This Be The Best

In 2013 I entered this in one of the Spectator’s poetry competitions, if memory serves a version of a well-known poem endeavouring to convey the precisely opposite message. With apologies to Philip Larkin:

They raised you well, your mum and dad,

You might not think so, but they did.

They made the most of what they had

And tried their utmost for their kid.

They were well brought up in their turn

By dedicated caregiver, teacher, and so on.

I am glad the soldiers were made return,

So our children could afford this glorious dawn.

Man hands on incremental progress to man

All rising, clear shore to sunny beach.

Reproduce as quickly as you can

And always enthusiastically teach.

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“Cocks exist for the hen, but hens exist for the cock” – is there such thing as self – parody? with Bernard Richards, Max Beerbohm, Algernon Swinburne, Henry Reed – and Tennyson, Eliot and Kipling

This letter from Bernard Richards in the 29th June TLS caught my eye:

Sir, – Francis Hope spoke in his reprinted review of Nabokov’s Ada (From the Archives, June 22) of authors writing “self-parody”, including Henry James in The Golden Bowl. One quite often encounters this accusation, but in my view it is not sufficiently subtle or accurate. Writers who produce parodies have the intention of mocking their victims, by exposing their benighted attitudes or quirky stylistic techniques. Surely when late James, for instance, was producing his strange and distinctive style he was not doing so with the intention of mocking and exposing himself. What he was actually doing was pushing the boundaries of his originality and distinctiveness further and further, building on and utilizing features which had been developing for decades. He was, in effect, writing self-pastiche not self-parody. There is a distinct difference between late James and Beerbohm’s brilliant parody of him in A Christmas Garland, if only in intention. One might be tempted to think that a good deal of Tennyson is self-parody, but it can’t hold a candle to the real thing: Swinburne’s “The Higher Pantheism in a Nutshell”. Ditto T. S. Eliot, but nothing could be as good as Henry Reed’s “Chard Whitlow”.

Self-parody is fairly rare, if only because most authors take themselves seriously, and have not been able to stand back sufficiently from their own styles and preoccupations to see them for what they are. A rare case of genuine self-parody is Swinburne’s “Nephelidia”, which does indeed mock the Swinburnean. It is said that Kipling’s “Municipal” is self-parody. One hopes it is, because it is pretty bad otherwise.

BERNARD RICHARDS Brasenose College, Oxford.

Being an owner of John Gross’ Oxford Book of Parodies and a former owner of Simon Brett’s Faber Book of Parodies, I am familiar with “A Christmas Garland”  and here is a link to “The Mote In the Middle Distance”, the parody of James in the volume. The echo of James’ rococo style is evident from the first sentence:

It was with the sense of a, for him, very memorable something that he peered now into the immediate future, and tried, not without compunction, to take that period up where he had, prospectively, left it.

“The Higher Pantheism in a Nutshell” was a little harder to track down. It is one of Swinburne’s Hepetalogia, “Or The Seven Against Sense”,  of which digital copies can be found here. As Richards mentions, there is a Swinburne auto-parody, as well as parodies of other contemporaries:

THE HIGHER PANTHEISM IN A NUTSHELL

One, who is not, we see: but one, whom we see not, is:

Surely this is not that: but that is assuredly this.

What, and wherefore, and whence? for under is over and under:

If thunder could be without lightning, lightning could be without thunder.

Doubt is faith in the main: but faith, on the whole, is doubt:

We cannot believe by proof: but could we believe without?

Why, and whither, and how? for barley and rye are not clover:

Neither are straight lines curves: yet over is under and over.

Two and two may be four: but four and four are not eight:

Fate and God may be twain: but God is the same thing as fate.

Ask a man what he thinks, and get from a man what he feels:

God, once caught in the fact, shows you a fair pair of heels.

Body and spirit are twins: God only knows which is which:

The soul squats down in the flesh, like a tinker drunk in a ditch.

More is the whole than a part: but half is more than the whole:

Clearly, the soul is the body: but is not the body the soul?

One and two are not one: but one and nothing is two:

Truth can hardly be false, if falsehood cannot be true.

Once the mastodon was: pterodactyls were common as cocks:

Then the mammoth was God: now is He a prize ox.

Parallels all things are: yet many of these are askew:

You are certainly I: but certainly I am not you.

Springs the rock from the plain, shoots the stream from the rock:

Cocks exist for the hen: but hens exist for the cock.

God, whom we see not, is: and God, who is not, we see:

Fiddle, we know, is diddle: and diddle, we take it, is dee.

Eliot himself loved Henry Reed’s parody, “Chard Whitlow”:

Most parodies of one’s own work strike one as very poor. In fact, one is apt to think one could parody oneself much better. (As a matter of fact, some critics have said that I have done so.) But there is one which deserves the success it has had, Henry Reed’s Chard Whitlow.

 

Here it is:

Chard Whitlow
(Mr. Eliot’s Sunday Evening Postscript)
As we get older we do not get any younger.

Seasons return, and today I am fifty-five,

And this time last year I was fifty-four.

And this time next year I shall be sixty-two.

And I cannot say I should like (to speak for myself)

To see my time over again—if you can call it time:

Fidgeting uneasily under a draughty stair,

Or counting sleepless nights in the crowded tube.

There are certain precautions—though none of them very reliable—

Against the blast from heaven, vento di venti,

And the frigid burnings of purgatory will not be touched

By any emollient.

I think you will find this put,

Better than I could ever hope to express it,

In the words of Kharma: “It is, we believe,

Idle to hope that the simple stirrup-pump

Will extinguish hell.”

Oh, listeners,

And you especially who have turned off the wireless,

And sit in Stoke or Basingstoke listening appreciatively to the silence,

(Which is also the silence of hell) pray, not for your sinks, but your souls.

And pray for me also under the draughty stair.

As we get older we do not get any younger.

And pray for Kharma under the holy mountain.

 

Richards expresses a hope that Kipling’s Municipal was an effort at self-poetry; otherwise it is merely very bad. I would have held myself familiar with much of Kipling’s poetry, but not this one. All I can say is that I concur with Bernard Richards – at best it is a rather laboured effort in the mock-heroic vein:

Why is my District death-rate low?”
Said Binks of Hezabad.
“Well, drains, and sewage-outfalls are
“My own peculiar fad.
“I learnt a lesson once, It ran
“Thus,” quoth that most veracious man: —

 

It was an August evening and, in snowy garments clad,
I paid a round of visits in the lines of Hezabad;
When, presently, my Waler saw, and did not like at all,
A Commissariat elephant careering down the Mall.

I couldn’t see he driver, and across my mind it rushed
That that Commissariat elephant had suddenly gone musth.
I didn’t care to meet him, and I couldn’t well get down,
So I let the Waler have it, and we headed for the town.

The buggy was a new one and, praise Dykes, it stood the strain,
Till he Waler jumped a bullock just above the City Drain;
And the next that I remember was a hurricane of squeals,
And the creature making toothpicks of my five-foot patent wheels.

He seemed to want the owner, so I fled, distraught with fear,
To the Main Drain sewage-outfall while he snorted in my ear —
Reached the four-foot drain-head safely and, in darkness and despair,
Felt the brute’s proboscis fingering my terror-stiffened hair.

Heard it trumpet on my shoulder — tried to crawl a little higher —
Found the Main Drain sewage outfall blocked, some eight feet up, with mire;
And, for twenty reeking minutes, Sir, my very marrow froze,
While the trunk was feeling blindly for a purchase on my toes!

It missed me by a fraction, but my hair was turning grey
Before they called the drivers up and dragged the brute away.
Then I sought the City Elders, and my words were very plain.
They flushed that four-foot drain-head and — it never choked again!

You may hold with surface-drainage, and the sun-for-garbage cure,
Till you’ve been a periwinkle shrinking coyly up a sewer.
I believe in well-flushed culverts. . . .
This is why the death-rate’s small;
And, if you don’t believe me, get shikarred yourself. That’s all.