The Oxford Book of Comic Verse
edited by John Gross
Oxford University Press, 512 pp., $25.00
Max Beerbohm: Collected Verse
edited with an introduction and notes by J. G. Riewald
Shoe String Press/Archon Books, 221 pp., $42.50
A Christmas Garland
woven by Max Beerbohm. illustrations by the author, Introduction by N. John Hall
Yale University Press, 197 pp., $25.00
Ars est celare artem, according to the Latin proverb—art lies in the concealment of art. It ain’t necessarily so; but after reading through The Oxford Book of Comic Verse one is certainly forced to the conclusion that the finest comic effects, put into meter, are deadpan, not apparently aware of themselves as comic. This may happen in two ways. In the eighteenth century wit was the thing, rather than what was merely “comick,” and verse reflects this in the taut and dazzling couplets of Pope and Swift, which we are to admire as performance rather than indulge in any sort of mirth, let alone a horse laugh. One of the best and rarest specimens John Gross provides is an extract from Matthew Green’s The Spleen.
Sometimes I dress, with women sit,
And chat away the gloomy fit;
Quit the stiff garb of serious sense
And wear a gay impertinence…
Talk of unusual swell of waist
In maid of honour loosely laced,
And beauty borrowing Spanish red,
And loving pair with separate bed,
And jewels pawned for loss of game,
And then redeemed by loss of fame…
And thus in modish manner we
In aid of sugar, sweeten tea.
Green, who died in 1737 aged forty-one, no doubt suffered from the spleen, and found wit and gossip among women a relief from it, as many others have done. No doubt it was also a relief to compose quick bright verses in celebration of such occasions.
The second way of not horsing about in comic verse and thus inviting the sort of laughter that clowns get—a deplorable habit with nineteenth-century poetasters like Thomas Hood, and even, on an off day, the great W.S. Gilbert himself—is to give not the slightest indication that the lines you are writing are intended to be funny. A.E. Housman, classical scholar and author of A Shropshire Lad, was very good at this. He once woke up dreaming that he had written some melancholy little verses that began:
When I was born into a world of sin
Praise be to God it was raining gin.
His parodic “Fragment of a Greek Tragedy” is just as straight-faced, and so is the “Fragment of an English Opera,” which John Gross finds room for here, together with Housman’s lines on the Pope.
It is a fearful thing to be The Pope.
That cross will not be laid on me, I hope.
Not only does the intention to be “comical” seem absent with this poet, but there is a kind of grave absent-mindedness about the business. His real work is elsewhere. Had Einstein the gift of language he might have written little bits on relativity in the same vein, for the comic in this deadpan sense makes no attempt to mock, or to poke fun at serious matters, but complements and completes them. It is a fearful thing to be the Pope, no doubt, and Housman’s way of drawing attention to the fact …