Special Order

a.p. herbert

In 1961, irate at receiving a bill for an £85 surtax from the Inland Revenue, A.P. Herbert sent them a check in verse:

Dear Bankers, PAY the undermentioned hounds
The shameful sum of FIVE-AND-EIGHTY POUNDS
By “hounds,” of course, by custom, one refers
And these progenitors of woe and worry

This is the second lot of tax, you know,
On money that I earned two years ago.
(The shark, they say, by no means nature’s knight,
Will rest contented with a single bite:
The barracuda, who’s a fish more fell,
Comes back and takes the other leg as well.)
Two years ago. But things have changed since then.
I’ve reached the age of threescore years and ten.
My earnings dwindle; and the kindly State
Gives me a tiny pension — with my mate.
You’d think the State would generously roar
“At least he shan’t pay surtax any more.”
Instead by this un-Christian attack
They get two-thirds of my poor pension back.
Oh, very well. No doubt it’s for the best;
At all events, pray do as I request;
And let the good old customs be enforced —
Don’t cash this check, unless it is endorsed.

To his astonishment he received this reply:

Dear Sir,

It is with pleasure that I thank
You for your letter and the order to your bank
To pay the sum of five and eighty pounds
To those here whom you designate as hounds.
Their appetite is satisfied. In fact,
You paid too much and I am forced to act,
Not to repay you, as perchance you dream,
Though such a course is easy, it would seem.
Your liability for later years
Is giving your accountants many tears;
And ’til such time as they and we can come
To amicable settlement on the sum
That represents your tax bill to the State
I’ll leave the overpayment to its fate.
I do not think this step will make you frown:
The sum involved is only half-a-crown.

Yours faithfully,

A.L. Grove

He wrote back:

I thank you, Sir, but am afraid
Of such a rival in my trade:
One never should encourage those —
In the future I shall pay in prose.

“On the Question of Choice”


A leaf was riven from a tree,
“I mean to fall to earth,” said he.

The west wind, rising, made him veer.
“Eastward,” said he, “I now shall steer.”

The east wind rose with greater force.
Said he, “‘Twere wise to change my course.”

With equal power they contend.
He said, “My judgment I suspend.”

Down died the winds; the leaf, elate,
Cried: “I’ve decided to fall straight.”

“First thoughts are best?” That’s not the moral;
Just choose your own and we’ll not quarrel.

Howe’er your choice may chance to fall,
You’ll have no hand in it at all.

— Ambrose Bierce



“Stopping by Euclid’s Proof of the Infinitude of Primes,” by Presbyterian College mathematician Brian D. Beasley, “with apologies to Robert Frost”:

Whose proof this is I think I know.
I can’t improve upon it, though;
You will not see me trying here
To offer up a better show.

His demonstration is quite clear:
For contradiction, take the mere
n primes (no more), then multiply;
Add one to that … the end is near.

In vain one seeks a prime to try
To split this number — thus, a lie!
The first assumption was a leap;
Instead, the primes will reach the sky.

This proof is lovely, sharp, and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And tests to grade before I sleep,
And tests to grade before I sleep.

(From Mathematics Magazine 78:2 [April 2005], 171.)

“A Victim of Irregularity”

Though no great catch, this man was caught,
And neighbors tell, I’m told,
That oft, with scratch, his face was scraught,
Till fearful yells he yold.

In sink of sadness almost sunk,
To quit all strife he strove —
And after he a think had thunk,
A happier life he love.

To steal a kiss, no more he stole;
To make a break, he broke;
To remedy the deal he’d dole,
A secret sneak he snoke.

Fate’s dice with crafty shake he shook;
As gamblers feel he felt;
But ere the final stake he stook
A bitter squeal he squelt.

Of earlier days, I think, he thought,
Ere Hymen’s bonds had bound —
Before his links were firmly lought —
When he by blond was blound.

A stroke for liberty he struck;
For in a fly he flew —
But though full many a joke he juck,
A secret cry he crew.

Then stings of conscience no more stung,
And so in peace he slept;
For, on the wings of Morpheus brung,
In Paradise he pept.

— George B. Moregood, Puck, Oct. 2, 1912



A poem written by Amelia Earhart in 1928:

Courage is the price that
Life exacts for granting peace.
The soul that knows it not, knows no release
From little things:
Knows not the livid loneliness of fear,
Nor mountain heights where bitter joy can hear
The sound of wings.

How can life grant us boon of living, compensate
For dull grey ugliness and pregnant hate
Unless we dare
The soul’s dominion? Each time we make a choice, we pay
With courage to behold the resistless day,
And count it fair.

“Please know I am quite aware of the hazards,” she wrote in a final letter left to her husband. “I want to do it because I want to do it. Women must try to do things as men have tried. When they fail, their failure must be but a challenge to others.”

Poem Codes

During World War II the British Special Operations Executive used poetry to communicate with its agents in enemy territory. The sender and receiver would agree in advance on a poem, and by numbering its letters they produced a simple cipher that could be used to transmit messages. Because both sides could memorize the poem, there was no codebook to lose, but the Nazis could break the code fairly easily, particularly if the poem was well known.

Realizing this, SOE codes officer Leo Marks began to introduce original poems of his own creation. He gave this one to French agent Violette Szabo in March 1944:

The life that I have is all that I have,
And the life that I have is yours.
The love that I have of the life that I have
Is yours and yours and yours.

A sleep I shall have, a rest I shall have,
Yet death will be but a pause.
For the peace of my years in the long green grass
Will be yours and yours and yours.

Marks had written it three months earlier in memory of his girlfriend Ruth, who had died in a plane crash in Canada. The poem became famous when it was read in the 1958 film Carve Her Name With Pride, about Szabo’s exploits in the war. Unfortunately, Szabo herself was captured, tortured, and killed before she could transmit any messages.