Monday, 12 October 2009


A.E.Housman (probably, or at least possibly) once wrote a couplet to follow Wordsworth's lines in 'To the Cuckoo':

O Cuckoo! Shall I call thee bird,
Or but a wandering voice?
State alternative preferred
With reasons for your choice. 

Another four line poem is quoted by Keats in a letter, but doesn't seem to me to be claiming authorship of it. And where it crops up elsewhere, it's often as the punchline to a story in which an undergraduate calls on a friend, only to find he has gone out, but has left on his desk a pad on which he has written the first two lines of a new poem:

''The sun's perpendicular rays
Illumine the depths of the sea'

Which the visitor helpfully finishes off for him:

'The fishes, beginning to sweat, 
Cry 'Damn it! How hot we shall be!''


Persephone said...

Have you ever encountered Richard Armour's Punctured Poems: Famous First and Infamous Second Lines?

The cover illustrates "Tiger, tiger burning bright/ What has caused you to ignite?", and the book includes my personal favourites:
The blessed damozel leaned out.
"She's sick!" I heard a warning shout.

Believe me, if all those endearing young charms
Were removed from your bracelet, I might see your arms.

Armour also was responsible for Twisted Tales of Shakespeare which is my nominee for "funniest book ever".

riffle said...

Housman should have been careful about this kind of pranking. I really like his stuff, but Alfred must have known his sing-songy meters and rhymes make them rich fodder for the "jam a couplet on the end if this couplet" trick.

I myself won't indulge here, but just imagine:

When I was one-and-twenty
I heard a wise man say
[ ... ]


When the lad for longing sighs,
Mute and dull of cheer and pale,
[ ... ]

or, even worse:

Oh like enough 'tis blood, my dear,
For when the knife was slit,
[ ... ]

Though the same elements make Housman's poetry good for songs, and I'm really fond of those George Butterworth settings.

Keats, on the other hand, could never resist alluding to seafood stew. Realizing this opened up his oeuvre for me.

simon said...

When I was one-and-twenty
I heard a wise man say:
"You're twenty one, the numbers there
go round the other way."

Marianne said...

I like these A LOT

pj said...

Ah, a rummage in the pre-Sherlockian archives when all was cosy and you could get on with being quietly brilliant and the comments were like a small chat among social equals, rather than an endless stream of praises from adoring worldwide fans. Not that that mustn't be nice - and my word you deal with it with dignity and humour - but, well, this is a bit more relaxed, isn't it?

Anyway, there's a section of 'deflated couplets' along these lines in 'How to be well-versed in poetry'. Some of them have stuck in my head and intrude whenever I hear the real poem. E.g.:

When I have fears that I will cease to be,
I go and make myself a cup of tea.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
And I have Semtex to secrete.

Stands the church clock at ten to three?
Does no one wind the thing but me?

And, most inescapably:
The Assyrian came down like a wolf on the fold,
A sight less than frequent in Stow-on-the-Wold.