Showing posts with label comedic poetry. Show all posts
Showing posts with label comedic poetry. Show all posts

Saturday, 20 May 2017

'Hamlet's Soliloquy: Imitated’ - Richard Jago

To print, or not to print — that is the question.
Whether 'tis better in a trunk to bury
The quirks and crotchets of outrageous Fancy,
Or send a well-wrote copy to the press,
And by disclosing, end them.

‘Hamlet's Soliloquy: Imitated’
Richard Jago
(1715-1781)

Whether or not you're a fan of Shakespeare (or a 'Bardolater' as the 20th century playwright George Bernard Shaw termed the most zealous Shakespeare enthusiasts), you've probably heard something of the famous soliloquy from his play Hamlet.  Even if you don't know off the top of your head where it's from or what it's about, the opening lines will probably strike a chord: 

'To be or not to be, that is the question.
Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And by opposing, end them.'
(Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 3 Scene 1…and yes, I’m afraid I did basically type it from memory!)

And having read that, I'm sure you'll see at once what Jago is doing with his 'Imitation'.  Although there might be a serious side to his reworking, it's difficult to see Jago's soliloquy as anything other than a huge, hilarious joke.

Richard Jago 1715-1781
Just to start by clarifying the jargon here, a 'soliloquy' is a speech in a play delivered by one character talking to themselves, rather like someone thinking out loud.  In the original Shakespeare play, the famous speech is said by Hamlet as he debates whether or not he should attempt to bring his uncle to justice for the murder of his father and usurpation of his and his father's crown (through marriage to Hamlet's mother) - the 'sea of troubles' he considers 'tak[ing] arms against'.  Jago replaces this with an author’s dilemma – ‘To print, or not to print’ (line 1).  ‘To print’, Jago wittily argues, is ‘to doubt / No more’ (lines 5-6), since once a manuscript is committed to print it cannot be changed and the ‘head-ach, and […] thousand natural shocks / Of scribbling frenzy’ are over (lines 7-8): as my very dear brother once rather wittily quipped, ‘novels are never finished, they just get sent to the publisher’.

The next section – still mimicking the original structure of Shakespeare’s immortal words – continues with the pros and, more importantly, the cons of publishing.  The aspiring writer’s work might ‘beam / From the same shelf with [Alexander] Pope, in calf [leather] well bound’ (lines 9-10), one of the finest satirical poets of the eighteenth-century and an enviable bookshelf companion for any author.  Or, more realistically the aspiring work may ‘sleep, perchance, with Quarles – Ay, there’s the rub’ (line 11).  The ‘sleep’ of which Shakespeare’s Hamlet speaks is the sleep of death, but here it is the probable fate of the millions of forgotten authors who ‘sleep’ in disregarded silence.  Francis Quarles (1592-1644) was an English religious poet whose popularity does not seem to have extended very far beyond his own lifetime.  On one of the rare occasions when his name is mentioned in the latter half of the eighteenth century it is in a letter to the popular journal The Gentleman’s Magazine, in which the correspondent bemoans the fact that ‘[p]oor sleeping Quarles is at length disturbed’ by critics such as William Jackson who discussed the poet’s work favorably in his Thirty Letters on various subjects.  The threat of infamy here is very real, and one to strike fear into the heart of every aspiring author.

Detailing the numerous disadvantages of being a published author Jago also includes ‘th’impatient thirst of fame’ (line 16), i.e. the longing for continued popularity after even the smallest taste of it; and ‘[t]he tedious importunity of friends’ (line 18), doubtless hectoring for details of the next great work.  The ‘undiscover’d country’ of Shakespeare’s soliloquy is the unseen land of death, but here Jago redirects the term to refer to the mystic ‘Parnassus’ hill’ (line 22), in Greek mythology the home of the nine Muses who serve as guardians and inspirations of the arts.  Once again, however, it is the fear of criticism that is the strongest deterrent, as Jago writes of how preferable it is to ‘bear to live unknown, / Than run the hazard to be known, and damn’d’ (lines 25-6).  It is this fear which makes ‘the healthful face of many a poem’ sicken within the pages of ‘a pale manuscript’ (lines 28 & 29) and that deters many writers from sending their work to publishers such as the famous Robert Dodsley (1704-1764) that Jago here mentions by name.  We can only be thankful that this fear didn’t deter Jago himself!

Happy Reading!!

You can find this poem:

(eighteenth century poetry archive – a fantastic new resource of freely available poetry by all our favourite eighteenth-century poets, and quite a few less well-known ones too! 

You can find out more about Richard Jago:

(Wikipedia!! Always a useful starting point…)

(If you’re lucky enough to have access to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography then this gives a more sophisticated account of Jago’s life.)

Sources:
http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/bardolater

Sharp, ‘Letter’ in The Gentleman’s Magazine: and historical chronicle, 56.6 (Dec 1786), p. 1106.

Saturday, 21 May 2016

'Death and the Doctor' - David Garrick

‘As Doctor ** musing sate,
Death saw, and came without delay:
Enters the room, begins the chat
With, “Doctor, why so thoughtful, pray?”’

‘Death and the Doctor’
David Garrick
(published 1763)

Even today, the name of David Garrick has a glamorous magic: perhaps the most famous actor of the eighteenth-century, the dramatic painting of him in the role of Richard III is for many (myself included) one of the great highlights of a visit to the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool.  As an actor, he was famed for the bewitching power of his voice, and his ability to portray a broad register of different emotions on-stage, but he was also a writer of both plays and poetry.  Sometimes the latter would take the form of poetic prologues or epilogues to be spoken before or after a theatrical performance by one of the actors in character.  Today’s offering is simply a standalone narrative, but it is also a splendid example of Garrick’s sly, witty brilliance.

The subtitle provides all the background the reader needs:  this is a defensive poem, ‘Occasioned by a Physician’s lampooning a Friend of the Author’.  If you’ve never encountered this term before, to lampoon is to ‘Publicly criticize (someone or something) by using ridicule, irony, or sarcasm’ (the definition is from Oxford Dictionaries, the free version!).  Call me a sentimentalist if you will, but I think it’s rather sweetly loyal of him to have gone to so much effort to support his friend as the construction of a whole poetic narrative!  Even the title is a bit of a clever put-down, since in saying ‘Death and the Doctor’ Garrick places gives Death the priority by placing it first in the sentence.  As the great Sir Ian McKellen said recently in a programme to celebrate 400 years of Shakespeare, who would want to play Romeo if the play was called ‘Juliet and Romeo’?

In the poem, the scene starts somewhat theatrically with the doctor sitting and thoughtfully ‘musing’; Death notices this, and hurries at once to investigate.  At first, the doctor is a bit startled (who wouldn’t be if the grim reaper suddenly appeared in the living room wanting a chat?).  He ‘started from his place’ in a manner that again seems to evoke the spirit of theatrical performance.  Perhaps more surprisingly, the pair soon ‘more familiar grew’ and fall into conversation about such a conventional everyday topic as the state of the Doctor’s practice.  Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t think I’d feel comfortable talking shop with Death; yet in a sense this is a subtle way of beginning to discredit the anonymous Doctor, by suggesting he has a rather mercantile and desensitised personality.  A few minutes after meeting Death, the ultimate arch-enemy of humanity, he is gloomily complaining that ‘trade was low and friends were few’.

Death of course takes a rather more practical view.  ‘Away with fear’ he cries, advising the doctor to at once ‘mend [his] trade’ for, he says, ‘we both are losers if you fail’.  There is no indication that the Doctor sees anything odd about this statement, though the reader will notice the huge irony in the idea that a lack of business for a doctor would mean Death losing out on victims.  The business of Doctors should, after all, be to bring people back to health.  Though the joke about doctors killing off their patients was by no means new at this point, Garrick makes it fresh through the argument that follows.  For it is not through conventional medical treatment that Death suggests the Doctor would be able to furnish him with a steady supply of victims.  Rather, it is through the poisonous nature of his satirical scribbling.  ‘Go write’, suggests Death, disregarding the quality of such compositions as he claims that it is ‘No matter, whether smart, or true’. Advocating the dispersion of these writings among the doctor’s friends, Death suggests that this will inevitably make all readers ‘grow sick’ and dependent upon the doctor’s (somewhat dubious) services.  The final joke comes as Death claims that this will help them both, for this way he says ‘you are sure to have your fees, / And I am sure to have your friends.”’  Splendid, isn’t it?  Without directly insulting the doctor at all, Garrick neatly manages to completely demolish the physician’s whole credibility.  Whoever this man is, he is no longer to be regarded as a serious medical professional, but rather as a money-minded charlatan, ready to stoop to any low trick to conjure business for himself.  The true wit here is not the doctor with his character-assassinating writings, but Garrick. 
Happy reading!!

You can find this poem:
 
http://www.eighteenthcenturypoetry.org/works/o5154-w0530.shtml
(A wonderful new site loaded with free editions of obscure eighteenth-century verse.  Go on, you know you want to look…)

More about the lovely David Garrick:

(I didn’t want to reproduce this image directly in case of copyright issues, but do follow the link to the Walker Art Gallery website.  Hogarth’s ‘Garrick as Richard III’ is one of the iconic masterpieces of 18th century art, and an absolute must-see!! And while you’re at it, why not visit the Walker and come see all the other lovely 18th century paintings at one of the absolute best art galleries in the country?)

(Wikipedia, for details about this fascinating chap’s exciting life!)

(And to cross reference, why not check out Encyclopaedia Britannica?  This could be the most interesting thing you read all day!!)

(And if you’re really getting into this by this point, why not look at the info about him at the Twickenham Museum?  Looks like it could be a good day out folks…)

(Ok, by this point you’ve probably realised that Garrick is still quite a popular guy… If you want to get even more detail the links on this page are definitely for you!!)

http://www.westminster-abbey.org/our-history/people/david-garrick
(Fab image of, and info about, the memorial to Garrick in Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey!)

Saturday, 14 May 2016

'A Description of a City Shower' - Jonathan Swift


‘Careful observers may foretell the hour
(By sure prognostics) when to dread a shower:
While rain depends, the pensive cat gives o’er
Her frolics, and pursues her tail no more.’

‘A Description of a City Shower’
Jonathan Swift (1667-1745)
1710

Familiar to many as the author of Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift was in fact a writer of many and various talents.  It might be his tiny Lilliputian people that has secured him a place in popular culture, but in the realm of eighteenth-century literature Swift is an absolute giant.  A member of the Scriblerus Club, he was friends with some of the most influential writers and politicians of the early eighteenth century, including Alexander Pope, Dr. John Arbuthnot, Thomas Parnell, John Gay, and the Earl of Oxford, Robert Harley (who effectively headed Queen Anne’s government for a time). 

In this poem, Swift seems to be in one of his merrier moods.  Originally published in a periodical journal by Richard Steele and Joseph Addison, The Tatler (1709-1711), this is a poem about one of the simplest and most ordinary occurrences: a shower of rain in town.  It starts in a delightfully gloomy manner: ‘Careful observers may foretell the hour / (By sure prognostics) when to dread a shower’.  It’s so deliciously melodramatic, with its heightened sense of ‘dread’.  Then Swift details these ‘prognostics’, such as ‘the pensive cat’ who, with that innate sense animals seem to have of changes in the weather, has stopped playing and probably found somewhere cosy and sheltered to sit.  The ‘sink’ that is next alluded to refers to the local cesspool, which possibly smells stronger because of the increased humidity in the air.  Then comes the warning: ‘If you be wise, then go not far to dine; / You’ll spend in coach hire more than save in wine’.  This assumes of course that the most obvious reason for the reader to eat out is to dine at his friends’ expense; the threatening rain would negate this benefit because the mercenary diner would then have to pay to hire a coach home afterwards.  Next come more traditional signs of changing air pressure as ‘Old aches throb’.  The ‘Dulman’ seen sauntering in the coffeehouse is simply an instance of the splendid practise of naming a character after their character-type: ‘Dulman’ is exactly what he sounds like. 

The second section of the poem brings the approaching rain a step closer, as the personified ‘South’ comes sweeping in ‘with dabbled wings’.  It’s just typical Swift that after this beautiful image he brings the whole thing crashing back to earth again with the much less attractive image of the ‘sable cloud’ as a drunkard ‘That swilled more liquor than it could contain’ and yes, you guessed it, ‘gives it up again’.  Fortunately, we can hurry on swiftly (pun absolutely intended) to the image of the maid who ‘whips her linen from the rope’ as the rain finally arrives.  At the moment, it is only a slight shower, ‘Such is that sprinkling which some careless quean / Flirts on you from her mop, but not so clean’.  Here ‘quean’ also refers to a maid, here flicking dirt from a mop onto a passerby. Gritty realism continues as Swift describes the ‘dust’ and dirt from the street getting muddled with the rain.  Relating this in terms of a conflict, this dust ‘aided by the wind, fought still for life’ until ‘’Twas doubtful which was rain and which was dust’.  The hapless passerby is simply caught in the crossfire, whilst ‘dust and rain at once his coat invade’.  The practical effect of this is to ruin his only coat by leaving dirty stains. 

And now we really get to the rainstorm, ‘Now in contiguous drops the flood comes down’.  No place for understatement here, as the idea of the rain ‘Threatening with deluge this devoted town’ creates an impression of a downpour of Biblical proportions.  The humour is maximised by positioning this grandiose image just before the description of the ‘daggled females’ rushing into shops to hide from the rain (as they ‘Pretend to cheapen goods, but nothing buy’).  The ‘Templar spruce’ mentioned next is a similarly grand way of referring to a law student who, ‘while ev’ry spout’s abroach’ with rain water, lingers indoors, only ‘seem[ig] to call a coach’.  This series of wet-weather vignettes is continued with the depiction of a ‘sempstress’ hurrying along beneath the cover of an umbrella.  Elsewhere the rain serves to dissolve social boundaries as ‘various kinds, by various fortunes led, / Commence acquaintance underneath a shed’.  Here, members of the two opposing political parties of the time, Tories and Whigs, have ‘join[ed] to save their wigs’, the obvious satire being that, when both are threatened with the destruction of their fashionable gear in the rain, they are content to ‘Forget their feuds’ and share the shelter.  The ‘chair’ in which the ‘beau’ (fashion-conscious young man) sits is a Sedan chair, quite literally boxed in on every side and carried by two chairmen.  Inside, the beau can hear the ‘frightful din’ of the rain on the leather roof of his vehicle, and ‘he trembles from within’.  Once more, Swift splices the everyday with the epic, as he likens the chair-men to the Trojans, carrying the wooden horse loaded with Greek soldiers into Troy at the end of the Trojan War. 

In the last section, Swift builds rapidly to the climax.  The ‘kennels’ alluded to are not dog houses, but open gutters running down the street and which are now overloaded with rainwater.  Like most gutters, they are also the lowest level of the street to which all the rubbish has descended: the ‘trophies’ which are carried along in the water.  With grim fascination, Swift almost admiringly notes how the ‘Filth of all hues and odors seem to tell / What street they sailed from, by their sight and smell’.  It’s gritty, unpleasant reading, designed to make the reader wince after having laughed at the scurrying gentry in the previous section.  The sense of unity that was cultivated there is here compounded, as various locations are listed to convey the course of the ‘torrent’, including Smithfield, Snow Hill ridge and Holborn Bridge.  I’m not a native Londoner, but I imagine these locations would probably mean something to those who are (not that I’m casting any aspersions upon the condition of the gutters in any of these places which, I am sure, has been vastly improved since the early 1700s).  The final three lines delineate the precise nature of the rubbish that is being swept along and ‘come tumbling down the flood’. Apologies to dog and cat lovers: this poem is not for the faint-hearted.  In a version of the poem published in 1735 a note was added stating that ‘These three last lines were intended against that licentious manner of modern poets, in making three rhymes together, which they call triplets.[…] They were the mere effect of haste, idleness and want of money; and have been wholly avoided by the best poets, since these verses were written’.  Perhaps, then, we can forgive Swift these last few lines, if it was in fact a satire against inartistic poetry rather than a frankly indulgent exploration of eighteenth-century garbage.

Distasteful imagery aside, there’s an immediacy to this poem that is simply magic.  For rather than narrating an epic tale or a mythological story, Swift takes an everyday occurrence and transforms it into something special purely through the way in which he describes it.  Pure genius!

Happy reading!

You can find a copy of this poem:

http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/180932
(Free copy of the poem online!!)

(This is a lovely annotated edition of the poem, but I’m afraid I have no idea who did the annotations as I found the pdf through Google; hats off to them anyway, it’s a lovely edition of the poem!!  Information from this edition was also used in the composition of the above blogpost.)

You can find out more about Swift:
 
(this poem is so famous it even has its own Wikipedia page!)

(Britannica!! Like Wikipedia…only makes you sound ever so much more intellectual when you quote from it at parties and quizzes!)

Resources about Swift:

(This looks new and very exciting!!  Still seems to be a work in progress, but very much worth a look!! Go on, you know you want to…)

 

 

 

Sunday, 13 March 2016

'An Elegy, On the Glory of her Sex, Mrs. Mary Blaize' - Oliver Goldsmith

‘She strove the neighborhood to please
With manners wondrous winning;
And never follow'd wicked ways--
Unless when she was sinning.’

‘An Elegy, On the Glory of her Sex, Mrs. Mary Blaize’
Oliver Goldsmith
(1748)


Oliver Goldsmith was a bit of an all-rounder: a playwright (She Stoops to Conquer, 1771), novelist (The Vicar of Wakefield, 1766), and poet, he also compiled one of the first major scientific studies of the natural world in English, A History of the Earth and Animated Nature (1774).  This poem, however, sees him in a rather more playful mood.

Ostensibly this is an elegy, a sad, reflective poem dedicated to the memory of the eponymous Mrs. Mary Blaize (‘eponymous’ is the correct way to refer to a character named in the title; some people use ‘titular’, but this is not quite the same thing).  It begins with a proclamation of sorrow – ‘Good people all, with one accord, / Lament for Madam Blaize’.  The next two lines are a little strange but no more than confusing at this point: ‘Who never wanted a good word - / From those who spoke her praise’.  It seems like a compliment…except that it’s also a rather meaningless statement.  All it translates to is that anybody who praised Mrs. Blaize…well, they said nice things about her!  It doesn’t actually tell the reader whether anyone did praise her though.

This clever wordplay becomes still more apparent in the next stanza.  Here it is proudly asserted that ‘She freely lent to all the poor – ’; but after the dash, the final qualifying line rather diminishes the compliment since it reveals that she only lent to those of the poor ‘Who left a pledge behind’.  A pledge in this sense means some form of security that they would repay, though whether this is intended to mean simply a promise or to indicate some more practical form of security is left to the generosity of the reader’s interpretation.

My own personal favourite stanza is the next one, in which the pattern of this poem becomes still more obvious through the declaration that the deceased Mrs. Blaize ‘never follow’d wicked ways - / Unless when she was sinning’.  It is a pattern of continual assertion and contradiction, all combining to construct an elegiac tribute that actually reveals remarkably little about the deceased subject.  Even the apparent claim that she received the admiration of the King, when it is said that ‘The King himself has follow’d her’ is undone by somewhat more prosaic explanation that he only does so ‘When she has walk’d before’ him in the street.



He might not look a cheerful chap, but he's a total
genius! This painting of Goldsmith is by Sir Joshua
Reynolds and is, er, borrowed, from the mighty
Wikipedia - for which, many thanks!
The poem’s appeal as a comedic novelty is owing entirely to the matter-of-fact way in which the information is presented.  It isn’t trying to be insulting or nasty.  There may perhaps be a slight satiric edge implied by the adulation of the title, since the admiring declaration that Mrs. Blaize was 'the Glory of her Sex' receives no support from the fatuous and superficial praise offered in the poem.  The satire is more against the convention of proclaiming empty or senseless compliments upon the recently deceased and, certainly by eighteenth-century standards, it is only ever the lightest of satires.  Included in A Nonsense Anthology, edited by Carolyn Wells in 1915, this poem is easily identified as a simple nonsense work, since there seems no point to the poem.  However, it is definitely not ‘nonsense’ in the sense that something like Lewis Carroll’s ‘Jabberwocky’ is nonsense (a poem also included in the same anthology).  Goldsmith’s ‘An Elegy on the Glory of Her Sex, Mrs. Mary Blaize’ is a simple poem, achieving humour through the blunt presentation of statements so true that nobody but a comedian would think of saying them.  As always, Goldsmith proves himself to be a consummate literary genius.


You can find this poem:

(Poetry Archive – an exciting website I’ve only recently discovered – definitely worth having an explore!)

(Project Gutenberg is an absolutely fantastic free collection of 51,368 ebooks.  If you follow this link, it will take you to an illustrated edition of Goldsmith’s ‘Elegy’, published in the nineteenth century by Frederick Warne & Co., the same publisher who brought to the world Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit and Cicely Mary Barker’s Flower Fairies)
 
You can find out more about Oliver Goldsmith:

(Wikipedia! A great place to start finding out about this clever chap!)

(Encyclopædia Britannica – a bit like Wikipedia, only a bit more sophisticated.  This also has links to articles about some of Goldsmith’s other works!)

Information for this blogpost was discovered in:

Glynis Ridley, Clara’s Grand Tour (London: Atlantic Books, 2004)
(This book is about the first rhinoceros to make a grand tour of Europe, way back in the eighteenth century…and yes, it is every bit as awesome as it sounds!  This book really drew my attention to the connection between Goldsmith and Natural History – I already knew he was a literary genius, but this revealed to me how brilliant a scientific mind he had too!  Seriously, check this book out!!)