Memoranda

Mark Twain

The Galaxy/October, 1870

Aware of the interest we take in obituaries and obituary poetry, unknown friends send specimens from many States of the Union. But they are nearly all marred by one glaring defect—they are not bad enough to be good. No, they drivel along on one dull level of mediocrity, and, like Mr. Brick Pomeroy’s “Saturday Night” sentiment, are simply dreary and humiliating, instead of wholesomely execrable and exasperating.

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A Boston correspondent writes: “The author of “Johnny Skae’s Item” will doubtless find merit in the enclosed atrocity. I cut it from a Provincial paper, where it appeared in perfect seriousness, as a touching tribute to departed worth.” The “atrocity” referred to (half a column of doggerel) comes under the customary verdict—not superhumanly bad enough to be good; but nothing in literature can surpass the eloquent paragraph which introduces it, viz.:

LINES

Written on the death—sudden and untimely death of—Cornelius Kickham, son of John Kickham, Souris West, and nephew of E. Kickham, Esq., of the same place, on the 25th ult., at the age of nineteen years, in the humane attempt of rescuing three small children in a cart and a runaway horse, came in contact with the shaft, which after extreme suffering for two days, caused his death, during which time, he bore with heroic resignation to the divine will. May he rest in peace.

Comment here would be sacrilege. “Johnny Skae’s Item,” referred to above, was written in San Francisco, by the editor of this MEMORANDA, six or seven years ago, to burlesque a painfully incoherent style of local itemizing which prevailed in the papers there at that day. The above “Lines” were absolutely written and printed in a Provincial paper, in all seriousness, just as copied above; but we will append “Johnny Skae’s Item,” and leave it to the reader to say if he can shut his eyes and tell which is the burlesque and which isn’t:

DISTRESSING ACCIDENT.

Last evening about six o’clock, as Mr. William Schuyler, an old and respectable citizen of South Park, was leaving his residence to go downtown, as has been his usual custom for many years, with the exception only of a short interval in the spring of 1850, during which he was confined to his bed by injuries received in attempting to stop a runaway horse by thoughtlessly placing himself directly in its wake and throwing up his hands and shouting, which, if he had done so even a single moment sooner, must inevitably have frightened the animal still more instead of checking its speed, although disastrous enough to himself as it was, and rendered more melancholy and distressing by some reason of the presence of his wife’s mother, who was there and saw the sad occurrence, notwithstanding it is at least likely, though not necessarily so, that she should be reconnoitering in another direction when incidents occur, not being vivacious and on the lookout, as a general thing, but even the reverse, as her own mother is said to have stated, who is no more, but died in the full hope of a glorious resurrection, upwards of three years ago, aged eighty-six, being a Christian woman and without guile, as it were, or property, in consequence of the fire of 1849, which destroyed every solitary thing she had in the world. But such is life. Let us all take warning by this solemn occurrence, and let us endeavor so to conduct ourselves that when we come to die we can do it. Let us place our hands upon our hearts, and say with earnestness and sincerity that from this day forth we will beware of the intoxicating bowl.

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From Cambridge, N.Y., comes the following: “In your August ‘Favors from Correspondents’ occurs an account of the rather unique advent of a baby into New Haven. After reading ‘Lucretia’s Paragraph,’ I remembered I had seen nearly the same thing before, only in poetry. As you may not have seen it, I forward it, together with a rhyming reply.”

THE GATES AJAR.

On the occasion of the birth of his first child the poet writes:

One night, as old Saint Peter slept,
He left the door of Heaven ajar,
When through a little angel crept
And came down with a falling star.
One summer, as the blessed beams
Of morn approached, my blushing bride
Awakened from some pleasing dreams
And found that angel by her side.
God grant but this, I ask no more,
That when he leaves this world of sin,
He’ll wing his way to that bright shore
And find the door of Heaven again.

Whereupon Saint Peter, not liking this imputation of carelessness, thus (by a friend) replies:

ON THE PART OF THE DEFENCE

For eighteen hundred years and more
I’ve kept my door securely tyled;
There has no little angel strayed,
No one been missing all the while.
I did not sleep as you supposed,
Nor leave the door of Heaven ajar,
Nor has a little angel strayed
Nor gone down with a falling star.
Go ask that blushing bride and see
If she don’t frankly own and say,
That when she found that angel babe,
She found it in the good old way.
God grant but this, I ask no more,
That should your numbers still enlarge,
You will not do as heretofore,
And lay it to old Peter’s charge.

* * *

From Missouri a friend furnished the following information upon a matter which has probably suggested an inquiry in more than one man’s mind: “A venerable and greatly esteemed and respected old patriarch, late of this vicinity, divulged to me, on his death-bed, the origin of a certain popular phrase or figure of speech. He said it came about in this wise: A gentleman was blown up on a Mississippi steamboat, and he went up in the air about four or four and a half miles, and then, just before parting into a great variety of fragments, he remarked to a neighbor who was sailing past on a lower level, ‘Say, friend, how is this for high?’”

* * *

From Albany, at the last moment, comes a screed from an old Pennsylvania paper, which is the gem of all obituary poetry unearthed thus far. It is reserved for the present—it will not spoil.

Some other favors have been received from correspondents in various States, and are reserved for a future number of the magazine.

(Source: Project Gutenberg Australia, http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks09/0900821h.html)

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