The New Oxford Book of English Light Verse
When T.S. Eliot found himself with, for whatever reason, time to kill—waiting for a train, for example—it was his habit to repeat to himself, as far as his memory allowed him to reconstruct them, certain favorite poems. It was a very miscellaneous list, this private anthology of Elliot’s. It included, for example, “Danny Deever,” the best probably of Kipling’s Barrack-Room Ballads, but as Eliot has acknowledged in his prefatory essay to his selection from Kipling’s verse nothing Kipling wrote was quite poetry in the ordinary sense of the word. John Davidson’s “Thirty Bob a Week” was an even more unexpected item to find Eliot reconstructing in a station waitingroom. It is quite a long poem with few striking phrases and the order in which the stanzas occur is—or seems to be—decidedly haphazard. Campion’s “Rose-cheeked Laura, come” was another of Eliot’s time-killers. Its unusual combination of trochees and spondees had been used by Campion to demonstrate one of the ways a classical meter could be used accentually in English; no doubt the challenge it presented to Eliot’s prosodic interests made it worth his retaining or recovering, though it has also, of course, a genuine if minimal lyric quality.
Kingsley Amis’s anthology of light verse in English, in addition to providing several hours of good bedside reading, enables those of us whose memories are less good than Eliot’s was to recover immediately and painlessly the sub-poetry of which fragments have had a way of sticking in our minds, when all we can remember of Paradise Lost is perhaps the first line. Was it the “reeling English drunkard who made the rolling English road”? No, as Amis correctly prints Chesterton’s poem in this entertaining selection, that line has “rolling” twice, and “reeling” only comes into the next line:
A reeling road, a rolling road, that rambles round the shire.
However we define this anomalous object the verse that is light (not heavy? not serious?)—a problem that Amis has a go at in his enjoyable and irreverent introduction—one thing sticks out a mile: it must be memorable. There must be mnemonic aids. Light verse must rhyme; it must scan—even when written out as prose (Gilbert made the typographical change in the Iolanthe nightmare while maintaining both rhyme and meter); it helps if it also alliterates. The Greeks made the Muses the daughters of Mnemosyne (Memory); that baggage Light Verse wasn’t included—not however because she is often improper but because rhyme has no part in Greek metrics. As “poetry,” the sublime stuff, composed in the English language becomes increasingly read—often demanding an immediate rereading or two—on the printed page, light verse becomes by its demand for rhyme and a strict scansion the last link between the spoken word and poetry. There is a certain irony in that image of Eliot waiting for his train. The great poet whom it is difficult to remember except in isolated phrases—apart from the early quatrains—was able to reconstruct “Thirty Bob a Week” and similar pieces of second-rate verse from the regular rhyme scheme and the scansion. The Waste Land is preserved, as it were, by the bough which it has spent all this time sawing away.
Amis is best known as a novelist, but he has also written some excellent light verse. (He gives us several short specimens of it in this volume.) As an undergraduate at Oxford he wrote a splendid anti-Beowulf poem. That demi-semi-epic written in what was optimistically described as “Old English” had to be studied in depth then if you hoped to get a BA in English literature. (More student-hours were devoted to its textual and linguistic problems than could be spared for Shakespeare’s tragedies.) Quod erat absurdum. That things are better now is partly owing to Amis. C.S. Lewis—like Tolkien a famous Beowulf addict—was rash enough to reply in a quatrain of light verse; but the honors were generally felt to have been with young Kingsley.
Amis has a good nose for light verse—wherever it is to be found. The obscene limerick is here, but not in excess and with perhaps a deliberate omission of those classics of the genre that have been attributed to Tennyson, Swinburne, and Woodrow Wilson. There are half a dozen of E.C. Bentley’s clerihews and a particularly nice anonymous one “privately communicated” that is new to me:
From these depths we ascend, via the parody, Balliol Rhymes (I prefer to Beeching’s a version Margot Asquith used to quote: “I am Benjamin Jowett, / Master of Balliol College; / Whatever is known I know it. / What I don’t know isn’t knowledge”), and similar comical trivia, to J.K. Stephen, Hilaire Belloc, and G.K. Chesterton, and so to the three masters of light verse (at least, it seems, in Amis’s opinion): Lewis Carroll, W.M. Praed, Byron.
At this point it becomes necessary to ask if Amis is not restricting the range of light verse rather too much. He is right, of course, in including under his umbrella the merely comic poem—things like limericks, clerihews, and frivolous parodies—but an analogy with drama seems to demand a lyric equivalent of Comedy to oppose to the lyric equivalent of Tragedy (Spenser, Milton, Wordsworth, etc.). What Amis tends to give us is an equivalent of Farce. The audience reaction that is the decisive criterion is the number and loudness of the laughs.
There is no special reason why Amis should have come across A.J.M. Smith’s The Worldly Muse: An Anthology of Serious Light Verse (New York, 1951). But it is precisely the rarity of “serious light verse” in it that one must deplore in Amis’s otherwise excellent anthology. I don’t mean that there is no serious light verse in Amis. Louis MacNeice’s “Bagpipe Music,” implicitly a total condemnation of modern society, is nothing if not serious. Another Irishman, though his name is not known, was presumably the author of the astonishing “The Night before Larry was Stretched,” the one piece, I believe, shared by both A.J.M. Smith and Amis, with its haunting last stanza:
When he came to the nubbling chit,
He was tucked up so neat and so pretty;
The rumbler jogged off from his feet,
And he died with his face to the city;
He kicked too, but that was all pride,
For soon you might see ‘twas all over;
Soon after, the noose was untied,
And at darkee we waked him in clover,
And sent him to take a ground sweat.
If that is light verse, even serious light verse, what is the difference between it—apart from the thieves’ cant in some of the lines—and great poetry?
There was one anthology, however, of which Amis had necessarily to be aware—The Oxford Book of English Light Verse, edited by W.H. Auden (1938). While making the bow courtesy required to his “illustrious predecessor” Amis makes it clear in his introduction that this is not a revised edition of Auden’s selection, but a “new” work altogether, one based upon very different premises. By “light” Auden had meant “popular.” As paraphrased by Amis Auden’s poet is one “who unselfconsciously shares the common life and language of ordinary men and writes of the one in the other”—a classless society’s poetry, in effect. The folk songs, ballads, and blues lyrics with which Auden filled his collection were in historical fact anything but classless in origin. They are properly described as the products of sub-classes as much unable to communicate with one another as the ruling class was with them. Amis was right, I think, to reject Auden’s principles of selection.
His own principles have a pragmatic justification. The purchaser of his anthology will find in it what he has already thought of as light verse. In the dictionaries of critical terms light verse is poetry “written in the spirit of play,” or “to entertain,” or else it treats in a “light-hearted but sometimes mordant fashion all aspects of the human comedy” (M.H. Abrams). And in general this is what Amis provides. But his introduction goes further than this. A long quotation from A.A. Milne’s essay on Calverley—who Milne thought the “supreme master” of light verse!—is followed by a single sentence from Charles Dibdin’s preface to his Comic Tales and Lyrical Fancies (1825): “To raise a good-natured smile was the major part of this work written.” This Dibdin was the son of Charles Dibdin of “Tom Bowling” fame, neither of them great thinkers, and it seems strange that Amis should have to go to a Dibdin for this “handy short definition of light verse.” But such verse he insists at some length must be goodnatured—which seems an exaggeration.
The amiability requirement naturally excludes satire from the Amis definition. Pope is not allowed even a short specimen passage, though Swift gets eight pages. This is surely to surrender too easily to the biographical fallacy. The Wasp of Twickenham may have been inexcusably rude when, his amorous advances to Lady Mary Wortley Montagu having been rejected, he told the world that she had syphilis. But this does not alter the literary fact that much of his light verse, especially perhaps in the Horatian Epistles, is as good as anything of the kind in English. Pope’s personality has perhaps made him an exception to the law of diminishing returns that generally operates in the case of satire. The usual immediate effect is to goad the person satirized into violent action. Charles II, who was good-natured enough in his own selfish way, was finally stung by Rochester’s satires on him to banishing him temporarily from the Court. And Rochester in his turn, infuriated by a satire that he attributed (mistakenly, it seems) to Dryden, actually hired a gang of ruffians to beat up the unfortunate Dryden in what is known as the Rose Alley affair.
For posterity, uninvolved in the factions of the Restoration Court, there are no such slings and arrows. Rochester’s summary of the character of his royal master—“Who never said a foolish thing, / Nor ever did a wise one”—becomes detached for us from its original context and then enters into that Land of Cockaigne called Nonsense. If a one-word definition is required of what light verse is, as it were, continually aspiring to it is Edward Lear’s Nonsense. Not that of most of the Lear limericks, which have, as Amis puts it, the almost fatal technical defect in a five-line form of “last line ending same as first or occasionally second.” The authentic Nonsense is in some of the Nonsense Songs. Amis accuses them of being “whimsical to the point of discomfort,” and one knows what he means. He also quotes Louis MacNeice’s verdict that they were a fad of the 1920s, which Amis finds “easy to believe of a decade that produced the Sitwell-Walton Façade.” That seems to me to be hitting below the belt. He will find the 1920s’ critical case for the Nonsense Songs sensibly expounded by Aldous Huxley in an essay in On the Margin (1923), which boils down to Lear’s superaddition of beauty to absurdity (“On the coast of Coromandel, Where the early pumpkins blow…”).
The prose equivalent would be Thurberishness. But Amis is not sufficiently aware of the range and high quality of modern American light verse. We get Bret Harte, C.G. Leland (“Hans Breitmann gife a barty”), three of Eliot’s deplorable Practical Cats (really conceived on the wrong side of Lear’s blanket)—and that is about all. Does he ever see The New Yorker? And read it? Not often, it seems.
It is a convention of anthology-reviewing to supply the compiler with the text of a poem he must include in his next edition. Here, then, is an addendum that has stuck in my head from a New Statesman competition some thirty years ago (author’s name forgotten). Amis will like it.
Uncle, back from evensong,
Rang for cook and did her wrong.
“Herbert, I’m surprised,” says Auntie,
When she caught them in flagrante;
“Do remember, dear, what day it is;
There’s a time and place for gaieties!”