How not to read (2)

27 08 2009

Of course, you can get things wrong the other way…

NB Before you read this poem, it helps if you know Byron’s The Destruction of Sennacherib – or at least the first two lines of it, which are:

The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold,
And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold;

—–

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 metaphor.
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 Assyrians.
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 whose 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?
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.

—–

Posted by Rick Creighton

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