The Prize Poem by P. G. Wodehouse
Some quarter of a century before the period with which this story
deals, a certain rich and misanthropic man was seized with a bright
idea for perpetuating his memory after death, and at the same time
harassing a certain section of mankind. So in his will he set aside a
portion of his income to be spent on an annual prize for the best poem
submitted by a member of the Sixth Form of St Austin's College, on a
subject to be selected by the Headmaster. And, he added—one seems to
hear him chuckling to himself—every member of the form must compete.
Then he died. But the evil that men do lives after them, and each year
saw a fresh band of unwilling bards goaded to despair by his bequest.
True, there were always one or two who hailed this ready market for
their sonnets and odes with joy. But the majority, being barely able to
rhyme 'dove' with 'love', regarded the annual announcement of the
subject chosen with feelings of the deepest disgust.
The chains were thrown off after a period of twenty-seven years in this
Reynolds of the Remove was indirectly the cause of the change. He was
in the infirmary, convalescing after an attack of German measles, when
he received a visit from Smith, an ornament of the Sixth.
'By Jove,' remarked that gentleman, gazing enviously round the
sick-room, 'they seem to do you pretty well here.'
'Yes, not bad, is it? Take a seat. Anything been happening lately?'
'Nothing much. I suppose you know we beat the M.C.C. by a wicket?'
'Yes, so I heard. Anything else?'
'Prize poem,' said Smith, without enthusiasm. He was not a poet.
Reynolds became interested at once. If there was one role in which he
fancied himself (and, indeed, there were a good many), it was that of a
versifier. His great ambition was to see some of his lines in print,
and he had contracted the habit of sending them up to various
periodicals, with no result, so far, except the arrival of rejected
MSS. at meal-times in embarrassingly long envelopes. Which he
blushingly concealed with all possible speed.
'What's the subject this year?' he asked.
'The College—of all idiotic things.'
'Couldn't have a better subject for an ode. By Jove, I wish I was in
'Wish I was in the infirmary,' said Smith.
Reynolds was struck with an idea.
'Look here, Smith,' he said, 'if you like I'll do you a poem, and you
can send it up. If it gets the prize—'
'Oh, it won't get the prize,' Smith put in eagerly. 'Rogers is a cert.
'If it gets the prize,' repeated Reynolds, with asperity, 'you'll have
to tell the Old Man all about it. He'll probably curse a bit, but that
can't be helped. How's this for a beginning?
"Imposing pile, reared up 'midst pleasant grounds,
The scene of many a battle, lost or won,
At cricket or at football; whose red walls
Full many a sun has kissed 'ere day is done."'
'Grand. Couldn't you get in something about the M.C.C. match? You could
make cricket rhyme with wicket.' Smith sat entranced with his
ingenuity, but the other treated so material a suggestion with scorn.
'Well,' said Smith, 'I must be off now. We've got a House-match on.
Thanks awfully about the poem.'
Left to himself, Reynolds set himself seriously to the composing of an
ode that should do him justice. That is to say, he drew up a chair and
table to the open window, wrote down the lines he had already composed,
and began chewing a pen. After a few minutes he wrote another four
lines, crossed them out, and selected a fresh piece of paper. He then
copied out his first four lines again. After eating his pen to a stump,
he jotted down the two words 'boys' and 'joys' at the end of separate
lines. This led him to select a third piece of paper, on which he
produced a sort of edition de luxe in his best handwriting, with
the title 'Ode to the College' in printed letters at the top. He was
admiring the neat effect of this when the door opened suddenly and
violently, and Mrs Lee, a lady of advanced years and energetic habits,
whose duty it was to minister to the needs of the sick and wounded in
the infirmary, entered with his tea. Mrs Lee's method of entering a
room was in accordance with the advice of the Psalmist, where he says,
'Fling wide the gates'. She flung wide the gate of the sick-room, and
the result was that what is commonly called 'a thorough draught' was
established. The air was thick with flying papers, and when calm at
length succeeded storm, two editions of 'Ode to the College' were lying
on the grass outside.
Reynolds attacked the tea without attempting to retrieve his vanished
work. Poetry is good, but tea is better. Besides, he argued within
himself, he remembered all he had written, and could easily write it
out again. So, as far as he was concerned, those three sheets of paper
were a closed book.
Later on in the afternoon, Montgomery of the Sixth happened to be
passing by the infirmary, when Fate, aided by a sudden gust of wind,
blew a piece of paper at him. 'Great Scott,' he observed, as his eye
fell on the words 'Ode to the College'. Montgomery, like Smith, was no
expert in poetry. He had spent a wretched afternoon trying to hammer
out something that would pass muster in the poem competition, but
without the least success. There were four lines on the paper. Two
more, and it would be a poem, and capable of being entered for the
prize as such. The words 'imposing pile', with which the fragment in
his hand began, took his fancy immensely. A poetic afflatus seized him,
and in less than three hours he had added the necessary couplet,
How truly sweet it is for such as me
To gaze on thee.
'And dashed neat, too,' he said, with satisfaction, as he threw the
manuscript into his drawer. 'I don't know whether "me" shouldn't be
"I", but they'll have to lump it. It's a poem, anyhow, within the
meaning of the act.' And he strolled off to a neighbour's study to
borrow a book.
Two nights afterwards, Morrison, also of the Sixth, was enjoying his
usual during prep siesta in his study. A tap at the door roused him.
Hastily seizing a lexicon, he assumed the attitude of the seeker after
knowledge, and said, 'Come in.' It was not the House-master, but Evans,
Morrison's fag, who entered with pride on his face and a piece of paper
in his hand.
'I say,' he began, 'you remember you told me to hunt up some tags for
the poem. Will this do?'
Morrison took the paper with a judicial air. On it were the words:
Imposing pile, reared up 'midst pleasant grounds,
The scene of many a battle, lost or won,
At cricket or at football; whose red walls
Full many a sun has kissed 'ere day is done.
'That's ripping, as far as it goes,' said Morrison. 'Couldn't be
better. You'll find some apples in that box. Better take a few. But
look here,' with sudden suspicion, 'I don't believe you made all this
up yourself. Did you?'
Evans finished selecting his apples before venturing on a reply. Then
he blushed, as much as a member of the junior school is capable of
'Well,' he said, 'I didn't exactly. You see, you only told me to get
the tags. You didn't say how.'
'But how did you get hold of this? Whose is it?'
'Dunno. I found it in the field between the Pavilion and the
'Oh! well, it doesn't matter much. They're just what I wanted, which is
the great thing. Thanks. Shut the door, will you?' Whereupon Evans
retired, the richer by many apples, and Morrison resumed his siesta at
the point where he had left off.
'Got that poem done yet?' said Smith to Reynolds, pouring out a cup of
tea for the invalid on the following Sunday.
'Two lumps, please. No, not quite.'
'Great Caesar, man, when'll it be ready, do you think? It's got to go
'Well, I'm really frightfully sorry, but I got hold of a grand book.
'Isn't any of it done?' asked Smith.
'Only the first verse, I'm afraid. But, look here, you aren't keen on
getting the prize. Why not send in only the one verse? It makes a
fairly decent poem.'
'Hum! Think the Old 'Un'll pass it?'
'He'll have to. There's nothing in the rules about length. Here it is
if you want it.'
'Thanks. I suppose it'll be all right? So long! I must be off.'
The Headmaster, known to the world as the Rev. Arthur James Perceval,
M.A., and to the School as the Old 'Un, was sitting at breakfast,
stirring his coffee, with a look of marked perplexity upon his
dignified face. This was not caused by the coffee, which was excellent,
but by a letter which he held in his left hand.
'Hum!' he said. Then 'Umph!' in a protesting tone, as if someone had
pinched him. Finally, he gave vent to a long-drawn 'Um-m-m,' in a deep
bass. 'Most extraordinary. Really, most extraordinary. Exceedingly.
Yes. Um. Very.' He took a sip of coffee.
'My dear,' said he, suddenly. Mrs Perceval started violently. She had
been sketching out in her mind a little dinner, and wondering whether
the cook would be equal to it.
'Yes,' she said.
'My dear, this is a very extraordinary communication. Exceedingly so.
'Who is it from?'
Mr Perceval shuddered. He was a purist in speech. 'From whom,
you should say. It is from Mr Wells, a great College friend of mine.
I—ah—submitted to him for examination the poems sent in for the Sixth
Form Prize. He writes in a very flippant style. I must say, very
flippant. This is his letter:—"Dear Jimmy (really, really, he should
remember that we are not so young as we were); dear—ahem—Jimmy. The
poems to hand. I have read them, and am writing this from my sick-bed.
The doctor tells me I may pull through even yet. There was only one any
good at all, that was Rogers's, which, though—er—squiffy (tut!) in
parts, was a long way better than any of the others. But the most
taking part of the whole programme was afforded by the three comedians,
whose efforts I enclose. You will notice that each begins with exactly
the same four lines. Of course, I deprecate cribbing, but you really
can't help admiring this sort of thing. There is a reckless daring
about it which is simply fascinating. A horrible thought—have they
been pulling your dignified leg? By the way, do you remember"—the rest
of the letter is—er—on different matters.'
'James! How extraordinary!'
'Um, yes. I am reluctant to suspect—er—collusion, but really here
there can be no doubt. No doubt at all. No.'
'Unless,' began Mrs Perceval, tentatively. 'No doubt at all, my dear,'
snapped Reverend Jimmy. He did not wish to recall the other
possibility, that his dignified leg was being pulled.
'Now, for what purpose did I summon you three boys?' asked Mr Perceval,
of Smith, Montgomery, and Morrison, in his room after morning school
that day. He generally began a painful interview with this question.
The method had distinct advantages. If the criminal were of a nervous
disposition, he would give himself away upon the instant. In any case,
it was likely to startle him. 'For what purpose?' repeated the
Headmaster, fixing Smith with a glittering eye.
'I will tell you,' continued Mr Perceval. 'It was because I desired
information, which none but you can supply. How comes it that each of
your compositions for the Poetry Prize commences with the same four
lines?' The three poets looked at one another in speechless
'Here,' he resumed, 'are the three papers. Compare them. Now,'—after
the inspection was over—' what explanation have you to offer? Smith,
are these your lines?'
'I—er—ah—wrote them, sir.'
'Don't prevaricate, Smith. Are you the author of those lines?'
'Ah! Very good. Are you, Montgomery?'
'Very good. Then you, Morrison, are exonerated from all blame. You have
been exceedingly badly treated. The first-fruit of your brain has
been—ah—plucked by others, who toiled not neither did they spin. You
can go, Morrison.'
'I didn't write them, sir.'
'I—ah—don't quite understand you, Morrison. You say that you are
indebted to another for these lines?'
'Then, Morrison, may I ask to whom you are indebted?'
'I found them in the field on a piece of paper, sir.' He claimed the
discovery himself, because he thought that Evans might possibly prefer
to remain outside this tangle.
'So did I, sir.' This from Montgomery. Mr Perceval looked bewildered,
as indeed he was.
'And did you, Smith, also find this poem on a piece of paper in the
field?' There was a metallic ring of sarcasm in his voice.
'Ah! Then to what circumstance were you indebted for the lines?'
'I got Reynolds to do them for me, sir.'
Montgomery spoke. 'It was near the infirmary that I found the paper,
and Reynolds is in there.'
'So did I, sir,' said Morrison, incoherently.
'Then am I to understand, Smith, that to gain the prize you resorted to
such underhand means as this?'
'No, sir, we agreed that there was no danger of my getting the prize.
If I had got it, I should have told you everything. Reynolds will tell
you that, sir.'
'Then what object had you in pursuing this deception?'
'Well, sir, the rules say everyone must send in something, and I can't
write poetry at all, and Reynolds likes it, so I asked him to do it.'
And Smith waited for the storm to burst. But it did not burst. Far down
in Mr Perceval's system lurked a quiet sense of humour. The situation
penetrated to it. Then he remembered the examiner's letter, and it
dawned upon him that there are few crueller things than to make a
prosaic person write poetry.
'You may go,' he said, and the three went.
And at the next Board Meeting it was decided, mainly owing to the
influence of an exceedingly eloquent speech from the Headmaster, to
alter the rules for the Sixth Form Poetry Prize, so that from thence
onward no one need compete unless he felt himself filled with the