Prattle

Ambrose Bierce

San Francisco Examiner/November 27, 1898

A Transient Record Of Individual Opinion

I should be sorry to have Mr. Kipling a worse story-teller and poet than he is, but glad to have him a better grammarian. Our nearly “grammarless tongue” is so unexacting that it seems rather hard that one should not take the trouble to comply with such small demands as it makes. In his account of the British naval manoeuvres, in this paper he distresses the reader with the statement that “neither he nor I recognized each other”—as if either one alone could “each” have recognized the other. In a charming bit of verse, the title of which I do not recall, he speaks of monkeys holding each other’s tails.” He means “holding one another’s tail”—not “each other’s,” for there were more than two monkeys, and not “tails,” for one monkey has but one tail to be held. Worst of all, in his fine “Recessional” one stanza is made almost hateful by such carelessness as this:

 

The tumult and the shouting dies,

The captains and the kings depart—

Still stands Thine ancient sacrifice,

An humble and a contrite heart.

 

Regarding the “poet’s license” I’m not hot to define its limitations. It is all a matter of taste; even grammar must fall if it impede a thought or sentiment good enough to justify the slaughter. But this is not an instance; if Mr. Kipling had to have a rhyme to “sacrifice” he could have kept “dies” lawfully by saying:

The tumult with the shouting dies—or something else. And by a little ingenuity he could have made it clearer than it is that he did not mean two hearts: the tray and the deuce—bless me! What am I saying?—I mean an humble one and a contrite one. As to that monkey business, the end does not justify the moans, even if it could have been attained no otherwise; the interests of good English are superior to those of humor. Poetry will cover a multitude of sins, but humor will not. A “humorous poem” cannot be, for poetry is, first of all, serious; so the trifler is not entitled to the “poet’s license”. His verse must be faultless—perfect. What other merits they may have or lack is, as Aristotle would say, a matter for separate consideration.

The only “comic poet” that may do as he pleases with language is Greer Harrison: first, because he does not know what to say and, secondly, nobody knows what he says. He is now trying by silence to dispel the obscurity incurred by publication, and has got so far along back toward fame that his dog knows him again when he speaks prose.

A deal of unpleasant abuse—veritable verbal dead-cattage—is focusing itself upon Miss Jessie Schley for her efforts at Madrid to preserve the peace between her country and Spain. In my judgment her motive and purpose were entirely commendable, whatever mistakes she may have made in method. If the women of all countries would try to promote peace instead of war—would seek to hold the passionate patriotism of men within the metes of reason and righteousness, instead of blowing every cooling coal of international animosity—would frown upon the war-painted Jingoes and calculating patriots, instead of hissing them on—if women would habitually do all this without considering too curiously questions of right and wrong, which they can know nothing about, their title to the name of “the gentle sex” would be as good as it is thought to be by those observers whose hearts are in their heads. Let the soldiers of an invading army say if women are “gentle”. Ask the German that went in arms to Paris, the Yankee that marched with Sherman to the sea, the Briton that followed Havelock to Lucknow. Go ask at the Little Big Horn, at Homestead, at Sacramento.

Doubtless there is now and then a righteous war—righteous on one side—but in uniform, unquestioning deprecation of all war and all wars women would be right nine times in ten. If they would set their faces as flints against the whole horrible business; if they would cease applauding the fire-and-slaughter utterances of those who in the blood of their fellows eat bread; if they would no longer incite their husbands, brothers, sons and lovers to go forth and slay the husbands, brothers, sons and lovers of other women; if they could be taught to dress in the sober garb of the civilian a more honorable uniform than the gaudy habiliments of the soldier; in short, if those noncombatants were not as active as drummers in beating to battle, war would go out of fashion in a single generation. Paraphrasing the poets lines, we may say:

 

War is a game that, were the women wise,

Men would not play at.

 

I fancy patriotism—love of country, as distinguished from love of mankind—is a glittering virtue; the ancients so considered it, and the moderns are quite as loud in affirmation. “Our country, right or wrong” is perhaps not the frankly villainous sentiment that it seems to be. Possibly, as Bill Nye said of Wagner’s music, it is better than it sounds. Nevertheless, if I were a woman, denied military glory, I should cultivate a preference for righteousness. If, being a woman, I had girls, I should try to bring them up with a less lively admiration of mankillers. And if war fell upon my country I should say once a day until peace came: “O, Lord, behold thy servant perform the only war-work for which thou hast deigned to fit her, and which alone can be acceptable in thy sight.” Then I should cover my face and weep for the red slayer and the slain; for the lying bulletin-makers at the front and the cruel pillagers in the rear; for the thrifty patriots of the forum and the valiant non-combatants of the press; for the blood-thirsty chaplains and their blasphemous brethren of the pulpit, who figure God in the uniform of a Major-general, bebooted, bebelted and sword in hand against his own creatures; but most of all for my loud, camp-haunting, flag-waving sisters diligent in all the deviltry of the time! Patience, fair friends: you are not concerned herein. I write of the women of Mexico, the women of Spain—offending nations against the throats of whose wicked sons you and your sainted mothers incited us (under Providence) to lay the knife in wars that were glorious, humane, necessary, just and exceedingly profitable.

At the side of the coffin I bowed

My head in a passion of weeping,

For someone was saying aloud:

“Behold, he’s not dead, but sleeping!”

 

Alarmists are commonly wrong,

And over the river was keely.

He took not his motor along,

And we bubbled about it freely.

 

Said one: “I’m a stockholder—see!”

Certificates proudly unfolding,

And one: “What’s the matter with me?”

The stump of an arm upholding.

 

Quoth one: “All my fortune is in”

Another: “I’ll go you one better—

My mother is dying of gin,

And my wife’s broken out in a tetter!”

 

A fat man was moved to say

That he was a leading Director,

And a woman, backing away,

Whistled for dogs to protect her.

 

“ ‘Tis sad,” said the fat man—“sad

That fame will find him never,

And the secret that he had

Is lost to the world forever!”

 

“You’re ‘way off your base, I’ll be sworn,”

Spake one with an aspect solemn

As that by St. Simeon worn

In a storm at the head of his column.

 

“His secret’s took care of by us—

The life of our trade is in it.

The bunco men phrases it thus:

“There’s suckers a-bornin’ each minute.’”

 

McKinley—Have the goodness, sir, to remove your hand from the Philippine islands.

Sagasta—But, Senor, you have no right to those islands, and they are worth much money to me.

McK.—Very well, I mean to give you twenty million dollars for them.

Sag.—Twenty million dollars!—God o’ my soul! And they are worth a billion!

McK.—My friend, it is an axiom of political economy that property is worth what it will bring; the islands will bring you exactly twenty millions.

Sag.—From you.

McK.—From me. There are no other bidders.

Sag.—But it is not an open market. If you would stand aside—

McK.—I am not considering hypothetical cases to-day; we must look at the situation as it is: The islands are going to bring you twenty million dollars; that therefore; is their value, and that is what I offer you.

Sag.—Madre de Dios!—What logic! Senor, you should have the chair of Dialectics in our great university of—

McK.—It is not impossible; our demands are not all submitted.

Sag.—Nor—pardon me, Senor—submitted to.

McK.—I trust in God for that. This was is, on our side, for Liberty, Humanity, Progress Religion—

Sag.—Porto Rico, Guam and the Philippines. He who is in God’s pay does not starve. Will your Excellency permit me to indulge in a little logic?—not as good as that of your Excellency, but such as we can pick up in illiterate Spain.

McK.—Shoot.

Sag.—Either you have a right to the Philippines, or you have not. If you have why do you pay for them? If you have not why do you take them?

McK.—You make me tired.

 

The negroes here have held a mass meeting to protest against the treatment of their race in some of the southern States.—Press Telegram.

That is natural and right, but it will do no good. All the mass-meetings that they have the leisure to hold, all the constitutional amendments that they desire, all the state laws that can be devised for their relief, and all the power of the General Government will procure them no better treatment in the places where they suffer injustice, namely where they are most numerous and powerful. Let one-half of them in these places go elsewhere and the half that remains at home will get on very well. Better still, let one-half refrain from voting; then all will be treated very decently. But this they must make up their minds to: in the game of politics the Negro race in this country will never have fair play where it shows an ability to win. I do not say that they ought not under all circumstances to have fair play; I say only that under these they never will get it. By no power known in human government can Whites be made to tolerate the rise of Blacks from subjection to dominion, or even equality. If, lulled by the drone of sentimental platitudes, assured by the promises in constitutions and laws and unmoved by a third of a century’s experience, the Negroes of this country still cherish the dream of political equality, they need an awakening; and they may as well heed this friendly voice bawling by the bedside. In making the Caucasian character God doubtless had in purpose some beneficent result not foreshadowed in the work; but if the outcome is obscure the character itself is visible enough to one not lying with dreamful eyes under the walls of a fool’s paradise. One conspicuous feature of it is an immortal determination to “boss things.” The African is one of the things that it is determined to boss.

It might be as well for the President to apprise certain European Powers that although our friend Great Britain is working for an “open door” over in the East Pacific, the trade in islands is not exactly free.

 

Thanksgiving Day.

 

We bless Thee, Lord, that Thou hast Struck

At Asia’s unbelieving ruck

(Bubonic plague they call the steel

Thou makest their offending feel)

And o’er America displayed

Consumption’s less dramatic blade.

We bless Thee for the famine Thou

Hast sent upon Ghargoorygow,

While here we’ve had the plenty which

The life sustaineth of the rich

Who also are the good and wise.

Behold we raise adoring eyes.

For that Thou thoughtfully hast led

The Yellow River from his bed

Across the towns that underhang

The banks of that unsure kiang;

Whereas the streams by which we dwell

Are fatal but to those who smell.

Thanks that it was Thy hold will

Thy servants to permit to spill

Into the sea the blood of Spain

Till all Thy lobsters were as vain

As Rome’s red Princes, and, their worth

To prove, swore they’d been boiled from birth.

For these and other mercies, Lord,

One day to Thee we now accord;

Then to the Devil, as of yore,

Three hundred days and sixty-four.

 

To Certain Correspondents:

G.H.P—On reflection you will hardly, I think, expect me to write for your instruction a treatise on the strategy of the Santiago campaign. I could not explain Toral’s overlooked opportunity without doing so—not, at least, to one who does not already discern it.

E.G.R.—No, sir, an American is not “equal to an Englishman in every respect.” He is not equal to him by a long shot in governing and managing barbarous or inferior races. Consider the difference in the “Indian policies” north and south of the Canadian border. On our side the Indians have been governed by first plundering and then killing them. This has been going on now for more than a century, and we are nearer the end of it than at first only because we are nearer the end of the Indians. With savages of the same kidney the British have had hardly any trouble: Indian wars and Indian massacres such as have occurred in almost every county of the Union are almost unknown in Canada. Look, too, at our management of the Urban tribes—the Nipaway, Skinooks, Boshonees, Errokees, Drytues, Jawnees, Daminoles and Whatowhatomies. The subject is too solemn—let us talk of other.

  1. R.—I have written no poem on “England and America,” or America and England.” The verses that the Eastern newspapers have been swearing on to me are not mine, and I’ve not even seen them. All the same, I repel with scornishe charge that they are not as good as Alfred Austin’s.

When Mr. Gage becomes Governor Mr. W. J. Foley is to be his Private Secretary. That will be fame for Mr. Foley, and will doubtless procure him a statue erected by himself. Ages hence it will be unearthed by some learned archaeologist digging among the vestiges of San Francisco. Eying the pedestal and spelling out the name inscribed in letters of a king-dead language, he will say: “F, O, l, e y—Folly. Bless my soul, what a hideous deny these ancient idolaters adored!”

Satan.

If Lucky Baldwin proudly tell

That he’s escaped the flame

He knows not well, he knows not well

My waiting game.

(Source: California State Library, Microfilm Collection)

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