Nonfiction > Lionel Strachey, et al., eds. > The World’s Wit and Humor > American
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The World’s Wit and Humor: An Encyclopedia in 15 Volumes.  1906.
Vols. I–V: American
 
The Cumberbunce
By Paul West (1871–1918)
 
I STROLLED beside the shining sea;
I was as lonely as could be;
No one to cheer me in my walk
But stones and sand, which cannot talk—
Sand and stones and bits of shell,        5
Which never have a thing to tell.
 
But as I sauntered by the tide,
I saw a something at my side,
A something green, and blue, and pink,
And brown, and purple, too, I think.        10
I would not say how large it was;
I would not venture that, because
It took me rather by surprise,
And I have not the best of eyes.
 
Should you compare it to a cat,        15
I’d say it was as large as that;
Or should you ask me if the thing
Was smaller than a sparrow’s wing,
I should be apt to think you knew,
And simply answer, “Very true!”        20
 
Well, as I looked upon the thing,
It murmured, “Please, sir, can I sing?”
And then I knew its name at once—
It plainly was a Cumberbunce.
 
You are amazed that I could tell        25
The creature’s name so quickly? Well,
I knew ’twas not a paper doll,
A pencil or a parasol,
A tennis-racket or a cheese,
And, as it was not one of these,        30
And I am not a perfect dunce—
It had to be a Cumberbunce!
 
With pleading voice and tearful eye,
It seemed as though about to cry.
It looked so pitiful and sad,        35
It made me feel extremely bad.
My heart was softened to the thing
That asked me if it, please, could sing.
Its little hand I longed to shake,
But, oh, it had no hand to take!        40
 
I bent, and drew the creature near,
And whispered in its pale-blue ear,
“What! sing, my Cumberbunce? You can!
Sing on, sing loudly, little man!”
The Cumberbunce, without ado,        45
Gazed sadly on the ocean blue,
And, lifting up its little head,
In tones of awful longing, said:
 
“Oh, I would sing of mackerel skies,
  And why the sea is wet,        50
Of jelly-fish and conger-eels,
  And things that I forget.
And I would hum a plaintive tune
  Of why the waves are hot
As water boiling on a stove,        55
  Excepting that they’re not!
 
“And I would sing of hooks and eyes,
  And why the sea is slant,
And gaily tips the little ships,
  Excepting that I can’t!        60
I never sang a single song,
  I never hummed a note;
There is in me no melody,
  No music in my throat.
 
“So that is why I do not sing        65
Of sharks, or whales, or anything!”
 
I looked in innocent surprise,
My wonder showing in my eyes.
“Then why, oh Cumberbunce,” I cried,
“Did you come walking at my side        70
And ask me if you, please, might sing,
When you could not warble anything?”
 
“I did not ask permission, sir,
I really did not, I aver.
You, sir, misunderstood me quite;        75
I did not ask you if I might.
Had you correctly understood,
You’d know I asked you if I could.
So, as I cannot sing a song,
Your answer, it is plain, was wrong.        80
The fact I could not sing I knew,
But wanted your opinion, too.”
 
A voice came softly o’er the lea.
“Farewell! my mate is calling me!”
 
I saw the creature disappear;        85
Its voice, in parting, smote my ear:
“I thought all people understood
The difference ’twixt ‘might’ and ‘could’!”
 
 
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