The Poet at the Dinner-Table
THAT was a timely article in a recent Contributors’ Club urging the ’little poets’ to silence in the presence of things greater than the silver of the stars and the green and rose of April; a favete linguis deserving the attention of its audience. I, for one, — myself a mere poeticulum, but a very great lover of poetry, — have taken it to heart and shall profit thereby. This particular urge, however, had regard to the printed page. But I here and now enter a protest against those of my fellow poeticula (the word is neuter, not feminine!) whose tongues are even mightier than their pens.
It is at the dinner-table that I find these chiefly offensive, and lately a whimsy seized me to compare their behavior there with that of the adherents of a great antagonistic camp: the scientists have always eaten, and made no bones about it; and poets, despite their satisfying ecstasies, do dine. Moreover, this particular part of the earth’s surface is well supplied with followers of both camps. My brother frequently brings home a scientist or two; myself encourages the presence of the poets. I could observe at close range.
In the earlier stages of my observation I was inclined to think that the poets carried off the palm in regard to the small niceties of table behavior. They universally manipulated their forks and knives with greater ease;they knew the exactly proper manner of disposing of their napkins at the end of the meal; and they never failed to catch my eye at the precise instant when I gave the signal to rise and retire to the drawing-room. Moreover, the Valkyrie approved of them, for they never needed to be nudged, like Miss Mattie’s cousin from India. Poets or no poets, they knew a dish of potatoes when it was under their noses, and helped themselves like gentlemen.
Meanwhile the men of science were reprehensible in more ways than one. They never, for example, caught my eye for any purpose whatever. Save that I supplied their wants, I was for them practically non-existent. They made no attempts at the airy persiflage due to a hostess, but fell heavily into discussion with my brother from the first instant. Doubtless they sized me up as not belonging to the class of women to whom ‘arithmetic was always my favorite study,’ but rather in a class with little Marjorie Fleming, to whom it was ‘the most devilish thing.’
They were, too, very hard upon my tablecloths. Not that they customarily spilled anything, — their record here is as good as that of the poets, — but they drew diagrams upon the cloth with their forks: lines of force, perchance, or a comet’s orbit, or the internal anatomy of a turbine engine, or a flying-machine, or the nervous system of some beast or other, or an equation bristling with Greek letters and giraffenecked symbols.
Each of these figures has marred the glossy smoothness of my best Belfast weave in my favorite shamrock pattern. The Valkyrie ever waxed furious at such a breach, muttering Scandinavian gutturals in her throat, and her eyes darting blue icicles. Only the laundry wringer and a hot iron would, she knew, remove the desecration. I have, too, a vivid recollection of three scientific forefingers being dipped into the finger-bowls and then rubbed round and round the rims till the bowls uttered protesting music. And, if you will believe me, water was poured back and forth from one bowl to another, until the three tortured instruments had arrived at the same pitch. And then the how of it — your true scientist leaves the why to the philosopher — was impressed upon the long-suffering cloth in curves and angles, while the Valkyrie rose to a forbidding pitch of her own.
But with the arrival of the coffee my hostess-mind, unburdened of dinner minutiæ, was free for a more impartial observance. And then, I must confess, the singlemindedness of the scientists, their absorption in their subject, their forgetfulness of self, and the quiet modesty they displayed over what were frequently notable achievements, compared favorably with the myriadmindedness of the poets, their absorption in self, their naïve vanity, their peculiar forgetfulness, which always came upon them at aggravating times, and their exasperating tenacity of memory just when one was weary of poetry.
A scientist upon whom some marked honor had been bestowed would speak of it only if the subject were torn from him by the roots; but the stanzas of a five-dollar poem had, apparently, no roots whatever, but lay lightly on their maker’s tongue like iridescent films upon a pool. When neutral topics were broached the scientists weighed them; weighed, mind you; whereas my poets tossed them back and forth, shuttlecock fashion, upon their imaginations, casting them lightly at length into some quaint limbo of their own, leaving them harmlessly there while themselves hurried along to other and more colorful things.
And how they breezed in and out, the poets! Your scientist stood stolidly on the door-mat and rang the bell on the stroke of six; but the poet timed himself by the evening star, or the rising of the moon, entering with their glamour strong upon him. Or her. There are hers among the poets, — many, indeed, — but that is neither here nor there. I mind me of an occasion when we sat at table four strong, two scientists, one neutral, and myself, together with an empty chair, discussing the case of the Lusitania with an absorbed interest. Presently the door opened; a poet hexametered in, late but unabashed. He lyricked forth a greeting; he dramatized into a chair; with a large, vague, adorable gesture he dismissed the great disaster and focussed upon poetry. What did we think of the new school? There were some utterances better uttered in vers libre. He himself —
With an effort I introduced the current American Note. This he blew lightly into air like so much gossamer and substituted the personal note. Did we know that he was giving a programme next week at the Little Theatre to ninety-nine other poets? I would switch him off, an I could, but no, we must needs hear the items on his programme. What’s the Lusitania to him or he to the Lusitania, unless perchance he have a metrical inspiration on the subject? And so he balladed on, with much persuasive charm and beguiling laughter, swinging at last into a very epic of self, with delicate and numerous quotings of his own lines, as if, forsooth, a generous Heaven had not given us Shakespeare to quote from! With my hand upon the book of Jeremiah, I solemnly swear that this picture is not exaggerated.
And what of the scientists, in the presence of all this sweetness and light? These men, who are adding their quota to the knowledge of the laws that swing the constellations about the pole, hold humanity to the breast of mother earth, push up green blades and golden harvests, sweep the blood through every beating heart, set winged steel a-ride upon the air, and draw the evil fangs of cholera and plague? These men grow silent before my poet’s rosy flow of happy fancies; for they live in three dimensions, frequently think in four, and would not give a decimal point for an audience. Nor is there any undue urge within them to recite you Grimm’s Law, Mendelejeff’s Law, Newton’s Three Laws, or even their own recent contribution to the Phil. Mag. I know full well the secret of Mona Lisa’s non-committal smile; she has a poet at each ear. Whereas the Sphinx is watching scientific engineers build the Pyramids.
Can it be that we little poets, lined with star-silver and the purple of twilights and the flame of dawn, are of a sore necessity constrained to turn ourselves inside out? Rather would I believe that some, if not all, of us may comport ourselves like Antipater, Alexander’s general, who, though he kept the sober black garb of Macedon even in the midst of Persian splendor, was yet all purple within. And as even the garrulous Æneas confesses that upon occasion, when he stood before a divine portent, vox faucibus haesit, so would I wish to see myself and my fellow poeticula stand speechless before a great art. So would I wish us to lend our ears and withhold our voices before the arts other and the sciences. So would I have us put a constraint upon ourselves at the world’s dinner-tables, — breaking into print on occasion is harmless in comparison with breaking into speech on all occasions, — for the sake of our hostesses, ourselves, and the reputation of Poesy. Else perchance the wrathful Muses may take from us, even as they took from boastful Thamyris, the Thracian, the high and gracious gift of song.