Wednesday, October 8, 2008

My favorite Dr. Johnson poem, and more dactylic hexameter

The Wikipedia entry for dactylic hexameter includes two English examples. One is from - hey, look at that - Evangeline, the (sort of) famous first line:

"This is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks"

The encyclopedist actually breaks up the line into its six feet, which is very handy, since it has 17 syllables divided into six parts. But I don't care about that. What I really liked was the second, unsourced, example:

"Down in a deep dark hole sat an old pig munching a bean stalk"

Could the wikipedist have made this up herself? She has the nerve to say that the line has an "absurd meaning." I understood it perfectly. Also, I kind of like it.

It reminds me of one of my favorite Dr. Johnson poems, said to be an impromptu composition:

I put my hat upon my head,
And walked into the Strand,
And there I met another man
Whose hat was in his hand.

Johnson meant this, can you believe it, as an example of bad poetry. It rhymes, it scans, yet it is bad. Johnson wanted to differentiate bewteen simple and simple-minded. I dunno. With a diet of Lear's nonsense, children's poems, and William Carlos Williams's delicious plums, I may have developed a taste for the simple-minded.

You can treat this is like a statement of disclosure. Don't take my opinions about poetry too seriously. I like "I put my hat upon my head."


  1. Simple-minded may not be so good---but simple is good. Too often we take a relatively simple concept and through manipulation, definition, etc. attempt to give it a complexity that is not necessary. I think that this is often done in an attempt to give us an appearance of having knowledge or sophistication that others do not have.

  2. I am not a particular fan of the poetry of my occasional pretend-boyfriend Dr. Johnson (Tourette's and all). But then, I don't like Juvenal either, so that is to be expected. I think "The Vanity of Human Wishes" is incredibly annoying, putting me at odds with my ex-pretend-boyfriend Tommy Eliot. I'd rather spend my time on "A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland" for the umpteenth time, or plowing through "The Rambler." You've always been far more patient with the works of great writers than I have.

  3. I disagree strongly with the idea that simple is good. In ordinary life, quite possibly. I am a creature of limited cognition, so I'll take whatever help I can get. But not in literature. Not in great literature.

    The complexity that Tolstoy, Flaubert, Sterne, or Proust give to simple concepts is not merely necessary - it is the essence of their art.

    If anyone is looking for advice on what Samuel Johnson to read, the above recommendations are exactly correct.

  4. As far as I know, the source of "Down in a deep dark hole sat an old pig munching a bean stalk" is Kinchin's Teach yourself Latin.

  5. According to Coleridge (in Biographia literaria) that Johnson piece was a parody of the verse metre of Thomas Percy (the Percy of "Reliques of ancient English poetry" fame)

  6. On page 154. Kinchin made it up as a way of teaching the hexameter scansion of "Parturiunt montes, nascetur ridiculus mus"