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Poeta Fit, Non Nascitur -- Lewis Carroll

       
(Poem #409) Poeta Fit, Non Nascitur
  "How shall I be a poet?
  How shall I write in rhyme?
  You told me once 'the very wish
  Partook of the sublime.'
  The tell me how! Don't put me off
  With your 'another time'!"

  The old man smiled to see him,
  To hear his sudden sally;
  He liked the lad to speak his mind
  Enthusiastically;
  And thought "There's no hum-drum in him,
  Nor any shilly-shally."

  "And would you be a poet
  Before you've been to school?
  Ah, well! I hardly thought you
  So absolute a fool.
  First learn to be spasmodic --
  A very simple rule.

  "For first you write a sentence,
  And then you chop it small;
  Then mix the bits, and sort them out
  Just as they chance to fall:
  The order of the phrases makes
  No difference at all.

  'Then, if you'd be impressive,
  Remember what I say,
  That abstract qualities begin
  With capitals alway:
  The True, the Good, the Beautiful --
  Those are the things that pay!

  "Next, when we are describing
  A shape, or sound, or tint;
  Don't state the matter plainly,
  But put it in a hint;
  And learn to look at all things
  With a sort of mental squint."

  "For instance, if I wished, Sir,
  Of mutton-pies to tell,
  Should I say 'dreams of fleecy flocks
  Pent in a wheaten cell'?"
  "Why, yes," the old man said: "that phrase
  Would answer very well.

  "Then fourthly, there are epithets
  That suit with any word --
  As well as Harvey's Reading Sauce
  With fish, or flesh, or bird --
  Of these, 'wild,' 'lonely,' 'weary,' 'strange,'
  Are much to be preferred."

  "And will it do, O will it do
  To take them in a lump --
  As 'the wild man went his weary way
  To a strange and lonely pump'?"
  "Nay, nay! You must not hastily
  To such conclusions jump.

  "Such epithets, like pepper,
  Give zest to what you write;
  And, if you strew them sparely,
  They whet the appetite:
  But if you lay them on too thick,
  You spoil the matter quite!

  "Last, as to the arrangement:
  Your reader, you should show him,
  Must take what information he
  Can get, and look for no im
  mature disclosure of the drift
  And purpose of your poem.

  "Therefore to test his patience --
  How much he can endure --
  Mention no places, names, or dates,
  And evermore be sure
  Throughout the poem to be found
  Consistently obscure.

  "First fix upon the limit
  To which it shall extend:
  Then fill it up with 'Padding'
  (Beg some of any friend)
  Your great SENSATION-STANZA
  You place towards the end."

  "And what is a Sensation,
  Grandfather, tell me, pray?
  I think I never heard the word
  So used before to-day:
  Be kind enough to mention one
  'Exempli gratiâ'"

  And the old man, looking sadly
  Across the garden-lawn,
  Where here and there a dew-drop
  Yet glittered in the dawn,
  Said "Go to the Adelphi,
  And see the 'Colleen Bawn.'

  "The word is due to Boucicault --
  The theory is his,
  Where Life becomes a Spasm,
  And History a Whiz:
  If that is not Sensation,
  I don't know what it is,

  "Now try your hand, ere Fancy
  Have lost its present glow --"
  "And then," his grandson added,
  "We'll publish it, you know:
  Green cloth -- gold-lettered at the back --
  In duodecimo!"

  Then proudly smiled that old man
  To see the eager lad
  Rush madly for his pen and ink
  And for his blotting-pad --
  But, when he thought of *publishing*,
  His face grew stern and sad.
-- Lewis Carroll
The popularity of the Alice poems and The Hunting of the Snark has tended to
shadow the rest of Carroll's poetic output - indeed, apart from some
acrostics and puzzles in verse, this is the first other example I've seen.
And while it may lack the air of sheer inspired nonsense that characterises
the aforementioned works, it is in all other respects vintage Carroll - note
in particular the echoes of 'Father William' and 'The Walrus and the
Carpenter'.

Somewhat unusual (at least, I don't recall noticing it in his other work) is
the somewhat Gilbertish use of tricks with the rhyming words - the split of
'immature', the use of Latin, the straining of words like
'enthusiastically'. Also somewhat unusual was the rather weak ending -
superficially similar to that of Walrus or 'Hunting of the Snark', but
packing far less of a punch. Still, that doesn't detract much from the poem
as a whole, which was for the most part quite wickedly accurate.

Notes:

 The title means "A poet is made, not born" (Latin).

 spasmodic: tending towards emotional fits.

 exempli gratia: "An example, if you please" (Latin). [whence 'e.g.' - m.]

 The Adelphi is a London theatre; and The Coleen Bawn; or the Brides of
 Garryowen (1860) is a play by Boucicault, i.e., Dionysius Lardner
 (1822-90).

 duodecimo: twelvemo, that is, a book made up of twelve-page gatherings cut
 from single sheets.

        -- Representative Poetry Online
        http://www.library.utoronto.ca/utel/rp/poems/carroll9.html

Links:

We've run a few Carroll poems in the past - see the archive for the complete
lot.

A biography can be found at poem #265

And for a poem similar in theme if not in execution, see Bierce's 'Rimer',
poem #320

- martin

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