what I have said, it is not very likely that my reader will ; if he does, he will find, I am very sure, that I say it a little differently.
What astonishes me is that this enormous mass of commonplace verse, which burdens the postman who brings it, which it is a serious task only to get out of its wrappers and open in two or three places, is on the whole of so good an average quality. The dead level of mediocrity is in these days a table-land, a good deal above the old sea-level of laboring incapacity. Sixty years ago verses made a local reputation, which verses, if offered to-day to any of our first-class magazines, would go straight into the waste-basket. To write “poetry ” was an art and mystery in which only a few noted men and a woman or two were experts.
When “ Potter the ventriloquist,” the predecessor of the well - remembered Signor Blitz, went round giving his entertainments, there was something unexplained, uncanny, almost awful, and beyond dispute marvellous, in his performances. Those watches that disappeared and came back to their owners, those endless supplies of treasures from empty hats, and especially those crawling eggs that travelled all over the magician’s person, sent many a child home thinking that Mr. Potter must have ghostly assistants, and raised grave doubts in the minds of " professors,” that is members of the church, whether they had not compromised their characters by being seen at such an unhallowed exhibition. Nowadays, a clever boy who has made a study of parlor magic can do many of those tricks almost as well as the great sorcerer himself. How simple it all seems when we have seen the mechanism of the deception!
It is just so with writing in verse. It was not understood that everybody can learn to make poetry, just as they can learn the more difficult tricks of juggling. M. Jourdain’s discovery that he had been speaking and writing prose all his life is nothing to that of the man who finds out in middle life, or even later, that he might have been writing poetry all his days, if he had only known how perfectly easy and simple it is. Not everybody, it is true, has a sufficiently good ear, a sufficient knowledge of rhymes and capacity for handling them, to be what is called a poet. I doubt whether more than nine out of ten, in the average, have that combination of gifts required for the writing of readable verse.
This last expression of opinion created a sensation among The Teacups. They looked puzzled for a minute. One whispered to the next Teacup, “ More than nine out of ten ! I should think that was a pretty liberal allowance.”
Yes, I continued ; perhaps ninety-nine in a hundred would come nearer to the mark. I have sometimes thought I might consider it worth while to set up a school for instruction in the art. " Poetry taught in twelve lessons.” Congenital idiocy no disqualification. Anybody can write “poetry.” It. is a most unenviable distinction to have published a thin volume of verse, which nobody wanted, nobody buys, nobody reads, nobody cares for except the author, who cries over its pathos, poor fellow, and revels in its beauties, which he has all to himself. Come ! who will be my pupils in a Course, — Poetry taught in twelve lessons?
That made a laugh, in which most of The Teacups, myself included, joined heartily. Through it all I heard the sweet tones of Number Five’s caressing voice ; not because it was more penetrating or louder than the others, for it was low and soft, but it was so different from the others, there was so much more life — the life of sweet womanhood — dissolved in it.
(Of course he will fall in love with her. “He? Who?” Why, the newcomer, the Counsellor. Did I not see his eyes turn toward her as the silvery notes rippled from her throat ? Did they not follow her in her movements, as she turned her head this or that way ?
What nonsense for me to be arranging matters between two people strangers to each other before to-day !)
“ A fellow writes in verse when he has nothing to say, and feels too dull and silly to say it in prose,” said Number Seven.
This made us laugh again, good-naturedly. I was pleased with a kind of truth which it seemed to me to wrap up in its rather startling affirmation. I gave a piece of advice the other day which I said I thought deserved a paragraph to itself. It was from a letter I wrote not long ago to an unknown young correspondent, who had a longing for seeing himself in verse, but was not hopelessly infatuated with the idea that he was born a “ poet.” “ When you write in prose,” I said, “ you say what you mean. When you write in verse you say what you must.” I was thinking more especially of rhymed verse. Rhythm alone is a tether, and not a very long one. But rhymes are iron fetters ; it is dragging a chain and ball to march under their incumbrance ; it is a clogdance you are figuring in, when you execute your metrical pas seul. Consider under what a disadvantage your thinking powers are laboring when you are handicapped by the inexorable demands of our scanty English rhyming vocabulary ! You want to say something about the heavenly bodies, and you have a beautiful line ending with the word stars. Were you writing in prose, your imagination, your fancy, your rhetoric, your musical ear for the harmonies of language, would all have full play. But there is your rhyme fastening you by the leg, and you must either reject the line which pleases you, or you must whip your hobbling fancy and all your limping thoughts into the traces which are hitched to one of three or four or half a dozen serviceable words. You cannot make any use of cars, I will suppose ; you have no occasion to talk about sears ; “the red planet Mars” has been used already ; Dibdin has said enough about the gallant tars; what is there left for you but bars ? So you give up your trains of thought, capitulate to necessity, and manage to lug in some kind of allusion, in place or out of place, which will allow you to make use of bars. Can there be imagined a more certain process for breaking up all continuity of thought, for taking out all the vigor, all the virility, which belongs to natural prose as the vehicle of strong, graceful, spontaneous thought, than this miserable subjugation of intellect to the clink of well or ill matched syllables? I think you will smile if I tell you of an idea I have had about teaching the art of writing “ poems ” to the half-witted children at the Idiot Asylum. The trick of rhyming cannot be more usefully employed than in furnishing a pleasant amusement to the poor feeble - minded children. I should feel that I was well employed in getting up a Primer for the pupils of the Asylum, and other young persons who are incapable of serious thought and connected expression. I would start in the simplest way ; thus : —
I love to close my weary ....
The pupil begins by supplying the missing words, which most children who are able to keep out of fire and water can accomplish after a certain number of trials. When the poet that is to be has got so as to perform this task easily, a skeleton verse, in which two or three words of each line are omitted, is given the child to fill up. By and by the more difficult forms of metre are outlined, until at length a feeble-minded child can make out a sonnet, completely equipped with its four pairs of rhymes in the first section and its three pairs in the second part.
Number Seven interrupted my discourse somewhat abruptly, as is his wont; for we grant him a license, in virtue of his eccentricity, which we should hardly expect to be claimed by a perfectly sound Teacup.
“ That ’s the way, — that ’s the way! ” exclaimed he. “ It ’s just the same thing as my plan for teaching drawing.”
Some curiosity was shown among The Teacups to know what the queer creature had got into his head, and Number Five asked him, in her irresistible tones, if he would n’t oblige us by telling us all about it.
He looked at her a moment without speaking. I suppose he has often been made fun of, — slighted in conversation, taken as a butt for people who thought themselves witty, made to feel as we may suppose a cracked piece of chinaware feels when it is clinked in the company of sound bits of porcelain. I never saw him when he was carelessly dealt with in conversation — for it would sometimes happen, even at our table — without recalling some lines of Emerson which always struck me as of wonderful force and almost terrible truthfulness :
Victim of perpetual slight:
When thou lookest in his face
Thy heart saith, ‘ Brother, go thy ways!
None shall ask thee what thou doest,
Or care a rush for what thou knowest,
Or listen when thou repliest,
Or remember where thou liest,
Or how thy supper is sodden ; ‘
And another is born
To make the sun forgotten.”
Poor fellow ! Number Seven has to bear a good deal in the way of neglect, and ridicule, I do not doubt. Happily, he is protected by an amount of belief in himself which shields him from many assailants who would torture a more sensitive nature. But the sweet voice of Number Five and her sincere way of addressing him seemed to touch his feelings. That was the meaning of his momentary silence, in which I saw that his eyes glistened and a faint flush rose on his cheek. In a moment, however, as soon as he was on his hobby, he was all right, and explained his new and ingenious system as follows: —
“ A man at a certain distance appears as a dark spot, — nothing more. Good. Anybody, man, woman, or child, can make a dot, say a period, such as we use in writing. Lesson No. 1. Make a dot; that is, draw your man, a mile off, if that is far enough. Now make him come a little nearer, a few rods, say. The dot is an oblong figure now. Good. Let your scholar draw the oblong figure. It is as easy as it is to make a note of admiration. Your man comes nearer, and now some hint of a bulbous enlargement at one end, and perhaps of lateral appendages, and a bifurcation begins to show itself. The pupil sets down with his pencil just what he sees, — no more. So by degrees the man who serves as model approaches. A bright pupil will learn to get the outline of a human figure in ten lessons, the model coming five hundred feet nearer each time. A dull one may require fifty, the model beginning a mile off, or more, and coming a hundred feet nearer at each move.”
The company were amused by all this, but could not help seeing that there was a certain practical possibility about the scheme. Our two Annexes, as we call them, appeared to be interested in the project, or fancy, or whim, or whatever the older heads might consider it. “ I guess I ‘ll try it,”said the American Annex. “ Quite so,”answered the English Annex. Why the first girl “ guessed ” about her own intentions it is hard to say. What “ Quite so ” referred to it would not be easy to determine. But these two expressions would decide the nationality of our two young ladies if we met them on the top of the great Pyramid.
I was very glad that Number Seven had interrupted me. In fact, it is a good thing once in a while to break in upon the monotony of a steady talker at a dinner-table, tea-table, or any other place of social converse. The best talker is liable to become the most formidable of bores. It is a peculiarity of the bore that he is the last person to find himself out. Many a terebrant I have known who, in that capacity, to borrow a line from Coleridge,
A line, by the way, which, as I have remarked, has in it a germ like that famous “ He builded better than he knew ” of Emerson.
There was a slight lull in the conversation. The Mistress, who keeps an eye on the course of things, and feared that one of those panic silences was impending, in which everybody wants to say something and does not know just what to say, begged me to go on with my remarks about the “manufacture ” of “ poetry.”
You use the right term, madam, I said. The manufacture of that article has become an extensive and therefore an important branch of industry. One must be an editor, which I am not, or a literary confidant of a wide circle of correspondents, which I am, to have any idea of the enormous output of verse which is characteristic of our time. There are many curious facts connected with this phenomenon. Educated people— yes, and many who are not educated — have discovered that rhymes are not the private property of a few noted writers who, having squatted on that part of the literary domain some twenty or forty or sixty years ago, have, as it were, fenced it in with their touchy, barbed-wire reputations, and have come to regard it and cause it to be regarded as their private property. The discovery having been made that rhyme is not a paddock for this or that race-horse, but a common, where every colt, pony, and donkey can range at will, a vast irruption into that once-privileged inclosure has taken place. The study of the great invasion is interesting.
Poetry is commonly thought to be the language of emotion. On the contrary, most of what is so called proves the absence of all passionate excitement. It is a cold-blooded, haggard, anxious, worrying hunt after rhymes which can be made serviceable, after images which will be effective, after phrases which are sonorous: all this under limitations which restrict the natural movements of fancy and imagination. There is a secondary excitement in overcoming the difficulties of rhythm and rhyme, no doubt, but this is not the emotional heat excited by the subject of the “ poet’s ” treatment. True poetry, the best of it, is but the ashes of a burnt-out passion. The flame was in the eye and in the cheek, the coals may be still burning in the heart, but when we come to the words it leaves behind it, a little warmth, a cinder or two just glimmering under the dead gray ashes, — that is all we can look for. When it comes to the manufactured article, one is surprised to find how well the metrical artisans have learned to imitate the real thing. They catch all the phrases of the true poet. They imitate his metrical forms as a mimic copies the gait of the person he is representing.
Now I am not going to abuse " these same metre ballad-mongers,” for the obvious reason that, as all The Teacups know, I myself belong to the fraternity.
I don’t think that this reason should hinder my having my say about the ballad - mongering business. For the last thirty years I have been in the habit of receiving a volume of poems or a poem, printed or manuscript — I will not say daily, though I sometimes receive more than one in a day, but at very short intervals. I have been consulted by hundreds of writers of verse as to the merit of their performances, and have often advised the writers to the best of my ability. Of late I have found it impossible to attempt to read critically all the literary productions, in verse and in prose, which have heaped themselves on every exposed surface of my library, like snowdrifts along the railroad tracks, — blocking my literary pathway, so that I can hardly find my daily papers.
What is the meaning of this rush into rhyming of such a multitude of people, of all ages, from the infant phenomenon to the oldest inhabitant?
Many of my young correspondents have told me in so many words, “ I want to be famous.” Now it is true that of all the short cuts to fame, in time of peace, there is none shorter than the road paved with rhymes. Byron woke up one morning and found himself famous. Still more notably did Rouget de l’Isle fill the air of France, nay, the whole atmosphere of freedom all the world over, with his name wafted on the wings of the Marseillaise, the work of a single night. But if by fame the aspirant means having his name brought before and kept before the public, there is a much cheaper way of acquiring that kind of notoriety. Have your portrait taken as a “ Wonderful Cure of a Desperate Disease given up by all the Doctors.” You will get a fair likeness of yourself and a partial biographical notice, and have the satisfaction, if not of promoting the welfare of the community, at least that of advancing the financial interests of the benefactor whose enterprise has given you your coveted notoriety. If a man wants to be famous, he had much better try the advertising doctor than the terrible editor, whose waste-basket is a maw which is as insatiable as the temporary stomach of Jack the Giant-killer.
“ You must not talk so,”said Number Five. “ I know you don’t mean any wrong to the true poets, but you might be thought to hold them cheap, whereas you value the gift in others, — in yourself too, I rather think. There are a great many women — and some men — who write in verse from a natural instinct which leads them to that form of expression. If you could peep into the portfolio of all the cultivated women among your acquaintances, you would be surprised, I believe, to see how many of them trust their thoughts and feelings to verse which they never think of publishing, and much of which never meets any eyes but their own. Don’t be cruel to the sensitive natures who find a music in the harmonies of rhythm and rhyme which soothes their own souls, if it reaches no farther.”
I was glad that Number Five spoke up as she did. Her generous instinct came to the rescue of the poor poets just at the right moment. Not that I meant to deal roughly with them, but the “ poets ” I have been forced into relation with have impressed me with certain convictions which are not flattering to the fraternity, and if my judgments are not accompanied by my own qualifications, distinctions, and exceptions, they may seem harsh to many readers.
Let me draw a picture which many a young man and woman, and some no longer young, will recognize as the story of their own experiences.
— He is sitting alone with his own thoughts and memories. What is that book he is holding ? Something precious, evidently, for it is bound in “ tree calf,” and there is gilding enough about it for a birthday present. The reader seems to be deeply absorbed in its contents, and at times greatly excited by what he reads; for his face is flushed, his eyes glitter, and — there rolls a large tear down his cheek. Listen to him; he is reading aloud in impassioned tones : —
And must I, with the dim, forgotten throng Of silent, ghosts that left no earthly trace To show they once had breathed this vital air, Die out of mortal memories ?
His voice is choked by his emotion. “ How is it possible,” he says to himself, “ that any one can read my ‘ Gaspings for Immortality ’ without being impressed by their freshness, their passion, their beauty, their originality?” Tears come to his relief freely, — so freely that he has to push the precious volume out of the range of their blistering shower. Six years ago “Gaspings for Immortality ” was published, advertised, praised by the professionals whose business it is to boost their publishers’ authors. A week and more it was seen on the counters of the booksellers and at the stalls in the railroad stations. Then it disappeared from public view. A few copies still kept their place on the shelves of friends, — presentation copies, of course, as there is no evidence that any were disposed of by sale ; and now, one might as well ask for the lost books of Livy as inquire at a bookstore for “ Gaspings for Immortality.”
The authors of these poems are all round us, men and women, and no one with a fair amount of human sympathy in his disposition would treat them otherwise than tenderly. Perhaps they do not need tender treatment. How do you know that posterity may not resuscitate these seemingly dead poems, and give their author the immortality for which he longed and labored ? It is not every poet who is at once appreciated. Some will tell you that the best poets never are. Who can say that you, dear unappreciated brother or sister, are not one of those whom it is left for aftertimes to discover among the wrecks of the past, and hold up to the admiration of the world ?
I have not thought it necessary to put in all the interpellations, as the French call them, which broke the course of this somewhat extended series of remarks; but the comments of some of The Teacups helped me to shape certain additional observations, and may seem to the reader as of more significance than what I had been saying.
Number Seven saw nothing but the folly and weakness of the " rhyming cranks,”as he called them. He thought the fellow that I had described as blubbering over his still-born poems would have been better occupied in earning his living in some honest way or other. He knew one chap that published a volume of verses, and let his wife bring up the wood for the fire by which he was writing. A fellow says, “I am a poet! ” and he thinks himself different from common folks. He ought to he excused from military service. He might be killed, and the world would lose the inestimable products of his genius. “ I believe some of ’em think,” said Number Seven, " that they ought not to he called upon to pay their taxes and their bills for household expenses, like the rest, of us.”
” If they would only study and take to heart Horace’s Ars Poetica,” said the Professor, “ it would be a great benefit to them and to the world at large. I would not advise you to follow him too literally, of course, for, as you will see, the changes that have taken place since his time would make some of his precepts useless and some dangerous, but the spirit of them is always instructive. This is the way in which he counsels a young poet, somewhat modernized and accompanied by my running commentary.
“ ‘ Don t try to write poetry, my boy, when you are not in the mood for doing it, — when it goes against the grain. You are a fellow of sense, —you understand all that.
“ ‘ If you have written anything which you think well of, show it to Mr.——, the well-known critic ; to " the governor,”as you call him,*—your honored father ; and to me, your friend.’ ”
To the critic is well enough, if you like to be overhauled and put out of conceit with yourself, — it may do you good ; but I would n’t go to the governor with my verses, if I were you. For either he will think what you have written is something wonderful, almost as good as he could have written himself, — in fact, he always did believe in hereditary genius, — or he will pooh-pooh the whole rhyming nonsense, and tell you that you had a great deal better stick to your business, and leave all the word-jingling to Mother Goose and her followers.
“ Show me your verses,” says Horace. Very good it was in him, and mighty encouraging the first counsel he gives! ” Keep your poem to yourself for some eight or ten years; you will have time to look it over, to correct it and make it fit to present to the public.”
“Much obliged for your advice,” says the poor poet, thirsting for a draught of fame, and offered a handful of dust. And off he hurries to the printer, to be sure that his poem comes out in the next number of the magazine he writes for.
“ Is not poetry the natural language of lovers ? ”
It was the Tutor who asked this question, and I thought he looked in the direction of Number Five, as if she might answer his question. But Number Five stirred her tea devotedly ; there was a lump of sugar, I suppose, that acted like a piece of marble. So there was a silence while the lump was slowly dissolving, and it was anybody’s chance who saw fit to take up the conversation.
The voice that broke the silence was not the sweet, winsome one we were listening for, but it instantly arrested the attention of the company. It was the grave, manly voice of one used to speaking, and accustomed to be listened to with deference. This was the first time that the company as a whole had heard it, for the speaker was the newcomer who has been repeatedly alluded to, —the one of whom I spoke as “ the Counsellor.”
“ I think I can tell you something about that,” said the Counsellor. " I suppose you will wonder how a man of my profession can know or interest himself about a question so remote from his arid pursuits. And yet there is hardly one man in a thousand who knows from actual experience a fraction of what I have learned of the lovers’ vocabulary in my professional experience. I have, I am sorry to say, had to take an important part in a great number of divorce cases. These have brought before me scores and hundreds of letters, in which every shade of the great passion has been represented. What has most struck me in these amatory correspondences has been their remarkable sameness. It seems as if writing love-letters reduced all sorts of people to the same level. I don’t remember whether Lord Bacon has left us anything in that line, — unless, indeed, he wrote Romeo and Juliet and the Sonnets; but if he has, I don’t believe they differ so very much from those of his valet or his groom to their respective lady-loves. It is always, My darling ! my darling ! The words of endearment are the only ones the lover wants to employ, and he finds the vocabulary too limited for his vast desires. So his letters are apt to be rather tedious except to the personage to whom they are addressed. As to poetry, it is very common to find it in love-letters, especially in those that have no love in them. The letters of bigamists and polygamists are rich in poetical extracts. Occasionally, an original spurt in rhyme adds variety to an otherwise monotonous performance. I don’t think there is much passion in men’s poetry addressed to women. I agree with The Dictator that poetry is little more than the ashes of passion ; still it may show that the flame has had its sweep where you find it, unless, indeed, it is shoveled in from another man’s fireplace.”
“ What do you say to the love poetry of women ? ” asked the Professor. " Did ever passion beat words to incandescence as it did those of Sappho ? ”
The Counsellor turned, — not to Number Five, as he ought to have done, according to my programme, but to the Mistress.
“ Madam,” he said, “ your sex is adorable in many ways, but in the abandon of a genuine love-letter it is incomparable. I have seen a string of women’s love-letters, in which the creature enlaced herself about the object of her worship as that South American parasite which clasps the tree to which it has attached itself, begins with a slender succulent network, feeds on the trunk, spreads its fingers out to hold firmly to one branch after another, thickens, hardens, stretches in every direction, following the boughs, at length gets strong enough to tug at the tree itself, and ends by tearing it up by the roots, and holding in its murderous arms, high up in air, the stump and shaft of the once sturdy growth that was its support and subsistence.”
The Counsellor did not say all this quite so formally as I have set it down here, but in a much easier way. In fact, it is impossible to smooth out a conversation from memory without stiffening it; you can’t have a dress shirt look quite right without starching the bosom.
Some of us would have liked to hear more about those letters in the divorce cases, but the Counsellor had to leave the table. He promised to show us some pictures he has of the South American parasite. I have seen them, and I can assure you they are very curious.
The following verses were found in the urn, or sugar-bowl.
And each and every blade of grass a pen;
If every leaf on every shrub and tree
Turned to a sheet of foolscap ; every sea
Were changed to ink, and all earth’s living tribes
And for ten thousand ages, day and night,
The human race should write, and write, and write,
Till all the pens and paper were used up,
And the huge inkstand was an empty cup,
Still would the scribblers clustered round its brink
Call for more pens, more paper, and more ink.