Fable for Critics Introduction

A Fable for Critics [Introduction]

by James Russell Lowell

James Russell Lowell, c. 1894 engraving by J.A.J. Wilcox. From original crayon drawn by S.W. Rowse in 1855 and owned by Charles Eliot Norton. Image from the Library of Congress, Washington, DC. LC-USZ62-100831 (b&w film copy neg.)

James Russell Lowell, c. 1894 engraving by J.A.J. Wilcox. From original crayon drawn by S.W. Rowse in 1855 and owned by Charles Eliot Norton. Image from the Library of Congress, Washington, DC. LC-USZ62-100831
(b&w film copy neg.)

Phoebus, sitting one day in a laurel-tree’s shade,
Was reminded of Daphne, of whom it was made,
For the god being one day too warm in his wooing,
She took to the tree to escape his pursuing;
Be the cause what it might, from his offers she shrunk,
And, Ginevra-like, shut herself up in a trunk;
And, though ’twas a step into which he had driven her,
He somehow or other had never forgiven her;
Her memory he nursed as a kind of a tonic,
Something bitter to chew when he’d play the Byronic, 10
And I can’t count the obstinate nymphs that he brought over
By a strange kind of smile he put on when he thought of her.
‘My case is like Dido’s,’ he sometimes remarked;
‘When I last saw my love, she was fairly embarked
In a laurel, as she thought—but (ah, how Fate mocks!)
She has found it by this time a very bad box;
Let hunters from me take this saw when they need it,—
You’re not always sure of your game when you’ve treed it.
Just conceive such a change taking place in one’s mistress!
What romance would be left?—who can flatter or kiss trees? 20
And, for mercy’s sake, how could one keep up a dialogue
With a dull wooden thing that will live and will die a log,—
Not to say that the thought would forever intrude
That you’ve less chance to win her the more she is wood?
Ah! it went to my heart, and the memory still grieves,
To see those loved graces all taking their leaves;
Those charms beyond speech, so enchanting but now,
As they left me forever, each making its bough!
If her tongue had a tang sometimes more than was right,
Her new bark is worse than ten times her old bite.’ 30

  Now, Daphne—before she was happily treeified—
Over all other blossoms the lily had deified,
And when she expected the god on a visit
(‘Twas before he had made his intentions explicit),
Some buds she arranged with a vast deal of care,
To look as if artlessly twined in her hair,
Where they seemed, as he said, when he paid his addresses,
Like the day breaking through, the long night of her tresses;
So whenever he wished to be quite irresistible,
Like a man with eight trumps in his hand at a whist-table 40
(I feared me at first that the rhyme was untwistable,
Though I might have lugged in an allusion to Cristabel),—
He would take up a lily, and gloomily look in it,
As I shall at the——, when they cut up my book in it.

  Well, here, after all the bad rhyme I’ve been spinning,
I’ve got back at last to my story’s beginning:
Sitting there, as I say, in the shade of his mistress,
As dull as a volume of old Chester mysteries,
Or as those puzzling specimens which, in old histories,
We read of his verses—the Oracles, namely,— 50
(I wonder the Greeks should have swallowed them tamely,
For one might bet safely whatever he has to risk,
They were laid at his door by some ancient Miss Asterisk,
And so dull that the men who retailed them out-doors
Got the ill name of augurs, because they were bores,—)
First, he mused what the animal substance or herb is
Would induce a mustache, for you know he’s imberbis;
Then he shuddered to think how his youthful position
Was assailed by the age of his son the physician;
At some poems he glanced, had been sent to him lately, 60
And the metre and sentiment puzzled him greatly;
‘Mehercle! I’d make such proceeding felonious,—
Have they all of them slept in the cave of Trophonius?
Look well to your seat, ’tis like taking an airing
On a corduroy road, and that out of repairing;
It leads one, ’tis true, through the primitive forest,
Grand natural features, but then one has no rest;
You just catch a glimpse of some ravishing distance,
When a jolt puts the whole of it out of existence,—
Why not use their ears, if they happen to have any?’ 70
—Here the laurel leaves murmured the name of poor Daphne.

  ‘Oh, weep with me, Daphne,’ he sighed, ‘for you know it’s
A terrible thing to be pestered with poets!
But, alas, she is dumb, and the proverb holds good,
She never will cry till she’s out of the wood!
What wouldn’t I give if I never had known of her?
‘Twere a kind of relief had I something to groan over:
If I had but some letters of hers, now, to toss over,
I might turn for the nonce a Byronic philosopher,
And bewitch all the flats by bemoaning the loss of her. 80
One needs something tangible, though, to begin on,—
A loom, as it were, for the fancy to spin on;
What boots all your grist? it can never be ground
Till a breeze makes the arms of the windmill go round;
(Or, if ’tis a water-mill, alter the metaphor,
And say it won’t stir, save the wheel be well wet afore,
Or lug in some stuff about water “so dreamily,”—
It is not a metaphor, though, ’tis a simile);
A lily, perhaps, would set my mill a-going,
For just at this season, I think, they are blowing. 90
Here, somebody, fetch one; not very far hence
They’re in bloom by the score, ’tis but climbing a fence;
There’s a poet hard by, who does nothing but fill his
Whole garden, from one end to t’other, with lilies;
A very good plan, were it not for satiety,
One longs for a weed here and there, for variety;
Though a weed is no more than a flower in disguise,
Which is seen through at once, if love give a man eyes.’

  Now there happened to be among Phoebus’s followers,
A gentleman, one of the omnivorous swallowers, 100
Who bolt every book that comes out of the press,
Without the least question of larger or less,
Whose stomachs are strong at the expense of their head,—
For reading new books is like eating new bread,
One can bear it at first, but by gradual steps he
Is brought to death’s door of a mental dyspepsy.
On a previous stage of existence, our Hero
Had ridden outside, with the glass below zero;
He had been, ’tis a fact you may safely rely on,
Of a very old stock a most eminent scion,— 110
A stock all fresh quacks their fierce boluses ply on,
Who stretch the new boots Earth’s unwilling to try on,
Whom humbugs of all shapes and sorts keep their eye on,
Whose hair’s in the mortar of every new Zion,
Who, when whistles are dear, go directly and buy one,
Who think slavery a crime that we must not say fie on,
Who hunt, if they e’er hunt at all, with the lion
(Though they hunt lions also, whenever they spy one),
Who contrive to make every good fortune a wry one,
And at last choose the hard bed of honor to die on, 120
Whose pedigree, traced to earth’s earliest years,
Is longer than anything else but their ears,—
In short, he was sent into life with the wrong key,
He unlocked the door, and stept forth a poor donkey.
Though kicked and abused by his bipedal betters
Yet he filled no mean place in the kingdom of letters;
Far happier than many a literary hack,
He bore only paper-mill rags on his back
(For It makes a vast difference which side the mill
One expends on the paper his labor and skill); 130
So, when his soul waited a new transmigration,
And Destiny balanced ‘twixt this and that station,
Not having much time to expend upon bothers,
Remembering he’d had some connection with authors,
And considering his four legs had grown paralytic,—
She set him on two, and he came forth a critic.

  Through his babyhood no kind of pleasure he took
In any amusement but tearing a book;
For him there was no intermediate stage
From babyhood up to straight-laced middle age; 140
There were years when he didn’t wear coat-tails behind,
But a boy he could never be rightly defined;
like the Irish Good Folk, though in length scarce a span,
From the womb he came gravely, a little old man;
While other boys’ trousers demanded the toil
Of the motherly fingers on all kinds of soil,
Red, yellow, brown, black, clayey, gravelly, loamy,
He sat in the corner and read Viri Romæ.
He never was known to unbend or to revel once
In base, marbles, hockey, or kick up the devil once; 150
He was just one of those who excite the benevolence
Of your old prigs who sound the soul’s depths with a ledger,
And are on the lookout for some young men to ‘edger-
cate,’ as they call it, who won’t be too costly,
And who’ll afterward take to the ministry mostly;
Who always wear spectacles, always look bilious,
Always keep on good terms with each mater-familias
Throughout the whole parish, and manage to rear
Ten boys like themselves, on four hundred a year:
Who, fulfilling in turn the same fearful conditions, 160
Either preach through their noses, or go upon missions.

In this way our Hero got safely to college,
Where he bolted alike both his commons and knowledge;
A reading-machine, always wound up and going,
He mastered whatever was not worth the knowing,
Appeared in a gown, with black waistcoat of satin,
To spout such a Gothic oration in Latin
That Tully could never have made out a word in it
(Though himself was the model the author preferred in it),
And grasping the parchment which gave him in fee 170
All the mystic and-so-forths contained in A.B.,
He was launched (life is always compared to a sea)
With just enough learning, and skill for the using it,
To prove he’d a brain, by forever confusing it.
So worthy St. Benedict, piously burning
With the holiest zeal against secular learning,
Nesciensque scienter, as writers express it,
Indoctusque sapienter a Roma recessit.

  ‘Twould be endless to tell you the things that he knew,
Each a separate fact, undeniably true, 180
But with him or each other they’d nothing to do;
No power of combining, arranging, discerning,
Digested the masses he learned into learning;
There was one thing in life he had practical knowledge for
(And this, you will think, he need scarce go to college for),—
Not a deed would he do, nor a word would he utter,
Till he’d weighed its relations to plain bread and butter.
When he left Alma Mater, he practised his wits
In compiling the journals’ historical bits,—
Of shops broken open, men falling in fits, 190
Great fortunes in England bequeathed to poor printers,
And cold spells, the coldest for many past winters,—
Then, rising by industry, knack, and address,
Got notices up for an unbiased press,
With a mind so well poised, it seemed equally made for
Applause or abuse, just which chanced to be paid for:
From this point his progress was rapid and sure,
To the post of a regular heavy reviewer.

  And here I must say he wrote excellent articles
On Hebraical points, or the force of Greek particles; 200
They filled up the space nothing else was prepared for,
And nobody read that which nobody cared for;
If any old book reached a fiftieth edition,
He could fill forty pages with safe erudition:
He could gauge the old books by the old set of rules,
And his very old nothings pleased very old fools;
But give him a new book, fresh out of the heart,
And you put him at sea without compass or chart,—
His blunders aspired to the rank of an art;
For his lore was engraft, something foreign that grew in him, 210
Exhausting the sap of the native and true in him,
So that when a man came with a soul that was new in him,
Carving new forms of truth out of Nature’s old granite,
New and old at their birth, like Le Verrier’s planet,
Which, to get a true judgment, themselves must create
In the soul of their critic the measure and weight,
Being rather themselves a fresh standard of grace,
To compute their own judge, and assign him his place,
Our reviewer would crawl all about it and round it,
And, reporting each circumstance just as he found it, 220
Without the least malice,—his record would be
Profoundly æsthetic as that of a flea,
Which, supping on Wordsworth, should print for our sakes,
Recollections of nights with the Bard of the Lakes,
Or, lodged by an Arab guide, ventured to render a
Comprehensive account of the ruins at Denderah.

  As I said, he was never precisely unkind.
The defect in his brain was just absence of mind;
If he boasted, ’twas simply that he was self-made,
A position which I, for one, never gainsaid, 230
My respect for my Maker supposing a skill
In his works which our Hero would answer but ill;
And I trust that the mould which he used may be cracked, or he,
Made bold by success, may enlarge his phylactery,
And set up a kind of a man-manufactory,—
An event which I shudder to think about, seeing
That Man is a moral, accountable being.

  He meant well enough, but was still in the way,
As dunces still are, let them be where they may;
Indeed, they appear to come into existence 240
To impede other folks with their awkward assistance;
If you set up a dunce on the very North pole
All alone with himself, I believe, on my soul,
He’d manage to get betwixt somebody’s shins,
And pitch him down bodily, all in his sins,
To the grave polar bears sitting round on the ice,
All shortening their grace, to be in for a slice;
Or, if he found nobody else there to pother,
Why, one of his legs would just trip up the other,
For there’s nothing we read of in torture’s inventions, 250
Like a well-meaning dunce, with the best of intentions.

  A terrible fellow to meet in society,
Not the toast that he buttered was ever so dry at tea;
There he’d sit at the table and stir in his sugar,
Crouching close for a spring, all the while, like a cougar;
Be sure of your facts, of your measures and weights,
Of your time,—he’s as fond as an Arab of dates;
You’ll be telling, perhaps, in your comical way,
Of something you’ve seen in the course of the day;
And, just as you’re tapering out the conclusion, 260
You venture an ill-fated classic allusion,—
The girls have all got their laughs ready, when, whack!
The cougar comes down on your thunderstruck back!
You had left out a comma,—your Greek’s put in joint,
And pointed at cost of your story’s whole point.
In the course of the evening, you find chance for certain
Soft speeches to Anne, in the shade of the curtain:
You tell her your heart can be likened to one flower,
‘And that, O most charming of women, ‘s the sunflower,
Which turns’—here a clear nasal voice, to your terror, 270
From outside the curtain, says, ‘That’s all an error.’
As for him, he’s—no matter, he never grew tender,
Sitting after a ball, with his feet on the fender,
Shaping somebody’s sweet features out of cigar smoke
(Though he’d willingly grant you that such doings are smoke);
All women he damns with mutabile semper,
And if ever he felt something like love’s distemper,
‘Twas tow’rds a young lady who spoke ancient Mexican,
And assisted her father in making a lexicon;
Though I recollect hearing him get quite ferocious 280
About Mary Clausum, the mistress of Grotius,
Or something of that sort,—but, no more to bore ye
With character-painting, I’ll turn to my story.

  Now, Apollo, who finds it convenient sometimes
To get his court clear of the makers of rhymes,
The genus, I think it is called, irritabile,
Every one of whom thinks himself treated most shabbily,
And nurses a—what is it?—immedicabile,
Which keeps him at boiling-point, hot for a quarrel,
As bitter as wormwood, and sourer than sorrel, 290
If any poor devil but look at a laurel;—
Apollo, I say, being sick of their rioting
(Though he sometimes acknowledged their verse had a quieting
Effect after dinner, and seemed to suggest a
Retreat to the shrine of a tranquil siesta),
Kept our Hero at hand, who, by means of a bray,
Which he gave to the life, drove the rabble away;
And if that wouldn’t do, he was sure to succeed,
If he took his review out and offered to read;
Or, failing in plans of this milder description, 300
He would ask for their aid to get up a subscription,
Considering that authorship wasn’t a rich craft,
To print the ‘American drama of Witchcraft.’
‘Stay, I’ll read you a scene,’—but he hardly began,
Ere Apollo shrieked ‘Help!’ and the authors all ran:
And once, when these purgatives acted with less spirit,
And the desperate case asked a remedy desperate,
He drew from his pocket a foolscap epistle
As calmly as if ’twere a nine-barrelled pistol,
And threatened them all with the judgment to come, 310
Of ‘A wandering Star’s first impressions of Rome.’
‘Stop! stop!’ with their hands o’er their ears, screamed the Muses,
‘He may go off and murder himself, if he chooses,
‘Twas a means self-defence only sanctioned his trying,
‘Tis mere massacre now that the enemy’s flying;
If he’s forced to ‘t again, and we happen to be there,
Give us each a large handkerchief soaked in strong ether.’

  I called this a ‘Fable for Critics;’ you think it’s
More like a display of my rhythmical trinkets;
My plot, like an icicle’s slender and slippery, 320
Every moment more slender, and likely to slip awry,
And the reader unwilling in loco desipere
Is free to jump over as much of my frippery
As he fancies, and, if he’s a provident skipper, he
May have like Odysseus control of the gales,
And get safe to port, ere his patience quite fails;
Moreover, although ’tis a slender return
For your toil and expense, yet my paper will burn,
And, if you have manfully struggled thus far with me,
You may e’en twist me up, and just light your cigar with me: 330
If too angry for that, you can tear me in pieces,
And my membra disjecta consign to the breezes,
A fate like great Ratzau’s, whom one of those bores,
Who beflead with bad verses poor Louis Quatorze,
Describes (the first verse somehow ends with victoire),
As dispersant partout et ses membres et sa gloire;
Or, if I were over-desirous of earning
A repute among noodles for classical learning,
I could pick you a score of allusions, i-wis,
As new as the jests of Didaskalos tis; 340
Better still, I could make out a good solid list
From authors recondite who do not exist,—
But that would be naughty: at least, I could twist
Something out of Absyrtus, or turn your inquiries
After Milton’s prose metaphor, drawn from Osiris;
But, as Cicero says he won’t say this or that
(A fetch, I must say, most transparent and flat),
After saying whate’er he could possibly think of,—
I simply will state that I pause on the brink of
A mire, ankle-deep, of deliberate confusion, 350
Made up of old jumbles of classic allusion:
So, when you were thinking yourselves to be pitied,
Just conceive how much harder your teeth you’d have gritted,
An ’twere not for the dulness I’ve kindly omitted.

  I’d apologize here for my many digressions.
Were it not that I’m certain to trip into fresh ones
(‘Tis so hard to escape if you get in their mesh once);
Just reflect, if you please, how ’tis said by Horatius,
That Mæonides nods now and then, and, my gracious!
It certainly does look a little bit ominous 360
When he gets under way with ton d’apameibomenos.
(Here a something occurs which I’ll just clap a rhyme to,
And say it myself, ere a Zoilus have time to,—
Any author a nap like Van Winkle’s may take,
If he only contrive to keep readers awake,
But he’ll very soon find himself laid on the shelf,
If they fall a-nodding when he nods himself.)

  Once for all, to return, and to stay, will I, nill I—
When Phoebus expressed his desire for a lily,
Our Hero, whose homoeopathic sagacity 370
With an ocean of zeal mixed his drop of capacity,
Set off for the garden as fast as the wind
(Or, to take a comparison more to my mind,
As a sound politician leaves conscience behind).
And leaped the low fence, as a party hack jumps
O’er his principles, when something else turns up trumps.

  He was gone a long time, and Apollo, meanwhile,
Went over some sonnets of his with a file,
For, of all compositions, he thought that the sonnet
Best repaid all the toil you expended upon it; 380
It should reach with one impulse the end of its course,
And for one final blow collect all of its force;
Not a verse should be salient, but each one should tend
With a wave-like up-gathering to break at the end;
So, condensing the strength here, there smoothing a wry kink,
He was killing the time, when up walked Mr. D——,
At a few steps behind him, a small man in glasses
Went dodging about, muttering, ‘Murderers! asses!’
From out of his pocket a paper he’d take,
With a proud look of martyrdom tied to its stake, 390
And, reading a squib at himself, he’d say, ‘Here I see
‘Gainst American letters a bloody conspiracy,
They are all by my personal enemies written;
I must post an anonymous letter to Britain,
And show that this gall is the merest suggestion
Of spite at my zeal on the Copyright question,
For, on this side the water, ’tis prudent to pull
O’er the eyes of the public their national wool,
By accusing of slavish respect to John Bull
All American authors who have more or less 400
Of that anti-American humbug—success,
While in private we’re always embracing the knees
Of some twopenny editor over the seas,
And licking his critical shoes, for you know ’tis
The whole aim of our lives to get one English notice;
My American puffs I would willingly burn all
(They’re all from one source, monthly, weekly, diurnal)
To get but a kick from a transmarine journal!’

  So, culling the gibes of each critical scorner
As if they were plums, and himself were Jack Horner, 410
He came cautiously on, peeping round every corner,
And into each hole where a weasel might pass in,
Expecting the knife of some critic assassin,
Who stabs to the heart with a caricature.
Not so bad as those daubs of the Sun, to be sure,
Yet done with a dagger-o’-type, whose vile portraits
Disperse all one’s good and condense all one’s poor traits.

  Apollo looked up, hearing footsteps approaching,
And slipped out of sight the new rhymes he was broaching,—
‘Good day, Mr. D——, I’m happy to meet 420
With a scholar so ripe, and a critic so neat,
Who through Grub Street the soul of a gentleman carries;
What news from that suburb of London and Paris
Which latterly makes such shrill claims to monopolize
The credit of being the New World’s metropolis?’

  ‘Why, nothing of consequence, save this attack
On my friend there, behind, by some pitiful hack,
Who thinks every national author a poor one,
That isn’t a copy of something that’s foreign, 429
And assaults the American Dick—’

                                 Nay, ’tis clear
That your Damon there’s fond of a flea in his ear,
And, if no one else furnished them gratis, on tick
He would buy some himself, just to hear the old click;
Why, I honestly think, if some fool in Japan
Should turn up his nose at the “Poems on Man,”
(Which contain many verses as fine, by the bye,
As any that lately came under my eye,)
Your friend there by some inward instinct would know it,
Would get it translated, reprinted, and show it;
As a man might take off a high stock to exhibit 440
The autograph round his own neck of the gibbet;
Nor would let it rest so, but fire column after column,
Signed Cato, or Brutus, or something as solemn,
By way of displaying his critical crosses,
And tweaking that poor transatlantic proboscis,
His broadsides resulting (this last there’s no doubt of)
In successively sinking the craft they’re fired out of.
Now nobody knows when an author is hit,
If he have not a public hysterical fit;
Let him only keep close in his snug garret’s dim ether, 450
And nobody’d think of his foes—or of him either;
If an author have any least fibre of worth in him,
Abuse would but tickle the organ of mirth in him;
All the critics on earth cannot crush with their ban
One word that’s in tune with the nature of man.’

  ‘Well, perhaps so; meanwhile I have brought you a book,
Into which if you’ll just have the goodness to look,
You may feel so delighted (when once you are through it)
As to deem it not unworth your while to review it,
And I think I can promise your thoughts, if you do, 460
A place in the next Democratic Review.’

  ‘The most thankless of gods you must surely have thought me,
For this is the forty-fourth copy you’ve brought me;
I have given them away, or at least I have tried,
But I’ve forty-two left, standing all side by side
(The man who accepted that one copy died),—
From one end of a shelf to the other they reach,
“With the author’s respects” neatly written in each.
The publisher, sure, will proclaim a Te Deum,
When he hears of that order the British Museum 470
Has sent for one set of what books were first printed
In America, little or big,—for ’tis hinted
That this is the first truly tangible hope he
Has ever had raised for the sale of a copy.
I’ve thought very often ‘twould be a good thing
In all public collections of books, if a wing
Were set off by itself, like the seas from the dry lands,
Marked Literature suited to desolate islands,
And filled with such books as could never be read
Save by readers of proofs, forced to do it for bread,— 480
Such books as one’s wrecked on in small country taverns,
Such as hermits might mortify over in caverns,
Such as Satan, if printing had then been invented,
As the climax of woe, would to Job have presented.
Such as Crusoe might dip in, although there are few so
Outrageously cornered by fate as poor Crusoe;
And since the philanthropists just now are banging
And gibbeting all who’re in favor of hanging
(Though Cheever has proved that the Bible and Altar
Were let down from Heaven at the end of a halter. 490
And that vital religion would dull and grow callous,
Unrefreshed, now and then, with a sniff of the gallows),—
And folks are beginning to think it looks odd,
To choke a poor scamp for the glory of God;
And that He who esteems the Virginia reel
A bait to draw saints from their spiritual weal,
And regards the quadrille as a far greater knavery
Than crushing his African children with slavery,—
Since all who take part in a waltz or cotillon
Are mounted for hell on the Devil’s own pillion, 500
Who, as every true orthodox Christian well knows,
Approaches the heart through the door of the toes,—
That He, I was saying, whose judgments are stored
For such as take steps in despite of his word,
Should look with delight on the agonized prancing
Of a wretch who has not the least ground for his dancing,
While the State, standing by, sings a verse from the Psalter
About offering to God on his favorite halter,
And, when the legs droop from their twitching divergence,
Sells the clothes to a Jew, and the corpse to the surgeons;—
Now, instead of all this, I think I can direct you all 511
To a criminal code both humane and effectual;—
I propose to shut up every doer of wrong
With these desperate books, for such term, short or long,
As, by statute in such cases made and provided,
Shall be by your wise legislators decided:
Thus: Let murderers be shut, to grow wiser and cooler,
At hard labor for life on the works of Miss——;
Petty thieves, kept from flagranter crimes by their fears,
Shall peruse Yankee Doodle a blank term of years,— 520
That American Punch, like the English, no doubt,—
Just the sugar and lemons and spirit left out.

  ‘But stay, here comes Tityrus Griswold, and leads on
The flocks whom he first plucks alive, and then feeds on,—
A loud-cackling swarm, in whose leathers warm drest,
He goes for as perfect a—swan as the rest.

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