A Familiar Letter
by Oliver Wendell Holmes
YES, write, if you want to, there’s nothing like trying;
Who knows what a treasure your casket may hold?
I’ll show you that rhyming’s as easy as lying,
If you’ll listen to me while the art I unfold.
Here’s a book full of words; one can choose as he fancies,
As a painter his tint, as a workman his tool;
Just think! all the poems and plays and romances
Were drawn out of this, like the fish from a pool!
You can wander at will through its syllabled mazes,
And take all you want, not a copper they cost,–
What is there to hinder your picking out phrases
For an epic as clever as “Paradise Lost”?
Don’t mind if the index of sense is at zero,
Use words that run smoothly, whatever they mean;
Leander and Lilian and Lillibullero
Are much the same thing in the rhyming machine.
There are words so delicious their sweetness will smother
That boarding-school flavor of which we’re afraid,
There is “lush”is a good one, and “swirl” is another,–
Put both in one stanza, its fortune is made.
With musical murmurs and rhythmical closes
You can cheat us of smiles when you’ve nothing to tell
You hand us a nosegay of milliner’s roses,
And we cry with delight, “Oh, how sweet they do smell!”
Perhaps you will answer all needful conditions
For winning the laurels to which you aspire,
By docking the tails of the two prepositions
I’ the style o’ the bards you so greatly admire.
As for subjects of verse, they are only too plenty
For ringing the changes on metrical chimes;
A maiden, a moonbeam, a lover of twenty
Have filled that great basket with bushels of rhymes.
Let me show you a picture–‘t is far from irrelevant–
By a famous old hand in the arts of design;
‘T is only a photographed sketch of an elephant,–
The name of the draughtsman was Rembrandt of Rhine.
How easy! no troublesome colors to lay on,
It can’t have fatigued him,– no, not in the least,–
A dash here and there with a haphazard crayon,
And there stands the wrinkled-skinned, baggy-limbed beast.
Just so with your verse,– ‘t is as easy as sketching,–
You can reel off a song without knitting your brow,
As lightly as Rembrandt a drawing or etching;
It is nothing at all, if you only know how.
Well; imagine you’ve printed your volume of verses:
Your forehead is wreathed with the garland of fame,
Your poems the eloquent school-boy rehearses,
Her album the school-girl presents for your name;
Each morning the post brings you autograph letters;
You’ll answer them promptly,– an hour isn’t much
For the honor of sharing a page with your betters,
With magistrates, members of Congress, and such.
Of course you’re delighted to serve the committees
That come with requests from the country all round,
You would grace the occasion with poems and ditties
When they’ve got a new schoolhouse, or poorhouse, or pound.
With a hymn for the saints and a song for the sinners,
You go and are welcome wherever you please;
You’re a privileged guest at all manner of dinners,
You’ve a seat on the platform among the grandees.
At length your mere presence becomes a sensation,
Your cup of enjoyment is filled to its brim
With the pleasure Horatian of digitmonstration,
As the whisper runs round of “That’s he!” or “That’s him!”
But remember, O dealer in phrases sonorous,
So daintily chosen, so tunefully matched,
Though you soar with the wings of the cherubim o’er us,
The ovum was human from which you were hatched.
No will of your own with its puny compulsion
Can summon the spirit that quickens the lyre;
It comes, if at all, like the Sibyl’s convulsion
And touches the brain with a finger of fire.
So perhaps, after all, it’s as well to he quiet
If you’ve nothing you think is worth saying in prose,
As to furnish a meal of their cannibal diet
To the critics, by publishing, as you propose.
But it’s all of no use, and I’m sorry I’ve written,–
I shall see your thin volume some day on my shelf;
For the rhyming tarantula surely has bitten,
And music must cure you, so pipe it yourself.
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