Allan Massie

Life & Letters | 26 March 2011

The deceptive quality of light verse

Life & Letters | 26 March 2011
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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. Nobody would have pretended that the result was poetry, though it may occasionally have been that, but the exercise taught pupils about rhythm and the weighting of words. Once you had learned to write Latin hexameters that scanned correctly, you had acquired skills which were easily transferred to the writing of English verse. When you wonder at the virtuosity Kipling displayed in his mastery of metre and rhythm, remember that his favourite poet was Horace.

Children are still, I hope, brought up on Belloc’s Cautionary Verses, which A. N Wilson, in his excellent biography, called ‘technically faultless’ with ‘not a syllable out of place, not an epithet which could be improved’.This indeed is a judgment which might be applied to all really good light verse. Yet beside the Cautionary Verses should be placed ‘The Modern Traveller’, a long poem remarkable for its mastery of tone, wit and inventiveness:

And yet I really must complain

About the Company’s champagne!

This most expensive kind of wine

In England is a matter

Of pride or habit when we dine

(Presumably the latter).

Beneath an equatorial sky

You must consume it or you die;

And stern indomitable men

Have told me, time and time again,

‘The nuisance of the tropics is

The sheer necessity of fizz’.

It flows so easily — the verse, not the fizz — that you may be excused for thinking it came easily. Perhaps it did, but, if so, it was as a result of many hours of reading and verse-making.

Light verse is not dead. Betjeman, James Michie, Kingsley Amis, Gavin Ewart and Wendy Cope have all written delightful stuff — contributors to The Spectator’s weekly competition likewise, itself for years indeed set and judged by James Michie.

Yet there is, I fear, less good light verse than there was; fewer poets deviate into it, partly perhaps because much well-regarded modern poetry is written without the technical mastery which light verse demands, partly doubtless because few of them have been set to composing Latin hexameters. If the ‘Free Schools’ now in the process of being established set more of their pupils to learning Latin, there may be a revival of light verse and we could cry ‘Hallelujah’ without incurring the unhappy fate of Salvation Army Captain Mary-Jane who ‘tumbled off the platform in the station/ And was cut in little pieces by the train.’