So There

E.E. Cummings had to borrow $300 from his mother in order to publish 70 Poems, his 1935 collection of poetry. Vindictively he changed its title to No Thanks and dedicated it to the 14 publishing houses that had rejected it:

cummings dedication

Their names form the shape of a funeral urn.

“Friendship’s Garland”

When I was a boy there was a friend of mine,
We thought ourselves warriors and grown folk swine,
Stupid old animals who never understood
And never had an impulse, and said “You must be good!”

We stank like stoats and fled like foxes,
We put cigarettes in the pillar-boxes,
Lighted cigarettes and letters all aflame–
O the surprise when the postman came!

We stole eggs and apples and made fine hay
In people’s houses when people were away,
We broke street lamps and away we ran;
Then I was a boy but now I am a man.

Now I am a man and don’t have any fun,
I hardly ever shout and never never run,
And I don’t care if he’s dead, that friend of mine,
For then I was a boy and now I am a swine.

— G.K. Chesterton

Fading Words

William Barnes (1801-1886) loved language too well. He had written poetry in Standard English from an early age, but in his 30s he switched to the local Dorset dialect, which he felt was more linguistically pure:

Oh! it meäde me a’most teary-ey’d,
An’ I vound I a’most could ha’ groan’d —
What! so winnèn, an’ still cast azide —
What! so lovely, an’ not to be own’d;
Oh! a God-gift a-treated wi’ scorn
Oh! a child that a squier should own;
An’ to zend her awaÿ to be born! —
Aye, to hide her where others be shown!

A philological scholar, he had come to feel that Dorset speech, true to its Anglo-Saxon origins, was the least corrupted form of English, and best suited to paint scenes of rural life. “To write in what some may deem a fast out-wearing speech-form may seem as idle as the writing of one’s name in snow on a spring day,” he wrote. “I cannot help it. It is my mother tongue, and it is to my mind the only true speech of the life that I draw.”

His contemporary admirers included Tennyson, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Thomas Hardy, but unfortunately he was right: As Standard English increasingly outmoded his beloved dialect, his poems passed into an undeserved obscurity.

“Had he chosen to write solely in familiar English, rather than in the dialect of his native Dorsetshire, every modern anthology would be graced by the verses of William Barnes,” wrote Charles Dudley Warner. “By reason of their faithfulness to everyday life and to nature, and by their spontaneity and tenderness, his lyrics, fables, and eclogues appeal to cultivated readers as well as to the rustics whose quaint speech he made his own.”

“A Tragic Story”

There lived a sage in days of yore,
And he a handsome pigtail wore;
But wondered much and sorrowed more,
Because it hung behind him.

He mused upon this curious case,
And swore he’d change the pigtail’s place,
And have it hanging at his face,
Not dangling there behind him.

Says he, “The mystery I’ve found!
I’ll turn me round,” — he turned him round;
But still it hung behind him.

Then round and round, and out and in,
All day the puzzled sage did spin;
In vain — it mattered not a pin —
The pigtail hung behind him.

And right and left and round about,
And up and down and in and out
He turned; but still the pigtail stout
Hung steadily behind him.

And though his efforts never slack,
And though he twist and twirl, and tack,
Alas! Still faithful to his back,
The pigtail hangs behind him.

— Thackeray

Missed Connections
Image: Wikimedia Commons

“On Planning a Visit to Late, a Volcanic Island Southwest of Tonga, With the Author of The Blue Star (Tom Early) and Lotte Lenya”

Lotte came early,
But Early came to Late too early,
& I came to Late too late.

Left Late & Early early.
So I called my late trip to Late off

Quite early.

— Louis Phillips

Future History

“A Tryst,” a sadly prophetic poem by Celia Thaxter, from the Atlantic Monthly, August 1872:

From out the desolation of the North
An iceberg took its way,
From its detaining comrades breaking forth,
And travelling night and day.

At whose command? Who bade it sail the deep
With that resistless force?
Who made the dread appointment it must keep?
Who traced its awful course?

To the warm airs that stir in the sweet South
A good ship spread her sails;
Stately she passed beyond the harbor’s mouth,
Chased by the favoring gales.

And on her ample decks a happy crowd
Bade the fair land good by;
Clear shone the day, with not a single cloud
In all the peaceful sky.

Brave men, sweet women, little children bright,
For all these she made room,
And with her freight of beauty and delight
She went to meet her doom.

Storms buffeted the iceberg, spray was swept
Across its loftiest height;
Guided alike by storm and calm it kept
Its fatal path aright.

Then warmer waves gnawed at its crumbling base
As if in piteous plea,
The ardent sun sent slow tears down its face,
Soft flowing to the sea.

Dawn kissed it with her tender rose-tints, eve
Bathed it in violet;
The wistful color o’er it seemed to grieve
With a divine regret.

Whether day clad its clefts in rainbows dim
And shadowy as a dream,
Or night through lonely spaces saw it swim
White in the moonlight’s gleam,

Ever Death rode upon its solemn heights,
Ever his watch he kept;
Cold at its heart through changing days and nights
Its changeless purpose slept.

And where afar a smiling coast it passed
Straightway the air grew chill,
Dwellers thereon perceived a bitter blast,
A vague report of ill.

Like some imperial creature, moving slow
Meanwhile, with matchless grace,
The stately ship, unconscious of her foe,
Drew near the trysting-place.

For still the prosperous breezes followed her,
And half the voyage was o’er;
In many a breast glad thoughts began to stir
Of lands that lay before:

And human hearts with longing love were dumb
That soon should cease to beat,
Thrilled with the hope of meetings soon to come,
And lost in memories sweet.

Was not the weltering waste of water wide
Enough for both to sail?
What drew the two together o’er the tide,
Fair ship and iceberg pale?

There came a night with neither moon nor star,
Clouds draped the sky in black;
With straining canvas reefed at every spar,
And weird fire in her track,

The ship swept on, a wild wind gathering fast
Drove her at utmost speed;
Bravely she bent before the fitful blast
That shook her like a reed.

O helmsman, turn thy wheel! Will no surmise
Cleave through the midnight drear?
No warning of the horrible surprise
Reach thine unconscious ear?

She rushed upon her ruin; not a flash
Broke up the waiting dark:
Dully through wind and sea one awful crash
Sounded, with none to mark.

Scarcely her crew had time to clutch despair,
So swift the work was done;
Ere their pale lips could frame a speechless prayer
They perished, every one!

“Ain’t Nature Commonplace!”

Now orange-blossoms filigree
The orange tree; but it would be
Remarkable if you should see
Them on some other kind of tree.

A hydroplane pervades the lake
And leaves a wake; but it would make
Observers cry, “For goodness’ sake!”
If it should fail to leave a wake.

The sky is azure overhead;
But spare to call me from my bed
To note its hue, until instead
Of azure, it is brown or red.

Oh, why must poets hail the name
Of Nature with such glad acclaim,
When Nature, whether wild or tame,
Is always pretty much the same!

— Arthur Guiterman


There was an old grocer of Goring
Had a butter assistant named Green,
Who sank through a hole in the flooring
And never was afterwards seen.
Did he look in his cellar?
Did he miss the poor fellow?
Not at all. Quite phlegmatic,
He retired to an attic,
And there watched the moon in her glory o’er Goring —
A sight not infrequently seen.

— Walter de la Mare