THERE were two men who had been friends at school together and afterwards at Cambridge ; and the friendship continued when life called them in different directions, for one became a poet and, by his cerebral output, earned a sufficiency, but the other, going about his father’s business, became a stockbroker and amassed real wealth ; so that the poet could, and did, say, ” Dine with me at the Restaurant Quelquechose in Soho,” and the stockbroker replied, ” Thanks, old man ; I should like it. Just one condition, though if you pay for the dinner, you must let me pay for the wine.” And to this the poet agreed. Incidentally, one may add that the bill for the dinner was five shillings, and the bill for the wine was thirty-five.
And afterwards they went to the poet’s chambers in one of the old inns of London. This was partly because, in recompense for their sorrows, it is given to poets who live in old places to make the best coffee in the world, such as stockbrokers, with many to serve them, may not hope to attain, and partly because these rooms gave facilities for private talk, and partly because of certain licensing restrictions.
There, in the quiet (though so near to the roar of London), these two men smoked rich cigars, about four inches over life-size, and provided by the stockbroker. And the poet proposed that, using the agency of the stockbroker, he should buy a very large quantity of a certain stock for an immediate rise, and so become really wealthy.
To this the stockbroker replied that his firm did not do that class of business. He said, further, that the speculation was insane, and told what fate awaited weak bulls. And then he added that the poet did not need wealth. He might think he did, but he was mistaken. For the materials of poetry were sorrows, and sunsets, and the love of women, and these things were without money and without price.
And then the poet tried to speak the truth. And as this did not happen every day, I here put his words on record. Whether they be erroneous or not, you who read shall judge.
” You’d be all right, old man, if there were no other people in the world. The one reason why I want money is to buy the opinion of other people, and to shelter me from the terrible effects of having anything to do with other people. As it is, almost all the money I spend is spent, quite cheerfully, to buy opinion. I cannot conceive that, if there were no other people, I should ever have bought a safety-razor or a trousers-press. So far as the climate allowed, I should not wear clothes at all. I should never dine, in the accepted sense of the term. I should never read few really creative minds care much about reading they would sooner be doing their own work. I should not, as at present, be fool enough to buy needless furniture, pictures, and books, to pay rent for a place to store them in, and to pay again for an old woman to come in and keep them clean which, by the way, the blighter doesn’t. I should rarely have recourse to alcohol, or coffee, or other stimulants which are necessary now, directly or indirectly, from the friction of intercourse with other people. You cannot concieve how little I really need. You speak of sorrows, sunsets, and the love of women. My dear chap, you forget that you are speaking to a poet, or you forget what the word means. Sorrows ? I make them in my own factory. Sunsets ? Nature limps miserably miles behind our best colourists. The love of women ? If the women are real, that love is never without its price. But think of the golden power of imagination. I have held Helen of Troy in my arms, I have climbed up to Juliet’s balcony, Lady Hamilton has stepped from a Romney picture to dance with me. Listen, my portly stockbroker, whose income-tax by far exceeds my income. You sit there, with your fat old fingers, crooked round the glass, and you think you see before you an old friend who is a poor devil of a scribbler. Why, you’re looking at a man who has kissed Aphrodite on the mouth.
” You are also looking at a pretty mean specimen of the common worm. When I leave your house after dinner, I tell the footman to get me a taxi. I could perfectly well walk, but I do not want the footman to think badly of me. I once spent far more than I could afford on a fur coat, not to keep me warm, but in order that other people should think me richer than I was. At this moment I want a good motor-car, to a lesser extent for the pleasure of driving and to take me about, and to a far greater extent in order that other people may know that I have a good motor-car. Pretty vulgar, isn’t it ?
” Yes, but it’s not my vulgarity ; it’s the vulgarity of the other people. One pays something to be a poet. One pays for it by an excessive, hypertrophied, damnable sensitiveness. I cannot live in a hostile atmosphere. I don’t know that I want admiration, but I cannot tolerate contempt. If other people have vulgar standards and they nearly all have then I must conform to vulgar standards. There are plenty of people whom I despise, but there is not one person on the earth whose good opinion and good will I would not make sacrifices to get. If I met an imbecile Aztec pauper, I should try to impress him.
” So you see my point. I don’t care about money, and don’t want anything, if I may be alone. But because other people do care for money, and do think that one wants many things, and could never understand me, I am driven to falsify myself. Be-cause I am a poet, I must also be a worm, and a snob, and a bounder.”
And at this the stockbroker, after observing that worms did not bound, turned the conversation, justifiably, to a discussion of the Balkan Crisis.