Laughing at Poetry

Laughing at SwinburneIn the April 24th 1942 issue of John O’London’s Weekly can be found a perceptive view by the essayist Robert Lynd on the subject of risible poetry written by good poets. He takes his cue from an incident a century before when Thomas Wakley, the founder of the Lancet, stood up in the Commons to mock some puerile lines from ‘Louisa’ by the Poet Laureate, William Wordsworth.

Lynd then goes on to wonder whether ‘absurdities were so common in the older poets as they came in the period that followed the French Revolution. Shakespeare and Milton seem never to have descended to such unconscious ludicrousness as Wordsworth. I do not think that any of the older poets ever wrote a line that parodies itself so easily as Swinburne’s :–

Swallow, my sister: O Sister


‘One of Swinburne’s loveliest poems, ‘Before a Mirror ‘, Lynd continues, ‘begins with a verse of extraordinary nonsense –at least, containing extraordinary nonsense—and yet who can fail to be moved by it:–

White rose in red rose-garden

         Is not so white;

     Snowdrops that plead for pardon

       And pine for fright

   Because the hard East blows

Over their maiden rows…

I sometimes think that

Snowdrops that plead for pardon

And pine for fright

Are some of the most ridiculous lines in good poetry… And yet the music of the verses is somehow triumphant, and seems to most of us to deserve the protection of copyright. [Photo of Swinburne above]


It is natural to recognise the absurdities in the work of a good poet; but it is still more important to realise that any number of absurdities do not condemn a poet who has also written verse of genius…

Among modern poets W.B.Yeats met with an exceptional amount of derision in his early days. I knew a man who quite sincerely maintained that a typical line of Yeats was :-

Green lizards on white grass.

When I assured him that Yeats had never written such a line, he offered to bet me that he had seen it. But he never found it. However, he would probably have found hardly less cause for mockery in these lines:-

When have I last looked on

The round green eyes and the

   Long wavering bodies

Of the dead leopards of the moon?

Yeats’ symbolism was at times unintelligible to most readers, and he confessed about one of his poems, ‘Cap and Bells’, that he did not understand it himself when he wrote it.

I have heard even one of his simpler poems, however, recited in such a way as to make it seem utterly fatuous. The reciter was a big Irishman who believed that the whole Irish literary movement was a fraud. He told us that he had once gone to a lecture by Alfred Percival Graves on modern Irish poetry, and he could not believe his ears as he listened to the rubbish that Graves quoted as example of good poetry. He said every minute he expected the audience to burst out laughing as it listened to such stuff as:-

     Shy one, shy one,

     Shy one of my heart,

     She moves in the firelight

     Pensively apart.


     She carries in the dishes,

     And lays them in a row,

     To an isle in the water

     With her would I go.

He quoted the verse with an immense burlesque gusto, pausing to laugh at the idea of going to an isle in the water with a girl who was good at arranging dishes. “The best comes at the end,” he said. “You could never guess how the poem finishes.” “I know”, I told him. “Well, “he said, “and what do you think of it? Did ever a poet write anything more ridiculous about a girl than the last two lines?” And then he quoted them in an exaggerated brogue that turned them into sheer caricature:-

Shy as a rabbit,

   Helpful and shy.

I had never thought the poem funny before, but as he roared with laughter I could not help agreeing that the poet had chosen an odd way of paying a compliment to a member of the other sex.

Poets, no doubt, should avoid such incongruousness. It plays into the hands of the Mr Wakleys. At the same time, the Mr Wakleys would probably find something absurd in all poetry. Whether the Mr Wakleys do any harm to poets in the end is doubtful. No good poet was ever laughed out of ultimate fame. Poetry, like psychology and most other things, it seems to me, has to pass the test of derision, and great poetry will always survive this test. Wordsworth’s poetry has certainly done so, and we enjoy the best of it today all the more if we are sensitive to the absurdity of some of the worst of it.’ [R.M.Healey]





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