Keeping Up With the Smart Set in Literature

AUGUST, 1924



BEFORE Tomlinson joined our Literary Society, it was a very quiet affair. We were only a company of friends who met together and read aloud from the literature of the day. We did n’t interpret ‘the day’ too literally; indeed we were inclined to the Biblical idea that one day might be as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. If any member came across a good thing, he brought it along and shared the pleasure with us. A trifle like a thousand years since the decease of an author did n’t trouble us. We gradually drifted into the habit of reading poetry not because we thought it intrinsically better than prose, but because it was more condensed. Moreover it was particularly adapted for reading aloud. We got more pleasure through the ear than through the eye. We found we could enjoy many of our contemporary poets better that way. We found that their poems sounded better than they looked. In this way we were not confined to the old favorites, but were gradually becoming accustomed to new voices.

That was before Tomlinson joined the society. He came in with a bang. There was an urgency about him which was a little disconcerting to the older members, but we realized that we needed new blood. He gave us his views at the second meeting that he attended. We should look upon ourselves not as a society of antiquarians, but as a poetical current-events club. We should be on a sharp lookout for new genius, and we should aim to be ninety per cent efficient. We should let no gifted man escape. Poetic genius is like a fire: we never know where or when it’s going to break out. We must rush to it at the first alarm, and not wait for the heavy critics who are never on the spot till the fire’s out. He had noticed, he said, that some of the members had brought in old stuff, some of it published as much as a dozen years ago. We must cut that out. If we were to keep up with the march of literature, we must think no longer in centuries or decades, we must be up to the minute.

He warned us that we must beware of the obvious. Anything that is obviously agreeable is likely to be reactionary. Keats, who in some respects was in advance of his age, confessed as much. He said: —

’A thing of beauty is a joy forever;
Its loveliness increases . . .'

That’s why our most up-to-date critics are suspicious of a thing of beauty. People stop to contemplate it and watch its beauty increase, and by so doing they obstruct the intellectual sidewalk. The progressive artist who wants to keep the crowd moving must make it painful for any to loiter too long before his work.

The purpose of poetry, according to Tomlinson, is to serve as an intelligence test. It would never do to have the same test repeated. You could never get at the intelligence quotient that way. If you find you can understand a bit of poetry, then you must try something harder. If we eliminate the easy pieces, he said, we will soon get rid of the dead wood. Those who can’t stand the pace will drop out.

Tomlinson spoke in an easy, confident way. He had been taking a correspondence course in salesmanship that guaranteed that he could impose his ideas on others by sheer force of acquired personality. The rest of us had n’t taken the course, so we yielded.

From that day our literary society changed its character. Those who proved unadaptable dropped out. Whenever we saw an old head we hit it. Whenever we heard of a new verse form, or an example of formlessness, we studied it. We had no tolerance for the things of yester-week. We had no longer any literary background and were glad of it. We had emerged from the shadow of great names and were in the open. Tomlinson began to talk of the New Humanism and assured us we were ‘It.’

Those were great days for the club, when we could watch a succession of books of poetry emerge from the Unknown, like Pharaoh’s fat and well favored kine presaging years of plenty. But Tomlinson was just as well pleased when they were followed by lean volumes whose meagerness grew on acquaintance.

‘People used to write poetry,’ he would say. ‘Some do now; but some of the smartest poets just throw a line or two upon the page, and let us do the rest. It saves their time and cultivates our imagination. Here’s a specimen page of a book of poems. It’s not much to look at, mostly margin. You have to read between the lines, and all around. The poet is a master of the hiatus. All his hiatuses are rich and revealing. You will notice that he begins as if he were going to say something, and then he does n’t. That makes it exciting. It’s like watching a man on skis at a winter tournament. He comes like a streak down the icy slide to the jumping-off place, and then shoots through the air for a hundred feet or so. The thrill comes when you see him going off through space, and you don’t know whether he will land on his head or on his feet. We must get rid of the old pedestrian traditions and enter into the spirit of the poet Ezra Pound tells about.

‘My muse is eager to instruct me in a new gamut or gambetto.
Up, up, my soul, from your lowly cantillations, put on a timely vigor.’

‘What is a gambetto?’ asked a timid new member.

‘It’s something the old poets did n’t have,’ said Tomlinson. ‘The thing which this society needs to take to heart is that if we are to keep up with the march of mind, we must put a timely vigor on.

‘According to the Freudians a person is either an introvert, or an extrovert. An introvert is always turning his mind in on itself to see what it looks like. An extrovert sits up and takes notice of what is going on outside. Now that explains the different kinds of poetry. An extrovert will look out of doors and describe a rain storm, the drops of water falling on the umbrella, and that sort of thing. An introvert is not interested in a rain stonn, but he can make poetry out of his own brain storms. He gives you an instantaneous view of his mind when it is struck by an emotional blizzard.

‘We want to study both kinds, just as they come along. Now here is a poem by an extrovert. It’s thoroughly objective. The poet does n’t waste any emotion, he just gives a snapshot of what goes on.

‘ I grasped the greasy subway strap,
And I read the lurid advertisements,
I chewed my gum voraciously.

‘That is n’t a very pretty scene, but you are made to see it. It bears the stamp of truth. Now if the poet were an introvert he would n’t say anything about these details. He would give you an impressionistic view of what was going on in the gum-chewer’s mind as he was hanging on for dear life to the strap. It would n’t be much, but you would get a general impression of mental vacuity. There are fluttcrings of inchoate sensations. There is a suggestion of intelligence somewhere, like a faint perfume. You can’t be sure of it. Perhaps it is n’t a thought, but maybe it is. What it is that the gum-chewer has in mind the poet does n’t tell directly. Such brutal frankness would destroy the whole effect. He gives you the impression of what something in the gum-chewer’s mind, makes on his mind. Then he leaves you with the impression that it does n’t matter much anyway. It’s all very stimulating. If we can only keep our minds limbered up so that we can catch each poem as it comes we’ll be all right.

‘Let me read what a competent critic says about an admirable new poet: —

‘He has pregnant fragile untouched emotions. His verse has the appearance of perverse abandon, of dizzy falling. There is always the appeal to the motor and visceral sensations, change of position, alarming passive motion — as in an elevator.

‘That sounds like something new. The poem makes you have that gone feeling which you have when an elevator drops from under you. The old poets could n’t produce such effects; they did n’t have elevators in those days.’

‘Do you really like all that, Tomlinson?’ I asked.

‘It isn’t a question of liking,’ he said, ‘It’s a question of learning to like what’s being produced. If we are going to encourage the producers, the consumers must do their part. If the people in Fresno are to produce more raisins, the people in Boston are told to eat more raisins, and they do it. If we are to keep the wheat farms in North Dakota at the peak of production, we must eat more bread. And so if we are to have an American school of poetry, we must read more poetry, and read it quick.’

This view of the subject gave me a new respect for Tomlinson, as I saw that he had a sense of social responsibility. But it put a new strain on our critical powers. We felt that procrastination might be fatal. As Tomlinson said, ‘We must appreciate while the appreciation is good.’

As we were whirled through contemporary verse I had glimpses of beautiful things over which I wished to linger. There were ways of pleasantness and paths of peace. But to ask Tomlinson to slow down that we might enjoy them was like asking a motorist to leave the state highways in order to loiter along a shady wood road. So we yielded to his will and began to adopt his language of hasty admiration for all that was unfamiliar.

Sometimes I expostulated mildly. ‘Don’t you think it would rest the club if we stopped to get a bit of perspective ? ‘

‘We don’t want perspective. What we are after is originality.’

‘But what is originality?' I asked.

‘It is being different from the way they used to be.’

‘But how can we know that we are different unless we know how they used to be? The other day I took up Dr. Johnson’s introduction to Cowley and it struck me that the fashionable poets of the seventeenth century might not have been so different from their successors as we imagine. Dr. Johnson says, “They were wholly employed on something unexpected and surprising. . . . Their wish was only to say what they hoped had never been said before. . . . Authors of this race were more desirous of being admired than understood.”

‘In their headlong search for originality these seventeenth-century poets produced “a combination of dissimilar images, or discovery of occult resemblances in things apparently unlike, and they conceived that to be the highest kind of writing in verse which is chiefly to be preferred for its near affinity to prose. . . . This lax and lawless versification so much concealed the deficiencies of the barren and flattered the laziness of the idle that it immediately overspread our books of poetry, and all the boys and girls caught the pleasing fashion.” ‘

‘ Dr. Johnson was an incorrigible old Tory,’ said Tomlinson.

‘Perhaps so,’ I answered, ‘but in this instance he was talking not about a new fashion, but about one that had for the time gone out. He says, “The fashionable style remained chiefly with Cowley; Suckling could not reach it and Milton disdained it.”

‘Don’t you think we could have a better sense of values in contemporary literature if we had something to measure them by? When an inventor has a happy thought about a mouse trap he employs someone to go to the Patent Office to find out whether there is anything like it there.

‘He inquires as to “the state of the art.” Of course if we were contented to enjoy a thing of beauty just because it is beautiful we would n’t mind how old it was. But if it’s this season’s novelties we are after, we ought to make sure they are novelties.'

Tomlinson looked at me with commiseration. ‘I see that you are feeling the strain. All of us do at times. But you must n’t look back. Remember Lot’s wife. Remember what W ashington —or was it Jefferson — said about entangling alliances. Don’t get entangled with former generations. They had another set of primary interests — in poetry as in every thing else.’

‘But what if it should turn out that the primary human interests are the same in all generations, and it’s only the secondary interests that are different? Let me read you a bit of Euphues’ Anatomy of Wit, which was very fashionable reading in the sixteenth century. He watches the swift procession of the books of the day with eagerness to keep up with them.

‘We constantly see the booke that at Christmas lieth bound on the stacioner’s stall, at Easter be broken in the haberdasher’s shop. It is not strange when the greatest wonder lasteth but nine days, that a new booke should not endure but three months. But a fashion is but a day’s wearing and a booke but an hour’s reading.

‘Euphues expounds the changing taste of the day to his elderly interlocutor and we are told that “Euphues having ended his talk, departed leaving the old gentleman in a quandary.” That was just the effect he meant to produce.

‘There were some books written in that breathless age that were destined to last more than three months. But I doubt if the author of Euphues knew which they were.'


It was useless to contend against Tomlinson, and our search for literary novelties went on. But after a while the club began to feel the retarding force of the law of diminishing returns. There came a faint suspicion that poets who took pains not to imitate their predecessors might yet imitate one another. People who are living in the same generation, and writing for the same public, cannot escape a certain taint of sameness.

When my turn came to present a new candidate for the Hall of Fame I racked my brain in vain to find some one sufficiently different to satisfy the exigent taste of our little society.

As a refuge from my anxieties I took up a well-preserved copy of Sir Philip Sidney’s Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia. I had ventured a number of times into the Arcadia, but had always lost my way in the labyrinth. But this time I skipped the prose and picked out. Sir Philip’s curious experiments in verse.

With wits sharpened by the tuition of Tomlinson, I realized that here was something that would delight our club by its daring modernity. The chances were that they would never look into the Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia. It would be against their principles.

So I made a few extracts from the less regular poems of Sir Philip Sidney and presented them to the club for consideration.

‘ You know Sidney Philip, of course?’

Some of the members looked eagerly anxious, as much as to say that they knew him quite well but had forgotten his name. Tomlinson was inclined to be scornful. ‘Phillips’? he said. ‘He’s of the past generation. He edited the Poetry Review away back in 1910. He was writing at the beginning of the century. His work is old stuff.’

‘Nonsense,’ I said. ‘I’m not talking about Stephen Phillips, or Wendell Phillips, or Philip of Macedon. If you want something up-to-date, and that tests your intelligence, you must take up the last thing of Sidney Philip. It is n’t written for the kindergarten class. Sidney Philip does n’t waste words. His style has no adipose deposit or connective tissue. He’s an artist in words and does n’t waste his material. He’s a post-futurist as much as any thing. He flings his nouns and verbs at you, and then it’s “Catch as catch can.” The words mean something to Sidney Philip. If t hey don’t mean any thing to you he does n’t care. He’s not writing for Main Street . He can take the dictionary just as it stands, and make poetry out of it. It’s great stuff for those who can appreciate it. Yet I suppose there are not a dozen persons in this part of the country who know who Sidney Philip is. That’s what comes of living in a country given over to common schools, and the Volstead Act. It is n’t conducive to art. Let me read you a bit from Sidney Philip’s last volume, and see what you can make of it.

‘Virtue, beauty and speech did strike, wound, charm
My heart, eyes, ears, with wonder, love, delight
First, second, last did bind, enforce, and arm
His works, shows, suits, with wit, grace and vows. Might,
Thus honor, liking, trust, much far and deep,
Held pierced possessed my judgment, sense and will,
Till wrong, contempt, deceit did grow, steal, creep
Bands, favor faith, to break, defile and kill,
Then grief, unkindness, proof, took, kindled, taught,

Well grounded, noble, due, spite, rage, disdain. But Ah; alas; (in vain) my mind, sight, thought Doth him, his face, his words, leave, shun, refrain For no thing, time, place can lose, quench, ease, Mine own, embraced, sought, knot, fire, disease.

‘Now poetry like that is not milk for babes. It is strong meat for strong men. You must masticate it. Take the words, one by one, and let each make its individual impression on your sensitized imagination. Then turn your mind into a motion-picture machine, and run the film through rapidly. Then see what you’ve got. When you do it several times, you’ll begin to appreciate Sidney Philip. He tells us how that poem of his came to be written in this elusive style. It is supposed to be written and sung by a young lady who was very temperamental. “The verses,”says Sidney Philip in his quaint way, “were with some art curiously written to enwrap her secret and resolute woes.” By confining herself to a list of disconnected nouns she was able to sing her secret, and keep it too. The general public could not guess what it was all about, but to her lover the detached substantives were exquisitely meaningful. “The quintessence of each word distilled down into his inmost soul.” ‘

‘ That’s a good suggestion for study,’ said Tomlinson. ‘Let’s take the words as they come and do some distilling. It’s time for us to get results.’

‘But don’t think,’ I said, ‘that all his work is like that. He’s as much at home in prose as in poetry. But when he does write poetry, he is careful not to say anything in an obvious manner. He wants to keep you guessing. He keeps you on the jump. Thus apropos of nothing in particular he says,

‘Ah; that I do not conceive, to the Heaven
where a mouse climbs.
Then may I hope to achieve grace of a
Heavenly Tiger.

‘The more you repeat those lines, the more of a mystery they become. Then follows swiftly,—

’O sweet, on a wretch wilt thou be revenged,
Shall such high planets tend to the loss of a worm?

‘These sudden contrasts between the high and the low are characteristic of Sidney Philip. He does n’t care a rap for the commonplace middle classes. For him it’s either the high planets or the worm, the climbing mouse, or the Heavenly Tiger. He does n’t care which it is, so that it’s the real thing. This is an age of extremes, and Sidney Philip is its prophet. It is the age of the soaring airman or the crushed strap-hanger in the subway car.

‘Sometimes Sidney Philip uses the familiar forms of versification just to show his mastery of the medium, but even then he manifests the post-war mood of rebellion against things as they are, and even against things as they ought to be. He has all the charming perversity of untrammeled genius. Nothing that he can think of satisfies him. He insists on being consciously pathological.

‘Like those sick folks, in whom strange humors run,
Can taste no sweets, the sour only please,
So to my mind while passions daily grow,
Joys strangers seem, I cannot bide their show,
Nor brook all else but well acquainted woe.
Bitter griefs taste best, pain is my ease,
Sick to the death, still loving my disease.

‘Could any thing express more penetratingly the mood of our presentday writers?

‘ But when Sidney Philip writes as an imagist, he never allows his emotion to intrude. Each image is clear cut and unrelated. There are no entangling alliances with moral ideas. It’s pure art. Take this.

‘O sweet woods the delight of solitariness;
O how well do I like your solitariness;
Yet dear soil, if a soul closed in a mansion
As sweet as violets, fair as a lily is,
Straight as a cedar, a voice strains the canary birds
Whose shade doth safely hold, danger avoideth her.

‘What exquisite art! The first two lines strike that note of childish innocence which our best poets use as a foil to their perfect sophistication.

‘O sweet woods the delight of solitariness;
O how well do I like your solitariness.

‘It’s just the kind of poetry a child of eleven would write. It’s a class by itself. It puts you in the right frame of mind for what is to follow. Then the images come thick and fast, the dear soil, and the mansion, the violet, and the lily.

‘Then comes a line that gives you pause, and tests the quality of your imagination.

'" Straight as a cedar, a voice strains the
canary birds.”

‘“Straight as a cedar” is clear enough. Anyone could think of that. But what do you make of “a voice strains the canary birds”? You were n’t expecting that? Sidney Philip does n’t explain. There’s something exquisitely cryptic in the phrasing. There is a faint suggestion of Chinese influence. I should like to try it on a Mandarin and get his reaction.’

‘It sounds good to me,’ said Tomlinson. ‘It reminds me of that line of T. S. Eliot, we had such a time over.’

‘His soul stretched tight across the skies.

‘You remember that it took us a whole evening to work that out.’

Finding that Sir Philip Sidney under a slight disguise could satisfy the demands of the club for ultra modernism, I ventured further into the fashionable literature of the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods.

I introduced George Herbert by reading the opening lines of Artillerie.

‘As I one evening sat before my cell.
Methought a starre did shoot into my lap.
I rose and shook my clothes, as knowing well
That from small fires comes oft no small mishap.’

‘That’s new to me,’ said Tomlinson, ‘a star shooting into your lap while you are sitting before your cell, so that you have to get up and shake your clothes. There’s something of the Wild West in that young poet. He’s the kind that would shoot up the town.’

‘Yes,’ I said, ‘and you’d like his titles. There’s nothing commonplace or obvious about them. They don’t give you a hint as to what he is writing about.“ The Quiddity ”Superlinary ”; “Charms and Knots.” He ties up his words in a knot, and then lets you untie the knot if you can.’

‘That’sgood,’ said Tomlinson. ‘Let’s begin with the “Quiddity,” and see what we can make of it.’

‘I think we had better leave that for the next time, I said. Quiddities will keep.’

George Herbert’s brother, Lord Herbert of Cher bury, gave much pleasure as a daring innovator.

‘Here is a little thing of a new man named Cherbury, which I think you will like. It begins: —

‘Within an open sea of gold,
A bark of ivory one day I saw
Which striking with its oars did seem to draw
Toward a fair coast.’

‘That sounds significant,’ said Tomlinson.

‘Yes; but significant of what?’

‘Why it’s significant of what it’s about. By the way, what’s the title of it?’

‘The poem is entitled, “A vision of a lady combing her hair.”’

‘Oh, I get it. The curled sea of gold is her hair; the bark of ivory is her comb, and the oars, are the teeth of the comb. That’s quite an idea.’


By keeping in the byways of English literature, I think I could have come down to the present day, and provided novelties for the club without awakening suspicion, but after a while Tomlinson became critical. It is just possible that he became a little jealous, and feared that I was setting a pace that he could n’t keep up with.

One day he said, ‘Your selection of new authors of the imagist and symbolist school is very stimulating, but I’m afraid the club is getting a little soft. We have n’t had enough rough stuff lately. There must be some new writers in Oklahoma that you missed. We’d like something large and virile, and under-worldly, something with the lid off.’

Instigated by his earnestness, I thought I would make a sudden jump into Tennyson, and see what happened. Every one in the club despised Tennyson, who was a synonym for sweetness and all the other childish things we had put away. I should not have ventured on ‘May Day,’ or ‘Locksley Hall.’ ‘Come into the Garden, Maud’ would have been the signal for a riot.

But there was a Darkest Tennyson which might be unknown to Tomlinson. So I said, ‘Have you ever come across The Northern Cobbler by Alf Tenterton? If you are looking for some one who is realistic Alf’s the boy. He’s a man’s man. He gives you poetry with a kick. He does n’t care a rap for politeness or prettiness. He does n’t aim to please. He aims to shock, and he hits the bull’s eye every time.

‘IIow Tennyson would gasp if he could see how the new generation faces life. You might say it outfaces life.

‘The hero of the poem is a regular old soak. He gets drunk every night, and kicks his wife and breaks the furniture, and all that sort of thing. But Tenterton does n’t lay it up against him. He makes you see all the while that the cobbler is n’t a bad fellow at heart. It’s just his way of working off his inferiority complexes. It’s a heap better than having a lot of Puritanical suppressions and taboos. Tenterton is up on psychology, and then he looks at things with the detached eye of an artist. He does n’t mind when the cobbler breaks up the furniture — it isn’t Alf’s furniture. It’s hard on Sally, but then she does n’t come into the picture except incidentally.

‘Just see how naturally the cobbler expresses himself. “ I cooni like a bull loose at a fair,” he says. He just lets himself go. He’s a genuine caveman.

‘Once of a frosty night I slither’d an’ hurted my huck
An’ I coomed neck-an’-crop soometimes slaäpe
down i’ the squad an the muck:
An’ once I fowt wi’ the Taälor.

‘Now a conventional poet with a standardized mind would have described the battle as a fist fight; something rather fine and Dempsey-like. But Tenterton is a realist and he knew that the tailor would n’t fight according to the rules of the ring.

‘He scrawmed an’ scratted my faäce like a cat, and it maade ‘er so mad
That Sally she turned a tongue-banger and raäted me, “Sottin thy braäins
Guzzlin’ an’s oakin’ an’ smoakin’ an’ hawmin’ about i’ the laänes,
Soa sow-droonk that tha doesn’t touch thy ‘at to the Squire.”

‘Then follows a strong line: —

‘An’ I loook’d cock-eyed at my noase an’ I seed
I’m a-gittin’ o’ fire.

‘Y’ou see there the conscience of the literary craftsman. There’s no squeamishness. If there was anything to smash the cobbler smashed it. If there was anything to kick he kicked it. Tenterton’s business was to set it all down just as it occurred. The poem is authentic.

‘As for Sally, we see her just as she was, sloppy in her draggle-tailed gown.

‘An’ the babby’s faäce wurn’t washed an’ the ‘ole ‘ouse hupside down.

' Of course the cobbler felt bad after his spree: —

‘ Like a graat num-cumpus I blubbered away o’ the bed,
Weant niver do it naw moor, and Sally loookt up an’ she said,
"... thou ‘art laike the rest o’ the men
Thou ‘ll goa sniffin’ about the tap till thou does it ageen.
Theer’s thy bennemy, man, an’ I knaws it and knaws thee sa well
That if thou seeas’im an’smells im tha ‘ll follow him slick into hell.” ‘

‘That’s a strong line,’ said Tomlinson. ‘ “ Slick into hell! ” Tenterton is a little too rough for the Atlantic Monthly crowd, but he’ll be heard from. He strikes out from the shoulder. You can’t keep that kind of fellow down.’

Then the talk fell naturally into selfcongratulations over our freedom from the old Tennysonian conventions.


I think I should have established my position as a fearless explorer of the wild frontier of modern literature if it had not been for an unlucky association of ideas. While Tennyson was delighting the cultured Victorian public, Martin Farquhar Tapper was enjoying the rewards of the best seller. The members of the club were accustomed to use his name as a term of reproach, but it was not likely that they had looked into the Proverbial. Philosophy.

As there was a ruder Tennyson who would delight the admirer of the caveman in literature, why should there not be an esoteric Tapper to reward the lover of the wilfully obscure?

I introduced a new author who should be nameless. ‘He is just trying out his instrument, but he shows promise. He is a rebel not only against all literary traditions, but also against, all previous and all contemporary rebels. He scorns ordinary verse patterns, yet he uses them as it suits his purpose. He takes over the whole field of knowledge by right of eminent domain. He delights in paradoxes which he clothes in language so demure that the undiscerning public accepts them as truisms. But beneath the demureness there is a sardonic spirit that laughs bitterly and vanishes. There is a subtle irony which masquerades as commonplace. The humor is so dry, that it seems to belong to the permanently arid belt. Then there are sudden sublimities for those who like such things. It’s like being in an aeroplane. One minute you are running along the ground, and then suddenly you are off into the sky.

‘Let me read you these lines on seaweed : —

‘The sea-wort floating on the waves, or rolled up high along the shore,
Ye counted useless and vile, heaping on it names of contempt;
Yet it hath triumphed gloriously, and man has been humbled in his ignorance.
For health is in the freshness of its savor, and it cumbereth the beach with its wealth
Comforting the tossings of pain with its violet-tinctured essence,
And by its humbler ashes enriching the proud.

‘There’s what I call an intriguing kind of poetry. Some of it you can understand. You have seen the seaweed heaped up on the beach, and you may have sufficient agricultural knowledge to be aware that its ashes have value as a fertilizer, or as the writer cleverly puts it, alluding to the Cape Cod farmer, “ by its humbler ashes enriching the proud.” You visualize the humble seaweed, and the proud farmer.

‘But what do you make of the previous line?

‘Comforting the tossings of pain with its violet-tinctured essence.’

I read the line slowly, watching the reaction of the club members.

‘This line,’ I said, ‘is intriguing. We all recognize its beauty. “Violet-tinctured essence,” contrasts poignantly with “the tossings of pain.”

‘Even if the words mean nothing in particular, they are very precious.

‘But what has the “violet-tinctured essence" to do with common seaweed? Perhaps it has n’t any thing to do with it, but if we should find out that it has, there would be an added pleasure which conies with intelligence.

‘ But perhaps we had better go back to the vivid phrase “tossings of pain.” Perhaps you have had a touch of erysipelas which has caused the tossing of pain, and perhaps it has been relieved by the application of iodine. You can visualize the bottle. Now all t hat you need is a very slight knowledge of pharmacy to make the poet’s meaning sun-clear. When you learn that one of the chief sources of iodine is common seaweed, you are on a perfect intellectual equality with the poet. The rather sloppy seaweed on the beach is glorified by its relation to the violet-colored essence in the bottle. It is a process which the psychoanalysts call sublimation.

‘You ask, “Why doesn’t the poet explain all this?” The answer is, “He does, in a footnote, and that is the reason why I have been able to explain it to you.” ‘

That was an unlucky moment for me. The reference to the footnote was my undoing. I glanced at Tomlinson. There was a strange look on his face. It was not scorn or indignation, but a look of outraged innocence. Tomlinson seemed as one who was wounded in the home of his friends.

‘Martin Farquhar Tupper!’ he exclaimed. ‘Proverbial Philosophy, footnote to page 14.’ His tone conveyed deep respect for an honored name, and sorrowful surprise at the liberty I had taken with it.

As we walked home, I broke the silence which had become painful. ‘Tomlinson,’ I said, ‘I did n’t know that you read Tupper.’

‘I don’t,’ he said, ‘in public, but what a man does in private is something between himself and his conscience. One has to keep up with the procession in literature as in every thing else; but it’s hard on the nerves. The mind is kept on the stretch. It’s the price we have to pay for progress. But when I go home from the Literary Society and sit down by the fire to enjoy myself, I always take up the Proverbial Philosophy. It’s a link with a happy past. Makes me feel at home with my own mind. He tells me what I knew beforehand, and it’s very comforting to be told it in such a serious way. It makes me feel safe and sane. In these last few years when I’ve felt that it was my duty to keep up with the. literary advance movement, I’ve craved something I can understand without too much effort. Now I can usually understand what Tupper is driving at. And when he makes an allusion that is a little difficult all one has to do is to look at the bottom of the page.

‘For instance take the poem on memory, which begins: —

‘Where art thou, storehouse of the mind, garner of facts and fancies,
In what strange firmament are laid the beams of thine airy chambers?
Or art thou that small cavern, the centre of the rolling brain
Where still one sandy morsel testifieth man’s original.

‘ I should n’t have guessed what that small cavern was, or what was the sandy morsel in the rolling brain, if it had n’t been for the footnote, which explained that “ the small cavern is the pineal gland, a small oval about the size of a pea, in the centre of the brain, and generally found to contain, even in children, some particles of gravel. Galen and afterwards Descartes imagined it to be the seat of the soul.”

‘That shows what Tupper had in mind. After that, it’s all clear sailing, though I don’t know what the new physiologists would say about that piece of gravel in the centre of the brain. Galen, I suppose, is looked upon as a back number in medicine.

‘When I’m reading the text of Tupper, I don’t tax my memory with the words. It’s the general impression that every thing is all right that I retain. But when it comes to a footnote I take notice. I’m sure to get some useful information. That’s where you slipped up. If you had just recited the poetry, you might have got away with it; but when you quoted the footnote I spotted you. I can repeat every footnote in the Proverbial Philosophy.'

‘I’m sorry, Tomlinson, that I made such a bad break.’

‘I’m sorry too,’ he replied. ‘I’m afraid it will break up the club.’