A House Boat on the Styx

Author: John Kendrick Bangs

Chapter IX: As to Cookery and Sculpture

Robert Burns and Homer were seated at a small table in the diningroom of the house-boat, discussing everything in general and the shade of a very excellent luncheon in particular.

"We are in great luck to-day," said Burns, as he cut a ruddy duck in twain. "This bird is done just right."

"I agree with you," returned Homer, drawing his chair a trifle closer to the table. "Compared to the one we had here last Thursday, this is a feast for the gods. I wonder who it was that cooked this fowl originally?"

"I give it up; but I suspect it was done by some man who knew his business," said Burns, with a smack of his lips. "It’s a pity, I think, my dear Homer, that there is no means by which a cook may become immortal. Cooking is as much of an art as is the writing of poetry, and just as there are immortal poets so there should be immortal cooks. See what an advantage the poet has—he writes something, it goes out and reaches the inmost soul of the man who reads it, and it is signed. His work is known because he puts his name to it; but this poor devil of a cook—where is he? He has done his work as well as the poet ever did his, it has reached the inmost soul of the mortal who originally ate it, but he cannot get the glory of it because he cannot put his name to it. If the cook could sign his work it would be different."

"You have hit upon a great truth," said Homer, nodding, as he sometimes was wont to do. "And yet I fear that, ingenious as we are, we cannot devise a plan to remedy the matter. I do not know about you, but I should myself much object if my birds and my flapjacks, and other things, digestible and otherwise, that I eat here were served with the cook’s name written upon them. An omelette is sometimes a picture—"

"I’ve seen omelettes that looked like one of Turner’s sunsets," acquiesced Burns.

"Precisely; and when Turner puts down in one corner of his canvas, ’Turner, fecit,’ you do not object, but if the cook did that with the omelette you wouldn’t like it."

"No," said Burns; "but he might fasten a tag to it, with his name written upon that."

"That is so," said Homer; "but the result in the end would be the same. The tags would get lost, or perhaps a careless waiter, dropping a tray full of dainties, would get the tags of a good and bad cook mixed in trying to restore the contents of the tray to their previous condition. The tag system would fail."

"There is but one other way that I can think of," said Burns, "and that would do no good now unless we can convey our ideas into the other world; that is, for a great poet to lend his genius to the great cook, and make the latter’s name immortal by putting it into a poem. Say, for instance, that you had eaten a fine bit of terrapin, done to the most exquisite point—you could have asked the cook’s name, and written an apostrophe to her. Something like this, for instance:

Oh, Dinah Rudd! oh, Dinah Rudd! Thou art a cook of bluest blood! Nowhere within This world of sin Have I e’er tasted better terrapin.

Do you see?"

"I do; but even then, my dear fellow, the cook would fall short of true fame. Her excellence would be a mere matter of hearsay evidence," said Homer.

"Not if you went on to describe, in a keenly analytical manner, the virtues of that particular bit of terrapin," said Burns. "Draw so vivid a picture of the dish that the reader himself would taste that terrapin even as you tasted it."

"You have hit it!" cried Homer, enthusiastically. "It is a grand plan; but how to introduce it—that is the question."

"We can haunt some modern poet, and give him the idea in that way," suggested Burns. "He will see the novelty of it, and will possibly disseminate the idea as we wish it to be disseminated."

"Done!" said Homer. "I’ll begin right away. I feel like haunting to-night. I’m getting to be a pretty old ghost, but I’ll never lose my love of haunting."

At this point, as Homer spoke, a fine-looking spirit entered the room, and took a seat at the head of the long table at which the regular club dinner was nightly served.

"Why, bless me!" said Homer, his face lighting up with pleasure. "Why, Phidias, is that you?"

"I think so," said the new-comer, wearily; "at any rate, it’s all that’s left of me."

"Come over here and lunch with us," said Homer. "You know Burns, don’t you?"

"Haven’t the pleasure," said Phidias.

The poet and the sculptor were introduced, after which Phidias seated himself at Homer’s side.

"Are you any relation to Burns the poet?" the former asked, addressing the Scotchman.

"I AM Burns the poet," replied the other.

"You don’t look much like your statues," said Phidias, scanning his face critically.

"No, thank the Fates!" said Burns, warmly. "If I did, I’d commit suicide."

"Why don’t you sue the sculptors for libel?" asked Phidias.

"You speak with a great deal of feeling, Phidias," said Homer, gravely. "Have they done anything to hurt you?"

"They have," said Phidias. "I have just returned from a tour of the world. I have seen the things they call sculpture in these degenerate days, and I must confess—who shouldn’t, perhaps—that I could have done better work with a baseball-bat for a chisel and putty for the raw material."

"I think I could do good work with a baseball-bat too," said Burns; "but as for the raw material, give me the heads of the men who have sculped me to work on. I’d leave them so that they’d look like some of your Parthenon frieze figures with the noses gone."

"You are a vindictive creature," said Homer. "These men you criticise, and whose heads you wish to sculp with a baseball-bat, have done more for you than you ever did for them. Every statue of you these men have made is a standing advertisement of your books, and it hasn’t cost you a penny. There isn’t a doubt in my mind that if it were not for those statues countless people would go to their graves supposing that the great Scottish Burns were little rivulets, and not a poet. What difference does it make to you if they haven’t made an Adonis of you? You never set them an example by making one of yourself. If there’s deception anywhere, it isn’t you that is deceived; it is the mortals. And who cares about them or their opinions?"

"I never thought of it in that way," said Burns. "I hate caricatures—that is, caricatures of myself. I enjoy caricatures of other people, but—"

"You have a great deal of the mortal left in you, considering that you pose as an immortal," said Homer, interrupting the speaker.

"Well, so have I," said Phidias, resolved to stand by Burns in the argument, "and I’m sorry for the man who hasn’t. I was a mortal once, and I’m glad of it. I had a good time, and I don’t care who knows it. When I look about me and see Jupiter, the arch-snob of creation, and Mars, a little tin warrior who couldn’t have fought a soldier like Napoleon, with all his alleged divinity, I thank the Fates that they enabled me to achieve immortality through mortal effort. Hang hereditary greatness, I say. These men were born immortals. You and I worked for it and got it. We know what it cost. It was ours because we earned it, and not because we were born to it. Eh, Burns?"

The Scotchman nodded assent, and the Greek sculptor went on.

"I am not vindictive myself, Homer," he said. "Nobody has hurt me, and, on the whole, I don’t think sculpture is in such a bad way, after all. There’s a shoemaker I wot of in the mortal realms who can turn the prettiest last you ever saw; and I encountered a carver in a London eating-house last month who turned out a slice of beef that was cut as artistically as I could have done it myself. What I object to chiefly is the tendency of the times. This is an electrical age, and men in my old profession aren’t content to turn out one chef-d’oeuvre in a lifetime. They take orders by the gross. I waited upon inspiration. To-day the sculptor waits upon custom, and an artist will make a bust of anybody in any material desired as long as he is sure of getting his pay afterwards. I saw a life-size statue of the inventor of a new kind of lard the other day, and what do you suppose the material was? Gold? Not by a great deal. Ivory? Marble, even? Not a bit of it. He was done in lard, sir. I have seen a woman’s head done in butter, too, and it makes me distinctly weary to think that my art should be brought so low."

"You did your best work in Greece," chuckled Homer.

"A bad joke, my dear Homer," retorted Phidias. "I thought sculpture was getting down to a pretty low ebb when I had to fashion friezes out of marble; but marble is more precious than rubies alongside of butter and lard."

"Each has its uses," said Homer. "I’d rather have butter on my bread than marble, but I must confess that for sculpture it is very poor stuff, as you say."

"It is indeed," said Phidias. "For practice it’s all right to use butter, but for exhibition purposes—bah!"

Here Phidias, to show his contempt for butter as raw material in sculpture, seized a wooden toothpick, and with it modelled a beautiful head of Minerva out of the pat that stood upon the small plate at his side, and before Burns could interfere had spread the chaste figure as thinly as he could upon a piece of bread, which he tossed to the shade of a hungry dog that stood yelping on the riverbank.

"Heavens!" cried Burns. "Imperious Caesar dead and turned to bricks is as nothing to a Minerva carved by Phidias used to stay the hunger of a ravening cur."

"Well, it’s the way I feel," said Phidias, savagely.

"I think you are a trifle foolish to be so eternally vexed about it," said Homer, soothingly. "Of course you feel badly, but, after all, what’s the use? You must know that the mortals would pay more for one of your statues than they would for a specimen of any modern sculptor’s art; yes, even if yours were modelled in wine-jelly and the other fellow’s in pure gold. So why repine?"

"You’d feel the same way if poets did a similarly vulgar thing," retorted Phidias; "you know you would. If you should hear of a poet to-day writing a poem on a thin layer of lard or butter, you would yourself be the first to call a halt."

"No, I shouldn’t," said Homer, quietly; "in fact, I wish the poets would do that. We’d have fewer bad poems to read; and that’s the way you should look at it. I venture to say that if this modern plan of making busts and friezes in butter had been adopted at an earlier period, the public places in our great cities and our national Walhallas would seem less like repositories of comic art, since the first critical rays of a warm sun would have reduced the carven atrocities therein to a spot on the pavement. The butter school of sculpture has its advantages, my boy, and you should be crowning the inventor of the system with laurel, and not heaping coals of fire upon his brow."

"That," said Burns, "is, after all, the solid truth, Phidias. Take the brass caricatures of me, for instance. Where would they be now if they had been cast in lard instead of in bronze?"

Phidias was silent a moment.

"Well," he said, finally, as the value of the plan dawned upon his mind, "from that point of view I don’t know but what you are right, after all; and, to show that I have spoken in no vindictive spirit, let me propose a toast. Here’s to the Butter Sculptors. May their butter never give out."

The toast was drained to the dregs, and Phidias went home feeling a little better.


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Chicago: John Kendrick Bangs, "Chapter IX: As to Cookery and Sculpture," A House Boat on the Styx in A House Boat on the Styx (New York: The Century Co., 1918), Original Sources, accessed April 26, 2018, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=D14X7X4WRDZEX45.

MLA: Bangs, John Kendrick. "Chapter IX: As to Cookery and Sculpture." A House Boat on the Styx, in A House Boat on the Styx, New York, The Century Co., 1918, Original Sources. 26 Apr. 2018. www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=D14X7X4WRDZEX45.

Harvard: Bangs, JK, 'Chapter IX: As to Cookery and Sculpture' in A House Boat on the Styx. cited in 1918, A House Boat on the Styx, The Century Co., New York. Original Sources, retrieved 26 April 2018, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=D14X7X4WRDZEX45.