The Sorrows of a Scribbler

THIRTY or forty years ago I wrote a set of verses — four stanzas of four lines each, as well as I remember — and sent them to a Boston newspaper. Being more or less modest by nature, and, for a wonder, considering my age. somewhat uncertain of my quality as a poet (a state of mind from which I soon recovered, and thereupon ceased rhyming), I appended to them a pair of innocent-looking initials, the first that came into my head, with no thought that they happened to be those of a well-known writer. It was only my second attempt at versifying, and its result, like that of the few experiments that followed, speedily passed, as I supposed, into lasting oblivion. But a few days ago I received a letter from a noted divine inquiring whether I was the author of these same verses, which, it appeared, to my great surprise, were still extant. They had been “ widely attributed ” to Bayard Taylor, he told me, but one of the copies contained in the Boston Public Library had my name penciled on the margin, and as he proposed to insert them in a hymn book soon to be published, he had thought it no more than fair to ascertain if perchance I was indeed their author. He desired to give me credit for them, as I understood, though not, I hope, being an old bookkeeper, on the principle of our too generous base-ball editors, whose charitable habit it seems to be (for I am a diligent reader of this department of current literature 1) to “ credit ” a player with his “ strike-outs ” and “ errors,” no less than with his “ put-outs ” and “ base hits.” “ I think it is one of the most beautiful hymns that we have,” he was polite enough to add. That was too much for my natural humility before mentioned (strange how perfectly sincere such compliments always sound to a modest writer!), and on the impulse of the moment, before my normal diffidence had time to reassert itself, I wrote a hasty note claiming the verses and authorizing him to append my name to them in his compilation.

So far so good. But presently came a second letter, in which my correspondent mentioned, as a thing of which he had supposed me cognizant, that these same verses had already been printed in a certain hymnal with the name of Bayard Taylor subscribed to them. The editors had been “ misled by the initials,” he supposed; a quite natural mistake, of course. Any man of a really judicial temper would almost certainly have come to the same conclusion. He would have reasoned thus — how could he help it? Bayard Taylor wrote verses; his initials were B. T.; these verses are signed B. T. Ergo: Nobody except Bayard Taylor could have written them.

Men less confidently logical in their mental processes, to be sure, might have been troubled by a doubt. After all, they might have said, how do we know but B. T. stands for Betsey Thompson, or Beatrice Titmarsh, or Benjamin Todd, or any one of a dozen “ mute, inglorious Miltons,” of whom the world is not worthy; mute and inglorious only because the obstinate editors of our best magazines refuse them a hearing?

For it is an interesting and encouraging fact that this great money-loving, successworshiping country of ours is brimming with poets, as all editors of American periodicals can testify. In my own inglorious career in that capacity, now happily ended, I remember a day when one of my associates brought me a batch of ninety-four poems received that morning from a single new contributor; and a young lady of some literary pretensions not long ago remarked casually to a friend of mine, himself a magazine poet of no mean quality, that she expected to be rather closely occupied for the next two or three days, as she contemplated writing a century of sonnets.

Oh, yes, the country is alive with poets, however prosaic life may look to the man in the street; and the poets, if the expression be allowable, are alive with poems; so that our hymn-book compilers might profitably consider that a simple coincidence of initials is hardly sufficient proof upon which, without an if or a but to charge a great man’s reputation with a small man’s work. Jumping at conclusions is well enough on occasion; it has even been taken before now for a mark of genius; but there is such a thing, in logic, if not in athletics, as jumping too far.

But all this is not exactly to the point. I have cause for deep personal regret, I said, or meant to say, and let me hasten to state it; for though the cynical reader is certain that he already knows what it is, I would wager anything within reason that he has not yet hit the trail. Cynics are fairly shrewd judges of men of their own sort, but modest and generous natures (how many of my readers must have noticed it!) are apt to lie pretty much out of their ken.

Bayard Taylor’s name is a good one. I have nothing whatever to allege against it, though the only metrical composition of his that I can recall at this moment is the “ Bedouin Love Song,” and even of that it must be confessed that there are many poems (not my own) which I read with greater frequency. But anyhow, be the name never so good, I still feel myself defrauded. It is poor philosophy, I think, to be satisfied with the good when, simply for the taking, one might have had the best.

For consider! if I had only had the wit, or the luck, to sign my verses — my “ hymn,” as I must accustom myself to call it — not B. T. but A. T.! It could have been done so easily. Only the change of a letter, a single step backward in the alphabet, just the swap of a consonant for a vowel. And then these wonderful hymn-book men could have reasoned in only one way: Alfred Tennyson wrote verses. His initials were A. T. These verses are signed A. T. Ergo: Nobody but Alfred Tennyson could have written them. The evidence would have seemed (to these editors, I mean) absolute and conclusive; and not unlikely they would have been able to detect sundry striking resemblances between this newly discovered hymn (discovered by them) and certain of the choicer lyrics (“ Crossing the Bar ” and others) of the titled laureate. A theory, especially an original theory, as we all know, is an amazing help to perspicacity.

And now let the reader, if he can, imagine me in church — or “ at meeting,” as we used to say in my time and place — on some fine Sunday, my thoughts intent upon nothing more important than the lovely new hat of a charming young lady two or three pews in front of me (the present waste-basket style having gone out), when all at once the minister announces hymn number So-and-so. I turn to the place, and my astonished eyes fall upon my own youthful, almost forgotten verses (some things can never be quite forgotten) and the next moment upon the subscription in lovely capitals, “ Alfred, Lord Tennyson.” Let the reader, I say, imagine my emotions. The minister might have taken for his morning text, “ Blessed are the meek,” but neither text nor sermon would have meant anything to me. I should have been listening to the angels; and after meeting I should have walked home with my head in the clouds, and pride, delightful pride, welling up in my heart. Meekness be hanged, I should have said, my verses are ascribed to Alfred Tennyson. And the very next day, since such work could not legally be done on Sunday, I should have added a codicil to my will, instructing my executor that my copy of that best of all hymn books, which long before that time would have come to open of its own accord at a certain place, was to be buried with me.

And all this glory and beatitude I have missed by the width of a single letter. So cruel a thing is fate. So suddenly doth tribulation fall upon the sons of men. Hitherto I have had a happy life, as human lives run. But now, as by a breath, my candle is gone out. As a poet of the olden time said, with less reason, “ I go mourning all the day,” murmuring to myself as I go, —

Of all sad words of tongue or pen,
The saddest are these, It might have been.
  1. Not included, I regret to notice, in President Eliot’s courageous list of an intellectual man’s literary requisites.