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The Poet and the Painter

Anne Spencer Parry


Once upon a time there lived a poet and a painter who were friends. The poet was small and thin, with a fair moustache and piercing, blue eyes, while the painter was a much bigger man with dark hair and beard and a square face. Neither earnt any money from his work but by doing odd jobs they managed to get by. They lived in two old houses which were waiting to be pulled down to make way for a new expressway. The houses were draughty and sometimes the roof leaked but there was a fine view of the park and the two friends were well content.

One day the poet saw the painter sitting on his doorstep chewing his fingernails and frowning darkly.

“You look very unhappy,” he said. “What’s the matter? Does the work go badly?”

“I’m sick of it,” replied the painter. “What’s the point of painting when no-one buys it? I went up to town yesterday to look at the prize-winners in the exhibition. None of the pictures were as good as mine. The only good one was hung in a dark corner behind the door and I heard people say it had been accepted by mistake because they could not read the name. There’s something wrong.”

“Of course there’s something wrong,” agreed the poet. “I met a man last week who writes his poems by picking words at random from the dictionary. He has just been given a grant to study overseas.”

“Well,” said the painter, “It’s time things changed. I mean to be famous and I’m going to find out how to do it. It certainly isn’t done by talent.”

And he washed his face, combed his hair and his beard, rolled his sleeves down and went to town. In the evening he returned, pieces of paper clutched in his hand.

“How did you make out?” asked the poet, putting his head over the fence.

“I’ve got a list of names and addresses and some application forms to join the New Art Society and the Modern Art Association.”

“What are you going to do?”

“Join them, of course.” And he hurried inside.

A few days later he was just coming out of his front door with a picture under his arm when the poet arrived. Usually he was eager to show any new painting but this time he seemed reluctant. The poet was surprised when he saw it.

“I thought that was a style you considered inferior.”

“It doesn’t matter for this one; it’s only to go in with my application form. When I’m famous I’ll paint what I like.”

“But what is that red knob in the middle of the man’s head?”

“It represents a thought. I don’t have time to discuss it now. I’ve got to take it to be hung for the meeting tonight.”

Over the next few months the painter spent his time going to meetings or painting but when his friend looked in he thought that all the pictures seemed rather like the first one. He did not say so, of course, for he did not want to hurt his friend’s feelings. At last, one day the painter announced that he was going to have an exhibition.

“That’s wonderful!” said the poet. “When is the opening? I shall certainly be there.”

“Don’t worry about coming to the opening,” said his friend. “The people will be very stuffy. Come the next day.”

The poet was a little disappointed but he did as was suggested. How delighted he was to see so many people walking around looking at his friend’s work and talking in such a learned way about it! He felt very ignorant, however, for he could not understand what they were saying and he did not like the pictures at all. Nevertheless, many had red spots on them to show they were sold so he rejoiced for his friend’s sake and hurried home to congratulate him. When he got there the painter was loading his belongings into a car. He put down the easel he was carrying and waved.

“What’s happening?” called the poet. “Are you moving?”

“Yes; I have plenty of money now and a good flat has just turned up nearer town. I’m not sure of the number but I’ll let you know. You must come and visit me.”

“I most certainly will,” he replied.

But the days slipped into weeks and the call never came. “He must have better friends than me, now,” he thought, and went inside and wrote a sad poem.

The years went by and the painter grew more and more successful. He won prizes and was given grants by the government. His name was written in the newspapers and his paintings became bigger and bigger. The poet did not get famous but he went on writing and grew more and more pleased with his work. One day his friends got together to raise some money to print his poems. When the book came out he sent a copy to the painter but no reply came.

Time went on and he continued to publish his little books of poetry and to read of his former friend’s successes until one day there was a knock at the door and he looked out to see a big, shiny car outside. It must be the council coming to evict everyone so that the houses could be pulled down for the new road. What was he to do? He opened the door to find a plump, square-faced man with a neatly trimmed beard standing there. He was wearing a suede jacket and did not look like a council man.

“What is it?” he asked.

“Don’t you remember me?” asked his visitor. “I used to live next door, the painter.”

“Of course I do!” exclaimed the poet, delightedly, as he saw it was indeed his old friend. “But you are greatly changed. Will you come in?”

His friend looked so elegant that he felt rather ashamed of the old house. He took him into the front room and boiled a kettle for tea. A little time was taken up with such questions as would he like a biscuit and did he still take lemon and then an awkward silence settled between them. At last the painter spoke.

“I like your latest book.”

“Oh, do you? That’s good. I didn’t know you’d seen it. Did you ... did you get the one I sent you?”

“The very first one, yes. I’m sorry I never thanked you. I just didn’t get around to it.”

“I thought you must not have liked it.”

“Yes, I did.”

The conversation lapsed briefly and then the poet spoke again.

“I’ve been following your success in the papers. You must be very happy.”

The painter looked down at his hands and toyed with his spoon. “Not particularly,” he said, shortly.

“Oh, I’m sorry; why not?”

The painter did not reply for a few minutes. He seemed to be struggling with some feeling. At last he threw the spoon down on the table and buried his face in his hands.

“I’m finished,” he said. “I can’t paint any more. Everything I’ve done ... everything ... rubbish.”

He looked up and the poet saw that his eyes were full of tears.

“I was clearing behind a cupboard the other day and I found an old painting I did years ago. It was good. It had quality. I can’t paint like that any more. Do you understand? I can’t paint! I set up my easel, think about the kind of picture people will want, plan it all out and nothing happens.”

He fell silent for a little and when he spoke again it was almost as if he were talking to himself.

“The question is, can I go on living? Is it worth it?”

“Did you always work like that?” asked his friend.

“Like what?”

“You know, planning it so people will like it.”

“, I didn’t. I just used to get into a kind of dream and it would all start happening. Do you you think, if I did that, it might...?”

“Well, it’s worth a try.”

“I’ll try it. I’ll go now.” He stood up. “Can I come and see you again?”

“Of course. And good luck!”

A week later, when the poet got home after work, he found a note pushed under the door. It was written on a piece of paper which was smudged with paint.

“It worked. I can’t thank you enough. I’m painting all the time. See you soon.”

After that he heard nothing more from his friend for four months and then, in the post, came an invitation to the opening of his next exhibition. Full of excitement, he dressed in his best and went up to town.

When he arrived at the gallery he was a little daunted by the crowd. The people were all very well-dressed and talked in loud, high voices, greeting each other with enthusiasm. His friend was in the centre of a circle of them so he went to look at the paintings. When he found that he liked them very much he was pleased because it would be easy to praise them. He wondered if the painter would have time to talk to him, with all those people around, and was just about to leave when he came hurrying over.

“What do you think of them?” he asked anxiously, grasping his hand.

“I think they’re the best you’ve done,” he replied.

“So do I; so do I! Listen, can you have dinner at my place next week?”

A time was arranged and the poet went home rejoicing and wrote three poems. At last the evening came. They dined on iced tomato soup, roast chicken and lemon delicious pudding. There was also a choice of wine or orange juice.

They talked over old times for a while and then the poet asked, “Were you pleased with the exhibition?”

“I was pleased,” said the painter, “but the critics weren’t and I only sold one picture.”

He pushed a few newspaper clippings across the table and the poet picked them up.

“Crude,” said one critic. “Poorly executed,” said another. He turned to a third. “The lack of a soaring quality in the planes is to be regretted. The work lacks that symphonic harmony and rhythmic interrelation of nuance which we have come to expect in his work.”

“I don’t know what that means,” said the poet, “but I liked your pictures.”

“It means,” replied his friend, “that my career is finished.”

“Finished? What do you mean?”

“I’ve stopped playing by the rules. I’ve put my heart out into the world. I’ve

said something, and they don’t like that. Statements are uncomfortable. I if

you want to be the darling of society you must on no account make statements.

Oh, some things are all right, things like, ‘look at all the death and

destruction’ or ‘isn’t life boring and empty?’ but you can’t say ‘look at all the love and beauty’ and get away with it.”

“So what are you going to do?” asked the poet, worriedly.

“Same as you,” laughed his friend. “I’m going to paint what I like, live in the joy and freedom of my soul, wake in the morning with a song in my heart, walk under the trees, watch the moon and the stars rolling across the heavens, and paint and paint and paint. Is the old house empty at the moment?”

“Yes, but you wouldn’t want to live there after this place, would you?”

“I would. This place is beautiful to look at but it has grown hateful to me, for it is the symbol of my suffocation, the price I received for my soul. I do not wish to sit in the tomb I have spent my life building. I am not ready to die. Let us finish the wine, for tomorrow I move back into the old house.”

He raised his glass. “To life!”

“To life!” echoed the poet.









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