Nash, Ogden (Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)
Ogden Nash 1902–-1971
(Full name Frediric Ogden Nash) American poet, playwright, and screenplay writer.
Nash attracted readers from all walks of life with his insightful, satirical view of human nature and human foibles in his verse. His biting wit was tempered by humor and sensitivity, enabling him to tread lightly over touchy subjects, including the behavior of other people's children, social affectations, and illness. His unique style is characterized by his willful disregard for grammatical and spelling rules, and his deliberate misspelling of words to force a rhyme. While the unconventional nature of his verse has denied him the status of a “serious” poet, Nash remains one of the most read and quoted poets of this century.
Born in Rye, New York, Nash was raised along the East Coast as his father's import-export business frequently moved the family from state to state. He attended St. George's School in Newport, Rhode Island, and Harvard University for one year, 1920-1921. Forced to drop out to earn his living, Nash tried his hand at several professions, including teaching and a brief, unsuccessful stint as a bond salesman. By 1925 he had settled into a career in advertising. It was while writing advertising copy that he found his poetic voice. His poem “Spring Comes to Murray Hill” was jotted down in a fit of procrastination and later sent to The New Yorker magazine, which published it in 1930. After his marriage in 1931, the new roles of husband and father influenced his poetry as his initial crustiness softened into musings over his two small daughters.
In 1936 Nash moved with his family to Hollywood where he wrote screenplays for MGM. During that time he produced The Shining Hair with Jane Murfin, The Feminine Touch with George Oppenheimer and Edmund L. Harman, as well as The Firefly. None of these met with much success, and a somewhat discouraged Nash returned to the East Coast in 1942. One good thing came out of his time in Hollywood, however, and that was his friendship with S. J. Perelman, with whom he collaborated on the book and lyrics for One Touch of Venus, a smash hit during Broadway's 1943 season. In the 1950s and 1960s, he began writing children's poetry in addition to his whimsical verses for adults. Another recurring topic in Nash's later years was mild complaints about sickness and aging, always with a comic bent. Indicative of his position in American poetry, Nash was a member of both the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the National Institute of Arts and Letters. He died in 1971 in Baltimore, Maryland.
Nash published his first poem, “Spring Comes to Murray Hill,” in the New Yorker magazine in 1930. His first collections of poems, Hard Lines (1931) and Free Wheeling (1931), established his reputation as an original, witty, and whimsical creator of humorous verse with wonderful insight into human nature. In 1933 he wrote Happy Days, which introduced new themes of matrimony, household crises, and fatherhood. Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, Nash continued to produce collections in the same characteristic style that distinguished his verse, including The Primrose Path (1935), The Bad Parents' Garden of Verse (1936), I'm a Stranger Here Myself (1938), Good Intentions (1942), and Many Long Years Ago (1945). During the remainder of his career, Nash continued to write whimsical verse for adults, and began to write children's poetry as well, such as The Christmas That Almost Wasn't (1957), Custard the Dragon (1959), The Adventures of Isabel (1963), and The Mysterious Ouphe (1965).
Although Nash was largely ignored by most critics in his lifetime, he was well liked by the public. His ability to delight his readers through comical and entertaining verses often obscured the technical virtuosity required to produce them. He admitted to having “intentionally maltreated and man-handled every known rule of grammar, prosody, and spelling”; after his death, a New York Times obituary by Albin Krebs suggested that, despite this disregard for convention, Nash's verse reveals “a carefully thought-out metrical scheme and a kind of relentless logic.” Critics in more recent years have begun to reevaluate his reputation, noting that he demonstrated great flexibility and versatility of the English language in volume after volume. Moreover, his social and political satirical skills have earned him comparisons to the great eighteenth-century satirists Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift.
Cricket of Carador [with Joseph Alger] (juvenilia) 1925
Born in a Beer Garden; or, She Troupes to Conquer [with Christopher Morley, Cleon Throckmorton, and others] (satire) 1930
Free Wheeling (poems) 1931
Hard Lines (poems) 1931
Happy Days (poems) 1933
Four Prominent So and So's [music by Robert Armbruster] (libretto) 1934
The Primrose Path (poems) 1935
The Bad Parents' Garden of Verse (poems) 1936
I'm a Stranger Here Myself (poems) 1938
The Face is Familiar: The Selected Verse of Ogden Nash (poems) 1940
Good Intentions (poems) 1942
One Touch of Venus [with S. J. Perelman] (libretto) 1943
Many Long Years Ago (poems) 1945
The Selected Verses of Ogden Nash (poems) 1946
Ogden Nash's Musical Zoo [music by Vernon Duke] (libretto) 1947
Versus (poems) 1949
Family Reunion (poems) 1950
Parents Keep Out: Elderly Poems for Youngerly Readers (juvenilia) 1951
The Private Dining Room, and Other New Verses (poems) 1953
The Boy Who Laughed at Santa Claus (juvenilia) 1957
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SOURCE: “To Keep Your Marriage Brimming,” in The Atlantic Monthly, Vol. 215, No. 1, January, 1965, p. 127.
[In the following review, the critic praises the “oddball rhymes and inveterate good humor” of Marriage Lines.]
The competition, the laughable habits, and the cooperation inherent in a marriage of whatever length supply the themes for the Marriage Lines, whose voice of experience, with its oddball rhymes and inveterate good humor, keeps diverting one from the expected with lines like
She goes walking in the Bois With elegant young men who are not moi.
The funniest, cleverest statement of the eternal differences is the poem “I Do, I Will, I Have.” The poet effects a neat surprise in venting his weary complaint at feminine delay in “I'm Sure She Said Six-Thirty,” and his love lyrics to the Over Insured and to husbands who are likely to get “drunk and disordelaise” on too much Cordon Bleu cooking are satire fresh and accurate. When one plays the game with Mr. Nash, one is supposed to close an eye and try to anticipate the preposterous rhyme that is coming up. But one can never miss or say so well his common sense:
To keep your marriage brimming, With love in the loving cup, Whenever you're wrong, admit it; Whenever you're right, shut up.
(The entire section is 214 words.)
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SOURCE: A review of The Untold Adventures of Santa Claus, in Times Literary Supplement, No. 3385 November 4, 1965, p. 989.
[In the following review, the critic offers a mixed assessment of The Untold Adventures of Santa Claus.]
Last year's Christmas gimmick in America seems nowadays to become this year's over here, and Mr. Nash's little festive offering [The Untold Adventures of Santa Claus] will no doubt provide a splendid alternative to the Christmas card—for the wealthier men of goodwill. “People think”, says Mr. Nash, that Santa Claus has “nothing to do but chuckle and smile and chirp to the reindeer once in a while.” They are wrong. Not only, according to a gnome or elf who called on Mr. Nash, did the old boy manoeuvre Washington's victory in 1776—appreciation rendered for that “sharp and shiny handy hatchet”—but he has to sort out an ailing reindeer and narrowly escape arrest as an imposter when standing in for one of his umpteen impersonators on a street corner. As may be seen, not all the transatlantic customs make riotous sense here, nor does Mr. Nash produce many of the cunning non-rhymes which have endeared him to all the squares. This is a tawdry bit of tinsel, eked out with jolly Ionicus drawings to reassure those who resent the whole commercial image of the season that any sort of cheer is better than the bare fir-tree, and that some semblance of...
(The entire section is 246 words.)
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SOURCE: A review of Santa Go Home: A Case History for Parents, in Library Journal, Vol. 92, No. 21, December 1, 1967, p. 4422.
[In the following review, Clayton offers a positive review of Santa Go Home.]
At last we know why Santa Claus is “That genial, / Jolly, / Generous donor / Of gifts of which he's not the owner”; “This fat, maladjusted gnome” suffers from “psychoses, / … traumas, / Tantrums, / and neuroses.” The cause of all his troubles is the fact that he was a middle child with “nothing he could call his own.” Indeed, Nicholas, as he was known in his Asia Minor home, “always ended in the middle—/ Not first, / Not second, / Not any fiddle.” Finally life became so unbearable that he “Forsook his home in Asia Minor/ In search of atmosphere benigner” in Holland and changed his name to Santa Claus. Nash calls him a “smirking, sanctimonious fraud” and hopes he will “be the laughing-stock of all the globe.” But there is one last laugh in these concluding lines: “Yet I fear he is too sly by half, / And when Christmas bills pile up like chaff / He may have the final stocking-laugh.” Hopefully, I have conveyed here, be it a lame effort, some of the flavor of this long Nashian piece [Santa Go Home: A Case History for Parents]—liberally decorated with his usual smart rhymes and clever puns. The drawings by Robert Osborn elegantly match the fun of the...
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SOURCE: A review of The Cruise of the Aardvark, in The Washington Post Book World, December 24, 1967, p. 10.
[In the following mixed review, Merriam contends that “Nash is a champion wit and social commentator at the upper level, but he becomes condescending in his new narrative poem for the little ones.”]
Poetry is the Cinderella of the children's book field. Once she was a sooty scullery maid while proud stepsisters Science and Fiction held forth. Then along came Prince Federal-Funds-for-Language-Arts-Programs and lo! the maid turned into a modish princess. And so on to the ball, as books of verse now head publishers' lists and appear each new season in resplendent jackets and bindings.
Only one detail spoils this glowing scene: many of the volumes issued so readily don't deserve the permanency of print. There seems to be a peculiar equation operating: because children are only half as big as grownups, writing verses for them should be only half as hard as writing for adults. All the poet has to do to get into the proper framework is crouch down and think small. This steady bending over, however, leads to cramped muscles and tired ideas.
Ogden Nash is a champion wit and social commentator at the upper level, but he becomes condescending in his new narrative poem for the little ones. The Cruise of the Aardvark leans heavily on the worn theme that...
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SOURCE: A review of There's Always Another Windmill, in Publisher's Weekly, Vol. 194, No. 10, September 2, 1968, p. 56.
[In the following review, the anonymous reviewer provides a laudatory assessment of There's Always Another Windmill.]
Your true Nash-buff would have to go back and re-read every book of Nash-noshery ever published to see if they've got what the new one [There's Always Another Windmill] hasn't. The newest Nash always seems tops. He writes of a visit from a bigoted, loquacious lady who is best described as overflowing: “I escorted her to the door with Old World courtesy and a Gallic ‘Au'voir,’ And told myself to cheer up, it might have been Simone de Beauvoir.” In an amusing ditty about the penuriousness of the rich: “If I were Mr. Onassis do you know what I'd do? I would buy Neiman-Marcus and give it for Easter to Mr. Niarchos.” There's a comic gem called “Mr. Judd and His Snail, A Sorry Tale.” Judd, bored with racing horses and greyhounds a go-go, raced a snail because he was interested in how fast could something slow go. “His snail was beaten in December by a tortoise, so he dropped it down a couple of classes, And in January it lost by eight lengths to a jug of molasses.” You don't review Nash, you quote him. This new books is tops. Until Nash tilts at his next batch of windmills. Illustrated by John Alcorn.
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SOURCE: A review of The Old Dog Barks Backwards, in Kirkus Reviews, Vol. XL, No. 17, September 1, 1972, p. 1077.
[In the following brief review, the critic deems Nash “inimitable.”]
A posthumous collection of 77 verses published in magazines but not in books, and we trust there will be more such searches for more groupings from the pundit so civilly disobedient to the regimens of rhyme and meter. Most of these flip pensees [in The Old Dog Barks Backwards] have to do with fairly recent matters: the dieting maiden's “allegiance” to “chemical ingregiance”; fashion (“Mini midi maxi! / I'm off to Cotopaxi—/ TAXI!”); politics (“Spo-Radical and desul-Tory”) and Women's Lib in which he urges the ladies not to prosecute like the headline-hunting District Attorney—“Ta-ra-ra-boom D. A.”). But there are tributes to past glories like the music of Friml (“the sweetest … this side of Himmel”); or sharing Chicken Kiev “with a Mitzi Hajos or Fritzie Scheff”; and even the ancient Greece of Electra, who was “simply a daughter who was over-daddycated.” More Nash, inimitable and hopefully Unlimitedable.
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SOURCE: A review of Ave Ogden!: Nash in Latin, in Kirkus Reviews, Vol. XLI, No. 20, October 15, 1973, p. 1178.
[In the following review, the critic praises Nash's Ave Ogden!: Nash in Latin.]
Winnie Ille Pu was a runaway success, among the dwindling but noble band continuing Latin studies. Here [Ave Ogden!: Nash in Latin] is another sine qua non-sense success. The late, and very much lamented Nash, whose entertainments cut deeper with the years, moves unscathed—in fact accomplishes an extra scathing—in the ancient language of the martial arts, thanks to the deadpan skill of translators Gleeson and Meyer. Whosoever quotes “Candy / Is dandy” will not be able to resist “Sacch'rum / Est gratum / sed liquor / Celerior.” In case you think it's all as easy as rolling off a loggia, consider the majestic overtones of “Habebo rostrum anatis!” (Well, I'll be a duck-billed platypus). Atta pueri! Worth parting with the pecuniae at Christmastime. Noisy drawings by Ken Maryanski.
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SOURCE: A review of Ave Ogden!: Nash in Latin, in Library Journal, Vol. 98, December 1, 1973, p. 3564.
[In the following review, Lenardon calls Ave Ogden!: Nash in Latin exciting.]
Here [Ave Ogden!: Nash in Latin] is further proof that there must be something inherently amusing to a general audience in a modern Latin version. Is it because of repressed memories of the classroom and the smattering of Latin that remains? Whatever the reasons, I do think the Nash buff will be entertained; certainly the Latinist will admire the cleverness of these 52 renditions and will be able to use them with good effect upon students. The shorter poems generally work best. The 14 drawings by Maryanski add to the spirit of the undertaking.
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SOURCE: A review of I Wouldn't Have Missed It, in Kirkus Reviews, Vol. XLIII, No. 14, July 15, 1975, p. 828.
[In the following review, the critic provides a laudatory assessment of Nash's selected poems.]
Admirers of the works of the late Ogden Nash, assuming that the oeuvre was locked into the light-verse isolation ward and thereby immune from scholarly explications may be initially appalled by Archibald MacLeish's exegesis of: “I sit in my office at 224 Madison Avenue / And say to myself You have a responsible job, havenue?” This says MacLeish, who supplies the Introduction, is “… a portrait in the Cinquecento manner with a glimpse of the city in the background.” But as one reads on through this fine 1931-1972 selection [I Wouldn't Have Missed It: Selected Poems of Ogden Nash] one is forced to agree with MacLeish's view that Nash, with his “funnyman's” entree, told us about things we didn't want to know and other serious matters dealt with by major poets and not generally read in the public sector. It's beautiful stuff—with something for everyone—from environmental commentary (“Yet just because [men] have two legs / And come from storks instead of eggs / They count the spacious firmament / As something to be charged and sent”) through fleeting intestinal tremors (“Caesar Borgia … coming torgia …”) to Love (“Lots of people have stocks and bonds / To...
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SOURCE: A review of I Wouldn't Have Missed It, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 208, No. 1, July 7, 1975, p. 84.
[In the following positive review of Nash's selected poems, the critic maintains that “it seems true that Nash today looms larger than we'd thought.”]
[I wouldn't Have Missed It is a ] whopping gathering of some 400 of the late Ogden Nash's verses plucked shrewdly from 14 of his books including The Old Dog Barks Backwards (1972). The editors and MacLeish insist Nash wrote “poems.” From his earliest New Yorker pieces and his first collection, Hard Lines (1931), Nash built with accelerating confidence and skill his own unique world of responses to his time and place. Poetry? New verse-forms? MacLeish seems closer to home with his view that today's young may dig Nash best: his “outrageous rhymes and couplets” probed the rot in his time that became the social stench of the 70s. It seems true that Nash today looms larger than we'd thought. The same man who noted that no one wears panities in the Vanities also wrote: “But the old men know when an old man dies.”
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SOURCE: A review of I Wouldn't Have Missed It, in Choice, Vol. 12, No. 11, January, 1976, p. 144.
[In the following review, the critic asserts that Nash might be read as a satirist as well as a poet.]
In a splendid introduction to the poems [of I Wouldn't Have Missed It], Archibald MacLeish identifies expertly Nash's contribution to literature and his place among contemporaries. Both were significant for a writer who is often incorrectly called a “master of light verse.” Nash gave to poetry the invention of a new form and to the public the ability to view critically its subdued nature. The only suggestion of verse in Nash's lines is the rhyme. The rhymes force his sentences into couplets often having unusual sounds and meanings: “I sit in an office at 244 Madison Avenue / and say to myself You have a responsible job, havenue?” Again, but this time with penetrativeness: “I might love the people upstairs wondrous / if instead of above us, they just lived under us.” Integral to Nash's rhyme is a probing into the intimacies of man, thereby giving to his contemporaries insights unexperienced. In the concluding lines of “The purist,” for example, he delicately probes a private nature: “She had, the guide informed him later / Been eaten by an alligator. / Professor Twist could not but smile / ‘You mean,’ he said, ‘a crocodile.’” This interesting and significant...
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SOURCE: “The Essence of Nonsense,” in The Washington Post, Book World, Vol. X, No. 45, November 9, 1980, pp. 11, 16.
[In the following review, Ciardi offers a mixed review of Custard and Company.]
The gnomes of whimsy must have been at work to arrange for four superlative books of nonsense in a single season. The high-minded and the morally splendid are dismissed. The words and rhythms are rolling about on the floor and giggling under the bed where, like Morris Bishop's lurking preposition, they ask only:
What should I come Up from out of in under for?
(Linguaphile, a British word-lover's magazine, recently announced a contest for the longest string of piled-on prepositions. I don't know who won but I will back Bishop's string of seven against the best in Albion.)
Morris Bishop (1893-1973) went to school when English was still an academically respected language with an acknowledged relationship to Latin and to grammatical principle. Armed with a disciplined tongue, he attempted “serious” poetry until his own discipline, in due humility, told him he had nothing to say that others had not said better. In an age when most would-be poets seem to think that the only prerequisite is the excitation of one's own ignorance, Bishop's decision was an act of lofty clarity. It also led him to understand that he had achieved a certain level of technical...
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SOURCE: A review of Custard and Company, in School Library Journal, Vol. 26, No. 10, August, 1980, p. 55.
[In the following review, Lewis contends that “the word-play, the manipulation of language, is marvelous to read.”]
There's certainly nothing new to say about Ogden Nash—like “A baby's talcum [he's] always walcum.” What is new is the partnership with Quentin Blake who not only has assembled this anthology of his favorites [Custard and Company] but illustrated them with drawings of typical frazzled hysteria that is altogether fitting. Many of the Nash-isms will be much too subtle for the youngest listeners, but both Custard tales are included plus the cautionary tales for older youngsters such as poor Isabel who didn't care and got eaten by a bear. And for adults there's “To a small boy standing on my shoes while I am wearing them,” the despair of every guest at the mercy of a host's adorable offspring. The word-play, the manipulation of language, is marvelous to read—and even if you have all the old anthologies, Blake has here renewed Nash's humor, freshened it up and made it presentable for a new generation of readers.
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SOURCE: A review of A Penny Saved is Impossible, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 220, No. 10, September 4, 1981, p. 52.
[In the following review, the critic maintains that “this book is a boon for everyone in these troubled times.”]
With 60 of the late versifier's gems of acuity, this book [A Penny Saved is Impossible] is a boon for everyone in these troubled times. Nobody but Nash could express so pungently such thoughts, not only on the impossibility of saving a penny but of finding the silver lining, putting up with the chicanery of politicos, bearing it when things go right for the wrong people and on other ills the flesh is heir to. Among the best of the genius's creations, the selections here will help readers laugh, however ruefully, at shared pains. They may even help us, as the poet advised, to understand that “Humanity must continue to follow the sun around / And accept the eternal run-around. / Well, and if that be the case, why come on humanity! / So long as it is our fate to be irked all our life let us just keep / our heads up and take our irking with insouciant / urbanity.”
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SOURCE: “With the Best of Intentions,” in Times Literary Supplement, February 3, 1984, p. 118.
[In the following negative review, Disch notes the limited nature of Nash's verse, asserting that “measured against the general level of accomplishment in any standard anthology of humorous verse, Nash's limitations are glaringly evident.”]
For the forty years of Ogden Nash's career as America's foremost white-collar humorist, the popular success of his books of light verse expressed the consensus view of the reading public anent poetry: they, too, dislike it. Dislike, that is, the oracular assumptions that most poets make, their claims to a higher wisdom, a more finely-turned awareness and larger emotions than are found to obtain elsewhere in the middle class. Nash had no such pretensions. He wrote his verses about just those subjects that a well-behaved dinner guest might use for conversational fodder in mixed company. He was the very beau idéal that Emily Post commended to her genteel readers in her perdurable Etiquette: “What he says is of no moment. It is the twist he gives to it, the intonation, the personality he puts into his quip. … Our greatly beloved Will Rogers could tell a group of people that it had rained today and would probably rain tomorrow, and make everyone burst into laughter …”.
But while Mrs Post approved humour, she feared, justly, the subversive...
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SOURCE: “Humour, Mature and Childlike,” in The Language of Literature: English Grammar in Action, Macmillan, 1985, pp. 137-38.
[In the following essay, Cottle lauds Nash's humorous verse, contending that “he is genuinely observant of what is abidingly and harmlessly funny, he is not sick or bitter, he uses for uproarious ends the methods of poetry, the vision and vicissitudes of the poetic life.”]
It is likely that some of the brightest examples of linguistic resource will be found in humorous verse; but such verse is so often mainly facetious that it cannot stand by the classics, or the earnestly intended classics, that I have mostly used. This is where so many readers find Ogden Nash (1902-1971) of merit; he is genuinely observant of what is abidingly and harmlessly funny, he is not sick or bitter, he uses for uproarious ends the methods of poetry, the vision and the vicissitudes of the poetic life. The most famous tools in his equipment are his elaborate multiple rhymes and, held together by them, his freely longwinded and irregular couplets; but he can conform, with a much primmer metric, as in ‘Tableau at Twilight’ in Versus (London: J. M. Dent, 1949 and subsequently):
I sit in the dusk. I am all alone. Enter a child and an ice-cream cone.
A parent is easily beguiled By sight of this coniferous child.
The friendly embers warmer...
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SOURCE: “Moral Incongruity and Humor: The ‘Good Bad’ Poetry of Ogden Nash,” in Studies in American Humor, Vol. 7, 1989, pp. 94-103.
[In the following essay, Crandell examines Nash's use of the “poet-fool” persona in his humorous verse.]
For some readers, the term “humorous poetry” is an oxymoron. “Poetry” denotes something serious, while “humorous,” by definition, means just the opposite. Equating “serious” with “good” and “humorous” with “bad,” the same individuals use “humorous” in a pejorative sense to distinguish writing that has some of the formal characteristics of poetry, rhyme and meter for example, but which lacks the seriousness of lyric, narrative or dramatic verse. Likewise, the terms vers de société and “light verse” have sometimes been used synonymously with “humorous poetry” to denote a type of writing lacking both seriousness and significant aesthetic value.
This line of argument has even been carried to the point of dissociating humor and art. Immanuel Kant, for example, commenting on the “humorous manner,” perceives a qualitative difference between humor and art such that the creative act of humor “belongs rather to pleasant than to beautiful art, because the object of the latter must always show proper worth in itself, and hence requires a certain seriousness in the presentation, as taste does in the...
(The entire section is 4086 words.)
SOURCE: “Maturing Late or Simply Rotted Early?” in The Spectator, Vol. 273, September 24, 1994, pp. 36-7.
[In the following review of Nash's collected poems, Kermode deems Nash's short, humorous verses tedious yet amusing.]
I try to imitate him here, but he is probably quite inimitable. My own talent for this sort of thing being limited and his virtually illimitable.
So Anthony Burgess in his Nashian introduction to this rather large selection, first published in 1983 and now out in paperback. Burgess does pretty well, but is right to feel that he doesn't sound very like the real thing. As he points out, Nash, being American, wrote a slightly different language. He will consider ‘despotic’ and ‘Arctic’, a good rhyme, also ‘want’ and ‘haunt’ (though well-spoken Englishmen of a century back might not have questioned this one). Moreover, he goes in for rhymes that frequently entail the joky modification of a rhyme word, so that ‘Hypochondriacs’ calls for ‘Adirondiacs’, and ‘cognac’ for ‘dipsomognac’. Burgess's exercise sticks close to full true rhyming, and his mimicry is best when he is imitating those long rambling lines which, after 50 or more words, finally discover their destination in a sometimes surprising but, by hindsight inevitable, rhyme word. In Burgess's pastiche the rhyme will be honest, while in Nash it will quite often be...
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