Amigos

Christopher Ricks

  • The Faber Book of Parodies edited by Simon Brett
    Faber, 383 pp, £8.95, May 1984, ISBN 0 571 13125 5
  • Lilibet: An Account in Verse of the Early Years of the Queen until the Time of her Accession by Her Majesty
    Blond and Briggs, 95 pp, £6.95, May 1984, ISBN 0 85634 157 6

Faber – Faber have published a very good anthology of parodies. This is not it.

The superiority of Dwight Macdonald’s old enduring anthology to Simon Brett’s new ephemeral one begins in Macdonald’s not being a sloven. When Pope was imitating Chaucer, he did not write, ‘This sely Clerk full doth lout,’ but ‘full low doth lout’, a line which has rhythm and sense. Lewis Carroll, bent upon Wordsworth, did not write,

I weep, for it reminds me so,
Of that man I used to know –

but ‘so/Of that old man’; and ‘I thanked him very much for telling me’ is very much better as Carroll wrote it, without the ‘very’. A poet called Lord Alfred Tennyson, not to be confused with Alfred Lord Douglas, briefly surfaces like the Kraken; the poem is here a Mort and there a Morte. Max Beerbohm’s parody of Henry James is readily and roughly transcribed: for ‘caught in her tone’, read ‘caught her tone’; for ‘feverish’, read ‘feverishly’; for ‘physically’, read ‘psychically’ ... Mis-spelling, mis-punctuation and misquoting are much in evidence. In his parody of Ambrose Philips, Henry Carey’s excremental vision (here’s mud in your eye) gets blurred: ‘Cracking-packing like a lady’. Not much of a wise-cack. Can anything be trusted? Perhaps Anon (it is hard to check) really ended his ‘Ancient Mariner’ with the lines

A sadder and later man
    I rose the morrow morn,

but it would have been wiser of her or him not perversely to butcher Coleridge’s rhythm (‘A sadder and a wiser man’), and the mangling may just be Brett’s work. (A.E. Housman to his publisher Grant Richards with the fifth edition of A Shropshire Lad: ‘I enclose a copy of our joint work. The results of your collaboration are noted on pages 4, 22, 45, 55, 71, 77, 78, 92, 116.’)

Then there is Brett’s larger failure: first, to think out what is and is not a parody, and second, to know the difference between a good one and a bad. New to me and truly funny, for instance, is ‘The Skinhead Hamlet’ by Richard Curtis. I am grateful, and yet this gift-horse must be looked in the mouth since it is a stalking-horse. It isn’t a parody at all but a spoof and a burlesque. Brett’s dullard identifying of two main types of parody (of style and of form!) isn’t even kept faith with. Ezra Pound’s poem ‘Mr Housman’s Message’ (unlike Housman’s ‘Fragment of a Greek Tragedy’, which finds no place here) is not a parody: the point is not that it doesn’t succeed in hitting off Housman’s style or form but that it doesn’t try. The last item in Brett’s book is Pound’s ‘The Lake Isle’, last because of Yeats and the alphabet. But though the title openly alludes to ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’, this retort of a poem isn’t a parody of Yeats’s anthology piece, any more than Beckett’s Worstward Ho is a parody of Charles Kingsley’s Westward Ho!. Brett has therefore come up with almost the only way of being calumniatingly unjust to Ezra Pound. And, even-handedly, to Pound’s impugners. J.B. Morton was often funny and acute, but his philistine squib against Pound,‘Another Canto’, could be found plausible as a parody of Pound only by those who had never actually read a canto of Pound, since it bears practically no resemblance to how Pound writes:

Monsieur Ezra Pound croit que
By using foreign words
He will persuade the little freaks
Who call themselves intellectuals
To believe that he is saying
Quelque chose très deep, ma foi!

Often Brett throws in some jokey shards, but the fact that a parody may, among other things, be a joke about poetry doesn’t mean that a joke about poetry is necessarily a parody.

When lovely woman stoops to folly
The evening can be awfully jolly.
                                             (Mary Demetriadis)

Full fathom five thy father lies,
His aqualung was the wrong size.
                                     (June Mercer Langfield)

Such laughter is submarine but not profound, and anyway has very little to do with parody. But then it is often hard to tell whether Brett is an incompetent anthologist, or whether his parodists are incompetent, or both. Under Tennyson, there is ‘Little Miss Muffet: Reset as an Arthurian idyll’. I don’t know whether Anon meant this as a parody of Tennyson; I hope not. If so, its maladroit ignorance ought to have ruled it out. Nobody who has read Tennyson could think that his verse ever moves like this:

When one – some wondrous stately knight –
Of our great Arthur’s ‘Table Round’;
One, brave as Launcelot, and
Spotless as the pure Sir Galahad,
Should come, and coming, choose her
For his love, and in her name,
And for the sake of her fair eyes,
Should do most knightly deeds.

Fifty lines of this stuff. And could anyone, whether friend or foe to F.R. Leavis, have ever thought that Leavis writes like this?

If destiny must choose me as its messenger, I do not shirk from the call, but cry out in all directions: Beware, you complacent dolts who are still wallowing in Victorian trash! Beware, you academic leeches who will praise any dull sonnet you can find that has not already been worked over by your brethren! A judgment day is at hand! You are going to have to submit your crackpot notions and juvenile tastes to the severe gaze of common sense, intelligence and Life!

I went out at once and reread these people, and so did Trixie, and we agreed that they were no good at all. Now that I have gotten down to Lawrence alone, the number of English novelists on my Index is greater than ever, and this I take to be a sign that things may be improving at last on the literary scene.

Another soul saved from dilettantism, if I may put it thus.

Leavis never put it thus. Some of Frederick Crews’s book The Pooh Perplex is parody, but this isn’t: it is a lampoon which supposes itself, not to be imitating Leavis’s style or form, but to be exposing his essential nature – and translating it into something recognisable to Americans, since the English don’t say ‘shirk from the call’ or ‘gotten down’. I find it crass, but this doesn’t seem to me as harsh a criticism as would be entailed in supposing that Crews, no fool, imagined himself in such sentences to be parodying the style or form of a man whose characteristic procedures were instinct with Jamesian (Henry Jamesian) timing:

Yes, one concedes grudgingly, overcoming the inevitable revulsion, as one turns the pages of this new edition (The ‘Twickenham’), in which the poem trickles thinly through a desert of apparatus, to disappear time and again from sight – yes, there has to be a Dunciad annotated, garnished and be-prosed in this way.

This, then, is less an anthology of parodies than of facetiousnesses. Sometimes it is relieved, though not redeemed, by a strong burlesque. Its most striking aspect is its flattery, and flattery is not the sincerest form of imitation. It is the media-men and the culturalists who run this very contemporary show: Miles Kington and Russell Davies, Alan Coren and Clive James, Malcolm Bradbury and George Melly. The parodied A’s have it: Douglas Adams (hitchhiking through a galaxy of fading stars), Woody Allen, Kingsley Amis, Anon, John Aubrey, Auden and Ayckbourn. An Auden parody is called ‘Self-Congratulatory Ode ...’, but it is the purr of mutual congratulation which is deafening. ‘Parody is frequently welcomed by its victims, who recognise it as a compliment, however backhanded.’ Christopher Reid touches on all this, not backhandedly but caressingly, in his ‘Letter to Myself’ of Clive James:

Dear Clive, I’ve meant to scribble you a letter
For some time now. I know you like to get a
Brown-noser now and then, and – well – who better

To do the honours than yours truly, Clive?
Over the past few years I think that I’ve
Proven myself the handiest hack alive

(Or even dead) at pumping up the egos
Of my illustrious Grub Street amigos.

Lilibet does not pretend to be made of sterner stuff. An Account in Verse of the Early Years of the Queen until the Time of Her Accession, it too is not a parody, but it knows so, and is freed to be an openly affectionate pastiche, affectionate to the Queen and to Regency poeticality:

And now, for the duration of the War,
At Windsor Castle they must be embower’d!
Her parents stay in London, better far
To keep the Heir Apparent close entower’d.
At first, she feels how very cruel they are,
And, entering its courts, feels overpower’d.
  How ghostly Windsor is! How like a morgue is
  The atmosphere, unsuitable for corgis.