What Is It?

Here’s one of the most beautiful riddles in the English language. It’s commonly attributed to Byron, but it was composed in 1814 by Catherine Maria Fanshawe, the daughter of a Surrey squire:

‘Twas whispered in heaven, ’twas muttered in hell,
And echo caught faintly the sound as it fell;
On the confines of earth ’twas permitted to rest,
And the depths of the ocean its presence confessed.
‘Twill be found in the sphere when ’tis riven asunder;
‘Tis seen in the lightning, and heard in the thunder.
‘Twas allotted to man from his earliest breath;
It assists at his birth, and attends him in death;
It presides o’er his happiness, honour, and health;
Is the prop of his house, and the end of his wealth.
In the heap of the miser ’tis hoarded with care,
But is sure to be lost in his prodigal heir.
It begins every hope, every wish it must bound,
It prays with the hermit, with monarchs is crowned.
Without it the soldier and seaman may roam,
But woe to the wretch who expels it from home.
In the whispers of conscience ’tis sure to be found;
Nor e’en in the whirlwind of passion is drowned.
‘Twill soften the heart, and though deaf to the ear,
‘Twill make it acutely and constantly hear.
But, in short, let it rest like a beautiful flower;
Oh, breathe on it softly, it dies in an hour.

What is it?

Click for Answer

“A Fat Woman Questions Her Thin Friend”

A girl to B stylish must C zippers close,
D vote E qual F fort keeping buttons in rows.
G, I tried many diets, but H ievement was poor
I was J ded, o K , when I came to her door.
I said, “L egant lady, M bodying graces,
How did you N O ble (reduce) hippy places?
Please don’t be P vish, but answer on Q—
R special S sences T eeming in U?”
“No,” she said, V ehement, “No more W!
X ercise and good eating—that is Y I am trim:
And I’m Z ro doubtful you too can be slim!”

— Lyn Coffin

More Bad Poetry

The verses of Puritan poet George Wither (1588-1667) fairly glow — if by “verses” you mean “drivelings” and by “glow” you mean “suck like a tarpit”:

Her hair like gold did glister,
Each eye was like a star;
She did surpass her sister,
Which passed all others far.
She would me honey call;
She’d, O she’d kiss me too;
But now, alas! sh’ ‘as left me,
Falero, lero, loo.

When Wither was taken prisoner by the Cavaliers during the English civil war, Sir John Denham pleaded with Charles I: “I hope your majesty will not hang poor George Wither — for as long as he lives it can’t be said that I am the worst poet in England.”

“The Farmer’s Life”

The farmer leads no E Z life;
The C D sows will rot;
And when at E V rests from strife
His bones all A K lot.

In D D has to struggle hard
To E K living out:
If I C frosts do not retard
His crops there’ll B A drought.

The hired L P has to pay
Are awful A Z, too;
They C K rest when he’s away,
Nor N E work will do.

Both N Z can not make to meet,
And then for A D takes
Some boarders who so R T eat
& E no money makes.

Of little U C finds this life;
Sick in old A G lies.
The debts he O Z leaves his wife.
And then in P C dies.

— Anonymous, The Indiana School Journal, August 1886

The Author’s Tale

‘Twas potter, and the little brown
Did simon and schuster in the shaw;
All mosby were the ballantines,
And the womraths mcgraw.

“Beware Jovanovich, my son!
The knopfs that crown, the platts that munk!
Beware the doubleday, and shun
The grolier wagnallfunk!”

He took his putnam sword in hand,
Long time the harcourt brace he sought;
So rested he by the crowell tree
And stood awhile in thought.

And as in harper thought he stood,
Jovanovich, with eyes of flame,
Came houghton mifflin through the wood
And bowkered as it came!

Dodd mead! Dodd mead! And from his steed
His dutton sword went kennicatt!
He left it dead, and with its head
He went quadrangling back.

“And hast thou slain Jovanovich?
Come to my arms, my bantam boy!
Oh, stein and day! Giroux! McKay!”
He scribnered in his joy.

‘Twas potter, and the little brown
Did simon and schuster in the shaw;
All mosby were the ballantines,
And the womraths mcgraw.

— Anonymous

Short Verse

The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
The lowing herd wind slowly o’er the lea,
The plowman homeward plods his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me.

That’s the first verse of Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.” University of Liverpool librarian John Sampson found it a bit wordy, so he tightened it up:

The curfew tolls the knell of day,
The lowing herd winds o’er the lea,
The plowman homeward plods his way,
And leaves the world to dark and me.

Still unsatisfied, he tried:

The curfew tolls the knell of day,
The herd winds o’er the lea,
The plowman homeward plods his way,
And leaves the world to me.

Finally he settled on:

Dusk tolls,
Herds flee,
Hinds scoot:
Not me.

“Ape Owe ‘Em”

When fur stews can this sill leer I’m,
Toot rye tomb ache theme e’en ink Lear,
Youth inked wood butt bee weigh sting thyme;
Use eh, “It’s imp lean on scents shear!”

Gnome attar; Anna lies align!
Nation mice lender verse says knot–
Fork rip tick poet real Ike mine,
How Aaron weal, demesnes allot.

— Deems Taylor

Bitewings of Song

Connecticut dentist Solyman Brown was pretty passionate about his calling — in 1833 he published “Dentologia, a Poem on the Diseases of the Teeth”:

… her lips disclosed to view,
Those ruined arches, veiled in ebon hue,
Where love had thought to feast the ravished sight
On orient gems reflecting snowy light,
Hope, disappointed, silently retired,
Disgust triumphant came, and love expired! …

Whene’er along the ivory disks, are seen,
The filthy footsteps of the dark gangrene;
When caries come, with stealthy pace to throw
Corrosive ink spots on those banks of snow–
Brook no delay, ye trembling, suffering fair,
But fly for refuge to the dentist’s care.

An appendix listed 300 qualified dental practitioners. Portions of the five-canto poem were published in the American Journal of Dental Science, and one reviewer praised “a mind highly cultivated and richly imbued with poetic fancy.” Brown, who co-founded the American Society of Dental Surgeons in 1840, even found time to write a sequel, “Dental Hygeia — A Poem.”

Vide Infra

Edward Edwin Foot was a poet with the mind of an attorney — in his 1865 elegy for Henry Temple, a single verse contains three footnotes:

Altho’ we* mourn for one now gone,
And he — that grey-hair’d Palmerston,†
We will give God the praise,–
For he, beyond the age of man,‡
Eleven years had over-ran
Within two equal days.

*The nation.
†The Right Honourable Henry John Temple, Viscount Palmerston, K.G., G.C.H., &c. (the then Premier of the British Government), died at “Brockett Hall,” Herts, at a quarter to eleven o’clock in the forenoon of Wednesday, 18th October, 1865, aged eighty-one years (all but two days, having been born on the 20th October 1784). The above lines were written on the occasion of his death.
‡Scriptural limitation.

“The Sweet Singer of Michigan”

Julia Moore’s poetry was so bad that it gained a national following even among her contemporaries in the 1870s. One reviewer wrote, “Shakespeare, could he read it, would be glad that he was dead”:

They once did live at Edgerton,
They once did live at Muskegon,
From there they went to Chicago,
Which proved their fatal overthrow.

It was William House’s family,
As fine a family as you see—
His family was eleven in all,
I do not think it was very small.

She stopped writing when she saw that her fans were laughing, not weeping — and, immortally, she closed her career with these lines:

And now kind friends, what I have wrote
I hope you will pass o’er,
And not criticise as some have done
Hitherto herebefore.