Books November 1994
The comic muse
A review of The Oxford Book of Comic Verse edited by John Gross.
We trust seriousness to be the firm ground beneath our feet while knowing full well that it is ultimately dull and probably inhuman. The phrases “Protestant bombing,” “Christian militia,” and “Abstract Expressionism” make no sense. We have had Swifts and Juvenals who could hack at the stupidities seriousness thrives on. Their weapon, or tool, is satire, which at its best is actionable and not always protected by the First Amendment. The Romans outlawed it, and several talented satirists found themselves living beyond the Oxus. But satire’s little sister, Comedy, was civilized quite early and given the run of the house. Our understanding is that satire is sneaky, unfair, and takes no prisoners. He knows right from wrong, he has stern morals, and leaves bruises. Comedy is a free spirit, full of fun, and has no intention of explaining herself. In fact, much of her charm is in her mystery, in eluding the serious as successfully as a kitten who doesn’t wish to be caught.
She loves it when Dan Quayle spells P-O-T-A-T-O-E, as spelling and vice presidents are equally boring, and part of her fun (as she is co-eval with civilization) is in knowing—but never telling—that Samuels Johnson and Beckett both wrote potatoe (Shakespeare got it right).
Why is this humble verse, poet unknown, comic?
Carnation milk is the best in the land.
I’ve got a can of it here in my hand—
No teats to pull, no hay to pitch:
You just punch a hole in the son of a bitch.
Elizabeth the First would have laughed; Victoria wouldn’t. Comedy defines its audience, and may be the most intelligent reach of the mind. And yet it does nothing but play:
We shall all go to heaven when we die
And many of us stand on the head of a pin,
Four or five of us, if we try;
Six or seven, if we all squeeze in.
That’s Ian Hamilton Finlay, whose sense of humor has upset several European governments, and whose Glasgow Beasts, an a Burd, Haw, an Inseks, an, a Fush (written in the Glaswegian) might have furnished John Gross with some puckish epigrams. But any anthology of English comic verse is a feast from an overflowing pantry, for English writing and art are different in having cast practically all of their masterpieces in the comic mode. There’s Chaucer (represented here for his humor of perception rather than his slapstick bawdy or parody), Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, Smollett, Dickens, Thackeray, and on out to Joyce.
But satire’s little sister, Comedy, was civilized quite early and given the run of the house.
France has Rabelais, Molière, and Daudet; Spain, Cervantes; Russia, Gogol—every people has something in the comic mode, even Denmark and Arkansas. But the British along with their outriding cousins the Americans, Irish, Scotch, and Welsh have a world monopoly on the comic. They are the Greeks de nos jours.
So, whereas it’s bad manners to natter at an anthologist’s choices, it is a tribute to his subject to ask where’s Samuel Butler II’s “A Psalm of Montreal,” one of the funniest poems in the language (with its refrain of “O God! O Montreal!” ending each stanza). Or that master of the vernacular windfall, Jonathan Williams? Or those latter-day masters of the classical epigram, J. V. Cunningham and James Laughlin?
John Gross, theater critic and from 1974 to 1981 editor of The Times Literary Supplement, has compiled a wonderfully rich compendium. Nobody reads an anthology; that’s not what it’s for. It is a book for the bedside table. It is a definition and illustration of its subject. The Oxford Books (of Dreams, of Literary Anecdotes, presumably, in time, of everything under the sun—one on Money is in the works) are medieval (or Victorian) in their enterprise: a diligent editor’s selection (“anthology” means in Greek a bouquet, or garland, of flowers) of what many writers have most sharply said about a topic. The Oxford Book of Sunsets would not greatly surprise me, though it might indicate that they are getting near the bottom of the barrel.
There are many trouvailles in Gross’s anthology. It is innovative and fresh; in fact, it has an air about it of being rebelliously original. Anthologies are the most strategic means at the critic’s disposal. They are the true academies, in the old sense, establishing and demolishing reputations by inclusion or exclusion. Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry (1961) added a new wing to the house of literature. Ezra Pound’s early revolutionary activism was in specific rebellion against Palgrave’s Golden Treasury. Any museum on new principles gives us a new art.
There are many trouvailles in Gross’s anthology. It is innovative and fresh.
An anthologist can therefore respond to all criticism with “Go make your own anthology.” There is middle ground, however, for rational discussion, wherein ideas might be traded. I would have put in Marianne Moore’s “Marriage” as one of the wittiest and most comically argued apologias for spinsterhood. And Wallace Stevens, for whom comedy was always the wind in the sails of his philosophical ship. Mr. Gross has rightly left out the bawdy and the coarse, which belong more properly to satire.
On the grounds that comedy is at its best when it makes fun of the serious, I would have included Kipling’s “McAndrew’s Hymn,” and for comedy’s ability to mock the mocker, Ralph Hodgson’s “Eve.” This wickedly merry poem is about Enid Bagnold’s seduction by Frank Harris (as Miss Bagnold disclosed in her autobiography), an event deplored by Hodgson and eventually by the seduced. It is a poem that shows how the comic spirit is most articulate when it has a rich culture at its disposal: a prosody surviving from the Middle Ages, a religious myth, a naughty novel by Aubrey Beardsley, a dark phrase from Blake, and a personal animus against seducers. And yet it is, as the critics say, light verse, practically a nursery rhyme. It begins:
Eve, with her basket, was
Deep in the bells and grass,
Wading in bells and grass
Up to her knees,
Picking a dish of sweet
Berries and plums to eat,
Down in the bells and grass
Under the trees.
The Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes, edited by James Sutherland (1975), is largely a compilation of occasions on which authors were gratuitously mean to a victim of their wit. There is no such theme in Mr. Gross’s collection, unless it is the British discomfiture with muddle (P. G. Wodehouse on proofreaders) and sham (Max Beerbohm parodying Hilaire Belloc). A critic looking for a theory to bring this bountiful anthology together might muse that comedy is a weapon with which sweetness and light tease, guy, torment, sass, bedevil, and spit on stupidity and vice. But that is too glumly moral an agenda for comic verse, the genius of which, as John Gross’s anthology proves, is its delight in the playfulness of language and its wild freedom when it encounters any convention whatever.
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 13 Number 3, on page 74
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