Wednesday, June 20, 2007

"Very Like A Whale"

"Very Like A Whale"

by Ogden Nash

One thing that literature would be greatly the better for
Would be a more restricted employment by the authors of simile and
Authors of all races, be they Greeks, Romans, Teutons or Celts,
Can't seem just to say that anything is the thing it is but have to
go out of their way to say that it is like something else.
What does it mean when we are told
That that Assyrian came down like a wolf on the fold?
In the first place, George Gordon Byron had enough experience
To know that it probably wasn't just one Assyrian, it was a lot of
However, as too many arguments are apt to induce apoplexy and
thus hinder longevity.
We'll let it pass as one Assyrian for the sake of brevity.
Now then, this particular Assyrian, the one whos cohorts were
gleaming in purple and gold,
Just what does the poet mean when he says he came down like a
wolf on the fold?
In heaven and earth more than is dreamed of in our philosophy
there are great many things.
But I don't imagine that among them there is a wolf with purple
and gold cohorts or purple and gold anythings.
No, no, Lord Byron, before I'll believe that this Assyrian was
actually like a wolf I must have some kind of proof;
Did he run on all fours and did he have a hairy tail and a big red
mouth and big white teeth and did he say Woof woof woof?
Frankly I think it is very unlikely, and all you were entitled to say,
at the very most,
Was that the Assyrian cohorts came down like a lot of Assyrian
cohorts about to destroy the Hebrew host.
But that wasn't fancy enough for Lord Byron, oh dear me no, he
had to invent a lot of figures of speech and then interpolate them,
With the result that whenever you mention Old Testament soldiers
to people they say Oh yes, they're the ones that a lot of
wolves dressed up in gold and purple ate them.
That's the kind of thing that's being done all the time by poets,
from Homer to Tennyson;
They're always comparing ladies to lilies and veal to venison,
And they always say things like that the snow is a white blanket
after a winter storm.
Oh it is, is it, all right then, you sleep under a six-inch blanket of
snow and I'll sleep under a half-inch blanket of unpoetical
blanket material and we'll see which one keeps warm,
And after that maybe you'll begin to comprehend dimly
What I mean by too much metaphor and simile.


The kind of rhymed poems I love the most are the kind that I read without realising the rhyme, where rhyme doesn't overpower the poem. I know it's a personal preference, but I find rhyming to be cloying too often, and something quite difficult to master (needless to say, as a reader I think very few people have mastered it). I read through "Very Like A Whale", laughed through many parts, loved it, and read it again -- only then noticing the rhyme. Enough. I was hooked.

I love how funny it is, how clever it is, how tongue-in-cheek yet not very subtle at all it is. No doubt Leon would be able to give you a much more comprehensive analysis of the poem's structure, its syntax and syllables, but I respond to art (in general) on an unsophisticated gut level. The title, of course, is a naughty paralleling of Byron's "wolf on the fold" -- there is nothing like a whale in this poem, just as there is nothing like a wolf in Byron's.

This is actually a very incisive poem, cloaking under humour a generous dose of snarkiness. How many of us have secretly groaned at the poems of the so-called greats? Leave be the work of the definitely-non-greats and the just-not-our-cups-of-teas. This cheeky poem is a very nicely-executed reminder to not get carried away with the canonized stuff, to look at poems for what they are worth, not for what their writers' names are worth.

This is a poem about poetry, and it is wonderful in its irreverence. Nash takes on Byron himself, and wins!

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Blogger dreamer idiot said...

Thanks Sharanya. Haha, very much irreverent and relevant this poem is.

This is Nash's own poetic statement, which marks his own turf and ground by 'dissing' on tradition and Byron. In a way, if I remember correctly, Byron himself was a revolutionary of sorts, both poetically and politically, and Nash could be said to be 'reacting' in the same way Byron would, to Byron's choice and use of metaphor (many aspiring poets do that too as they start to find their own poetic voice).

As for the title, the reference eludes me... but it may be a reference to Melville's Moby Dick, which has been popularly read as a metaphor in many different ways. And using 'Like', it is pointing to the use of simile, as it plays against Byron's wolf as metaphor instead of simile.

Anyway, here's the Byron poem he refers to:

The Destruction Of Sennacherib by Lord Byron

The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold,
And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold;
And the sheen of their spears was like stars on the sea,
When the blue wave rolls nightly on deep Galilee.

Like the leaves of the forest when summer is green,
That host with their banners at sunset were seen:
Like the leaves of the forest when autumn hath blown,
That host on the morrow lay withered and strown.

For the Angel of Death spread his wings on the blast,
And breathed in the face of the foe as he passed:
And the eyes of the sleepers waxed deadly and chill,
And their hearts but once heaved, and for ever grew still!

And there lay the steed with his nostrils all wide,
But through it there rolled not the breath of his pride:
And the foam of his gasping lay white on the turf,
And cold as the spray of the rock-beating surf.

And there lay the rider distorted and pale,
With the dew on his brow and the rust on his mail;
And the tents were all silent, the banners alone,
The lances unlifted, the trumpet unblown.

And the widows of Ashur are loud in their wail,
And the idols are broke in the temple of Baal;
And the might of the Gentile, unsmote by the sword,
Hath melted like snow in the glance of the Lord!

5:28 PM, June 21, 2007  
Blogger Sharanya Manivannan said...

Thanks, Dreamer Idiot! I was going to link the original poem too, but forgot!

10:05 PM, June 21, 2007  
Blogger Petrina said...

hello! i came across this blog from lainie's page, and i'd like to ask is it possible for me to link up?

i love poetry myself, and i've been reading and writing poetry since i was 10. :)


6:25 PM, June 26, 2007  
Blogger Sharanya Manivannan said...

Petrina -- Of course you should link to us! :)

12:22 AM, June 27, 2007  
Blogger Petrina said...

thanks, i've linked up already :)

cya all round some time soon!

6:18 PM, June 28, 2007  
Anonymous Denise said...

I was actually looking for some article that would help me out with literary connections in this piece for my AP lit homework!

thank you for the Byron connecton, that one flew right over my head.

The title actually is a reference to Hamlet, in a scene which Hamlet and Polonious are talking about what a cloud looks like. Polonious keeps agreeing with whatever Hamlet says because he thinks that Hamlet is crazy and wants to humor him, and Hamlet goes from one point saying that the cloud looks like a camel, then a whale, to which Polonious replies "very like a whale"

(that's okay, though, the only reason I remembered that is because my AP Lit teacher is absolutely obsessed with Shakespeare.)

auughhh thank you so much for the help!

8:38 AM, March 14, 2008  
Blogger Kay Yun said...

Hello =D

I would like to ask, what is the link between what Polonious said in Hamlet and the title? Why would Ogden Nash use it as this poem's title?

I'm just really curious ^^

7:20 PM, April 06, 2008  
Blogger Madcap Machinist said...

Sharanya's reading of the poem above mostly talks about the internal rhymes within the poem, but the poem itself takes other components of poetry, equally important to rhyme, as its subject i.e. metaphors and simile, that is, to say that something is like something else.

I haven't read much Shakespeare, so I did not catch this reference earlier, so thank you commenters.

It is common practice among writers to appropriate lines from a famous texts like Hamlet and use them in their own works. In this way it is possible for a poet to efficiently add another, deeper, layer of meaning to a poem by asking a reader to make a connection to a prior text or event. This is technically known as a 'literary allusion'.

Ogden Nash takes the line, "very like a whale" as the title of the poem as a shorthand for including the following lines before the poem:

Hamlet, Act 3 Scene 2, from the beginning:

LORD POLONIUS: My lord, the queen would speak with you, and

HAMLET: Do you see yonder cloud that's almost in shape of a camel?

LORD POLONIUS: By the mass, and 'tis like a camel, indeed.

HAMLET: Methinks it is like a weasel.

LORD POLONIUS: It is backed like a weasel.

HAMLET: Or like a whale?

LORD POLONIUS: Very like a whale.


Metaphors, similes, allusions are all part of a poet's toolbox. Here, in his poem, Nash comments on the propensity of classical poets to create ludicrous metaphors and similes. Naturally, people may find their own meanings in the connection and the texts, but I'd venture an opinion that by linking the poem to Hamlet in this way, Ogden Nash illustrates how a poet (i.e. Hamlet in this sense) can find three different things in a cloud: a camel, a weasel, and a whale, while Polonius merely agrees. Well, Nash, for one, does not merely agree.

7:25 PM, April 07, 2008  
Anonymous rea said...

Note also the other Hamlet paraphrase:

In heaven and earth more than is dreamed of in our philosophy
there are great many things.

1:34 AM, April 22, 2008  
Blogger Madcap Machinist said...

Thanks Rea!

1:42 AM, April 22, 2008  

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