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Morley's Domestic Poetry

Recently I mentioned Christopher Morley. His name may remind you a little of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (Jacob Marley) or of a Conan Doyle adventure (Holmes’ nemesis James Moriarty). On that second count, you might not be too far off. Morley was a BIG Sherlock Holmes fan.

Morley was many things, chief among them, like Adams, he was a columnist, writing The Bowling Green for many years with humor, insight, and everyman-ish viewpoint that makes pleasant reading 80 years later. Though I doubt many employers, then or now, would appreciate his version of the Algonquin round table, the self-titled “Three Hours for Lunch Club”.

He was a prolific writer, putting out over 50 books of humor, fiction, essays and poetry. Several of his books, including Parnassus on Wheels and The Haunted Library are available on Project Guttenburg. 

Another of his projects was editing not one, but two editions of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. Morley himself, like his very good friend Don Marquis (another humorist, columnist, and frequent poet), is himself quite quotable for his wit and opinions on a wide variety of issues. Here's a sampling from The Quotations Home Page and other sources:

“Humor is perhaps a sense of intellectual perspective: an awareness that some things are really important, others not; and that the two kinds are most oddly jumbled in everyday affairs.”

 “A man who has never made a woman angry is a failure in life.”

“When you sell a man a book you don't sell him just twelve ounces of paper and ink and glue - you sell him a whole new life.”  -- from Parnassus on Wheels, (1917)

 “Read, every day, something no one else is reading. Think, every day, something no one else is thinking. Do, every day, something no one else would be silly enough to do. It is bad for the mind to be always part of unanimity. “ 

“No one appreciates the very special genius of your conversations as a dog does. “ 

“People like to imagine that because all our mechanical equipment moves so much faster, that we are thinking faster, too.”

"It's a good thing to turn your mind upside down now and then, like an hour-glass, to let the particles run the other way."   --from The Haunted Bookshop (1919)

“Only the sinner has a right to preach”

“My theology, briefly, is that the universe was dictated, but not signed. “ 

“Life is a foreign language; all men mispronounce it.”

“No man is lonely eating spaghetti; it requires so much attention.” 

“We call a child's mind "small" simply by habit; perhaps it is larger than ours is, for it can take in almost anything without effort”

“We've had bad luck with children; they've all grown up”

“From now until the end of time no one else will ever see life with my eyes, and I mean to make the best of my chance.”

 Cherish all your happy moments; they make a fine cushion for your old age.

While Morley was a Rhodes Scholar who studied History at Oxford, he was also an everyday pedestrian, working in New York and commuting by train to his suburban home on Long Island. He was happily married, and like Adams, could write easily about everything from the milkman to the high price of coal, from washing the dishes to making the last payment on his mortgage.

These pieces on early marriage, parenthood, and domestic life were collected in thee volumes, then anthologized in a volume called Chimneysmoke, published in 1921.  When one of those volumes was published, a critic complained the content "was very domestic" (i.e. too much about 'household' rather than 'important' things). Had the critic been married a few years, he may have made the same comment, but meant something else entirely. Here are some excerpts of Chimneysmoke from Poets’ Corner.


Dedication for a Fireplace

THIS hearth was built for thy delight,

For thee the logs were sawn,

For thee the largest chair, at night,

Is to the chimney drawn.

For thee, dear lass, the match was lit

To yield the ruddy blaze--

May Jack Frost give us joy of it

For many, many days.

Christopher Morley


To A Child

THE greatest poem ever known

Is one all poets have outgrown:

The poetry, innate, untold,

Of being only four years old.

Still young enough to be a part

Of Nature's great impulsive heart,

Born comrade of bird, beast, and tree

And unselfconscious as the bee--

And yet with lovely reason skilled

Each day new paradise to build;

Elate explorer of each sense,

Without dismay, without pretense!

In your unstained transparent eyes

There is no conscience, no surprise:

Life's queer conundrums you accept,

Your strange divinity still kept.

Being, that now absorbs you, all

Harmonious, unit, integral,

Will shred into perplexing bits,--

Oh, contradictions of the wits!

And Life, that sets all things in rhyme,

may make you poet, too, in time--

But there were days, O tender elf,

When you were Poetry itself!

Christopher Morley


Burning Leaves, November

THESE are the folios of April,

All the library of spring,

Missals gilt and rubricated

With the frost's illumining.

Ruthless, we destroy these treasures,

Set the torch with hand profane--

Gone, like Alexandrian vellums,

Like the books of burnt Louvain!

Yet these classics are immortal:

O collectors, have no fear,

For the publisher will issue

New editions every year.

Christopher Morley


The Music Box

AT six--long ere the wintry dawn--

There sounded through the silent hall

To where I lay, with blankets drawn

Above my ears, a plaintive call.

The Urchin, in the eagerness

Of three years old, could not refrain;

Awake, he straightway yearned to dress

And frolic with his clockwork train.

I heard him with a sullen shock.

His sister, by her usual plan,

Had piped us aft at 3 o'clock--

I vowed to quench the little man.

I leaned above him, somewhat stern,

And spoke, I fear, with emphasis--

Ah, how much better, parents learn,

To seal one's sensure with a kiss!

Again the house was dark and still,

Again I lay in slumber's snare,

When down the hall I heard a trill,

A tiny, tinkling, tuneful air--

His music-box! His best-loved toy,

His crib companion every night;

And now he turned to it for joy

While waiting for the lagging light.

How clear, and how absurdly sad

Those tingling pricks of sound unrolled;

They chirped and quavered, as the lad

His lonely little heart consoled.

Columbia, the Ocean's Gem--

(Its only tune) shrilled sweet and faint.

He cranked the chimes, admiring them,

In vigil gay, without complaint.

            The treble music piped and stirred,

The leaping air that was his bliss;

And, as I most contritely heard,

I thanked the all-unconscious Swiss!

The needled jets of melody

Rang slowlier and died away--

The Urchin slept; and it was I

Who lay and waited for the day.

Christopher Morley


All for now,




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