Genius, and other essays/Eugene Field

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Genius, and other essays by Edmund Clarence Stedman
Eugene Field




IN paying a tribute to the mingled mirth and tenderness of Eugene Field—the poet of whose going the West may say, "He took our daylight with him"—one of his fellow journalists has written that he was a jester, but not of the kind that Shakespeare drew in Yorick. He was not only,—so the writer implied,—the maker of jibes and fantastic devices, but the bard of friendship and affection, of melodious lyrical conceits; he was the laureate of children—dear for his "Wynken, Blynken and Nod" and "Little Boy Blue"; the scholarly book-lover, withal, who relished and paraphrased his Horace, who wrote with delight a quaint archaic English of his special devising; who collected rare books, and brought out his own Little Books of Western Verse and Profitable Tales in high-priced limited editions, with broad margins of paper that moths and rust do not corrupt, but which tempts bibliomaniacs to break through and steal.

For my own part, I would select Yorick as the very forecast, in imaginative literature, of our various Eugene. Surely Shakespeare conceived the "mad rogue" of Elsinore as made up of grave and gay, of wit and gentleness, and not as a mere clown or "jig maker." It is true that when Field put on his cap and bells, he too was "wont to set the table on a roar," as the feasters at a hundred tables, from "Casey's Table d'Hôte" to the banquets of the opulent East, now rise to testify. But Shakespeare plainly reveals, concerning Yorick, that mirth was not his sole attribute,—that his motley covered the sweetest nature and the tenderest heart. It could be no otherwise with one who loved and comprehended childhood and whom the children loved. And what does Hamlet say?—"He hath borne me upon his back a thousand times . . . Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know not how oft!" Of what is he thinking but of his boyhood, before doubts and contemplation wrapped him in the shadow, and when in his young grief or frolic the gentle Yorick, with his jest, his "excellent fancy," and his songs and gambols, was his comrade? Of all moderns, then, here or in the old world, Eugene Field seems to be most like the survival, or revival, of the ideal jester of knightly times; as if Yorick himself were incarnated, or as if a superior bearer of the bauble at the court of Italy, or of France, or of English King Hal, had come to life again—as much out of time as Twain's Yankee at the Court of Arthur; but not out of place,—for he fitted himself as aptly to his folk and region as Puck to the fays and mortals of a wood near Athens. In the days of divine sovereignty, the jester, we see, was by all odds the wise man of the palace; the real fools were those he made his butt—the foppish pages, the obsequious courtiers, the swaggering guardsmen, the insolent nobles, and not seldom majesty itself. And thus it is that painters and romancers have loved to draw him. Who would not rather be Yorick than Osric, or Touchstone than Le Beau, or even poor Bertuccio than one of his brutal mockers? Was not the redoubtable Chicot, with his sword and brains, the true ruler of France? To come to the jesters of history—which is so much less real than fiction—what laurels are greener than those of Triboulet, and Will Somers, and John Heywood—dramatist and master of the king's merry Interludes? Their shafts were feathered with mirth and song, but pointed with wisdom, and well might old John Trussell say "That it often happens that wise counsel is more sweetly followed when it is tempered with folly, and earnest is the less offensive if it be delivered in jest."

Yes, Field "caught on" to his time—a complex American, with the obstreperous bizarrerie of the frontier and the artistic delicacy of our oldest culture always at odds within him—but he was, above all, a child of nature, a frolic incarnate, and just as he would have been in any time or country. Fortune had given him that unforgettable mummer's face,—that clean-cut, mobile visage,—that animated natural mask! No one else had so deep and rich a voice for the rendering of the music and pathos of a poet's lines, and no actor ever managed both face and voice better than he in delivering his own verses merry or sad. One night, he was seen among the audience at "Uncut Leaves," and was instantly requested to do something towards the evening's entertainment. As he was not in evening dress, he refused to take the platform, but stood up in the lank length of an ulster, from his corner seat, and recited "Dibdin's Ghost" and "Two Opinions" in a manner which blighted the chances of the readers that came after him. It is true that no clown ever equalled the number and lawlessness of his practical jokes. Above all, every friend that he had—except the Dean of his profession, for whom he did exhibit unbounded and filial reverence—was soon or late a victim of his whimsicality, or else justly distrusted the measure of Field's regard for him. Nor was the friendship perfected until one bestirred himself to pay Eugene back in kind. As to this, I am only one of scores now speaking from personal experience. There seemed to be no doubt in his mind that the victim of his fun, even when it outraged common sensibilities, must enjoy it as much as he. Who but Eugene, after being the welcome guest, at a European capital, of one of our most ambitious and refined ambassadors, would have written a lyric, sounding the praises of a German "onion pie," ending each stanza with

Ach, Liebe! Ach, mein Gott!

and would have printed it in America, with his host's initials affixed? My own matriculation at Eugene's College of Unreason was in this wise. In 1887, Mr. Ben Ticknor, the Boston publisher, was complaining that he needed some new and promising authors to enlarge his booklist. The New York Sun and Tribune had been copying Field's rhymes and prose extravaganzas—the former often very charming, the latter the broadest satire of Chicago life and people. I suggested to Mr. Ticknor that he should ask the poet-humorist to collect, for publication in book-form, the choicest of his writings thus far. To make the story brief, Mr. Field did so, and the outcome—at which I was somewhat taken aback—was the remarkable book, Culture's Garland, with its title imitated from the sentimental "Annuals" of long ago, and its cover ornamented with sausages linked together as a coronal wreath! The symbol certainly fitted the greater part of the contents, which ludicrously scored the Chicago "culture" of that time, and made Pullman, Armour, and other commercial magnates of the Lakeside City special types in illustration. All this had its use, and many of the sufferers long since became the farceur's devoted friends. The Fair showed the country what Chicago really was and is. Certainly there is no other American city where the richest class appear so enthusiastic with respect to art and literature. "The practise of virtue makes men virtuous," and even if there was some pretence and affectation in the culture of ten years ago, it has resulted in as high standards of taste as can elsewhere be found. Moreover, if our own "four hundred" had even affected, or made it the fashion to be interested in, whatever makes for real culture, the intellectual life of this metropolis would not now be so far apart from the "social swim." There were scattered through Culture's Garland not a few of Field's delicate bits of verse. In some way he found that I had instigated Mr. Ticknor's request, and, although I was thinking solely of the publisher's interests, he expressed unstinted gratitude. Soon afterwards I was delighted to receive from him a quarto parchment "breviary," containing a dozen ballads, long and short, engrossed in his exquisitely fine handwriting, and illuminated with colored borders and drawings by the poet himself. It must have required days for the mechanical execution, and certainly I would not now exchange it for its weight in diamonds. This was the way our friendship began. It was soon strengthened by meetings and correspondence, and never afterwards broken.

Some years ago, however, I visited Chicago, to lecture, at the invitation of its famous social and literary "Twentieth Century Club." This was Eugene's opportunity, and I ought not to have been as dumfounded as I was, one day, when our evening papers copied from the Chicago Record a "very pleasant joke" at the expense of his town and myself! It was headed: "Chicago Excited! Tremendous Preparations for His Reception," and went on to give the order and route of a procession that was to be formed at the Chicago station and escort me to my quarters—stopping at Armour's packing-yards and the art-galleries on the way. It included the "Twentieth Century Club" in carriages, the "Browning Club" in busses, and the "Homer Club" in drays; ten millionaire publishers, and as many pork-packers, in a chariot drawn by white horses, followed by not less than two hundred Chicago poets afoot! I have no doubt that Eugene thought I would enjoy this kind of advertisement as heartily as he did. If so, he lacked the gift of putting himself in the other man's place. But his sardonic face, a-grin like a school-boy's, was one with two others which shone upon me when I did reach Chicago, and my pride was not wounded sufficiently to prevent me from enjoying the restaurant luncheon to which he bore me off in triumph. I did promise to square accounts with him, in time, and this is how I fulfilled my word. The next year, at a meeting of a suburban "Society of Authors," a certain lady journalist was chaffed as to her acquaintanceship with Field, and accused of addressing him as "Gene." At this she took umbrage, saying: "It's true we worked together on the same paper for five years, but he was always a perfect gentleman. I never called him 'Gene.' " This was reported by the press, and gave me the refrain for a skit entitled "Katharine and Eugenio":

Five years she sate a-near him
 Within that type-strewn loft;
She handed him the paste-pot,
 He passed the scissors oft;
They dipped in the same inkstand
 That crowned their desk between,
Yet—he never called her Katie,
 She never called him "Gene".

Though close—ah! close—the droplight
 That classic head revealed,
She was to him Miss Katharine,
 He—naught but Mister Field;
Decorum graced his upright brow
 And thinned his lips serene,
And, though he wrote a poem each hour,
 Why should she call him "Gene"?

She gazed at his sporadic hair—
 She knew his hymns by rote;
They longed to dine together
 At Casey's table d'hôte;
Alas, that Fortune's "hostages"—
 But let us draw a screen!
He dared not call her Katie;
 How could she call him "Gene"?

I signed my verses "By one of Gene's Victims"; they appeared in The Tribune, and soon were copied by papers in every part of the country. Other stanzas, with the same refrain, were added by the funny men of the Southern and Western press, and it was months before "Gene" saw the last of them. The word "Eugenio," which was the name by which I always addressed him in our correspondence, left him in no doubt as to the initiator of the series, and so our "Merry War" ended, I think, with a fair quittance to either side.

Grieving, with so many others, over Yorick's premature death, it is a solace for me to remember how pleasant was our last interchange of written words. Not long ago, he was laid very low by pneumonia, but recovered, and before leaving his sick-room wrote me a sweetly serious letter—with here and there a sparkle in it—but in a tone sobered by illness, and full of yearning for a closer companionship with his friends. At the same time he sent me the first editions, long ago picked up, of all my earlier books, and begged me to write on their fly-leaves. This I did; with pains to gratify him as much as possible, and in one of the volumes wrote this little quatrain:


Death thought to claim you in this year of years,
 But Fancy cried—and raised her shield between—
 "Still let men weep, and smile amid their tears;
 Take any two beside, but spare Eugene!"

In view of his near escape, the hyperbole, if such there was, might well be pardoned, and it touched Eugene so manifestly that—now that the eddy indeed has swept him away, and the Sabine Farm mourns for its new-world Horace—I cannot be too thankful that such was my last message to him.

Eugene Field was so mixed a compound that it will always be impossible quite to decide whether he was wont to judge critically of either his own conduct or his literary creations. As to the latter, he put the worst and the best side by side, and apparently cared alike for both. That he did much beneath his standard, fine and true at times,—is unquestionable, and many a set of verses went the rounds that harmed his reputation. On the whole, I think this was due to the fact that he got his stated income as a newspaper poet and jester, and had to furnish his score of "Sharps and Flats" with more or less regularity. For all this, he certainly has left pieces, compact of the rarer elements, sufficient in number to preserve for him a unique place among America's most original characters, scholarly wits, and poets of brightest fancy. Yorick is no more! But his genius will need no chance upturning of his grave-turf for its remembrance. When all is sifted, its fame is more likely to strengthen than to decline.

  1. Introduction to The Holy Cross, and Other Tales. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1901. [Originally contributed to the Souvenir Book of the New York Hebrew Fair, December, 1895.]