The Poetry Did It


Wilkie Collins

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The Poetry Did It

[An Event in the Life of Major Evergreen]


Originally appeared inThe Spirit of the Times in December 1885 and almost simultaneously in The English Illustrated Magazine in January 1886. The poem which has influenced Major Evergreen's 'They say she's dark' is Byron's 'She walks in beauty' from Hebrew Melodies. It was never collected in book-form.


In employment which he enjoyed represented the bright side, and an enemy whom he abhorred personified the dark side, of Major Evergreen's life. He had plenty of money, excellent health, and a hare-brained little niece who might have caused some anxiety to other men in his position. The major's constitutional tranquility accepted responsibilities of all sorts with a good-humoured indifference which set them at defiance. If Miss Mabel had eloped with the footman, he would have said: 'Well, I hope they may be happy.' If she had come down one morning to breakfast, and had announced that she felt a vocation to be a nun, he would have answered: 'You know best, my dear; I only beg you won't trouble me to find the convent.'

Persons who wished to see Major Evergreen in earnest -- terribly in earnest -- had only to look at him when he had pen, ink, and paper before him, and was writing poetry.

This was the employment that he enjoyed; this was the occupation of every day in his life. He must have written hundreds of thousands of lines, without a single thought in them which was not unconsciously borrowed from somebody else. Every form that poetry can take was equally easy and delightful to him. Blank verse and rhyming verse; epic poems and sonnets; tragedies, satires, epigrams; passionate poetry in the manner of Byron; narrative poetry in the manner of Scott; philosophical poetry in the manner of Wordsworth; poetry of the modern type which gets into the pulpit, and reminds us of our moral duties -- this wonderful man was equal to every imaginable effort in verse; and, more deplorable still, being rich, he published his works. They appeared in volumes (first edition), and disappeared as waste paper -- and appeared again (second edition), and disappeared as before. The printing was perfection; the paper was expressly manufactured to make it worthy of the printing; and the happy major, closing his eyes on facts, firmly believed in his own popularity.

One day, towards the end of summer, the poet had laid down his pen, and was considering whether he should write a few hundred lines more, when his niece looked over his shoulder, and asked if she might speak to him.

Miss Mabel was little and dark, and slim and active; her brightly restless eyes were never in repose, except when she was asleep; her voice was cheerful, her manner was brisk, and her figure was plump. She was further entitled to claim general admiration by a system of dress which was the perfection of elegance, and by possessing a fortune of eighty thousand pounds. And last, not least on the list of her virtues, she read Major Evergreen's poetry.

'Well, Mabel, what is it?'

'It's about my marriage, uncle.'

'Marry anybody you like, my dear.'

'Even your ugly old publisher?'

'Yes, if you prefer him.'

'Or anybody else!'

'Certainly, if you like him better.'

'The fact is, uncle, you don't care what becomes of me.'

'I am of your way of thinking, my dear.'

'What do you mean?'

'Do you care what becomes of you?'

'Of course I do!'

'Then I care too.'

There was an interval of silence. Mabel was considering what she should say next. She decided on speaking plainly, come what might of it.

'This is serious,' she resumed.

The major was glad to hear it.

'I'm only afraid of one thing -- I'm afraid I shall offend you.'

The major declared that it was impossible to offend him.

'Remember what you have said, uncle! I have just had an offer of marriage.'

'From my ugly publisher?'

'No; from Sir John Bosworth.'

Major Evergreen -- usually the laziest of men -- jumped out of his chair, and walked up and down the room, transformed from a pleasant uncle who wrote poetry to a disagreeable old bachelor who was angry with his niece.

And for what reason? For this excellent reason: she had mentioned the name of the enemy whom he abhorred.

Sir John Bosworth was a gentleman who indulged in the hazardous speculations of modern life. He owned racehorses, and he built theatres; he was also proprietor of a weekly journal. In that newspaper had appeared the only review of Major Evergreen's poems which had ever noticed them at any length. Of the tone adopted by the critic, it is merely necessary to say that it hurried away the easy-tempered major to his lawyer's office, to bring an action for libel against Sir John Bosworth. The wise lawyer pronounced the article to be simply inhuman, but not libellous. Sir John (already under the influence of Mabel) expressed his regret in the handsomest manner; and declared that the article had been published by his editor without his knowledge.

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