Mark Twain the poet…Can bad poetry be great literature?

Mark Twain famously said that he detested poetry, and yet he wrote more than 120 poems. Herein some choice morsels.

There is always a tug on my heartstrings when I have a chance to write about Mark Twain. I was born just half a mile from his gravesite in Elmira, in upstate New York. I came to know his niece who taught at the local college, and my grandmother used to regale me with stories of how she as a young girl would regularly pass him on the streets.

He married Olivia Langdon from a fine Elmira family, and he spent 20 summers at her sister’s farmhouse overlooking the city. There he wrote many of his best known books including “Life on the Mississippi” and “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” We connected irrevocably when I was privileged to produce film versions of six of these major works.

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Mark Twain famously said that he detested poetry, and yet he wrote more than 120 poems. Most of them were occasional verses, but two that he wrote for “Huckleberry Finn” are legendary and will be performed on the video link below.

Of his other poetry, here are some stanzas he wrote for the Traveler’s Record in January 1877 describing the unusual house he had built on Farmington Avenue in Hartford, still very much worth a visit. (Biographer Justin Kaplan describes it as “part steamboat, part medieval fortress and part cuckoo clock.”) The poem takes off from the nursery rhyme about the house that Jack built.

These are the bricks of various hue
And shape and position, straight and askew,
With its nooks and angles and gables too,
Which make up the house presented to view,
The curious house that Mark built.

This is the sunny and snug retreat,
At once both city and country seat,
Where he grinds out many a comical grist,
The author, architect, humorist,
The auctioneer and dramatist,
Who lives in the house that Mark built.

He goes on to characterize the owner, and with promotion ever in mind, he manages to work in several of his book titles:

Here is the Innocent Abroad,
The patron too of the lightning rod;
And here disports the Jumping Frog,
Roughing It on his native log;
Tom Sawyer, with his graceless tricks,
Amuses the horse-car lunatics;
And here is the grim historic sage,
Who hurled in the facts of the Gilded Age,
In this curious house that Mark built.

This is the ‘House that Mark Built’ in Hartford, Connecticut.

Twain did not always find it easy to write in his splendidly curious Hartford home. Partly this was because of social and neighborly distractions – Harriet Beecher Stowe lived next door – and partly because his top-floor office had a small writing table but a large and inviting billiard table, which suggested this philosophic rumination:

When all your days are dark with doubt;
And drying hope is at its worst;
When all life’s balls are scattered wide,
With not a shot in sight, to left or right,
Don’t give it up;
Advance your cue and shut your eyes,
And take the cushion first.

He was capable of more serious fare, and when his favorite daughter, Susy, died at the age of just 24, he remembered a poem he had once read and adapted it for her gravestone:

“Warm summer sun
Shine kindly here.
Warm southern wind
Blow softly here.

Green sod above
Lie light, lie light
Good night, dear heart,
Good night, good night.”

*      *      *

But now to the question of bad poetry and great literature. Ernest Hemingway declared that “all modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.” And among the highlights of Twain’s masterpiece are two brilliant pieces of bad poetry: a parody of obituary verse called “Ode to Stephen Dowling Bots, Dec’d” and an inventive mashup of Shakespeare, specifically Hamlet’s Soliloquy.

Obituary poetry was common in the mid-19th century, especially in American newspapers and periodicals. Twain was particularly amused by a notoriously awful poet named Julia A. Moore , the self-styled “Sweet Singer of Michigan,” and her verse may likely have been the inspiration for the Ode parody.

The setting is this. Huck has been taken in by Colonel Grangerford and his family, who are still lamenting the untimely death of fifteen year old Emmeline Grangerford. Her scrap-book has a funereal collection of drawings and poems that she created “out of her own head” and shows that she could write about anything, “just so it was sadful.” This stanza is typical:

Then list with tearful eye,
Whilst I his fate do tell.
His soul did from this cold world fly,
By falling down a well.

And like most such poems, the word “Alas” appears a lot.

*      *      *

Mark Twain’s inventive revision of Hamlet’s Soliloquy is a literary tour-de-force. He assigns it to a traveling con man who styles himself as the Duke of Bridgewater and who delivers it with confused memory but great ardor to an incredulous audience of townspeople.

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Some of you might like to identify the sources of Twain’s mashup, so here is the text. Small clue: a number of lines are actually taken from the original Hamlet’s Soliloquy. Other lines are lifted from elsewhere in the play. There are conspicuous borrowings from “Macbeth,” and even a smidgen of “Richard III.” Happy hunting!

Hamlet’s Soliloquy

To be or not to be; that is the bare bodkin
That makes calamity of so long life;
For who would fardels bear, till Birnam Wood do come to Dunsinane,
But that the fear of something after death
Murders the innocent sleep,
Great nature’s second course,
And makes us rather sling the arrows of outrageous fortune
Than fly to others that we know not of.
There’s the respect must give us pause:
Wake Duncan with thy knocking! I would thou couldst;
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The law’s delay, and the quietus which his pangs might take,
In the dead waste and middle of the night, when churchyards yawn
In customary suits of solemn black,
But that the undiscovered country from whose bourne no traveler returns,
Breathes forth contagion on the world,
And thus the native hue of resolution, like the poor cat i’ the adage,
Is sicklied o’er with care,
And all the clouds that lowered o’er our housetops,
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.
‘Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished.
But soft you, the fair Ophelia:
Ope not thy ponderous and marble jaws,
But get thee to a nunnery—go!

And now get thee to a video –- and please click on the link below for Richard Kiley’s heart-on-sleeve rendition of the “Ode to Stephen Dowling Bots Dec’d” and Jim Dale’s exuberant performance of the Mark Twain version of Hamlet’s Soliloquy, both slightly abridged and both from the four-hour PBS production of “Huckleberry Finn.”

CLICK ON THIS LINK FOR VIDEO   HUCKLEBERRY FINN