Famous Single Poems/If I Should Die To-night

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search
For works with similar titles, see If I Should Die To-night.
For other versions of King's poem, see If I Should Die To-night (King).

IF I SHOULD DIE TO-NIGHT

If I should die to-night,
My friends would look upon my quiet face
Before they laid it in its resting-place,
And deem that death had left it almost fair;
And, laying snow-white flowers against my hair,
Would smooth it down with tearful tenderness,
And fold my hands with lingering caress,—
Poor hands, so empty and so cold to-night!

If I should die to-night,
My friends would call to mind with loving thought
Some kindly deed the icy hands had wrought,
Some gentle word the frozen lips had said,
Errands on which the willing feet had sped;
The memory of my selfishness and pride,
My hasty words would all be put aside,
And so I should be loved and mourned to-night.

If I should die to-night,
Even hearts estranged would turn once more to me,
Recalling other days remorsefully;
The eyes that chill me with averted glance
Would look upon me as of yore, perchance,

And soften in the old familiar way,
For who could war with dumb, unconscious clay?
So I might rest, forgiven of all to-night.

Oh, friends! I pray to-night,
Keep not your kisses for my dead, cold brow:
The way is lonely, let me feel them now.
Think gently of me; I am travelworn;
My faltering feet are pierced with many a thorn.
Forgive, oh, hearts estranged, forgive, I plead!
When dreamless rest is mine I shall not need
The tenderness for which I long to-night.

IF I SHOULD DIE TO-NIGHT

If I should die to-night,
And you should come to my cold corpse and say,
Weeping and heartsick o’er my lifeless clay—
If I should die to-night,
And you should come in deepest grief and woe—
And say: “Here’s that ten dollars that I owe,”
I might arise in my large white cravat
And say, “What’s that?”

If I should die to-night,
And you should come to my cold corpse and kneel,
Clasping my bier to show the grief you feel,
I say, if I should die to-night,
And you should come to me, and there and then
Just even hint at paying me that ten,
I might arise the while,
But I’d drop dead again.

IF I SHOULD DIE TO-NIGHT

There are a few poems in the English language which possess the dubious distinction of having been made famous by a parody. Southey’s “Father William” is perhaps the classic example.[1] It was Lewis Carroll who turned the poet laureate’s labored homily upon the advantages of a well-spent youth into the delightful nonsense which Alice repeated at the command of the Caterpillar. And similarly, in America, it was Ben King who put so much pep and point into a joyous parody of some pensive verses by Arabella Eugenia Smith that he effectively rescued them from the oblivion which otherwise would certainly have been their portion.

Under date of July 24, 1916, an Associated Press dispatch from Santa Barbara, Cal., announced the death at the age of seventy-two of the author of “If I Should Die To-night,” and thereby awoke the echoes of an old controversy—for not only was this Miss Smith’s one published poem, but, as has been the case with so many of the ewe lambs of literature, the honor of being its author was disputed by many claimants.

Miss Smith—so far as known—never told the story of the inspiration or impulse which produced “If I Should Die To-night,” and the facts of her life are shrouded in the obscurity of the undistinguished. But if she was seventy-two years old in 1916, she must have been born in 1844, and Stedman & Hutchinson, in their Cyclopedia of American Literature, state that this event took place at Litchfield, Ohio. Apparently her family soon moved west, for it is likewise stated that she resided at Percival, Iowa, from 1850 to 1874. She graduated from Tabor College, and afterwards became an instructor there—and that is all.

It is from the same authority one learns that “If I Should Die To-night” appeared first in the Christian Union of June 18, 1873. Its sentiment was absolutely in tune with that sentimental era, and it was soon being copied by all the exchange editors of the country. It became a favorite recitation at church fairs and Sunday school entertainments. It was set to music, replete with minors, and so found its way to many a heart. In a word, the poem was a great success.

As usual, its author’s name soon became detached from it as something of no importance. After all, what did it matter who wrote it? As Eugene Field so eloquently put it, “Homer’s harp is broken and Horace’s lyre is unstrung, and the voices of the great singers are hushed; but their songs, their songs are imperishable! Oh, friend, what moots it to them or to us who gave this epic or that lyric to immortality? The singer belongs to a year, his song to all time!”

Which would be all very well but for the fact that there are always a lot of pirates sailing the literary seas ready to spring upon and claim as a prize any poem whose author is unknown. It was so in this case, and the question of the authorship of “If I Should Die To-night” was soon inextricably confused—a confusion which has persisted to the present day. The latest edition of Granger’s Index to Poetry and Recitations attributes it to Robert C. V. Meyers, of Philadelphia, on what authority does not appear. Mr. Meyers died a few years ago, and has no discoverable representative to whom an appeal for further information can be made; but he was not born until 1858, and was consequently only fifteen years old in 1873. “If I Should Die To-night” is, indeed, juvenile—but it is not as juvenile as that!

Mr. Meyers was not the only claimant—if he really was a claimant. It was at various times attributed, among others, to Alice Cary and Father Abram J. Ryan, but the most persistent aspirant was Irvine Dungan, of Jackson, Ohio, and at one time the controversy was quite a cause célèbre throughout the Middle West.

About 1890, the Jackson Standard published a page of local poetry to prove that as an abode of the Muses Jackson was singularly favored. Among these poems, which had, of course, been contributed by the authors, was “If I Should Die To-night,” signed with Mr. Dungan’s name.

Jackson is an altogether undistinguished Middle Western town of a few thousand inhabitants, with a Main Street where most of its business is transacted, and various side streets bordered by the unpretentious homes of its citizens. There were no poetry experts among them, so when Mr. Dungan asserted that he had written “If I Should Die To-night,” nobody thought of contradicting him. For he was one of Jackson’s most prominent men—a lawyer, and sufficiently powerful in local politics to secure the nomination for Congress and actually to be elected for two or three terms in the early ’nineties. The verses with his name attached were copied by first one Ohio paper and then another, for local patriotism is strong among the Buckeyes; and the only untoward development was the announcement by Colonel William Betts, also prominent in Ohio politics in those days, that he had at last discovered who stole his pocketbook during the Republican State Convention at Columbus, because it had in it that very poem.

However, his intimation that Mr. Dungan had stolen the poem as well as the pocket-book was vitiated by the fact that the latter was able to prove that he never attended Republican conventions, being himself a staunch Democrat, as befitted the resident of a town named after the the greatest democrat of them all! So his laurels seemed secure.

But when, in 1911, the Ohio State Journal published the poem, at the request of a correspondent, with Mr. Dungan’s name attached as usual, some sharp on the staff of the Gallipolis Tribune dug up the poem in Stedman & Hutchinson’s compilation and found it attributed to Miss Smith, together with the date of its first appearance in the Christian Union in 1873. The Tribune thereupon animadverted editorially upon literary thieves and credulous editors, and challenged the State Journal to prove that Mr. Dungan was really what he claimed to be.

The Journal, of course, accepted the challenge and a few days later published the following statement:

We showed the Tribune article to Mr. Dungan, who, after laughing heartily over it, said: “Why, I read that poem from the original manuscript in 1867, before a large audience in the courthouse in Jackson. Let’s see: there are some men now living who were there and heard me read it. There were Horace Chapman, now living in Columbus; Arch Mayo, now of Los Angeles; Tom Moore, G. David of Jackson, and others whom I might recall. Ask them.” We are not insistent upon the claim that Mr. Dungan is the author. We gave him credit because his name has been attached to the poem for forty years. If it is so grand a poem that his authorship may be doubted, why give the claim to Belle Eugenia Smith? Are her credentials any better? If Longfellow’s or Lowell’s name had been attached to the poem no one would have doubted the authorship. Of course it comes natural when a fameless name is accorded the credit to hesitate. We hope the Gallipolis Tribune will pursue the matter further.

The Tribune did pursue it, and in the course of time fired a veritable broadside by publishing a letter from Elmer C. Powell, a fellow-Jacksonian of Mr. Dungan, which, as it put it, did not leave the Journal a leg to stand on.

Mr. Powell, who seems to have been of a methodical mind, ranged his proofs in the following order:

1. Of the persons mentioned by Mr. Dungan as having been present when he read his poem before a large and appreciative audience in the Jackson county courthouse in 1867, only two were living. One was seven years old at the time and lived in Pike county, while the other did not become a resident of Jackson county until twenty years later.

2. The Jackson county courthouse burned down in 1860, and was not rebuilt for many years. There was no courthouse in 1867.

3. A book called The History of the Scioto Valley, published in 1884, contained a very laudatory sketch of Mr. Dungan’s life (presumably written by himself), but strangely enough made no mention of the fact that he was the author of “If I Should Die To-night.”

4. Mr. Powell had persuaded Mr Dungan to read to him some of his original poetry, which proved to be so sadly deficient in rhyme, rhythm and content that he could not persuade even the local paper to print it—which was saying much!

5. Mr. Powell had known Mr. Dungan for thirty-three years, and in all that time had never known him to get a line of poetry published, in spite of the most industrious efforts to that end.

6. Mr. Powell challenged Mr. Dungan to submit a sample of his verse to the State Journal, agreeing, if the Journal published it, never again to question his authorship of “If I Should Die To-night.”

After which withering assault the State Journal confessed that it did indeed feel shaky in the legs, and begged to be excused from meddling in the matter any further. Nor, so far as the record shows, did any rejoinder ever come from Mr. Dungan. What he did to Mr. Powell is also unrecorded, but the subsequent relations between the two men were undoubtedly somewhat strained.

Enter, then, Ben King.

It is a curious fact that, although a volume of Ben King’s verse was published after his death for the benefit of the family he left behind him, he is almost as much a one-poem man as Miss Smith is a one-poem woman, and practically his sole claim to remembrance is based upon his parody of her poem.

There has always been a great deal of confusion in the public mind as to who was the author of which. In fact not long ago “A Constant Reader” sent the following note to a well-known literary weekly, which solemnly published it:

I notice “M. D.” asked for the words to Ben King’s poem, “If I Should Die To-night.” You published a parody on it. Inclosed find the poem as recited by him at a banquet in Bowling Green, Ky. He was found dead in bed the next morning.

And the words of Miss Smith’s poem followed.

Now Ben King was indeed found dead one morning in a hotel room in Bowling Green—but that was in 1894, so that it would be nearly as impossible to ascertain what he really did recite as it would be to substantiate Irvine Dungan’s description of that literary evening at the Jackson county courthouse in 1867. Of course he might have recited the original and followed it with his parody, and his auditors might have jumped to the conclusion that he wrote both of them, but all this is shrouded in the mists of three decades—to say nothing of the potations which no doubt accompanied the banquet.

In the volume of Ben King’s collected poems published shortly after his death, there is an introduction by John McGovern which gives an admirable picture of the man.

“He began,” writes Mr. McGovern, “as the expositor of ‘The Maiden’s Prayer’ on the piano, where each accented note was flat or sharp, and the music flowed rapidly, or over great difficulties, as the score might determine. He arose, and looking half-witted, recited with unapproachable modesty the stammering delight which he would feel ‘If He Could Be by Her.’ He frowsled his hair and became Paderewski, who forthwith fell upon the piano tooth and nail, tore up the track, derailed the symphony, went downstairs and shook the furnace, fainted at the pedals, and was carried out rigid by supers—the greatest pianist of any age.

“He wrote ‘If I Should Die To-night’—a parody that was accepted as the true original, the sum, the center of the great If-I-should-die-to-night system of thought and poetry. He wrote the poet’s lament—that there was nothing to eat but food, and nowhere to fall but off. He was coldly, then not coldly, then warmly received by the church fairs, the clubs, and the Elks, where he got a supper—if any were left. At last he charged a small sum for appearing publicly, and this sum was rapidly enlarging and his fortune was in sight, when the hotel porter found him dead in his room at Bowling Green.”

Not very much is known about his life. Opie Read wrote a short biography of him to follow Mr. McGovern’s appreciation in his book of verses, but beyond recording that his full name was Benjamin Franklin King, that he was born at St. Joseph, Mich., March 17, 1857, that he was a sort of musical genius in his youth, and was survived by a widow and two sons, it is singularly empty of information.

“If I Should Die To-night” is the first poem in the book. For the rest, the verses are the usual run of mediocre humorous chaff, which filled the “columns” of that period. Most of them are in dialect, and with two exceptions, there is nothing about any of them to be remembered. One of the exceptions is this parody on Longfellow:

HOW OFTEN

They stood on the bridge at midnight,
In a park not far from town;
They stood on the bridge at midnight
Because they didn’t sit down.

The moon rose o’er the city
Behind the dark church spire;
The moon rose o’er the city
And kept on rising higher.

How often, oh! how often
They whispered words so soft;
How often, oh! how often,
How often, oh! how oft.

The second exception is the first two quatrains of “The Pessimist:”

Nothing to do but work,
Nothing to eat but food,
Nothing to wear but clothes
To keep one from going nude.

Nothing to breathe but air,
Quick as a flash ’tis gone;
Nowhere to fall but off,
Nowhere to stand but on.

These represent the sum of Ben King’s achievement—the best that was in him.

  1. The parody, “You Are Old, Father William,” may be read here. (Wikisource contributor note)