29 June 2015


Nonsense and Some Sense Verse Smackdown, Round 3A
(Revisit Round 1, Round 2, and the Musical Intermission)

Musical face-offs always do well, so I'm a little surprised that last week's intermission attracted a grand total of three votes. Then again, why be greedy for more when enough is plenty? And we certainly had enough: just when I was about to call a tie between Noel Coward (Brandon's choice) and Cole Porter (Christopher's choice), Mrs. Darwin slipped in and called it for Cole. =)

Now we can move on . . . The themes, which I started using out of desperation, have turned out to be a fun twist on how I normally organise brackets. So I think I'll continue today and next week with . . . FAMOUS FIGURES.

Round 3A
The Funny Four

Lewis Carroll . . .

From his shoulder Hiawatha
Took the camera of rosewood,
Made of sliding, folding rosewood;
Neatly put it all together.
In its case it lay compactly,
Folded into nearly nothing;
But he opened out the hinges,
Pushed and pulled the joints and hinges,
Till it looked all squares and oblongs,
Like a complicated figure
In the Second Book of Euclid.

This he perched upon a tripod--
Crouched beneath its dusky cover--
Stretched his hand, enforcing silence--
Said "Be motionless, I beg you!"
Mystic, awful was the process.

All the family in order
Sat before him for their pictures:
Each in turn, as he was taken,
Volunteered his own suggestions,
His ingenious suggestions.

First the Governor, the Father:
He suggested velvet curtains
looped about a massy pillar;
And the corner of a table,
Of a rosewood dining-table.
He would hold a scroll of something,
Hold it firmly in his left-hand;
He would keep his right-hand buried
(Like Napoleon) in his waistcoat;
He would contemplate the distance
With a look of pensive meaning,
As of ducks that die in tempests.

Grand, heroic was the notion:
Yet the picture failed entirely:
Failed, because he moved a little,
Moved, because he couldn't help it.

Next, his better half took courage;
She would have her picture taken.
She came dressed beyond description,
Dressed in jewels and in satin
Far too gorgeous for an empress.
Gracefully she sat down sideways,
With a simper scarcely human,
Holding in her hand a bouquet
Rather larger than a cabbage.
All the while that she was sitting,
Still the lady chattered, chattered,
Like a monkey in the forest.
"Am I sitting still ?" she asked him.
"Is my face enough in profile?
Shall I hold the bouquet higher?
Will it come into the picture?"
And the picture failed completely.

Next the Son, the Stunning-Cantab:
He suggested curves of beauty,
Curves pervading all his figure,
Which the eye might follow onward,
Till they centered in the breast-pin,
Centered in the golden breast-pin.
He had learnt it all from Ruskin
(Author of "The Stones of Venice,"
"Seven Lamps of Architecture,"
"Modern Painters," and some others);
And perhaps he had not fully
Understood his author's meaning;
But, whatever was the reason
All was fruitless, as the picture
Ended in an utter failure.

Next to him the eldest daughter:
She suggested very little
Only asked if he would take her
With her look of "passive beauty--"

Her idea of passive beauty
Was a squinting of the left-eye,
Was a drooping of the right-eye,
Was a smile that went up Sideways
To the corner of the nostrils.

Hiawatha, when she asked him
Took no notice of the question
Looked as if he hadn't heard it;
But, when pointedly appealed to,
Smiled in his peculiar manner,
Coughed and said it "didn't matter,"
Bit his lip and changed the subject.

Nor in this was he mistaken,
As the picture failed completely.

So in turn the other sisters.

Last, the youngest son was taken:
Very rough and thick his hair was,
Very round and red his face was,
Very dusty was his jacket,
Very fidgety his manner.
And his overbearing sisters
Called him names he disapproved of:
Called him Johnny, "Daddy's Darling,"
Called him Jacky, "Scrubby School-boy."
And, so awful was the picture,
In comparison the others
Seemed, to one's bewildered fancy,
To have partially succeeded.

Finally my Hiawatha
Tumbled all the tribe together,
("Grouped" is not the right expression),
And, as happy chance would have it,
Did at last obtain a picture
Where the faces all succeeded:
Each came out a perfect likeness.

Then they joined and all abused it,
Unrestrainedly abused it,
As the worst and ugliest picture
They could possibly have dreamed of.
"Giving one such strange expressions--
Sullen, stupid, pert expressions.
Really any one would take us
(Any one that did not know us)
For the most unpleasant people!"
(Hiawatha seemed to think so,
Seemed to think it not unlikely).
All together rang their voices,
Angry, loud, discordant voices,
As of dogs that howl in concert,
As of cats that wail in chorus.

(Read more . . .)
We've always opened with Lewis Carroll because he usually comes first alphabetically--but it's also fitting inasmuch as he is the most prestigious funny writer in every round. He is best known for his children's novels Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and its sequel Through the Looking Glass--and so far, he has advanced on the strength of "Alice" poems alone. They're great examples of humorous verse, but since they're so well-known, they raise the possibility that Carroll is coasting on familiarity and nostalgia. So I thought I'd switch things up a little with something that the average reader, however much he appreciates the classics, likely hasn't heard of.

Hiawatha's Photographing is a parody of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's Song of Hiawatha. Since I've only read snatches of the earlier poem, I'm not really qualified to judge the former by its lights; but I'm going to be audacious anyway, and declare it awesome. Not only did Carroll get the rhythm and style consistently right, but he also produced a mock epic worthy to be named in the same sentence as Alexander Pope's Rape of the Lock. (Yes, if only on this humble blog.) I'm just not sure how the North American wilderness suggested the photography studio. Perhaps Carroll was just letting two of his personal interests collide.

For Carroll was also a talented photographer who specialised in portraits. He would have been familiar with (and frustrated by!) subjects' insistence on looking a certain way: the way they would like to look rather than the way they do look. I wonder what he would make of digital cameras, which lend themselves to taking the same shot over and over again until everyone is satisfied with it--or for that matter, what he would make of selfies! We don't release images of reality until we've first made them fit some idealised image in our minds. For all the archaic details in this poem, it remains a very timely satire.

And to think that I almost rejected Hiawatha Photographing because it didn't rhyme! Thank goodness that it refused to stop haunting me for weeks!

. . . Ogden Nash

Once upon a time there was an Italian,
And some people thought he was a rapscallion,
But he wasn't offended,
Because other people thought he was splendid,
And he said the world was round,
And everybody made an uncomplimentary sound,
But he went and tried to borrow some money from Ferdinand
But Ferdinand said America was a bird in the bush and he'd rather have a berdinand,
But Columbus' brain was fertile, it wasn't arid,
And he remembered that Ferdinand was married,
And he thought, there is no wife like a misunderstood one,
Because if her husband thinks something is a terrible idea she is bound to think it a good one,
So he perfumed his handkerchief with bay rum and citronella,
And he went to see Isabella,
And he looked wonderful but he had never felt sillier,
And she said, I can't place the face but the aroma is familiar,
And Columbus didn't say a word,
All he said was, I am Columbus, the fifteenth-century Admiral Byrd,
And, just as he thought, her disposition was very malleable,
And she said, Here are my jewels, and she wasn't penurious like Cornelia the mother of the Gracchi, she wasn't referring to her children, no, she was referring to her jewels, which were very very valuable,
So Columbus said, Somebody show me the sunset and somebody did and he set sail for it,
And he discovered America and they put him in jail for it,
And the fetters gave him welts,
And they named America after somebody else,
So the sad fate of Columbus ought to be pointed out to every child and every voter,
Because it has a very important moral, which is, Don't be a discoverer, be a promoter.
I'm happy to say that I did Ogden Nash a great disservice two weeks ago, by choosing his poem To a Small Boy Standing on My Shoes . . . for the OLD AND YOUNG theme. (Not happy to have done him a disservice, mind you, but to have learned that my hunch that it was a disservice was right.) But I really didn't discover the verses inspired by his own children until I started doing research for this post. Not that it makes any difference; he got into the Funny Four with his mean entry anyway, aye? Nevertheless, I hope that linking the hilarious Children's Party (with its possible allusion to Mr. Darling?!) makes up for that somewhat.

But it is with his poem Columbus that he must try to win today's face-off. And what I wouldn't give for a scale to measure humourous verse: I'll bet that if we put the "Ferdinand/Berdinand" lines on one tray, they would outweigh most other contenders.

Aside from the kind of rhyming you will never get anywhere else, no matter how hard you look, there are other elements that put this poem head and shoulders above other humourous verse. Take the philosophical aside on human nature. You've probably run into Nash's shorter "aphorisms" on marriage, the most famous of which is his Word to Husbands. This is along the same lines, but from a different angle. Even if Queen Isabella's support of Christopher Columbus had nothing to do with her thinking that her husband must be wrong about everything, it's still funny to see one of the great achievements of history . . . not to mention every marriage that has ever been . . . in that wry light.

Then there's the irony at the end, which comes nicely wrapped in a "moral." Unfortunately, the world (which means we) does discourage its Columbuses--but woe to it (which means us) if everyone's takeaway from that story is the discouragement. For really, what would we collectively come to if we all played it safe as promoters instead of taking risks as discoverers? (The answer that just came to me: we'd be social media worker bees. Oh, Lord.)

Winner: Lewis Carroll . . . because, oh, man, is he talented or what???

* * * * *

So do you think I made the right choice? Let me know in the combox! And be sure to include your own pick in today's new face-off . . .

J.K. Rowling
Michael Petroni, Stephen McFeeley and Christopher Marcus

Another children's novelist who spices up her stories with funny verse is the phenomenally successful J.K. Rowling. And well, wizardry just wouldn't seem right without whimsical rhymes in its culture . . . or are those just my Muggle preconceptions talking? =P My favourite poem from her first Harry Potter book is the official warning at the Gringotts bank, which is as much a temptation as a deterrent. Another children's literature heavyweight is C.S. Lewis; but I can't recall whether the Book of Incantations in The Voyage of the "Dawn Treader" has any verses. (I wish I could give him points, however, for the unfinished limerick that rhymes "Narnia" with "balmier"!) The following bit is taken from the flawed yet fascinating movie adaptation, (See my Twelve Things!), with credit shared equally among its three screenwriters. Their "Spell to Make the Unseen Seen" is my favourite--and for the love of it alone, I wish that the movie "merch" had included a complete Book of Incantations.
Like the P in psychology,
The H in psychistry,
Invisible ink,
And the truth in theology.
The spell is complete.
Now all is visible
Enter, stranger, but take heed
Of what awaits the sin of greed
For those who take, but do not earn,
Must pay most dearly in their turn.
So if you seek beneath our floors
A treasure that was never yours,
Thief, you have been warned, beware
Of finding more than treasure there.

Voting in this face-off will also let you earn another point for the Philippine Literature Giveaway, but the details of blogging admin are kind of bogging me down at the moment. So I will update and embed the Rafflecopter tomorrow. I hope that's all right with everyone! =) UPDATE: And how late is the Rafflecopter, aye? Sigh . . .

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Image Sources: a) Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling, b) The Voyage of the "Dawn Treader" poster


Brandon said...

Carroll definitely is talented; I particularly like the way he just casually tosses off

He had learnt it all from Ruskin
(Author of "The Stones of Venice,"
"Seven Lamps of Architecture,"
"Modern Painters," and some others);

I think I vote for Rowling.

mrsdarwin said...

Commenting early to make up for being late for the last one. And what an awful thing, to have to break a tie between Christopher and Brandon, but otherwise, they might have had to resort to pistols at dawn by Lake Travis.

"Berdinand" is a delicious rhyme, but I laughed all the way through Hiawatha's Photographing, a spot-on parody of Longfellow.

Point to Rowling for actually penning the verse included, and point off to the scriptwriter(s) of The Dawn Treader for the crack about the invisible truth in theology.

Enbrethiliel said...


Brandon -- I wonder who the Ruskin of the selfie era is!

Mrs. Darwin -- I don't think the idea of the truth in theology being invisible (but definitely there) is a crack. At worst, the writers were fumbling an idea. When I think of all the people who don't believe, even when it is all spelled out for them, I think that the truth in theology must have an element of invisibility.

Brandon said...

Since the spell is one for making invisible things visible, I always took it that it meant that truth in theology is put forward as an example of the invisible becoming visible, like the P in psychology when written or invisible ink becoming visible to be read.

Sheila said...

What, I missed one? I blame my fritzy internet router, which has really cut down on my computer time lately.

I vote Rowling. But I would have voted Lewis if only you'd included this one, from The Magician's Nephew:

"See your choice, adventurous stranger,
Strike the bell and bide the danger,
Or wonder, till it drives you mad
What would have followed if you had."

Not funny, but good anyway.

Or then there's the non-Narnia Lewis, who wrote gems like:

"All things (a camel's passage through
A needle's eye) are possible, it's true,
But picture how the camel feels, stretched out
In one long bloody thread from tail to snout."


"Lady, a better sculptor far
Chiseled those curves you smudge and mar,
And God did more than lipstick can
To justify your mouth to man."


"Here stands the memorial to Martha Clay
Erected by her sorrowing brothers.
Here lies one who lived for others.
Now she has peace -- and so have they."

All of these are from memory so I may have gotten some words wrong.

mrsdarwin said...

Sheila, that poem from The Magician's Nephew is great, and one that would be hard to resist, because it a) appeals to the reader's self-image ("adventurous stranger") and b) sets up a mysterious situation where there might not have been one before. It's just a bell and a hammer, until the poem tells you that some kind of consequences may or may not be tied to ringing the bell, and are you man enough to dare? You were fine not knowing what would happen when you struck the bell when you didn't know that anything particular could happen other than the bell ringing; but now that the poem has played on vanity, curiosity, and pride, you itch to possess knowledge and be the one who Makes Things Happen.

Enbrethiliel said...


Boy, C.S. Lewis really hated lipstick, didn't he? ;-P Poor Susan didn't stand a chance . . .

It's funny what sticks to the mind and what doesn't. I remembered Eustace's little rhyme, but nothing from The Magician's Newphew.

cyurkanin said...

Wait, did I miss a vote?!!!

Enbrethiliel said...


I had wondered where you were . . .

cyurkanin said...

You gotta throw an elbow at me sometimes.

Belfry Bat said...

Enbrethiliel's elbows are precious, not to be casually tossed aside. Unless you mean macaroni...