Prefaces by Christopher Morley

Story type: Essay

It has long been my conviction that the most graceful function of authorship is the writing of prefaces. What is more pleasant than dashing off those few pages of genial introduction after all the dreary months of spading at the text? A paragraph or two as to the intentions of the book; allusions to the unexpected difficulties encountered during composition; neatly phrased gratitude to eminent friends who have given gracious assistance; and a touching allusion to the Critic on the Hearth who has done the indexing–one of the trials of the wives of literary men not mentioned by Mrs. Andrew Lang in her pleasant essay on that topic. A pious wish to receive criticisms “in case a second edition should be called for”; your address, and the date, add a homely touch at the end.

How delightful this bit of pleasant intimacy after the real toil is over! It is like paterfamilias coming out of his house at dusk, after the hard day’s work, to read his newspaper on the doorstep. Or it may be a bit of superb gesturing. No book is complete without a preface. Better a preface without a book….

Many men have written books without prefaces. But not many have written prefaces without books. And yet I am convinced it is one of the subtlest pleasures. I have planned several books, not yet written; but the prefaces are all ready this many a day. Let me show you the sort of thing I mean.

PREFACE TO “THE LETTERS OF ANDREW MCGILL”

How well I remember the last time I saw Andrew McGill! It was in the dear old days at Rutgers, my last term. I was sitting over a book one brilliant May afternoon, rather despondent–there came a rush up the stairs and a thunder at the door. I knew his voice, and hurried to open. Poor, dear fellow, he was just back from tennis; I never saw him look so glorious. Tall and thin–he was always very thin, see p. 219 and passim–with his long, brown face and sparkling black eyes–I can see him still rambling about the room in his flannels, his curly hair damp on his forehead. “Buzzard,” he said–he always called me Buzzard–“guess what’s happened?”

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“In love again?” I asked.

He laughed. A bright, golden laugh–I can hear it still. His laughter was always infectious.

“No,” he said. “Dear silly old Buzzard, what do you think? I’ve won the Sylvanus Stall fellowship.”

I shall never forget that moment. It was very still, and in the college garden, just under my window, I could hear a party of Canadian girls deliciously admiring things. It was a cruel instant for me. I, too, in my plodding way, had sent in an essay for the prize, but without telling him. Must I confess it? I had never dared mention the subject for fear he, too, would compete. I knew that if he did he was sure to win. O petty jealousies, that seem so bitter now!

“Rude old Buzzard,” he said in his bantering way, “you haven’t congratulated!”

I pulled myself together.

“Brindle,” I said–I always called him Brindle; how sad the nickname sounds now–“you took my breath away. Dear lad, I’m overjoyed.”

It is four and twenty years since that May afternoon. I never saw him again. Never even heard him read the brilliant poem “Sunset from the Mons Veneris” that was the beginning of his career, for the week before commencement I was taken ill and sent abroad for my health. I never came back to New York; and he remained there. But I followed his career with the closest attention. Every newspaper cutting, every magazine article in which his name was mentioned, went into my scrapbook. And almost every week for twenty years he wrote to me–those long, radiant letters, so full of verve and elan and ringing, ruthless wit. There was always something very Gallic about his saltiness. “Oh, to be born a Frenchman!” he writes. “Why wasn’t I born a Frenchman instead of a dour, dingy Scotsman? Oh, for the birthright of Montmartre! Stead of which I have the mess of pottage–stodgy, porridgy Scots pottage” (see p. 189).

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He had his sombre moods, too. It was characteristic of him, when in a pet, to wish he had been born other-where than by the pebbles of Arbroath. “Oh, to have been born a Norseman!” he wrote once. “Oh, for the deep Scandinavian scourge of pain, the inbrooding, marrowy soul-ache of Ibsen! That is the fertilizing soil of tragedy. Tragedy springs from it, tall and white and stately like the lily from the dung. I will never be a tragedian. Oh, pebbles of Arbroath!”

All the world knows how he died….

PREFACE TO AN HISTORICAL WORK

(In six volumes)

The work upon which I have spent the best years of my life is at length finished. After two decades of uninterrupted toil, enlivened only by those small bickerings over minutiae so dear to all scrupulous writers, I may perhaps be pardoned if I philosophize for a few moments on the functions of the historian.

There are, of course, two technical modes of approach, quite apart from the preparatory contemplation of the field. (This last, I might add, has been singularly neglected by modern historians. My old friend, Professor Spondee, of Halle, though deservedly eminent in his chosen lot, is particularly open to criticism on this ground. I cannot emphasize too gravely the importance of preliminary calm–what Hobbes calls “the unprejudicated mind.” But this by way of parenthesis.) One may attack the problem with the mortar trowel, or with the axe. Sismondi, I think, has observed this.

Some such observations as these I was privileged to address to my very good friend, Professor Fish, of Yale, that justly renowned seat of learning, when lecturing in New Haven recently. His reply was witty–too witty to be apt, “Piscem natare doces,” he said.

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I will admit that Professor Fish may be free from taint in this regard; but many historians of to-day are, I fear, imbued with that most dangerous tincture of historical cant which lays it down as a maxim that contemporary history cannot be judicially written.

Those who have been kind enough to display some interest in the controversy between myself and M. Rougegorge–of the Sorbonne–in the matter of Lamartine’s account of the elections to the Constituent Assembly of 1848, will remark several hitherto unobserved errors in Lamartine which I have been privileged to point out. For instance, Lamartine (who is supported in toto by M. Rougegorge) asserts that the elections took place on Easter Sunday, April 27, 1848. Whereas, I am able to demonstrate, by reference to the astronomical tables at Kew Observatory, that in 1848 Easter Day fell upon April 23. M. Rougegorge’s assertion that Lamartine was a slave to opium rests upon a humorous misinterpretation of Mme. Lamartine’s diary. (The matter may be looked up by the curious in Annette User’s “Annees avec les Lamartines.” Oser was for many years the cook in Lamartine’s household, and says some illuminating things regarding L.’s dislike of onions.)

It is, of course, impossible for me to acknowledge individually the generous and stimulating assistance I have received from so many scholars in all parts of the world. The mere list of names would be like Southey’s “Cataract of Lodore,” and would be but an ungracious mode of returning thanks. I cannot, however, forbear to mention Professor Mandrake, of the Oxford Chair, optimus maximus among modern historians. Of him I may say, in the fine words of Virgil, “Sedet aeternumque sedebit.”

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My dear wife, fortunately a Serb by birth, has regularized my Slavic orthography, and has grown gray in the service of the index. To her, and to my little ones, whose merry laughter has so often penetrated to my study and cheered me at my travail, I dedicate the whole. 89, Decameron Gardens.

PREFACE TO A BOOK OF POEMS

This little selection of verses, to which I have given the title “Rari Nantes,” was made at the instance of several friends. I have chosen from my published works those poems which seemed to me most faithfully to express my artistic message; and the title obviously implies that I think them the ones most likely to weather the maelstroms of Time. Be that as it may.

Vachel Lindsay and I have often discussed over a glass of port (one glass only: alas, that Vachel should abstain!) the state of the Muse to-day. He deems that she now has fled from cities to dwell on the robuster champaigns of Illinois and Kansas. Would that I could agree; but I see her in the cities and everywhere, set down to menial taskwork. She were better in exile, on Ibsen’s sand dunes or Maeterlinck’s bee farm. But in America the times are very evil. Prodigious convulsion of production, the grinding of mighty forces, the noise and rushings of winds–and what avails? Parturiunt montes …you know the rest. The ridiculous mice squeak and scamper on the granary floor. They may play undisturbed, for the real poets, those great gray felines, are sifting loam under Westminster. Gramercy Park and the Poetry Society see them not.

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It matters not. With this little book my task is done. Vachel and I sail to-morrow for Nova Zembla.

The Grotto, Yonkers.

PREFACE TO THE SECOND EDITION

A second edition of “Rari Nantes” having been called for, I have added three more poems, Esquimodes written since arriving here. Also the “Prayer for Warm Weather,” by Vachel Lindsay, is included, at his express request. The success of the first edition has been very gratifying to me. My publishers will please send reviews to Bleak House, Nova Zembla.

PREFACE TO THE THIRD EDITION

The rigorous climate of Nova Zembla I find most stimulating to production, and therefore in this new edition I am able to include several new poems. “The Ode to a Seamew,” the “Fracas on an Ice Floe,” and the sequence of triolimericks are all new. If I have been able to convey anything of the bracing vigour of the Nova Zembla locale the praise is due to my friendly and suggestive critic, the editor of Gooseflesh, the leading Nova Zemblan review.

Vachel Lindsay’s new book, “The Tango,” has not yet appeared, therefore I may perhaps say here that he is hard at work on an “Ode to the Gulf Stream,” which has great promise.

The success of this little book has been such that I am encouraged to hope that the publisher’s exemption of royalties will soon be worked off.

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