Legal Ode

In 1983 a driver hit a tree in Michigan. A tree surgeon repaired the damage, and the driver’s insurance paid the $550 bill, but the tree’s owner claimed $15,000 for pain and suffering; he said the “beautiful oak” was like someone dear to him.

A lower court threw out the case, and the appeals court agreed. The three-judge panel declared:

We thought that we would never see
A suit to compensate a tree,
A suit whose claim in tort is prest
Upon a mangled tree’s behest;
A tree whose battered trunk was prest
Against a Chevy’s crumpled crest;
A tree that faces each new day
With bark and limb in disarray;
A tree that may forever bear
A lasting need for tender care.
Flora lovers though we three,
We must uphold the court’s decree.

(Fisher v. Lowe, 122 Mich. App. 418, 33 N.W.2d 67)

“Good and Bad”

If I was as bad as they say I am,
And you were as good as you look,
I wonder which one would feel the worse
If each for the other was took?

— George Barr Baker

Anthologist Carolyn Wells explains: “This remark was made by a bad, bold convict to his vain, virtuous visiting chaplain. Your personal answer to the question is an indication of your character.”

Table Talk

At a tavern one night,
Messrs. Moore, Strange, and Wright
Met to drink and their good thoughts exchange;
Says Moore, “Of us three,
Everyone will agree,
There’s only one knave, and that’s Strange.”

Says Strange, rather sore,
“I’m sure there’s one Moore,
A most terrible knave, and a fright,
Who cheated his mother,
His sister and brother–”
“Oh, yes,” replied Moore, “that is Wright.”

— Anonymous

A Poet’s Proposal

I think I can offer this
simple remedy for a part
at least of the world’s
ills and evil I suggest
that everyone should be
required to change his
name every ten years I
think this would put a
stop to a whole lot of
ambition compulsion ego
and like breeders of dis-
cord and wasted motion.

— James Laughlin, quoted in the San Francisco Chronicle, Oct. 24, 1978

Sweet Verse

James Grainger (1721–1766) had a lot to say about growing sugarcane — unfortunately, he chose to say it in poetry:

Whether the fattening compost, in each hole,
‘Tis best to throw; or, on the surface spread,
Is undetermin’d: Trials must decide.
Unless kind rains and fostering dews descend,
To melt the compost’s fertilizing salts;
A stinted plant, deceitful of thy hopes,
Will from those beds slow spring where hot dung lies:
But, if ’tis scatter’d generously o’er all,
The Cane will better bear the solar blaze;
Less rain demand; and, by repeated crops,
Thy land improv’d, its gratitude will show.

Grainger’s 1764 epic “Sugar-Cane” runs on for an excruciating 162 pages, with footnotes, waxing lyrical over every aspect of cane farming, from climate to pest control. James Boswell told Samuel Johnson that a reading of the poem at Sir Joshua Reynolds’ “had made all the assembled wits burst into a laugh when, after much blank verse pomp, the poet began a new paragraph thus:

“‘Now, Muse, let’s sing of rats.’

“And what increased the ridicule was, that one of the company, who slyly overlooked the reader, perceived that the word had been originally mice, and had been altered to rats, as more dignified.”


Life is a jest; and all things show it.
I thought so once; and now I know it.

— Matthew Prior’s epitaph

Ah! Matt.: old age has brought to me
Thy wisdom, less thy certainty:
The world’s a jest, and joy’s a trinket:
I knew that once: but now–I think it.

— James K. Stephen, “Senex to Matt. Prior”

I hold it true, whate’er befall;
I feel it when I sorrow most;
‘Tis better to have loved and lost
Than never to have loved at all.

— Tennyson, “In Memoriam A.H.H.”

I feel it when the game is done,
I feel it when I suffer most.
‘Tis better to have loved and lost
Than ever to have loved and won.

— Gerald Bullett, “Footnote to Tennyson”

Bad Bards

More excerpts from terrible poetry:

The holy night that Christ was born
The ox stood reverently apart,
Both ruminating eaten corn,
And pondering within his heart.

— John Gray (1866–1934), “The Ox”

Then through the white surf did she haste,
To clasp her lovely swain;
When ah! a shark bit through his waist,
His heart’s blood dy’d the main.

— James Grainger (1721-1767), “Bryan and Pereene”

Intoxicating draughts he never does drink
If this we copied should we not be better, think?

— Joseph Gwyer (1835-?), “Ode on the Visit of the Shah of Persia”

A woman kneels among reeds and sands,
Kissing a wee, bronzed child that coos and smiles.
Enough, — great Brahma speaks! — with trembling hands
She hurls her first-born to the crocodiles!

— Francis Saltus Saltus (1849-1889), “Mothers”

Gwyer’s 1875 book Sketches of the Life of Joseph Gwyer (Potato Salesman) With His Poems (Commended by Royalty) invited readers to purchase sacks of his potatoes by mail. The New York Tribune recommended that customers uncertain whether to choose the poetry or the potatoes should choose the latter.


Said Plato: “These things that we feel
Are not ontologically real,
But just the excresence
Of numinous essence
Our senses can never reveal.”

— Basil Ransome-Davies

Creeping Laurels

English historian Robert Blake called Henry James Pye “the worst poet laureate in English history with the possible exception of Alfred Austin.” That’s low praise indeed: Austin’s Randolph: A Tale of Polish Grief purportedly sold 17 copies; he is remembered for the stirringly titled “Go Away, Death” and for a breast fixation in which poetic mammaries open doors and plough the brine.

Elevated probably as a political favor, Pye was roundly criticized for his birthday odes, which were set to music by the court composer. “It is said that the words were often drowned by the instruments,” noted William Forbes Gray. “Certainly, it was a consummation to be devoutly wished”:

God of our fathers rise,
And through the thund’ring skies
Thy vengeance urge
In awful justice red,
By thy dread arrows sped,
But guard our Monarch’s head,
God save great George.

To the loud trumpet’s throat
To the shrill clarion’s note,
Now jocund sing.
From every open foe,
From every traitor’s blow,
Virtue defend his brow,
God guard our King!

Pye once said he would “rather be thought a good Englishman than the best poet or the greatest scholar that ever wrote.” In The Joy of Bad Verse, Nicholas Parsons observes that Pye’s epic Alfred was then “a credit to his sense of patriotism.”