TWO PAINFUL POEMS
Vindication is a slow pedestrian, usually waiting, in fact, till near the end of the third act. Not often does it proceed so swiftly and unerringly as it has in the case of some observations made in THE NEW YORK TIMES concerning "Is This Mr. Reilly?" with an incidental reference to "Punch in the presence of the passenjare." There has arisen a host of witnesses to confute us, and they have stepped on each other's feet and out of their own mouths have they vindicated us.
The chorus of "Mr. Reilly" appears to be the simplest in the world, but not only can two persons agree upon it, but each displays a heated certainty about his version, and men who will concede that their religion is wrong will regard it as the last insult if any one questions their version of "Mr. Reilly." This tantalizing chorus, what witchery did Pat Rooney weave into its construction that men should lose their reason? It seems to fit smoothly into the memory, but only to confuse the minds of men and make them short-breathed and red-faced with old friends. Magic not exactly black but none too white, magic as subtle as that woven into "Punch, brothers," which condemned any one who heard it once to go on hearing it, to keep quoting it, until the frenzy wore off.
Since for some deep psychological reason any question about either of these productions arouses anger deeper than the rage of war, there immediately rushed upon us hordes of indignant letter writers, each denying that there was any question about the Reilly chorus and each giving the correct one; only each gave a different chorus. And on their heels came rushing yet others, denying that there was anything peculiar about "Punch, brothers." Most of these misunderstood the contention and supposed that there was a controversy over the authorship of that great poem; and with a contempt that bit deep they informed us that there was no such controversy, that it was written by Mark Twain.
But it wasn't, and out of their own mouths they have erected a controversy where there was none before. Mark Twain did not write it, and never pretended to write it. In the famous skit in which he dealt with the irritating problem raised b this exasperating jingle he said that it was a newspaper jingle, and it was. Mark Twain did not know who the author was. There really was a sign in the horse cars of the seventies directing the conductors to punch "in the presence of the passenger," and specifying "a buff trip slip for a three-cent fare, a pink trip slip for a five-cent fare," and so on. "Why, it's poetry!" exclaimed one of a party of newspaper men one night, studying the sign as they went home. They assembled its lines in metrical form, added some improvements, such as
Punch, brothers, punch, punch with care,
All in the presence of the passenjare,
and one of them, Isaac H. Bromley, published it in The New York Tribune, where Mark Twain saw it and let it loose upon the world. A maddening thing; it filled nearly as many insane asylums as "Mr. Reilly." And now, thirty years after the question of whether Mr. Reilly was Terence or John, and whether he was looking quite well or cut quite a swell, has died out; forty years after Mark Twain got "Punch, conductor," out of his head by reciting it to an orphan asylum, and when the world is at last able to forget its disquiet over these problems, there arise vaunting and toplofty persons to assert that there is not, and never was, a problem connected with either. It is well if they can quaff a kind nepenthe an forget the hot and rebellious dissensions of the seventies and eighties; but let them not instruct those less fortunate and of better memory.
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