At any rate, Shakespeare’s silence on the subject has always been a grief to smokers. At a time when we were interested in that famous and innocent way of wasting time, trying to discover ciphers in Shakespeare’s sonnets, we spent long cryptogrammarian evenings seeking to prove some anagram or rebus by which the Bard could be supposed to have concealed a mention of tobacco. But the only lurking secret we ever discovered seemed to suggest that the sonnets had been written by an ex-President of the United States. Observe the 131st sonnet:
Thou art as tyrannous, so as thou art As those whose beauties proudly make them cruel; For well thou know’st to my dear doting heart Thou art the fairest and most precious jewel.
And evidently Shakespeare intended to begin the 51st sonnet with the same acrostic; but, with Elizabethan laxity, misspelled Mr. Taft’s name as TOFT.
Reading Elizabethan literature always encourages one to proceed, even though decorously, with the use of the pun. Such screams of mirth as (we doubt not) greeted one of Ben Jonson’s simpletons when he spoke of Roger Bacon as Rasher Bacon (we can hear them laughing, can’t you?) are highly fortifying.
But we began by quoting Ben Jonson on poetry. The passage sent us to the bookcase to look up the “axioms” about poetry stated by another who was also, in spirit at least, an habitue of The Mermaid. In that famous letter from Keats to his publisher and friend John Taylor, February 27, 1818, there is a fine fluent outburst on the subject. All Keats lovers know these “axioms” already, but they cannot be quoted too often; and we copy them down with additional pleasure because not long ago, by the kindness of the two librarians who watch over one of the most marvellous private collections in the world—Mr. J.P. Morgan’s—we saw the original letter itself:—
1st. I think poetry
should surprise by a fine excess, and not
by singularity. It should strike the reader as a wording of his
own highest thoughts, and appear almost a remembrance.
2d. Its touches of beauty should never be half-way, thereby making the reader breathless, instead of content. The rise, the progress, the setting of Imagery should, like the sun, come natural to him, shine over him, and set soberly, although in magnificence, leaving him in the luxury of twilight. But it is easier to think what poetry should be than to write it—and this leads me to
if poetry comes not as naturally as the
leaves to a tree, it had better not come at all.
Some people can always find things to complain about. We have seen protests because the house in Rome where Keats died is used as a steamship office. We think it is rather appropriate. No man’s mind ever set sail upon wider oceans of imagination. To paraphrase Emily Dickinson:
Night after night his purple
Strews the landing with opal bales;
Merchantmen poise upon horizons,
Dip, and vanish with fairy sails.