Wednesday 10 July 2024

Review: Hudibras by Samuel Butler

 Just before I got into eighteenth century literature, I discovered Pepys. I loved the honesty, openness and joy of his diaries and, as a man in my very early twenties, was not quite mature enough to see what an utter slimeball he could also be. Rather like how there are many eighteenth century projects that revel in the lives of prostitutes as bawdy good fun and neglect the real desperate nature of it, I saw Pepys’s amorous dalliances as picturesque fun. Something I no longer can, which has soured the reading of him for me.

There are some elements of Pepys’s diary that are still very relatable though, and one of them is his relationship with Samuel Butler’s Hudibras. Buying the first volume when it was the hot new thing, hearing about its “drollery” and feeling he “needs go find it out”. Ultimately, he was disappointed, finding it not very funny. What’s more he worries he was showing “some ill humour to be so against that which all the world cries up to be the example of wit”.


So, when the second volume came out, he went to the booksellers again to get a copy of Hudibras “which I buy not but borrow to read, to see if it be as good as the first, which the world cries so mightily up; though it hath not a good liking in me, though I had tried by twice or three times reading to bring myself to think it witty.” Finally, he had to admit to himself, “I cannot, I confess, see enough where the wit lies”.


I completely understand his utter irritation at simply not ‘getting’ something that everyone else is raving about. I like the fact that he says he read it two or three times, trying to like it but failing. As someone who has been diverted down their own media/literary/cultural path, I sometimes find myself at a place where I simply can’t understand the appeal (The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and The Horse, I’m looking at you). So I thought I’d read Hudibras and see how I got on.


Hudibras is in many ways a take on Don Quixote. An opinionated, high-minded knight sets off with his squire and they find themselves embroiled in petty street fights, tangles with wizards and having philosophical discussions about their different views on the world. Though, in Hudibras, these discussions often end up in vigorous arguments also.


The difference is that Hudibras has not been turned by reading chivalric fiction, but religious and political pamphlets, being a Colonel in the parliamentary army during the English Civil War. Ralph, his squire has been equally radicalised by the works of dissenters and puritans. The book is set after the death of Oliver Cromwell and the failure of his son, to be known to history as Tumble-Down Dick, to successfully replace him. Change is in the air and King Charles II will shortly be invited back onto the throne. Their time is over.


At the outset, they spy a street-fiddler and some people setting up a session of bear-baiting. Having various reasons to dislike these practices (mainly odd ones about the symbolism of the bear-baiting) they wade into the crowd, imprison the fiddler and accidentally set the bear free, causing chaos. Having won this battle, they congratulate themselves on their goodness before the crowd come back, beat them up and put them in the pillory as punishment for the damage they’ve done.


A rich widow comes and pays their bail, on the proviso that Hudibras promises to whip himself in contrition. He, falling in love with her money, tries to woo her but she is immune, declaring she will only love someone who doesn’t love her. Winning this widow is now Hudibras’s chief goal in the book.


He goes to the wizard Sidrophel to get advice on the best way to woo the widow, but the two get into an argument about the legality of magic and Hudibras knocks him and his assistant down. Ralph goes to get the authorities, but Hudibras robs the wizard and runs away, hoping to lay the blame on his squire. 


Hudibras goes to the widow, to boast of his beating of Sidrophel and claim he was whipped himself, claiming her hand (and fortune) in marriage but Ralph has already been there and told her what really happened. Ralph and the widow lay a trap for Hudibras, dressing citizens as devils and attacking him, making him admit his bad intentions towards the widow. Finally, Hudibras gets advice from a lawyer and writes a letter to the widow, hoping she’ll admit to agreeing to marry her, which he can use to sue her into doing so. The widow writes a letter back, avoiding that trap and upbraiding Hudibras and men and general - then it ends.


Another important difference between Don Quixote and Hudibras is the style. Don Quixote is sometimes named as the first novel, and although this can easily be debated, it is in a long, prose style. Hudibras is written in rhymed octosyllabic couplets, sometimes called the Hudibrastic and used by later writers (especially 18th century ones) to write mock-epics and satirical verse. The style well suits its use, there’s an epic-poem quality to the metre that the forced/weak/surprising rhymes then puncture. Though, over the length of the whole poem, it can get tired and repetitive, and I often found my attention straying as I read. Ned Ward, of The London Spy fame, once tried to translate the whole of Don Quixote into Hudibrastic verse. I’m fond of Ned, but I don’t think I could read that.


The humour is often very bottom focused, the word bum being used fifteen times in the text (Oddly the word trepan is used thirteen). I’m not immune to an arse joke, especially delivered elegantly and in verse. There’s a description of Hudibras being enamoured by his lover’s fart that I enjoyed; “When i’mprisoned air escaped her/ It pufft him with poetic rapture.” I think it’s the verb ‘pufft’ that really works here.


There’s also a very good bit which takes the piss of bagpipes; 

“Then bagpipes of the loudest drones,
With snuffling broken-winded tones,
Whose blasts of air, in pockets shut
Sound filthier than from the gut,
And make a viler noise than swine
In windy weather, when they whine.”


Butler does have an eye-catching way of putting things and, when he isn’t stringing a metaphor along beyond breaking point, has a decent sense of aphorism. I’m sure I’ve heard the phrase, “Doubtless the pleasure is as great/ Of being cheated as to cheat”. I also enjoyed the description of “moist and crazy brains” and of wives who “ride their husbands like night-mares.”


Another very engaging part was the discussion about politics since the Civil War and the sense that after killing a king, anything is possible, no matter how absurd - a feeling I’ve had since Brexit. Some people want to ban wedding rings, as it means a person is marrying only a person’s finger, not their person. Some want to detach themselves from Catholicism by renaming every place, street, church and person named after a saint. Some are for abolishing black-pudding, unthinkable.


Strangely, for all the knock-about humour and talk about religion and politics, Hudibras is best when talking about the positions of men and women, and even finds itself in a place that could be labelled feminist. 


Hudibras initially tries to flatter and woo the widow in a traditional way. He tells her that he will honour the very shadows of her shoelaces. She immediately puts him in her place, noting that he’s not interested in her at all, but her money. She tells Hudibras he can pay her back by whipping himself, and that maybe she might consider his suit, something he keeps trying to wiggle out of and she enforce.


They have many back and forwards about the place and nature of women. Hudibras compares them to pirates, using make-up as a false flag to trap their prey. She says that women to have to conceal themselves and, like a face behind a carnival mask, women have to hide their talents, playing stupid before prospective lovers. Finally, Hudibras declares that women, being made by God for men, should give themselves up for any men and have no freedom of their own. The widow replies by asking why women always have men in their debt then. She lists all the women who have secretly, and not so secretly ruled and exerted power through men. That men are weak and easily lead, and that women know how to lead them. She, and the book, concludes; “Let men usurp th’ unjust dominion, as if they were the better women.” It’s a powerful ending to a mostly silly book.




Wednesday 3 July 2024

Review: The Life of Orator Henley by Graham Midgley



Graham Midgley’s The Life of Orator Henley was a revelation. I’d come across the figure of Orator Henley before, he was one of the big targets of The Dunciad, a running joke in The Grub Street Journal and one of the inspirations behind Christopher Smart’s drag review The Old Woman’s Oratory. What this book does is establish John Henley as more than a joke and even makes a case for him as a fascinating individual with some interesting ideas.


Born in Melton Mowbray, home of the pork pie, Henley was the son of a popular clergyman. He has a succesful school career at Oakham school before going to university in Cambridge. There his individuality and forward-looking nature seemed to assert itself, describing Str John’s college as “where I had the stupidity to be educated.” He found the place narrow, dull, incurious and utterly unequipped to give him the skills he would need for being a good vicar. What’s more the selection process to take holy orders struck him as a scam.


He went back to Melton Mowbray where he reformed the local school. He banned rote learning and corporal punishment, encouraging the pupils to develop their own individual thoughts and modes of expression. Compared to Johnson’s own ‘rational’ plans for education at Edial, Henley actually questioned the core practices and subjects of schooling.


Feeling that Melton Mowbray was too small a stage, he moved to the capital with the hope of getting a nice, fat London living. He maintained himself with regular preaching and lecturing gigs at some churches, and by slaving for booksellers. He created a series of ‘plain and useful’ grammar books in a range of languages. It was a good idea, but he wrote them all himself and simply didn’t know the twenty-odd languages featured in the series, trying to crib his knowledge from other books. Ultimately, it was a good idea badly executed and it brought him his first detractors. (He also wrote an epic poem about the Biblical Queen Esther, which is pretty good by all accounts.)


Despite a good start, he failed to advance in the church. Partly because his patron pulled out of politics and partly because the Bishop of London made some promises to him he didn’t keep (and thus earned Henley’s lifelong enmity). Henley decided to set up his own church, The Oratory. it was initially set up above a meat market, which exposed him to jibes about his butcher audience from then on. He wanted to return to the practices of a more primitive, ‘pure’ church, free of the accumulated dross of centuries (and bishops). He also wanted his Oratory to be more than a place of worship, but also a place of learning and set up lessons, lectures and educational pamphlets.


This was when the attacks really started. Henley wore his clerical garb at all times, even when he got drunk down the pub. He preached in a dramatic manner, a style which he felt grabbed his audience and communicated his messages better but many felt was over-theatrical. He also believed that all subjects could be interpreted religiously and held the potential for good lessons. As a result, he’d preach about political scandals, fashions and other seemingly frivolous things. He also believed that humour and satire were important tools in a preacher’s arsenal and the site of a man in cloak and bands cracking satirical jokes from the pulpit was too much for many. From his point of view, his peaching held, “universality of scope, liveliness of elocution and the various instruments of laughter” but to others he was a ranting weirdo. His fondness for puns didn’t help.


Most shockingly, his Oratory took money at the door to attend. While other churches lived off tithes, taxes, collections and even the renting of pews, pay-to-entry was far too close to theatre to his detractors. It was also possible to buy season tickets, with medallions of gold, silver and Bath-metal providing different privileges. He later tried to float The Oratory as a business, trying to get shareholders. These methods to pay for The Oratory easily led to accusations that he was only in it for the money, and Henley was able to live in middle-class comfort. Of course, he heavily denied this, saying, “little is got by an oratory: it is no occasion for envy”. What’s more, he felt his congregants got a good bang for their buck, not only with his lively style but his commitment to several original sermons a week, when other clergy would re-use their sermons or even buy them off other people. Samuel Johnson wrote a number of sermons for his friend, John Taylor.


As time went on, the religious side of The Oratory diminished. His celebrations of ‘primitive eucharist’ reduced in numbers, and his popular Monday evening lectures, which consisted of satirical news round-ups became the main event. The educational element of The Oratory kept going, and he offered lessons to teach people to “think, distinguish, definite reason, demonstrate, to dispute, conclude self-evidently” &c. Like his grammar books, this seems like a great idea, a people’s university - but he tried to teach everything himself and it ultimately seems like one of those pointless online ‘universities’.


The Oratory ran for thirty years, so it must have served somebody. It seems that there was an initial rush as people checked out the novelty, including Voltaire and Pope. Then things dropped off a bit, with bursts of attendance when Henley’s name was on people’s lips.


To maintain The Oratory in people’s minds, Henley wrote adverts. These started as hyperactive but straightforward accounts of the topics he would cover but mutated over the years. The adverts started featuring odd little tics, like “hei-day”, “job and hiccup” and “oh, my poor spectacle case”. Instead of describing the topics, they would feature strange little phrases or tortured puns. It was easy to assume he’d gone mad but Henley admitted that he “had written advertisements as seemingly incoherent as possible.” To understand the advert, you’d have to go to The Oratory. It’s essentially magazine-based clickbait.


Henley even had a place to run these adverts, his own magazine The Hyp-Doctor which ran every Tuesday for eleven years. In it, Henley played the character of Dr Isaac Ratcliffe of Elbow Lane, a doctor who cured ‘hyp’, short for ‘hypochondria’ and perceived as a form of melancholy. Despite one bookseller saying Henley’s name on books was “sufficient to make them be thrown aside”, The Hyp Doctor was often talked about and lived a long life.


John Henley is known to the present day from the reports of his enemies, and he made many of those. One of the fiercest was Alexander Pope, who eviscerated him in The Dunciad. Even more damning were the notes in the Variorum edition which attacked Henley personally. Henley believed these notes were written by Richard Savage, who had a hatred of him after he preached a sermon against Savage’s acquittal for murder. From then on, Pope was a main target, and Henley was just as nasty, mocking his size, deformity and describing his new poems as ‘diarrhoea’. 


Pope then set up The Grub Street Journal and left it in capable satirical hands. The newspaper attacked him for the majority of its run; parodying him, sending people to make notes on his sermons, and turning his incomprehensible adverts into poems. Like most of his attackers, The Grub Street Journal ended before Henley’s Oratory did.


The other big ‘war’ was against Christopher Smart, who parodied the name of Henley’s Oratory in his Mother Midnight drag shows. Henley, wishing to defend his brand, attacked Smart, especially for his female persona and rumoured visits to Molly Houses. One of his sermons was titled, ‘Pimlico Molly Midnight translated to Rump Castle’ - Pimlico being a gay cruising spot. Smart seemed to enjoy the bantering back and forth in his The Midwife magazine and on stage and presumably the publicity helped them both. 


As fascinating as this book is about Henley’s professional life, there isn’t much about his personal. He had a wife, Mary, who mainly stayed in the background. This seems to be because Henley didn’t have a personal life. Even on his off time, he wandered pubs and coffee houses, seeking arguments. When he died, he had no-one to leave his effects to. He had no friends.


This lack of friends seems the key to Henley’s failure. Had he collaborated on some of his projects, they may have been more successful. He may be remembered as an educational innovator or pioneer of a new kind of church but because he did everything himself, he had no-one to cover for his defects or help carry his loads. It’s impressive The Oratory lasted for thirty years until his death, but his inability to work with others meant it died when he did and his only legacy was as the butt of a joke. 




Wednesday 26 June 2024

Review: John Newbery and His Books: Trade and Plumb-Cake for Ever, Huzza! by John Rowe Townsend


 John Rowe Townsend’s lengthily titled John Newbery and His Books: Trade and Plumb-Cake for Ever, Huzza! is a book I picked up from the bookshop at Dr Johnson’s Birthplace Museum. It was invaluable when I was traveling 200 miles by train to a job interview and the whole line went down.  I found other ways to get there and was (surprisingly) only half an hour late, but it was this book calmed me down, slowed my breathing and heartbeat and helped me think straight. When things go wrong, it’s good to go to a happy place and a book about 18th century bookselling, featuring Samuel Johnson, Oliver Goldsmith and Christopher Smart, is very much my happy place.

The book itself is not really an original work, it’s an abridgement of the only existing biography of Newbery written by Charles Welsh in 1885. This being the only existing biography of Newbery, Townsend skimmed off some of the waffle, cut out the second half (which was about Newbery’s son) and padded it with some contemporary descriptions of Newbery and bits of biographies of people he worked with. These biographies included Devlin’s Poor Kit Smart and Ginger’s biography of Goldsmith, A Notable Man. I hate A Notable Man, it paints Goldsmith as a psychopath.


John Newbery’s life is something of a rags to riches tale, not dissimilar from some of the stories he would publish for children. Born the son of working people, he was apprenticed to a printer in Reading who started one of the earliest provincial papers, The Reading Mercury. He eventually took over that and ran it successfully, later giving it to his step-daughter, Ana-Maria, the wife of Christopher Smart. He substituted this with a trade in off-the-counter remedies, which would be ultimately the source of his wealth.


Before taking this success to London and setting up shop there, he went on a little journey. Welsh/Townsend take their material about this journal from letters Newbery sent on his travels and it’s probably the most entertaining part of the book. He travelled to Hull and Doncaster before going to Leicester. There he spoke with a man in the gaol who said that the person hanged as Dick Turpin in York wasn’t the man himself and that all Turpin’s gang used ‘John Palmer’ as their alias. Also whilst there, his landlady gave birth to twin sons, John and George. She asked Newbery when a boy’s penises start to develop and when informed that boys were born with them, realised she’d given birth to two girls.


There are also lots of quotes from Newbery’s notes to himself as he came up with new ideas. At that time he seemed to be mulling over different inserts which would be useful bound up in a book of common prayer. The amount and scattershot nature of all these ideas really re-enforce Johnson’s depiction of Newbery as ‘Jack Whirler’, the man so full of ideas and busy-ness that he never gets anything done. Eventually he set up his shop in London, near one of the many streets named ‘Pissing Alley’ and developed his brand of children’s works, his magazines and working with his favoured writers, often putting them up in his country house in Cannonbury.


There’s some interesting discussion about these writers. Welsh/Townsend describes Goldsmith as being ‘liberated’ from his contract under the Griffiths’s. Welsh is convinced that Goldsmith didn’t write the popular children’s book Goody Two Shoes, largely because he thinks Goldsmith would have done a better job at it. He also treads very lightly around Christopher Smart, describing Smart’s magazine The Midwife as a little too vulgar for Newbery’s brand but not agreeing with the conspiracy that the publisher had is writer/son-in-law committed for madness.


There’s some talk about James’s Fever Powders, a medicine popular until the twentieth century and a key part of Newbery’s income. It’s mentioned that Newbery put adverts for the powders in Goody Two Shoes and at the beginning of Smart’s Hymn to the Supreme Being and an off-hand reference to Goldsmith accidentally killing himself with them. Oddly, there was nothing about the revolutionary idea of selling the powders in one-dose packets. The book did have a wonderful list of other ‘cures’ for sale at Newbery’s shops. These included; Hungary Water (which Michael Johnson sold in his shop), herb snuff, cephalic snuff, Mrs Norton’s Mordant Drops and Greenough’s Pectoral Lozenges of Tolu. 


Finally, there’s a lot in the book about Newbery’s work in children’s publishing. As is the case of many innovators, it wasn’t that Newbery ‘invented’ children’s books, it was skill at branding them. There were some children’s books in English as early as the 1660s and as early as 1740, there were publishers like Thomas Boreman publishing his Gigantick Histories, in tiny volumes of course.


What Newbery did was create a consistent tone, purpose and brand, labelling himself the children’s friend near St Paul’s. He clearly knew his market, dedicating one of his books to ‘the true and genuine lovers of noise” and publishing on topics parents would like their children to read. There was a series of pop-science books aimed at adolescents called The Circle of Sciences as well as numerous edifying and didactic works. Many of the stories had their child protagonists live happy lives because they were conventional and ‘good’. One story had the character of a little boy who always said his prayers, a good example to “all other little boys and girls, or no body will love them.”


Despite Samuel Johnson’s reservations about books for children, there were authors in the early nineteenth century who remember learning to love literature through Newbery’s offerings. Though it is significant to note that what they remembered most were the colourful covers, gilt pages and multiple illustrations. 


Though his personal life is barely mentioned, the character of John Newbery comes across pretty clear. He was an energetic, optimistic, wheeler-dealer sort of character who was always looking for a profitable gap in every market. He was a very conventional man, with the middle-class, enlightenment values of Locke but with a genuine fondness for children and a belief that his values were good and deserved to be spread. He was a man who lived for ‘trade and plumb-cake for ever. Huzza!”


 (One of the odd elements of Newbery’s life is that many of his significant dates happened in the early stages of July. He was born on the 9th, his son later born on the 6th, made a significant journey on a later 9th - it just struck me as fun).




Wednesday 19 June 2024

Review: Samuel Johnson: The Struggle by Jeffrey Meyers

 


My original plan was to read the first five chapters of Jeffrey Meyers’s Samuel Johnson: The Struggle as part of my project of reading the earlier part of Samuel Johnson’s life in as many biographies as possible as research for a novel. Realising that out of all the biographies, this is the only one I hadn’t read, I thought I might as well read the whole thing.

This biography came out on Johnson’s Tercentenary in 2009. Unlike Peter Martin’s rather tepid take and David Nokes’s seeming irritation with the great man, Meyers is keen to enforce that his is not your grandad’s Samuel Johnson. This Johnson says ‘fuck’, this Johnson has sex (very rarely), this Johnson thinks about sex (all the time). The subtitle of the book is, The Struggle, and where Johnson has to struggle, against his health, poverty, ugliness or sex-drive, Meyers has something to say. When there isn’t, he doesn’t. 


The introduction to the book quotes Johnson declaring the best things in life to be “fucking and drinking” and follows with a rather perfunctory account of his childhood which mainly concerns itself with his wet dreams. There’s quite a bit in the earlier part of the book about Johnson’s physicality, particularly his strength and violence. Much is said about him beating the bookseller Thomas Osbourne (a man who most writers seemed to have wanted to hit). It’s particularly highlighted how Johnson said that he’d “beaten many a fellow”. Of course, Meyers takes Johnson’s interests in athletics, as well as his outbursts of violence, not as a reaction to his initially weak childhood but as “crucial outlets for his sexual feelings”.


Of course, the relationship with Tetty is framed in a purely sexual light. As he sees it, she was a willing sexual guide at first, flattered by the heavy-handed attentions of the much younger man. As she grew older, however, her sex-drive diminished and she banned Johnson from her bedroom. There were rumours in Johnson’s lifetime that he’d partook of prostitutes during this time, particularly in the company of Richard Savage - Meyers makes great stock of these rumours. However, he certainly didn’t seem to continue that behaviour with other rakish friends like Topham Beauclerk and James Boswell.


Meyers, of course, makes a lot out of the confessions that Tetty’s nurse (and Samuel’s godfather’s daughter) Mrs Desmoulin made to Boswell. She said that Johnson used to invite her into bed, stroke her, become aroused but never follow through. Meyers describes Boswell getting aroused at this description of Johnson becoming aroused - and it’s hard not to feel that Meyers is becoming aroused too. 


The last sexual element of the book is the relationship with Johnson and Hester Thrale. While Meyers doesn’t think they actually had sex, he paints Johnson as a furious and self-loathing masturbator. Drawing from a few elements, some remarks in a letter from Samuel to Hester, the chain and padlock that Hester kept - he decides that Samuel Johnson used to get Hester Thrale to kneel him down, chain him up and whip him in a sadomasochistic ritual that he’d later get off on. Once he’s put these loose elements together, they then become established fact for the rest of the book.


If there is something that Meyers likes more than speculating about Samuel Johnson’s sex life, it’s finding any excuse to find a quote to demonstrate just how ugly and disgusting Samuel Johnson was. It starts early with him being called repulsive and a ‘physical freak’. He’s compared to Frankenstein’s monster twice, uses any occasion to savage him for bad table manners, and finds any and every excuse to make sure the reader knows that he was a hideous, smelly, disgusting monster who has a figure “made to disgrace or ridicule the structure of the human body” (a quote from Chesterfield.


However, when this book comes to any of his achievements (surely the final outcome of his struggles) the book is really weak. The chapter on his time in Grub Street is described in my notes as ‘childish’, he doesn’t seem to have realised he met Goldsmith after he was already famous for the dictionary and Rambler. The discussions of Johnson’s own works are really feeble. Meyers seems fixated on the idea that Johnson wrote only wrote miserable stuff. To call his prayers and meditations “one of the saddest books of the century” is pretty fair in describing the emotions, but seems to ignore the fact that they were never meant to be published. He describes Johnson’s essays as if they are solely miserable when many of them are pretty funny and he spends a chapter slagging off how limited his Lives of the Poets are, before describing them as his best work.


The weirdest reading is his one of Rasselas. Meyers doesn’t go into much detail about the majority of the book but spends four pages on Johnson’s description of The Happy Valley, where Prince Rasselas is trapped. The Happy Valley is, of course, a vagina, with a forest for pubes and dripping wet with rivulets from a mountain. To be honest, I began to think it was Meyers who had a problem with persistent sexual thoughts, not Samuel Johnson.


To be fair, Samuel Johnson: A Struggle does fill a hole that other Johnson biographies fail to fill. He was not a saint but a man and he no doubt had the same urges as other men. However, Johnson did not seem to form his personality around these urges and it seems disingenuous to form a biography around them.




Wednesday 12 June 2024

Review: A Little Pilgrim’s Peeps at Parnassus by Olga Katzin


 A Little Pilgrim’s Peeps at Parnassus first drew my attention because of its awkward title, then because of the brilliant illustrations by Arthur Watts. A few peeps of my own showed that it seemed to be a children’s book, teaching the history of British literature through the ages in rhyming couplets. I thought I’d get it and give it a go.

As I read the piece, I started to question my assumptions. It’s rhyming hexameters, especially those with the forced rhymes - seemed comic, inflated, maybe even hudibrastic. What’s more the piece was incredibly opinionated, though the didactic nature of some older children’s books tends that way, it seemed to be pushed to comic extremes. The book also expected the reader to be pretty knowledgeable about English history and literature, with its references to Praisegod Barebones and minor Elizabethan writers. Again though, many earlier children’s books did expect quite a lot of (what is now) specialist knowledge from its readers. I had to look it up.


Had my copy of this book retained its dust-jacket, I’d have discovered the author of the book, Olga Katzin and the full title; Peeps at Parnasus: A Delicious Survey, Half Parody, Half Caricature, of the Whole Pageant of English Verse-Malicious and Gay. Rather than a strange, opinionated children’s book, it’s a strange opinionated adult book masquerading as a children’s one.


Starting with the druids, singing their native British songs of praise before being cruelly slaughtered by Romans, the book posits a ‘British Muse’ that is sometimes made at home on her island of birth and sometimes chased away by other things (often, those pesky foreign influences - though the story of the beginning of the book is essentially about how English emerged from all those pesky foreign influences). 


After the druids were the Anglo-Saxons with their “mile on alliterative mile”, followed by Danes, and the Normans. At this point England was open to ‘anyone who ruled the waves’ so William thought he’d give it a go, even despite the firm English reply of “Really William” and “Enough”. As a result, the muse chose not to spend time with the Norman language  and instead;

   “dived into the melting pot

  where English speech was being made-

She spent her subterranean time

In making reason mate with rhyme.”


Until Chaucer came along. Then a bunch of people who tried to sound like Chaucer, and then new, exciting people like Spenser, Lyly and Herrick. Interestingly, Shakespeare is not named in this book. He’s alluded to and the Mermaid Tavern is mentioned but the story as told in this book is of a shining, over-the-top time that is then clamped down by puritans like the aforementioned Barebones and by Milton. Before being punctured by the noble knight Hudibras. 


Then we get into the eighteenth century and “The little, mighty Alexander” who is a “galaxy of wits in one” who ruled “arbitrarily” with such smile and bite that even the muse grows scared of him. 

“None wing with such accomplished Craft

The polished Couplet’s lethal Shaft

In flights of dazzling Coruscation

As if expressly for Quotation.”


Pope is followed by the Scriblerans, other poets and then, horror of horrors - Grub Street! Those filthy unlettered beggars who write for money, trash the Muse and sell her on street corners. 

“The greedy and abandoned trollop

Don’t even put her parasol-up.” (Which is a pretty good example of some of the rhymes in this piece… luckily, she has a hero.

“Her providential rescuer

The doating Lexicographer

A rock of adamantine stuff

A mountain in a cloud of snuff,

Withdraws her from her venal ease

To Virtue and the Cheshire Cheese.” (Which is 3 minutes walk from where I’m writing this in Gough Square).


After Johnson has saved the Muse (and marked Goldsmith’s homework) we run onto Thompson, Ossian, Chatterton, a visit to some graveyard poets and onto Burns.


So the book goes on for another hundred pages, getting more detailed and more obscure until it reaches the writer’s time of 1927. It charts poetry’s superstar years with the romantics, its decline under the tyranny of Dickens and the age of the novel. The part about The Great War and the war poets is surprisingly touching, yet also makes the point that if there hadn’t have been a war, they’d have been writing airy nonsense about flowers. 


Amongst the highlights of the later parts of the book are a friendly welcome to “chubby Mr Lear”, a poet who could be easily missed in a survey such as this. Yeats gets describes as “more surely sidhe-like than the sidhe” and T.S Elliot is described as, “serving putrid forage/ from intellectual cold storage”. 


I’d have probably appreciated the book more had I been more of a poetry person, a barb stings rather less if you don’t know who it is aimed at but I enjoyed this book for its bad attitude and daft rhymes.