“The Purist”

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I give you now Professor Twist
A conscientious scientist.
Trustees exclaimed “He never bungles,”
And sent him off to distant jungles.
Camped by a tropic riverside,
One day he missed his loving bride.
She had, the guide informed him later,
Been eaten by an alligator.
Professor Twist could not but smile.
“You mean,” he said, “a crocodile.”

— Ogden Nash

(Thanks, Steve.)

Night Work

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English essayist A.C. Benson had rich, elaborate dreams, a trait common in his family. “Sometimes they would be processions and high ceremonies, diversified by the intervention of old Eton friends, who would whisper dark words more suo during some strange liturgy,” recalled his friend Geoffrey Madan. “Sometimes the distant past would rush upon him and old ecclesiastics, summoned up from the mists of Addington, became involved with him in situations of infinite absurdity; sometimes it would be oneself with whom the drama was played, till its recital at breakfast made one helpless with laughter.”

From one dream he awoke recalling only a strange epigram, “The riddle of life is solved by gliding, and not sliding.” On another morning he found that he had scribbled down these lines in the middle of the night:

A bold and cheerful company of Ogres, Ghosts, and Ghouls
Attacked and smashed to little bits the City of Tomfools:
The Tomfools sailed to Araby, and raised another state;
I can’t say how refined they were, and how considerate.
And now in High Tomfoolery they’re very fond of telling
What an almighty hash the ghosts made of their former dwelling;
They chaunt their great deliverance: they teach and preach and say
How good it was of God to take their former pride away.

His 1894 poem “The Phoenix” was composed entirely while asleep. “I dreamed the whole poem in a dream, in 1894, I think, and wrote it down in the middle of the night on a scrap of paper by my bedside,” he wrote. “It is a lyric of a style which I have never attempted before or since. … I really can offer no explanation either of the idea of the poem or its interpretation. It came to me so (apparently) without any definite volition of my own that I don’t profess to understand or to be able to interpret the symbolism.”

By feathers green, across Casbeen,
The pilgrims track the Phoenix flown,
By gems he strewed in waste and wood
And jewelled plumes at random thrown.

Till wandering far, by moon and star,
They stand beside the fruitful pyre,
Whence breaking bright with sanguine light,
The impulsive bird forgets his sire.

Those ashes shine like ruby wine,
Like bag of Tyrian murex spilt;
The claw, the jowl of the flying fowl
Are with the glorious anguish gilt.

So rare the light, so rich the sight,
Those pilgrim men, on profit bent,
Drop hands and eyes and merchandise,
And are with gazing most content.

Madan added, “I have preserved in one of his letters the concluding stanza which he wrote in waking hours to round it off, but omitted later on the advice of a friend who felt it to be ‘incongruous’; this pleased him very much indeed.”

(From “A Later Friendship,” by Geoffrey Madan, in Arthur Christopher Benson as Seen by Some Friends, 1925.)

Mail Tale

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I’m a stamp —
A postage stamp —
A two-center;
Don’t want to brag,
But I was never
Licked,
Except once:
By a gentleman, too;
He put me on
To a good thing:
It was an envelope —
Perfumed, pink, square;
I’ve been stuck on
That envelope
Ever since;
He dropped us —
The envelope and me —
Through a slot in a dark box;
But we were rescued
By a mail clerk,
More’s the pity;
He hit me an awful
Smash with a hammer;
It left my face
Black and blue;
Then I went on a long Journey
Of two days;
And when we arrived —
The pink envelope and me —
We were presented
To a perfect love
Of a girl,
With the stunningest pair
Of blue eyes
That ever blinked;
Say, she’s a dream!
Well, she mutilated
The pink envelope
And tore one corner
Of me off
With a hairpin;
Then she read what
Was inside
The pink envelope.
I never saw a girl blush
So beautifully!
I would be stuck
On her — if I could.
Well, she placed
The writing back
In the pink envelope;
Then she kissed me.
O, you little godlets!
Her lips were ripe
As cherries,
And warm
As the summer sun.
We —
The pink envelope and me —
Are now
Nestling snugly
In her bosom;
We can hear
Her heart throb;
When it goes fastest
She takes us out
And kisses me.
O, say,
This is great!
I’m glad
I’m a stamp —
A two-center.

Ohio State Journal, 1901

Above and Below

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The Man to the Fish:

You strange, astonished-looking, angle-faced,
Dreary-mouthed, gaping wretches of the sea,
Gulping salt-water everlastingly,
Cold-blooded, though with red your blood be graced,
And mute, though dwellers in the roaring waste;
And you, all shapes beside, that fishy be,–
Some round, some flat, some long, all devilry,
Legless, unloving, infamously chaste:–

O scaly, slippery, wet, swift, staring wights,
What is’t ye do? What life lead? eh, dull goggles?
How do ye vary your vile days and nights?
How pass your Sundays? Are ye still but joggles
In ceaseless wash? Still nought but gapes, and bites,
And drinks, and stares, diversified with boggles?

A Fish answers:

Amazing monster! that, for aught I know,
With the first sight of thee didst make our race
For ever stare! O flat and shocking face,
Grimly divided from the breast below!
Thou that on dry land horribly dost go
With a split body and most ridiculous pace,
Prong after prong, disgracer of all grace,
Long-useless-finned, haired, upright, unwet, slow!

O breather of unbreathable, sword-sharp air,
How canst exist? How bear thyself, thou dry
And dreary sloth? What particle canst share
Of the only blessed life, the watery?
I sometimes see of ye an actual pair
Go by! linked fin by fin! most odiously.

— Leigh Hunt

“To a Baby Born Without Limbs”

From Kingsley Amis’ 1966 novel The Anti-Death League:

This is just to show you whose boss around here.
It’ll keep you on your toes, so to speak,
Make you put your best foot forward, so to speak,
And give you something to turn your hand to, so to speak.
You can face up to it like a man,
Or snivvle and blubber like a baby.
That’s up to you. Nothing to do with Me.
If you take it in the right spirit,
You can have a bloody marvelous life,
With the great rewards courage brings,
And the beauty of accepting your LOT.
And think how much good it’ll do your Mum and Dad,
And your Grans and Gramps and the rest of the shower,
To be stopped being complacent.
Make sure they baptise you, though,
In case some murdering bastard
Decides to put you away quick,
Which would send you straight to LIMB-O, ha ha ha.
But just a word in your ear, if you’ve got one.
Mind you DO take this in the right spirit,
And keep a civil tongue in your head about Me.
Because if you DON’T,
I’ve got plenty of other stuff up My sleeve,
Such as Leukemia and polio,
(Which incidentally your welcome to any time,
Whatever spirit you take this in.)
I’ve given you one love-pat, right?
You don’t want another.
So watch it, Jack.

Misspellings in original. In his memoir Experience, Martin Amis says Yevgeny Yevtushenko asked Kingsley in 1962, “You atheist?” He answered, “Well yes, but it’s more that I hate him.”

Orthography

There once was a ,cal fellow,
Who grew .ically mellow;
With a — he was gone
To the town of :
To write for a sheet that was yellow.

She was wooed by a handsome young Dr.,
Who one day in his arms tightly lr.;
But straightway he swore
He would do so no more,
Which the same, it was plain, greatly shr.

A boy at Sault Ste. Marie
Said, “To spell I will not agree
Till they learn to spell ‘Soo’
Without any u
Or an a or an l or a t.”

There was an old maid from Duquesne
Who the rigor of mortis did fuesne;
She came to with a shout,
Saying: “Please let me out;
This coffin will drive me insuesne.”

— Stanton Vaughn, ed., Limerick Lyrics, 1904

“A Distressing Blunder”

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Robert Browning’s 1841 verse drama Pippa Passes, source of the famous lines “God’s in His heaven — All’s right with the world,” ends on a strange note:

But at night, brother Howlet, far over the woods,
Toll the world to thy chantry;
Sing to the bats’ sleek sisterhoods
Full complines with gallantry:
Then, owls and bats, cowls and twats,
Monks and nuns, in a cloister’s moods,
Adjourn to the oak-stump pantry!

When the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary inquired delicately how Browning had settled on the word twats, the poet indicated a 1660 rhyme called “Vanity of Vanities”: “They talk’t of his having a Cardinall’s Hat/They’d send him as soon an Old Nun’s Twat.” There the word had been intended as a dismissive insult, but Browning had taken it seriously. Today’s OED still cites Browning’s usage, noting that he’d used the word “erroneously” “under the impression that it denoted some part of a nun’s attire.”

Editor James A.H. Murray later complained, “Browning constantly used words without regard to their proper meaning. He has added greatly to the difficulties of the Dictionary.”

An Attorney’s Night Before Christmas

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WHEREAS, on an occasion immediately preceding the Nativity Festival, throughout a certain dwelling unit, quiet descended, in which would be heard no disturbance, not even the sound emitted by a diminutive rodent related to, and in form resembling, a rat; and

WHEREAS, the offspring of the occupants had affixed their tubular, closely knit coverings for the nether limbs to the flue of the fireplace in the expectation that a personage known as St. Nicholas would arrive; and

WHEREAS, said offspring had become somnolent and were entertaining nocturnal hallucinations re: saccharine-flavored fruit; and

WHEREAS, the adult male of the family, et ux, attired in proper headgear, had also become quiescent in anticipation of nocturnal inertia; and

WHEREAS, a distraction on the snowy acreage outside aroused the owner to investigate; and

WHEREAS, he perceived in a most unbelieving manner a vehicle propelled by eight domesticated quadrupeds of a species found in arctic regions; and

WHEREAS, a most odd rotund gentleman was entreating the aforesaid animals by their appellations, as follows: “Your immediate cooperation is requested, Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, and Vixen, and collective action by you will be appreciated, Comet, Cupid, Donder, and Blitzen”; and

WHEREAS, subsequent to the above, there occured a swift descent to the hearth by the aforementioned gentleman, where he proceeded to deposit gratuities in the aforementioned tubular coverings,

NOW, THEREFORE, be ye advised: That upon completion of these acts, and upon his return to his original point of departure, he proclaimed a felicitation of the type prevalent and suitable to these occasions, i.e., “Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!”

(I’m not sure who came up with this — I’ve seen several versions.)

“By Deputy”

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As Shakespeare couldn’t write his plays
(If Mrs. Gallup’s not mistaken),
I think how wise in many ways
He was to have them done by Bacon;
They might have moldered on the shelf,
Mere minor dramas (and he knew it!),
If he had written them himself
Instead of letting Bacon do it.

And if it’s true, as Brown and Smith
In many learned tomes have stated,
That Homer was an idle myth,
He ought to be congratulated,
Since thus, evading birth, he rose
For men to worship at a distance;
He might have penned inferior prose
Had he achieved a real existence.

To him and Shakespeare men agree
In making very nice allusions;
But no one thinks of praising me,
For I compose my own effusions;
As others wrote their works divine
And they immortal thus today are,
Perhaps had someone written mine
I might have been as great as they are.

— Arthur St. John Adcock

“What’ll Be the Title?”

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O to scuttle from the battle and to settle on an atoll far from brutal mortal neath a wattle portal!
To keep little mottled cattle and to whittle down one’s chattels and not hurtle after brittle yellow metal!
To listen, non-committal, to the anecdotal local tittle-tattle on a settle round the kettle,
Never startled by a rattle more than betel-nuts a-prattle or the myrtle-petals’ subtle throttled chortle!
But I’ll bet that what’ll happen if you footle round an atoll is you’ll get in rotten fettle living totally on turtle, nettles, cuttle-fish or beetles, victuals fatal to the natal élan-vital,
And hit the bottle.
I guess I’d settle
For somewhere ethical and practical like Bootle.

— Justin Richardson