Magazine article The Spectator

The Deceptive Quality of Light Verse

Magazine article The Spectator

The Deceptive Quality of Light Verse

Article excerpt

When cares attack, and life seems black, How sweet it is to pot a yak, Or puncture hares or grizzly bears, And others I could mention;

But in my animal Who's Who No name stands higher than the gnu, And each new gnu that comes in view Receives my prompt attention.

Wodehouse, of course, as I am sure all Spectator readers won't need to be told, from one of the Mulliner stories as I remember, and a perfect snatch of light verse, witty and dancing.

Just what constitutes light verse is no more easy to define than to decide what separates verse from poetry. Auden included Kipling's 'Danny Deever' in an anthology of light verse, though a poem about a military execution might seem rather to belong to a book of grim verse. This is not so much because of the subject matter as the tone.

Light verse can certainly treat of the dark side of things, but does so light-heartedly;

witness Harry Graham's Ruthless Rhymes or Housman's ditty about a rather nasty rail accident which begins, ' "Hallelujah" was the only observation/ That escaped Lieutenant Colonel Mary Jane.'

Light verse may require more talent than poetry. Certainly it demands a high level of craftsmanship. The metrical skill displayed by Barham in his Ingoldsby Legends is beyond that of which many admired modern poets are capable - no names, no pack drill, though some highly esteemed ones come to mind. Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats is a more remarkable example of linguistic dexterity than Four Quartets, though the Quartets may be great poetry and Possum is playing with words and fancy.

Good light verse sticks in the memory almost unbidden. You have to work to get a passage from, say, The Prelude or Paradise Lost by heart, but light verse, even when it is not written for the musical theatre by the likes of Cole Porter and Noel Coward, and has therefore no accompanying tune, lodges itself in the mind with a dancing rhythm.

Of course the distinction between light verse and poetry is often blurred. Don Juan is a very great poem, with passages of sublime beauty, but much of it is light verse, like Byron's recipe for dealing with a hangover that begins: 'Ring for your valet, bid him quickly bring/ Some hock and soda water.'

Very good advice too, as I recall from my own drinking days. .

The 19th century was the great age of light verse, partly, I would suppose, because most who wrote it had received a classical education, and had been required to put passages of English into Latin, or indeed Greek, verse. …

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