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Guest Essayist: David Rothman

Ars Doggerel

by David Rothman

Copyright (c) 1993 by David Rothman
Reprinted by Special Permission of Daivd Rothman, 1997
with special acknowledgment to Hellas
Not to be distributed in whole or in part for commercial purposes.

George Saintsbury, in A History of English Prosody, splits doggerel into two kinds. "Involuntary doggerel" (1: 241) is a failed imitation of "lightness and brightness...freedom and frolic" (1: 393). The poet who writes it aspires to execute a particular prosodical form, but utterly fails. On the other hand, good doggerel, if it succeeds, intentionally travesties prosodical norms, "bringing within the poetical sphere of treatment things which otherwise could not be brought" (1: 394). This doggerel

is simply the using of recognised forms of verse, and of diction recognised or unrecognised, with a wilful licentiousness which is excused by the felicitous result. The poet is not trying to do what he cannot do; he is trying to do something exceptional, outrageous, shocking--and does it to admiration. (1: 393)

In other words, the doggerel that has survived is, by and large, outrageous satire. In this category Saintsbury includes work by Chaucer, Skelton, Shakespeare, Butler, and Swift.

There are different theories of doggerel. Whereas Saintsbury insists that it is debased verse, Northrop Frye argues that it is a species of "the sub-poetic level of metrical talk" (5), verse built up from prose. Doggerel is poetry that has not escaped the prosaic appeal to cognition: "It has a prose initiative, but tries to make itself associative by an act of will, and it reveals the same difficulties that great poetry has overcome at a subconscious level" (277). Deliberate doggerel can produce "brilliant rhetorical satire," but insofar as it is only a parody of the true poetic process, it is actually a form of prose. What seems clear from these debates is that doggerel, whatever its genesis, is neither the verse of "true" poetry, nor is it prose. Rather, at its best, it is a delightful, powerful, cynical monster.

The application of "doggerel" as a literary term has remained relatively consistent throughout the history of English poetry. We can still easily understand what may be its first appearance, in Chaucer. At this point in the Canterbury Tales, the fictive narrator named Chaucer has been telling "The Tale of Sir Thopas." He is, ironically, the worst poet among the pilgrims, and the host interrupts his story with insults:

"Namoore of this, for Goddes dignitee,"
Quod oure Hooste, "for thou makest me
So wery of thy verray lewednesse
That, also wisly God my soule blesse,
Myne eres aken of thy drasty speche.
Now swich a rym the devel I biteche!
This may wel be rym dogerel," quod he. (7.919-25)

The host's criticism makes sense to us. When he says "Thou doost noght elles but despendest tyme" (7.931), we agree that doggerel is a waste of time, but also recognize that it "despendest time" by clonking along without subtlety, failing in the modulations that characterize good versecraft--it wastes poetic time.

Looking back over The Tale of Sir Thopas, we find that host's critical anguish is justified. The fictive Chaucer violently bends the sense to follow the rhyme scheme, and the versification is amateurish:

Sire Thopas wax a doghty swayn;
Whit was his face as payndemayn
His lippes rede as rose;
His rode is lyk scarlet in grayn
And I yow telle in good certayn,
He hadde a semely nose. (7.724-29)

The phrase "lippes rede as rose" was a cliche in Chaucer's time, just as it is now. The line "And I yow telle in good certayn" is marking time, rounding out the stanza form. While such a line of filler might not qualify as doggerel in other contexts (Spenser, for example, uses these kinds of lines regularly), here it leads to the silly praise of the knight's nose. The cliche, when followed by the vulgarity, collapses into doggerel. The incompetence of the verse becomes even more obvious when we see that the stanza first compares Sir Thopas' face to fine white bread, then, two lines later, compares it to cloth that has been dyed scarlet. While it is possible that the two descriptions could work together to describe a splotchy, flushed complexion, the similes still seem out of control for the sake of the verse, producing poetry that hovers on the edge of nonsense. Chaucer is writing doggerel, knows it, and knows that it gives us pleasure precisely because it is so bad, travestying the metrical romance in ways we can still easily recognize.

Skelton's and Swift's poems also make sense in this light. But the best example of sustained, powerful doggerel is Samuel Butler's Hudibras (1663, 1664, 1678). Hudibras is the greatest long doggerel poem in English, a vicious satire of all systematic thinking, particularly the theology purveyed by the Puritans under the Protectorate. Although rarely read in its entirety now, the poem was tremendously popular in its day, spawning hundreds of imitations throughout the English speaking countries. It still provides two pages of quotations in the fourteenth edition of Bartlett's--as much room as is given to Spenser.

One passage of Hudibras that shows doggerel at its best is an attack on an astrologer's assistant named Whachum. Whachum is as much a charlatan poet as his master is a charlatan astrologer. His doggerel (Butler uses the term, 2.3.362) debases high poetic forms:

He would an elegy compose
On maggots squeez'd out of his nose;
In lyric numbers write an ode on
His mistress, eating a black-pudden:
And when imprison'd air escap'd her,
It puft him with poetic rapture. (2.3.377-82)

His own snot and his sweetheart's peasant diet and subsequent belches and farts inspire him. As the description goes on, we learn that he sees everything, no matter how mundane, as worthy of his muse. Further, he tortures the public with his work, delivering it "like Orpheus...among the beasts" (2.3.386):

A carman's horse could not pass by,
But stood ty'd up to poetry;
No porter's burthen pass'd along,
But serv'd for burthen to his song;
Each window like a pill'ry appears,
With heads thrust through, nail'd by the ears.

This sneer on doggerel is couched in doggerel, making it very difficult to describe. The speaker could be Butler, but he is using Whachum's props, the very objects, and therefore words, that the passage denounces as unfit for poetry. These verses thus torture and humiliate us as much as the hypothetical victims of the poetaster Whachum--and we laugh, caught unawares. This is a sophisticated kind of literary tactic, a spiral of satire in which the reader seems to be caught simply by understanding. Doggerel, in Butler's hands, is an astonishingly powerful mode of verse with which to skewer pretension, including snobbish attitudes about verse.

When we look at the poetry of our own time we see that there has been virtually a complete absence of doggerel from the literary scene for many years, in both England and America. Anyone who has worked at a poetry magazine, or read a Hallmark card, or listened to pop music, knows that there is plenty of doggerel out there, but very little of it appears in literary journals or books. Since most doggerel has always been just as awful as the definitions and connotations of the term make it out to be, its disappearance from serious literature appears to be a kind of aesthetic achievement. The current lack, however, is probably less the product of a greater awareness among mediocre poets of the dangers of doggerel than of the hegemony of free verse, which has remained the most popular model for writing a line since at least the early 1960s. Obviously, it is hard to botch open forms in the way that doggerel botches meter and rhyme; open forms abjure the very kinds of prosodical structures that doggerel disfigures.

In the twentieth century as in the fourteenth, to call poetry doggerel has meant to say, like Chaucer's host, that it "is nat worth a toord!" (7.930) But we should not congratulate ourselves on having consigned doggerel to the historical dustbin. To dismiss all verse that travesties meter and rhyme is a mistake, as I have outlined above, and as many poets have understood. To argue that it is impossible to write good doggerel in our century is also a mistake. Most of Ogden Nash, although he rarely wrote meter, is first-rate doggerel. Scattered poems by poets as different as Langston Hughes, W. H. Auden, and Elizabeth Bishop ("The Burglar of Babylon"), are also bad poetry of the best kind. This poetry is no less doggerel than the most vapid get-well card. It is a complete and conscious travesty of prosodical subtlety, but it works.

When open forms dominate the literary culture, doggerel of any kind becomes virtually impossible, and that is our loss. The list of great doggerel poems from the last fifty years is therefore sadly short, and includes no long works. Most of the older poets who have elected to continue to write reusable forms, such as Hecht, Wilbur, and Hollander, have chosen not to write doggerel. Some of the New Formalist poets come a bit closer-- Brad Leithauser's "Minims" stand out--but, like the light verse of J. V. Cunningham, these have more in common with the measured wit of Jonsonian epigrams than they do with doggerel. Vikram Seth's The Golden Gate uses doggerel in a number of places, but it functions as only a small part of his extraordinarily well- developed prosodical skill in that poem. For the most part his poetry aims at grace, and good doggerel is not graceful or witty, like light verse. Doggerel travesties. If it is good that is because it is so self-consciously bad, brutalizing sensibility in order to say things that metrical norms and appropriate rhymes exclude. It is usually vulgar, a travesty of prosodical decorum.

Auden's "Miss Gee. A Ballad," although dated, shows what might be done with doggerel now. Miss Gee leads a sad, sexually repressed, unfulfilled life, and eventually dies of cancer, in part because she is too embarrassed to be examined by the doctor. She dies alone in the hospital, "With the bedclothes right up to her neck" (76). Then comes a great doggerel stanza:

They laid her on the table,
The students began to laugh;
And Mr. Rose the surgeon
He cut Miss Gee in half. (77-80)

The declarative sentence structure, the clunking, endstopped lines, the cliched formulas (like the unnecessary use of the pronoun in the fourth line, which serves to round out the meter), all combine with the description to smack us with the pitifulness of this woman's existence, a pitifulness that Auden does not transform into pathos--a "high" aesthetic category. If anything, the cliched formulas and vulgar rhyme make us laugh, implicating us in the cruelty. By using doggerel Auden opens poetry to the terrible hilarity and idiocy of a society that understands how bodies work, but not persons. He also renders the inescapable and material banality of death.

Although the New Formalists have put a dent in the dominant free-verse sensibility, they have not yet brought about a fundamental change. If anything, they want to convince poets and readers that meter is a powerful, flexible tool, that not all meter is "metronomic," as Pound once suggested. Timothy Steele's fine new book Missing Measures: Modern Poetry and the Revolt Against Meter is the most scholarly contribution to this movement so far, and he does not discuss doggerel. So it bears emphasizing that one of the advantages of bringing back meter would also be to bring back the possibility of travestying it, to bring back the metronome. Why deny the pleasures of good bad poetry? Bring back doggerel.

David Rothman
Works Cited

Auden, W. H.  Selected Poetry of W. H. Auden.  2nd ed.  New York: 

Vintage Books, 1970.

Butler, Samuel.  Hudibras.  Ed. John Wilders.  

Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1967.

Chaucer, Geoffrey.  The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer.  

Ed. F. N. Robinson.

Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1961.

Frye, Northrop.  Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays.  

Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957.

Saintsbury, George.  A History of English Prosody 

From the Twelfth Century to the Present Day.  

3 vols.  2nd ed.  1923.  New York: Russell & Russell, 1961.

Steele, Timothy.  Missing Measures: 

Modern Poery and the Revolt Against Meter.  

Fayetteville, Arkansas: University of Arkansas Press, 1990.

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