James Branch Cabell

Literary Life and Legacy

“On Meter” – Cabell’s first poem

Cabell’s biographer, Edgar MacDonald, reports that Cabell discovered his facility for writing and a talent for verse early in his life. MacDonald describes the writer’s earliest extant poem, “On Meter” (dated April 1895 while Cabell was a student at the College of William and Mary), as being “in the predictable vein of sixteen” (James Branch Cabell and Richmond-In-Virginia, p. 16).

On Meter

There’s a meter for poetry, a meter for gas,
And a meter for measure of stone;
But O how much sweeter, than each other meter,
To meet her by moonlight alone.

Interestingly, in the motion picture Mank (2020), screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz at one point recites a similar bit of comic verse known as “Before and After.” “Before and After” appears in several early 20th-century college newspapers, and in a U. S. Navy ship’s company newsletter. (See, for example, Texas A&M The Battalion, Feb. 18, 1921, p. 4, and U. S. S. Houston, The Blue Bonnet). The nature of any specific connection or common source is unknown at this time.

BEFORE

There are meters of accent,
And meters of tone,
But the best of all meters
Is to meet her alone.

AFTER

There are letters of accent,
And letters of tone,
But the best of all letters
Is to let her alone.

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