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.
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.