Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

The Stuffed Owl. An Anthology of Bad Verse, selected and arranged by D B Wyndham Lewis and Charles Lee.

There are other anthologies of bad and unintentionally funny verse, but none quite like ‘The Stuffed Owl’. That is because this one is compiled with such malicious glee, and it is funny from the first word of the preface to the last word of the index (I’ll come back to the index). In fact, the editorial interpolations are funnier than the bad verse, more often than not. The compilers state with great emphasis that no living poets have been included out of politeness, and it’s true: they have absolutely no intention of being polite. As with all anthologies, it is a book to dip into – reading well over 200 pages of Bad Verse, even if Good Bad Verse, is a little like eating a whole packet of Jaffa Cakes at one sitting – it ends up less pleasurable than it began. But dipping into it is such a delight – the verse, the tiny, hilarious biographical essays on the poets, and, of course, not forgetting the index.

DB Wyndham Lewis was the original Beachcomber, before the more famous J B Morton, and Charles Lee an author, chronicler of Cornwall, and senior editor at publishers J M Dent. The Stuffed Owl was published in 1930 (the second edition is the vital one, as it contains, you know what I’m going to say, yes, the index). In a way, it was a serious satire, especially of the much-maligned Victorian Age, although the earliest poet in the collection is the 17th century Abraham Cowley. I suppose it was part of the backlash, considered rash and daring, alongside iconoclastic works such as Eminent Victorians. But the main purpose of The Stuffed Owl was fun – wicked, malicious fun, poked at over-serious, high-minded poets of former ages.

The compilers in their Preface set out their criteria – the collection’s purpose is to represent Good Bad Verse, much rarer and more difficult to spot than Bad Bad Verse, we are told (and I believe it). Good Bad Verse is innocent of faults of craftsmanship. That’s what makes it Good: it is grammatical and metrical, and in many cases the poet’s skill with words is breath-taking. So what makes it Bad? There are two main characteristics: bathos, and grandiloquence, and sometimes, if you’re lucky, both at the same time. Other abiding characteristics of these immensely skilled writers are a tendency to over-seriousness, and a complete tin ear.

The authors represented here have mostly faded into obscurity, but by no means all. Wordsworth provided the title, and the anthology’s opening, magnificent piece of cloth-eared bathos:

“Spade! With which Wilkinson hath tilled his lands”

With unwonted delicacy, the rest of that sonnet is not quoted, however, it leads to some musing on why the inclusion of a middle-class surname will always turn Good Verse into Good Bad Verse at a stroke.

With 14 poems Wordsworth provides the greatest single contribution. Byron, Keats, Longfellow and Tennyson all find their place in here. But my favourites are the poets who do not turn up so often in other collections: for instance, Erasmus Darwin, grandfather of Charles, a remarkable figure in the intellectual life of the late 18th century, scientist and natural historian, who nevertheless couldn’t resist attempting to popularise science in long, long poems such as The Loves of the Plants, The Temple of Nature, and The Economy of Vegetation, and endears himself to us here by writing of the ‘Maiden Truffle’, in a passage devoted to asexual reproduction (“It might justly be added that in this age of universal exploitation in print of erotic situations Darwin’s tribute to the chastity of the truffle strikes a welcome note.”).

Then there is the Revd. Cornelius Whur, whose masterpiece is The Female Friend:

In this imperfect gloomy scene
Of complicated ill,
How rarely is a day serene,
The throbbing bosom still!
Will not a beauteous landscape bright,
Or music’s soothing sound,
Console the heart, afford delight,
And throw sweet peace around?
They may, but never comfort lend,
Like an accomplished female friend!

How good to know that one can be of some use in this world.

Another star is Julia Moore, The Sweet Singer of Michigan, who is here giving Lord Byron the benefit of the doubt:

The character of “Lord Byron”
Was of a low degree
Caused by his reckless conduct
And bad company.
He sprung from an ancient house
Noble, but poor, indeed.
His career on earth, was marred
By his own misdeeds.

Generous and tender-hearted,
Affectionate by extreme,
In temper he was wayward,
A poor “Lord” without means;
Ah, he was a handsome fellow
With great poetic skill,
His great intellectual powers
He could use at his will.”

Ah, the eternal lure of the bad boy – as very lately seen in the excuses made for Guy of Gisborne on the grounds of hotness in the latest Robin Hood – there is nothing new under the sun. However, I feel that Julia’s work here flirts with Bad Bad Verse; it doesn’t scan very well – but the whole thing is so hilarious that I expect the compilers just couldn’t help themselves.

Anyhow, enough quotations from the poets themselves; I promised you a peek at the index. Actually, there is a lot of pleasure to be derived from reading a skilfully constructed index in any book. There is great art in compiling a good one. Very few, however, are as funny, or as pointless as this one. Just a few of my favourite entries:

Eliza, takes the children to see a battle, 106; gets it in the neck, ibid.

Englishman, his heart a rich rough gem that leaps and strikes and glows and yearns, 200-1; sun never sets on his might, 201; thinks well of himself, ibid.

Italy, not recommended to tourists, 125; examples of what goes on there, 204, 219, 221

Lee, Miss R, said to resemble a cucumber, 184

Mothers, brave men weep at the mention of their, 232

Sheep, British, unhappy in exile, 81; urged by Colin to keep their wool on, ibid. See also Bleaters.

Workhouse, impassioned invitation to the, 78

I could go on and on.

The Stuffed Owl was still just about in print when I was a young librarian, but then it disappeared for years. I was delighted (in fact I think I might have made a bit of an exhibition of myself) when I discovered a newly published edition in Paris, in Shakespeare and Company. My copy proudly bears the bookshop’s stamp on the title page. The Stuffed Owl has been rescued by The New York Review Of Books, and given an introduction by poet and critic Billy Collins, of whom I had not heard, but who seems to have the right idea: “[…] such a bounty of god-awful poems to fill up their wicked anthology of bad verse.”

This book is my solace when I’m suffering from a surfeit of seriousness. I can grab it and open it at any page (including the index, naturally), and instantly get a reviving dose of utter ridiculousness, as I have just now: here, courtesy of the Earl of Lytton, is one of the examples of what goes on in Italy (page 219, remember? You see, the index is invaluable):

She sat with her guitar on her knee,
But she was not singing a note,
For someone had drawn (ah, who could it be?)
A knife across her throat.

Thank you. Just what I needed!

The Stuffed Owl. An anthology of bad verse, selected and arranged by D B Wyndham Lewis and Charles Lee. Introduction by Billy Collins. New York Review Books, 2003.
ISBN 9781590170385 264pp.

13 comments on “The Stuffed Owl. An Anthology of Bad Verse, selected and arranged by D B Wyndham Lewis and Charles Lee.

  1. annebrooke
    March 3, 2010

    Fabulous!! I must get this – your review has much cheered my morning, Hilary! I’m also very glad to see Wordsworth is well-represented – a poet who’s out of this world at his best, but achingly bad at his worst. I can remember a line from one of his longer poems, when he’s describing a pond:

    I’ve measured it from side to side,
    it’s eight foot long and five foot wide.

    Genius! (Though I may be a little dodgy on the exact measurements after all these years …)

    🙂

    Axxx

  2. Kirsty (Other Stories)
    March 3, 2010

    Brilliant, this is definitely going onto the wishlist!

    Does it, by chance, include any of the incomparable William Macgonagall? His most famous poem is the Tay Bridge Disaster, but I particularly enjoy Attempted Assassination of the Queen:

    Maclean must be a madman,
    Which is obvious to be seen,
    Or else he wouldn’t have tried to shoot
    Our most beloved Queen.

  3. Nikki
    March 3, 2010

    Well, you brightened up my morning no end! The index especially is inspired, I never knew an index could be funny!

  4. kirstyjane
    March 3, 2010

    For the stronger we our houses do build, Kirsty, the less chance we have of being killed.

    Thanks so much for this wonderful post, comrade H. I cannot stop giggling. This book is going on my list.

  5. Hilary
    March 3, 2010

    Thanks so much – I’m so glad I was a little ray of sunshine this morning. When, to quote Thomas Holley Chivers:

    ‘The Apollo Belvidere was adorning
    The chamber where Eulalie lay,
    While Aurora, the Rose of the Morning,
    Smiled full in the face of the Day.’

    Anne, you are so right – it makes my head hurt to think that the bard of Wilkinson’s Spade, and the accurate recorder of pond size, also wrote The Prelude. The pond is there, alright, not quite so huge, in the frightful poem The Thorn (original version, it says here, so maybe he made it better):

    And to the left, three yards beyond
    You see a little muddy pond,
    Though but of compass small, and bare
    To thirsty suns and parching air.
    I’ve measured it from side to side;
    ‘Tis three feet long, and two feet wide.

    Then at the end of the poem, poor Martha, stood up by the ‘unthinking’ (sic) Stephen, seems to spontaneously combust … can that be right?

    Poor Martha! On that woeful day
    A cruel, cruel fire, they say
    Into her bones was sent:
    It dried her body like a cinder
    And almost turned her brain to tinder

    It’s that word ‘almost’ that causes me to doubt.

    Sorry, Kirsties, no McGonagall – I refer you to the definition of Good Bad Verse. Looks like he didn’t pass the test. Can’t think why. Also, don’t you think (I know this is endlessly debated) that he knew? I’m in the camp of those who think that he can’t have been so ingenuous as not to know why people were lauding him. I suspect he knew exactly how to please by giving them more of the same. D’you want the 10 minute argument, or the 20 minute? 😉

    I forgot, by the way, to point out the truly wonderful aptness of the cover art of the new edition: Caspar David Friedrich – Landscape with Grave, Coffin and Owl. Absolutely perfect.

  6. annebrooke
    March 3, 2010

    Ooh, thanks, Hilary, for the pond confirmation – mine was obviously a lake! 🙂

    Axxx

  7. Hilary
    March 3, 2010

    At least in your version, Martha could have thrown herself in and doused the flames!

  8. Llyn
    March 5, 2010

    Thanks for that, Hilary. I need to have a giggle after today. I’m definately getting a copy for my poetry collection (three shelves and growing). \

    May I recommend an Australian treasure? One of our greatest comedians (by way of New Zealnd, to be fair), as done some research and has found out that all poetry came from Australia
    http://www.mrjohnclarke.com/poetry.shtml

    I heartily recommend the poem of Fifteen Bobsworth Longfellow
    http://www.mrjohnclarke.com/poetry-poems-05.shtml
    and Arnold Wordsworth
    http://www.mrjohnclarke.com/poetry-poems-01.shtml

  9. llewin
    March 29, 2010

    glad to see this work is gaining some newfound popularity! when i was studying lit it was a sort unofficially on the syllabus as a how-not-to-write guide. thing is, we’d be falling over at some piece or other and fellow students (on other courses) would fail to see the poetic blunders. in which case we’d direct them to the introductory pieces, which are perhaps the funniest of the anthology.

  10. Richard Raymond III
    August 15, 2011

    I have in my small home library an excellent companion to “The Stuffed Owl”, to wit (and tu whoo) “The World’s Worst Poetry”, compiled by Stephen Robins, Prion Books Ltd. 2002.
    In the Introduction, Robins mentions most favorably D.B. Wyndham Lewis, but oddly enough not a word about “The Stuffed Owl”.Aside from bad poetry, I have had the honor (?) of several Honorable Mentions in Prof. Scott Rice’s collection of bad prose in the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest. Am presently making a project of collecting a number of my own poems (none of which qualify either as Bad Bad or Good Bad), which I mean to publish under the title “Comic Ballads”. Stay tuned. Richard Raymond, III, Roanoke, VA

  11. Richard Raymond, III
    June 4, 2013

    Ah dear friends, if only you could read my yet-unpublished (though I’m still hopeful) “Comic Ballads”–it would prove an infallible antidote to the poison of wretched poetry! Even in my sophisticated literary circle, such verses as “No Matter How You Slice It, Boys, It’s Still Salome”, and “Captain John Smith’s Jollies, or, Pamunkey Business on the Rappahammock” have drawn an appreciative snicker.

  12. Marianna
    July 27, 2015

    And surely the most famous of all D.B. Wyndham Lewis:

    The thought comes often
    Into my mine ..
    Will I ever see
    Your glorious behind?

  13. Tim Cleal
    December 6, 2017

    alright! But let someone compile a new bad verse book for 2017 including living awful poets. Come on! Be brave! It’s not slander it’s opinion. Mine? My suggestion? 99% of the output of Lemn Sissy

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