LITERATURE NOVEMBER 24, 2010
edited by John Gross
Oxford University Press, 339 pp., $29.95
In the (deservedly) best-known anthology of parodies available today, Parodies: An Anthology from Chaucer to Beerbohm—and After, which appeared in 1960, its editor, Dwight MacDonald, explained why he enjoyed the genre: as “an intuitive kind of literary criticism,” and because “I like books and parody as a kind of literary shop talk.” Half a century on, how does that scene look? Parody, to be appreciated, demands familiarity with the work parodied, but today the reading public for, say, Browning and Whitman (two of the most regular targets), let alone Tennyson, Swinburne, Chaucer, and Dryden, has shrunk significantly even since MacDonald’s day. Yet at the same time, paradoxically, the whole concept of parody has expanded globally: chase it on the internet and (in addition to some neat, and many awful, examples of the traditional literary variety) you can find parodies and send-ups of just about anything: songs, movies, political ads, videos, talking heads, you name it. The Daily Show parodies of all of the above. So there may well be a place for a new anthology that has moved with the times.
The first thing to be noted about The Oxford Book of Parodies is that it has not moved very far. At a rough count, at least forty of MacDonald’s items, mostly old tried and true favorites, also show up in John Gross’s collection, including G. K. Chesterton’s riff on “Old King Cole” (versions by Tennyson, Yeats, Browning, Whitman and Swinburne), A. E. Housman’s “Fragment of a Greek Tragedy,” J. K. Stephen’s sonnet on Wordsworth, Swinburne’s self-parody Nephelidia, H.L. Mencken’s rewriting of the Declaration of Independence in populist American vernacular, and C. S. Calverley’s truly marvelous take-off of Browning’s The Ring and the Book, beginning “You see this pebble-stone? It’s a thing I bought / Of a bit of a chit of a boy i’ the mid o’ the day— / I like to dock the smaller parts-o’-speech, / as we curtail the already cur-tail’d cur / (You catch the paranomasia, play ‘po’ words?) / Did, rather, i’ the pre-Landseerian days. . .”
Happy though I was to see all these prize examples of the parodist’s art trotted out again, two thoughts struck me as I kept meeting familiar faces. The first was that many readers today, unfamiliar with the original authors, will not appreciate the skill with which these have been skewered, let alone see the point of Housman’s witty send-up of literal-translationese from Aeschylus and Euripides—which suggests that Gross (who must be well aware of this) figured that his prime audience would be elderly buffers like myself who had kept up the habit of dipping into fine literature for fun. The second was that (perhaps as a result of the change in reading habits) the well of good parodies must be drying up to justify so much recycling. This suspicion was confirmed by surfing the web, where the vast majority of new parodies—certainly in the United States— depend on poems so well known that they have virtually become parodies themselves.
One of the most famous of these, John Masefield’s “Sea Fever,” the epitome of romantic nostalgia, has inspired a bitterly anti-modernist version, reported by Brian Eiland, that does not figure in Gross’s anthology, but should remind us that one major function of parodies has always been as—most often conservative—social or political satire:
I must go down to the sea again, to the autopilot’s ways,
And all I ask is a GPS, and a radar, and displays,
And a cell phone, and a weatherfax, and a shortwave radio.
And compact disks, computer games and TV videos.
So much for Dante’s Ulysses, Kon-Tiki, and the call of the running tide. Gross is a little shy of embracing the computer age: his one concession to tweeting, texting, and the rest is a not very funny message by Anne Fadiman from Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa Harlowe to Robert Lovelace, beginning “hi bob, TAH. if u think im gonna run off w/u, :-F.”
This also raises the question of how wide the definition of parody can legitimately be drawn. Does it, for example, include (as here) the rewriting of an eighteenth century novel as a piece of semi-literate computerese, and if so, what kind of point is being made? In his introduction Gross says that it “would be a mistake for anyone writing about parodies to become entangled in a search for exact definitions,” and I sympathize with his view. But when he juxtaposes Henry Reed’s superb take-off, in “Chard Whitlow,” of about every mannerism in Eliot’s Four Quartets and Wendy Cope’s rehashing, in five run-of-the-mill limericks (Anthony Burgess did it in one) of The Waste Land, I have to wonder what he’s at. The first is pure parody in the classic mode, the second, at best, a social statement in the form of pastiche.
Occasionally the technique can be really funny. I was tickled by Stanley J. Sharpless’s fun with Pride and Prejudice as Dylan Thomas might have done it: First Voice sketching the household of “Mr and Mrs Dai Bennet and their simpering daughters—five breast-bobbing man-hungry tittivators, innocent as ice-cream, panting for balls and matrimony,” then picking up on Elizabeth (“I shall wed whom I please”): “And busy Lizzie retires to her room with visions of bridling up the aisle to ‘I will’ with half-a-dozen lovers . . .” The joy here is in seeing Austen’s psychological subtext re-figured, deadpan, in the terms of Under Milk Wood. Gross is most comfortable in a firmly literary context, and here he is more than ready to let contributors take a smack at the closed-shop jargon of academic literary criticism, especially when it borrows (and plunges into a metaphorical morass) terminology from the hard sciences.
Thus we get not only a generous chunk of Frederic Crews’s Postmodern Pooh, but also the opening broadside of the physicist Alan Sokal’s famous hoax article that “set out to expose the dubious or fraudulent aspects of the whole cultural studies approach to science,” asserting in his second paragraph (as he reminded us after the hoax became public) that “physical ‘reality’ [note the scare quotes] … is at bottom a social and linguistic construct.” “Anyone,” he concluded, when commenting on the furor that his spoof aroused, “who believes that the laws of physics are mere social conventions is invited to try transgressing those conventions from the windows of my apartment. (I live on the twenty-first floor.)” So far, to my knowledge, he has had no takers.
High-spots such as this, unfortunately, are rarities in The Oxford Book of Parodies, and to find them we have to plough our way through a lot of padding and pudding. Here are some of the best unfamiliar ones. Sir James Murray, the eminent lexicographer and editor of the OED was notoriously nervous about letting in new scientific terms: were they well enough known? Among his more famous exclusions was “radium,” and one of his assistants made good the deficiency as Murray himself might have done it, with defiantly literary examples, and all in the OED’s famous typography. We get the chapter “Poets’ Corner” from Osbert Lancaster’s Drayneflete Revealed, from 1949, detailing in mischievous and spot-on pastiche the verses of the Tipple family from 1800 onwards, winding up with a very Spenderish effusion that ends “and maxi lies on a bare catalan hillside / knocked off the tram by a fascist conductor / who misinterpreted a casual glance.” There is Nigel Dennis’s deadly Socratic dialogue gently deflating the theatrical panjandrum Tyrone Guthrie. Carol Rumens offers a response to Philip Larkin beginning “Not everybody’s / Childhood sucked: / There are some kiddies / Not up-fucked.” Clive James’s Notes for a Revised Sonnet catches the tone of Robert Lowell’s excesses to perfection (“Slicing my head off shaving I think of Charles I / Bowing to the groined eyeball of Cromwell’s sinning will…”).
The extended parodies of novels are, almost without exception, embarrassingly bad. Apart from Max Beerbohm’s version of Henry James (and even this elicits the odd surreptitious yawn) the only bright exception is Malcolm Bradbury on Muriel Spark, a lovely riff that takes off from The Abbess of Crewe. And lastly, one inevitable complaint about an omission: Robert Conquest is, on any consideration, one of the very finest parodists and pasticheurs alive, but there isn’t one damn thing by him here. I would rather have had his version of “The Vicar of Bray” than that by John Heath-Stubbs (just as I would have chosen Anna Russell on Wagner rather than Robert Benchley), and I would have traded a lot of Gross’s Victoriana for Conquest’s “A Grouchy Good Night to the Academic Year,” his near-perfect parody of W.M. Praed’s “Good night to the Season”:
. . .’Those teach who can’t do’ runs the dictum,
But for some even that’s out of reach:
They can’t even teach—so they’ve picked ‘em
To teach other people to teach.
Then alas for the next generation,
For the pots fairly crackle with thorn.
Where psychology meets education
A terrible bullshit is born.
All that, and a crack at Yeats thrown in too. It’s all there if we look for it. Maybe John Gross just didn’t look quite hard enough.
Peter Green is an emeritus professor of classics, a professional translator, and an occasional poet and novelist.