Goodnight, Little Jim

March 27, 2014

Multiple Pages
Goodnight, Little Jim

In his column the other day, Pat Buchanan quoted the last lines of Robert Southey’s poem ‘The Battle of Blenheim”:

“But what good came of it at last?”
Quoth little Peterkin.
“Why that I cannot tell,” said he,
“But ’t was a famous victory!”

That sent me off looking for the poem, and I knew where to look. No, not the Internet. The Internet’s a fine thing in many ways, to be sure, but poetry belongs in books.

The actual book Southey’s poem belongs in is Michael Turner’s 1967 Parlour Poetry: A Hundred and One Improving Gems, an enduring classic of its own small kind. Friends in England gave me a copy in—I see from the inscription—1989, and it’s been with me ever since.

Turner’s idea was to gather together poems that late-Victorian children would have committed to memory and recited at family gatherings or school concerts: “Poems”—I’m quoting from his preface—“of the highest moral rectitude…with plain, easy rhythms, uncomplicated heroics, and unabashed pathos.”

He says that the tradition of family reciting in the actual parlor—the living room—of middle-class homes died out with the coming of radio in the 1920s, but recitation lingered on in the educational system. It certainly did: I learned to recite some of these poems—Byron’s “Sennacherib,” Browning’s “How They Brought the Good News”—in my own 1950s school days.

“We live in an age of no poetry—the first such age in all of human history.”

Fragments of others survived back then in the speech of older people, usually uttered facetiously. Coming into my room and finding it a mess, my mother would say, “It’s like the wreck of the Hesperus in here!” Or if I whined about having lost something, she would tell me cheerfully: “Not lost, but gone before.” (I didn’t see that in print until getting Turner’s book.)

Longfellow’s not an anomaly in a British verse anthology, by the way. Victorian Britain was very hospitable to American poetry. Visiting London in 1868, Longfellow copped an audience with Queen Victoria herself, a huge fan. Turner reflects all this with poems from Whittier, Poe, and Bryant, as well as lesser American lights such as Samuel Woodworth and James Whitcomb Riley, “the Hoosier Homer.”

And in his footnote to Sir Henry Newbolt’s “Vitaï Lampada” (“Play up! play up! and play the game!”) Turner pays a tribute to the US equivalent, Grantland Rice’s “Alumnus Football”:

For when the One Great Scorer comes
To write against your name,
He marks—not that you won or lost—
But HOW you played the Game.

Turner’s footnotes are little gems in themselves, garnished with the lightest kind of dry wit.

The biographical note on Southey, for example, concludes with this sentence: “At his death which followed shortly after [his second marriage], he left the considerable sum of £12,000, a figure that no Victorian biographer fails to note with approval.”

The footnote on Sir Francis Doyle, who wrote “The Private of the Buffs,” includes this sentence without further comment: “He went to Eton and Oxford, where, the Dictionary of National Biography reports, ‘his intercourse with Gladstone became very intimate’.”

And so on.

Some of the other poems here survived in mid-20th-century English schoolyards as parody:

The boy stood on the burning deck,
Picking his nose like mad;
Rolling snot into little balls
And flicking them at his Dad.


Laugh, and the world laughs with you;
Snore, and you sleep alone…

Lewis Carroll, a master of parody, spoofed some of these gems in the Alice books. The “Philadelphia bard” David Bates wrote:

Speak gently!—It is better far
To rule by love, than fear…

This became Carrollized to:

Speak roughly to your little boy,
And beat him when he sneezes….

So for someone of my generation, there’s a lot of familiar or half-familiar verse here.

Much of the charm of Turner’s book is in the forgotten pieces he resurrects to create the Victorian atmosphere—an atmosphere of sentimentality, patriotism, exhortations to courage and endurance, and heavy moralizing.

There was much to moralize about:

But say, when you are wooed,
“I’m a foe to the wine,
And the lips that touch liquor shall never touch mine.”

Death was an obsession. Turner tells us in his preface that: “The death-toll of Parlour Poetry, excluding the preface and notes, is thirty-eight men, women, and children, in addition to an unspecified number of soldiers, sailors, and German peasants, and two horses.”

The death of a child, all too common an occurrence before modern medicine, was an especially popular subject for verse:

‘Tell father when he comes from work
I said ‘goodnight’ to him;
And, mother, now I’ll go to sleep,’—
Alas, poor little Jim.

Little Jim is followed into the hereafter by Little Willie, Little Boy Blue, Anon., Little Billy and his sister Nell, the daughter of the Hesperus skipper, and Casabianca, Jr. (on the burning deck).

It was a grim world back then, all right, but at least they had poetry to console them: popular poetry that ordinary people could read and recite with pleasure. My mother, a coal-miner’s daughter who left school at fourteen to go into domestic service, could recite all of “Excelsior.” My Dad could sing Kipling.

It’s all gone now. Poets still toil away, but nobody reads them. It’s the same everywhere. Thirty-odd years ago I got interested in Chinese poetry. Teaching college in China, I had a student who knew the subject and even wrote poetry himself. He explained a lot of things I didn’t understand about the traditional styles and structures.

Twenty years after that I encountered him in the USA, where he works as a software developer. Did he remember our talk about poetry? Did he still write verse himself?

He looked a bit embarrassed. Yes, he remembered our talk; but no, he no longer read or wrote poetry. “In this busy modern life, no time!”

Too true, but sad all the same. We live in an age of no poetry—the first such age in all of human history.


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