On Loves, Lunacies, and Losses: The Little-Known Poetry of Mark Twain
“Advance your cue and shut your eyes / And take the cushion first.”
By Maria Popova
Literary history is peppered with famed novelists who also wrote verse — James Joyce, Kurt Vonnegut, Ray Bradbury. Even such unlikely cultural icons as Marilyn Monroe found refuge in poetic practice.
Some time ago, while doing some research for my Twain-related labor of love, I came upon On the Poetry of Mark Twain with Selections from His Verse (public library) — a 1966 gem, published by the University of Illinois, in which Arthur L. Scott sets out to debunk Twain’s famous “literary declaration” that he detests poetry. Instead, Scott demonstrates that Twain’s impulsive remark was more likely a reflection of his skill at poetic practice — “the Muse of formal poetry held Mark Twain at arm’s length,” writes Scott — rather than of his affection for the form. For a man who “detested poetry,” Twain produced more than 120 poems over the course of his life — 95 humorous and 31 serious, with the majority of the latter written after 1890, when life began to throw Twain devastation after devastation.
To compare Mark Twain’s early verse to his late is a bit like comparing a clown to a tragedian. In their unpretentious areas, many of the early poems are quite successful. The serious poems are less spontaneous, but their lack of gusto is offset by the increase in emotional and intellectual content. They show also that Mark Twain had improved in poetic imagination, sensitivity, and discipline. His good ear and his originality were qualities he had from the start; but it took time for him to cultivate expository power, verbal felicity, and — above all — a genuine respect for poetry as a vehicle of serious expression.
The worst is embarrassing. The best may not make the soul soar, but it is good enough and extensive enough to prove that here is a novelist who did more than merely dabble in verse. The range of his poetry in both topic and mood is immense. The trivialities and ‘hogwash’ are offset by poems of unquestionable power in a number of diverse fields.
They help suggest that Mark Twain’s so-called ‘literary declaration’ about detesting poetry has been common currency for too long. … It may take time for us to learn to ignore Mark wain’s hasty declaration and to convince ourselves that the evidence all proves that, in truth, he loved poetry.
Here are seven of Twain’s poems that fall on various points of the spectrum, from the playful to the poignant, and land with equal delight.
More than four decades after his advice to little girls, Twain penned some verses for one of the favorite little girls in his club, which he called the Aquarium, trailing off into complete deviation from the meter and ending with a note of playful self-awareness:
POEM TO MARGARET
Be good, be good, be always good,
And now & then be clever,
But don’t you ever be too good,
Nor ever be too clever;
For such as be too awful good
They awful lonely are,
And such as often clever be
Get cut & stung & trodden on by persons of lesser mental capacity, for this kind do by a law of their construction regard exhibitions of superior intellectuality as an offensive impertinence leveled at their lack of this high gift, & are prompt to resent such-like exhibitions in the manner above indicated — & are they justifiable? Alas, alas they
(It is not best to go on; I think the line is already longer than it ought to be for real true poetry.)
Though spoken by the narrator of Twain’s Jumping Frog tale, this sketch could easily apply to the author himself:
HE DONE HIS LEVEL BEST
Was he a mining on the flat —
He done it with a zest;
Was he a leading of the choir —
He done his level best.
If he’d a reglar task to do,
He never took no rest;
Or if twas off-and-on — the same —
He done his level best.
If he was preachin on his beat,
He’d tramp from east to west,
And north to south — in cold and heat
He done his level best.
He’d yank a sinner outen (Hades)
And land him with the blest —
Then snatch a prayer ‘n waltz in again,
And do his level best.
He’d cuss and sing and howl and pray,
And dance and drink and jest,
And lie and steal — all one to him —
He done his level best.
Whate’er this man was sot to do,
He done it with a zest:
No matter what his contract was,
HE’D DO HIS LEVEL BEST.
Adding to history’s famous fatherly advice, Twain takes on Hamlet:
POLONIUS’ ADVICE TO HIS SON — PARAPHRASED FROM HAMLET
Beware of the spoken word! Be wise;
Bury thy thoughts in thy breast;
Nor let thoughts that are unnatural
Be ever in acts expressed.
Be thou courteous and kindly toward all —
Be familiar and vulgar with none;
But the friends thou hast proved in thy need
Hold thou fast till life’s mission is done!
Shake not thy faith by confiding
In every new-begot friend,
Beware thou of quarrels — but in them
Fight them out to the bitter end.
Give thine ear unto all that would seek it
But to few thy voice impart;
Receive and consider all censure
But thy judgment seal in thy heart.
Let thy habit be ever as costly
As thy purse is able to span;
Never gaudy but rich — for the raiment
Full often proclaimeth the man.
Neither borrow nor lend — oft a loan
Both loseth itself and a friend,
And to borrow relaxeth the thrift
Whereby husbandry gaineth its end.
But lo! above all set this law:
UNTO THYSELF BE THOU TRUE!
Then never toward any canst thou
The deed of a false heart do.
Though a far cry from John Updike’s heartbreaking poem about the last days of his dog, Twain’s verses mourning the loss of his beloved canine companion don’t fail to stir:
MY DOG BURNS
No more shall bear beauteous form
Be seen in the raging storm.
No more shall her wondrous tail
Dodge the quickly dropping hail.
She lived a quiet harmless life
In Hartford far from madding strife;
Nor waged no War on peaceful rat
Nor battled with wild fierce tomcat.
No, No, my beloved, dear ’cause dead
What tough thy coat was a brick dust red?
Like a good author, thou was a trusty friend
And thy tail, like his, red to the very end.
Written at a German health resort in 1891-1892, this tongue-in-cheek “love song” first appeared in St. Louis’s Medical Fortnightly on May 15, 1892:
I ask not, “Is thy hope still sure,
Thy love still warm, thy faith secure?”
I ask not, “Dream’st thou still of me? —
Longest alway to fly to me?” —
Ah, no — but as the sum includeth all
The good gifts of the Giver,
I sum all these in asking thee,
“O sweetheart, how’s your liver?”
For if thy liver worketh right,
Thy faith stands sure, thy hope is bright,
Thy dreams are sweet, and I their god,
Doubt threats in vain—thou scorn’st his rod.
Keep only thy digestion clear,
No other foe my love doth fear.
But Indigestion hath the power
To mar the soul’s serenest hour —
To crumble adamantine trust,
And turn its certainties to dust —
To dim the eye with nameless grief —
To chill the heart with unbelief —
To banish hope, & faith, & love,
Place heaven below & hell above.
Then list — details are naught to me
So thou’st the sum-gift of the Giver —
I ask thee all in asking thee,
“O darling, how’s your liver?”
Twain penned this shorter, more unguardedly serious and beautiful meditation on love, in 1896 — it is believed to be a loving tribute to his daughter Susy, who died of spinal meningitis in August of that year at the age of twenty-four, leaving Twain heartbroken:
[LOVE CAME AT DAWN]
Love came at dawn, when all the world was fair,
When crimson glories’ bloom and sun were rife;
Love came at dawn, when hope’s wings fanned the air,
And murmured, “I am life.”
Love came at eve, and when the day was done,
When heart and brain were tired, and slumber pressed;
Love came at eve, shut out the sinking sun,
And whispered, “I am rest.”
Twain turned to poetry as a salve for mourning once more in February of 1904 when Livy, his wife of thirty-four years, was on her deathbed in Florence. The poem has never previously been published.
[GOODNIGHT, SWEETHEART, GOODNIGHT]
Goodnight, Sweetheart, goodnight —
The stars are shining bright,
The snow is turning white,
Dim is the failing light,
Fast falls the glooming night, —
The collection ends on a more empowering note, with a poem said to have been inspired by Twain’s favorite billiard shot, embodying his remarkable gift for weaving from the thread of everyday life poignant existential metaphors for life itself:
When all your days are dark with doubt;
And drying hope is at its worst;
When all life’s balls are scattered wide,
With not a shot in sight, to left or right,
Don’t give it up;
Advance your cue and shut your eyes,
And take the cushion first.
Complement On the Poetry of Mark Twain with Twain’s mischievous advice to little girls and some heart-warming letters from his readers.
Published April 8, 2013