Poetry Wednesday: Field-ing the Funny

It is very aggravating
To hear the solemn prating
Of the fossils who are stating
That old Horace was a prude;
When we know that with the ladies
He was always raising Hades,
And with many an escapade his
Best productions are imbued.Horace

There’s really not much harm in a
Large number of his carmina,
But these people find alarm in a
Few records of his acts;
So they’d squelch the muse caloric,
And to students sophomoric
They d present as metaphoric
What old Horace meant for facts.

We have always thought ’em lazy;
Now we adjudge ’em crazy!
Why, Horace was a daisy
That was very much alive!
And the wisest of us know him
As his Lydia verses show him,–
Go, read that virile poem,–
It is No. 25.

He was a very owl, sir,
And starting out to prowl, sir,
You bet he made Rome howl, sir,
Until he filled his date;
With a massic-laden ditty
And a classic maiden pretty
He painted up the city,
And Maecenas paid the freight! 

—The Truth about Horace”, Eugene Field

It’s difficult to throw a metaphorical rock in the Midwest—especially around St. Louis—without it landing somewhere near a school or library, or school library, named after Eugene Field.

Eugene Field.

Eugene Fi—the poet.

Yeah, the group of field-tripping elementary school kids I asked last week didn’t know either.  One fourth grader thought he was an old, dead superintendent, which was a pretty good guess.

Wrong, but that wasn’t her fault.

It isn’t Mr. Field’s, either.

The Poet’s Metamorphosis
(Eugene Field)

Maecenas, I propose to fly
To realms beyond these human portals;
No common things shall be my wings,
But such as sprout upon immortals.

Of lowly birth, once shed of earth,
Your Horace, precious (so you’ve told him),
Shall soar away; no tomb of clayGrave
Nor Stygian prison-house shall hold him.

Upon my skin feathers begin
To warn the songster of his fleeting;
But never mind, I leave behind
Songs all the world shall keep repeating.

Lo! Boston girls, with corkscrew curls,
And husky westerns, wild and woolly,
And southern climes shall vaunt my rhymes,
And all profess to know me fully.

Methinks the West shall know me best,
And therefore hold my memory dearer;
For by that lake a bard shall make
My subtle, hidden meanings clearer.

So cherished, I shall never die;
Pray, therefore, spare your dolesome praises,
Your elegies, and plaintive cries,
For I shall fertilize no daisies!

I suspect he would have appreciated the irony.

Mr. Field started out as a journalist, writing satirical, snarky stuff for newspapers and magazines, until he wrote a little poem called “Little Boy Blue”—not the cows in the corn one, the one about toys waiting for their little boy, who is never coming back—that was incredibly popular with people who liked having their hearts wrenched.

When it dawned on him that writing children’s poetry would help him support his wife and eight children,* he was off like a shot and quickly became known as the Poet Laureate of Childhood, a reputation which lasted well after his too-early death in 1895.

It was a well-deserved reputation—we’re still reading his children’s poetry, even if we have no idea that it’s his, and we’re still seeing his name on buildings, even if we aren’t sure why.

But what most people really don’t remember about him is his adult poetry.

By adult, of course, I mean . . . no, I mean that, too—the Society for the Suppression of Vice tried to suppress some of his poems on the grounds that off-color verses shouldn’t be associated with a man known as a children’s poet.

These ribald verses were unseemly.  They were embarrassing. They were privately published by Mr. Field, who snickered all the way to the bank.

And they aren’t going to be shared here.  Sorry.**

But he also wrote poetry for grownups  that could be read in public, if one were so inclined.  He did some straightforward serious stuff, but some of it was snark in rhyme and several made brilliant fun of classic poems.  I mentioned his fake-Chaucerian ode last week, but you really don’t have to understand the work of old, dead poets to get the funny. Promise.

A Proper Trewe Idyll of Camelot”  is a sort of Cowboy in King Arthur’s Court/Pied Piper thing in which an anachronism in spurs wanders into Camelot and ambles away with all the womenfolk—written in a misspelled parody of Ye Olde Englyshe Ballydes.

Now when he kenned Sir Launcelot in armor clad, he quod,
“Another put-a-nickel-in-and-see-me-work, by god!”
But when that he was ware a man ben standing in that suit,Knight
Ye straunger threw up both his hands, and asked him not to shoote.

Try reading it aloud—the spelling is atrocious, but the lines are worth it.

An eye that winketh of itself, and sayeth by that winke
Ye which a maiden sholde not knowe nor never even thinke;
Which winke ben more exceeding swift nor human thought ben thunk,
And leaveth doubting if so be that winke ben really wunke;
And soch an eye ye catte-fysshe hath when that he ben on dead
And boyled a goodly time and served with capers on his head.

Play those funky rhythms, poet boy.

But my real favorites are from his book, “The Love Affairs of a Bibliomaniac”, which should come as no surprise to anyone.

The Bibliomaniac’s Bride
(Eugene Fields)

The women-folk are like to books,–
Most pleasing to the eye,
Whereon if anybody looks
He feels disposed to buy.

I hear that many are for sale,–
Those that record no dates,
And such editions as regale
The view with colored plates.

Of every quality and grade
And size they may be found,–
Quite often beautifully made,
As often poorly bound.

Now, as for me, had I my choice,Books2
I’d choose no folio tall,
But some octavo to rejoice
My sight and heart withal,–

As plump and pudgy as a snipe;
Well worth her weight in gold;
Of honest, clean, conspicuous type,
And just the size to hold!

With such a volume for my wife
How should I keep and con!
How like a dream should run my life
Unto its colophon!

Her frontispiece should be more fair
Than any colored plate;
Blooming with health, she would not care
To extra-illustrate.

And in her pages there should be
A wealth of prose and verse,
With now and then a jeu d’esprit,–
But nothing ever worse!

Prose for me when I wished for prose,
Verse when to verse inclined,–
Forever bringing sweet repose
To body, heart, and mind.

Oh, I should bind this priceless prize
In bindings full and fine,
And keep her where no human eyes
Should see her charms, but mine!

With such a fair unique as this
What happiness abounds!
Who–who could paint my rapturous bliss,
My joy unknown to Lowndes!

 Mr. Field was a avid book collector, and if one can tell that he appreciated children and childhood from his poems, that he also loved books and the written word is equally obvious.

And he’s still bringing the wry, self-aware funny.

The Bibliomaniac’s Prayer
(Eugene Field)

Keep me, I pray, in wisdom’s way
That I may truths eternal seek;
I need protecting care to-day,–
My purse is light, my flesh is weak.
So banish from my erring heart
All baleful appetites and hints
Of Satan’s fascinating art,carved book
Of first editions, and of prints.
Direct me in some godly walk
Which leads away from bookish strife,
That I with pious deed and talk
May extra-illustrate my life.
But if, O Lord, it pleaseth Thee
To keep me in temptation’s way,
I humbly ask that I may be
Most notably beset to-day;
Let my temptation be a book,
Which I shall purchase, hold, and keep,
Whereon when other men shall look,
They ‘ll wail to know I got it cheap.
Oh, let it such a volume be
As in rare copperplates abounds,
Large paper, clean, and fair to see,
Uncut, unique, unknown to Lowndes.

Lowndes comes up a lot in these–so does “abounds”, but eh, a poet is entitled a lazy repeat now and then, and then.  And then.  I’m more irritated that I don’t know what or who Lowndes is, and none of the sources I’ve tracked down mention it.

Is it a used bookshop?  A pretentious critic?  A rival book-collector?  The county Mr. Field’s was living in at the time? A small child with a set of crayons?A paper-eating puppy?

If any serious poetry historians/critics/literati/grad students land here, mistaking this for a Valid Analytical Source™ and make it to this point, could you help a curious poetry-lover out in the comments?  Thanks.

As for the rest of you, go give Eugene Field’s poetry.  He might be the Children’s Poet, but he wrote a little something for everyone.

A drinking song
(Eugene Field)

Come, brothers, share the fellowship
We celebrate to-night;
There’s grace of song on every lip
And every heart is light!
But first, before our mentor chimes
The hour of jubilee,
Let’s drink a health to good old times,
And good times yet to be!
Clink, clink, clink!
Merrily let us drink!
There’s store of wealthWhite Whale Ale
And more of health
In every glass, we think.
Clink, clink, clink!
To fellowship we drink!
And from the bowl
No genial soul
In such an hour can shrink.

And you, oh, friends from west and east
And other foreign parts,
Come share the rapture of our feast,
The love of loyal hearts;
And in the wassail that suspends
All matters burthensome,
We ‘ll drink a health to good old friends
And good friends yet to come.
Clink, clink, clink!
To fellowship we drink!
And from the bowl
No genial soul
In such an hour will shrink.
Clink, clink, clink!
Merrily let us drink!
There’s fellowship
In every sip
Of friendship’s brew, we think.

Maybe we can all get together and open a bar in his name—just as a memory aid, you understand.

I get the feeling he would have appreciated the irony of that, too.


*Only five of whom reached adulthood.  If you’re in the mood for a good cry, sometime, you should read his poems about losing the others.  “Little Boy Blue” is fairly mild in comparison.

**”Little Willie” is a strange example, and the only one I could quickly track down online.  It’s probably about a little boy who wet the bed from his doting father’s perspective . . . Or maybe not.  This is why censorship is self-defeating—call something lewd, and the people you’re hoping to protect start taking a really close look to see what the fuss is all about.


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