“The Song of the Yellow Cork”

A golden cork is, mirror-wise,
shown by a polished shelf;
yet, even if endowed with eyes,
it could not see itself.

This is because it stands aligned
with its reflected view;
but if it sideways is inclined,
such is no longer true.

O man, suppose you did reflect
straight up, let’s say, in space:
Would this not have the same effect
as in the stated case?

— Christian Morgenstern, 1905

The Spring (Arrangements) Bill

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In 1936 English humorist A.P. Herbert found himself sitting in Parliament as an independent member for Oxford University. He drafted the following bill in verse to honor the new season — it’s a shame that it wasn’t enacted:

Whereas in every lawn and bed the plucky crocus lifts his head, and to and fro sweet song-birds go, the names of which we do not know:

Whereas the woods no more are dumb, the Boat Race and the Budget come, the Briton swells his manly chest, his mate, as eager, scrubs the nest, and Spring, with light but lavish hand, is spreading madness o’er the land:

It is expedient — but in rhyme — to legislate for such a time: Be it enacted, therefore, by our King with Lords and Commons in a fairy ring, assembled joyously at Westminister (or any other place that they prefer):

Provision for a Season Called Spring

1. (i) It shall be lawful everywhere for citizens to walk on air, to hang their hats upon the trees and wander hatless if they please: and notwithstanding any cracked provision in a previous Act, to give a constable a kiss is not felonious after this.

(ii) All citizens who choose to ride on taxi-tops and not inside: and those who do not use their votes because they’re busy painting boats: and any miscreant who hums, instead of doing dismal sums: whoever does a silly thing need only answer “‘Tis the Spring”: and this shall be a good defence in any court with any sense:

Provided that, in late July, this Act, of course, does not apply.

Financial Provisions

2. If any person feels he must get out of London now or bust, because the Spring is in his bones, but he must work for Mr. Jones, it shall be lawful for the same to give the Treasury his name, and say “Upon sufficient grounds I want about a hundred pounds”: and there shall not be any fuss concerning sums expended thus.

Repeal of Redundant Statutes

3. Subsection (i) of Section Four of any Act that seems a bore, and all the Acts concerning beer, and every Act that is not clear (always excepting Schedule A), shall be repealed and thrown away.

House of Commons — Reform of Procedure — Music etc.

4. (i) There shall be banks of maidenhair arranged about the Speaker’s chair: and roses white and roses red shall hang above the Speaker’s head: like some tremendous window-box, the Galleries be gay with phlox: and goldfish, lovely but aloof, shall swim above the glassy roof.

(ii) From now until the First of June all speeches shall be sung (in tune). The Speaker shall determine what hon. Members are in tune or not.

(iii) When in Committee of Supply the House may hum (but not too high). The Clerk-Assistant-at-the-Table shall choose the key (if he is able).

(iv) A band shall nearly always play (not on the first Allotted Day) behind the Speaker’s Chair at three and on the Terrace after tea.

Saving for Committees

5. On any day in May or June Committees shall adjourn quite soon: Provided, if the cuckoo call, Committees shall not sit at all.

Sittings of the Upper House

6. The House of Lords shall never sit on sunny days till after Whit: and they shall rise, if they have met, when it is foggy, fine or wet.

Termination of Official Report

7. (i) Except as hereinafter hinted, Hansard shall not again be printed, and save as in this Act is learned, all previous Hansards shall be burned.

(ii) It is a pity, history teaches, to make reports of people’s speeches, and afterwards to be unkind, simply because they change their mind. It is a most disgusting thing to make such comments in the Spring: so, as from when this Act is passed, that day’s Report shall be the last.

(iii) And as regards exceptions, see Subheading (a) of Schedule B.

Powers and Duties of Departments

8. (i) The secretary of State for Home Affairs shall now proceed to Rome, to Moscow, Washington, Cathay, or anywhere that’s far away, and not return to English skies until the Speaker certifies that Spring has ceased to be a fact under the Moss (Collection) Act.

(ii) Meanwhile o’er all his grim domain a lovely golden girl shall reign: and this delicious creature shall give golden parties in the Mall (paying the bills, if she is dunned, from the Consolidated Fund). The Civil Service, hand in hand, shall dance in masses down the Strand: and all the Cabinet shall wear wild dandelions in their hair.

(iii) It shall be deemed that every one has come into the world for fun. This shall be printed on the wall of every office in Whitehall.

Penalties for Certain Expressions

9. (i) No kind of crisis shall excuse a man exploring avenues: no lesser doom does he deserve when he is straining every nerve: and special punishment is earned by those who leave no stone unturned.

(ii) The penalty for each offence shall be elastic but immense.

(iii) A pension shall reward the man who modestly does all he can.

Interpretation

10. (i) The greatest care has been employed to make this measure null and void: not one expression in this Act means anything it means in fact.

(ii) Examples we decline to give: the lawyers, after all, must live.

Application

11. This Act applies and shall be good where anybody thinks it should:

Provided that, if strong objection should be expressed to any Section, that Section shall not have effect except for those who don’t object.

SCHEDULE B (a)

Any speech, motion, question, amendment or interruption by

A.P.H.

Self-Service

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A Mrs. Harris published this verse in Golden Days on Oct. 10, 1885:

He squanders recklessly his cash
In cultivating a mustache;
A shameless fop is Mr. Dude,
Vain, shallow, fond of being viewed.
‘Tis true that he is quite a swell —
A smile he has for every belle;
What time he has to spare from dress
Is taken up with foolishness —
A witless youth, whose feeble brain
Incites him oft to chew his cane.
Leave dudes alone, nor ape their ways,
Male readers of these Golden Days.

It reads so naturally that it’s surprising to find that it contains a double acrostic: Taking the fourth letter of each line spells out QUANTITATIVE, and taking the last letter spells out HEEDLESSNESS.

Coming and Going

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Edmund Wilson’s 1948 poem “The Pickerel Pond” has a novel feature — backward rhymes:

The lake lies with never a ripple
A lymph to lave sores from a leper
The sand white as salt in an air
That has filtered and tamed every ray;

Below limpid water, those lissome
Scrolleries scribbled by mussels
The floating dropped feathers of gulls;
A leech like a lengthening slug

That shrinks at a touch, ink and orange;
A child’s wrecked Rio Janeiro,
One fortress of which flies a reed
The cleft and quick prints of a deer …

Each pair of line endings (ripple/leper, air/ray) reverse one another in pronunciation, reflecting the pond’s mirror-like surface. They’re called amphisbaenic rhymes, after the amphisbaena, a Greek monster whose two heads allow it to move in either direction. Wilson’s poem contains 70 twisting stanzas of such rhymes.

Special Order

a.p. herbert

In 1961, irate at receiving a bill for an £85 surtax from the Inland Revenue, A.P. Herbert sent them a check in verse:

Dear Bankers, PAY the undermentioned hounds
The shameful sum of FIVE-AND-EIGHTY POUNDS
By “hounds,” of course, by custom, one refers
To SPECIAL INCOME TAX COMMISSIONERS:
And these progenitors of woe and worry
You’ll find at LYNWOOD ROAD, THAMES DITTON, SURREY.

This is the second lot of tax, you know,
On money that I earned two years ago.
(The shark, they say, by no means nature’s knight,
Will rest contented with a single bite:
The barracuda, who’s a fish more fell,
Comes back and takes the other leg as well.)
Two years ago. But things have changed since then.
I’ve reached the age of threescore years and ten.
My earnings dwindle; and the kindly State
Gives me a tiny pension — with my mate.
You’d think the State would generously roar
“At least he shan’t pay surtax any more.”
Instead by this un-Christian attack
They get two-thirds of my poor pension back.
Oh, very well. No doubt it’s for the best;
At all events, pray do as I request;
And let the good old customs be enforced —
Don’t cash this check, unless it is endorsed.

To his astonishment he received this reply:

Dear Sir,

It is with pleasure that I thank
You for your letter and the order to your bank
To pay the sum of five and eighty pounds
To those here whom you designate as hounds.
Their appetite is satisfied. In fact,
You paid too much and I am forced to act,
Not to repay you, as perchance you dream,
Though such a course is easy, it would seem.
Your liability for later years
Is giving your accountants many tears;
And ’til such time as they and we can come
To amicable settlement on the sum
That represents your tax bill to the State
I’ll leave the overpayment to its fate.
I do not think this step will make you frown:
The sum involved is only half-a-crown.

Yours faithfully,

A.L. Grove

He wrote back:

I thank you, Sir, but am afraid
Of such a rival in my trade:
One never should encourage those —
In the future I shall pay in prose.

“On the Question of Choice”

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A leaf was riven from a tree,
“I mean to fall to earth,” said he.

The west wind, rising, made him veer.
“Eastward,” said he, “I now shall steer.”

The east wind rose with greater force.
Said he, “‘Twere wise to change my course.”

With equal power they contend.
He said, “My judgment I suspend.”

Down died the winds; the leaf, elate,
Cried: “I’ve decided to fall straight.”

“First thoughts are best?” That’s not the moral;
Just choose your own and we’ll not quarrel.

Howe’er your choice may chance to fall,
You’ll have no hand in it at all.

— Ambrose Bierce

Reverie

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“Stopping by Euclid’s Proof of the Infinitude of Primes,” by Presbyterian College mathematician Brian D. Beasley, “with apologies to Robert Frost”:

Whose proof this is I think I know.
I can’t improve upon it, though;
You will not see me trying here
To offer up a better show.

His demonstration is quite clear:
For contradiction, take the mere
n primes (no more), then multiply;
Add one to that … the end is near.

In vain one seeks a prime to try
To split this number — thus, a lie!
The first assumption was a leap;
Instead, the primes will reach the sky.

This proof is lovely, sharp, and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And tests to grade before I sleep,
And tests to grade before I sleep.

(From Mathematics Magazine 78:2 [April 2005], 171.)

“A Victim of Irregularity”

Though no great catch, this man was caught,
And neighbors tell, I’m told,
That oft, with scratch, his face was scraught,
Till fearful yells he yold.

In sink of sadness almost sunk,
To quit all strife he strove —
And after he a think had thunk,
A happier life he love.

To steal a kiss, no more he stole;
To make a break, he broke;
To remedy the deal he’d dole,
A secret sneak he snoke.

Fate’s dice with crafty shake he shook;
As gamblers feel he felt;
But ere the final stake he stook
A bitter squeal he squelt.

Of earlier days, I think, he thought,
Ere Hymen’s bonds had bound —
Before his links were firmly lought —
When he by blond was blound.

A stroke for liberty he struck;
For in a fly he flew —
But though full many a joke he juck,
A secret cry he crew.

Then stings of conscience no more stung,
And so in peace he slept;
For, on the wings of Morpheus brung,
In Paradise he pept.

— George B. Moregood, Puck, Oct. 2, 1912

“Courage”

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A poem written by Amelia Earhart in 1928:

Courage is the price that
Life exacts for granting peace.
The soul that knows it not, knows no release
From little things:
Knows not the livid loneliness of fear,
Nor mountain heights where bitter joy can hear
The sound of wings.

How can life grant us boon of living, compensate
For dull grey ugliness and pregnant hate
Unless we dare
The soul’s dominion? Each time we make a choice, we pay
With courage to behold the resistless day,
And count it fair.

“Please know I am quite aware of the hazards,” she wrote in a final letter left to her husband. “I want to do it because I want to do it. Women must try to do things as men have tried. When they fail, their failure must be but a challenge to others.”