Vulgar Fractions [poem by C. J. Dennis]

[Editor: This poem by C. J. Dennis was published in Backblock Ballads and Later Verses (1918).]

Vulgar Fractions

Now, when Bill, the pick and shovel man, or Archibald, the clerk,
Undertakes to sell the labour of a day,
Then, for certain hours he works between the dawning and the dark,
And delivers one day’s work for one day’s pay.
This industrial arrangement has advantages for both,
If employer and employed are honest men.
And to doubt its simple justice I would be extremely loth;
For no sophistry shall e’er pollute my pen.

In referring to this matter I assume you have a taste
For the stuff that sporting blokes regard as rot,
Such as politics, arithmetic and economic waste.
(You’re excused from reading farther if you’ve not.)
But arithmetic is boring to a certain type of man
Who is loth to strain his intellect too far. . . .
Which reminds me, opportunely, of the modern Party Plan
And the story of T. Trimmer, M.H.R.

As a lad young Thomas Trimmer longed to serve the Commonweal;
To devote to great reforms his manhood’s prime.
Oh, he yearned to serve his country with a patriotic zeal;
And proposed to give the matter his whole time.
You will note the youthful ardour — His whole time, he said, no less.
His WHOLE time! No task or trouble would he shun.
(We shall call this “whole” a unit to avoid untidiness;
And to represent it use the figure “1.”)

Therefore “1” denotes the labour that young Trimmer meant to give
To his country as a maker of its laws.
But he saw that if in politics he ever meant to live
It was wisdom to espouse some Party cause.
Wherefore, Thomas joined a Party and became a Party Man;
He secured the nomination later on,
And he won in the election when he subsequently ran.
Which was excellent — so far as he had gone.

Now, when Thomas entered Parliament he found that half his job
Was to keep himself before the public eye;
And he had to make good running with the fickle-minded mob
Lest his Party should disown him by and by.
Thus we have a simple problem in subtraction, you will note:
1 — 1/2 must = 1/2 ’tis plain,
But half his time to noble aims could Trimmer still devote,
And so, we have small reason to complain.

But, what with Party meetings and no-confidence debates,
He depleted this small 1/2 by just 2/3;
Which was occupied in fanning Party jealousies and hates
With redundant and unprofitable words.
Thus the first 1/2 + 1/3 must give 5/6 in answer; so,
When 5/6 is given to the Party cause,
Of the whole there must remain, as any simpleton should know,
Just 1/6 to spend in framing splendid laws.

But 1/6 of any busy politician’s working day
Is as much as any country should expect;
Yet Thomas found that, as the Party game he had to play,
There were other matters he could not neglect.
Organizing, engineering, and a dozen other things,
Of the 1/6 remaining, claimed at least 1/3,
And a simple calculation to 1/9 the answer brings —
Which, to quote the famous Euclid, is absurd.

Yet, one whole ninth of Trimmer’s time the grateful country gained,
Till he chanced to get unhappily involved
In a private row that claimed 10/17 of what remained . . .
But I think we’ll let this problem go unsolved —
Not because I couldn’t do it! — (Mathematics, I may say,
Are my hobby) — but for purposes of rhyme.
From the ninth you merely have to take ten seventeenths away,
And — well, you can work it out when you have time.

If you then deduct 3/7 of the answer, in the end
You will strike the final fraction — more or less —
For a fairly large proportion of his time he had to spend
Keeping solid with the watchful Party Press.
And, of course, there were occasions when the whole thing made him sick;
And we might deduct 1/10 for that, no doubt.
It’s an entertaining problem, if you like arithmetic;
And I trust you’ll find the time to work it out.

I advise you to attempt it; for the simple sum I’ve set
Is a task an earnest student shouldn’t shirk;
And the answer is the portion that the glad electors get
Of a busy Party politician’s work.
Trimmer ceased his calculations when the vulgar fractions failed,
And he had to take to decimals instead.
So, although his young resolve to serve the land has not prevailed,
He’s “a solid Party man” I’ve heard it said.

Well, the plenitude of politicians in our native land
Is a matter frequently remarked upon;
But, assuming you’re intelligent, the cause you’ll understand
If you’ve followed me as far as I have gone.
Let us make the fraction lib’ral: if 1/20 we’ll say,
Of a “statesman’s” day is ours, ’tis plain to see
That it takes just twenty “statesmen” to put in one working day
For the country. (Still more Euclid) — Q.E.D.

I commend your patience, brother, if you’ve followed me thus far;
And, in metaphor, I pat you on the back.
Let me add, in peroration, that T. Trimmer, M.H.R.
Is quite typical of any Party hack.
Then perhaps you’ll do some thinking when you hear a wordy storm
Of objection from the “solid Party man,”
When the theme’s Elected Ministries and similar reform:

For, when Bill, the pick and shovel man, or Archibald, the clerk,
Sells his labour for a week at sixty bob,
Then he doesn’t waste his boss’s time and money like a nark
In attempts to do the foreman for his job.
This industrial arrangement — so much work for so much pay —
Seems to suit the ordinary working man;
And we’ve yet to see the office or the workshop of to-day
Working smoothly on the “Good Old Party Plan.”

C. J. Dennis, Backblock Ballads and Later Verses, Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1918, pages 138-142

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