P. G. Wodehouse, Clairvoyant

Not only was P. G. Wodehouse the accomplished master of the English language, at least among 20th Century practitioners, but it appears that he was also clairvoyant. In re-reading (for the however-many time it is . . . my copy is getting pretty ratty around the edges) A Prefect’s Uncle, first published in 1903, Wodehouse sets up, and then spikes, the entire cryptic-pretentious edifice of late 20th Century poetry in particular and English-language literature in general.

It’s important to remember in this context that at the time Wodehouse was writing, poetry, its composition, publication, and public recitation, was taken seriously in England. Promising poets were widely and highly regarded, moved in Society, and among the educated the ability to compose half-way respectable verse was taken if not for granted then certainly to be something one was expected to be able to do. Poetry was publicly recited and was listened to, seriously, by its listeners. People expected the Poet Laureate to weigh in with appropriate verse on important occasions (this expectation was not universally met; some of the poets’ offerings were ghastly treacly throw-away lines). 

Nowadays? Well, poetry now seems to be all of a mish-mash of grievance bleats, attempts at disgusting one’s readers (and who listens to this trash, anyway, outside the irrelevance of a Humanities Department meeting? have they forgot that the original function of poetry was to perpetuate memory and transmit culture in a pre-literate world?), and neo-Stalinist celebrations of The Proletariat. If your skin, or your genitals, or your politics, varies in the least from the writer’s chances are you will be left with nothing at the end of the piece but that many more minutes of your life gone beyond recovery. I admit it’s more than a little like reading this blog, but then I’m not demanding that everyone and his cousin Stand in Awe of Me because of my courageous engagement on the subject of what I do for jollies behind closed doors, or how wonderful (or unfortunate) it is to look like me, or how wonderful the world would be if only everyone would turn over the fruits of his labors to me to dole out to my buddies. 

Wodehouse, in other words, could not be expected to have foreseen the sort of tripe which we now take for granted when someone mentions the subject of “poetry.” And yet, 110 years ago, he absolutely nailed the whole exercise in late 20th Century English-language literature. On the subject of the batting, in a cricket match, of his classmate named Pringle, a character tosses off a limerick: 

“A dashing young sportsman named Pringle,

On observing his duck (with a single), 

Observed with a smile,

 ‘Just notice my style, 

How science with vigour I mingle.’

‘Little thing of my own,’ he added, quoting England’s greatest librettist. ‘I call it “Heart Foam”. I shall not publish it.’”

 And there you have the entire ludicrous venture, in fewer than ten lines. “Heart Foam”? Priceless.


Leave a Reply