Friday, 17 May 2019

Very Like A Whale by Ogden Nash

Today we are going to analysis the poem Very Like A Whale by Ogden Nash.

Well, this poem is an uproarious parody. Before we read it let me note a couple of things.

First, the title is an illusion. Remember that an illusion is a reference to a literary work a historical event or document a location or person.

The title here is a reference to a line in Shakespeare's Hamlet. The character of Hamlet is pretending to be crazy. He's talking to an old man and they're looking at the clouds and Hamlet is going on about all the things these clouds look like.

You know we all do that some, especially as kids. We look at the clouds and try to see dragons and castles or whatever.

Well among other things Hamlet says the clouds look like a whale. And the character he is talking to not knowing what to make of this crazy guy says yes very like a whale. And that's where the title comes from. It's kind of an incompetent title. Just like this is a humorously incompetent poem.

Second like most parodies, there is a big difference between the author and the speaker.

Ogden Nash is the author and he's an excellent poet and humorist. Ogden Nash is capable of writing skillful poetic lines. The speaker in this poem, however, does not have a poetical bone in his body. Not only can he not write poetic lines but he does not possess a poetic mind or spirit.

He's a literalist he sees nothing but what is on the surface. His mind isn't elastic at all. it can't make connections between among diverse things. Now having said all of that he does have a point however comically it's made. Let's read some lines.
One thing that literature would be greatly the better for
Would be a more restricted employment by the authors of simile and
Authors of all races, be they Greeks, Romans, Teutons or Celts,
Can't seem just to say that anything is the thing it is but have to
go out of their way to say that it is like something else.
What does it mean when we are told
That that Assyrian came down like a wolf on the fold?
In the first place, George Gordon Byron had enough experience
To know that it probably wasn't just one Assyrian, it was a lot of
However, as too many arguments are apt to induce apoplexy and
thus hinder longevity.
We'll let it pass as one Assyrian for the sake of brevity.
By the way, the word apoplexy means seizure or a spell of some kind. The speaker's point is clear poets use too much simile and metaphor.

They ought to just call something by its name and forget the fancy stuff. Now the particular poem that this speaker complains about is a poem by a 19th century English poet Lord Byron who was a poet of the Romantic school like Wordsworth.

We're going to look at this Byron poem next but before we do let's see what this speaker has to say about it.

First, in the lines, we just read he complains about the imprecisely singular and plural. Let's see what else he has to say.
Now then, this particular Assyrian, the one whose cohorts were
gleaming in purple and gold,
Just what does the poet mean when he says he came down like a
wold on the fold?
In heaven and earth more than is dreamed of in our philosophy
there are great many things.
But I don't imagine that among them there is a wolf with purple
and gold cohorts or purple and gold anythings.
No, no, Lord Byron, before I'll believe that this Assyrian was
actually like a wolf I must have some kind of proof;
Did he run on all fours and did he have a hairy tail and a big red
mouth and big white teeth and did he say Woof Woof?
Frankly I think it is very unlikely, and all you were entitled to say,
at the very most,
Was that the Assyrian cohorts came down like a lot of Assyrian
cohorts about to destroy the Hebrew host.
But that wasn't fancy enough for Lord Byron, oh dear me no, he
had to invent a lot of figures of speech and then interpolate them,
With the result that whenever you mention Old Testament soldiers
to people, they say Oh yes, they're the ones that a lot of
wolves dressed up in gold and purple ate them.
Well, that's pretty funny and the speaker does have a point too much metaphor an ill-used metaphor can make something sound ridiculous. Sometimes a composition student will come up to me and asked if I'll look at some poetry that the student is written. Usually, the weakest element of the poetry is unskillful use of metaphor.

So it can be a problem however if anything is clear about this poem is that the speaker is no poet. He doesn't have any idea how to write a poetic line or use language in a skillful way. If we want to learn something about poetry. this is not the guy to go to.

Let's look at the lines
In heaven and earth more than is dreamed of in our philosophy
there are great many things.
But I don't imagine that among them there is a wolf with purple
and gold cohorts or purple and gold anythings.
That is another illusion. But like the title, it's an incompetent one. This is another illusion to Shakespeare's Hamlet.

I used to teach introduction to Shakespeare that's how I know this stuff. Hamlet is speaking to his buddy Horatio. They're talking about life and Horatio is kind of a practical down-to-earth fellow and Hamlet is more of a free-thinking guy. And Hamlet says there are more things in heaven and earth Horatio than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

Okay but it comes garbled mess when this speaker uses it. The joke is that he is complaining about poets misusing similes and metaphors but he is misusing illusions. Well, let's see how the poem ends.
That's the kind of thing that's being done all the time by poets,
from Homer to Tennyson;
They're always comparing ladies to lilies and veal to venison,
And they always say things like that the snow is a white blanket
after a winter storm.
Oh it is, is it, all right then, you sleep under a six-inch blanket of
snow and I'll sleep under a half-inch blanket of unpoetical
blanket material and we'll see which one keeps warm,
And after that maybe you'll begin to comprehend dimly
What I mean by too much metaphor and simile.
Well, the whole business about feet like mice does come from a real poem. It's an old English ballad by a guy named Sir John Suckling 17th century. He was classified as a Cavalier poet which really meant that he was a wealthy guy who never worked a day in his life and wrote poetry on the side.

He wasn't too good but his one semi-famous poem is I think Ballad Upon a Wedding and that comparison of feet to mice is in that poem.

Obviously, this speaker doesn't like it. So his point is just literal.


Now the tricky thing about this poem is that even though it is legitimate criticism to a degree. The speaker's point is ultimately undercut by his own phrasing as poetry, this is comically incompetent.

The speaker is comically narrow-minded in his literalism. Because this is just a blundering poem. We realized that ultimately the speaker is wrong.

If all poets were like this guy no one would ever read a poem and we'll see that more clearly when we look at the Byron poem this speaker is so upset about.

Also, Read This. On The Road