Lightening the Mood

Lightening the Mood

19 June 2020: Poet’s Day 12

Time to change the mood I think, so I’ve chosen poetry that amuses me this week, and I hope it will amuse you too.

We introduce the theme with Marriott Edgar’s monologue for Stanley Holloway, “Albert and the Lion”, then go on to Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch’s word play in “The Harbour of Fowey” and finish by introducing Don Marquis’s famous character archy (lower case deliberate—see my comments on the poem) as he interviews the Pharoah.

Poem 34. The Lion and Albert

“A grand little lad was young Albert; all dressed in his best; quite a swell, with a stick with an ‘orse’s ‘ead ‘andle: the finest that Woolworth’s could sell.”

Marriott Edgar (1880—1951)

There’s a famous seaside place called Blackpool,
That’s noted for fresh air and fun,
And Mr and Mrs Ramsbottom
Went there with young Albert, their son.

A grand little lad was young Albert
All dressed in his best; quite a swell
With a stick with an ‘orse’s ‘ead ‘andle
The finest that Woolworth’s could sell.

They didn’t think much to the Ocean
The waves, they were fiddlin’ and small
There was no wrecks and nobody drownded
Fact, nothing to laugh at, at all.

So, seeking for further amusement
They paid and went into the zoo
Where they’d lions and tigers and camels
And old ale and sandwiches too.

There were one great big lion called Wallace
His nose were all covered with scars
He lay in a somnolent posture
With the side of his face on the bars.

Now Albert had heard about lions
How they was ferocious and wild
To see Wallace lying so peaceful
Well, it didn’t seem right to the child.

So straight ‘way the brave little feller
Not showing a morsel of fear
Took his stick with its ‘orse’s ‘ead ‘andle
And shoved it in Wallace’s ear.

You could see the lion didn’t like it
For giving a kind of a roll
He pulled Albert inside the cage with ‘im
And swallowed the little lad ‘ole

Then Pa, who had seen the occurrence
And didn’t know what to do next
Said “Mother! Yon lion’s ‘et Albert”
And Mother said, “Ee, I am vexed!”

Then Mr and Mrs Ramsbottom
Quite rightly, when all’s said and done
Complained to the Animal Keeper
That the lion had eaten their son.

The keeper was quite nice about it
He said “What a nasty mishap
Are you sure it’s your boy he’s eaten?”
Pa said “Am I sure? There’s his cap!”

The manager had to be sent for
He came and he said “What’s to do?”
Pa said “Yon lion’s ‘et Albert
And ‘im in his Sunday clothes, too.”

Then Mother said, “Right’s right, young feller
I think it’s a shame and a sin
For a lion to go and eat Albert
And after we’ve paid to come in.”

The manager wanted no trouble
He took out his purse right away
Saying “How much to settle the matter?”
And Pa said, “What do you usually pay?”

But Mother had turned a bit awkward
When she thought where her Albert had gone
She said “No! someone’s got to be summonsed”
So that was decided upon.

Then off they went to the Police Station
In front of the Magistrate chap
They told ‘im what happened to Albert
And proved it by showing his cap.

The Magistrate gave his opinion
That no one was really to blame
And he said that he hoped the Ramsbottoms
Would have further sons to their name.

At that Mother got proper blazing
“And thank you, sir, kindly,” said she
“What—waste all our lives raising children
To feed ruddy lions? Not me!”

This is an early memory—my parents had an LP of Stanley Holloway performing a number of his popular monologues, including this one, “Sam, Pick Oop Tha Musket”, “The Return of Albert”, “Three Ha’pence a Foot” and so on. I’ve always enjoyed them because of their gentle comedy and the ways in which the little man often wins out against officialdom. In some ways, the spirit of these monologues is like that of the Kipling poem “Tommy” which I covered a few weeks back.

The art in this poem is its simplicity and the comedy implicit in the Ramsbottoms’ phlegmatic response to their son’s disappearance: “Ee, I am vexed” is perhaps the most unlikely reply to Pa’s assertion, “Mother! Yon lion’s et Albert”. I also enjoy the moments when the manager offers Pa a bribe to “settle the matter” and Pa asks, “What do you usually pay?” and when Mother says, “I think it’s a shame and a sin for a lion to go and eat Albert, and after we’ve paid to come in.”

Edgar had heard a story about a couple who had taken their son to a zoo, where he had been eaten by a lion—he mentioned this to Holloway who had also heard the tale; Edgar presented Holloway with the script for the monologue shortly thereafter. The poem is set in Blackpool, where the zoo was at the bottom of the Tower; just along from the Tower is The Albert and the Lion pub.

Marriott Edgar was a Scottish writer and performer who is best known for the monologues performed by Stanley Holloway but he also performed in pantomimes (usually as the dame) and wrote the scripts of many Gainsborough Pictures comedy films in the 1930s and 40s. He was the half-brother of the writer Edgar Wallace.

Albert and the Lion, performed by Roy Hudd, is on YouTube at https://youtu.be/qUVzki2j87k.

The version by Stanley Holloway is at https://youtu.be/oaw-savyK0s.

Poem 35. The Harbour of Fowey

“And, the spelling I use, should the critics condemn, why, I have my own vuse and I don’t think of themn.”

Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch (1863—1944)

O THE Harbour of Fowey
Is a beautiful spot,
And it’s there I enjowey
To sail in a yot;
Or to race in a yacht
Round a mark or a buoy —
Such a beautiful spacht
Is the Harbour of Fuoy!

But the wave mountain-high,
And the violent storm,
Do I risk them? Not Igh!
But prefer to sit worm
With a book on my knees
By the library fire,
While I list to the brees
Rising hire and hire.

And my leisure ‘s addressed
To composing of verse
Which, if hardly the bessed,
Might be easily werse.
And, the spelling I use
Should the critics condemn,
Why, I have my own vuse
And I don’t think of themn.

Yes, I have my own views:
But the teachers I follow
Are the Lyrical Miews
And the Delphic Apollow.
Unto them I am debtor
For spelling and rhyme,
And I’m doing it bebtor
And bebtor each thyme.

I love clever poems like this that play with the English language. The poet deliberately mis-spells words so that their pattern follows that of the word they rhyme with—Fowey and “enjowey”, yacht and “spacht”, and so on. British English is replete with words whose pronunciation has little or nothing to do with their spelling—it is hardly alone in this, though perhaps Brits are peculiar in their enjoyment of such wordplay.

This poem reminds me strongly of the clever verbal dexterity shown by Ronnie Barker in his monologues.

Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch was a Cornish writer, mostly remembered for his literary criticism and for The Oxford Book of English Verse 1250—1900. Kenneth Grahame identified Quiller-Couch as the inspiration for Ratty in The Wind in the Willows. He was educated at Trinity College, Oxford and after a short period as a lecturer in Oxford and then as a journalist in London, he settled in Fowey, Cornwall. He wrote popular novels and verse as well as his anthology of verse and became the King Edward VII Professor of English Literature at Cambridge, where he influenced the broadcaster Alistair Cooke.

He was the originator of the popular advice to authors, “Murder your darlings”, and wrote a notable ghost story, “The Roll Call of the Reef”, based on the wreck of HMS Primrose in 1809.

Poem 36. archy interviews a pharaoh

“i brood on beer my scampering whiffle snoot on beer says he”

Note: there is a reason for this entire poem having no capital letters or punctuation. Those familiar with archy will know why; those who are not will discover the reason after the poem.

Don Marquis (1874—1937)

boss i went
and interviewed the mummy
of the egyptian pharaoh
in the metropolitan museum
as you bade me to do

what ho
my regal leatherface
says i

greetings
little scatter footed
scarab
says he

kingly has been
says i
what was your ambition
when you had any

insignificant
and journalistic insect
says the royal crackling
in my tender prime
i was too dignified
to have anything as vulgar
as ambition
the ra ra boys
in the seti set
were too haughty
to be ambitious
we used to spend our time
feeding the ibises
and ordering
pyramids sent home to try on
but if i had my life
to live over again
i would give dignity
the regal razz
and hire myself out
to work in a brewery

old tan and tarry
says i
i detect in your speech
the overtones
of melancholy

yes i am sad
says the majestic mackerel
i am as sad
as the song
of a soudanese jackal
who is wailing for the blood red
moon he cannot reach and rip

on what are you brooding
with such a wistful
wishfulness
there in the silences
confide in me
my imperial pretzel
says i

i brood on beer
my scampering whiffle snoot
on beer says he

my sympathies
are with your royal
dryness says i

my little pest
says he
you must be respectful
in the presence
of a mighty desolation
little archy
forty centuries of thirst
look down upon you

oh by isis
and by Osiris
says the princely raisin
and by pish and phthush and phthah
by the sacred book perembru
and all the gods
that rule from the upper
cataract of the nile
to the delta of the duodenum
i am dry
i am as dry
as the next morning mouth
of a dissipated desert
as dry as the hoofs
of the camels of Timbuctoo
little fussy face
i am as dry as the heart
of a sand storm
at high noon in hell
i have been lying here
and there
for four thousand years
with silicon in my esophagus
and gravel in my gizzard
thinking
thinking
thinking
of beer

divine drouth
says i
imperial fritter
continue to think
there is no law against
that in this country
old salt codfish
if you keep quiet about it
not yet

what country is this
asks the poor prune

my reverend juicelessness
this is a beerless country
says i
well well said the royal
desiccation
my political opponents back home
always maintained
that i would wind up in hell
and it seems they had the right dope

and with these hopeless words
the unfortunate residuum
gave a great cough of despair
and turned to dust and debris
right in my face
it being the only time
i ever actually saw anybody
put the cough
into sarcophagus

dear boss as i scurry about
i hear of a great many
tragedies in our midsts
personally i yearn
for some dear friend to pass over
and leave to me
a boot legacy
yours for the second coming
of gambrinus

archy

Archy is the creation of the American writer Don Marquis, who also wrote “This is Another Day” which I covered last week. Archy (or more properly archy) is a cockroach containing the reincarnated soul of a free-verse poet. Every night, archy dives off the framework of Marquis’s typewriter onto its keys, building up poems one letter at a time. Since he is a cockroach, he is unable to operate the machine’s shift key (it’s all he can do to insert new lines) so everything he ‘writes’ is in lower case and there are no punctuation marks.

One thing that amuses me about this poem is the variety of terms archy and the pharaoh use to describe each other: “imperial pretzel”, “your royal dryness” and “my reverend juicelessness” on one side and “scatterfooted scarab”, “insignificant and journalistic insect”, and “scampering whiffle snoot” on the other. “Whiffle snoot” makes me smile every time, like the made-up words in Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky”.

I love the comic story that develops of the pharaoh lusting for a beer after four millennia only to discover that he is in the America of the 1930s: the time of Prohibition (“my reverend juicelessness this is a beerless country says i”) and that in his own words, “my political opponents back home always maintained that i would wind up in hell and it seems they had the right dope”.

The next lines are irresistible: “the unfortunate residuum gave a great cough of despair and turned to dust and debris right in my face it being the only time i ever actually saw anybody put the cough into sarcophagus”. I love the wit that hears the word cough in sarcophagus and makes a joke out of it.

It seems as if Marquis was not a proponent of Prohibition and viewed it as the first step on a deleterious path, judging from the line, “continue to think there is no law against that in this country old salt codfish if you keep quiet about it not yet”.

The last lines give archy’s opinions: although he hears of many tragedies, he wishes only for one of his dear friends to die and leave him a “boot legacy”—bootleg being illegally brewed alcohol, this would be a gift of illegal booze. Gambrinus, by the way, was a mythical king credited with the first brewing of beer.

You can find Sam Waterston’s excellent performance of this poem on YouTube at https://youtu.be/MoKeTajP2y4.

Also, the American actor, singer and clown Gale McNeeley wrote and performed a one-man show celebrating 100 years of Archy and Mehitabel in 2016. The performance is at https://youtu.be/yoHjeT_MEEw.