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“The evening star, most bright by far”

May 23, 2010

The other day, the conversation got round to ridiculous poetic efforts, as it has a distinct tendency to do. Now, when people (people who talk about these things, anyway) talk about past masters of the ridiculous poetic effort, they tend to mention Byron. It was he, after all, who rhymed ‘intellectual’ with ‘hen-pecked you all’. Byron, however, is merely the best exponent of the type who also qualifies as Literature; there are other rhymesmiths who have equalled or perhaps even surpassed him, who however are not brought up in literature seminars owing to being too recent and/or too funny. Tom Lehrer (‘tragic’/’adjec’… tives) is one; Ogden Nash (‘interpolate them’/’purple ate them’) is another. W. S. Gilbert, of Gilbert and Sullivan (not to be confused with Gilbert and Gubar, Gilbert and George, or Flanders and Swann) is a third.

Seamus brought up “The sun whose rays are all ablaze”, from The Mikado, as an example of the ridiculous rhythmic and rhyming constraints that Gilbert, with blithe abandon, regularly flung himself into; the lyrics may be found here, a decent recording here. It is a short little song, only twenty lines if you don’t count the repeated refrain, and it is structured like this: two ten-line stanzas rhyming xAxAxBxBCC, where A and B must both be feminine rhymes. Lines 1, 3, 5, and 7 are tetrametric and rhyme internally; lines 2, 4, 6, and 8 are trimetric; and lines 9 and 10 are pentametric and rhyme with one another twice, on the third and fifth stresses.

If that made no sense at all, a glance at the lyrics and the myriad places in which they rhyme should be enough to get the point across. It’s complicated. It’s bastardly complicated and, in fact, may have been devised by W. S. Gilbert solely to make future students of poetry gibber and eat their pencils. Naturally, after an extensive discussion of how complicated it was, and also pointing out that WSG managed to get in the word ‘effulgent’, Seamus challenged me to suggested that I write something in the same form.

Continuing the celestial theme of the original, I give you “The Evening Star”.

The evening star, most bright by far,
Is Venus, hot and flighty –
Infernal warm and prone to storm,
Not really Aphrodite.
Her toxic shroud of roiling cloud
Will crush you with the pressure;
Sulphurous hell, and as for smell
A skunk’s rear end is fresher!
A visitor will die, or so it seems;
Alas, farewell for aye, Venerean dreams!

The atmosphere on Mars, I hear,
(Lacking oxygenation)
Is rather thin and tastes like tin,
And bad for respiration.
But yet the stars as seen from Mars
Are clearer than their cousins
That set and rise in earthly skies
And twinkle in their dozens.
To Mars I mean to go, before I die,
And see that crimson glow, that Martian sky!

Somehow I doubt this will be the last ridiculous poetic effort, seeing as how I have a whole summer ahead of me with nothing to do. Stay tuned.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. May 24, 2010 7:33 am

    I knew you’d do it! And this is worthy of Tom Lehrer, an excellent effort. Singable as well: I tried it out, and after stumbling once over ‘oxygenation’ and starting again, I found that it all sounded very good. (“Good” to a given value of good, anyway: your words sounded good, my strangled falsetto less so.)

    I’m going to attempt the form too, as I said I would, but not until I’ve finished this double acrostic: I’m trying to make a list of ten city names that spells “UNREAL CITY” down the left column and up the right column, to write in some blank spaces on a page in the copy of The Waste Land that I’m sending to Monsieur le directeur. It really is that time of year, isn’t it?

  2. May 24, 2010 8:30 am

    The existence of the internet rather takes the challenge out of my city-name double acrostic, two websites being all I needed to find all ten names. Still, in the margin next to the lines ‘Jerusalem Athens Alexandria / Vienna London’, it now says:


    By the way, while we’re on the subject of Gilbert and Sullivan, I downloaded Yeomen of the Guard yesterday, and the song “Is life a boon?” is my new favourite G&S song, I think. There’s no strictures of form like in “The sun whose rays are all ablaze”, but it’s an example of Gilbert using his talent for wit and illogic, usually so funny, to be unexpectedly moving, and it’s matched with Sullivan at his finest: words here, recording here.

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