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Poeta Fit, Non Nascitur by Lewis Carroll


“How shall I be a poet?
How shall I write in rhyme?
You told me once the very wish
Partook of the sublime:
Then tell me how. Don’t put me off
With your ‘another time’.”

The old man smiled to see him,
To hear his sudden sally;
He liked the lad to speak his mind
And thought, “There’s no hum-drum in him,
Nor any shilly-shally.”

“And would you be a poet
Before you’ve been to school?
Ah well! I hardly thought you
So absolute a fool.
First learn to be spasmodic—
A very simple rule.

“For first you write a sentence,
And then you chop it small!
Then mix the bits, and sort them out
Just as they chance to fall:
The order of the phrases makes
No difference at all.

“Then, if you’d be impressive,
Remember what I say,
The abstract qualities begin
With capitals alway:
The True, the Good, the Beautiful,
These are the things that pay!

“Next, when you are describing
A shape, or sound, or tint,
Don’t state the matter plainly,
But put it in a hint;
And learn to look at all things
With a sort of mental squint.”

“For instance, if I wished, Sir,
Of mutton-pies to tell,
Should I say ‘Dreams of fleecy flocks
Pent in a wheaten cell’?”
“Why, yes,” the old man said: “that phrase
Would answer very well.

“Then, fourthly, there are epithets
That suit with any word—
As well as Harvey’s Reading Sauce
With fish, or flesh, or bird—
Of these ‘wild,’ ‘lonely,’ ‘weary,’ ‘strange,’
Are much to be preferred.”

“And will it do, O will it do
To take them in a lump—
As ‘the wild man went his weary way
To a strange and lonely pump’?”
“Nay, nay! You must not hastily
To such conclusions jump.

“Such epithets, like pepper,
Give zest to what you write,
And, if you strew them sparely,
They whet the appetite:
But if you lay them on too thick,
You spoil the matter quite!

“Last, as to the arrangement;
Your reader, you should show him,
Must take what information he
Can get, and look for no im-
mature disclosure of the drift
And purpose of your poem.

“Therefore, to test his patience—
How much he can endure—
Mention no places, names, nor dates,
And evermore be sure
Throughout the poem to be found
Consistently obscure.

“First fix upon the limit
To which it shall extend:
Then fill it up with ‘padding’,
(Beg some of any friend):
Your great sensation-stanza
You place towards the end.

Now try your hand, ere Fancy
Have lost its present glow—”
“And then,” his grandson added,
“We’ll publish it, you know:
Green cloth—gold-lettered at the back,
In duodecimo!”

Then proudly smiled the old man
To see the eager lad
Rush madly for his pen and ink
And for his blotting-pad—
But when he thought of publishing,
His face grew stern and sad.