Hay Febrifuge by Christopher Morley

Story type: Essay

Our village is remarkable. It contains the greatest publisher in the world, the most notable department store baron (and inventor of that new form of literary essay, the department store ad.), the most fragrant gas tanks in the Department of the East, the greatest number of cinders per eye of any arondissement served by the R—- railway, and the most bitterly afflicted hay fever sufferer on this sneezing sphere. Also the editor of the most widely circulated magazine in the world, and the author of one of the best selling books that ever was written.

Not bad for one village.

Your first thought is Northampton, Mass., but you are wrong. That is where Gerald Stanley Lee lives. For a stamped, addressed envelope I will give you the name of our village, and instructions for avoiding it. It is bounded on the north by goldenrod, on the south by ragweed, on the east by asthma and the pollen of anemophylous plants.

It is bounded on the west by a gray stone facsimile of Windsor Castle, confirmed with butlers, buttresses, bastions, ramparts, repartees, feudal tenures, moats, drawbridges, posterns, pasterns, chevaux de frise, machicolated battlements, donjons, loopholes, machine-gun emplacements, caltrops, portcullises, glacis, and all the other travaux de fantaisie that make life worth living for retired manufacturers. The general effect is emetic in the extreme. Hard by the castle is a spurious and richly gabled stable in the general style of the chateau de Chantilly. One brief strip of lawn constitutes a gulf of five hundred years in architecture, and restrains Runnymede from Versailles.

Our village is famous for beautiful gardens. At five o’clock merchants and gens de lettres return home from office and tannery, remove the cinders, and commune with vervain and bergamot. The countryside is as lovely as Devonshire, equipped with sky, trees, rolling terrain, stewed terrapin, golf meads, nut sundaes, beagles, spare tires, and other props. But we are equally infamous for hideous houses, of the Chester A. Arthur era. Every prospect pleases, and man alone is vile.

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There is a large, expensive school for flappers, on a hill; and a drugstore or pharmacy where the flappers come to blow off steam. It would be worth ten thousand dollars to Beatrice Herford to ambush herself behind the Welch’s grape juice life-size cut-out, and takes notes on flapperiana. Pond Lyceum Bureau please copy.

Our village was once famous also as the dwelling place of an eminent parson, who obtained a million signatures for a petition to N. Romanoff, asking the abolition of knouting of women in Siberia. And now N. Romanoff himself is gone to Siberia, and there is no knouting or giving in knoutage; no pogroms or ukases or any other check on the ladies. Knitting instead of knouting is the order of the day.

Knoutings for flappers, say I, after returning from the pharmacy or drugstore.

Dr. Anna Howard Shaw does not live here, but she is within a day’s journey on the Cinder and Bloodshot.

But I was speaking of hay fever. “Although not dangerous to life,” say Drs. S. Oppenheimer and Mark Gottlieb, “it causes at certain times such extreme discomfort to some of its victims as to unfit them for their ordinary pursuits. If we accept the view that it is a disease of the classes rather than the masses we may take the viewpoint of self-congratulation rather than of humiliation as indicating a superiority in culture and civilization of the favoured few. When the intimate connection of pollinosis and culture has been firmly grasped by the public mind, the complaint will perhaps come to be looked upon like gout, as a sign of breeding. It will be assumed by those who have it not…. As civilization and culture advance, other diseases analogous to the one under consideration may be developed from oversensitiveness to sound, colour, or form, and the man of the twenty-first or twenty-second century may be a being of pure intellect whose organization of mere nervous pulp would be shattered by a strong emotion, like a pumpkin filled with dynamite.” (vide “Pollen Therapy in Pollinosis,” reprinted from the Medical Record, March 18, 1916; and many thanks to Mr. H.L. Mencken, fellow sufferer, for sending me a copy of this noble pamphlet. I hope to live to grasp Drs. Oppenheimer and Gottlieb by the hand. Their essay is marked by a wit and learning that proves them fellow-orgiasts in this hypercultivated affliction of the cognoscenti.)

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I myself have sometimes attempted to intimate some of the affinities between hay fever and genius by attributing it (in the debased form of literary parody) to those of great intellectual stature. Upon the literary vehicles of expression habitually employed by Rudyard Kipling, Amy Lowell, Edgar Lee Masters, and Hilaire Belloc I have wafted a pinch of ragweed and goldenrod; with surprising results. These intellectuals were not more immune than myself. For instance, this is the spasm ejaculated by Mr. Edgar Lee Masters, of Spoon River:

Ed Grimes always did hate me
Because I wrote better poetry than he did.
In the hay fever season I used to walk
Along the river bank, to keep as far as possible
Away from pollen.
One day Ed and his brother crept up behind me
While I was writing a sonnet,
Tied my hands and feet,
And carried me into a hayfield and left me.
I sneezed myself to death.
At the funeral the church was full of goldenrod,
And I think it must have been Ed
Who sowed that ragweed all round my grave.

The Lord loveth a cheerful sneezer, and Mr. Masters deserves great credit for lending himself to the cult in this way.

I am a fanatical admirer of Mr. Gerald Stanley Lee, and have even thought of spending fifty of my own dollars, privily and without collusion with his publisher, to advertise that remarkable book of his called “WE” which is probably the ablest and most original, and certainly the most verbose, book that has been written about the war. Now Mr. Lee (let me light my pipe and get this right) is the most eminent victim of words that ever lived in New England (or indeed anywhere east of East Aurora). Words crowd upon him like flies upon a honey-pot: he is helpless to resist them. His brain buzzes with them: they leap from his eye, distil from his lean and waving hand. Good God, not since Rabelais and Lawrence Sterne, miscalled Reverend, has one human being been so beclotted, bedazzled, and bedrunken with syllables. I adore him for it, but equally I tremble. Glowing, radiant, transcendent vocables swim and dissolve in the porches of his brain, teasing him with visions far more deeply confused than ever Mr. Wordsworth’s were. The meanest toothbrush that bristles (he has confessed it himself) can fill him with thoughts that do often lie too deep for publishers. Perhaps the orotund soul-wamblings of Coleridge are recarnate in him, Scawfell become Mount Tom. Who knows? Once I sat at lunch with him, and though I am Trencherman Fortissimus (I can give you testimonials) my hamburg steak fell from my hand as I listened, clutching perilously at the hem of his thought. Nay. Mr. Lee, frown not: I say it in sincere devotion. If there is one man and one book this country needs, now, it is Gerald Stanley Lee and “WE.” Set me upon a coral atoll with that volume, I will repopulate the world with dictionaries, and beget lusty tomes. It is a breeding-ground for a whole new philosophy of heaven, hell, and the New Haven Railroad.

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But what I was going to say when I lit my pipe was this: had I the stature (not the leanness, God forbid: sweet are the uses of obesity) of Mr. Lee, I could find in any clodded trifle the outlets of sky my yearning mind covets: hay fever would lead me by prismatic omissions and plunging ellipses of thought to the vaster spirals and eddies of all-viewing Mind. So does Mr. Lee proceed, weaving a new economics and a new bosom for advertisiarchs in the mere act of brushing his teeth. But alas, the recurring explosions of the loathsome and intellectual disease keep my nose on the grindstone–or handkerchief. Do I begin to soar on upward pinion, nose tweaks me back to sealpackerchief.

The trouble with Mr. Lee is that he is a kind of Emerson; a constitutional ascete or Brahmin, battling with the staggering voluptuosities of his word-sense; a De Quincey needing no opium to set him swooning. In fact, he is a poet, and has no control over his thoughts. A poet may begin by thinking about a tortoise, or a locomotive, or a piece of sirloin, and in one whisk of Time his mind has shot up to the conceptions of Eternity, Transportation, and Nourishment: his cortex coruscates and suppurates with abstract thought; words assail him in hordes, and in a flash he is down among them, overborne and fighting for his life. Mr. Lee finds that millionaires are bound down and tethered and stifled by their limousines and coupons and factories and vast estates. But Mr. Lee himself, who is a millionaire and landed proprietor of ideas, is equally the slave of his thronging words. They cluster about him like barnacles, nobly and picturesquely impeding his progress. He is a Laocoon wrestling with serpentine sentences. He ought to be confined to an eight-hour paragraph.

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All this is not so by the way as you think. For if the poet is one who has lost control of his thoughts, the hay fever sufferer has lost control of his nose. His mucous membrane acts like a packet of Roman candles, and who is he to say it nay? And our village is bounded on the north by goldenrod, on the south by ragweed, on the east by chickweed, and on the west by a sleepless night.

I would fain treat pollinosis in the way Mr. Lee might discuss it, but that is impossible. Those prolate, sagging spirals of thought, those grapevine twists of irremediable whim, that mind shimmering like a poplar tree in sun and wind–jetting and spouting like plumbing after a freeze-up–’tis beyond me. I fancy that if Mr. Lee were in bed, and the sheets were untucked at his feet, he could spin himself so iridescent and dove-throated and opaline a philosophy of the desirability of sleeping with cold feet, that either (1) he would not need to get out of bed to rearrange the bedclothes, or (2) he could persuade someone else to do it for him. Think, then, what he could do for hay fever!

And as Dr. Crothers said, when you mix what you think with what you think you think, effervescence of that kind always results.

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