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A short story by A. A. Milne

A Poetry Recital

Title:     A Poetry Recital
Author: A. A. Milne [More Titles by Milne]

It has always been the privilege of Art to be patronized by Wealth and Rank. Indeed, if we literary and artistic strugglers were not asked out to afternoon tea sometimes by our millionaire acquaintances, it is doubtful if we should be able to continue the struggle. Recently a new (and less expensive) method of entertaining Genius has become fashionable in the best circles, and the aspiring poet is now invited to the house of the Great, not for the purpose of partaking of bodily refreshment himself, but in order that he may afford spiritual refreshment to others. In short, he is given an opportunity of reciting his own works in front of the Fair, the Rich and the Highly Born, and making what he can out of it in the way of advertisement.

Let us imagine that we have been lucky enough to secure an invitation to one of Lady Poldoodle's Poetry At-Homes, at her charming little house in Berkeley Square.

The guests are all waiting, their eyes fixed in eager anticipation on the black-covered throne at the farther end of the room, whereon each poet will sit to declaim his masterpiece, when suddenly Lord Poldoodle is observed to be making his way cautiously towards a side-door. Fortunately he is stopped in time, and dragged back to his seat next to the throne, from which he rises a moment later to open the proceeding.

"Ladies and gentlemen," he says, "we are met here this afternoon in order to listen to some of our younger poets who will recite from their own works. So far, I have always managed to avoid--so far, I have been unavoidably prevented from attending on these occasions, but I understand that the procedure is as follows. Each poet will recite a short sample of his poetry, after which, no doubt, you will go home and order from your bookseller a complete set of his works."

Lady Poldoodle goes quickly over to him and whispers vigorously.

"I find I am wrong," says our host. "Full sets of the author's works can be obtained on the way out. There is, however, no compulsion in the matter, and, if you take my advice--well, well, let us get on. Our first poet"--here he puts on his glasses, and reads from a paper on the table in front of him--"is Mr. Sydney Worple, of whom you--er--have--er--doubtless all heard. At any rate you will hear him now."

Mr. Sydney Worple, tall and thin, wearing the sort of tie which makes you think you must have seen him before, steps forward amidst applause. He falls back into the throne as if deep in thought, and passes a hand across his hair.

Mr. Worple (_very suddenly_) "Dawn at Surbiton."

"Where?" says a frightened voice at the back.

"H'sh!" says Lady Poldoodle in a whisper. "Surbiton."

"Surbiton" is passed round the back seats. Not that it is going to matter in the least.

Mr. Worple repeats the title, and then recites in an intense voice these lines:

Out of the nethermost bonds of night,
Out of the gloom where the bats' wings brush me,
Free from the crepitous doubts which crush me,
Forth I fare to the cool sunlight;

Forth to a world where the wind sweeps clean,
Where the smooth-limbed ash to the blue stands bare,
And the gossamer spreads her opalled ware--
And Jones is catching the 8.15.

After several more verses like this he bows and retires. Lady Poldoodle, still mechanically clapping, says to her neighbour:

"How beautiful! Dawn at Surbiton! Such a beautiful idea, I think."

"Wasn't it sublime?" answers the neighbour. "The wonderful contrast between the great pageant of nature and poor Mr. Jones, catching--always catching--the 8.15."

But Lord Poldoodle is rising again. "Our next poet," he says, "is Miss Miranda Herrick, whose work is so distinguished for its--er--its--er--distinction."

Miss Herrick, dressed in pale green and wearing pincenez, flutters in girlishly. She gives a nervous little giggle, pushes out her foot, withdraws it and begins:

When I take my bath in the morning--

The audience wakes up with a start. "When you take your _what_!" says Lord Poldoodle.

Miss Herrick begins again, starting this time with the title.


When I take my bath in the morning,
When I strip for the cool delight,
And the housemaid brings
Me towels and things,
Do I reck of the coming night?

A materially-minded man whispers to his neighbour that _he_ always wonders what's for breakfast. "H'sh!" she says, for there is another verse to come.

When my hair comes down in the evening,
And my tired clothes swoon to the ground,
Do I bother my head,
As I leap in bed,
Of the truth which the dawn brings round?

In the uncomfortable pause which follows, a voice is heard saying, "Does she?" and Lady Poldoodle asks kindly, "Is that all, dear?"

"What more could there be?" says Miss Herrick with a sigh. "What more is there to say? It is Life."

"Life! How true!" says the hostess. "But won't you give us something else? That one ended so very suddenly."

After much inward (and outward) wrestling Miss Herrick announces:


The music falls across the vale
From nightingale to nightingale;
The owl within the ivied tree
Makes love to me, makes love to me;
But all the tadpoles in the pond
Are dumb--however fond.

"I begin to think that there is something in a tadpole after all," murmurs Lord Poldoodle to himself, as the author wriggles her way out.

"After all," says one guest to another, "why shouldn't a tadpole make love as much as anybody else?"

"I think," says her neighbour, "that the idea is of youth trying vainly to express itself--or am I thinking of caterpillars? Lord Poldoodle, what is a tadpole exactly?"

"A tadpole," he answers decisively, "is an extremely immature wriggling creature, which is, quite rightly, dumb."

Now steps forward Mr. Horatio Bullfinch, full of simple enthusiasm, one of the London school. He gives us his famous poem, "Berkeley Square."

The men who come from the north country
Are tall and very fair,
The men who come from the south country
Have hardly any hair,
But the only men in the world for me
Are the men of Berkeley Square.

The sun may shine at Colchester,
The rain may rain at Penge;
From low-hung skies the dawn may rise
Broodingly on Stonehenge.
Knee-deep in clover the lambs at Dover
Nibble awhile and stare;
But there's only one place in the world for me,
Berkeley--Berkeley Square.

And so on, down to that magnificent last verse:

The skylark triumphs from the blue,
Above the barley fields at Loo,
The blackbird whistles loud and clear
Upon the hills at Windermere;
But oh, I simply LOVE the way
Our organ-grinder plays all day!

Lord Poldoodle rises to introduce Mr. Montagu Mott.

"Mr. Mott," he says, "is, I am told, our leading exponent of what is called _vers libre_, which means--well, you will see what it means directly."

Mr. Mott, a very ugly little man, who tries to give you the impression that he is being ugly on purpose, and could easily be beautiful if he were not above all that sort of thing, announces the title of his masterpiece. It is called "Why Is the Fat Woman's Face So Red?" Well, what else _could_ you call it?

Why is the fat woman's face so red?
Is it because her stays are too tight?
Or because she wants to sneeze and has lost her pocket handkerchief?
Or only because her second son
(The engineer)
Is dying of cancer.
I cannot be certain.
Yet I sit here and ask myself
Why is the fat woman's face so red?

It is generally recognized that, in Mr. Mott, we have a real poet. There are loud cries of "Encore!" Mr. Mott shakes his head.

"I have written no more," he says in a deep voice. "I have given you the result of three years' work. Perhaps--in another three years--" He shrugs his shoulders and walks gloomingly out.

"Such a sweet idea," says Lady Poldoodle. "I sit here and ask myself--wonderingly! How true! How very true!"

"I couldn't quite follow it, dear," says her neighbour frankly. "Did he marry her after all?"

Lord Poldoodle, looking slightly more cheerful, gets once more on to his legs.

"You will all be very glad to hear--ah--you will all be sorry to hear that we have only one more poet on our list this afternoon. Mr. Cecil Willow, the well-known--er--poet."

Mr. Willow, a well-dressed young man, fair and rather stout, and a credit to any drawing-room, announces the subject of his poem--Liberty.

"Liberty, what crimes have been committed in thy name!" murmurs Lord Poldoodle to himself.


There were two thrushes in a tree,
The one was tamed, the other free.
Because his wings were clipped so small
The tame one did not fly at all,
But sang to Heaven all the day--
The other (shortly after) flew away.

There were two women in a town,
The one was blonde, the other brown.
The brown one pleased a Viscount's son
(Not Richard, but the other one)
He gave her a delightful flat--
The blonde one loved a man called Alfred Spratt.

There were two Kings on thrones of gold,
The one was young, the other old.
The young one's laws were wisely made
Till someone took a hand-grenade
And threw it, shouting, "Down with Kings!"--
The old one laid foundation stones and things.

"How delightful," says everybody. "How very delightful. Thank you, Lady Poldoodle, for such a delightful afternoon."

[The end]
A. A. Milne's short story: A Poetry Recital