Friday, May 13, 2022


Quintessentially English

Norman Douglas (1868-1952), Some Limericks. Collected for the use of Students, & ensplendour'd with Introduction, Geographical Index, and with Notes Explanatory and Critical (© 1928; rpt. Boston: Nicholson and Whitney, 1942), pp. 24-26:
Whatever may be thought of speculations such as these, there is no denying that limericks are a yea-saying to life in a world that has grown grey. That alone justifies their existence. They are also English—English to the core. Of how many things can that be said? Take only our other poets: can it be said that Milton, or Keats, is English? They may have been born in England, and they certainly write the language of that country—quite readable stuff, some of it. But how full of classical allusions, what a surfeit of airs and graces! Open their pages, where you will, and you find them permeated by a cloying academic flavour; one would think they were written for the delectation of college professors. The bodies of these men were English, but their souls lived abroad; and the worst of it is, they carry their readers' souls abroad with them—abroad, into old Greece and God knows where, into the company of Virgil and Ariosto and Plato and other foreigners.

There is none of that continental nonsense here. Limericks are as English as roast beef; they, and they alone, possess that harmonious homely ring which warms our hearts when we hear them repeated round the camp-fire. Wherever two or three of our countrymen are gathered together in rough parts of the world, there you will find these verses; it is limericks that keep the flag flying, that fill you with a breath of old England in strange lands, and constitute one of the strongest sentimental links binding our Colonies to the mother country. Indeed, I should say that their political value is hardly appreciated at home, and that the Colonial Office might do worse than instal a special department for the production and export of ever-fresh material of this kind (I have reason to think that such a department is already in existence). These planters and Civil servants, the cream of our youth, might often suffer from the irritation produced by living lonely lives in lonely places; they might often be at loggerheads with each other, but for the healing and convivial influence of limericks that remind them of common ties and common duties and a common ancestry, and make them forget their separate little troubles. Or do you fancy they discuss art and politics in their leisure moments? If so, you have never lived among them. Can you hear one of them reciting cosmopolitan effusions like the Ode to a Nightingale or Paradise Regained? Let him try it on!
Quintilian said "Satura quidem tota nostra est." An Englishman might say, "Limericks at least are completely ours."

Thanks to John O'Toole for sending me a limerick about Ezra Pound by Robert Conquest:
Said Pound, "If one's writing a Canto
It should be a sort of portmanteau
Full of any old crap
That occurs to a chap
With patches of pig Esperanto."

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