On Poetry, Veracity and Suicide

mark twainADDRESS AT A DINNER OF THE MANHATTAN DICKENS FELLOWSHIP, NEW YORK CITY, FEBRUARY 7, 1906

This dinner was in commemoration of the ninety-fourth anniversary of the birth of Charles Dickens. On an other occasion Mr. Clemens told the same story with variations and a different conclusion to the University Settlement Society.

I always had taken an interest in young people who wanted to become poets. I remember I was particularly interested in one budding poet when I was a reporter. His name was Butter.

One day he came to me and said, disconsolately, that he was going to commit suicide–he was tired of life, not being able to express his thoughts in poetic form. Butter asked me what I thought of the idea.

I said I would; that it was a good idea. “You can do me a friendly turn. You go off in a private place and do it there, and I’ll get it all. You do it, and I’ll do as much for you some time.”

At first he determined to drown himself. Drowning is so nice and clean, and writes up so well in a newspaper.

But things ne’er do go smoothly in weddings, suicides, or courtships. Only there at the edge of the water, where Butter was to end himself, lay a life-preserver–a big round canvas one, which would float after the scrap-iron was soaked out of it.

Butter wouldn’t kill himself with the life-preserver in sight, and so I had an idea. I took it to a pawnshop, and [soaked] it for a revolver: The pawnbroker didn’t think much of the exchange, but when I explained the situation he acquiesced. We went up on top of a high building, and this is what happened to the poet:

He put the revolver to his forehead and blew a tunnel straight through his head. The tunnel was about the size of your finger. You could look right through it. The job was complete; there was nothing in it.

Well, after that that man never could write prose, but he could write poetry. He could write it after he had blown his brains out. There is lots of that talent all over the country, but the trouble is they don’t develop it.

I am suffering now from the fact that I, who have told the truth a good many times in my life, have lately received more letters than anybody else urging me to lead a righteous life. I have more friends who want to see me develop on a high level than anybody else.

Young John D. Rockefeller, two weeks ago, taught his Bible class all about veracity, and why it was better that everybody should always keep a plentiful supply on hand. Some of the letters I have received suggest that I ought to attend his class and learn, too. Why, I know Mr. Rockefeller, and he is a good fellow. He is competent in many ways to teach a Bible class, but when it comes to veracity he is only thirty-five years old. I’m seventy years old. I have been familiar with veracity twice as long as he.

And the story about George Washington and his little hatchet has also been suggested to me in these letters–in a fugitive way, as if I needed some of George Washington and his hatchet in my constitution. Why, dear me, they overlook the real point in that story. The point is not the one that is usually suggested, and you can readily see that.

The point is not that George said to his father, “Yes, father, I cut down the cheery-tree; I can’t tell a lie,” but that the little boy–only seven years old–should have his sagacity developed under such circumstances. He was a boy wise beyond his years. His conduct then was a prophecy of later years. Yes, I think he was the most remarkable man the country ever produced-up to my time, anyway.

Now then, little George realized that circumstantial evidence was against him. He knew that his father would know from the size of the chips that no full-grown hatchet cut that tree down, and that no man would have haggled it so. He knew that his father would send around the plantation and inquire for a small boy with a hatchet, and he had the wisdom to come out and confess it. Now, the idea that his father was overjoyed when he told little George that he would rather have him cut down, a thousand cheery-trees than tell a lie is all nonsense. What did he really mean? Why, that he was absolutely astonished that he had a son who had the chance to tell a lie and didn’t.

I admire old George–if that was his name–for his discernment. He knew when he said that his son couldn’t tell a lie that he was stretching it a good deal. He wouldn’t have to go to John D. Rockefeller’s Bible class to find that out. The way the old George Washington story goes down it doesn’t do anybody any good. It only discourages people who can tell a lie.

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