A House-Boat on the Styx/Chapter 5

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A House-Boat on the Styx by John Kendrick Bangs
Chapter 5: The House Committee Discuss The Poets

"There’s one thing this house-boat needs," wrote Homer in the complaint-book that adorned the centre-table in the reading-room, "and that is a Poets’ Corner. There are smoking-rooms for those who smoke, billiard-rooms for those who play billiards, and a card-room for those who play cards. I do not smoke, I can’t play billiards, and I do not know a trey of diamonds from a silver salver. All I can do is write poetry. Why discriminate against me? By all means let us have a Poets’ Corner, where a man can be inspired in peace."

For four days this entry lay in the book apparently unnoticed. On the fifth day the following lines, signed by Samson, appeared:

"I approve of Homer’s suggestion. There should be a Poets’ Corner here. Then the rest of us could have some comfort. While playing vingt-et-un with Diogenes in the card-room on Friday evening a poetic member of this club was taken with a most violent fancy, and it required the combined efforts of Diogenes and myself, assisted by the janitor, to remove the frenzied and objectionable member from the room. The habit some of our poets have acquired of giving way to their inspirations all over the club-house should be stopped, and I know of no better way to accomplish this desirable end than by the adoption of Homer’s suggestion. Therefore I second the motion."

Of course the suggestion of two members so prominent as Homer and Samson could not well be ignored by the house committee, and it reluctantly took the subject in hand at an early meeting.

"I find here," said Demosthenes to the chairman, as the committee gathered, "a suggestion from Homer and Samson that this house-boat be provided with a Poets’ Corner. I do not know that I approve of the suggestion myself, but in order to bring it before the committee for debate I am willing to make a motion that the request be granted."

"Excuse me," put in Doctor Johnson, "but where do you find that suggestion? ‘Here’ is not very definite. Where is ‘here’?"

"In the complaint-book, which I hold in my hand," returned Demosthenes, putting a pebble in his mouth so that he might enunciate more clearly.

A frown ruffled the serenity of Doctor Johnson’s brow.

"In the complaint-book, eh?" he said, slowly. "I thought house committees were not expected to pay any attention to complaints in complaint-books. I never heard of its being done before."

"Well, I can’t say that I have either," replied Demosthenes, chewing thoughtfully on the pebble, "but I suppose complaint-books are the places for complaints. You don’t expect people to write serial stories or dialect poems in them, do you?"

"That isn’t the point, as the man said to the assassin who tried to stab him with the hilt of his dagger," retorted Doctor Johnson, with some asperity. "Of course, complaint-books are for the reception of complaints—nobody disputes that. What I want to have determined is whether it is necessary or proper for the complaints to go further."

"I fancy we have a legal right to take the matter up," said Blackstone, wearily; "though I don’t know of any precedent for such action. In all the clubs I have known the house committees have invariably taken the ground that the complaint-book was established to guard them against the annoyance of hearing complaints. This one, however, has been forced upon us by our secretary, and in view of the age of the complainants I think we cannot well decline to give them a specific answer. Respect for age is de rigueur at all times, like clean hands. I’ll second the motion."

"I think the Poets’ Corner entirely unnecessary," said Confucius. "This isn’t a class organization, and we should resist any effort to make it or any portion of it so. In fact, I will go further and state that it is my opinion that if we do any legislating in the matter at all, we ought to discourage rather than encourage these poets. They are always littering the club up with themselves. Only last Wednesday I came here with a guest—no less a person than a recently deceased Emperor of China—and what was the first sight that greeted our eyes?"

"I give it up," said Doctor Johnson. "It must have been a catacornered sight, whatever it was, if the Emperor’s eyes slanted like yours."

"No personalities, please, Doctor," said Sir Walter Raleigh, the chairman, rapping the table vigorously with the shade of a handsome gavel that had once adorned the Roman Senate-chamber.

"He’s only a Chinaman!" muttered Johnson.

"What was the sight that greeted your eyes, Confucius?" asked Cassius.

"Omar Khayyam stretched over five of the most comfortable chairs in the library," returned Confucius; "and when I ventured to remonstrate with him he lost his temper, and said I’d spoiled the whole second volume of the Rubáiyát. I told him he ought to do his rubáiyátting at home, and he made a scene, to avoid which I hastened with my guest over to the billiard-room; and there, stretched at full length on the pool-table, was Robert Burns trying to write a sonnet on the cloth with chalk in less time than Villon could turn out another, with two lines start, on the billiard-table with the same writing materials. Now I ask you, gentlemen, if these things are to be tolerated? Are they not rather to be reprehended, whether I am a Chinaman or not?"

"What would you have us do, then?" asked Sir Walter Raleigh, a little nettled. "Exclude poets altogether? I was one, remember."

"Oh, but not much of one, Sir Walter," put in Doctor Johnson, deprecatingly.

"No," said Confucius. "I don’t want them excluded, but they should be controlled. You don’t let a shoemaker who has become a member of this club turn the library sofas into benches and go pegging away at boot-making, so why should you let the poets turn the place into a verse factory? That’s what I’d like to know."

"I don’t know but what your point is well taken," said Blackstone, "though I can’t say I think your parallels are very parallel. A shoemaker, my dear Confucius, is somewhat different from a poet."

"Certainly," said Doctor Johnson. "Very different—in fact, different enough to make a conundrum of the question—what is the difference between a shoemaker and a poet? One makes the shoes and the other shakes the muse—all the difference in the world. Still, I don’t see how we can exclude the poets. It is the very democracy of this club that gives it life. We take in everybody—peer, poet, or what not. To say that this man shall not enter because he is this or that or the other thing would result in our ultimately becoming a class organization, which, as Confucius himself says, we are not and must not be. If we put out the poet to please the sage, we’ll soon have to put out the sage to please the fool, and so on. We’ll keep it up, once the precedent is established, until finally it will become a class club entirely—a Plumbers’ Club, for instance—and how absurd that would be in Hades! No, gentlemen, it can’t be done. The poets must and shall be preserved."

"What’s the objection to class clubs, anyhow?" asked Cassius. "I don’t object to them. If we could have had political organizations in my day I might not have had to fall on my sword to get out of keeping an engagement I had no fancy for. Class clubs have their uses."

"No doubt," said Demosthenes. "Have all the class clubs you want, but do not make one of this. An Authors’ Club, where none but authors are admitted, is a good thing. The members learn there that there are other authors than themselves. Poets’ Clubs are a good thing; they bring poets into contact with each other, and they learn what a bore it is to have to listen to a poet reading his own poem. Pugilists’ Clubs are good; so are all other class clubs; but so also are clubs like our own, which takes in all who are worthy. Here a poet can talk poetry as much as he wants, but at the same time he hears something besides poetry. We must stick to our original idea."

"Then let us do something to abate the nuisance of which I complain," said Confucius. "Can’t we adopt a house rule that poets must not be inspired between the hours of 11 A.M. and 5 P.M., or in the evening after eight; that any poet discovered using more than five arm-chairs in the composition of a quatrain will be charged two oboli an hour for each chair in excess of that number; and that the billiard-marker shall be required to charge a premium of three times the ordinary fee for tables used by versifiers in lieu of writing-pads?"

"That wouldn’t be a bad idea," said Sir Walter Raleigh. "I, as a poet would not object to that. I do all my work at home, anyhow."

"There’s another phase of this business that we haven’t considered yet, and it’s rather important," said Demosthenes, taking a fresh pebble out of his bonbonnière. "That’s in the matter of stationery. This club, like all other well-regulated clubs, provides its members with a suitable supply of writing materials. Charon informs me that the waste-baskets last week turned out forty-two reams of our best correspondence paper on which these poets had scribbled the first draft of their verses. Now I don’t think the club should furnish the poets with the raw material for their poems any more than, to go back to Confucius’s shoemaker, it should supply leather for our cobblers."

"What do you mean by raw material for poems?" asked Sir Walter, with a frown.

"Pen, ink, and paper. What else?" said Demosthenes.

"Doesn’t it take brains to write a poem?" said Raleigh.

"Doesn’t it take brains to make a pair of shoes?" retorted Demosthenes, swallowing a pebble in his haste.

"They’ve got a right to the stationery, though," put in Blackstone. "A clear legal right to it. If they choose to write poems on the paper instead of boring people to death with letters, as most of us do, that’s their own affair."

"Well, they’re very wasteful," said Demosthenes.

"We can meet that easily enough," observed Cassius. "Furnish each writing-table with a slate. I should think they’d be pleased with that. It’s so much easier to rub out the wrong word."

"Most poets prefer to rub out the right word," growled Confucius. "Besides, I shall never consent to slates in this house-boat. The squeaking of the pencils would be worse than the poems themselves."

"That’s true," said Cassius. "I never thought of that. If a dozen poets got to work on those slates at once, a fife corps wouldn’t be a circumstance to them."

"Well, it all goes to prove what I have thought all along," said Doctor Johnson. "Homer’s idea is a good one, and Samson was wise in backing it up. The poets need to be concentrated somewhere where they will not be a nuisance to other people, and where other people will not be a nuisance to them. Homer ought to have a place to compose in where the vingt-et-un players will not interrupt his frenzies, and, on the other hand, the vingt-et-un and other players should be protected from the wooers of the muse. I’ll vote to have the Poets’ Corner, and in it I move that Cassius’s slate idea be carried out. It will be a great saving, and if the corner we select be far enough away from the other corners of the club, the squeaking of the slate-pencils need bother no one."

"I agree to that," said Blackstone. "Only I think it should be understood that, in granting the petition of the poets, we do not bind ourselves to yield to doctors and lawyers and shoemakers and plumbers in case they should each want a corner to themselves."

"A very wise idea," said Sir Walter. Whereupon the resolution was suitably worded, and passed unanimously.

Just where the Poets’ Corner is to be located the members of the committee have not as yet decided, although Confucius is strongly in favor of having it placed in a dingy situated a quarter of a mile astern of the house-boat, and connected therewith by a slight cord, which can be easily cut in case the squeaking of the poets’ slate-pencils becomes too much for the nervous system of the members who have no corner of their own.