A parody of a parody

I have mixed opinions about Wordsworth, for exactly the reasons that J K Stephen describes in his poem about the poet:

Two voices are there: one is of the deep;
It learns the storm-cloud’s thunderous melody,
Now roars, now murmurs with the changing sea,
Now bird-like pipes, now closes soft in sleep:
And one is of an old half-witted sheep
Which bleats articulate monotony,
And indicates that two and one are three,
That grass is green, lakes damp, and mountains steep:

And, Wordsworth, both are thine: at certain times
Forth from the heart of thy melodious rhymes,
The form and pressure of high thoughts will burst:
At other times–good Lord! I’d rather be
Quite unacquainted with the ABC
Than write such hopeless rubbish as thy worst.

I started reading poetry seriously at about the age of 15, because of exactly one reason: Horace Rumpole. This is a character in a British TV serial about an old eponymous lawyer, also a character in a series of books by John Mortimer. Both the serial and the books are hilarious, while remaining deeply touching at moments, and usually with some kind of clever mystery plot woven into them. And Rumpole is definitely one of my favourite fictional characters of all time: brilliant, cranky, eccentric to the bone, witty, and frequently lovable.

One thing about Rumpole is that he loves quoting poetry; there’s some snatch of verse in every single Rumpole story. And his favourite poet is Wordsworth. So that’s how I was introduced – both to Wordsworth, and to the delightful hobby of learning poetry by heart.

Today’s post, though, was occasioned by a couple of poems that I just read. One is a poem by Wordsworth. Wordsworth was the master of this poetical form known as the sonnet (so was Shakespeare); these are poems with 14 lines, following a rhyme scheme that intermingles four or five different sets of rhyming words through the poem in a way that makes the poem very lovely to read out loud. Wordsworth wrote more than 500 of these in his lifetime. (Shakespeare wrote 154.) Two of Wordsworth’s sonnets, though, are ‘meta-sonnets’, i.e. sonnets about the sonnet form. Here is the more famous one:

Scorn not the Sonnet; Critic, you have frown’d,
Mindless of its just honours; with this key
Shakespeare unlock’d his heart; the melody
Of this small lute gave ease to Petrarch’s wound;
A thousand times this pipe did Tasso sound;
With it Camoens sooth’d an exile’s grief;
The Sonnet glitter’d a gay myrtle leaf
Amid the cypress with which Dante crown’d
His visionary brow: a glow-worm lamp,
It cheer’d mild Spenser, call’d from Faery-land
To struggle through dark ways; and when a damp
Fell round the path of Milton, in his hand
The Thing became a trumpet; whence he blew
Soul-animating strains — alas, too few!

Aside: when reading aloud a sonnet – or, for that matter, almost any poetry – the right way is to not pause at the line endings, but rather, to follow the pauses only of the punctuation (the commas, the full stops etc.).

And this poem (especially its entirely self-indulgent premise) was most delightfully mocked by Peter Dickinson:

Scorn not the sonnet on the sonnet, critic;
It is a bank where poets love to lie
And praise each other’s ingenuity
In finding such a form. The analytic
Reader may stigmatise as parasitic
The mirror-image of a mystery,
The echo of lost voices, find it dry,
And intellectually paralytic.
Yet ’tis a child of Fancy, light and live,
A fragile veil of Nature, scarcely worn
(Of Wordsworth’s two, of Shakespeare’s none, survive);
Empty not then the vials of scorn upon it.
Nor, since we’re on the subject, should you scorn
The sonnet on the sonnet on the sonnet.

I especially found the last line very funny :-).



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