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MESSING ABOUT WITH RHYME

There was an old man of San Remo
Whose verses were sometimes quite lameo.
While his middle lines rhymed
As their syllables chimed
His first and his fifth were the sameo.

Frank McNally, in The Irish Times, pays measured tribute to Edward Lear, who was born two hundred years ago today.

 ... in general his limericks look a bit lame now, partly because it was not yet the convention at that time for the verse to have a surprise fifth line. In fact, many of his have only four lines [not the ones that I have, mind you - drb], and even then, the last tends merely to repeat the first. It’s like looking at the early steam-powered motor cars. The general idea is there, but the technical advances that would make it popular hadn’t happened yet. (...)
By contrast, The Owl and the Pussycat is a classic undimmed by time. Not only did it introduce the word “runcible” to English, it elevated nonsense verse into the general neighbourhood of poetry, where it remains.

As McNally points out, Lear was also a very accomplished illustrator and artist. So happy birthday wherever you are to poor Mr Lear, who twice proposed to the same woman, who, being forty-six years his junior and of a conventional turn of mind, twice refused him; he also suffered from ill health (epilepsy, bronchitis, asthma, partial blindness) yet managed to hang around for seventy-five years, partially, I am sure, because of the benign climate of the Ligurian resort of San Remo, where he eventually settled with his Albanian chef, Giorgis, and his cat, Foss.

Lear’s birthday seems a suitable occasion (that is I am going to use Lear’s birthday as an excuse) to republish some reflections on rhyme and comic (in one case unintentionally comic) verse which first appeared in four parts on the drb blog last August. Edward Lear comes in in part III.

I

The great William McGonagall, “poet and tragedian”, though born in Edinburgh, is most associated with the town of Dundee, and of course its river, the famously “silvery” Tay. But both his parents were Irish (Inishowen surely, given the name, though I am not aware that he ever specified). Perhaps we should try to claim back from the Scots this brave and prolific versifier who was all his life unfazed by the scorn of the hoity-toity. My broken-spined copy of his Poetic Gems carries on its cover the legend “Over 500,000 Copies Sold”. Can any of your modern rhymers (and non-rhymers! pah!) your Muldoons and Morrisseys, Millses and Meehans beat that?

McGonagall is of course best known for his several works in and around the Tay Bridge disaster of 1879, in which seventy-five people perished and “which will be remember’d for a very long time”. Poets have been credited in some cultures with prophetic powers, and it is with a chill and an involuntary shiver that one reads the lines from McGonagall’s original work on the construction, “The Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay”: “Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay! / I hope that God will protect all passengers / By night and day, / And that no accident will befall them while crossing / The Bridge of the Silvery Tay,”.

Alas, the bard’s premonition was only too soundly based, for, as recalled in tranquillity in “The Tay Bridge Disaster”, on the last Sabbath day of 1879, “ ... the train mov’d slowly along the Bridge of Tay, / Until it was about midway, / Then the central girders with a crash gave way, / And down went the train and passengers into the Tay!”

There has been considerable debate over many years and generations, and particularly around the middle decades of the twentieth century, as to the duty of the poet in relation both to his material and his audience, with many clever chaps arguing indeed that there is no such duty: the poem just is, and there you are, take it or leave it (“A poem does not mean but be.”) William McGonagall however did not get to sell 500,000 copies of Poetic Gems on this niggardly philosophy, but by giving the people value. As for the Tay Bridge disaster, you have had the awful story, now have the public inquiry: “I must now conclude my lay / By telling the world fearlessly without the least dismay, / That your central girders would not have given way, / At least many sensible men do say, / Had they been supported on each side with buttresses, / At least many sensible men confesses, / For the stronger we our houses do build, / The less chance we have of being killed.”

II

Ars est celare artem. It is in the nature of art (or perhaps it is the secret of art) to hide its art, or artifice. William McGonagall had such an enormous ars that it was really quite beyond him to hide it. His artifice, his rhyming, we must assume, cost him much labour; that it seems to us slapdash does not indicate the contrary: he simply had no talent but like many successful folk a considerable ability to graft.

Most artists, I suppose, follow the medieval Latin motto and strive to hide their technique, to disguise the joins. But there is a tribe of engaging exhibitionists who adopt the opposite approach and whose verse displays its skeletal structures proudly on the outside for all to see. WS Gilbert, convincingly portrayed by Jim Broadbent in Mike Leigh’s film Topsy Turvy as a melancholy and driven figure, may often have asked himself just how serious or dignified a matter was rhyming. Not very, at least not in a comic opera. Still, one must make the best – or indeed the worst – of it. So where McGonagall sweats and blunders, Gilbert teases – and cheats! In “The Major General’s Song” in The Pirates of Penzance the stage directions specify that the MG is, at the end of each verse, “bothered for a rhyme”, allowing some scope for the actor to ad lib to the audience, as in “Hypotenuse? HYPOTENUSE???” Screwing up the face. “Ah, I have it! ...” Singing: “About binomial theorem I’m teeming with a lot o’ news / With many cheerful facts about the square of the hypotenuse.” After which the chorus jumps in with two more iterations of the last line and then the third varied to “With many cheerful facts about the square of the hypoten-potenuse.”

Indeed it is the chorus, and interactions between the character actors and the chorus that provide most of the linguistically and logically transgressive fun, like the truncated choral echo from “A Policeman’s Lot”: “When the enterprising burglar’s not a-burgling (NOT A-BURGLING) / When the cut throat isn’t occupied in crime (PIED IN CRIME)”. “You can’t do it like that!” shouts the straitlaced, orthodox versifier. “You’re making a laugh of everything.” “Just watch me,” replies Gilbert. “Then give three cheers, and one cheer more, for the hardy captain of the Pinafore.”

III

With Edward Lear’s “Old Man of Leghorn” limerick (“ ... quickly snapped up he / Was once by a puppy,”) we might imagine ourselves again in the Gilbertian world, where things will be pushed as far as they can go, and indeed further, just to see if they, the readers, will take it. But in fact the rhyme is more weak than cheeky and there is overall a curiously flat feel to Lear’s limericks, accentuated by the throwing away of all possibility of surprise in the routine reiteration of part of the first line in the last: “There was an old person of Dover / Who rushed through a field of blue clover; / But some very large bees / Stung his nose and his knees, / So he very soon went back to Dover.”

True, Lear’s limericks, and his other verse, have always appealed particularly to children, most probably for their fantastical element (“‘Two Owls and a Hen, / Four Larks and a Wren, / Have all built their nests in my beard!’”). Other versifiers though have quickly got bored with the predictability of the form and have attempted to subvert it, either by exploding the listener’s expectations (“There was a young man from Dundee / Who was stung on the leg by a wasp. / When asked if it hurt / He replied not at all, / It can do it again if it likes.”) or by resorting to obscenity, which has proven a very fertile field. As one unknown versifier observed: “The lim’rick packs laughs anatomical / In space that is quite economical, / But the good ones I’ve seen / So seldom are clean / And the clean ones so seldom are comical.” It is an old stage trick for the performer to reel home his laugh before he has even properly started to tell the joke. Assuming the most innocent of expressions and making the audience do the work, he feeds out a scrap of a line the nature of whose eventual development no one can be in any doubt about (Frankie Howerd was the master here). So if you think you have a shrewd idea where “There once was a man from Nantucket” is going ... well, you’d be perfectly right.

An appealing sub-genre of the limerick is that which is based on the lack of congruity between how some English or Scottish names (the oldest names, the best names – Cholmondeley/Chumley, Featherstonehaugh/Fanshawe, Menzies/Mingies) are spelt and how they are actually pronounced: Thus “There was a young fellow called Cholmondeley / Whose bride was so mellow and colmondeley / That the best man Colquhoun, / An inane young bolqufoun / Could only stand still and act dolmondeley.” Perhaps these are at their best when their donnishness is salted with a little mild obscenity. “An adventurous pirate named Menzies / Simultaneously boarded two denzies. / The Rover, Sir Ralph, / Said, “Do you think that’s salph? / You don’t want to damage your thenzies.” And since so many of them originated in Britain’s ancient universities, where the principal pursuits of the dons seem to have always been intrigue and buggery, we should include at least this: “A student of Gonville & Caius / Was endowed half-way down to his knaius. / The Chaplain’s young wife / Said “No, not on your life.” / But the Chaplain himself said “Yes, plaius.”

IV

“There was a young man from Rathmines / Whose limericks had only two lines”, but he, of course, was only looking for notice. When a songwriter rhymes “June” with “moon”, “soon” or even “bloom” he is hoping that the whole pleasant concoction will be swallowed with little or no resistance – that there will be, as it were, no lumps. But if he rhymes “June” with “raccoon” we will suppose he is either an incompetent or a subversive. In general, the more daring a rhyme is the more obtrusive it will be. And of course it will often be meant to be obtrusive – the poet as showoff or trick cyclist. There is Byron’s “But oh ye lords of ladies intellectual / Inform us truly have they not henpecked you all?” But rhyme is only the half of it. There is also rhythm to be mucked about with. “There once was a man from Japan / Whose limericks never would scan / When told it was so / He said, ‘Yes I know / But I always try to fit as many words into the last line as I possibly can.’”

The modern champion of poetic trick cycling in English is Ogden Nash. Nash can perform in the Cholmondeleyan/Chumleyan mode: “There was a brave girl from Connecticut / Who flagged the express with her pecticut, / Which her elders defined / As presence of mind / But deplorable absence of ecticut.” But he is best known for a combination of outrageous rhyme and exploding (or imploding) metre, as in “Hypochondriacs / Spend the winter at the bottom of Florida and the summer on top of the Adirondriacs. / You go to Paris and live on champagne, wine and cognac / If you’re a dipsomognac. / If you’re a manic-depressive / You don’t go anywhere where you won’t be cheered up, and people say ‘There, there!’ if your bills are excessive. / But you stick around and work day and night and night and day with your nose to the sawmill / If you’re nawmill.”

In “Curl Up And Diet” we have “To the world she may appear slinky and feline / But she inspects herself in the mirror and cries, Oh, I look like a sealion. / Yes, she tells you she is growing into the shape of a sea cow or manatee, / And if you say No, my dear, she says you are just lying to make her feel better, and if you say Yes, my dear, you injure her vanity.”

How far can this be pushed? Well, pretty far, and then further again. The dentist poem “This Is Going To Hurt Just A Little Bit” concludes: “And you totter to your feet and think, Well it’s all over now and after all it was only this once / And he says come back in three monce. / And this, O Fate, is the most vicious circle that thou ever sentest, / That Man has to go continually to the dentist to keep his teeth in good condition when the chief reason he wants his teeth in good condition is so that he won’t have to go to the dentist.”

Poetry of course is essentially a serious matter, and this is only fooling around. But even the great occasionally felt like fooling around. Here is a letter from TS Eliot to Virginia and Leonard Woolf, written on February 3rd, 1940.

Possum now wishes to explain his silence
And to apologise (as only right is);

He had an attack of poisoning of some violence,

Followed presently by some days in bed with laryngitis.

Yesterday he had to get up and dress -
His voice very thick and his head feeling tetrahedral,

To go and meet the Lord Mayor & Lady Mayoress

At a meeting which had something to do with repairs to Southwark Cathedral.

His legs are not yet ready for much strain & stress
And his words continue to come thick and soupy all:
These are afflictions tending to depress

Even the most ebullient marsupial.

But he would like to come to tea
One day next week (not a Wednesday)
If that can be arranged
And to finish off this letter
Hopes that you are no worse and that Leonard is much better.

12/05/12