Monday, October 5, 2015

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.

Do come in, please.
We’ve got the fire going.
The tea is on, you can have crumpets if you like, or if you prefer there are sardines on toast.
Now what was this little problem you had?
Oh yes, I remember. You can’t stand “light verse”
You want poetry to be serious and meaningful, and whenever you see an old volume of “humorous” or “light” or “comical” poetry in a second-hand bookstore, you get very cross.
It reminds you of stuffy Oxbridge dons of the Jowett era writing rhyming jokes for their amusement or university students one hundred years ago trying to be witty in extended epigrams. It’s all so dated and so unfunny. It’s all so English and so class-bound. It reeks of privilege. In a word, it’s twee.
Yes, yes, you have told me this so often.
But you know, there are times when I wish I was in that common room, in those students’ digs. You see, it’s the innocence that attracts me. And the nostalgia. So much of it (India or China?) reminds me of my childhood.
I read this stuff in battered old volumes on lower shelves when I was a kid and before I ever got to read the serious stuff. I knew the parodies before I knew what they were parodying. When Harry Graham and other rhymesters first performed for me, I hadn’t a clue as to their time-and-place specific social norms. They were just pure nonsense. Innocence.
So (have another crumpet), let me once again try to convince of the modest merit of this stuff by exposing you to some of it.
Take, for example, this jeu d’esprit written by a popular newspaper columnist in the 1930s. It has no meaning – no meaning whatsoever. It is pure nonsense unencumbered by either conscience or social significance.

The Dancing Cabman
     J.B.Morton (“Beachcomber”)
Alone on the lawn
The cabman dances
In the dew of dawn
he kicks and prances

His bowler is set
on his bullet head
for his boots are wet
and his aunt is dead 

There on the lawn
As the light advances,
On the tide of the dawn,
The cabman dances.

Swift and strong
as a garden roller
he dances along
in his little bowler

skimming the lawn
with royal grace
the dew of dawn
on his great red face

To fairy flutes
as the light advances
in square black boots
the cabman dances
            Did you not feel at least a little frisson of joy as that one unfolded? Very well then, you are still unconvinced? You want something closer to demos? Why not this delightful piece of proletarian anonymity? I have heard it called “The Irish Pig” by those who wish to belittle the Irish, and the word “colleen” does suggest an Hibernian connection. I remember hearing frequently a doleful rendition of it on an old 78, which had a chorus wailing “Yes the pig got up and slowly walked away, slowly walked away, slowly walked away” ad unfunny infinitum, but I prefer what passes for the original.

                                    The Pig (Anonymous)
'Twas an evening in November, as I very well remember,
I was strolling down the street in drunken pride.
But my knees were all a-flutter, so I fell down in a gutter,
And a pig came up and lay down by my side.

Yes no one was I disturbing as I lay there by the kerbing
when a passing colleen I did hear to say:
"You can tell a man who boozes by the company he chooses"
And that, the pig got up and walked away!

            Oh dear. You are still dyspeptic and unimpressed, aren’t you? You want something more self-consciously intellectual. Well why not this peerless piece of literary criticism from the 1890s? I still think it is the sanest comment on this particular poet. And funny.

                  Sonnet on Wordsworth
Two voices are there: one is of the deep;
It learns the storm-cloud's thunderous melody,
Now roars, now murmurs with the changing sea,
Now bird-like pipes, now closes soft in sleep:
And one is of an old half-witted sheep
Which bleats articulate monotony,
And indicates that two and one are three,
That grass is green, lakes damp, and mountains steep:
And, Wordsworth, both are thine: at certain times
Forth from the heart of thy melodious rhymes,
The form and pressure of high thoughts will burst:
At other times -- good Lord! I'd rather be
Quite unacquainted with the A.B.C.
Than write such hopeless rubbish as thy worst.

            Alright, sourpuss. You’re still grumbling. You still want the modernist, the postmodernist, the self-conscious-about-my-seriousness. I’ve had enough. The tea’s gone cold anyway. If I must drive you from the room, I shall drive you with something that even I now find twee and dated. But when I was twelve or so, the rhymes had me in stitches

The Hippopotamus
Patrick Barrington
I had a hippopotamus. I kept him in a shed
And fed him upon vitamins and vegetable bread
I made him my companion on many cheery walks
And had his portrait done by a celebrity in chalk

His charming eccentricities were known on every side
The creatures' popularity was wonderfully wide
He frolocked with the Rector in a dozen friendly tussles
Who could not but remark on his hippopotamuscles

If he should be affected by depression or the dumps
By hippopotameasles or the hippopotamumps
I never knew a particle of peace 'till it was plain
He was hippopotamasticating properly again

I had a Hippopotamus, I loved him as a friend
But beautiful relationships are bound to have an end
Time takes alas! our joys from us and rids us of our blisses
My hippopotamus turned out to be a hippopotamisses

My house keeper regarded him with jaundice in her eye
She did not want a colony of hippotami
She borrowed a machine gun from from her soldier nephew, Percy
And showed my hippopotamus no hippopotamercy

My house now lacks that glamour that the charming creature gave
The garage where I kept him is now as silent as the grave
No longer he displays among the motor tyres and spanners
His hippopomastery of hippopotamanners

No longer now he gambols in the orchards in the spring
No longer do I lead him through the village on a string
No longer in the morning does the neighbourhood rejoice
To his hippopotamusically-modulated voice.

I had a hippopotamus but nothing upon earth
Is constant in its happines or lasting in its mirth
No joy that life can give me can be strong enough to smother
My sorrow for that might-have-been-a-hippopota-mother 

            Now begone, blast you! The fact is, I was going to impress you with C.S.Lewis’s “Awake, My Lute!” but I can’t find it in any of the resources near at hand. Besides, you’d probably sneer at somebody having such innocent fun.
            Next time you come, you can provide the collation.

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