Nathan and Mencken on Shaw in America

Shaw’s plays, which once had all England by the ears, were set down as compendiums of the self-evident by the French, a realistic and plain-spoken people, and were sniffed at in Germany by all save the middle classes, who correspond to the intelligentsia of Anglo-Saxondom. But in America, even more than in England, they were viewed as genuinely satanic. We shall never forget, indeed, the tremulous manner in which American audiences first listened to the feeble rattling of the palpable in such pieces as “Man and Superman” and “You Never Can Tell.” It was precisely the manner of an old maid devouring “What Every Girl of Forty-Five Should Know” behind the door.

——H. L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan, The American Credo.

Shakespeare on Fate

I’m not absolutely certain of my facts, but I rather fancy it’s Shakespeare—or, if not, it’s some equally brainy lad—who says that it’s always just when a chappie is feeling particularly top-hole, and more than usually braced with things in general, that Fate sneaks up behind him with a bit of lead piping.

——P. G. Wodehouse, “Jeeves and the Unbidden Guest.”

The Price of Good Science

The first Romane Emperour did never doe a more pleasing deed to the learned, nor more profitable to posteritie, for conserving the record of times in true supputation; then when he corrected the Calender, and ordered the yeere according to the course of the Sunne: and yet this was imputed to him for noveltie, and arrogancie, and procured to him great obloquie.

——The Translators to the Reader in the King James Bible.

The Menace of Free Verse

PGWodehouse.jpg

A little article by P. G. Wodehouse, in which he compares Longfellow to Edgar Lee Masters, ends with a prophecy so startlingly prescient that it seems almost divinely inspired.

Not only are rhymes no longer necessary, but editors positively prefer them left out. If Longfellow had been writing today he would have had to revise “The Village Blacksmith” if he wanted to pull in that dollar a line. No editor would print stuff like:

Under the spreading chestnut tree
The village smithy stands.
The smith a brawny man is he
With large and sinewy hands.

If Longfellow were living in these hyphenated, free and versy days, he would find himself compelled to take his pen in hand and dictate as follows:

In life I was the village smith,
I worked all day
But
I retained the delicacy of my complexion
Because
I worked in the shade of the chestnut tree
Instead of in the sun
Like Nicholas Blodgett, the expressman.
I was large and strong
Because
I went in for physical culture
And deep breathing
And all those stunts.
I had the biggest biceps in Spoon River.

Who can say where this thing will end? Vers libre is within the reach of all. A sleeping nation has wakened to the realization that there is money to be made out of chopping its prose into bits. Something must be done shortly if the nation is to be saved from this menace. But what? It is no good shooting Edgar Lee Masters, for the mischief has been done, and even making an example of him could not undo it. Probably the only hope lies in the fact that poets never buy other poets’ stuff. When once we have all become poets, the sale of verse will cease or be limited to the few copies which individual poets will buy to give to their friends.

The Mystical Doctrine of Human Equality

The doctrine of human equality is in a sense mystical. It is not apparent to the senses, nor can it be logically demonstrated as an inference from anything of which the senses can take cognizance. It can only be stated accurately, and left to make its appeal to men’s minds. It may be stated theologically by saying, as the Christian theology says, that all men are equal before God. Or it may be stated in the form which Jefferson uses—that all men are equal in their “inalienable rights.” But it must be accepted as a first principle or not at all.

——Cecil Chesterton, History of the United States