Samuel Butler on a writer of doggerel.
In Part 2, Canto 3 of Hudibras we discover more about Sidrophel the astrologer, and about Whachum, his fool & apprentice. Ctrl+F “poetaster” to cut to the crap:
A paultry wretch he had, half-starv’d,
That him in place of Zany serv’d.
Hight WHACHUM, bred to dash and draw, 325
Not wine, but more unwholesome law
To make ‘twixt words and lines huge gaps,
Wide as meridians in maps;
To squander paper, and spare ink,
And cheat men of their words, some think. 330
From this, by merited degrees,
He’d to more high advancement rise;
To be an under-conjurer,
A journeyman astrologer.
His business was to pump and wheedle, 335
And men with their own keys unriddle;
And make them to themselves give answers,
For which they pay the necromancers;
To fetch and carry intelligence,
Of whom, and what, and where, and whence, 340
And all discoveries disperse
Among th’ whole pack of conjurers
What cut-purses have left with them
For the right owners to redeem;
And what they dare not vent find out, 345
To gain themselves and th’ art repute;
Draw figures, schemes, and horoscopes,
Of Newgate, Bridewell, brokers’ shops,
Of thieves ascendant in the cart;
And find out all by rules of art; 350
Which way a serving-man, that’s run
With cloaths or money away, is gone:
Who pick’d a fob at holding forth;
And where a watch, for half the worth,
May be redeem’d; or stolen plate 355
Restor’d at conscionable rate.
Beside all this, he serv’d his master
In quality of poetaster;
And rhimes appropriate could make
To ev’ry month i’ th almanack 360
What terms begin and end could tell,
With their returns, in doggerel;
When the exchequer opes and shuts,
And sowgelder with safety cuts
When men may eat and drink their fill, 365
And when be temp’rate, if they will;
When use and when abstain from vice,
Figs, grapes, phlebotomy, and spice.
And as in prison mean rogues beat
Hemp for the service of the great, 370
So WHACHUM beats his dirty brains,
T’ advance his master’s fame and gains
And, like the Devil’s oracles,
Put into doggrel rhimes his spells,
Which, over ev’ry month’s blank page 375
I’ th’ almanack, strange bilks presage.
He would an elegy compose
On maggots squeez’d out of his nose;
In lyrick numbers write an ode on
His mistress, eating a black-pudden: 380
And when imprison’d air escap’d her,
It puft him with poetic rapture.
His sonnets charm’d th’ attentive crowd,
By wide-mouth’d mortal troll’d aloud,
That ‘circl’d with his long-ear’d guests, 385
Like ORPHEUS look’d among the beasts.
A carman’s horse could not pass by,
But stood ty’d up to poetry:
No porter’s burthen pass’d along,
But serv’d for burthen to his song: 390
Each window like a pill’ry appears,
With heads thrust through, nail’d by the ears
All trades run in as to the sight
Of monsters, or their dear delight
The gallow tree, when cutting purse 395
Breeds bus’ness for heroic verse,
Which none does hear, but would have hung
T’ have been the theme of such a song.
Twenty years ago some of Hudibras might have seemed a bit wearisome for those of us who missed the English Civil War and the Protectorate, but now iconoclasm, fancy dress and threadbare flags are back in fashion there’s surely little as relevant and nothing as well written.
A News-monger is a Retailer of Rumour, that takes up upon Trust, and sells as cheap as he buys. He deals in a perishable Commodity, that will not keep: for if it be not fresh it lies upon his Hands, and will yield nothing. True or false is all one to him; for Novelty being the Grace of bothe, a Truth grows stale as soon as a Lye…
But who are the three noseless Austrian ladies?
Before Christmas a kind person sent me Heinrich Riggenbach’s German translation of Dmitri Grigorovich’s 1843 anthropological essay, The Organ-Grinders of St. Petersburg (Петербургские шарманщики), produced for the Zurich publishing house Sanssouci, whose founder, Peter Schifferli, was a notorious barrel-organ enthusiast. I thoroughly enjoyed it, but some questions remained unanswered, such as the function of the automata of Napoleon and three noseless, foil-clad Austrian ladies, observed by Grigorovich on top of a small organ:
Napoleon mit blauem Rock und Dreispitz dreht sich um Damen ohne Nase, die von Kopf bis Fuss mit Folien beklebt sind. Ist der Besitzer dieser Kostbarkeit ein Italiener, dann wird er bestimmt ein Gespräch mit euch anknüpfen und es nicht unterlassen, tüchtig auf Napoleon zu schimpfen, und weiss Gott warum, auf die österreichischen Damen, die sich mit ihm drehen, wenn er die Bedeutung der Puppen der Reihe nach erklärt.
Riggenbach makes no comment, so I got hold of the Russian original:
Наполеона в синем фраке и треугольной шляпе, вертящегося вокруг безносых дам, с ног до головы облепленных фольгою. Если владелец этого сокровища итальянец, то он непременно вступит с вами в разговор и, объясняя значение каждой куклы порознь, не утерпит, чтоб не выбранить хорошенько Наполеона и бог весть почему кружащихся с ним австрийских дам.
… discovered a series of minor elisions during the entire course of Riggenbach’s translation, and foolishly thought I’d translate the whole thing into English & elucidate during festive downtime. I got to the Austrian ladies, still had no idea what they represented, and googled around. First find was Arkadiy Haimovich Goldenberg’s 2009 article about a dilettante organ-grinder and wastrel in Gogol’s Dead Souls, “What is Nozdryov singing with the barrel organ?” (“О чем поет шарманка Ноздрева?”), which suggests that the ladies might be images of death accompanying an early 18th century French song set during the War of the Spanish Succession, Malbrook s’en va-t-en guerre, which had become popular in various (updated and/or localised) forms across Europe.
a figurine of Napoleon, dressed in a blue coat and a three-cornered hat, twirling about the figures of ladies who are without noses and who are covered from head to foot with shiny foil. If the owner of this treasure is Italian, he will invariably engage you in conversation. He will explain to you the significance of each and every puppet, and for your benefit, he will not restrain from scolding Napoleon and the Austrian ladies who twirl about him. (God knows why.)
In 1810 Napoleon divorced the childless Josephine and married Marie-Louise, daughter of Emperor Francis I. As a result, the Austrian court had little choice bur to submit fully to Napoleon’s many prescriptions and demands.
Immediately more convincing, but I doubted whether Russian peasants would really appreciate such elderly geopolitical metaphor, so I googled again, and came up with a third idea which I believe fits the bill.
Napoleon’s wedding in 1810 was celebrated with a great ball organised by the Austrian Ambassador to Paris, Karl Philipp von Schwarzenberg. The hall caught fire, killing a dozen or so, predominantly women because their clothing was more flammable. This created a European sensation, mostly for the manner of death of the most celebrated victim. Karl Philipp’s sister-in-law, Pauline, “was discovered under the remains of the burnt timber of the ball-room. She had succeeded in extricating herself, but had returned in search of her children, not having seen them effect their escape.” 1
If Pauline is the first Austrian portrayed on the organ-top, the second is probably Maria Pauline, her daughter, who was severely burned and died aged 23 in 1821. 2
As to the third, Rovigo lists three other female victims, amongst whom you may wish to choose: Sophia Theresia Walpurgis, Countess von der Leyen, Rhineland nobility; the wife of the Russian consul-general; and the wife of a French artillery officer, Touzard.
I don’t really know whether to finish the translation. On the one hand, translating something far beyond one’s capabilities is, along with pillow dictionaries and the composition of doggerel, a crucial step in learning a language; I can certainly contribute from a musical perspective; and selling little books is proving a nice little sideline. On the other, life is short and busy, and Marullo is obviously rather good anyway.
Animated Napoleonic scenes are quite common on top of Germanic barrel organs, but I don’t know of an illustration of this particular example. Tips welcome!
Featuring John Taylor, the Water(man) Poet, Cornelius Cardew, Rick Astley, Luther Vandross, Michael Fassbender and someone else as Macbuff and Macdeath, Bugs Bunny & Friends, and finally John Taylor again.
- OED: Doggerel verse; burlesque poetry of irregular rhythm. Also: bad or trivial verse.
- John Taylor, water-poet and great pre-revolutionary humorist, “A Dogge of Warre” (?1628):
In doggrell Rimes my Lines are writ,
As for a Dogge I thought it fit,
And befitting best his Carkas.
Had I beene silent as a Stoicke,
Or had I writ in Verse Heroicke,
Then had I been a Starke Asse.
Historically, a decline in doggerel has been a pretty good predictor of doom – take the eclipse of nice, funny people like Taylor and Clarence Day by dull sloganeers like respectively John Milton and W.H. Auden. The opposite is also true: the recovery of Punch in the 1940s from its 1930s nadir was a sign that things were about to get better.
Let’s take a look at more recent events. From 1979, here’s Cornelius Cardew with some great doggerel and an Albanian X Factor-winning performance:
Persisting in the face of every difficulty
In 1979 was formed our new party, a glorious victory.
Rallying to this flag is the only way, workers
To usher in, a bright new day of
Socialism in Britain.
A decade later, with Cardew assassinated by a CIA milk float, things had declined. Apparently Rick Astley said on the Jo Whiley show the other night that when he topped the charts in the States he felt that his life was done: somewhere Luther Vandross would be driving to a gig and would hear Rick on the radio, and even if he didn’t like what he had heard, then he had at least heard it. Here’s Luther being rather excellent, despite lyrics that don’t even aspire to doggerel:
Doo doo doo doo doo
Doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo
Doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo
A chair is still a chair, even when there’s no one sittin’ there
But a chair is not a house and a house is not a home
When there’s no one there to hold you tight
And no one there you can kiss goodnight
Swapping sociolinguistic register:
I was reminded of this the other night by the 2015 film known as Macbeth. Where Luther was capable of making some pretty poor material feel almost proximate to doggerel, Justin Kurzel and his accomplices turn some of the finest doggerel in the English language into undifferentiated suburban gibberish. Shakespeare’s Macbeth indicates a speaker’s class by having the posh people use unrhymed iambic pentameter aka blank verse, the commoners, prose, and the witches, rhymed trochaic tetrameter. But Kurzel tries to conceal the words behind impenetrable accents and loud music and sound effects – it’s literally a tale full of sound and fury – and to destroy their power and meaning when they are audible and comprehensible. Here’s Michael Fassbender as Macbuff, shambling through the tomorrow soliloquy:
I mean, they even leave out “Double, double toil and trouble.” Here by contrast is Warner Bros.’ Looney Tunes A Witch’s Tangled Hare (1959) featuring Bugs Bunny:
Great doggerel, great performance, not much of that in prospect this Sunday or in times to come. [Cue subsidiary rant on decline of oral poetry.]
John Taylor, a Wikiprécis:
John Taylor (1578–1653) was an English poet who dubbed himself “The Water Poet”. After his waterman apprenticeship he served in Essex’s fleet, and was present at Flores in 1597 and at the siege of Cadiz.
Taylor is one of the few credited early authors of a palindrome: in 1614, he wrote “Lewd did I live, & evil I did dwel.” He wrote a poem about Thomas Parr, a man who supposedly lived to the age of 152. He was also the author of a constructed language called Barmoodan.
He achieved notoriety by a series of eccentric journeys: for example, he travelled from London to Queenborough in a paper boat with two stockfish tied to canes for oars, described in “The Praise of Hemp-Seed.” He had more than sixteen hundred subscribers to The Pennylesse Pilgrimage; or, the Moneylesse Perambulation of John Taylor, alias the Kings Magesties Water-Poet; How He TRAVAILED on Foot from London to Edenborough in Scotland, Not Carrying any Money To or Fro, Neither Begging, Borrowing, or Asking Meate, Drinke, or Lodging., published in 1618. Those who defaulted on the subscription were chided the following year in a scathing brochure entitled A Kicksey Winsey, or, A Lerry Come-Twang, which he issued in the following year:
By wondrous accident perchance one may
Grope out a needle in a load of hay;
And though a white crow be exceedingly rare,
A blind man may, by fortune, catch a hare.
He was the first poet to mention the deaths of William Shakespeare and Francis Beaumont in print, in his 1620 poem, “The Praise of Hemp-seed”:
In paper, many a poet now survives
Or else their lines had perish’d with their lives.
Old Chaucer, Gower, and Sir Thomas More,
Sir Philip Sidney, who the laurel wore,
Spenser, and Shakespeare did in art excell,
Sir Edward Dyer, Greene, Nash, Daniel.
Sylvester, Beaumont, Sir John Harrington,
Forgetfulness their works would over run
But that in paper they immortally
Do live in spite of death, and cannot die