Showing posts with label comedy. Show all posts
Showing posts with label comedy. 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

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.)


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

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

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!!)