Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Very Like a Whale

Ogden Nash (1902 - 1971)

One thing that literature would be greatly the better for
Would be a more restricted employment by the authors of simile and
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
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 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.
How about the man who wrote,
Her little feet stole in and out like mice beneath her petticoat?
Wouldn't anybody but a poet think twice
Before stating that his girl's feet were mice?
Then they always say things like that after a winter storm
The snow is a white blanket. 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.

"The title is from Hamlet (Act III, scene 2): Feigning madness, Hamlet likens the shape of a cloud to a whale. "Very like a whale," says Polonius, who, to humor his prince, will agree to the accuracy of any figure at all." (footnote in Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, and Drama, ed. X.J. Kennedy)

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