The poet drinks, he stinks, he pees in sinks. The audience, superior as shrinks, Appraise a life amusingly in tatters.
How they appreciate a play that flatters Their minds with chat about artistic matters! And how much more they savour nods and winks And saucy homosexual high-jinks!
They go home thinking: ‘Poets? Mad as hatters! They drink, you know! They stink! They pee in sinks!’
George Simmers writes: “Alan Bennett’s 2009 play The Habit of Art deals with the later life of W.H. Auden, and deals frankly with Auden’s sexual and hygenic peculiarities, as well as giving a sense of the poet’s talent. Looking back on his poem, written soon after seeing a performance at the National Theatre, I was more annoyed by the sniggering audience of London sophisticates than by Bennett’s play, which has interesting things to say about the relationship between poetry and the fallible humans who create it.”
Thou too, even thou, art ranked among the highest, thou half-Menander, and justly, thou lover of language undefiled. But would that they graceful verses had force as well, so that thy comic power might have equal honour with that of the Greeks, and thou mightest not be scorned in this regard and neglected. It hurts and pains me, my Terence, that thou lackest this one quality.
Tu quoque, tu in summis, o dimidiate Menander, Poneris, et merito, puri sermonis amator. Lenibus atque utinam scriptis adiuncta foret vis, Comica ut aequato virtus polleret honore Cum Graecis neve hac despectus parte iaceres! Unum hoc maceror ac doleo tibi desse, Terenti.
Julius Caesar is known to have written at least three volumes of verse–‘Praises of Hercules’ and the verse tragedy ‘Oedipus’ as a young man, and a verse travelogue ‘The Journey’ during the civil war–but almost nothing survives. His heir Augustus cancelled the publication of the youthful verse because it was incompatible with the program for his deification.
When your mother has grown old, And you have grown older When what used to be easy and effortless Has now become a burden to her,
When her dear, faithful eyes no longer see life as they once did, When her tired feet don’t want to carry her any more while walking. –
Then give her your arm to support, Accompany her with pleasure – The hour is coming. When you, weeping, Must accompany her on her last walk!
And if she asks you a question, then give her an answer. And if she asks again, then answer! And if she asks yet again, answer again, Not impatiently, but with gentle calm.
And if she cannot understand you properly Explain her everything happily. The hour will come, the bitter hour, When her mouth asks no more.
Wenn deine Mutter alt geworden / Und älter du geworden bist Wenn ihr, was früher leicht und mühelos / Nunmehr zur Last geworden ist, Wenn ihre lieben, treuen Augen / Nicht mehr, wie einst, ins Leben seh’n Wenn ihre müd’ gewordnen Füße / Sie nicht mehr tragen woll’n beim Gehen. – Dann reiche ihr den Arm zur Stütze, / Geleite sie mit froher Lust – Die Stunde kommt. Da du sie weinend / Zum letzten Gang begleiten musst! Und fragt sie dich, so gib ihr Antwort. / Und fragt sie wieder, sprich auch du! Und fragt sie noch mehr, steh ihr Rede, / Nicht ungestüm, in sanfter Ruh! Und kann sie dich nicht recht verstehen, / Erklär’ ihr alles froh bewegt. Die Stunde kommt, die bitt’re Stunde, / Da dich ihr Mund nach nichts mehr fragt!
No apologies for posting a 1923 poem by Hitler about his mother Klara Hitler who had died in 1907. He loved her very deeply, so what? She had been cared for by the Jewish Doctor Eduard Bloch, and Hitler painted the picture above of the doctor’s house in 1913. So what? So Hitler was a Malignant Narcissist like an unfortunate number of powerful modern politicians and businesspeople. That doesn’t mean that he wasn’t capable of love or artistic impulses; you can have them and still be a narcissist. People who insist that there is pure evil in the world (whether Nazism or Judaism) are themselves a lot of the problem. Personally, I have a lot of difficulty with both Nazism and Judaism (and Communism and Christianity, and anyone who insists they are Right and they Know because their Leader or their Book says so), but I also have family and friends of all those persuasions. I don’t respect them for their authoritarian tendencies, but I also don’t think they are pure evil. The demonising of people who you disagree with or fear or are jealous of, that’s the start of the problem. We’re all people, and people are apes after all. Some people are stupid, some are intelligent but uneducated, some are sick, some have genetic defects, some were badly raised, some are sociopaths… then study them, try to make them better human beings, and in the meantime make sure they don’t have access to guns. Thank you. Rant over.
I lately lost a preposition: It hid, I thought, beneath my chair. And angrily I cried: “Perdition! Up from out of in under there!”
Correctness is my vade mecum, And straggling phrases I abhor; And yet I wondered: “What should he come Up from out of in under for?”
Morris Bishop had a high regard for light verse: “The aim of poetry, or Heavy Verse, is to seek understanding in forms of beauty. The aim of light verse is to promote misunderstanding in beauty’s cast-off clothes. But even misunderstanding is a kind of understanding; it is an analysis, an observation of truth, which sneaks around truth from the rear, which uncovers the lath and plaster of beauty’s hinder parts.”
Bishop was an acknowledged master of rhyme and meter, but that doesn’t imply that he would be limited by the grammatical restrictions of the apparently well-educated. He employed and enjoyed common speech.
Now this may sound strange coming from me, someone who writes a blog dedicated to the expansion of formal verse, but many “rules of grammar” are garbage. To me, correct speech is whatever unambiguously communicates what the speaker intended. This is naturally aided by the use of predictable patterns of word usage, because we are a pattern-recognition species, and this in turn leads to “rules”; but these rules are really only “commonly used patterns”.
Similarly the forms of traditional verse are there because they are useful: rhythm guides and builds emotion; rhyme, rhythm and wordplay all create engagement and help memorisation. The forms are neither arbitrary nor sacrosanct. The formality is purely useful (and part of its use is creating fun). Grammatical rules and formal verse have that in common.
Winston Churchill is often cited as the author of a scribbled comment on someone “correcting” his grammar: “This is the sort of nonsense up with which I will not put.” But that joke appears to predate his involvement with the issue: there is a lengthy discussion of it here in the Quote Investigator.
English has particularly confusing and contradictory rules because of the blending of several waves of Germanic speakers (Anglo-Saxons, followed by Danish invaders and later Dutch merchants) overrunning the British (i.e. Celtic speakers with their complicated auxiliary verbs: “How did you do that?”), in turn being overrun by French-speaking conquerors supported by Latin-speaking priests. (I recommend John McWhorter’s ‘Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue‘.) It was this latest ruling class that was averse to (among other things) ending a sentence with a preposition. But that’s a natural and correct part of speech for a Dane to end with.
Here where the lonely hooting owl Sends forth his midnight moans, Fierce wolves shall o’er my carcase growl Or buzzards pick my bones.
No fellow-man shall learn my fate, Or where my ashes lie; Unless by beasts drawn round their bait, Or by the ravens’ cry.
Yes! I’ve resolved the deed to do, And this the place to do it: This heart I’ll rush a dagger through, Though I in hell should rue it!
Hell! What is hell to one like me Who pleasures never knew; By friends consigned to misery By hope deserted too?
To ease me of this power to think, That through my bosom raves, I’ll headlong leap from hell’s high brink, And wallow in its waves.
Though devils yell, and burning chains May waken long regret; Their frightful screams, and piercing pains, Will help me to forget.
Yes! I’m prepared, through endless night, To take that fiery berth! Think not with tales of hell to fright Me, who am damn’d on earth!
Sweet steel! come forth from out your sheath, And glist’ning, speak your powers; Rip up the organs of my breath, And draw my blood in showers!
I strike! It quivers in that heart Which drives me to this end; I draw and kiss the bloody dart, My last—my only friend!
This poem was published anonymously in the April 25, 1838 edition of The Sangamo Journal of Springfield, Illinois, under this introduction: “The following lines were said to have been found near the bones of a man supposed to have committed suicide, in a deep forest, on the Flat Branch of the Sangamon, sometime ago.” For various reasons it is now commonly assumed that this is the poem that Lincoln’s friend Joshua Speed told Lincoln’s biographer William Herndon about, a poem that the President had written on suicide as he struggled through a period of deep depression.
A full discussion of the identification of the poem with Lincoln can be found in the magazine Shenandoah, and I happily quote their assessment of Lincoln’s merits as a poet:
The poem is similar to other mortality poems of the period, though even more melodramatic than most (the last stanza, in which the speaker continues to narrate his feelings after he has stabbed himself through the heart, is particularly painful). Aside from the historical curiosity of its authorship, the piece—with its glamourizing of suicide and its overwrought morbidity—does little to distinguish itself from other amateur poetry in the school of Poe.
What is this that roareth thus? Can it be a Motor Bus? Yes, the smell and hideous hum Indicat Motorem Bum! Implet in the Corn and High Terror me Motoris Bi: Bo Motori clamitabo Ne Motore caedar a Bo— Dative be or Ablative So thou only let us live: Whither shall thy victims flee? Spare us, spare us, Motor Be! Thus I sang; and still anigh Came in hordes Motores Bi, Et complebat omne forum Copia Motorum Borum. How shall wretches live like us Cincti Bis Motoribus? Domine, defende nos Contra hos Motores Bos!
This elegant piece of nonsense was written in January 1914 to celebrate the introduction of a motorised omnibus service in the city of Oxford–hence the reference to two of its main streets, the Corn(market) and High Street. Noticing that both ‘motor’ and ‘bus’ could be the nominative singular of Latin nouns, Professor Godley wrote this series of couplets, declining and rhyming the nouns through all their presumed cases, singular and plural. (The poem presumes the old-fashioned English pronunciation of Latin with many hard vowels needed for the rhymes.) And why not? ‘Motor’ is Late Latin for ‘mover’, and ‘bus’ is a casual modern abbreviation of ‘omnibus’, Latin for ‘for everyone’. The entire piece is written in a mixture of English and Latin, and translates roughly as:
What is this that roars so, Can it be a motor bus? Yes, the smell and hideous hum Indicates a motor bus! In the Cornmarket and the High Street Terror of the motor bus fills me: To the motor bus I will call out Lest I be killed by the motor bus– You can be Dative or Ablative So long as you let us live: Where shall your victims flee? Spare us, spare us, O Motor Bus! So I sang; while still Motor buses came in hordes And the whole market place was filled With a mass of motor buses. How shall wretches like us live Surrounded by motor buses? O Lord, defend us From these motor buses!
Macaronic, or mixed languages, literature has ancient roots, showing up wherever two languages overlap in one population for a while, frequently in verse, frequently for humorous effect: alternating Persian and Arabic verses or hemistichs of Saadi and Hafez; Rumi’s occasional mix of Persian, Arabic, Turkish and Greek; Indian poetry written in alternating indigenous Hindi and the Persian of the Mughal rulers; and Latin and vernacular languages throughout Europe at the end of the Middle Ages. Modern examples include the Beatles’ ‘Michelle’ and José Feliciano’s ‘Feliz Navidad’.
An Austrian army, awfully arrayed, Boldly by battery besieged Belgrade. Cossack commanders cannonading come, Dealing destruction’s devastating doom. Every endeavour engineers essay, For fame, for fortune fighting – furious fray! Generals ‘gainst generals grapple – gracious God! How honours Heaven heroic hardihood! Infuriate, indiscriminate in ill, Just Jesus, instant innocence instill! Kindred kill kinsmen, kinsmen kindred kill. Labour low levels longest, loftiest lines; Men march ‘mid mounds, ‘mid moles, ‘mid murderous mines; Now noxious, noisy numbers nothing, naught Of outward obstacles, opposing ought; Poor patriots, partly purchased, partly pressed, Quite quaking, quickly “Quarter! Quarter!” quest. Reason returns, religious right redounds, Suwarrow stops such sanguinary sounds. Truce to thee, Turkey! Triumph to thy train, Unwise, unjust, unmerciful Ukraine! Vanish vain victory! vanish, victory vain! Why wish we warfare? Wherefore welcome were Xerxes, Ximenes, Xanthus, Xavier? Yield, yield, ye youths! ye yeomen, yield your yell! Zeus’, Zarpater’s, Zoroaster’s zeal, Attracting all, arms against acts appeal!
Belgrade was besieged nine times between 1440 and 1806. It is right on the edge of the area the Ottoman Turks were able to wrest from the Christians, and control went back and forth. This poem is about the 1789 Siege of Belgrade, when the Austrians showed up in mid September with 120,000 troops and 200 siege guns to try to take control of the Belgrade fortress that was held by 9,000 Ottoman troops with 456 cannon. On 6th October the Austrians began a devastating bombardment. Two days later, in exchange for the surrender of Belgrade, the Ottoman garrison was given a free passage with their personal and private possessions to Orșova; a prisoner exchange was also arranged between the combatants.
The poem was written by British journalist and poet Alaric Alexander Watts (1797-1864) and published in 1828. There are a couple of versions floating about on the internet, with various spellings and typos, and with and without the ‘Just Jesus’ line which deteriorates from J’s to I’s. The rhyme pairing isn’t perfect, the metre is imperfect, the syntax is stretched in places, and meanings and references are sometimes obscure. (‘Suwarrow’ for instance is the brilliant Russian general Alexander Suvorov who, though instrumental in winning battles with Turkey and others in the late 18th century, was not present at the 1789 Siege of Belgrade. He was defeating the Turks elsewhere at the time, but how can you ignore a general credited with winning 63 major battles, and never losing one?)
My initial impression is that the metre is an easy-to-read, easy-to-recite ‘four beats to the bar’, but the number of syllables varies with the needs of the alliteration:
But then it dawns on me that the poem is actually in iambic pentameter, with five beats… but the first line is so technically weak that it’s misleading: it has eleven syllables instead of ten unless you pronounce the second word ‘Austrin’, and also requires the ‘-ly’ of ‘awfully’ to be a stressed syllable. But once you reinterpret the rhythm of that line, the poem settles down properly. (There is a good lesson in poetics here: the technical purity of your opening line is super important!)
Anyway, I think we can cut Watts some slack: I don’t know of any other alliterative abecedarian poem at all, though surely there must be some. Wikipedia quotes this fragment from the Harper Handbook to Literature:
An abecedarius always alliterates Blindly blunders, but blooms: Comes crawling craftily, cantering crazily, Daring, doubtless, dark dooms.