Thursday, June 19, 2008

A Narrative Poem Brief Enough to Enjoy

Hi, Everyone.

I've been reading the Oxford Book of Narrative Verse lately, and all I could think was: "My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings/Look upon my works, ye mighty, and despair!" Narrative poetry is, quite simply, poems that tell a story. We're talking about "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" or "The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere" or "The Goblin Market" or pretty much anything by Chaucer. These things used to be way popular. Families gathered together in the evening to listen to them being read. Narrative poetry was the Buffy the Vampire Slayer of its time.

So what happened to it? First radio, then television, now computers. Today, with the best will in the world, you'd find it tedious going to wade through even so jaunty a piece as Alfred Noyes's "The Highwayman" ("The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees/The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas") on a computer screen.

But -- lucky you! -- I found a narrative poem brief enough for you to enjoy. And here it is:

An Elegy on the Death of a Mad Dog
by Oliver Goldsmith

Good people all, of every sort,
Give ear unto my song;
And if you find it wondrous short,
It cannot hold you long.

In Islington there was a man,
Of whom the world might say
That still a godly race he ran,
Whene'er he went to pray.

A kind and gentle heart he had,
To comfort friends and foes;
The naked every day he clad,
When he put on his clothes.

And in that town a dog was found,
As many dogs there be,
Both mongrel, puppy, whelp and hound,
And curs of low degree.

This dog and man at first were friends;
But when a pique began,
The dog, to gain some private ends,
Went mad and bit the man.

Around from all the neighbouring streets
The wondering neighbours ran,
And swore the dog had lost his wits,
To bite so good a man.

The wound it seemed both sore and sad
To every Christian eye;
And while they swore the dog was mad,
They swore the man would die.

But soon a wonder came to light,
That showed the rogues they lied:
The man recovered of the bite,
The dog it was that died.

Pretty straightforward, eh? Did you catch the bit about Friedrich Nietzsche? Well, a good thing you didn't, because it isn't there. When I went looking for the poem on the Web, though, I discovered that a lot of sites solemnly explain that the "good man" was Nietzsche (best known for his proclamation of the Super-Man and for the statement "God is dead!"), the poem a satire on him, and the poison from which the dog died his philosophy. Which is a good trick, because Goldsmith died seventy years before Nietzsche was born!

This shows you the dangers of over-analysis. Even if the poem was a satire on some specific individual (and it might have been), its success and longevity depend on its being enjoyable to those of us who aren't in on the original joke.

Incidentally, I've seen the first four lines:

Good people all, of every sort,
Give ear unto my song;
And if you find it wondrous short,
It cannot keep you long.

reprinted in books of nursery rhymes. As Bill Gibson once wrote, "The street finds its own use for things."

All best,


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