Anyone for Tennyson is a series of articles about poetry

Imitation and Parody . . . You can’t have one without the other

To my mind, the master parodist is probably Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (1832-1898) who used the pen-name Lewis Carroll.

Said Aristotle unto Plato,
“Have another sweet potato?”
Said Plato unto Aristotle,
“Thank you, I prefer the bottle.”
Said Socrates,
“Less rhyming, please!”

These ancient worthies are mentioned because Poetic Imitation has been used to define a variety of technical things since Plato wrote a treatise called “Poetics.” For our purposes here, I would rather describe it as a sincere form of flattery or praise. Poetic Parody takes a different tack as a humorous send-up of a specific poem, poet or style. Let’s start with the sublime in rhyme before switching to what’s worse in verse!

The most significant poetic imitation came from the pen of Alexander Pope, (1688-1744) who made no secret of his source material. He drew on the work of the Roman poet Horace and called his new versions “Satires and Epistles of Horace Imitated.” These were not translations but instead carried the spirit of the Roman originals into updated passages like this.

Time was, a sober Englishman would knock
His servants up, and rise by five o’clock,
Instruct his family in ev’ry rule,
And send his wife to church, his son to school.
To worship like his fathers was his care;
To teach their frugal virtues to his heir;
To prove that luxury could never hold,
And place, on good security, his gold.
Now times are chang’d, and one poetic itch
Has seiz’d the court and city, poor and rich:
Sons, sires, and grandsires, all will wear the bays,
Our wives read Milton, and our daughters plays,
To theatres, and to rehearsals throng,
And all our grace at table is a song.
When sick of Muse, our follies we deplore,
And promise our best friends to rhyme no more;
We wake next morning in a raging fit,
And call for pen and ink to show our wit.

Horace reciting his Satires. Painting by Fyodor Bronnikov

* * *

The satires of Horace (65 BC – 8 BC) which Pope imitated were themselves imitated from Greek poets and an earlier Latin writer named Lucilius, so the process of imitation there has had a lengthy history. Horace brought out a lighter and self-deprecating side of Pope

In Forest planted by a Father’s hand,
Than in five acres now of rented land.
Content with little, I can piddle here
On Broccoli and mutton, round the year;
But ancient friends, (tho’ poor, or out of play)
That touch my Bell, I cannot turn away.

Pope himself was not immune from parody however. This is one of his famous couplets:

Here shall the Spring its earliest sweets bestow.
Here the first roses of the year shall blow.

A change of just one word and one letter, and we have this bit of burlesque:

Here shall the Spring its earliest colds bestow.
Here the first noses of the year shall blow!

* * *

A poem often imitated, but even more often parodied, is Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “Song of Hiawatha.” It’s written in a format called . . . are you ready . . .  unrhymed trochaic tetrameter. Most of us would recognize the opening with its bouncy four stress beats to the line:

On the shores of Gitche Gumee,
Of the shining Big-Sea-Water,
Stood Nokomis, the old woman,
Pointing with her finger westward,
O’er the water pointing westward,
To the purple clouds of sunset.

“Take your bow, O Hiawatha,
Take your arrows, jasper-headed,
Take your war-club, Puggawaugun,
And your mittens, Minjekahwun,
And your birch-canoe for sailing,
And the oil of Mishe-Nahma.

The Departure of Hiawatha. Painting by Albert Bierstadt.

* * *

Edward Newman (1801-1875), an English writer and entomologist (insects), was so struck with Longfellow’s epic that he imitated it throughout a full-length book called “The Insect Hunters” and was happy to acknowledge the original. A fine example of imitation.

Through the green lanes of the country,
Where the Clematis and brier
Intertwine their arms in wedlock,
Pause to drink a draught of pleasure,
Far apart from all that’s worldly;
You I ask to read this Poem,
Read this short and simple Poem;
Ponder o’er its peaceful teaching;
Read, and then, if thus it please you,
Take the lines that I have stolen,
The sweet lines that I have stolen,
From the song of ‘Hiawatha,’
And return them, and restore them,
To their great and gifted author.

On the other hand, the Reverend George Strong (1832-1912), writing under the name Marc Antony Henderson, couldn’t abide what he perceived as the repetitive rhythm and primitive structure of “Hiawatha” and so set forth this parody.

He killed the noble Mudjokivis.
Of the skin he made him mittens,
Made them with the fur side inside,
Made them with the skin side outside.
He, to get the warm side inside,
Put the inside skin side outside.
He, to get the cold side outside,
Put the warm side fur side inside.
That’s why he put the fur side inside,
Why he put the skin side outside,
Why he turned them inside outside.

Without political bias, I must admit that I enjoyed this Hiawatha parody during the 2020 presidential campaign.

In the wigwam called the White House,
Lived the big chief known as POTUS,
Called The Donald, GOP tribe.
Fought a battle with his rival,
Amtrak Joe, one Democratic.
One man leaves when two men enter,
Fought for days and weeks and longer,
Fighting still this mighty combat.
Who will be the POTUS winner?
Will The Donald leave the wigwam?
We will know on 3 November.

* * *

No less a personage than Rudyard Kipling picked on a well-known Wordsworth poem as ripe for parody. The original:

She dwelt among the untrodden ways
Beside the springs of Dove,
A Maid whom there were none to praise
And very few to love:
A violet by a mossy stone
Half hidden from the eye!
—Fair as a star, when only one
Is shining in the sky.

She lived unknown, and few could know
When Lucy ceased to be;
But she is in her grave, and, oh,
The difference to me!

And Kipling’s automotive version:

He wandered down the mountain grade
Beyond the speed assigned –
A youth whom Justice often stayed
And generally fined.

He went alone, that none might know
If he could drive or steer.
Now he is in the ditch, and Oh!
The differential gear!

* * *

To my mind, the master parodist is probably Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (1832-1898) who used the pen-name Lewis Carroll. He scattered lively poems throughout “Alice in Wonderland” and “Through the Looking Glass.” Many readers assume that these are original verses when in fact almost all of them are parodies of existing poems.

For example, Dr. Isaac Watts wrote an instructive poem which begins:

How doth the little busy bee
Improve each shining hour,
And gather honey all the day
From every opening flower.

Alice remembers it this way:

How doth the little crocodile
Improve his shining tail,
And pour the waters of the Nile
On every golden scale.

Alice in Wonderland. Illustration by John Tenniel.

* * *

You may have encountered one of Robert Southey’s best-known poems:

You are old, Father William, the young man cried,
The few locks that are left you are gray,
You are hale, Father William, a hearty old man.
Now tell me the reason, I pray.

In the days of my youth, Father William replied
I remember’d that youth would fly fast,
And abused not my health and my vigour at first,
That I never might need them at last.

Using the same rhythm and slightly altering the language, Lewis Carroll wrote this:

“You are old, Father William,” the young man said,
“And your hair has become very white;
And yet you incessantly stand on your head –
Do you think, at your age, it is right?”

“In my youth,” Father William replied to his son,
“I feared it might injure the brain;
But, now that I’m perfectly sure I have none,
Why, I do it again and again.”

* * *

And so, you might ask, did Lewis Carroll ever parody Longfellow? You’ll recognize this rhythm: “In an age of imitation, I can claim no special merit for this slight attempt at doing what is known to be so easy. Any fairly practiced writer, with the slightest ear for rhythm, could compose, for hours together, in the easy running metre of The Song of Hiawatha. Having then distinctly stated that I challenge no attention in the following little poem to its merely verbal jingle, I must beg the candid reader to confine his criticism to its treatment of the subject.” Got it!

* * *

VIDEO.   Our video is all about parody, not to diminish the importance of imitation, but because parody is, well, a lot more fun.  Here are the members of the First Poetry Quartet with George Plimpton and other guests performing, first, the original poem and then the barbecue version! These are the poems being skewered:

Alfred Lord Tennyson                    The Charge of the Light Brigade

Robert Herrick                                  Upon Julia’s Clothes

Leigh Hunt                                          Jenny Kissed Me

Rudyard Kipling                               If

But first we begin with the story of Hero and Leander. That’s the Leander who used to swim across the dangerous waters of the Hellespont to visit his true love, the beautiful Hero. First we’ll have the classical version by Lord Byron who, of course included himself in the story, and then a modern Brooklyn version by Joseph Newman.