Saturday, 29 March 2008

On writing a poem, by W. H. Mallock (part one)

Poet-in-Residence takes his concise editorial typing finger and click-mouse to William Hurrell Mallock's satirical essay 'Every Man his Own Poet'; a useful 'How to...' guide to the writing of poetry, first published in 1872. Mallock was something of a satirical dilettante; prolific and various. His cutting words are more than mere grist to the Poet-in-Residence mill.

from Every Man his Own Poet

Poetry is the art of expressing what is too foolish, too profane, or too indecent to be expressed in any other way. As a consumate cook will prepare a delicate repast so will the modern poet concoct a popular poem. The difference is that the cook would prefer good materials whilst the modern poet will take the bad from choice. The two artists work with the same - viz., animals, vegetables and spirits. Shakespeare and earlier masters make use of all, mixing them in various proportions. Moderns have found it better and easier to employ each seperately.
Swinburne uses animal matter, somewhat unwholesome in consequence, whilst Wordsworth confined himself to primrose pudding, and flint soup, flavoured with lesser-celandine, and now and then a beggar-boy boiled down to give it colour; robins and drowned lambs when additional piquancy was needed. It is difficult [with] Tennyson as the milk and water of which his books are composed make it impossible to discover the original nature of [the] materials he has boiled down. Shelley is embarrassing to classify as spirits are what he affected most [and] vegetable matter; a kind of psychic alcohol tinctured with barks of trees and rendered below proof with sea-water.
The following recipes will be found efficient guides for the composition of poems. But bear in mind that there is no royal road to anything. Not even the most explicit directions will make a poet all at once.
How to make a love poem
Take two large and tender human hearts, which match one another. Arrange close together but preserve from actual contact by placing between them some cruel barrier. Wound them in several places and insert through the openings a stuffing of yearnings, tenderness, and a general admiration for stars. Cover one heart with church-yard mould garnished with dank weeds or violets: and promptly break over it the other heart.
How to make a pathetic marine poem
This has the advantage of being easily produced and yet at the same time pleasing. The chance of it going wrong is very small. Take one midnight storm and one fisherman's family, as large and hungry as possible; must contain one innocent infant. Place this last in cradle with mother singing over it, the babe dreaming of angels or smiling sweetly. Stir the father in the storm until he disappears. Get ready a cruel crawling foam in which to serve up the father in the dull red morning. Pile up the agony to suit the palate.
How to write an epic poem like Tennyson
First catch our hero [or] be content with the nearest approach to a hero available, namely a prig. These are very plentiful and easy to catch. There are many different kinds and it is very necessary to select the right one. There is the scientific and atheistical prig, who may be observed eluding notice between the covers of 'Westminster Review'; the Anglican prig, who is often caught exposing himself in the 'Guardian'; the Ultramontane prig, who abounds in the 'Dublin Review'; the scholarly prig, who twitters among the leaves of the 'Academy'; and the Evangelical prig, who converts the heathen, and drinks port wine. None of these will serve. The only one suitable is the blameless variety. Take one blameless prig and place beside him a beautiful wife who cannot abide prigs. Add one goodly man and tie the three together with a link of Destiny. Surround this group with men and women, in fancy-ball costume, flavoured with many vices and few virtues. Stir briskly for two volumes. Blameless prig to be kept below swearing-point for the whole time. If he boils over he is worthless and you must get another. Next, break the wife's reputation into small pieces and dust them over the blameless prig. Take vials of tribulation and wrath and empty over the whole ingredients. Taking the sword of the heathen cut into small pieces the greater part of the minor characters. Wound slightly the head of the blameless prig. Remove him suddenly and keep [him] in a large cool barge for future use.

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