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An essay by Richard Le Gallienne

Apollo's Market

Title:     Apollo's Market
Author: Richard Le Gallienne [More Titles by Le Gallienne]

The question is sometimes asked 'how poets sell.' One feels inclined idealistically to ask, 'Ought poets to sell?' What can poets want with money?--dear children of the rainbow, who from time immemorial

... on honeydew have fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.

Have you never felt a sort of absurdity in paying for a rose--especially if you paid in copper? To pay for a thing of beauty in coin of extreme ugliness! There is obviously no equality of exchange in the transaction. In fact, it is little short of an insult to the flower-girl to pretend that you thus satisfy the obligation. Far better let her give it you--for the love of beauty--as very likely, if you explained the incongruity, she would be glad to do: for flower-girls, no doubt, like every one else, can only have chosen their particular profession because of its being a joy for ever. There might be fitness in offering a kiss on account, though that, of course, would depend on the flower-girl. To buy other things with flowers were not so incongruous. I have often thought of trying my tobacconist with a tulip; and certainly an orchid--no very rare one either--should cover one's household expenses for a week, if not a fortnight.

Omar Khayyam used to wonder what the vintners buy 'one-half so precious as the stuff they sell.' It is surely natural to wonder in like manner of the poet. What have we to offer in exchange for his priceless manna? One feels that he should be paid on the mercantile principles of 'Goblin Market.' Said Laura:--

'Good folk, I have no coin;
To take were to purloin;
I have no copper in my purse,
I have no silver either....'

Copper! silver even! The goblin-men were more artistic than that; they realised the absurdity of paying for immortal things in coin of mere mortality. So--

'You have much gold upon your head,'
They answered all together:
'Buy from us with a golden curl.'

Yes, those are the ideal rates at which poetry should be paid. We should, of course, pay for fairy goods in fairy-gold.

One of the few such appropriate transactions I remember was Queen Elizabeth's buying a poem from Sir Philip Sidney, literally, with a lock of her 'gowden hair.' Poem and lock now lie together at Wilton, both untouched of time. Or was it that Sir Philip Sidney paid for the lock with his poem? However it was, the exchange was appropriate. The ratio between the thing sold and the price given was fairly equal. And, at all times, it is far less absurd for a poet to pay for the earthly thing with his poem (thus leaving us to keep the change), than that we should think to pay him for his incorruptible with our corruptible. There would, no doubt, be a subtle element of absurdity in a poet consenting to pay his tailor for a suit with a sonnet, while it would obviously be beyond all proportion monstrous for a tailor to think to buy a sonnet with a suit. Yet a poet might, perhaps, be brought to consider the transaction, if he chanced to be of a gentle disposition.

Yes, the true, the tasteful way to pay a poet is by the exchange of some other beautiful thing: by beautiful praise, by a beautiful smile, by a well-shaped tear, by a rose. It is thus that a poet--frequently, I am bound to confess--finds his highest reward.

At the same time, there is a subtle ironic pleasure in taking the world's money for poetry--even though one pays it over to a charity immediately--for one feels that the world, for some reason or another, has been persuaded to buy something which it didn't really want, and which it will throw away so soon as we are round the corner. If the reader has ever published a volume of verse, he must often have chuckled with an unnatural glee over the number of absolutely unpoetic good souls who, from various motives--the unhappy accident of relationship, perhaps--have 'subscribed.' Most of us have sound unpoetic uncles. Of course, you make them buy you--in large-paper too. Have you ever gloatingly pictured their absolute bewilderment as, with a stern sense of family pride, they sit down to cut your pages? Think of the poor souls thus 'moving about in worlds not realised.'

A perfect instance of this cruelty to the Philistine occurs to me. The poet in question is one whose _forte_ is children's poetry. Very tender some of his poems are. You will find them now and again in _St. Nicholas_, and he is not unknown in this country. With a heart like a lamb for children, he is like a hawk upon the Philistine. I remember an occasion, before he published a volume, when we were together in a tavern in a country-town, a tavern thronged with farmers on market-days. The poet had some prospectuses in his pocket. Suddenly a great John Bull would come bumping in like a cockchafer, and call for his pint. 'Just you watch,' the poet would say, and away he crossed over to his victim. 'Good morning, Mr. Oats!' 'Why, good morning, sir. How-d'ye-do; I hardly know'd thee.' Then presently the voice of the charmer unto the farmer--'Mr. Oats, you care for children, don't you?' 'Ay, ay,' would answer the farmer, a little doubtfully, 'when they're little'uns.' 'Well, you know I'm what they call a poet.' To this Mr. Oats would respond with a good round laugh, as of a man enjoying a good thing. This was very subtle of the poet, for it put the farmer on good terms with himself. He wondered, as he had his laugh over again, how a man could choose to be a poet, when he might have been a farmer. 'Well, I'm bringing out a book of poems all about children--here is one of them!' and the poet would read some humorous thing, such as 'Breeching Tommy.' Then another--such simple pictures of humanity at the age of two, that the farmer could not but be moved to that primary artistic delight, the recognition of the familiar. Then the farmer would grow grave, as he always did at any approach to a purchase, however small, while the poet would rapidly speak of the fitness of the volume as a present to the old woman: 'Women cared for such things,' he would add pityingly. Then the farmer would cautiously ask the price, and blow his cheeks out in surprise on hearing that it was five shillings. He had never given so much for a book in his life. The poet would then insidiously suggest that by subscribing before publication he would save a discount. This would arouse the farmer's instinct for getting things cheap; and so, finally, with a little more 'playing,' Mr. Timothy Oats, of Clod Hall, Salop, was landed high and dry on the subscription list--a list, by the way, which already included all the poet's tradesmen! This is one example of 'how poets sell.'

Yet over and above what we may term these forced sales, the demand for verse, we are assured, is growing. The impression to the contrary on the part of the Philistine is a delusion, a false security. And the demand, a well-known publisher has told us, is an intelligent one, for poetry of the markedly idealistic, or markedly realistic, kind; but to writers of the merely sentimental he can offer no hope. Their golden age, a pretty long one while it lasted, has probably gone for ever.

This is good news for those engaged in growing dreams for the London market.

[The end]
Richard Le Gallienne's essay: Apollo's Market