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A short story by John Kendrick Bangs

Rise And Fall Of The Poet Gregory

Title:     Rise And Fall Of The Poet Gregory
Author: John Kendrick Bangs [More Titles by Bangs]

One night after dining with Hans Pumpernickel at his house in Schnitzelhammerstein-on-the-Zugvitz, I recalled to his mind that he had promised some time to introduce me to the three sages of the town--the only persons residing there who at all approached Fritz von Hatzfeldt, the wizard, in wisdom.

"True," said he, "I did promise that, and if you like I will take you to them this evening. They are a wonderful trio, and between you and me, I really think they know more in a day than Von Hatzfeldt does in a year. The maxims of Otto the Shoemaker alone contain wisdom enough to set ten wizards up in business. Did you ever hear any of Otto the Shoemaker's maxims?"

"No," said I. "I never even heard of Otto the Shoemaker. Does he write maxims?"

"Not exactly," replied Hans, filling his pipe and putting on his hat. "He cannot write, but he can speak. He says maxims."

"How interesting!" I observed, following Hans's example and putting on my hat and filling my pipe also. "I should like to hear some of them."

"You shall," replied Hans. "Here is one of them: 'One never misses one's shoes until he has to do without them.' That, you see, is undeniable, and is full of wisdom. Then there was this one addressed to his son: 'Rise in the world, but be careful how. The man who goes up in a balloon cannot stay up after the gas gives out. Therefore, my son, rise not up at random, even as the balloonist does, but rather move up slowly but surely, like him who builds a tower of rock beneath him, and is thus able to stay up as long as he pleases.'"

"Wonderful," said I. "And you say that this philosopher, this deep thinker, this Maximilian, is content to remain a shoemaker?"

"Yes," Hans answered, "he is, for, as he himself once said, 'The throne itself rests upon society merely, but upon what does society stand? Boots and shoes! I make boots and shoes, wherefore I am the cornerstone of the empire.'"

"I must meet this Otto the Shoemaker," was my response, and to that end Hans Pumpernickel and I went out to the little back street where Otto the Shoemaker, Eisenberg the Keysmith, and Jurgurson the Innkeeper, the three sages of the town, dwelt peacefully and happily together in neighborly intercourse. We found them having a quiet little gossip after tea. Eisenberg was leaning out of his shop window, his long, white clay pipe unfilled in his hand, lovingly discoursing to Otto the Shoemaker, who, clad in his leather apron, hung upon his every word as though each were a pearl of thought, and to Jurgurson the Innkeeper, who sat opposite him with a look upon his face which indicated how much he marvelled at the wisdom which bubbled out of Eisenberg's lips like water from a geyser.

"It is as I tell you," Eisenberg was saying; "thought is the key to every mystery; wherefore I, being the maker of keys of all sorts, necessarily manufacture thoughts. It is a part of my business. Why, therefore, should the world express surprise at my being a thinker?"

"Wherefore, indeed?" replied Jurgurson; "or me, too? As the keeper of the inn is it not for me to dispense entertainment for man and beast? Is not wisdom the entertainment of many men, and do not many men come here? Why should I, too, then, not have wisdom on draught just as likewise I have ginger-ale and lemonade?"

"You are both right," put in Otto the Shoemaker. "And as for me, what? This: the labor of the shoemaker is confining. I am kept at my bench all day. I must have exercise or I die; with my body busy at my trade, what can I exercise else? My wits--yah! That is, then, the cause of no surprise that I, too, am sagacious."

"We have never said anything more wise," said Eisenberg, proudly, and the others agreed with him.

At this point Hans presented me to the sages.

"Gentlemen," he said, after he had given to each an appropriate greeting, "I have brought with me one who wishes to know you. He is an American and a poet."

"Ach!" cried Eisenberg. "An American--that is good. A poet? Well we shall see. That is not always so good. Do you write, sir?"

"Occasionally," I answered.

"Good," said Otto. "That is better than often."

"True," assented Jurgurson, "though not so good as hardly ever."

I laughed. "You do not seem to think much of poets," said I.

"We do not say that," said Otto. "We do not know you as a poet, and so we do not pass judgment. When one says because one or two, or even two thousand, shoemakers are bad, all shoemakers are bad, one speaks foolishness. So with the poets. Because Heinrich von Scribbhausen writes bad stuff, you do not therefore write bad stuff. A poet should be judged, not by his shoes, but by his poems. I, a shoemaker, must not be judged by my poems, but by my shoes, which points a moral, and that moral is, what is sauce for the goose is not always sauce for the gander. The gander may be a person who makes fine clothes. The goose should not be judged by his clothes, but the gander should; therefore, never judge a man for what he ain't."

"Bravo!" cried Jurgurson. "I could not have spoken more wisely myself."

"Nor I," said Eisenberg. "Yet I could add somewhat. You do not print your poems?"

"Of course," I replied, "and why not?"

"It is a great risk," sighed Eisenberg. "Particularly for poets, for, as Otto has well said, the world cannot judge a man for what he is not; so if a shoemaker print a bad book of poems, there is no risk. The poems will be judged as the work of a shoemaker, and, though bad, may still be good for a shoemaker to have written; but for a poet to print bad poems, that is as risky as for a shoemaker to make bad shoes."

At this point my guide, Hans Pumpernickel, feeling perhaps that the conversation was not exactly pleasant for me, in spite of the undoubted wisdom of the sages' remarks, handed his tobacco-pouch to the keysmith, having observed that Eisenberg's pipe was empty.

"Thank you, no," said Eisenberg, handing it back, "I do not smoke tobacco. It is tobacco which makes of smoking an injurious pastime. To me the pleasure of smoking is the caressing of a pipe, the holding of it in one's hands, the occasional putting of it into one's mouth and puffing. Therefore I keep my pipe to caress, to hold, to put into my mouth, and to puff upon. The tobacco, which does not agree with me, I never use."

Otto and Jurgurson beamed proudly upon their fellow-sage. It was evident that in him they recognized the centre of all wisdom.

"But as for poets," said Eisenberg, turning to me, "I should like to tell you about Gregory--the poet Gregory. Did you ever hear of him?"

"No," said I.

"Ah! See then!" cried Eisenberg. "It proves my point. He is unknown already, and all for why? Because his poems were printed, for until they were printed they were not unknown."

"Magnificently put!" cried the shoemaker.

"Logical as logic itself!" said the innkeeper.

"And what is the story of Gregory?" I asked, interested hugely and almost as enthusiastic over the whimsical wisdom of the keysmith as his fellow-wiseacres.

"Gregory," said Eisenberg, "was the first name. His last name I shall not give you for two reasons. The first reason is that, if I gave it to you, I should betray a confidence reposed in me by his family. The second reason is that I have forgotten it. That is the sad part of it all. When a name begins to be forgotten by one, or even two persons, its trip to oblivion is rapid. Even I, who used to worship him as a poet, have forgotten the name he made for himself."

The keysmith sighed sorrowfully as he spoke, and I began to believe with him, though without knowing the reason therefor, that Gregory's cause was indeed a lost one. There was silence for a full minute, during which Eisenberg puffed thoughtfully upon his empty pipe, blowing imaginary clouds of smoke out into the air, and then he spoke.

"Gregory was not of high birth, but early in life his parents saw that he was not destined to follow successfully the career of a peasant. He was of an inquiring mind. He was not content to know that grass was green and water wet. He wished to know why grass was green and water wet, and when, in response to questions of this nature, his father, a practical person, would send him out to the stables to milk the cows, or to the grindstone to sharpen the scythe, Gregory's soul revolted within him. 'You will never make a peasant,' said his father. 'Not a peasant of the fields,' the boy replied, 'but a peasant of learning, perhaps. I would not mind milking the cow of knowledge, and filling the pail of my mind with lactated information; nor should I mind sharpening my wits upon the grindstone of thought.' And at these words his father would stare at him and say that one who had such command of mysterious language did not need Greek to conceal his thoughts from his hearers; and he would add an invitation, which Gregory perforce always accepted, to retire to the fagot-room with him and receive corporal punishment at his hands. So it went for several years, during which Gregory read everything that came within reach, until finally one morning he said to his father: 'Why do you persist in making a peasant of me when I wish to be a poet? What is the odds to you? Nay, more, father, do not the words peasant and poet both begin with a P and end with a T? What difference can it make if the ends be the same?'--which so enraged his father that Gregory was disowned by him, and another boy adopted in his place.

"Then Gregory came here to Schnitzelhammerstein-on-the-Zugvitz, and at a time when Rudolf von Pepperpotz, the solemn Baron of Humpfelhimmel, happened to stand in need of a secretary and librarian. How it came about that Gregory was so unfortunate as to obtain the position is neither here nor there. Suffice it to say that he became the secretary and librarian of the Baron, and from that time on he was happy. He lived among books, and while at times he found his duties arduous, he was nevertheless content, for he was a philosopher."

"I'd rather be content than eat," said the innkeeper.

"Indeed, yes," said Otto, "for entertainment is better than dyspepsia, and poor eating comes more of the one than the other."

"By careful economy," continued Eisenberg, "Gregory soon managed to amass a little fortune, and then he felt he might safely venture to write a little himself, and he did so. He wrote poems about the moon, odes to commonplace things, like scissors and dust-pans, but he was wise enough not to publish any of his verse. Then he married, and occasionally he would recite his verses to his wife, who said they were magnificent. She in turn repeated them to her friends, and they said, as she had, that they were unsurpassed. Still Gregory would not print them, though it soon got noised about that he was a great poet. And so it went. Finally, finding himself subjected to great temptation to print his writings, he put everything he had written into a casket, and, having a small closet constructed in the walls of his house, he placed the casket in that closet, locked the iron door upon it and threw away the key. Time went on, and people daily, their curiosity excited, talked more and more of Gregory's poetry; they even sent delegations to him, requesting him to have his rhymes printed, but he was faithful to his resolution, and when he died he was looked upon as a great writer, without having printed a line. Time passed and his reputation grew. Three generations passed by. His children and their children and their children's children came, lived, and died, and constantly his fame increased, and people said, 'Ah, yes; so and so is a great poet, but the poems of Gregory! You should have heard them. They were sublime.'

"But two years ago there came an unhappy day. Some one laughed at the mention of Gregory's name and cast doubt upon the tradition that he had written, and his great-grandson, foolishly, I thought, and recklessly, as has since been proved, offered to prove the truth of the tradition by opening the closet which for a century had remained closed, and publishing the writings of his ancestor. I was sent for as keysmith to open the door, and when it was opened there stood the casket, and in the casket were found the poems.

"'Let that suffice,' said I to his great-grandson. 'You have proved your point.'

"'I will prove it to the world,' said he. 'I will publish the poems.'"

Here Eisenberg sighed.

"He did so," he resumed mournfully, "and another idol was shattered. The poems were the worst you ever read, and from that time on the name of Gregory the poet began to sink into oblivion, where it now lies. Had his descendants been less weak, his name would still have remained a household word, such is the force of tradition. As it is, the printed volume is the best testimony that the great poet Gregory was nothing but a commonplace rhymester whose name was not worthy of remembrance.

"And that, sir," concluded Eisenberg, bowing politely to me, "is why I say that a poet who does not publish runs less risk of failing as a poet than he who does publish."

And I? Well, how could I deny that Eisenberg was right? He had proved his point only too well, and even that night, on my return home, I went to my little portfolio and utterly destroyed the dozen or more poems I had written that day. If you will take my word for it, you will think them greater than you might if you insisted upon reading them.

"What think you?" asked Hans, as we went home? "Are they not wise?"

"Wiser than the Three Men of Gotham who went to sea in a bowl," said I, "for I do not believe that Otto, Eisenberg, or Jurgurson would go to sea at all."

"True," was Hans's comment, "for as Otto well says in one of his maxims, 'For a sailor with his sea-legs on there is nothing like the sea, but for a shoemaker who lives by shoes alone, dry land is by much the solider foundation.'"

[The end]
John Kendrick Bangs's short story: Rise And Fall Of The Poet Gregory